Even without nightmares to plague their rest, none of the runners managed to stay asleep past about seven o’clock that morning.
Winterhawk was one of the first to awaken; the morning light streaming in through his window brought him up from what had been a slightly troubled but mostly peaceful slumber. He sat up, running a hand back through his disarrayed hair, and considered his situation. He still felt tired, but it was the sort of tired he could deal with.
He encountered Ocelot on his way to the bathroom to have a shower. “Morning...” he muttered.
“Yeah. Not so loud, okay?” Ocelot’s voice was gravelly. “You think dragons keep aspirin around?”
‘Wraith and Joe were not long in joining them, and the four of them managed to work around each other to get themselves at least somewhat presentable in about an hour. Fortunately, Gabriel kept his guest bathrooms well stocked; they had to wear the same clothes they had worn the previous day, but at least they were clean.
When they arrived in the front room, Kestrel was already there, sprawled across one of the couches with one foot over the top. She was reading a magazine, but she tossed it aside and looked up as the others came in. “Morning,” she said. She appeared more chipper than they did; apparently she kept spare clothes here because she was wearing a different pair of jeans and T-shirt than yesterday. “You guys sleep well?”
“Well enough,” Winterhawk told her.
“No more nightmares, at least,” Joe added.
Ocelot looked around. “Speaking of nightmares—which reminds me of dragons—has our host shown up yet?”
Kestrel swung around and faced them over the back of the couch. She shook her head. “Haven’t seen him all morning. Like I said, though—he was really tired last night. Let’s give him a little time. It is early.”
So they settled down to wait. After an hour and no sign of Gabriel, even Kestrel was starting to show signs of restlessness. “It’s not like him to go off by himself this long—especially not after what happened last night.”
Ocelot glanced toward the other side of the room, then back at her. “Could you maybe...go check on him? If he’s asleep you can leave him alone, but I think we all want to have a talk with him.”
Winterhawk nodded. “Indeed. Tell him afterward we’ll all be happy to buzz off and let him sleep for the rest of the day if that’s what he wants.”
Kestrel sighed. “Yeah...I think maybe you’re right. I keep thinking about what happened at the chalet—I’d hate to think he had another incident like that and nobody knows...” She gracefully got up and headed off. “I’ll at least go knock on his door. Just hang out here and I’ll be back in a minute.”
It wasn’t much more than a minute before she returned. All four of the runners could see from the look in her eyes that something was wrong. They were on their feet immediately as she approached. Ocelot took a step toward her. “Kestrel—?”
“He’s not in there,” she said softly.
“What do you mean, he’s not in there?” Joe demanded.
“He’s not here. I knocked on his door, and when there was no answer, I opened it. It wasn’t locked. His bed looked like it had been slept in, but he was nowhere to be found.” She paused. “I think something’s wrong.”
“Hold on,” Winterhawk said, making a slow down gesture. “This is a big place. He could be somewhere else, couldn’t he?”
“Why would he get up and not tell us?” Joe asked. “He knew we’d want to see him before we left—”
Kestrel held up her hands. She looked frazzled; it was only then that the other runners could see that she held something: a piece of folded paper. “What’s that?” Joe asked.
“I found it on his bed.” She bowed her head, holding the paper out to them. The outside read simply, Friends. “He knew we’d find it there when we went looking for him...” she murmured.
Winterhawk gently took the note from her nerveless hand. After glancing quickly at his teammates, he broke the seal. For a moment he just stared at whatever was printed inside, and then he began to read in a soft tone that shook slightly as he went on.
My dear friends,
I apologize for leaving you in this way. I wish it could have been otherwise, but I hope you will forgive me when you understand why I have done this.
I know about your dreams last night. I know because I had one as well, and what I have learned from it has at last revealed to me the reason why we have been plagued by the Enemy’s attacks. I will tell you now what I have learned, with the hope that you will understand what I ask and why I was forced to act. I owe you the truth after all we have been through together.
Stefan—or at least some part of his essence, the thing that made him Stefan—still exists. I will not use the word ‘lives’, for that in no way describes the experiences he has endured since the day when he cast himself and his foe into the Chasm. His body is dead, but this part of him remains. I do not know how the Enemy has managed this, but I am certain now that they have done so.
“My God...” Kestrel whispered.
“So that really was Stefan calling to us...” Joe added.
Winterhawk did not reply; instead he continued reading:
Somehow, Stefan had managed to find a way to reach out across the Netherworlds in an attempt to contact me, to seek my aid. He was not aware of the fact that the Enemy learned of his plans and used them to serve their own ends—by adding their ‘signal’ to his. It was the only way they could hope to reach this world. Further, Stefan did not realize that because of the link he had shared with you at the end of our time on the Netherworlds, he had a closer bond to all of you than he had expected. The madness we experienced was the result of the Enemy’s attempt to use Stefan’s signal to reach our minds.
