The sky was dark and overcast. Iron-gray clouds choked the late afternoon sky, washing the color from the world below. A light drizzle fell. On days like this it seemed as if the sun was only a distant memory that would never reveal itself again. It was a day for dark moods and unwelcome reflections.

It was a day that suited the states of mind of the occupants of Stone Manor very well.

Aubrey puttered around the main hall, dusting, sweeping, occasionally pausing to look for a moment at this or that bit of bric-a-brac before continuing on. His movements were aimless and without thought: sometimes he would dust an item and then pass by everything else on the same shelf; other times he would spend ten minutes meticulously removing every speck of dirt from a small statuette or dagger. From off in the kitchen he could just smell the pleasant aroma of the soup that was cooking—more often lately he had to remind himself to cook, and to eat.

Maya followed behind him, moving on silent paws, her big green eyes missing nothing, revealing nothing. She spent a lot of time around the house now, although on some days she would disappear for hours before returning through one of her mysterious means of entry and re-attaching herself to Aubrey. When she wasn’t with him, she was in the study off the main hall. Aubrey left the door open for her. She seemed to take comfort from curling up in the ratty leather chair in the corner.

It had already been almost two weeks since the night Aubrey had gotten the call. Even before he’d picked it up he had known something was wrong.

“Aubrey...” The voice had been familiar enough even without the image to go with it: Rodney Leifeld. “I’m sorry to disturb you this late, but I thought you’d want to know. Something—has happened.”

Aubrey had gasped, immediately assuming the worst: “Dr. Stone! Is he—?” (Had it been the worst, really? In retrospect, he wondered.)

Leifeld had shaken his head. “We’re still trying to figure out what happened, Aubrey. He’s alive—there’s nothing wrong with him...physically. Can you come?”

And of course he could come. When he arrived, they had explained to him what had happened: Stone had had some sort of episode in the seminar. Three students had tried to help him, and he had lashed out at them with the full power of his magic. Two of the students were in intensive care; the other, an ork, had fared slightly better due to his strong constitution, but he too was in the hospital. Another student had managed to subdue Stone with a sleep spell before he could do any other damage.

Aubrey gasped. That wasn’t like Dr. Stone at all. “Do they—do they know what’s—?”

Leifeld shook his head. “They’re still running tests.”

“May I see him?”

They had let him in for a few moments, but it had done no good. Stone lay in the hospital bed, his eyes closed, his face pale. He did not respond to Aubrey’s voice. When at last the caretaker left and went out in the hall where Leifeld waited, he looked like a man who had lost his purpose. “Don’t they have any idea?”

Leifeld sighed. “Not yet. But—you did know that Alastair was suffering from—some strange episodes lately, didn’t you?”

Aubrey stared. “Episodes? I knew he wasn’t sleeping well—he’d gone to see Dr. Lennox—”

“Yes, I know. I convinced him to do that. But...I think there was a great deal he was hiding from us. I don’t know why—perhaps he was afraid, or perhaps, knowing Alastair, he thought he could deal with it on his own, but—” He shook his head. “Either way, I think this had been weighing heavily on him for quite some time now.”

Aubrey nodded, remembering all the signs he had seen, all the times he had convinced himself that Stone was fine, that he just needed good food and rest. “If only I had—”

Leifeld squeezed his shoulder. “If only nothing, Aubrey. You know Alastair better than I do. You know how good he is at keeping things to himself.”

Reluctantly Aubrey nodded. “So—what are you saying you think is wrong? To attack students—”

For a long moment Leifeld didn’t say anything. Clearly he was hesitant to mention it. “Aubrey...some of the students said that he appeared to be having delusions. He was yelling at something that no one could see. One of them said he cried out something like ‘you are dead!’ That was right before he lost control completely.”

Aubrey’s eyes widened at the implications. “Dr. Leifeld...are you saying that you think Dr. Stone has gone mad?”

