Five pairs of astonished eyes met Neferet’s across the table. Winterhawk, as usual, found his voice first. “You’re not—”
“—going with us?” Kestrel finished, her voice hushed as if she were afraid of voicing the thought. “But—” She let it trail off, bowing her head. “I’m sorry. You said you would help us, and you have helped us. You’re right. We must have a misconception.” She didn’t try to disguise the weary disappointment in her voice; she knew that it wouldn’t have made any difference to the dragon whether she tried or not.
“So, then,” Winterhawk said carefully, “You can send us over without going yourself?”
Neferet nodded. She looked quite regal, sitting there at the head of the table. “I can, but that is not what I will do.” She paused a moment, looking at each of them, and then indicated Uneki. “Uneki will use his power to transport you to the Netherworld, to the location I discovered from analyzing the remains of Gabriel’s ritual. Once there, he will wait for you as you attempt to locate Gabriel. Then, if you need assistance in returning to this plane, you can find your way back to him and he will bring you home.”
The five runners realized immediately what Neferet was not saying: If you need assistance in returning to this plane was clearly Neferet’s diplomatic way of saying If you can’t find Gabriel, or if he’s in no condition to bring you back himself.
“So—Uneki’s gonna do the ritual?” Ocelot asked. If the spirit had enough mojo to send four mundanes and a mage to the metaplanes, he decided, he’d better stop thinking of him as a mere servant.
“He’s a free spirit,” Winterhawk answered, cocking his head toward Neferet for confirmation. “Some of them have the ability to create astral gates.”
Neferet nodded. “I cannot accompany you—you will likely not understand my reasons, but Gabriel would. But if there is any hope of returning him safely home, I will do what I can to see that it is done.”
No one bothered to ask Neferet’s reasons—they didn’t think she would tell them anyway, and they were irrelevant since she had already given them her decision. “When do we leave?” Joe asked.
“How long does it take?” Kestrel added. “Is it long, like the ritual?”
“And can we take anything with us?” Ocelot asked.
“It would be best if you left as soon as you are ready,” Neferet told them. “Time is of the essence. The process is akin to your form of astral projection,” she continued, looking at Winterhawk, “so the time involved is minimal. Unfortunately you will not be permitted to take anything with you, aside from any magical weapons or items you might possess—but as I am sure you are aware from your previous excursions, your greatest weapons will be your strength of character, your willpower, your purity of heart, and your desire to succeed in your endeavor.” She paused, her expression level and grave. “Because the area you seek is controlled by the Enemy it will be more dangerous for you than ever—but remember that even controlled by the Enemy it is still the Netherworlds—the metaplanes as you call them—and not the Enemy’s own domain. Do not allow them to trick you into believing that they have more power over you than they do. It is then that you will be at their mercy.”
The runners nodded soberly. “There’s something I don’t understand,” Winterhawk said after a moment. “Is it not normally the case that free spirits have the power of astral gateway only to their own home metaplanes?”
Neferet nodded, with a fond glance toward Uneki. “Yes, young one, that is true. But Uneki is—somewhat unlike a typical free spirit. He is very old and has been voluntarily in my service since a time that is no longer recorded in this age. Over that time I have taught him many things to which most spirits are not given access.”
Uneki inclined his head, smiling just a bit. “The Lady has been generous to me indeed,” he intoned. Rising fluidly from his chair at the other end of the table, he nodded to the runners. “Come. If you are ready, let us begin.”
The runners got up and prepared to follow the spirit. Kestrel hung back for a moment, pausing before Neferet. “I want to thank you for everything,” she said softly. “I know how you feel about us—about our kind, I mean—but you’re still helping us. I want you to know how much I appreciate it.”
Neferet’s calm gaze met Kestrel’s. “Thank you, child. I know you are aware that I am doing this because of my affection for Gabriel, but I would be blind not to see the depth of your feeling for him. I hope that it will be enough to allow you to do what you must.”
“If there’s a way to do it, we’ll find it.” She sounded more confident than she felt, but hoped she was right.
“I do not doubt that you will do your best,” Neferet said. “Go, now—join your friends. Uneki will not require long in preparation.”
