ShadoWraith had not gone home immediately after leaving the party. Instead, he had chosen a long and circuitous route for his walk through the dark damp streets of downtown, one that would give him plenty of time to think and to mull over the disquieting events of the evening.
By the time he arrived back at his apartment, which was only five minutes' walk from Winterhawk's, he wasn't any closer to an answer than he had been when he had started. `Wraith liked it when things made sense. Unlike some of his more volatile teammates, who sometimes seemed as if they thrived on chaos and uncertainty, the elf was most comfortable when all his ducks were, metaphorically speaking, in a row. The party this evening had presented him with one very odd duck who was nowhere near the row; in fact, duckwise, Gabriel the fixer was hovering somewhere in the next county.
It was in `Wraith's nature, when confronted with a problem, to try to solve it quickly, to fit it into his worldview somewhere where it made sense. At that point, he could relegate it to "not worthy of my attention" status, or, at the very least, "keep an eye on it but it's probably nothing to worry about" status. As someone who rarely missed anything going on around him, ShadoWraith prided himself on being able to do this with his usual calm efficiency. The fact that this problem seemed to be defying explanation disturbed him.
He didn't completely accept Ocelot's and Joe's suggestion that Gabriel was getting information from someone else. He didn't think Winterhawk had, either. The two of them tended to be the "conspiracy theorists" of the team, both of them having a habit of looking at the fantastic or supernatural explanation for a problem (particularly one of this nature) if a reasonably cut-and-dried mundane answer didn't present itself. Joe and Ocelot, on the contrary, tended to be more down-to-earth and pragmatic, leaning toward the mundane solution unless the arcane one was staring them in the face. `Wraith didn't have a great deal of knowledge of things magical, and things he didn't know about made him paranoid. It was one of the very few things about which he was not pragmatic.
Actually—almost everything made him paranoid. But magical things were high up on the list.
Higher still was anything connected with the bizarre run they had completed two years ago, a run that had involved a clown-faced elven being named Harlequin, a series of increasingly unearthly magical locations, and the fate (or so they were led to believe) of the Sixth World as they knew it. The fact that Gabriel, a mystery man whose ability to hide his identity was so good that even Harry couldn't find out anything about him, was casually dropping references to something that had happened during that run was eating at `Wraith. More, probably, than any of his three teammates, he had to know how that was accomplished. If Gabriel was getting information from someone else, `Wraith wanted to know from whom he was getting it, why, and what he planned to do with it. If he was not getting it from someone else, then `Wraith wanted to know how he had found out about it, and again what he planned to do with it. The thought of someone, especially someone that odd, having information about him bothered the elf. After all, if he had something that personal, then what else might he have that he hadn't mentioned yet?
Ocelot, apparently, had an unexpected connection to Gabriel, through his assistant, Kestrel. Although it had been many years (with the single exception of Desire) since `Wraith had allowed himself to experience any romantic feelings, he nonetheless recognized them readily when they manifested themselves in other people, especially people close to him. There was no question about the fact that Kestrel and Ocelot had known each other prior to the party, and that they were involved in a relationship. It was also obvious (at least to `Wraith, who made a point of observing such things and filing the information away for later use) that Ocelot had been as surprised as the rest of the team when Kestrel had shown up at their table with the striking young man. There were a fair number of things going on in the situation, and `Wraith wanted to know most of them. He was patient, though. He had time. Tomorrow, he would ask Ocelot if he had found out anything else, and then he would go on from there. There was nothing more to be gained by thinking about it tonight.
He arrived home, pausing as he always did to examine the lock on his door for any signs of tampering before entering his apartment. "Home" in his case was a converted warehouse, reachable by a freight elevator. Systematically making his way through the darkened, nearly empty space, he switched on a light and proceeded to check all the traps he had left for any unsuspecting would-be housebreakers. Everything appeared fine; of course, if anyone had tried to break in, he would likely have found their dead body or bodies laid out on the floor. ShadoWraith's booby traps were not of the humane variety. But the windows were still closed, their shutters welded together, and the lock on the gun safe was still secure and untouched. His Yamaha Rapier, which he parked in the apartment when he wasn't using it, was still where he had left it and also appeared untouched. It wasn't that `Wraith expected anyone to have entered his apartment; he was simply prepared to notice such an intrusion should one occur.
Although it was late, `Wraith was not tired. His mind was far too active right now to allow him to sleep. Instead, he opened his gun safe (using chemsuit gloves to open the poison-covered lock), removed several of his guns, and sat down in one of his two chairs with these and his gun-cleaning supplies arrayed before him on a cloth. Working quickly and efficiently, he began stripping and cleaning each gun, meticulously laboring over each component and then reassembling the gun before moving on to the next one. The guns didn't need cleaning; `Wraith's firearms were more carefully tended than were many people's children, but the activity afforded him something to do with his restless hands while his equally restless mind wrestled with its problem.
