v. Ocelot

As usual, I couldn't sleep. I don't know whether it was the air, or the tension of the past day, or something else, but I lay awake in bed, staring out the window at the black nothingness outside. It was too foggy to see any stars. Across the room, the glowing digits on the clock read 00:34. In Seattle, it wasn't weird for me to be up this late, but out here in the tranquil British countryside, I was probably the only human awake within five square kilometers. It wasn't a comforting feeling.

Downstairs, something crashed.

The sound was so sudden and out-of-place in this quiet old house that it took it a few seconds to register on my sleep-deprived consciousness. Fortunately, my reflexes made up for that and I was out of bed and halfway down the stairs before I realized what I was doing. I was weaponless and clad only in a pair of shorts—if there was anything dangerous down there, I was leaving myself open to get nailed.

So what else was new?

Another crash, this one quieter. I reached the bottom of the stairs. The main hall was dark; the only light was the tiny shaft coming through the half-open door of Winterhawk's study. That was where the sound was coming from. Closer now, there was the definite sound of a struggle. I grabbed one of the old ornamental swords off the wall and burst through the door to the study.

The first thing I saw was the blood. The second thing I saw, only a brief moment after the first, was the dark form bending over Winterhawk. He was half-in, half-out of his leather chair, struggling feebly against the intruder. There was blood everywhere. Next to the chair, a small table was overturned, a vase shattered. That must have been what caused the crash, I thought somewhat uselessly as I vaulted across the room toward the two.

The intruder—a woman?—did not turn as I leaped over a sofa and grabbed her shoulder to wrench her backward and away from Winterhawk. I expected to encounter no significant resistance, since she didn't look built enough to have strength to match mine. I was in for a surprise. Two, actually. The first was that she didn't budge, except to turn her head to face me. The second was her face. Lean, angular, dark-haired, wild-eyed, she glared at me with teeth bared. Teeth covered with blood. Long, pointed teeth covered with Winterhawk's blood. As my eyes widened and I hesitated, she struck out with the hand that wasn't holding Winterhawk and flung me across the room into the far wall. As I crashed into it and felt the wooden paneling give, she turned back to her business. Winterhawk wasn't struggling anymore.

I pushed off the wall, more prepared this time. She was strong; maybe the strongest opponent I'd ever encountered, except maybe for Trolls. And she was no Troll, that was sure. I grabbed her again, harder this time, sinking my fingers into the flesh of her shoulder. She wore only a long, flowing gown—that couldn't be armor. Gathering my strength, I pulled her off Winterhawk and shoved her away. It still wasn't easy: I could feel the steely corded muscles under that thin gown. But I still had the weight advantage and it proved to be enough, barely. She skidded across the hardwood floor and fell onto the sofa. Sparing a quick glance at Winterhawk (if he was dead, I couldn't help him; if he wasn't, I'd help him most by getting this over with as fast as possible) I pressed my advantage, raising the sword.

Glaring at me, she pushed herself off the couch and crouched, fangs bared and dripping. "Get out," she hissed. "I don't know who you are, but this is between me and Alastair." Her voice was cultured, British-accented, but roughened in a way I couldn't quite described. Animal, almost. And she knew Winterhawk well enough that she knew his real name?

I waited, letting her initiate the attack. I was banking on the fact that while she was obviously stronger than I was, I was faster, and she might not know that. If I could get her to do something stupid—

She lunged. I got a quick glance of her evil-looking fingernails heading for my face and then my wired reflexes took over. Raising the sword, I sidestepped her charge and slashed at her, feeling a moment's exhilaration as the dull blade contacted flesh and parted it. Blood sprayed from the wound and she screamed, wheeling on me. As I watched in horror, the wicked wound closed up before my eyes. She smiled.

No time to think about it now—if I thought about it, I might freeze up and give her the advantage. She was confident now, but I could see by her clumsy lunge that she wasn't combat-trained, whoever she was. She thought she had the better of me, and came at me again. The strength in that headlong rush was obvious: she meant to bowl me over and probably rip out my throat if she could get to it. Raising the sword again, I didn't sidestep this time but instead let her come straight at me. Instead of slashing at her, I waited until she had committed herself and then brought the sword around in front of me.

