“What the hell was that?” Ocelot’s voice broke the stillness of the reddish plain on which the group now stood.
There was no longer any sign of the city, the courtyard, the gangers, or Gabriel. Wallace had disappeared along with the rest of the scene. All that was visible now for as far as they could see was red-brown rock, swirling dust, pinkish sky, and far off in the distance, the rugged uneven mountain range.
The other runners were looking around as well, getting their bearings back. “That was odd indeed,” Winterhawk agreed. “Nothing like what I would have expected.”
“What did you expect?” Kestrel kicked at a rock in frustration. “We were right there. We’d found him. Why did it fade like that?”
“Dead?” ‘Wraith asked, his emotionless tones tinged with just a bit of reluctance for bringing it up.
“Gabriel?” Joe shook his head. “They didn’t shoot him.”
“What do you mean, they didn’t shoot him?” Ocelot faced the troll. “Didn’t you see those guys with machine guns aimed at him?”
“He’s right,” Winterhawk said. He looked as if he were playing the scene over in his head as he spoke. “They were shooting at him—but I think the whole scene faded before they hit.”
“But I saw the bullets hit the wall,” Kestrel protested. “How could they miss at that kind of range?”
“I don’t know, but they did,” Joe said.
“Maybe the scene only faded for us,” Ocelot pointed out. “Could he still be there?”
“That doesn’t make any sense at all.” Winterhawk shook his head. “Why would they let us find him and then fade out like that? I’ll be the first to admit that this place isn’t acting anything like I expected it to, but I think that might be taking things a bit too far.”
“So what do we do then?” Ocelot bent down, picked up a fist-sized rock, and flung it out into the flat expanse of rocky nothingness. “We can’t just stand here.”
“We head back toward the mountains,” Kestrel said. “If we can find that pass again, maybe we can get back to where we were.”
“I think we are where we were,” Winterhawk said. He spread his hands to indicate the area around them. “This is where the city was—it’s not here anymore, but we are.”
“So where’s Gabriel?” Joe looked around, scanning the horizon.
“And Uneki,” ‘Wraith added.
“Huh?” Ocelot turned to face him.
“Don’t know. Can’t get back without him.”
“We’re not going to try to find him until we find Gabriel.” Kestrel’s voice was firm. “At least I’m not. If this place is anything like it was before, it doesn’t really matter which way we go. We’ll find what we’re supposed to find, and I think we’re meant to find him. So who’s with me?”
Ocelot sighed. “Not much choice. We can’t go back.”
“Not sure about that,” ‘Wraith said. “Shouldn’t yet, though.”
“We should at least give it a shot,” Joe agreed.
For lack of a better destination presenting itself, the five of them set off back toward the mountain range. The Chasm, far off to their left, was only faintly visible; they didn’t approach it. They had walked for only a few minutes when Joe spoke up again. “Guys—”
“Yeah?” Ocelot slowed a bit; he had taken the point position with Kestrel, although the two of them had been walking several meters apart and hadn’t spoken.
“I was just thinking about that situation back there.” The troll paused a moment to gather his thoughts, then continued: “We all heard somebody yell ‘No!’ before those guys started shooting at Gabriel, right?”
“And Kestrel, you said you thought it sounded like Stefan.”
“It was Stefan,” Kestrel protested. “No thought about it.”
“But—” Joe paused again. “We all saw Stefan there with the gun, right?”
Again everyone nodded. “I see what you’re getting at,” Ocelot said. “He didn’t yell. We saw him there, and he didn’t yell.”
“So who did?” Winterhawk asked. “I’ll admit it certainly sounded like Stefan, but—”
“—and why the hell was Stefan shooting at Gabriel?” Ocelot interrupted.
“Good question,” ‘Wraith said.
“Damned good question,” Winterhawk agreed. He had that look in his eyes that his friends knew well enough to realize he had something on his mind and wasn’t quite ready to discuss it yet.
Ocelot gripped his arm. “Okay, ‘Hawk, out with it.”
The mage shook his head. “No—nothing.”
Winterhawk sighed. “I haven’t thought it all the way through yet. But—according to the note Gabriel left, Stefan is dead. His—essence—his soul, if you will—has somehow been intercepted by the Horrors and they’re tormenting him. If that’s true, then—why would he be shooting at Gabriel? Why would he try to kill the only person who has any hope at all of getting him out of this situation?”
