"Dead or Alive"

by Grey Lupous

Part Eight
 

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Dawn crept through the leaves. Sheppard woke first, having slipped into a light doze sometime during the night. He'd try to stay awake as possible to keep an eye out for McKay's cats, but the need for sleep had finally caught up with him. He quietly pulled out the life signs detector and checked it. He could clearly see a white dot moving in their direction.

Crap.

He jostled McKay awake. "C'mon, we've gotta move."

"Coffee."

"We need to go now, Rodney; he's on the move."

Rodney's eyes snapped open. "Right, right! Pitter patter, let's get at her!"

"Are you still asleep?" Sheppard narrowed an eyebrow.

"Do people normally sleep while they're panicking?!"

"Stop panicking. You'll fall out of the tree."

"Comforting!" McKay shot him a look before reaching for the trunk.

"What are you doing?"

"Climbing down, what do you think?"

"Well be careful, I don't want to carry you to the gate. We're not even engaged."

"If you don't stop making jokes like that, I'm going to seriously wonder if you fall under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'." McKay grunted as he took a firm hold of one of the spiraling roots with one hand, and the branch with the other.

"I should go first."

"With your amazing Monkey Man abilities? Will you stop hovering and let me get off this branch so we both can get moving?" McKay dropped his legs over the branch, face scrunching up with concentration and effort as he moved his grip from the branch to one of the roots that made up the trunk.

"Looks like you're more of a Monkey Man than me."

"Yuk it up!" McKay snapped as he carefully scaled down the tree, making sure to keep his attention focused up so he wouldn't see how big of a drop it would be if he lost his grip. Sheppard was still peering down at him. "Are you just going to sit up there all day?"

"Sorry, I've never seen you move so fast. I'm making sure I remember this day."

"Fine! But once I reach the bottom I'm not waiting for you!"

"Picky, picky," Sheppard crouched low on the branch, wrapping his arm around it before deftly swinging to grip the other side of the tree, putting McKay's acrobatics to shame.

"Show off," McKay muttered, daring a glance to see he was only a few feet from the ground. He slowed his descent so that by the time his foot could touch the forest floor, he could place most his weight on his good ankle.

On the other side of the tree, Sheppard shimmied down the trunk as if he'd grown up in the canopy above them. He leapt the last few feet, catching McKay's incredulous look. "What?"

"Where the hell is your prehensile tail?"

"I had a tree house when I was a kid."

"With Tarzan?"

"McKay—" Sheppard's tone was warning.

"No seriously, you are a freak, Major—"

"Look out!" John moved faster than he thought possible, tackling McKay to the ground. He felt the whoosh of air as a howler sailed over them both, landing on its hands and feet. It swiveled around, rising to its full height.

Sheppard hauled McKay up with him, watching the predator warily as he reached for his P-90, only to come up empty. His eyes quickly searched the ground to find it where he'd dropped it before leaping to the ground.

Beside him, McKay audibly gulped. "Not so nocturnal of a predator, I'm guessing."

"My gun's on the other side of the tree."

"So is that thing!"

"I know. Distract it."

"You want the gimpy man to do what now?"

"I need you to hold its attention long enough for me to grab my gun. You'll be fine."

"No I will not 'be fine'! I will be very dead!"

"Nah, I'll shoot it before that."

"Oh, did I forget to mention it eats its prey alive?"

"I think you did."

"Well, it does!"

"Then you better hobble fast."

"Major!" McKay shouted in frustration as Sheppard ducked behind the tree. "I am so telling Carson! And Elizabeth!"

The howler let out an unholy shriek of anger as it took a step forward. Now that he was staring a live one down, he couldn't help but notice the long sharp claws that extended from its human-looking hands. He took a step backwards, feeling his bad ankle protest.

"You better hurry it up, Major!"

As he called out, it seemed to alert the giant predator to the other man's presence. McKay's eyes widened in horror as it suddenly pivoted and charged Sheppard. The tree blocked out his view of the clash, but a flying human body let him know who had been the winner of the encounter. He heard the P-90 clatter some distance away as well.

"Major!" Forgetting his ankle, he rushed towards his friend.

Sheppard pushed himself up from where he'd landed on the ground, fresh claw marks running up one arm. As he looked up from his wounded arm, he saw McKay rushing to his aid. "Rodney! Get out of here!"

McKay put on the brakes as Sheppard's order reminded him of his very strong survival instincts. He skidded to a stop a few feet from the major, seeing the howler lumbering towards the fallen man slowly. Rodney hesitated, feeling loyalty warring with panic.

"McKay, RUN!" Sheppard shoved himself to his knees, as the howler looked between him and McKay.

McKay took a step backwards as the howler gave him a particularly vicious look. He started to take another step but his foot got tangled in that same damn root from yesterday and he went down again.

"I hate this tree!" McKay yelled as his foot twisted painfully, straining the already sprained ankle. He sat up, trying to manually dislodge his foot. As he glanced up he felt all the color drain away from his face as he saw the spotted muscled body coming straight at him. He made a squeak of protest, throwing his arms up in front of his face, waiting for those wicked claws to slice into him.

The impact never came, but instead heard an enraged shriek. He looked up in time to see Sheppard standing in front of him, acting like a human shield. A second later a massive clawed fist raked across Sheppard's chest, causing the soldier to double up in pain. With another shriek the creature smacked him out of the way as if he were an annoying gnat.

Sheppard collided with the tree with an audible thump, sliding down to a prone position.

"Major!" Rodney watched in horror as John didn't rise up. He was either unconscious, or worse…

A hoarse grunting noise and hot sticky breath on his face brought him back to his own predicament. With a growing sense of terror, he slowly turned his gaze up to the howler towering above him. He crab-crawled backwards, but the beast kept in step with him, seeming to relish McKay's squirming. He turned over to crawl like a normal fleeing human, but a heavy weight shoved him into to the ground. The feeling of five sharp points pressing into his back left him with no doubts as to what was going to happen next.

He squeezed his eyes shut, and in his final moments he was mildly surprised to hope that his death would provide enough of a distraction for John to get away.

Rodney was even more surprised when a bellow of rage drowned out the rapid pounding of his heart and felt the weight suddenly lifted off of him. He rolled over, watching as a large hulking figure plunged an impossibly large knife into the howler's chest. The beast gave a shriek of pain as it struggled to free itself of the piece of metal now embedded in its rib cage. Rodney's rescuer pulled the knife out with a sickening wet crunch, and before he could blink, finished off the howler with a quick slash to the neck. Like a grim reaper he rose, clutching the bloodstained knife in one hand.

Vargas didn't even give Sheppard a look as he crossed the distance between him and McKay, yanking the scientist from the ground as if he were a rag doll.

"You make things very complicated, Mersir," he growled, his face inches from McKay's. He lifted the other hand so that Rodney could see the knife clearly, before wiping the blood on McKay's jacket. "There will be no more complications, understood?"

The coppery smell overwhelmed him, and McKay felt his empty stomach clench as nausea swept over him. Vargas apparently didn't need an answer though, and deposited McKay on his feet before shoving him down the path they'd been traveling the other day.

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