Joe was only a day from having parted with the rest of his team when the dreams started coming.
He had gone to bed very late that night after having stayed up long past when he would have preferred to crash in order to regale his fellow gang members with the story of the Kenny Zane concert. He hadn’t told them about it before because it was part of a run and therefore confidential information, but now that the run was over he didn’t see any harm in giving them a few details about the concert itself and what Zane was like. He’d enjoyed being center stage, having most of the younger guys and even a few of the older ones clustered around him, hanging on his every word. Joe was already something of a celebrity in the gang due to his affiliations with the shadow community—nobody was supposed to know officially that he was a shadowrunner, but unofficially it was common knowledge among the gang, who lived in such close quarters that it was difficult for them to keep any secrets from each other. Even so, the fact that one of his jobs had given him an all-access pass to one of the most sought-after shows to come to Seattle in years—he still had it, having asked if he could keep it after its electronics had been disabled—had catapulted him upon his return from minor celebrity to man of the hour.
As much as he enjoyed the attention, though, Joe was tired. It had been a long grueling run and the Zane show had been only the culmination of the whole thing. Naturally he hadn’t said anything to the others about Twyla Ellindel’s involvement, as he had given his word along with the rest of the team that he would not, but Timothy Carson’s betrayal of both the elven woman and Zane weighed heavily on his mind. He had been as pleased as the others when Carson had gotten his just deserts. Now all he wanted to do was get away from here for awhile and get some long-deserved rest.
“That’s it, I’m fragged,” he said to the disappointed gangers, rising from his chair. He picked up the plate next to it, which had been filled almost six inches high with a late dinner of ribs, corn, and spiced potatoes, and made his way across the room, forcing the gangers to scoot out of the way or be stepped on. “I gotta get some sleep, guys.” On the way by he glared down at one of the younger trolls, who was holding a riotously-colored synth-guitar. “And keep that thing down tonight, okay? If it wakes me up you’re gonna be missing a few strings. Scan?”
“Yeah, Joe. Sure. Null persp,” the kid said quickly, pulling the instrument protectively into his lap. He had been quietly noodling Zane chord progressions as Joe had been talking.
The kid didn’t see Joe’s grin because he’d already passed by, but someone else did. The big, bald troll who had been leaning in the doorway waited until Joe was out of the room, then followed him toward the stairs that led to the sleeping areas. “Still scarin’ the kids, huh?” he teased.
“Hey, if you got it...” Joe stopped at the foot of the stairs, turning back. He smiled. “It’s good to be back, Jake.”
Jake nodded. Several years older than Joe, he was the leader of the gang that inhabited this tumbledown former apartment building. “Had a lot of jobs lately. Was wonderin’ when you were gonna take a break.”
Joe shrugged. “It just didn’t work out that way, but it is now. We’re all gonna take a month or two off. It’ll be nice.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet. You stickin’ around?”
“Dunno. Maybe for awhile. I’ll probably go away in a week or two.”
The other troll nodded. “Well, whatever.” He grinned. “I’ll shut these kids up so you can get some shuteye tonight, but after that all bets are off.”
“Fair enough.” Joe chuckled, clapping Jake on the shoulder with a force that would have broken human bones. “See ya tomorrow.”
Jake moved off back toward the main living area while Joe continued upstairs. His room was on the top floor of the three-story building, at the end of the hall. A long time ago it had been a four-story building, but when the gang had taken over it had done some renovations that had resulted in the top-floor rooms being larger and higher-ceilinged than the second- or first-floor rooms. Only those gangers at the top of the hierarchy got to have their quarters up here, in rooms where they could stand up without hunching.
Opening the door to his room (which was not locked—no one would dare enter without his permission) Joe entered, closed the door behind him, and flopped facedown on his big bed with a loud sigh. After a moment he flipped over on his back and stared up at the rough ceiling.
Life had certainly started getting weird lately, but it finally looked as if maybe things were starting to settle down. He wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about that. On the one hand, it was nice to have some time where he didn’t have to worry about things, but on the other hand, he didn’t always mind the weird stuff. It was that weird stuff, after all, that had gained him his closer relationship with Bear. If he hadn’t met the Totem itself at a bizarre party on the metaplanes a couple of years ago during the whole Harlequin thing, he would doubtless still be casting about looking for the meaning he had always known existed in his life but could not identify. In Joe’s mind, saying that the tradeoff had been worth it would have been a serious understatement.
His gaze traveled around the room, looking at the Native American prints he had hung on the walls, the woven rug on the floor next to the bed, the bag on the chair that contained his pipe and his stash of peyote, and finally at the spear that occupied a place of honor on a stand in the opposite corner. As always when he looked at it, he felt a sense of satisfaction, as if the two of them belonged together. The spear was very old, but its wooden shaft, carved flint head and feathered ornaments had survived the passage of almost two hundred years with surprising durability. Joe thought that this was because, despite the fact that the spear was not magical, its history gave it a power that other similar items might not possess.
The spear had at one time belonged to the legendary Sioux chief Sitting Bull, who had always been one of Joe’s particular heroes. It had been given to him a couple of years ago by an unlikely source—Winterhawk—in gratitude for Joe’s contributions toward saving his life when he had been gravely injured by a vampire sniper. Of all the gifts the mage had carefully chosen for his friends (‘Wraith had received a nearly-impossible-to-obtain Barrett sniper rifle, which ‘Hawk had refused to explain his ability to procure but which bore the mark of the British military, while Ocelot had been given a two-part gift consisting of a Triumph sport-touring motorcycle and an antique blues guitar), the spear was undoubtedly the one that was dearest to its new owner. Ever since he had received it, Joe used it as an integral part of his ritual attempts to contact Bear. He wasn’t often successful—he had studied such rituals extensively but owing to his lack of magical abilities, it was amazing that he succeeded at all—but the few times he did manage to make contact he always felt that the power and emotion surrounding the spear’s aura had aided him in his effort.
Joe smiled, closing his eyes and kicking his boots off; they clunked loudly onto the floor but either there was no one in the room below yet or else Grundy and Kurt, the two young gangers who occupied that room, didn’t have the nerve to complain about Joe’s noise. Either way, the boots were forgotten as soon as they hit the floor. Joe wiggled his toes and stretched out, propping up his head with his crossed arms. A moment later he flicked on the chip player next to the bed, called up one of his Native American music chips, and set it on low volume. The soft chanting, underscored with rhythmic drumbeats, filled the room and put him at ease. As he drifted off to sleep, he was smiling. Life was good.
