Kestrel had lost track of the time they had spent at Gabriel’s lair. It didn’t really seem to matter, though—it was as if time passed differently here than it did anywhere else. As in the few other times when she had come here with him, she felt odd in a place that had seemed to be more comfortable with the passage of eons than of days.
They had flown out of Zurich on a nonstop to Seattle, and then from there transferred to a private jet Gabriel had arranged to take them as far as Winnipeg without asking questions. From there they had driven most of the rest of the trip until the way had become impassable by car. They had no trouble with the border guards; Gabriel had everything in order and the guards barely glanced at the car before waving it through the checkpoint. Nice trick, Kestrel had thought with some amusement. Could have used it a few years ago.
She hadn’t said much throughout the trip; she had gotten the strong feeling that Gabriel had something on his mind and wasn’t in the mood for conversation. He had been his usual quiet, polite self, but there was something in his eyes that told Kestrel he was far away. She was concerned about how worried he looked when he thought she wasn’t paying attention, but didn’t ask. She also noticed that he didn’t sleep during the entire trip back. Kestrel herself caught a few catnaps, but when she awoke she would find Gabriel there next to her, wide awake, staring off into space.
She hadn’t been back to his lair in several months, and never for more than a day or two with one exception. She smiled a little to herself, remembering that first couple of weeks after she had met him when they had been getting to know each other while he recuperated from his wounds and regained his energy. Those had been good times.
The lair was located at the top of a mountain in the middle of a large expanse of forested land in the Algonkian-Manitou Council lands. Kestrel didn’t know for certain, but she was fairly sure that Gabriel owned several thousand acres around the lair, and that he had taken care of that little detail shortly after he had awakened. While he was quite the social butterfly by dragon standards, he liked his privacy and did not enjoy having anyone stumble into his most private sanctuary.
Not that they could have, of course. Kestrel had seen some of the magic that protected the lair from prying eyes—extremely powerful but very subtle magic, none of it lethal, with the aim of concealing the entrances in a cloak of illusion so potent that it would have taken another dragon to see through it. Kestrel was quite sure that she was the only human living who had the means to pass through those barriers: shortly after their meeting, Gabriel had re-attuned the wards so she was able to enter unimpeded. Of course it had still taken her awhile to get used to striding boldly through what looked like a solid wall (she had missed the entrance once and smacked into the mountainside, much to Gabriel’s amusement) but these days she did it without batting an eye.
Kestrel loved the lair, which was a good thing because she had ended up spending a lot of time alone this trip while Gabriel was off doing research, prowling the astral plane, and performing various other magical experiments that she couldn’t help him with. Despite her crack about toting eye of newt, she knew there wasn’t much she could do, so she spent her time exploring. When they had first arrived this time he had taken awhile to show her around, and she was pleased to discover that he had made a few additions since she’d last been here, including a massive media room that contained a trid screen that would have been at home in a small theater, a library of trids, chips, and old-style DVDs (including the entire run of the Godzilla series, which made her laugh), an impressive collection of music and sim chips, and a Matrix hookup. When she had asked him how he had managed to get all this in here without being noticed, he’d merely said, “It’s amazing what you can do with a few elementals and a dragon’s illusion abilities...” and let it go at that.
When she finally had her fill of entertainment and exploring and paid attention to how much time had gone by, she was surprised to discover they had already been there for a week and a half. During that time she had seen Gabriel only once or twice a day: he had taken meals with her when he remembered that he was hungry (which wasn’t often) and always made it a point to spend at least an hour with her each day. He wouldn’t talk about what he was doing, though, meeting Kestrel’s questions with polite deflections until she stopped asking. She figured he knew what he was doing.
That morning after a week and a half had passed, though, she decided that she needed to know more—like how long he was planning to remain here. She was quite convinced that something was far more wrong than he was admitting, and that the incident at the chalet had disturbed him profoundly, but, like the subject of his mysterious research, he had refused to discuss the matter. Kestrel hated to push him on it, but she had to know something. If this affected her, she had a right to know, and if it didn’t—if it didn’t, she was supposed to be his friend. That meant she felt she should at least try to help.
