At first it looked like it was just another slight rise in the ground, a lighter spot in the midst of the rocky plain. As they drew closer, though, it resolved itself into a humanoid figure. Closer still and—
“Gabriel!” Kestrel broke into a full run, dropping to her knees next to the slumped form almost before she had stopped moving.
The others caught up as she was checking him over. It was indeed Gabriel, and he was unconscious. Lying half on his side like a discarded toy, he was dressed in dust-streaked, loose-fitting white pants, a shredded T-shirt, and no shoes. Both the T-shirt and the pants were streaked with dried blood. His hair, the parts of it that weren’t plastered to his head like it had dried there, stuck up at odd, disarrayed angles. From the accumulation of dust that had gathered around him, it appeared that he had been here for quite some time. “My God...” Kestrel whispered. “What have they—”
“Alive?” ‘Wraith asked.
She nodded. “He’s breathing, but—”
The other runners quickly moved in to help her determine the extent of his injuries, Joe using his first aid skills and Winterhawk his magic. Ocelot and ‘Wraith stood a meter or so away, keeping watch to make sure no one jumped them.
After Winterhawk did a quick check to make sure Gabriel had no broken bones or serious internal injuries that might be aggravated by moving him, Kestrel rolled him over on his back, pulling off her jacket and putting it carefully under his head as a pillow. He didn’t stir. His eyes remained tightly closed. She looked up at Winterhawk. “Can you heal him?” she asked softly.
“I’m certainly going to try.” ‘Hawk’s voice was grim. “If it’s been a long time since he was injured, though—” He didn’t finish. Instead, he got down next to Gabriel, closed his eyes, and began concentrating. Joe remained nearby, ready to provide non-magical aid if it was needed. Kestrel alternated between watching Winterhawk’s face and Gabriel’s; she knelt next to the young man’s head and brushed his matted hair off his forehead.
Several moments passed during which the only sound was the low whistle of the wind as everyone focused on their respective tasks. When Winterhawk finally looked up, his expression was perplexed.
“What?” Kestrel asked quickly. “Can’t you do it?” She gripped Gabriel’s shoulder gently, her own body tense.
Winterhawk shook his head. “No...that isn’t it.” He paused a moment, then: “Physically there isn’t anything wrong with him.”
“What?” That was Ocelot, who turned away from guard duty for a moment to look at ‘Hawk like he was crazy.
The mage spread his arms in a gesture of confusion. “I don’t understand it either. All this blood—the length of time he’s obviously been out here—”
“So what’s wrong with him?” Kestrel asked. “If he’s okay—not hurt—”
“I didn’t say he was all right,” Winterhawk cautioned. “Obviously he’s not all right or he wouldn’t be unconscious. We don’t know how long he’s been here, but it looks like quite some time, which means he’s been out for quite some time. And—” He looked down at Gabriel’s face “—there’s something odd about his aura.”
“What kind of odd?” Joe asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it before. He’s very disturbed about something, but I can’t tell what. You must remember, I’ve rarely seen Gabriel’s true aura, because he keeps it well hidden most of the time. This seems—wrong, though, somehow.”
“Impostor?” ‘Wraith asked.
Ocelot tensed and turned back to take a scan of the horizon for threats. As usual, there were none apparent.
‘Hawk paused several seconds before answering, then finally shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“He’s not an impostor,” Kestrel said. There was certainty in her voice.
“How do you know?” Joe asked.
“I can feel it. Don’t ask how because I don’t know, but I can. The same way I could tell where he was.”
“Horror deception?” ‘Wraith took a quick glance in their direction before returning to his vigilance.
Again Winterhawk shook his head. “I’d bet not. But that’s not the odd thing here. The odd thing is: if this is Gabriel, and I believe it is, then why is he here?”
“And why does he look hurt but he isn’t? Why is he unconscious?” Kestrel was now gently rubbing Gabriel’s shoulders, hoping that perhaps the contact would bring him awake. So far she was having no luck.
“Maybe it’s somebody else’s blood,” Joe pointed out.
“P’raps, but look at this.” Winterhawk pulled aside the sleeve of the shredded and mostly useless T-shirt to show a large accumulation of dried blood on Gabriel’s right shoulder. There was a similar accumulation on his left arm and another on his left thigh. “It looks like something did hurt him here, but all that’s left now is the blood.”
“This is fuckin’ weird.” Ocelot dropped into a crouch, leaning his elbows on his knees, and alternated his attention between the rest of the world and what was going on behind him. “It brings up a hell of a lot more questions than it answers.”
“All right,” Winterhawk said, “you start.”