Leifeld didn’t meet the caretaker’s gaze. “I don’t know, Aubrey,” he said at last. “We won’t know for sure until the results from the tests come back—perhaps not even then. But...” Again he paused. “It is not...unheard of for mages—especially ones who dabble in the sorts of things Alastair Stone did—to...misplace their grip on reality.”

Aubrey gasped. Such a gentle little euphemism. He knew Leifeld was trying to be kind, but it didn’t matter. He suspected that Stone’s old friend had already drawn his conclusions.

Their worst fears had been realized when Stone had come out from under the effects of the sedative. The doctors had been hoping that the episode had been an isolated incident, that he would awaken and once more be lucid so they could attempt to determine what had caused him to lose control. However, the moment his consciousness had returned, he had stared up at the medical personnel with wide, terrified eyes, thrashing around in his bed until they had been forced to restrain him. Shortly thereafter Dr. Lennox, in consultation with a psychiatric specialist who worked exclusively with mages, recommended that he be moved to a private psychiatric hospital where they had experience dealing with this sort of patient. They had shown Aubrey the papers before the decision was made, and he had bowed his head. “This is a hospital for the dangerously insane, isn’t it?” he’d asked bleakly.

Lennox reluctantly nodded. “I’m sorry, Aubrey. I wish there was another way, but he’s a danger to himself and others here. At Sheffield, they can do what they can for him and keep him from hurting anyone while he gets better.”

“Do you think he’s going to?” Aubrey had asked, bitterness and hope warring in his tone.

“He’ll have the best care available. You know that.” Lennox had given him an encouraging, kindly smile. “You know I’ll make sure they take good care of him and do everything they can.”

Aubrey had nodded. Lennox was not only Stone’s physician but his friend. He knew there was no other choice.

He had gone in one more time to see Stone before they took him away, but once more he had been sedated. This time his wrists and ankles had been restrained with soft cuffs, and an IV dripped into his arm. Aubrey patted his shoulder. “Come back to us, sir,” he whispered. “Maya misses you already...and I do too.” Then he turned and slowly left.

That had been two weeks ago. Aubrey had gone to Sheffield Psychiatric Hospital twice in those two weeks, the first time to make sure it was a proper place for his employer, and the second time to see if he had made any progress. His first concern had been put to rest: the place was small, nestled in the midst of peaceful forested land; the staff was competent and compassionate; everything seemed in order. But there was no progress. The doctor who had been assigned to Stone’s case had confided in Aubrey that when he was awake, Stone merely sat on the floor in the corner of his room, staring into space for hours on end. He would get up when prompted for meals, showers, and other requirements, but he moved like a zombie and showed no initiative. At random and unpredictable intervals he would have a repeat of the strange episodes. Medications helped, but nothing alleviated the problem completely. The doctor did not have an estimate of when Stone might be well enough to come home. He had shown Aubrey some papers they had found in Stone’s briefcase—papers filled from top to bottom with illegible scribblings—and asked him if he could make anything of them. Aubrey couldn’t. Apparently Leifeld couldn’t either. They appeared to be nothing more than what they seemed: scribbles.

Aubrey had gone about his business, taking what little solace he could take in the performance of his duties, in keeping Stone Manor and its grounds as well maintained as he could manage for when Dr. Stone returned home. He also picked up the habit of talking to Maya. Even though she could not reply, when he looked into the blackberry cat’s expressive green eyes Aubrey had almost convinced himself that she understood what he was saying. He kept her up to date on Stone’s condition (he called every day to find out if there had been any change) and on the doings around the house, and always made sure that both she and Mullins were well fed and had everything they needed. What he never did was think about the future. To Aubrey, the future was simply, “When Dr. Stone is well and comes home.” Everything else beyond that was a non-issue, as was the possibility that Dr. Stone would not be well and come home. He could not allow that thought to enter his mind, or all would be lost.

It was later that evening when there came a knock on the door.

Aubrey was in the kitchen preparing a light dinner when he heard it; he stiffened a bit. Stone Manor rarely got unexpected visitors, and even more rarely now that its master was—indisposed. The deliveries came around the back, and always early in the morning.

