Apparently Uneki or Neferet had figured out that none of the runners were going to be late sleepers, for the tall spirit had arrived at their rooms shortly after dawn the following morning.
They sat once again in the dining room, picking half-heartedly at the light breakfast Uneki had served them (all except Joe, of course, who never passed up the opportunity for a good meal). Neferet had not yet arrived; the spirit had informed them that she would be along shortly and that they should not wait breakfast for her.
She arrived as they were finishing up. Dressed now in a simple robelike gown of deep green with a matching head covering and none of the gold jewelry from the previous night, she looked every bit as exotic and elegant as before. “I have been out in the desert most of the night considering your request,” she said; no one even seemed to notice the lack of greeting.
The runners leaned forward as one, breakfast forgotten. “And?” Kestrel asked softly. She didn’t realize she was holding her breath in anticipation of the answer.
“And I have decided to aid you—or rather, to aid Gabriel—at least in some small way.” Neferet’s face was unreadable; her eyes were on Kestrel.
“What—does that mean?” Kestrel’s voice was still soft and a little hesitant.
“It means that I will help you at least in your attempt to reach the Netherworlds and search for him.” She settled regally into her chair at the head of the table. “In order to do that, however, I must know the specifics of the ritual he used to reach them himself.”
Winterhawk took a deep breath. “I’m afraid we don’t know the specifics of the ritual—and we have no way to find out. Gabriel didn’t share that information with us.”
Neferet nodded as if to say she already knew that. “According to the note he has left for you, he had conducted the ritual at his lair. We must therefore travel there.”
Kestrel’s eyes widened. “Go—to his lair?” She wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. Gabriel had always treated his lair in the Algonkian-Manitou lands as a place of solitude, of privacy. As far as she knew, she was the only other being who had ever set foot inside it in this Age. She had no idea what the etiquette among dragons was regarding visiting each other’s lairs when the owner was not in residence. But yet, Neferet was his friend, someone who wanted only to help him.
“It is the only way, child.” Neferet’s voice was gentle; obviously she understood the implications of what she was proposing. “I must see the remains of the ritual he performed, or I will have no way to determine where in the Netherworlds he has gone. Were you to go there without this knowledge, you could wander for the rest of your lives and never find him.”
Kestrel considered for a long moment, wishing she had more concrete information to go on. Finally she looked up and nodded. “Okay,” she said. “I can show you where it is.” Once we get Gabriel back if he wants to be angry about this, that’ll just have to be how it is. At least he’ll be here to get angry. “When do you want to leave?”
“As soon as possible.” Neferet rose again from her chair. “After I have seen the ritual, I can give you more information about what might be expected. Until then, I dare not make a guess.”
Kestrel looked around at her companions; all of them nodded subtly. “Okay,” she said again. What do I do?”
Neferet nodded at something unseen next to her; almost immediately Uneki appeared next to her. “Give Uneki the relevant information. He will see to securing transportation. Gabriel has told me roughly where his lair is located; I assume we will need an aircraft.”
“That and some kind of off-road vehicle,” Kestrel told her. “The roads for the last few kilometers aren’t passable by a normal car.”
“Do not worry about that, child,” Neferet said, a little distractedly. She turned to Uneki; after a moment he nodded and disappeared again. She then returned her attention to the runners. “If you will excuse me, I have preparations to make. We will leave as soon as the travel arrangements have been finalized.” Without waiting for an answer, she turned and left the room.
Nobody said anything; Kestrel watched her go, hoping that she had made the right decision.
Several hours later they stood in a wooded clearing several kilometers off what passed for the main road nearest Gabriel’s lair.
They had flown to Winnipeg on a small jet; it had been less than an hour after Uneki had gone off to make arrangements when he had returned with the information regarding a chartered flight. Once on the ground they had been met by a man who had obviously been waiting for them; he turned over the keys to a large sport-utility vehicle with nothing more than a “Have a good trip.” Neferet, who had changed clothes once again, this time into a heavy robe belted with gold and covered by an equally heavy cloak, climbed into the front passenger seat and looked at Kestrel. Taking the cue, Kestrel had claimed the driver’s spot and, once the others were settled, headed off as far as she could go before the roads became impassable. This clearing had been that spot. “Okay,” she had told them, pulling off the road. “It’s not really safe to drive this much further, but it’s still several miles up and not easy going. Are we hiking?”
