RESCUED
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Resurrection

by Scribe

Alternate Universe "Stargate"

Webmaster Note: Mostly gen, but some steamy het stuff at the end.


Prologue: Echoes of Her

Isis never really left Alexandra Styles.

Even though the physical existence of her had been removed from the mortal plane, something with a mind as long lived as the goddess of all still lingered inside the receptacle of her mind. Dwelling there like the ghosts left behind to occupy an old house, its essence having seeped into the walls of her memory, leaving an indelible mark for all time. She tried hard to deny they existed mostly because being reminded usually produced a fear so stark and intense that she could scarcely breathe. As it was, she had disciplined herself to never look back upon the dark days when Alex Styles had vanished and for a time been replaced by she who was called Isis.

She tried not to remember that there were worlds beyond this one or the fact that humans could travel to them utilizing a portal that lay buried in the desert not far out of town. She did not think about how she had been taken by an alien creature that had robbed her of everything she was in an instant of pain and would have sentenced her to a nightmare she would never have escaped alive. Alex had forced herself to never recall the day when she had stood in front of Vin Tanner, captured his lips in what he had believed to be a kiss of passion, before she broke his neck with her bare hands. The look of betrayal and surprise in his eyes as the light faded out of them was something that burned into her memory, no matter what she might tell herself later.

While she enforced such thoughts from surfacing inside her during her waking hours, there was little or no protection when she closed her eyes to sleep. During the first few weeks following their return home from that alien world, Vin and the rest of the seven had delivered her and Mary from, Alex woke almost every night screaming. In her sleep, there was no carefully padded version of the truth that her mind could accept but rather the stark brutality of events as they transpired, unfolding before her eyes like a terrible mosaic she did not wish to see completed.

It was bad enough that she had the memories of what she had done when Isis had inhabited her body but when the images of other lives. Lives who were stolen just as surely as hers had been though she counted herself lucky for she had only suffered days of incarceration, while their hell had lasted centuries. She tried to imagine what it was like to be trapped endlessly in one's own mind, watching one's body commit acts of utter barbarity with no power to stop it. The horror of it was beyond comprehension.

When she slept, she dreamed she was the Queen of Egypt, where slaves bowed at her feet and she sent people to die on whim. She saw images both tantalising and terrifying about the life Isis had led, the power she had commanded and the children she had spawned. Children like Sekhmet who was nothing like the creature that had taken Chris Larabee. What Alex was allowed to see through Isis eyes was a different Sekhmet, the one worshipped as the warrior goddess until a thousand years being entombed had driven her insane. Sekhmet who had been worshipped in her time as Kali and Artemis had once been a warrior who hunted fairly, who enjoyed the games played by prey and predator and was nothing like the insidious creature that emerged from the stargate to wreak such destruction upon the seven. However, whatever Sekhmet might have been, she was still Goa'uld and like all members of the species, she had the blood of many on her hands.

There were moments however, when the memories that surfaced were not entirely bad. Isis had been in her lifetime, a great intellect who knew more about herbal remedies and human physiology than anyone on Earth even in this day and age. True, she had used most of her knowledge to subjugate humanity indiscriminately but a fragment of all that knowledge remained inside of her and Alex knew that despite her denial, she was coming to use more and more of that knowledge. When Chris Larabee had become addicted to the substance known as Venom, Alex had lied about how she was able to understand the drug so well. She had used words like theoretical even though the apparatus to detect half of what she knew about the drug was nowhere in existence. In truth, she was able to take Venom apart because Isis knew how.

Alex consoled herself in these instances with the fact that it was time that the wealth of knowledge abused in the pursuit of power ought to be rightly used to save lives instead of taking it. Still, she could not keep that shudder of fear from running through her spine each time she was forced to refer to the cache of memories that Isis had left inside her mind. Vin had promised her that Isis was gone, that he had seen the symbiote ejected from her body and watched it die in front of him on that alien world where the device called Thor's Hammer protected its people from Isis and others like her. However, Alex could still feel Isis inside.

She had never spoken of what Isis had done to her or the remnants left behind, not to Vin, not even to Mary. Mary who had fortunately remembered nothing of her experiences, thanks to a byproduct of Sekhmet's insanity could not share her anxiety because the lady had nothing to recount that would frighten her. In all truth, Alex did not wish to speak to Mary for other reasons as well, the most prolific being the fact that she had seen what Mary had done to Ezra Standish as Sekhmet. Had it not been for the Goa'uld sarcophagus, a healing device capable of repairing all forms of human injuries, even to the point of resurrecting one from death, Ezra would have died from Mary's assault. Ezra had not spoken about that day to anyone although Julia did tell him that like herself, the gambler had his share of nightmares following the episode with Isis and Sekhmet.

However, Ezra had his secrets about Isis too.

There were still nights after she had returned when she thought deeply about what had happened between Isis and Ezra. Alex knew that Ezra had not a choice to do what he had done. If he had not cooperated with Isis, she would have had no reason to keep him alive and would have given him to Sekhmet to dispose of at her sadistic leisure. As it was, he had barely survived when Sekhmet had chosen to vent her frustrations upon him when Isis had selected him as her consort. Her pharaoh as Isis had called him.

There was a part of Alex that still wondered how much of Isis' attachment had really been the goddess of all and not Alexandra Styles' own affections. Although she loved Vin Tanner and could not imagine being with anyone else, there had been a time when Ezra had been her love and though she ought to know better, she could not help wondering if perhaps it was no so much Isis that cared for Ezra but her. Despite how she debated the situation, there was no denying the fact that she had made love to him and there was a point during their passion when the voice that had called out his name in ecstasy was not Isis but hers. Alex did not understand it but it weighed heavily in her mind and though both of them had tried to get past it, there was an underlying awkwardness that had not really dissipated no matter how much time passed.

It was a situation that neither discussed out loud though it was apparent in the stolen glances and the embarrassment that sometimes came out of nowhere at the most inconvenient moments. Both lived in fear of Julia and Vin learning the truth, unable to imagine how they would be able to tell it to anyone in a way that made what they did remotely explainable. She knew that what happened between them would always remain where it was, a specter upon their friendship that was never quite the same again after the stolen moment when neither had belonged to themselves.

Of course while Ezra while had never been able to look at Alex the same way again, she also noticed how he looked at Mary sometimes, particularly in the months immediately following their return of Netjer. It was a look that did not escape her attention only but all of the seven. It had not happened often and a heavy drinking session usually followed it by the gambler in the tavern, a practice that even Julia's presence could not stop. Alex had remembered the wounds on him. The burns, the rips in flesh, the ugly bruises and the evidence of a more intimate assault. He tried desperately to hide it from Mary because despite his intense revulsion at what had been done to him, Alex knew that he did not want to lose Mary because she was a dear friend.

Eventually the shadow of Netjer faded from memory and though it still lingered, tendrils having grown into their psyche that could not be extracted no matter how much time had lengthened the day of its happening to the present, Alex found she could live with Isis inside her mind. After awhile, Isis had become somewhat familiar and Alex began listening to the other things that Isis had to say and found that the while the personality of the lady was quiet odious, the knowledge she held was something else altogether. Alex wanted to ask if Mary had come away with such knowledge but never did because they did not speak of these things.

To speak of these things was to relieve them and Alex would spare Mary the bloodier aspects of her time as Sekhmet, having remembered a point in time where she had stood in a room on Netjer and surrounded by corpses of bodies Sekhmet had killed and tortured. While the warrior goddess giggled like a schoolgirl covered in their blood, thoroughly reveling in the carnage resulting from her bloody play. Even Isis had conceded then that Sekhmet had gone totally insane and like any mother, had been forced to take steps to discipline her errant child.

Alex would spare Mary those memories.

Part One:

Trapped

Ezra could tell that Chris Larabee was tense.

It did not require his honed instincts as a professional gambler to make that determination about the leader of the seven since Chris' general demeanor had more or less been constant ever since they had left the town of Four Corners. All he had been managing in the way of conversation was a few non-committal grunts and the occasional growl. While having ridden with Mr Larabee long enough to interpret those pitch and tempo of those sounds to know that it was a language onto itself, Ezra knew as the rest of them did that this time they meant just exactly what it sounded like; leave me alone. It was fair to say that his usual cold, somber manner was wearing away all their impatience, even that of the unflappable Mr Tanner although everyone present understood that he had good reason to be so disagreeable.

Less than a day ago, Chris had received an unconfirmed report from the sheriff of Wallace County that a big Chinaman had been seen in tow with a dazzlingly beautiful woman. The description provided left no doubt in Chris' mind that the duo was indeed Laurel Chase and her lackey and bodyguard, Mr Zhang. No sooner than the news had reached him, Chris had rounded them up and they were riding out of Four Corners in order to reach Wallace County. Although none of them had voiced the purpose of going to Wallace County when it was more than likely the lady would be long gone before they even arrived there, they were all thinking it even the unflappable Mr Tanner.

However, Ezra could not deny to having a bad feeling about this entire situation. Anything with Laurel Chase tended to do that to him and the woman had the power to rob Chris Larabee of any reason and fill the gunslinger with such a fierce need for vengeance that he could barely think straight. Unfortunately, to survive an encounter with Laurel Chase, one had to be thinking no other way. Their last meeting with the lady had shown them just how grossly unprepared they were to deal with her and Ezra did not want a repeat of the same situation. They were barely able to get Vin out alive and the lady hated the tracker enough to ensure that she would be similarly disposed to ending his life should they fall into her sights again.

Nathan sidled his horse next to Ezra's and Buck's while Vin took position along side of Chris mostly because he was the only one who would not mind the silence. Chris was not in the talking mood and they all knew it. He had ever reason to be the way he was, no one would fault him that after what he had been through at Laurel's hands. It had only been no more than a month since she had almost killed Vin and even though the tracker was recovered as best as one could from a wound like the one he had received from her sniper attack. Ezra had a feeling even if he had been at death's door, Vin would have still crawled into the saddle to ride shotgun.

Besides, someone had to do the thinking for Chris.

Although Chris and Vin were in the lead, the others had dropped back a bit since they had no wish to become entangled in Hurricane Larabee when only Vin seemed capable of reining it in should it suddenly choose to emerge. The five were riding side by side, trying not to allow the tension in the air get to them as well. While they kept their eyes front, they tried not to look at Chris and Vin, not wanting to imagine what must be going through the minds of the two men who had suffered the worst of Laurel Chase's machinations.

"He ain't said a word about her since we started out from town." JD remarked, glancing furtively at Chris, as if the man had eyes in the back of his head and might see him, which of course Chris did

"What is there to say Mr Dunne?" Ezra looked at him. "Besides, we all know by now that Mr Larabee likes to keep his own counsel about his inner most thoughts."

"Well his inner most thoughts is itching for a rematch." Buck retorted quietly, completely unafraid to weather any storm that Chris could dispense, just not wishing to deal with it right now. "He's so mad he can't even think straight."

"I noticed that." Josiah agreed with the tiniest hint of a frown. "I got a bad feeling about this."

"Everything about that woman gives me a bad feeling." Nathan nodded in agreement. "She's a psychopath and what's worth a really smart one in some very fine packaging." Nathan was still unable to wrap his mind around the pharmaceutical marvel she had created in her Venom formulae only to turn around and utilize it for such a barbaric purpose, to say nothing about how she acquired the raw materials to concoct the substance.

Buck who was the only one who had not seen her face to face let out a sigh. "I really need to see what you're talking about."

"Ask Ezra," Nathan replied. "He's the one who got the best look at her, other than Chris that is." He added a little sheepishly.

"Well the lady is beautiful," Ezra had to admit to that much. "Possibly the most amazing creature I have ever seen. No doubt she turns a head wherever she goes but then a tiger can be considered to be a magnificent creature of beauty until it chooses to devour you."

"She play with people like clay," Josiah commented. "It ain't done for money or purpose, just because she can. Tell you the truth brothers, she scares the hell out of me. When we ran into those future people and them alien things that took Mary and Alex, at least we knew that they did what they did because that's what they were. Those Goa'uld things didn't know how to be anything else but with Miss Chase its different."

"Well," Ezra let out a sigh. "It just goes to show you that there are flaws in everything."

"He wants to kill her you know." Buck said softly gazing at Chris. He had only seen Chris this mad once and that was when they had learnt that the fire that killed Sarah and Adam was not an accident. Until then Chris has assumed what had happened had done so as act of God, a cruel act perhaps, but nonetheless an act of God. When he had learnt otherwise, it brought out of a streak of rage rarely seen in Chris Larabee and that Buck hoped they would never see again until now. "You can see it in his eyes. When he comes face to face with her, I don't know whether we can stop him."

"Yep," Josiah nodded agreeing with that statement completely. "Although I ain't sure we ought to stop him."

Four sets of eyes turned to the preacher in surprise. That was hardly the response one would expect from Josiah who always seemed to be the voice of reason when everyone else went to hell in a hand basket. Nothing ever seemed to phase the big man with the deep eyes and to hear him advocating such a drastic course of action was enough to leave even the most seasoned of them a little shaken. If Josiah noticed their astonishment, he certainly did not show it. All he did in response to their stunned expression as to reach into his dark coat and remove a cheroot which he proceeded to light, waiting for the more verbal countering he would soon receive.

Predictably when it came to anything verbal, it was Ezra who spoke first. "I never thought you were such a proponent of capital punishment when it came to a lady."

"Is she a lady?" Josiah parried. "Her actions so far might indicate not."

"But we can't just let him shoot a woman." Buck hissed, keeping his voice down because this was not a conversation he wanted Chris to be privy to. All his life he had taught himself to respect, delight and understand the opposite sex. It was this sensitivity that made Buck Wilmington the charmer he was with the ladies before his marriage. Nothing inflamed Buck's sensibilities more than a varmint who would raise his fist to a lady, a man like that did not deserve to live. He had met women who warranted a killing but until now never thought of simply allowing the act to be carried out, without interference from him when it was all possible to be prevented.

"If we don't, she's liable to keep killing until we do." Nathan pointed out. He was no advocate of cold blooded murder or even execution but he remembered reading the reports on the number of bodies that had been found around Calumet missing pituitary glands. Laurel had killed so many in her attempt to replenish her supply of Venom. Nathan had no reason to believe that the killing spree had ended. If anything, her victims would be harder to find but he had no doubt that they were there.

"If she were a man," Josiah spoke. "We wouldn't be having this conversation."

"Don't make it right." Buck muttered even though he knew that they were not unjustified in their desire to see the woman dead. After what she had done to Chris, it was only natural. Laurel Chase had proven herself nothing less than one of the most deadly adversaries to cross their path in recent times. Following her kidnapping of Chris Larabee, the woman had addicted Christ to a substance called Venom and had him fight like a performing animal in the fights she staged in the town of Calumet. God only knew how many men Chris had killed with his bare hands while under its influence and when they had managed to rescue him from her clutches, what they got in return was not the man who was the leader of the seven but a half deranged maniac eager to spill blood.

"Maybe it ain't," Josiah rumbled, his eyes resting on Chris' back for the firs time since the subject was brought. "I don't think its going to be up to us to make that choice."

**********

"You okay pard?" Vin Tanner asked, the silence emanating from his friend finally straining even the tensile strength of his patience.

Ever since they had found out about Laurel Chase, Chris had descended into a dark mood from which he had yet to emerge. Without giving any though to the fact that he was the father of a new born and that he had an expanding family to consider, Chris had decided he was going after Laurel without any hesitation. While Mary had not complained because she understood the man she had married to know that an enemy was someone that got taken care of immediately, lest they came back years later and burn down the house around one's ears. Mary loved Chris too much to ever try to stop him from going after Laurel.

However it concerned Vin that Chris was so blind with the need for vengeance against the lady that he was taking the very same path he had when they had pursued her to Calumet only to find that Laurel had been expecting them all the time. She had not only escaped but she had damn near killed Vin in the process and while he bore no malice towards Chris for that event, Vin did feel that a great deal of thought was required where the lady was concerned. She had proved that she was far smarter than any enemy they had known in recent times was and her relationship with Chris was like a chess game. Unfortunately, she seemed to be the professional and Chris' anger was making him a rank amateur.

"Fine." Chris said abruptly, not wishing to talk. He knew that the others were afraid of what he was going to do when he got his hands on Laurel and to that effect he could not deny that they had a very good reason to be concerned. When he had swore he was going to kill her back in Calumet that had been no idle threat. He meant to do it. Chris was not about to let another female recede into the shadows, lying in wait until his guard was down and then take his family away from him as Ella had done to him when she had murdered Sarah and Adam. Chris was never going to ever be that negligent again and if utilizing a most final solution was the only way to ensure the safety of Mary, Billy and Michael then that was how it was going to be.

"Chris," Vin knew that it was time to broach the subject even though it was likely that he was going to get his head bitten off but he was not about to stand down either. After almost dying at her hands for the same encore performance that Chris was about to deliver in this rushed trip to Wallace County in search of Laurel Chase, Vin felt he had earned his right to speak his mind. "I think we ought to think about going after Laurel."

Chris looked his way sharply. "What do you mean?" There was thin line of tension in it that was more than a hint of menace being prodded into being.

"I mean that we ain't heard nothing about the woman since she disappeared out of Calumet." Vin retorted. "Not a word. She disappeared like smoke. I've been tracking for sometime now to know that anybody who can fade away like this, ain't dumb enough to be walking out in the open when everyone was looking for her."

"You think this is a trap." Chris stated. It was not a question.

"I think it's a trap." Vin nodded, without hesitation.

Chris nodded. "Well so do I."

Vin looked at him with surprise. "Then why are we going after her?" The tracker's expression showed his puzzlement.

"I know its a trap Vin," Chris met his gaze. "But I also know that it's the first lead that we've had since she went to ground. "You're right about her." Chris had put a lot of thought into coming after Laurel even though the decision might have seemed hasty to his friends. "If she shows herself then it's for a reason and I rather get to her before she puts her plan into action."

"The thing is, we may get to her all right but not in any way that's going to help anyone." Vin pointed out.

"Vin this ain't about me," Chris confessed. "This is about my wife and my two boys," the gunslinger did not want Vin to see the emotion that had crept into his eyes and turned his gaze to the road ahead of them. "Sooner or later she'll come after them. She'll come after them like Ella did Sarah and Adam. The only chance I have to stop her is to get to her first."

Vin could appreciate Chris' fears. He could not imagine what it was like to lose Alex and a child the way Chris had lost his family and could understand why he was willing to go to any lengths to keep that from happening. Unfortunately Vin was not entirely sure that this was the best way to do that. However, Chris was right about one thing; they had little choice. He was in as much in the line of fire as Chris and his family. When Laurel had singled him out specifically to be shot at Calumet by her snipers, he knew that she hated him personally because he had been the instrument of Chris' freedom from the Arena and from her. Sooner or later, Laurel would turn her attention to him and by extension Alex as well to hurt Chris and Vin did not wish to be the cause of more guilt for his best friend.

"I know." Vin nodded reluctantly, conceding that something had to be done but he was still concerned whether this was the right course at the moment. They knew nothing about Sheriff Denborough of Wallace Town other than the fact that he had sighted Laurel Chase and her bodyguard recently. For all they knew, Denborough could be Laurel's creature, not a far fetched idea when one considered how capable the woman was of capturing the attention of almost every man she met. "I just wish I knew what she was up to."

Chris met his gaze and answered with complete empathy. "That makes two of us, pard."

*********

Laurel Chase watched the seven men riding in the distance towards the rocky pass up ahead. They had been followed from the moment they had left Four Corners so she was warned well in advance what path they would be taking in their efforts to reach in Wallace County. Upon discerning which route they would be taking towards the principality of her last known whereabouts, an ambush was all to easy to plan and she was somewhat surprised that Chris was walking into it so blithely. She had expected more from him and assumed that he would have at least considered the possibility of a trap, since she was not a woman who allowed herself to be seen unless she specifically desired it.

Underestimating her was going to cost Mr Larabee dearly.

Sometimes Laurel wondered what exactly she wanted from Chris Larabee. Did she want to possess him? Almost certainly. Kill him? Well that question was a little harder to answer. Eventually she would have to, there was almost no getting around that. One day, their little game would escalate into something uncontrollable and they would have to finish it and Laurel knew that she would win and winning meant that he would have to be dead because he was not a man who could walk away. Which was a pity because he had such amazing potential and yet he chose such a mundane existence for himself.

"Our men are in position." Mr Zhang came up to her on the edge of the cliff as she stared at the group of riders in the distance through the eyeglass she was spying through.

"Excellent," Laurel nodded watching Chris and his companions riding unknowingly towards the passage through the high walls of the canyon they had to traverse in order to reach Wallace County. "I trust you make it very clear to all our people that one dart per man?"

"Yes my Lady," Zhang nodded. "I stressed most particularly that if their negligence were to result in any of the seven dying over an overdose, they would be suffering the same fate."

"No Zhang," she looked at him with narrowed eyes. "Nothing that painless."

Zhang did not need to have her elaborate for him. His lady knew how to dispense retribution to those who failed her miserably with extreme discomfort. "I also conveyed your orders that Larabee and Tanner are to be neutralized first."

"Good," she gave him an appreciative smile. "The other men are quite formidable in their own right. I have a feeling that Chris does not suffer fools lightly so those who acquire his friendship would have talents to recommend themselves to him, unfortunately those talents do not include Chris' unique leadership abilities. Take him out and they fall into disarray." She lowered the eye glass and turned on her heels, her summer dress flouncing behind her as she strode purposefully towards the carriage that was waiting further along the hill she was standing on, safely hidden away as she was.

"And Mr Tanner?" Zhang asked out of interest since his lady seemed to have particular dislike for the tracker.

"Mr Tanner is the random element." Laurel responded her voice hardening to granite.

"He's dangerous and he's difficult to read which makes me cautious." Laurel replied. "Mr Larabee's attachment to him borders on almost scandalous if it was not for the fact that they were both married men. Mr Tanner is resolute, determined and insanely loyal and that makes him extremely dangerous. The threat of him must be neutralized if Chris and I are to play our game."

"I thought you found Larabee more dangerous." Zhang asked with puzzlement.

"Chris is a lion." Laurel met his gaze with a hint of adoration in her eyes as she spoke about Chris Larabee. "A beautiful animal, sleek, intelligent, cunning and one of the greatest hunters put forth on this planet. "On the other hand, Mr Tanner bears a striking resemblance to a wolverine. Equally cunning, ferocious and absolutely relentless, those are qualities that bear watching in itself. Whatever we do to Mr Larabee, you can be assured that Mr Tanner will be dogging our step. I want him gone or at the very least, broken in a million pieces."

********

Although Chris did not like taking the narrow passage through the line of rock before them, going around it would take too much time and he wanted to get to Wallace County sooner rather than later. While he was mindful that Laurel was leading him to some kind of a trap by her appearance in that locality, Chris was certain that if he got there quick enough, he would be able to plan some kind of a defense before the trap was sprung. He looked at the walls of the passageway and was uncertain whether or not the less than high walls were a blessing. They were too low for sniper attacks but not high for more direct means of attack. In any case, the minute he started seeing the walls enclose them, Chris felt a gnawing in his gut that perhaps going around might not have been such a bad idea.

Vin was similarly cautious and was staring at the edge of the rock walls running parallel with them as they moved through the meandering path of rocks and boulders past them. Unconsciously, his hand had dropped to the butt of the Winchester resting comfortably in his holster and his eyes placed everything against the backdrop of the blue sky under deep scrutiny. He could sense the feeling of something creeping up on them; it snaked up his spine, leaving tendrils of cold against his skin that made him shudder.

"What is it?" Josiah asked, having narrowed the space between himself and the two lead riders because it was never wise to be spread out in a place like this.

"I don't know," Chris answered; his intense gaze just as focussed on the top edge of the pass walls as Vin. "I got one of those feelings."

"That ain't good." Nathan stated automatically, knowing how accurate Chris usually was about 'one of those feelings' of his.

Like Vin, Ezra's hand was already poised over the handle of his gun because he could smell the danger in the air even if he could not tell in what shape or form it was coming. "Gentlemen, if I might be so bold as to make a suggestion, perhaps we ought to think about vacating this area."

All eyes turned to Chris, waiting for their leader's decision and for once Chris did not disappoint. "Yeah," he nodded. "I think that's a good idea."

They began retreating the way they came, forcing the horses to turn around, all the while keeping their eyes focussed above them in case of attack when suddenly, Chris felt a pin prick of pain on his neck that was just sharp enough for him to take notice. At least it was not a gunshot, Chris thought to himself as he slapped the horsefly on his neck and noticed that it was not a crushed insect he had extracted but rather what looked like a piece of thorn and blood where it had penetrated the skin.

"What the hell......" Chris started to say when he looked up to hear Vin make the same curse, although the tracker had been hit in the cheek.

"Ouch!" Vin snapped and slapped the place where thought a bug had bitten him.

However, Chris did not have any time to contemplate what this meant because he soon felt light headed and unable to focus. A feeling of intense vertigo swirled in around him and he felt his mouth go dry as his vision blurred. Too late did he realize what had happened to him as he saw Vin slump forward on his horse and turned to the others, hearing through the distant fog of his mind that they were under the same attack. As he tumbled from his horse, his last thought before he hit the dirt was the fact that the enemy was not attacking from above but from the ground, hiding themselves behind boulders and any place that would keep them a short but clear line of sight of their prey.........

**********

Who knew when it had become a ritual but it had.

Even though there were now children involved and Inez lived out of town, a way was usually found to accommodate the changes in their lives so the ritual could continue. At the moment, Elena Rose was sound as sleep in the same crib with baby Michael while Billy and Lilith were upstairs getting up to God only knew what mischief but nonetheless otherwise occupied. Tonight was the first time that Audrey King had been invited to join the ritual since she shared the same burden that they all did now that it was clear that there was more than friendship between herself and Josiah Sanchez. Inez for one was delighted to have Audrey join them, having never forgotten how the lady had come to her rescue when she had been vilified by the town shortly before Elena's birth.

"So you do this, every time the boys go out of town?" Audrey asked as the women were sprawled in various seats and divans in the room that served as the parlor in the Larabee household.

"Absolutely," Alex said refilling Mary's glass with the red wine that was Julia's contribution to the evening. "Its the only way to keep from going out of our minds worrying about what they're getting into this time."

"I have to admit," Audrey confessed, nursing her own glass as she lay on the wing chair with her feet up on the footstool. "It does seem worse that first day."

"It does," Mary agreed, knowing more than anyone else in the room how it felt to worry about a loved one who went to face danger on a daily basis. She had endured this the longest, having started worrying about the seven ever since they had come to town and become more than just drifters but friends. Despite her feelings for Chris, Mary knew it would have hit her just as hard if it was any one of the seven other than he who were hurt or injured. When they first arrived, Mary felt as if she was the only one who gave a damn about them despite all the good they were doing for Four Corners. "After awhile, you get used to the idea that these are the men that they are. They can't help being that way any more than we can help worrying about them."

"So," Julia decided. "We decided that the best way to handle it is to drink ourselves stupid and get through it together."

"Well some of us are already stupid, we don't need any help." Alex gave Julia a devious grin and succeeded in having a cushion flung at her.

Audrey let out a short laugh. "Oh my, whatever have I let myself in for?"

"Hell in a hand basket." Mary chuckled as she indulged herself with another little sip.

"So Alex," Rain who was stretched across the divan inquired. "What is this kitchen table that I keep hearing Chris driving Vin crazy about?"

Alex who was in mid swallow almost choked and lowered her glass to find five pairs of eye staring at her with the exception of Mary who was trying very hard not to snigger even though the amusement on her face was clear. Alex gulped down what was in her mouth, feeling her cheeks burn crimson and was glad that none of them except for maybe Rain, could see the blush of colour on her face.

"Excuse me?" Alex gulped.

"Yes I have to ask about that." Julia interjecting, noting the expression on Alex's face and while she could not see past the doctor's coloring, could tell when Alex was uncomfortable and right now, the doctor was positively squirming. "I've heard this mentioned between those two on occasion myself. So come on, let's here it."

"It's nothing really...." Alex protested, reminding herself that the next time she saw Chris Larabee, he had better be armed.

"I don't think its nothing," Rain gave Inez a conspiratory wink. "She's becoming red. Trust me, I can tell."

"Alex darling it can't be that embarrassing. Remember that time you went to the Indian reservation and took that drink from the medicine man? You tried to take your clothes off and do a rain dance. Now nothing could be more embarrassing after that."

"Especially when Vin had to bring you home tied up." Mary could not help but add.

"Hey, do we have to relive that?" Alex growled, remembering the incident not to mention the worst hangover she had ever experience in her life and having to live with Vin wearing that stupid smirk on his face for the next two months.

"Just until you tell us about the table." Inez chuckled.

"Okay," Alex conceded because in comparison with the rain dance incident, the kitchen table seemed rather mild. "It's the place where we did it the first time."

"It?" Julia exclaimed, her eyes widened.

"And how did Chris find out?" Casey asked for the first time. Although she was not drinking and was singularly pleased to be invited to these gatherings, she had not said much because she still felt a little out of her depth in the company of such seasoned women.

"He saw all the clothes on the floor when he turned up a little later." Alex explained sheepishly, feeling a little more embarrassed when it was Casey asking the question.

"Oh God! We have tea on that table!" Inez exclaimed, her nose wrinkling in distaste.

"Obviously crumpet too." Julia could not help remark.

Alex swatted her on the shoulder and replied. "You are the last one to talk! What about waiting half naked for Ezra in his room?"

"Hell!" Julia groaned visibly and buried her face in her hands. "I knew JD couldn't keep a secret!"

"Actually I found out about that from Vin." Alex said with a satisfied smirk on her face.

"Nathan told me." Rain volunteered with an equally devious smile.

Julia looked at Mary in time for the widow to say, "I heard it from Buck."

Which meant Inez knew as well. "Does everyone know about that?" Julia cried out with growing mortification on her face.

"There's the drunk behind Clancy's Bar that probably doesn't," Alex could not help remark and garnered a perfectly dark look from Julia. "But I'll tell him if you like."

"Well I don't," Audrey spoke up. "What on earth happened and do tell because it sounds perfectly delicious." The older woman grinned.

"It was our first anniversary together," Julia sighed, deciding that could be no harm in Audrey hearing this story since it would be related to the widow the moment she was out of the room anyway. Besides, it was still not as embarrassing as Alex's rain dance story. "I thought I'd surprise him in his room. So I go over there, bottle of wine and dinner waiting, appropriate lace underwear in tow, draped across his bed in my most seductive pose."

"And?" Audrey's asked, her voice full of anticipation.

"Ezra comes in alright," Julia frowned. "But so does JD and Nathan. I'm half hanging out of this outfit I'm wearing and the kid faints, Ezra standing there with his mouth open and Nathan suddenly found this spot on his shoe that he can't take his eyes off."

The entire room burst into a fit of giggles as Julia blushed in embarrassment before the absurdity of the story got to her too and she started laughing with her friends. It was a good minute before they were finally able to settle down and Mary started passing around the pieces of pie that had been forgotten even though the wine had been opened to wash it down in the first place.

"Oh my goodness and what about you Miss Mary? What embarrassing things have you got under that editor chief facade of yours, since we're on the subject of embarrassing situations." Julia looked her way.

"Nothing at all," Mary said with complete dignity.

Inez looked at her with obvious disagreement. "Excuse me, where you or weren't you the one who was commenting to me on whether or not a certain gunslinger whose too tight jeans should be considered an eight deadly sin while inside the church on Sunday morning, unaware that the town's biggest gossip was behind her?"

"Oh no!" Audrey gasped. "Not Mrs O'Leary!"

"Mrs O'Leary." Mary nodded with a loud groan. "It took weeks for the congregation to stop looking at me like I was some kind of sex starved wanton." Mary shook her head, taking a deeper sip of wine and let the taste warm her inside as fresh eruptions of laughter sounded around her and Mary found she did not mind so much because back then sex starved wanton was not that inaccurate.

"Let's face it," Alex said with a sigh once their giggles had died down. "We've all taken a moment or two to admire those jeans." She gave Mary a decidedly wicked look.

"I've heard that there's an underground betting pool in town on whether or not what's in those jeans is what it looks like. Fortunately for me," she gave the others a thoroughly evil smile. "I can tell you it is."

"You know I always thought so." Inez chuckled and then turned to Julia. "But then I've always wondered about Ezra too."

"What?" Julia giggled, perfectly prepared to engage in a little trade of information since they were bandying it about so freely. Besides, it was rare that they were so free in their conversations about the intimacies with the men in their lives. All it needed was enough alcohol in their systems and the sky was the limit.

"Just how far do those dimples go?" Inez leaned forward and asked with a salacious glint in her eyes.

"All the way down." Casey said automatically before Julia could and immediately all eyes were on her.

"Well it was during that poker game with the card player! " Casey declared, blushing herself at the questioning expressions on the faces of those around her who were wishing to know how she came by that delicious bit of information.

"The one where he lost everything." Rain nodded in understanding. "Nathan has told me this story. Ezra lost every cent he had as well as his clothes and had to walk down the street, wearing nothing except a table cloth."

"Which rotten killjoy gave him that?" Inez teased and cause more loud chuckles from the gallery.

"Well anyway, I was working at Mrs Potter's store," Casey continued. "And well he hadn't quite worked out the knot well enough and it dropped."

"We miss all the good stuff." Alex looked at Julia.

"And well," a little smile crossed the young lady's face. "I got Inez's question answered and I have to say, not that I have much experience, that those dimples are almost as fine as the rest of him."

"I know." Julia grinned widely. If Ezra knew they were speaking of his corpus de lecti which such wickedness, the gambler would probably turn red as a beet and at the moment, Julia was contemplating on whether or not the expression on his face was worth the telling. She did so like to see Ezra when he was uncomfortable. For some reason, he was at his most endearing when he was trying not to show his discomfiture, no matter how obvious it was.

"You must think us perfectly awful," Mary said turning to Audrey who was knew to their sense of humor.

"No, no," Audrey shrugged, finding the camraderie and the talk quiet refreshing and welcomed, although she suspected that the second bottle of wine they were almost through was partially responsible for this ability of theirs to have such an earnest discussion. "I'm not such a prude. Besides, I am certain that this is no different from any discussions that the men might have in our absence."

"That's true," Julia nodded in agreement. "But I think we shouldn't talk about our embarrassing moments."

"You mean that you have more than just that one story?" Alex teased just before she bit into the warm pie on her plate.

"Very funny," Julia gave her a look, "I think we should do the next best thing if we're going to talk about embarrassing moments."

"That's right," Rain replied firmly. "We should talk about the men."

"The men?" Inez laughed. "Oh their whole lives are bunch of embarrassing moments!"

"Like the time Buck ran out of the bath house with only a towel on." Casey cried out excitedly. Although she was not drinking since Aunt Nettie would kill her for doing and also because it never seemed to agree with her. Besides, she had a feeling that it was sensible that at least one of them in this group remained sober.

"You see," Alex stared at Julia again. "We miss all the fun stuff!"

"Well let's face it," Inez shrugged not at all perturbed about finding out that her husband derriere was flashed to most of Four Corners. "Buck Wilmington's ass is not exactly the mystery we all like to think it is. Half the women in town has seen it at one time or another."

"And more." Mary could not help but comment. "Its amazing to picture that Buck is married." She sighed a moment later. "I mean there are some men you picture married, Vin yes, Nathan almost definitely but Buck? Its like the laws of nature suddenly turned topsy turvy."

"Hey!" Inez grumbled. "Its not that far fetched. Sure, he's still got a roving eye but he's been absolutely faithful unless of course, he saving it up until he leaves town....." her mind started drifting off at the possibility.

"Good call Mary," Alex gave the editor of the Clarion a sarcastic look as Inez started to think more on the possibility that Buck was hiding his infidelities.

"I am sure he is completely loyal." Rain added her own belief in Buck's innocence before Inez's musing gout of hand.

"He better be," Inez shook the thought out of her head knowing that she was being perfectly silly. She loved Buck and she trusted him. She also knew that he adored his family and would do nothing to jeopardize that, just as he knew that she would disembowel him if he was caught with another woman.

"Besides, they all act weird when they first get married." Mary quickly spoke, remembering that this was partially her fault. "Remember Chris and the socks?"

"Who could forget?" Audrey could not help snigger because this was one incident she remembered clearly as did everyone who past by the sill and saw those socks hanging from the front window of the Larabee home, the window facing the street where passers by walked daily. "I don't think anyone will ever forget."

"Tell me about it." Mary shook her head in disbelief and wondered how Sarah had managed to get the man house broken.

"Don't talk to me about washing." Alex groaned having her own war stories in that particular regard. "I tried to stick that coat of Vin's in the wash and you should have heard the almighty fit that man threw. He slept in his wagon that night because he was so mad at me for trying to wash the thing. I mean, it needs a wash! It smells of....of....

"Buffalo." Mary retorted wrinkling her nose.

"Dust." Julia added.

"Leather." Inez voiced as well.

"In other words," Rain retorted. "It smells like Vin."

Alex fell silent at than and let out a groan in realization. "Oh God, you're right. I fell in love that smell!" She drained the contents of her glass. "I am just going to have that coat the next time he gets shot."

"That's terrible." Audrey exclaimed even though they were all laughing.

"I had a dog like that once," Casey remarked. "You'd wash him, get his coat nice and shiny. Then the first thing he'd do when he got out was roll around in the dirt once again. Vin will do the same thing."

"Don't I know it." Alex said with a bittersweet smile even though she knew she would want him no other way.

"Well I am never going to be laundress for Ezra" Julia said haughtily as if menial domestic duties were too good for her.

"Wait a minute...." Inez stared at the red headed beauty. "Isn't that because Ezra gets the Chinese lady who does the laundry at his boarding house to do it for him?"

"I never argue with a man who is onto a good thing." Julia winked at the Mexican bartender. "And one who doesn't want me to pick up after him."

*********

It was the small hours of the morning before Mary finally ushered her last guest out of the door and headed to bed herself. Audrey had picked up Lilith in her arms as she lifted her from the spare bedroom and Mary could not help thinking how all children looked like babes when they were asleep. Inez was staying with Julia for the evening and Casey was doing the same with Alex. It was the only way that Nettie would allow Casey to remain away from home after coming home and discovering her niece in bed with JD following her trip away from Four Corners. In truth, Mary had not drunk all that much. Two bottles of wine did not go far when it came to six women partaking from it. While she felt a little lightheaded, Mary's inebriation did not extend much further than that.

The subject had gone from the extremes of marriage life to what it was like to love one a man who was one of the magnificent seven. Mary had a feeling that the small gathering had been very good for Audrey in particular, who was not accustomed to waiting in the sidelines while the man in her life went off to face whatever dangers lay in wait for him. On that note, Mary tried not to think about Laurel Chase as she made her way up the stairs to check on her two children. When Audrey had collected Lilith to take her home, Mary had chance to see that Billy was fast asleep and baby Michael who was settling into something resembling sane sleeping patterns, was also lost in his own infant dreams.

The house was silent as she walked up the hallway with only her sound for company. It seemed a far cry from the daytime when everyone was up and about with Chris at home. Sunday mornings were her favorite now and though she still could not convince Chris to go to church with them, she did enjoy breakfasting together with her entire family on that particular day of the week. Mary knew that one day he would surprise her and join them but for now, Mary understood his reasons for not wishing to attend. It was hard for a man who had lost as much as he had to have any tolerance for God and she knew that he was not hypocritical enough to go when he had no faith in the words he would be expected to recite.

Mary pushed open the door of Billy's room quietly and saw her eldest son fast asleep in between the sheets, looking cherubic as the blue light of the night sky threw an iridescent cloak of indigo over everything in sight. For a moment, she could only watch at how beautiful he looked, her tow headed boy who was so much Stephen it brought tears to her eyes whenever Billy did or said something that would make her first love resurface. Chris had not tried to replace Stephen and Mary was grateful for that but she knew that Billy was starting to forget his father and time would only diminish more of the memories he possessed. Thus she was glad when she was able to see Stephen in Billy's face because one day, all he would have to remember his father were those traces of Stephen in his reflection.

Continuing to the nursery where Michael was just as lost in slumber, Mary found herself smiling when she remembered how precious a scene it had been when Inez had come to collect Elena Rose and found them sleeping side by side in a moment that needed to be framed forever. Michael did not seem as contented as he had been when the baby girl had been at his side and for a moment he looked so much like Chris, Mary felt a wave of longing for her husband. As she pulled away from the crib after ensuring that Michael was tucked in properly, Mary stepped out into the hall way once again and headed towards her bedroom.

Until now she had not thought about it and whilst the others had been here, she had not time to think too much about what Chris had to face. However, now that she was alone and there was nothing but time in front of her, Mary could not help feeling a little trepidation that he had ridden off to face Laurel Chase. Her husband was not thinking clearly and she knew Vin had been worried about Chris' state of mind as he went after Laurel. She did not understand entirely what he had endured at her hands while he had been at the Arena and the truth was a part of Mary did not want to know. All she did understand was that Chris hated Laurel Chase more than any person he had ever known save for perhaps Ella Gaines.

Mary was certain that there was much that the seven had not told her about what had happened to Chris in the Arena but she had been able to see it in the hollowness of his eyes each time Laurel's name was mentioned. She had not seen that look of fierce, burning hatred since he had first ridden into town almost three years ago. It was a killer look and that it was reserved for Laurel Chase made Mary certain that whatever she had done to him, must have been almost as terrible as losing his wife and child and Mary could not imagine what act could be equal to that agony.

She reached her bedroom and started to undress when she heard a sound downstairs, not so much a sound but a scuffling sound. Without thinking, she turned on her heels and returned down the corridor, thinking that it might have been one of the girls having forgotten something and come back to claim it.

"Someone there?" Mary called out as she descended the stairs.

Unfortunately, there was.

The two men appeared at the foot of the staircase and Mary froze in her tracks. She had barely a moment to register their presence before turning on her heels and running for dear life up the steps, her boots making loud noises against the wood as she ascended to the upper level of the house. Unfortunately, they were faster than her and fell into pursuit almost as quickly. Mary started to scream as she felt a hand grab the hem of her dress and yank back hard. The force behind that vicious pull and the alcohol in her system had made her sense of balance less than what it should be and she could not keep herself from falling into the intruder's arms.

"Let go of me!" Mary shouted as she felt his arm slide around her chest and a hand cupped her mouth, stifling the cry for help she was attempting to make and any further protest she might have had on the subject.

"Hold her steady!" The second man ordered and Mary felt the grip around her strengthened.

"She's fighting real hard!" The man holding her retorted and Mary struggled even harder just to add validity to his words.

"Not after this." His companion responded, reaching into his jacket and produced a leather case. What he extracted from it when he opened the case made Mary freeze in shock and her eyes widen with similar horror.

The point of the needle was leaking with fluid as the man holding it prepared it for use. She saw his gaze shift to her arm and knew instantly that whatever was inside its glass contents would make it impossible for her to continue struggling or for that matter escape. She could not go under! Not when she had no idea what these intruders had planned for her. Or the children.

Dear God, her children!

"NO!!!!!!!!!!" Mary screamed through the hand on her mouth and pulled away enough to bite down on the hand trying to keep her silent. A cry of pain escaped from the assailant behind her but his grip around her waist did not budge and despite her violent struggles, Mary could not compel him to release her.

"Bitch!" He swore and reacted by slamming his fist into the side of her head so hard that she barely felt the pain because it felt like the wind had been knocked out of her. Groaning in pain as the nausea overtook her, not to mention the flaring agony that moved through her skull like someone was taking a hammer to it, Mary was barely conscious of the needle that pricked her skin.

"There you go darling," the man grinned although she was too disorientated to take much notice. "You won't be giving us any more trouble now."

He was confident of this because that was what Miss Chase had said and if there was one thing his employer knew with complete confidence, it was the potions she brewed. He watched the captive's eyes starting to cloud as the concoction did it work, slowly spreading through her veins and paralyzing her body with its effects.

"Please," she begged as she struggled to remain coherent. "Don't hurt my babies."

He ignored her but faced his companion instead. "Let's move her out. We got a lot of distance to cover before we get to Forbes."

His partner who's named was Mansfield, started to nod when suddenly, the woman in his arms jerked violently in his grip. A small cry of pain escaped her as her body went into spasms and in his surprise he let her go, watching with horror as the blond woman tumbled to the floor and began shaking like a fish that had been dropped onto the deck of a boat.

"What the hell!" Mansfield exclaimed, unable to understand what was happening. Miss Chase did not say anything about a reaction like this!

"Help me!" She begged, her fingers clawing at her skin, leaving red trails of blood where nails had torn flesh. What sense she managed to make disappeared into loud, ragged gasps of pain that soon decayed until her last coherent words turned into a guttural scream of mindless agony. The woman named Mary Larabee was writhing on the floor, legs kicking in pain, hands tearing at her hair and her body, almost as if she were being burned alive without there being the faintest scent of fire.

"This wasn't supposed to happen!" The druggist said stepping away in fear. He had done what he was supposed to! He had followed Laurel's instructions to the letter and he was sure that none of those instructions and orders had anything to do with what he was seeing right now.