Aubrey carefully shut off the fire on the stove and removed the oven mitt he had on one hand, setting it next to the spoonrest.

The knock came again.

“Yes, yes, I’m coming,” he called as he hurried across the hall. “Just a moment!” Reaching the heavy wooden door, he unbolted it and swung it open wide enough that he could see out but the visitor could not see in.

Two people stood there patiently under the porchlight: a man and a woman. The woman was tall, slim and wiry, dressed in jeans, boots, and long brown leather coat. She looked to be in her early to middle thirties, her white-blonde hair cut in a short no-nonsense style, her features attractive in a purposeful sort of way, like a predatory cat’s.

The man—there was something odd about him, but Aubrey couldn’t put his finger on what. He was quite young, certainly no more than twenty or so; unlike the woman, he was dressed more formally in a fine suit and a dark gray wool overcoat. Mist droplets glittered in his ink-black hair and on the shoulders of his coat. When he looked at Aubrey, the caretaker realized what the odd thing was: the young man didn’t look quite real. He was too handsome, his eyes an impossible shade of bright violet, his complexion too flawless. That kind of beauty was very rare and almost never natural.

“May I...help you?” he asked hesitantly. He did not open the door any farther.

The handsome young man nodded. His expression was solemn, but nonetheless managed to convey a certain serenity. “Yes, I hope so. I am Gabriel, and my friend is Juliana.” He indicated the woman next to him; she inclined her head in greeting. “We would like to speak with Dr. Alastair Stone, if we may.” His voice was soft but carried well.

Aubrey regarded them for a moment, then shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mr...Gabriel...but Dr. Stone is not here at this time.” He was quite sure he had never seen these two before; if he had, he would have remembered them. Whatever they could want with Dr. Stone, Aubrey was in no state of mind to deal with right now. “If you’ll excuse me—”

He moved as if to close the door, but before he could do so, a black blur shot past him and out onto the entryway. Aubrey’s eyes widened as he saw that it was Maya, and that she was twining herself affectionately around Gabriel’s ankles. Aubrey couldn’t remember the last time Maya had even allowed herself to be seen when there were visitors. It had taken five visits before she had deigned to reveal herself to Dr. Leifeld.

Gabriel smiled, looking down. “A blackberry cat. I haven’t seen one of your kind in a very long time. And a fine beauty, too.” He ducked down and gently stroked her fur. Next to him, Juliana was also smiling. Maya, for her part, purred contentedly as if she and Gabriel had known each other for years.

“I’m—surprised, sir,” Aubrey admitted as he watched. “Maya is—rather shy. She is never...so affectionate with anyone other than Dr. Stone himself.”

“Gabriel has that effect on people,” Juliana said, chuckling as if it were an old joke.

Gabriel was still stroking Maya. “I’m honored to meet you, Maya,” he said, in much the same way, Aubrey noticed, as Dr. Stone spoke to her—like she understood.

Mrrrow,” she replied, rubbing her head against his hand. Then she looked up at Aubrey imploringly.

“Can you tell us when he might be home?” Gabriel asked quietly, rising back to a standing position. “It’s very important that we speak with him.”

Aubrey took a deep breath. “May I ask—” he said carefully, “—how you know Dr. Stone?”

When Gabriel didn’t speak right away, Juliana put in, “We’re friends of his from Seattle.”

Aubrey stiffened. “Indeed?” he asked, continuing to keep his voice neutral. All he needed right now was for Dr. Stone’s “other life” to come looking for him when he was incapacitated. But still—the visitors didn’t look dangerous, and Maya did like them. She would have picked up any ill intentions well before Aubrey himself did.

Gabriel nodded. “Please, sir. Can you tell us when we might see him? I’m afraid what we have to discuss with him cannot wait.”

For a long moment, Aubrey looked at them. He looked down at Maya, and then back up at Gabriel. He made a decision and opened the door with a sigh. “Please come in. I am Aubrey, the caretaker of Stone Manor. Obviously you haven’t heard about Dr. Stone.”

