The runners followed Uneki back down the hallway and through the front part of the house. Upon reaching the massive main room, the spirit turned and headed toward the back. They traversed another short hallway and came upon a set of wooden double doors decorated with intricately carved dragons of both the Western and Eastern variety. Uneki pushed the doors open and motioned them through.

As they moved into the room they all tried not to stare. The dining room was long and relatively narrow, with a high ceiling and walls covered in paintings and carvings of what looked like African and Egyptian craftsmanship. The table was of simple design and the finest wood, covered with a cloth of white linen; the chairs were tall and straight-backed, three on each side and one at each end. The place settings were of fine china, heavy crystal, and golden tableware. Lighting was provided by unobtrusive sconces along the wall and three large candles spaced along the center of the table.

All of this, however, was not what they were trying not to stare at. That honor was reserved for the figure at the head of the table.

She did not rise as they entered, and she did not smile, although her expression was in no way inhospitable. “Welcome to my home,” she said. Her voice was low, soft, and rather deep, with a slight unidentifiable accent; it had an ageless, precise quality to it that dominated the room even though she did not raise it. “I am Neferet. Please—sit down.”

The runners did as they were told, moving as silently as they could manage. Kestrel took the seat to Neferet’s right and Winterhawk the one to her left. Ocelot sat next to Kestrel, ‘Wraith next to ‘Hawk, and Joe rounded out the party by lowering himself carefully into the chair next to Ocelot. Surprisingly, it held without even a creak under his bulk.

Neferet watched them, silent and expressionless, as they settled in. With her skin the color of rich chocolate, her tall, slender form sheathed in a pale cream-colored gown adorned with a wide necklace of shimmering gold, and her head covered with a simple wrap that matched her gown, she resembled nothing more than one of the queens of ancient Egypt returned to life. The runners were compelled by her eyes, which were almost the same gold color as her necklace, dominating her strong, fine-boned face. There was no doubt in their minds that this woman was power and she knew it.

“Thank you for inviting us to your home,” Kestrel said. Her tone was quiet and respectful; it did not waver.

Neferet inclined her head. “The young one has spoken of all of you with great fondness—he has told me of how you have aided him in the past.” Her expressive lips curved in a slight smile as her gaze settled back on Kestrel. “Especially you, child. It takes a rare courage to put aside fear long enough to save the life of one of our kind.”

“He’s a dear friend,” she said, ducking her eyes a bit under the woman’s scrutiny.

“I can see that in your aura,” Neferet told her. “You are fond of him as well—all of you are. It is admirable that you would risk coming here, knowing my disinclination to involve myself with those other than my own kind. I respect you for that.” She glanced up. “We will dine, and then afterward you will tell me the specifics of what you seek.”

As if on cue, Uneki entered. No one had seen him leave, but apparently he had because now he returned bearing a tray laden with food. As the runners and Neferet watched, he began to spread delicacies one after the other in the middle of the table. There was a platter containing a lamb and rice dish with a delicate sauce, bowls of steaming vegetables, breads, and various condiments, all of which smelled exotic and wonderful. When he finished, he left and returned with a bottle of red wine. Beginning at Neferet, he moved around the table filling each crystal wineglass. Winterhawk’s eyes widened slightly when he got a glimpse of the label on the bottle.

The food and the wine were as magnificent as they appeared. There was not much conversation as they ate; Winterhawk complimented Neferet on the excellence of the wine and Joe waxed enthusiastic over both the quality and the quantity of the food—it wasn’t often that he was able to get such a wonderful meal in the kind of portions that would fully satisfy his appetite. Neferet ate lightly, seeming more interested in observing her guests than in dining.

Still, even as much as the runners were enjoying their sumptuous meal, there was an undercurrent of tension present in each of them. They all knew why they were here, and each bite took them closer to the inevitable.

When they at last finished dinner, Uneki glided silently in and whisked the table settings away, returning with small plates of cakes (the perfect size, as no one had room for anything much larger) and a bottle of some fiery reddish-brown liqueur surrounded by small crystal glasses. After everyone had been served—Winterhawk, ‘Wraith, and Neferet opted for the liqueur while Kestrel and Ocelot chose the cakes and Joe chose both—Neferet leaned back in her chair and regarded the five of them over steepled fingers. Her expression was utterly neutral. “Now,” she said softly, “Tell me of what has happened.”

Everyone looked at Kestrel.