Then almost as suddenly as it had began, the struggling, the screams of pain, the flailing limbs stopped moving and she slumped to the floor lifeless and still. For a minute, both men did not know what was happening except that the lady was pale and that she was unconscious Seconds passed until finally Mansfield regain his senses enough to act. He put his fingers to that slender neck, now covered in scratches and searched for some evidence of life. After a moment, he pulled back his hand and looked at his companion, his face showing his disbelief.

"She's dead."

Part Two: Sekhmet

When Alex heard the banging on her door not long after she had returned home to her clinic, the doctor suspected immediately someone had been seriously injured awaiting her return while she had been indulging herself at Maryís. Even though she was slightly tipsy, she knew she was more than capable of handling any injury that a patient might have incurred with the exception of performing surgery. Whether or not her hands were steady enough to perform such a task if required, ingrained conditioning had taught her under no circumstances was such a thing permissible. As she grabbed her doctorís bag on the way to the kitchen door above the clinic itself, the usual route taken by visitors, she knew the action was meant to save time.

She thought for an instant that she might have been premature about this action because the reason for such a commotion at the door could be anyone of her friends bringing news about the sevenís exploits out of town. With them facing Laurel Chase, anything was possible and Alex felt an involuntary shudder of fear for Vin until her common sense prevailed. Wallace County was a full day away and the men had only left this morning, they would not have chance to encounter the lady yet. Whoever was at her door was no harbinger of ill news about the seven, she told herself resolutely. It was most likely one of the townsfolk, in particular Mr Henderson, whose wife was heavily pregnant and was due to give birth within the next week.

"Who is it?" Casey who was lodging with her emerged from the guestroom dressed in her nightgown as she peered out the door.

"I don't know," Alex replied and continued her journey to the door.

However, when Alex pulled open the door, she found herself confronted by a stranger. No, that was wrong Alex told her, as she stared at the exotic beauty not too different like herself with clearly Native American blood in her veins although it was obvious she was a mixture of two worlds. She had swept into town two days ago and as far as she could tell, if the gossipmongers were at all accurate, she was the new singer at the hotel saloon. In fact, as she stood at Alexís door, she seemed very much like the chanteuse with her fashionable clothes, just a touch scandalous as was required for someone in her line of work. Her deep brown hair was piled on top of her head and while her features belied her indigenous origins, her smoky grey eyes spoke of a more continental background.

"Doctor Tanner?" The woman asked and Alex had to remember that it was her that she was addressing. It still took some getting used to being called Mrs Tanner when she had been Alexandra Styles all her life.

"Yes," Alex shook the momentary distraction out of her head when she noted the anxiety in the womanís voice. "What can I do for you?"

"You better come with me quickly," she responded. "I think Mrs Larabee is hurt."

"What?" Alex exclaimed in shock. They had only just left Mary!

"Oh no!" Casey gushed.

"Casey," Alex turned around and gave the younger woman a firm look. "Stay here. I don't need too many people getting under my feet if Mary's hurt. I want you go to Julia's and tell her something is wrong but I don't want anyone at the Larabee house until I know what's going on okay?"

"Alright Alex," Casey nodded, understanding the need to keep from underfoot of the doctor during an emergency. She had been around Aunt Nettie enough to know that Vin's love, like Nettie, had little patience with people hovering when she had something important to do and it did not get much more important than trying to save someone's life.

Alex was glad that Casey did not choose to debate the situation and immediately pulled the door close behind her as she stepped out the door. Seeing that she was more than ready to depart, her visitor quickly took the lead as she hurried down the steps with Alex following closely behind. Both women descended into the street and made a brisk pace towards the Larabee home. Actually Alex was almost running and her companion was soon doing the same to keep up.

"What happened?" Alex demanded as they hurried across town.

"I was on my way home from the hotel." The woman explained. "I have been lodging in Maggie Dryerís place and I heard a scream. It sounded like a child. There was no one in the street but I felt I ought to investigate anyway when I saw two men coming out of the front door of the Clarion News with a young boy and a baby. They had horses waiting for them and the little boy didn't look like he wanted to go but they didn't seem to care."

Billy! Alex thought frantically and found her fear escalating at the report of that grim news. Was Laurel behind this? Had she somehow launched a pre-emptive strike against Chris by this move to take his children? "And Mary?" She asked vehemently the woman once again, needing to know if Mary was all right. Inwardly, Alex thought the worse, knowing of nothing that could keep Mary from fighting with every ounce of her strength when it came to her children. That the two men this stranger had reported seeing had spirited Billy and Michael away, did not bode well for Mary.

The woman paused, her eyes unable to meet Alex's and that alone was more telling than any words she might have spoken. Alex felt her chest constrict with horror, refusing to believe it. Mary, dead? She thought about Chris Larabee instinctively and did not think that the gods were that unkind. Picking up her pace, Alex's boot pounded heavily against the wooden boardwalk as the front door of the Clarion News approached in the distance. She was hardly aware of her companion behind her but somewhere in the back of her mind, Alex guessed she must have been following. There was no time to pause and look because right now Alex needed to see even if it was waited her inside the Larabee household would undoubtedly bring grief.

Alex reached the open door and entered the darkened office, attracted by the flickering glow of the lamps that Mary had not extinguished when she had gone to bed. An amber glow filled the hallway and seemed to create an atmosphere of foreboding as Alex pierced through the front office and entered what was previously the happy heart of Chris and Mary's life together. Alex tried not to remember that it was only a short time ago that she, Mary and all the others had gathered together, laughing and enjoying each other's company. Alex shook such thoughts out of her head. Mary needed Doctor Styles...Doctor Tanner right now, not a friend.

However it was as a friend that Alex reacted when she saw Mary lying sprawled on the floor of the hallway, just before the stairs. Mary was not moving and her skin was pale which only raised the back of Alex's alarm a thousand fold. There were scratches against her skin as if she had taken to herself with her own fingers. The scratches confused Alex because other then that, there seemed no visible signs of injury. However, Alex did not bother with the details as she crossed the space between them in seconds and skidded next to Mary, dropping her doctor's bag on the wooden floor as she found herself next to Mary.

"Mary?" Alex called out as her hand immediately flew to the woman's throat. Mary's pallor was gray and her skin was cool but not cold. As Alex checked her eyes and saw the dilation of her pupils, she could well understand why her companion had thought the worst when she had first discovered Mary in this state. If it had been anyone else, they might have believed that Mary was dead. Her heart rate was certainly slow enough to lead a layman to that conclusion. However, Alex knew better. As a doctor, she knew just how to detect the signs of life even though it may not be immediately obvious.

"I found her like this," the woman appeared in the hallway and dropped to her knees next to Alex as the doctor pulled open her doctor's bag and began searching through its contents. "Is she dead?" The woman asked. "She felt dead."

"No," Alex shook her head, never more relieved to be able to say that to anyone in her entire life. "She's not dead. Her heart rate has slowed down to a crawl. She's had some kind of shock but if I don't get it up again, it will ebb off completely." Alex produced a bottle of clear fluid and proceeded to fill the syringe with its contents.

"What are you doing?" The woman asked her and Alex reminded herself to ask the lady's name when this was all over.

"I'm introducing a chemical stimulus into her bloodstream." Alex answered automatically and continued the procedure, filling Mary's blood stream with the adrenaline it needed to accelerate her heart rate back to remotely normal levels.

The woman did not understand but nonetheless chose not to bombard the doctor with too many questions while she attempted to revive the unconscious editor of the Clarion News. Alex kept her hand on Mary's wrist, listening carefully, waiting for her efforts to bear fruit and unable to imagine what course would be left to her if this did not work. She still had no understanding at how Mary had come to be in this state. There had been so little time to find those answers, not with what she had found upon entering into this room. If it had not been for this new arrival finding Mary when she had, to say nothing about sounding the alarm that allowed Alex to help while there was still time, Alex shuddered to think how tragically things might have transpired. Might still transpire because Alex was uncertain of whether or not the feat of medical trickery she had performed would be enough to bring Mary out of this coma like condition she now found herself in, trapped like a fly in amber.

"Will it work?" The woman asked.

"It might," Alex responded letting out a breathless sigh and then faced her again. There was nothing to do but wait until the drug did its work. "I want to thank you for everything you've done." She said genuinely grateful. Mary had a slim chance of life now but she would have had none at all if this stranger turned the other way and not answered Mary's silent cry of help. "I'm sorry, I don't know your name."

"I'm Diana." She said with a smile. "Diana Belladonna."

"Diana Belladonna?" Alex stared. "Do you know that Belladonna isÖ."

"A poison," Diana frowned. "I know, unfortunately but it's my family name. I can't do much about it besides it's a great stage name."

Any comment Alex was going to make evaporated from her thoughts when she felt Mary's hand tighten around her fingers. Alex reacted immediately, turning to face her patient as she felt Mary's pulse quicken and then settle into a steady rhythm. Mary was started to stir and Alex felt the life return to her body as muscles started to flex, movement rippling through her form as she raised her head slowly in an effort to bring herself completely back to consciousness. Alex looked over her shoulder at Diana and declared. "There are some pillows in the parlor, grab one." She ordered and Diana scrambled to her feet before hurrying off to complete that request.

"Mary," Alex turned to her patient, lifting her head off the wooden floor with her hands. "Can you hear me?" She hoped that she had not been too late that the state she had discovered Mary had not caused any permanent damage.

Mary did not answer but was growing stronger. Alex could feel the muscles of her neck beginning to support itself on its own as Mary tried to push herself onto her elbows in order to sit up.

"Mary, don't move." Alex said gently. "You've been hurt."

Suddenly Mary opened her eyes and met Alex's gaze. There was an instant when time seemed to freeze as Mary pivoted her head slightly to her side, as if in recognition and the moment contracted to singularity of one action which stopped Alex's heart dead in her chest.

Her eyes glowed.

Alex stumbled backwards, reacting so fast that she was surprised at her own speed. Scrambling back like a child, the doctor kept going until she met the obstruction of the wall against her back. Diana chose that moment to make her appearance down the hallway, emerging from the parlour with a silken pillow when Alex turned sharply to her. Mary was still on the floor but she was regaining strength quickly and Alex knew that soon she would be on her feet.

"GET OUT!" Alex shouted at Diana, startling the woman with her sharp voice.

"What?" Diana stumbled, not understanding.

Alex did not have time to answer. "GET OUT RIGHT THIS MINUTE!" Alex fairly screamed and there was just enough urgency in the doctor's voice for it to register that there was danger and the warning was not made lightly. Diana dropped the pillow on the floor and hurried out, glancing anxiously at Alex as she made her departure. Once the sound of her footsteps had faded away, Alex turned back to Mary who had still yet to move from her place on the floor. Alex did not know how this was possible; she had dreamed this nightmare so many times but had never really believed it had come true.

Believe it, her inner voice responded coldly.

She had to do something. Alex searched the floor for her doctor's bag, knowing that in it were the only weapons she had to fight against what was she had seen reflecting in those glowing eyes. Her heart was pounding like there was no tomorrow and she had felt cold terror with each sound of movement made by Mary the more and more the woman came out of her disorientation. On her hands and knees, Alex sighted her medical bag and began crawling towards the worn case next to Mary. Alex did not wish to get that close but if she did not, if she did not neutralise the threat of Mary now, then she would not live long enough for it to matter.

Mary was well and truly awake now although she was still unfocussed and Alex reached for her medical bag, the way one might try to catch a flame from a raging inferno. Trembling as she stretched her hand towards the worn leather handle, Alex clenched her fist around it and prepared to pull back when suddenly Mary's hand shot out and grabbed her wrist in a strong grip.

"Let me go!" Alex shouted, swinging her arm to strike but Mary reacted with lighting fast reflexes and caught that her hand even before she had the chance to knuckle it into her fist.

"Be still yourself Isis." Mary looked at her with glowing eyes.

"Don't call me that!" Alex fairly screamed.

"Fine then," Mary pushed her away with just enough force to topple Alex over without causing any serious injury. "Will Alexandra do?"

Alex was confused and scampered away to the other side of the room, watching Mary in wide eyes terror as the wife of Chris Larabee rose to her feet and took a good look around her. The woman who stood up was not Mary Travis. Alex saw a different person wearing her friend's face. This was a creature of power, of supreme confidence, who wore her skin like a weapon, who allowed it to hug her sensuously and relished the pleasure of being like nothing else mattered. Her eyes danced with awareness, her lips curled into a smile and as she ran her fingers through her blond hair and shook her head in slow satisfaction, Alex knew exactly who was standing her in Mary's stead.

Sekhmet.

"You are dead!" Alex cried out, anguished and terrified that if Sekhmet could come back, then God, the very idea sent chill of horror down her soul so could Isis.

"The physical body passes yes," Sekhmet looked at Alex again. "That you knew as Sekhmet is gone but some of her remains inside your friend. We are together now."

Alex's stared at her in confusion. "You cannot exist!" She stuttered more out of denial than any sense of reason. "You're dead! Chris killed you!"

"My mate." Sekhmet nodded in recognition. "I forgot that we have one."

"You don't have anything! Chris is Mary's husband!"

"We are Mary and we are Sekhmet." Sekhmet regarded Alex. "Poor little host," she took a step closer to the doctor. "You are so afraid aren't you?"

"I will stop you!" Alex exclaimed but her fear was starting to get the better oof her and voice cracked even as she said it. God help her she wanted to help Mary but she did not know how.

"Then you will be stopping Mary." Sekhmet respond. "You see me and you see the creature that stole the host body and perhaps you are right. Sekhmet is here but only the memories of her remain and the knowledge that spans two millenia. When your kind still thought the world was a flat as a sheet of glass, Sekhmet lived and breathed. You cannot tear the bond of a mind that aged, away from a host and not expect there to be something left behind. This is what remains in Mary the host and now the complete creature you see bears her soul, all that is good and kind about your friend, lives in here." She pointed to her chest. "Her sense of friendship and love. Had it not been, Sekhmet would have killed you already."

"This can't be real...." Alex started to sob. She could not endure this again. She could not!

"She has them." Sekhmet took a step towards her and hunched down so that she could meet Alexís eyes.

"Them?" Alex looked up questioningly at Sekhmet with tear stained eyes.

"The one whose poison did this to us." Sekhmet answered. "The one who made brought Sekhmet forward. When they thought they had killed Mary I heard them. She had captured your consort, my mate and the those who ride at their side."

That got Alex's attention. "Laurel?" She gasped and wiped the moisture from her eyes. The possibility of Vin being in trouble shunted Alexís terror aside for the moment and though she was still having difficulty comprehending what was happening, the idea that Vin might be in Laurel Chaseís hands was a sobering thought. Alex was perfectly aware of how much Laurel despised Vin and what she might do to the tracker if he was in her power. Neither was there any doubt that what Sekhmet was telling her was nothing but the absolute truth. It was not Sekhmetís way to deceive like this, inwardly the part of her that was once Isis knew of this and Alex recoiled in disgust, realising she had accessed those memories to make that determination.

"We have to help them." Alex stammered.

"I have to help them." Sekhmet corrected her and then added. "Alone."

"You," Alex looked at her incredulously. "You donít go anywhere near Vin or the others," Alex spat angrily. "We will take care of this ourselves!"

Sekhmet returned her hateful gaze and let out a laugh. "You will handle this?" She snorted in derision before her expression became as hard as granite and she stared at Mary and her eyes darkened until blue grey was nearly black. "Listen to me, those who violated my home tonight, who brought Sekhmet forth with their vile potion and stole my children out of their beds will account themselves to me before all is said and done. Believe what you will about me but know this, Sekhmet or Mary, no one comes into my home and takes my children."

Alex swallowed because a part of her wished to believe this creature wearing Maryís face. Although the abrasive manner and the supreme arrogance was undoubtedly Sekhmetís, the feeling for her children was all Maryís. When her children were threatened, Mary went from a mild mannered reporter into something that made a she wolf somewhat nervous. Ella Gaines had probably seen it before Mary had thrown her off that balcony where she met her at end. As much as Alex despised agreeing with Sekhmet, she had to concede something further. Sekhmet could get Vin and the others back. Alex could not.

"Alright," Alex finally forced herself speak, unable to believe she was reduced to believing this. "Say I believe you. That it is Mary in there as well as Sekhmet and that you want Billy and Michael back safely. You still canít go alone. Laurel is evil. Unconscionably evil. There is no pattern to what she does, just this need do as she wishes."

"I have in my time," Sekhmet said with a cool smile as she rose to her feet and started walking up the stairs to the upper floor of the house. "Been described that way. However, you are no good to me as you are Alexandra Styles. You would be more of an encumberance that you would be of assistance. The mate suffered greatly at the hands of this woman but he spoke clearly of men who are willing to die for their mistress. Your presence will not be required and certainly not effective. If you had one wit of Isis within you, you might be of use to me and your consort but as you are, you will only hinder my attempt to free them."

Alex saw a syringe on the floor as she followed Sekhmet up the stairs, realising that it was not the same as the one she had used to administer the adrenalin that Mary had needed to live earlier on. She bent over and scooped it up in her hand before examining the contents within it. Alex recognised the powdery substance within it almost immediately. Against her better judgement, Alex fingered the inside of the glass tube and took a taste of the residue within it. At that instant, Alex realised what Laurel had tried to do Mary and Alex soon came to the conclusion that she had grossly underestimated how cruel and callous Laurel was capable of being.

"This is Venom." Alex stated looking at Sekhmet.

The former warrior goddess halted in her step and turned around to face Alex again. "The substance she used to make my mate her creature."

"Yes," Alex nodded, remembering those nightmarish days when Chris Larabee had been slave to the Venom narcotic that had turned him against his friends and into a cold blooded killer. "She must have been trying to get Mary addicted the way Chris was. To use her against Chris."

"Instead, the poison brought me forth." Sekhmet responded.

"The nature of what it is makes the subject lose all inhibitions. Parts of the psyche that are hidden away are allowed free rein." Alex mused as they reached the top of the flight of steps. "When Mary was given the Venom it must have opened the door to her mind where the residual memories of you must have existed."

"That means I do not have much time." Sekhmet remarked, understanding the situation better and knew that to retrieve those important to the host, she had to act and soon. "I must leave immediately."

"Leave?" Alex exclaimed, unable to believe that she was trying to stop the woman. "Where are you going?"

"I heard them speak of a place called Forbes." Sekhmet responded as she entered the room where Chris and Mary shared their bed. "I must go there."

"Forbes is almost a dayís ride from here." Alex exclaimed. "Without a fresh supply of Venom, not to mention the fact that without it you will have severe withdrawal symptoms, you will be as equally useless as I am when you get there." There was a hint of triumph in her face when she made that statement.

Sekhmet paused at the bureau next to the bed and sighed. "Then it is lost." She said softly. "The enemy have our children and the mate will die. The loss of all three will destroy the host."

"What do you care about the host?" Alex said spitefully. "Weíre just a warm body you can use until its ready to be discarded."

Sekhmet turned her gaze at Mary and replied. "Human, I am dead. I have no existence other than what is left of me inside this hosts mind. Where I have been is worse than hell for at least, in hell you suffer your own sorrows, not play voyeur to another. If it were a simple matter of my life being extinguished forever, I could welcome death but I do not even have that much. I live because she lives, I experience because she experiences and the agony of losing all three is more than even a Goaíuld warrior goddess is willing to endure. I will spare her that because I wish to spare myself that pain. Do you understand what I am saying? Her well being is my well being."

"Well you canít go after the boys alone," Alex remarked, confused because she saw sincerity in Sekhmetís eyes and inwardly, the part of her that was Isis, told her that the woman was speaking in earnest. "I have Venom." She confessed.

"You have it?" Sekhmet looked at her.

"When the boys went to Calumet with the army to catch Laurel, Nathan gathered some for me because I asked him to. I wanted to understand what Laurel had done to Chris and perhaps find an antidote that would not make the withdrawal symptoms so severe. He got enough for me to experiment with. I keep it in a safe in the clinic and thereís still more than enough left for you to remain Sekhmet a little longer if that's what it takes to get Vin back."

Sekhmet had not spoken, still taking into consideration Alexís revelation about having a supply of Venom. The doctor was correct, what memories she had of Maryís that remembered Chrisí telling of his time under Laurelís will, told her that being a skilled warrior that she was would not be enough to help her retrieve her mate or their children. What she needed was an ally, someone who had almost as much skill, even more she sometimes suspected. Sekhmet knew where to find such an ally although she was uncertain how the good doctor would take the request.

"If I am to reach them alive, I will need assistance." Sekhmet said slowly.

"Youíll have it." Alex responded, not liking this bargain she was making with the devil but for Vin, she would trade her soul. "I'll do whatever I have to get them all back."

"I am glad of that," Sekhmet turned and faced her directly. "Because to get them back I will require Isis."

At first Alex did not understand what Sekhmet meant. After all Isis was dead and there was no way to revive unless.... Her mind grasped the conclusion of the plan that Sekhmet had formed the moment Alex had told her about the Venom and its part in bringing her out of the limbo she had existed within Mary's mind.

"No." Alex exclaimed, almost unable to find the breath to let the word escape her. "Not again! Not ever!"

"I cannot bring them back without Isis." Sekhmet kept staring at her perhaps using the memories she had from the part of her that was Mary to know that convincing Alex would not be as hard as she imagined. "I need her strength and her mind."

"I will not let that...that...thing take control of my body ever again!" Alex fairly shouted as she staggered away from Sekhmet as if the very idea was poisoning her veins and capable of making that unthinkable suggestion reality. "You have no idea what its like! Mary didn't remember what happened but I do! I remember what you did and I remember what Isis did. I also remember that I had to watch while she killed Vin in front of me and there was not a thing I could do to stop it!"

"It would not be the same." Sekhmet responded. "Isis is dead. Sekhmet is dead. What you perceive as us is a phantom, an aftertaste of something left behind. The poison in my veins allows me to speak but briefly. When it is gone I will return to being dead, just as Isis will when the poison runs its course through your veins."

"It will never happen!" Alex said fiercely. "I won't let it happen!"

"Then you condemn your consort to die." Sekhmet retorted brutally. "I know what Mary knows and I am aware that the enemy hates Vin Tanner enough to make him scream for his death by the time she is through with him."

"Stop it!" Alex wailed, knowing inwardly that Sekhmet was right. Deep down in that place that was impervious to her fears, she knew that Vin was as good as dead if he was not already. Laurel hated him. She hated enough to single him out when the seven had gone to Calumet with the army. She hated him so much that she had ordered him crippled and it was only by a fraction that he had escaped that fate. Now, he was in her hands and there was nothing to keep Laurel from venting the full tide of her vengeance upon him. The idea that that the man she loved more than life itself was at the mercy of the same creature that would poison Mary in order to hurt Chris while stealing his children, terrified Alex even more than the possibility of allowing Isis to re-emerge.

"I know what's at stake but I can't!" She cried out, begging Sekhmet not to force into making this choice. Alex prided herself in fearing nothing but she openly terrified of this. She would do anything for Vin. Lord only knew for certain how much she was willing to risk for the man. Her love for him consumed her. When they were together, it felt like nothing else existed in their world and they breathed each other in like an elixir neither could be without. If he were gone, if she did not wake to the sight of him in her bed, feelings his arms around her, Alex knew she would not want to live.

"Then I go alone," Sekhmet responded and pushed herself to her feet. She returned to the front of the bureau once and pulled out a drawer. The warrior goddess did not have to look at the doctor to know that Alex was shaking.

It was strange, Sekhmet thought as she pulled out a drawer and started rifling through the contents. She should not feel sympathy for the woman. How many dead faces as she seen throughout her existence during the ages. How many had she sent to death herself? There was no remorse then, not an ounce of it. All there was, was the satisfaction of power and dominance. She was a hunter and those who could not defend themselves or allowed themselves to be mastered were the prey, those were the rules. Living by them made Sekhmet's immortality terribly simple but now she felt deeply the pain the human behind was experiencing and felt empathy towards her. Why? The answer of course was simple.

She was human now.

Not Goa'uld. Not even warrior goddess but human. The real Sekhmet had died somewhere and fortunately she who left behind in Mary's mind had not the memory of that but she knew without doubt that Sekhmet was dead. She knew it because Mary knew and Mary, whose voice though silenced by the drug inside her body, was still here and it was Mary's heart that felt things, who guided her conscience who provided the soul Sekhmet never had.

"Alexandra," Sekhmet found herself saying. "You will not lose yourself." She did not look at Alex as she spoke but could feel the doctor's eyes on her back as she searched through Chris' clothes for what she needed. "You will allow Isis to do some good in a life that was spending creating nothing but misery. Mary does not fight me because she knows that I am powerless to hurt her. I live as long as the Venom lives and even though I may make myself heard, my release is conditional. I am Sekhmet's memory and all the knowledge that is in her mind but the rest of me is Mary Larabee. I sit here and beseech your help because I need Isis, I need Isis to find my children and find my mate. I cannot live without him any easier than you would be able to survive your consort."

"You don't know what it is you ask." Alex found herself responding. "Mary does not remember what she did but I do. I remember killing Vin with my own two hands. I broke his neck, like someone pulling the head of an insect and then I forced Ezra to make love to me. He could not help how his body reacted but he hated it and he loathes himself enough without having to bear the burden of that betrayal on his conscience. I have seen Isis kill so many and now you're asking me to unleash her?"

"Yes," Sekhmet turned to Alex. "I ask you because there is no else to ask. Your beloved, my beloved, that of your friends will die unless you and I do something. Search yourself Alexandra Styles, you know that we can save them. We will probably need the others as well but between you and I and what we have inside us, we can them bring back and perhaps put an end to the enemy once and for all for I fear my mate is not up to the task."

"He sees as a woman." Alex shrugged, hearing nothing of surprise. "He's hates her and with adversary like Laurel Chase, you can't feel. You have to think."

Sekhmet. "Exactly, you have to hunt."

For a long moment, Alex stared at Sekhmet and tried to see Mary. The thing of it was, despite Sekhmet's words and her arrogance, Alex knew it was Mary talking. Somehow, it was Mary that was using Sekhmet to her own end and the irony of it was not lost on Alex. The question was, did she dare use Isis in the same way. Did she really want to unleash the Goddess of All into an unsuspecting time just to save a man? When it was Vin Tanner?

There was no question of her choice.

*********

"What's going on?" Inez demanded when Alex walked through the door of the Pemberton home. Ever since Casey had pounded on their door less than an hour ago, reporting that Diana the new singer at the hotel had turned up claiming that Mary was hurt, the three women had not been able to sit still. Although they wanted to go running to Mary's to find out exactly what was the nature of the emergency. However, with Casey relating to them how determined Alex was that no one intrude for the moment, the others remained where they were, allowing the imaginations to get the better of them as they each held a silent prayer for their friend.

However, it was a prayer that seemed redundant when Mary walked through the front door with Alex.

Inez's demand as cut short by Mary's appearance. For a moment, none of the women could speak as they stared at Mary in a mixture of shock and fascination. Long blond hair hung loosely over her shoulders, she was wearing the same shirt she had when they left her except that it was now knotted at the waist. Instead of a long flowing skirt, equipped with layers of lace, denim clung to her skin and it took a few moments for them to realise that she was wearing a pair of Chris' dark jeans. Although they were a little loose around her hips, there was enough tension for them to see how figure hugging it was.

She looked like Mary but her eyes were cold and hard, with just enough hint of menace inside them to leave everyone in the room with the exception of Alex, open mouthed with shock because they had no idea what to make of this.

"This serves no purpose." Sekhmet said to Alex as she entered the kitchen where the others were congregated. "We need to begin our journey now. The prey has too much ground ahead of us."

"We're not going anywhere alone." Alex retorted coolly. "I said we were not doing this alone. They're coming with us."

"What in the hell is going on here!" Inez found her voice. "Mary, what are you wearing?"

"Is that Chris' clothes?" Julia just as shocked.

"They cannot be of help to us." Sekhmet responded, all but ignoring them.

"If you want Isis, then this is how it will be." Alex turned to her sharply.

"Oh my God!" Inez understood and took a step backwards. "Sekhmet!" She turned to Alex, praying that the horrific tale that Buck had once told her about the Goa'uld had not taken them both again.

"Hell!" Julia jumped out of her seat as Casey's curiosity deepened because she did not know the truth and while Mary seemed odd, had done little to warrant the fear she saw emerging in both Inez's eyes and Julia Pemberton's.

"It's alright!" Alex announced hastily. "It's the same person. It's Mary."

"What?" Inez looked at Alex, feeling her head swirl with everything that was being thrown at them at such heady pace. "That is Sekhmet isn't it? The thing that almost killed Billy and Mary too!"

"I am what's left of Sekhmet," Sekhmet answered before Alex could. "This will take too long to explain and we do not have time for me to do so. The enemy has taken my children as well as my mate and all of yours. If we do not begin the hunt soon, they will die probably not before the enemy makes them suffer so greatly that death will be a welcome release."

"The enemy?" Julia looked at Alex in question. While much of what Sekhmet/ Mary, she could not discern that little detail just yet, one thing had registered in Julia's mind upon hearing the lady's speech, the kidnapping of Mary's children and the capture of the seven.

"Laurel Chase." Alex said simply.

"Oh my God!" Inez's expression descended into fear. "That lunatic has got Buck?"

"She has all of them," the doctor continued to explain. "She sent two men after Mary who injected her with Venom and as you can see, the drug has had an interesting side effect. When I found Mary, it looked like she was dead. I think that's why they chose to leave her behind and take Billy and Michael instead."

"Oh no," Inez gasped in horror, tears welling in her eyes, understanding immediately what use two children would have to Laurel, if the witch had captured their father. "We have to do something."

"Yes we do," Alex nodded. "We don't have much time. Sekhmet said that they were going to Forbes. That's a full day's ride from here but it's the only lead we have."

"We should be getting help from the sheriff or somebody...." Julia stammered. "We can't do this on our own! Laurel has a small army of men who would die for her if I were not mistaken. We're no match for her."

"Not without Isis." Alex said quietly and both Inez and Julia looked sharply at her.

"No Alex," Inez said immediately. "You can't be thinking of taking it too."

"We don't have a choice." The doctor replied having heard more strenuous objections from herself to be swayed by anything that either Julia or Inez had to say about it. "Sekhmet is a hunter, she'll be able to track them and Isis, whatever she might have been, knows how to take care of herself. This is not permanent, the moment the Venom wears off, we will be ourselves again but right now, as we are, none of us is capable of rescuing the boys on our own. Isis and Sekhmet can."

"You don't know that." Julia countered. "Alex, Isis almost killed Ezra. Are you prepared to let her do it again?"

"She could not more hurt your lover than I could hurt any of you." Sekhmet responded quickly, wanting none of these women to interfere with Alex's decision, especially after all the debate it had taken to get to this point.

"Look," Alex met her friends' eyes. "I know better than anyone of you what I'm risking but I don't have a choice. You know as well as I do, local law enforcement is not smart to find Laurel and she doesn't expect us to show up in Forbes so we have a good chance of getting the men back if we play it smart. I would not allow Isis out unless I did not know for certain it was the only way I could see Vin again. Laurel hates him more than she hates all the others and if I don't do this and she kills him, then I don't care if Isis disappears after or not, I'd rather be dead anyway."

"I don't understand," Casey stammered, trying to comprehend why the mood was so deathly at the moment. Julia and Inez were almost ready to run when Inez had said the word Sekhmet and Mary, who looked nothing like the prim and proper editor of the Clarion News, looked more like a killer than she did a wife and mother. Casey could not explain it but Mary just felt dangerous. "Alex, tell me what's happening."

"The child can shoot and she can ride," Sekhmet suddenly declared. "We will take her with us."

"No," Alex protested. "I won't put her life in danger."

"Alex, if JD is in danger I want to help." Casey spoke out, even though she had heard enough about Laurel Chase to know that there was good reason for the doctor wishing to protect her. While that may be so, she also remembered that JD was in her hands and that overrode Casey's fears considerably. JD was her fiancť now and she was not about to let anything happen to him, not when she had dreamed of so long being his wife.

"The child is brave." Sekhmet looked at Casey with a smile. "She will be of use to us."

"Well you're not going without us." Inez declared firmly and glanced at Julia for confirmation of this fact. "Right?"

If Ezra was in trouble, there was no question of what she would do. Julia nodded in return. "I'll come with you."

"Then there is no time to waste." Sekhmet said hastily.

"Just hold it right there," Alex retorted sharply. "I want to get going too but let's not get ahead of ourselves. We can't simply ride in there without taking some provisions. We'll need weapons and horses, those take time to get."

"Time we do not have." Sekhmet stated firmly. "Every second we waste, they gain more ground."

"Perhaps you're right at that but we are still waiting." Alex returned. "I have to go to my clinic and do a few things. The rest of you do what you have to do but we ride out in an hour."

Inez knew precisely what for and crossed the floor to touch Alex's shoulder. "Alex, you don't have to do this." The lady looked at her friend, aware of how awful a decision this must be for Alex to make. To choose between keeping herself safe and that of her husband, Inez found herself thanking God that she was not maneuvered into making such a decision.

"Yes I do," Alex nodded, trying to keep the fear out of her voice. She did not wish to hear any more talk regarding this decision she had chosen to make because thinking about it any more deeply would only make her own resolve waver and she had not the energy to try and build up the strength to do what she had to. The only thing that was keeping her from running away and hiding like a frightened child at the moment was the possibility that Vin could die if she allowed herself to weaken. "If I don't she'll kill all of them. We know that. Chris she wants to torture but the others are expendable."

"We're wasting time talking about her!" Casey said anxiously, becoming for fearful the more and more she heard these women speaking of Laurel Chase. Alex was terrified and Casey was shocked because next to Mary and Nettie, Alex was one of the bravest people she knew. Inez and Julia were similarly tense and Mary, Casey did not know what to think about Mary but had no doubt someone would explain it to her soon enough.

"The child is right." Sekhmet turned to Alex. "If you are to do what is required it must be soon."

"I'm not a child." Casey retorted with a hint of annoyance when Sekhmet glanced her way and gave her a look that silenced in her tracks.

"Alex, think about this." Julia spoke up as she saw Alex nod. She did not know what was going on because explanations could wait until they were away but she did know one thing for certain; Sekhmet had been responsible for hurting Ezra. She had hurt him so badly that for months after their return from that other place, he had been plagued with nightmares about the brutality of what he suffered. No matter what the situation now, Julia did not know that she could trust Sekhmet and inwardly, she did not wish to. "We will find another way."

"There is no other way." Alex said softly and decided she would hear no more debate on this subject. "We do what we planned," she turned away and started to the door. "Meet me at the clinic when you're done. I'll be ready."

"Alex!" Julia cried out. "Don't do this." The Emporium owner tried one last time to convince her.

"Julia enough!" Alex said with more anger than she intended. Didn't they know how hard this was for her? She had to chose between her soul and Vin. In this risky gamble to get him back, she might lose him forever, Alex was completely aware of all the dangers and a few others than Inez and Julia had no idea about. "I've made up my mind."

"Let her go." Sekhmet glared at Julia. "She has made her choice."

"Its not a choice!" Julia turned sharply at the warrior goddess. "Its blackmail."

"Its the only way." Inez spoke up. "The only way we can get them back." Facing Alex, Inez continued speaking. "She won't get to stay Alex," the Mexican declared with steel in her voice. "We'll make sure that when its all said and done, we will get you back." Glancing at Sekhmet, Inez added. "Well get you both back."

**********

Alex sat in front of her workbench and took a deep breath. Behind her, the small safe in the corner of the room remained open after she had returned to her clinic and extracted all samples of Venom she had safely secreted inside the metal chest for safe keeping. It did not take long for her to prepare the syringe in order to infuse herself with the dreaded substance, despite the fact that she had undertaken the task while her fingers were shaking so violently that for a moment, Alex though that she would unable to continue. She mixed the proper dosage, all the while hearing the sound of her heart pounding in her chest as she forced her fingers to move and work her will over the chemicals and instruments before her.

Each time she faltered, she forced herself to think of Vin, to think of her husband. He was out there, waiting for her to help him. She thought of what he could be enduring under Laurel's power and the cold fear that ran through her mind at that, served to strengthen her resolve. She knew once the Venom was inside her, there would be no fear, no hesitation. Isis had strength that Alex could never compete with. She had no doubt that as Isis, they would be able to find Vin and give Laurel Chase the biggest shock the woman had ever experienced in her life. All it would require from Alex was a few days where she had to give up her soul.

In the saying, the bargain did not sound so bad but when one came to the moment where the exchange was needed to be made, and then it sounded very terrible indeed. The only thing that kept Alex from fleeing the payment of such a price was Vin Tanner. Upon returning home, Alex found herself entering their bedroom. She took a moment to study herself in the mirror because it would be the last time in awhile that she could see her reflection and know that it was her, not some stranger staring back at her through her own eyes. Alex had scolded herself about wasting time and started to make her way towards her clinic when she noticed something that made her pause.

A red scarf draped across the bedpost. She approached it slowly and took the scrap of material in her hands and felt it in her palms. Holding it to her face, she took a deep breath and could smell him on the fabric. She scented him in her lungs and suddenly she was transported to a place where there was wide open spaces, a harmonica playing that had no song just tune and a husky voice spouting poetry from the heart. The fact that it was not written, that it never would be and had been spoken out loud for the one hearing only brought tears to Alex's eyes.

She was barely aware of it when she pulled the cupboard open and saw his clothes hanging next to hers and how much apart of him was left behind in this room, ever since they had become husband and wife in that little chapel in Coventry. She could not lose him! Not now! They had an entire lifetime ahead of them and she could not bear to have that stolen from them, not when she could stop it.

Not when Isis could stop it.

Wiping her tears, Alex resumed her journey to her clinic and began the preparations to help Isis emerge from the dark place in her mind. Now, she stared at the syringe, full of its concoction of enzymes and extracts from the pituitary gland of too many dead victims and ready for use. Alex thought how ironic it was that Laurel had meant to use it as an instrument of vengeance not realizing it was opening a door into a world of hurt. For herself.

Refusing to let any more reservations force her into reconsidering her decision, Alex rolled up her sleeve and tied a piece of chord around her arm in order to force the vein to show itself. She pulled the knot tight and saw the thin line of a blue vein forcing itself against the upper dermal layer of her skin. Alex tapped the pulse of tender flesh before picking up the syringe and holding the needle to it. She felt her resolve waver a little bit and for a few seconds, the sharp point of the needle remained where it was against the vein. Alex had to fight herself to keep from putting it down.

"You have to do this for Vin." Alex told herself, remembering that red scarf upstairs and the smell of him in her lungs. That alone forced her to push the needle into her skin. Alex felt the sting of skin being pierced before the length of metal slipped past the dermal layer into flesh and finally penetrating the wall of the vein that would carry Laurel's potion throughout her body. With practiced skill, she forced the entire contents of the syringe into her arm before pulling out the needle and dropping it on the workbench. For a moment, Alex felt nothing, just the lingering itch of the needle's entry in her skin and a warmth that spread out from her arm to the rest of her body. Alex wondered if it would work or not. Perhaps what had happened to Mary was just a fluke, something that could not be recreated. Perhaps Sekhmet's re-emergence had been a fluke and nothing more.

She was still thinking that when the pain hit her.

It hit her suddenly. The force of it came with such speed that Alex barely had time to register that it was happening until her body was jerking with violent spasms. She uttered a small cry as she felt it running through her veins, boiling the blood inside her skin as her mind started to lose coherence from the agony that racked her body mercilessly. She became aware of something smashing on the ground and thought it might have been the syringe she had knocked off the table.

Forcing herself to focus because there was one other thing that had to be done, she ground her teeth, starting to sob as the pain stabbed at her like knives when she picked up the second needle on the work bench. Enclosing it in her grip was an effort to bring the syringe to her arm. Her hands were starting to quake and Alex let out an angry cry as she forced herself to steady long enough to pierce her skin once more. Alex released a groan of thirumph when she felt the piercing pain anew and wasted no time in emptying the contents into her arm. Once it was completely empty, Alex let go of the syringe and let herself stop fighting to keep the control she had needed to complete that one last act. The second syringe contained the stimulus needed to ensure that her heart had not slowed to a crawl as Mary's had done when Alex had first found her.

She had been seated on a stool at the workbench when the Venom began to work but the spasm soon toppled her over and Alex became conscious of a new pain when she fell off the seat and hit the ground. Her head whacked the side of the hard wooden floor and there was a moment of throbbing agony before everything went dark.

********

"This is such an unbelievably bad idea," Julia Pemberton retorted when she, Inez and Casey followed Sekhmet down the street towards Alex's clinic. "We have no idea if anything she told Alex was true." Julia persisted. She knew that despite evidence to the contrary; this idea of allying themselves with Sekhmet seemed to be pure foolishness. Almost as foolish as believing that the former warrior goddess who had once been the most dangerous enemy the seven had faced was now telling them the truth about Laurel's capture of them.

"Alex believed it." Inez said simply, feeling her patience wearing thin with Julia's objections. Of course she understood the reason for Julia's apprehension because Inez felt it herself most prolifically at the moment. As she glanced at Sekhmet who was walking ahead of them, her movements though graceful, reminded Inez of Chris Larabee when the gunslinger was about to ride out and shoot someone full of holes. She kept referring to the quest to retrieve the men as a hunt and Inez could not deny that Sekhmet moved like a hunter.

"Maybe she tricked Alex into doing the same thing." Julia returned suspiciously. They had just stopped at Audrey's where Inez had explained the situation and left Elena Rose in the care of the school teacher who promised that no harm would come her little daughter. Just to be safe Rain had offered to stay with the lady for the time being and it was an offer that Audrey was more than happy to accept since as her connection to Josiah put her in danger as well.

"Maybe she concocted that entire story just to get Alex to become Isis." Julia concluded.

"I lied to no one." Sekhmet suddenly stopped walking and turned around to face Julia and her objections. She had heard the comments uttered by Julia and although she was hardly threatened by them, did wish to stop this debate because she tired of it and it was distracting them from the hunt. "I require her assistance to rescue my mate and my children. The girl," she glanced at Casey, "has some value in what we are about to embark. However, you two are too accustomed to being protect by your males to be able to defend yourself with any efficiency. I can protect you if need be but I cannot do so and be expected to rescue my mate and yours as well."

"Like you protected Ezra?" Julia demanded, unable to get past the grievous wounds that Ezra had suffered and the nightmares that he had been forced to endure after that brutal experience at this creature's hands.

Sekhmet showed no signs of remorse but rather impatience. "The Goa'uld Sekhmet did much wrong and to your lover, there will no apology that will ever remove the stain of the crime against him. However, the Sekhmet who committed that atrocity to your mate was insane. I am not. I am her but I am also Mary and I will protect even you in reacquiring my children and my chosen. Perhaps what ought to concern you is your mate's effect on Isis."

Julia blinked. "What?"

"It was not I who committed the greatest violation against your lover, it was Isis." Sekhmet returned with a hint of cruelty and just plain annoyance.

"Okay that's enough," Inez quickly spoke up, suddenly realizing that they were on the edge of a very volatile subject and at the moment this was not the time or the place to discuss it. "We have to go."

"No," Julia was not about to be deterred. "What did Isis do to him?" She demanded, glaring at Sekhmet and refusing to back down with a will almost as powerful as the warrior goddess's own.

"Isis required Jaffar and to do that she had to reproduce. She took him of course." Sekhmet said almost with a hint of pleasure before turning on her heels to leave Julia with that piece of information. Inez and Casey exchanged weary glances of how they ought to handle this situation while Julia reeled from the news.

"You mean Alex and Ezra..." Julia stammered.

"No," Sekhmet turned around once more. "Not Alexandra Styles, Isis. Isis took your lover. He had not choice in the matter, neither did Alex."

Well that explained it then, Julia thought to herself. She had suspected something like this for awhile now. She knew it had something to do with Alex's time as Isis but until now, it had not been confirmed as fact. She had noticed the awkward silences, their reluctance to be anywhere near each other when the others were not present. She felt jealous and angry but then she remembered what Sekhmet had said. Isis not Alex. Alex loved Vin Tanner, she was willing to become a slave to the creature who had used her body to kill her husband once and seduce a friend in order to get him back. Julia wanted to feel justified in her anger but had she had been in the same circumstances herself once with Alex and at least Alex could confess to some alien creature utilizing her body, what excuse did Julia have?

"You okay?" Inez asked, part sympathetic and part furious at both Julia for provoking Sekhmet and Sekhmet for telling her.

"Yes," Julia nodded, more surprised at her ability to take such news. "I am actually. If she loves Vin so much to let that thing inside her again to get him back, then she must know what she's doing. I've got to believe that now."

Inez nodded in understanding, having come to that conclusion long before this. Of course with Julia, it always required a little more effort. Inez would have preferred convincing Julia had taken a different route than the one Sekhmet had chosen but its effectiveness could not be denied. No doubt when this was all over there would be some discussion as to what had taken place between Ezra and Alex but for the moment, Inez was more interested in getting the seven back. The details could wait until everyone was safe and sound.

