For a moment everyone except Uneki was startled until they realized the voice had come from below them.

Gabriel had opened his eyes and was looking up at them. His voice sounded ragged and very tired, but there was none of the fear or the confusion that they had seen before.

“Gabriel?” Kestrel squeezed his hand, her eyes wide. “Are you—”

“I—cannot go back,” he said, his eyes fixed not on Kestrel but on Uneki. Shaking, he tried to raise himself up to a sitting position.

“You are in no condition to battle the Enemy, young one,” Uneki said. “Your friends have asked me to return all of you home. Perhaps then you can consult with Lady Neferet, and—”

Gabriel shook his head. “No.” He spoke slowly, as if he had to gather the energy for the words before he could give them voice. His gaze traveled around to the faces of his friends, settling at last on Kestrel’s. There was no sign that he remembered having seen them previously here on the metaplanes. “Why—why are you here? I—”

Kestrel put a hand on his shoulder. “We found your note,” she told him softly. “I know you asked us not to follow, but what could we do? You know we couldn’t let you go alone.”

He blinked a couple of times like he was trying to clear his head. “But—how did you—?”

“Kestrel remembered your friendship with Lady Neferet,” Winterhawk said. “We looked her up, and Uneki here was kind enough to give us a ride across.”

Gabriel looked somewhat startled by that revelation. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and made another attempt to sit up. This time Kestrel helped him, propping him up by allowing him to lean on her. “You should not have come,” he said wearily.

“If we hadn’t come you wouldn’t be here.” Ocelot had gotten up and was pacing. “You were a mess when we found you.”

“What do you remember?” Kestrel asked him, trying to deflect Ocelot’s tension before it took hold. “What happened to you? When we found you you were unconscious—you looked like you’d been hurt—”

Gabriel bowed his head. “I...do not remember much of it,” he said. “Only...that it was not pleasant.”

“You were freaked out,” Ocelot told him.

Winterhawk nodded. “You alternated from nearly catatonic to hysterical, trying to run away from us, screaming at the sky—”

The young man’s eyes widened; it appeared that their words had brought something back to him. “Screaming—at the sky—” he whispered.

“Gabriel?” Kestrel’s hand closed gently over his shoulder.

He wasn’t paying attention to her. He appeared to be staring at something that none of them could see. His breath picked up in speed, his body beginning to tremble again. The runners watched silently, afraid that he was slipping back into his madness once more.

This did not seem to be the case, however. He looked fearful, but more in the manner of someone who was remembering a frightening experience than of someone who was living one. “No...” he whispered.

“Please tell us,” Kestrel said. “It might help.”

“We should return,” Uneki said. “I am sure that the Lady would wish to hear what you have experienced as well.”

Gabriel shook his head. “No,” he said again, with effort. “I am not returning.” He looked around at the others. “You—you must go back, though. There is—nothing you can do here. It isn’t you that it wants. You face nothing here but—danger.”

“I’m not going anywhere without you,” Kestrel said. Her voice was firm. She looked around. “Besides, so far it seems like the only one of us who’s in any serious danger is you. Whatever it is that you’ve been looking for, it’s left us pretty much alone.”

“Tell us about what happened,” Winterhawk said. “Do you remember the gangster scenario? Do you remember your brother being there?”

Gabriel closed his eyes, fighting to chase the fleeting memories and stay away from the fog that even now threatened to creep back into his mind. “The—there was a chair...guns...Stefan...” For a moment a look of deep alarm passed across his face—he looked as if he expected someone to strike him. When this did not happen, he rubbed at his right wrist and looked up at the runners again. “A room... pain...” He sighed. “It doesn’t make sense. I can’t—Stefan was there...speaking to me...in my mind...”

“Stefan was talking to you?” Ocelot asked. “What did he say?” His voice was a little gruff; like the others he was convinced that the Horrors had tortured Stefan’s spirit to the point where he had changed sides again and was actively seeking Gabriel’s downfall.

Gabriel took a deep breath. “He...urged me not to give up...not to give in to it...”

“To what?” Joe asked.

There was a long pause before he answered. “I—they—they almost had me.” He rubbed his wrist again. “Tried to convince me—that I was not myself...that Stefan was dead and that you had killed him...” He looked up at Kestrel with haunted eyes. “You, Juliana...That...you had betrayed me...and killed Stefan...” Bowing his head, he whispered, “Please...forgive me... How could I ever have thought—?”

She gently rubbed his shoulders. “There’s nothing to forgive. We saw how messed up you were, and knew what it must have taken to get you there. I’m just glad you’re all right.”

“Do you remember what happened?” Joe asked. “The way you were before—and now you seem a lot better...how did that happen?”

Again, Gabriel paused to think. “I’m—not certain,” he said at last. “I think it was—Stefan. I heard his voice in my mind. He...he urged me not to give in...to fight them...to save myself even if I could not save him. He...” He looked up at them. “He made me...give my word that I would fight their influence.”