She took a deep breath. On the plane down here they had agreed that they would lay all their cards on the table, figuring that trying to withhold information from a dragon would be useless at best and unwise at worst. Speaking slowly, trying to keep her thoughts straight and all the events in order, she told Neferet what had happened. She began at the incident in the chalet and continued through Gabriel’s madness and recovery, the search for the others, and her best description of what had befallen them. She glanced at each of them occasionally, silently asking for their input; they supplied some of the details she had missed but for the most part allowed her to tell the story. The only part she didn’t tell, just as she had not told her friends, was the story of her night with Gabriel at his lair. She thought it neither relevant to the situation nor anyone’s business but Gabriel’s and hers. If Neferet noticed the omission she made no mention of it. By the time Kestrel got to the morning at Gabriel’s apartment and the note he had left, her voice was shaking.

Neferet had shown no reaction to Kestrel’s story until she got to the part about the note—and specifically the part where Gabriel revealed that he had been marked by the Enemy. Here, she stiffened a bit and her eyes widened very slightly. “Have you brought the note he left for you?” she asked.

Kestrel nodded and pulled it from her pocket, passing it across the table to her.

Neferet carefully unfolded it and for the next several moments was silent as she read over the words. When she looked up, her expression was serious. “This is a grave matter indeed,” she said quietly.

No one spoke. Five pairs of eyes were fixed on her face; five minds silently repeating the same questions: Will you help? Can you help? But aloud they said nothing, waiting.

Neferet read the note again. Her gaze was focused, fixed on the words. Her lips were set in a tight line. After several moments she looked at them again—or rather, at Kestrel. “Truly grave,” she repeated. “I have never heard of a situation such as this—a case where the lifeforce of one of our kind has been allowed to fall into the hands of the Enemy.” She bowed her head. “The young one possesses courage and wisdom far beyond that which one of his years should possess—but as with any youngster, he is vulnerable to making unwise decisions simply because he lacks the experience necessary to show him the way.”

“But—” Kestrel ventured tentatively, “You said yourself that this has never happened before. How could anyone have the experience to make the right decision?”

Neferet’s gaze sharpened, but it was not unkind. “That is true, child. And I am aware, from what he has told me, that he and his brother—and all of you—have succeeded in things that no elder among us would have believed possible. Still, the fact remains that it is done and we must all deal with the consequences.”

“If I may—” Winterhawk spoke up. When Neferet turned to face him, he continued, “What did Gabriel mean when he said he had been ‘marked’ by the Enemy? We know that a similar thing happened to Stefan, which was why the two of them agreed to cooperate in the first place. But from his note, it sounds like this isn’t quite the same thing.”

Neferet shook her head. “No. It is not, but that does not mean that it is not something that concerns me deeply. Because you know of the Enemy, I can tell you this: in the previous Age of Magic, when the Scourge of the Enemy was drawing to a close and the other races began emerging into the light, the remaining Enemy employed a similar mark to control those over whom they could gain power. That mark was much more potent than the one of which the young one speaks—it allowed the Enemy to control the marked being’s actions, to experience the world through his senses, to manipulate his emotions—thus, such a marking was considered a serious thing indeed. Most who were found to possess them were put to death, because the fear of the Enemy was so great that few were willing to take a chance on those who had been touched by them.” She paused a moment, gathering her thoughts, and then went on: “In this Age, the Enemy’s power is much weaker, their influence very limited. It is difficult for them to mark anyone without that person’s consent, and even if they have that consent the power they can exert through it is severely reduced due to the lower level of mana at this stage of the Cycle.”

“So,” Kestrel said slowly, “You’re saying that they had more power over Stefan because he gave his consent—even though they tricked him into it?”

Neferet nodded. “Yes.” She sighed. “If Gabriel is correct that he has been marked himself then it must be a minor mark indeed. If not, I would certainly have noticed it when he was here. As I am sure he has told you, the Enemy is not something any of our kind take lightly.”

Winterhawk took a sip of his liqueur. “What did he mean when he said he had to defeat the one who holds it? Is that how you get rid of one of these marks—by killing the thing that put it on you?”

“Yes.” Neferet bowed her head for a moment, then looked back up. “But he risks great danger by attempting to do so. By seeking to free his brother, he must undoubtedly take his search directly to the Enemy.”

Joe’s eyes widened. “You don’t mean he’s going to the other side of the Chasm, do you?”

To the runners’ surprise, Neferet shuddered delicately. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “No—he can be impetuous, but he is far too wise to do that. Even if he could reach it, which I do not believe is possible, doing so would mean certain death and probably a fate similar to his brother’s.”