He didn't really pay attention to how long he sat there, cleaning one gun after another until all of them were laid out in front of him, spotless and well-oiled. He leaned forward, preparing to get up and carefully transfer each weapon to its place in the locker.
Suddenly, he was tired. The feeling washed over him abruptly, a wave of fatigue that caused his eyelids to grow heavy and his head to nod. Sitting back in the chair, he told himself that he would just remain here for a moment until the feeling passed, and then he would—
It was dark, and he was running for his life.
His footfalls splashed on the wet streets, his strides propelling him farther away from the white figures who relentlessly pursued him. From somewhere behind him, he heard their cries, strident and mocking. Around him, buildings rose on both sides like a dark canyon, funneling him toward—what?
Dimly, he became aware that there were others with him. They were running too, their breath coming in short sharp gasps as they struggled to keep up with him. He slowed down a bit, reluctant to lose them, convinced somehow that he was responsible for them. But the white figures were gaining, and the others were losing the race. One by one, they dropped back. He tried not to listen to their screams as the white-robed ones fell upon them and tore them apart. He tried not to think about the agony they were suffering. He could do nothing for them now—he had to escape, or the same fate would befall him as well. He pictured the leering, white-hooded figures and made his hatred for them a focus for his will to keep going.
The scene was changing now. The black, canyon-like figures of the buildings were giving way to smaller, squatter buildings, ramshackle places sprayed with a riot of glowing graffiti. He kept running, afraid to look back, afraid that if he did, it would give the pursuers a chance to catch up. He couldn't let them catch him. He couldn't—
Another figure, approaching from his left. A lone figure, running as he was, pursued as he was. Another knot of white-robed, pointed-hooded figures, waving clubs and baseball bats and flaming sticks. Calling. Yelling obscenities. Howling like rabid animals.
The figure grew closer, and suddenly recognition dawned. He nearly stopped, but remembered at the last moment that stopping was not an option. Instead, he matched pace with the figure, appalled at how thin and battered and terrified he looked. "Help me..." the figure pleaded. His voice was ragged as if he had been screaming. "Help me..."
"Father, I—" His own voice sounded ragged too.
But it wasn't his father. Not quite. The features were similar, but his father had been human. This man had the angular features and pointed ears of an elf. And his father was dead. How—?
"Help me..." The man's voice was growing weaker now, and his pace was slowing. Sweat stood out in beads on his forehead and ran in rivulets down his face. Sweat mingled with blood.
The white-robed figures were growing ever closer, but still their cries and screams were indistinct, unintelligible. There were no individuals there, only a mob. The two groups who had been pursuing them had melded seamlessly into a single larger group that seemed to take power from its augmented numbers.
Wordlessly, he grabbed his father's arm and increased his speed, dragging the man along with him. He knew the pain he must be causing, but pain was preferable to death. They couldn't keep running forever. They had to find a place to hide.
His father tripped, wrenching loose from his grasp and going sprawling down to the wet pavement with a cry of terror and anguish.
For a moment, he hesitated. The figures were coming closer. They were approaching from all sides now. He had to run. He had to get away. He had to—
He turned back to grab his father's arm and pull him back up.
That was all the white-hooded figures needed. They swarmed around the two of them like insects, their bodies hidden beneath the flowing robes, their faces behind the pointed hoods. They closed in around them, their voices becoming a single discordant hum, surrounding them from all sides. There was no escape now.
They raised their burning brands—
His father screamed—
ShadoWraith's eyes flew open and he flung himself upright. For a moment, terror gripped him as he fought the vivid images of the dream. His breath came quick and shallow, his body bathed in sweat and shivering in the chill air of the room. Quickly, his gaze darted around, taking in his surroundings.
The room was the same as he had left it. The guns were still spread out on their cloth in front of the chair; the gun safe was still closed but not locked; the shutters and the door were still tightly closed. There was no sound save for the rattling of his breath in the back of his throat.
With agonizing slowness he got himself under control, using meditation techniques to quiet his breathing and calm his racing heart. When he got to the point where he thought he could rise, he did so and methodically returned all the weapons to their accustomed places in his gun safe, then carefully locked it up. Then he pondered what to do next.
The last time he had had a dream had been the first time in his recent memory that he had done so. The experience had frightened him so badly that he had fled from his apartment to Winterhawk's not realizing that he had arrived clad only in his shorts and carrying a gun; his mind had been so disturbed by the dream that this fact had not even bothered him. Since that time he had not had another dream, but he was a bit better equipped to deal with one now.
He took a deep breath.
He would not go talk to `Hawk about it now. It was, after all, only a dream. Almost everyone had them. It could wait until the morning.
`Wraith could wait until the morning, too. He didn't think he would be doing any more sleeping that night.