“That is one possibility,” Neferet said. She was looking up at the skies.
“What—would be the others?” Winterhawk asked a bit tentatively. Like the others, he had remained relatively quiet throughout the trip, just taking in the situation and trying to get himself mentally prepared for what he knew was to come when they reached the lair.
“We can fly.”
“Fly?” Joe looked at her questioningly.
But Kestrel got it. She stared wide-eyed at Neferet. “All of us? At the same time?”
The woman nodded calmly. “If you are willing.”
The other runners were not slow to catch on. “Wait a second...” Ocelot began. “You mean, like, you fly and we—”
“Ride on her back,” Kestrel finished. “It is the easiest way to get up there. I’ve done it several times with Gabriel.”
“It is your decision,” Neferet said. “You have my word that it is quite safe. Just because I rarely choose to associate with your people does not mean that I wish any harm to come to you.”
Kestrel didn’t seem to think it was a big deal one way or the other. Winterhawk, Joe, and ‘Wraith were looking various degrees of intrigued, while Ocelot still appeared dubious. Finally he sighed. “Okay. I’m not gonna be the one to hold up the party. Let’s do it.”
Neferet’s gaze settled on him for a moment, then she nodded. Without further comment she moved out into the center of the clearing; the runners backed off into the trees, their eyes locked on her slim form.
The transition was smooth and quick: one moment she was standing there as a human, and the next moment the clearing was filled with the large and graceful form of a Great Western Dragon.
Neferet must have been a slightly different subspecies of Western Dragon than Gabriel, or perhaps it was simply a difference due to gender: she was about the same size as he was, her hide the color of burnished bronze, her eyes a striking gold, but where Gabriel’s form was massive, graceful but bulging with muscle, hers was longer, more slender and sinuous, almost as if there might have been some Eastern blood far back in her lineage. As she spread her wings, her scales shining under the sunlight, she put Kestrel in the mind of a dancer, elegant and beautiful. Kestrel took a step forward, trying not to stare.
Neferet lowered her head. Her eyes glowed slightly. “Climb on my back and find a comfortable position. I will not allow you to fall.”
Kestrel was the first to take her up on the offer. She moved to the dragon’s nearest foreleg and scrambled up, relying on the practice she had gained from flying with Gabriel. She settled into a spot at the base of Neferet’s neck, between her wings, and then motioned the others to follow.
It took a few moments for everyone to get situated; none of them had ever ridden on a dragon’s back before and so mounting was somewhat awkward. Neferet remained still, turning her head slightly to watch them with one eye as they arranged themselves. When they were set, she rose from her crouch. “Hold on,” she told them. Bunching her powerful leg muscles, she launched herself upward, spreading her wings to catch the air currents.
Kestrel was ready. The others were not. Winterhawk, Ocelot, Joe, and ‘Wraith managed with varying amounts of grace—or lack thereof—to keep their seats, but it was not a foregone conclusion for several seconds. Neferet didn’t seem to notice. As she broke free of the trees, she began a slow circling pattern, gaining altitude with each pass.
Once the runners became somewhat accustomed to their positions and weren’t hanging on for dear life, they gazed in awe down at the mountain and the valley below. Winterhawk gave Ocelot a rather fierce grin, which Ocelot didn’t return. “I’m not enjoying this,” he muttered between clenched teeth to the mage.
“I must admit I am,” Winterhawk replied. “If it had been under better circumstances, I could get to quite like this.”
Joe nodded in agreement. ‘Wraith, for his part, was silent, taking in the view and keeping his opinions to himself.