“We all saw Stefan fall into the Chasm,” Winterhawk told her. “Both Stefan and the Horror he was fighting. If Gabriel can’t reach the other side...could he reach the bottom? Would he try?”

For a long moment Neferet was silent. “I hope not,” she said at last. “But there is no way for me to know what he has done unless I were to see the ritual he has performed. Only then will I know where he has gone—or more correctly, since these things are never precise, where he has attempted to go.”

The runners exchanged nervous glances. The thought of Gabriel going off to fight the Horrors on his own was bad enough, but adding to that the realization that he might be off wandering the metaplanes at their mercy only made it worse.

Kestrel took a deep breath. She looked reluctant to speak, but did so anyway. “So...I guess now that you have the whole story, or at least as much of it as we know, it’s time to ask the important question: will you help us?”

The calm golden gaze settled on her. “What kind of help do you seek from me, child?”

That wasn’t the answer she had been expecting. As she was startled into momentary silence, Winterhawk spoke up: “We want to go after him—to try to find him and do whatever we can to help. Unfortunately, I’m the only one among us who has any way to reach the metaplanes, and I can’t take anyone with me.”

Neferet turned slightly to face the mage. “Even despite his request of you not to follow him, still you seek to do so?”

“We have to,” Kestrel said firmly. “He’d do the same for us—but that’s not what matters. He’s our friend. He’s in trouble. We have to help.”

Winterhawk nodded. “Quite so. Without his intervention, most of us would still be living in madness—or not living at all. He gave us back our lives. We can’t simply allow him to walk into what might very well be a trap without doing something to help.”

Neferet regarded each of them in turn. “Do all of you feel this way? Even if it should cost you your lives?”

Silently, Joe and ‘Wraith nodded.

After a brief pause, Ocelot did too. “Yeah,” he said. “And it’s more than that. If we just let this go—don’t go after him, I mean—we don’t have any way to know if the Horrors are gonna leave us alone. Doing this might kill us, but I’d rather die cleanly than have to have this hovering over me for the rest of my life.”

Neferet nodded. “He has chosen good friends indeed,” she said, half to herself. She looked back up at the expectant faces around the table. “I will consider your request,” she said. “I do not make such decisions lightly nor quickly; I must examine the situation with care.” She rose from her chair. “I will give you my decision in the morning. In the meantime, I invite you to enjoy the hospitality of my home—if there is anything you wish, you have only to ask Uneki and he will provide it. Until tomorrow.” She nodded a farewell to them, turned, and left the room, the skirt of her elegant gown swinging around behind her.

Nobody had much else to say until they were safely back to their rooms and Uneki had departed. Once again they gathered in Kestrel’s room, taking up various positions either seated or pacing. “Do you think she’ll do it?” Joe asked. All of them were aware that it was a strong possibility that their conversations—and perhaps even their thoughts—were being monitored; they weren’t happy about that realization but there was nothing they could do about it. Besides, this time they had nothing to hide. They had told Neferet the truth as they knew it; the ball was in her court now.

Kestrel sighed. “I hope so. She does seem to care a lot about Gabriel, although who knows if she’ll be willing to get involved in something like this.”

“Or what price she’ll want in exchange,” Winterhawk added soberly.

Kestrel looked up at him. “Whatever it is, I’ll agree to it.” Defiantly she cast her glance around the room as if daring any hidden ears to pick that up. “I don’t think Gabriel would become such good friends with someone who would try to screw us over.” Her eyes flashed. “If I have to make some kind of sacrifice for this, then so be it. God knows he’s made enough of them for us.”

“Calm down,” Ocelot said gently, coming over to drop down into the chair next to the bed where she sat. “Let’s just wait and see if she’ll even do it. If she wants something in exchange, we’ll just have to figure out what we’re gonna do once we know what it is. Until then—anybody think they’re gonna get any sleep tonight?”

“Sure, why not?” Joe clasped his hands behind him and stretched; his back made a mighty series of cricks like someone dropping a box of oversized ping-pong balls on a concrete floor. “I’ll bet we won’t have any nightmares tonight. After that great dinner, I’m planning on taking a nice hot bath and getting a good night’s rest. Might be the last one we get for awhile.”

“‘Eat, drink, and be merry—” ‘Wraith started.

“Don’t say it!” Ocelot ordered.

“Moo,” said ‘Wraith.

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No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.