While Inez had been dropping Elena Rose at Audrey's and explaining the situation to Rain and the schoolteacher, Julia, Sekhmet and Casey had gone to the Emporium. The gun section of the establishment had more than a decent variety of weapons and though Sekhmet had snorted in disgust at the primitive implements she was forced to use, had none the less taken an ample supply. With horses saddle and waiting, there was only one thing left for them to do before they would embark upon the journey to Forbes and that was collect Alexandra Styles

"You think she went through with it?" Casey asked in an effort to change the subject, having been explained the situation by Julia while they had been preparing the horses to ride. The young girl had scarcely believed what was told to her but somehow, she could not believe that any of what she had been told was a lie. Something in their eyes and perhaps in the way JD himself had behaved following these events had given Casey a clue to the validity of the tale she had been told. She could see it in his eyes and had assumed it had something to do with the seven's private business which Casey had not been presumptuous enough to pry into.

The idea of allowing another mind to have control of your body was more than Casey could believe but at least she understood now why Alex had appeared so frightened. If she had to make a choice like that, Casey would be frightened herself. However, it only proved how brave Alex was and how much she loved Vin if she intended to make a sacrifice like that.

"I know she did." Inez replied, her voice sounding hollow as she remembered the terrible fear in Alex's eyes as well as the resignation that there was no escape from the choice she had to make.

"You fear over nothing." Sekhmet said confidently. "Your Alexandra will still exist just as I feel Mary inside me now. "The knowledge Isis has in her mind will be of the greatest use for us. She was in her time most exceptional."

"She was a murdering psychopath." Julia retorted.

"You would be hard to find a Goa'uld who is not that way." Sekhmet replied. "However, Isis was a System Lord, perhaps second only to Ra in power. Her intellect far exceeded his and for a time she was worshipped across your world by nearly culture in existence. She was the Goddess of All, the queen mother and a healer. She was also a great warrior and that is what we will need when we begin track the enemy."

"Her name is Laurel Chase," Inez responded.

Sekhmet turned a cold eye on Inez. "For taking my children, her name is all I leave intact when we meet."

They arrived at the front door of Alex's clinic in time to see it swing open. All four women paused as Alex emerged through the doorway. Like Mary, she had discarded the long skirt and petticoats she had been wearing and was now clad in a pair of comfortable pants that Inez recognised as belonging to Vin. Instead of a belt, she had used one of Vin's scarves to hold up the garment and was wearing a plain crisp white shirt that was tucked in. She had discarded her delicate slippers and put on a pair of work boots normally worn by women who worked on the land. Inez knew that Alex opted for this as her footwear whenever she was required to ride out to her patients on farms and homesteads.

"Alex," Inez asked gingerly as the woman stood before her them, saying nothing. "Are you alright?"

Alex met her gaze just as her eyes began glowing with eerie light that sent a shudder of fear through everyone except Sekhmet when the corner of Alex's lips curled into a smile.

"We are fine."

Part Three: The Hunt

Chris did not know how long he was unconscious but when he was finally able to pull himself from the darkness, he knew instantly that they were all in serious trouble indeed.

Where he woke up reminded him of a drunk tank he had once occupied in Silver City after a night of indulgence where causing a stir in the saloon had necessitated a visit to the local jail. Like the jailhouse in Four Corners and many small towns scattered around the Territory, the cell he had now found himself was an enclosure surrounded by bars, sharing the same floor with a number of other such constructs, up and down the length of a corridor on either side. Chris sat up from the musty smelling mattress he had found himself upon regaining consciousness and immediately studied his surroundings.

"Mr Larabee," Ezra Standishís voice spoke through the clearing fog in his head. "Glad you could join us."

Ezra was occupying the cell directly opposite his own across the corridor. Seeing him there made Chris look instinctively about for the others. Everyone was present and accounted for, all neatly tucked away in their own cells, kept in separate cages but nonetheless tantalised by the idea of escape since they were all together. It was just like Laurelís way to keep a glimmer of hope in sight even though she had probably had an army behind the doors of their prison, hidden away until the attempt at flight was made. Still, it did not mean Chris was not going to try. Even though he had yet to see their captors, Chris had no doubt that it was Laurel who was the bottom of this. The manner of their incarceration harkened back to the days when he had been her creature, trapped in a barred enclosure not unlike the one he was presently occupying, although back then his cell had been a damn sight more pleasing to the eye.

Judging by Ezraís grimace as the gambler examined his present accommodations, Chris supposed that the man would not have minded so much if they had been afforded that previous luxury. However, luxury seemed in short supply and the walls that were not barred were made for thick stone and mortar with a dank smell of age and stale air wafting through the place. The dust on everything seemed to indicate that this was not a functioning jailhouse and he would not have been surprised to learn that Laurel had probably purchased this place simply for them. This chilled Chris to the bone because this could mean they could be anywhere. With no idea how long they were out and no windows in the place to give any discernible idea of how much time had passed, Chris start to feel that same anxiety he felt when he had been Laurelís prisoner once before.

"Is everyone okay?" Chris called out, trying to see all of them through the bars of his cage and to most part he succeeded. Vin was in the cell directly next to his. Visibility was afforded only by the beams of light piercing through the small window on the door that led out of the corridor. The tracker was seated cross-legged on top of the mattress, keeping a vigil on all the others or perhaps, remaining poised for the moment when Laurel Chase made her entry which Chris and the other knew she inevitably would.

"So far." Vin drawled, showing no signs of concern even though Chris knew he ought to be worried. Very worried. Laurel had not hidden her disdain for him and now they were clearly in her power, Chris felt his insides knot with terrible foreboding about what the woman might do to his best friend.

"JDís still out of it." Buck volunteered from his corners of the cellblock. "I think heís okay." The older man cast a glance at JD who was still unconscious on his bunk.

"It might be the dosage," Nathan explained. "Whatever she hit us with was pretty strong stuff." The healer remarked, rubbing the back of his neck because he had been set down in an uncomfortable position by the captors during his slumber and had developed a slight crick there. "JDís the smallest of us so it might take a little longer to wear off."

"I don't think there is any particular need to wake the boy before time," Josiah remarked, his eyes moving across their present surroundings, studying everything closely. "After all, I'm sure he would not mind missing all this."

"Yes," Ezra said with a grin, the glint of his gold tooth gleaming in the semi-darkness. "These are certainly not one would call five star luxury accommodations."

Chris was so angry at himself he could barely think straight. Well wise up on that Larabee, Chris told himself sharply. That's what got you and your friends into this mess in the first place. Once again, he had underestimated her and now not only was he captured but all his friends as well and this time, there would be no cavalry coming to the rescue in the form of a determined tracker. This time, they were well and truly on their own.

"Has she shown yet?" Chris asked quietly, barely being able to stand referring to her, let alone speaking her name out loud. The memory of their last encounter still burned fresh in his mind and he glanced instinctively at Vin, remembering that terrible moment when a crack of gunshot had almost ended the younger man's life. He shuddered to think what Laurel might do to Vin now that they were helplessly caught in her web and decided that he would do anything to avoid that fate. Anything.

"Ain't seen her yet." Buck Wilmington replied, unable to deny that he had more than a passing curiosity to see what all the fuss was about. Of all the seven, he was the one who had yet to meet the woman face to face and was wondering if her professed beauty was all it was supposed to be or were the others merely exaggerating.

"We haven't been up for long Chris," Nathan responded. "Not more than an hour, all of us."

Chris nodded in understanding. "Any idea what she hit us with?" He asked after a moment, still feeling some lethargy in his limbs but he knew that if required, he could shake it off easy enough.

"I can't say," Nathan retorted. "She got us with a blow pipe." He shook his head, still possessing some measure of disbelief at how they had been apprehended. Even though he was a healer, he had suspected the attack to have come from more conventional means and yet if Laurel wanted them taken a live; it was the most effective method. As was proven by the presence of all of them in this room. "Might be laudanum but I can't be sure."

Suddenly the wail of a child sounded over the stillness of the somber mood and Chris Larabee froze inwardly because he knew that cry all too well.

"Oh Jesus Christ!" Chris turned ashen as he scrambled to his feet and ran forward only to be halted by the bars that made up his cage. The intense reaction of fear was not lost upon all of them and stirred Vin from his corner of the cell as he looked at Chris's terror, realizing that the sound though not familiar could only have that effect on their leader if it was from one source.

"What is it Mr Larabee?" Ezra jumped to his feet, feeling the tension that had been coursing through his body suddenly snap like elastic upon seeing the cold terror inside Chris' eyes.

"Its Mikey!" Chris shouted in response. "That's my son!"

"Oh God!" Nathan exclaimed and the commotion brought JD out of his slumber with a sudden upright motion as he scrambled to his feet in order to investigate what it was that terrified the man in black to such extremes.

"What's going on?" He asked groggily, trying to keep abreast of things even though his entry into this situation was late.

"Its impossible! Mikey's at home with Mary!" Buck exclaimed, trying to calm Chris down from across the corridor by convincing him of this. He had only seen Chris like this once and that was the moment they had seen the smoke rising from the house on the Larabee property. Buck prayed that this time, they would not find the same thing they had found during that ill fated journey home.

"Its Mikey!" Chris shouted, pressed up against the bars, knowing his son's wails after so many nights being awaken to the sound of his crying because of morning feedings or any other reason an infant may chose to bring his parents running. How many times had that plaintive wail pierced through the veil of a particularly fitful sleep? More than enough times for Chris to know that the child approaching, crying its tears was his own flesh and blood.

The door swung open as Chris came to that horrified conclusion and when it did, the gunslingers worst fears were confirmed upon seeing Laurel Chase walking into the passage between the cells with Mr Zhang behind her, holding Billy's hand while she cradled Mikey in her arms. Chris thought his heart might burst just seeing his two sons in the hands of such a dangerous creature that the idea of where Mary might be had not even occurred to him. Around him, the rest of the seven were standing next to the bars, watching with as much shock and dismay at the sight of the two children who seemed just as trapped and helpless as they were.

"Chris!" Billy exclaimed upon seeing him. Not even Zhang's powerful grip on his hand could keep the boy from wrenching free from the imposing Oriental and crossing the floor to reach his stepfather.

"Billy!" Chris wanted to hold the boy, to reassure him that things were not so bleak but by his presence here, that was an obsolete gesture. Things were very bad and there was not a thing that he could do to change that. "Goddamn you Laurel!" He glared at her as she approached him, dressed impeccably as always, wearing that damn smirk on her face that told him without doubt that she had something more powerful than venom which she could use to manipulate him. "They're just kids!"

"Hello Chris." Laurel spoke through the tears of Mikey between them. "You had a lovely family."

Had.

Chris did not miss that ominous word and knew that it had been spoken with intention. "You got me Laurel," Chris said trying to rein his fear, trying to make it work for him. As he saw the most unimaginable situation unfolding before his eyes, Chris reminded himself that a little bit of fear was a healthy thing. A little fear was what kept a smart man alive because he was working just that little bit harder to get by. "Let them go."

"Why Chris," she turned to him with a smile as Zhang came forward and dragged Billy away from the cell. "They just got here."

The boy struggled and cried for his stepfather as thick hands forcibly removed his small fingers from around Chris' outstretched hand. As Billy fought to stay by his side, Chris looked up at Laurel, finally realizing that he had no qualms about killing should he ever be put to the test. He was ready to tear out her throat.

"Chris!" Billy shouted as Zhang pulled him away.

"You bitch!" Vin snarled just as angrily from where he was, watching Chris almost decimated by the sight of his children in the hands of the most vile creature they had ever had the misfortune of coming up against. "Are you that much of a coward that you got to steal a man's children?"

Laurel Chase turned to Vin Tanner and exuded a serpentine smile. "Mr Tanner. How nice to see you. We will talk later." Her eyes narrowed as she looked upon him through feline slits that sent a cold shudder through everyone who bore witness to it. "For the moment however, I am rather surprise that you would be reduced to name calling. After all, it was my men who brought the children to me. In truth I had no interest in Chris' two darling boys."

Mikey had settled down now and Laurel gazed into the small face with what was almost an affectionate smile. "He is beautiful." She commented as she raised her eyes to meet Chris, while still rocking Mikey gently in her arms. "And if you do not mind me saying so, all you."

Chris watched without being able to adequately express what it felt like to be barred from his children while Laurel carried his infant son and Zhang kept Billy close to him. The young boy stared at Chris pleading for his stepfather to help and the well of disappointment that screamed its anguish inside the depths of Chris' Larabee soul was ready to die just to remove that fear from Billy's eyes. For the first time in his life, Chris found himself doing the unimaginable.

"Laurel," Chris swallowed bile down his throat. "Please, don't hurt them."

There was a hint of surprise in her eyes that he would succumb to that final desperate act. Something flicked across her face, something that could almost be considered decent. "It was not my intention Chris to harm them." She said soberly and Chris knew in that much at least, she was sincere. "I am many things but I do not murder children and," she paused as she looked him in the eye and added something that was almost difficult to respond. "I am sorry about Mary."

Chris' eyes widened.

Oh God, please no. He whispered inside himself. "What...about...Mary?" His voice started to quiver because he could see it in Laurel's eyes what she was trying not to say. His fingers dug into the bars as he begged for gods he no longer believed in for Laurel to be lying to him. Chris had never begged for anything in his life but he was begging now.

"It was an accident." Laurel answered quietly. "I had intended my men to bring her. The serum should have made her more manageable. She had a bad reaction to it and went into some form of cardiac arrest. She dead was in less than a minute."

Chris Larabee said nothing.

He stared at her, eyes blackening with each word spoken, hearing through the roar of wind in his ears that his children were in her care and whilst they were in his care, he ought to reconsider the folly of taking his revenge. She had won the game, Chris heard her say. It was not a clean victory but she had won. She would disappear, she said and perhaps someday soon, when she felt that he was not behind her in pursuit, she might release Billy and Mikey back to him again. For the moment, he and his friends would remain her guests, for things were not completely done between them, not until she played out her advantage just a little longer.

After all, the winner did have the right to savor the taste of victory.

Chris heard the words but they made no sense to him. He saw Vin staring at him, face etched in sorrow and sympathy, trying to understand as Vin always managed to do but not this time. This time, he left the tracker far behind for where he was going, Vin could not follow or ride alongside of him. He heard Buck saying out loud that she was lying that this was a trick. Other platitudes followed, they could have come from Josiah or JD, the ability to distinguish them was no longer his. His mind was filled with Mary, golden hair cascading her shoulders, fire in her eyes as she rode off to face whatever was thrown before her, oblivious to anything but her own courage. She had brought light into his soul, aimed sunshine into a dark and desolate place and now that she was gone, he could feel it inching back, preparing to consume him.

"No." Chris said after a moment.

"No Chris?" Laurel looked at him, unaware that he had heard nothing that she had said.

"No deal."

"You are unaware of your situation."

"No," Chris shook his head and glared at hers. "You are unaware of yours." He responded in a voice so cold that everyone felt it, even Zhang and he took a step toward his mistress even though he knew the man making the threat could not penetrate the iron bars of his cell to be of any danger to her.

"I have your children...." She started to say.

"My children understand that if you've killed their mother, I will kill you. There ain't no bargaining Laurel. I will find a way out of here and the first words I say to them when I get them back will be that I ripped your fucking heart out and ate it just after I pissed in the empty sockets of that ape behind you!" He hissed.

Laurel shuddered inwardly and turned to Zhang, rather taken back by the expression of concern she saw in the Oriental's eyes. Normally her trusted bodyguard wore a look of indifference to all things about him. Threats did not frighten Zhang but he looked worried as he stared at the man in black, who suddenly appeared to make the room darker just by that gleam in his eyes.

"I think we will come back when you are more reasonable," Laurel said as she started to withdraw perhaps rather disturbed by the turn of the game. She was trying to maintain that cool facade but for once, it was shaken.

Vin Tanner could see that Chris had evaporated some place inside himself that none of the seven could reach and it was starting to occur to Laurel that she had crossed a line one should never attempt with Chris Larabee. Once gone, it could not be retraced and there was no forgiveness, only the complete assurance of doom. Vin doubted even he could reason with Chris now and if this bitch had done what she said, if she had allowed Mary Larabee to die, then Vin wanted to see her burn just as surely as he knew that Chris would annihilate her for that crime.

"Laurel," Chris responded, watching her take Mikey and Billy with her. Billy was still weeping because he understood what Laurel had said about his ma and was in no position to offer any struggle. Chris wanted to hold him, wanted to will some of his strength into his oldest but everything inside him was being swept into this singularity of rage that was preparing to collapse everything about him in its need for satisfaction. "If you hurt my children, I won't kill you because you'll be happy do it yourself by the time I'm done with you."

Laurel and Zhang swept out of the room, feeling the sting of his words follow them even when they had put suitable distance between themselves and Chris Larabee.

"Well my lady," Zhang remarked, as they walked away, both saying nothing for a long time after they had left the cells. "It appears that I was right."

"How so?" Laurel said still cradling the babe in her arms. The boy was listless and still weeping and while she did not feel remorse for what she had done, she had not wished the escalation of their game until this point. His wife had been a tool, an instrument to be used against him, not as cannon fodder. She had not intended the lady to die knowing that in doing so, the dark potential she had seen in Chris Larabee would not merely be exploited but would transcend something she was uncertain she could with.

"I once told you about waking the dragon while stumbling into the dark." Zhang glanced over his shoulder at the cell he could no longer see through the locked door that led into the dungeon they had just emerged. "It appears we have stumbled loudly but it is not a dragon we have awakened."

"It isn't?" Laurel looked at him, having no patience after what had just taken place and snorted derisively. "What did we wake then?"

Zhang turned to her and stared into her eyes. "Hell."

**********

Julia had never been to this place before but she knew of it well enough.

Beyond them, the evidence of what transpired here was clear to those who knew the tale behind this scene of destruction. Large tracts of earth had collapsed upon itself, leaving great rips in the ground, all in a strange circular patterns, rings upon ring extending outward until the epicentre had withered away with the cessations of tears in the earth. It was almost a crater but not quite. Loose soil still covered much of the area even though the rain had battered much of it into a sedimentary layer of sorts. The rest was shifted around by wind whenever a dust storm took to the area, which was not an uncommon happenstance in the harsh New Mexico landscape.

She shuddered inwardly as she saw Mary and Alex in the distance, searching the ground for some way through the wreckage of boulders, sand and earth. Julia Pemberton shuddered because it was not Mary and Alex moving purposefully before them but rather Isis and Sekhmet. She looked at Isis and knew that while it was Alexís face they were being presented with, the eyes were different. They belonged to someone in masterful control of herself almost to the point of extreme egomania. Julia had no doubt that neither Isis nor Sekhmet had not lied when they claimed that Ezra and the others were retrievable. It gave her hope to know that he could be saved from the insanities of Laurel Chase.

However, that did not change the fact that Julia still hated Isis with a passion.

He had changed when he came back from the nightmarish hell of that other world. He did not speak much about it but she had seen it in his eyes. Although the change was slight and outwardly no one but her noticed it because Ezra was more than capable of hiding from everyone how he felt, she could see that there was the sparkle in his eyes was a little more lacklustred than she remembered. Was she angered that he and Alex been intimate during that period when Alex had been enslaved by Isis? No, not really. She was hardly as saint and in all the time since and before, he had never given her reason to be concerned over such matters. Alex did not seem any happier then Ezra was about the situation and Julia knew that Alex adored Vin to much to ever view that intimacy as anything but an event she would rather forget.

"What are they are doing?" Inez inquired as she watched the two women cautiously shifting through the dirt underfoot in search of their goal.

"Theyíre trying to find a way in." Julia responded automatically, having heard the argument for this already.

In the distance, the sun had peeked over the horizon and the morning sky was upon them. Although Sekhmet was unhappy about the delay, Isis had been adamant about coming to this place. The former Goddess of All had claimed they were in no shape to take on Laurel and her men if they were to rescue the seven, not without significant readjustment to the odds they faced. Although Julia despised the former Goaíuld personality, she could not deny that any advantage they could get was a good one.

"Into what?" Casey inquired following her response.

"Into the place where the gate is." Julia answered.

"I forgot about the gate," Inez remarked, recalling the ill fated archaeological expedition that had unearthed the bunker and found the mysterious ringed portal that allowed Buck and the others to travel one world to another.

So had everyone else about the place, Julia thought silently to herself even though at the time the find had inspired a great deal of attention. Most people believed that an earthquake had killed the team and the seven had never saw any reason to alter that perception. There had been some interest in recovering the bodies but such thoughts soon withered away when the recovery team had seen the extent of the damage. Tonnes of rock had collapsed upon itself in one terrible instant and bodies if there were any would be well and truly in no state for the viewing or burying for that matter, even if the time and expense were spent in their retrieval.

She knew that the seven did not come here either, not unless they had to which would only come about if they were required to pass by this place to get somewhere else. She knew for a fact that they did not stop on those rare occasions. Julia could understand that well enough. Even though it was hidden well from the sight of those present, the place still felt like a tomb.

"I canít see why weíre wasting time here." Casey declared and expressed in her annoyance all the qualities that had made Sekhmet deem that she was just the right person to accompany them on this dangerous quest.

"Isis wouldnít go until she even the odds," Julia retorted dryly, wishing she knew by what the lady meant when she made that statement.

********

"There." Sekhmet pointed towards a narrow fissure in the pile of rocks directly overhead the main body of what would have been Isisí enclave left behind on the world of TauíRi. The space was barely wide enough for a woman to slip through let alone a man but Sekhmet knew with confidence that she could traverse the path to reach the innards of the ruined remains of what was once Isisí temple. "Its narrow but I believe that we should be able to enter through there."

"It will have to do." Isis nodded in understanding and as always allowed Sekhmet to take the lead as the woman crouched over and began the descent into the darkness.

"I still say we should have begin our journey. We have wasted considerable time waiting for light in order to undertake this distraction." Sekhmet complained as her head cleared the low bearing roof of the orifice and manoeuvred her body into the narrow passage.

Isis did not take Sekhmetís offensively, mostly because she was accustomed to such complaints from the Warrior Goddess. Sekhmet was an impatient sort, eager to enter the hunt but had no stomach for the preparation that was required before proceeding. In the past, there was no need for her to worry about such things as being adequate supplied but things had changed considerably. Neither Sekhmet nor Isisí herself was anything like what they once were. "The delay is necessary." She said simply as she followed Sekhmet down the meandering path through the earth. Their course was extremely narrow and in some instance required them to force their way through, stone scrapping at their shoulders as they pushed through the cramped space.

"We are not what we used to be." Isis continued her explanation. "We are the remains of what once was. Displace and disembodied. We died somewhere and what is left of our existence is here in these bodies. Even our minds are not what they were; we have the memory but not even the personality. Our sense of self is almost gone, all we feel is what the host feels and, all we will ever be is what the host is. Even if we chose to go as we wish, even if we can overcome the personality that grips us, we have nowhere to go. The Chapaii is lost to us. Even we could use it, the Goaíuld would kill us on sight for being an abomination, that is if they do not find it more amusing to use us as host bodies aware that they trap not only the host mind but that of Isis and Sekhmet. No," Isis let out a weary sigh as they continued deeper and deeper into the darkness, leaving the morning sky behind them in their descent. "This is where we will stay and if it means living in this scant fashion. It will have to be enough."

"You paint a most desolate picture." Sekhmet responded, clearing away a large rock in her path by shunting it backwards, which Isis did the same when it reached her. "I prefer to think of the hunt."

"You always were more optimistic than I." Isis smiled with a wry smile. "But then you are still a child."

"By your reckoning," Sekhmet glanced over her shoulder. "I will always be a child."

They continued forward a little longer, saying nothing in the journey but nonetheless feeling the heavy weight of things as they stood. The heat of the morning sun began to mist on their skin the further they entered the rocky tunnel. Sometimes there was room to move, other the space was so confining that they could hardly breathe but continue they had to.

"Do you remember Isis," Sekhmet asked suddenly, mostly to have something to occupy their mind during the journey. "How we died?"

"No," Isis said stiffly. "I remember the Hammer of Thor on Sumeria and seeing the Unas." She paused as she searched through the swirling images, trying to distinguish what was her memory and what were the hostís. "I remember my consort bringing me to the threshold and then there was pain. It was my last memory."

"Cast out like parasite." Sekhmet nodded, revisited by the memory of seeing the Goaíuld Isis ejected from the body, feeling the paralysing fear of knowing that the end had come after almost two millennia. "I would have liked a warriorís death."

"You were not a warrior by then Sekhmet," Isis retorted. "You were ill and the soul of you was burned to madness during our imprisonment. You were quite insane."

"A mad warrior," Sekhmet shuddered inwardly, understanding why those memories were so difficult for the host to access. Only as Sekhmet and the mind of Mary Larabee to anchor her, could she remember and knew that there was no sport in the killing she had done. "I think I share the hostís disgust in that."

"Much of us in contaminated," Isis remarked as they neared the end of the long passageway and appeared to be on the brink of a larger cavern. Hopefully one with more room to move, she thought as she wiped the sweat and dirt from her face. "We cannot be certain of anything we feel for that which is our soul is gone. Our soul, the one we think is ours is in truth the hostsí, silenced by our memories. Our re-emergence as such is an illusion, induced by behavioural modifying narcotics."

Sekhmet was about to respond when suddenly, they reached the end of the cramped tunnel that lead into the darkness of a larger cavern. Sekhmet emerged first because she was used to hunting in her dark and her eyes more accustomed to the lack of light than Isis. She felt gravel crunch underfoot and knew that they were somewhere in the heart of the bunker. What she felt under her shoes was debris, not rubble. Reaching into her pocket, she extracted the matches that she had brought with her and immediately struck it. It was not much in the way of light but the narrow fissure had not allowed them to bring anything more useful for the purpose.

The dim light from the match illuminated something of the cavern they had emerged into. As expected, the bunker was almost complete destroyed with done of blockages obstructing the paths leading to the other sections of the complex. However, much of the facility had been constructed below ground level and Isis knew that a great portion of it would remain intact. Of course, this assurance meant little if they could not penetrate the upper floors, which had endured the brunt of the explosion to reach it. The first thing they noticed was the destruction of the Chappaii. The sarcophagus that would have provided them with years of life was similarly destroyed, the cover stone having shattered when the ceiling had come down.

While there was still standing room when they emerged, it ran out as soon as Sekhmet led the way to the rest of the complex. She tossed another exhausted match into the darkness and replaced it a fresh new one, until they were trails red embers dying in the black as they progressed further into the chamber. It seemed to take forever to past through all the fallen blocks of naquada, the strange alien mineral that formed much of Goa'uld technology. The air inside the place was thin and musty and both women recoiled at the stench of stale air, reminded too much of their incarceration by the Nefertem.

Finally, they arrived at the place for which they had begun this arduous trip into the wreckage of Isis' temple. It was in the most heavily guarded section of the facility and by extension, also the best protected. The armory was meant to survive an all out assault by Goa'uld mothership and so even the formidable explosives provided by the Tau'Ri from the future had not been capable of penetrating this one enclave. Isis and Sekhmet were realistic about what they could and could not take with them. As much as they would like to have armed themselves with terrible weapons that would make short work of the enemy, they still had to leave this ruined monument to their deification and that journey would be simpler without too many bulk weapons.

Isis searched through the cache of weaponry the seven and the future travelers had never discovered, finding quickly what she sought. The weapon of choice for Goddess of all, fit neatly around her hand, like a gold serpent coiled through her fingers, culminating in a powerful blue stone in the center of her palm. Isis stared for a moment at the scar that had thinned into a faint white line when her mate had once pierced with a knife in order to subdue her for the trip to the Hammer. That was a different Isis, she realised, one that was not human but a Goa'uld System Lord who was used to killing, who cared for nothing and did not feel this constant ache inside her soul that yearned in worry and love for the mate that imperiled.

Sekhmet however was not so restrained. The former warrior goddess had collected herself a neat cache of small arms that would not be too cumbersome for the arduous journey back. Among the arsenal, Sekhmet had collected several weapons of the type Isis recognised immediately to be Zat'nuk'atel blasters. She found herself a small satchel in which to store these prizes before slinging it over her shoulder. "It's for the others." She responded. "Their means of protecting themselves are next to meager. The girl Casey might be useful but not the other two."

"Defense can come in more ways than simple hand to hand combat Sekhmet," Isis remarked, not about to discount their human companions. It was not their fault that they were a product of this primitive period in time. Even when she had occupied this domicile, the women of the Tau'Ri did not gain much in the way of equality and were still regarded as chattel. Though all Goa'uld say the Tau'Ri as merely host bodies, Isis could not deny that she abhorred the prejudice. While the status of women were better than what they used to be, they had not improved that much.

"This is what I seek." Sekhmet exclaimed when she found what she had shifted through the disarrayed collection of weaponry. The staff weapon glimmered even through the dim light of the glow torch they had found and snapped into operation. The charge would last no more than an hour but it was enough time to provide them with the illumination that they needed without having to resort to using the matches Sekhmet had brought with them. Besides, Isis could not help feeling a little concerned at the staleness of that air and the thin layer of oxygen that could not be wasted attempting to feed a flame.

"You'll never get that back to the surface." Isis said dubiously as she saw Sekhmet examining the weapon closely.

"I will manage." Sekhmet said barely registering the comment as she ran her eyes over the weapon, ensuring that nothing was damaged and that it was functioning property. Twisting the handle, the bulbous head snapped open, revealing the blue glow of its energy crackling in readiness to fire and deliver ugly death to whomever dared to confront it. With smile, she looked up Isis and replied. "It still functions."

"Excellent," Isis answered with a smile, having no desire to deny Sekhmet her prize. "If you can get it to the surface, it will be of great use to us."

"I will get it up there," Sekhmet grinned. "Rest assured, if nothing else I will accomplish that much." With that her eyes drifted to the staff weapon once more. "This will bring my children back to me."

"Yes," Isis nodded, knowing what it was to feel protection towards offspring. She was a Queen Goa'uld and from her, thousands of her kind had been hatched. She had felt them grow inside her body, nurturing them and strengthening them until they were finally able to leave her and become gods in their own right. "We will find them and then we will teach she who dared to take them what real vengeance is all about."

"I will kill her myself if she has harmed either my children or my mate." Sekhmet growled, her eyes glowing through the darkness and Isis knew that it was the host's emotions that were running rife through Sekhmet now. It was the host mind who had possession of the Goa'uld aspect of itself, the irony was not lost upon Isis.

"Sekhmet," Isis responded just as coldly. "In the end, the greater revenge is not to kill but to let live and I promise you when we are done with she who is called Laurel Chase, she will live a very long time indeed."

*********

Returning back to the surface was no easy feat with the staff weapon but Isis could not dissuade Sekhmet to be content with merely the use of the Zat'nuk'atel weaponry. The Warrior Goddess was satisfied with nothing less than her most favourite weapon of choice and having found it again, was not eager to depart with it. Despite the extra time taken to get back to the others, the journey back had not been as tedious as their initial venture into the destroyed bunker mostly because they were familiar with what lay ahead of them. With no surprise to either of them, they were able to make good time despite the hindrance of navigating through the meandering passage with the staff weapon in tow.

As soon as they made their appearance, Julia, Inez and Casey who had been waiting impatiently for their arrival rapidly approached them. It was well into the morning now with the sun soaring towards noon across the sky. Julia in particular was impatient to get started and her annoyance showed as they confronted the women who would under anything resembling normal circumstances would be viewed as friends and not as unknowns to be regarded with caution.

"What is that?" Julia asked seeing Sekhmet dusting off the grains of dirt accumulated upon the brass like surface of the staff weapon.

"This is the weapon of a warrior," Sekhmet said with obvious delight. "Now we may proceed towards Forbes."

"Wait," Isis remarked as the group started moving towards the horses. "Sekhmet," she regarded the younger goddess. "Give them the weapons and show them how to use it."

"Weapons?" Inez gulped. She did not like guns. She did not like them because they delivered the finality of death with shocking indifference. It made her shudder inside thinking that the variety that was at Sekhmetís disposal would be far more efficient than anything that she had ever laid eyes upon.

Sekhmet nodded in understanding and reached for the satchel slung around her shoulder. She produced the strange constructs that were made from a metal that was polished almost black and seemed curved in shape, so alien in design that it was almost impossible for the women she was attempting to instruct in its use, to associate it with being a weapon.

"Thatís a gun?" Casey exclaimed, her eyes widened in fascination as Sekhmet held the thing in her hand.

"Itís a weapon," Sekhmet corrected because this was not a crude firearm that functioned by expunging a projectile carried by the chemical reaction of gasses within the chamber. "However, itís effectiveness lies in the fact that it is not necessarily a fatal one."

"I donít understand." Inez looked at her in confusion. She liked the idea of there being some alternative to killing and wished for Sekhmet to explain with greater detail.

Sekhmet depressed the trigger on the weapon and immediately the Zat'nuk'atel mechanism clicked into operation, revealing its readiness for use. "When you use this weapon, you can fire once at a target and render them ineffective. It causes a great deal of pain so they will not be incapacitated for at least a few minutes. However, if in those few minutes, you are force to fire again. It will kill them. A third shot in that space time with disintegrate them."

"God." Julia whispered with a gasp.

"It would be best that we keep these weapons hidden until we begin our assault on the enclave of the enemy." Isis broke in and saw the fear in Juliaís eyes reflected on all the others as well. "We have more conventional weapons at our disposal and we should try and use them until we reach Laurel Chase."

"Good idea," Inez agreed with Isis on this point. "If we flash this things around before we get to them, weíll have every hombre in the Territory after us to get their hands on these weapons."

"That would be interesting," Sekhmet said with a smile, a glimmer of feral threat underneath the blue grey irises.

At the point more than any other, Inez could appreciate the insanity that Buck had told her about when they finally brought Mary home to Four Corners. She smiled as she made that statement and Inez felt a cold shudder of fear at the animal waiting to be unleashed on Laurel Chase. For the first time, Inez prayed that they reached the men and found them unharmed because God in his heaven would not be able to stop this creature before her, if it was discovered that anything had happened to Chris Larabee. Isis in contrast was a lot like Alexandra Styles even though to mention the same to the doctor who would have garnered a most extreme protest. However, with a less clouded mind than Julia who only saw Isis as the person who had harmed Ezra, Inez could see why Alex was so afraid of Isis.

They were a great deal alike.

While Sekhmet and Mary Larabee were poles apart, the similarities between Alex and Isis were striking. They were in their own way, women who had perfect control of their lives, who never let the situation outstrip their ability to handle it. When Vin Tanner had been taken to Tascosa, Alex had been distraught for a short time but when that emotional barrier had been breached, she acted quickly and moved into attack position. Though Buck did not like speaking about the events in Tascosa with any detail, Inez was made to understand that it was Alex who secured Vinís freedom not anything that the seven might have done.

Even now, Inez saw flashes of Alex in Isisí indifferent manner. It would be a slight nuance of expression, a shadow in the eyes but Inez did not fear so much their situation as Julia did because she knew that beneath Isisí commanding presence was Alexandra Styles laying in wait, watching quietly. Mary on the other hand had allowed Sekhmet almost complete control because she wanted Chris and her children back. Inez could not blame the newspaper editor for that. If someone had stolen Elena Rose out of her bed, Inez would move heaven and earth to reclaim her child and no one was more fiercely protective of Billy and Michael like Mary Larabee.

"Do we know anything about Forbes?" Inez asked as finally started towards the horses in order to begin their journey.

"I know that it's deep inside the Territory almost to the edge of the desert." Julia remarked having heard Ezra spoke about the place with a description that did not give it much to redeem itself in his eyes.

"Itís a little place." Casey volunteered. "A cousin of ours once passing through to the East from California said that his stage stopped there once. It ainít little more than a way station for the stage lines. Although this was a few years ago, so things might have changed."

"No I do not believe so," Sekhmet remarked climbing into the saddle. She positioned herself in the leather seat and took a moment, as she became accustomed to riding in such device. Her experience in horses was mostly regulated to chariots and in those days; it was customary for her to have a Jaffar driver. It had been virtually centuries, since she had ridden horseback. Sekhmet shook the distraction out of her mind and returned to the subject being discussed at present. Her host had more than enough memories about Laurel to know the enemyís pattern to some extent.

"I think that Forbes is as your cousin described Casey Wells," Sekhmet answered turning to the young girl who had also mounted her horse. "I think it remains small and discreet, the kind of place that a creature like Laurel Chase would be able to move about freely, without attracting undue attention. My host memories of her tell me that she prefers anonymity, to be assured of freedom to do what she wishes. Her predilections would go unnoticed in a place where it is wiser not to pay attention to what is happening around you."

"And Wallace County is less than two hours ride from there." Julia pointed out, having that much to contribute to the conversation. "If she ambushed the boys there, it was because she could get them back to her hideout without attracting to much information."

Isis did not speak for a moment, considering the situation as they prepared to ride, thinking about their attack and how it would be a complete surprise to the woman in more ways than one. For an instant, she hesitated to bring the realisation that had just dawned upon her in the last few minutes, knowing how Sekhmet now felt towards her mate. In truth, even when Sekhmet had been the Goaíuld symbiote, Isis had sensed something of an attraction to the male that was husband to Mary Larabee. No doubt, the remains of that affection in Sekhmetís memories, not to mention Maryís own love for her husband made for a powerful combination and her desire to have him back was stoked to such intensity that any added fuel could easily set into conflagration.

However, Sekhmet had a right to know and Isis had too much of Alexandra Styles in her veins to deny her that knowledge. "Sekhmet, I think your mate might believe you dead." She stated.

Her statement captured everyoneís attention immediately.

Sekhmet turned to Isis. Her expression was unreadable. "Explain yourself." Her voice felt like slivers of ice against the skin.

"The men who came for the host thought she had died. Indeed the woman, who found you and brought your situation to my host, believed the same thing. If those men took your offspring and brought that news to the enemy then I have no doubt that she would have made light of it to your mate."

Sekhmet immediately felt a well of horror and anguish echo from deep inside the host. She could feel Mary gasping in fear almost as if it were a physical reaction. Immediately memories of he who was her husband emerged in her mind, flashes of a dry, sardonic smile, eyes that only came alive when he saw her and a soul so battered and bruised that even Sekhmet felt the need to assuage it anyway possible. How would he endure such news? How would he cope with knowing the one that he loved beyond life itself was dead?

"Oh my God," Inez exclaimed in the distant background. Her horror mirrored Sekhmetís thoughts. "Poor Chris!"

"It would destroy him." Sekhmet whispered softly, trying to keep the fear for her beloved out of her mind. She required focus for without it the hunt would die in its beginning right here and she needed to reach him, to let him see for herself that she was alive and not lost to him. For it was not the sorrow that she wished to save him from but rather the black rage that would consume him until he acquired the vengeance for the crime of her passing? He would do anything to see vengeance satisfied, risk anything, including his life. Sekhmet did not say that Chris Larabee knew how to hunt too, although he was a far different creature to her when it was his turn. She pursued for the sport but he hunted to the point of obsession. His was not to catch the opponent for the quick kill. His was to wear it down, to chase it through the fires of hell if need be, just for the satisfaction of watching the prey collapse in defeat to beg for its death, a death that would not be granted quickly or cleanly.

Even when she had been in her Goa'uld self, Sekhmet had recognised the predatory aspect of Chris Larabee's psyche. As a man, there was none so fearsome and it was odd kind of menace that he reflected to those around him. In some sense, it was strangely reassuring to be around someone who walked the line between good and evil with such precision and in other moments, it shuddered the soul to know what could emerge should that balance tip in favour one other than the other. Sekhmet had seen and relished but Mary watched closely, aware that her love offered equilibrium to the turbulent forces inside Chris. If he were to think that she was gone, that she had been killed by Laurel Chase then those precariously balanced scales would choose a side and both Mary and Sekhmet knew that it could not be good if Chris Larabee fell to the dark inside him.

She had no doubt that the death he delivered upon Lauren Chase for her life would accomplish his journey to the dark far more effectively than drug the woman may try to conjure up. Sekhmet had no intention of reaching Chris and finding her husband gone even if she found him alive.

*********

Mary was dead.

As Chris Larabee sat inside the cell where he had been delivered the news of his wife's death, not to mention the distant cry of his son held prisoner by Laurel Chase, he felt strangely disconnected. The words that she was dead seemed to echo in his mind and the clearer they became, the less real it felt. He knew eventually it would settle in, seep into his brain until he was forced to feel the loss but for the moment there was nothing, just this cold emptiness that reached from his heart and spread out in icy tentacles throughout his body. He knew he should weep his tears of sorrow. He knew he should feel something about Mary being dead. In the beginning, there had been denial, an insistence that would not allow him to believe that Laurel had told him the truth.

It was trick, he told himself. A trick to make him falter.

However, when he saw Mikey and Billy before him, something inside him broke through that illusion. The only way that Laurel could have claimed Mikey and Billy this way was to go through Mary. He had no doubt that Mary had fought hard to save her children. She would fight hard, he thought to himself. There was no woman with a fiercer determination to protect her own than Mary Travis Larabee and that included him. She would stand against God himself if it meant the safety of her children. Knowing that about his wife also told him that it would be over her dead body that anyone could take her children away from her, only seemed to add weigh to the truth of Laurel's words.

He thought of cascading gold hair and knew that he was only torturing himself. However, nothing could stop the tide of memories once he let down his guard enough to feel that loss and the well of pain that rose inside of him slammed into Chris Larabee and twisted him like a reed in the wind. Chris let out a desperate cry and slid to the floor against the bars of his cell. He heard Vin calling out to him, trying to reach him through his anguish but nothing would penetrate. Images flashed in his memory, hateful things that stab at him with each flash of colour. He remembered how it felt making love to her for the first time, the scent of her skin, the sound of her laugher, all things of her that he would never felt again.

Mary.....

"Chris!" Vin saw the gunslinger starting to sob into his hands.

Vin thought he had held up admirably but even the tracker could see the chinks that were forming in his armor. Chris knew he had put up a brave front for Laurel because he refused to let the lady see that she had delivered a mortal blow upon his soul. When Vin had heard the news, he felt it pierce his heart as surely it must have pierced Chris' although for the life of him, he could not imagine how Chris must be feeling. If he had lost Alex in the same terrible way that Chris had lost Mary then he could not confess to being in any better shape. The others were silent, except for Buck because they knew not what to say. How could they? Not even Vin understood it even though he recognised the desolation in Chris' eyes well enough.

"Chris," Vin tried desperately to reach the gunslinger whose body was shuddering in his efforts not to cry though everyone present knew that on some level, he was sobbing raggedly. "She could be lying." It was a vain hope because even Vin had believed Laurel when she had made her boast about Mary's death. Actually, in all fairness to the villainess, Vin truly believed her when she claimed that Mary's death had not been intentional. There was just enough trace of hesitation for there to be a ring of truth about her words.

"You don't believe that." Chris raised his eyes and Vin was taken back by the colour of them. Chris' eyes were black.

"Sure I do," Vin said and glanced at Buck, hoping the weight of a secondary voice would lend weight to his belief. "She was lying wasn't she Buck."

"Yeah Chris," Buck nodded but even the good natured man was incapable of injecting any real belief of his voice. Like Vin, he did not think the lady was lying and the fact that Laurel had the children was quite convincing evidence attesting to the fact. "She was lying through her teeth."

"What Mr Wilmington is trying to say," Ezra who was a better actor than Buck and had some idea of what Vin was trying to do, added his voice into the mix. "Is that the lady is known for her ability to deceive. We all know that it was mostly likely that cohorts of Miss Chase had been able to wrestle your children away from Mary. I seriously doubt that such men were ill bred enough to harm a woman attempting to defend her children. Miss Chase does not strike me as having patience for fools who would be that inefficient."

Vin gave Ezra a smile, thanking the gambler for mounting such a formidable attempt but as he stared at Chris, Chris with the dead eyes, seeing nothing and hearing even less, Vin knew that the effort was wasted. Wherever he was now, Vin could not reach him.

"She's gone Vin." Chris turned to the tracker for the first time, some hint of recognition filtering into his eyes.

"No she's not Chris," Vin tried again and he was just effected enough by the sorrow he saw in Chris' face, despite that impregnable wall of black in his eyes, to make this latest effort count for something. "Laurel is lying to you. She's trying to get to you by saying that Mary's dead. You know that."

"I might," Chris said listless, "if you didn't believe it either."

"I don't believe it," Vin forced himself to say, trying not to betray himself by the pain in his cobalt colored eyes. "I know she's alive Chris."

"Promise me something," Chris met Vin's eyes directly for the first time.

"Anything pard," Vin replied automatically, unable to deny Chris anything at this point. "You know that."

Chris nodded because he did know that much. If there was one thing he could rely upon, it was Vin Tanner's sense of honor and utmost loyalty. If Chris asked him to walk through fire, Vin would do it without complaint and gratefully because Chris was his friend.

"Take care of my children." Chris said softly as it dawned upon Vin what he meant.

"No...." Vin started to say. "Don't even think that."

"It's going to end with me and Laurel Vin," Chris Larabee said firmly. "This time I'm going to do it right. If it means me going with her, then that's how it will be but she will die. I swear upon what's left of my life, I am going to kill her."

