Ocelot crouched on the edge of the skylight, reeling in his grapple gun. One arm was gripped tightly around `Wraith, while the other held the gun. He remained on the roof using only his finely-honed sense of balance. When Winterhawk floated up, riding on Joe's shoulders in an odd imitation of a piggy-back ride, Ocelot snapped, "Hurry up. This whole thing's goin' down any minute."
`Hawk nodded. Patting Joe's shoulder, he rasped, "Stay alive, my friend, or we're both buggered," and continued through. The spell lock, Ocelot knew, held the spell for levitating people. If Joe were to die en route, he ceased being a person and started being an object, meaning that both he and `Hawk would plummet to their deaths. `Hawk had a chance of getting his own spell up, of course, but the way the mage looked, Ocelot was afraid he wouldn't have the mental capacity to do it. Right now by even remaining conscious he was showing the strength of will that made him such a good mage, but it wouldn't hold out forever.
The wind was whipping up here, trying its best to blow Ocelot back down through the skylight. There was another explosion, louder this time, and the tower swayed again. A section of the roof only a few meters away broke free and crashed to the floor far below. "Go!" he yelled, leaping from his crouch and aiming the grapple gun. The building next door was almost the same height as this one; his only chance was to catch the lip of that building's roof and then swing down. It was going to hurt. If he didn't do it right, the impact might even kill him, or at least cause him to drop `Wraith. But in a situation like this, he didn't have another choice. He either took the option that would probably get him killed but had a slim chance of success, or he stayed here in the doomed building and died.
With odds like that, the choice was clear.
Another loud boom followed by another, and suddenly the entire tower dropped a few centimeters. "Shit!" he yelled as he started to lose his balance. Teetering alarmingly to the side, balanced precariously on one foot, he fired the grapple gun at the next building, took a mighty leap, and prayed.
Next to him, `Hawk and Joe sailed up and out.
Ocelot was falling. It was a good thing he still had his helmet on: if nothing else, it was protecting him from the swirling winds that snapped at his clothing and tried to tear `Wraith from his grasp. Grimly, he shifted the elf's weight so he could wrap his arm around him, grabbing the grapple gun with both hands. If the hook had actually managed to connect to something up there, he was going to have to time this perfectly, paying out the line to take up the momentum of his fall. If he got it wrong, the force of the stop when he reached the end of the line would rip his arms out of their sockets. All this he had to worry about while simultaneously doing his best not to splatter into the side of the next-door building. He fixed his gaze upward, trying to determine if the hook had found its mark. In the darkness and the wind, he lost sight of Winterhawk and Joe; behind him the explosions were occurring with greater frequency, joined now by loud and ominous rumbling sounds. If there had been any doubt in his mind that the building was going to go down, it was gone now. Driving all thoughts of Kestrel from his mind, he focused on the grapple hook. Everything was up to chance and his aim now. The next couple of seconds would determine if he lived or died.
High above, the hook settled over the top of the building's roof.
The line began to pull taut.
Desperately, Ocelot tried to shuffle `Wraith, the grapple gun, and his own balance, adjusting the powerful motor to pay out the line quickly at first, and then more slowly. The gray face of the building rushed up to meet him. Too fast. It was coming up too fast! He'd never be able to take that impact. It was as if he was running at top speed toward the side of a bus.
Clamping his teeth together and tightening his grip on `Wraith, he gathered himself, twisting his body around, using every ounce of his vaunted speed and athletics skill to get into the right position. The only problem was, there wasn't any right position. All he could do was try to injure himself as little as possible, and keep hold of `Wraith. Those were the only goals now.
The building rushed forward—
At the last minute before impact, Ocelot spun himself sideways, holding `Wraith's body on the side away from the building. Sticking his near foot out, he tried to strike a glancing blow with it, slowing his fall enough that he could get his shoulder around and take up most of the impact there, where he was armored.
His foot hit first, sending shooting sparks of pain exploding up his leg in great red waves. Then his shoulder hit, just as he'd been planning. The armor took up some of the shock, but he never would have known it based on how much it hurt. He clamped his teeth together more tightly to avoid crying out, and cinched up his grip on `Wraith even harder. He was probably breaking the elf's ribs, but right now that thought didn't even enter his mind. Living was the priority. Feeling good was a luxury they couldn't afford right at this moment.
He bounced out and hit the building again, this time much more gently, and finally swung to a halt. Only then did he venture to examine his surroundings, trying not to think about the pains in his foot, his shoulder, and his arm that were all fighting for his attention.
Hanging about three-quarters of the way down the Messina Tower's dumpy gray neighbor, he and `Wraith swung crazily back and forth, swept by the winds. The rumbling behind them was getting louder by the minute.
