The address Kestrel gave turned out to be a high-rise building right in the middle of downtown Seattle. "He lives here?" Ocelot demanded as they drew up near the huge structure.
She nodded. "Up at the top." She directed `Wraith to pull into the underground parking garage, where she leaned out the window and tapped a code into the keypad. "He likes a place with a good view."
Once they had parked, she got out quickly and directed them to do the same. "It might already be too late," she said. "If we miss him, I have no idea where he'll go from here." Despite her remaining injuries, she still moved with the fluid grace characteristic of cybernetic reaction enhancements.
As they traversed the parking lot, Ocelot pointed out the black Dynamit. Kestrel shook her head. "That doesn't mean anything," she said. "He probably won't take the car when he goes."
They entered the lobby from the parking garage, and Kestrel quickly drew Ocelot's coat around her and buttoned it up, ducking down between Ocelot and Joe to hide her bloody hair. Fortunately at this time of night there were not many people riding the elevators, so they got one to themselves. The buttons went from B1 to 35. Kestrel punched something into the keypad next to the buttons and entered 36. The elevator doors closed and the small cubicle began rising swiftly upward.
When the doors opened again, the runners found themselves in a short hallway carpeted in rich gray. There was a single door at the end. "Come on," Kestrel said, pushing her way out and hurrying down the hallway. After a moment, the others followed.
Kestrel knocked on the heavy wooden door. "Gabriel? It's Kestrel. I'm with the others. Please let us in if you're in there."
For a long time, there was no answer. Kestrel looked fearful, knocked again. "Gabriel?"
There was the slightest of clicks.
Immediately, Kestrel grasped the door handle and swung the door open, motioning for the others to follow. They stepped inside and closed the door behind them.
The runners—except for Kestrel—stopped, looking around in frank amazement.
The apartment, if you could call something such as this an apartment, was magnificent. They were standing in a small antechamber area that looked out on a vast room that seemed to have glass everywhere. The roof, also glass, soared some ten meters up, and this single room must have occupied at least half of the area of this floor. The floors were covered with fine marble, scattered over with light-colored oriental rugs; the huge room was broken up only by small clusters of furniture throughout its area. Although it was dark, the place had a feeling of open airiness to it, almost as if the glass was not there at all.
Far across the room, in a cleared area near one of the glass walls, a small figure could be seen. Kestrel crept forward, indicating silence; the others followed as she approached the figure.
As they drew closer, the small form resolved itself into the familiar one of Gabriel. The young man seemed to be paying no attention to them. Dressed only in snug-fitting black pants and soft black boots, he appeared to be going through some sort of exercise, deep in concentration. Ocelot's eyes widened as he recognized the type if not the particular exercise: it was an intricate kata whose purpose was to center the mind and rid it of any outside influences. Gabriel moved fluidly, his every motion performed with the grace and precision of a world-class master. When he turned so he was facing the runners, they saw that his eyes were closed, his jaw set. Ocelot noticed that the small wound on his mouth had disappeared. His chest and forehead were beaded with sweat; his hair stood up in dark spikes. Near him, on a crystal table, sat the stone box he had taken from the motel room.
The runners remained silent, reluctant to interrupt the ritual. It was nearly five minutes before Gabriel completed the last movement and came back to a straight position, feet together, hands at his sides, and opened his eyes. Despite the sweat glistening on his chest, he wasn't even breathing hard. When he looked at Kestrel, it was with the same calm serenity he had exhibited when they had first met him. "You should not have brought them here, Kestrel," he said. Once again, Ocelot was reminded of the images of saints he had seen on the trideo.
"I had to, Gabriel," she said softly, stepping forward. "You know that. They're involved now. Now that we know this part of the story, you owe it to them to tell them the rest."
For several moments, Gabriel remained standing in the same position, looking through Kestrel as if deep in thought. Finally, he nodded once, reluctantly. "Yes," he said. "You're right, of course. There is no other alternative." Moving across the room, he picked up a black gi jacket from the back of a chair and put it on, leaving the belt untied. "I had hoped to avoid this, though."