He was standing in a forest. The trees grew thick and tall here, their overhanging boughs interlocking high above his head and filtering the sunlight down to a sickly trickle; a luxuriant carpet of soft needles covered the ground beneath his feet. In the distance, he could hear the sound of a running stream. He held the Sitting Bull spear gripped tightly in his left hand.
The place was familiar to him, but yet it was not. An odd sense of heaviness pervaded his senses—he could not tell if it originated inside him or from the forest itself, but it was as if the trees were leaning in, stifling him, trying to block out the air and the sunlight. There was a slight chill in the air, and the faintest of breezes.
He looked around. There was no visible path; the land sloped upward in a barely perceptible incline, and around him he saw nothing but the seemingly unending trees spread out before him in all directions.
He was not afraid, although the sense of foreboding was not lessening—it had settled in and seemed bent on being his traveling companion through this strange forest. The trees looked dark and somehow menacing, their roots stretched out as if reaching for him, their branches, heavy with still more of the sharp green needles, extending down toward him. He shook his head and chuckled once, aloud. That was just silly. Even in the world of the Awakened, trees didn’t attack people. Maybe the occasional odd specimen, but certainly not en masse. His mind was playing tricks on him, that was all.
No, he wasn’t afraid. It didn’t occur to him to question why he was here, but regardless of that, he was well equipped to survive in this environment. An experienced woodsman, he knew how to find clean water, catch fish, hunt with minimal tools, start a fire. And if he needed to get back to civilization, he could just follow the stream down until he found the road. He knew there was a road nearby. It went with the feeling that this place was familiar.
He didn’t want to find civilization yet, though. Despite the odd aura, he liked being in the forest. He liked nature of almost any type, preferring its peace and intimacy with the bustling concrete streets of Seattle. Nothing there was ever quiet. You didn’t have the time or the chance to think or listen or feel there—you were too busy chasing survival and gathering things and fragmenting yourself away from your inner core. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the city: cities had their purposes and that was where he made his living, but places like this were where he came when he wanted to truly live.
He started up the hill. Something told him that there was something up there that he would want to see—shelter, perhaps. He gripped his spear a little more tightly and moved with deliberate slowness, his big boots making surprisingly little noise on the carpet of needles. That’s it, he thought. I’ll get up there, rest for a little while, and then—
There was a sound off to his right.
He stopped, immediately going stock-still, his sensitive ears searching to identify the sound and exactly where it had originated.
For several seconds he heard only an almost painful silence, and then the sound came again.
Joe twisted himself ever so slightly to his right without moving his feet. There was no doubt in his mind now, the sound had come from there, and not far away from the sound of it. Still moving slowly, he raised the spear and moved it across his body, gripping the wooden shaft up near the head with his right hand and down near the base with his left. It felt refreshingly substantial in his grasp. It did not occur to him to question why the spear, which had been made for a human-sized individual and thus had always felt small in his hands, was now perfectly sized for his trollish proportions and occupied his hands like it had been custom-designed for him. It was another in a long series of things that just weren’t important. What was important was whatever was making the sound.
He waited, his breath coming very slowly, very quietly.
Silence again, followed by crunch-crunch...crunch-crunch.
It was getting closer.
His hands shook a little. He crouched slightly, dropping down, preparing himself.
The crunching grew louder...louder...
The trees were too thick to see it clearly. It was a dark shape, massive, built low to the ground.
It stepped out of the trees, and Joe relaxed and smiled.
A bear, huge and brown and bigger than all but the largest of its species, continued to move slowly, trundling toward Joe. The bear’s eyes, glittering with intelligence, locked on Joe’s and did not pull away.
Joe, feeling a bit silly for having worried at all, made a gesture of welcome, softly calling out the greeting to a respected teacher in the language of his native Nootka tribe. “I’m pleased to see you,” he added. It was an understatement, but he knew that Bear would understand. It wasn’t the words but the emotions behind them that mattered.
The bear—or Bear, as Joe knew he was—did not speak or acknowledge Joe’s presence except to continue to regard him with wise brown eyes. He moved closer, his huge clawed paws making even less sound on the needle-strewn ground than Joe’s boots had. When he stopped only a meter or so in front of Joe, his shaggy shoulders reached the troll’s chest. Even with such massive size, he seemed to dwarf Joe with his sheer presence.
Joe smiled and inclined his head respectfully, lowering the spear until the end of its shaft rested on the ground. “Is there something you wish me to see, or to do?” he asked.
Bear paused, continuing to study Joe, his silent scrutiny both unnerving and comforting. Several moments passed. Joe remained still, confused. It had never been like this before. Whenever he had encountered Bear in a dream or during a vision, Bear had always intended to show him something, to reveal some truth to him. Such revelations were always vague and ambiguous and sometimes Joe could not make sense of them, but even the vaguest of them was clearer than this quiet examination. He drew breath, preparing to ask a question.
At that moment, Bear’s soft brown eyes hardened, taking on a malevolent gleam that had not been there previously. Before Joe could react, Bear had raised up on his powerful hindquarters, opened his mouth, and let out a vast roar that shook the forest. As Joe staggered back, deafened by the force of the roar, Bear surged forward and swung around, his massive left paw slicing through the air toward the troll. The paw struck the Sitting Bull spear at mid-haft, splintering it like it was made of balsa wood. Joe, thrown off balance by the sudden loss of his support, lost his footing and fell back.
Bear leaped forward, roaring again, his huge, pointed white teeth growing larger as he drew closer. The sound was thunderous, resounding both inside Joe’s head and around him, feeling like the echo of it was being picked up and amplified by every tree that surrounded them—trees that were getting closer—
Joe’s eyes flew open.
His heart was pounding, his breath quick and sharp in the dimness. He was gripping the edges of the bed as if he was afraid he would fall off.
Slowly he sat up, his gaze going immediately to the corner of the room where he kept the Sitting Bull spear. It was still there, just as he had left it. He let out his breath in relief, lowering his head down into his open hands and shoving his long hair back off his forehead.
It was almost three a.m., he saw when he looked at the clock on the nightstand—that meant he had been asleep for only an hour or so. That had been quite a dream for only being asleep for an hour!
Propping his pillows up against the wall and leaning back into them, Joe contemplated the dream, trying to remember its details. Those details didn’t seem to want to come back to him—the only thing he remembered clearly was the look of rage on Bear’s face, and the feeling of dread and shame and confusion he had experienced when Bear had attacked him. Why would I dream about Bear attacking me? I haven’t done anything that would displease him...