“Okay. What’s he doing here? Why is he here? Did he lose a fight with the Horrors? If so, why didn’t they just grab him like they did Stefan?”
“And why didn’t they kill him?” Joe added. “If he’s been lying here for awhile, it would have been easy for them to just—” He glanced at Kestrel and nodded as if the end of his sentence was obvious.
“Where has he been all this time?” Winterhawk asked. “Has he been here the entire time we’ve been looking for him, or was he off in some other scenario?”
“Why won’t he wake up?” Kestrel looked down at him, then back up. “If he’s physically all right, why is he unconscious? And what’s the odd thing about his aura that you said you saw?”
“Where are the Horrors?” ‘Wraith put in quietly.
Everyone looked around nervously, but no sign of movement could be seen.
“Maybe he won the fight with the Horrors,” Joe said. “That explains why they’re not here.”
“But it doesn’t explain why he’s still here,” Winterhawk said. “It’s conceivable, since we didn’t come here together, that Gabriel could have succeeded in what he came here to do and gotten sent home while we remained here, but it doesn’t make sense that he would remain if he was successful.”
“I don’t think he killed it.” Kestrel’s quiet voice broke into their speculations. “Not the one he came here to kill.”
“Look.” She pulled up the bottom part of Gabriel’s shirt and brushed some dust off his side to reveal an odd-looking wound. It looked like a scar, but a nimbus of angry red flared out from around it. She put her hand over it and looked up at the others. “It’s hot.”
Winterhawk frowned. “How could I have missed that?” He closed his eyes again and concentrated on examining it. It only took a few seconds this time. “That’s definitely the source of some of the oddness in his aura, but not all of it. It’s not a physical wound, despite what we see here—it’s more of a psychic wound. It’s well hidden, but goes deep into his essence.”
“That’s where they stabbed him—before,” Kestrel said. “It never healed...but it never looked like that before, either.”
“Before?” Joe asked.
Kestrel nodded. “Back when Stefan died. When he was on the altar. They tried to stab him in the heart, but he managed to deflect it and they got his side instead. He told me about it, showed me the scar. He said he didn’t think that one would ever heal completely.”
“But—you said it didn’t look like this?” Winterhawk asked. He seemed very interested in the answer.
She shook her head. “No. After he got back, it healed like any normal wound would, but it left a scar that never faded, no matter what did to get rid of it. Even magic didn’t work. But it just looked like a normal scar like a human would get.”
“And now a Horror-inflicted scar is flaring up again.” ‘Hawk’s voice was soft and grim. “This isn’t good.”
“What do we do?” Ocelot demanded. He looked down at Gabriel. “He can’t fight the Horrors like this, even if Stefan’s still out there somewhere.”
“Even if they haven’t turned Stefan to their side,” Joe added. “You have to admit, it’s starting to look like they have.”
Kestrel sighed, looking back down at Gabriel. “I think you’re right—at least about the fact that he can’t fight them like this. And we have no way to help him here. We can’t even get him cleaned up.” Her voice held weary frustration as she looked up at her friends. “I think we have to go back.”
The others nodded. They had already come to that conclusion, but were waiting for Kestrel to admit that she had too.
Winterhawk stood up slowly. “So—we’re all in agreement? We take Gabriel and go back? Assuming we can find Uneki, that is.”
Everyone nodded again. Their expressions were grim and despondent; no one liked admitting failure, especially after all they had been through together. “What about the Horrors?” Ocelot asked. “If we go back it isn’t over.”
“No choice,” ‘Wraith said.
Kestrel nodded. “Maybe Neferet will help Gabriel—maybe if we can get them talking they can come up with something together. She’s older than he is and he says she’s very wise. I don’t see how we can do anything else.”
They all stood around for a moment, none of them wanting to take the first step toward tangibly admitting that they were giving up their quest. Finally Joe bent down and gently lifted Gabriel; the troll’s massive arms dwarfed the young man, making a reasonably comfortable space for him to rest. “Which way?” he asked.
“I don’t think it matters,” Winterhawk said. “But let’s head back toward the Chasm. That’s where Uneki was when we last saw him.”
Silently they all fell into step. This time, Ocelot and ‘Wraith took the point spots, while Kestrel and Winterhawk took up positions on either side of Joe. They moved more slowly now, partly because they didn’t want to disturb Gabriel with too fast a pace, partly because a general air of despondence had suffused the group and made it difficult to spur themselves to move any faster. They became a bit less careful about watching for enemies, but it did not matter: their progress was not disturbed.