The runners exchanged glances. This did not fit at all with their theory that Stefan had changed sides. “So—” Ocelot began uncertainly, “—that’s all there is to it? You promised him you’d fight and that was it?”

“I—don’t know.” Gabriel looked down at his shredded T-shirt, at the bloodstains on his clothes, at the scratches on his wrist. “There was—another voice. A female voice. I—had never heard it before, but yet—it seemed familiar.”

Kestrel tilted her head. “A female voice? Was it me? Was it Neferet, maybe?” She looked at Uneki. “Could she be influencing us somehow, here?”

Uneki shook his head gravely. “No, I do not think so. She mentioned nothing of even making the attempt.”

Gabriel was looking confused again. “No...it was not the Lady...nor was it you, Juliana. I think...I was not certain at the time because my perceptions were altered...but it felt like another dragon.” He shook his head. “It does not matter. The point is that somehow Stefan, perhaps aided by this other, was able to reach me...to give me a place to anchor myself while I sorted out what was real and what was the Enemy’s illusion. I think I have done that.” He didn’t sound completely certain of this fact.

Winterhawk nodded. “This is indeed reality—or what passes for it ‘round here. But—do you remember any specifics about what happened to you? When we last saw you, you were standing in back of the Palms Casino, looking quite injured, and someone who looked very much like your brother was shooting at you with a machine gun. Do you remember any of that?”

For a long time Gabriel didn’t answer. He appeared to be searching his mind for the images Winterhawk had described. Finally he shook his head. “The memories are there—I think they will return in time—but they are vague. I remember being in a room, tied to a chair, and they—” He paused and looked up as something else dawned on him. “They were trying to convince me to change sides. Stefan—he had already done so, they told me. They wanted me to join them. When I wouldn’t, they tried to convince me—physically.”

Ocelot nodded. “We turned up in the same scenario, trying to find you. We met a guy named Wallace—”

“Yes. Wallace. He was...” He stopped to think again. “He was one of the leaders of the resistance organization.” His gaze fixed on Ocelot. “You were there?”

“Yes. Trying to find you.” ‘Wraith said. “No way to do it. No ‘moo.’”

“He means this one didn’t go like the others,” Joe told him, “where everything just happens the way it’s supposed to and we’re just kind of along for the ride.”

“So—if Stefan was helping you,” Kestrel asked, “why was he shooting at you?”

Gabriel bowed his head and closed his eyes. After a few seconds he looked up again. “I—I don’t think that was Stefan,” he said at last. He looked like he was slowly uncovering a revelation. “No...of course not. That is the only thing that makes any sense.”

“What makes sense?” Ocelot demanded. “Let us in on it, okay? It would sure as hell be nice if something around here did.”

Gabriel didn’t seem bothered by Ocelot’s mild sarcasm. “There was a creature...” he said slowly. “A small gray rat. It...came to me...chewed through my bonds...encouraged me when my will began to fade. When I escaped...when Stefan and the others met me behind the club...Stefan gave me one last chance to join them. By that time, I was injured...I was exhausted... I was trying to fight, but I didn’t think I could hold out much longer. Something... something yelled ‘No!’ and then that was when they started shooting.” His eyes met Kestrel’s. “I think the rat...was Stefan. Somehow— he was trying to help me.”

“Interesting,” Uneki said. He had been listening quietly to their conversation, offering nothing until now. “So you believe that somehow the part of your brother that remains here is attempting to aid you?”

“I can’t see what else it could have been.” Gabriel ran a hand back through his matted hair and then clasped his wrist again. “The rat seemed...familiar, but I couldn’t place why. When it cried out, they started to—” His eyes widened.

“What?” Kestrel leaned forward, as did the others except Uneki. “They started to what, Gabriel?”

“That’s it...” he whispered.

What?” Ocelot demanded.

Gabriel looked back up at them. “You said I was hysterical before—that I was screaming at the sky. Do you remember what I said?”

“We don’t know who you were talking to,” Winterhawk told him. “but you were yelling something about ‘try, but you can’t do it.’ You were daring it—whatever it was—to try something. You never said what it was you wanted it to try, though.”

Gabriel looked at the others. They were nodding in agreement. He let his breath out slowly. “That confirms it.” He paused a moment, then looked at Kestrel. “They can’t kill me.”

“What?” She looked confused, and the others weren’t far behind. “What do you mean?”

“It seemed like they were making a pretty damn good try at it,” Ocelot added.

Gabriel shook his head. The old fire was returning to his eyes. “No. Don’t you see? That’s the point. They tried. They had any number of opportunities. I was a prisoner in two different scenarios. I was powerless. They could have killed me any time they wished. But...they... didn’t.” He spaced out the last three words slowly for emphasis.

“You said they wanted you to join them,” Joe pointed out. “Maybe they were trying to scare you.”

Gabriel shook his head. Some of his energy seemed to be coming back now that he had come to his realization. “That was what they wanted,” he agreed. “But I don’t think they had any other option.” He smiled a rather nasty smile. “They need my cooperation. Without it, they can injure me—they can try to corrupt my mind—they can do anything but kill me. Not without my consent.”