Her scream as she impaled herself on the dull antique sword rang in my ears; I wondered if she would wake Aubrey in his apartment over the garage. Blood spurted from her midsection and covered the rug, the wall, and a good portion of my front. The scream hit a crescendo and then trailed off as she slumped forward. Fearing that she would regenerate again, I quickly yanked the sword from her, causing her body to twitch grotesquely and her eyes to widen. The sword blade was covered with her blood and other things I preferred not to think about. She fell forward—

And was gone.

The red gown, still wet with blood, fell to the floor in a heap, next to her shoes. I just got time to see a cloud of vapor about the size of a small chair float upward and quickly zip out the open door to the room. I considered trying to follow it, but swiftly thought better of it: she must have been badly hurt if she'd retreated like that, and I still didn't know Winterhawk's condition. I snapped on the nearest lamp for more light and then hurried over to him.

He was slumped in a heap in the chair where the woman had dropped him when I'd grabbed her. He was unconscious, his breath coming in ragged gasps. His chest and shoulders were covered with bright red blood, emanating from the tear in his neck. Without thinking, I pressed the button on my DocWagon bracelet—it had been so long since the team had needed anything but Winterhawk's magical healing that this was the first time I'd used it in over a year, but I still kept it just in case. I was glad, now. But they promised to arrive in half an hour or less; looking at 'Hawk's pale face and the rate at which he was bleeding, I knew he didn't have that long. I'd have to do something else.

Aubrey picked that moment to manifest that strange sixth sense that somehow made him aware when his friend and employer was in trouble. I must have been slipping: I didn't even hear him arrive until he hurried, puffing and clad only in pants, undershirt, robe and slippers, into the room and gasped. At the speed of enhanced reflexes, I held the sword on him. At the speed of an overexerted old man, he held his shotgun on me. For barely a second, we regarded each other suspiciously: me paranoid, him protective. Then I lowered the sword. "Aubrey, we need a healer. Fast. Do you know any mages around here?"

Aubrey dithered for a moment, but fortunately his old days in the army quickly resurfaced. "Right," he said, still breathing hard. "I'll call someone. What happened?" He cast a worried glance at Winterhawk.

With the old man in the room, though, I was free to take action. I dashed out of the room without answering him and ran up the stairs, returning quickly with a trauma patch from my duffle bag. Aubrey had laid Winterhawk on the floor and was sitting with the mage's head in his lap. As far as I could tell the bleeding was slowing, but hadn't stopped. He looked up as I arrived. "I called one of the mages from University. He doesn't live far from here, but it will still take him ten minutes or so to get here." His voice sounded bleak and faint. It was apparent that he didn't think his charge was going to last that long.

I didn't have time to deal with him. I knelt down next to them and started preparing the patch. "Get his shirt open," I ordered tersely.

When he saw what I was planning, Aubrey complied rapidly, using his pocketknife to slit the front of Winterhawk's London University sweatshirt and then ripping it the rest of the way with his hands. As soon as his chest was exposed, I slapped the trauma patch into place over his heart. "There," I said raggedly. "That should keep him stable until somebody gets here." I hope, I added to myself.

Surprisingly, the shock of the trauma patch brought Winterhawk to half-consciousness. He looked up, closed and opened his eyes a couple times to clear his vision, then settled his gaze on Aubrey. The bright blue eyes looked pained and a little frightened. His hand fluttered at his side and tried to reach up to his neck, but Aubrey gently intercepted it and returned it to its place. "Don't move, sir," he said just as gently. "Just lie still. Help will be here soon." Then he looked up at me. "I'd better go open the gate, or they won't be able to get in." Very carefully, he maneuvered a sofa pillow into position beneath Winterhawk's head and slid from his place, getting up a bit creakily and hurrying out of the room, calling "I'll be back," over his shoulder.

I moved closer to Winterhawk, who was now watching me. He looked like he wanted to say something, but I shook my head. "Don't talk," I told him. "You'll hurt yourself worse."

He took a couple of deep, rattling breaths, and I could see a faint red foam forming at the corners of his mouth. "A..." he rasped, as if he was struggling desperately to say something. "Ah..."

"Stop it," I ordered, trying my best to sound harsh even though I was worried. "We've barely got you stabilized. Help'll be here in a few minutes, but you've gotta hold on." A long shot: "Can you heal yourself?" I knew better, but I had to try.