Gabriel showed no signs of awakening as they continued on their way. He remained quiet and unresponsive in Joe’s arms, neither moving nor making any sound. Kestrel became increasingly worried about him and checked him often, as did Winterhawk, but neither could find any change in his condition. The scar did not flare up any worse, although it didn’t get any better either. It remained noticeably warmer to the touch than the rest of his body.
It was on the third day with no sign of Uneki that he finally stirred. It happened during one of the few rest stops that Kestrel insisted on, mainly to give Joe a chance to put Gabriel down for awhile and Gabriel a chance to lie still without being jostled.
Kestrel had wandered off a short distance to stretch her legs after sitting next to him; ‘Wraith had taken up the watch until she returned. She wondered what the others were thinking, and if they would ever find Uneki again. None of this was making sense to her. Neferet had said that they would all be in grave danger here, that they were going into the center of the Enemy’s influence on this side of the Chasm, but yet the threats to them had been almost nonexistent. She didn’t know what was wrong with Gabriel; his failure to awaken after all this time was disturbing her more and more with each passing day. She was beginning to wonder if the oddness in his aura that Winterhawk had noticed was something wrong with his mind. She could think of no other explanation for why, although physically he was about as well as could be expected following his ordeal, he did not awaken. She tried not to think too hard about it: such thoughts did nothing to make her feel any more comfortable. She stood apart from the others, throwing stones out into the vastness.
She was startled by the sound of ‘Wraith’s voice breaking the silence. She whirled around a little too fast to face the elf.
‘Wraith indicated Gabriel and raised an eyebrow.
The young man’s hand was moving, twitching slightly but unmistakably.
“Awakening?” ‘Wraith asked, rising to surrender his place to Kestrel.
She immediately hurried over and dropped down next to him as the others gathered, keeping their distance but watching with hope. Gently brushing his hair off his forehead, she spoke softly to him: “Gabriel...wake up. It’s me. Kestrel. We’re all here...”
She watched as his eyes moved under closed lids. His hand twitched again and his breathing became a bit faster.
“Gabriel...come on, open your eyes. We’ve been waiting for you...”
His jaw tightened for a moment and then his eyes opened suddenly. The rest of his body tensed, his eyes widening in what looked very much like fear. More than fear—sheer terror. He looked as if he was trying to speak, but no sound came. His body began to tremble.
Kestrel watched him fearfully, casting confused glances up at the others. “Gabriel? What’s wrong? It’s me. Kestrel. Juliana.” She put her hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently.
She could feel the tautness in his muscles as he shook under her hand. He was whispering something, but she couldn’t make it out. Gradually his words became more coherent, but his thoughts did not. “No...please...Don’t...” he whispered, staring straight up into Kestrel’s eyes. Then he flung himself onto his side, drawing his knees up and wrapping his arms around them. His left hand clutched at his right wrist as if he were trying to find something that wasn’t there. He remained in that position, trembling and whispering to himself.
Kestrel looked up at the others, eyes haunted. Winterhawk was already crouching down next to Gabriel. When he finished his astral examination he looked serious. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” he said grimly. “He’s obviously agitated about something—possibly us. Unfortunately I can’t do his trick of looking into his mind to see what’s going on, though, so I can’t know for sure.”
“Is this connected to what you saw in his aura before?” Joe asked.
‘Hawk nodded. “I think so. It’s flaring up worse than ever now.”
“Can you do anything for him?” Kestrel was keeping herself under tight control, her voice even and flat.
The mage shook his head. “I think the best thing we can do for him now is get him back to someone who might be able to help.”
Kestrel looked down at Gabriel huddled up and trembling on the ground and bowed her head. “Yeah,” she said, a little hoarsely. “Let’s do that. Let’s get him home.”
Silently, Joe bent to pick him up. He remained rigid, locked into his fetal ball. Joe paused a moment and then slipped his hands under him, lifting him without disturbing his position. He was stiff in Joe’s arms for several minutes, then slipped into unconsciousness again. His hold relaxed, his hands loosening from their lock around his knees. Joe straightened him out and started moving.
After another hour or so of walking and no sign of response from Gabriel, Ocelot dropped back from his position at the front of the party and fell into step with Kestrel. The others moved away without comment, giving them their space to talk privately. At first Kestrel resisted, remaining at Joe’s elbow, but then she sighed and slowed down so she and Ocelot were in the rear of the group.
“You okay?” Ocelot asked. He sounded a bit awkward.
She shrugged. “What’s ‘okay’?” For her part her voice held no edge of belligerence or challenge; just weariness and more than a bit of despair.
