For a moment the runners remained where they were, stunned and overwhelmed by what had just occurred. The vast room, suddenly, was silent save for the harsh breathing of the remaining conscious team members and the whistling of the wind high above.
Ocelot recovered first, leaping to his feet now that the floor had stopped moving. "Answer!" he shouted into his mike, his voice pitched a little too high and bordering on panic. "Who's still up?"
Kestrel pulled herself up. "Here," she said, slinging her bow on her back.
Across the room, Winterhawk struggled to his hands and knees. "Still—with us," he gasped. Blood was dripping from his chest and pooling up beneath him.
Ocelot ran over to help Winterhawk up while Kestrel took off in the opposite direction. Near the massive support column Joe and ShadoWraith lay in two heaps. Not far away, Gabriel's still and bleeding body took up the better part of that end of the room.
Quickly, Kestrel checked the elf and the troll, fully expecting to find two dead bodies. What she did find surprised her. "Ocelot! They're still alive!" Without waiting for an answer, she raised up and took off over to check on Gabriel, hoping desperately that if those two could manage to still be alive, he could too.
Ocelot got an arm around Winterhawk and hauled him to his feet. "You gonna be okay?"
The mage nodded wearily. "Looks like—I've got a lot of—healing to do," he said. The blood flow from his nose and ears, the by-product of the feedback when his protective barrier around Gabriel had been blown down, had almost stopped now but the gash on his chest looked nasty.
"`Fraid so," Ocelot said. "We'll just—"
Far below them, there was a sound. A far-off boom.
"What the hell was that?" Ocelot demanded, looking around.
The floor shook, ever so slightly.
"Is he coming back?" Winterhawk muttered, looking up.
Kestrel glanced up quickly from her position next to Gabriel's head. "Oh—no—" she said slowly.
"What?" Ocelot demanded, stepping up his pace. Winterhawk winced, but didn't complain.
Another far-off boom, this one from a subtly different location. Again, the floor shook.
"I've heard that sound before," Kestrel said sharply, standing up.
"Well, then, what is it?" Ocelot wasn't in any mood to play guessing games right now.
Kestrel didn't look like she was playing a guessing game, though. She pulled off her helmet, and he saw that her eyes were full of fear. "Explosives."
Ocelot stopped, eyes widening. "What?"
Another boom. The floor shook a little more energetically this time. A couple of stray shards of glass fell down from the skylight and landed with small crashes.
"I think," Winterhawk said softly, "she's trying to tell us that we'd best get out of here quickly."
"It sounds like they're down a long way," Kestrel said, her tone grim. "Maybe he had an escape clause—you know, get out and then take down the building with us in it. He could have planted charges in the basement."
"Why?" Ocelot demanded, then shook his head. There was no point in trying to speculate about why dragons did what they did. They were all insane. "Never mind. I don't care. You're right—we need to get the hell out." Propping Winterhawk up against the support column, he surveyed the unconscious Joe and `Wraith. "How long do you think we have?"
"No more than a couple of minutes, from the sound and the timing of those explosions," Kestrel said. Another boom punctuated her words, bringing down another small section of the broken skylight glass.
Ocelot's gaze swept over the team again. His nervousness was stepping up in earnest now. "Okay," he said, a bit too fast. "`Hawk, can you get Joe with your levitation spell? And Kestrel, if you could—"
Kestrel shook her head. "I'm not going, Ocelot."
There was another boom. This one was just a bit louder. The whole structure shook this time.
Ocelot was over next to her in two swift steps. "What do you mean, you're not going?" he snapped. Another piece of ceiling crashed down. He reached out to grab her arm.
She snatched it away, shaking her head. "No, Ocelot. I can't. I won't leave Gabriel."
Ocelot looked down at the unmoving dragon. His golden body was hacked and bloody, his eyes tightly closed. Blood pooled beneath his head, seeping from between his red-stained teeth. "Is he—?"
Her expression was serious. "He's alive. I don't know how much longer, but I won't leave him."
"Kestrel—" His head swiveled around and up as another explosion rocked the tower, and his voice gained volume with his desperation. "You can't just stay here and die! He wouldn't want you to do that. Come on with us, and get out, before—" Again, he reached out for her arm. If he had to, he was going to drag her along with them.
She glared at him. "Ocelot. No. You need to get out. You owe it to your friends to get them out of here before this building goes down." Her eyes were hard as two green stones. "It's not your choice, Ocelot. I have my choice to make, and I've made it. I'm staying here. If he's going to die, I'm not going to leave him here to die alone. If you try to force me to go with you, I'll fight you. None of us will make it. Now go. Get them out of here." More softly, she added, "I'll get out if I can. If I can wake him up, we'll both get out. But if we go, we're going together."
Ocelot paused, looking at her, trying desperately to come up with an argument that would sway her. Problem was, she was right. He knew it. He didn't like it, but he knew it. A vision flashed through his mind, an echo of his own voice, back in Gabriel's penthouse, telling the dragon that coming along was their choice to make. This was no different. If he forced Kestrel to go with him now, not only would he probably lose at least one of the team, but he'd also lose everything he'd built with Kestrel. It was a no-win situation. And the worst part about it was that she was right. He closed his eyes, nodded slowly. "Yeah. Okay." Taking a deep breath, he reached out and gripped her shoulder briefly. Unable to think of anything to say that wouldn't sound hopelessly maudlin, he turned swiftly and stalked back over to where Winterhawk was pulling himself to his feet.
He turned back toward her, but said nothing.
"I'm sorry," she said. Her eyes were on him, while her hand rested protectively on Gabriel's neck. The building rumbled again, swaying a bit from side to side. On the far end of the room, one of the armored windows blew out and splintered, crashing outward.
He nodded. "Yeah. Me too."
Winterhawk was propelling himself by sheer effort of will, his face as white as a sheet against his dark hair. He reached Joe. The troll was still bleeding hard, his armor in shreds. "We'd best go," he said somewhat reluctantly, with a glance toward Kestrel and Gabriel.
Ocelot sighed, bending down to heft `Wraith's unconscious form over his shoulder. The tower was swaying almost constantly now. Drawing his grapple gun, he tightened his grip on the elf and shot the line upward, catching it on the edge of the skylight. He didn't look back as he switched on the motor and the line rewound, pulling him upward.
Winterhawk quickly attached his levitation spell lock to Joe, deciding that it would be easier to use the big troll's body as a platform for him to hold on to than it would be for him to attempt, with his minimal and fading strength, to keep a grip on the nearly three-hundred-kilo body. A sense of urgency drove him, but the blood loss and the spell feedback were disrupting his normally sharp thought processes. Pulling Joe's grapple gun from his coat, Winterhawk stowed it in the waistband of his jeans in case the spell failed, and then activated the spell lock as he climbed on Joe's shoulders and held on. As the two of them rose, he turned back to Kestrel. She was ignoring him now, desperately trying to rouse the unconscious dragon. All around him, pieces of the ceiling and the walls were starting to come down, and the building was definitely beginning to lean to one side.
Raising his hand to his forehead, he made a weak salute and smiled faintly down at them, and then he was gone, following Ocelot up through the disintegrating ceiling.