Gabriel and Juliana exchanged worried glances. “Heard?” Gabriel asked as the two of them moved inside, followed immediately by Maya. “What haven’t we heard?”

Aubrey bustled around doing his duty as caretaker and host, taking their coats and settling them into the comfortable sitting area near the roaring fire. Maya immediately installed herself on Gabriel’s lap and remained there, purring. Finally, after prolonging the inevitable for as long as he could, Aubrey sighed. “Dr. Stone...was taken ill a couple of weeks ago. He’s in hospital.”

Two shocked expressions met his announcement. “Ill?” Gabriel asked quickly. “Ill—in what way?” Again, he and Juliana exchanged glances.

Aubrey took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “Mentally...ill,” he said slowly. The words sounded like they were being pulled from him. It was the first time he had admitted it aloud.

Gabriel’s reaction was not what Aubrey had expected. He closed his eyes and bowed his head. “No...” he whispered. “I had hoped we could prevent—”

Juliana put a hand on his arm. “It’s all right,” she said softly. “We’ll do what we can.”

Aubrey looked at them rather suspiciously. “Are you saying that you knew something about what caused Dr. Stone’s—affliction?” he demanded.

“Only superficially,” Gabriel said, bringing his gaze back up to meet Aubrey’s. “I had hoped that we would arrive with enough time that we could attempt to prevent it—or that it had not affected Dr. Stone at all.” He leaned forward a bit, careful not to dislodge Maya from her perch. “Sir...can you tell us what happened? How this occurred?”

“Please—not ‘sir.’” Aubrey said automatically. “Just Aubrey. And what good will it do for me to tell you? Is there anything you can do about it?” His tone suggested that he was doubtful. What could a young man barely old enough to be one of Dr. Stone’s students and a woman who moved like one of his fearsome friends from his other life do, when the doctors could do nothing? He shook his head. “You’re welcome to stay for dinner, of course, and the night if you like—if you are friends of Dr. Stone’s, I wouldn’t send you back out on a night like this—but I truly doubt that there is any way you can be of help at this point.”

Gabriel sighed. “Aubrey...” he said gently, “If you have no other hope, could it do any harm to at least tell us what happened?”

Again, Aubrey looked at Maya, who was now totally relaxed in the young man’s lap. When she caught Aubrey looking at her, she fixed her green eyes on him with an expression that was almost human. He offered a silent prayer that he was doing the right thing, and then nodded. “All right. I’ll tell you. Let me go and put some more food on to cook, and we’ll talk in the dining room. Please make yourselves comfortable until then.”

Dinner was half an hour later. Fortunately there had just been a delivery earlier that day, so Aubrey had enough supplies to put together a decent meal for the newcomers. He tried not to think much about them while he cooked, because he knew that, when Dr. Stone’s Seattle friends were involved, it didn’t pay to try to draw conclusions with no evidence. Instead he busied himself putting the dining room in order and fixing dinner. When he caught glimpses of them as he went between the kitchen and the dining room, he saw that they were still seated by the fireplace, deep in conversation. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, though, and was too polite to attempt to eavesdrop.

When the three of them (four if you counted Maya, who had pried herself away from her new friend to investigate the plate of fresh fish Aubrey had prepared for her) were seated at the long dining table, Aubrey began the story, starting with Dr. Stone’s arrival a few weeks ago and his sleeping difficulties, followed by all the other little oddities about his behavior, and culminating with the story he had been told about Stone’s last night at the seminar. Both Gabriel and Juliana listened intently; Gabriel, especially, had an intensity to him that frightened Aubrey slightly even though there was nothing even remotely fearsome about it.

“So—you say that he was afraid of something he said was dead?” Gabriel asked when Aubrey had finished.

He nodded. “That was what Dr. Leifeld said—that he yelled something about ‘you are dead!’ before he...lost his mind.”