He thought about it a little more and still couldn’t come up with anything he might have done that would have violated his dedication to the cause of his chosen totem—in fact, the last run they had just completed seemed like just the sort of thing Bear might have approved of: helping the oppressed, righting a wrong, choosing the path of right over the path of expediency. So why was he having bad dreams?
After a while he sighed and shrugged. Sometimes these things just happen, he told himself. You’ve had bad dreams before. You probably ate too much too close to going to bed. He could still taste the spicy ribs he’d had only a couple of hours ago. Maybe that was all it was.
Not worth getting upset about yet. In the background, the Native American chants continued to provide a soft backdrop to his thoughts. He reached over and shut off the chip player. Maybe that’s all it was. Ribs and chanting. I’ll try to get some sleep now, and tomorrow I’ll see about trying to contact Bear. If he’s angry with me, maybe I can find out why, and if I can’t reach him—it probably just means I was having a bad dream.
Content with that decision, Joe got up and took off everything but his T-shirt and shorts. He lowered his pillows back to a flat position, climbed back into bed, and tried to relax. He wondered if he’d get any sleep.
He woke the next morning feeling refreshed around 10:00—he had slept clear through since dropping off shortly after he had lain back down several hours before. His mind and body both felt good, as if both had truly rested.
His mind immediately returned to the previous night’s dream. It seemed remote now, far away like something that hadn’t been quite real. Still, though, he knew that it had been real and he had to know what, if anything, was going on.
First things first, though.
Most of the guys weren’t up yet so he had no trouble getting into one of the two functional bathrooms on this floor for a quick shower. Then he went downstairs, nodded to the two troll kids who were sitting, rather zombie-like, at the kitchen table, and fixed himself a quick breakfast of soy eggs and real bacon. He was eating it when Jake came downstairs.
“Morning,” the bald troll said. The two kids had left by then, so Joe was the only other occupant of the room.
“Hey,” Joe said. He motioned toward the platter of food. “Want some?”
“Nah. I ate already. Was wonderin’ when you were gonna get up.”
Joe, who routinely slept even later than this when he didn’t have to be up for some reason, ignored him. “What’s goin’ on?”
Jake shrugged. “Thought I’d go down to the club for awhile. Wanna come?” He took occasional bouncer work at one of the nearby strip clubs where his girlfriend was one of the performers—the club was under the gang’s protection and every few weeks a group of them had to appear there to remind the place’s owners of this fact.
Joe shook his head. “I’ve got some stuff to do today.”
“More work? Thought you were on vacation.”
“No, not more work. Just—need to see about some things, okay?” Joe sometimes wished he could share his feelings about Bear with Jake, who was one of his closest friends outside the team, but the gangleader just didn’t seem to be interested. Joe had mentioned it to him once and Jake had been surprised and pleased, asking Joe if he had discovered himself to be a shaman. They currently didn’t have anyone with magical power in the gang, a deficiency that Jake was not pleased with even though he tended to distrust magicians because he didn’t understand them. When Joe had told him that no, he was not a shaman but had simply decided to follow the way of Bear, Jake had looked at him oddly, shrugged, and lost interest. It wasn’t that he ridiculed Joe’s dedication in any way—he simply rarely referred to it at all. Joe knew it was because Jake couldn’t get his mind around why anyone would want to follow the strictures of a Totem without getting any of the bennies for it.
Jake spread his arms. “Hey, no problem. I’ll get Grundy—he’s been dyin’ to see the show anyway.” He hadn’t sat down yet and still did not; leaning over the table he grabbed a slice of bacon and stuck it in his mouth, muttering a goodbye to Joe as he left the room.
Joe finished his breakfast and headed back upstairs, carefully closing the door behind him. He didn’t like to be interrupted when he performed his ritual to contact Bear. Part of this was because the distraction disturbed his carefully-constructed mental state and part of it was because he didn’t want to have his ritual, which he had cobbled together out of the traditions of the Nootka, Sioux, and a few other Native American tribes, observed. He felt it to be a profoundly personal and solitary thing, not to be shared with any but perhaps a shaman or another mundane follower of Bear. Since he didn’t know any of the latter and there weren’t any of the former handy, he had to settle for doing it alone. Settling himself cross-legged down on his heavy print rug on the floor, he placed the Sitting Bull spear across his lap and spent several moments stretching, relaxing his body until he felt completely comfortable in his chosen position. He switched on his chant chip, picked up his pipe, filled it with his peyote mixture and lit it. After waiting a few moments for it to get a good head of smoke going, he began taking slow, rhythmic puffs, holding the smoke in his lungs for several seconds each time before letting his breath out. Before long a haze of smoke began to hang in the air around his head. He cleared his mind and after a time began to chant along with the chip, taking puffs in between. His body became even more relaxed, his mind opening up to the possibilities of what might lay out there, unseen by the mundane eye. He tried to picture Bear in his head, to feel his benevolence, his power, his immensity. There was nothing else that was important—only Bear and his love, only his own desire to be enlightened by the Totem’s wisdom.
He did not know how long he remained like that—he always lost track of time during the ritual because time was not a relevant concept in this context—but eventually the gray haze around him began to clear slightly. He tensed just a little, his body tingling with excitement: this was what usually happened on the very rare occasions when Bear answered his call. He forced himself to relax again, taking deep breaths and long slow puffs on the pipe, increasing the cadence of his chanting. He was so close, he wasn’t going to lose it now.
The scene very slowly resolved itself into a misty forest. Fog hung on the ground and floated lazily through the air; the tree-trunks were black and desolate-looking in the whiteness, the needles a green so dark they almost seemed black themselves. Joe watched the scene, puzzled. Usually when Bear appeared to him it was in a bright, sun-dappled forest, green and alive with energy. Now, this time, everything seemed almost dead. It didn’t feel dead—it seemed to be the same forest, only in the dead of winter rather than the sunny light of spring.
As he continued to watch, a figure stepped out of the trees. It was almost like his dream had been: a massive creature, brown and shaggy, wise-eyed and watchful, but this time it stopped at the edge of the tree-line.
Joe felt himself being beckoned. Although he knew in some corner of his mind that he was not moving in the real world, he felt his body moving over the forest floor toward Bear. Bear watched him, an odd look in his eyes. Was it worry? Protectiveness? Joe couldn’t quite tell.
