The wind whipped around the team as they spun through the opened skylight, buffeted this way and that by the power of the enormous air elementals that had sprung into being at Stefan's command. Their cries of surprise and shock were torn away in the gale-force winds that carried them further and further skyward, away from the black tower.
Then, suddenly, the elementals were gone. The winds quieted. The group began to fall.
Ocelot desperately twisted his body, his eyes darting around and sparing only the briefest of glances to try to find his friends. Don't look down, he ordered himself as his hair and jacket fluttered madly around him. Only got one chance at this. Don't blow it. His hand was already on his grapple gun, his body reacting with a trained precision that was only hindered by his conscious mind. He took a deep breath, sighted on the top of the building as it flew by, and pulled the trigger.
The line shot out with a whirring noise that was swallowed entirely by the wind. Ocelot stiffened, his stomach knotting as it looked like he'd missed his mark, but then the small but strong hook settled over the lip of the skylight with a thunk and began to pull taut. Ocelot quickly adjusted the grapple gun's rate of payout, slowing his descent until he at last slammed, feet first, into one of the building's windows about halfway up, his arms feeling like they were on fire. Carefully adjusting his grip and then hanging on tightly, he ventured into his commlink, "Anybody out there?" He didn't expect to get any answers.
"Right here," came Winterhawk's quick but slightly shaky reply. "I've got `Wraith."
"Here," Kestrel said. "I'm all right."
There was another thunk off to Ocelot's right, as something large hit the side of the building. "I'm okay," Joe said. "It was close, though." Like the others, his voice was a bit breathless.
Ocelot risked a look off to both sides. Two other grapple-gun lines stretched down from high above: one held Kestrel, her dark-clad form barely visible against the polished black of the tower; the other held Joe, ten or so meters down. "`Hawk? `Wraith? Where are you?"
"Don't look," Winterhawk said. "Behind you. We're levitated."
"How the hell did we do that?" Ocelot demanded.
"Dragon-boy screwed up," Kestrel said. "The elementals took us up too high before they dropped us. We had time to get a bead on the top of the building with our grapple guns."
"So what do we do now?" Joe asked. "We can't stay here. Reel ourselves back up and go through the skylight?"
"Wouldn't do that," Winterhawk said. "Can't be sure, but it looks like he's got those elementals guarding that entrance. If it's all the same to you, I'd rather not tangle with them just now."
"We can't go down to the bottom and back up," `Kestrel said. "We don't have enough line on these things—at least I don't."
"We probably couldn't get the elevator to work anyway," Joe pointed out.
"What, then?" `Wraith asked. He was floating near Winterhawk, close enough that he could grab hold of the mage if the spell that was holding him aloft somehow went away. Winterhawk himself was held up by means of a spell lock containing his levitation spell.
"Let's bust some windows," Joe said. He rapped on the black glass with his fist. "This stuff's probably armored, but I'll bet we could blow a good-sized hole in it."
"Yeah," Ocelot said. "That's the best idea I've heard all day."
"Can we hurry up a bit with it?" Kestrel asked nervously, looking upward. "I keep wondering when those elementals are going to get the idea to pull our lines loose."
Joe, holding onto his grapple gun with one hand, dug around in his bag and came up with a clump of plastique, then turned his head to look at Winterhawk and `Wraith as he shaped it the way he wanted it. It wasn't easy doing it one-handed, but he didn't have much of a choice. "One of you guys is gonna have to set it, `cause I can't get far enough away when it blows otherwise."
"I'll do it," `Wraith said. Winterhawk carefully maneuvered him over next to Joe, and the troll handed him the explosive.
"This stuff drops off pretty fast," Joe said, "So you don't need to get too far away. Between us is best—then we can all reach the hole without too much trouble. Just paste it up there and stick the detonator in, then get your ass outta there. I'll blow it from here."
Ocelot watched tensely as `Wraith floated over between him and Joe and attached the clump of puttylike explosive, then placed the detonator. The wind was still blowing hard up here; the wind chill probably dropped the temperature down at least another ten degrees. His hands were beginning to go numb despite his gloves. That wasn't a good sign.
When `Wraith was away, back over near Winterhawk, Joe said, "Everybody ready? Okay—here goes."
