51. Epilogue 1

It was a beautiful day in Seattle. The sun had made one of its rare appearances, the rain seemed intent on providing a respite, and even the few clouds hung wispy and white, high overhead.

As befitted such a day, Denny Park was crowded with picnickers, lovers, barking dogs, kids skating and biking and playing games, and the mingled aromas of various types of barbecue wafting on the gentle breeze.

The six individuals who had taken over one of the basketball courts on the far side of the park and who were now engaged in a game that looked to the occasional spectator as if life or death were the stakes had not made any plans to be here. It had been one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions when they had gotten together and had met with no objections.

The game had been going on for almost an hour and was currently tied. Nobody would have cared about the score except that ‘Wraith had started keeping track and Joe, chuckling, had made a bet of it: the losing team had to clean up after lunch. Such a challenge presented to a group of six hypercompetitive individuals ensured that everyone was putting his or her full effort into the game. The time they had allotted for it was nearly up now, so all of them were getting a little desperate.

Gabriel currently had the ball. He had just plucked it neatly from Ocelot’s hands seconds previously and was now pounding full-bore down the court toward Joe, who was guarding the opposing basket. Dressed like most of the others in shorts and a light tank top, Gabriel showed absolutely no trace of the injuries he had suffered on the metaplanes. He moved as effortlessly and gracefully as ever, feinting a shot toward the basket and then blasting a pass at Kestrel who slipped around the massive grinning troll and sank the shot.

As the ball swished through the net, a small form shimmered into being in the center of the court, made a sound like a whistle-shrill, and then winked out again.

“That’s time,” Winterhawk called, pulling up short of the spot where his watcher had done its timekeeper duties and mopping his hair off his forehead. “Looks like we’ve won!”

“No thanks to you,” Ocelot joked, snatching the ball away from Joe and twirling it on his finger. Winterhawk had been the third member of the Gabriel-Kestrel team, and those two had definitely been responsible for most of the team’s scoring.

“Only because you wouldn’t let me use magic,” ‘Hawk protested. He started off the court and was followed by the others, joking and laughing (well, all except for ‘Wraith) as they headed back toward the barbecue pit and lunch.

“Man,” Ocelot said, leaning back at the table after they had devoured the large quantities of food Joe had brought, “it seems like another world, doesn’t it?”

Everybody knew exactly what he was talking about without having to ask. Winterhawk nodded soberly. “It does indeed. Only a week and it already feels like it’s all happened to someone else.”

“Yeah, but it feels right for a change,” Joe said, hunting around for another piece of barbecued chicken amid the ruins.

“You got that right.” Ocelot’s tone was heartfelt. Even though the last two weeks had seemed almost like waking up from a bad dream at this point, he didn’t think he would ever forget their events.

Almost immediately after Gabriel had come to them at the end of the battle, the amphitheater and everything around it had faded from sight. The team had awakened, returning to consciousness on the soft pallets in the room at Neferet’s home where they had left for their journey so long ago. The awakening had been like emerging from a very satisfying sleep: they had felt refreshed, energized, peaceful. Uneki had been there as well, smiling at them. They never found out how he had known they had succeeded, but he had definitely had been pleased to see their return.

Uneki had gone to Neferet, who had asked them to meet her in the same chamber as before. Her face, which they had never seen wearing an expression more hospitable than a gentle kindness, bore a beautiful smile. “You have done it,” she had told them softly. “You must tell me of what has occurred, but I can see it in your auras—you have been successful.”

“What about Gabriel?” Kestrel asked. “Should we—go to him? Is he all right?”

“I will communicate with him and ask him to come here,” Neferet told them. “It would be best if we awaited our celebration and our storytelling until he arrives.”

Gabriel had arrived later that day. All the runners had been shocked but very happy to see him looking not only well, but nearly glowing with health, peace, and satisfaction. The scar was gone, he told them, which meant that the Horror whose mark he had borne was truly and irrevocably dead this time. “So—it’s over?” Ocelot asked, almost afraid of the answer.

“It is over,” Gabriel confirmed. “We destroyed all who had been part of it, and Stefan has been allowed to go on to whatever awaits him in the next world.”

Uneki outdid himself with the meal he spread out at Neferet’s table that evening. The five runners, Gabriel, and Uneki himself sat down with Neferet and told her the story of what happened. In many cases, one or more of them was hearing parts of the story for the first time: only Gabriel knew of what had occurred during his imprisonment by the Horrors, while the runners told him of what had happened to them and Uneki had filled in the few parts he knew. Neferet had sat at the head of the table, watching them over steepled fingers and eating little, obviously captivated by the story.

“There’s one thing I still don’t quite get,” Joe said at the end. “What was with the Horror? Why did it come apart like that? Was it really the one Stefan tried to kill, or not?”

Gabriel’s expression sobered. “It was, and yet it was not. That was what I realized when it tried to force me to choose to save myself at the cost of all of you and Stefan. Somehow, a fragment of that being managed to survive the fall into the Chasm. By itself it was not powerful enough to affect anything, but it managed to locate other small Enemies like itself and forge some kind of pact with them. They, like it too weak to be effective, banded together with it and pooled their power, which was what allowed it to attach itself to Stefan’s attempts to contact me. That was what it wanted all along—it knew it had marked me last time, but the mark wasn’t strong enough to allow it to control my actions. The Enemy gains power by corrupting the good—only by forcing or tricking me into performing evil or honorless acts could it solidify its hold on me. That was what all the tests were about.”