Ocelot risked a glance at the tower and gasped at what he saw. The whole thing looked like it was slowly dropping down on itself. Already a cloud of dust and debris was beginning to form around the bottom of the tower. "Shit," he whispered to himself. "We're not out of this yet." Paying out the line and forcing his injured foot to take up some of the work of getting him down the building, Ocelot rappelled toward the ground at far higher speed than was prudent. That building wasn't going to last much longer, and if he didn't get his ass out of there before it went the rest of the way, all that effort would be for nothing. "`Hawk," he said, "I don't know if you can hear me, but if you can, let's meet up around the south side of the tower to the left of the entrance we went in. Got that? South side. Left tower." He repeated it one more time, even though he got no answer. He couldn't see Winterhawk anywhere.
When he finally reached the ground, it was with a jarring crash that sent more waves of agony up his injured leg. The rumbling was deafening. It sounded like a massive earthquake was hitting downtown Seattle. Although they didn't quite register on Ocelot's battered mind, security alarms were going off everywhere—vehicles, other buildings, anything that could be triggered by motion. People were beginning to run out into the streets from nearby restaurants and nightclubs, drawn by fear and fascination. Ocelot didn't even notice them. Shifting `Wraith to a fireman's carry, he took off at a full run toward the rendezvous point. His foot burned, but he didn't allow it to slow him down.
Rounding the corner, he saw more people running in the streets. There was a small grass courtyard in front of the gray building; he set `Wraith down there behind a wall and turned to watch, his eyes pulled irresistibly up to the death of the black glass tower. All around now, pieces of the Messina building were plummeting earthward, crashing into the streets below, destroying sidewalks, streetlights, vehicles. One piece of armored glass at least two meters long flung down nearly intact, impaling a nightclub-goer who had gotten too close in her curiosity. Her scream echoed through the street and then was abruptly silenced. Other screams joined hers as pieces of concrete flattened passing vehicles and panicked pedestrians.
Still Ocelot watched. Once, a long time ago, he had been bored enough to watch a trideo documentary about a company that specialized in safe, clean demolitions—the kind that could drop a forty-story building down into its own footprint without even breaking a window in the adjacent structures. He had observed with some fascination how they had carefully placed their charges, wrapping support columns to prevent flying debris and even more carefully timing the detonations to take the building down in precisely the way in which they planned. The whole thing was orchestrated by a combination of exact computer calculations and the engineering knowledge and experience of the people who ran the show. It had been eerie watching the old footage of some of the demolitions from the previous century, where venerable old buildings were folded away as neatly as collapsible drinking cups.
Watching the Messina Tower come down was like watching an obscene parody of that process. It was almost as if whomever had set the charges had intended a similar effect, but had been indifferent to the possibility that the destruction might cause damage to other buildings, streets, vehicles, and people. The Messina structure started out by dropping down neatly on itself as the structures in the trideo had, but as Ocelot watched from his vantage point around the corner, the explosions became more haphazard, causing the whole tower to tip. The lower floors had already sandwiched themselves together as the explosives blew out their supports and the massive weight of the ones above came down on them; now the upper floors leaned crazily to the right, the screams of protesting steel beams adding their voices to the horrific cacophony. On the ground, the debris continued to rain down, the displaced air from the collapse of the lower floors blowing out windows in surrounding buildings for several blocks' radius. More people, panicking, ran from the buildings out into the street, where they succumbed to mob mentality and scurried around like mindless insects in random directions. Ocelot winced as many of them were killed by falling chunks of concrete and by vehicles driven by still other hysterical people.
The whole process did not take long, although it had that weird stretched-out feeling that allowed witnesses to later report step by step the actions that had occurred. The top part of the tower, unable to remain upright as it overbalanced, broke off from the main building and slammed into its neighbor on the other side, tearing a huge chunk out of the side of it and then coming to rest with a tremendous crash at the bottom. The remaining few floors of the tower remained upright but with wicked-looking jagged and broken edges at the top like the teeth of some enormous beast. Everywhere there was dust, obscuring the sky, the clouds, the remaining streetlights. The screams were all around, mixing with the alarms.
Ocelot closed his eyes briefly, trying not to imagine Kestrel's screams added to all the others as she died, trying not to wonder if they would find her body, its arms still locked around the neck of the dead dragon, when they searched through the rubble. He shook his head violently, driving the thought away. There was no time for that now. He had `Wraith to deal with.
Assuming that the elf was still alive.