As Vin stared into the dark pools of his eyes, he knew that Chris was going to do it.

Part Four Stirring up Trouble

Julia Pemberton prayed inwardly that they would be able to make it to Forbes without having to pause for a break in their journey. Julia could not say for certain whether or not the notion had crossed the minds of either Inez or Casey, but she knew bringing Isis and Sekhmet to a populated area where they were unknown was a bad idea from the very beginning. Unfortunately with Forbes being so deep inside the Territory and requiring them to cross some rather harsh terrain in order to reach it, it did not appear as if they had much of a choice.

Personally, Julia would have preferred to make this journey through a more civilised mode of transport, for instance, by train where comfortable and luxurious compartments were offered to ease the burden of travel or in a pinch, by stagecoach. Anything that did not require her to ride sidesaddle in this loathsome heat would have sufficed. Julia had come to the firm conclusion that this entire situation was intolerable and the undignified manner in which they were forced to travel was the topping on what was already proving to be a miserable situation. Despite the boasting by Sekhmet and Isis, Julia could not allow herself to believe that getting the men from the infamous Miss Chase was going to be all that easy.

They had been riding for several hours now and Four Corners was well and truly behind them. The sun too, was making its gradual descent and judging by the faint outline of the moon sharing its sky, Julia guessed that dusk was not too far away. The landscape surrounding them was charming in a brutal sort of way, tufts of green vegetation somehow surviving enough to find life in the gravel like soil. In the distance, the mountains offered a spectacular view that somewhat took the edge of the fact that they were travelling in what might be considered semi-desert terrain. Water was occasioned upon in rare water holes dug up by the Indians who knew where to look and puddles that survived the blistering heat that usually followed the rains.

Julia shuddered as she saw a scorpion taking a quick peak from behind the cool shade of the rock that was its home, in order to gauge whether or not the light vibration of hooves against the baked earth offered it any danger. Upon realising it did not, the creature disappeared once again and Julia wiped away another bead of sweat that was trickling down her moist brow. She wanted a drink badly but knew they had to conserve water until they got within acceptable limits of the next town, which was still more than an hour away still. She was trying to keep up with the others who were more accustomed than she was to travelling this way. Casey who was on horse back as much as she was on her feet was completely at ease while Inez, who seemed capable of adapting to anything, took a page out of Caseyís book and rode astride instead of sidesaddle, which made the journey pass somewhat smoother. Lord only knew what sort of riding experience Isis and Sekhmet had.

"It would be much simpler if you were to discard those cumbersome clothes and wear something sensible." Isis remarked, seeing Juliaís discomfiture. Julia was wearing travelling clothes, which included a riding cloak and the customary long skirt. In this heat it was more of a hindrance than anything else.

"I am fine." Julia said stiffly, not wishing any advice from that creature. Despite her attempts to remember that for the moment, they were all comrades in arms, Julia could not see past the fact that this woman had once enjoyed Ezraís body against his will.

"Suit yourself." Isis retorted indifferently, more than aware of the hostility behind her response.

Inez, deciding a change of subject was required, especially after noting the dislike in Juliaís voice in regard to Isis, spoke up quickly to bring them past the moment. "Isis, how did you find out about Mary, I mean Sekhmet." The Mexican swore under her breath because even though these two women looked like her closest friends, they were not and Inez could not help forgetting no matter how hard she tried.

"It was that new singer." Casey answered before Isis could.

"New singer?" Julia looked at her, not recalling that a lady with such a vocation had breezed into town recently but then local gossip tended to bore her so she was unsurprised by her lack of knowledge.

"Yes," Inez nodded, knowing of whom Casey spoke. "The Germans hired her for the hotel. The billboard says that she is the toast of New York. Although what I heard of her singing voice was not very impressive, she is pretty and her performances have been popular." Inez tried to hide the note of annoyance at the defection by some of the patrons from the Standish Tavern to the hotel since the new singer had started her tenure there. "Her name is Diana Belladonna."

"Belladonna?" Sekhmet remarked with a raised brow. "Is that not the name of lethal substance of some kind?"

"Yes," Isis answered automatically, being the authority in any age for this particular subject. "It comes from a plant I believe. Let us hope that the name contrasts the person herself."

"Sheís very pretty," Casey commented, having seen Miss Belladonna on the street since her arrival in Four Corners. Casey recalled a woman in the kind of finery she often saw worn only by Julia Pemberton and had to confess to being somewhat in awe when she had seen her. Diana appeared to be very much at ease in such clothes, even though Casey was always her most comfortable in her work clothes.

"She has been turning heads since she came to town," Inez remarked with a frown, having seen her husbandís roving eye inadvertently drifting towards that direction when the lady had walked past one day. Fortunately, Inez knew that was as far as Buckís interest went these days. Although he was always hungry for an eyeful of female flesh, he was after all Buck Wilmington, he had been quite faithful to her and Inez was touched by his determination to remain so.

"Well entertainment people are usually meant to be an attractive lot," Julia added her own opinion in the matter although she herself had yet to meet the mysteriously named Diana Belladonna. "Still, I canít see what a chanteuse of any note would be doing in Four Corners. Itís hardly the most glamorous place to be."

"Four Corners is a lot bigger than it used to be." Casey immediately spoke up, defending the place that was her whole world.

"I know Casey," Julia said with a little smile. "I did not mean to infer that Four Corners was not deserving of a singer but usually, entertainment folk tend to gravitate towards larger towns like Eagle Bend and Silver City."

"Perhaps she does not wished to be found." Isis answered. "If I recall correctly, you came to Four Corners to start a new life and be forgotten by the old. I believe it could be the same for Miss Belladonna."

Julia tensed, feeling as if she was being baited, but wisely chose not to take up the gauntlet flung at her. She wanted Ezra back and getting into any kind of argument with Isis for past ills that could not be changed was pointless. Besides, she could not deny that Isis did not speak the truth. She had come to Four Corners to disappear and perhaps it was the same with Diana Belladonna. Still, strangers did not usually pick Four Corners as an arbitrary destination without good reason and a flash of insight, one that Julia could not explain, told Julia that Diana might be like her name indicated.

Dangerous.

********

The town they finally chose to spend the night was called Avon.

It was a small place, notable mostly for the fact that it was a popular watering hole from travellers on their way to California. During the days when California had first opened up, having passed from the hands of the Spaniards, there had been a rush to exploit the new resources of that coast and the trails across country had brought to life many towns like this one. As always, some stayed and some kept going, the desert swallowed some part of its and plain stubborn perseverance kept the rest from being forgotten. It now became the haunt of drifters moving across the Territory, outlaws on the way from one state or another or just about anyone who preferred the roving lifestyle of the West.

The five women rode into town and were immediately noticed. In the West, where men outnumbered women in figures that approximated somewhere in the region of twenty to one, this was not an unusual happenstance. Sekhmet was careful to keep her staff weapon hidden as best as she could, wrapping the object up in leather as she strapped it onto her saddle during the journey. The town consisted of no more than a few rooming houses, a hotel and one saloon. There was a general store at the corner of the beaten track that passed for the main street, with a blacksmith and livery sitting side by side at the edge of town.

"What a charming place." Julia could not help but comment as they rode through.

"Thatís one way to put it." Inez said with as much distaste although she was better at hiding it than Julia who was not bothering.

"It will do for one evening." Isis retorted even though she was not pleased herself. As a Goaíuld Queen, she had been accustomed to luxury and conveniences. The semi-primitive world in which the host lived was beyond her ability to tolerate for any length of time. She was actually surprised to admit that she would not be all that sorry to return to limbo of becoming watcher inside the host mind. At least, she would be spared the indignities of being female in this male dominated society that was as primitive in technology as it was in its thinking.

"I do not see what you find so distasteful," Sekhmet retorted. "All of you are too burdened by luxuries. This place though primitive has its possibilities." The warrior goddess turned an interest eye at the saloon. A hint of a smile crossed her face as she studied the place from which music emanated by means of a harpsichord that was clinking its worn tune inside the walls of the establishment. There were definitely evidence of lively activity emanating from within it and it Inez saw just how interested Sekhmet was in the place. It was interest enough to mean trouble in no uncertain terms.

"Donít even think about it." Inez declared firmly.

"To what are you referring?" Sekhmet turned her attention to the best friend of the host.

"Your idea of going into that place to stir things up." The Mexican replied automatically. She had been around enough men in the Standish Tavern to know which one was trouble and almost all of them had the same glimmer in their eye that Sekhmet was presently sporting. "Saloons are off limits to women. You go in there and I can guarantee you, you will be stirring up a hornetís nest."

"I am quite capable of taking care of myself Inez Wilmington." Sekhmet answered quite coolly and the confidence in her voice gave Inez no doubt of that reassurance. However, taking care of herself was not the point, calling attention to herself was.

"She is right Sekhmet." Isis lent support to Inezís argument. "We do not let the enemy know of our existence."

"I go there for the hunt." She responded, not to be deterred in any shape or form. "We have only what I heard to be certain that our destination is a correct one. At the time of hearing those men, I was in the thralled of the substance the enemy had infused in the host body. I would like to clarify what we believe to be true in that saloon. The enemy could not have absconded with an infant and a child without stopping here, if Forbes was indeed their destination. I will find out if they have been here."

"As much as I wary her decision," Isis turned to Inez. "She does have a point. It would be good to have confirmation that our course is a true one."

"Itís a bad idea." Inez retaliated. "Men donít like women in their saloons."

"I notice you seem to manage." Sekhmet quipped and drew a sharp look from the Goddess of All for her impertinence at speaking out of town when Isis was clearly in conversation with Inez. Although much of them both had changed considerably, Sekhmet was still conditioned to obey the Goaíuld hierarchy and could not ignore that Isis was still her queen.

"Thatís different." Inez returned hotly. "I am the bartender and manager. On that level they can accept my presence. If you say you have Mary inside you then you should know that Mary only came into the saloon when she had to and certainly never at night. It is not proper."

"It is a stupid rule applied to stupid men of this culture." Sekhmet grumbled, openly disgusted by the attitude. "Women are the child bearers, the giver of life. We nurture them as children, we wed them as men and we immortalise them in death by the children we produce for them, why can we not walk the same path as they do? Have we not earned the right?" She challenged Inez.

"I did not say that I liked it." Inez answered, finding a great deal of truth in what Sekhmet was saying and why she was so outraged. "It is the way things are."

"Things do not change unless you make them so. A tribe of humans, barely capable of understanding their world let alone a God, challenged Ra and defeated him. They sent a Goaíuld System Lord, one held in reverence even by other Goaíuld, scurrying off this world like a terrified child by one act of rebellion. If you do not chose to perform all those things for men that they consider their right, how long do you think it will take before the reed bends to the will of the wind?"

"An argument for another time," Isis interjected although she was in complete agreement with Sekhmet.

Both women settled down and noted that Casey was smiling.

"What do you stare at me with such amusement, child?" Sekhmet asked.

"Iím sorry," Casey apologised and shook the expression off her face. However, she glanced briefly at Julia and noticed that the Emporium owner was wearing the same smirk. "Itís just that when you were saying all those things, you sounded a lot like Mary. I guess, maybe you and she arenít that different after all."

The observation broke the tension running through the group and both Casey and Julia started to chuckle with Inez, seeing the humour in her remark joining in after a moment. Finally all five women, human and Goaíuld were giggling softly, sharing the same joke.

"Inez Wilmington," Isis responded after they had all settled down. "I understand your concerns as I understand Sekhmetís need to have corroborating information. Would it suffice if I accompany her into the establishment? We will remain long enough for Sekhmet to have her answers and then we shall leave."

Isis seemed the more sensible of the two, as sensible as a Goaíuld could be of course, but there was sincerity in her voice when she made her overture at a peaceful settlement that Inez could not ignore. "Alright," Inez conceded defeat. "As long as you get in and out of there fast." She glanced at the saloon that was drifting out of their sights now that they neared the livery stables where they would house their horses for the evening.

"You will never know we were there." Sekhmet grinned, pleased that she had gotten her way even though she suspected that Isis would not be allowing her to indulge herself. Still, her success in this much was only the first hurdle, she would deal with the rest much later on.

"In the meantime," Inez sighed, realizing in the last few seconds that Sekhmet's notion of ensuring that they were on the right track, was a good one. "We will check into that hotel over there and see if two men had entered town recently with a baby and a young boy."

"You think they would come to town?" Julia asked, skepticism oozing from her voice in her inquiry.

"They have an infant," Isis responded. "I do not believe they are completely up to the task of caring for the host's children, especially one as young as Michael. I believe the journey this far would have caused them considerable difficulty as it is. I am certain they would be grateful to relinquish the duty even for a night."

"They did not plan on taking my children," Sekhmet answered with something akin to cold hatred in her eyes as she spoke. The part of her that was Mary Larabee, was outraged by her children's captivity and the part of that was Sekhmet was ready to kill those responsible for that insult. "Just as they had not planned to harm me. What transpired was an accident and I believe they were motivated out of fear to return to their master with my children as an offering of appeasement."

"I wonder what they wanted with Mary." Casey mused, unable to wrap her mind around the callous intellect or the devious machinations of someone like Laurel Chase.

"If they captured my mate then I would assume that my presence would have allowed the enemy to manipulate him as she pleased." Sekhmet's gaze softened then and she found herself admitting with something that sounded very much like envy as she spoke. "He loves his Mary dearly. I do not doubt that there is anything he would not to in order to protect her. Men like him find it difficult to give their heart as completely as he has given his to my host. It is a precious and rare thing to have someone love so much as they are willing to sacrifice even their soul for the one who has captured their heart. It is unfortunate because for a man who does not have a weakness for most of the time, Mary is Chris Larabee's Achilles Heel."

**********

As the sun descended completely on the town of Avon, the atmosphere at night became somewhat livelier than the lethargic crawl that had occupied the town when they had first entered the place. No one paid much attention to them after the novelty of their arrival had worn off, even if the manner of dressing for three of the five appeared somewhat unusual. Inez decided that a lodging house would serve them better for the night and would not call as much attention as booking themselves into the local hotel. While Inez assumed that not even Laurel Chase could have foreseen the possibility of them attempting to attempting to save the men known as the Magnificent Seven, the element of surprise was something that was too valuable to give up by prematurely giving themselves away.

Inez who knew better than all the others, even Julia, how to immerse herself in anonymity, found a rather decent lodging house on the edge of the small town and advised that they remain there for most of the evening. Excepting that course only when they needed to scour about for information regarding the presence of Laurelís men having passed through recently. The lodging house mostly catered to women and was presided over by a charming old lady called Mrs Collins. Mrs Collins seemed to have the ear of the town but then Inez supposed, what matron who lived in one place for all their lives did not, and was more than happy to inform them that no men of that description had passed through. However, hers was hardly the place where that distinction could be made with accuracy since it was most likely that should they chose to stop the night, the enemy would have probably stayed at the hotel or the lodgings above the saloon.

Once they were settled in, the group went their separate ways in order to make discreet inquiries elsewhere. It was really not necessary that they go to all this trouble but Inez supposed that it was better to be safe than sorry. Besides, it would be more tolerable to be doing something instead of remaining inside their rooms, allowing their imagination to run rife as to what could be happening to their men. Each time Inez thought about Buck, she was filled with a sense of relief that he was not fixated upon by Laurel Chase although in thinking that, she felt terribly guilty when she thought what awful fears Alex and Mary must be having about Vin and Chris. Even if those fears were presently encased inside the personalities of Isis and Sekhmet.

Inez was not lost to the insanity of their situation, that it was necessary to rely upon such dangerous allies to capture an equally dangerous enemy. Although she did not say it to Julia because the Emporium owner was too filled with anger at Isis over Ezra and rightly so, Inez knew that they were outmatched. Even with the sophisticated weaponry that had been provided by Isis, Inez was not entirely sure that what they had embarked was not a foolís errand. If Laurel Chase had overcome Chris Larabee, how could she and her band hoped to pit themselves against such a formidable intellect with any success?

These were questions that Inez tried not to focus too much upon as she, Casey and Julia began frequenting the hotel and lodging houses. Under the guise that an estranged husband may have absconded with Juliaís two children, Inez was soon able to learn that two men had come through town the night before. They had stayed in the hotel and were remembered mostly because neither looked at all equipped to handle the care of the infant and relied upon the hotel house keeper for its upkeep until they rode out again a few hours later. They kept the young boy in close reach at all times and thought the child did not speak, the housekeeper had confessed to thinking that something was wrong by the apprehension in his eyes.

Upon having this confirmation, Inez left Julia and Casey as they retired to the local restaurant for a meal and went to seek out Sekhmet and Isis at the saloon. She was more comfortable in such establishments than the other two and knew that she could enter the saloon without causing undue fanfare. Inez was quite certain that Isis and Sekhmet would create enough of a distraction for anyone to notice the slight ripple she would create when she walked through the doors.

However, Inez realised that her arrival would cause barely that because when she reached the saloon, all hell was breaking loose.

**********

It had started the way most things do inside a saloon.

With the swinging motion of worn bat wing doors, following the footsteps against creaky floorboards outside the place, announcing the coming of a new arrival, or in this case, two new arrivals. The minute the women entered the saloon, the harpsichord playing its lively tune immediately ceased as did the rumbling of patrons with their clinking glasses, their raucous conversation and the gentle titter of saloon girls entertaining the paying customers. All eyes shifted to the two women walking into the room, distinguished from the variety inside the saloon because they were extraordinarily beautiful, without requiring the cosmetic accentuation required by the other ladies present. Aside from that, both were well armed and dressed in menís clothing as they strode in, good as you please, oblivious to the fact that they were so different.

The entrance though dramatic was not unusual. In a world where notorious outlaws, infamous gunslingers, notable lawmen and other such legends could drift in with the next breeze, their presence garnered interest for as long as it took for the novelty to pass before the music resumed and people returned to what they were doing. As Isis and Sekhmet moved slowly through the smoke filled establishment, their eyes took note of everything, including who was armed and who was not. Cat calls and wolf whistles followed them to the bar, courtesy of a group of men that appeared to be the main body of a trail herd.

"These people are beyond primitive." Sekhmet remarked with distaste as they reached the bar counter. An old prospector type with rotten teeth and frizzy white heard toasted them with a smile and a shot glass of whisky upon approach. He had one bad eye and used the good one to throw a wink in their direction. Not wishing to be rude, Isis returned the smile, choosing the less provocative action for the moment.

The saloon master, a rather fat greasy looking man who had nothing to redeem himself except perhaps the proprietorship of this establishment, came to them. He was wiping a glass with a rag so dirty that it made the point of the exercise rather meaningless as he approached them and spoke in a grizzled voice. "We donít allow women in here."

Sekhmet was about to respond caustically when Isis put a warning hand on the warrior goddessí shoulder as an indication to let Isis do the talking. "We will not remain long." She said smoothly. "We only require information."

"We donít allow women information either." The man sneered in derision.

"We will pay for it." Isis chose to take a tactful approach for the moment even though she could see the hostility building in Sekhmetís eyes. In the past, had they wished for information, this would not be the path they took to acquire it. Had they still been Goaíuld, this offensive creature would have been flayed alive for the insult he was delivering to them with his impudence.

"Not with money." He leaned forward, eyes gleaming over her form with suggestion.

It was about as much as Sekhmetís patience could take. Almost graceful like, her hand snapped forward, grabbed a handful of hair and brought down the manís face hard against the counter top. With her other hand, she reached just as smoothly for the gun hanging at her hip and unsheathed it from its holster, holding it up for anyone who might think to intervene to see it and consider their actions. The manís face had made a terrible squelch at it impacted against the hard surface, the sound of a bone snapping in concert with the cry of pain.

"Now you have upset my friend." Isis sighed. "That is most unwise."

A few men rose to their feet and the quiet descended the room once again as all eyes were turned on them. Isis saw the faces contemplating whether or not they wished to become embroiled in this affair, while the trail drivers congregated around their table, stared at the women in watchful silence, waiting to see how things would unfold before they opted to commit themselves.

"You bitch!" The man groaned in pain, his voice a muffled cry of outrage against the wood that was quickly being soaked in a widening pool of blood. "You broke my nose!"

"You have two hundred more bones in your body," Sekhmet hissed. "If you do not tell us what we wish to know, I will start on them as well." Turning to Isis, she said with just as much intensity. "Goddess of All, ask your question."

Isis kept the little smile off her face because she knew it would not be at all received well by the men in the room and for the moment, the directive was to avoid trouble as much as they could possibly do in light of what Sekhmet had just done. She leaned closer and asked her question of the groaning man, still racked in pain over a shattered nose, not to mention that he was having some difficulty breathing through the blood that was pulling under his face. It was odd how such a minor injury could create such profuse bleeding but she supposed the organ in question contained numerous capillaries that had a tendency to burst when subject to that much concussion.

"We seek two men," Isis asked calmly, seemingly unconcerned at the manís plight and in truth she was. "They would have passed this way last night or earlier this day. They would have had a young boy with them." Isis did not believe they would have brought the infant into this place.

"Ainít seen no one around here looking like that!" He grunted in pain.

"Think carefully," Sekhmet responded. "I do not wish to begin on your fingers. It would be most inconvenient in your present vocation for you to be without the use of your hands for a time."

He managed to meet her gaze despite the fact that his face was held firm against the counter and realised that she was not joking. Gulping visibly, he began to understand his predicament with surprising speed and stammered an answer.

"They were here this morning. Stopped by to get a drink." The man began to speak faster. Once his initial hesitation had been breached, he was a veritable fountain of information. "Ainít never seen them before and didnít look like they were too happy neither. The boy didnít say much but he looked a little scared. I thought one of them might be his pa or something but he didnít look either of them. They didnít stay long and didnít like socialising. I figured they were anxious to get on their way."

"Do you know which way they might have gone?" Isis inquired once more, not really expecting an answer of any value. As far as she was concerned, knowing that the two men had come through this way was evidence enough that they were on the right track; anything else was an added boon, nothing more.

"No," the man answered truthfully. He was in pain and he wanted these women gone. If cooperating was going to accomplish that, as humiliating as it was for him to be set upon two women, he would do so. "I didnít see nothing else."

"The child." Sekhmet demanded. "Was he harmed?"

"I donít know!" The man snapped. "They had him in a corner, he didnít move and he didnít say nothing without them giving him leave to!"

"Those animals!" She glared at Isis in unmasked anger.

"Alright I reckon thatís enough." The voice a man suddenly entered the mix and Isis turned around to note that the group of trail drivers had finally come to a decision on whether or not they would interfere in the situation before them. "You let the man go."

"Sekhmet," Isis looked at her and nodded the warrior goddess to obey. They had what they needed; there was no reason to prolong this interview any more than necessary. Besides, she sensed they were nearing the edge of tolerance in this establishment. The men who were making the demands seemed peaceful enough but that could change at any moment. They did not appreciate that two women were making one of their kind cower like the weakling he was and it would only take a nudge for the situation to escalate.

Sekhmet let go of him without question and the bartender immediately uprighted himself, clutching his bleeding nose in his hands. The pool of blood where his face had been showed how severe a break it had been and he stood back, lips covered in red and rage quickly entering his eyes. Staggering backwards, he pressed himself against the wall, rivulets of red running down his forearms. His eyes took on some measure of calculation and Sekhmet immediately detected the stink of an animal about to strike in defence. Isisí attention was on those who had intervened on his behalf so the Goddess of All did not see.

For someone Sekhmet had considered to be no more than a snivelling piece of meat, he moved with remarkable speed, his hands shuffling behind him to slip forward the long barrelled weapon that he was soon swinging forward to take aim.

"Watch out!" She shouted as he swung the barrel to fire. His first victim would have been Isis since she was in his direct line of sight.

Isis ducked just as the gun went off. The bullet whizzed past her and struck the shoulder of one of them men who had interceded. He went flying back into a table. His companions, believing one of them had fired, immediately lunged towards Isis. Sekhmet in the meantime had leapt over the counter and set upon the shooter. He took aim to fire and pulled the trigger just as Sekhmet reached him. She narrowly avoided a face full of lead by shoving the barrel of the rifle towards the ceiling where it deposited its deadly payload into the wood and plaster. The impact caused fragments of each to drift towards the floor.

"Bitch!" He growled as she snatched the weapon at him and forced her palm into his face once again, this time connecting with his chin. Though it did not break bones, there was enough force behind the strike to send him reeling into the bottles of liquor perched on top of the shelves against the wall. His collision caused the shelf to slip off its ledge and its detachment brought the full weight of its contents down on the others below it. The entire construct collapsed spectacularly, sending bottles and glasses raining over his head. Sekhmet did not need to advance her attack as she saw him letting out a frightened cry as glass and wood fell on top of him.

Instead, she turned her attention to Isis who was fighting off four men on her own. Leaping across the counter once again, she landed just in time to see one of them turning their attention to her. He was a towering hulk who intended to rush her and someone who had spent her life overcoming the limitations of being feminine was capable of sidestepping him easily. As he staggered out of control past her, Sekhmet grabbed his arm and used his own momentum to flip him onto the bench. He landed on top of several shot glasses, his bulk crushing them as he landed and cursed with pain. As he tried to get up, Sekhmet threw a succession of punches against that formidable jaw and left him almost as incapacitated as the bar tender who was struggling to surface from under the mountain of glass and collapsed shelving.

Isis felt arms around her.

Someoneís thick arms were keeping her own pinned to her sides. Her assailant was behind her and she saw one of his companions approaching her with a sneer on his face. While the onlookers watched this curious brawl between two women and a bunch of men, there seemed to be a feeling of unreality about it even though the punches being traded were by no means imaginary. Isis did not worry. These men fought like bears, all brawn with nary the brain to match. There was not one among their number that could really be considered skillful and it was almost amusing if not for the fact that they were going to be terribly hurt for their ignorance.

Isis waited until the man approaching her was near enough and then she kicked out her foot, using the centre of his chest to propel herself backwards, causing both she and her captor to stumble uncontrollably. He was less coordinated with his steps than she who was prepared for the fall when they finally toppled over and Isis made certain that the brunt of her weight landed hard against his sternum. She felt ribs buckled beneath her as they met the obstruction of floor beneath them. He let out a bellow of pain and immediately released her. Isis scrambled to her knees just in time to see him attempt to sit up and lashed out with her fist. The first punch connected with the side of his head and he reeled with further injury.

"I'll kill you!" He swore as his head whacked the hard floor once more and Isis progressed her journey upright as far as her haunches. As he tried once more to sit up from her strikes, Isis decided it was time to put him down for good. Giving him barely enough time to recover, this time the ball of her palm landed hard against his throat. Isis chose not to deliver a crushing blow, for a hit in that part of his anatomy could very well kill him, it had more than the ample effect she required to finish their battle.

"Horace!" His friend cried out, having sufficiently recovered from the kick she had delivered to his chest enough to advance upon her. He took no more than two steps when suddenly, a powerful kick slammed across his body in mid thorax. It moved with such swiftness that for a moment it seemed completely unnatural. The power behind that kicked nearly lifted him off the dirt-covered floor and he landed hard into the table behind him. His weight buckled the legs beneath it until the whole thing simply crumbled to the floor in a resounding crash. Sekhmet's movements were almost panther like as more of his comrades came to aid him and once again those formidable legs spun into action.

A carefully placed back kick sent one man flying through the window, trailing glass and fragments of the wooden frame around it with him as he was ejected outside the establishments with bystanders trying to get clear of the carnage. Once he was dispatched, she saw a flurry of movement that might have been someone attempting to unholster their gun. She was on them in seconds, grabbing the hand that attempted to raise the weapon to fire. They pulled the trigger as she shoved the extended hand towards the wall. The shootist kept firing, sending six projectiles into the wall, causing customers and saloon girls a like scurrying in fear over the sound of gunshots. Once his ammunition was exhausted, Sekhmet wasted no time in snapping the wrist so far out its usual position that bones gave way immediately and the gun clattered to the floor, the sound muffled by the commotion of running feet and cries of those attempting to escape.

Someone approached her from behind, she jumped into the air and spun around like a marionette being twirled in the graceful hands of the puppeteer, delivering a powerful kick that shattered bones, sending jagged fragments slicing through organs. She fought well and for the first time in too long; she was able to focus. The memory of the hunt and the scent of the fight were alive and running in her veins. It was to Sekhmet's surprise to realise that even when she was still the Goa'uld symbiote occupying the host body, she had not felt this thrill. Death and torture had given her pleasure then which was rather peculiar because she recalled a time when these things did not interest her as it did other Goa'ulds. Sekhmet was always a warrior goddess and on the battlefield, warriors had a code of honor. She had a code once but during the thousand years of imprisonment by the Nerfertum, which seemed fleeting now, it had been lost. Resurrection had not only seen herself restored but also that honour and warring spirit.

Those who watched her fight did not know if she were a creature of combat, for her movements was smooth and agile like a dancer not someone who was teaching a bunch of men what a folly it was to underestimate a beautiful woman. Gold hair flying, blue grey eyes aflame with cold fire, she was a sight they would remember for the rest of their lives, even when she was gone from this place. They would never know her name and perhaps legends live best when they are anonymous. When she was done, she and her exotic companion were the only participants of the brawl still left standing. The fallout saw groans of pain and disbelief rippling through the debris of the battle.

"What in the hell have you done?" Inez gasped as she fought her way through the vacating crowd to see the destruction that had been caused by her two comrades.

Sekhmet let out a deep breath, unable to deny that she repented nothing as she saw broken bodies crawling away in an effort to escape. She had killed no one and that pleased her for she did not wish to take the lives of opponents who were so unskilled. It was not at all sporting.

"The situation escalated beyond our control." Isis explained dusting herself off as she surveyed the destruction around them and could not deny that they had created something of a mess although it was never their intention to begin with. At least it was never her intention, she thought to herself. One could not say for certain when it came to Sekhmet.

"Escalated?" Inez allowed her horrified gaze to sweep across the room.

The immediate area surrounding Sekhmet and Isis was something out of war zone. Tables and chairs were broken; glass covered the floor in sparkling fragments beneath the illumination of the lamps inside the room. Plaster and paint was still drifting to the wooden floor from where a rifle and several gunshots had torn through it during the stray fire. Bullet ridden walls and broken windows capped off the list of damage. She did not even want to mention the men who were pulling themselves away from the two women, choosing to leave while they still could. Despite herself, Inez could not deny that Isis and Sekhmet had proved quite irrevocably that they were more than capable of protecting themselves.

"We did learn what we wished to know," Sekhmet replied innocently, not at all sorry for what she had done. After what she had learnt about how her son was being treated by his captors, she was rather surprised that she had left anyone alive instead of merely incapacitating them. Sekhmet knew that she was capable of far worse if her ire was properly inspired.

"So did I," Inez exclaimed with exasperation. "Only I did it without turning the place upside down!" A part of her was still unable to come to grips with the destruction before her or the fact that it had been caused by two women. Perhaps she was too much a product of her times to be able to accept their capabilities so easily.

"It is unfortunate," Isis had to agree with Inezís annoyance as she took stock of the damage they had caused. Inwardly, she knew it was time to get out of sight. While she did not believe they were in any immediate danger since the men who might have posed it would be requiring medical attention for the next few hours anyway, it was wise to vacate the area for the time. "However it is a deed done Inez Wilmington."

"Youíre not kidding," she said as the trio of women started towards the door. "We better get you indoors." She looked around apprehensively and knew that sooner or later, retaliation for this would come. "We donít want any of their friends coming after us."

"The only enemy that I am concerned with," Sekhmet sighed in resignation as if she was dealing with a duo of alarmists, "are the ones who have imprisoned our mates. The rest is merely distraction."

Inez stiffened, wondering what it was about being Goaíuld that gave one such supreme arrogance. While Sekhmet was very capable, this was still the Territory and Inez wanted nothing to hamper their progress in reaching Buck and the others. It was too important for them to get where they were going for Sekhmet to be indulging her violent tendencies in this manner. "Distraction maybe," she stared at Sekhmet with justifiable harshness. "However, weíre no good to them if we get killed before we are in position to help them in any way."

Isis listened to the back and forth between Sekhmet and Inez, unable to deny that Inez had a point. Isis found the Mexican very practical and capable of surprising logic for a woman with little education and born in these times. "You are correct of course Inez Wilmington," Isis broke into their conversation, intending to keep the debate from escalating into a shouting match. Sekhmetís display, she was certain, was more than likely Mary Larabeeís own voice communicating its sense of outrage regarding the treatment of her child by the enemy. "This was foolishness and we will ensure that there is no repeat of this situation. However, for the moment I think you are correct in your desire to leave this place."

Temporarily disarmed, Inez paused and the bickering between herself and Sekhmet died down a little. As the three women left the saloon, she noticed that everyone gave them a wide berth and under the circumstances, she could not blame them for their caution. No doubt, no one would be giving them much trouble during their stay in Avon. Still, she decided that they ought to leave as soon as they could once they had taken a few hours of rest.

Glancing over her shoulder, she caught a glimpse of the wreckage inside the saloon once again and shuddered inwardly at the thought of what Sekhmetís reaction would be when they finally found Laurel Chase.

***********

Vin Tanner was becoming irritable.

He sat inside his cage and felt his skin starting to crawl. He did not like the bars. He did not like the walls. The inability to the see outside in this sunless prison was robbing him of any sense of time. He needed something to do and began pacing the floor of the cell, back and forth. He kept thinking of escape. He kept thinking of how he would like to try and see if he could pry the bars from their housings in the metal and hopefully force his way through. He did not like being caged. Cages were for animals. He was not an animal. He was a man. He was a thirsty man.

He would not drink anything that Laurel Chase provided. Vin was not that stupid. Instead, he kept a small canteen of water inside the folds of his buckskin coat. A good tracker did not leave his home for the open plains without provisions and while the main bulk of his stores were still in his saddle, he still had sense enough to keep some caches of it on his person. A horse with a mind of its own could bolt and heaven help you if you were stranded out in the middle of nowhere. This was the Territory and she was a place so harsh that she would find a dozen ways to kill you before the sun went down.

The cool water doused the fire that was emanating from the rest of him. The throat that was parched was immediately given relief and he savoured the journey down his gullet to his stomach. Although Laurel had proven that their food and water were not tainted by forcing Mr Zhang to act as food taster, Vin was still suspicious of a woman that devious. Mr Zhang seemed sincere in his claim that his Mistress had plans for them that were too important to waste on a simple poisoning. Vin succumbed enough to try a few morsels of bread but nothing more. He was determined to resist as long as he could even though the water in his canteen was dwindling into nothingness and would be gone the next day at the rate he was going.

Josiah Sanchez watched the young man whose cell was next to his with growing alarm. He knew that Vin found imprisonment very hard to take. After all, Vin was a tracker, a man used to having the open plains as his playground. Vin did not even like sleeping indoors and felt the need to take off for a day or two just to experience the sky overhead despite the fact that he was now married. He was at the nature of things, a free spirit, one who needed space to roam, to feel fresh air in his lungs and the cool breeze against his face. To cage him was to cage a bird from the sky.

"Nate," Josiah went to the bars that separate his cell from Nathanís and motioned the healer over to him. His manner indicated to Nathan that Josiah wanted their discussion to be as discreet as possible for the moment. Besides, if what he suspected was right then the secrecy would not last for long because Vinís manner would allow them all to guess the truth soon enough.

"What is it?" Nathan asked. He was just as weary of this confinement as the rest of the seven but unlike the others, he had a great deal of experience in being trapped with no way to escape. For the first seventeen years of his life, that was the one thing he had learnt to tolerate with ease.

"Look at Vin." Josiah said softly.

Nathan knew that Vin was jumpy. He had attributed it to the fact that the tracker was not used to being jailed like this. When he had turned himself in to the authorities at Tascosa, Vin had sat in jail for days and his manner had been abrasive although, Nathan had to confess that he was nowhere as on edge as he was now. With the preacherís suggestion, Nathan allowed himself to take a good look at Vin Tanner. Even now, Vin was still pacing the floor of the cell, back and forth. His face glistened in sweat and his eyes darted about, being conscious of every sound. He looked like a man with all too much energy inside his body and was aching to expend it in some way. The inability to do so was driving him to distraction. Now that Nathan was observing him closely, the healer started to feel a constriction in his chest.

"Oh shit." He whispered softly.

"Thatís what I thought." Josiah nodded sombrely. "I thought I was imagining things. You know how he can be."

"Yeah," Nathan nodded in complete understanding because he had believed the same thing. "I donít understand." The healer tried to reason this out in his head. "His reaction looks pretty extreme but he ainít eaten enough to get this way for no reason."

"I donít know," Josiah shook his head, unable to answer that question himself because he had been aware of Vinís adamant desire to ignore the food and water that Laurel had fed her prisoners.

Nathan rose to his feet so that he was standing up and facing Vin Tanner at eye level when the healer called out to him. "Vin, how you feeling?" He called out across the cells.

His question captured the attention of everyone in their enclosures, even Chris Larabee who had been silent for much of the day following the devastating news about Mary and the intolerable situation of his children being in Laurelís hand. Vin paused in his pacing and regarded the healerís question. "Iím fine. Why?" His voice oozed with suspicion.

"You seem kind of twitchy thatís all." Nathan said smoothly.

"What the fuck am I supposed to be?" Vin barked at him. "Iím trapped like a fucking animal inside this fucking cage. Let me out here you psychotic bitch!" He slammed his fist against the bars, screaming.

"Vin, calm down." Nathan spoke quickly. The others had risen to their feet, understanding now with growing horror what Nathan and Josiah had guessed.

"DONíT TELL ME TO CALM DOWN!" Vin fairly roared, his voice bouncing off the walls and causing everyone to jump a little from the sharpness of the sound.

"Oh Jesus." Buck Wilmington gasped as the ripple of realisation moved through them.

"What?" Vin glared at the big man.

Buck did not know what to say and looked about helplessly for someone to step in, to tell Vin what it was that has happened to him. As it was, Buck was at a loss to understand how Vin could have been reduced to this. They had all been mindful of what they had been consuming while they were prisoners, especially after what Chris had been through and how he had been affected when Laurel had tainted his food.

"Vin," Chris Larabeeís voice spoke for the first time in a day. His voice was hollow and sounded like grated glass but it was nonetheless the voice in which no one could disobey. "Try not to be angry. Think about Alex. Keep her in your head."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Vin growled, wondering why he was suddenly the focus of everyoneís attention. Whatever the reason, he did not like it. He was a grown man, capable of taking care of himself and them too, whenever the situation warranted it.

"Youíve been dosed with Venom." Chris replied, padding nothing. Vin was edging farther and farther away from himself and unless, he received an abrupt reality check by his friends, there would be nothing to keep him from tumbling into the abyss that had almost destroyed Chris Larabee.

If nothing else had penetrated inside Vin Tanner that did.

The tracker froze and stared at his best friend, still feeling the churning inside his mind but the quagmire of turbulence had been stilled for a moment with that astonishing revelation. "Thatís impossible." He stammered.

"You got the signs, Vin." Chris said simply. "You want to get out donít you?" Chris continued. "I can see it in your eyes pard. You want to get out of this cage so bad you can taste it. You feel it rolling around your head something fierce. Its in there taking root and suddenly, youíre thinking that you donít mind going through all of us to get past those bars."

"No." Vin shook his head with a strangled whisper. "That ainít true. She didnít get me." He insisted. "Iím starving Chris! I ainít eaten nothing but crumbs of what sheís been feeding us!" He screamed desperately, "I know it!"

"Its not in your food Vin," Chris looked at him and realised it when Nathan had brought Vinís condition to light. "Itís in the water in your canteen."

"Youíre wrong!" Vin just about screamed. "Iím fine!" He declared. "Youíre the one whoís acting crazy. Its because of Mary and the boys that youíre thinking this way!"

And if there was any confirmation in his mind that Vin was under the influence of Venom, it was that statement from the tracker. Vin would never say that to him and although Chris was racked with grief for his wife and fear for his children, not to mention being left in the stasis of vengeance towards Laurel, Vinís plight had made him brush aside those agonies. This man had proved more than enough times that he would ride through hell for Chris Larabee. When Vin needed it most, Chris was not about to abandon him.

"Maybe it is." Chris said coolly. "But maybe Iím right."

"My canteen hasnít left my side!" Vin insisted.

"Mr Tanner," Ezra spoke for the first time. "We were unconscious for a long time before we awoke to find ourselves here. The lady would have had plenty of opportunity to fill your canteen with that odious substance."

"I donít believe you!" Vin growled in answer, refusing to believe it and in part, unable to believe it because the Venom had seeped into his mind and effected him with its sickness. He could not be certain of what was truth and what was lie. Inwardly, he knew he had to trust in his friends but they could be wrong!

They had to be.

As if she knew what was transpiring, the door leading to the corridor that ran between their cells swung open and Laurel Chase made her entry. No doubt the guards she had stationed beyond that door had alerted her of the commotion was taking place and Chris knew the woman well enough to know that she enjoyed her opportunities to gloat. It was quite sobering to be reminded so starkly that not everything in his life had been ripped away from him with Maryís death and the kidnapping of Billy and Michael. Chris had thought things could not get any worse. Yet as he watched Vin starting to succumb to the same ravages he had when he had been addicted to Venom, Chris was suddenly aware that there were still some things he had left to lose.

His friends.

The seven had proceeded Billy and Michael; they had come even before Mary. His friendship with these men had allowed him to begin the painful road to recovery and to starting his new life in Four Corners. He felt intensely ashamed that in his grief he had more or less disregarded the fact that he had a responsibility to these men who had ridden at his side and done everything he had asked of them, without complaint. As he saw Laurel entering the room, almost swaggering with triumph, Mr Zhang following her closely behind as always, Chris made up his mind there and then. His grief and his vengeance could wait. When there was time, he would indulge them but for right now, he had to be strong not only for his children but for his friends because he was not losing them too.

"How are you feeling Mr Tanner?" Laurel asked with a smile as she regarded Vin inside his cell with a little bit of a smile.

"What have you done to me you bitch!" Vin threw himself against the bars, his hands clawing into air as he tried desperately to reach her. However, Laurel was not foolish to be anywhere within reach for him to be a threat to her and she found his reaction amusing more than anything else.

"In excellent health I see." She replied with complete innocence.

"I underestimated you Laurel," Chris glared at her with clear hatred. "I keep underestimating you and thatís a mistake. I gotta admit, I wouldnít have guessed youíd put that poison of yours in Vinís canteen."

"Well Mr Tanner is a suspicious sort," she looked at Vin. "I guessed he might avoid any sustenance that I may provide so I had to make alternate arrangements."

"Why?" Buck Wilmington asked. "You donít want him like you want Chris. Why did you want him like this?"

Laurel cast her gaze on Buck Wilmington. She had observed him earlier but this was the first time she had a real opportunity to look. "So you are Mr Wilmington," she took a step towards him as if examining a particularly interesting specimen.

Chris did not like the interest she was showing Buck and wondered what game she was playing at this time. She had mentioned Buck once before and his skin started to crawl thinking she may have some darker purpose in mind for his oldest friend, just as she had planned to avenge herself on Vin Tanner twice before. "Donít say a word Buck." Chris ordered.

"Now Chris," Laurel glimpsed briefly at him over her shoulder. " You should not be so inhospitable. I may take it out on Mr Tanner."

"Youíll never get near enough to touch me!" Vin hissed. "Anyone who comes in here is gonna die!"

Laurel did not answer but instead continued her advance to Buck Wilmington. She could tell that he was affected by her femininity. As much as he feared what she was, Laurel was rather surprised to see something in his eyes that wanted to understand her. She had no doubt that as men went he was cut from a different cloth. When she had made her study of Chris and his friends, she had been amused to know that for a womaniser, the ladies he left in the wake of his conquest were not entirely hostile as some tended to be after being discarded. All who had been interviewed spoke of him with affection and that sparked Laurelís curiosity somewhat.

"I think you and I require a private audience Mr Wilmington." Laurel said as she paused at the bars of his cell.

Buck was confused. He did not know what she wanted of him but his gut feeling told him he was in no immediate danger. Although Buck had met many women in his time and anyone who knew him with any depth could attest to just how numerous was meant by the word Ďmanyí, he had to confess that Laurel Chase was the most beautiful woman he had ever cast his gaze upon. However her kind of beauty was frightening. She had the kind of woman that drove men mad in their efforts to possess her. Like Romeo preparing to die for his Juliet, like Paris ready to bring down the walls of Troy for his Helen and Caesar inspiring the wrath of the Roman Republic for Cleopatra, loving Laurel was courting disaster.

"I think I rather stay with my friends." Buck answered cautiously, aware of the fear he saw in Chrisí eyes. If there was one thing they had all learnt about Laurel Chase by now, her gender did not make her any less dangerous than any enemy they had faced in the past with a gun.

"Oh youíll join them soon enough," Laurel returned immediately, her eyes moving up and down his form, still examining him with deep scrutiny. He was very handsome and to her astonishment, the charm and the look of him, which so often captivated so many other women, was also working its magic on her. "However, for the moment I require you in private. This was not an invitation and you do not have a choice in the matter."