He shook his head, just the barest of movements that set off the bleeding a bit more. I got the feeling that it was not in reply to my question, though. "A...Ann." He blurted out the word with great energy but nearly no volume. It was followed by a gout of blood that trickled lazily down the side of his face and pooled beneath his neck, staining one of the white stripes in his hair.

"Ann?" I demanded, surprised, forgetting for the moment to tell him to shut up. By the inflection in his voice, I knew he wasn't just starting a sentence with "An..." It was a name. "Who's Ann?" Then the light dawned as Aubrey hurried back into the room. "That's her name, isn't it? She knew you. The vampire."

"Vampire?" Aubrey stood over us, eyes wide and terrified. "Did you say 'vampire', sir? That's what attacked him?"

"Who's Ann?" I fired the question at the old man in the clipped tone of an order. "Do you know any woman named Ann who might want to kill him?" I started to get up, but Winterhawk grabbed my wrist in his strengthless grip, so I remained where I was.

Aubrey went pale at the question. "Are you sure that's what he said?" he asked faintly. He looked down at Winterhawk, who laboriously nodded confirmation. The caretaker looked distressed, but didn't get a chance to answer: there was at that moment a loud pounding at the door. He hurried off to answer it.

The next half hour was a flurry of activity as the DocWagon techs worked over Winterhawk and then the mage from the University, a tweedy fellow in his mid-fifties, arrived and took over from them. Since I figured I couldn't do anything useful at that point, I took the time to go upstairs and get cleaned up a bit before returning to the study. By the time I got back the DocWagon crew had left and the mage was finishing up his spell. Aubrey motioned for me to be quiet and stay back as the man completed his work. "There," the mage finally said, standing. "He should be all right now, but let him sleep. He lost a lot of blood. I guess I won't ask where he got that wound, eh?"

"Thank you," Aubrey said. "And thank you for coming at such an hour. I'll make sure he knows what you did for him."

"No trouble," said the mage, who then packed up his things and left. "I'll ask him about it some other time," he said as he went.

Alone again and free to come down from the adrenaline high of the last hour, Aubrey and I regarded each other again, this time with weariness. The caretaker's shoulders slumped visibly. "Help me with him, will you please?" he asked quietly. I nodded, and wordlessly the two of us lifted Winterhawk and laid him on the sofa. The mage didn't awaken; I suspected he might be unconscious from the blood loss.

"Who's Ann?" I asked Aubrey again.

"I think you'd best ask Dr. Stone, sir." The old man didn't meet my gaze. "I'll be back in a moment." He left the room, not moving too steadily.

He returned in a few moments carrying a bowl of water and a washcloth. As he sat down on the edge of the sofa and tried to clean the worst of the blood from Winterhawk's neck and chest, I busied myself putting the room to right, repositioning the overturned furniture, rolling up the pieces of the broken vase into a small throw rug, and straightening the pictures on the wall I had crashed into. The place still looked like a slaughterhouse, though, with all the blood, especially where it was splattered on the wall from my attempted vampire surgery. I picked up the antique sword, thought about trying to clean it, and decided to wait until later. It was disgusting. A stray thought flashed into my head as I stared at it: I hope Nigel doesn't come down and see this. How could he have slept through—

"Hey—you think the kid slept through all this?"

Aubrey looked up and shrugged. "Children often sleep deeply. And his room is quite far from here. It's possible."

I considered that, but it left my mind as Winterhawk stirred. He slowly opened his eyes, shook his head a couple times, and looked up at us. His eyes, that bright, unnatural blue, looked strange in his bone-white face. Normally he was pale, but now he looked almost translucent. Before he said anything, he reached up hesitantly and felt his neck. Bolstered by the apparent lack of mortal wounds, he sighed. "Well," he said doubtfully, "that was an exciting evening, wasn't it?"

Aubrey ignored the sarcasm. "You should stay quiet, sir," he said. "You've had quite a shock."

"What—what happened to her?" he asked. He was looking at Aubrey, but I didn't think the question was directed at him.

"She left," I told him. "I think I drove her off. For now. She turned into mist and took off." I moved over into his field of view. "Who was she? She knew you, didn't she? You said 'Ann'."

