The hog's engine rumbled, low and throaty, as the big motorcycle thundered through the broken streets of the Redmond Barrens. Joe didn't ride quickly; he wasn't, after all, in a hurry. On a night like this, there was no real need to be. And besides, he was one of the few who didn't have much to worry about concerning the other denizens of the godforsaken area he called home. Nobody in their right mind would mess with a troll his size. Even without any obvious cyberware, Joe had a reputation for being one tough hombre around this area. And when you added the combined might of his gang standing behind him, the whole thing became pretty much a question of how suicidal you were feeling today.
Right now, Joe was grinning, his tusks gleaming in the moonlight. That had been one fine party, at least by his definition. He'd gotten to eat as much as he wanted to (something he valued very highly), and the food was fantastic. There was enough beer, good music, and willing women to dance with to have made the evening a rousing success in his mind. As for the weird new pretty-boy fixer who was throwing the party, Joe wasn't terribly worried, or even concerned, about him. His explanation had satisfied him, especially since he didn't expect to encounter Gabriel anymore. Maybe Ocelot would, because his new girlfriend (when did Ocelot get a girlfriend?) seemed to be tight with the guy, but that didn't make any difference to Joe.
There was almost nobody out and about, which didn't surprise him at all. Occasionally he would pass the shadowy form of one of his gang members lurking in a doorway or in an alley; they nodded to him as he went by, and he nodded back. He must have looked a bit odd, riding through the Barrens in a hybrid Western-Native American-style suit, but he didn't think anybody was going to give him any trouble about it.
He increased speed just a bit, and the hog's exhaust note obligingly increased correspondingly in volume. Earlier tonight, he had wished he had gotten the truck from Ocelot's garage, but now he was glad he had ridden. The cold wind whipped through his black mohawk and felt good on his face. He decided to take a quick circuit of the area covered by his gang's influence, then go home and hit the sack.
He had almost completed his rounds and was riding through the part of his territory that took him next to an area known to be frequented by ghouls when he saw the signs of a disturbance up ahead.
Slowing the bike with senses on full readiness, Joe tried to make sense of what was happening up ahead. Even with his natural thermographic vision, it was hard to make it out. It looked like an altercation of some type. But what—
Something bellowed. Joe stiffened, immediately recognizing the sound. His conscious mind fought against it, but the sound was unmistakable to him. It was a sound of a bear in pain. But what was a bear doing in the Barrens?
The bear bellowed again, causing Joe to grab a handful of throttle. The bike surged forward, with Joe rising up on his footpegs to try to get a better look. As he got closer, the figures resolved themselves into two large flying forms and one large, shaggy ground-bound one. Gargoyles, Joe thought immediately. They were seen frequently enough around here that their presence didn't surprise him, but the hulking form of the bear they were attacking certainly did. The two gargoyles worked in concert with each other, one flying in to attack the creature while the other distracted it.
Joe didn't know what was going on, but he wasn't about to let the bear be killed by the gargoyles. Whatever it was doing here, it didn't deserve that kind of death. And Joe, who had begun following the ways of the totem Bear (in a mundane sense, anyway) after having had the chance to meet and converse with the totem at the same party where ShadoWraith had danced with Desire, was determined that he wasn't going to stand by and allow one of his totem animals to be slaughtered by the vicious urban predators.
Bringing the bike to a stop, he jumped off and ran over to the scene of the battle. The bear was in a berserk rage now, lashing out with its massive paws first this way, then that way, but always coming just short of contacting the rocky hide of the gargoyles. Joe wished he had brought his battle axe with him; wielded by his phenomenal strength, it would have made short work of the gargoyles in no time. No chance to think about that now, though. He had what he had, and that was all. It would just have to be enough.
He waded into the combat, avoiding the muscular, flailing forelegs of the bear, which was now slicked with blood from the wounds the gargoyles were inflicting on it. One of the gargoyles came in for another pass, its sharp claws lashing out to rake once more at the bear, but Joe was too quick for it. His huge hand struck, grabbing the gargoyle by its leg. He could feel the rocky, heavily armored surface of the thing's leg as his hand closed around it. It beat its wings uselessly trying to get away as Joe brought his arm around and swung the gargoyle with all his might into its fellow, who was following up the attack in hopes of catching Joe by surprise.
Two things happened then. First, there was a flash of multi-colored light as the gargoyle Joe was holding contacted the other one. Silently, both of them disappeared, causing Joe to nearly overbalance as the heavy weight suddenly vanished from his grip. Second, the bear sank down into the broken street and vanished as well. Joe was left standing in the middle of a dark, now deserted street. The only sound was the rumble of his bike's idling engine.
