"Oh...my...God," Ocelot breathed.
"Holy shit," Joe got out.
Winterhawk and `Wraith were silent. They merely stared, wide-eyed, at what had appeared before them.
The lithe, youthful figure of the young fixer was no longer standing before them. It had changed, grown, stretched out, becoming something else entirely. Something large and sinuous, covered over with tiny golden scales. Something that took up nearly the entire length of the room in which they now stood, even with its long tail wrapped around its flank.
Instinctually, `Wraith's hand flew to his side, where his Ingram was holstered.
"No!" Kestrel yelled. Then, more quietly: "It's all right."
"Don't fear," a calm, gentle voice said in the runners' minds. "I am not a threat to you."
`Wraith's hand slowly fell away from the Ingram.
The four runners continued to stare, unable to tear their gazes away.
As dragons went, the creature that Gabriel had become was not an immensely large specimen. Stretching some 15 to 17 meters from the tip of his nose to the beginning of his tail, he crouched, relaxed, in the huge cleared space in front of the runners. His massive head, bristling with sharp teeth, rested on his forelegs as he regarded the team with the same comforting expression he had worn previously, only this time it looked much more frightening than reassuring. His eyes, they all noted, were the same shade of purple as Gabriel the human's were, with slitted dark pupils and golden flecks.
"I guess I see why you needed the oath," Ocelot managed to get out, taking a couple of steps backward.
The dragon smiled—mostly in his eyes—and shifted position a bit. His golden scales, small and closely overlapping, caught the dim overhead light and made faint iridescent patterns as his muscles moved smoothly beneath his hide. He regarded them for a moment, then turned his attention to Kestrel. Reaching out with one enormous foreleg, he moved it slowly in her direction. Ocelot stiffened; the dragon's talons were large and wicked looking, and it was all he could to not to run over there to grab Kestrel from his grasp before he pierced her with them.
She didn't appear bothered, though. She remained still, looking up at him with the same smile as he, with utmost gentleness, touched her. He closed his eyes for a moment, and a faint golden light wreathed her, shimmering around her body like a glowing nimbus. Then he pulled back and returned to his former position. "Better?" the gentle voice asked, again in all the runners' minds. The dragon's mouth did not move.
She nodded. "Yes. Thank you."
Ocelot stared at her. He seemed to be doing a lot of staring lately, but he didn't care. Where she had once been covered with cuts and bruises, she now looked completely healed. Her hair was still matted with blood and her clothes were still torn and stained with it, but he could tell immediately that her injuries had been taken from her.
The dragon's scrutiny returned to the runners. "Have you all gotten a good look?" his mind-voice, full of good-natured merriment, inquired. "If so, then I'll change back so we can talk."
"Go—right ahead," Winterhawk said, a bit nervously. "Don't let us stop you."
There was another shift, and once again the handsome young man stood in front of them, still dressed in his black gi. "Better," he said. "Do you realize how difficult it was to find an apartment in Seattle that would accommodate my true form?"
That didn't appear to bother Gabriel. "Come," he said, motioning for them to follow him. "I'm sure you have many questions—between us, I think Kestrel and I can answer most of them."
The runners trailed behind as he led them out of the room. Kestrel hung back and matched pace with Ocelot, who then slowed so the two of them were in the back of the group. "I'm sorry," she said under her breath. "I wish I could have told you sooner, but—"
He shook his head. "It's okay," he told her. "You took the oath too, right?"
He glanced at her, surprised. "No? But—"
"Gabriel will explain it," she said. "I just wanted to make sure you weren't angry with me."
He thought about the hours when he had been preparing himself for the news of her death. "No. How could I be? You must have had a reason for it. I'm just glad you're okay." He smiled faintly. "I guess I see what you mean about not havin' to be worried about him, huh?"
She returned the smile. "I did say he wasn't my type." This time, though, there was no mistaking the wistful undertone in her voice.