He nodded tiredly. "Yes. Ann. But she wasn't a vampire before..." His voice trailed off. Raising his head a bit, he looked down at his torn, blood-soaked shirt. Aubrey hadn't been too effective with his cleanup efforts. "I'm a bit of a mess, aren't I?"

"That'll happen when you get your throat ripped out," I said, sounding nastier than I wanted to. Even though, intellectually, I knew Winterhawk well enough to know that he dealt with fear by being flippant and sarcastic, at a gut level I wanted him to show something to indicate that the vampire had scared him. "Maybe you'd better tell me who this Ann is. Who says she won't come back?"

As if accepting the fact that I wasn't going to let him sidestep the subject, Winterhawk pulled himself up a bit and drew the sides of his ruined sweatshirt together against the late-night chill in the air. Aubrey immediately hustled off and came back with a heavy plaid blanket, which he proceeded to carefully arrange around his charge until the mage waved him off. "Don't fuss, Aubrey," he said edgily. To me, he said, "She's Nigel's mother. Assuming he's really who he says he is." After a pause, he added, "Where is he, anyway?"

"We haven't seen him," I told him. "Figured he was still upstairs. I was just lucky I heard you when I did."

Winterhawk threw off the blanket and swung around, sitting up more slowly this time. "Let's check, shall we? She didn't get in here as mist, so she had to get in somehow. P'raps someone let her in." When neither I nor Aubrey answered, he got up and headed unsteadily across the room. There was a large irregular bloodstain drying on his back.

Aubrey, knowing when he was licked, hurried to follow. "Yes, sir. Let's check, and then I'll draw you a bath. You should clean up and get back to bed."

With Winterhawk in the lead, Aubrey hovering behind, and me bringing up the paranoid rear, we trooped upstairs to Nigel's door. The mage knocked loudly. "Nigel?" When there was no answer, he flung the door opened and switched on the light. I quickly moved in front of Aubrey in case there was anything dangerous in the room.

There was nothing in the room. Nothing that didn't belong there, that is. There was no sign of the boy or his belongings. The bed had not been slept in, or else it had been carefully made. The window was closed. "Damn!" Winterhawk hissed under his breath, slamming his open hand against the doorjamb. "I told you the little sprat was a fake, didn't I?" He turned on us. "I told you, Aubrey, didn't I?"

Aubrey didn't answer, except to look more glum than ever.

This whole thing was not making me feel too warm and fuzzy. First my friend gets attacked by a vampire who used to be his fiancee, and now their supposed son disappears off the face of the earth. "You think he was in on it?" I already knew the answer.

Winterhawk shrugged angrily. "How else can you explain the fact that he picks this night to vanish? That little bugger must have let her in, then gone off somewhere to wait for her. They're probably long gone by now." He shook his head in disgust. "I can't believe I let her take me in like that."

Aubrey sighed. "If you'll excuse me, sir," he said, "I'll go off and get you some tea and something to eat, and draw your bath. Is that all right?" At the mage's nod, he headed off, his slippered feet making slow, despondent little slap-slaps down the carpeted hallway.

I waited until he left before I spoke again. "You think you could find her?" I asked Winterhawk carefully. The thought of a vampire running around loose had driven thoughts of sleep far from my mind.

He shrugged again, this time less with anger and more with resignation. Taking a couple of steps backward into the hall, he leaned on the wall and tried not to let me see the fact that he was dizzy. "I don't know," he finally said. "She isn't a mage, so she can't shield herself from me, but I'd need something personal of hers to find her."

"Personal? Like what?"

"Whatever," he said indifferently. "Hair, nail-parings, personal effects—"

"Blood?" I cut him off.

He nodded. "Yes, blood is one of the best. But we don't—"

"Yes, we do. Downstairs is quite a lot of her blood, and some other things too. I took a couple of good chunks out of her with one of your old swords."

"Did you?" His tone was detached, as if he was thinking about something else and responding to me on autopilot. Then his awareness snapped back. "Well, then, let's go get it. It won't stay good for too long, but if we pop it in the refrigerator that should extend its useful life somewhat." He sounded as if he were talking about a leftover plate of fish, rather than bloody pieces of the woman he supposedly used to love. It made me feel a little weird to hear him do it. I followed as he made his way slowly and none too steadily downstairs (I stayed just close enough that I could grab him if he slipped, but far enough away that he didn't catch on to this fact) and back to the study.