The trip, fortunately or unfortunately depending upon who was offering an opinion, didn’t last long. Neferet continued her circling and climbing for several more minutes, and then leveled out. Kestrel leaned forward and closed her eyes; Winterhawk, who was sitting directly behind her, suspected she was in communication with the dragon regarding the exact location of the lair. The location wasn’t obvious to him—all he could see was trees and forbidding-looking rocky peaks jutting up into the clear blue sky.
Neferet scanned the area, her neck thrust out, her eyes constantly in motion. At last, Kestrel pointed at what looked like a large ledge against a featureless wall. Neferet banked gently and backwinged a graceful landing on the ledge, barely jostling her passengers.
There was not a lot of room on the ledge, so as soon as the riders had disembarked, Neferet shifted back to her human form. She regarded the wall dispassionately. “This is the location?” she asked Kestrel.
Kestrel nodded. “Right here. This is the entrance we always use. See?” Moving over to the wall, she reached out her arm—which passed neatly through the rock as if it were not there. It was an eerie effect, making her look as if her arm had been bloodlessly severed at mid-forearm.
Neferet drew up alongside her and extended her own arm, her palm pointed toward the rock. Instead of passing through, her hand was stopped just as it would have been had this been normal rock.
Winterhawk’s eyes widened. “You can’t get through?” Ever-curious, he tried the same maneuver and got the same result as Neferet. The others did as well. It appeared that only Kestrel could gain entrance.
Neferet took a deep breath. She closed her eyes briefly; when she opened them again, her expression was sober. “The wards are stronger than I had feared,” she said. “I did not think the young one capable of such magic.”
“I don’t think he did them all himself,” Kestrel told her. “This wasn’t just his lair—it was his family’s. From what he told me, both of his parents were very powerful in their clan. I do know, though, that he tweaked them so I could get in. That’s why I can get through now.”
“So there’s no way you can get in there?” Joe asked Neferet, looking back and forth between the rock wall and the woman.
She sighed. “Given enough time to study the wards, I could likely devise a spell that would allow me access—but that would take a very long time. We do not have such time.”
“What do you propose, then?” Winterhawk asked.
Everyone watched Neferet, remaining silent as she did likewise. She moved off a few feet away from them, staring out over the valley. Kestrel looked at the others and shrugged; her expression was serious. She looked very tense. Ocelot squeezed her shoulder gently, but he wasn’t looking much less tense than she was.
After several minutes, Neferet turned and came back over to them. “I do not like it,” she said, “but I believe there is only one way we can accomplish this with any amount of haste.” When the others did not say anything but merely continued to regard her, waiting, she added: “Kestrel, you must go in, find the site of the ritual, and relay the information to me.”
“What?” Winterhawk, Ocelot, and Kestrel demanded in unison; Ocelot’s voice was a bit sharp, while Winterhawk’s and Kestrel’s were simply surprised. Joe and ‘Wraith didn’t say anything, but their expressions were equally startled.
Kestrel recovered quickly and took a deep breath. “Are you sure? I mean, of course I don’t mind going in alone—this is Gabriel’s home, after all—but I don’t know anything about dragon rituals. How am I going to tell you what you need to know? I wouldn’t even know what to look for.” There was another thought nagging at her too: What if I can’t find the place where he did the ritual? That place is huge, and there are more places in there I haven’t seen than those I have. She didn’t voice that one, though. There were too many others that were more pressing.
Joe was digging in his bag, which he had brought with him. “I brought the comm gear,” he told her, holding out a tiny radio set with an earbud receiver and a throat-mike. “You could relay the information to her from inside.”
Ocelot regarded it dubiously. “Will it transmit through all that rock?”
“It’s pretty powerful,” the troll said, still holding it out to Kestrel. “It’s worth a try, anyway.”
Kestrel took it and deftly donned it as Joe handed another set to Neferet. “What I’d really like to have is something with wheels. Wherever I end up going, it’s going to be a long walk.” She looked at Joe. “You don’t have a pair of skates or a motor-scooter in there, do you?”