Kestrel nodded. She paused a moment as if considering whether to say something else, then turned and departed the dining room.
Neferet watched her go. “I hope you are successful, child,” she murmured softly to herself. “I think that the two of you will need each other in the time to come.”
The room to which Uneki led them was large, windowless, and lit by candles set in sconces along the walls. The floor was covered by thick rugs; Uneki directed them to remove their shoes before entering.
Inside, the floor was partially covered by five futon-like pallets radiating out in a star-shaped pattern from the center of the room with enough space in the center for someone to stand comfortably. “Please,” Uneki told them, his deep voice echoing around the chamber, “lie down and arrange yourselves into comfortable positions. You will be remaining in these positions for many hours, so be aware of this. When you are comfortable, lie quietly and attempt to relax until we are ready to begin.”
The runners exchanged glances and then did as requested, each one settling down on one of the futons with their heads pointing toward the center of the circle. Winterhawk, used to this same sort of behavior in anticipation of long astral and metaplanar jaunts, immediately closed his eyes and began relaxation exercises; he had retrieved his black-bladed magesword from his room and now held it next to him on his pallet. Joe, opposite him, also began relaxation techniques, hampered only slightly by the unavailability of peyote, his usual aid to attaining a state of contemplation. ‘Wraith seemed to be having more trouble than usual dropping into his meditative state, while Ocelot and Kestrel, both keyed up and not used to relaxing, had to content themselves with lying down next to each other and doing the best they could to work the tension from their muscles.
When Uneki spoke again, his voice came from the center of the star. “Relax...” he urged them. “There is nothing to fear from me—I will see you safely to your destination and home again.”
Yeah, but what about the stuff in between? Ocelot wondered, though he didn’t speak this thought aloud.
The spirit began chanting something in a language none of them had ever heard before. His voice was deep and soothing, the words of the chant seeming to wind around them, to bear them upward until they could no longer feel their bodies on the pallets. Ocelot risked a glance and discovered that they were still in the same positions as before, but there was a disassociated feeling that almost made him think he was watching his body from somewhere above it. Wonder if this is what ‘Hawk does when he goes astral...he thought, closing his eyes to let the words take control of him once more.
The chant grew slightly louder, smoother, more hypnotic; the words began to run together into a seamless whole. Each of the travelers felt a brief tugging sensation as if they were being pulled in two different directions—it was at the same time disquieting and comforting, like birth and death simultaneously, but it only went on for a few seconds before all felt normal once again.
“It is done,” Uneki said softly.
The runners opened their eyes and immediately leaped to their feet, looking around in momentary disorientation. “What—?” Ocelot started, but he didn’t finish.
They were standing on a reddened, rocky plain. A slight hot breeze blew by them, whipping up little puffs of dust around the jutting rocks that reached up out of the ground like the teeth of some hungry beast lurking just below the surface. The sky was pinkish, cloudy, with a dull red sun far overhead. The place looked too familiar.
“This is—” Winterhawk began.
“Where we were before,” Ocelot finished for him. “Where the fight was.”
“Not quite,” ‘Wraith said, looking around.
Kestrel shook her head. Far off to their left they could see the dark maw of the Chasm; to the right was a range of sharp reddish peaks. “He’s right. It feels kind of the same, but it’s not the same place. Unless they’re messing with our heads again.”
“Hell, that never happens,” Ocelot muttered.
Uneki stood watching them, his arms crossed over his chest, his silk robes fluttering in the light wind. His expression was impassive. “The place you seek is there,” he said, nodding toward the peaks. “I do not know what you will find there, only that it presents great danger. Mark this place well, for I will remain until you return. I cannot aid you in any other way, but if you have need to return home, you have only to find your way back to me.” He paused a moment, his deep, ageless brown eyes meeting each of their gazes in turn. He ended with Kestrel. “I, and the Lady, wish you good fortune and safe passage.”
Kestrel nodded, holding the spirit’s eyes a second or two longer than the others. “Thank you. I hope that we won’t need you to bring us back, but—thank you.”