He drew closer. “Teacher?” His voice was soft, respectful.
Bear still did not move. He continued to watch Joe as he got closer, showing no sign of any of the animosity he had exhibited in Joe’s dream.
Joe stopped in front of him, bowing his head, waiting. It was not wise or productive to attempt to rush Bear. The Totem was slow and ponderous, but his wisdom, should he decide to impart it, was well worth waiting for. There was a slight chill in the air; Joe tried to ignore it.
After several moments, Bear raised his head and looked into Joe’s eyes. There was no communication, at least not in words. Bear rarely communicated in words, preferring instead to show, to give impressions, to allow the student to draw what he could from the interaction. Today was no different.
Joe looked into the wise brown eyes and suddenly the chill in the air seemed to grow stronger. He shivered a bit. Around him the fog seemed to be moving in closer, oppressive in its thickness. Still, though, there was no feeling of malevolence to it. It was not a pleasant day, but it was a natural day. Nothing like what he had seen in his dream.
Bear’s eyes were another matter. As Joe continued to look into their deep pools, he began to get a sense of foreboding. Again, it was not like the dream: he felt no threat from Bear himself. Instead, he felt as if something was seeking him, something that had nothing good on its mind. Something dark. What—?
Bear nodded in an almost humanlike fashion, then slowly faded away, becoming one with the swirling fog.
Joe was alone.
He stood there for a moment, pondering what had just occurred, and then he began to feel the effects of the peyote fading. He was returning to himself.
He was sitting in the middle of his room where he had been when he started. A glance at the clock told him he had been gone for more than four hours, when you added up all the time he had spent chanting and smoking in addition to the communication with Bear. His head felt pleasantly buzzy, his legs a little stiff from having been in the same position for so long. Slowly, picking up the spear and setting it down next to him, he stretched his legs out and waited while the pins and needles of returning feeling attacked him, then got up and returned his gear to its places.
He sat down on the edge of his bed, contemplating what had just happened. That had been without a doubt the most cryptic of his few actual contacts with Bear. What had the Totem been trying to tell him? Was the desolate landscape a clue? Was there some threat to the forest where he had grown up, or the place where he went to retreat from civilization these days? That didn’t seem likely. It would have to have been a fairly big threat to draw Bear’s attention, and even then he had his shamans to inform of such things. Why tell a mundane troll who didn’t even know what he, Bear, was talking about?
That’s Bear, he thought. Doesn’t do any good to try to explain why he does what he does. He has his reasons.
That still didn’t get him any closer to understanding, though. He sighed, looking at the spear which was now back in its corner. Maybe he’d try again tomorrow. Or maybe he’d just let it go. The dream, after all, might easily have been nothing at all. In that case, maybe Bear was just telling him, in his own indirect way, to stop worrying so much.
He doubted it, but there wasn’t much else he could do.
Over the next few days he tried to settle back into life with the gang, taking his place on neighborhood patrols and even accompanying Jake down to his girlfriend’s club a couple of times. He figured he’d stay around for a week or two to reconnect with his fellow gangers and then head out to his cabin in the mountains above Seattle for another two or three weeks of rest and solitude. It seemed like a good plan to him when he made it.
He didn’t account for the dreams, though.
He had two more that week. He didn’t remember either of them with any kind of detail—not even as much as the first one he’d had. They made him uneasy, though, because they both involved Bear in some way. Worse, they both involved Bear in a way that suggested to Joe that the Totem was somehow angry with him, or wanted him to do something or else incur his wrath. The only problem was, Joe couldn’t seem to remember what it was Bear wanted him to do. Both nights he had awakened from the dream in cold sweat but when he had tried to recall the particulars they had flitted away from him, leaving him with a vague feeling of unease and dread but no specific reason to have it. If he had been thinking clearly about it, he might have gotten the impression that something or someone was blocking the worst influences of the dreams on his mind, but his mind wasn’t working with that level of efficiency at this time. The dreams disturbed him but not overmuch—he had had bad dreams before and these, though stranger than the ones he was used to, were no worse than many of his others.
He could tell that some of the other gangers, particularly Jake, were concerned about him. The gangleader brought up the subject one day while they were on their way to get some lunch at Joe’s favorite neighborhood deli. “Joe, are you all right?” he asked out of the blue.
Joe tilted his head. “Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I dunno.” Jake shrugged. “You’ve just been actin’—well—weird lately. Doin’ the native thing more than usual.”
That much was true. As the dreams had continued that week Joe had spent more time in his room, listening to his tribal chant chips, smoking, meditating. He hadn’t been specifically trying to contact Bear, but even these actions had given him some comfort. Joe sighed. “No...nothing’s wrong, Jake. I just—want to rest for awhile, you know? I think I’m gonna take off in a day or two.”
Jake nodded slowly. “I figured you might. Listen, chummer—you know if there’s anything you need help with, the guys and me are—”
“Yeah, I know,” Joe said. “I know that. But I think I just need to get off by myself for awhile and think about some things.”
Jake had left it at that, and they had continued on. That had been yesterday. He had another dream that night, worse than any of the others. Once again Bear had attacked him—but this time he had remained asleep long enough to see the whole thing through. He could feel Bear’s hot breath on him, feel his flesh being ripped from him by the massive claws, taste the blood in his mouth—and from somewhere off in the distance, he could hear laughter. The laughter still rang in his ears, sounding strangely familiar as he jerked awake.
He sat up in bed, shaking a bit in the darkness. This was getting weirder by the day, and it didn’t seem to be calming down. He was going to have to take a different approach.
He considered his options. He needed to talk to someone who knew something about magic. He didn’t know if his dreams had any magical significance, but with four of them in less than two weeks, it was worth investigating. His first thought, because they had left each other’s presence only a week or so ago, was Winterhawk. Maybe if he gave ‘Hawk a call he might be able to examine Joe’s aura and figure out what was troubling him. Almost as soon as that thought touched his mind, though, he discarded it. No, in the first place, Winterhawk was gone, undoubtedly back in England by now, and wouldn’t take kindly to Joe’s contacting him. It didn’t matter anyway, because Joe didn’t know how to contact him. The mage had never given Joe any other indication of where he lived beyond “England.”
His next thought he discarded even faster, even though its subject was without any doubt the most powerful magician Joe had personal contact with. Gabriel would have been a very good choice—when you were having problems that might be magical in nature, who better to have on your side than a friendly Great Dragon?—but Joe had even less idea where Gabriel was than Winterhawk. He had taken off months ago with Kestrel and neither of them had been seen since.