“What are you saying?” Kestrel said slowly, her eyes fixed on him. “That—Stefan isn’t dead? Or that somehow the Horrors have managed to—”
“—turn him against Gabriel?” Joe finished.
“Horrors corrupting somebody? But that never happens.” Ocelot regretted the sarcasm in his tone when he got a look at Kestrel’s eyes.
Winterhawk let his breath out slowly. “I know it’s not something we want to contemplate, but he has been here for quite some time. What if they’ve finally gotten through to him?”
“But—if they have—” Joe was looking suddenly very concerned. “Then—”
“—might have lured Gabriel here,” ‘Wraith finished.
Ocelot sighed and threw another rock, harder this time. “Shit. If they’ve not only got Stefan but got him on their side—”
“Then Gabriel’s in a lot more danger than we thought.” Kestrel stared out over the red plain. “Especially if he doesn’t know it. We have to find him, guys.”
“Neferet said grave danger,” ‘Wraith said. “Knew?”
“Who knows what dragons know and what they’re willing to tell?” Winterhawk shrugged.
“We’re gonna have to make a decision. We can’t just stand here worrying about what might happen.” Ocelot slapped the dust off his hands and faced his companions.
“I’m not leaving,” Kestrel said. “You guys don’t have to stay if you don’t want to, but I’m going on.” Her eyes were hard and determined, her expression unflinching.
“Who knows where we’ll end up if we separate?” Joe pointed out. “For all we know, you’ll find Uneki and we’ll find Gabriel. It doesn’t make sense to do it.”
“Not yet,” ‘Wraith agreed.
Without consultation they resumed walking toward the mountains again. “We do need to figure out what we’re gonna do if we find out that the Horrors twisted Stefan,” Ocelot said.
“Do you think we’ll have to fight him?” Joe asked. He looked at Winterhawk, their resident expert on things magical.
Again, the mage shrugged. “I’ve never seen anything even remotely like this in any of my studies. To have one’s essence stolen at the point of death—” He shook his head as if trying to rid it even of the thought.
“What about us?” ‘Wraith dropped back next to ‘Hawk and Joe as Kestrel and Ocelot moved slightly ahead.
“What about us?”
“If they did it to Stefan—”
‘Hawk’s eyes widened as the implications of that sank in. “My friend, you could have gone all day without saying that.”
“You mean they might be able to grab our essence if they kill us here?” Joe, too, looked frightened by the thought.
Winterhawk cast about in his mind for something encouraging to say, and surprisingly found it: “Stefan was marked. Gabriel said so. P’raps—p’raps they need something like that in order to—”
“Gabriel said he was marked too.” That was Kestrel, who had whirled around at the mage’s words. She had paled visibly. “So if they kill him—” She didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, she turned and began walking faster. “We have to find him.”
They all fell silent after that as each one contemplated in his or her own mind the implications of what they had discussed. With most of them, it had not previously sunk in all the way what they were attempting, and what the consequences might be if they failed—now it was beginning to. They glanced at each other occasionally but avoided each other’s gazes. Once more they spread out, close enough for protection but far enough away as to discourage attempts at conversation.
Winterhawk was in the middle group if there was such a thing: Ocelot and Kestrel were out front in their usual point positions, while Joe trudged along behind, keeping a watch on their backs. That left ‘Hawk and ‘Wraith in the center, each one in a state of heightened vigilance, watching for threats coming in from the side. So far the walk had been remarkably quiet—there had been no sign of any life other than themselves, not even a bird or an insect. Except for the vaguely eerie whistle of the light wind and the puffs of dust swirling occasionally across the plain, the place could have been dead.
Winterhawk found it hard occasionally to maintain his vigilance; the unquiet thoughts in his head kept distracting him, tempting him to introspection. That was exactly what he did not want at the moment, because it brought his mind back to a time that he wanted desperately not to think about. Every time he tried to push it out of his mind it came back stronger—the images of the things he had seen, the helpless feeling of the encroaching madness, the fear—
—was there something moving over there?
He stopped suddenly as something caught his eye off to his left. Whirling, he faced it.