Uneki gave her a slight smile, but said no more. He levitated himself a few centimeters off the ground and drew his legs up under his robe, floating there in a seated position. Closing his eyes, he seemed to no longer notice them.
The five runners moved off a short distance, casting glances back toward the floating form. “I don’t like this,” Ocelot said, looking around.
“Alternatives?” ‘Wraith asked.
Ocelot blew air between clenched teeth. “You know as well as I do there aren’t any.”
“Let’s get going, then,” Winterhawk said. “If we’ve no choice in the matter, there’s no point in waiting.”
“Moo,” ‘Wraith said, and started walking. The others joined him immediately without further comment.
The landscape was forbidding, joyless, without even the scraggly form of a plant to mar its dusty, rock-strewn conformity. As they walked the wind nipped at their clothes, parched their throats, stung their noses and the tender flesh around their eyes. There was no sign of any living thing other than themselves; it was not long after they started that they lost sight of Uneki behind them. Oddly they could still see the Chasm, but their spirit companion’s hovering form was no longer visible.
After walking for more than half an hour, they seemed to be no closer to the sharp peaks ahead. They had walked in silence, keeping their heads down and their mouths closed to keep out the worst of the swirling grit. Ocelot was the first to break the silence. “What if he’s not here at all? What if we’re in the wrong place? How long are we gonna go on before we start wondering about that?”
“We’re not in the wrong place,” Kestrel said quickly. “Neferet sounded like she knew where we were going—at least pretty close. We have to keep going.” She ran a hand back through her hair, which was taking on a slight reddish tinge from all the dust that had lodged there.
“He’s got a point,” Joe put in. “I’m all for keeping going, but those mountains aren’t getting any closer. She said the Horrors controlled this area—maybe they’re playing some kind of game with us.”
Kestrel stopped, her eyes flashing. “What do we do, then?” she demanded. “Uneki said it was this way. You want to go back? Start over? What if we don’t find anything then, either?”
“Calm down,” Ocelot said, moving closer to her. “That’s not what I—”
Winterhawk had remained quiet through this conversation, not because he had nothing to offer, but because something had been nagging at the back of his mind since they had arrived. Something was wrong—or at least odd—and he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. As Kestrel resumed her pace and the others started up again behind her, he trudged along deep in thought. Whatever it was he was trying to remember eluded him, dancing away whenever he got close to it. When it finally came to him ten minutes later, he was so startled that he blurted it aloud: “Where’s the Dweller?”
“Huh?” Ocelot slowed his pace a bit, turning to look at the mage.
“The Dweller at the Threshold. Remember—the thing we saw last time, that appeared to us in different forms? It’s the gateway to astral quests like this. You can’t—at least not normally—begin one without passing it.”
The others nodded as they too remembered their previous ordeals at the hand of that particular astral guardian. “Maybe spirits don’t do it the same way?” Joe asked, sounding doubtful.
“I’ve never heard anything like that.” ‘Hawk shook his head. “I didn’t think it was possible to bypass the Dweller.”
“If we did,” Kestrel said, “Let’s just do it and be thankful about it. I’m in no hurry to go through that again.”
“Problem?” ‘Wraith asked, his pinprick eyes searching Winterhawk’s.
“Don’t know. Could be normal. Normal is not exactly a concept you can get your mind around out here. It’s not as if I’ve done this hundreds of times or anything. But every time I have—”
“Wait a sec,” Ocelot broke in. “I see something.”
The others turned to look where he was pointing. Sure enough, it appeared that they had drawn closer to the mountains while they had been absorbed in their conversation. Something—they couldn’t tell what it was from this distance, except that it stood out white against the red rocks—was up ahead.
“What is it?” Joe asked, straining his vision to see that far ahead. The still-swirling dust made it difficult to get a bead on it.
‘Wraith concentrated, trying to employ the magnification built into his cybereyes. “Odd...Should be able to see. Can’t.”
“You can’t see it at all?” Ocelot was squinting and having no luck, although the figure was still there. “Or just not clearly.”
“Not clearly,” the elf said.