“Neferet’ll help him when we get back. You said yourself, she’s older than he is and more powerful. She’ll know what to do.”
Kestrel nodded without looking at him. “Yeah. I know. It’s just—” She shook her head.
She paused, watching Joe’s broad back as he walked several meters ahead of them. “I’ve never seen him like that. I mean—I’ve seen him hurt—hurt bad—but I’ve never seen him so—afraid. So lost.” Again she paused. “He’s a dragon, Ocelot. They’re supposed to know what’s going on. They’re supposed to be able to handle things. They don’t—”
Ocelot put a tentative hand on her shoulder. “Hey, c’mon. Let’s just get him back home and we’ll go on from there. It’ll be fine.”
“Will it?” She turned to face him; her eyes had an odd faraway look. “Will he be all right, or is he going to stay like that?” She sighed. “I hate those things, Ocelot. I want to kill whatever it was that did this to him.”
“I think we all want a shot at it,” Ocelot agreed. “But I don’t think it’s gonna happen this time.”
“I know. And I hate that too. I don’t want to let them win. We’re better than they are. It’s not right that they should get away with it.”
Ocelot put his hands in his pockets, his shoulders slightly slumped forward. He agreed with everything she was saying—he was also concerned that the Horrors would figure out a way around the spell Gabriel had cast to keep their minds safe. But somehow none of that was important at this moment. He looked at Kestrel and saw a lot of himself—a strong, proud individual who was trying hard to keep it together because there wasn’t another option. He wished he could tell her it was all right to let it go for awhile, but he knew as well as she did that it wasn’t. Not for them. You did what you had to do, you tried to stay alive, and you went on.
“Do you think they did get him?” Kestrel asked suddenly.
She hooked her thumb toward Gabriel. “Maybe they did win. Maybe this is what they did to him. They didn’t kill him, but did something worse.”
Ocelot let his breath out slowly. That thought hadn’t occurred to him. “I don’t know,” he said at last.
“Do you think they got Stefan? Got him to switch sides, I mean?”
This time he did have an answer, even though he didn’t like it. “Yeah.” Pause. “Do you?”
She bowed her head. “Yeah.” Turning to face him, she added, “I don’t think he wanted to do it, but you saw those dreams. We all did. How long could anybody hold out against that?” Sighing, she kicked a rock off to the side. “I hope he didn’t have anything to do with what happened to Gabriel. Not just for Gabriel’s sake, either.”
Ocelot didn’t answer. There wasn’t anything he could say that would be helpful, so he kept his mouth shut. All things considered, it was probably the kindest thing he could have done.
Gabriel woke up again a few hours later, this time while Joe was carrying him. Given the speed at which he shoved out of Joe’s arms, he must have been awake for quite some time before taking action. One minute he was lying quietly, the next minute he had shoved forward, leaping free of the troll and crashing hard to the ground. Wild-eyed, he struggled to his feet and moved off, his gaze roaming restlessly over the five runners. Crouched slightly, he trembled like a frightened animal. New blood welled up on his upper arm where he had cut it on a rock upon landing.
“Gabriel!” Kestrel was already hurrying toward him.
He moved away from her, swaying. “No...” he whispered, his words coming on quick harsh breaths. “No... you won’t... you can’t...”
Moving slowly so as not to startle Gabriel, the other runners began taking up positions surrounding him. “Gabriel...” Winterhawk said soothingly. “What’s wrong? We’re trying to help you. Don’t you remember us?”
Gabriel’s gaze fixed for a moment on Winterhawk before returning to Kestrel, who seemed to be the primary target of his fear. “No...get away... killed Steven...” He paused a moment, then shook his head violently. “No! Not...not right...”
The runners exchanged glances. Something was most assuredly wrong. Before they could console themselves by suggesting that Gabriel had not been fully awake, that he might have been incoherent due to not being fully conscious. But now he was up and apparently awake, if not perhaps altogether back in what passed for the real world. “Hallucinations?” Winterhawk whispered to ‘Wraith, who was nearest him.
The elf shrugged. He looked as confused as Winterhawk did.
Gabriel, meanwhile, was turning around in place, trying to keep watch on all five of them at once. He remained in his defensive crouch, his left hand clawing at his right wrist. “No...” he whispered. “Steven...”
“Gabriel?” Kestrel forced herself to keep her voice gentle. “Please talk to us. What’s wrong? Let us help. What about Stefan?”
“Steven!” His voice was surprisingly strong, the response quick and almost conditioned. “Steven... no... you won’t... not anymore, sir... I know...” He looked at her. She watched with horror as rage crossed his features, but it only stayed there a second or two, to be replaced by confusion. “I don’t— no... not... not real...”
