Kestrel still sat on the arm of Gabriel's chair as she finished her story. The four shadowrunners listened as if spellbound, reluctant to interrupt her for any reason. The fire, forgotten, flickered down to embers in the fireplace. When Kestrel at last finished, she smiled. "So that's the true story, this time," she said, looking at Ocelot.
"How did you get off the island?" Joe asked.
Her smile got a bit wider. "I got up on Gabriel's back, and he turned us both invisible. Then we just flew out. Well," she amended, "he flew. I held on for dear life."
"I would not have dropped you," Gabriel said serenely, with his own smile. He was leaned back, relaxed, watching her over steepled fingers.
"Yeah, tell that to the chick lurching around up there," she protested in mock exasperation. "Up until then, I'd done all my flying in planes and helicopters."
"What did your brother do when he discovered that you'd gone missing?" Winterhawk asked. "Did he pursue you?"
Gabriel shook his head. "No. As I said, Stefan is consumed by his hatred of me, but he is not stupid, nor is he—at least most of the time—rash. You must realize that we dragons tend to take the long view of things. If it takes a thousand years to accomplish a goal, then so be it. He had time to wait. We made our escape cleanly, and I did not hear anything about him after that. Until now, apparently," he added soberly.
"So then, Stefan's responsible for all those weird hallucinations and things?" Ocelot leaned in a little closer, his expression hard. "You didn't have anything to do with `em?"
"They were almost certainly Stefan's doing," the young man confirmed. "While I am fully capable of creating such illusions—without doubt more capable than Stefan himself is—I have no reason to do so. What would I gain by it?"
"What I don't quite follow, though," Ocelot continued, "is why? Why go through all that bullshit of messin' with our heads just to get to you? It seems like a big waste of time to me."
"There is something else you must know about Stefan before it becomes clear," Gabriel said. "He prides himself on being a manipulator. He is never more pleased than when he is acting behind the scenes, pulling strings and indirectly causing events to occur. He does not like to dirty himself by becoming directly involved. Combine this with an unfortunate lack of regard for humans and metahumans, and undoubtedly he was unable to resist this chance to reach me through those I care for."
"So you mean he just set up this whole thing—fucked with us for weeks, and had us chasing our tails like idiots—just so he could have a little fun before he killed you?" Ocelot was seething now.
Gabriel nodded. "Essentially right. He knew that when he injured Kestrel, I would have no choice but to answer his challenge—I think that was why he saved her until last." There was a definite undercurrent of something dangerous in his tone.
Something dawned on Ocelot. "That's why none of us could find her. `Hawk's and Harry's friend's magic didn't have a chance of finding somebody that a dragon didn't want found." He looked at Gabriel. "But you said you couldn't find her either."
"I made an error," the young man admitted. "I had no idea that it was Stefan who had taken her, and thus I did not use a powerful enough ritual. The one I did use was quite potent enough to find her in almost any other case." He turned to her. "I am sorry, Kestrel. Had I known, I might have found you sooner."
She squeezed his hand. "It's okay. I don't think I was ever in much danger, except for getting knocked around a little. It's happened before. I have to say, though, I could have done without the illusions. They're going to give me nightmares for months."
Ocelot's fists clenched. "He was messin' with you more than just the two times we know about?"
"That was most of what he did when he had me," she said. "The beating was just an afterthought. He only did it a couple of hours before you guys found me. Everything else was psychological." She shivered. "If you don't mind, I don't think I want to talk about it right now. It was bad."
"He was in human form?" `Wraith asked.
She nodded. "The only way I knew who he was, was that he talked about finally having his revenge on his brother. I'm sure he wanted me to know, so I could tell Gabriel."
"What did his human form look like?" Winterhawk asked.
"And where did he have you?" Ocelot added.
