Kestrel looked on in horror as Gabriel lay gasping on the bed. His eyes had opened again only seconds after he had seemed to pass out, and the look in them was one of terror. He did not seem to even know she was there, even though the mental call for her had not ceased. “Gabriel,” she called again, putting her hand on his forehead and pushing his damp hair back, “please tell me what’s wrong. I can’t help you if you won’t tell me.”
I’m not sure I can help you if you do tell me, a little voice said in her head. If it wasn’t a nightmare—and she was becoming increasingly sure that it wasn’t, or he would have awakened by now—then what was it? Was he ill? She didn’t think dragons even got ill, and if they did, then she couldn’t exactly call for the chalet’s resident physician. “Hello, doc? I’ve got a sick dragon up here...do you make house calls?” hardly seemed like a prudent approach.
She got up and went swiftly to the bathroom, where she filled a glass with water and snatched up a washcloth from the towel rack. Returning to Gabriel’s bedside, she sat down on the edge of the bed, dipped the cloth in the glass, and used it to gently mop the sweat from his face. Her thermographic vision showed that he was radiating far more heat than he should be, which worried her. Swiftly her mind went over the possibilities of what could be wrong, immediately discarding each one almost as soon as it had made an appearance. Was he having a reaction to something he’d eaten? Was he allergic to something around here? Had someone figured out who and what he was and made an attempt on his life? None of them seemed plausible, and she knew that indulging in speculation wouldn’t do either of them any good. She mopped at his forehead again, then re-wet the washcloth and began on his chest, pausing a moment as the cloth passed over the small scar on his side from that thing’s knife during the aborted sacrifice attempt so many months ago. That scar, unlike his other injuries, had never healed. “Please...” she whispered, her tone beginning to sound a little desperate. “Please tell me...I don’t know what to do for you...You’re scaring me...”
He looked up at her, trembling, visibly trying to fight something. “J...Juliana...” His voice had almost no volume behind it.
Her gaze locked in on his eyes; she took his closest hand in both of hers and squeezed gently. “I’m here, Gabriel. I’m right here. What is it? What can I do?”
“You...can’t...” he whispered. “...please...must...call...” His words were slow, spaced as if he had to shore up his hold on something before he could risk speaking.
Her grip on his hand tightened. “Call? Call who? Do you want me to call a doctor?”
His head moved back and forth once. He took a deep, shuddering breath, swallowed, and gathered his strength again. “No...no...call...Ne...Neferet...” He gasped, stiffening as some sort of spasm rocked his body. “...Please...”
She held his hand until the spasm passed. “Neferet? Gabriel, who’s that? I don’t know anyone named Neferet. You’ll have to help me out here.”
For a moment he didn’t answer, and Kestrel feared that he had passed out again. Then he opened his eyes, his fever-bright gaze fixing on her face. When he spoke again, his voice was in her mind. “Neferet...she is...the one I spoke of...I...visited her for a time...”
It only took Kestrel a few seconds to realize what he meant. She remembered back to the time when he had returned to her after his three-month absence; one of the things he had told her was that he had spent some time visiting a friend he had met while mourning his mentor Telanwyr and his brother Stefan—an older female dragon who had taken him in and helped him work through his grief. He had never told Kestrel her name, though. “Neferet...Gabriel, is she the one you stayed with after Stefan—”
He nodded wearily. “Please...call her...” He began reciting a series of numbers and took Kestrel a minute to realize he was giving her an LTG code. She fumbled for her pocket secretary and quickly captured the number.
“You—just want me to call her? Will she even listen to me?” She was already pulling her small portable phone from her jeans pocket.
Gabriel didn’t answer. His eyes were closed again, his body trembling, fresh beads of sweat replacing the ones Kestrel had mopped away. That did it. She couldn’t wait any longer. She pulled up the covers that he had shoved off and entered the number into the phone. Some perverse voice in the back of her mind wondered if dragons used answering machines, and hoped that if they did, this particular one did not. Her hand shook as she held the phone to her ear and listened to the connection being made. She glanced over at Gabriel, who had quieted for the moment. His eyes twitched under his closed eyelids.