"Deal with me!" Chris shouted from behind her. "Or is being a coward the only way you know how to get at me?"

Laurel spun around and faced him, eyes blazing for an instant before the anger died down and that look of cold calculation seeped back into her eyes. "Be warned, I still have your children."

Chris kept the tough mask over his true emotions in place, not about to let her see the fear in his eyes for his children. However, when Laurel had claimed earlier that she would not hurt either Billy or Michael, Chris had believed her. She would not hurt them, not unless he gave her reason to and at this moment, an insult did not seem reason enough for a woman like Laurel Chase who seldom acted on impulse or squandered her advantage.

"And youíre still a coward." He retorted.

Laurel broke into a smile. "Sticks and stones Chris," she shook her head in reproach. "I thought you better than that."

"You bring out the best in me." He said sarcastically.

She ignored that statement and started to walk out of the room. "Zhang, bring Mr Wilmington along."

"Laurel!" Chris shouted. "Take me instead."

"Take you?" She whirled around and faced him with almost a playful expression on her face. "I canít do that. However, I will promise you that I wonít give Mr Tanner any more Venom. Not until he asks for it."

"You can go to hell with that bitch!" Vin barked venomously before Chris could respond.

"Oh Mr Tanner," Laurel laughed as she pulled open the door. "In a shorter time than you think, youíll be begging me for it."

Part Five Dance With the Devil

Buck Wilmington could not fathom why he had been singled out and was presently awaiting inside a seemingly luxurious parlor for the arrival of Miss Chase. He sat in the comfortable wing chair, wishing to be anywhere but where he was and considered what was happening to Vin. Mr Zhang, the huge bodyguard and lackey who was always at the lady's side was poised at the doorway that led into the room, keeping a watchful eye over him while remaining silent as always. Buck stared at the statuesque man wondering what it was that bound him to such a psychopath with such devotion. Zhang returned Buck's observations with indifference, his face a stony mask of disinterest.

"I don't suppose you're gonna tell me what I'm doing here?" Buck asked, not really expecting answer.

It was just as well because the response he received was another expressionless stare from the large Oriental.

Buck chose instead to cast his gaze around the room, hoping that would relieve the anxiety he felt. Miss Chase liked to surround herself in luxury, Buck noted as he saw the crude walls hidden beneath the finery of expensive furniture, rugs and other items that were positioned inside the room in order to make one forget that they were inside an old fortress of some sort. Buck could think of no other thing that the premises might be to contain so many cells. He wondered if she had acquired the place specifically for the purpose of imprisoning the seven. Inwardly, he shuddered at the thought of what was happening to Vin Tanner, knowing that she could do the same to all of them. He was still confused at why she had chosen Vin when it was obvious that Chris was the one she wanted. For that matter, he was bewildered why he was here himself. Other than their meeting a short time ago, he had never seen Miss Chase.

Still he had to admit that he now understood what Vin had said when he remarked that the woman was beautiful. Beautiful was not even an apt description of what Laurel was. She was the most incredible creature Buck had ever seen and it scared the hell out of him. There was not a man alive who could not be swayed even a little by that face should she chose it. Upon seeing her, Buck could understand how Chris had succumbed even if it was the Venom narcotic had induced the fracture that crumbled his resolve. Despite his attraction to her, Buck did not look forward to being in her company. He consoled himself that he would not be human if he wasn't in some way drawn to her astonishing beauty but in truth, he wanted nothing to do with her.

No one was more surprised than Buck how easy it had been to make the transition from favored ladies man to faithful husband. He had always imagined he would find it impossible to cope with having the company of so many women dwindling to one. However, marriage to Inez had never been a trial. Of course no marriage was ideal and while he and Inez had spectacular fights, they also had spectacular bouts of making up. He loved being her husband and knowing that she was there when he came home. He loved the smell of her cooking filling up his lungs whenever he walked through the front door of his house and the soft whiff of perfume that clung to the sheets where he slept. It was those little things that made it all so easy.

And the little thing that made it the best of all was called Elena Rose.

When he thought about being faithful to Inez, by extension that also meant his daughter. The joy they brought to his life meant more to him than any meaningless encounter with any woman he would most likely never see again. Besides, this was the family he had always wanted. Even though he had always boasted at being a free spirit, in truth, he yearned for the ties that bound people together and knew that after the death of Sarah and Adam, he had missed that feeling until he had become one of the seven.

His thoughts were interrupted when he heard the twisting knob of the door leading from an adjoining room. Buck's head snapped towards it and he found his back straightening as the door swung open and the slight rustle of Laurel's dress pulling across the floor preceded her entrance into the room. She walked in confidently, closing the door by pushing it close behind her without turning her back on him while she did so. She kept her gaze on him, green cat like eyes studying him as she approached. Buck tugged on his collar, giving away his anxiety somewhat.

"Nervous?" She asked, a slight tease in the pulled curve of her lips.

"A little." Buck was not afraid to lie. If he was not slightly worried then he was a fool and denying it would make him look doubly so. He had every reason to worry. This woman had proven herself a killer and she was ruthlessly cruel as evidenced by what she was now doing to Vin in the dungeon from which he was temporarily released.

Her brow crook upward and she gave him a long look. It was not one he could read. Saying nothing, she took up the chair opposite his where a few minutes ago, a maid had entered, serving tea in expensive crockery on the table next to both chairs.

"Tea, Mr Wilmington?" Laurel inquired politely. Her voice was smooth like silk. It moved across the skin in the same way.

"No thank you ma'am." He said politely, wishing this facade of civility to last as long as it could. He knew that it would be simpler to get information out of her if he was accommodating instead of antagonistic.

She continued to pour herself a cup and broke the silence of the room with the sound of her teaspoon impacting against the dainty porcelain cup as she stirred before easing back into the chair, cradling cup and saucer in hand as she studied him. "You surprise me Mr Wilmington."

"Why is that ma'am?" He asked evenly.

"I don't know," she said almost as if she were working out a particularly interesting puzzle. "I see you and I cannot quite fathom you."

"That almost sounds like a compliment." Buck remarked a hint of amusement creeping into his voice. It was almost perverse considering how worried he was for himself and his friends.

"You may take it as such." She responded as she took a small sip and looked up at him again. "I have a talent for knowing men."

"I don't doubt that," he said automatically and surprised him when he managed to say it without any trace of innuendo. "I'm sure you pretty good at it."

"I am." Laurel said confidently. "Mostly because I can usually tell what they want by just looking at them. I know that Chris wants control. He enjoys believing that he is master of his destiny and that by control, he can ensure nothing harms him or those he cares about. In fact, he'll do anything to maintain that control. Is that not true?"

It was, Buck had to confess but not to the extreme she described but then Laurel was a creature of extremes and right at this minute, she was playing a game with him. A game whose rules or purpose, he did not understand just yet but Buck was smart enough to listen and learn in the meantime. "I wouldn't quite put it that way." He responded neutrally.

"I would," Laurel retorted, seeing through his attempt to hide that he agreed with her opinions on Chris. "Mr Tanner is something else entirely. Too much nobility and loyalty wrapped up in a relentless package with and edge of ruthlessness. It is a deadly combination indeed. Mr Tanner wears many faces behind those eyes, pray that you never seen the darker side of him."

"And what about me?" Buck found himself asking although he could not disagree much with what Laurel said in regards to Vin except that Buck did not believe that Vin's dark side was so terrible. The tracker was honest and direct to the point of sheer stubbornness but Laurel's vision of him was painted with the distaste she could barely hide from her face when she spoke of Vin.

"That is why you are here." Laurel answered truthfully. "I do not know what you want. You intrigue me Mr Wilmington."

"Well I always knew how to please the ladies." Buck remarked with a hint of smugness.

"I have no doubt of that," Laurel found herself smiling, wondering if he planned to seduce his way out of this predicament. It would almost be interesting to see him try if she was not certain that he did not have it in him to betray the wife he so obviously loved. "However, that is not what I mean. What do you want Mr Wilmington?"

The question took him by surprise. "What do you mean?"

"Chris wants control, Vin Tanner wants to remain at Chris' side always, but you, I cannot quite fathom what you want." Laurel replied.

"I don't want anything." Buck answered, considering the question. "Except maybe to be happy."

"You're something of an anomaly. Most men have some craving but you seems to only one that and it surprises me." She confessed. "You are perfectly content aren't you? Not all concerned by the mundane things that drag most people down. Most men yearn or want something but you do not except want for much except for things to remain as they are. I wonder if you know how truly unique that is."

"That ain't unique at all." Buck countered, uncertain on whether or not he liked her description of him. He supposed in the face of it, he really did not want much out of life. Hell, if truth be known, at this moment, he had everything he had ever wanted in his life. Friends who would die for him and he in turn for them, a wife an daughter he adored utterly and the promise of a future with a ranch that was fast becoming a place of great meaning for not for its owners but rather all the seven. "Most men want that."

"Most men do but those who have it are rarely satisfied with it and in the end, they find they crave more." She commented. "Perhaps I find you so interesting because you are the first creature Iíve met who is truly happy with what he has. I wonder if you know how rare a thing that is."

"Laurel, what am I doing here?" Buck asked finally, wondering what was the point of all this discussion. It could not be as simple as a matter of curiosity, not in the face of what he knew of the woman.

"I donít know Mr Wilmington," she continued to drink her tea, not at all perturbed by the sharp tone of his question. "However, I think I will keep you around while I try to figure that out."

"Keep me?" Buck did not at all like the sound of that. It reeked of permanence, not to mention sinister intent.

"Yes," she nodded, meeting his eyes. "Iím sure you will not mind after awhile. I can make your stay very pleasurable."

Buck swallowed, feeling the slight tug of temptation pull away at him for a fraction of an instant before it took the rest of him to stave it away easily. He loved his wife and he cared about his friends. He cared about the people in his life too much to become a pet at the feet of this woman who appeared to want him just to satisfy some lack of comprehension into what he was. He knew what he was just as well as he knew that Laurelís confusion arose from the point that she could not brand him with the same frailties of the other men she had encountered in her past. It did not mean that he had not those same flaws that Chris and Vin and just about every human had, it was just that his concept of life was so far removed from hers, she could scarcely imagine anyone being content with it.

"I am a married man." He stated firmly.

"Yes," she nodded and smiled coldly. "And thatís why it will be highly amusing to break you in."

*********

If it was all possible, Forbes had even less to redeem itself than Avon.

Like the town they had taken refuge the night before, the visitors from Four Corners had ridden into town as the day crept towards late afternoon. The heat across the barren landscape filled with rocks, tumble weeds and scorpions had blistered with summer temperatures, creating mirages that tempted them with fake illusions of water as they continued their march through the heart of the Territory. As they inched closer and closer to the divide of the Mojave Desert which kept the inland continental United States from its prosperous Californian neighbour, they began to wonder if Forbes did in actual fact exist.

The town of Forbes had survived for one reason alone; it was the on the route taken by the stage. While the railroad would drive the stage oach into obsolescence far sooner than anyone might think, for the moment such way stations like this still had a breath or two left in them. To penetrate the desert to reach the green of the Salinas, the journey required still small towns to allow travellers to rest and stagecoach drivers to replenish stores and refresh horses before the arduous trek over unrelenting desert terrain. When the five women made their arrival, there was barely enough people in town to bat an eye at their presence or the fact that they were a curious sight. Five women dressed the way they were, was not a customary sight. Still, this was a place used to travellers if nothing else and the people who did raise an eye in interest at their coming, did so with indifference.

The townís entire community consisted of the saloon for even a one horse town could not function without the existence of one, a hotel, livery stables and a general store that also doubled as post office and any other civil function required of it. The general store was sizeable and one had to assume that its clientele came from the spreads and homesteads that might have been scattered around the area for there was not a community in Forbes that was large enough to support it. The hotel could barely be called that by any of their standards and was most likely a rooming house but since it was the only one in the locality, it had earned the upgrade in its description.

"She is here." Isis stated as her eyes surveyed the community they had just entered. She was squinting to keep the sun out of her eyes despite the hat she was wearing and knew in this glaring white heat, there was little that could be done, protective headgear or not. A memory older than the body surfaced in Isisí mind where she had stood on the sands of another desert even more treacherous than this one and saw a monument being built in the ancient lands of the Pharaoh.

"How do you know?" Julia asked.

Although Julia still felt wary about the former Goaíuld Queen, she had learnt one thing about Isis during their journey here; Sekhmet had not exaggerated the power of her mind. She supposed one could not have survived for four millennia otherwise but seeing its acumen at work was quite something. She had only ever seen Chris Larabee make such conceptual leaps based purely on instinct and Julia wondered what this creature might have accomplished if she had possessed the compassion of Alexandra Styles Tanner.

"This is a good place to be forgotten. I doubt they even know she is here." Isis remarked.

"I think youíre right." Inez agreed. This was a place where questions did not get asked. A stranger such as Laurel Chase could be assured of anonymity because this was too small a place for gossip and visitors were limited to the intermittent arrival of the stage. Those who utilised this place as a way station were not interested in local news, just where they were going and how they were going to get there. "She could hide herself here."

"Then how are we going to find her?" Casey asked.

"That is easy little one," Sekhmet glanced at the young woman. She found herself liking Casey Wells for the child was spirited and not afraid to leave the constraints of proper behaviour when required, unlike the one with the red hair. "There are not many places that she could keep seven men imprisoned and a large body of guards. The people here may not know her but they will know the place."

"Precisely," Isis nodded. "We do not seek out the woman, we seek the lair she occupies."

"I can handle that," Julia responded confidently.

All four looked at her with something of a surprise until they saw her glance in the direction of the general store as they were passing by. A man was offering Julia a smile of interest as she rode past and judging by the apron he was wearing, it looked like he was the proprietor of the establishment. His interest in Julia was more than just passing curiosity and Julia was more than familiar with the glint in his eyes to know that she could make use of him to get what they needed; information.

"It would be simpler if I simply extracted it from him." Sekhmet answered abruptly, finding it distasteful to resort to such tactics to gain information.

"Like you did in Avon?" Julia gave her a pointed stare. "I think this would be more efficient and less bloodier."

"Do not underestimate your prey Sekhmet," Isis broke into the conversation. "Because she may be unknown to these people does not mean she is foolish enough to presume that they could not unwittingly give her away. She has eyes here," Isis declared as she nudged her mount towards the livery. "I am sure of it."

Inez felt a shudder run through her spine as she considered those words and knew that it was not beyond the realm of possibility. She must have had them watched to know when the boys had left town to seek out her false lure and had not made the attempt to kidnap Mary and the children until after she and the rest of the women had left. Inez may not have had the insight into Laurel Chase that Isis was displaying but she did not doubt that underestimating the lady was a fatal mistake.

"In that case, we ought to get indoors." Inez suggested. "If she has people here keeping an eye on things, theyíre sure to know who we are and we do not want to give ourselves away yet."

"You speak wisely Inez Wilmington." Isis remarked giving her a look of approval. "We will do as you suggest."

"You know," Casey spoke as they rode to the livery. "I canít understand why sheís taken all of them. Seems to me, she only wants Chris."

"She hates my consort." Isis spoke and it if was possibly for that cold voice to become tempered with even more ice, it did so then. There was sharpness to her aloof manner that revealed a glimmer of the hatred she felt for Laurel Chase as she spoke, not to mention the seething rage waiting release should Vin be harmed in any way. "She will want him there for revenge. She intended to cripple him before to teach him a lesson about what it was too stand between herself and Sekhmetís mate."

"Does she love Chris?" Casey asked. "Like Ella did?"

"I do not think it is a question of love as it is a question of power." Sekhmet answered neutrally which was rather surprising when it was Chris being discussed. Unlike Isis who was always calm and deliberate, Sekhmet was hot tempered and ready to do battle even where there were none to fight.

Climbing off their horses, they halted their conversation as they paid the appropriate gratuities to the livery owner for the use of his stables to house their mounts. They continued their pause in speech, not wishing to be overheard until they had left the livery and made their way to the hotel. "She believes herself to be unique this Laurel Chase, a force of nature unto herself that may use the men she meets but never allow them to be anything more for only might can subdue might."

"She thinks Chris is a force of nature?" Casey exclaimed, eyes widened.

"Isnít he?" Julia replied. "Come on think about it. Four Corners was a lawless mess before he came. No one could have held the seven together to clean it up unless he was Chris Larabee. I love Ezra but Iím not blind to the fact that there is something about Chris that is both dangerous and comforting. Itís like watching a storm tearing through the landscape but as destructive as a storm might be, it also bring rain and all the good that goes with it."

"She wants someone worthy of her." Isis responded. "She believes Chris is."

"Sheís insane." Inez shook her head at the twisted nature of the relationship Laurel had created in her mind. "After what she did to him? I do not think that is the way to get a man to come to you."

"She is insane." Isis agreed. "But she is that because she has no conscience to speak off. I doubt in her entire life any man has ever said no to her."

"Is she really that beautiful?" Inez mused. None of them except Alex had ever seen Laurel Chase. They had no face to which they could place the enemy.

"Yes," Isis nodded in affirmative. "She is exceedingly beautiful. My host saw her and met her. She is beautiful as she is brilliant and I sense she has searched a long time for a mate. She sees him in Chris but the only way she can have him is to break him or in failing to possess him, wishes to destroy him."

"Chris would never let that happen!" Casey came to the gunslingerís defence immediately. Chris Larabee was the best gunfighter she knew, next to JD of course. Chris was smart and he knew how to fix the best of things, Casey could not imagine for a moment anyone getting the best of him.

"A man can only lose so much before it wears away at the soul, young one." Sekhmet sighed and her eyes softened in that instance, showing the depth of her worry. The memories may have belonged to Sekhmet but the emotion was all Maryís. Chrisí state of mind still preyed heavily on her thoughts. If Laurel was cruel enough to allow him to believe that she was dead and Sekhmet had every reason to think so, she knew that the mate would be grief stricken. He had lost one wife and a child to violence, she was uncertain how he would manage losing another in the same manner.

"Well find them." Inez reached for her, forgetting that she was Sekhmet and seeing only Maryís concern on the face looking so saddened. Squeezing her shoulder gently, Inez cared not for the strangeness surrounding Sekhmet and Mary, reminding herself that the woman before her was still her best friend.

Julia could not feel that warmly towards Sekhmet or Isis but could appreciate the feelings of fear the women felt. Although she knew that Laurel had no particular interest in the gambler, that still did not mean that she would not harm Ezra Standish. Julia also found her worry centering on Josiah, the older man who had shown her what real paternal affection could be like and she would be just as vehement if any harm were to come to the preacher as she would be if Ezra was hurt in any way. If anything happened to either man or for that matter any of the seven, Julia would gladly help when they unleashed Sekhmet on the bitch.

They were required to pass by the general store in order to reach the hotel and Julia thought now was as good a time as any to make her bid for gathering information from its owner. The man in question was a thin, reedy creature with big teeth and not at all one might consider attractive. If anything he was rather homely but then one supposed, most bronzed gods chose not to become shop owners in a small one-horse town such as this. He was pretending to sweep the floor, even though he was still at the same floorboard she had seen him at when they had ridden past earlier.

Gesturing the others to go on ahead, Julia made eye contact with the man and immediately saw him react to her acknowledgment of him. He seemed to beam even wider when she left the others and stepped onto the steps that led to the front landing of the establishment. Julia removed her hat and ran her fingers through her copper locks, shaking loose the dust that had accumulated there during the ride here. She hardly looked like the model of seduction but she doubted that her victim was particularly mindful of that. In these parts, where there were twenty men to every woman, just the opportunity to gaze upon a pretty face was worth its weight in gold.

She saw the others disappearing into the hotel and was glad for their departure before she regarded her quarry once more. "Hello there." She said breezily, flashing him her most dazzling smile as she approached him.

The melting look on his face was enough to tell her that he was more than pliable for her needs. "Good day to you, Miss." He greeted with a somewhat transfixed expression on his face. "I seen you riding into town."

"I saw you too." Julia replied, with just a hint of flirtatious lilt to her voice to make that insipid smile stretch wider across his face. "My name is Julia." She extended her hand outward towards him and noticed that he wiped his hand on his apron before accepting it.

"Please to meet you Miss Julia." He swallowed thickly.

"And you are?" She asked, her brow crooking up in interest.

"James Sinclair." He stammered. "Though most folks just call me Jamie."

"Iíll call you James," Julia kept her eyes fixed on his. "It suits you better." She smiled.

She saw him turn a shade red and knew that he was more than ready to tell her what she needed to know as long as she presented a suitable faÁade part while making the inquiry. She may not be as beautiful as Miss Laurel Chase or possess a narcotic that could manipulate men but Julia had her own ways of extracting information, when it was necessary.

"Iím thinking of settling here James," she remarked, her gaze sweeping across the town and shuddering inwardly at such a thing being evenly remotely true. "I hear this town is one of the stopovers for the stagecoach line going to California."

"It sure is," he nodded, obviously thrilled by the idea of such a beautiful woman putting down roots here, especially when it appeared she might have a liking for him. "Weíre the last stop before the desert."

"I know." She met his gaze. "I was thinking of opening a little Emporium, not to sell the sort of things that you do because it appears that you deal in basics while I tend to lean towards luxuries. Think of it James," she said breathlessly. "People can stop here for the day and find not only a general store that can sell them food and necessities but also an Emporium that can give them those little pleasures that we all want." She batted her lashes at him. "You want that donít you James, a little pleasure?"

"Sounds like a fine idea, Julia." He laughed nervously, clearly so inspired by the idea because he was almost salivating.

"So," she said looking around. "What else is around here other than this charming little store and hotel? We could make this place into something grand James but we have to exploit local colour. Are there huge homesteads and ranches around here? Landmarks of any kind? Something that would draw the interest of people to stay longer than it takes for them to get a meal and move on?"

She was speaking so fast that his mind could barely make sense of it, even though he did so like the way her lips moved and the sparkle in those incredible coloured eyes. He had never seen the ocean but he was sure the depth of it looked liked her emerald eyes. However, when she had said landmarks, he managed to find enough voice to speak.

"Thatís the old fort."

"Old fort?" She looked at him. "You mean the ones left over from the Spanish?"

"Thatís the kind." He nodded. "Ainít nothing else around here that could interest people much Miss Julia. Landís too dry for ranching or home steading unless you move further east or keep going on to California. A couple of men came through here a weeks ago, looking for the same thing. Told them what Iím telling you now, only thing around here worth anything is that old fort and that ainít in much shape either. Last time I rode out that way, it was falling to pieces."

Julia considered the information, hiding her ruminations from the man who had provided her with just the thing she needed. An old fort would be just far enough out of town not to rouse local suspicion. Other than the odd visit to town to acquire supplies, Laurel and her men would have no reason interact with the locals and therefore stymie any speculation on the reason for her occupation of the fort, if they were even aware of it. Not only was the fort far enough away to be forgotten but a place like that would have cells where seven prisoners might be held indefinitely. The thought of Ezra languishing away within bars caused a shudder to run down her spine and she knew with a gut instinct that it was the place they were seeking.

"Well," Julia turned her gaze back to Jamie and offered another charming smile, which hid any trace of the anxiety, she felt for inwardly. "I want to thank you for this nice little chat James, Iím sure we will be seeing a lot of each other."

He could only nod with another stupid grin as Julia drew away from him and went to join the others at the hotel.

***********

Isis absorbed what Julia had to report when she joined them in the lodgings they had acquired for their stay in Forbes. Although it was considered prudent to remain out of sight, the women knew that it was necessary that they took a look at the place Julia had believed to be occupied by Laurel Chase. It made sense that the lady would surround herself with such formidable fortifications. The positioning of Calumet City where she had hosted her bloody gladiatorial bouts were similarly protected, having been established within the confines of a canyon with only one discernible way in or out. The element of surprise and her arrogance in underestimating Vin Tannerís determination to find her had allowed the seven to rescue Chris Larabee and escape unscathed.

They had barely managed to restrain Sekhmet from going immediately to the place in order to learn for certain whether or not Juliaís suspicion that this fort might hold the answer to the present whereabouts of the seven. However, Isis and Inez both managed to convince the former warrior goddess that any incursion to the place would have to wait until the cover of dark. There was no purpose in allowing the enemy to know that they were coming. Under those conditions, Sekhmet was able to appeased for the moment. They took dinner in their rooms, choosing not to be seen for the duration of their stay in Forbes. Ever mindful of Isisí assertion that it was highly likely that Laurel had men placed in this town that could give them away, the visitors from Four Corner limited their interaction with the small community of Forbes.

It was well after dark and the saloon became the focus of all attention, as it was common in such frontier towns, before they decided to make their move. Ensuring that they were not seen as they left their rooms, the five women retrieved their horses from the livery and did not mount their horses to ride until they had walked the animals some distance out of town. Once they were certain that no one was watching they climbed onto their horses and rode away into the night, leaving Forbes behind them and taking a gamble that the fort would bring them closer to Laurel Chase.

**********

The fort was like every Spanish construct of the time, with arched gates and high walls surrounding it. Though they were not barred, the walls were thick and formidable, giving it a quality of impregnability that was more psychological than it actually was. It did not matter that it was old. Old trees could petrify and become impervious to an axe. Such was the same for this building that was meant to withstand cannon balls and was more than a match for five women attempting to rescue the men that they loved.

Although the could see no visible signs of life as they approached, it did not matter to Sekhmet. She ordered them off their horses even though the structure was something of a distant speck on the horizon. It was not so far that they could not reach it by foot but Sekhmet claimed something did not smell right, that the quiet of the night and the seemingly inactivity of the place belied something sinister that could not be discerned through the naked eye.

"Theyíre there." Sekhmet replied, as she remained hunched in the darkness. The landscape was flat and ran in even length all the way to the base of the walled fortress. She kept low even though there was no where to hide but it was a moonless night and visibility was low.

"How can you tell?" Julia whispered, staring at the same thing she was but seeing nothing that would indicate the truth of her statement. Even though her initial instincts had told her this was the place, seeing it so abandoned and silent started to shake the certainty she had felt earlier. What if she was wrong? What if she had led them on some wild goose chase? Juliaís mind rambled with such thoughts and she knew that she was not helping the situation with her doubts.

"I have their scent." Sekhmet said confidently. "The enemy is smart, she allows her guard to fall not an instant."

"Or maybe she isnít there." Julia retorted sceptically.

"Sheís there." Sekhmet renewed her declaration. She remained poised and on her haunches, watching the dark silhouette of the structure against the even darker night sky trying to see past the shadows. The prey was there. It was all a matter of patience.

"Itís so quiet." Casey whispered under her breath. Even though the nature of Sekhmet frightened her, the woman herself was amazing and Casey could not help being drawn to her. Sekhmet was everything that Casey wanted to be; smart, capable and able to face a man on his terms and win, without caring that it was not a womanís place to be that way. While frontier women tended to be course and unrefined, Sekhmet was like a wild animal, sleek and powerful, a mountain cat moving in the dark. She remained close to Sekhmet wishing to learn as much as she could before the powerful persona faded away into the familiar guise of Mary Larabee.

"They are watching." Sekhmet glanced at the younger woman. "If we remain where we are, they will not see us. We have the cover of night and the visual acuity of humansí decreases after a certain range. Even with night eyes, it will take them longer to discern shapes."

"Thatís all well and good but we canít see much either." Inez remarked.

"Under normal circumstances yes," Isis remarked, reaching into the satchel she had brought from the bunker where the Chapaii lay entombed. Reaching into it, she produced a strange object no bigger than her hand but appeared to look like eyeglasses attached together. The coating around it was black and did not feel like wood but rather metal even though it appeared much too light for steel.

"What is that?" Inez asked.

"Something that will have to be destroyed once we are done with it." Isis responded and handed it to the Mexican, instructing which end she should look in. "Look." She ordered.

Inez held the object to her eyes and looked at the fort once again. Instead of seeing the same distant darkness, she saw the fort magnified by more times than she could count. Not even a spyglass was capable of this kind of enhancement. In shock at how close it was she stumbled back and fell down on her rear end.

"How did your primitive kind even grasp the concept that the world is round?" Isis shook her head in disgust and drew a scowl from Inez. The bartender muttered under her breath and gingerly held the device to her face again and took another look, shock evaporating away to be replaced by fascination.

"Why is everything red?" She asked.

"Every object in the universe radiates light," Isis informed dutifully. "It is only the limitation of human eyes that allow us to see specific spectrums of light. How you are seeing what is in front of you is done so by the energy form known as infra-red."

"Madre mois!" Inez hissed in astonishment as she saw the world through the eye of the strange device. It was a nightmarish world painted in shades of red but strangely enough, it did allow her to see clearly. "It is amazing."

"Let me try Inez." Casey said eagerly, like a child with a new toy.

"We are here for a purpose." Sekhmet bristled, not liking any of this banter while they were trying to observe covertly. "Be still the lot of you." She hissed.

"Sorry," Casey said sheepishly but still regarded Inez with a hopeful expression.

"Are you able to see anyone?" Sekhmet inquired after a moment.

Inez stopped marvelling at the wonder she was seeing and concentrated on the request. Though there was no light for if there had been, she would have felt it most profoundly, she could make out the high edges of the walls, the less than decrepit state of things and although it looked outwardly abandoned, there was something not quite right. Inez, who came from a country littered with such places after Santa Ana, knew abandoned when she saw it. As if to lend credence to her belief, she suddenly saw men patrolling the length and breath of the wall, the points of rifle barrels, following them as they moved.

"Yes," Inez nodded grimly. "I see them."

Sekhmet did not turn her eyes away from her quarryís nest, keeping her gaze fixed upon it as if she could see them with the same clarity that Inez was doing so right at this minute. "I knew it."

"How many?" Julia asked next.

Although Inez could only see the number of the walls, she knew that there were more than seven. She saw two men exchanging shifts with the previous guards on the western wall and assumed that the same procedure applied for the guards on the eastern face as well. She saw the changeover and watched the duo disappear into the heart of the fort, wondering what their exact number was even though with what she had seen so far was certain that they were many.

"Enough." She replied and that was all the explanation was needed.

"Let me see." Sekhmet responded and took the device from her before holding to her own blue grey eyes.

Inez turned Isis and declared. "We cannot do this. Theyíll shoot us to pieces before we even get ten feet of that place. There are men stationed all over that wall. We cannot get near it!" She exclaimed with more than a good deal of frustration in her voice. Inez felt cruelly robbed of being any help to Buck after coming all this way. She could cry from the sheer unfairness of it.

"But we got these fancy weapons!" Casey added her voice in, refusing to give up on JD or any of the others. She had seen some amazing things during this entire affair and she was not ready to let a stretch of plain be their undoing. There had to be another way. "We canít stop now!"

"The child is right." Sekhmet responded without lowering the device from her eyes. "We can defeat them. Our problem is merely reaching them to do so."

"The enemy selected her fortress well. She could kill us before we even reach our mates to be of any aid to them." Isis informed grimly.

"Ladies," Julia let out a deep sigh, wondering why they always focussed on the overall problem and not the baby steps required to get there. "One thing at a time. Our problem right now is getting across that space without getting shot to bits, is that right?"

"Yes." Sekhmet nodded. "However, one cannot hope to rescue the others without crossing that expanse."

"Look," Julia cast her eye in Sekhmetís direction with something of a exasperation glare. "We deal with getting across first then weíll work on the rescue. Now, Laurel is pretty damn sure that sheís got away clean. Sheís assuming that Mary is dead and we are at this moment dealing with that at Four Corners and since the possibility of there being a rescue while all the boys are in her hands, is pretty remote, she thinks that no one will be coming after her."

"Then why does she have so many guards?" Inez asked.

Isis began to see what Julia was alluding to. "She is aware that she is safe but she is not foolish enough to leave herself unprotected."

"Exactly and if trouble comes, its not going to be from a bunch of women but men, possibly peace officers who will come charging in with numbers. Thatís what sheís prepared herself for and thatís what weíre not going to give her."

"I do not understand," Sekhmet looked at her. "We cannot approach her covertly. The terrain does not allow for this."

"I agree," Julia nodded. "So weíre going to do this the old fashioned way."

"The old fashioned way?" Inez looked at her.

Julia Pemberton would only respond with a thoroughly wicked smile.

************

It was starting.

Ever since Laurel had triumphantly confirmed what the seven had suspected in regards to contents of Vin Tannerís flask, Chris had been watching his best friend through the bars of his cell. Watching and waiting for the inevitable he knew would come. Chris knew he was not alone in his vigil, for Nathan was also watching the tracker. The irony of it was, the real expert in the Venom narcotic other than Laurel herself, was Vinís own wife. Chris knew for a fact that Alex had devoted much time to unravelling the secrets of the strange potion in order to understand and treat the people who fell under its evil influence. It was his own experience with the drug that had prompted her study of it, for he knew that she sought to find a method of purging the substance from the bloodstream without enduring the painful withdrawal symptoms.

At the moment, Vin was trying to sleep but even in slumber, the effects of the Venom upon his system were obvious. He was tossing and turning in his bunk, unaware that his restless sleep had robbed anyone else from achieving their own. A whimper would escape him on occasion and as trouble as he was, Chris knew with a deepening ache inside the pit of his stomach that it was only the prelude to a more painful act. Laurel in her cruelty had administered the drug, fully aware that Vin would never ask for more without first suffering intense agony engendered by the withdrawal. Laurel had kept so many in her thrall simply because enduring the pain of freeing oneself from the substance was too much and the only reason she had fed it to Vin was because she wanted to see him beg.

Chris would never be truly able to express just how grateful he had been at being rescued and surrounded by his friends when he had personally endured the experience. By the time Vin had found him in the Arena, Chris had been so gripped with the substance, he barely knew anyone. He had made love to Laurel, betraying Mary, a thing he would never forgive himself nor could he bring himself to admit to his wife. The shame of it was more than he could stand and not even Chris Larabee was strong enough to see the hurt in Maryís eyes if she were to know the truth.

And then there was what he had said to Vin.

That part was almost as hard to swallow as the intimacies he shared with Laurel. Vin, who had never given up hope of finding him, who searched and searched until something was uncovered to lead to his whereabouts and by doing so had earned Laurel Chaseí undying hatred had borne the brunt of his narcotic induced mania. Chris remembered everything he had said to the tracker, every cruel, snide taunt that had marked their friendship forever, despite the fact that things appeared normal. Vin had listened to every vicious word spoken, had kept him from doing something unspeakable to Julia Pemberton and then shrugged it off because he knew that the Venom was at the root of Chrisí behaviour and because Chris was his friend.

It was quite something to know that there was someone in this world who would walk the fires of hell for you if necessary and Vin Tanner was that kind of friend. As Chris watched him now, he was determined to help Vin through this. If necessary and despite the fact that it made him sick simply considering the idea, Chris was willing to play Laurelís games on her own terms if it meant he could spare Vin the agony of what was coming.

Chris allowed his gaze to sweep across the collection of cells and wondered whether it was light or day outside. The lack of a window had robbed them of any sense of time with the dungeon was perpetually illuminated by torches all day. The faces behind the bars were just as graven. Nathan had occupied himself by keeping an eye on Vin. Ezra amused himself with a deck of cards while JD paced up and down the cell, no doubt worried about what was happening to Buck under Laurelís ministrations. In truth, Chris was a little worried himself although his present thoughts were focussed on Vin because it was a problem that was right before him. Josiah sat on his bunk, wearing an introspective expression on his face as he considered their present situation.

"What is she doing with Buck?" JD finally grumbled, startling some of them with the sudden eruption of his voice in what was a deathly silent atmosphere. Until he spoke, the only thing they had been able to hear was the sound of Vinís discontents as his body began to crave the dosage of Venom once it had been introduced to the substance.

"Iím sure we will find out soon enough." Josiah said calmly as always, aware that nerves were frayed enough as it is.

"How long is she going to keep us down here?" JD asked once again, not quite catching the hidden intent of Josiahís words.

"As long as it takes." The preacher remarked.

"For what?"

"For her to win." Josiah said with maddening calm that only seemed to infuriate JD even more.

Chris did not add that as far as he was concerned, it was no longer a question of a game. Laurel had killed Mary and each time Chris thought about his wife, a well of grief threaten to rise from inside threatening ensnare him in its powerful grip and which took all his power to stave off because at the moment, it had to wait. The woman had his children and was slowly torturing his best friend while doing God only knew what to his oldest. Chris could not focus on Maryís loss, at this time. He needed to concentrate on getting out of here and skinning Laurel Chase alive because if either Billy or Michael were hurt, that was the least of what he would be doing to her.

"Mr Dunne," Ezra drawled with the same southern ooze he used to take some poor bastard for every cent they had at the card table. "I do not think that Mr Wilmington is in any present danger. The lady looked more curious than anything else."

"Curious?" JD regarded the gambler not understanding.

"She likes to be in control and Mr Wilmington is quite notable as the ladies maní, perhaps she wanted to deduce if his reputation matched his ability."

"WILL YOU ALL PLEASE SHUT UP!" Vin voice suddenly screamed out loud, silencing them all.

Everyone fell silent immediately as the tracker rose from his bunk, not all restful after his sleep. Vin did not at all look well. His skin was almost grey and a layer of sweat covered his skin. Dark circles clung in bags under his eyes and the usually stoic and unflappable tracker appeared as if he were almost ready to jump out of his skin. He paced up and down the floor of his cell, looking like an animal trapped in a cage. It was unnerving to those who knew him to see Vin like this because he was always in control of himself, even when he was not. The young man rarely reacted strongly even though he could make his opinions known when he had to.

"Vin, calm down." Chris tried to reach him and felt a sliver of pain realising that it was a good thing that he was inside a cell, at least he was not capable of harming anyone although Chris was not so certain if this impotence extended towards himself.

"Donít tell me to calm down!" He growled, feeling the prickling at his skin. It felt like heat, slowly increasing with each breath he took and the breaths were coming too quickly. He knew he was panting but not why. His heart felt like it was racing in his chest and there was all this boundless energy inside him that was pressing against the walls of his body, demanding release.

"Vin," Chris tried again, aware of what was happening to his best friend and attempting to help him any way possible, even though that was easier said then done because this was something he had to suffer in order to be rid of the drug. "I know its hard, but itís the drug thatís making you feel this way."

"I know." Vin managed to say. His hands shaking as he fought it. There were tears in his eyes as he struggled to stave off the madness that was creeping into his mind, piercing the inner centres of his brain with tendrils of rage. "It hurts." He whispered.

"I know it does," Chris went to the bars and extended his arm through the space, hoping that Vin would take the outstretched hand. "Youíve got to fight it. She wants you to hurt Vin, she wants you to hurt so that you will beg her for more."

"I wonít become her pet!" Vin fairly screamed but even Chris could see the battle was one the tracker could not win. He was making a valiant effort not to give Laurel the satisfaction of seeing him in pain but Chris knew all to well that it was not something he could fight.

"Come on Vin," Nathan lent his support to Chrisí attempts to help. "You got to concentrate brother," the healerís voice was almost smoothing and Chris decided it was the voice that had accompanied them during the recovery of many injuries during the years the seven had ridden together. Nathanís voice was something they equated with rest and safety, an indicator that they had won the day and it was time to heal. "Tried to breathe slowly. Your heartís racing right now. Weíve got to slow it down a little."

Vin nodded wildly and clamped his eyes shut, trying to force all the stray angry thoughts out of his head, forgetting for the moment the splinter that was burrowing inside his mind and focussed on what Nathan was trying to impart upon him. However, he did take a few steps forward and wrapped his hand around the outstretched arm being held out to him in support. He grabbed it quickly and then lifted his eyes to meet Chrisí.

"Donít let me go." He said hoarsely. "Even if I scream and beg you, donít let me go crawling to her. I wonít have that poison inside me. Promise me."

Chris nodded sombrely. "I wonít." His voice was almost a strangled gasp. "I swear to you, I wonít let that happen."

Vin lowered himself to the floor, his eyes still closed as his jaw tensed when he began gritting his teeth in preparation for what was to come. He had remembered vividly what had happened to Chris during his bout with withdrawal and knew how bad things were about to be. He forced himself to obey Nathanís instructions, keeping his eyes shut because he needed to block everything else out to concentrate on what the healer was saying.

Chris looked helplessly as the others and saw their anguished expression as empathised with their feelings of helplessness, knowing all to well what it was they were enduring for he was enduring it himself. However for the moment, Chris maintained his grip on Vin, bracing himself for the time when the tracker was ready to tear his arm off in order to satisfy that burning urges inside him.

And the time for that was drawing close.

**********

When Laurel Chase walked into the cells to inspect her Ďguestsí some hours later, she was not surprised to hear the sound of screaming.

A small smile curled the corners of her lips as she entered the lower chambers of the old fort she had taken residence in for the duration of her encounter with Chris Larabee. Although there was a town close by, Laurel could be assured of her anonymity because the fort sat on the edge of the desert and was in a particularly harsh piece of terrain that was seldom traversed by many. The town itself was barely a community and like all small provincial villages as Forbes was, it was easy to conduct oneís affairs without any interference from the ignorant locals.

Of course she had taken precautions following the procurement of her Ďguestsí and there were more than enough men under her employ, some with monetary gratuities and others devoted to her because of the Venom they had been administered, to ensure that she was uninterrupted. Leaving Buck Wilmington in his new abode in order to ponder his fate, Laurel thought she might take the opportunity to see how dear Mr Tanner was doing. According to her estimation, his body would be well and truly demanding a fresh infusion of Venom by now and he ought to be suffering rather agonising withdrawal pains. As she took the spiral steps that led into the cells in the lower levels of the old Spanish bastion, she could hear his screams echoing down the craggy walls.

This pleased her greatly. In fact, other than the initial hiccup of losing Mary Larabee, everything else had transpired accordingly. Chrisí children were safely sequestered and kept under tight guard. The baby was little trouble as anticipated and Laurel had to admit she found a certain pleasure in the idea of keeping the infant indefinitely. Laurel liked the idea of raising Chris Larabeeís child as her own. The older child was another matter entirely. He was too old to be anything but trouble and when she was done with his stepfather, Laurel decided to rid herself of him. There were plenty of places out there that had use for a boy like young Master Travis, especially when it came to the business of pleasure.

She might tell Chris that before she decided to kill him.

Laurel had every intention of killing Chris Larabee but before he died, he would have nothing worth living for. She had wanted to play a game with him but it was obvious now that he would never play it the way she wanted, not with the loss of his wife. However, before she rid herself of him, there was no reason why she could not enjoy herself first.

Laurel entered the final leg of her journey and saw the two guards posted at the entrance to the cells, straightening up at her arrival. Although she had no doubt they were not as vigil as their erect posture was supposed to indicate, Laurel had more faith in the steel bars that kept her prey enclosed then their abilities as sentries. One of them opened the door for her and as she stepped in, the distant hollering evolved into a piercing scream of agony.

"How are we doing Mr Tanner?" Laurel gloated as she stepped up to the bars and saw both of Chrisí arms through the bars of his cell, keeping a firm grip on Vin as the tracker convulsed and writhed in agony.

"We appear to be quite fine Miss Chase." Ezra found himself speaking because Chris was busy trying to subdue Vin to have any time to deal with the lady and her obvious attempt to gloat. "Why do you ask?" He said with a perfectly straight face.

"No reason at all," Laurel regarded the gambler with a crook brow, admiring his ability to maintain his faÁade despite the scene before him. "It does seem however that Mr Tanner is in a little bit of discomfort."

Vin was in a little more than just discomfort, Ezra thought as he glanced at the tracker, struggling in Chrisí grip. His skin was raked with scratches where he had clawed at his skin. A rivulet of blood was running down the corner of his lip down to his chin where he had bitten his tongue during initial stages of agony that tore through him without mercy. It wrenched the soul out of every one of them to be forced to watch Vin suffering this hell and not even be able to get near enough to help him.

"Iíll kill you for this!" Chris growled for her.

"If you do Chris," Laurel gave him a truly sinister look. "Then I wonít be able to give Mr Tanner this." She reached into the folds of her dress. Her hand slipped into a pocket and produced a syringe with a cork place firmly on the point of the needle.

There was no question what it contained.

"He doesnít need it!" JD shouted, answering before Chris could.

Laurel looked over her shoulder and said with a sweet smile. "Children should be seen and not heard, Mr Dunne."

JD reddened with outrage but Josiah interrupted before the youth could make a further outburst. "Stand down JD."

JD turned sharply at Josiah preparing to protest when he saw how serious Josiah was about that order and felt the doubt seep into his bones enough to pause and consider that the older man might have good reason to issue him the warning. Swallowing his anger like bile in his throat, JD decided that it was prudent to obey because Laurel was clearly psychotic and things were bad enough as they were already without his exacerbating the situation by drawing her attention to him.

"Thatís a good boy." She said smugly and stepped up to the bars of Vinís cell. "I can make you feel so much better Vin." She held the syringe up to display, inciting to tempt him with its contents. "There wonít be any more pain, no more burning. Youíll feel perfectly wonderful."

"GO TO HELL!" Vin surfaced out of his agony long enough to scream.