Gabriel led the group and into a much smaller room, this one was dominated by a comfortable looking sitting area with overstuffed leather sofas and chairs, a huge fireplace, and one of the high, sweeping windows that looked out over the lights of Seattle. "Please," he said. "Sit down." As the runners arranged themselves, he knelt down next to the fireplace and lit it, starting a cheery blaze that flickered invitingly in the background.
"I thought you said we had to get going," Joe said, settling himself carefully down at one end of one of the sofas.
"There's time for that," Gabriel said. "Stefan has issued a challenge—the way in which I choose to answer it will be for him to wonder about, at least for the moment."
A chill ran through Ocelot's body as he made a connection: if Gabriel was a dragon, then his brother Stefan—apparently the reason behind all the odd and unexplained happenings that had been plaguing them—must be...
Oh, shit. He looked around at the faces of his fellow runners, but none revealed their thoughts. If they had made the same connection, they showed no outward sign of it. Ocelot took a seat next to Kestrel, who was perched on the end of the sofa nearest Gabriel. Winterhawk and ShadoWraith had taken seats on the opposite sofa.
"Before I say anything else," Gabriel said when they were all settled and watching him, "I want to apologize to you."
"For what?" Ocelot asked.
"For this whole affair," the young man said. He sighed, leaning back in his chair and crossing his ankle over his knee in a posture that looked casual but wasn't. "I fear that Stefan, as is his way, has used you to get to me. That fact disturbs me greatly."
"Why does he want to get to you?" Joe said.
"Let me start at the beginning, if you'll permit me," Gabriel said. He stared out the window for several seconds, watching the reflection of the fire. There was a strange, faraway look in his eyes. When he spoke again, he was not looking at the runners. "First, let me tell you, since I'm assuming that you do not have a deep familiarity with the ways of dragons, that by the standards of my race, I am still but a child."
"Indeed," Winterhawk said with a raised eyebrow.
Gabriel nodded, bringing his attention back around to his audience. "I am what you call in your language a Great Dragon, but an exceedingly young one. If I were a human, my equivalent age would be perhaps twelve to fourteen years."
"Just a kid," Ocelot said, just a bit sarcastically.
"Yes," the young man said, ignoring the sarcasm. "Although I am in truth several thousand years old, the other Great Dragons regard me as little more than a promising youngster. Thus, since I have few obligations, I am afforded more freedom than an older member of my race might be permitted." As he spoke, his gaze traveled around, meeting each runner's eyes and then moving on, bringing them all into the conversation. "Stefan, my brother, is older than I, but still young. In human terms, he would be—" he considered "—perhaps in his mid to late teens."
"He certainly seems old enough to cause a great deal of trouble," Winterhawk said. He was leaned forward slightly, his expression clearly indicating that he was fascinated. For someone as curious as `Hawk was, the chance to sit and converse with a Great Dragon—even one as young as this—was an experience to be savored.
Gabriel nodded. "Yes. Dragons do not judge themselves by the standards of metahuman society, so it would be inaccurate to call him evil. He has his redeeming features, although you would likely call him amoral, since he cares little for the lives of humans and metahumans. However, he also has a great flaw—jealousy."
"Jealousy of—what?" Ocelot asked slowly, even though he was pretty sure he already knew the answer.
"Of me," Gabriel said without a trace of conceit. "I say that he is my brother, but in truth he is only my half-brother. We share the same mother, but our fathers differ. Stefan was jealous of perceived inequities in our situations from the time that my existence began. My father had great influence in our society, while his did not enjoy that privilege."
"He's too polite to say it," Kestrel spoke up, "But from what he's told me, he was kind of a draconic golden boy from the time he was born. You know, the kind of kid that everybody loves because he's so smart and handsome and well-behaved and has such good prospects. Not to mention that his father was some kind of bigwig in whatever passes for politics among dragons."