The troll shook his head, smiling a little. “Sorry. Not that well prepared. But I do have this.” He dug in the bag again and came up with a small (for him, which meant it was big for Kestrel) pack of dried meats and fruits, and a canteen.
She looked at him gratefully, taking both and attaching them to her belt. “Thanks. I can fill up the canteen inside.”
Neferet was examining the radio set in her hand like it was an unwelcome insect. She looked at Kestrel. “I do not want to place our trust solely in this device,” she said, managing to make the word device sound somehow unsavory. “If you will permit it, I will place a spell on you that should aid us.”
“What kind of spell?” Once again Kestrel, Ocelot, and Winterhawk spoke in unison.
Neferet ignored the two men and looked straight at Kestrel. “Nothing harmful, child. It is merely a spell that will allow you to recall details more carefully when you return.”
Kestrel nodded slowly. “How does it work?”
“When you enter the lair and find the location of the ritual, you will examine every bit of it, taking care not to overlook anything. When you return to us, I will then be able to look into your mind and see what you have seen.”
She looked a little uncomfortable, but nodded. “Kind of like a magical camera, so you can interpret what I see?”
Neferet nodded, although everyone present got the vague impression that she did not approve of having her magic compared with any sort of mundane technology.
Joe was once again searching his bag. “Speaking of cameras,” he said, “You can take this if it’ll do any good.” This time he was holding out a tiny digital camera. “It’s not as good as the one on my helmet, but it’s good in low light.”
“Glad one of us brought some stuff with us,” Ocelot muttered. For his own part, he had not brought much to the dragon’s home—only his ever-present monowhip and a couple of changes of clothes in his luggage. He—and he suspected his companions as well—had not expected that they would be going on an expedition to Gabriel’s lair.
Kestrel nodded thanks to Joe and stowed the camera in one of her pockets. Then she turned back to Neferet. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s do it.”
As the rest of the runners looked on—Winterhawk with the slightly glaze-eyed expression that was a dead giveaway that he was perceiving the process astrally—Neferet took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and reached out to Kestrel. Touching her forehead with two fingers, she began whispering. It was difficult to hear what she was saying, but even the few words ‘Wraith’s sensitive ears were able to pick up had no meaning to him.
It was over almost before it had started. Neferet finished the spell and backed up; Kestrel touched her forehead.
“Well?” Ocelot demanded.
She shrugged. “I don’t feel any different.”
“You will not,” Neferet told her. “There will be no evidence of the spell until I retrieve the images when you return.”
“You can’t just—see through her eyes as she goes in?” Joe asked.
“Not if the wards are that strong,” Winterhawk said before Neferet could. “Magic’s magic. Spells on Kestrel become part of her—at least unless the wards are set to keep out any particular type of spell, in which case she might be blocked—but anything trying to get in from the outside wouldn’t have any more luck than the physical body.”
Joe looked at Neferet for confirmation, and the woman nodded. “He is correct.”
Kestrel, a little nervous at the prospect that Neferet’s spell might cause her to be blocked from entrance to the lair, attempted to stick her arm through the wall again. It went through just as readily as before. She breathed a soft sigh of relief. “Okay,” she said. “Looks like it’s showtime.” To Neferet she added: “Any particular instructions?”
Neferet nodded. “Yes. When you find the site of the ritual, do not touch anything. No matter what you see, it is imperative that you do not disturb the circle or his physical body—to do so could put him in great danger and prevent him from returning.”
Kestrel swallowed and nodded. “Okay, check. Don’t touch anything. Anything else?”
“Be certain to carefully observe everything around you at the site—even things that you do not consider to be important. If I am to determine the nature of the ritual, I must have as much information as possible about it. But again, it is more important that you do not touch anything than that you obtain clear memories of every aspect.” Neferet’s golden eyes met hers. “Do not fear, child,” she said softly. “He is young and strong, and his will and determination are great.”
She nodded. She wished that she could be as confident.