The phone was answered after the second ring, a fact which so surprised Kestrel that she almost didn’t notice it. There was no video. A deep male voice spoke a single word: “Yes?”
This threw Kestrel off her game—she had been expecting a woman. Had she, in her nervousness, punched in the wrong number? “Uh...” She cast about for words. “Uh...May I speak to...Neferet, please?”
“The lady is occupied,” the deep voice informed her. “You may give me a message to carry to her if you wish.”
Uh oh. She took a deep breath, trying to keep her voice steady. “No...please...I need to talk to her now. Tell her it’s about Gabriel. He’s in trouble. He needs her help. Can you please—”
Immediately the deep male tones were replaced by another voice. “Who is this?” This voice was female; it too was deep, but had more of a mellifluous quality to it.
Kestrel did not have much experience with dragon etiquette—Gabriel had no reason to observe it with his human friends, and the only other dragon she had met, Stefan, had had other things on his mind at the time. She decided to go for the direct approach. “Neferet?”
“Please identify yourself.” The voice was dead even, with no trace of warmth. “And tell me where you got this number.”
“I—” Kestrel swallowed hard. “Please. My name is Kestrel...I’m a friend of Gabriel’s. He gave me the number. He’s asked me to call Neferet...he says she can help him. I’m worried about him. I’ve never seen him like this before. I—”
“Calm yourself, child.” The voice cut her off in mid-sentence, but it had changed tone again, softening somewhat. “I am Neferet. Tell me what is wrong.”
Kestrel paused, drawing a deep breath and gathering her thoughts before she began. Then, watching Gabriel as she spoke, she told Neferet what had occurred. By the time she finished, her voice was shaking. If it had been a team member—a human or metahuman—who had been in this situation, Kestrel would have felt much more confident about dealing with it. This, though, only served to point up just how much she didn’t know about Gabriel.
The woman listened silently to Kestrel’s report. At its conclusion, she remained silent a few moments longer, then said, “I do not know what could cause such an episode. Without examining him, I could not begin to diagnose the problem.”
Kestrel brushed Gabriel’s hair from his forehead again. “I don’t know how soon we can get there...I’m not even sure he can travel like this. He said before that you were in CalFree...”
“And you are far away,” Neferet finished. “If you will permit me, I will send a servant—a spirit—to you, and it can attempt to aid you. If nothing else it can relay information to me.”
Kestrel nodded, then realized that Neferet could not see the gesture. “Yes...please. Thank you. Anything.” Anything or anyone who could make sense of Gabriel’s strange attack was more than welcome to make an appearance.
“Very well,” the woman’s voice intoned. “It will take a few moments for the spirit to locate you. When it arrives, it will know what to do. If more is needed it will contact me.”
“Thank you,” Kestrel said again, a small measure of relief beginning to grow inside her.
“The child has been through much of late.” Neferet’s voice was soft. Then, nothing, as the connection was broken.
Kestrel turned back to Gabriel, taking his hand again. “I called her, Gabriel. She’s sending somebody to help. Just hang on. Everything’ll be fine...”
He opened his eyes and gave her what was clearly supposed to be an encouraging look, but it was cut short by another tremor. His hand tightened on hers.
She almost didn’t notice the dark form that detached itself from the shadows on the far side of the room and stood in the middle of the floor at the foot of the bed. When she did, she started slightly, ready to leap up into a defensive position between it and Gabriel.
“I am sent by the Lady Neferet,” the form said. Kestrel recognized the voice as the deep male one that had answered the phone. As it moved into the moonlight, she could see that it had manifested in the form of a tall, well-built black man dressed in simple silk robes. The spirit’s head was bald, its eyes twin pools that seemed to glow with an inner light. “I am Uneki.”
Gabriel seemed to recognize the spirit. Despite his difficulty, he nodded politely to it and managed a half-smile. “It is...good...to see you again...Uneki...”