Kestrel nodded. "I know. But they deserve an explanation. This whole thing has been hard on all of us."
"Yes. And I am feeling quite guilty about that," Gabriel said.
"Wait a minute," Ocelot spoke up. "Will you two stop talking about us like we're not here? And what to you mean, you feel guilty? Are you behind this Stefan guy somehow?"
"In a manner of speaking, I am," Gabriel said. "You see, he is my brother."
The runners were silent, staring at him as that sunk in. "Your—brother?" Ocelot finally managed to get out.
"Yes. And there is more." Gabriel looked at Kestrel, who nodded, and then turned back to the runners. "Before I tell you the remainder, however, I require something of you."
Ocelot's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"An oath," Gabriel said.
"What kind of an oath?" Ocelot demanded.
The young man addressed Winterhawk. "You, I'm sure, are familiar with the sort of oaths taken by those initiating into the higher mysteries of magic."
Winterhawk nodded. "Yes, of course. The oath is normally only taken by those joining an initiatory group, but I've heard of such oaths used for other purposes as well."
Ocelot glared at Gabriel. "Why do you need it?"
"I have my own reasons," Gabriel said mildly. "They'll become clear when I reveal the rest of what I will tell you."
"What is required?" `Wraith asked. "What are the consequences?"
Gabriel's gaze settled on the elf. "Nil desperandum, my friend. It is merely a formality, for the price of breaking my oath is not death, nor anything so dire. The oath will simply secure your promise that you will not reveal anything I tell you tonight, and ensure that if you do, I will know of it immediately."
"This must be some secret," Joe said. "But what good will it do you to just know?"
"Because I trust you," Gabriel said. "I will be asking you to trust me, so therefore I must trust you in return. As I said, merely a formality."
"This oath is magically binding, of course," Winterhawk said.
"Then you are a magician."
Gabriel smiled. "Yes. But that is not my secret." He looked toward the window. "Time grows short. If you do not agree to my terms, I must ask you to leave now. I have much yet to do."
The runners looked at him, and he looked back at them. Standing there dressed in the simple black uniform, he appeared very young and very vulnerable. That was, until you looked at his eyes. Clear and impossibly purple, they held both a wisdom and a compassion that were better suited to one far beyond his apparent youth. The strength of his gaze contrasted with the fragile beauty of his form.
Joe, who had mistrusted Gabriel all along, spoke first. "I'll agree," he said, and immediately knew he had made the correct choice. Something about it felt right to him. Unbidden, his strange vision of standing in the canyon between the flood and the fire flashed through his mind.
"As will I," Winterhawk said quietly. His agreement was more from curiosity than anything else, but he too felt that there was only one proper choice.
"Yes," `Wraith said, his expression unfathomable.
Ocelot was the last to speak. Eyes narrowed, he looked at Kestrel, still bloody and obviously in pain. She looked back at him, hiding nothing in her gaze. He saw trust there. He saw strength. He saw—
And at that moment, it didn't matter if that love was for him, for Gabriel, or for both of them. He knew what he had to do. "Okay," he said, surprised to hear his voice come out strong and clear. "I'm in."
Kestrel's shoulders slumped in relief, and she smiled at him.
Gabriel nodded. "Thank you," he said. Approaching them, he began speaking in a low tone, in a language none of the runners had ever heard. `Wraith looked at Winterhawk with a raised eyebrow, but the mage shrugged and shook his head. Gabriel stood before each runner in turn, gently touching each forehead (Joe had to lean over) and intoning something in the odd language. Ocelot, when it was his turn, felt a only a gentle tingle in his forehead, and then nothing else unusual.
"That's it?" he asked. Somehow, he'd always thought a ritual binding an oath would be more—well—complicated.
"That's it," Gabriel said, smiling. "You have given me your trust—now I will give you mine."
Turning, he made his way back into the center of the room, pausing to gently squeeze Kestrel's shoulder as he passed her. She, in turn, gripped his upper arm, smiling at him in spite of her pain. When he reached the room's center, he stopped and turned back to face the runners, still smiling.
And he changed.