Kestrel let go of Gabriel's hand. "He was tall—taller than Gabriel—and older, too. Athletic looking, but more like a guy who's just starting to head into middle age while still keeping himself in shape. A little distinguished, but mostly nasty. His eyes were—" she broke off, shaking her head. "I didn't like to look at them. As for where I was, I don't know. He never let me have any reference. I was unconscious when I arrived, and also when I left. I didn't wake up until I was in that motel room with you guys."
`Wraith indicated the huge room from which they had come, then looked at Gabriel. "And the box?"
"Something that belonged to an old friend a long time ago," Gabriel said, a hint of sadness in his voice. "Stefan knew that I would recognize it and associate it with him, because he once took it from me."
"Was there anything inside?" Winterhawk asked.
"Yes." The young fixer stood without elaborating. "Now, though, I must beg your forgiveness, because I must ask you to excuse me. As I said, I have preparations to make before I go to confront Stefan."
Kestrel shot to her feet. "You're not thinking of going alone, are you?"
"Of course I am," Gabriel said as if that was not an issue.
"The hell you are," Ocelot growled, standing as well. "I want a piece of that bastard." He stopped for a moment as he remembered the confrontation in the motel room, and realized that he had punched out a Great Dragon. And lived to tell about it. And here he was getting belligerent about demanding the chance to go and beat up an even bigger one. The thought scared the crap out of the rational part of him, but it didn't matter. He was on momentum now.
Gabriel sighed. "Ocelot, Kestrel...all of you. I know your intentions are good. You want revenge for what has been done to you. I understand that. But it's simply out of the question for you to face Stefan. Please. I will take care of it."
"He'll kill you, Gabriel," Kestrel said. "You know that. You can't beat him. You've told me how much bigger and stronger he is than you are."
"I am not without my defenses," Gabriel said, again without conceit. "And my magic is by far more potent than his. I cannot allow this to go on any longer."
"Then let us help you," Ocelot said.
"We've fought dragons before," Joe pointed out.
The young man shook his head. "You've fought dracoforms before. Geyswain was young, and he was sickened when you fought him. Still, even then you would not have beaten him had Arleesh not been present to assist you."
"You know about that?" Ocelot demanded.
"I told you that I researched your careers," Gabriel said, brushing it off. "The fact remains that Stefan is a Great Dragon. A young one, yes. Certainly not at the height of his power, nor in any way comparable to a fully mature member of our race. But as far as the difficulty he would have in killing you, it would be like comparing your own chances against a baby to those against a small child. There is simply no measurable difference. If you were to accompany me, I would be leading you to your deaths. I will not do that."
"It's not your choice," Ocelot said. "We're all grown up now. We know the risks."
"Do you?" Gabriel fixed him with an odd gaze.
"We know it's probably the most dangerous thing, not to mention the dumbest, that we've ever done in our lives," Ocelot said, ignoring his tone. "But we've done stuff like that before. We've come out on top when nobody expected us to."
The young man shook his head. He looked much more focused now, almost distracted, as opposed to his previous attitude of calm. "I know what you did. I know how difficult it was. But again, you had assistance. The Fates themselves were standing at your back then. And the Enemy was weakened." He sighed. "I'm sorry—I won't have your deaths on my conscience." He turned as if to leave the sitting area.
Kestrel grabbed his arm. "Gabriel, please. Listen to reason. You can't just go off like this. It's what he wants you to do. If you face him alone, he's going to kill you. You know he will."
Ocelot took up her argument. "And if he does that, what do you think he'll do next? I'm bettin' he'll come after us. Wouldn't want to leave any loose ends, right?"
"Much as it pains me to say this," Winterhawk spoke up, "since I'm in no way anxious to pit myself against a dragon, Great or otherwise, I fear that Ocelot may be correct. Consider the number of people Stefan has most probably casually killed so far in order to further his plans."
Joe nodded. "Mortenson, and Hoenberg, and probably Magnum and Jenner too. Who knows how many more that we just haven't found out about yet?" He looked around nervously. "Could he do that to us?"