"What the hell...?" Joe muttered to himself, looking around for any other threats. Apparently there were none. For a moment, he just stood there, staring down at the patch of ground into which the bear had disappeared. Then, slowly, he walked back over to his bike, got on, and rode immediately home. He knew what he had to do now.
Fortunately for him, most of the gang members with whom he shared the rotting old brownstone building were either out for the night or had already sacked out, so he had the place effectively to himself. He went immediately to his room, gathered his supplies, and sat down to talk to Bear.
He wasn't quite sure how it was that he was sometimes able to talk to the totem; supposedly, anybody who wasn't a shaman shouldn't have been able to do so. It didn't always work, of course; in fact, most of the time it didn't work. When it did, he didn't really talk to Bear, either. It was more like Bear talked to him, by sending him visions. Sometimes the visions even made sense. He wasn't sure which parts of these visions were caused by Bear and which were caused by the peyote and other hallucinogenics he used to get into the right "meditative state," but he didn't really care. Joe believed, and that was enough.
Upon finishing his preparations, he sat down cross-legged on the old Native American-print rug in the middle of the floor of his room, holding his lit pipe in one hand and his spear in the other. The spear was Joe's most prized possession; it had once been owned by the famous Sioux chief Sitting Bull, who was Joe's idol. The spear had been a gift from Winterhawk: the team had once saved the mage from nearly certain death when he had been shot by a vampire assassin, and when he had recovered, he had expressed his gratitude by presenting his friends with lavish (and surprisingly appropriate) gifts. Joe had been speechless when `Hawk had given it to him, and speechlessness was not one of the troll's common traits. Now, the spear played a prominent role in his ritual to contact Bear.
He lost track of time, as he always did, after he began the ritual. The chant, the smoke, and the odd lightness in his head all merged into a single sensation, his vision clouded by both the physical smoke and the peyote's effect on his mind.
For awhile, it seemed as if Bear was not going to respond. That was the way it often worked, but it was always a disappointment. The rare chance to touch the totem's embrace was a wonderful thing; it made Joe feel like he belonged to something larger than himself. When it didn't happen, he always returned from the ritual feeling drained and dejected.
This was not to be one of those times, however. Within his smoky wreath, Joe's vision slowly cleared as forms began to take shape before him. He knew instinctively that it was not his physical vision that was clearing, but rather his insight into whatever realm in which Bear existed.
The image shimmered, then cleared. It was still shifting and somewhat indistinct, but Joe could make out details with astounding clarity. He watched as the vision played out before him.
In his mind's eye, he saw a canyon. He was standing in the canyon, with the blue cloudless sky above him. It felt like the kind of place he might see in the NAN lands where he had grown up. He became aware that he was standing on four paws, rather than two feet: as he looked down, he saw brown, furry forelegs ending in clawed paws. He turned his head, and the bear's head turned as well. He was the bear. Not Bear, but a bear. Perhaps the small bear represented himself in the spiritual realm; he'd never had this sort of vision before.
A rumbling off to one side attracted his attention. He turned, and was horrified to see, far in the distance, a huge column of water heading swiftly in his direction, uprooting the little scrubby trees and bushes that grew at the bottom of the canyon. Flash flood! He knew this immediately: anyone who grew up in NAN lands knew about them and how dangerous they were. Quickly he changed direction and began to lope off toward the other end of the canyon. He had to get out before the flood reached him, or he'd be swept away just like all the other living things down here.
What he saw when he changed directions, however, drew him up short. He could see the other end of the canyon from where he was, but he saw right away that there was no escape in that direction, either. A towering fire, shooting up toward the sky like a massive funeral pyre, covered the exit. Although there was no fuel for it, it seemed to be getting closer, inexorably marching forward to meet the flood. His gaze darted back and forth, from fire to flood and back, as he realized that there was nowhere for him to run. The walls of the canyon were too high for him to climb, especially in this bear form.
Indecision gripped him. What was he supposed to do? What was Bear trying to tell him? He had to do something—he couldn't just stand here and die. Savagely, he lurched toward the flood. At least he'd have a chance there. Bears could swim, right? He just had to—
The vision dissipated, floating away on the wisps of smoke like a half-forgotten dream.
Joe opened his eyes. He was breathing hard, covered in sweat. His spear was clutched tightly in both hands, as if he were hanging on to it for dear life. He felt exhausted, like he had just run a marathon. Glancing at his chrono, he realized that he had been at this for more than two hours.
He sighed. What did the vision mean? Was it a warning? A precognition? Was Bear just having fun with him? And what about the other vision, the unbidden one, with the bear and the gargoyles? Was any of this going to come clear to him, or would it remain in maddening obscurity?
He wished he knew.