Gabriel glanced at Kestrel with affectionate exasperation, but did not contradict what she had said. Instead, he continued. "All of this occurred many thousands of years ago, of course. At the time of the closing of the Fourth World, when the levels of mana dropped below those necessary to sustain highly magical creatures such as we, the dragons secreted themselves away and slept. Now, certainly, I'm telling you things that you already know."
Winterhawk nodded. "Yes. The dragons began to re-emerge in the early part of this century, as the mana levels once again rose. They've been awakening ever since."
"Yes, exactly," Gabriel said. "And I was no exception. I've been awake for only a bit more than a year. When I awoke, it was in a deep cavern in the wilds of the Algonkian-Manitou Council lands. Though disoriented, I was able to keep myself hidden, subsisting for awhile by hunting the plentiful wild game. I stayed in the area for a month or so, but as soon as I was able, I left and found myself in the northern UCAS. I had determined that humans and metahumans—at least some of them—still existed, so I took human form and began to explore this new world." He paused a moment, then got up and stirred up the fire with a poker. When he sat down and continued, his voice was a bit quieter. "Stefan, apparently, had been awake for considerably longer than I. He had already established himself, hiding his identity as a dragon when it suited his purpose and amassing a considerable fortune with his various holdings. Somehow, he became aware that I was back in the world. His jealousy and hatred of me had apparently simmered all those thousands of years, and he now saw his chance to be rid of me once and for all."
Kestrel got up from her place on the end of the sofa and took up a position on the arm of Gabriel's chair, gripping his shoulder comfortingly. For some reason it didn't occur to Ocelot to be disturbed by this.
"Stefan is not an insignificant magician in his own right," Gabriel continued, "and he is a far more skilled manipulator and liar than I will ever be—or ever desire to be. Using a carefully constructed false pretense, he lured me to a secret base of his. Still naive of the ways of this world, I did not think to mistrust him until it was too late. When I arrived, he was waiting. He took me captive before I was able to fight back."
Everyone's attention was riveted on the young man now. No one spoke, even when he paused.
"I don't know why he didn't kill me right away, when he had the chance," Gabriel said. "He certainly did have it. His preparations were flawless. I think, though, that he had a need to gloat—to show me that, in the end, he had the upper hand. As it occurred, he was confident enough in his supremacy that he left for awhile, to attend to some other business. By that point I was so weakened by injury and drugs that he was convinced that I could not escape him. He told me that he planned to kill me when he returned.
"There was something, however, for which he didn't plan. It happened that the place where he was holding me captive was on a large island owned by one of his companies. Also located on that island, some distance from that place, was a research installation, also owned by the same company. What he did not count on was the shadowrunner team that had been hired to infiltrate that installation and steal one of their prototypes."
Ocelot sat up a little straighter. "Wait a minute—"
Gabriel held up a hand. "Please. Perhaps it would be best if Kestrel picked up the story from here." He looked up at her, smiling encouragingly.
Kestrel nodded. When she spoke, her first words were directed at Ocelot. "I'm sorry, Ocelot, but I've lied to you about something."
"I figured you did," he said. "How much of that story about your team was bullshit?" The words were blunt, but the tone was not.
Her expression clouded. "The part about the team was true," she said sadly. "Everything up to the point after the helicopter was destroyed. They died, and there was nothing I could do about it." She paused, getting her composure back. The day had obviously been hard on her, and thinking about her team wasn't making it any easier. "After the team got shot down and the `copter exploded, I ran away. Nobody came after me, because they thought I was inside it when it blew. I didn't know what to do—I couldn't fight all the security people there, and there was no way that I knew of to get off the island without the `copter. There weren't any boats. We knew that going in. All the personnel who worked there got flown out every day by helicopter. So unless I could either sneak my way onto one of the `copters or else take out the pilot and steal it, I wasn't getting out of there. I decided I'd better hide out awhile and figure out what my options were. So I ran until I couldn't see the complex anymore, keeping an eye out for someplace to hole up for awhile.
"That was when I found the cavern."