The runners stared up at the black building with a sense of foreboding.

The limousine had rolled to a smooth stop in front of the tower, directly opposite the main entrance. The team and Kestrel had wasted no time in getting out and donning the rest of their gear; they had been briefly worried about being seen, but Gabriel assured them that they were cloaked in an illusion that would prevent prying eyes from observing them. He did not think that he could shield them from Stefan, but there was no need for that. Stefan knew they were coming.

They stood now on the sidewalk in front of the Messina Tower. Save for Gabriel, all of them were now dressed in their armored jackets and helmets, with their weapons slung over their shoulders and packed away in their appropriate places.

Joe looked the most physically impressive, with his heavy machine gun attached to a gyro-mount, his Panther cannon over one shoulder, and his massive Dikoted combat axe over the other. To the brief amusement of his teammates, he had filled his pockets full of fist-size rocks, which he used, along with shuriken the size of dinner plates, as highly effective throwing weapons. Rounding out his stash was a handheld grenade launcher, a grapple gun, several grenades of various types, a small satchel full of plastique, and his derringer pistol, which was specially designed to fire sniper rounds.

ShadoWraith, who relied more heavily on speed and mobility than Joe did, was more lightly laden but no less deadly. The centerpiece of his armaments was his prized Barret sniper rifle, along with a Dikoted katana on his hip, his Ingram in its quick-draw holster inside his jacket, and his Browning. He carried a handheld grenade launcher much like Joe's, along with an assortment of grenades. Stashed in a holster in the small of his back and another in his boot were two of his aces in the hole—a Narcoject pistol and a throwing knife, each one the delivery system for the same deadly poison.

Of all those present except Gabriel, Winterhawk was the least loaded down with weapons. His lack of skill with a gun made bringing one along a somewhat useless proposition, although he did carry his AUG-CSL carbine loaded with APDS on his back. Aside from that, he carried only his black-bladed magesword, a few grenades, a couple of his custom-made monowire bolas, and a small, clear Plexiglas riot shield. He was fully convinced that his physical contributions were not going to make any difference in this battle, so there was no need for him to slow himself down with unnecessary equipment.

Ocelot, who liked to have a lot of options in a fight while not hampering his athletic prowess, carried a number of smaller items in addition to his Franchi-SPAS shotgun, including his ever-present monowhip, a selection of throwing knives, taser shuriken, grapple gun, his 2-piece Dikoted spear/staff combination, a stun baton, and a belt full of grenades. In the hour before they had to return, Ocelot had gone to a trusted weaponsmith and had a couple of "special" grenades put together; he didn't know if he would get the chance to use them, but they were there if he needed them.

Kestrel carried her compound bow over her shoulder, with the quiver of Dikoted broadhead arrows hanging down in easy reach at her side. Also within easy reach was her Ares MP light machine gun, a Dikoted katana on her left hip, an HK-227 inside her coat, a grapple gun, and a number of grenades. Like the rest of the runners, she had several spare clips of APDS for her firearms, stuck in the numerous pockets of her jumpsuit. Also like them, she wore a throat-mike and earpiece keyed to the team's communications system.

Gabriel got out of the car as they finished their preparations, and took a moment to survey the tower and the scene around it. "Before we go in," he said quietly, "I want to clarify something. I don't like to sound heavy-handed, but every operation must have a leader. I am that leader. You will not attack without provocation. If you have difficulty with this, then there is yet time to change your mind about coming along." He regarded them each in turn, his expression quite serious. "Do I have your agreement?"

Kestrel nodded immediately, though she doubted that the request was meant for her. The other runners responded more slowly, but eventually they all nodded as well. Ocelot's nod, especially, was grudging. He still thought the idea of marching, eyes open, into a dragon's den was right up there at the top of the list of dumb things to do, even if you did have your own dragon with you. But the dragon was calling the shots, at least for now, so he didn't have a lot of choice.

Gabriel nodded. "Let's go, then." He took one last look up at the black tower and then proceeded forward, moving slowly and deliberately up the concrete steps to the front door.

In spite of the late hour, the door was not locked. That didn't seem to surprise Gabriel; he simply pulled it open and went inside. After a moment, the other runners followed him.

Inside, the lobby was dim. Empty. Illuminated only by the faint glow of the EXIT signs, it contained a large (and probably bulletproof) combination receptionist's desk and security station, several tall plants, and a few tastefully arranged sitting areas clustered around low tables and telecomm units. Off to the left, past the receptionist's workstation, was an alcove containing a bank of six elevators.

The runners looked around nervously, weapons in hand, as if expecting someone to jump out and start shooting at them at any moment. No one did. The lobby was as silent as a graveyard at midnight. It seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for something to happen. In its way, that made them even more nervous.

Gabriel strode across the expanse of marble-floored lobby toward the elevators without a glance to the left or the right, paying little attention to the fact that his entourage had dropped behind. Reaching the elevators, he turned back toward them. "Coming?"

ShadoWraith looked at the elevators and then at Gabriel, raising a questioning eyebrow. "Elevator?"

The young man shrugged. "I don't want to walk up all those stairs. Do you?"

"Elevators are prime ambush points," Ocelot said, coming up next to the elf. "We're sitting ducks in there if he wants to nail us."

"May I point out," Gabriel reminded him, "that you are, as you say, `sitting ducks' anywhere within a significant radius of Stefan's location, should he choose to take advantage of this fact?"