"Not here," Gabriel said. "Not while you're under my protection. It would take a greater magician than Stefan to penetrate the wards on my home."
"But once you've left and we're out of your protection," Ocelot said, "what's to stop him from just killing us for spite? We sure as hell couldn't do anything to prevent it."
"You can remain here, inside the wards," Gabriel said. "Until I return."
"And if you don't return?" Kestrel demanded.
Gabriel did not answer that.
"Look," Ocelot said, stepping in front of him. "Maybe we don't have the stake in this that you do, but ever since he started screwin' with us, we're in it. We're in it up to our eyeballs. We're not gonna just sit here on our butts waiting for you to take care of this guy—if you even can. We may not be able to take him on our own, but we can help you. We didn't ask to be caught up in this whole thing. I think you owe us lettin' us finish it with you."
"Yes," Wraith said. "Must end, one way or another."
Winterhawk stood, his blue eyes cold as ice. "I, for one, don't intend to be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life, wondering when your brother, in a fit of boredom, will decide to get rid of us. Or play his games with us again."
Gabriel stopped, his gaze traveling around the faces of the runners. Each of them held essentially the same expression: cold, resolute, angry, a little fearful, but determined to see this through. He sighed. "I can do nothing else," he said quietly after a long pause. "It is within my power to leave you behind, to imprison you like children in the safety of my sanctuary until it is done. But that isn't my way. Unlike my brother, I do not consider the human and metahuman races to be merely pawns for my amusement or pets in need of protection. You are beings with free will, just as I am. If you choose to accompany me, with full knowledge, to what will likely be your deaths, then I will not prevent it."
"Gabriel—" Kestrel started.
He shook his head. "No, Kestrel. Don't say anything, please. It is you most of all that I would like to shield from this. I owe you my life—I don't want to see you lose yours."
"Neither do I," she said. "But I can't just stand back and watch him kill you. I have to see this through. I know you don't like it, but you know that's the way it has to be."
Gabriel looked at them again. For a long time, he didn't say anything. He moved over to the window, staring out over the lights of Seattle glowing through the shifting mists. "All right," he said quietly at last, as if the words were being forced from him. He did not turn back to face them.
"We must prepare," ShadoWraith said.
"Yeah," Joe added. "If we're goin' after a dragon, we'll need our heavy gear."
Kestrel was watching Gabriel. He had not yet turned around. "Gabriel?"
"Go," he said. When no one spoke, he faced them, his eyes burning with passion. "Go," he said again. "Make your preparations. One hour. If you do not return by then, I will go without you."
He did not watch them as they left. Kestrel accompanied them to the door. "He's serious," she said. "I've never seen him this serious. If you want to come along, don't be late getting back."
"You're not coming with us?" Ocelot asked, surprised.
She shook her head. "No. I'll stay here with him."
The other runners went out and pressed the button to call the elevator; Ocelot remained for a moment. "Are you sure you have to go?" he asked her softly. "You've had a hard couple of days. Maybe—"
She put her finger to his lips. "Shh. Don't go macho on me. I hate macho. I have to do this as much as you do. I have to do whatever I can to make sure he doesn't get killed."
"Does he have a chance?"
Briefly, she closed her eyes. "From what he's told me, he's a better mage, and he's smarter. But Stefan is trickier, and he's also bigger and stronger. It won't be easy. He's probably right that we won't all come back."
He looked at her, heartsick at the thought of losing her again when he'd just gotten her back, but realizing that she was probably having the same thoughts about him. "Okay," he said. "I guess I'd better get going." Leaning forward, he brushed a kiss across her lips, then turned and hurried off toward the now-open elevator where his teammates waited. He watched her until the elevator doors closed. Slumping against the back wall of the elevator, he said quietly, "Holy shit."
"Yeah," Joe agreed. "We wanted to know what was going on. Now maybe I think we'd have been better off if we didn't know."