Staggering over, ignoring his chaotic surroundings, Ocelot fell to his knees next to `Wraith and pulled off first the elf's helmet and then his own, and checked for a pulse. As `Wraith had been taken down by a spell, there was very little blood, except for a small trickle from his nose. His carefully applied makeup, which he used to hide from the world the fact that he was an albino, was streaked and running, creating a disquieting striped effect on his face. His skin was cold and clammy, but his pulse was still there. Weak and thready, but there. His breathing was shallow and labored. "Okay," Ocelot whispered to himself. "What now?" Think. You're all he's got now. They're never going to get to us in time with medical attention—not with all these other injured people around. Rummaging around in his jacket pockets, he came up with the handful of slap patches that he always carried. He fumbled through them, tossing aside the ones he didn't want, until he came to the trauma patches. He had two of them. Gently laying `Wraith down in the grass, he yanked open the elf's jacket and applied a patch to his chest beneath his T-shirt. Taking a deep breath, he settled back on his haunches. "That's all I can do for you right now," he said ruefully.
He looked around the area; it was hard to see with all the swirling dust. Where was Winterhawk? Had he and Joe made it down? Had they been hit by falling debris, or had `Hawk's will finally given out halfway to the ground? He wanted to go look for them, but he didn't want to leave `Wraith. Once more, half-heartedly, he activated his commlink. "`Hawk? Are you out there?"
To his shock, a weak and exhausted voice answered his call. "Still—alive," it reported. "Coming—"
Ocelot jumped up, favoring his injured foot. It was really starting to throb now. He looked around again. "Where are you?"
"Not—sure, exactly. So much—dust—" He coughed and then was silent.
"`Hawk?" Ocelot's voice took on the edges of desperation. A pause. "`Hawk! Come on, buddy—answer me!"
"—sorry—" The mage spoke between deep breaths and bouts of coughing. "Came down—near—rendezvous point—I think—" Another pause. "Coming—'round—a corner, now—"
Ocelot switched to thermographic vision and scanned both corners of the building in front of which he now stood. It wasn't great, because of all the dust from the explosion, but it was better than normal vision. The far corner was clear, but then he looked at the near one. Two figures, the smaller one holding on to the larger one's shoulders, floated into view. Ocelot grinned in spite of himself. They were alive! "Over here!" he yelled, waving his arms. He started running toward them.
Winterhawk met him halfway. The mage was still perched on Joe's huge shoulders, while the troll's unconscious body skated along about half a meter off the ground. Ocelot wasn't sure which of them looked worse. Joe's entire front was soaked with blood, his tanned skin suffused with an unhealthy gray pallor. His head lolled forward, his chin propped on his chest. Winterhawk, so pale he was almost translucent, slumped over the top of Joe's head, his arms hanging limply down over the troll's chest. He looked like he was going to pass out any second. Ocelot couldn't see Winterhawk's chest, but there was blood running down his shoulder from the gash there.
Ocelot ran over to the two of them. "Bring him over here," he said. "It's not far now. Then you can put him down."
"That—would be nice—" `Hawk said in a faint imitation of his old cynical tone. "He's—bloody—heavy."
Together, Winterhawk working from above and Ocelot from below, the two of them maneuvered Joe's body over by ShadoWraith's, laying him gently down on the grass next to the elf. "Can you heal `em?" Ocelot asked. "I've already got a trauma patch on `Wraith—"
Winterhawk nodded, dropping to the ground next to the two unconscious men. Now that he wasn't leaning against Joe, Ocelot could clearly see how much the mage was bleeding. He was surprised that `Hawk was still awake, let alone functional. "I've got it," he whispered. Immediately he crawled over to Joe, who was injured the worst of the two, and began work.
Ocelot, freed momentarily of his medical obligations, stood next to the little group and took his first look at the area. The dust was settling a bit, but not much; anything moving looked like a shadow flitting through an otherworldly realm.
Things were starting to happen now—it hadn't taken long, but then, they weren't far out of Downtown. The corps that owned these skyscrapers paid hefty sums for their security forces, and they expected to get their nuyen's worth. Just watching the vehicles going by near where he stood, Ocelot spotted representatives from Lone Star, Knight Errant, a couple of private security firms, the Seattle Underground datafax, the Intelligencer, DocWagon, and a number of other official-looking but unmarked vehicles.
Nobody paid any attention to Ocelot and the team there on their little piece of grass in front of the next-door building. There was just too much carnage and disorder for anyone to worry about a small group of people who weren't causing any trouble. The alarms from the nearby structures and vehicles were still going off, some of them beginning to wind down as their power supplies were exhausted. Bodies littered the streets, showing up as faint glows in Ocelot's thermographic vision. Those that weren't dead moaned and screamed for someone to help them; the ones who were ambulatory were assisting the ones that weren't, and the DocWagon response teams were already swooping in to pick up their clients and whisk them away from this scene of death. After a bit, the number of vehicles coming into the area began to slack off; Ocelot suspected that Lone Star had cordoned off the area to keep out the curious and the thrillseekers.