"Youíre going there first." Laurel stared at him, smiling. "Its going to get worse Vin. You think it hurts now but it will be so bad that youíll do anything to make it stop. Chris knows, donít you Chris?"

"You stay away from him!" Chris held him first as Vin started shrieking again, his efforts to control the pain in front of Laurel completely destroyed as the tracker began scream once more, convulsing so violently that it took every ounce of strength that Chris had to keep his hold on Vin. The Venom made Vin stronger and combined with his frenzied state of mind, it was taking a Herculean effort to restrain him.

"Of course I will," Laurel answered with a smirk. "I wonít give this to him Chris. I promised you that. I wonít let him have a drop until he crawls to my feet begging for it."

"NEVER!" Vin glared at her, breathing hard before the word crumbled into a ragged sob of pain.

Suddenly, he spasmed more violently before but there was something different about it this time. Chris could tell that something had changed because even Laurel was unprepared for it. Vin tensed up in his grasp and his head lolled backwards and suddenly he was no longer screaming but uttering gurgling sounds as if he were choking. In shock, Chris let him go but instead of continuing to struggle and claw at himself, the tracker tumbled into the dirt floor, his body jerking about uncertainly.

"Vin!" Nathan shouted, ready to tear the bars apart with his hands to reach his friend if possible.

"Something is wrong with his eye! Chris shouted, seeing the corner of Vinís eye ball suddenly fill with blood. In seconds, the blue iris was surrounded, completely overwhelming the whites and his struggles ended just as abruptly. Vin lay motionless on the ground, staring overhead but seeing nothing.

"Tell me!" Nathan cried out desperately.

"His eye is red, its like itís filled with blood." Chris gasped, knowing instantly that something had gone wrong, and something that not even Laurel had anticipated. He reached through the bars and felt for a pulse, almost terrified for an instant that there would not be one. A slight throbbing against his fingertip told him other wise but it did not alleviate his fear any.

"Heís still alive but heís weak." Chris responded.

"Oh dear," the woman said without a hint of repentance or sorrow in her voice. "How unfortunate. I thought Mr Tanner was stronger than that. I guess I was wrong."

"What did you do to him?" Chris let go of Vin and stood up, almost throwing himself at the bars in his effort to get as close to Laurel as he could. The lady was too smart for that and immediately put some distance between herself and the bars to ensure that he was incapable of doing her any harm.

"Why Chris, you canít blame me for this? Who knew his arterial walls were so weak?"

"What?" Chris exclaimed not comprehending and turned sharply to Nathan to see the realisation dawning on the healerís face. "What is she talking about Nathan?" He demanded. "What did she do to Vin?"

"She didnít do it but she caused it," Nathan glared at the woman, remembering the conversation they had before this had all began about whether or not it was wrong to kill someone who was deserving of it. At this instant for Nathan at least, the moral dilemma did not exist.

"Caused what?" Chris shouted, needing to know.

"A stroke Chris," Nathanís voice was like ice when he finally answered what he was certain to be truth. "She caused him to have a stroke."

Part Six:

Storming the Castle

Isis felt a slight chill run down her spine.

For a moment, she thought it might have been the night air. The paradoxical nature of desert terrain were such that while the day was bathed in waves upon waves of blistering heat that cracked the skin and baked the ground, at night the temperatures dropped so drastically one might forget that one was in a desert at all. The Goddess of All paused for a moment, trying to discern what had been the cause of this sudden icy occurrence, wondering whether it was simply an aspect of being human or was it on some level, her Goaíuld past reaching out to express itself. It did not take long before she decided that she did not know which but the chill followed a deep sense of dread regarding her mate.

No, she corrected herself, not her mate. The Consort to the Goddess of All had earned the right to be called more than that. He was her Beloved, the Pharaoh of her heart. Although Isis herself had no feeling for the man called Vin Tanner, every fibre of the hostsí being knew that she loved this human and would be willingly die for him. Sharing the host soul had made Isis feel the same way for him and though it was some times bewildering how one human could feel such contentment with another, she knew without any doubt that if he were taken from them, her host would never recover from the loss. Isis did not wish to be doomed with the mourning that followed.

When the feeling overcame her, she had been seated in the back of the wagon they had procured in Avon for the purpose of this plan Julia Pemberton had insisted was the only way to penetrate the fortress within which she was certain all their mates were being held. Their horses were left a short distance behind them, beyond the sight of the enemy. If their rescue attempt were successful, the horses would be needed again to make good their escape. The wagon, covered with canvas, allowed her and Sekhmet some measure of anonymity even though when the time came to spring the plan into action, they would be the ones who would ensure their success. Still as Julia had rightly pointed out, that aspect of the rescue could wait. The crossing of the flat terrain surrounding the fort was all that mattered presently. The wagon continued on its path over the rocky terrain, jostling those within as it crossed the desert. Inez, Julia and Casey were up front for it was necessary that it appeared nothing was being hidden as they approached the enemy with their dangerous gambit to enter Laurel's confines.

"What is the matter?" Sekhmet asked when she saw an unfathomable expression surface on Isisí cool features.

The Goddess of All sat up quickly in the back tray, the canvas billowing slightly towards her with every breath of desert scarp. She swallowed, feeling this hollowness in her pit of her stomach, a natural reaction for a body tensing. She could explain the cause of such a reaction from her abdomen. It was an established fact that when a creature felt fear, the body prepared itself for confrontation and saved its resources for what might be needed later. The stomach pauses in its digestive processes, readying itself for a fight. She knew the how of her stomach hollowing but not the why. That was harder.

"I do not know," she responded softly, grasping desperately at the tendrils of cold quickly slipping away so she that could better understand. "I feel a deep sense of foreboding. I cannot explain it."

"We are about to face an uncertain battle," Sekhmet responded, though she did not look afraid. Sekhmet very rarely feared battle. She relished it. Such confidence came with the supreme understanding that one was the very best. However, Isis was a formidable warrior herself, perhaps even more so than her and yet Isis relied upon her mind to solve most situations and thus rarely had to rely solely on her skills as a warrior. "It is understandable that you are slightly apprehensive. There is no shame in that."

"I do not fear battle Sekhmet," Isis retorted automatically and gazed past the opening in the canvas. She saw the harsh desert terrain, punctuated by shrubs, rocks and the occasional struggling tree but none of it really registered in her mind. There was just this feeling. It was ominous, like something in the darkness about to lunge with sharp teeth. " I fear something has taken a turn for the worse."

"How do you mean?" The warrior goddess asked immediately, her voice suddenly taut.

"I cannot explain it." Isis answered as best she could. "A moment ago I was struck with a sense of terrible darkness. I think my mate is harmed." The words escaped her like a strained breath.

"You do not know that for certain." Sekhmet declared, not about to put her faith in such feelings when fact was all she knew. Although the perceptions belonging to the Goddess of All was no small matter either. "The host has fears for her beloved. Your Ďfeelingí may have been a projection of her own anxiety towards his safety."

As much as Isis wanted to believe that, she knew it was not the truth. There was some insight to what she had felt and inwardly began to brace herself for the worse even though she knew that if she were to find him dead, it was uncertain what sense would remain within her to be of any aid to the others. She leaned back against the canvas sides and closed her eyes, having images of him fill her mind and the part of her that was Isis, could not help feeling a little bit envious of the host. He was possibly the most beautiful man she had ever seen, though he did not look it upon first viewing. Isis accessed memories of love making hot and steamy, tender and wild, all things that the poets through the ages had described. Warm, summer nights while they rode together on horseback, thrilling in the simple pleasure of being with one another, of being able to look into each otherís eyes and say with complete confidence they belonged only to each other.

"Sekhmet do you wonder about your mate?" Isis asked.

"He is not my mate." She returned automatically. "He is the mate of the host."

"But you have her feelings do you not?" Isis questioned again.

Sekhmet shrugged finding the question uncomfortable. "I have her feelings. I worry about him and how he fares. I worry about my children whom are in her hands. I know they are not mine really but trapped inside her mind, I watch what she has. I see how fulfilled she feels and thought it is unimaginable to me that content could come from such an existence, I also envy her for she is happy. Not many creatures can claim to feel as such. I suppose in some way, I share in her joy and when this is over, when we return to whatever we were before, I think I can do so knowing that I will understand that happiness enough to enjoy it with her."

"Yes," Isis nodded. "I feel that too. I have this ache inside my soul and I know it does not belong to me. She feared nothing more than allowing me free to rule in her stead and yet she allowed it so because it was the only way to retrieve him. Can you imagine the sacrifice?" Isis asked, her voice lowering to a soft whisper. "To give away oneís life in death is easier than what was asked of her. She risked a living death if it meant that he could be saved. A part of me thinks that this is foolishness that if it werE Isis making the choice, there would be no question of what was to be done. Another part makes me feel ashamed."

"Goaíuld do not feel shame." Sekhmet replied softly. "Goaíuld do not feel at all. It is no wonder we were so despised. No wonder why the Nefertum chose to banish us as their gods, why all the TauíRi have done so. We do not understand anything and we do not care too. We could have taken our place as one of the five races of the galactic Council but our barbarism disgusts the others. They think Goaíuld is a blight to removed. Perhaps it is the host that compels me to say this but I actually feel that they are right."

"Perhaps," Isis sighed. "But this is an argument for another time." There was nothing to be done by debating this issue since they were not themselves to be able to conclude that anything they felt was not a residual effect of the host, instead of their true feelings on the matter.

Sekhmet did not disagree but suddenly, her eyes filled with caution and she cocked her head slightly as if concentrating hard. Beyond the canvas walls of the wagon, she could hear voices and knew instinctively they did not belong to any member of their party. Over the sound of rocks shattering under the weight of a wagon wheel and dirt being crush underfoot, Sekhmet could hear the sounds of what was definitely male curiosity being aimed at their presence. She moved stealthily to the head of the wagon and peered through the slit of canvas. Inez, Julia and Casey were playing their part, waving and smiling at the men. The response from the men guarding the wall of the fortress was wavering between caution and interest.

This was hardly surprising because the details of Juliaís plan had been involved their return to town and acquiring the apparel of a couple of cathouse employees. The wagon though modest from within was garishly decorated for the purpose of leaving no question as to what occupation its riders were engaged in. Mercifully, the ruse did not require all of them to be disguised and so only Julia, Casey and Inez were adorned in the tasteless clothes. As Isis and Sekhmet quickly hid themselves beneath some old sheets and blankets acquired for the purpose, they could hear Inez and Julia laughing and beckoning the men while they were approached, playing theirs parts superbly.

Superbly perhaps, but not without despising every forward thing they were saying. Casey was merely content to smile and somehow, Inez had the idea that she was most likely the one most of the men who were leering at them like sides of beef, wanted most. It was always the way with men, she thought, always after what was forbidden or most difficult to acquire. In any case, Casey was only playing the part as they all were. Julia had been correct about a bunch of working girls being able to con their way through the gates of the fort.

As they neared the high walls, arms were waving them forward, urging them to complete the distance. The men who made up Laurel Chaseí army were an eclectic bunch, ranging from Mexicans, Caucasians and even the odd native Indian. She supposed that the narcotic being administered to them made all men brothers, no matter what colour their skin. Still, despite this accusation, Inez was hard pressed to see which man was affected and which was not. There were no signs of the mania that had gripped Chris Larabee and she shuddered at the thought that once they were past the gates of the fort, these were the men they had to get through to reach Buck and the others.

Although Isis and Sekhmet promised that their off world weapons were more than a match for the number they faced, Inez could not help being a little unnerved by using such strange devices. Though she was not deeply religious, she was a product of her upbringing and a healthy faith in God was part of her life. Something inside Inez told her that these were dangerous forces they were tampering with, forces that perhaps the human race as a whole was unprepared to cope with yet. Indeed Isis had claimed that once the boys were freed and this situation had drawn to its conclusion, the weapons would be discarded permanently, perhaps even returned to the underground tomb from which they had been liberated. They reached the foot of the fortress and a huge Oriental looked down at her. Obviously having been summoned at their approach, he looked down at the three of them with distaste.

"What do you want?" He asked.

"Nothing at all," Julia Pemberton responded the best actress among them all. She offered the man a smile while behind her, Inez tried not to show that the sight of him had sent tendrils of fear through her spine. This was the man that Vin Tanner had told her was Laurelís bodyguard, who was never away from her side. The sight of him standing at the top of the wall was proof enough that they were on the right track and the seven were here.

"Weíre on our way to California," Julia replied looking up at the huge man, aware of the implications just as well as Inez. Fortunately, Isis and Sekhmet was hidden in the back of the wagon and could not be seen by the man. Had he seen Isis, he would have immediately recognized Alexandra Styles and this entire rescue attempt would die in the birthing. Alex was the only one of them the enemy had seen since she had been present during the rescue of Chris Larabee from the Arena.

"We saw this place and thought business was business, we could afford to make a little stop here." She smiled. "So?" She met the Oriental's gaze, forcing all fear from her eyes and playing the part of working girl to aplomb. "Can we show you boys a good time?"

Mr Zhang looked at her for a long time, as if weighing the decision carefully in his head. The supervision of the men under their employ was for most part his responsibility and he knew the Mistress would not have any reason to question his decision as long as nothing came of it. It would not be a imprudent decision to allow these 'ladies' into the place for a time. They were miles from anywhere and the presence of the Mistress could sometimes addle the brain of those who lusted after her and almost everyone did at some point. Satisfying that animal need may go a long way to pacifying them for a time. He knew that some of them were becoming impatient with this inactivity of this duty guarding prisoners and while the Venom kept them bound to Laurel, it did not give any them release from their aggressive tendencies.

"You may enter." He said finally.

"That's kind of you," Julia flashed him another winning smile and then capped off the performance by giving the man a wink. "You won't regret it."

***********

Laurel Chase was pleased.

She had not imagined that this outcome was possible when she had begun crafting her vengeance against Vin Tanner but supposed that it was just Fate's way of reminding her who was in charge. She supposed that it was arrogance on her part to assume that physiological response of every subject who had partaken of Venom would be the same. Men were not rats, they did not often respond the same way. Twelve rats would react in one manner but twelve different men would do so in twelve different ways. She had not thought Mr Tanner was susceptible to a stroke but it was such a perfect end to him that she could not help feeling somewhat giddy that it was she who had caused it.

Laurel circled the bed where he was lying resembling a vulture about to feed on the corpse of the dead. After he had lapsed into this condition, Laurel had him removed from his cell while listening to Chris Larabee making his impotent threats and enjoying it almost as much as she enjoyed seeing Vin Tanner in this state. He was not quite dead yet and she suspected that his cognitive abilities were quite intact even though his body would not allow him to express himself in anyway. Perhaps she would allow the healer to look at him as the man wanted since Laurel did not wish Vin to shirk off the mortal plane just yet.

She wanted him like this for as long as it was possible to keep him alive in this fashion.

"Well Mr Tanner," she said with a little smile as she sat on the edge of the bed, leaning over him so that he would know she was there. His mind was still too clouded from the after effects of the stroke and though his mind was still functioning, it would be days before he attained a level of recovery that would allow him to understand anything she was saying. Still, Laurel was not about to lament this little irritation because seeing him in his condition was almost as good as crippling him. Even better actually.

"What shall we do with you?" She asked as she tapped him lightly on the nose. His eyes were still staring into nothingness but she was certain on some level that he was aware of her. At least it amused her think so.

"Maybe I'll keep you in a corner of my parlor, to entertain guests. See how many bullets it will take to pierce your skin to cause a reaction? Wouldn't that be nice?" She let out a chuckle finding the notion enormously funny. Her eyes glimmered with sinister light as she lowered her lips to his ear and whispered softly. "Perhaps I'll begin a process of slow dismemberment for the benefit of your charming wife, the eminent Doctor Styles. I would give anything to see the look on her face, the first time she receives your fingers by post."

Vin could not react. Laurel did not expect him to but she was certain he was aware of what she was saying and even if he did not, there was plenty of opportunity to repeat herself when he was recovered. She knew enough about the condition to guess at he had suffered a massive hemorrhage of the cerebellum. He could live on indefinitely but his days as a tracker or as Chris Larabee's lieutenant in the group known as the Magnificent Seven were over. If mercy was granted him, he would only live on for a few hours but Laurel intended to see that opportunity denied him at all costs. Fate had delivered him into her hands for the most cruel of punishments and she intended to make full use of the chance.

"Perhaps I should further my research into the Venom. Determine what exactly was how the drug was able to precipitate your unfortunate condition. How would a vivisection suit you? It's not like you'll need a sedative or anything, after all you're hardly in a position to react enough to give me any trouble if I put you on the examination table are you?" The idea of his being aware as she carved him up into pieces, a bit at a time was similarly heart warming to her. "I know, I'll publish a paper on the subject and let your dear wife be the first to read it. Perhaps I'll ask her opinion on what it should be called."

Vin did not make any response to her provocative words. He remained pale and listless, his eyes staring into nothingness. She felt his pulse and noted that he still had a heart beat. No doubt, his body was trying to repair the massive damage inflicted by the stroke as evidence by one of his blood soaked eyes. Laurel was not surprised when Chris had protested the removal of his best friend after he had been reduced to this state. No doubt, he was wracked with not only guilt but also worry with what she would be doing to Vin while he was alone with her.

Let him.

"Let me tell you something else Mr Tanner," Laurel spoke once more. "Perhaps I will kill you quickly and perhaps I will make you pray for your death like it would be a kindness but know one thing for certain, you will rue the day that you came between me and Chris. I'll tell you another truth, once I'm done with you, I'll go after your precious Alexandra. You had not thought I'd forgotten her complicity in Chris' escape from the Arena did you? I remember everything. Including how she tricked her way into my laboratory and then aided in your flight with my property. I swear to you that you may take comfort in knowing that when you die, she will not be long after you."

**********

"You know what to do." Isis gave her last minute instructions from the back of the wagon as Julia, Inez and Casey tucked the Zat'nuk'atel weapons under the folds of their dresses. Although Isis found the clothing worn by the Tau'Ri cumbersome, bordering on ridiculous in the terms of practicality, it was somewhat ideal to hide the cache of weaponry that she and Sekhmet had liberated from under the earth.

Outside, the men of the fort were waiting for the emergence of the trio of ladies so the time they had for any last minute discussion was short. However, they had committed to memory everything that they required to know for this rescue mission prior to their arrival here and so very little reconfirmation was necessary. Julia, Inez and Casey had excused themselves to prepare for the night activities, citing a new to refresh up as ladies tended to do before such encounters. There had been little or no resistance to this idea since the Oriental had withdrawn, leaving the debauchery that was to follow to those who would partake of it. The other men were so lustful that they could barely see straight.

"Yeah." Julia nodded, taking a quick look at the strange weapon. "One shot gives them something to think about, two will kill them?"

"Close enough." Sekhmet replied. "Do not hesitate to kill them." The warrior goddess retorted. "If you do not, they will almost certainly kill you first but not before they force themselves on you. A great many of them have the stink of intoxication by this poison of hers."

Casey gulped visibly, unable to deny that she was just a little afraid, as they all were. Though she was fearless on most occasions, she could not ignore that this situation was far more dangerous than any she had found herself embroiled in the past. She kept reminding herself that this was for JD and everything that she had heard about Laurel Chase justified her inclusion into this perilous plan. Besides, Isis and Sekhmet had provided them formidable weapons to which Casey could personally attest, having seen them in action when she was being taught to use it.

"Are you alright little one?" Sekhmet regarded the young woman whose face was marked noticeably with worry.

"Yes," Casey nodded. "Just a little nervous that's all." She confessed readily.

"A little fear is a good thing," Sekhmet said with a smile. "It will keep you alive and alert."

Casey nodded once more but she still did not seem as certain. Nor did Julia and Inez look as confidant but they were resolute in what needed to be done and with that strength behind them, their fear did not appear as acute. "I'll be okay," she assured Sekhmet who reacted by squeezing her arm and offering her a look of encouragement.

"We have to go." Inez hissed and remained long enough to give Isis and Sekhmet a parting look for the duo to wish them luck before she emerged out of the cavern.

Inez stepped off the wagon wearing an alluring smile to the group of men who had gathered to greet them in enthusiasm for the night's pleasure. Inez had seen enough working girls in her time to be able to play the part convincingly. However, it was Julia who garnered most of the attention, reminding Inez why it had been so easy for her to wrestle Ezra Standish' affections away from Alexandra Styles, shortly after her arrival in Four Corners.

"Boy, boys," Julia grinned at the waiting clientele, "there's plenty of us to go around. If you show us the way, I'm sure we can get things up and going." She emphasized the last few words with suggestive innuendo, eliciting a series of wolf calls and cheers from the gallery.

"Ain't got no arguments from me," the leader of the group, leader only because he was the loudest, had come to the head of the gathering and wrapped his arm around Inez, making no secret of the fact that he had a taste for Latin flesh. Inez smiled widely even though she found the man's touch repulsive and felt some measure of relief that this charade would last as long as their presence was taking attention away from the wagon.

"Well then Senor," Inez spoke with allure in her warm brown eyes moving down his form. "Perhaps we might retire to a more private place?"

The man seemed more than eager to agree and as the entire group moved from the courtyard where the wagon was presently located, the sentries who were on duty looked longingly after them because they had to keep watch and their roster of duty had still hours left in it. Distractedly and filled with thoughts of pleasuring themselves with three of the most fetching working girls they had ever seen, they returned their attention to the desert ahead, not all thinking about the wagon sitting there in the semi-darkness of the moonlit night.

The cacophony of voices trailed away as the women and their entourage of customers disappeared into what passed as the living quarters for the men in Laurel's guard. Of course there had to be such a place, Isis had assumed from the very beginning because the seven had reported that Laurel surrounded herself with a person guard of sorts. She was not the kind of woman who would leave anything to chance, in particular any threat to her personal safety.

The voices dissipated finally into the distance and the silence of the evening was broken only by the sound of someone pacing or making the rounds over the high wall of the fence. Their eyes were fixated on the horizon, waiting patiently for the arrival of enemies that might come for their mistress' guests who were presently confined within the cells below.

Most of them found it difficult to focus on very much, mostly because the Venom tended to heighten their need for action and the inactivity of surveillance duty did not allow them to exhaust the boundless energy the drug had produced inside them. Subconsciously, they knew the reason for this addiction was to keep them poised and alert at all times. However, Julia Pemberton had been very correct in assuming that heightened sense in that regard also meant a considerable boost to their libido. While she had known nothing about the drug in the capacity that Isis knew it, Julia knew men and how to appeal to their baser instincts.

Inside the courtyard, there were no signs of movement. With the working girls gone from their wagon, there was little need to pay any due to the vehicle covered in white canvas, soiled into beige by the dust of their travel here. The wind was blowing harshly. It nearly always did during the night and caused the canvas to billow inward and out at regular intervals until the movement was so routine that the sentries who had jumped once or twice when they had first witnessed it, were now accustomed enough to disregard it completely.

Sekhmet emerged first, using the long shadows to hide her progress as she emerged from behind the wagon, her feet touching the ground so softly that little noise was made against the gravel. She emerged fully armed with her staff weapon, clutching it in her hand as she moved stealthily across the courtyard into the nearest place that offered covered from the peering eyes above. Isis who was perhaps not as schooled in the art of covert movement as Sekhmet was still quite formidable in her own right and she kept pace with the warrior goddess easily. The two women were aided by the raspy groan of desert wind as they made their secret exit from the wagon, what minute sound their feet made masked by its cry.

In less than a second, appearing like a breath of wind themselves, the two former goddesses reached the wooden walkway that surrounded the courtyard in all directions except the gate which lead into the inside of the former military enclave. Their plan was not terribly complex because the rescue was never meant to be easy. The odds against them were always going to be placing them in a position of disadvantage, Isis knew that. However, the weapons gave them a decided edge and if they could take on the main body of the enemy, then they would be providing the distraction as Inez, Julia and Casey went to retrieve the men.

Isis knew that while the seven may have been captured, releasing them would be unleashing a tornado from a bottle. There would be no need for advantages once the men were liberated because while Laurel might have the upper hand while they were held captive, it was another matter entirely when they were free. Isis had no doubt that the seven would be able to make better use of the weapons at the disposal of Julia, Casey and Inez once they were given the power to do so. She almost felt sorry for the poor unfortunates sent to recapture them.

They could not remain out in the open for very long and had to make some definite progress to putting the next step of their plan into operation. Sekhmet was only interested in one thing at this point. In fact, it had been the only thing that had occupied the thoughts of the warrior goddess, even more than the retrieval of her mate and that was the retrieval of her children. Sekhmet possessed every ounce of Mary Larabee's maternal instinct and at the moment, she was feeling that instinct the way a lioness would fight to protect its cubs. There was no doubt in her mind that Sekhmet would gladly tear everyone apart to find her children.

Suddenly a door creaked open and Sekhmet glanced at Isis, exchanging in a glance that this was the chance that they were waiting for. Both women took flanking positions on either side of the doorway as their prey stepped out of the adjoining room into the night air. Without giving the man any time to breath, Sekhmet had her arm around his throat and was dragging him into the shadows even before he had time to let out a cry for help. Her hand cupped firmly over his mouth as her arm locked around his neck, pressing his tender spot where his voice box situated. He uttered no sounds as he was overwhelmed by shadow in a darkened corner that could neither be seen from anyone in the courtyard or anyone on the sentry wall.

Isis stepped before him and raised her hand so that he was staring into the large amber stone that sat in the middle of her palm from the ribbon device. Her eyes glowed as his widened in fear, the radiation of unearthly light coinciding with the sudden glow of the rock as energy spilled forward, bathing its irises in its golden color. Any struggle he made stopped once the strange ray of light made contact with his eyes.

"Your mistress has prisoners." Isis spoke softly. Her voice sounded almost seductive. "Tell me about them."

"Five of them in the cell block,." The man replied with a thick southern drawl, his voice listless and his eyes still swirling with the specks of amber before him. "There's one in her private suite, along with two children and the one's who dying."

"Dying?" Sekhmet almost forget herself and shouted but fortunately, she was too much the seasoned warrior to let so much emotion jeopardize this interrogation. "Which one?"

"Ain't quite sure but something happened to him." The man continued to speak in that same drone.

"Take us to him." Isis ordered in that same seductive tone. The ribbon devices though capable of much destruction were also equipped to affect its enemy in more subtle ways especially in the hands of one who was extremely skilled in its application, as Isis was.

"My children...." Sekhmet started to say but Isis interrupted her before another word could escape her lips.

"We will find them in due course Sekhmet," she answered. "However, we must see the extent of the injury inflicted to the one."

"Yes of course," Sekhmet understood and finally conceded that Isis was correct in this matter. If one of the seven was injured, he may need medical attention immediately or may require some reconsideration in how they would carry out their rescue.

The man who had given them this information continued to stared listlessly into the glowing orb of the amber stone, allowing its unearthly light to continue its imprisonment of his mind, his eyes staring into nothingness as he waited for further instructions.

Instructions, Isis was more than happy to belay to him. "Take us to the one who is injured."

Without uttering any word to the suggest that he would do the contrary, the man turn on his heels and returned the way he came, only this time he was not alone. Fortunately, he was in no mind to notice or resist.

***********

The men under Laurelís employ did not have rooms of their own as such with nightly slumber taking place in communal barracks located on the lower floors of the building. However, privacy was nonetheless achieved for there were many rooms in the old fort that remained vacant and purposeless since Laurelís occupation here was temporary. Although Inez, Julia and Casey were not able to learn much regarding the fate of the seven or anything else concerning the nature of what these men were doing in this place, they did discern that their residence here was only an interval before moving to more permanent facilities.

There was a group of at least ten men following them and Inez knew that they had to act very carefully to get the drop on all of them. This aspect of Juliaís plan had been prepared for before well before they had even reached the fort. Playing the part of working girl perfectly, Inez knew that if the leader of the group were so distracted by lust, the others would be just as easy to overcome once they were alone in closed quarters.

"Whatís in here?" She asked as they proceeded down the long corridor.

"Not sure," the man retorted, his arm snaking around her waist even tighter as he glanced down her dress and was given a pleasing view of warm, dusky skin that promised delight with each hint of her fragrance in his lungs. "I think it was the supply offices or something. It will do for we need." He smiled at her salaciously.

She recoiled inwardly but forced herself to remember the stakes at present. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Casey trying hard not to turn around and slap the huge bruiser who could not keep his hands off the young woman. He was grabbing her at every opportunity, sliding his fingers in places that would have had him slapped in outrage if he had dared the insult at any other time than now. Unfortunately, too much depended on them maintaining the faÁade and Inez saw Casey suck in her breath, an indication of the girlís resolve to see this true.

Julia on the other hand had no difficulty in tolerating the touch of men she could not stand. It was something she had acquainted herself with great intimacy throughout much of her life and though she would tolerate it no more in this present point in her existence, she could break her own rules if it meant Ezra would return to her safely.

They arrived at juncture that led into a corridor with several doors. The faded lettering on the wall in Spanish indicated that it was not the supply office but rather what passed for the infirmary when the fort was still occupied by Mexican militia. It was probably why there were so many small private rooms, having once served the purpose of housing patients.

"Well this looks nice and cosy," Julia offered her target a huge grin as she ran her face over his jaw and saw him shudder at her touch. "Why donít we get started honey?" She gave him a little wink and regarded the others who were also wishing to partake in the eveningís pleasure and had to wait their turn. She tugged the man by his shirt, towing him towards one of the doors in the corridor.

"The rest of you," she gave them a look. "If you just wait on here, weíll be with you soon enough."

"Yeah, sooner than you think." Someone commented and the others laughed as the man next to her swore at them at the obvious disparagement to his sexual ability.

Julia glanced at Inez and Casey, indicating for them to follow the same tactic. Without giving themselves away, the women exchanged their silent signals and went their separate ways into three different rooms, leaving the others to wait in the hallway for their turn. She offered her friends a note of good luck and hope that such fortune would also be her ally as she saw them disappearing into the dusty rooms before she herself slipped into the privacy of one.

The ancient hospital room was dusty as all hell and though there was a bed, there was no sheets covering its greying and mottled mattress. Julia cringed at the thought of doing anything intimate in such surroundings with its cobwebs in every corner and dirt covered walls and floor. Her would be lover did not seem to mind and as soon as the door closed in behind them, enveloped her in his arms, crushing his hardening erection against her spine. Julia swallowed away her disgust as his hands roamed her body. She allowed this to continue for a few seconds, thinking to herself that she must be in love with Ezra because every touch the man made against her skin was held up to that inevitable comparison and was found lacking.

"No need to rush honey," Julia said silkily as she pried his fingers loose and placed her hands on his arms, gently pushing him towards the bed. He allowed himself to be lowered there and watched in fascination as she stepped away and freed the pins in her hair, allowing auburn strands to spill over her shoulders.

"Youíre the prettiest whore I ever did see." He rumbled in response.

"Why youíre a sweet talker ainít ya?" Julia replied, feeling her gut twist up at the use of that particular word. Bad grammar was almost as distasteful as pretending that she would couple with this odious specimen for any reason.

"Come here and Iíll show you just what I am." The man grinned.

"Not yet," she whispered and lifted her leg onto a chair and pretended to undo the laces on her boot. For some unknown reason, men found it fascinating to watch a woman dress or undress. It mattered little which; they simply liked to watch. Perhaps it was the process itself or the satisfaction of finding out whether what was covered was as tantalising as what was imagined. By the same token, did they watch women dress to see how what was imagined could be so cleverly hidden beneath a sheath of fabric? Julia could not say for certain, aware only that the idiosyncrasy existed and was exploitable. She freed the laces and slipped the boot of her foot behind fore sliding her hands languidly up the stockinged leg to disappear underneath the ruffled folds of her dress.

When she produced the weapon, he was still too caught up in the performance to realise that something was about to happen that was not apart of the bordello experience. She could not blame him for being caught unawares, what she produced could not even be conceived as a weapon. Not until she pulled the trigger and watched its mechanism extend and contract into place. A metallic click superseded a flash of light and suddenly the man was on his feet.

"WhatÖÖ?" He started to say.

The chance to finish the sentence never came for she pulled the trigger twice in quick succession, the weapon delivered his charge of energy almost soundless. There was not the clumsy bang of a normal gun but rather the sharp hiss that sounded like air escaping from a punctured balloon. He gasped out loud but did not scream which was fortunate because Julia did not relish having to use this weapon on several subjects at once.

He collapsed on the like an animal who was suddenly robbed of all its bones. Tumbling onto the mattress, the bed creaked upon his landing and other then that one sound, the entire procedure had gone according to plan as Sekhmet had said it would. The weaponís effects on the man would last only for an hour or so, thus she had to be out of here and soon. For a moment after it was all said and done, Julia did not move. She was frightened and out of her depth but had come too far to stop now. Taking a deep breath, she allowed herself a moment to steady her racing pulse. The deed was by no means done but that she crossed this initial hurdle gave her much reason to be thankful and encouragement that she could do it again.

There was little she could do for the next twenty minutes as she promoted the illusion to his companions outside that she was bringing the man lying unconscious on the bed to unparalleled heights of pleasure. She tried to listen to what was happening in the adjoining rooms and felt further gratified when she heard the strange hiss erupt again, only this time from the weapons of Inez and Casey. They would maintain the charade as long as possible, ridding themselves of many customers as possible before open warfare was declared. The rooms had adjoining doors which was fortunate to Julia could usher the next man into the room without drawing any suspicion regarding the fate of the other until they were alone. If this could be repeated, then they would have only four men to deal with when they were finally force to emerge from these rooms.

Once the twenty minutes were up, Julia dishevelled her clothing and removed enough garments to convince the men outside that she had been engaged in a passionate tryst with the former patron of her services. Julia noticed that they were only five of them left and she realised that Inez and Casey must have despatched the others in the same way she was about to do as soon as another victim followed her inside the room. This was not hard to manage for she did not need say very much as she emerged into the hallway, shoulder exposed and red hair tousled and wild. The look in their eyes told her that her natural beauty was doing most of the work for her.

"Whoís next?" She asked seductively and it was only after a short argument that a successor was chosen for the unconscious man in the room. The one chosen was neither as big or as aggressive looking. He was mostly a boy and seemed rather shy as he followed her into the room. Julia felt almost guilty for what she was about to do to him before she reminded herself that should he learn what she intended to do whilst hear, the mercy that she felt would in no may be extended to her by him.

Once she had closed the door behind her, she offered him that same seductive smile and went through the motions once more. Performing the same seductive initiation, she soon lulled him into enough of a trance that Julia once again able to remove her weapon and despatch him as easily as she had taken care of his comrade who was languishing beneath the bed, hidden from view. He slumped to the ground with as much fanfare as his predecessor and once the threat of him had been eliminated, Julia pressed her ear to the wall again, listening to see if Inez and Casey had acted in similar fashion. It did not take her long to learn that they had.

This time, when Julia emerged from the room, she did not proceed immediately to the hallway. Instead, she wrapped her knuckles gently on the door of the rooms occupied by Casey and Inez. Both women stepped out a few seconds later, appearing just as breathless and glad to see her, as she was to lay her eyes on them again. Extreme experiences such as these were much better endured with companionship, Julia decided.

"How did it go?" She asked softly as they walked towards the hallway where the others were waiting.

"I am never going to get that manís stink off me even if I scrubbed for a hundred years." Casey blurted out with complete honestly.

"I am not as soiled as she," Inez remarked. "However, I share her sentiments."

"Okay, we just go out there and shoot." Julia instructed. "Like Sekhmet said. Make it quick."

"I donít have any arguments with that." Casey retorted.

With that statement ending their present discussion, the ladies stepped into the hallway and produced their weapons. The men who were waiting for them recognised the objects held in their hands as being mysterious enough to give rise to fear and they reacted in kind, going for their weapons. However, with the women already having their weapons aimed, it was more or less a futile effort. No sooner than they had attempted to retaliate, Julia, Casey and Inez began firing rapidly, bearing in mind just how many shots their victims could endure before death.

In a brief light show where the radiance of energy bounced off walls and the air was charged with the electricity of the residual blasts, the men fell quickly to the floor as the Zat'nuk'atel weapons did their worst. For a few seconds after the shooting, the women who had fired the sophisticated device had to allow their eyes a moment of adjustment. The light show was almost blinding to a point and its sudden cessation had left them somewhat disorientated. All that remained in evidence of what had transpired after Casey, Julia and Inez hid away the Zat'nuk'atel culprits responsible for all the prone bodies, was a slight cloud of mist that dissipated soon enough.

"We're alive." Julia said with a sigh once she was able to find her voice.

"Not for long if we don't get moving." Inez retorted. "Now if I remember these places correctly, the cells are usually down below."

"How can you be so sure?" Casey asked as the Mexican waded through the bodies to take their leave of the present locality.

"I came from the country where there had been war and revolution for as long as I can remember," Inez replied as she carefully sidestepped another unconscious figure before her. "Trust me, the cells are always below. Besides," she glanced at Casey and Julia with a shrug. "It's a place to start."

"Can't argue with you there," Julia tended to agree with Inez's assessment of the situation. "Its not like we can stop and ask for directions." She pointed out.

"I hope the rest of this crazy trip goes as smoothly as this." Inez remarked upon clearing the collection of bodies.

"I just hope we don't get ourselves and the boys killed." Julia stated, trying not to sound pessimistic but found herself unable to be anything but that. Despite the formidable weapons at their disposal, Julia was too much a realist to discard the possibility that anything unexpected was something they might be completely unprepared for. They were not accustomed to such play like Isis and Sekhmet were and though their heart was in the right place, they had to know that they were not skilled to have mounted an expedition of this nature.

"Look," Casey found her voice, having no wish to hear that sort of talk. "I'm scared enough as it is. I don't need to hear that as well."

"Sorry," Julia apologized meekly, feeling a little guilty for frightening Casey with such grim conversation. The young woman had held up considerably, not just in the face of what they were embarking upon inside this fort with all its dangers but the concept of Isis and Sekhmet, not to mention the mind altering perception of the Goa'uld and other world threats. She supposed they all were and this time when the thought sprung up in her head resisted the urge to voice it to the others.

If Isis and Sekhmet failed, they were as good as dead.

*********

The Goddess of All manipulated her puppet like a master puppeteer.

The man who was trapped in the power of the ribbon device led the two women through the maze of twists and turns that made up the interior of the fort. Occasionally, they would hear someone come and if they were incapable of stepping out of the way, Sekhmet was more than capable of silencing them from giving the intruders away. Isis had been correct that security inside the bastion would be lax because Laurel's arrogance did not allow the woman to believe that she could be discovered. Her security measures were minimal to keep intruders out because her energies were devoted to keeping her prisoner trapped.

"Isis," Sekhmet beckoned as they walked past a door that was slightly ajar. It was her natural suspicion that forced her to look inside and ensure that no one within could compromise the efforts to reach her children and the member of the seven that was so injured, he needed to be kept apart from the others.

"What is it Sekhmet?" Isis inquired as she paused and cast her gaze at the warrior goddess. In truth, she was rather impatient with Sekhmet's call to pause because she was being driven by not only by the host's desire to save a friend or mate but also a doctor's need to treat the injured.

"I think you ought to see this." Sekhmet gestured for her to come and see. The warrior goddess had stepped through the door and was studying the contents of the room with interest.

Isis could soon understand why when she made her own entrance into the place. Laurel Chase was undoubtedly one of the most dangerous members of the Tau'Ri that Isis had ever encountered but there was no doubt that the woman was also a certifiable genius if it had not been for the seed of evil so entrenched in her being. With a smile, Isis wondered whether the woman did not have been some part Goa'uld for she certainly exhibited some of the worse traits of the species.

The laboratory was fully equipped and the instruments and equipment laid out on workbenches indicated that its owner was meticulous in her work. Bottles were labeled with all manners of chemicals and as Isis briefly perused the notes on the table, she acknowledged that Laurel like any good person of science kept impeccable records. Every aspect of her work was recorded, examined no doubt place under scrutiny for further analysis. Bell jars and Bunsen burners, retort and tripod stands rested on polished wooden workbenches. A table with straps attached at either end added a chilling note of the extent of experimentation that took place in this room. Organs preserved in formaldehyde stared back at them from behind the glass receptacles of storage. There was a virtual apothecary labeled neatly and kept in orderly rows on the shelves.

"This is where she makes that poison." Sekhmet hissed.

"Yes," Isis nodded in agreement. "That it is. I must confess there is a great mind at work here."

"A twisted mind." The warrior goddess retorted.

"They say there is a fine line between genius and madness," Isis shifted her gaze away from the room towards the puppet that was still waiting instructions in the corridor outside. He would not move one wit until she gave him leave to. "I suppose with Laurel that line is very fine indeed. Come," She looked at Sekhmet. "There is little time for this. We must keep going."

Sekhmet nodded and they resumed their journey again, which fortunately, did not have far to go. The laboratory had indicated to Sekhmet and Isis that they had penetrated the inner sanctum of Laurel Chase. Here they would find not only the children of Mary Larabee but also Laurel herself. The puppet had revealed that two member of the seven were kept here but had not knowledge as to whom it might be. Isis did not care, in rescuing them and the children; they would be providing enough of a distraction for Julia, Inez and Casey to reach the others.

When they arrived at the room where the injured member of the seven was kept, Isis was somewhat suspicious that there were no guards at the door. For a moment, she was almost tempted to believe that the puppet had lied to her if she did not know for the fact that under the power of the ribbon device, he would be utterly incapable of accomplishing her feat. There was another possibility which loomed ominously in the back of her mind and threatened to ensnare her heart as she realised that it was more likely that whomever was hurt was in such a bad state that he could not possibly escape on his own volition. Thus the need for sentries at the door was more or less a redundant gesture.

"I shall stand guard," Sekhmet stated as Isis twisted the doorknob and started into the room. "You bring him out."

There was a slight tension in her voice as if the warrior goddess as afraid to venture inside the room and find something she was unable to face. For all her rage and anger at her loved ones being taken, Isis knew that the emotion of grief should any ill befall them was too new for Sekhmet to cope with. The mind of the Goaíuld presently inhabiting was new to such emotions for the race was not one who understood compassion or love, for that matter any high minded sentiments that other species found easy to embrace. Not that it was any easier for Isis either. For the Goddess of All, experience lessened the sharp cut of such emotions and she counted herself lucky for that advantage.

Later on, the irony of it would not be lost upon her.

Isis slipped into the room without any hesitation even though she realised late in retrospect, that she should have been wary about entering. With Laurelís hatred of Vin Tanner, she should have expected to find what she had when she entered the windowless environment, bathed in minimal light. The slight illumination gave her enough leeway to see the figure lying on the bed. Isis stopped short as her mind began to grasp what she was seeing. In the eternity of time it took for her to fully recognised that it was Vin lying on that bed, she felt her entire being freeze in cold terror. The sensation was new to Isis for she had never felt this kind of unadulterated terror.

There was no question that it was Vin, even though he lay on the bed unable to react to her arrival. He was still clad in the garments he had worn when he rode out of Four Corners, promising the host that the departure would not be for too long and they would soon be together again. Isis ached so badly from that one memory that it was almost a physical pain rather than an emotional one. Without thinking, she crossed the space between them like a breath of wind, knowing no pause until she was at his side.

Upon reaching him, Isis knew at once that he was dying.

"SEKHMET!" Isis cried out, not caring who heard.

"What is it?" The warrior goddess demanded as she burst into the room an instant later, stopping short when she saw Vin Tanner lying on the bed.

Isis was sitting next to him on his bed, her hands working swiftly as she quickly examined him to discern the nature of his injuries. Other than the bloodied eye and the scratches on his skin, which appeared to have been caused by his own hand, there were no signs of serious injury. Sekhmet felt her own fear escalate when she saw the glowing rage in the eyes of the former Goa'uld queen. Through the illumination of her eyes, Sekhmet could see tears running down her cheeks and her hands shaking in rage, fighting to control herself. There were no words to describe the anguish in her face.

"Is he.....?" Sekhmet had no idea how to ask that question.

"No," Isis' voice was a hoarse whisper as she shook her head in answer. "He lives, if what you can call being trapped inside this shell of a body being such."

"How did she do this to him?" Sekhmet asked, unable to see any signs of a wound that could cause this. Outwardly he seemed to be fine but he was pale and his eyes stared into nothingness with a look of blank vacancy that chilled one to the bone when one remembered how expressive those cobalt coloured eyes could be.

"I am uncertain," Isis responded as she gathered her thoughts and tried to focus four thousand years of knowledge into a singularity of thought that could produce a way to save him. Just seeing him like this, motionless but alive, breathing and yet trapped in the limbo of non-existence, slowly teetering into dark abyss of death without the power to make that journey short and merciful was gut wrenching to say the least. "However whatever it was, ruptured one of the arteries in his brain. The hemisphere controlling motor functions had been damaged. By the blood in his eye, I am assuming that the burst was a massive one. The TauíRi have no cure for this kind of injury."

The words felt like ash in her mouth and as she looked at he who was her mate, the one who held her heart beyond the shadow of any doubt, slipping nearer and nearer to death's door, Isis thought her soul felt that she was dying with him. She wanted to hold him in her arms, to whisper in his ear that she was here now and nothing would hurt him again. Unfortunately, what was done to him would not even allow Vin Tanner to hear that promise. Then and there, Isis made up her mind that she was not going to let him die.