The answer was obvious, really. He’d known it all along. Sure he would be unable to sleep any further that night, he got up and began tossing clothes into his duffel bag. He would leave tomorrow.
He would have to go and talk to Ben.
As he continued to pack, his mind focused on the task at hand, he didn’t consciously realize that the eerie laughter was continuing somewhere deep in his psyche.
Jake didn’t ask any questions when Joe appeared downstairs the next morning carrying his bag and his Sitting Bull spear. The gangleader watched wordlessly as he gathered a few things from the kitchen and slid them into his bag. It was only after Joe had zipped the bag up and faced him across the table that he spoke. “Heading out?”
Joe nodded. “Yeah. I don’t know when I’ll be back. Got some things to do.”
Jake saw him to the door. He, like the rest of the gang, didn’t know where Joe went when he left—everybody got the impression that, even in their highly communal lifestyle, this was one thing that Joe took very seriously and considered to be completely private. Whether he was heading out for some shadowrun-related activity or simply going off somewhere to be alone for awhile, Jake didn’t know and didn’t ask. “Take care, buddy,” the gangleader said, clapping him on the back.
“Yeah. Keep those kids outta my room, okay, Jake?”
Jake grinned. “You got it.” His tusky face sobered. “I hope you work this out, whatever it is. I haven’t seen you this serious in a long time.”
Joe nodded soberly. “Yeah, Jake. Me too. But I gotta do this, you know?” He hefted his bag in one hand and the spear in the other and, with one last wave, headed out.
Less than an hour later he was on the road and heading out of Seattle, the rumble of his big Harley Scorpion and the wind streaming his long hair out behind him beginning to do their work to relax him. He always felt more at ease when he got out of the Sprawl, as the people and the cars and the pounding pulse of the city gave way to trees and streams and a more reflective, contemplative outlook. More than any of his teammates, Joe loved and felt he belonged among nature: Ocelot, as a street-bred city kid, always seemed vaguely uncomfortable with it; ‘Wraith was another city type and, while he didn’t seem exactly uncomfortable, he did seem out of place there; Winterhawk looked at it as something to be used or tamed rather than something that merely was. Joe looked forward to his chances to get out of the city for awhile and regroup.
He had taken the Scorpion on purpose, rather than the team’s big Gaz-Willys Nomad. For one thing, the Nomad was currently locked in Ocelot’s garage, but even if it wasn’t Joe wouldn’t have taken it. He didn’t expect trouble of the type that the Nomad would have been able to help with, and besides, he was traveling light. Currently the duffel bag was secured with bungee cords to the Scorpion’s rear seat, and the spear was in a specially designed holder he’d added to the bike a long time ago. It had actually been designed to hold a rifle, but after a few quick modifications to it the carefully wrapped spear had fit nicely inside, safe and out of sight. He had enough food to keep him going until he could begin hunting, spare clothes and blankets, a couple of weapons, his ritual gear, and his spear. He didn’t need anything else.
The trip up took about two and a half hours; it would have been faster but Joe wasn’t hurrying. His mind was gripped almost unconsciously by two conflicting directives: on the one hand there was a sense of urgency, as if the answers he was seeking were at his destination and he had to hurry to get there, but on the other hand he felt the vague dread that what was waiting for him was not something he wanted to know anything more about. So he compromised, keeping the bike at a brisk but reasonable pace and concentrating on enjoying the ride and the scenery as he got closer.
The turnoff, as the road wound up into the mountains, was not easy to spot but Joe knew its location by heart. He slowed the bike in anticipation and when he saw the arrangement of trees and rocks that indicated the turnoff he carefully steered it off the main road.
The side road leading upward was not paved, so he kept the bike at a slow speed and guided it around the rocks and ruts with practiced ease. The Scorpion was heavy enough that the substandard road didn’t bother it much, and if he started to lose his balance he could just put his feet down to steady it. All he really had to worry about was not running over any sharp-pointed rocks that might puncture one of his tires. He was attentive but relaxed as he continued upward for a couple of miles until at last the road gradually petered out, claimed at last by the forest undergrowth. Joe knew that there used to be a fire lookout station up here somewhere many years ago, but it had fallen into disuse before he had been born and thus the road was no longer maintained. The only reason this one had lasted as long as it had was because Joe and a few other people who had property up here all made efforts to keep it up it just enough for it to be barely passable. With one exception, he had never seen any of the others and they had never seen him: anyone who wanted to come this far up into the mountains likely had little interest in socialization. That was fine with Joe.
He pulled the bike off near the end of the road and wheeled it into a clump of bushes behind a tall rock. This was where he always hid his bike when he came up here, and so far no one had disturbed it. Off to the left of the dirt road was a tiny path leading further upward—it was carefully hidden and much harder to see than the entrance to the dirt road that led up here, but Joe knew exactly where it was and barely even had to look for it. Slinging his duffel bag over one shoulder and grabbing the spear, he slid the bike’s key into his pocket and took off in that direction, shoving clumps of bushes aside and starting on his way.
The hike up was quite pleasant; it was a reasonably nice day with only a few clouds in the sky, and all around him he could hear the sound of nature: birds, little furtive movements in the bushes and the underbrush, the far-off sound of running water. There were no vehicle sounds, no sounds of civilization at all. He liked that. He whistled a tune as he continued upward, his long-legged strides eating up the ground quickly.
It was only twenty minutes or so before he came upon a clearing. Joe pushed through the trees and stood looking at it for a moment: in its center was a small cabin built of rough wood. He smiled. The place looked undisturbed: the windows were all intact, the door closed, and the roof solid and strong. He hadn’t been up here for awhile; he was always a bit worried that he would get here and find that someone had broken in, but he never did. He crossed the clearing and unlocked the door.
The inside too looked as he had left it, cozy and rustic with rough-hewn wooden chairs, a stone fireplace, and an oversized cot in the corner covered with folded army blankets. He’d have to do a bit of cleanup if he was going to stay here for awhile: dusting, cleaning windows, that sort of thing—but he knew from experience that the work was part of what he enjoyed about the place.
The cabin was his, as much as any piece of real property could belong to someone without a SIN. He had bought the land several years ago through a convoluted deal orchestrated by Harry in which Joe had given Harry the money (more than the land had cost, of course—Harry rarely did anything for free) and then the fixer had made all the arrangements that had allowed Joe to semi-legally own the small, four-acre plot up here in the mountains. He paid an annual upkeep fee to Harry which covered taxes and the payoffs for the deckers that kept the records updated, and in exchange he had a peaceful, beautiful retreat where no one could bother him. He thought it was a fair trade all around.