"Nice of you to be so comforting," Winterhawk put in sourly.

Gabriel stabbed the "UP" indicator on the elevator's control touchpad. "I'm simply trying to remind you that regardless of where we are, as long as you are under my protection, it would be difficult for Stefan to attack you. You're not dealing with a conventional threat—you can't treat it as if it were one."

The bell above the elevator door bonged once: a gentle, almost pleasant sound that nonetheless caused tiny starts in all the runners, including Kestrel. The door slid open silently, revealing a cubicle carpeted in rich gray with walls paneled in highly polished genuine mahogany. Gabriel stepped in first, without hesitation. After a moment, the others, with varying degrees of trepidation, joined him. The door slid just as silently closed.

The car began to move.

"You didn't push anything," Joe said. He was crushed into the corner on the left side of the car, taking up almost half of the small space with his troll bulk and weapons.

Gabriel didn't seem worried about that, though his expression was now focused and serious. "He's expecting us."

The car continued to move upward.

Ocelot, wedged into another of the corners with Kestrel on one side and ShadoWraith on the other, was not at all comfortable with the way the situation was going. Focused, as he always was before a battle, on the business at hand, he could not help but be distracted by the fact that, with all six of them packed this closely, a single spell or well-placed company of gunmen could take them out before they could disentangle themselves enough to retaliate. Sure, maybe Gabriel could protect them. Maybe. But Ocelot didn't like to trust people he didn't know that far. Especially when they were ignoring all the rules of good sense and insisting on marching right into the belly of the beast.

Gabriel might be powerful, but at least in Ocelot's mind he was more than a bit naive. Why else would he choose to meet his brother—whom he had admitted was bigger, tougher, and stronger than he was—on his own home turf? And worse yet, to walk right in the front door, just like he expected? Ocelot didn't buy the line about `he knows we're coming anyway, so why hide'? He had spent most of his life looking for the edge, the unexpected, the thing that the other guy didn't think about. It was hard for him to turn off that sort of thinking even if he wanted to.

He wondered if Kestrel was ready for this. There was nothing romantic or protective in that thought; in a combat situation, Ocelot didn't allow himself thoughts of that nature. But facts were facts, and the facts were that Kestrel had been through a highly traumatic experience today, at the hands of the very creature that they were now approaching. Sure, her physical wounds were healed. She showed absolutely no sign of the terrible beating she had received earlier that day (had it really only been that short a time ago?), but Ocelot had no way to know what her mental state was. What had Stefan done to her mind? What kind of illusions had he forced her to interact with, to fight through, to relive? Had he shown her her team's death again, made her hear the screams and watch as they were blown limb from limb by the force of the missile? Had he shown her his own death? Gabriel's? Had he implanted triggers in her mind that would cause her to fire on her own team when Stefan spoke the right phrase?

Ocelot closed his eyes briefly. Can't think like that. If he started to think like that, he was lost already. He'd be too busy keeping an eye on Kestrel to make sure that she didn't do anything weird to watch himself, and that would be the end of it. Forcing himself to discard the thought, he continued to focus on preparing himself for what was to come.

Around him, the others' expressions were set and as focused as his own. They did not move, but their eyes were in constant motion, roving around the small confines. ShadoWraith in particular looked tense, since he did not deal well with confined spaces. Gabriel seemed prepared but relaxed, standing at the back of the elevator with his hands clasped loosely in front of him.

The numbers on the elevator's indicator continued to increase: 37... 38... 39...

There was a brief pause. The buttons on the keypad only went up to 39.


The doors slid open.

Revealed beyond them was a long hallway, ending in ornate double doors. The carpeting here was the same gray as that inside the elevator cubicle. The runners noticed that, of the six elevators at the bottom of the tower, apparently only this one reached this floor. "End of the line," Ocelot said quietly, stepping out.

The others quickly joined him in the hallway, glad to be free of the sardine tin. "So what do we do now?" Joe asked. "Knock? Blow through the door?"

In answer, Gabriel merely approached the doors and stood waiting before them. With a brief turn back for one last look at the runners, he grasped the knob and opened the door, swinging it noiselessly into the room. Then he stepped inside.

The runners, deciding that as much as they were not anxious to enter that room, they were even less anxious to be left out here alone, quickly followed.

They were standing in what looked to be an enormous office. While not as large as Gabriel's penthouse, it was every bit as opulent in a spartan sort of way. The room, they noticed immediately, was dominated by two features: the tall, floor-to-ceiling window that afforded a magnificent view of Downtown, and a long, low desk that seemed carved from a single block of obsidian. The room was wreathed in shadow, the only illumination coming from a small lamp near the desk and the faintly filtered light from other nearby buildings. The ceiling was at least ten meters high.

There was a tall chair behind the desk. As Gabriel and the runners stood inside the door, the chair turned around, allowing its occupant to face them. Casually, moving with easy grace, the chair's occupant rose and came around the front of the desk, where he leaned, arms crossed, and smiled in a decidedly reptilian fashion. The man was tall—taller than Gabriel—and powerfully built, with dark hair swept up off a high pale forehead, strong features, thin lips, and steady, glittering dark eyes like twin chips of the same obsidian from which the desk had been carved. He wore a fine suit of dark gray in a conservative cut.

"Hello, little brother," he said softly. "I was beginning to wonder if you would ever arrive."

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