Ten minutes later she was on her way. There were no long goodbyes, but simply a final wave to the other runners and a final glance exchanged with Neferet, and then she was gone, her body slipping through the illusionary entrance and disappearing. Ocelot watched her foot, the last part of her to go through, and fought back the irrational impression to grab it, to pull her back out of there because if she went in, he would never see her again.
“Now,” said Neferet placidly, lowering herself down to a cross-legged seated position against the rock wall, “we wait.”
Joe was already fiddling with his comm unit. “Can you hear me, Kestrel?” He spoke a little louder than the subvocalization that was all that was necessary so the others could hear him too. “Are you there?”
He waited a moment, then nodded. “Okay. Just check in every few minutes. If we don’t hear every five minutes or so, we’ll assume you lost the signal. I don’t figure it’ll last for long.” He looked at the others. “She’s on her way. No problems yet.”
Ocelot nodded. He didn’t know what kind of problems he expected her to have—after all, this was the lair of a Great Dragon, specifically one who felt he owed her his life and who considered her to be his best friend. Undoubtedly Gabriel had adjusted the lair’s defenses to ignore her presence, so there was nothing to fear—
What about the Horrors? a little voice spoke up in the back of his mind. What if they got Gabriel? What if she’s in there with them now? He shuddered, his muscles stiffening as he stared at the entrance that wasn’t there.
Winterhawk tilted his head. The mage had been preparing to sit down much like Neferet had on the other side of the entrance; he paused at Ocelot’s odd behavior. “Something wrong?”
Ocelot shook his head (a bit too quickly to pull off casualness) and sighed. “No. I just don’t like this. I don’t like her in there without some backup.”
“Gabriel wouldn’t hurt her,” ‘Wraith spoke for the first time in awhile.
Ocelot leaned against the wall and looked away. “I know that.”
“There’s more, isn’t there?” Winterhawk asked gently.
There was a long pause. Ocelot sighed. Sometimes I wish these guys weren’t so damn perceptive. ‘Hawk knows me too well. “What if she’s not alone in there?” His voice was quiet and a little ragged.
Winterhawk didn’t see what he meant. “If Gabriel’s in there—if he hasn’t left yet—p’raps she can talk him out of this and we can—”
Ocelot shook his head more violently. “No, no. That’s not what I mean.” Despite the chill of the air up here, a light film of sweat was forming on his forehead. “Remember before, with Harlequin, when we tried to go to the Metaplanes? Remember what happened? Why he had to stay behind?”
It took ‘Hawk, who wasn’t thinking along those lines at the moment, only a couple of seconds to catch Ocelot’s implication. His eyes widened. “You know,” he murmured, “you could have gone all day without saying that.” He watched ‘Wraith, who had settled down to meditate, and Joe, who was standing at the edge of the ledge looking out over the valley. “All I can say is, I hope that’s not the case.”
Ocelot had half-heartedly been hoping that Winterhawk would say something like, ‘Oh, no—don’t worry. Couldn’t happen.’ Even if he knew it was bullshit, it would have given him something to cling to. He glanced over at Neferet: the woman’s eyes were closed and she appeared to be either asleep or deep in thought. He didn’t think bothering her right now would be a good plan.
‘Hawk gently clapped him on the upper arm. “She’ll be fine,” he said. “Don’t forget, Gabriel’s got to have some heavy-duty defenses in there. They wouldn’t hurt Kestrel, but you can be sure they wouldn’t be too hospitable toward—that sort.”
Ocelot gave the mage a wan grateful look and nodded. “Yeah. That’s true.”
Kestrel was alone.
She ambled along, having long since settled into a half-walk, half-jog pace that she knew she could maintain comfortably over a long distance.
The radio transmissions had stopped after she’d gotten about half a mile in. She had left the comm unit set up and running just in case, but she knew the place was just too rock-encased to allow radio communication. She remembered Gabriel telling her once how much trouble he’d had to go through to get his media room set up; at the time she had thought it was hilarious that he had sent several spirits out to get crash courses in electronics so they could come back and wire up the place for him. Now, she wished they had gone a little further. She undoubtedly could have contacted her friends from the media room or other points relatively near the entrance, but the deeper in she got—the more she descended into the “dragon” part of the lair, the less such modern conveniences could be found. She missed Joe’s voice in her ear.