“So why did it test us?” Ocelot asked.

“Because the Enemy revels in suffering,” Neferet spoke up softly. “It does not matter what sort of suffering, as long as it is externally inflicted and results in strong emotion.”

Ocelot made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat and nodded.

“When did you realize that it wasn’t a single entity?” Winterhawk asked.

“When it tried to force me to choose and became impatient. It knew it could not maintain its power forever—some of the others forming its being were beginning to rebel, convinced that the experiment was a failure. Its only hope was to gain control over me, which would increase its own power and bond the others to it in desire of the suffering they would be fed. It never expected to let any of you go, of course. I knew that from the beginning. When it tried to force my hand I saw something coming apart in its eyes, and for a moment I saw just how weak and ineffectual it was on its own. I felt the rage growing in me—rage that something so small and insignificant had caused so much trouble for all of us—and because I had nothing else, I let that be my strength long enough to deny it its wish.”

Ocelot nodded, satisfied. He knew all about the power of rage and what it could do for you sometimes when there was nothing else remaining. “Yeah—I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but it’s true, isn’t it? The thing we thought was so big and powerful turned out to be just a bunch of kids hiding under a big coat.” He sighed, shaking his head, but then looked up again. “So—you’re sure this time. It’s over.”

Gabriel regarded him for a moment, then smiled gently. “It is over, my friend. Once again I am grateful to all of you for your friendship, your strength, and your aid. I could not ask for better friends.” He looked up at Neferet. “And you, Lady. You have aided me far more than I had a right to ask or expect. Whatever you wish in payment for your kindness, you have but to name it.”

Neferet inclined her head in what looked like a ritual motion. “It is my honor, young one, to have contributed to the destruction of those whom we all call our Enemy. In light of that, I release you from any obligation resulting from my aid. I ask only that if some day in the future I should request your aid that I be given similar consideration.”

Gabriel bowed his head respectfully. “At any time you name, Lady,” he murmured.

They had finished dinner and stayed overnight in Neferet’s lavish home. In the morning they bid the Lady goodbye and left with her blessings, chauffeured back to the airport by Uneki. The spirit had also wished them a fond farewell, especially Gabriel and Kestrel. He had looked long into Kestrel’s eyes, his gaze lingering there for several moments as he gently touched her forehead. “Be well, child, and have strength,” he had said softly. Then he and the car were gone and there was only the plane waiting to take them back to Seattle.

That had been a week ago. Once home, they had set about getting their lives back in order. Unlike the experience of the last time they had been to the metaplanes, this time none of them had suffered from nightmares, disturbed sleep, or any of the other inconveniences they might have expected following such a harrowing ordeal. To the contrary, when they compared notes they found that they all felt better than they had in recent memory: full of energy and hope and the feeling that they had truly done something right this time. This was probably why that afternoon when Joe had called everybody and asked them if they wanted to get together for a barbecue and some R&R they had all agreed—even ‘Wraith and Winterhawk, who weren’t normally known to go for that sort of thing.

Kestrel grinned. “Never thought I’d be this glad to be back in Seattle.” She leaned her head back and looked up at the sky, enjoying the fact that it was blue and not sickish pink. “I’d even be happy to see the rain.”

“Not right now,” Joe said hastily with a glance toward the table covered with the remains of lunch.

Winterhawk chuckled and looked at Gabriel, who was staring off into space with a contented look in his violet eyes. “So, Gabriel—are you back in Seattle, or are you two going to be heading off to continue your world-hopping?”

Next to him, Ocelot tensed slightly, but only slightly. His gaze grew just a bit more intent as he too looked at Gabriel.

The young man smiled, returning to the here and now from wherever he had been. He shrugged. “I don’t know—I suppose I am back. I still want to see the rest of the world, but there’s time for that. Now, I think I’d like to stay awhile.” Glancing at Kestrel, he added, “if that’s all right with you.”

“Fine,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind staying in one spot for awhile myself. I think I’ve seen enough airplanes to last me for at least a few months.” She wrinkled her nose in distaste. “It’s going to take me ages to get all the dust out of my townhouse, though. You should see the place.”

“You didn’t clean it yet?” Winterhawk asked.

“Why bother, if we weren’t going to stay?” Her look of wide-eyed innocence elicited a grin from the mage.

“So what now?” Ocelot asked. “It feels weird to just go back to calling Harry and gettin’ another job right away, but I don’t think I can take any more downtime.”

“Harry,” Winterhawk said with a sharp upward glance. “No one’s called him yet, have they?”

Ocelot, Joe, and ‘Wraith shook their heads.

“So he doesn’t even know we’re back, and—right again.”

“Knowing Harry, he does,” ‘Wraith said.

“Good point.” The mage paused a moment, looking over the table and the faces of his friends as if memorizing them for later retrieval. “Well, then,” he said briskly, grinning at Ocelot, Joe, and ‘Wraith, “it looks like you lot have got cleanup duty. How about it, teammates,” he added, turning to Gabriel and Kestrel, “what say we lounge about on the grass and act like the lazy good-for-nothings we are while the losing team here takes care of the drudge work?”

“Sounds like the best idea I’ve heard all day,” Kestrel said with her own grin, reaching out to tousle Gabriel’s unruly hair.

Ocelot started to say something but changed his mind. Right now he was feeling good enough that even the prospect of cleanup duty wasn’t enough to sour his mood. That kind of feeling didn’t come often for him, and he was damn well going to enjoy it while it was here.

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Copyright ©1999, 2000 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation and Wizkids.
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