She was just slipping on her boots and getting ready to leave the cozy stone chamber she was using for a bedroom when he appeared in her doorway. She had not heard him coming; she started when she looked up and saw him there. “Don’t—” she started to say, and stopped in mid-sentence. Her eyes widened.
Gabriel stood framed in the doorway, watching her. He did not look well, but it was hard to put a finger on why. His hair was a little mussed, his clothes a little more disarrayed than they should have been, his eyes a little brighter. None of these things taken individually would have been cause for alarm, but together— “Gabriel?” she ventured softly. “Are you okay?”
He smiled; it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I’m fine, Juliana. I—just came to see you. We need to talk.”
Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good. Kestrel patted the chair next to the bed. “C’mon in. What about?” She kept her voice carefully neutral, hoping that if she remained calm he would finally tell her what was going on.
He crossed the room and sat down, bent over a bit with his elbows resting on his knees, his face a mask of quiet that belied the look of deep concern in his violet eyes. “Juliana,” he said softly without looking at her, “I think you should leave here.”
That was not what she had been expecting. Her eyes came up sharply. “What?”
Gabriel sighed, meeting her gaze with his own. “I think you should go. It would be better that way—we’ve been here for a week and a half and I have not been much company to you at all. I think it would be better if you returned to Seattle. I’ll catch up with you when I’m finished here.”
She stared at him. “Gabriel, what’s this about? You want me to leave?”
He bowed his head again. “I think it would be for the best,” he repeated.
Kestrel sat back, studying him for a moment before she spoke. His posture was slumped, his bearing radiating exhaustion. “Gabriel—I—shouldn’t you get some sleep? You look tired. How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”
“It doesn’t matter.” His voice was soft, quiet, with the faint edges of defeat around it. His eyes came up again to meet hers; there was a look of pleading in them. “I’ll get you down the mountain and drop you off at the airport. You should be in Seattle by this evening, and then—”
“Gabriel, stop it!” She was surprised at the vehemence in her voice. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on. You look terrible. What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you talk to me?”
His expression was haunted. “Juliana—” Getting up from the chair, he began to pace around the room. Restless energy that was nearly palpable surrounded him.
Kestrel watched for several moments. When he didn’t say anything else, she too got up. Moving over to him, she stood in front of him, gently gripping his shoulders and looking into his eyes. “Tell me why you want me to go. What are you worried about?”
For a moment it seemed as if he would break free of her hold and continue on, but he did not. Instead he remained where he was, trembling slightly. “You,” he said in a near-whisper.
For the second time in the conversation, Kestrel had not gotten an answer anything like she had expected. “Me?” She cocked her head slightly to one side. “Why are you worried about me? I’m fine, Gabriel. I don’t mind waiting around while you—”
Gabriel shook his head. It was a rather harsh movement, very unlike him. “No,” he said, impatience creeping into his tone. “Juliana, please. I can’t explain everything right now. Please don’t ask me to. Later on when I understand it all, then I will tell you. But for now—you have to trust me. It isn’t safe for you here.”
She thought about that for a few moments, then looked at him. “Is it safe for you here?” she asked quietly.
Gabriel did not answer, except to shake free of her grip and resume his pacing.
He was visibly trembling now. He stopped, facing away from her, and then turned back. There was now something decidedly odd in his eyes, which Kestrel saw for a brief second before he closed them.
“Gabriel?” She took a step forward, but it was a hesitant step. She had never seen him acting like this before. “You didn’t answer my question. If you’re not safe here either, then I’m not going to leave you here by yourself with whatever it is. I can help, if you let me. Just tell me—”
“I must go,” he hissed suddenly through his teeth. Wheeling around, he stalked out of the room, leaving Kestrel to stare after him, eyes wide, utterly flummoxed by his uncharacteristic behavior.
Two hours later, Kestrel was no closer to an answer. All she had managed to do in an hour of wandering was come up with a whole lot more questions, and none of them had answers either.
The only thing she did know was that she’d have to find Gabriel eventually—if he was even still there.