“What isn’t real?” Joe asked. “What happened to you? Where have you been?”
Gabriel barely paid him any attention. He was still looking at Kestrel. His expression changed to a mix of confusion and searching, as if he was trying to find something in her face. “Killed... Steven...” he whispered. “Betrayed...”
“Who killed him?” Winterhawk asked. “Who killed Steven?” He didn’t know why Gabriel kept referring to his brother by that name—or perhaps it wasn’t his brother at all, but someone else—but he decided that keeping the young man talking might at least get them some information that they could use to help.
“You!” He dropped to his knees, head bowed, shaking. “You—all of you—but...no!” Flinging his head back and forth, he clenched his fists. “Not right! Not right! Not—” He fell down to the ground, sobbing in frustration.
The runners didn’t know what to do. They looked at each other, then back down at their friend who was falling apart before their eyes. Joe started to move forward, but Kestrel put a hand up and moved in herself.
“Gabriel...” she whispered, putting a gentle hand on his shoulder. She was surprised at how much it shook under her touch.
He made a little fearful whimpering noise in the back of his throat, but otherwise didn’t respond.
“Gabriel...it’s me. Juliana. Please talk to me. I know something’s very wrong, and I want to help you, but I can’t if you don’t talk to me.”
He rolled up a little tighter, still silently sobbing. “No...” he muttered. “Killed...Steven...Kill...kill me too...”
She looked up at the others, shocked, and then tried to pull him into her arms. “No...Gabriel...Please tell me what’s happened to you. Where were you? Why all this talk about killing? We don’t want to hurt you. We’re here to help. That’s why we came. Don’t you remember?”
“Couldn’t...kill...” Gabriel resisted her attempts at comfort, shaking out of her grip. “Couldn’t...failed...” He shook his head. “Blood...blood...everywhere...”
“Justin!” Again it was the quick, sharp response, of a type that suggested that it was in response to some unknown stimulus. He looked at her for a moment, then buried his head again.
“Who’s Justin?” she asked. She glanced at the others, but they had backed off and were letting her handle the situation. She could see that they were still surrounding them a few meters back, keeping watch for threats that might choose this as an opportune time to attack them. When no answer was forthcoming, she asked again: “Who’s Justin, Gabriel?”
“Not Gabriel!” This time he didn’t bother to lift his head. “Justin...” There was a pause and then his shaking increased. “No... no... not... Justin... not... real...” Suddenly his body went rigid; at first Kestrel thought that he was sobbing harder, but she gradually became aware that he was not sobbing but rather laughing hysterically. “Can’t do it! Can’t do it! You can try, but you can’t! Go ahead—try!” He flung himself over on his back, spreading his arms wide, and stared up into the sky. “Try, damn you!” he screamed. “I dare you!” He leaped to his feet, screaming incoherently at the sky. Then he crashed to the ground again and did not move.
Shocked, Kestrel and the other runners could only stare at him for several seconds before any of them could act. Still, she moved first. Falling to her knees next to him, she gathered him up in her arms and held him, looking helplessly up at the others. “What’s wrong with him?” she whispered. “What’s he talking about? Why is he so—”
Winterhawk put a gentle hand on her shoulder. His expression was grim and as confused as hers. “I don’t know,” he said. He shook his head, sighing through clenched teeth. “I wish there was something I could do—to reach his mind somehow—but—” He bowed his head, his feelings obvious. Gabriel had helped him when he had been gripped by the Horrors’ madness; now the situation was reversed and he was powerless to do anything.
Slowly the other runners moved in until they were standing in a tight little ring around Kestrel and Gabriel. “We should go,” Joe said. He too kept his voice gentle; he too looked like he regretted deeply his inability to help. “The sooner we find Uneki—”
“Yeah.” Ocelot bent and picked up a fist-sized rock, spinning like an uncoiling spring to fling it as hard as he could into the distance. It whizzed audibly through the air and came to rest far away in a small puff of dust.
“Would have preferred ‘moo,’” ‘Wraith said. He stood quietly, his tension obvious in his too-straight posture and the way in which he held his shoulders with almost military stiffness. His gaze flicked compulsively back and forth between Gabriel and the surrounding landscape.
“Yeah, tell me about it.” Kestrel’s voice held an edge that was hard to identify. She rose fluidly, still holding Gabriel. “Let’s go.”
“Want me to take him?” Joe reached out his arms as if to do so.
She shook her head. “I’ve got him. Thanks.”
Joe regarded her for a moment, then nodded and moved off. The look she gave him before he did could have been a plea; it could have been gratitude.