The explosion that blew out a hole about a meter and a half in diameter in the slick armored glass didn't make much noise, and, fortunately for them, didn't fling much debris outward. "At least somethin's working right," Joe muttered. "Okay. Give it a minute to cool off, and let's get in there."
One by one, moving quickly, the runners maneuvered themselves and swung through the hole Joe had created. Joe himself went first, as he often did when unknown danger waited on the other side of a portal; reeling in his grapple gun, he raised himself up even with the hole, then swung over and went in feet first. Ocelot followed, then Kestrel went through. Last were `Wraith and Winterhawk.
By the time they got through, the other three had already disengaged their grapple-lines and were loading in new spools. "Okay," Ocelot said. "Where the hell are we?"
They looked around. They appeared to be standing in a large open area, its space broken up by row after row of cubicles. Each of the two they could see—one directly off to each side—contained a cyberdeck, a chair, a shelf unit, and not much else. No one other than the runners appeared to be moving.
Ocelot sighed. "So—we goin' back up?"
"Of course we're going back up," Kestrel said sharply. "Stefan will kill Gabriel if we don't get up there and help him." She paused. "And then he'll be looking for us."
"He might not," Joe said. "He probably thinks we're dead." He sighed, flipping up his visor and swiping his huge hand over his face. "But we have to go back anyway."
"We did rather force ourselves along on the trip," Winterhawk said reluctantly. "Seems a bit unsporting of us to quit now."
Ocelot looked at `Wraith. "You in?"
The elf nodded. "Yes."
The door on the other side of the big room flew open.
"They're in here!" yelled a voice, followed by the pounding of many footsteps.
Joe, who could see over the cubicles, whispered into his comm unit, "Security! Looks like about eight of `em. Get down!"
Quickly, the runners ducked behind cover, drawing weapons and watching around the corners of the cubicles. As the security guards, dressed in armored uniforms and helmets and carrying SMGs, rounded the corner, Joe and `Wraith took aim: the former with his HMG, the latter with his Ingram. `Wraith took down the first two guards in the line at sizzling speed, while Joe got the next two. Kestrel managed to wing a fifth with her SMG before they dived around more of the cubicles and couldn't be seen.
"Looks like four more left," Winterhawk reported.
"Let's get `em before they call for reinforcements," Ocelot said grimly. "They're between us and the door."
Winterhawk was casting a spell. After a moment, his quiet voice came through the commlink: "Got `em. They're moving—two are sneaking `round the corner off to our left. The other two look like they're planning to climb on the desks and fire over the tops of the cubicles. I think they're trying to surround us as best they can."
"Got it," Ocelot said.
Kestrel moved to cover the new position, along with `Wraith. Joe kept his machine gun trained on the original spot. Ocelot, monowhip in hand, began creeping with his back to the cubicles over toward where the guards had ducked before.
From his relatively secure spot behind some more cubes, Winterhawk continued reporting the results of his clairvoyance spell. "Looks like they're getting ready to move. They're conferring now...All right—here they go."
Almost simultaneously, the two groups of guards popped out from behind their cover, thinking they had surprise on their side. They didn't have a chance. `Wraith and Kestrel picked off the two that had come around the flank, while Joe made short work of one of the others. The other one, seeing that his unit had been destroyed, attempted to make a run for it, only to get tagged by Ocelot's monowhip.
"Come on," Joe said. "Let's get out." He started heading over toward the door.
"Let's check these bodies quickly," Kestrel said. "They might have a way to get into the elevator."
"Don't want to take the elevator," Ocelot spoke up. "Without Gabriel, we are sitting ducks in there."
"We might need to get into it," Kestrel argued, already at the two bodies she and `Wraith had taken down. After a moment the elf joined her. "Come on—it'll only take a minute, and it might come in handy later."
Reluctantly Ocelot had to admit she was right. Together the five runners checked the guards and grabbed anything that looked like a cardkey or other access device. Each of the guards had one, but the one guard who was dressed somewhat differently than the others also had a cardkey that looked different. As they searched, shoving things into their pockets as they found them, Joe acted mostly as lookout, keeping an eye on the door. The search was completed in less than a minute.
There was no one waiting for them outside the door to the cubicle-filled room; all they saw when they poked their heads carefully out was a long, bare hallway lined with doors. "Wish we had a map of this place," Joe said.