“Looks like we’re meant to see it up close and personal or not at all,” Winterhawk said.
“At least it’s not rocks or dust or—more rocks,” Kestrel said. “Let’s go.” She started off again.
The others decided not to argue with her. They caught up and the five of them moved in a group toward the white figure.
Now they seemed to be getting closer to the mountains at about the speed they would have expected. The first thing they noticed as they neared them was that there was a break in the mountainside, almost like a cave—or perhaps a pass. The white figure, now resolved into humanoid form, was in front of the opening. As they got closer still, Kestrel gasped. “My God—that’s Gabriel!” she whispered urgently under her breath. Unconsciously she picked up her pace.
She was right. After just a few more minutes’ walk, they got close enough that they could see the figure clearly, and if it was not Gabriel, it was the best facsimile of him that any of them had ever seen. He smiled at them as they approached. “I was wondering if you would show up,” he said. “Good to see you all made it.”
The runners stopped and stared at him. He leaned almost lazily against the rock on one side of what now was clearly the mouth of a pass leading through the mountain peaks. His arms were crossed over his chest with an air of casual indifference. Gone was the troubled young man they had seen the night before he had left them—in his place was the Gabriel most of them had first met at the party at Lunar Dreamscape: beautiful, vital, dressed in a flawless, perfectly-fit suit of pale gray, purple silk tie, and shoes that glowed with a mirror shine despite the dust. In fact, there was no sign of dust on him at all. His eyes sparkled with amusement and just the tiniest hint of something that was difficult to identify.
“Gabriel?” Kestrel asked, her tone uncertain. “What—?”
“What am I doing here?” He pushed himself off the rock and faced them—nobody consciously noticed that he remained in a position that allowed him to block the entrance to the pass. “You’re here looking for me, aren’t you? Even though I asked you not to?”
“You know we couldn’t just leave you,” Kestrel said. “You knew we’d come.”
Gabriel nodded. “Sure I knew. That’s why I’m waiting here for you.” He smiled conspiratorially at her. “So—have you told Ocelot about...you know what yet?”
Kestrel stiffened. “Gabriel—”
“Told me about what?” Ocelot demanded, moving up next to her.
Behind them, Winterhawk sighed. He knew what this was and nothing he said would make any difference in the outcome, so he remained silent. Joe and ‘Wraith, sensing that this was not about them either, hung back with him and watched the scene unfold.
Gabriel’s smile widened and he put up his hands as if to ward off a blow. “You haven’t told him yet. I’m sorry. Forget I said anything.”
“Told me what?” Ocelot’s voice got a bit more insistent. He looked back and forth between Kestrel and Gabriel.
“Okay, okay.” Gabriel chuckled when Kestrel didn’t answer. “It really surprises me that she didn’t tell you about our night together. I thought she told you everything.”
Ocelot stiffened, his eyes narrowing in shock. “You—”
Next to him, Kestrel glared at Gabriel and then sighed.
Winterhawk, Joe, and ‘Wraith exchanged surprised glances but continued to remain silent.
“Slept together?” Gabriel did not seem to notice the expressions of those around him—or else he didn’t care.
“Ocelot—” Kestrel began.
Ocelot ignored her. His gaze was still fixed on Gabriel. “Well? Did you?” Somewhere in his mind he knew that this wasn’t really Gabriel—that it couldn’t possibly be—but the perfection of the illusion coupled with the shock of the revelation that had just been dropped on him was playing havoc with his perceptions.
“Why don’t you ask Juliana? After all, it was her idea.”
Ocelot stood stunned for a moment, then wheeled on Kestrel, trying to keep himself under control. “Did you?”
With Ocelot’s glare on her, Kestrel’s emotion changed from confusion and betrayal to anger. Her eyes flashed as she returned the glare. “Yes! We did. And I don’t see what business it is of yours, Ocelot.”
Gabriel chuckled. “Of course it’s his business. He’s still got it bad for you, even if he won’t admit it—even to himself. He’s got some kind of gold-plated idea in the back of his mind that someday you two might settle down together, quit the rat race, get out of the danger business, maybe have a couple of kids—the whole bit. I don’t think there was room in his plans for you to be indulging in a little inter-species hanky panky on the side.”