The place was silent except for the far-off sound of rushing water from the underground river and her own soft footfalls, both of which echoed around the lofty walls of the caverns. She had no trouble seeing: her cybereyes were equipped with low-light capability and even down here it was not fully dark. There was a faint, vaguely comforting glow all around with no obvious source. She wished she had asked Gabriel about it before, but it had never seemed important.
At first she hadn’t been sure where she was going. She had checked the underground lake, the media room, Gabriel’s human-sized chambers, and a few of the other spots with which she was familiar, but they had turned up nothing. It was as she stood staring out over the lake wondering where to go next that the thought had come to her.
Only it hadn’t been a thought—it had been a certainty.
Of course she knew where he was.
With the confidence of completely secure knowledge, she had set off. That had been about an hour ago.
As she jog-walked along with only her own thoughts for company, she found those thoughts returning to the last time she had been here. It had seemed so long ago—had it really only been a few days? So much had happened since then that she hardly believed it. She thought about her previous trip through these same caverns, in search of the same destination—for of course that was where she was heading. “It is one of the places where rituals are performed,” he had told her last time. And undoubtedly if he had sought refuge there during his brief period of madness, it had to be the one in which he felt most comfortable. She was sure that he would therefore return there to perform what had to be a very tricky and dangerous ritual such as this one.
She was making good progress; this time she hadn’t had to make all the side trips she had made last time to look into the smaller caverns off to both sides of the main one. Good thing I have a good sense of direction. If I got lost in here, nobody would be able to come in here to find me. Not unless Gabriel comes back—
Not until Gabriel comes back, she corrected hastily, and then put that line of reasoning aside.
She dropped into her pace and let her mind wander once again, remembering the scene when she had discovered him, his desperate attempt to drive her off before the madness took him completely, her confusion and pain as she had felt herself slammed into the wall, the absence of pain afterward, the look in his eyes when she had awakened. She smiled a little to herself as the memory of the time afterward returned and superseded the other recollections. It had been what she wanted—she knew that now, even though she had tried to put it away, to not think about it—and after it was over she had felt an odd sense of satisfaction, of pleasure, of—a kind of closure. It would probably never happen again, and she truly accepted that now. It didn’t need to happen again. He was her dearest friend and would remain so—that was all that was necessary. She wondered if he felt the same way.
Her feet beat a slow steady rhythm on the stone floor as cavern after cavern was left behind her. More than two hours had passed now—she should be getting close, given that it had taken three and a half before, with all the side trips. She paused a moment to take a drink from her canteen and a few pieces of dried fruit from the pack Joe had given her. She had told the others that it would probably be at least five hours before she returned; she wished she could contact them with more information. They must be bored stiff out there.
She went on.
Ocelot looked at his chrono again and sighed. It had only been ten minutes since he had last looked. At this rate it was going to take nigh onto forever for Kestrel to return.
Winterhawk, who was dozing off and on against the side of the wall, glanced up at him. “Why don’t you sit down for awhile?” he suggested. “All that pacing around is driving me—” He didn’t finish the sentence. That was something he wasn’t quite ready to joke about yet. “—It’s annoying,” he finished after a brief pause.
“I can’t just sit down. You think it’s bugging you to watch—it’d bug me even worse to just sit there.”
‘Wraith and Neferet both looked asleep, probably conserving their energy through their respective forms of meditation. Joe had unpacked his duffel bag, organized the items inside, and carefully repacked them. He’d offered them some more dried food and lukewarm bottles of water half an hour ago; they had taken him up on it just for something to do. Only Neferet had declined—or rather, she had not responded. No one was brave enough to try to wake her, figuring that if she wanted something to eat, she’d say so.
“You want to go explore the area around here?” Joe asked Ocelot. “We could climb down and look around the forest down there.”