She would save him at any cost because there was no life without him.

"Isis," Sekhmet tried to offer some words of support. Unfortunately, the warrior goddess only knew how to respond with force. "She will pay for this. I will mount her head on the wall for what she had done to him. No TauíRi may harm the consort of the queen goddess in such obscenity!"

"Enough!" Isis retorted sharply, unable to hear this right now. "There is only thing that can save him and I cannot have your anger in my ear if I am to accomplish it. Warrior Goddess, you will stand outside this room and you kill anyone who approaches. For what I am about to do, I cannot be interrupted. This is difficult enough as it. No Goaíuld has made this attempt in almost one thousand years."

Sekhmet's eyes began to fill with understanding and her jaw dropped open slightly with astonishment. "Do you think you can manage with that alone?" She asked in a soft voice, her blue grey eyes fixed upon the ribbon device.

"The ribbon devices are able to effect the matter on the molecular level." Isis explained. "In the same way it manipulates atomic bonds to create force fields and repel attack, a skilled Goaíuld can refine its use into repairing tissue and bones also. However, as remarkable the technology is, understand that I have to enter his brain and find the ruptured vessel. If it were not for the hostís knowledge as a physician, what I intend may be impossible. Our kind has used the sarcophagus as a healing agent for the last three thousand years but since we do not have access to that technology, this is the only way." Isis looked up at Sekhmet and said firmly. "I will not lose him to the enemy, not like this and not today."

Sekhmet was in no mind to contradict her and as she stepped away, saw Isis taking a deep breath and steadying herself to begin the task that was required. As for herself, she needed to get outside because no doubt, Isisí outburst would have been heard and very soon they were going to have company.

Isis hardly noticed the departure of Sekhmet because she was edging closer to Vin on the bed while still seated upright. She tried to focus her thoughts, filtering out all the fears she had inside of her that if this did not work, she would lose him forever. Such thoughts did her little good at this point and only serve to cloud her concentration when she needed it to be utterly without hindrance. Raising her hand slowly over his forehead, she thought how much like a child he seemed even though his colour was pallid. The urge to touch him was overwhelming and for a moment, she forgot herself as her palm touched the soft skin of his lips and rotated to cup the cheek covered in light stubble. Isis leaned over and kissed him gently, wishing that the power of her love and that kiss alone were able to wake him from the dark place he now found himself.

"Whatever happens my love," she whispered softly, the tears running down her cheeks even more freely now. "I will always be yours, Pharaoh of my heart."

He returned her words with a gaze of absence that was not his doing and Isis could only blink away the warm tears escaped her eyes. She wiped them away with the back of her hand and then realised that in four thousand years of existence, she had never wept for anyone. However, she could not allow it to continue. Drying her eyes, Isis steadied herself once more and focussed her attention to the task she was required to perform in order to save his life. As Alexandra Styles had been forced to remind herself on occasion when Vin's life was threatened, it was not a wife he needed at this point but rather a doctor.

Lifting her hand over his forehead, Isis closed her eyes and stretched her fingers to overshadow Vin's face, the stone in the middle of her palm poised over his brow. Unlike the powerful strobe of light that was normally exuded from the jewel, the glow that emanated from it now was soft and probing without being at all invasive. The circle of its light grazed the pale skin like a crack of sunlight shining through the darkness.

Isis blinked him out of her sight, allowing nothing to penetrate the wall of her concentration as she felt rather than saw the place she needed to reach inside him. In her mind's eye, blood and fluid rushed past her, moving languidly through the passage of tissue that ran a labyrinth through his cerebral core. The blood moving on its predestined course should have been flowing with fast paced strength in the biological currents that allowed synapses and higher brain functions to continue. However, the injury had stymied the flow until it seemed almost lethargic.

She followed its progress, allowing herself to be carried upon its moist waves through the central cortex of the brain to the separate hemisphere that divided the human mind into the most sophisticated animal on the planet. She marveled knowing that this complexity was what separate the human animal from the jungle, was what allowed the birth of Mozart and Newton while at the same time producing Torquemada and Vlad the Impaler.

She was allowed to see the ruptured vessel in what could hardly be called sight but was nonetheless just as defining as visual recognition. It was a massive rip, that much she understood upon finding the miniscule tear in the tissue that would have been barely visible to the naked eye had it been exposed for that purpose. Reaching it had been the simple part of the process, accelerating the cellular regeneration was something else entirely. Isis concentrated harder, feeling her own mind ache as she saw the molecules exciting themselves into a state of flux, neurons dancing about her eyes like a fireflies over a gassy swamp.

A rivulet of blood ran down her nose from the effort and it was an effort, being Goa'uld did not save her from the ordeal of this attempt. She felt her herself straining to hold the image in her mind and continued the frenzied repair work that was being undertaken inside Vin's damaged neural core. The process was delicate and there could be no mistakes for the area she was attempting to manipulate was the most fragile part of a human being. Any error in what she was doing may retrieve Vin Tanner from his dark sleep but not necessarily return him to any measure of the man he had once been.

Isis would not be satisfied with anything less than the man she had fallen in love with would.

*********

As expected, Sekhmet was more or less correct when she had declared to Isis that her outburst would soon bring company. Ordering the puppet that had led them to Vin Tanner away from her, Sekhmet prepared for the arrival of the enemy's entourage. She was not foolish enough to assume that their presence would continue without notice. The area they had entered was undoubtedly within the sphere that Laurel Chase called her private chambers in this large facility. It was at this point that the second greatest concentration of her guards would be found.

They came charging up the corridor as she expected and their reaction upon seeing her was just as predictable. Sekhmet gave them no reason to alter their perception and she merely stood in the center of the passageway, gazing back at them indifferently. Their initial response was as she had anticipated; amusement. Some actually laughed. Derisive remarks followed, vulgar and juvenile as they leered at her in her strange clothing. What she was holding in her hands could not be conceived of a weapon yet so they did not fear it.

Pity.

One of them walked towards her, the others laughing and egging him on. He reeked with arrogance as he swaggered forward, beckoning her to come quietly, making some lewd statement as to showering her with sexual favor if she behaved. Sekhmet allowed him to progress to within a foot of her before she slammed her fist into his face and throat before delivering a neat sidekick that sent him sprawling towards his friends once more. He let out a groan of pain as well as outrage as he fell down and incited the others in his party to rush at her.

Sekhmet did not allow them to get any further either.

With expertise she had been longing to use since she had acquired it, Sekhmet brought the staff weapon in her hand to bear, graceful in its movement as it swung into a neat arc and faced the enemy. They did not see the danger, nor could they conceive how the length of metal could be dangerous to all of them until they saw the bulbous shielding around the firing port retract and a cackle of blue energy sizzling its readiness to fire. The pause was the last coherent thought any of them had as they tried to retreat. Sekhmet began firing in quick succession, sending one bolt of blue after another into the bodies before her. There were screams and the sounds of feet running away from her but they were soon cut short by the deafening roar of the blasting staff weapon. In a matter of seconds, all that remained were a pile of smoking bodies covering the floor.

She wanted to interrupt Isis but knew what the Goddess of All was doing was too important to disturb, even if the reason included the arrival of more men. The sound of their running footsteps soon echoed down the hall as they approached and Sekhmet braced herself to face them, more than ready to despatch them as easily as she had done to their companions before them. She stood tall and firm, every bit the legend of Artemis, Diana and Kali as she prepared to face the enemy.

However, this particular bout was about to end prematurely.

Without warning, the wall in front of her exploded outwards as the men approached. A wall of rock and debris erupted with such powerful force that there was neither time nor opportunity for its victims to scream as it slammed them against the opposite wall. Even Sekhmet was shocked into retreat by the sudden destruction. For a few seconds after the dust had settled and the broken bodies were hidden in their premature burial of rubble and crumbling bits of shattered brick, the warrior goddess was still somewhat bewildered until she saw Isis stepping through the newly formed opening.

"I had forgotten how effective you were with that." Sekhmet remarked as she saw the glow in the ribbon device coiled around Isis' hand dim for the moment. "Is your Consort well?"

"He lives," Isis said coldly. "And he is well."

"I am glad to hear that." Sekhmet offered with a little smile.

"As am I." Isis turned and started walking. "However, now we have business to attend to."

Sekhmet did not have to ask what that meant. It was time that they met Laurel Chase face to face.

Part Seven:

Merciful Endings

The explosion was so loud that Chris Larabee sat up immediately in his bunk when its terrible roar tore through the air.

He was not alone in being startled; the others in the surrounding cells with him displayed a similar reaction to the sudden percussive noise. Chris rose from his bed, trying to ignore the empty cell next to his and all the emotional pain that went with it, as he crossed the floor and found himself at the front of the bars, trying to discern what had caused the powerful eruption. The guards in the next room were similarly excited about it and their confusion was plain in the nervous chattering he heard following it. Their speak was mostly in Spanish and while Chris could not understand its content, the meaning was clear enough.

"What the hell was that?" JD exclaimed, his eyes moving to the ceiling where the rumble had originated.

Chris shook his head blankly unable to answer as his eyes moved across the faces of his friends through the bars of their cells. "I don't know. Did that sound like a dynamite blast to you?" He asked.

"No," Josiah shook his head, with a clearly troubled expression in his eyes. There was something dark and ominous about it that had the power to chill him to the bone. "It wasn't dynamite but it sounds familiar."

"Yeah," Nathan nodded, trying to remember every aspect of the sound that they had just heard. "But did you notice that before the explosion itself, there was something else?"

"I do not seem to recall Mr Jackson," Ezra responded, glancing upwards. No sooner than his sea colored had raised its gaze to the ceiling, the sound repeated, seeming closer and more powerful than before. This time the ensuing shockwave was so violent that above head, tiny streams of dust and mortar loosened from its cracks and drifted to the floor.

"Did you hear it then?" Nathan looked around at the others. He had distinctively heard a smaller, more focussed sound proceeding the louder blast. Something that sounded like the low whine that came from the winding of great machines. His mind could not articulate a more accurate description.

"I heard it." JD spoke up. "It was kind of strange." The younger man's brow wrinkled in confusion.

"I know that sound," Josiah reiterated. "I've heard it somewhere before but I canít for the life of me place it."

"Forget the sound," Chris barked, futilely going to the bars of his cage and shaking it, as if hoping against hope that the violence overhead would miraculously loosen the metal lengths that kept them prisoners. "It looks like hell is breaking loose over there which means we need to get out of here and find Buck and Vin, if they're still alive."

The discussion went silent for a moment as they were faced with that unpleasant fact. Yes, they had to be prepared for that eventuality even if they did not want to admit it. The chances were good that Buck was still alive, far better than they were for Vin, who was grievously wounded when he had been taken away from them. Chris Larabee was crushing the emotions that would make him feel the loss of the tracker and Mary because he needed to get the friends he had left out of here but even they could see the strain of all that sorrow starting to mark his with its weight.

"As much as I would like to agree with you Mr Larabee," Ezra pointed out. "We seem to be faced with a little problem in regards to that particular desire."

"I know that." Chris growled, hating it when he was told that they were helpless and given no way to change the odds against them. Overhead, he had no idea what was transpiring but the gunshots and those strange explosions continued with such ferocity, they could feel the walls of this formidable structure shudder with each blast. The fortress appeared as if it was groaning with pain and every explosion was followed by another frantic hail of bullets, most likely to combat whatever had caused it. The gunfire sounded almost as desperate as Chris' desire to escape his cell.

"The guards are going crazy out there!" JD remarked as the youth cast his gaze to the small aperture on the wooden door that led out of the corridor where their cells were kept.

JD was correct, Chris thought as he strained to catch a glimpse of the men in question. The two guards were resisting the urge to investigate what was taking place in the floors above them and the roar of gunfire and explosions must surely be agitating them further when they had no idea what was causing it. Their conversation grew more panicked and they began to pace. Images of them moved back and forth in the view of the small window as they debated what it was they had to do. Obviously the urge to see what was happening and their duty to stand guard over the prisoners was giving them much cause for consternation.

"Perhaps the army found us." Ezra offered a suggestion, mostly to hear himself speak because it was too disconcerting listening to the carnage taking place above them and not know what was causing it. And there was no doubt it was carnage because the screams of pain, the desperate sound of gunfire trying to stop an enemy that did not show signs of abating and the running footsteps that were now a constant thunder in their ears, proved it so. The variation converged into a cacophony of noise that did nothing but amplify the destruction taking place above them.

"Could be." Josiah had to concede even though it seemed unlikely. "They did want her badly after Calumet."

The army's interest in the Venom drug, though unnerving when one realized what applications it could have in modern warfare, meant that the military was just as determined to capture Laurel Chase as Chris Larabee and the seven. If their women in Four Corners were able to raise the alarm to the proper authorities then it was conceivable that this could be the result of a military action against Laurel and her men.

Suddenly, there was a new sound and it was definitely something he had heard before. This time, it was not overhead or in some nearby distance, this time it was just outside the door. It was followed by a loud thud, like a body hitting the ground. The remaining guard was shouting but his voice raised was brief. The low whine repeated itself and he let out a soundless scream before he collapsed on the floor with his comrade before him. Footsteps and voices soon followed, muffled by the powerful explosions echoing through the upper floors.

Chris recognized what he had heard and knew it was impossible.

The instant he had heard the weapon fire, Chris had known what it was even if his mind was too astonished to believe it. Now that he was able to identify this latest sound, the rest of it fell into place. He could not even imagine how this was possible because they had ended that particular evil long before this and done everything they could to ensure that it would never raise its ugly head again.

" Zat'nuk'atel." He whispered.

Ezra turned sharply to him upon hearing what he had said. "That is impossible!" The fear in the gambler's voice was unmistakable and Chris could hardly blame him for that. The experience with the Stargate had been worse on Ezra. "We buried it!"

"Chris?" Josiah looked at him and realized what he was saying.

"That's what it is!" Chris insisted. "I used one."

"And I had one used on me!" Ezra returned sharply. "It cannot possibly be that!"

Any discussion to the matter was ended when the door swung open and footsteps hurried through the corridor. If the seven had thought hearing the sound of a Zat'nuk'atel weapon being used was astonishing enough, seeing the women who wielded it entering the room added a new level to their shock. For an instant, none of them could speak as they stared in surprise at Julia, Inez and Casey; each armed with the forbidden weapons they had taught themselves to forget long before this day.

"Julia?" Ezra managed to speak first.

"Ezra!" Julia cried out and hurried to him. "Thank God you're safe!" She slipped her hand through the bars and held his hand as their mouths met in a kiss of passion through the lengths of steel.

"How the hell did you get those things?" Chris barked, oblivious to the reunion they were attempting to have.

"It's a long story," Inez explained breathlessly as she tossed one set of keys at Casey and hastened the girls to open the door. Her eyes searched the cells and realized that Buck was not there. "Where's Buck?" She demanded as she reached Chris' cell and began unlocking.

"He's upstairs," Chris said neutrally, more interested in what they were doing with the technology of the Goa'uld instead of his response at this time. As soon as his door was open, Chris stepped out and immediately grabbed Inez's arm and demanded once more. "Now where did you get these things?" He ripped the weapon out of her hand, almost horrified by the idea of any one of the women touching the accursed things.

"Chris!" Inez groaned as she felt his fingers digging into her arm. "We don't have time for this. We have to get out of here!"

Ezra who emerged from his own cell was just as determined to find out the truth and in the same fashion as his leader, retrieved the dangerous weapon from Julia's hand. On her part, Julia was more than happy to relinquish it to him, having no taste for using any form of weaponry unless given little choice but to do so. "I'm afraid Madam," he looked at her. "I must insist that you make the time."

"Chris," Julia responded knowing first and foremost how to reach Chris Larabee and to make him desist from hurting Inez, however unintentional it was. "Mary is alive."

"What?" Chris looked at her instantly and though he was a master of his emotions, even more so than Ezra, Julia saw the hardened edge melt in his eyes and a flood of relief washed over him as he blinked slowly.

"She's alive Chris." Julia repeated herself and saw the others feeling the same gratitude at the news but Julia could only watch in wonder, the love Chris was experiencing and the immeasurable joy of knowing that the woman who held his heart was still among the living. It was good to know that she meant the same to Ezra Standish. "Laurel's men tried to drug her with the Venom but there was some kind of strange side effect. When we found her, it was not Mary that woke under the influence of the Venom but rather Sekhmet."

"Oh Jesus!" Nathan exclaimed behind her and Chris reacted with a horrified expression on his face as Julia hurried to explain that there was more to it than just that.

"What?" He let go off Inez and stared at Julia, not wanting to imagine that the monster he had thought banished was somehow resurrected. "We killed her!" He did not say that he had killed her. Instead, Chris glanced upwards and realized that it was Sekhmet up there, causing all this destruction and his confusion mounted. Too many facts were proving contrary. The Sekhmet he remembered would not be capable of convincing Julia, Inez and Casey to follow her here, nor would she provide them with these powerful weapons.

"I don't know how to explain it," Julia struggled to explain. "But when she woke up she was Sekhmet but she was also Mary. Chris, she has thought of nothing but getting here and finding you and her children. She doesn't sound like Mary but it is her."

"How is that possible?" Ezra asked. "Sekhmet was a killer."

"Ez," Julia turned to him. "I know this is hard for you to believe and trust me, I still have a bad feeling about this myself but the Venom brings her out and she has got us this far. That noise you're hearing up there is Sekhmet and Isis giving us the distraction we needed to get you out of here."

"Isis?" Chris stammered. "You said only Mary......"

"Sekhmet convinced Alex to use some of the Venom because she knew she wouldn't be able to do this alone. When Alex took it, she became Isis."

"This is getting worse by the minute!" JD gasped remembering the two ladies in question and that strange journey off world that was a taboo subject for the seven after it was all said and done.

"How could you let her do this?" Chris glared at them women. "How could you set them both loose?"

"We didn't have a choice!" Casey suddenly spoke up, emboldened enough to speak because Sekhmet was up there at this moment, fighting incredible odds not only for her children but all those in this room. "She hasn't done anything to put us in danger Chris and she was so afraid for you and the children, she was willing to ride here on her own to get you back!"

"Chris," Josiah added his opinion to the mix, choosing to be the voice of reason in all this. He knew that what they had seen in the last few minutes was too much to take but the situation demanded that they get a handle on things quickly. The weapons at their disposal would ensure that they could walk out of here and there was not a man alive anywhere who could stop them. The Isis and Sekhmet that Josiah remember from their visit to the world of the Netjer would never allow them access to such power unless the intention was to save the lives of the seven, not end it. "That little lady from Jack O'Neill's team had one of them inside her."

Chris nodded at the memory of Sam Carter, the beautiful and intelligent woman who reminded him so much of his Mary that it had hurt to look at her during the period Mary had been lost to them. "I remember."

"She said that even though the monster was gone from her, she still had memories of it. Maybe that's what the Venom did to Mary. It opened up the part of her that remembered Sekhmet. Except that was all that it could open up, just memories not a change in her. It sounds to me like Mary is using Sekhmet to help us."

"Yes," Inez nodded. "That's what she said. She said she had Sekhmet's memories but her soul was Mary's."

Chris was not so ready to believe it, not until he saw Mary face to face. At this point, he was not even prepared to call her Sekhmet but was still grateful that his wife lived. The rest they could sort out once they were out of here. "Alright," he thought quickly needing to address more pressing points than this particular debate. "Josiah, you, JD and Nathan, get the girls out of here." He looked to Inez. "Me and Ezra are going up there." He motioned to the pandemonium that was taking place beyond the walls of this room. "We're going to get the others, including Isis and Sekhmet."

**********

Laurel did know how it was possible but it appeared that she was under attack.

The nature of this was beyond her understanding and even Mr Zhang was at a loss to explain it when the explosions began. At first, she thought the danger had come from the army beyond the walls of the fort but no sign of the enemy existed beyond the facility. The destruction that resonated throughout the place was coming from inside the building and though she was at a loss to recognise the how, she did was not blind to the danger. The walls were literally shaking from the blasts and the resonation she felt in her bones.

Baby Michael was screaming loudly in his basinette, terrified by the violence around him. In the meantime, Chris Larabee' oldest child was huddled in the chair she had him seated, trying not to look afraid and as he tried to imagine that all this sound was due to his father coming to the rescue of himself and his brother. Laurel was not usually one to feel fear but something about this situation gave her a bad feeling and she went to the single drawer table inside the parlor she had fashioned out of one of the abandoned rooms. Pulling open the drawer, she reached inside and produced a revolver and checked to ensure that it was loaded. Finding it not, she immediately snapped open the chamber and made it so.

"A little insurance never hurts." Laurel said casually as she glimpsed briefly at Billy while she finished arming the weapon before slipping it into the folds of her dress. Belying the pandemonium occurring beyond the walls of this sanctum, Laurel sauntered to the screaming infant and cradled him in her arms, rocking him gently into silence.

"I suppose a trip to Europe might not be such a bad thing." She turned around and looked at the young boy who was smart enough to know that she was a creature he had good reason to fear. He would like to run away from her but as long as she had Mikey, Billy would not run. He was not going anywhere without his little baby brother. "Would you like that Master Travis?"

Billy did not answer but he knew that if he and Mikey were taken away from here, they would never see Chris or Four Corners again.

Suddenly the door opened and the fearsome Mr Zhang stepped into the room. The Oriental always seemed impassive, like a huge statue carved out of stone given animation, however, this time, his expression was clear enough for even Billy to read. The man's eyes though dark and focussed, reeked of an emotion that Billy knew all well.

Fear.

It was exuding so clearly from him that even Laurel noticed it and for the first time, he saw the arrogant and supreme mask that was Laurel's magnificent features shudder somewhat. "Zhang?" She asked. "What is going on?"

"We are under attack." Mr Zhang answered, feeling bewildered because he did not understand what he had just seen, what was only minutes behind him. The eruptions were coming closer and the sound of gunfire was almost reaching a point where they would have to shout to be heard.

"I am not a fool Zhang," Laurel said sharply. "Attack from what?"

"I think it is the mother of the children." Zhang responded still appearing very mystified by what he had seen as he glanced at Billy. The man was still unable to believe the words he was saying any more than he was able to believe witnessing it.

"Mary Travis?" Laurel's shock was almost as potent as Zhang's. Billy however, felt his heart filled with unparalleled happiness knowing that his ma was coming for him.

"Yes," he nodded. "But there is a demon inside her. She fights like nothing I have ever seen. I have seen the Shaolin priests of my homeland fight and her manner is much like them but the weapon she uses is not of this world. She fires lighting bolts at our men. She has killed many of them."

"Have you lost your mind?" Laurel said incredulously, refusing to believe this nonsense that he was spouting. "Are you unable to stop one woman?"

"It is more than one!" Zhang protested his helplessness in this matter. "Doctor Styles is also with her and she is using a weapon the same as Mary Larabee. Mistress, we must leave. Our men cannot stop them!"

Laurel had never seen Zhang so afraid and knew that he was not prone to exaggeration. Thus when he made his plea, Laurel was not foolish enough to ignore him. Too many times had his caution saved her from the inconvenience of danger and Laurel trusted his devotion not to mention his suspicions implicitly. If he feared so much, then it was prudent to take their leave of this place. She regarded Billy and thought quickly about what she would do with the child.

"Kill him." She said coldly.

Zhang met her gaze with some measure of surprise. "I thought....."

"We need to slow his mother a little." Laurel said coolly as she placed Mikey in his basinette, not looking at either boy or child as she began packing a few things she might need for her flight. Laurel was intelligent enough to never leave her assets in one place and though she may walk away from here with only the clothes on her back, rest assured there were resources awaiting her elsewhere.

Billy felt his chest constrict with fear at Laurel's cruel orders and the steady approach of Mr Zhang when suddenly, the far wall crumbled with a spectacular explosion. Billy was thrown off his chair and Laurel tumbled to the floor. Mr Zhang dropped to his knees from the force of the blast and the entire room shuddered in protest as the floor became covered with brick and debris from the powerful eruption. They were all covered in a fine layer of mortar as their ears continue to ring from the percussive noise that had ripped through the air. Billy raised his eyes in time to see the wall adjoining the room almost completely demolished.

Through the fog of dust and crumbling bits of wall, Isis stepped through the newly formed opening and allowed her gaze to sweep across the room. Even though her eyes eventually rested on Billy and Mikey, the young boy knew that she had noted where Mr Zhang and Laurel Chase were presently situated. Billy however, did not see Isis, he saw Alex, his ma's close friend who had helped bring Mikey into this world and was Vin Tanner's wife. Even though she looked very strange in her clothes and the device around her hand was something Billy could not identify, he was nonetheless grateful to see her.

"Alex!" Billy cried out.

Isis looked at the young boy and smiled. "Billy Travis." Her voice too was odd but it was familiar and Billy did not care at this point. "Take your brother and come to me."

Billy did not need to be told twice. He scrambled to his feet and hurried towards Mikey who was still in his basinette, crying loudly, his voice sounding so out of place with the roar of blasting staff weapon and gunfire. Billy took no more than a step before Laurel, who was shaken out of her disorientation, rose to her feet. She grabbed Billy by the shoulder and glared at Isis.

"Doctor Styles," Laurel met her gaze with a narrowed and calculated look. "I think you're mistaken at who gives the orders around you."

Isis looked at the enemy with a smile and did not at all look terribly perturbed that Billy was not coming towards her. He would soon enough. "I think Miss Chase, that it is you that are mistaken about a great number of things." She stepped aside and gestured to the space behind her.

During the commotion of her dramatic entry, neither Billy nor Laurel for that matter had a chance to see what was transpiring in the adjoining room, now exposed by the destruction of the wall that Isis had laid waste to with one blast of her ribbon device. However, now that Isis had drawn their attention, they found themselves staring in open astonishment at Sekhmet who was presently, taking on five unarmed men with her bare hands. To Billy, he saw his ma, fighting so ferociously, that there were no words to describe it. It did not even look as if she was fighting but rather dancing. She moved so fast that her limbs were almost a blur of motion where he could not discern where one punch or kick ended and another began.

The men she had fighting had long ago exhausted the bullets in their guns and had tried to rush her all at once. The first one who approached her was given a sharp kick in the sternum, which sent him reeling backwards, just as she saw an arm flying towards her face. Sekhmet kept the blow from connecting by blocking it with her staff weapon and then using her forward momentum to swing it around wide to smash into the ribs of the man who had launched the attack. She heard him groan in pain as she threw a backward kick, the ball of her foot landing squarely in the groin of another approaching attacker and a scream was produced from that unfortunate blow.

She could hear them coming even before they struck. Their body language was so easy to read and thus she was able to read every movement before it came and anticipate in what form they would attack. The men she was fighting were faster and stronger than those she had encountered in Avon but what they had in strength and speed were balanced out by their aggression which was so unchecked, they barely thought before they acted. Her moves were coordinated for the art of combat was like a chess game of attack and retreat. She knew when to duck and when to withdraw. Patience was as much part of the game as anything else.

An arm locked around her throat in her musings and Sekhmet immediately reacted by slamming her head backward, feeling the strongest part of cranium crushing soft lips and the bone beneath it. The man loosened his grip around her throat and Mary broke free, swinging around to bash the staff weapon into the side of his head. She did not pay much attention to him after that powerful blow and soon turned her efforts on what remained of his comrades. With a face already bleeding profusely, Sekhmet knew that he was done when she heard his body hit the floor. Staff weapon before her, she swung the weapon in a controlled arc at the last warm body in front of her. It struck him in the stomach and he doubled over. Raising it above her head, Sekhmet leapt up in a powerful forward kick. Her foot crushing the bone of his nose with such force, that when he hit the ground, trailing blood in mid air, she knew that he was dead.

She paused and found herself standing in a room full of bodies that were either unconscious, dead or simply too injured to be of any further danger to her. No doubt, reinforcements would soon arrive but at the moment, they were still in disarray and with Mr Zhang and Laurel Chase in the immediate vicinity, had no brain to coordinate their efforts. Perhaps if they had been free of the Venom, they might have been a danger to her but unfortunately, Venom seemed to turn reasonable men into brutes as it had once turned Chris Larabee, a force of nature into a monster of savage proportions. In any case, she would deal with them when they arrived. For the moment, she had more important things to occupy her mind.

"Ma!" She heard Billy shout and not even Laurel's grip around his shoulder could keep him from her.

Suddenly, Sekhmet forgot all about the enemy when she saw the joy in that little face running towards her and something inside herself, which she did not know was hers or Mary's leapt into being with fiery intensity.

"Oh my darling!" She gasped as she dropped her staff weapon and lowered herself so she could pick him up in her arms and hold him close. Sekhmet picked up her son and he was her son, she was one with the host one, so she dared to make that claim. She twirled him around as she held him tight against her, never feeling so complete as when she felt his embrace.

"Ma, Chris is here!" Billy said when she finally let him go. "I saw him."

"All in good time my dear," she kissed him gently on the forehead and pushed herself upright, appearing like a panther moving in for the kill when her eyes left his and touched upon Laurel Chase.

"What are you waiting for?" Sekhmet heard her shouting at Zhang. "Kill her!"

Sekhmet dropped her gaze to Billy and said in a perfectly maternal voice, cool and soothing to his ears but utterly predatory to anyone else in the room. "Billy, you will wait over there." She glanced at the corner of the room and faced Sekhmet. "Mother will handle this."

Billy's eyes widened as he saw Mr Zhang approach her. The boy looked at his mother anxiously, fearing the worst as the formidable bulk of a man started closing the distance between them. However, Zhang was not as confident or filled with swaggering arrogance as he approached. The look of fear, which Billy had sighted earlier, seemed more palpable than ever. With a flash of insight, Billy realized this man was afraid of his mother and considering the men lying around them, broken by her hands, he could understand why.

"If you leave now," Sekhmet said when he finally reached her. "I will not kill you."

"You cannot kill me madam." Zhang responded although he was not as certain as he sounded. "I have been doing this far longer than you."

Sekhmet smiled. "Believe me, that is not the case Mr Zhang. You have allied yourself with a creature of evil but I allow you to leave this room a free man if you choose but raise your hands against mine in combat and that will be a mistake of fatal proportions." The glint in her eyes became a glow and she saw Zhang react to the unearthly light in her eyes.

"What are you?" He managed to ask.

"Hell." She responded and attacked.

Zhang stepped back, trying to get clear of the kick, when her realized that it was not her legs that were the danger as he had noticed earlier when she had been fighting with the others. Her hand moved through his defensive posture in less than an instant and clamped onto his larynx. Without giving him any warning, her fingers clamped around the hard, ringed tissue and pulled back sharply. Zhang did not have the opportunity to scream. The overload to his pain receptors was so intense, he had neither the time to scream or react as his brain shut down completely. Sekhmet leapt back after she delivered the crippling blow and looked on dispassionately as he fell down, face first, completely unconscious.

She was surprised he did not know how to defend against that particular form of attack, since it was his people had invented it. The Goa'uld Yew would have been most distressed to see his people forgetting the old ways. The bear claw as it was known was first introduced by the Goa'uld Yew who taught his Jaffars to fight in a manner unlike any seen by others. It was passed to the people and the realm he controlled and spread across the land like a wild fire. It was still the most effective way of neutralizing an enemy without hurting them permanently. Perhaps it would have been expedient to kill him but Sekhmet could not bring herself to do the deed in front of her eight old son.

She stretched out her hand and beckoned Billy forward. The boy hurried to his ma, somewhat in awe at how easily she had defended herself against the imposing Mr Zhang who now lay on the floor, his face scraping into the debris on the floor, lost to the world. Billy had always thought his mother to be the most incredible woman in his universe but now that view would require redefinition.

"Come Billy," Sekhmet smiled at him serenely and took his small hand in hers as she walked towards Isis and Laurel. "Mother has some unfinished business to take care off."

*********

Vin Tanner had a strange dream.

He dreamt of Isis but it was not the same Isis that had snapped his neck in that cavern deep beneath the earth but one who whispered sweet things in his ear and told him that she loved and that no matter what happened, she would always be his. He had tried to speak, to tell her not to weep that he was still here but the words would not escape him. It felt like they were trapped in amber inside his throat, soft and viscous, setting quickly so that speech could not penetrate its thick mass. He saw her drift away with tears in her eyes and promises to return but when he tried to reach for her, he was just as powerless as the voice that would not let him speak.

When the powerful explosions had torn through the air, the sound was enough to pull him out of his sleep. He sat up and felt none of the burning pain that could had driven him mad with agony earlier on. Despite the throbbing in his head, which could only be described as a dull ache that reminded him of a hangover except there was none of the good drinking to proceed it, Vin found himself otherwise well. He ached in places and there were remnants of the violence he had carried out upon himself when in the throes of the Venom withdrawal, however for most part he found that he was able to move and thus swung his legs onto the floor.

Beyond the walls of his room, he heard noises that could only be described as a war being fought. However, there was something familiar about the blast that sent a wave of unease through him and Vin tried to recall when he had heard it before. Pushing himself off the bed, he felt slightly disoriented as he regained his balance and centered his internal gyroscope. The loud roaring had ceased, as did the gun fire that was woken him from his slumber just as abruptly. Chris and the others were probably still in the cells below but he wondered why he had been so fortunate as to be moved to such plush surroundings.

Taking a few ginger steps forward, he reached the doorknob and slowly twisted it open, expecting to see a sentry posted outside to keep him from escaping. To his surprise, Vin discovered that no such precaution had been taken but this mystery soon evaporated when he saw what lay in the corridor beyond his room. The tracker felt himself swallowing as he pulled open the door, certain that there would be no one to stop him since there seemed to be a bigger threat to Laurelís agenda then her amusement with her prisoners.

What in Godís name had happened here? Vin thought as he stepped into the corridor, wishing that he had a gun because the destruction and carnage before him was enough to make one feel very nervous indeed. Walls had caved in, debris littered the floor, bullet roles riddled the passage walls and bodies, many bodies. Broken and bleeding, they covered the ground, the debris of mortar and plaster soaking up the blood that seemed to bring color to this whole tableau of horror, piercing through the mind with its macabre implications. Vin felt his throat dry and as he moved to examine the bodies and realized to his even greater confusion, that it was not bullets that had killed them.

Their wounds were grievous but there was not a bullet wound on any of them. Most of them had been flung into walls with such force that their bones had shattered upon impact. Vin could tell because the wounds when incurred seemed to take place on only one side of the body and he had seen enough dead men in his time to know that the wounds were caused by some form of impact. The blood trails leading to the grit covered floor was evidence of this, that it the walls that were still standing. Most were covered in great vein that run up and down the length, signaling the cracking and fissuring that had been caused by the tremendous battering they had received. Others looked as if they had been burnt, with wound of charred flesh smoking from their bodies.

"Vin!" Buck Wilmingtonís voice suddenly called out from the other end of the corridor.

Vin almost jumped out of his skin upon hearing the voice of his friend, the scene before him having frayed his nerves more than he liked. Turning around, he saw Buck approach and was never more grateful to see the big man in light of what was around them. His legs found a surge of vitality as he closed the gap between them and Buck was grinning happily, probably because he was about as glad to see Vin as the tracker himself.

"Buck, what are you doing out here?" Vin asked, having whose last recollection of Buck was Laurel removing him from the cells where the rest of the seven were being kept.

Buckís expression darkened. "She was keeping me penned until she knew what to do with me. Guess my animal magnetism was just too much for her." There was no humor in his voice as he made that statement and Vin wondered what was at the heart of it but did not wish to ask because at this present moment, he was more interested in what had happened here. "Anyway, I was kept under guard when all the ruckus broke out and I think the boys guarding me had to go off to deal with whatever was turning this place inside out. When I realized that no one was watching, I snuck out. I was trying to get back to the cells to reach you boys when I saw all this."

"Yeah," Vin nodded grimly, sweeping his gaze over the collection of broken bodies. "Tell me about it. I think you and I ought to go find Chris and see about getting Billy and Mikey out of here."

"Lead the pard," Buck said more than happy to comply with that order.

***********

Laurel Chase knew that she was in trouble.

Normally this was an alien state of affairs for her because she was a creature accustomed to planning for every eventuality so that nothing usually came up upon her unawares. The practice had saved her life on many occasions and usually kept her normal day to day existence from being hindered by little inconveniences other people usually tolerated. However, nothing in her wildest anticipation could have prepared her for the situation that now presented itself upon her. When she had first made her strike against Chris Larabeeís family, she had studied her subjects well.

Mary Elizabeth Langely nee Travis nee Larabee, had nothing much to recommend her being extraordinary. True, she had a better sense of purpose than most women as well as the mundane if somewhat predictable feminine trait of requiring her environment to change in order to suit her liking. She was credited to be a formidable newspaperwoman and active speaker in politics but beyond that, she was more less like any pioneer of the Territory. If there was anything that made her distinct, it was the fact that she had somehow managed to tame and marry one Chris Larabee.

Laurel had always wondered how Mary had managed that. She seemed too mediocre to be capable of such a feat of domestication but that was before Laurel had seen her today. Prior to this, Laurel had considered her nothing more than a nonentity that could be played as a pawn in her chess games with Chris Larabee. At no time had she considered that the pawn was capable of moving into the position of queen. However, she now stood alone without her minions to protect her. Mr Zhang was lying on the floor, powerless to aid her. She remained surrounded by both Mary and Alexandra Styles, their eyes glowing with satisfaction of the destruction they had caused to her domicile and to her men still wet upon their lips, she realized that it was a mistake that she was going to regret bitterly.

Sekhmet paid little attention to Laurel at first, focussing only on the baby crying frantically in his bassinet, frightened by all the loud sounds that were booming around his delicate ears. She let go of her sonís hand who was watching this creature that resembled his mother in so many ways but was vastly different from the woman he had known. Once again, this alien feeling of concern reached up and ensnared Sekhmetís heart from parts unknown as she gazed upon the face of the infant wailing plaintively inside its basket. Handing her staff weapon to Isis, Sekhmet reached up and picked up the struggling baby, his face red from his tears and cradled him in her arms as if it was the easiest thing in the world to do. The memory of what was needed surfaced out of nowhere and she spent a few seconds gazing into that cherubic face, with a little smile on her own.

"Hello my beautiful son." She smiled with pleasure when his crying ceased and he began to settle comfortably into her arms.

"This is precious." Laurel could not resist saying.

"Miss Chase," Isis said breezily, allowing Sekhmet a moment alone with her children. "You have incurred our wrath enough to ensure that you will be sorry before we are done with you. For your own sake, keep a civil tongue in your head. It would not be wise to provoke either of us after what you have done."

"It is alright Isis," Sekhmet said coolly, raising her eyes just enough to indicate that she had not forgotten Laurel, not at all. Putting Mikey back into his bassinet, she handed the basket to Billy and said in the same, soothing voice she used when cleaning up his scrapes and bruises. "Billy, you will take your brother out of this room and wait for us." She glanced at Isis and then at Laurel. "This will not take long."

Something in her voice told Billy it was not wise to argue with her and he nodded obediently, taking his brother out of the room without question.

Only after the children were gone, did Isis and Sekhmet turn their gaze to Laurel Chase.

"Well this is an interesting turn of events." Laurel remarked, unprepared to show that she was worried even though she would be lying if she claimed she did not feel some measure of concern. "Now if I recollect my classical knowledge, Isis and Sekhmet are Egyptian goddesses are they not?" She inquired.

"Human," Isis said icily. "Do not presume to speak as if you know us. We existed when your kind were still wearing skins and living in caves, falling prey to anything with more teeth and more arrogance than they themselves. Ironically, we should thank you for giving us life since it was your higgledy piggledy two penny potion that brought us back to life."

"My potion?" Laurel struggled to understand when she realized that they were referring to the Venom. "My Venom brought you out?"

"Albeit temporarily," Isis remarked coldly. "If your understanding of the code of life was any more than primitive perhaps the effects would be permanent but a descendant of a simian tree climber cannot be expected to produce miracles."

Laurel took great exception to that and her natural arrogance and pride d quickly. "My Venom is a work of genius!"

"Your Venom is a plaything." Sekhmet hissed, circling her like a lion about to go in for the kill. "A curiosity that has no real purpose other than to amuse yourself and those foolish enough to believe that power can come so easily in a form of potion. Power comes from within, it is ingrained into oneís genetic code, it saturates the chromosomes until there is no other recourse but its expression. You seek to produce it artificially and all you have succeeded in creating is an abomination."

Sekhmet took a step forward and clenched her fist around Laurelís throat, forcing the woman against a nearby wall. The creator of the Venom struggled, trying to reach for the weapon hidden in her clothes but Sekhmet was too wily for that and soon retrieved it without a single shot being fired. As Laurel watched her last chance of protecting herself being handed to Isis who immediately unlocked the chamber and let the cache of bullets fall to the floor before discarding the weapon as if it were a toy, she heard Sekhmet lower her lips to her ear.

"Listen to me Laurel Chase," the warrior goddess whispered in her ear. "I was in my time known as the Goddess of War, of Destruction and of Chaos. The Nile Dwellers worshipped me as Sekhmet, the Achaens of Mycenae called me Athene, their counterparts in Latium knew me as Diana and to the old ones of the Great Mother River, I was Kali. I live now in this woman you know as Mary Larabee and when you take her children," Sekhmet bore her teeth and yanked a clump full of Laurelís hair sharply so that the woman would feel every strand pulling out of her scalp. "You take what is mine. The man you choose to have is mine, his children are mine and when you harm him, what you harm is mine. Make no mistake on how much I can make you wish for death for I have been bathing men in agony far longer than the whole of your pathetic life."

"Let me have at her," Isis responded stepping forward and raising her arm so that Laurel had no choice but to stare at the glowing orb in her palm. "Perhaps she would understand the peril she places her life if she sees it herself."

Laurel did not speak as the stone in the center of Isisí palm began to glow softly. Her eyes became filled with amber light and for a moment, she forgot that she was at the mercy of two creatures that were not quite human and more than ready to kill her. Isis knew that she would not make any sound once the jewel had her in its thrall. As the beam of focussed energy started feeding into her brain, slowly boiling every cell in her cranial chamber, Isis smiled with satisfaction knowing that Laurel would not be able to pull away even if she were screaming in agony. The Goddess of All did not intend to kill her for the part of her that was Alexandra Styles could condone defending oneself but not outright murder. Though the notion irritated Isis to no end, the compulsion not to kill was too strong for her to ignore.

Besides that was the Goa'uld way and she was human now.

Blood begin to pulse out of Laurel's nose as the energy beam did its worst, surging the temperatures in the brain cavity beyond fever point. The blood running through the thousands of veins, lymphatic membranes and other circulatory passages began to boil and very soon, she would be at a place where the damage would be irreversible. Laurel screamed without being aware that the sound had escaped her lips or that her tears had turned to blood and the saliva running down her chin was red. It was the first time she had ever screamed and if she had presence of mind to realize it, would have taken a moment to analyze the sensation.

All it would have taken to end her torment was to shift her gaze elsewhere. Unfortunately, that too was the power of the stone she was transfixed upon, the urge to do so could not form in her mind and thus she would continue to stare into it, until the very moment when her entire circulatory system ruptured inside her. Her screams grew more piercing, until it sounds echoed through the halls of her fortress, now benign because her followers were either dead or no longer in a position to be a threat to anyone.

Suddenly, just as abruptly as it began, it stopped.

Sekhmet and Isis watched dispassionately as she dropped to the ground, blood running streaks across those extraordinary features and she struggled to remain on her hands and knees panting. The pain had been excruciating. She could feel it in every pore of her until it was so apart of her being she could not remember when there had been nothing else. Her throat felt hoarse from her screams and yet despite it all, she was not afraid. They could make her scream but they could not make her sorry and that Laurel knew was what they wanted most of all.

"Do it!" She glared them hoarsely. "Kill me!"

"Kill you?" Sekhmet laughed sardonically. "We would not dream of doing such a thing. The art of killing often mistaken as an act of punishment, did you know there was time when it was considered a merciful ending?"

"Which is more than your precious Vin Tanner will have." Laurel declared viciously. "Perhaps you would like to give him a merciful ending since he will be about as useful as a doorstop after I was done with him!" She glared at Isis with a sneer of triumph as she made that statement.

"Oh really?" Isis responded and reacted by sending a more focussed beam of energy at Laurel that picked her off the ground and slammed her into the wall behind her. The force of it was hard enough to make her cry out but not enough to kill as it had done her men. She whimpered as bones snapped and she tumbled to the floor again, landing on her hands and knees even though her ability to remain in that position was waning. Her blood was sprinkling into the floor beneath her, red drops becoming a tapestry of color; the more her body was subjected to abuse.

Isis dropped to her knees and yanked back Laurel's hair hard, snapping her head back so hard that the chords of her throat pulled against the bruised skin. Isis stared into Laurel's eyes, still filled with fire and had to admit that the woman was strong despite the battering she was receiving at their hands. "Vin is well. I healed him. Were you so arrogant to think that because you damaged him that no one else could undo what you have done?" Isis narrowed her eyes at the woman who had brought so much pain to her husband and to Sekhmet's mate. "I gave life to the dying when the mortar on the pyramids of Egypt were fresh. I know the secrets to the human code of life more intimately than your childish attempts to circumvent them. Your potion is nothing, as you are nothing."