Shortly after he and Harry had solidified the deal, Joe had begun building the cabin. He was proud of the fact that, with the exception of one other helper, he had built the place with his own two hands. It was rough and unpolished, but it had its own simple beauty and to Joe it was every bit as beautiful as any fine home owned by a corporate fatcat. After all, he had made it, which made it uniquely his.
Now, though, he wasn’t planning to stay here. He had to find Ben, and, depending on where his friend was right now and what he was doing, that could take some time. Just a few more minutes and I’ll go, he told himself. He hadn’t been sleeping too well the past few days—it wasn’t that the odd dreams had prevented him from sleeping, but they had certainly been weighing more heavily on his mind with each successive one. A little rest here where he felt peaceful would do him good. He would allow himself a few minutes to slump down into one of the chairs and then he’d get up and go out in search of Ben.
Joe awoke with a start to the sound of someone knocking on his door. At least that was what he thought he had heard. Jerking his head upright, he glanced at his chrono and winced. He’d been asleep for over an hour—the crick in his neck was proof of this fact.
The knock came again. “Joe? You in there?”
It was Ben’s voice. Joe jumped up out of the chair, grinning a little to himself. Leave it to Ben to figure out that he was here and save him the trouble of looking for him. He did that sometimes; Joe wondered if Bear himself told Ben he was there or if he just checked the place out regularly to make sure nobody was breaking in. He’d never asked. “C’mon in,” he called. “It’s open.”
Immediately the door swung open to admit a tall, broad human. “Joe,” he greeted, smiling. “It’s good to see you.” Although not nearly as tall as Joe, Ben projected an image of size, of a substantiality that seemed somehow bigger than his physical form. He was dressed in rough but serviceable woodsman’s clothes—jeans, plaid wool shirt, leather work boots—and his brown hair and bushy brown beard were both unruly and wild-looking. His brown eyes twinkled as he took in the sight of his friend. “Long time no see. What’cha been up to?”
“Oh, you know—the usual,” Joe said as Ben settled himself into another of the big chairs near the fireplace. He hadn’t ever told Ben about his shadowrunning activities in anything but the vaguest of terms, and Ben hadn’t asked. It was almost as if the Bear shaman existed in a completely different circle of Joe’s life, one that he did not want to intersect with his other one in the city. He hadn’t told the team about Ben, either. “How have you been?”
“Oh, can’t complain.” Ben crossed his ankle over his knee and leaned back as if he intended to stay awhile. “The weather’s been rotten lately, but I’ve gotten a lot of work done inside the lodge so it’s not so bad really.”
Joe nodded. Ben was the only other person up here whom he ever saw, and had been the one who had helped him build his house. The shaman lived up here full-time, coming into town in his ancient, battered pickup truck only when he needed supplies that he couldn’t get in the mountains. Even then he usually went across the border into the NAN lands and did his dealing there, bartering skins, handcrafted wooden items, and other such things with some trusted friends for what he needed instead of using money. He had a profound dislike of cities and felt uncomfortable in anything but the smallest woodland town. That was why Joe hadn’t called him to tell him he was coming up—modern conveniences like cell phones and data terminals were not the sorts of things Ben liked to have in his life. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to use them, just that he preferred not to.
“So,” Ben was saying, “what brings you up here? Just need some time away?”
Joe’s grin faded and he looked troubled. “No...I was hoping I could talk to you about something.”
Ben leaned forward, his eyes growing serious. “What’s on your mind?”
The troll took a deep breath, wondering now if he wasn’t just blowing the whole thing out of proportion. “I’ve been having weird dreams,” he said at last.
Ben’s expression didn’t change. “What kind of weird dreams?”
Joe looked around the cabin. “Hey, I just realized—did I take you away from something? We could talk about this later if you—”
“No, it’s fine.” Ben waved him off. “I wasn’t doing anything important, but even if I was, it can wait. Tell me about these dreams.”
So Joe did, beginning with his first night back from the run (he didn’t mention the run specifically, just that he had “some business” and it had ended well) and continuing through his strange contact with Bear and the other dreams. When he finished, he looked up. “That’s it.”
Ben was looking at him even more seriously than before. “You’re right,” he said. “That is weird.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully for a moment. “You sure you didn’t do anything that might make you feel guilty? You know, that might make you think Bear might not be pleased? ‘Cause I’ll tell you this—the last time Bear was pissed at me, I got a hell of a lot more than bad dreams.”
Joe was curious about the incident Ben had mentioned but he didn’t think this was the right time to ask. “I can’t think of anything. I mean, my business was about helping somebody out who’d been screwed over pretty bad. When it was over, she was okay and the person who did it to her was in big trouble. I can’t see how Bear would be upset about that.”
“No...” Ben shook his head slowly. His voice took on the same quality Winterhawk’s did when he was thinking something out as he went. “You say that in each dream, Bear attacked you in some way, but in the vision, you thought he was trying to warn you about something...” He paused, stroking his beard again, and then made a decision. “Listen,” he said, “why don’t you come up to the lodge? We’ll see if we can ask Bear himself to tell us anything else about the situation. Okay?”
That was what Joe had been hoping to hear. Ben would doubtless be able to get a much better impression of the Totem’s opinion than Joe himself could ever achieve. “Thanks, Ben. I’d appreciate it.”
“No problem.” Ben smiled and stood up with a grace that belied his large form. “C’mon. Afterward I’ve got some venison that I think you’ll like, and I just picked up a case of beer last week on my trip in.”
Ben’s combination home/medicine lodge was about half an hour’s hike away, at the end of another road even more well hidden than the one that led near Joe’s place. Joe was relieved when they came into view of the rough-hewn wooden structure built into the side of the hillside; he had spent many happy days here and it almost felt like a second home to him.
Ben opened the door and motioned Joe inside, then followed him and closed the door. Joe looked around, taking in the familiar sights in the dim, filtered light: the room that was larger than it seemed from the outside because it had been dug a fair way back into the hill itself, the skins and ritual objects hanging on the walls, the small living area near the back. The lodge smelled of leather and smoked meat and wood; there was a large ritual circle laid out permanently in the big cleared area in the middle of the floor, at the center of which was a firepit with a hidden vent that carried the smoke up and out of the lodge. “Have a seat,” Ben told Joe, indicating the living area. “You know I’ll have to get some things ready before we can start. Help yourself to whatever’s in the fridge.”