“What?” ‘Wraith asked, coming over to join him. The others stopped too, turning toward the mage.
“I saw something.” ‘Hawk pointed off in that direction.
The others gazed at the area, pausing for several moments to employ their various methods of enhanced vision. “Don’t see anything,” ‘Wraith said at last.
“Are you sure you saw something?” Ocelot asked. The plain out there was as lifeless as it had ever been.
“It was there, ‘Hawk said stubbornly. “A dark shape, moving—then it was gone.”
“Did you look for it magically?” Joe asked.
“Of course I looked for it magically!” the mage snapped. “I—” He took a deep breath and shook his head. “I apologize. That was a legitimate question. Yes, I did. I didn’t see a damned thing.”
“Did you get anything more than a dark shape?” Kestrel asked. “Size? Speed? Two legs, four, more?”
Winterhawk shook his head. “Nothing. Just—a shape.”
Ocelot watched him for a moment, then sighed. “Whatever it was, it’s gone now. Let’s keep going and just keep an eye out for it.” He sounded almost disappointed that they hadn’t spotted it; he would have liked something to fight right about now.
They went on. The landscape continued, unchanged, before them—it did not seem as if they were getting any closer to the mountains that were their destination. The reddish plain continued to spread out in front of them, vast, unworldly, creepy. The air was warm and carried the smell of something unpleasant; none of the travelers tried too hard to figure out what it was. There was no hunger, no thirst, just the endless progression of steps, the swirling dust, and the pinkish cloudy sky overhead.
Ocelot forced himself to look straight ahead, to scan the horizon for threats, to apply himself to the task at hand. Still, he did occasionally glance over at Kestrel, and even more occasionally watched her for awhile as she walked. Her eyes were set, her expression grimly determined as she strode on, setting the pace for the rest of the group. She looked neither left nor right, concentrating on the space ahead, her goal—Gabriel. A brief feeling of resentment crossed his mind: I wonder if she’d go to this much trouble to save me. Despite what he had told her before, back in Ferone’s rooming house, this wasn’t over. As much as he might have wanted it to be (and he wasn’t sure in all honesty that he did), it wasn’t. The image of her with Gabriel haunted him, mixed in with the smug, laughing face of the Dweller in Gabriel’s form, bringing out all his innermost thoughts and fears for his friends to see, for him to see—for her to see. The beautiful face, the flawless physique, the eternal youth—none of those were even real! He’s a lizard, doesn’t she see that? He’s not a man. He’s a big, scaly creature with wings and a tail and four legs. He eats cows whole! Doesn’t she see that he’s not—
He frowned. Who had said that?
You’re right, you know...why are you doing this? Why are you helping her? She couldn’t do it without you. You know that...
He blinked, continuing forward. Something in the back of his mind told him that he should be telling someone about these odd voices, but he wanted to hear what they had to say. They were making sense. He listened.
She couldn’t find him without your help. Why are you helping her? If she can’t find him she’ll come back to you. You know she wants him...she wants to sleep with him, not with you. Think of it...think of what they must have done together, and how much she loved it...How much he wanted it...how long he has been after her, hiding it behind that innocent act of his...
His teeth gritted; involuntarily his hands knotted into fists. His breathing got a little sharper, his steps a little faster. His mind filled with visions of Gabriel and Kestrel, their bodies entwined, their eyes locked on each other’s faces, their hands—
This is what you’ll give her back if you help her... The voice insinuated itself into his head, whispered in his ear. You know it’s true, don’t you? She’ll be very grateful to you, she’ll tell you so, of course—but then she will go away with him, to his bed, and you will be forgotten like yesterday’s garbage...
“No, damn you! Shut up!”
It wasn’t until he saw that the others were staring at him that he realized he had cried out aloud. He stopped, his gaze raking them, challenging them to respond.
“Ocelot—” Kestrel began.
“No.” He cut her off. “I don’t want to talk to you. Let’s stop and rest.”
“Rest? But—” None of them had felt particularly tired during their trip; certainly not in keeping with the distance they had already walked. So far no one had felt the need to stop, to break the urgency.
“Yeah. Rest. You got a problem with that?” His voice rose a little, but he didn’t seem to notice. “So we find him ten minutes later? Is that gonna make a difference, or do you already have plans in mind?”