He looked over at the husk of the Messina building, its shadowy, saw-edged form sticking up out of the ground like a great broken tooth. Closing his eyes briefly, he tried again not to think about Kestrel, and, as a result, was able to think of nothing else. Again he thought about heading over to search for her body, but again he realized that it wouldn't do him any good. He'd never find her in all that rubble. He might find Gabriel, but did he want to?
Another thought flitted through his mind, setting his nerves on edge and causing him to glance fearfully up at the dust-choked sky. Where was Stefan? He'd escaped—flown away up through the skylight. But was he even now healing himself up and preparing to return? Did he think they had died in the explosion? Had he triggered the explosion with his last word before leaving?
Ocelot sighed. He'd never know the answers to those questions, so it really didn't make much sense to dwell on them. Right now, all he wanted to do was get `Wraith and Joe to the point where they weren't in danger of dying and get them all the hell out of here.
"I've stabilized them, I think," came a weak voice from behind him.
Ocelot turned; Winterhawk was slumped on his knees between Joe and ShadoWraith. "Are they gonna live?"
The mage nodded wearily. "I can't—heal them all the way—right now. But—they're out of danger." He swayed, his eyelids fluttering. His nosebleed had started up again.
Ocelot came over and grabbed his uninjured shoulder, steadying him. "Can you heal yourself now?"
"In—a moment." Winterhawk forced his eyes open and tried to get a handle on his wandering mind. "I'll just—"
A female voice. Calling him.
He shook his head vigorously. No—this wasn't happening. He couldn't be going crazy now. This was absolutely the wrong time for him to be hearing voices.
There it was again. Winterhawk looked up.
"Did you hear that?" Ocelot demanded.
The mage nodded slowly. "It—sounded like—"
"Ocelot! Where are you? It's me—Kestrel! Please! Help!" The voice was familiar, but full of panic that was almost hysteria.
"Kestrel?" Ocelot stood back up, calling out into the darkness and the dust.
"Ocelot! Help us! Please!"
He took a step forward, in the direction of the voice, and then stopped. Stared.
Two figures staggered out of the dust. As they drew closer, it became clear that one of them was half-supporting, half-carrying the other one. "Kestrel?"
"Please—" Kestrel took a couple more unsteady steps forward. Ocelot's eyes widened and he gasped in shock as he got the whole picture.
The second figure was Gabriel. He was in human form, unconscious—or worse. Ocelot had never seen anyone with injuries like that who could still be alive. Gone was the preternaturally handsome young man they had known before—in his place was a torn and bleeding form that looked like it had been hit by a large and fast-moving vehicle. Gabriel appeared to be wearing a red suit, but Ocelot realized as he got closer that it was actually the white one he'd been wearing before, soaked through with blood. More blood poured from a deep gash in his forehead, trickled from his nose, and ran down from the corners of his mouth. Kestrel had his right arm pulled over her shoulder so she could support him; his left arm hung limply down, bent at an odd angle.
For a moment Ocelot just stood there, staring, too stunned to do anything else. The sight of Kestrel—alive— momentarily drove rational thought from his mind. "Kestrel—?"
She was scraped, grimy, and dust-covered, her jacket and pants ripped and tattered. Her blonde hair looked almost gray from dust; she'd lost her helmet somewhere. Tears streaked her face, making little light-colored tracks down her dirt-smeared cheeks. "Ocelot—please. Help him. He'll die if we don't do something soon!" She herself was barely staggering on, her legs shaking.
Her plea spurred Ocelot to action. Still favoring his injured foot, he hurried over. Privately, he was afraid that Kestrel was kidding herself, and that Gabriel was already dead. There was so much blood—worse, he had no idea what kind of injuries were hidden by the suit. More to humor her than anything else, he said, "Here—bring him over." He reached out to help, hesitating because he couldn't find a place to grab that wasn't hurt. "`Hawk?"
Winterhawk was slowly lurching to his feet, still swaying. "Here."
Incredibly, Gabriel's eyes flickered open as Ocelot took hold of him from the other side. Bloodshot and pained, they stared dully at nothing. He didn't seem to be aware of his surroundings. After a moment, his eyes closed again.