“I certainly hope that if anyone who’s positively disposed toward us is watching,” Winterhawk said to nobody in particular as they resumed their pace, “they might take pity on us and give us a bit of a nudge in the right direction.”
No one replied, but they didn’t have to. Their agreement was obvious.
The voices were back. They were whispering in his mind. Soft, sibilant little voices, some gentle, some harsh, all of them unintelligible in their mishmosh of sound. Occasionally, rarely, one of the voices would break out from the pack for a moment and become clear, but it never lasted long enough for the voice to express a coherent thought. They were all there, voices he recognized, voices he didn’t: Sorenson, Steven (Stefan! said another voice still), Juliana, a soft female voice he thought he recognized but could not place, the men who were Juliana’s friends (what were their names? He could not remember), others that made no sense. He struggled to make sense of them, to sort them out, to focus on one and exclude the others. The problem was, even if he was capable of such a feat, he did not know which one he should listen to. They were all giving him different messages—which one was right? Were any of them right? He didn’t know anymore. He just wanted to go back to the darkness where it was warm and safe. No one could hurt him in the darkness. He could just float away peacefully on it, let it take him where it would, and—
One of the voices broke to the surface with surprising vehemence, then sank back down again. He recognized the voice. It was Steven—or was it Stefan? He wasn’t supposed to use one of those names, but he couldn’t remember which one. It didn’t matter, though: whichever name he used, the owner of the name was dead, gone, beyond any place where he could help. It could not have been his voice. Settle back, close your eyes, let your mind drift, let yourself go, surrender yourself to the darkness—
No! You cannot!
Once again the same voice broke out—strained, exhausted beyond measure, but determined. You cannot give up! If you do all is lost...
But...I cannot...I am tired...so tired...
You must fight...
He could sense the other voices, or whatever held the other voices, trying to pull the one back down again, to cover it over, to replace it with their own. It struggled with them, strong even now in its weariness, the will driving it compensating for the deficiency of strength. There was another voice there, soft, like an echo—the female voice he could not remember, but knew he had heard before: Fight...it whispered. You must...
But how? I cannot fight them... I don’t know how... I don’t know where to start... He did not know anything anymore. The truth—if there was indeed any truth at all—flitted about in the miasma with the voices, elusive and ethereal.
Follow me... It was Steven/Stefan again. His voice rose in strength and then dropped again, struggling to maintain its individuality in the hubbub of other voices. Follow me... you are my brother... you are strong... you must fight, Gethelwain. Even if you cannot save me, you must save yourself... I will not see you led into this hell as I was...
Geth— his mind wouldn’t close around the name. It was forbidden. Someone had told him that he was wrong to claim it, that his mind was unwell, that none of it was true. But it felt true. There was something about the name... Gethelwain... it resonated in his mind as if it had been there all along, waiting.
Fight them, Gethelwain. You must. Return home. Live. Do not let them have you. I am lost, but you must be free of them.
The voice was losing potency now, pulled down like a drowning swimmer into the murky depths. He held on to it, grasping at it, clutching it as his last anchor to the only reality he could understand.
Fight them, brother... will you give me your word?
My... He sensed that it was something very important that this voice was asking him to do. But was it reality? Could he trust it? His word...it was a sacred thing, not to be broken—but was that true? What was true? What was—
Give me your word! The voice fought its way up, refusing to allow itself to be dragged all the way beneath the surface. Still, it was visibly fading now. You will fight them! You will not let them have you! Your word, Gethelwain!
Yes! Yes! My word!
It was as if a switch had been thrown in his mind. As soon as the thought had escaped his consciousness, a sense of peaceful well-being engulfed him. The haze of confusion began to be lifted from his thoughts. It was slow, but it was real. He had made the right decision. He could feel it.
I will be with you as long as I can... As the voice of his brother finally faded away, for the briefest of moments he was sure that it was echoed by the gentle female voice—but then both of them were gone along with what remained of his consciousness.
They felt as if they had been walking forever, and perhaps they had. Time had long since lost meaning to them as they stumbled on, their resolve slowly carried away by the red winds.
Joe had Gabriel again. As strong as Kestrel’s vat-grown muscle made her, she had been unable to go on for more than a few hours carrying a burden that weighed more than she did. Joe had watched her from the corner of his eye, and when he saw her staggering he had silently come over and taken Gabriel from her arms. Her expression had been one of shame, a feeling that she had betrayed her friend, but then she had sighed, bowed her head, and gone on, taking up her position once more at Joe’s elbow.