“Ocelot!” Winterhawk’s voice was clipped and a bit harsh. “What the bloody hell are you on about all of a sudden?”
“Shut up, ‘Hawk. This isn’t about you. It’s not about any of you. It never was. It’s about her.” He hooked a thumb at Kestrel. “Her and Gabriel.” Stalking over, he stopped a meter or so from Kestrel, who was watching him as if he’d just announced he was boarding the four o’clock bus to Mars. Crossing his arms over his chest, he said, “So what if I told you I was just gonna stop here? That I was just gonna go back and find Uneki, go back home, and give up this whole show? What then?”
‘Wraith and Joe, standing back from the action, exchanged glances. Winterhawk moved a little closer, watching the scene carefully but saying nothing as yet.
Kestrel’s eyes were blazing. “You want to tell me what the problem is, Ocelot?” she demanded. “I thought we talked about this back at the rooming house. You said—”
“Screw what I said.” His tone was not loud, but it carried the blunt belligerence of a schoolyard bully. “It ain’t like that anymore. I’ve been doing some thinking, and it ain’t okay. Why the hell should I help you find him when all you’re gonna do is go right back to him and tell me to fuck off when we get back?”
Kestrel hadn’t been oblivious to the others around her before, but she was now. Her green eyes crackled with anger as she got in his face. “Ocelot, stop being an ass! I don’t know what kind of thoughts you’ve been having over there in that thick cranium of yours, but if you’d share ‘em with the rest of us occasionally you might be able to break your little one-man groupthink session before it gets you in trouble!”
Ocelot didn’t back down. “Oh, yeah—you think I don’t see it? It’s so obvious I couldn’t exactly miss it! I’d like to see you put yourself out like this for any of the rest of us—but because it’s Mr. Perfect Dragon who’s in trouble—even though it’s his own damn fault—you drop everything and run! Hurry, hurry—can’t slow down, can’t think about anything else—’cause all you want to do is get him back here so you can get in his pants again!”
Winterhawk, ‘Wraith, and Joe stared at Ocelot in shock, but that was all they got to do before Kestrel reacted. Her face white with rage, she let him have it with a right cross straight to the jaw. Ocelot went over backward and crashed to the ground.
Kestrel’s voice dripped ice as she stood over him. “You can stay or you can go,” she said quietly, “but if you ever say anything like that to me again, Ocelot, you’ll get the same again. Maybe worse. You have no right to talk to me like that. If you can’t get over your insecurities about Gabriel and grow up, the least you can do is not project them on me!” Her voice never rose; she held it under tight control as if afraid of what she might do if she lost it. “Got it?”
Ocelot pulled himself painfully up to a half-sitting position, rubbing his jaw with one hand and propping himself up on his opposite elbow. For a long moment he was silent—there was an odd look on his face, as if he were trying to make sense of something.
He nodded. “Yeah...” Looking up at them, he took a deep breath. “Something...just happened.”
The change in his tone of voice got through to Kestrel. She and the others stared down at him. “What are you talking about?” she asked.
Ocelot got back to his feet, his expression faraway and confused, showing none of the rage of only a few seconds ago. “It was like...something was—whispering to me. Telling me those things. They sounded so right—I wanted to believe them. But—” His gaze did a circuit of his friends’ concerned faces. He sighed loudly and shook his head. “It was almost like I was along for the ride inside my own head.”
“So—you didn’t mean those things you said?” Kestrel asked carefully.
He paused a long time before answering. “Yeah...I meant some of them,” he said at last. “But not all of them.” He took a step closer to her. “Kestrel—I meant it when I said I’m not okay with this yet. But the rest of that stuff—about you, I mean—” Again his shook his head. “That stuff I didn’t mean. It made sense at the time, but now—Like I said, I could see it happening but I couldn’t stop it.”
She regarded him with suspicion for a moment, then let her breath out. “So what happened, then?”
Winterhawk stepped forward. “Don’t forget where we are,” he pointed out quietly.
“You think the Horrors are whispering in Ocelot’s ear?” Joe asked. “Why now?”
“Why not?” ‘Wraith asked.
Winterhawk shrugged. “I don’t know why now. P’raps it was they that I saw before. P’raps they’re trying to sow dissension in our ranks. All I know for sure is that we’d better be damned careful and keep an eye on each other for odd behavior.”