Uneki inclined his head and moved over to the opposite side of the bed from Kestrel. Without further preliminaries, he sat down and raised his hand, moving it over Gabriel’s head a few centimeters above him. Gabriel held his breath and tried to remain still, but every few seconds the tremors struck again. Kestrel wondered if there was anything she could do, finally concluding that her best course of action was to simply remain where she was, providing support and silent comfort as the spirit did his work.
It was several minutes before anything definitive happened. Uneki’s expression was utterly neutral, except for his slightly glowing eyes. He continued to move his hand methodically above Gabriel, occasionally nodding to himself and murmuring something under his breath. Kestrel divided her attention between watching Gabriel and sneaking glances at the spirit as he worked. She had never seen a spirit who looked so...real...before. If she had not known otherwise, she would have believed Uneki to be as human as she was. Then again, if I didn’t know better, I’d think Gabriel was as human as I am, she thought a bit wryly. If there was one thing to be believed about the Sixth World, it was that nothing could be taken at face value.
Suddenly Uneki disappeared. Kestrel’s startled gaze came up to the place where the spirit had been, her hand tightening reflexively on Gabriel’s. He had closed his eyes and quieted again, but at the gesture he looked up at her. “Shh...” she whispered. “Everything’s fine.” I think.
Almost five minutes later Uneki reappeared. “I have spoken with the Lady Neferet,” he said formally, “and reported what I have found. She is attending to the situation now.”
“What—what did you tell her?” Kestrel asked, a little nervously. “What’s wrong with him? Will he be all right?”
Uneki turned his strange glowing eyes on her. “He was attacked by an astral influence of unknown origin. His symptoms resulted from his subconscious mind’s attempt to repel the attack. He will be well when the Lady has dealt with the cause of the influence.”
Kestrel’s eyes widened a bit. An astral influence of unknown origin? That sounded suitably frightening—especially when one considered that it was strong enough to affect something as powerful as a Great Dragon. “But...you don’t know what this...influence is?”
Uneki inclined his head. “I have never seen such an attack. The Lady was unsure of its origin as well, but she feels that she has sufficient resources to counter it.”
Kestrel looked down at Gabriel again. It was hard to tell, but it seemed that his shaking had lessened somewhat, and his eyes had ceased their darting about behind his closed lids. “She’s fighting it? Now?”
Again the spirit nodded. “She is on the astral plane as we speak. If you will give me leave, I will return to her. When the threat has been neutralized, he will be tired, but well.” His voice, while not exactly warm, was oddly comforting.
“Thank you.” Her tone was soft and very heartfelt. “Thank you for all you’ve done—and please thank the Lady for us too. I don’t know what I’d have done—”
“The Lady has great fondness for this young one.” Uneki rose in a graceful motion and stepped back. “Farewell.” He faded back into the shadows and was gone.
Kestrel turned back to her erstwhile patient, putting her hand on his forehead. It seemed, though again she couldn’t tell for sure, that his fever was going down. She reclaimed the glass of water and the washcloth from the nightstand, using them to give his face a soothing rubdown. Then she pulled the covers up, tucked them around him, and smiled what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “Everything will be okay,” she told him. “You just rest.”
Gabriel, for his part, did not answer.
Kestrel realized that she did not want to leave him. What if he had another episode? What if this—thing—this influence—on the astral plane decided to go after him again? She couldn’t do much, but at least she could call for help. Shrugging, she tossed her phone and pocket secretary on the nightstand, kicked off her shoes, and curled up next to him in the big bed. For once there was no thought of what might have been, only of deep concern for her dear friend. Whatever this was that was haunting his mind, she wasn’t going to let him face it alone.
The light of the sunrise shining in through the room’s massive window awoke Kestrel slowly. As her consciousness climbed up through the peaceful fog of sleep, she became aware that she was lying next to someone, her arm draped across him in easy familiarity. For a moment she thought it was Jean-Paul, but then memory of the previous night flooded back to her. Quickly moving her arm, she propped herself up and looked at Gabriel as he slept. She smiled; if she hadn’t been here last night, she wouldn’t have believed that he had gone through the horrific episode. He slept quietly now, his chest rising and falling with his gentle breathing, his face relaxed. As if he had suddenly become aware that someone was watching him, he opened his eyes. When he saw her, his expression brightened. “Good morning,” he said softly.