I'd left the sword on the floor next to the sofa, and Aubrey hadn't disturbed it. Winterhawk immediately headed for it, picking it up and inspecting it with interest. "You did get her a few good ones," he said somewhat admiringly. "Vampires aren't easy opponents, and you seem to have come out the best of it." He pulled a handkerchief out of his pants pocket, shook it out, and ran it along the sword blade. I had to look away: the gore didn't bother me, since I'd certainly seen worse than that in my years on the streets, but the clinical, unemotional way he worked at wiping the mess from the blade made my stomach crawl. When I looked back, he had put down the sword and was carefully folding up the handkerchief. "I hope Aubrey doesn't find this in the refrigerator," he said in an almost conversational tone. "He'll get quite a surprise if he does." Standing, he headed off toward the kitchen, his bloody shirt flapping behind him. After he had stowed the grisly item in the back corner of the refrigerator, he turned back to me. "Well—if you don't mind, I'm feeling rather bad right now, so I think I'll go clean up and get to bed. There isn't anything more we can do tonight."

"You aren't going to try to find her? She might be back." I sounded a little more nervous than I wanted to. I didn't mind admitting it: vampires scared the hell out of me.

"I doubt it," he said indifferently. "Not tonight, if you got her badly enough to drive her away. Tomorrow I'll put up a circle and try to figure out where she's gone—I'm far too wiped out to do it tonight." He looked up at me, searching my face with his probing gaze. "You're really worried about this, aren't you? She's not after you, you know."

"She could be," I said. "Don't you think she might want to owe me one for what I did to her?"

"Probably not. It's me she hates, not you. But if you're that worried—" He made a little gesture in the air and a shimmering form appeared in front of him, hovering above the floor about half a meter. "You," he said to the form, in the tone of addressing a small child or an intelligent dog, "keep an eye on the house. Wake me if anyone comes in, either astrally or materially. Got it?" The form shimmered again, saluted smartly, and took off. Winterhawk turned back to me. "Does that make you feel better?"

"If you say so," I told him in an I'm-not-convinced tone of voice. Truthfully, the watcher spirit did make me feel a bit better, but I wasn't sure the vampire didn't have other means of getting in. However, I could hear the weariness in the mage's voice: he had left a good quantity of blood on the rug of the study, and I didn't want to prevent him from getting his rest. Tomorrow would be a busy day. "Yeah, I'm fine. Go get some sleep."

Winterhawk nodded. "Yes, you do so as well. Good night." Turning, he headed slowly across the main hall and up the stairs, gripping the railing tightly. His head was bowed, and he looked as if he was deep in thought. I guess he could join the club. I hoped that he would get more sleep than I would.

When I came downstairs the next morning, Winterhawk was already up. He was sitting at the dining room table drinking a cup of tea and reading the morning datafax. As I entered the room, Aubrey bustled in and put a plate of scones on the table, nodded to me in greeting, and then headed out again.

"You look a lot better," I told Winterhawk. He did, too: obviously the blood was gone, and some of the color was beginning to come back to his pale face. Dressed in another of his baggy sweatshirts, this one from the Thaumaturgy Department, he almost looked like himself.

"Yes, well, so do you." He indicated the table. "Sit down. Aubrey, as usual, is trying to cure what ails me by feeding it." Tossing the datafax aside, he picked up one of the warm scones and pushed the plate toward me. "I trust you slept well?"

"Terrible," I admitted. All night, I'd drifted in and out of fitful slumber, haunted by dreams of misty forms seeping in through my window, long sharp teeth sinking into my neck, and the sensation that my blood was running out onto the floor. I didn't think I'd gotten more than fifteen minutes worth of sleep at a time. "But I'll survive. You gonna find her today?"

He nodded soberly. "I have to go into town for a bit after breakfast and pick up a few things. I don't generally have call for ritual sorcery materials, so I don't keep them 'round the house. Then I'll put up the circle."

"What'll that do?"

"Help me find her, for one thing."

"Then what?"