A shadow crossed the young man’s face. “You mentioned some papers in his briefcase—may I see them?”

Aubrey tilted his head. “They’re nothing but scribblings—Dr. Leifeld said—”

“Please, Aubrey.” Gabriel’s voice was soft but urgent. “At this point, everything might help.”

Aubrey paused a moment and then nodded and hurried out. He retrieved the briefcase from where he had placed it in Stone’s study and brought it back. Silently he passed it across the table to Gabriel.

While he carefully withdrew the papers and began examining them, Juliana attempted to make conversation. She looked around the dining room. “This is a beautiful house.”

“Thank you,” Aubrey said, glad for an opportunity to tear his gaze away from those papers with those disturbing scrawls. “It has been in Dr. Stone’s family for several hundred years.”

She nodded. “I’ve been to England before, but always London. I’ve never made it outside. It’s lovely here—peaceful.”

He smiled faintly at her. “I agree. The weather’s been a bit frightful lately, but that’s common for this time of year. You should see it in the summer. It—”

“Pardon me,” Gabriel interrupted, looking up from the papers with a very serious expression. “Aubrey, where did you say Dr. Stone was?”

“I...didn’t, sir,” he said quietly. “He is in a small, private hospital north of here. He—”

“Would it be possible for us to see him tonight?” Gabriel’s tone was soft and respectful, but insistent.

Aubrey shook his head. “No. Not this late. They only allow visitors during the day.” His gaze sharpened. “Why? Is something wrong?”

Gabriel carefully put the sheaf of papers back in the briefcase. “It’s imperative that we get to him as soon as we can, but we can’t arouse suspicion. When is the earliest we can be there in the morning?”

“Just a moment, sir,” Aubrey said, his tone resolute. “You must understand—Dr. Stone is my employer, and my friend. I look after his affairs, especially now that he can’t do so on his own. I have never met either of you before, and never heard Dr. Stone mention a Gabriel or a Juliana among his friends in Seattle. And now you come here telling me he’s in trouble, but won’t give me any details. Certainly you understand my reluctance to simply go along with your wishes, with nothing more than that to go on. What kind of danger is he in? How do you know this? Why is it necessary to get to him first thing tomorrow?”

Gabriel looked at Juliana, then back at Aubrey. He sighed. “All right,” he said softly. “I will tell you what I can tonight. You have a right to know, and I can sense that you have only Dr. Stone’s best interests at heart.”

“Of course I do!” Aubrey interrupted, almost indignant.

Gabriel nodded. “Come, then. It will take some time to tell you the story.”

For the first time in his memory, Aubrey left the dishes on the table. He followed Gabriel and Juliana out to the main hall, where they resumed their seats next to the fire. Aubrey hesitated, unsure of the motives of this young man with the eyes of someone much older and wiser, who spoke gently of things that Aubrey knew nothing about. He looked at Maya again, curled up once more on Gabriel’s lap, sighed, and nodded to Gabriel.

“Juliana and I have known Dr. Stone for a bit over a year,” the young man began, leaning slightly forward in his chair. He was clearly not relaxed, but his voice was calm. “Juliana is...a good friend of another of Dr. Stone’s acquaintances, a man who calls himself Ocelot.” Here Gabriel paused, waiting to see if there was any recognition.

Aubrey nodded. He had met Ocelot, or Terry as he knew him, on several occasions when he had visited Stone at the Manor. He looked at Juliana and realized that he was who she had been subtly reminding him of all evening. “We have met,” was all he said.

Gabriel appeared pleased at that, as if perhaps his story would not be so hard to tell after all. “Together over the course of the next few months, Dr. Stone, Ocelot, two of their other associates, and Juliana and I became involved in various...activities, involving, among other things, my brother.” Again he appeared to be waiting for any sign of recognition. This time he got none. He continued: “Aubrey, have you heard of the metaplanes?”

Aubrey nodded slowly. “I have heard of them, although I am not entirely certain what they are. Dr. Stone has spoken of them occasionally. They are—somewhat like the astral plane, but more difficult to reach, yes? Requiring a much more powerful mage?”