Ocelot nodded a little too fast. “Yeah.” He was grateful to have something to do, even if it was something as pointless as exploring. “‘Hawk?”
The mage shook his head. “I’ll stay here. Leave me one of those radio sets so if you get in trouble we can come down there and rescue you.”
Ocelot gave him a dirty look even though he knew he was joking.
Kestrel was getting close now. She wasn’t quite sure how she knew it, but she knew it nonetheless.
Slowing her pace, she moved forward at a fast walk, looking for the side chamber that would lead her back several meters the way she had come and off at an angle to the chamber she was seeking.
She had long since removed her leather jacket and slung it over her shoulder; contrary to what one might expect of a cavern this deep in the mountains, it was actually quite warm here. It was one of the things she had learned about dragons: they tended to like their homes a little warmer and drier than humans found comfortable. She supposed that was why Neferet had chosen to live in the desert. I wonder where her real lair is, she thought idly. Far away, or was it close and just well hidden? I suppose we’ll never know.
She almost missed the entrance she was looking for because her attention was focused straight ahead at the time. “Oh!” she said softly, startled, when she spotted it. She took a deep breath. Okay. Here goes. I sure hope I’m not wrong about this, or it’s gonna be a long walk back for nothing.
She wasn’t wrong.
She could see that immediately as she approached the entrance to the chamber itself. A faint blue glow was visible from the passageway, casting the walls in an eerie grayish light. As she watched, the light pulsed slightly, a living heartbeat to the chamber.
She crept forward, suddenly afraid; she had spent all this time hurrying to reach this place, and now that she was here she feared what she might see. She wondered if Neferet’s spell was already diligently filing away her memories for later magical retrieval—the thought made her shudder a bit.
With a final deep breath she covered the rest of the distance to the chamber entrance, not giving herself time to hesitate. What she saw once she got there made her stop in her tracks and gasp.
He was there—that much she had expected and so it did not surprise her. What she had not expected was the way in which the chamber had been transformed.
He was in human form, which only made the glowing circle over which his body floated look all the more massive. High above on the ledges, objects of every color of the rainbow glowed and pulsed, bathing the room in a more brilliant version of the same eldritch glow she had seen from the passageway. Below, the circle seemed almost alive, its sigils and symbols traced in flickering blue fire. Kestrel looked around, moving forward slightly but careful not to touch anything, and noted that shafts of brighter blue-white light arose from various points around the circle, converging at the place where Gabriel’s body hung suspended in midair about two meters above the circle. The light seemed to cut through his body and continue on, the shafts extending outward and upward until they were lost in the shadows of the ceiling far above. Kestrel focused on his face: his eyes were closed, his expression one of repose. She could see the faint rise and fall of his chest, slower than normal but still there; his entire body was lit brightly except for the small scar on his side, which seemed to absorb the light around it. As Kestrel looked at it, the expression glowing darkly came unbidden into her mind; she didn’t know where that had come from but now that it had been presented to her it seemed to describe what she was seeing all too effectively.
“Gabriel—” she whispered, even though she knew he couldn’t hear her. There was, of course, no reaction; his body continued to float serenely as if in stasis. She knew with a sinking feeling that his mind, his essence were far away.
“Okay,” she said to herself, speaking in hushed tones as if afraid she might awaken him—or draw the attention of something else. “Time to get down to business.”
She drew the camera from her pocket and began pacing the circle.
Over five and a half hours had passed since Kestrel’s departure. Even the stoically patient ‘Wraith, who had spent most of the time in his own world, was beginning to get restless.
Joe and Ocelot had returned from their exploring trip down the side of the mountain; they had not discovered anything worthy of note, only dense forest as far as they could see in all directions. Ocelot, still unwilling to sit down and let more pent-up energy gather, had set about trying to scale the side of the mountain—he was now about ten meters up, using tiny cracks in the rock as hand- and footholds. Joe had found a deck of cards in his bag and he and Winterhawk had spent the last hour or so playing various games and teaching each other new ones. Neferet had not moved.