“How much longer are we gonna do this?” Ocelot asked. It was what they had begun to associate as midday, the red sun high overhead, its light filtered through the choked clouds. Like the rest of them he was not physically tired, but the mind-numbing sameness of their trek had begun to take its toll on him nonetheless.
“What else?” ‘Wraith slowed his pace a bit and dropped back into the group.
“‘Hawk, isn’t there anything else we can do? Any other way we can get back?”
The mage shook his head. “Don’t you think that if there were, I would have suggested it long ago?”
Nobody answered; they all knew that was true. All of them had been hit hard by their experiences, but none had shown any desire to discuss what they had heard, seen, or thought. More than ever they had become five islands, each one self-sufficient within his or her own head.
They were getting closer to the Chasm now and all of them had subconsciously slowed down; the closer they got, the slower they progressed. It yawned ahead, dark and forbidding and unknown, stretching for an infinite distance to their left and their right. They couldn’t see anything of the other side yet; even under the best of circumstances it was only possible to see vague impressions of the shifting, squirming forms on the other side, and none of them wanted too add that particular sight to their lists of nightmare visions.
“What if we called for him?” Ocelot asked. “You think he might come if he hears us?”
“He might,” Winterhawk said.
“Others might,” ‘Wraith added.
Kestrel sighed. “I don’t think we could attract these damn things if we started waving babies and yelling ‘Free Eats’.”
Winterhawk shrugged. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt. Right now I’d like something to break the monotony, and I certainly don’t see him.”
They were getting ready to do just that—Joe, who had the strongest and loudest voice, had handed Gabriel over to Kestrel and was preparing to call out—when ‘Wraith put up a hand. “Wait.”
“What?” Ocelot’s voice was tinged with impatience—now that they had decided to do something he wanted to do it.
Everyone looked in the direction the elf was pointing. For a few seconds no one saw anything, but then a form began to resolve itself from the dust. It was tiny and far away, but it was definitely approaching.
The runners tensed. “What is it?” Joe asked.
“Don’t know. Can’t tell yet.” ‘Wraith didn’t take his eyes off it as he spoke.
“Do you just see the one?” Winterhawk’s voice was a bit strained; he was remembering the strange apparitions that he, and apparently only he, had seen before.
“Maybe this is it,” Ocelot muttered, clenching his fists. “Finally.”
The five of them spread out, all their gazes locked onto the approaching form. Their muscles taut, they prepared themselves for the battle not all of them were sure they hoped was coming. Slowly the figure resolved itself into a humanoid form, but the dust made it difficult to identify. Winterhawk’s hand tightened on his mageblade, while Kestrel held Gabriel close, debating whether she should keep hold of him or put him down now so she could fight if needed.
They needn’t have worried. Just as it had been ‘Wraith who had seen the figure first, he was the first to relax—even if only slightly. “Uneki,” he said quietly.
Winterhawk did not relax just yet. Keeping his eyes focused on the figure, he shifted his perceptions to get a better look at it. While he could not astrally project on the metaplanes, astral perception would give him at least some of the information he needed.
Ocelot was watching him. “Well?”
He shifted back and nodded. “Either it’s a bloody good disguise or that’s our spirit friend coming.” His voice was heavy with relief.
They met the spirit mid-way. He looked the same as he had looked when they had left him all those days ago, his brown silk robes untouched by dust, his face expressionless, his eyes dark and deep. Now they were questioning. “You have succeeded?” he asked without greeting, looking at Gabriel in Kestrel’s arms.
Kestrel shook her head, then bowed it. “No.”
“You have found the young one.”
“Yes,” Winterhawk said, “but he didn’t accomplish what he came here to do. There’s something wrong with him. We can’t stay here like this—there’s no purpose in it. We have to go back.” He sounded reluctant but resigned.
Uneki remained silent for a moment, then inclined his head. “As you wish,” he said. It was impossible to determine if his deep voice held regret or disappointment. “I must prepare. It will take less than an hour. First, however—” He looked at Kestrel. “What is wrong with the young one? His aura is unsettled.”
She nodded, gently lowering Gabriel down to lie on the ground with his head in her lap. “We don’t know what’s wrong with him. We found him unconscious, with blood all over him but no sign of injury—except this scar.” She pointed out the scar on his side with the angry red halo around it. “He’s awakened a couple of times since then, but he doesn’t seem to know us—or else he’s afraid of us. We think the Horrors messed with his mind somehow.”
“That is indeed possible,” Uneki said softly. “It is unfortunately the thing at which the Enemy is most adept of all.” He indicated Gabriel, dropping gracefully to his knees next to the two of them. “May I?”