“Simply put, yes.” Gabriel paused a moment. “Our activities involved traveling to the metaplanes, and while we were there, various events occurred that resulted in our acquiring some powerful enemies. They also resulted in the death of my brother.”

Aubrey didn’t miss the look Juliana gave Gabriel when he said that. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” he murmured.

“Thank you.” Gabriel continued to speak softly, staring into the roaring fire. “This happened around six months ago. I had thought it was over, but apparently this is not the case. Our enemies seem to have located us again, and I believe that they are responsible for Dr. Stone’s insanity.”

Aubrey stared at him. “You’re saying—that these enemies from the metaplanes have driven Dr. Stone mad?” He took a deep breath. “How—could that happen? I thought that...things from other planes couldn’t affect us here unless they were summoned.” He was a little surprised he had remembered that; apparently Stone’s lectures had rubbed off on him more than he’d expected.

“Usually they can’t,” Gabriel agreed. “But these entities are...particularly attuned to us, due to some of the things that happened while we were in their realm. I did not think they were capable of reaching this far, but I now have reason to believe that they can.”

“Because of Dr. Stone.”

“Because of Dr. Stone and...other things.”

Aubrey paused. “You speak like a mage, young man, but yet, if you’ll forgive me, you don’t look as if you’re old enough to be dabbling in the kind of magic you speak of.”

Gabriel smiled. “I’m older than I look.”

Aubrey chose to let that go. “Are you saying that you might be able to help Dr. Stone? You certainly can’t cure him, can you? I assure you, the doctors at Sh—at the hospital where he is staying are the best money can buy, and all of them are powerful mages in their own right. How is it that you two think you can make a difference?”

“Because we know what’s wrong with him,” Juliana said, speaking for the first time in awhile. Aubrey almost looked startled to be reminded that she was still there.

“You can help him?” Aubrey hardly dared allow himself to hope. It was ridiculous to think that two unknown individuals could do anything, but—

“I think we can,” Gabriel said softly. “But we must get to him soon. It has already been too long. I think I can counteract their efforts, but the longer we wait, the more dangerous it will be, and the lower our chances for success.”

There was a long silence punctuated only by the crackling of the fire as Aubrey considered the young man’s words. Maya had opened one eye and was regarding him with it; she almost looked as if she was holding her breath in anticipation of his answer. Finally he sighed wearily. “I don’t see that I have any other choice,” he said. “The doctors aren’t helping him.” He met Gabriel’s comforting, intense gaze with a certain intensity of his own. “Tell me why I should trust you. Tell me what you’re going to do to help Dr. Stone, and I’ll drive you there myself first thing in the morning.”

An even longer silence hung in the air. Gabriel looked away, staring once more into the fire. He appeared to be trying to decide something. He turned back to Juliana, and it seemed as if an unspoken communication passed between the two of them. Juliana nodded once, gently; after a moment Gabriel sighed and he too nodded. “You care a great deal for Dr. Stone,” he said softly. “I can see that.”

Aubrey looked confused, but nodded. “Of course I do. What’s that got to do with—?”

Gabriel raised his hand. “You asked me to tell you why you should trust me. I will do that—by trusting you with something I rarely reveal to anyone. Perhaps then you will see the gravity of the situation—and the urgency.” He paused a moment, then met Aubrey’s eyes. “The reason I appear to have such knowledge of magic despite my youth is because I am not human.”

Aubrey’s eyes narrowed. “Not—human? Then...what are you? You don’t look like an elf—”

“I’m a dragon, Aubrey.”

Whatever Aubrey had been expecting to hear, that was not it. He dropped back into his chair and stared, shaking his head. His expression grew sharper as he forced himself to his feet again. “Sir, perhaps you and your friend should go. I don’t know who has put you up to this cruel joke, but I don’t—”

“Do I look like I am joking?” Gabriel asked.