"I wonder what floor we're on," Kestrel added, looking around. "The doors don't have numbers."
"About the twentieth," `Wraith said.
Winterhawk nodded. "Looked like the hole Joe made was about halfway down. We've got a long way to go."
"Think the guards know anything about what's going on upstairs?" Ocelot asked.
Winterhawk shrugged. "I'd say no, but that's with no information. What I wonder is if Stefan's told them where we're trying to go."
"Come on," Kestrel said urgently. "If we're not taking the elevator, then let's find the stairs. Standing around talking isn't getting us up there." She seemed much more agitated than usual: this was not her normal, calmly planned and executed run.
"Shall I risk another clairvoyance spell to try to find the stairs?" Winterhawk asked the group at large.
"How long?" `Wraith asked.
"Minute, perhaps, or two. I won't take more time than that."
"Yeah," Ocelot said. "It'll help in the long run. Let's get set up first, though."
They ducked back inside the room they had just left, directly inside the door where they could watch both ways down the hall. Ocelot and Kestrel stationed themselves as lookouts for the hallway, while `Wraith and Joe positioned themselves so they could keep an eye on the room itself. Winterhawk leaned against the wall and cast his spell again.
It took him considerably less time than two minutes to find the entrance to the stairs. "Got `em," he said triumphantly after only about thirty seconds. "Just down this hallway and to the left. That's where the elevators are for this floor, too." He paused. "Wait a minute. They know we're coming. They're waiting for us."
"How many?" Ocelot demanded.
"Five...no. Six. It's a bit dark, so it's hard to tell for sure. They're waiting `round the corner past the elevators. I think they expect to ambush us."
"Surprise," `Wraith said.
Winterhawk smiled evilly, but nobody could see it behind his helmet's faceshield. "Yes, I think we can provide quite a surprise for them."
The guards were being a bit more careful this time, apparently having taken something from the fact that any threat that could dispatch an eight-man team without allowing them to take a single shot was something to be treated with respect. As Kestrel carefully poked her head around the corner to scan the area near the elevators, she saw nothing. Leaning back in, she whispered, "They're hiding." She glanced at Winterhawk. "Can you see them?"
The mage closed his eyes briefly, concentrating on the unseen enemy. "Just `round the corner. Three on each side. I think they're waiting for one of us to be imprudent enough to venture out."
Joe pulled his grenade launcher off his belt. "I got one side."
"Other," `Wraith said, checking to see what he had loaded and then taking aim.
Simultaneously, the two leaned out from behind cover, Joe high and `Wraith low, each firing a tiny grenade down the hallway. The placement was perfect: the grenades landed less than ten centimeters from the point of the corners and just past them, exploding with great booms that took out part of the corners themselves. "Go!" Kestrel whispered harshly into the commlink, launching herself across the hallway toward the stairway door. She flung it wide and disappeared inside, using one arm to hold it open to allow easy entry.
The other runners were quick to follow, with Joe bringing up the rear to provide covering fire. One of the guards, apparently having been mostly shielded from the blast by his teammates, made one desperate attempt to fire on the runners, but his rounds plinked harmlessly off Joe's armor. The troll crossed the rest of the short expanse and disappeared behind the slamming door. The guard decided to tend to his fallen fellows rather than play the hero and follow the team to certain death.
Inside, the door closed behind the runners. They looked around, quickly taking in their surroundings. The metal stairway stretched as high and as low as they could see, bending back and forth to snake up the building. On the inside of the door was stenciled a large 24 in institutional black text. "We're up higher than we thought," Ocelot said. "Still a long way to go, though."
"Let's get going," Kestrel said. "Keep an eye on those doors." She started moving, taking the stairs two at a time.
Ocelot looked up, wishing there was an open space between the winding flights so they could grapple-gun their way up. No point in wishing, though: even if there was, it wouldn't be big enough for Joe, which meant that they would still have to wait for the troll. Joe was a tank, but he was the slowest member of the party—although he had boosted reflexes, he couldn't match `Wraith's and Ocelot's blinding speed, nor Winterhawk's levitation-based movement. Especially not when he was carrying all the hardware he had, including the gyro-mount. They were just going to have to do it the hard way.