She nodded. “Please. Can you—help him?”
“We shall see, child. If not, then we will take him to the Lady after we have returned.”
Again Kestrel nodded, leaning back slightly to give Uneki room to work. The others backed off a bit and watched from one side. All of them, but most often Ocelot and ‘Wraith, cast occasional glances at the Chasm.
As Uneki held his hands out flat and ran them over Gabriel at a distance of a few centimeters above him, Kestrel was reminded of the first time she had met the spirit, when he had been sent to her by Neferet to help Gabriel back at the chalet in Switzerland when this had all started. That seemed so long ago now that it was almost in another lifetime for her. Had it really been less than a month ago? She wasn’t sure anymore—she wasn’t even sure how long they had been here in this place. She wondered what would happen when they returned. Would Neferet help Gabriel further? Would he return here again? She did not think the threat had passed, and she did not think that Gabriel would allow it to continue when he had any power to stop it. But that’s for later, she told herself. All that mattered now was to get back home, to get Gabriel back to himself again, and then they could deal with the future in the future.
Uneki did not move or speak for several moments, except for the smooth motion of his hands as they glided through the air above Gabriel’s body. At last he looked up, meeting Kestrel’s eyes. His face was still without expression. “I believe you are correct,” he said. “Physically, he is undamaged except for the exhaustion he has suffered from his battle against his own mind. I can see the remnants of a great mental struggle, and the remains of memories that show me that his experiences have not been at all pleasant. Although he has not been physically injured, the Enemy has convinced him that he has been.”
“What about the scar?” Winterhawk asked.
Uneki turned his attention to the mage. “The scar is the worst. Though it appears to be a physical wound, most of its effect is psychic. It is a deep wound that extends into the core of his being, and his experiences here have worsened its effect.”
“So—how is he now?” Kestrel spoke hesitantly. “Will he be all right if we get him back home?”
“I do not know.” The spirit looked down at Gabriel, then back at her. “It is difficult to read him clearly in his condition, but from what I have seen he has a strong chance that his mind will return to normal following a period of rest.”
“There’s something you’re not saying.” Winterhawk’s voice was soft but steady.
Uneki nodded once, reluctantly. “Yes. We must consult the Lady for this is not my area of expertise but the scar troubles me.”
“You don’t think it’s going to go away, do you?” Joe asked.
“Will it get worse?” Almost involuntarily Kestrel’s gaze dropped to it. It looked about the same as it had before: angry and inflamed. Had the red halo extended further from its center? She couldn’t tell.
“I do not know. But it does have a very strong connection with the Enemy. If this is so, then it is possible that the connection can be maintained after he returns home.”
The runners exchanged glances. If that was true, then this was not over. Their trip had been in vain. They had all suspected that this would be the case, but none of them wanted to admit it out loud.
Kestrel sighed. “We have to go back,” she said resolutely. She indicated Gabriel. “There’s no way he can fight them like this, and even if we could fight something that’s doing this to a dragon, whatever is behind this doesn’t seem to want to show itself to us.”
Uneki inclined his head. There was an air of gentle sadness around him now. “I fear that you are right, child.” With inhuman grace he rose to his feet from his kneeling position. “I will make the preparations and we will return.” When no one answered, he moved off a few meters and floated about a meter up, crossing his legs beneath his robes and closing his eyes.
Ocelot sighed and looked at the others. For once, he didn’t have anything to say. He put his hand on Kestrel’s shoulder and squeezed gently.
She sighed and put her hand over his, looking up at him for a moment before bowing her head again.
Uneki finished his preparations in significantly less than an hour. When he came floating over toward them and returned to an upright position, the runners were all watching him. None of them had said a word in the intervening time. There was nothing they could say. “Ready?” Joe asked.
The spirit nodded. “Form a circle, seated with Gabriel in the center.”
They did as they were directed. “Wait a minute,” Kestrel said. “Will he—will he come back with us? We left from different locations. We won’t all reappear together, will we?”
“No. He will return to his body inside his lair, and you will return with me to the Lady’s home.”
Kestrel nodded, dropping her gaze again. She didn’t like it, but again there was nothing she could do about it. “Let’s get it over with,” she said, her voice a little more harsh than she had intended.
“Join hands, including Gabriel. This will be a bit more difficult than before because of the locations involved.”
Again the runners silently followed the spirit’s instructions. Kestrel took one of Gabriel’s hands, and Winterhawk the other, joining him into the oddly-shaped circle they had formed.
“Good,” Uneki said. “Now close your eyes and try to relax your minds—we will all be home again in only a few moments.”
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.