Aubrey came back in at that moment with a tray bearing a big pitcher of orange juice and a pair of glasses. Winterhawk waited until he left before answering. "I don't know," he finally said, quietly. "I'll let you know after I find her."

"You know what you have to do," I told him.

"After I find her," he repeated. After that, he would say no more about it. He picked up the datafax again and commented on a few of the stories. Any attempt to lead him back to the subject of the vampire met with skillful evasion until I finally gave it up. Winterhawk was weird like that—he'd bring it up again when he was ready. I already knew the answer, but if he needed time to figure it out, I wouldn't push him.

I spent the morning after he left nervously wandering around the house, expecting something to jump out at me from behind every corner. I noticed that Aubrey was staying close to home too: so far he hadn't gone out to do any of the grounds work, but instead had busied himself scrubbing the bloodstains out of the rugs and furniture in the study. I had offered to help him, just to have something to do, but he had declined with that odd pride unique to the British servant class, telling me he needed to do it himself. I never really thought of Aubrey as a servant, and I didn't think Winterhawk did either, but the old man seemed to get a great deal of satisfaction from taking care of both the house and its occupants, so I didn't pursue it. Instead, I stationed myself near the front door with my Defiance, where I could see as many entrances and exits as possible (which still wasn't many, unfortunately; it was a big house) and sat back to wait for Winterhawk to return.

Time passed slowly. Aubrey finished his cleanup and finally went outside to do some work in the garden. When Winterhawk didn't come back after an hour, I began to get concerned. Thoughts started sneaking into to my mind: He said she was after him, not us. What if she followed him and attacked him in London? I should have gone with him. What if—

The door opened. Startled, I wheeled around, bringing the barrel of the shotgun up quickly, then lowered it as Winterhawk glared at me over the large bag he was carrying. "You're going to hurt someone like that, you know," he said irritably.

I decided to ignore that. "Did you get what you needed? Any trouble?"

"I got it. Why? Were you expecting trouble?" Without waiting for me to answer, he dropped the bag in the main hall and headed off toward the kitchen. I caught up to him as he reached the refrigerator and opened it. "I hope Aubrey didn't find..." he said under his breath, rummaging around. "Ah! Here it is. He's moved it behind the —well, I don't know what exactly this is." He turned back to me, holding the handkerchief gingerly. "Where's Aubrey, anyway? I didn't see him when I came in." His expression sobered. "I want him in here when I'm doing this—I can't protect him out there."

I nodded. "Yeah, okay. I'll go find him."

When I came back with Aubrey (I'd found him in the garage tinkering with the riding mower), Winterhawk had shoved the most of the furniture in the main hall into the walls, making the huge room look like it was being prepped for a dance party. Aubrey and I hastened to help him finish (I noted with some amusement that he'd left the heaviest pieces for last) and after a short time the entire floor had been cleared down to its polished-wood surface. "You need this much room to find somebody?" I asked. I'd never seen him do anything like this before, and was curious.

He nodded. "The bigger the circle, the more powerful it is. It's a good thing we're not trying to find someone who can keep me from finding them, or we wouldn't be able to fit it in the room." Picking up the bag, he began pulling out a number of strange items, which he began carefully and precisely arranging, pacing around the room and placing one here, another there as he went.

I looked at Aubrey questioningly, but he shrugged. Winterhawk must have seen the look, because he began narrating his progress in the tone of a lecturer. I'd almost forgotten until then that he spent some of his time when not running the shadows in Seattle as a guest professor at the University. He slipped into the tone easily, rattling off obscure magical data in an animated way, obviously deeply interested in his topic. To me (and to Aubrey, as I could tell by his expression) the information meant very little, but the old man smiled indulgently at the mage, as if this was not an unknown activity.

When he had finished (the whole process took about forty-five minutes), Winterhawk had constructed a large, roughly circular grouping of small crystal obelisks on golden stands. One was yet missing: the mage still held it in his hand, and even I could see that when he placed that final object, the circle would be completely enclosed. He slowly walked the perimeter of the circle on the outside, pausing to adjust one of the obelisks a minute amount, then stepping back to admire his handiwork. "There," he said with satisfaction. "That's done. Now, once I go inside and place this last point, you'll need to stay well away from the circle. Disturbing it at that point could be dangerous—for me and for you." His gaze came up to meet first mine and then Aubrey's, punctuating that last sentence to make sure that we were both absolutely clear on it. We both nodded. "All right then," he continued briskly, clapping his hands once and reminding me for a brief and absurd moment like a football quarterback breaking a huddle. "I warn you," he said over his shoulder, "This is going to take awhile. Possibly several hours—I won't know until I get into it, and I can't tell you then. It'll be boring for you, but I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't leave the room until it's over. Last call for food runs, bathroom breaks and reading material."