“Good morning.” Kestrel realized that it must look a bit strange for her to be sleeping next to him, still wearing the clothes she had worn the previous day, but she didn’t care. “How are you feeling?”
He took a deep breath. “Much better.” A pause, and then: “Thanks to you. I hope I didn’t disrupt your evening too badly.”
How very like him to be worried about my evening. “I’m just glad I could help. Gabriel...what was that? What happened?” And could it happen again? The question touched her mind, but she did not give it voice.
His eyes grew troubled as he shook his head. “I don’t know, and that disturbs me. I’ve never experienced anything like that. In truth I don’t remember much of what happened—only that I knew I had to fight it, and that it was somehow—wrong.” He sighed. “I don’t know what caused it, which means I don’t know whether it will happen again...or what might trigger it.”
Kestrel gripped his arm, trying to be comforting even though his words frightened her. “Your friend—Neferet—she sent a spirit to help—”
“Uneki,” Gabriel said, nodding. “He is very old and very wise, and has been in her service since before the Sleep.”
“He...said that she told him it was—” she paused to make sure she got the words exactly right, in case the phrasing was important “—an astral influence of unknown origin. He said neither he nor Neferet had ever seen anything like it, but that she could fight it.”
Again Gabriel nodded. “She must have done so successfully, since I can find no trace of it now. I feel a bit tired, but otherwise well.” He sat up in bed, testing his balance. When he apparently found it unaffected, he rose the rest of the way, going over to the window to look out at the day. “I must thank her, and Uneki as well, for their aid. I will introduce you to her if you like. She does not as a rule care for humans, but I think she will make an exception for such a dear friend of mine.”
Kestrel watched his silhouette, backlit against the brilliance of the sun rising over the Alps, and fought back a little twinge of desire. “She seems very fond of you,” she said at last, struggling for a neutral topic.
He turned back around to face her. “She is a good friend. I’ll always be grateful for her help and counsel after Stefan died.” He smiled a bit wryly. “I think she has decided I need a mother, and that she is the best candidate to fill that role in the absence of my true mother.”
Kestrel chuckled. “Well, you are just a kid, aren’t you?” She was just happy to see that he seemed to have suffered no ill effects from last night’s ordeal. She was also, she realized, acutely aware of his state of undress and just how unchildlike he looked right now. “Uh...tell you what. Why don’t I clear out of here and go back to my room—I could use a shower and a change of clothes. We can still do breakfast if you want...”
Gabriel nodded, as usual oblivious to the effect he was having on her. When he looked at her again, though, his expression was somewhat troubled. “If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to leave today. Whatever that episode was, I don’t think it was random. I’d like to be a bit closer to home, where I can deal with it more easily if it happens again—and more importantly, try to figure out what caused it.”
Kestrel stopped midway to the door. “You want to go back? You mean to Seattle?”
“No.” Gabriel shook his head. “I mean home. My lair.” He paused a moment and looked at her gently. “You don’t have to come along if you don’t want to. It will probably be quite boring for you while I try to determine what happened. You could—”
“Try to keep me away,” Kestrel cut him off, grinning. She shrugged. “Maybe I can make myself useful—you know, toting eye of newt or something.”
His answering smile—amused, innocent, beautiful—was enough to make her decide that quickly leaving the room was the best thing she could do right now. Shower. Yeah. That sounds like a really good idea. Cold shower.
Alone in his room after Kestrel left, Gabriel continued to stand near the window, but his mind was far away from the breathtaking scene outside. He sighed, pressing his palms against the cool glass. His expression was no longer amused.
It was fearful.
“No...” he whispered to himself.
He did not know what had caused the attack and the nightmare visions from last night. He did not know, but he had his suspicions.
And if his suspicions were correct, he feared very much that the nightmares were not over. Not for any of them.
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.