Winterhawk looked up; four pairs of eyes were riveted on him, shifting back and forth between his face and the letter. He drew a deep breath and continued:
Apparently the ritual to block the Enemy’s influence was effective, but because it was not designed to block Stefan’s message as well, he was at last able to get through to us. That was the cause of the dreams you had last night. Without the Enemy to intercept his attempt to reach us, Stefan succeeded in doing what he had intended to do all along—to contact me and inform me of his plight. I believe the fact that he reached all of us was an unintended consequence brought on by the remains of the mental link.
“So...he’s gone off to the metaplanes to rescue Stefan?” Ocelot demanded. “Or his ghost, or whatever? The Horrors have got him?”
“Let him finish,” ‘Wraith said.
Winterhawk had been scanning ahead a bit during the interruption; his eyes grew wide. “Wait...we’re not done yet. Listen.”
As you might have already surmised, I cannot leave Stefan to the Enemy. I must do what I can to help him, and therefore I have departed to my lair where I will travel to the Netherworlds to seek him and attempt to free his spirit from their imprisonment. Please do not try to follow me; I am grateful for your loyalty and friendship, but there is no need for any of you to risk yourselves in this attempt.
Before you protest, there is one other thing I must tell you. I do this reluctantly, as I am still coming to terms with it myself.
I did not escape unscathed from the Enemy during our last battle. As it has been revealed to me in my dream, I know now that I have been marked, much as Stefan was marked. It is very weak, its power over me nonexistent now—but I know that I must either defeat the one who holds it or live forever in fear that its power will some day begin to grow stronger. It was not only Stefan who came to me in my dream, but the Enemy; I know that if I do not defeat it, it will strike out not only at me but at those I hold dear until at last I am forced to seek it out on its own terms. I cannot allow this.
Please, I ask again: do not seek me and do not attempt to follow. If I am successful, I will return to you and we will be rid of this foul cloud over our lives once and for all. If I am not—then it is my hope that at least the Enemy will no longer have interest in all of you and so you will be safe and free.
The Enemy should not trouble you again, but if you desire it you are welcome to remain in my home for as long as you like. The wards are strong and should protect you against all but the most potent of attacks.
You are all very dear to me. I hope that we will meet again. Until then, be well.
Winterhawk’s arm dropped to his side, still holding the note. “That’s it,” he said. His voice was numb.
“Oh, shit...” Ocelot whispered. His gaze traveled around the small circle of his friends. “I think I need to get very, very drunk right now...”
Kestrel was staring at the note. She reached out for it, and when Winterhawk didn’t move, she took it from his hand. Bowing her head, she began to read it over again.
“Now what do we do?” Joe asked as if Ocelot had not spoken. Like the others his voice was low, almost hushed.
“We have to go after him, of course.” Kestrel looked up from the note.
“He said he didn’t want us to follow him,” Joe reminded her, but everyone present could hear the tone of a token protest without any conviction behind it.
“Yeah, yeah...” Ocelot sighed, beginning to pace again. “Sure he did. And we all know how well we listened to him last time.” He stopped briefly. “Let’s look at this for a minute, guys. Stefan’s not dead. Is Gabriel sure of that? Could the Horrors be fooling him? They’re kinda good at that, you know.”
Winterhawk began subtly herding the group over toward a sitting area. “It certainly felt like Stefan in my dream. And stranger things have happened. We didn’t actually see him die, after all.”
“Doesn’t matter,” ‘Wraith spoke up.
Everyone turned to look at him; he hadn’t said anything in awhile. Joe tilted his head. “Huh?”
The elf shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. He’s gone regardless. Must go after him.”
“True,” Winterhawk admitted. “If Gabriel’s gone off to do battle with the Horrors again, it doesn’t matter if Stefan’s alive or if they’ve somehow managed to fool him—and all of us—into believing that Stefan’s alive. Either way Gabriel’s still out there.”
Kestrel bowed her head. “Why did he have to do this?” she asked softly. “Go off on his own, I mean. We could have helped him—”
Ocelot shook his head. “You know him better than we do. You know the answer to that.”
She nodded. “Yeah...I do. But I don’t have to like it.” She looked around the room, then back down at the note she still held.
Ocelot stood up. “Anybody else need a drink?”
When no one answered, he hurried out to the kitchen and came back with another bottle of Scotch and five glasses. He poured one, then looked questioningly at his friends. They all shook their heads; he shrugged and settled back in his chair with his glass.
“Okay,” Joe said. “So we’re gonna go after him, right?”
Everyone nodded. “Yes,” ‘Wraith said.
“Yeah,” Ocelot said with another sigh. “And not just ‘cause we owe it to him, either. Let’s face it—he’s got no real way to know if the Horrors are gonna leave us alone now that he’s gone. He’s just hoping.”
“What about this mark he’s talking about?” Joe asked, looking mostly at Winterhawk.