They remained silent until the elevator reached the lobby, where they quickly made their way out to the garage. Stopping when they reached the truck, `Wraith said. "One hour. Not much time."
"We'll likely need to separate," Winterhawk said, getting in, "but I don't think there's time for everyone to go home. Even at this hour, without much traffic, the risk of missing that deadline is too great if we try to do too much."
"Not far from home," `Wraith said to Winterhawk.
Joe nodded. "I don't need to go home—all the stuff I need is in the truck. I loaded up when Winterhawk called before." He climbed into the back seat.
Winterhawk looked at Ocelot. "What about you?"
"Yeah, I gotta leave for awhile, but I'm not going home. I need the truck."
"Maybe I should just come with you," Joe suggested, "since my stuff's already there."
Ocelot shook his head. "No, I want to do this alone. I have to go see a couple of people about a couple of things. I'll be back in plenty of time." He turned to `Wraith, looking as if he was going to ask the elf a question, but then changed his mind and fell silent.
The rest of the runners got in, and `Wraith guided the truck out of the garage. "Anybody know anything dragons are vulnerable to?" Joe asked nobody in particular.
"Not bloody much," Winterhawk said sourly. "That's sarcasm, by the way. I really don't know much about Great Dragons and what their weaknesses are. I've never had the nerve to ask one."
"We should," `Wraith spoke up.
"We should what?" Ocelot demanded.
Winterhawk looked at him funny, but then a look of approval crossed his face. "You have a point there. Gabriel's trusting us—p'raps we might extend that trust a bit further and see if he'll share any of the finer points of dragonslaying with us."
"I guess it couldn't hurt," Ocelot said. "I mean, what's the worst he could do—kill us? That's already gonna happen without any help, I think." He took a deep breath. "Reality check time, guys. Let's think a minute about what we're doin' here. We're going off to prepare so we can try to kill a Great Dragon. Does that make the rest of you as nervous as it makes me?"
"We could chicken out," Joe said, in a voice that made it clear that he had no intention of doing so. "Nobody has to go."
Ocelot shook his head. "I have to. I don't like it, but I have to. The rest of you guys, though—"
"No more of that," Winterhawk said sternly. "We've been a team this long—not about to stop now. I'll see this through to the end. I was serious about not intending to look over my shoulder for the rest of my life. I'd rather be dead than be some dragon's plaything."
"Yes," `Wraith said.
Joe looked around nervously. "Uh—guys?"
"Yeah?" Ocelot looked at him questioningly.
"I just had a thought. What if Stefan tries another one of those illusions on us while we're out here?"
"Then we're screwed," Ocelot said simply. Still, he joined the troll in a nervous look around the area.
"Anyone want to hear my wild-arsed theory about why he won't?" Winterhawk asked.
"Yes," `Wraith said, rather too quickly.
The mage leaned back in his seat, watching the Downtown scenery go by without really seeing it. "Apparently, he had a purpose in what he did to us, yes?"
"Yeah," Joe said. "To piss Gabriel off enough so he'd go fight him."
"Has he accomplished that objective?" Winterhawk asked.
Ocelot nodded. "Yeah. Or we wouldn't be doin' what we're doin' right now."
"So," the mage said in his best college-professor tone, "our usefulness has ended. We were merely the tools he used to manipulate Gabriel into a confrontation."
`Wraith nodded. "You don't kill tools."
"Right," Winterhawk said. "You don't even think about your tools, once you're finished with them. When you're cleaning your guns, do your gun oil and cleaning cloth occupy your mind once you've put them away?"
"Do you really believe that, `Hawk?" Ocelot said. He sounded like he wanted to.
"What's the alternative?" Winterhawk pointed out. "If we continue to split our concentration worrying about it, he'll destroy our edge just as effectively as he would with an illusion. I say let's just forget about it until it happens."
The other runners nodded, although each of them looked as if he was not quite convinced. Truth be told, neither was Winterhawk. Espousing a theory was one thing. Actually believing it was something else entirely.