"Goddess of All," Sekhmet suddenly spoke. "You cannot reach her. She cannot understand what is to have conscience. There is one thing more frightening than a creature with an evil soul and that is one without a soul at all. There is only one way to reach her."

At first, Laurel could not understand what Sekhmet meant until the Warrior Goddess reached around her throat and hauled her to her feet, her fist clenching around Laurel's tender throat. Sekhmet dragged her to feet, tightening her fingers around Laurel's throat with such compression, she was gasping as Sekhmet slammed her onto a table that had been left standing despite the destruction that had overtaken the rest of the room. Laurel landed heavily on her back, uttering a small cry of pain upon impact.

"This one," Sekhmet looked at Isis, ignoring Laurel completely as she held her head down and brushed bloodied strands of hair out of the woman's face. "She is beautiful is she not?"

"Extraordinarily so," Isis said with a smile of understanding, appreciating what Sekhmet was about to do. "She would be most sought after as a host for a Goa'uld."

"Undoubtedly," Sekhmet agreed, pressing her finger tips into Laurel's face as he examined it roughly, her digits leaving impressions on the blood stained skin. Laurel flinched and tried to squirm out of her reach but Sekhmet's grip was too strong. "This one has gone through her entire life using her face and her body as a weapon. Is that not true Miss Chase?" Sekhmet regarded Laurel with more than a hint of menace in her blue gray eyes.

"Go to hell!" Laurel spat, a trace of saliva landing on Sekhmet's cheek.

The warrior goddess did not react and merely wiped the traces of spittle with the back of her hand before looking down at Laurel and replied sweetly. "Perhaps I will but not today. When I considered the question of what was to be done with you, Isis suggested that we kill you. Now what sport is that?"

"You better kill me!" Laurel snarled. "Because if you don't, I'm going to hunt you down and kill you and your fucking brats."

"Oh I don't think you will have time for that," Sekhmet remarked as she reached into her boot and produced a length of thin metal that had been previously hidden beneath the leather. The scalpel gleamed in the dim light of the room and Laurel's eyes widened in terror as the glint of the blade caught her attention. "You will be too busy trying to fix that face of yours."

Laurel began to understand.

"You see, I thought long and hard at what would be a fitting punishment for someone like you," Sekhmet continued to speak as the unspeakable truth unfolded before Laurel. She was still trapped between disbelief and denial. "Death, Isis soon agreed with me was too good for you. Not after what you have done to my mate and her consort. You do not deserve a merciful ending, for the cries of your victims demand retribution and we are well acquainted with how to dispense if most aptly. No, Laurel Chase, you who have traded your looks and your charms to murder, seduce and deceive every man who have been unfortunate enough to fall under your sway. So tell me," Sekhmet leaned forward and looked at her with a smile of mischief, not to mention pure malevolence.

"Where would you like me to cut first?"

"NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!" She screamed giving them panic that they had wanted to hear. She continued to scream because she could not endure it! She would not endure being ugly! "NOT MY FACE!"

Something inside Laurel snapped when she saw the blade in Sekhmet's hand, inching closer and closer to her skin. Until now she had never suspected that she possessed a vulnerable spot but could not deny that they had found it. The thought of being ugly, of not being the woman who turned heads, who could look at a man and reduced him to a whimpering fool, tripping over himself to get her attention was unimaginable. It shattered the reason inside her and a well of strength surged from someplace inside her for one final act of desperation. Lashing out, she took Sekhmet by surprised and managed to escape the table where her terrible punishment was about to begin. However, her escape was brief. With relative ease, Sekhmet did not even break a sweat when she brought the woman down in a hard body tackle.

Laurel landed hard but was not willing to give up yet. She fought hard; hands pummeling air as tried frantically to keep Sekhmet from her but Laurel was unaccustomed to using physical force to repel an enemy. She had lived her entire life having others do for her or never placed herself in the direct path of danger. Her formidability came in her ability to use her mind and her acumen to prevent herself from being placed in such positions. She decided that if she survived this, that aspect of her life would require evaluation. Her nails dug into Sekhmetís hand and arms as the woman launched her own attack and it was far more skilled than anything Laurel had attempted.

Sekhmet could not keep the scratches from her skin but she was skilled enough to prevent any other injury to herself. As Isis watched almost with amusement for Laurelís attempt to combat the warrior goddess was like sending a baby to single handedly kill a lion. The Lion Goddess as she was once known was able to break through the line of Laurelís flaying hands to ram a fist squarely in the womanís face. Laurelís head snapped back as Sekhmet pulled back and sent another control strike, once again aiming for the face. The damage would not be permanent but Laurel would be very bruised by the time was all over. Her palm struck Laurelís jaw and noted the crack of bone dislocating from its hinges of tendons and cartilage.

Laurel did not cry out because her jaw made speech, even a groan of pain rather difficulty. Sekhmet continued to strike, pounding flesh until it became pulp and her hands became wet with blood. When she finally rose to her feet, Laurel was in no position to offer any further resistance. She was barely even conscious. Sekhmet looked down at the woman, broken and bleeding, wondering if that was good enough for a creature as vile as this.

"We should kill her." Sekhmet looked over her shoulder at Isis.

"No," Isis shook her head. "While it would be prudent, my host would object very much to that and I gather yours would as well. We are not Goaíuld Sekhmet, we are human and as humans, we must restrained the need to kill without cause. This one has earned death and were she aiming a gun to us, we would do so happily but she is done. No doubt, she will return but I dare say, she will never try to take your children again."

Despite her baser instincts to end the threat of Laurel Chase in the wreckage of her former bastion of power, Sekhmet knew that Isis was correct. Inwardly, she could feel the hostís abhorrence for murder and as it was, she had not felt right about harming someone who could not fight back, even though Laurel Chase had richly deserved what she had so far received. Beyond the walls of this room, her sons awaited her and though she knew that they had killed everyone of Laurelís men to ensure that Billy and Michael would be safe, she would not let down her guard until they were in the place where this had all began.

Safe at home and in their beds.

"You are right of course Goddess of All, I am more concerned with my children than I am at this piece of refuse. I will not look my sons in the eye and have them know I murdered in cold blood."

With that Sekhmet and Isis made their way out of the room, certain that for the moment, Laurel was not going anywhere. The woman was unconscious, a multitude of broken bones and a face that was barely recognizable. She would heal up all right and would still be very beautiful but she would never again be extraordinary and for some reason, that made Sekhmet very pleased indeed.

There would be ample time enough to hand her to the authorities once they found Chris and the others, not to mention deal with the more immediate problem of how they would overcome the terrible effects of the Venom when it was time to purge its from their system. Stepping into the corridor outside, Sekhmet saw Billy waiting for her. The moment her son met her eyes, he broke into a smile and hurried to her. Once again, that feeling leapt inside of her and understood why it was Mary Larabee was willing to die just to see the happiness in that small, youthful face.

"Is she dead?" Billy asked after a moment.

"No," Sekhmet shook her head as she scooped Michael out of his basket and into her arms. "She is not worth killing. We will give her to those who are in the position of authority to dispense adequate justice to one such as her." Billy nodded but not certain whether he was glad or not for that act of mercy her mother had shown Laurel Chase. He did not know the specifics of her crimes but Billy guessed they were very bad indeed because of how afraid Chris had been when his stepfather had seen himself and Mikey with her. "I want to go home ma." He said after a moment.

"That is a sound statement." Isis smiled and ruffled his hair. "I think we would do well to leave this place. I will need some things from her laboratory to make a concoction that will spare us the agonies of withdrawal but there is no reason to remain any longer. The others will be concerned about us."

"I hope they have succeeded in releasing our mates." Sekhmet responded before lowering enough to kiss Billy on the forehead. "I promises you my darling," She smiled. "That you and your brother will soon be home."

Billy beamed at her in pure adoration and Isis realized with a hint of warmth that to the child, whether she be Sekhmet or Mary, the creature before him was his mother first. All of a sudden out of nowhere, Chris Larabee emerged in the hallway. He was staring at them with nothing less than confusion and Isis soon realized that he had been there for a few seconds, watching them. No doubt, Julia had informed him of what had happened with the Venom and how it had affected his wife. The expression on his face was something mixed with caution and relief, fear and fascination. He walked slowly forward as Sekhmet looked up and saw him.

For a moment, neither said a word as Sekhmet placed Michael in his bassinet once more and started forward herself. Their progress towards each other was slow and deliberate; the way two lions on the savanna would approach each other, aware and cautious, treading the line between the uncertainty of enemy and friend. Her staff weapon remained lowered while he, who had found his guns when they had escaped their cells, remained similarly holstered. Only the gambler seemed tense but that was understandable indeed. His recollection of Sekhmet was different than that of Chris Larabeeís.

Chris saw his wife and knew immediately that she was Sekhmet. However, this was not the creature that had once threatened to kill her own child on the streets of Four Corners. When he had seen her holding Mikey in her arms and kissing Billy with tenderness, he realized that Julia was right, she was Mary too. However, as she closed the distance towards him, meeting his gaze, he knew that she was also Sekhmet and that made him suspicious. Everything about her was Sekhmet, the hard edge in her eyes, the stealthy movements across the floor and finally the manner in which she moved, coiled in preparation for attack.

They stopped in front of each other and for another second, simply stared. A part of Chris was so happy that she was alive, he almost did not care if she remained this way forever. Just knowing that Mary was still among the living was enough for him. However, the other part of him that remembered just how insane Sekhmet had been was more than prepared to kill her if he for a moment suspected that Mary was trapped helplessly in her own body. Finally, the eternity of moments ended with Sekhmet taking a step forward, breaking the stalemate.

Without speaking, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him to her in a kiss of passion. Chris felt his breath taken away as he felt her soft lips devouring his own with hunger and heat. Her kisses were undoubtedly Mary for they had the power to rob him of all sense as they did whenever she touched him this way but he could also feel the added delight of something else that could only be Sekhmet. Whatever the case, by the time he recovered enough to react, Chris was at least certain that this time Mary was no prisoner.

"Beloved." She said softly, her hand on his cheek. "I feared the worst."

Chris still had difficulty dealing her speaking this way and took a second to answer. "I thought you were dead."

Though his words were neutral, the part of her that was Mary could imagine how hollow his eyes had been at the thought of her being dead and understood that had her demise been the truth, it would have destroyed him. "It will take someone better than her to do that," she smiled embracing him again and this time was rewarded with a return hug, even though he was still a little taken with the unreality of his situation. "As you have been told I assume, her potion had an interesting side effect on my person. The Mary you know will be returned to you soon enough but for the moment, you need not fear me. Your wife is here and she is in control."

Despite the fact that he could not be truly at ease until he had the woman he loved back in all her entirely, hearing that did make him feel somewhat better.

"And Laurel?" He ventured to ask.

"Will not trouble us for awhile." Sekhmet returned with a truly menacing smile that would have made me. "She will be busy mending."

*********

It did not take long before they found Vin and Buck who were wandering down the silent corridors in the wake of the battle and had investigated the sounds of what they had been certain was Laurel Chase screaming. Ezra found himself unable to accept the women in any shape or form and remained at a distance even though he was certain that there was no danger. However, having remembered what Sekhmet had done to him, there was no way he could ever think she was anything but a sadistic and ruthless killer.

Vinís reaction to Isis was extreme. He too remembered the entity that had once stolen his wifeís body and had taken an odyssey through space in order to retrieve her. To know that Isis would always share her psyche was disconcerting until he was told by Chris that had it not been for her intervention he would have died, following the massive stroke he had suffered because of Laurelís Venom in his system. Of course, the residue of it still remained even though Isis had negated its effects for the time being. However as Isis explained, they were all going to require the antidote she would have to develop in order to escape the more agonizing aspects of withdrawal which would soon be coming for them.

Vin stared at his wife after the others had given them a moment alone. Having learnt that Sekhmet had dealt with Laurel so expediently, he wanted to take her with them when they finally left this place. Chris did not trust local authorities to bring the woman to justice and would not be satisfied unless he could do the deed himself. Though he was not prepared to decipher the strange circumstances that had placed Laurel within reach, he was not about to waste the opportunity to be rid of her once and for all.

"Is Alex really in there?" Vin asked as he looked at Isis, trying to see his wife even though her face was the same.

"This time, yes." Isis nodded. "We are together."

"But youíre in control." He replied with a hint of accusation in his voice. He remembered Alexís nightmares, the horror that she had endured after they had returned from Netjer. He remembered how she had such difficulty sleeping during those first few weeks and how he would find her, bathed in sweat, screaming when she awoke from nightmares he could not possibly imagine. He could not for one moment believe she would willing allow herself to be taken once again.

"I have both our memories but it is Isis that speaks." Isis knew that he was more difficult to convince than Sekhmetís mate because Sekhmet had not killed him with her bare hands as Isis had. Sekhmetís host memories of her possession had been limited while her own had left every agonizing detail intact which must have left significant trauma on her being that her husband would have been very aware.

"She would never have agreed to this." Vin said unrestrained by the fact that she had saved his life.

"She would if it meant saving your life." Isis answered automatically. "It would in fact be the only reason that she would agree to it at all, is that not true?" She challenged.

Vin found that he could not respond because it was true. If there was one thing that would make his wife sacrifice herself in this manner, it was the fact that in doing so she would succeed in saving his life. Alex loved him and his continued existence was what she would consider a risk worth taking, even for her life. "She did this for me?" His voice softened to almost a whisper.

Isis came towards him and met his blue eyes with her own. "She loves you and through our joining I feel her love. We may be minds separate but her love for you runs a conduit between us and I feel it too. Please," she said with the hint of a plea in her voice. "You are our consort. We are yours always for you are theÖ.."

"Pharaoh of our heart." He concluded and swallowed thickly, remembering those words even though he could not understand how, for he had been dreaming when he had heard them. Without even realizing he was doing it, Vin raised his hand to her cheek.

"Yes," She nodded, her voice a faint whisper as a tear ran down her face. Her hand covered his and she went willingly when he drew her forward in a kiss.

The moment was brief but tender and while Vin was still as uncertain as was no doubt Chris Larabee, he could believe that Alex was with him. They kissed gently until the footsteps against the stone floor indicated the return of the others.

Chrisí expression was dark when he rounded the corner with the others. For a second Vin thought that this improbable situation had been a ruse, that Isis and Sekhmet were lying to him and had perpetrated some mischief that warranted the ominous look on his best friendís face. However, Sekhmet was matching Chris stride for stride and appeared just as unhappy as her husband.

"We should have killed her." Sekhmet retorted the moment they reached Vin and Isis.

"What has happened?" Isis asked immediately.

"Sheís gone." Chris answered tautly, his voice a thin line of tension.

"Gone?" Isis exclaimed. "She was hardly in a position to go anywhere when we left her."

"That maybe so," Chris returned automatically, hating the idea that once again, Laurel Chase had slipped through their fingers. He was starting to believe the woman was either made out of smoke or had more lives than a cat. "But the China manís gone too." He sighed, playing it out in his mind the scenario that must have taken place once Laurel had been left unconscious woman in that room with her lackey. "I figured he woke up when you were gone and took her out of here."

"We must hunt them down." Sekhmet said vehemently. "She needs to die."

Whether it was Sekhmet or Mary saying those words, Chris could not deny that he agreed with her but the time when he was going to deal with Laurel using anything other than cold hard logic was over. She had beaten him too many times because he had been thinking with his emotions rather than his mind, to make that mistake again. She had proved that she was too smart for direct action and should he encounter her again, he would remember that their battle was chess game, not the gunfight, as he was normally accustomed to.

"She does," he nodded in agreement. "But not today." He said with a sigh. "Right now, we have to get the kids home and dress our wounds. Sheíll be back soon enough."

If nothing else, Chris was certain of that much.

Epilogue:

Transitions

They remained at Laurel's enclave for a few more hours after the lady and Mr Zhang had disappeared. This was mostly due to Isis' need to manufacture some form of withdrawal suppressant. No one was at all comforted staying at the fortress for any longer than necessary but Isis explained that despite the questionable results of Laurel's Venom, she had produced it in a fully equipped laboratory that would make the creation of the anti withdrawal drug pass much more swiftly. Even though the explanation given by the former Goddess of All was so beyond their understanding that none could comprehend what exactly it was she was trying to achieve, no one could deny that if anyone could capable of producing this, it would be Isis.

Besides, in truth, after seeing how withdrawal had affected Vin, Chris would prefer another method of freeing both Alex and Mary from the effects of the Venom Laurel had injected into their system. The work continued for some hours, in which time the seven gathered the dead and kept the wounded comfortable for the time being until federal marshals could come take charge of them personally. Julia and the other women had ridden ahead, returning to the town of Forbes in order to make use of the telegraph station in order to bring some assistance.

Several hours later, Isis emerged with her anti-toxin and inoculated herself, Sekhmet and Vin with the solution. While the ribbon device had done much to heal the tracker, Isis possessing Alexandra Styles' determination to see her husband well, wanted to ensure that any residual Venom was capable of harming him as it did when she had found him earlier. Isis explained that it would take time for the drug to completely neutralize the Venom in their bodies, when at which time Isis and Sekhmet would dissolve and Chris and Vin would have their wives back once again.

Once everything was taken care of in Forbes, the entire party left for home and rode back as quickly as possible, despite being hindered in their speedy return by Billy and Mikey. However, both parents were so grateful that the two children were safe that neither they nor any one else felt like complaining. It was nonetheless an odd trip back with Ezra maintaining his distance from both Isis and Sekhmet. Although Julia wanted badly to question him on his intimacies with Isis, she held back knowing that perhaps it was an issue left alone. He had never given her reason to feel betrayed and thus she curbed her desire to know especially when she realised that it was neither Ezra's or Alex's choice for it to have happened in the first place.

Chris found the Mary-Sekhmet amalgamation slightly tolerable after the insane warrior goddess he had encountered on the world of Netjer. The new creature born of that union was to the point, undeniably practical and unfailingly honest. It was to Chris' surprise that most of Sekhmet's characteristics were in some ways traits that Mary possessed only amplified more. If he ever got his Mary back, he wondered how she would have found the comparative likeness between herself and the warrior goddess. However, despite the fact that Sekhmet was mildly engaging, Chris knew for certain that it was his wife he wanted back.

Vin on the other hand found Isis to be something of a mystery. He understood that she was not his Alex but there were aspects of her that was very much Alex and he was kept wondering all throughout the ride to Four Corners, which was his wife and which was the Goddess of All. For reason, the two distinct personalities did not seem as apparent in her as it did with Sekhmet. Vin wondered if when Alex had taken the Venom, had she lessened the dosage somewhat in order to ensure that Isis would never have enough control over her body to be capable of losing sight of what they were meant to accomplish by the action in the first place. It was just the sort of thing that his wife would do to ensure that Isis never regained control of her body because her terror at that eventuality was something he was perfectly aware. Thus, he took some consolation in the fact that his Alex would be back soon enough and until she did, he would simply have to endure this entity that looked so much like her

They returned to Four Corners in the small hours of the dark and the group let out a collected sigh of relief upon reaching the town limits. Capture by Laurel Chase had actually given the seven moments when they believed they would never again see their homes again or the people who were waiting for them so devotedly. They rode in silence into Four Corners, as they had done for most of the journey back from Forbes. Each were thinking contemplatively about the strangeness of their situation and were glad when it was all over.

There was almost a palpable sense of relief when it came time to go their separate ways, hoping that with the coming of the new dawn, their lives would right themselves and everything would be as they were before this entire situation had began. For Chris, he had walked away from this with his life and had learnt a valuable lesson in his future dealings with Laurel. Twice before, he had rushed in to his confrontations with her and twice before he had risked everyone. What had happened to Mary and Alex was only the latest in a line of blunders because he had underestimated her greatly.

He would never do so again.

Chris had no doubt that she would be back. Of that Chris would be certain and wherever she was, the stakes during their next encounter would be high indeed. Mary had hurt her, possibly scarred her permanently. For a woman who had placed much on her looks, that was an injury that could not be forgiven easily and when she returned, he would have to be prepared to protect Mary and his children at all costs.

Even if it meant killing her.

***********

Chris had never thought coming through the front door of his house could feel so good but it did. As he carried Billy in his arms and Sekhmet cradled Mikey in hers, both children were exhausted and in need of a decent bed to rest themselves after the long journey home. Placing both children in their beds and spending a moment watching them, Chris never felt more grateful when he saw both Billy and Mikey in their peaceful and contented sleep, trying to forget the terrible image of seeing them standing next to Laurel Chase. He had never thought he could be so frightened when he saw them in her clutches. He noticed Sekhmet staring at them and felt a hint of surprise seeing the affection in her eyes for the two children resting comfortably, oblivious to their parent's watchful gaze and hopefully enjoying good dreams as they forget their ordeal. Sekhmet raised her eyes to meet his and suddenly Chris was more struck by the fact that she was indeed Mary, the wife he loved despite the guise of the warrior goddess. Looking at her, she looked more like Mary then ever before and a surge of desire rose up within him because after almost losing her forever, Chris was grateful to have her back again. Perhaps sensing what was in his eyes, Sekhmet said nothing and walked back to their bedroom, beckoning silently for him to follow which he did.

No sooner than the door had closed behind them, trapping husband and wife into their own private world, she devoured his mouth without any warning. Chris felt his breath escape him when Sekhmet's lips crushed his own in a kiss of passion. For a moment, he wanted to push away for this was not really the woman he loved, this was Sekhmet and yet her aggression sparked a surge of arousal in him that was hard to deny. Soon the effects of the Venom would be completely dissolved in her blood and the Mary he knew and loved would return to him and Sekhmet would become just another distant memory. However, there was also a fragment of remembrance during that dark period when Sekhmet was in control that she had promised him a pain and pleasure wrapped in a thousand delights. He had refused then because he could not imagine such a coupling when Mary was trapped somewhere inside her body. However, Mary was not trapped and she was using Sekhmet to satisfy her need to save her son and husband and now some more basic needs as well.

Her kisses grew more intense as he felt her tongue probing past his teeth, desperately seeking his own and hearing the groan of demand when he finally reciprocated and started kissing her back. She had shaken her hair loose from its confining bun, allowing golden hair to tumble over her shoulders as she began nudging him backwards, towards the bed that awaited them with as much anticipation as this fire that was building up inside her loins for the needs to be pleasured. Chris tried to break away; tried to voice his desire that she ought to slow down, that they had the whole night to enjoy each other but Sekhmet was having none of it. She wanted him and she wanted him now.

For his part, the ability to keep from being swept away by this tidal wave of raw passion was becoming increasingly hard for him to resist. Each time he felt her tongue tantalizing his with pleasure, he felt a jolt of sensation that was stiffening his cock. He began to wonder what it would be like when she wrapped those pleasurable lips around it and just the image of her on her knees inflicting that pleasure on him force a slight grunt of need from his lips.

They came to a stop at the side of the bed and could go back no further when she pulled away from his mouth and revealed to him the extent of her hunger. Her lips were wet and glistening and her blue grey eyes traveled across his form like he was something to be feasted upon. Giving him no time to react, her hands went to his shirt buttons and immediately removed them, her fingers trembled as she undid each one and he swore she moaned when his bare chest lay open to her. Chris had lowered his mouth to kiss her but she would not let his lips meet hers. Instead, she started kissing him along the collar bone, letting her lips sensuously laved the length of bone before reaching his chest, where those same lips brushed against the skin pulled tight against rock hard muscles.

She continued to kiss him as she journey down the length of him, causing Chris to close his eyes and enjoy her progress. He felt those silken lips touch his skin ever so sensuously, ensuring that her heated tongue made contact enough times so that could not help but shudder as she neared the elliptical flesh of his nipple. Sekhmet glanced up at him momentarily, her eyes taking on a truly devious glint as she fell down upon the helpless circle of flesh and began suckling it with harsh intensity. Chris opened his mouth and groaned, unaware that he had even done it when he was bombarded by the incredible sensation of her swirling tongue, exploring the rough skin and spiraling upwards until she reached his tip and caught in her teeth. The pain did two things, it made him groan again and also forced his cock into such a state of rigidity, Chris could feel it pressing against his pants and against her.

She was perfectly aware of exactly what he needed as the hands, which had been caressing his back, lowered. He continued to push against the soft pleasure of her body, signaling his desire with that hard ridge of flash digging into her belly. While one hand continuing to make slow circles against his back, the other slipped past the waistband of his trousers and started exploring the cock screaming for release. Her hands molded around it and began stroking so lightly that Chris could only close his eyes and enjoy the sensation as she started to do him with exquisite pleasure.

"I'm going to take you Chris," she whispered as her fingers ceased her stroking long enough to undo the pressure of his jeans. The buttons almost popped on their own accord, each time she gave them leave to do so. "I'm going to take you hard."

Chris wanted to resist. He wanted to be in control but the instant he felt her fingers free his manhood from his confinement and take its meaty weight into her hand, any question of allowing her to have her way dissolved in his mind. He closed his eyes as he felt himself carressed in her soft palm. She began stroking him once more, only this time there was no separation of cloth to keep him centered but skin against skin, silk against velvet and the friction that came about sent him wild with desire as she pumped him in her hand.

"God woman yeah." He said hoarsely. "Do me." Chris felt himself pushing into her hand, his hips following her heavenly strokes so that he could get the maximum appreciation of her skillful handling.

Sekhmet's response was to renew her assault on his nipple, starting to nibble it in order to bombard him with the contrasting sensation of pleasure and pain. The harder he started to pump into her hand indicated that he was responding very well to it. He was almost incoherent now and completely helpless to her ministrations. He stood at the edge of the bed, ready to fall into it should she desire. His trousers around his knees and his shirt discarded from that magnificent body, he was a sight that sent heat through her own body and the urge to possess this man was so powerful that she could feel another gush of moisture between her legs.

Chris could not believe that he was being reduced to quivering jelly as he felt himself loose control of his body as never before her. He knew that he was starting to lose control because the coalescing knot of pleasure that was coming from all the points she was stoking into ecstasy would force him to do so in its convergence. She pumped his cock with such expertise that he could hardly breath each time her palm reached the sensitive head which was wet with orgasmic pre-eminence and making smoothening the way for her hand to bring him even further along. He could only react by running his fingers through her hair, intertwining his digits around that golden mane each time she brought him to another plateau of pleasure. He was flying so high, he thought he might soon reach heaven itself.

Sekhmet suddenly nudged him down onto the bed and Chris had no choice to drop into the soft mattress. She landed on him gently, her mouth taking charge of his again, even though her hand had not stopped what it was doing, much to Chris' appreciation. He immediately wrapped his hand around her back, pulling at her own shirt, determined to feel alabaster skin under his palm. In a second or so, she had been divested of her apparel and she lay on top of him bare. She kissed him again as his hands ran up and down her smooth back, marveling at the luxurious feel of a her skin and taking a deep breath of her musk in his lungs. Her scent was thick and demanding. It filled his head and made his erection strain even more for the slick space between her legs.

Mary moved into a straddling position, ensuring both her thighs were placed firmly around his slender waist. She met his gaze with a smile and released his throbbing cock. Her hands cupped her breasts and she uttered a soft moan as she kneaded them gently. She began biting her own lip as she did that and the entire scene was so damned erotic, he could only react by sliding his fingers into the wet mass of curls and thrusting his finger deep inside her. Chris' fingers found her heated center easily enough and upon locating it, began teasing it into ecstasy. He watched her hands knead her breasts faster and faster as he continued pleasuring her, until she was riding her hand with that delightful expression on her face. Chris did not know if he had ever seen a woman look so perfect.

He watched mesmerized as she rolled her tight nipples in between her fingers as he continued to push a finger up her inner passages. Each time he pressed a digit against the hard, slick walls, he was rewarded by a load groan of pleasure that all about made him come undone upon hearing the sound. Sekhmet's hips were the ones moving uncontrollably now and he enjoyed the momentary return of control, determined at least before this encounter was over to bring her to orgasm. Her skin was glistening in sweat and her nipples between her fingers were erect and red. Watching her pleasure herself along side of him was the most incredible thing he had ever seen and he wished he could frame the moment.

Suddenly, the walls of her insides contracted around his fingers as her face contorted into a tight knot of pleasure. Her back arched as it came upon her and her hands grabbed her hair, holding on so that she could brace herself for the unearthly force of sensation that was going to overtake her in a minute. Her eyes met his, a thousand emotions surfaced as she felt herself loose control of herself and Chris thought she had never looked so incredible and started to ache with need because he wanted to fuck her so badly. A gush of heat washed over his enveloped fingers when she finally tumbled over the edge of control.

"Oh yes!!!" She cried. "Oh Chris!"

His name tumbled from her lips in a litany of words that did nothing to hide her intense orgasm. He watched her body shudder, watch the perspiration glistening off white skin and watched the flushed expression on her cheeks as she started to come down. Chris started to grin, his hands withdrawing from the well of warm honey to grab her hips and take care of his own desires when suddenly, her eyes opened and stared directly at him. A smile curled the edge of her lips as she placed her hands over his own and tore her away from her waist. Chris was about to respond in question when Sekhmet forced his arms to his sides and pinned his wrist in place with her own.

"What are you doing?" He asked breathlessly because when he tried to move, she added more pressure to keep him still. Though he could easily break free if he wanted, this feeling of helplessness had its own attraction and he swallowed as he saw the hungered look in her eyes.

"I told you," she said with a smile. "I am going to take you."

Once she was certain that he would not move, Sekhmet grabbed his thickened length and began stroking it furiously, giving him no avenue for retreat as he was awash with brutal pleasure. She pumped him hard and lowered her mouth to his nipple, which she immediately started to bite with each hard stroke of her hand. Tongue and palm began to effect a devastating rhythm on him until Chris was pushed so far over the edge of pleasure that he could think of nothing else but what she was doing to him. His body began to quiver and his head dug back into the pillow. His back arched again, struggling to keep up with her devastating rhythm but finding he could not.

"Mary....." Chris began to plead, not liking to do it but unable to bear this any more. "Please......"

"Please what?" She asked sternly.

His blue eyes flew open and saw that she was waiting for him to say it. His pause only made her up the stakes and Sekhmet's strokes became more torturous as she milked his cock for every ounce of self-control he had left and there was not much, he knew for certain.

"Say it," she whispered.

"I'll get you for this." He groaned, his eyes crushed close again because she was not playing fair as she released his hand and lowered her head once more. "Oh Christ!" He cried out as he was suddenly feeling her lowered head sucking his nipple hard, while one hand teased the other nipple and the other pumped his manhood with such unrelenting rhythm that he knew he could not stand it any more. He did not care, he would say anything just to have her end this torture even though part of him did not want it to stop.

"Fuck me!" He gasped, broken into a thousand pieces. "Fuck me please!"

Sekhmet smiled and released his rock hard member, silently grateful that he had relented for she could not bear the delay any much longer herself. If only he could see what she had seen, Chris would have realised how difficult it was for her to maintain her resolve to hear him beg. Without any further delay and aroused beyond belief as she saw his mouth opened in a silent scream of pleasure when she did what he wanted, when Sekhmet impaled herself on Chris' full length.

He was going to die.

That was all the thought Chris could manage when he felt her tight, warm sheath slid around his tortured manhood. Pleasure took on a physical substance, like light did when a rainbow appeared after summer drizzle. He could feel it exploding around him as she started to ride him. Her thighs pulling around his waist each time she pushed down on him. Chris could not breathe and yet his lungs were forced to work, each time he felt their connection deepened, harder and harder into her inner most self. Her face mirrored his pleasure as her hands dropped to his and kept his wrists pinned to the sheets.

Her mouth lowered and she took his nipple again, sucking harder and more insistently as they moved in tandem, push for thrust. Chris was tossing his head from side to side, his body covered in sweat and his lips moving incoherently as he begged her not to stop. He wanted to touch her but the arousal that came from not being able to do so was even more intense than he could imagine. Each time he felt her slam down on him, he could only react by thrusting upward in equal and opposing reaction. They began to pound against each other so hard that Chris could feel the hard wall of muscle that existed at the end of that moist passage.

"Oh my love!" She groaned out loud as they both began inching towards completion. She took his mouth in hers again and continued to move, releasing her hold of his hands only to find them wrapping immediately around her back as soon as they were freed.

Now they were both out of control and reaching apogee and when the final conflagration of passion exploded and Chris felt his entire world splinter into a million tasty pieces of ecstatic sensations, he felt her shatter with him. She shuddered against him, allowing Chris to enjoy every ripple of pleasure that move through her as he too went through the same ordeal, his entire being quivering as he came hard, filling her with his seed. Chris had never though that there could be anything more beautiful than seeing her eyes during that moment of realization that she would always be his.

Chris lost all sense of time at how long they had remained there on the bed in silence, a tangle of sweaty arms and legs, of harsh breathing and simmering emotions in the aftermath of their extraordinary passion. They had slid into a more comfortable position on the bed, with Sekhmet lying against the crook of his shoulder, allowing herself to be held in his arms the way Mary liked him too. He could not tell how much time had passed before he found himself asking question that bothered him a little in light of what had just transpired between.

"How much of that was my wife?" Chris found himself asking.

Sekhmet looked up and propped her head on one arm before answering. She could not refuse him a response because it was a valid question. "A great deal of it."

"She's not usually......" He tried to use the right word to describe their love making but could not find it

"So aggressive?" Sekhmet let a small smile steal across her features as she drummed her fingers softly on his chest.

"I guess." Chris replied slightly embarrassed, feeling slightly hypocritical because he had thought her as his wife when he had been making love to her and now he saw her as Sekhmet again even though she wore Mary's face.

"Your wife is a product of her times." Sekhmet answered truthfully. "She loves you dearly, she desires you just as much but the strange customs of this land require a woman to allows give into a man. Is that not so?"

Chris had never heard it put that way but in retrospect, he supposed it was the truth. Women did not vote unless they were landowners and yet men could vote with nothing more than the shirt on his back to his name. Why was that fair? He had seen such passion in Mary once, when they had returned from Denver in the heated encounter that had followed after. Of course, once again he had taken control and the moment was lost, now he was not so certain he wanted her to let him take the initiative.

"I guess. So were you acting out for her?"

"We both wanted you and but I sensed some desires in her and I followed them to their natural course." She answered truthfully and nestled closer. It surprised her when he pulled her tighter against him.

"How much of you will be left when the Venom antidote kicks in?" Chris ventured to ask even though he had been reluctant to do so. He had reservations about Sekhmet. He supposed after seeing the killer she had been once, one could expect nothing else but he was grateful for the creature whose emergence had kept his wife from dying and had been responsible for the seven escaping Laurel's hands and the retrieval of his two boys.

"I will not exist." Sekhmet remarked turning away and staring at the ceiling. "I will be a voyeur inside her mind but I will have little influence."

Chris swallowed hard, not certain whether he should be happy or not. There was something about Mary being able to protect herself so formidably that Chris found rather appealing. However, he could not have everything and had to be satisfied by what was must be. "I'm sorry."

"No," Sekhmet surprised herself by realizing she was not upset. "I am dead Chris Larabee. All that was Sekhmet is gone. The memories remain and if your Mary chooses to use my influence, I will be gratified but it matters little to me. I cannot exist in this place, even if I could survive. Much of me have changed, Mary has seen to that and I want to see those children grow and I want to see Mary happy because I will feel her happiness. It was not for entirely altruistic reasons that Isis and I saved your lives. Without you, our hosts could not survive and by extension neither can we."

Chris wanted to ask her more but Sekhmet was not prepared to answer, instead rolling over so he could only stare at her back. A few minutes later, he heard her breathing softly, indicating her sound slumber and decided against waking her up. Conflicting thoughts plagued him for the rest of the night until he too fell asleep.

*********

"Chris!"

Chris woke up the next morning only to find himself on the receiving end of a fierce hug. It took a moment for the sleepiness to be shaken from him before he realised that it was Mary who had given him such a warm greeting. As he felt her gentle kisses on his lips and cheek flurrying across his skin in spite of his momentary confusion, he realised what had happened and the fog over his mind evaporated instantly.

"Mary?" He asked, almost afraid to speak.

She pulled away from him and nodded wildly, tears in her eyes as she woke up from her long sleep. The last few days had been a dream she could not awake from even though she had some measure of control over it. The tendrils in her mind, left over from the presence of the other, still felt palpable and she felt a shudder of fear, recalling how she had not been herself for the past few days.

"Yes," she nodded breathlessly. "Its me."

Chris took her face in his hands and kissed out of sheer gratitude, hanging so tightly to her that he was completely prepared to never let her go again. When he finally let her go, after an eternity of seconds had tumbled by, he looked at her and asked his questions regarding her state of health and the effects if any of Sekhmet's presence in her body.

"Are you alright? Do you remember anything?" He asked slowly, not wishing to push the point if she did not.

"A little." She said thinking hard, her brow furrowing over her eyes. "Mostly images and feelings. I think a lot of what she felt came from me." She paused a moment trying to describe her feelings during that strange period. "I know that we're safe because of her. I just never thought I'd be grateful for having that thing inside of me."

Chris did not know how to respond to that, so he decided not to Instead, he wrapped his arms around his wife and thanked God that he got her back once more.

Even though inwardly, Chris knew he'd miss Sekhmet just a little bit.

**********

When Ezra Standish stepped out of his lodgings the next day, the gambler could not help being happy to feel the sun and heat on his face. After everything that had transpired the past few days, especially being trapped in a stygian dungeon of Laurel's choosing, he was more than happy to see the sun again. The gambler walked up the boardwalk, feeling a little sentimental for enjoying the simple pleasure of walking along the streets of Four Corners again. It was a busy Saturday morning and its inhabitants were out in force, going about their business and glancing at him with a nod of their hats and a little smile. Ezra still remembered the days when those looks were ones of disapproval and suspicion.

Strange, how he never considered that he could become attached to Four Corners. When he had first ridden into town, he had been on the run from one thing or another. He had never imagined anything like this would happen when Chris Larabee had offered him that job for a five dollars a week, defending a small village from a bunch of ghosts. Of course, he had been different in those days so he did not recognise the crossroads he had reached in his life until he was well past it.

Ezra headed towards the Standish Tavern, wishing a morning repast after the ride of the day before. He wondered how the others had fared and hoped that Mary and Alex were back to normal. He supposed he would find out soon enough when he saw the rest of the seven. For his part, he would like to spend the day with Julia, feeling somewhat grateful to be alive after all that had transpired these past few days.

"You must be Ezra Standish." A decidedly feminine voice greeted as he prepared to cross the street.

She had stepped onto the boardwalk from inside the hotel and greeted him with a little smile. Ezra wondered who she was because Four Corners was not the kind of place where a lady of her beauty (and she was incredibly beautiful) could simply arrive unnoticed. Judging by her clothes and the parasol she held over her shoulder to shield her from the harsh New Mexico sun, she was obviously a woman of refined tastes, even though she looked terribly exotic.

"I do not believe I have had the pleasure," Ezra said in typical southern charm, raising his hat slightly off his head as he greeted her, gold tooth glinting and flashing her his most endearing smile.

"I am Diana Belladonna," she introduced herself, extending a gloved hand in his direction. "I am the new singer at the hotel."

"So you are the chanteuse whose services that our German entrepreneur was boasting so ardently about acquiring?" He remarked as he studied her a little closer and realised that as a singer, she must be in demand for her clothes were not at all store bought but rather hand made.

"I'm afraid so." She smiled at him. "And you are one of the seven men hired to keep this town safe."

"On occasion," Ezra answered. "I am also a businessman."

"Yes, that charming little place called the Standish Tavern." She nodded, with no hint of derision in her voice.

"It is a start." He answered, unashamed of that little piece of property he was pleased to call his own. Thanks to Inez's management and some ruthless card playing, he had already earned the money that Julia had used to purchase the place for him and paid her back in full. Although she had denied the amount, Ezra could not in good conscience call the place his own other wise. He loved Julia and while she being wealthy was something of a boon, he had not desire to make her believe that was the only reason he loved her.

"A start is always a good launching point for bigger things Mr Standish," Diana smiled and then gave him a look of pure invitation. "Do you think you might escort me to the Emporium. I believe you know where it is?"

Ezra was certainly she knew perfectly well that he did but chose to play her game for a little more, wondering what she had in mind. As he offered his arm and watched her link her own around it, Ezra decided he did not mind a little game.

Besides, who was it hurting?

**********

Pain.

It was a new sensation and it burned into her mind, leaving an indelible impression she would never forget. She had no sense of where she was, knowing only that she was not dead and it was Zhang who saw to it that she was safe. She did not know how long she remained where she was, drifting in and out of consciousness, hearing tender voices ensuring that she would be healed soon enough and opening her blood swelled eyes to see Zhang sitting reassuringly by her bed, protecting her as always.

Seeing him there told her that she could rest for now. Thoughts of revenge would sustain her while she healed and when she awoke, when these bandages covering her face were removed and she was herself again, then she would think of how she would deal with Chris Larabee and his wife.

And how she would kill them both.

**********

"Are you sure about this?" Alex asked as she looked around her to see if anyone was about.

The boys were mostly in town today, which gave Alex and Mary the privacy they required. They had claimed that they needed some time to talk about what had happened to them whilst under the influence of the Venom and both Vin and Chris were understanding enough to allow them that solitude. Both women had struggled to come to terms with what they had done as Isis and Sekhmet respectively, consoling themselves with the fact that it was done for the best of intentions for not only were the seven safe but Mikey and Billy as well.

It was hard for either of the women to fathom the things they had done to reach that end, even when Julia, Inez and Casey had told them about it. It seemed so unreal and far away, like an image one had in a dream that had no real truth but still left emotional consequences in their hearts. However, they soon learned that other aspects of their possession by Isis and Sekhmet still remained and today, they were here to find out just how strong the presence of two actually were now that Mary and Alex were back in control of themselves.

"We need to know." Mary looked at her.

They both were standing inside one of the vacant barns at the Lucky 7 Ranch, clad in the same clothes they had used when they had gone to Forbes in search of the men and Mary's children. Alex's eyes revealed her reservation and Mary could understand it for she remembered Isis' possession of her much clearly than Mary did and whatever Isis may have atoned for during the past few days, could not removed the mark her crimes had left upon the doctor.

Alex nodded nervously and bent down to pick up the two wooden staff they had brought for the purpose. In truth, they were nothing more than sturdy lengths of wood, but they would do for what Alex and Mary needed them for. She wrapped her fingers around one length of wood and watched as Mary did the same with the other. Both women allowed themselves to become accustomed to the weight of the makeshift weapons in their hands for a few seconds before bringing the staffs to bear.

Mary struck first, swinging the weapon in a short, controlled arch, uncertain of where the instinct or the knowledge came from, aware only that it did and unlike before, she had access to it. Alex in turn blocked the move easily and for the next few seconds, they were both like dancers in a strange ballet with sticks moving so fast that their movements were almost considered art. It was a contest of trust and parry, of strike and counterstrike, of block and attack. They fought like they had done so all their lives, that this violent and yet artistic display was natural to them. In some ways, it was like a door had opened inside of them and could never again be closed. Neither Mary and Alex had come to the conclusion that this was a bad thing.

After a few seconds, when they had fought each other to a standstill, the two women faced each other again, panting hard as their hearts pounded breathlessly inside their chest. Lowering their weapons for a moment, Alex looked at Mary.

"This still scares me." Alex confessed. "I don't know whether I want it."

"You can't get rid of it." Mary replied. "Tell you the truth, Sekhmet scares me to death but I saw what I could when my boys were in danger, what I was able to do when Chris was caught by that woman." Mary paused a moment, trying to gather her thoughts and articulate what she had felt the moment she realised that some part of Sekhmet had remained inside of her this time, that the warrior goddess had left her something behind that could be considered a gift or a curse. Mary preferred the more positive approach.

"Alex," Mary met her gaze again. "I know you are afraid and I am too but I won't bury my head in the sand and deny that I can do this. This was left with me for a reason and I have to acknowledge it to myself even if I don't to anyone else. We've gone through our entire lives thinking that men were meant to protect us. I don't want Chris to be forever looking behind his shoulder at me, wondering if he has to keep me or my children safe. I don't think you want that either."

Alex closed her eyes, uncertain at how she should answer because Mary's words were far more accurate than she knew. Alex was afraid but she had to admit, Mary was also right. She did not want Vin to place himself in danger, not when she could protect herself.

"Alright," Alex nodded, feeling her agreement like a great weight being lifted off her chest. At least the indecision would end. "I don't know if I'll ever be comfortable about this but I won't ignore it. However, what about Chris and Vin? Do we tell them?"

Mary considered it a moment and responded with another strike at Alex who blocked it easily with her own staff weapon.

Mary started to smile as they began trading blows once again and when they broke away long enough to catch a breath, Mary looked at Alex and smiled. Alex understood immediately and joined her mischievous grin as they shook their heads and spoke in unison. "Nah......."

The End