And he did not. Aubrey had to concede that. Looking into the young man’s eyes, he had never seen anyone look more serious. He stopped again.

“I can prove it to you if you like,” Gabriel was saying, looking around the main hall as if gauging its size. “Although it might be a bit of a tight fit in here.”

“He’s not kidding.” Juliana’s soft voice once again startled Aubrey. “I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.”

Aubrey was clearly on unfamiliar ground. He looked at her. “Are—you—too?” he asked slowly.

She shook her head and grinned. “Nope. I’m as human as you are. I just hang out with ‘em.” She moved closer to Gabriel.

Aubrey backed away slightly, his gaze now fixed on the young man. A little fear showed in his eyes. “I don’t know if I believe you,” he said at last, his voice shaking some, “but if you are...a dragon...what interest do you have in Dr. Stone? I thought dragons—well—had their own things to do, and didn’t care about us humans.” He decided at the last moment not to add, except as light snacks.

“He is my friend.” Gabriel’s voice was very soft, very gentle. “I owe him and his companions a great deal—almost certainly my life. It is indirectly my fault that he is in the condition he is. If I did not do everything I could to help him—” he sighed “—then where would my honor be?”

Aubrey was looking into the fire again. “A dragon,” he whispered. It certainly didn’t surprise him that Dr. Stone had acquired yet another unusual friend, but a dragon? “It is a bit hard to believe,” he said apologetically.

Gabriel nodded. “I know. May I?” He indicated the huge open area of the hall.

“Is it...safe?” Aubrey’s eyes widened.

Juliana put a hand on his shoulder and smiled. “He would die before he would hurt anyone he cared about,” she said. A brief sad look crossed her face and then Gabriel’s, but Aubrey didn’t see either one.

Aubrey considered. After a few moments he nodded once, backing up until his back was against the stones of the fireplace.

Gabriel moved into the middle of the room and faced them. For a moment, he smiled, and then space seemed to ripple around him. He was changing—his form was growing larger, taller, his dark suit morphing into golden scales, his handsome face transforming into something longer, still beautiful but in a far different way, bristling with fangs. When the change was complete, the creature he had become took up most of the room in the hall, its tail wrapped carefully around its hindquarters. Luminous violet eyes regarded Aubrey with gentle amusement. “There. How is that?

Juliana caught Aubrey as he fainted.

When Aubrey returned to his senses he was lying on the couch in the sitting area, covered with a blanket. Gabriel and Juliana were sitting opposite him. The young man was back to his human form, and Maya was once more in his lap, watching Aubrey worriedly.

“Are you all right, Aubrey?” Gabriel asked, his soft voice concerned. “Shall I bring you something—?”

Aubrey put a hand to his head and attempted to sit up. Immediately Juliana was there next to him, helping him to a seated position. “Careful,” she said with a little smile. “No more fainting, okay?”

That brought everything crashing back. He stared at Gabriel. “You—you were—” He pointed at the hall.

Gabriel nodded. “I’m sorry—I didn’t think you would faint.” He too seemed amused by the whole thing, but it was a kindly sort of amusement.

“It’s okay,” Kestrel assured him with a wink. “He’s pretty scary the first time you see him—but you get used to him eventually.” Playfully she reached out and ruffled Gabriel’s hair.

Aubrey took a deep breath. Life was getting complicated, and it was doing it at far too rapid a pace for his liking. But still—Dr. Stone needed help, and if anyone could help him—

He looked up at Gabriel. “You wouldn’t hurt him?” he asked quietly.

“I give you my word that I would die myself before I did anything to harm him.” Gabriel’s voice was soft, but the inflection in it was in the tone of a vow.

Aubrey smiled weakly and nodded. “All right. I’ll take you there in the morning.” He lowered his gaze, meeting the eyes of Maya. “You approve, don’t you, my dear?”

Mrrow,” Maya stated, leaping across from Gabriel’s lap to a spot next to Aubrey.

And that, more than anything else, cemented the whole thing.

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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.