“Damn right,” Ocelot agreed, rubbing his jaw again. It looked like he was soon going to be sporting a rather impressive bruise there.
“So,” Kestrel said quietly, “Are you going on?” The question was ostensibly directed at the group, but she was looking straight at Ocelot when she said it.
After a moment he nodded. “Yeah. We’re going on.”
Winterhawk, Joe, and ‘Wraith all nodded.
“Okay, then.” She sounded weary. “Come on. Let’s keep going the same way unless anybody has a better idea.” She glanced one last time at Ocelot and then turned and started off again.
Days passed. The only way they could tell this fact reliably was that the sky darkened and lightened again; other than that, they did not get physically tired, or hungry, or thirsty as they continued their seemingly endless trek. It was an odd feeling psychologically to never experience hunger or thirst, to never feel the need for sleep or even rest. Several times they stopped simply because they felt that it was time to stop for awhile; other than that, they continued on with little conversation. They did, however, keep a closer watch on each other, looking for any sign of the temporary insanity that had gripped Ocelot.
For his part, Ocelot did not speak of what had happened. Once Kestrel tried to bring it up, but he waved her off telling her that they could talk about it some other time, when this was over and they were back home. Each of them, when referring to the end of their quest, always used some variant of that phrase: “when we return home” or “when we find Gabriel.” Not if. Never if. It was the only thing that kept them going now.
It seemed odd to them that the Horrors seemed, at least for the most part, to be ignoring them. Remembering the last time they were here, when they had been attacked by hordes of creatures and barely escaped with their lives, they wondered why this time their passage seemed to be continuing unimpeded. If any of them saw odd shapes flitting off in the periphery of their vision or heard strange whispers that seemed to originate from a source very close by, they said nothing of it. They simply went on.
It was at one of their infrequent rest stops that ‘Wraith, in his emotionless, dispassionate tones, brought up what had been in a greater or lesser degree on everyone’s mind for the past several days: “How much longer?”
All of them tensed at the words, most of them at the same time sorry he had said them and glad that they were finally out in the open. No one looked at Kestrel. “What do you mean?” Joe asked, even though he knew exactly what ‘Wraith had meant. They all did. It was just a small attempt to draw it out as long as possible.
“How much longer do we look?” the elf asked. “Haven’t found anything. No clues. No sign of him. No new scenarios.”
Winterhawk sighed. “Loath as I am to say it, I’m beginning to agree with ‘Wraith. I don’t know what’s going on here, but we’re obviously not getting anywhere in our search. Either we’re going about it the wrong way, or—” He let that trail off, but everyone heard his words: or there’s nothing left to find.
Ocelot looked at Kestrel, who was looking down at her hands, and then at the others. When he spoke he chose his words carefully, mindful of what had come before and how they would be received now. “We can’t spend the rest of our lives wandering the metaplanes. It isn’t helping Gabriel, and it isn’t helping us. We’ve gotta think of another plan.”
“Can we go back—try to get more information and try again?” Joe asked.
“That’s assuming we can even find Uneki again,” Winterhawk said. “Or that he’s waited for us after all this time.”
Kestrel looked up. Her expression was bone-weary, despairing, but resolute. “You guys are right. We’ve been here for days now—maybe weeks—and we haven’t found any sign of him after we saw those guys shooting at him. Maybe they did get Stefan. But I’m not giving up until I know for sure what happened. You can go if you want—go back and try to find Uneki and go home. I won’t blame you. But I’m staying until I know.”
“Kestrel,” Winterhawk said very gently, “I know you don’t want to think about this, but—” He paused, trying to think of a way to soften it; finding none, he simply said, “by now if we haven’t found him, there’s a decent chance that he’s—gone.”
“Dead, you mean.” her voice was as soft as his. She shook her head. “He’s not dead.”
“Kestrel—” Ocelot began.
She shook her head again, more emphatically this time. “He’s not dead. I know it. He’s out there somewhere.”
“But how do you know?” Joe asked. “I know you want it to be true—we all do—but—”
“I don’t know how I know.” She looked up to meet the troll’s eyes. “But I do. I can—feel it, somehow, inside of me. It’s not very strong, but I can feel him. He’s out there somewhere. And I’m going to find him.”