When Kestrel poked her head out through the illusionary wall, no one saw her right away. The first indicator that she was there was Neferet, whose eyes flew open and whose head turned quickly toward the opening. The second indicator, only a second or so later, was Kestrel herself, calling “Hey, guys. I’m back.”
Ocelot was so startled by her voice that he lost his fragile hold on the rock face and began to fall; only Winterhawk’s quick-thinking levitation spell saved him from a nasty landing. As it was, he didn’t even pay any attention to the mage in his haste to scramble up and reach Kestrel. “So? Was he in there?”
She did not comment on the lack of greeting—that wasn’t important, after all. She looked first at him and then at Neferet, and nodded. “Yeah,” she said softly. “He’s in there.”
“Has he—gone already?” Winterhawk asked.
Again she nodded. “Yeah.” Her voice sounded strange, hollow in her ears.
“Come, child.” Neferet’s soft voice broke into the conversation before anyone else could ask a question. “Show me what you have seen.” She put a gentle hand on Kestrel’s shoulder—the first time the runners could remember her touching any of them—and led her off to one side of the ledge. Kestrel went numbly. Even with her boundless energy she looked tired from her long trek—her hair and the back of her shirt were damp with perspiration and her shoulders slumped some from their normal straight carriage. Ocelot watched her with concern but didn’t approach her.
The runners watched from the other side of the ledge as Kestrel and Neferet conferred. Both of their expressions were grim; none of the runners could hear the conversation because it was taking place mentally. At one point Kestrel pulled out the camera from her pocket and handed it over to Neferet, who examined the images for several moments and then handed it back. She then reached gently out and put her hand on Kestrel’s forehead. Kestrel stiffened for a moment, then relaxed, closing her eyes.
This went on for almost fifteen minutes. Neferet’s arm did not waver as she continued the contact. Then, at last, she drew her hand back. Kestrel slumped for a moment, her head bowed, then slowly looked up again.
The remaining runners approached slowly. “So...” Winterhawk said carefully, “...what’s—happened?”
“Do you know where he is?” Joe added.
Neferet rose from her seated position in a motion so fluid it seemed as though her body had flowed upward without the intermediate step of getting up. Her expression was unreadable as her gaze traveled around, meeting each pair of eyes in turn and lingering a moment as if testing them. “I do not know exactly where he is,” she said softly. “I do not believe he himself knew exactly where he was going.” She looked at them again. “However, I do know enough to make a decision. You are determined to do this?”
Kestrel nodded immediately. “Yes.”
The others were a little slower, but eventually all of them nodded as well. Ocelot was last.
“You are determined to go,” Neferet continued emotionlessly, “Even were I to tell you that he has little chance of survival regardless of your intervention?”
Kestrel gasped, stiffening. “What do you mean? He was—”
“He is alive now,” Neferet affirmed, “Or at least he was when you left him, otherwise the ritual would have lost its potency. But the location to which he has gone is—” She paused, searching for the words. “I am not familiar with it,” she said at last, “but from the form of the ritual, I can see that it is deeply connected with the Enemy. It appears possible that he has sent himself into their midst. If this is the case, then I fear there is little hope for his survival.”
“You mean he sent himself—to where they are?” Ocelot demanded.
“Doubtless to a place where they have gained a foothold on this side of the Chasm.” Neferet didn’t look at him; she was still looking at Kestrel. “Doubtless too, a place that they control.” She closed her eyes. “His courage is great, but this time it is likely that his youthful inexperience with such things has driven him to a situation in which he has no hope of prevailing.” Her face remained a mask; it was difficult to tell if she was trying to hide something or if she simply had no opinion on the matter.
The runners exchanged glances. “So—” Winterhawk ventured, “If we were to go after him—”
“—we’d drop ourselves right in the middle of their turf,” Ocelot finished.
Neferet nodded, bowing her head. “Yes.”
Kestrel let her breath out slowly and finally allowed herself to sink down against the wall.
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.