“Your consent?” Ocelot was still looking like he wasn’t quite following Gabriel’s line of reasoning. “You mean they can’t kill you unless you let them?”

“They can’t have me unless I let them,” Gabriel said triumphantly. Moving carefully, he got to his feet, where he swayed for a moment but then gained his balance. “That was what all this was about. They’ve marked me, as I said in the note I left you—but it is only a very minor mark. Much more minor than the one they had on Stefan, and even his was not strong when compared to others of its type. That was what caused the madness: Stefan reaching across to me—which the Enemy could not do on their own—and the Enemy adding their signals to his. They wanted me. They wanted me to come here and face them, because they thought that once I did, they had me. They tried to corrupt me by turning me against my friends, by torturing me until I agreed to join them, to betray everything I believe in. Once I gave in to them, I would have been theirs—to kill, or more likely to control in some way. But they didn’t expect that I would figure out their game.” He looked rather pleased, all things considered, but then his expression sobered again. “You’ll have to go back. All of you. Uneki, please take them back. I am grateful for what you have done, but the fact that the Enemy cannot kill me does not extend to you, and I don’t want to see my friends killed for something that is no one’s affair but mine.”

Uneki was silent for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was gentle. “You should return with us. You can return here later, when you are well, but you are in need of rest.”

Gabriel shook his head. “I have to finish this. Stefan isn’t going to last much longer. He is fighting them, but he can’t go on forever. If I am to help him, it must be soon.”

“If you’re going, I’m going too,” Kestrel said. “Don’t try to stop me. We all got into this together, and we’re going to end it together.”

“I agree,” Winterhawk said.

Joe nodded. “Now that we’ve got something to do, I want to finish this.”

‘Wraith did not speak but simply nodded agreement.

Ocelot sighed. “Yeah. Me too. I’m afraid you’re stuck with us, kid.”

Gabriel did not answer for several seconds. Finally he bowed his head. “I cannot force you to go back,” he said wearily. “But I don’t wish to see you die, and I fear that if you remain that is what will happen.”

“That’s what you said last time,” Ocelot said. “We’re still here.”

“Somebody up there must like us,” Kestrel added.

“I have a question,” Joe said.

Gabriel turned toward him, glad for the moment not to have to deal with the issue of who was staying and who was going back.

“That scar on your side—that’s the mark, right? That’s how they got you?”

The young man nodded soberly. “The knife was specially prepared for me. I did not realize at the time that it was not only prepared to kill me, but to deal with the contingency that I might live by leaving me with their mark.”

“But Neferet said that a mark is destroyed when the Horror that puts it on you is killed. Isn’t that one dead? I mean, we all saw it go over the edge with Stefan. Are you telling us that whatever happened to Stefan might have happened to it too? That it isn’t dead?”

Gabriel paused to consider that; he didn’t look happy about the prospect. “It is dead,” he said at last. “It is true that the mark should fade when the one responsible has died. I don’t know how it remains, but I do know that the one we fought is dead.”

“Could part of it be hanging about, like Stefan is?” Winterhawk asked. “Would that be enough for it to maintain control of the mark?”

Another pause. “Possibly. I do not know. When the Enemy came to me in my dream, though, I did not feel it there. The one I felt was not one I recognized. It was at that point that it showed me what it wanted of me—that unless I came here and faced it, it would continue to torment not only Stefan, but all of us.” He sighed. “I don’t know what has happened. I am not expert on the ways of the Enemy. Perhaps in the years since the last Age, they have discovered a way to transfer control of a mark to another of their kind. That is something we must find out.”

“Do you think there’s more than one?” Ocelot asked.

“I don’t know that either. I suspect so. But without the one holding the control, any others would have no hold on me.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t want you to come with me. I wish you would return with Uneki and tell the Lady what has happened. But I fear that you will not heed my wishes, will you?” He was looking straight at Kestrel when he said it.

“Sorry,” she said softly. “Sometimes friends don’t do the most logical thing, you know?”

Uneki regarded them all with a gentle expression that was difficult to read. “You are all remaining, then?”

“Looks that way,” Ocelot said.

Gabriel sighed. “Yes. We are all remaining.” His expression suggested that he believed he was leading his friends into certain death.

The spirit nodded. “As you wish. I will remain here until either the Lady summons me back or you return to me. I can do nothing but wish you good fortune. I hope, as I am sure Lady Neferet does as well, that you are successful.”

“Thank you, Uneki.” Gabriel nodded formally to him; it was almost a bow. In that case, then, we—”

He never got to finish the sentence. Uneki watched silently as he, along with the five runners faded from view, becoming one with the swirling dust. The spirit’s ageless eyes settled on the place where they had been, and then slowly he resumed his seated, floating position. He knew that this was the beginning of the end and that, one way or the other, the outcome would be decided very soon.

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