“And if you can’t?” ‘Wraith’s voice was as flat as ever, but there was still the hint of compassion in it.
She sighed and spread her hands, shaking her head. “I don’t know. I’m not going to think about that yet.”
The four other runners exchanged glances. It was Ocelot who finally spoke. “Okay,” he said softly. “We’ll keep going for awhile longer. But we can’t do this forever. You know that, right?”
Kestrel looked up at him and nodded. Her eyes were haunted. “Yeah...I know that. I know it...” she added in a whisper. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You guys are being good friends. I don’t want to take advantage of that for something that might not even work out.” She looked up at them. “Two more days. Give me two more days. If we don’t find him by then—” She paused. “If we don’t find him by then we’ll go back, find Uneki, and then I’ll have to try something else, but you don’t have to be involved if you don’t want to. Deal?”
All four of them nodded. “Yeah,” Ocelot said. “That’s fair.”
“None of us want to leave him here, Kestrel,” Winterhawk said gently.
“I know that.” She got up, dusting herself off. “You’re all his friends too. Those damn things might be trying to turn us against each other, but it isn’t going to work. I can see that.” He stared off at the horizon. “Come on, then. At least let’s try to make it to the mountains before the time’s up.” She started off; after a few paces she stopped abruptly and turned back. “Thanks...” she said, then turned away again.
The others followed.
Another day and a half passed without incident. They mountains had gradually been growing closer—much more slowly than any of them would have expected, but closer nonetheless. The five of them had continued their search, spreading out, scanning the area ahead, to the side, above, and behind, trying to spot any sign of movement, irregular terrain, heat shimmers, or anything else that might indicate that something was out of the ordinary. After all this time, the eerie red dust, pink sky, and jagged mountains had become ordinary—it was the only scenery they had seen in many days. Each of them yearned for the sight of blue skies, trees, even the concrete and skyscrapers of Seattle. Anything to relieve this hellish landscape.
Kestrel had become increasingly more quiet and focused as the time had passed, ever mindful that her two days were ticking inexorably away and soon she would have to at least temporarily abandon her search. The only thing was, she knew it wasn’t temporary. If she left, she knew that it was very likely that she would not come back. Uneki and Neferet would be convinced that Gabriel was dead, and would not risk sending her here again—especially not on her own. She knew that the potential that she could be corrupted by the Horrors was too great for them to risk sending her back here alone, and that it was unlikely that her friends would agree to return. It wouldn’t be fair to ask them. Gabriel was their friend too, sure—but not to the same degree that he was hers.
She could not shake the certainty that Gabriel was alive somewhere. It had been there for a long time, but she had only just noticed it at the point when Winterhawk had suggested that he might be dead. At that moment she had realized that the thing that had driven her forward so strongly was her absolute confidence that he was out there somewhere. It seemed to originate from the core of her being, and in an odd way it was drawing her toward the mountains. She wondered if, despite what the others had said about the difference of this quest from the others, Fate was doing her best to stick her nose into things here as well. She hoped so. They needed all the help they could get.
As they continued on, she barely noticed on a conscious level that the feeling was changing. As the end of the second day approached, it was no longer simply a certainty that he was alive. Something was drawing her not just toward the mountains, but—
—drawing her toward Gabriel?
Consciously she did not notice this, but below any conscious level, her body responded to it. She held her head higher, picked up her steps, began moving faster. Ocelot looked at her oddly. “Kestrel—?”
She didn’t answer, but merely kept moving at the same pace. The others caught up with her, looking at each other with a kind of grim pity. They knew that her time was nearly up, that soon she would have to put aside her quest. Like she did, they knew that if this happened she would not return. This was it. They were willing to give her her last hour, to join her in intensifying the search if it would make her feel like she had done all she could—
“Come on,” she called back over her shoulder, then broke into a loping jog-trot. It was beginning to get dim—what passed for darkness in this place—but she didn’t seem to notice.
“Kestrel, where are you going?” Winterhawk called as he and the others quickened their pace to keep up with her.
“Come on!” she cried again. “Faster! We don’t have much time! We don’t—
And then they all saw the figure.
Copyright ©1999, 2000 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation and Wizkids.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.