Joe did just that, grabbing a beer and dragging a chair over near the circle. He dropped his bag, a smaller version he’d carried inside his big duffel and which was now filled with his ritual supplies, next to the chair and propped the spear up against the wall.
It didn’t take Ben long to prepare—he summoned up a couple of hearth spirits to help him and only about twenty minutes later he straightened up and motioned Joe forward as the spirits bowed and faded away. “Okay,” he said. “This shouldn’t be too tough, since all we’re trying to do is get some answers.” He grinned. “I expect Bear will just tell you to lay off the chili burritos and stop worrying so much about things.”
“I hope so,” Joe said fervently, picking up his spear and bag and stepping into the circle.
The fire had been lit now, its smoke swirling upward and disappearing up through the vent. It crackled merrily in the middle of the pit, flames licking in anticipation. Ben had placed two heavy folded blankets next to each other near the fire; he lowered himself down cross-legged onto one and Joe did likewise on the other, laying the spear as he always did across his legs.
Ben had a small drum in his lap. As Joe settled in he began to beat a slow rhythm on it, his eyes closed, his face peaceful. Part of the preparation had been to close the blinds on the lodge’s few windows, leaving the flickering fire as the only source of illumination. Joe watched it cast eerie shadows on the walls and felt himself infused with a sense of calm. He took out his pipe, prepared it, and began his relaxation exercises.
He had rarely contacted Bear with Ben before, but on the few occasions that he had it had been much easier but much less personal on his part. When with Bear he felt similar to a decker who joins in a decking session via a hitcher jack: he could see everything that happened but couldn’t affect any of it. The analogy was not quite true because occasionally Joe could have some input into the contact, but Ben’s power was so strong that it usually eclipsed whatever small measure of mundane energy Joe brought to the party. When this happened Joe usually felt a longing, a desire to touch Bear the way Ben did with such ease—this time, though, he would be happy if Ben could simply set his mind at rest that there was nothing to worry about and he had just been overreacting to the whole situation.
They slipped into the trance together to the sound of the soft cadence of the drum, Ben subtly guiding Joe until they had both reached the state of mind that would allow them to be receptive to the Totem’s teaching. It felt different for Joe than usual—more aware, more in control of himself than when he did it on his own. Probably because it takes less peyote this way, he had thought wryly on previous occasions. Whatever it was, he concentrated on opening his mind as the lodge faded away and the fog began to lift.
This time the scene was very different from before. They were still in the forest—or rather, Joe was, because Ben was nowhere in sight even though Joe could still feel his strong presence next to him—but this time instead of an endless progression of trees he was in a clearing. The clearing was almost completely round, surrounded by thickly-growing trees that left only a meter or so at most between them.
He stood in the middle of the clearing, turning around as if trying to see everything at once. Quickly he began to get the same sense of foreboding as before, but it was much stronger this time. There was something out there in the forest, seeking him. Even though he couldn’t see it, he knew it with complete certainty.
Then the eyes appeared. The spaces between the trees were shrouded in darkness, and as Joe spun around, he could see tiny glowing eyes appear and then disappear at various points around the clearing. He could hear soft sibilant whispers as if whatever things were out there were speaking to each other, trying to figure out the best way of attacking him. He broke out in a cold sweat, his body trembling. He was far more afraid of these things than he should be, given that he didn’t even know what they were. He didn’t need to know what they were. All he knew is that if he allowed them into the clearing he was lost.
There were so many of them, though. He continued to turn around and around, gripping his spear (it was once again troll-sized in the vision), and each time he turned more of the bright little eyes regarded him from the darkness, more of the whispers reached his ears. He could still feel Ben’s presence, but it was far away as if this did not concern him.
Then, suddenly, there was another presence in the clearing. One moment Joe was alone and the next moment he felt something large and powerful standing at his side. He spared a glance and saw that it was Bear, huge and brown and shaggy. Bear looked at him and then returned his attention back to the dark spaces between the trees. He opened his mouth and let out a roar and some of the little eyes receded.
Joe’s eyes widened. So they could be frightened and driven off! Taking his cue from Bear’s example, he began to poke at the dark spaces with his spear. Wherever he did so, the lights went out and the whispers quieted. Joe was elated. This was all he had needed—
The eyes reappeared.
They were clumping together now, several eyes in one space, and then they spread out again. There seemed to be more of them this time. Bear swiped at some with his massive paw and Joe continued to poke them with the spear, but it was clear that it was a lost cause. For every one they stopped, more appeared. Joe’s sense of dread began to grow again, rising higher and higher until it became full-blown terror. He poked madly at the things, shrieking at them to stop, to go away, to leave him alone.
Bear turned to him. For a moment there was an expression of wise sadness in his eyes. The look had significance: the Totem was trying to tell him something. But he couldn’t understand. The terror was too strong—
The vision faded.
Joe’s consciousness was slammed back into his body with wrenching force. His hands were knotted tightly on the spear’s shaft, shaking; his body was bathed in cold sweat. For a moment he just sat there, trembling, assuring himself that he was back in Ben’s lodge, that he was safe, that the things were not here.
Ben didn’t look like he was doing much better. He too was shaking, his shirt, hair, and beard darkened by sweat. The fire had gone out, leaving the place barely lit by the small amount of outside sunlight that could slip in between the blinds. Ben was breathing hard, his shoulders slumped, his hands limp over the drum. “Well,” he said raggedly, “I guess I was wrong. It’s not the chili burritos.”
For a long moment he did not speak further; Joe was fine with that because it gave him a chance to get himself back together and try to calm down. Finally, he ventured, “Do you—know what it is?”
Ben rose slowly on shaky legs and moved out of the circle. He crossed the room, carefully putting the drum back on its stand, and grabbed two beers from the fridge. He tossed one to Joe and popped the other one. After a long swallow, he let his breath out and ran the back of his wrist over his mouth. “Not exactly,” he said. “I don’t know what those things are. I’ve never seen anything quite like them before.” He dropped into a chair and motioned for Joe to join him. “I’ll tell you this, though: whatever they were, Bear was definitely trying to warn you about them.”
Joe got up and carried his beer over to a chair opposite Ben. He was beginning to get a very bad feeling deep in the pit of his stomach. “So then—why did he attack me in my dream?”