She moved slowly down the stone hallway, eventually ending up outside on one of the ledges high above the valley below. That was where she had been for about the last hour, thinking over her friend’s odd behavior. In all the time she had known him, he had never so much as spoken sharply to her, but yet today—
Her mind drifted back over the time since they had arrived, trying to put a pattern to any of this. He had wanted to return here because of the incident that had happened in the chalet. He had said that he was more confident about being able to handle another such incident if he were on familiar territory instead of somewhere far from home. Ever since he had arrived back at the lair, he had been increasingly preoccupied; there was a growing tenseness about him that Kestrel hadn’t noticed right away, but in retrospect it stood out in sharp relief. He was definitely upset about something. Had the mysterious astral force attacked him—or attempted to—again? If so, why hadn’t he told her about it?
He doesn’t want to worry me. Kestrel sighed. It was a subject the two of them had discussed many times: his tendency to keep anything that was bothering him to himself, especially if it was something potentially dangerous. Sometimes she tried to convince him that he was being too overprotective, that she had dealt with plenty of dangerous things before she met him and would continue to do so...and sometimes she kept her mouth shut, realizing that anything a dragon considered dangerous was probably not something she wanted to tangle with. Still, it bothered her sometimes: the loss of her team two years ago had left her in limbo as a shadowrunner, and her friendship with Gabriel sometimes left her feeling that she was letting her skills slip because she didn’t need them to survive when he was around. What good were lightning-fast reflexes, hand-razors and years of combat experience when you hung around with a guy who could eat any of her enemies’ lunches magically and physically without breaking a sweat?
She sighed again, rising to a graceful standing position against the rock wall. Her knees popped slightly as she stood, eliciting a tight little smile: she wasn’t getting any younger. At thirty-three she had already made it longer than many in her profession; still, she knew that despite the small sign of her eventual mortality, she still was in damn good shape. Maybe not as good as she could be, but that was easy enough to remedy. Think I’ll work on that after this thing’s over, she told herself. Maybe see if Ocelot and his team’ll take me on for awhile. I’m getting out of practice.
She nodded to herself, glad to have decided something. For now, though, she had a decision of a different type. Except that it wasn’t really a decision, because she already knew the answer. Stretching like a cat, she headed back inside to find Gabriel. If he insisted that she leave, she would go—but not without an explanation first.
He wasn’t in any of the usual places she expected to find him. The media room was empty, the trid screen dark and quiet. His chambers in the human-sized portion of the lair were likewise unoccupied and looked like no one had been there anytime recently. He wasn’t in the dining area, nor was he in the lair’s vast magical library.
Okay, Kestrel thought as she stood in the middle of the library. He’s not here. Could he have left without me? She didn’t think he would have done that, at least not permanently. He knew she didn’t have an easy way to get back to civilization; even if he had left her the car, she still would have had to get down the side of a fairly sheer cliff face without any climbing gear. She didn’t think he’d let her risk herself like that.
She realized that left only one answer, and not one she was looking forward to. If he hadn’t left, and he wasn’t in the human-hospitable part of the lair, then the only place left to look was—
She sighed. This was going to be a long walk. Gabriel, when this is over, you and I are going to have a talk.
After three hours, Kestrel was beginning to wonder if this had been a good idea.
She stopped for a moment, leaning against the cool stone wall, and took stock of her situation. She stood far off to one side of a vast cavern, its ceiling rising some thirty meters up into dim blackness. She had been walking and jogging through this particular cavern for the last forty minutes, and before that it had been a seemingly endless hallway leading out of yet another cavern. All around her everything was enormous, as befitting a lair that had at one time been home to not just one, but an entire family of Great Dragons. Kestrel felt small and insignificant as she gazed at the caverns’ colossal beauty, marveling at the different colors of stone, at the way that dim and comforting light was somehow filtered in even though there was no evidence of the method, at the thought of what this place must have been like when it was occupied by all of its former inhabitants. She had been in this particular part of the lair only once before, and that had been with Gabriel in his true form. Riding on his back, she had passed through it much faster. She hadn’t had time to look around with such wonder.