Ocelot and Kestrel laid him gently down next to Joe and `Wraith, who were both still unconscious, and then dropped down on either side of him. "`Hawk, can you do it again?" Ocelot asked urgently, slicing through Gabriel's shirt and jacket with his knife. If Winterhawk couldn't heal him, he was going to have to use the other trauma patch. Kestrel came around behind the young man, pulling his head up to cradle it in her lap. She hurried to assist Ocelot, her fear making her fingers fumble.
Winterhawk came down next to them with a thud, exhibiting none of his usual grace. "I don't know," he said grimly. "I'll do the best I can." His vision shifting, he added, "The injuries—"
Ocelot saw what he meant when he got Gabriel's shirt and jacket off. Remembering what Kestrel had said in her account of how she had first met the dragon in the cavern, he recalled what Gabriel had told her about changing to human form when he was injured. The amount of mental toughness in that fragile-looking body must have been phenomenal, because it was all that was keeping him alive. Everywhere Ocelot could see, he was slashed and torn, undoubtedly due to the glass shards that had hit him from all sides. Everything Stefan had done to him when he was in dragon form was now mirrored in miniature on his human body. In a couple of places, the tears in his chest were so bad that Ocelot could see the pale glistening forms of ribs showing through. Swallowing hard, he averted his gaze.
Kestrel turned her pleading gaze on Winterhawk. "Please try. I can't let him go now—not after he got me out of there."
"Shh..." Winterhawk whispered, already concentrating. Running his hands over the young man's body about ten centimeters above it, he began his spell.
Ocelot watched him worriedly, hoping that he didn't kill himself trying to do too much. "How did you get out?" he asked Kestrel.
She indicated Gabriel with a quick head motion without taking her eyes off his face. "Gabriel did it. It was close, though. The building was already starting to come down when I was finally able to wake him up. He flew us out of there, invisibly. I didn't think he could do it, since he was in such bad shape, but he did." She pointed to his arm. "That's how that happened. A big chunk of concrete hit him. A couple hit me too, but not nearly as bad."
Ocelot glanced down at Gabriel. "So if it's so hard for him to change when he's hurt, why didn't he stay in dragon form?"
She shook her head, gently pushing his blood-matted hair off his forehead. "He couldn't. He couldn't reveal what he was. And where could he go? Nobody else knows he's a dragon. He was dying either way, so he decided to take a chance. This way, at least, I could get him to somebody who could help." She redirected her gaze for a moment, looking at Winterhawk's drawn face, tight with the strain of casting yet another spell when he was barely conscious himself. "Is he going to be able to do it?"
"I don't know," Ocelot said honestly. "I know he'll give it his best shot, though. We just have to wait and see." For the first time in awhile, he allowed himself to take note of his surroundings again. The cops and security forces and medical personnel and reporters were still racing around doing their jobs, while the victims lay waiting for their turn at aid and the rubberneckers milled around getting in the way. Still no one paid Ocelot and the others any attention.
Kestrel didn't answer for a long time, staring down at Gabriel with her hands gently cradling his face. When she looked up, her eyes were troubled. "I had to stay," she said, almost reluctantly.
"I know you did."
She dropped her gaze again. "I love him."
He nodded. "I know that too."
"You do?" Her tone was surprised.
"Sure. It's okay."
Again she looked up. "It doesn't change anything?"
He paused. "I don't know. Maybe it does. But I don't think so." Shifting position a bit to get more comfortable on his throbbing foot, he shrugged. "Got time to find out."
"Yeah," she whispered, and returned her attention to Gabriel.
Winterhawk looked up, blinking as he tried to focus. "There," he said with no power behind his voice. "It—isn't much—but I can't—do any more." He paused, his complexion graying. "I can't—"
Ocelot caught him as he toppled over.
Kestrel was watching Gabriel for any sign that Winterhawk's healing had done any good. He didn't look any better, but there were so many wounds it was hard to tell which ones the mage had healed. Her eyes widened as his slowly opened. "Gabriel? Can you hear me?"
The bloody figure nodded once. The purple gaze, still dull but stronger than it had been before, fixed on her face. He smiled; it turned into a wince halfway through, but the thought was there.
Ocelot turned back around from where he had been checking Winterhawk for a pulse to see Kestrel on her knees, Gabriel's head still in her lap. She held his right hand in both of hers, looking down into his eyes. She was at that moment oblivious to everything else around her.
Ocelot watched them for a moment. He surveyed the immediate area, looking at each of his unconscious teammates in turn. He thought about saying something, then decided against it. Instead, he did the only thing it made sense to do.
He called Harry.
This time he left the video on. When the fixer answered the phone, Ocelot spoke before Harry got a chance to say anything. "Harry, you're not going to believe what I need right now..."