No more security guards came through the emergency doors as they worked their way upward as quickly as they could. By the time they got near the top, they had spread themselves out: Kestrel and Ocelot were about a floor ahead of `Wraith and Winterhawk, while Joe lagged a couple of floors below that. They were always careful to stay close enough to each other that if a threat should burst in through one of the doors they could all deal with it, but Ocelot gave up trying to slow Kestrel down about floor 30. She was determined to reach Gabriel, and nothing short of restraining her was going to stop her.
The last door at the top of the stairway read 39.
Kestrel and Ocelot skidded to a stop in front of the door. "39!" Kestrel snapped in frustration. "Where's 40?"
"Elevator?" `Wraith asked, casting glances downward. He was still expecting more squadrons of security guards to disgorge from the lower doors at any moment, and was determined not to be taken by surprise.
"You think one of those cardkeys'll get us up to the big boss?" Joe asked.
Ocelot grabbed the door handle. "We got another choice?"
"Wait," `Wraith said. He looked at Winterhawk. "Check?"
"Right." Once more, Winterhawk cast his clairvoyance spell. "Looks clear," he reported. "Odd, though—I can't see anything above us. The whole thing must be completely shielded."
"That's not too surprising," Kestrel said. "He is a dragon, after all. Doesn't want people snooping in his business. Besides, I thought I saw the whole place change right before I went up through that skylight."
"So did I," Joe spoke up. "I thought I was just seeing things."
Ocelot, who had been so busy trying to twist into an upright position in the elemental's grasp that he hadn't seen much of anything, turned back. "What did it change to?"
"It got a lot bigger," Joe said. "Like the office wasn't there anymore. It was just a giant open space."
Kestrel nodded. "That's what I saw too. Didn't get a good look at it, though."
"Interesting..." Winterhawk said. He hadn't seen anything either. He looked up. "I wonder..." he mused speculatively. Before his friends could ask him if he'd gone crazy, he activated his levitation spell lock and zipped upward.
"`Hawk, what are you—?" Ocelot started to demand, but shut up fast when half of Winterhawk's body disappeared, apparently up through the concrete ceiling above the landing.
`Wraith caught on first. "Illusion," he said with a raised eyebrow. It now looked like `Hawk was embedded in the ceiling, with only his legs hanging down. The effect was extremely unsettling.
Winterhawk popped back out of the ceiling, shoving the visor of his helmet up. Beneath it, he looked satisfied. "Crafty bugger, that Stefan. There are more stairs up there. To the fortieth floor, I'll wager."
"Can you blow away the illusion?" Ocelot said, concentrating upward. "I still don't see a damn thing but ceiling."
"I do," `Wraith said, squinting at it intently. "Faint, though."
"I don't think I've a chance of breaking the illusion," Winterhawk said ruefully. "Just look hard at it, especially `round the edges. Once you see through it, you won't need to do it again."
Ocelot, Joe, and Kestrel began focusing intently above their heads, as Winterhawk stood back with `Wraith and offered occasional encouragement and suggestions. It took awhile, but eventually all three of them spotted the faint outlines of stairs continuing upward through the concrete. Joe, who had been pressing his hand up against it, suddenly found himself able to push through as if it were not there. "That's a damn good illusion," he said, eyes wide.
"Yeah, well, consider the source," Kestrel said. "Come on. We're almost there." She had been fidgeting ever since she had spotted the stairs, and now without waiting for an answer she started up.
Once they got up through the illusion, it disappeared completely, revealing the lower flights of stairs disappearing down into the shadows below. "Makes sense," Winterhawk muttered from his position fourth back in the line, right in front of Joe. "He doesn't need to see his own illusion."
Up above, at the top of the final flight of stairs, was a door marked 40—Authorized Personnel Only. "That'd be us," Ocelot said, one hand on the doorknob while drawing his spear with the other. "Ready?"
`Wraith's practiced gaze swept over the door, looking for hidden traps or alarms. He found none. Sliding the Barret down off his shoulder, he nodded.
Joe adjusted his machine gun and made sure his other equipment was in position. Taking a deep breath, he said, "Yeah. Ready."
Kestrel readied her LMG and adjusted her bow on her back. "Let's go."
Winterhawk loosened his mageblade in its scabbard and slid his arm through his shield. After a quick check of his magical paraphernalia, he too nodded.
Ocelot swung the door open.