“How much longer do you think it’s gonna be?” Ocelot asked. He was pacing again; it was not by any means the first time.

It had been nearly eight hours since they had arrived back in Seattle. After landing they had taken a waiting limo back to Gabriel’s apartment, with one quick stop at the market to allow Joe to load up on food. Gabriel had told them that the preparation for the final ritual would be a long and painstaking one and that they would need to wait elsewhere in the apartment to avoid distracting him as he constructed the circle. As the apartment was large enough to accommodate a dragon, the others didn’t argue too much (even Winterhawk, who was sufficiently stressed out by the whole situation that even his catlike curiosity about the circle-casting had been put on hold for the duration). The only request Joe had made was that they could pick up some food and drink before they began. Gabriel, realizing that the contents of his refrigerator—or lack thereof—wouldn’t keep his guests happy for very long, agreed that this was a reasonable cause for a stop. Joe had outdone himself, returning to the car twenty minutes later with his massive arms full of bags of groceries.

That had been about seven hours ago, and the natives were beginning to get restless. Upon arriving back at the apartment, Gabriel had shown them to a wing they hadn’t seen before, consisting of a large and well-equipped media room, a library full of both real and chip-based books, and several smaller rooms containing beds, couches, and comfortable chairs where they could rest. The wing had access to the kitchen and two full bathrooms (one with a jacuzzi big enough for Joe to sit in and the rest of the team to swim in) but Gabriel closed off the door leading to the front part of the apartment. “Please don’t disturb me until I come back to get you,” he had told them. “I’ve never done a circle like this before, and I’ll need all of my concentration to make certain nothing goes wrong.”

That didn’t fill his companions with confidence, but they could see how tired he was looking, so they didn’t press the matter. All of them were tired from their exertions, but the added strain of maintaining the spell over three of them was showing more and more on the young dragon. They all knew this had to be done, and it had to be done soon.

‘Wraith, for his part, had been mostly silent, observing the odd behavior of his captors with curiosity and a little trepidation. As time had gone on, though, some of his fear had begun to melt away. None of them had been anything but kind to him—they had made sure he had what he needed, that he was comfortable, and they didn’t watch over him too closely as if they expected him to escape. He still didn’t know what was going on, but he decided to bide his time and see what happened before making a final determination.

The rest of the team entertained themselves in various ways: Joe and Kestrel fired up the trideo screen, which was the size of one that might be found in a small commercial theater, and, after a brief discussion, settled down to view one of the latest action trids. Winterhawk adjourned to the library, where he examined the books and then spent the next couple of hours studying a few that had particularly caught his interest. Ocelot paced, exploring the confines of their large waiting area like a cat looking for a crack in the cage.

Each of them throughout the course of the day took a turn at the jacuzzi or the elaborate shower in the other bathroom, feeling refreshed to be clean once again, and all of them made serious inroads into the huge stock of groceries Joe had gathered. They took naps. Winterhawk joined Kestrel at the trid while Joe spent awhile in the library. Kestrel and Ocelot did some sparring. ‘Wraith found a chair in a quiet corner of the room and waited.

Eventually they all began to get fidgety. There was only so long you could spend entertaining yourself when you knew there was something big and bad-ass happening in the other room—especially if you weren’t allowed to go look at it. Ocelot had managed to hold his question for most of the day, but at last he couldn’t take it anymore. “How much longer?” he repeated. “‘Hawk, any idea?”

Winterhawk shook his head. “Afraid not. Even if I were to profess any knowledge of normal dragon rituals, which this is assuredly not, I wouldn’t begin to hazard a guess.” He kept his voice down so as not to disturb ‘Wraith, who seemed to be dozing in a chair on the other side of the room. The other four of them had gathered in one of the sitting areas to discuss their situation.

Joe sighed. “I guess I’ll go make another kitchen run—anybody else want something to eat?”

Everyone else shook their heads; eating was increasingly becoming the last thing on their minds as the clock continued to tick away the hours.

“Okay, then,” the troll said, rising. “I guess I’ll just go—” He stopped, staring past him. “Or maybe I won’t.”

The others turned to see what he was looking at.

Gabriel stood in the doorway of the room they were in, his hands gripping either side of the door frame. If he had looked tired before, he looked nearly exhausted now. Nonetheless, he gave them a faint smile. “I apologize for keeping you back here so long,” he said. “The circle is prepared. I am ready to begin whenever you are.”

Even Winterhawk, who had seen many ritual circles in his day, stopped cold when he saw the one Gabriel had prepared this time. The others moved out around him, each one in turn halting to stare as they got a look at it.

Gabriel had done something to the windows such that, despite the fact that it was still only early afternoon, the huge room was nearly dark. The only illumination was supplied by the circle itself, which glowed with its own inner light.