Heeding his advice, both Aubrey and I left, he heading toward the kitchen, me toward my room. When we returned, Aubrey held a platter containing cut-up fruit and cheese, muffins, and a large pitcher of water with three glasses; I held my shotgun. Winterhawk nodded approvingly at both of us from his chair, where he had sat down to wait for us, staring into the last remaining crystal obelisk. When we had situated ourselves, he got up, ran his hand through his hair, shoved up his sleeves, and started toward the break in the circle. Stopping directly before it, he turned back once more. "One more thing," he added, gesturing with the obelisk, "Don't be surprised by what you see. Whatever you do, don't come into the circle unless something knocks me out. I don't know what you'll see, but it's very important you don't disturb what's going on. At best, if you do, I'll have to start the whole process over again, which will not make me very happy with you." He smiled ruefully to take the edge off his words. "Okay?"

"You worry about what's going on inside," I told him, raising the shotgun. "We'll worry about what's going on out here."

"Yes, that'll do just fine," he said, and stepped into the circle. Turning, he went down on one knee and placed the last crystal obelisk into position. I didn't see anything happen, but something must have, because the mage nodded to himself, eyes closed. Then he rose and moved to the center of the circle, standing there for a moment as if to orient himself, carefully laid the bloody handkerchief down at his feet, and stood upright again. Slowly, he turned to his left until he faced north, then extended his arms out to either side, looking like a tall, thin cross in the center of the circle. His eyes were tightly closed, his lips moving as if he were whispering something to himself, though I could hear nothing from where I sat.

He stood like that for several minutes, unmoving, then brought first his right hand and then his left around until they were straight out in front of him, upturned, while his long, slim fingers closed as if trying to grasp something that wasn't there. The crystal obelisk directly in front of him burst into eerie, silent blue flame, flickering madly in the dim light of the hall. That got my attention, and Aubrey's too. We both leaned forward to watch as a tendril of bluish energy broke free from the flame-wreathed obelisk and flew slowly toward Winterhawk. When it reached his hands, it washed around them and then around all of him, making him appear ethereal, unearthly. His expression didn't change, so I figured this must be part of the ritual. After a moment, the fiery aura subsided a bit in intensity. Now what was left was the obelisk, still glowing, the energy leading from it in a visible line to Winterhawk's hands, and the faintly-shimmering mage at the circle's center.

Apparently satisfied that that had worked correctly, Winterhawk turned a bit to face the next obelisk, the muscles of his face tightening ever so slightly. The blue energy pulses shivered, dimmed, and then brightened again, though not to their original level. Taking a deep breath and then slowly letting it out, the mage gestured toward the obelisk he was facing with one hand, opening it and closing it quickly again into a fist. This obelisk, too, burst into flame. This time it wasn't blue, though: it was a particularly brilliant and wild shade of red. When he repeated the procedure that he had performed on the first one, the red light snaked out and met the blue at his hands, coalescing the two into a deep violet hue, though the individual shades of blue and red could still be seen around the outer edges of the aura.

He continued this for more than two hours, looking like a maestro conducting an unseen orchestra, as Aubrey and I looked on in fascination. I'd never seen real ritual sorcery before; I'd only seen it in the trids. Although not as loud and pyrotechnic as the fictional variety, this was plenty interesting enough to keep my attention riveted. As Winterhawk drew in each of the eight obelisks in its turn, each one adding its color to the previous mix, I wondered what kind of power was flying around inside that circle. I tried not to think about what would happen if someone or something decided to attack us now, to upset the fragile balance held only by the objects ringing the circle and the will of the man who stood at its center. Clutching my shotgun more tightly, I spared a quick glance at the front door: everything was quiet and serene. I was almost surprised to see it. In the next chair, Aubrey's eyes were wide, and a little worried.