The mage shrugged. “I don’t know. It sounds nasty...and it sounds like he didn’t even know about it until he had the dream.”
“Could it control him?” Ocelot leaned forward. The last thing he wanted to do was be forced to fight a Horror-possessed Gabriel.
“He says not yet,” Kestrel said, holding up the note. “He says it doesn’t have any influence yet but it could some day. That’s why he has to go find who did it and destroy them.”
“What I’m wondering about is who could have done it?” Winterhawk mused. He froze. When he spoke again, his words were slow and measured: “If Stefan isn’t dead—”
“—maybe the other one isn’t either...” Ocelot stared at him, then tossed back his drink and poured another. “Is it okay if I just go jump off a bridge now and get it over with?”
“Now wait a minute,” Joe said. “Wouldn’t he have said something if he knew that one was still alive? Could it be some other Horror?”
Winterhawk sighed. “I don’t think we have any way to know. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it fairly blind. But whatever we do, it had best be soon. I suspect we don’t have a great deal of time to dither about it.”
Joe nodded. “Yeah.”
Kestrel stood. “Okay, then. What are we waiting for? Let’s go.”
“Wait.” Again, ‘Wraith’s quiet voice spoke up.
“What?” Everyone turned to look at him.
“Go after him. How?”
As the reality of that sunk in, Kestrel dropped back down to her seat.
Winterhawk sighed. “Good point. We hadn’t even thought of that. How are we going to get there?”
“There’s no way you can take us, is there?” Ocelot asked, even though he already knew the answer.
The mage shook his head. “No. I can get myself over—maybe—although I’m not anything like certain I could find the proper spot. And forgive me, but I don’t fancy going alone.”
“What about Harlequin?” Joe said. “He helped us last time.”
“And we’re gonna contact him how?” Ocelot shook his head. “We don’t exactly have his number on our speed-dialer. At least I don’t, and if you guys do it’s time to have a talk.”
For several moments they were all silent. “We could try to see if Harry could come up with something,” Joe suggested. “He might know someone who can—”
“No.” ‘Wraith shook his head. “No outsiders. Too dangerous.”
‘Hawk nodded. “Besides, the odds that Harry would know someone who could send four mundanes and a mage to the farthest reaches of the metaplanes—”
Ocelot got up and once again began pacing. All this inactivity was beginning to get to him, especially now that it looked like they had arrived at a decision and discovered that they had no way to implement it. “Damn it,” he growled, “There’s got to be a way.” As uncomfortable as he was feeling about doing this, now that they had decided to do it, he wanted to get on with it. He was feeling even more uncomfortable about remaining here and, as ‘Hawk had put it, ‘dithering’. “Anybody got the direct line into Saeder-Krupp?”
Joe sighed. “It’s too bad we don’t know any other dragons.”
Winterhawk nodded. “Well, we don’t, so we might as well—”
“Wait a minute!” Kestrel’s eyes were bright with excitement as she broke in. “We do!”
The mage tilted his head and frowned. “We do?”
She forced herself to calm. “No...I mean...I do. Sort of. Gabriel does, anyway.” Frustration crossed her features as she realized she wasn’t making sense.
Ocelot put a hand on her shoulder. “Slow down. What are you talking about?”
She took a deep breath. “What I’m talking about is that I know how to get hold of a dragon who might be willing to help us.”
The runners stared at her. “How?” ‘Wraith asked.
“Who?” Joe asked at the same time.
“She’s a friend of Gabriel’s. He went to stay with her for awhile after Stefan—after Stefan’s memorial. When he had his incident at the chalet in Switzerland, he had me call her. She sent a spirit to help him. Remember—I think I mentioned her before when I told you what happened.”
“Where is she?” Winterhawk leaned forward, eyes fixed on her. “Do you still know how to contact her?”
Kestrel pulled out her portable phone. “She’s in Cal Free somewhere,” she said as she twiddled with the buttons on the tiny instrument. “I just hope I didn’t clear out her number—no! Here it is!” She held up the phone triumphantly, but then her expression clouded as she looked back at her friends. “There’s just one thing—”
“What?” Ocelot had settled back down on the couch next to her again.
“Well...she doesn’t like humans.”
Everyone paused for a moment, then Ocelot shrugged. “That’s okay. We’ll just send ‘Wraith and Joe to talk to her.”
Kestrel shook her head. “No. I mean—she doesn’t like humans or metahumans. She’s kind of—dragon-centric. She only talked to me because Gabriel was in trouble...and he was right there.”
“He’s in trouble again,” Joe pointed out. “Just tell her that.”
She nodded with a sigh. “Yeah. I just hope she doesn’t hang up on me before I can get through to her.” She looked at them, then around the room. “Is this ever gonna be over?” she asked softly.
“I damn sure hope so,” Ocelot said. “C’mon—let’s see what we can find out and get this show on the road before I lose what’s left of my nerve.”
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.