There were no candles or crystals this time; the glow came from the hundreds of intricately-wrought sigils, symbols, and tracings that took up a significant portion of the middle of the floor. The primary color of the glow was blue, but the runners could see traces of purples, reds, golds, and greens throughout its structure. The overall effect was very beautiful, quite eerie, and fairly crackling with mystical power.

“Wow,” Joe said.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Winterhawk agreed. He looked at Gabriel, who stood near the circle, watching them. No wonder he was tired, if he had created all of that in less than eight hours.

“What—what is going on?” came a voice from behind them.

All of them turned to look. ‘Wraith stood there, regarding the circle and Gabriel with a wide-eyed look of fear. “What are you going to do?”

“It has to be done, Jonathan,” Winterhawk told him, moving closer to him. He spoke gently but firmly. “We’re all going to have to do it. We’ve all had a similar problem to yours—something’s been mucking about with our brains. The only reason Gabriel here hasn’t fixed you temporarily like he did the rest of us is because it was easier for him to just do the whole thing once and for all. Do you understand?”

‘Wraith shook his head. “I don’t think I understand anything anymore,” he said, rather miserably. “I just wish someone would tell me what I’m doing here.”

Joe approached. “We’re your friends. You don’t recognize us right now, but you will when this is over. Winterhawk’s right—your head got scrambled some, just like the rest of us, and now Gabriel’s gonna fix it.”

Jonathan paused, looking back and forth between the two of them, and then over at the circle again. “I don’t really have a choice, do I?” He sounded as if he was resigned to his fate.

Winterhawk shook his head ruefully. “I’m afraid not, old boy. But we’ll be right there with you, don’t you worry. And when it’s over, you’ll be glad you did it.”

“We must begin.” Gabriel’s soft voice broke in before they could continue their discussion.

The runners moved over to stand near him, Joe remaining subtly behind ‘Wraith so he didn’t attempt to run away.

Up close, the circle was even more beautiful. From this distance the observers could make out the fact that there appeared to be words interwoven with the symbols, but none of them recognized the language. The glow lit the room with a comforting bluish illumination. “Where do you want us?” Winterhawk asked. “Around the outside, like last time?”

Gabriel shook his head. “No. For this ritual, we must all be in contact. It will be more similar in form to what you experienced with Stefan on the metaplanes.”

That sent a shiver through four of the five runners as that particular memory crept back into their minds. “We’re not gonna all get each other’s thoughts again, are we?” Ocelot asked. His voice shook a bit. That was not an experience he wanted to repeat.

“No.” Kestrel had told Gabriel about the experience after he had returned from his three-month absence, so he knew about it even though he hadn’t been through it personally. “No...there might be some overlap, but not nearly the intensity. It should feel more like a...cleansing.” He spoke slowly, carefully.

Kestrel moved over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay?” she asked softly.

He gave her a faraway smile. “I will be. When this is over, I will be.” Indicating the circle, he said, “Come.”

When he had finished placing the five runners in their positions, they were seated around a smaller circle in the inner part of the larger one. There was an open space at the circle’s head; he would occupy it when he was ready to begin. Currently, Winterhawk sat to the right of the open spot, with Ocelot next to him, then ‘Wraith, then Joe, and finally Kestrel finishing the circle on his left. ‘Wraith was quiet, taking in everything without comment or protest. It was difficult for the others to watch him, because his bearing suggested that he firmly believed that he would not leave the ritual alive. There was no time for reassurances, though—they all knew such reassurances wouldn’t be needed after the ceremony had completed its purpose.

Gabriel lowered himself gracefully down into the open position, his gaze traveling around the circle to meet each of the runners’ in turn. He was all business now, no smiling, but there was an air of serenity about him that helped to put the rest of the participants at ease, at least as much as it was possible to do so. “Join hands,” he said, his voice soft and even.

The runners did as instructed, except that Joe and Ocelot having to clasp ‘Wraith’s hands because he did not make any move to volunteer. As Kestrel and Winterhawk completed the circuit with Gabriel, they all felt a low thrumming energy coursing through the circle. Around them, the glows of the sigils increased their intensity a bit.

“Close your eyes...try to relax...” Gabriel murmured. “I will be reaching out to each of you...touching your minds...but there will be no intrusion. I seek only to drive from you what is not meant to be there. Try not to resist...” He continued, his voice forming what was almost a soft chant. The words weren’t important anymore after a time; there was only the voice: low, whispered, hypnotic.