At last, Winterhawk turned to the last obelisk. His eyes were pressed shut now, and lines were standing out on his normally-smooth face. The dancing of the seven little flames around the circle outlined his sharp features, turning the beads of sweat on his forehead into tiny prisms. His hair, damp and limp, hung in little spikes down over his eyes. Gathering his energy one last time, he reached out to the last point of the circle. This time, the flame was a pure golden color, not yellow but more like molten metal. It was a strange, surreal kind of color for light to be. I stared at it with fascination as it repeated the performance put on by the others, flowing gently back to the center of the circle and into Winterhawk's outstretched hands.

Two things happened then: one, I became aware that the circle was now complete, with eight shafts of pure-colored light shining like pulsating laser beams from outer edges to inner core, forming a radiantly beautiful wheel with Winterhawk at its hub; two, the light surrounding the mage's body changed to a brilliant and intense white, momentarily blinding Aubrey and me and moving outward from the mage to engulf the handkerchief at his feet. The light then gathered itself together and shot upward, a straight bright shaft disappearing up through the towering ceiling of the old hall, illuminating its hidden shadows with more light than it had probably seen in more than a hundred years.

Winterhawk raised both arms above his head, gesturing with both hands, and a small blue energy ribbon formed around his fingers, trailing up along the white light's shaft like some kind of strange climbing plant. It, too, disappeared up through the rafters of the hall. The bright light backlit the mage, although somehow every feature, every line and fold of his clothes were almost preternaturally outlined by it too. He didn't look quite human at that moment. I glanced over at Aubrey, and saw that the old man was tightly gripping the arms of his chair, his eyes fixed on Winterhawk's still form in the center of the circle.

The little blue ribbon writhed and danced, its near end still attached to the mage's hands. For almost half an hour, he stood like that, arms raised, appearing to provide an anchor point for the ribbon. Checking my chrono, I noted that the ritual had so far taken close to three hours.

At that moment, the ribbon blazed briefly and collapsed inward on itself, coiling up like a length of blue rope around Winterhawk's hands and disappearing without a trace. At his feet, the bloody handkerchief made a tiny whoosh sound and was consumed in a blue fire. All around the circle, the flames around the obelisks went out, all at once this time, with the speed of a light switch being turned off. The rays of multicolored light on Winterhawk likewise died, as did the large glowing white one. Wreathed suddenly in darkness, the mage collapsed to his knees, then forward onto his hands, his shoulders moving up and down with his quick breaths. The back of his shirt was soaked with sweat.

Aubrey and I exchanged glances, then I was up and running toward the circle, stopping hesitantly at its edge. He wasn't far behind me. The obelisks were all burnt-out husks now, their crystal brilliance marred by ugly black holes that had blown them apart from the inside. Beneath them, the gold stands had warped and deformed from the heat and power of the circle's energy.

Winterhawk raised his head to look at us. Pale and drawn, his damp hair hanging down in his face, he looked like he had just run a marathon. He took a deep breath and nodded to us. "You can—come inside, now—if you like. It's—done its job."

Aubrey and I hurried inside. Each grabbing the mage by one arm, we lifted him and got him over to a chair, where he slumped wearily. "Are you all right, sir?" Aubrey asked in a worried tone.

Winterhawk nodded, patting the old man reassuringly on the hand. "Yes, Aubrey. I'm fine. Nothing...nothing I didn't expect. That kind of thing will—take a bit out of you, you know?" He accepted a glass of water from the tray and leaned back to sip it and get his breath back.

"Did it work?" I demanded, throwing tact to the wind now that I saw that he had sustained nothing more serious than exhaustion. "Did you find her?"

The blue gaze swiveled up to meet my eyes. "Yes," he said quietly. "I found her. I know where she is now."

"Where?" Keeping the impatience and exasperation from my voice was difficult.

He reached up and ran the back of his hand over his forehead, pushing his matted hair back into place. "I know where she is," he repeated, this time in an even more quiet tone. "Well talk about it in a bit, all right? I think I need to go lie down for awhile and get myself back to normal." Gesturing to Aubrey to help him, he rose from the chair on shaky legs. "This evening we'll talk," he said again, and the two of them slowly left the room, leaving me standing there with my shotgun, a lot of questions, and not a little fear.

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