“Gabriel, stop it!” Kestrel cried as she got a good look at the expression on Ocelot’s face. “I don’t know who you are or what you want, but cut it out!”
The young man’s easy smile did not fade. He shrugged. “Why be afraid of the truth? Are you ashamed of what we did? You certainly seemed to enjoy it at the time.”
“Shut up!” Ocelot yelled. Unconsciously he had dropped into a half-crouch, his muscles ready to spring explosively into action at any second.
Gabriel glanced at him, then back at Kestrel. “You aren’t ashamed of what we did, are you? Having regrets?”
She stared at him for a moment, then looked down. “No,” she said, her voice very soft.
He smiled. “That’s good to hear. Neither am I.” Ignoring them both for a moment, he glanced over at Winterhawk, Joe, and ‘Wraith standing off to the side. “What about you three? Any regrets about coming after me?” His gaze settled on Winterhawk. “Still scared of facing the madness again?”
Winterhawk got a brief mental image of himself sitting in the corner of a room that was alive with loathsome things. He shuddered, but forced the image away with difficulty. He didn’t answer.
Gabriel didn’t seem to want to let it go, though. “Well? What do you say, Alastair? I did bring this whole thing on myself, right? You know that coming after me could leave you open to it. You’re the most vulnerable of all. Magic and madness aren’t so far apart under normal circumstances, and your line’s getting a little blurry. Sure you wouldn’t rather just pack it in and go home to Aubrey and Maya and your students and your favorite pub? A lot easier that way, you know. What do you say? I can send you back if you like. Just say the word.” He stood confidently, hands on his hips, with not even the smallest bit of dust daring to touch his suit.
Before Winterhawk could answer, Gabriel turned away from him and looked at ‘Wraith. “And you, ‘Wraith—or should I say Jonathan? How did you like being Jonathan for awhile? Seems to me like you enjoyed it just fine, once you got your feet under you. What do you think? Mild-mannered business manager or paranoid assassin? You could have it either way—I could fix it for you.” He grinned. “I’m a dragon. I can do whatever I want. You want to be Jonathan Andrews? Go back to Molly Muldoon’s shelter and make it the kind of place it deserves to be? They miss you, you know. They’re doing all right—you really helped them out when they were there, and the donation I gave them when Joe and I came looking for you will keep them going for awhile, but with your management, just think of how many people they could help.” He paced back and forth, gesturing like a pitchman. Despite the fact that he had been leaning against the red rocks, there was no dust on his back either. “Or,” he said, dropping his voice down to a quiet, more intimate tone, “Maybe you’d just rather forget that part of your life. Brings up things you’d rather not think about, doesn’t it?”
As he had not with Winterhawk, Gabriel likewise didn’t give ‘Wraith a chance to answer. His restless gaze settled on Joe. “And Joe, what can I say to you? You nearly avoided the whole thing, which was pretty smart if you ask me. You’re here because you think it’s the right thing to do. I don’t even sense any hesitation in you, like I do in these two.” Here he gestured toward Winterhawk and ‘Wraith. He smiled. “Not much I can say to sway you one way or the other, is there?” Turning abruptly, he stalked back over to Ocelot and stood in front of him. “So, we’re back to the two of us again.”
“Gabriel—” Kestrel began. Her expression was odd: sad and confused. “What are you—?”
He smiled at her. “Don’t worry, Juliana. Everything will be fine. But I need to talk to Ocelot for a few minutes, all right?” He made a brief gesture and the air shimmered a bit between them.
Winterhawk, ‘Wraith, and Joe exchanged glances, then moved up next to Kestrel. Nothing seemed to have changed except for the slight shimmer in the air. They didn’t move closer.
Gabriel leaned back against the rock, his eyes sparkling with mischievous pleasure, his hands in his pockets, one leg bent so his foot could rest a little way up the side. His pose, with his hair and his tie ruffling slightly in the breeze, made him look like he was preparing for a photo shoot for GQ. “So here we are,” he said. “Now you know the truth. What do you think?”