Now, though, as the hours crept by and she began to be concerned about finding her way out, the sense of wonder was giving way to a little bit of trepidation. Where was he? What if she had been wrong and he wasn’t here after all? It had taken her three hours (so far) to get in here, so no doubt it would take at least that long to get back out again. Probably longer, because she wasn’t moving as fast now as she had been. Gabriel, where are you? Why did you run away from me?
She decided to stick it out for another half hour, and if she didn’t find him by then she’d head back. She regretted not having brought any food or water with her; the underground lake that was one of Gabriel’s favorite dragon-sized haunts was far back near where she had started, and despite the sound of running water she had heard through most of her trip, she hadn’t discovered the source of any of it. The search became more methodical as she went on: hike through long passageways, peer into chambers, discover no sign of Gabriel there, move on. She stopped in frustration when the half-hour reached its end and she still had found no indication that he was here. “Gabriel!” she yelled. “Come on! Where are you?”
She spun around so fast she nearly fell. The voice sounded surprised, but there was something else to it as well—stress and exhaustion. “Gabriel? Are you here?” Her voice bounced around the cavern, sending weird echoes back to her ears.
“You should not have come, Juliana. You must have walked for hours to get here.”
Kestrel sighed. Note to self: Next time, bring bicycle. And provisions. “Where are you? I’m not leaving until we talk!” Yeah, that’s it. Give the dragon an ultimatum.
There was a brief impression of a tired sigh in her mind, and then the voice was back. “Go west from where you are standing and take the left fork. I am not far away.”
West? She was heading east now, which meant that she had somehow missed him. There had been too many forks she had been forced to choose between. Trying not to think about how easy it would have been to get completely lost in here, she turned and retraced her steps, veering left when the passageway divided.
This passage was short compared to the others. She could see a dim light shining from the room at the end of it, even from where she was. Moving forward slowly, she rounded the last corner and stopped at the entrance to the chamber.
He was there, lying in the middle of a massive room that glowed with the radiance of the items lining the ledges high above. His head was lowered on his forelegs, his tail wrapped around him, his wings drooping slightly. His luminescent violet gaze settled on her as she approached, but he did not speak.
Kestrel took a step forward. “Gabriel—?”
“Juliana.” There was infinite weariness and something else she could not identify in his tone.
She moved into the room with careful steps. The air in the room seemed to crackle with tension. “Why did you run away from me?” she asked softly. “Can’t we talk about this? If something’s wrong, can’t you tell me? This has something to do with what happened in Switzerland, doesn’t it?”
The dragon raised his head slightly. For a long moment he didn’t speak, and then he resumed his old position. “Yes.” Kestrel started to speak again, but he cut her off. “Juliana, you must go. It isn’t safe for you to be here.”
Another step forward. She was still a good twenty meters away from him, realizing once again just how big he was. His presence dominated the room even when he did not move; she knew somehow that it was his tension that was affecting her. She also knew that if she, one hundred percent mundane that she was, could feel it, that it must be truly strong indeed. “Gabriel...why did you run away from me like that? You’ve never done that before. I’ll go if you want me to, but you have to tell me what’s wrong. I’m worried about you too. What is it that I’m not safe from?”
Gabriel shifted position slightly; the overhead glow from the objects danced across the small golden scales on his flank, accenting the gold with the blues and greens, reds and purples of the finest jewelry. He closed his eyes and shuddered; when he opened them again, the strain showed clearly in their depths.
Kestrel watched him for a moment, then looked up at the glowing objects. She could not see them clearly, but she could see that there were many of them, ringing the room. For the first time, too, she noticed the floor beneath her feet: it was stone like all the others, but this one was carved with odd figures and sigils, intricate and beautiful. “What is this room?” she asked. “It’s—some kind of magic place, isn’t it?”
Gabriel nodded. “It is...one of the places where rituals are performed. The magical protections are even stronger here and in the other places like it than they are on the rest of the lair.”
She continued to approach him. As she drew closer, she could feel his sheer presence as a near-palpable aura. She had never felt this uncomfortable around him before, not since that first time she had encountered him wounded in a cavern on his brother Stefan’s island complex. He was like a coiled spring held back by a force that might or might not be sufficient for the task. “You—came here for a reason, didn’t you?” she ventured. “You didn’t run away because I made you angry.”