Next to him, Winterhawk felt his consciousness begin to slip into a trancelike state. It was not unlike the feeling he experienced when he sent his spirit to the astral plane, but there was a subtle difference to it. Instead of the sense of separation, he experienced instead a sense of peace, of oneness, both with himself and with his friends. Some corner of his mind recalled the time Ocelot had spoken of: the time when all of their lives had depended on their ability to merge minds with Stefan, to act as one being to stop something that as separate entities they had no power to stop—but it didn’t feel like that either. He could sense the others there with him: Ocelot’s stubborn strength, Kestrel’s determination, Joe’s heart, Jonathan’s confusion that was just beginning to give way to ‘Wraith’s understanding, Gabriel’s rock-solid resolve—he let his mind drift over these, adding to them his own certainty that this was the right thing to do. As the ritual progressed in a sort of timeless fashion, he continued to shift between moments of clarity and moments of this strange cosmic awareness of everything around him and of nothing.

And then Gabriel was in his mind. It was a sudden thing but not unpleasant, not intrusive. There were still no words, only a sense of calm and purpose. He watched as from a distance as the dark fog to which he had become accustomed began to slowly fade, to ebb away like the morning mist after the sun has fully risen. He sensed that he could aid this process and so he did, clearing away the fog more quickly, removing the last vestiges of cobwebs from his mind. He realized suddenly that what Gabriel had done before, back in England, had been nothing more than a metaphorical sweeping under the rug of the dark things that had been attempting to overwhelm him; it had been a necessary thing and it had worked, but he saw how it would not have been possible to hold those things back indefinitely. Now, though, the windows were open, the light let in, and the dark things under the rug whisked away to dissipate into nothingness. The last thing he felt before the presence gently disengaged and moved on to Ocelot was the careful closing up and shoring up of his mind, the sealing of the cracks so as to not allow the dark things to seep back in again. The light was still there, shining strong and pure through the windows, but the openings through which his mind had been invaded previously had been safely fortified. As the presence left him and moved on, he felt as if a heavy weight that he did not even know he had been carrying had been lifted from him. The tenseness in his body relaxed as a gentle, comforting darkness settled over him. He smiled.

When Winterhawk opened his eyes and returned to awareness of the world around him, it was dark. He looked around, regaining his bearings, and noticed that his friends were still seated around the remains of the inner part of the circle, just as he was. The beautiful glow was gone now; in fact, there was no real indication that the circle was still there now beyond the fact that the six of them were still in the same positions.

All around him, his friends were awakening. He watched them, wondering if they felt as he did: refreshed, cleansed, and tired with the good honest fatigue that accompanies any worthwhile effort.

The only one of their number who did not appear to be awakening was Gabriel. He sat in his place like the others, his posture slumped slightly, watching them with glittering eyes. His expression was that of a man who had exhausted himself performing a duty that he knew he must perform, but who was well satisfied with the results. His hair was plastered to his forehead; his arms hung limply at his sides.

“It—worked, didn’t it?” Winterhawk asked, even though he already knew the answer.

Gabriel nodded slowly. “Yes. I—think so.” His gaze settled on ‘Hawk for a moment, then moved to take in the others. “Are you all—well?”

Ocelot was stretching out his muscles, testing himself to see how he was feeling. “Yeah, I think so,” he said at last. He turned to his other side. “‘Wraith?” His voice was tentative; like the others he was holding his breath in anticipation of the result of that query.

The elf looked down at himself, then up at Ocelot. His eyes showed question, but there was something subtly different about the look. “Explain,” he said.

Joe grinned. “Good to have you back, ‘Wraith.” He looked at Gabriel. “Is it okay to get up now? Is it done?”

The young man nodded wearily. “It is over. I have removed the Enemy’s influence from our minds, and taken steps to see that they are not able to attack us again. You are free to do as you wish.”

Kestrel, who had not experienced the influences as the others had, was feeling marginally more awake than they were. She put a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “Are you okay?” she asked.

Again he nodded. He gave her a similar smile to the one he had given her before the ritual began. “I told you I would be fine when this was over. It is over now.”

“Explain,” ‘Wraith said again. He was looking around, taking in the fact that he was in Gabriel’s apartment, his confusion evident in his clipped speech.

“Is anybody else hungry?” Joe asked. “Maybe we could order some pizzas or something and tell ‘Wraith what’s going on.”

“That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” Ocelot agreed.

And so that was what they did. Kestrel called out for delivery and arranged to be downstairs to meet the man when he arrived; less than an hour later they were seated around a big table in another part of the apartment with several large boxes spread out in front of them.

Strangely, ‘Wraith did not have a strong reaction to what he was told—at least not one that any of the runners could see. If Gabriel saw anything, he said nothing of it. The elf listened as Winterhawk told the main part of the story, embellished by details from Joe, Ocelot, and Kestrel. ‘Hawk told not only of what happened to ‘Wraith, but what happened to all the rest of the team as well, with each participant filling in details for his or her own story. ‘Wraith nodded occasionally, his hands steepled, his eyes closed, but said little. When they finished, he opened his eyes and once again nodded. “Don’t remember much,” he said in his typical terse fashion, the more sociable tones of Jonathan Andrews having disappeared as if they had never been. “Better that way, I think.”