Ocelot, who had been standing silently, every muscle taut, as Gabriel had spoken to his friends, glared. “What do you mean, what do I think?”
Gabriel shrugged. “I just told you Juliana and I were...intimate. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“What do you care?” Ocelot’s eyes narrowed. He forced himself to remain still, watching the young man carefully.
“Why shouldn’t I care? You’re both my friends—or at least I thought you were. You I can never be too sure about. You’ve always been jealous of me, haven’t you?” His voice was soft, not accusing but more as if stating a fact they both knew to be true.
“Why the hell would I be jealous of you?” Ocelot’s tone dropped a bit, with a bit of a growl lurking in the back of his throat. He no longer even noticed his friends, who had grown inexplicably a bit hazy behind him.
Gabriel’s grin was mocking. “Lots of reasons. I’m better looking than you are, richer, smarter, more powerful—with my magic I can do practically anything I want to do—I’ve been around longer, so I’ve got the wisdom of age without any of the drawbacks. I’ll never get old and lose my edge like you will. I’m a better fighter, and—” he paused a moment, meeting Ocelot’s eyes challengingly “—Judging by the night Juliana and I spent together and her reaction to it, I’m better in bed than you are too.”
Ocelot’s growl grew until it was almost a scream—before he was even aware of what he was doing, he had launched himself forward and shoved Gabriel roughly back into the rock.
The young man’s grin grew wider. “You’re going to fight me, Ocelot? Even though you know you haven’t a prayer of winning? Why? Because Kestrel prefers me to you? Because you know as well as I do that your little dream of settling down with her is just so much wishful thinking? A woman like Juliana needs action, Ocelot. Stimulation. Challenges. Can you give her those? Can you give them to her better than I can? What makes you think she’ll ever go back to you now that she’s been with me? You lost, my friend. Take it like a man for once.”
“Shut up, you bastard!” Ocelot screamed in his face. He could feel the rage growing, watch the thin red haze overlay his vision and start to carry reason away with it. He seized Gabriel around the neck and shook him. “Shut up! That’s not the way it is! I’ll beat the—I’ll—”
And then, suddenly, he stopped. Moving slowly and with great care, he dismantled his grip on Gabriel’s neck and took a step backward. He was still breathing hard, his heart still pounding in his chest, but his expression was calm. “No,” he said through his teeth. “This isn’t right. You’re not the enemy. I don’t know why you’re doing this—or if you’re even who you’re sayin’ you are—but fighting you won’t get us anywhere.” He sighed. “You’re right. It isn’t my business who Kestrel decides to sleep with. It’s hers. Just get the fuck outta here, okay? I don’t want to look at you.”
Gabriel’s smile this time was different—the mocking was gone, leaving an expression of radiant happiness, pride, and satisfaction. “Well done, my friend,” he said softly. “You may pass.”
He faded from view, leaving the dark pathway through the mountains unblocked and unguarded.
At the same time, the wavering in the air faded, leaving a fully clear view to those on the other side. They had seen and heard everything that had occurred, but had been unable to interfere or even to make their voices heard through the curtain. As it faded, Kestrel’s fists dropped from where she had been pounding on it, yelling at both Gabriel and Ocelot to stop. Her arms fell to her sides as she watched Ocelot’s decision and Gabriel’s disappearance.
“It was the Dweller,” ‘Hawk murmured. “I thought it might be. That bloody bastard gets trickier every time.”
“So we passed?” Joe asked. “I thought it was supposed to test us all.”
“Maybe it did,” ‘Wraith said.
“Or p’raps it just follows its own rules,” Winterhawk added. “Either way, it looks like we’re free to go, and we’d best get to it.”
Kestrel wasn’t listening. She was watching Ocelot, who was still facing the place where Gabriel had been standing. “Ocelot, I—”
“Let’s get the hell on with it,” he said gruffly, without turning. He didn’t wait for an answer, but merely turned away from them and began trudging off into the canyon between the two towering red mountains.
After a moment, the others followed him. Nobody spoke. There didn’t seem to be anything anyone wanted to say at the moment.
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.