“You did not make me angry, Juliana.” His voice was very soft, trying to sound reassuring despite the tension. “I don’t think it would be possible for you to do so.”
“Even if I tell you I’m not leaving until I get an explanation?” She had reached him by now; she extended her hand and put her palm down on one of his forelegs—and was surprised to feel it trembling slightly, like there was a low electrical current running through him.
He sighed; she could feel his warm breath touching her like a desert wind, ruffling her hair. “You do not understand” he said. “I told you—I will explain later, when I understand it fully.”
Now it was Kestrel’s turn to sigh. “Gabriel...I love you. You know I do. But you can be exasperating sometimes. After everything we’ve been through together, you’ve got to know by now that you can’t shield me from everything that’s dangerous. Okay, so you don’t understand it all. You must understand more of it than I do, or you wouldn’t be worrying about me being in danger. Just tell me that, if nothing else—why am I in danger, and from what?” She looked into the one eye she could see from where she was, challenging him.
The electrical-current tension stepped up a notch, and the eye closed. The thought, when it came, was soft, weary, and more than a little rough, as if he were parting with it with great reluctance. “Me.”
She stopped, stunned, eyes widening. She stared at him. “You? I’m in danger from you?” The concept was unthinkable. Gabriel would never hurt her—would he? She looked again at the massive being next to whom she stood, becoming once more conscious of his size. His head was near her; each of his sharp, wicked-looking fangs was half the size of her body. His claws, resting now on the stone floor, were each bigger than she was. Not since that night in the cavern was she so aware of the vulnerability of her human body next to this creature who was bigger than a house. She tensed a bit, involuntarily. “Gabriel...tell me what’s going on. Please.”
He raised his head and drew back in a sudden, explosive motion, barely giving her time to pull her hand back and get out of his way. Backing off, he raised up slightly on his powerful rear legs, extending his wings to nearly their full span. He shook his head violently, looking very much like he was trying to clear some unpleasant thought from his mind, and then opened his eyes again. They glowed brightly, their purple depths scanning the room until his gaze leveled on her again. “I do not know how much longer I can do this, Juliana. Go. Get away. Get out of here now!”
Kestrel stood rooted where she was, the combination of the sight of him towering over her and the incongruity of his words causing her to hesitate. She took a breath. He’s my friend. He loves me. He would never hurt me. I need to help him—
—but is this Gabriel I’m talking to? And what if it isn’t?
She took a step back. “Where am I going to go?” she called, trying to reason with him, to perhaps jolt him out of this strange state by appealing to his protective instincts. “You know I can’t get down that mountain without gear if you don’t help me. You want me to just go back to Seattle and leave you here?”
Something in his gaze...changed. He was visibly shaking now, rising up to his full height, spreading out his full wing extension, dominating the room even more thoroughly than he had done before. The soft glow in his eyes was replaced by something much more disquieting. A low rumbling growl began forming in his throat. As Kestrel watched in horror, he flung himself forward slightly and to his left, his blazing eyes locked on the room’s only exit.
It was then that she realized that she was standing between him and it. “Gabriel!” she called, a little desperation creeping into her voice. “Wait! Don’t—”
“Juliana—go—now!” The voice in her mind didn’t even sound like him anymore, the strain was so great. He sounded like he was trying to hold something off, to maintain control as long as he could. “RUN!”
The last command boomed in her head with the force of a sudden blast of feedback from some troll death-metal band’s amplifier. She clamped her hands to her temples, disoriented, swaying on her feet. She could hear—and feel—the rumbling thunder of his approach, but her mind wasn’t clear enough to process the input. Something’s—wrong... must—run—
She spun, but it was too late. He was on her. She looked up into his eyes, the eyes that had regarded her with kindness and love so many times, and saw only madness there now. “I’m sorry...” she thought miserably, thinking not of herself but of whatever had taken her gentle friend from her and replaced him with this insane creature. “I’m sorry, Gabriel. I’m—”
She heard a scream from far above her, a heart-rending sound that cut her to the bone, and then something slammed into her. She hit the wall, pain exploding in her back, her head, her arms—and then she knew nothing more.
Copyright ©1999, 2000 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.