Winterhawk nodded. “Yes, I’ll agree with that. I don’t like losing nearly a month of my life, but all things considered I think I’d rather just put the whole thing behind me and move on.”

Kestrel looked over at Gabriel, who hadn’t eaten much and appeared to be deep in thought. “Gabriel?”

For a moment he didn’t answer, then looked up as if startled. “Yes?”

“Are you okay? You were zoning out a little there.”

The young man nodded. “I’m fine. Just a bit tired.”

“A bit.” She shook her head at him in mock disapproval, then sighed. “If you’re half as tired as I am, it’s a wonder you’re still upright.”

“That’s a point.” Ocelot bit into a slice of pizza and swallowed before speaking, washing it down with a healthy swig of beer. “What do you guys want to do now?”

Even though he wasn’t being completely clear, everybody knew what he meant. They had been avoiding the question, consciously or unconsciously, throughout the course of the meal: now that they were safe from the Horrors’ influence on their minds, what now? Did they just say goodnight and leave, heading back to their own places and continuing their lives as if nothing had occurred? Did they stay together for awhile to make sure nothing else happened? Did they call Harry and tell him they were ready for a job?

Joe paused in mid-bite. “I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but I don’t know if I just want to take off and go home quite yet.”

‘Wraith nodded. “Agreed.” He too had been very quiet while the others had been talking; everyone present could tell that he was still coming to terms with what had happened to him and, like the rest of them, would likely be doing so for the foreseeable future. They left him alone, as that was probably the kindest thing they could do for him.

“You are welcome to stay here as long as you wish,” Gabriel said softly. “I can see that you are all tired; perhaps it would be best if you remained here tonight and decided what you want to do in the morning.”

Various brief looks of relief passed over the faces of the four teammates: none of them would have brought it up, but all of them were, on some subconscious level, hoping he would issue just such an invitation. For now, at least, this place felt safer than the unknown represented by the rest of the city. Winterhawk looked around at his friends’ faces and then back at Gabriel. “I think we’d like that. Thank you.”

Ocelot nodded. “Yeah. We can decide what to do tomorrow. Me, I think I’d like to get a good night’s sleep and then see about picking up a job.”

“We have to call Harry and tell him we found ‘Wraith,” Joe reminded them.

“In the morning.” Winterhawk finished his last slice of pizza and tossed the crust back on his plate. “He’ll understand—even if we don’t tell him everything, he’ll understand.”

“I don’t think he wants to know everything,” Ocelot agreed.

The four of them finished up and rose from the table. As the night wore on, the heavy feeling of fatigue was descending on them with increasing rapidity. Gabriel pointed out to them where there were bedrooms they could use (the apartment seemed to have everything, but nobody questioned why a guy who lived alone had so many extra bedrooms—it just didn’t seem important at the time) and they made their goodnights and headed off to attempt to sleep. They weren’t sure if they would succeed, but at least the rest would do them good. Tomorrow was another day, and a new beginning.

Kestrel followed Gabriel back out toward the front part of the apartment. “So,” she said softly, “Is it really over?”

Gabriel gave her a weary smile and nodded. “I think so. The ritual was a strong one, and I was careful to block off any avenues of influence. I can’t be certain, of course—no one can be certain of this sort of thing, not even one far more powerful than I—but I am reasonably sure that it is over.”

She smiled, gripping his arm briefly before letting go again. “And they’ll be okay?”

Again he nodded. “I believe so. They have strong minds, and they have encountered similar things before. I am confident in their ability to deal with this.”

“What about yours?” There was no smile now—she was looking at him very seriously.

He shrugged. “It is over. I will have to live with the fact that I hurt you until the day I die, but—”

“No, Gabriel.” Kestrel shook her head. “Forget about that. I told you, I forgive you. I just mean—is this whole thing going to mess with your head? You got the worst of it, and you had to deal with it in all of us.”

Gabriel paused a moment before answering. “I am glad that I was able to stop it,” he said at last. “That will have to do for now.”

Kestrel nodded, deciding not to push it at this point. “You’d better go rest,” she told him, giving him a gentle shove in the direction of the other side of the apartment. “You’ve taken care of us—now take care of yourself.”

He smiled. “Yes, mother.” He leaned forward and gently kissed her forehead; it was the gesture of a friend rather than that of a lover. “I will see you in the morning, then. Sleep well, Juliana.”

She stood there for a moment, watching him as he crossed the room and disappeared into the darkness. “‘Night,” she whispered, then headed to her own bedroom. She hoped that the night would pass peacefully for all of them—they certainly deserved it after all they’d been through.

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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.