“I don’t think that was Bear,” Ben said, taking another swig. “I can’t say for sure ‘cause I didn’t see your dream, but I know the Bear we saw in this vision was the real deal. I could feel him, his presence there. And it sure looked to me like he was trying to protect you from those things.” He regarded Joe silently for a moment. “You have any idea what they might be?”
Joe’s stomach twinged again. Could it be—? No...not after everything that had happened before. He had thought all that was over. “Maybe,” he said slowly after a pause. “I’m—I’m not sure.”
Ben’s gaze remained on him for a long moment before he nodded. “Okay. Suppose you tell me what you think they are?”
Again Joe paused. If it was what he feared, he was in a difficult situation. The existence of those particular enemies was not something that was widely known, and there were some very powerful folks out there who had made it their purpose to keep it that way. He didn’t think it would be wise to reveal what he knew, even to his most trusted friend outside the team. He sighed. “I—don’t know,” he said. “I thought I did, but—” Changing the subject, he said, “Is there any way we can figure out what they want? Why they’re doing this?” And what we can do to stop them? He thought that perhaps if Ben somehow figured it out for himself they could talk further. And then again—maybe it wasn’t what he feared at all.
Ben was still regarding him with an odd expression, but he did not pry further. “I don’t know,” he said. “Whatever it is, Bear’s obviously worried about it. You’re not a shaman, but Bear has high regard for you and looks out for you, as you well know. What this vision says to me is that Bear is trying to help you hold these things off, but they’re just going to keep at it until they get through. He can’t get involved directly, he can only help you to see the way to proceed.”
“But I don’t know the way to proceed,” Joe said. The terror was beginning to recede, but he still felt more than a bit uneasy about the situation.
“I don’t either,” Ben said. He sighed and got up. “Tell you what. Why don’t you stay here for the night, and let me try another ritual by myself a little later after we’ve had a chance to rest. I’ll see if I can find out more about what’s going on and maybe get some idea what you can do about it.”
Joe nodded gratefully as again a sense of relief washed over him. “Thanks, Ben. I’m gonna owe you one for this.”
Ben smiled, though he still looked tired. “Just bring up another case of beer next time you come. I’m figuring you’re gonna drink me out of most of this one before we’re done.”
Joe had a hard time settling down to rest, but he forced himself to do so nonetheless. He and Ben had had a simple but delicious meal of venison, boiled potatoes, and more beer, spending the time talking about mundane things like how Ben’s vegetable garden was doing and how nice Joe’s ride up had been. An hour or so after dinner was over the shaman had moved off to prepare for the new ritual, admonishing Joe to try to get some rest. He told the troll that this one would probably last most of the night.
Joe didn’t remember drifting off; the last he recalled was the smell of smoke, the flicker of firelight, and Ben’s soft chanting, but the next thing he knew something had awakened him.
It was still dark outside. The fire had died down to a few glowing embers and there was a slight chill to the air in the lodge. Joe looked over and saw Ben sitting slumped in front of the fire, his shoulders rising and falling slowly. “Ben?” he called softly.
Ben raised his head and turned. He looked very tired, but he smiled a little when he saw Joe. “Thought I told you to get some rest.”
“I did. I just woke up. Did you—are you done?”
“Did you find out anything?”
Ben rose slowly from his seated position and came over to take a seat next to where Joe had spread out his blankets on the floor. He lowered himself down and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “I still don’t know what it is,” he said, “except that it’s powerful and very evil...some kind of primal force. I don’t know how you got mixed up with it and I’m not sure I want to know. But I think I know what you’re gonna need to do.”
Joe tensed a little. “What?”
Ben let out his breath slowly, a soft hiss in the darkness. “You need to get away,” he said. “Far away from civilization and people. Bear can protect you from this, but not if your spirit is fragmented by conflict. He showed me a vision of a cub being sought by some kind of dark force, and then showed me the cub going off far away, living as close to the ways of Bear as possible. If he can keep you close to him, he can prevent the force from reaching you. Does that make any sense?”
Joe pondered, then nodded. “I think so. So I’m supposed to go away from here, even? Away from the cabin? Away from you?”
“Yeah.” Ben sighed. “I wouldn’t have thought so, but Bear was pretty adamant about it. He’s trying to protect you but he needs to be able to focus on it, and he can only do that if you’re focused on him. It’s harder because you’re not a shaman. I might not have to go away if it were me, but with you—” he spread his hands.
“So...” Joe sat up slowly. “How long will I have to be gone? Did Bear say?”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ll keep consulting him, studying the problem, trying to figure out how to deal with it. But until then...”
“Be careful, Ben,” Joe’s voice was soft. “I don’t know what this is, but I don’t want you to get hurt over it, whatever it is.”
“I’m always careful,” Ben said; for the first time since the ritual there was a bit of a chuckle in his voice. “You’d better take your own advice, though.”
There was a long silence. “Where will I go?”
“I’ve been thinking about that. I think I know a place where you’ll be happy until we can get this figured out. You want to do it?”
Joe nodded. “If that’s what Bear says I should do, then yeah...I want to.” Anything to make it go away.
“Okay, then. Get your stuff together and tomorrow morning I’ll take you there.” Ben patted Joe’s arm encouragingly. “We’ll get it figured out, Joe. Don’t worry. There’s got to be some explanation for it.”
“Yeah.” That’s what I’m afraid of.
The next morning Joe got his things together and headed back down to his cabin for the rest of them. Get closer to Bear, he thought, looking around the cabin at what he had brought. Can’t do that with all this stuff. He emptied his duffel bag out on the bed and examined the items he had brought, finally choosing a few army blankets, some dried food, and his Sitting Bull spear. He put the blankets and the food in his smaller bag and slung it over his shoulder. Everything else, including his other weapons, he packed back in the big duffel bag. He’d take that up and leave it with Ben for safekeeping.
When he arrived back at the lodge Ben was waiting for him. He handed Joe a large filled canteen. “It’ll be a long hike,” he said. Joe simply nodded and followed.
It was a long hike indeed. It took them nearly half a day of hard hiking; there were no trails here and most of it was uphill. When Ben finally stopped they were standing nearly at the top of the mountain on which the lodge and Joe’s cabin were located. Joe looked around, awed. “This is beautiful,” he said. “I’ve never been up this far before.”
“Not many people have,” Ben said. “I doubt you’ll find another person for five miles in any direction—probably farther in most directions.” He pointed off to the east. “There’s a creek over there—good fishing, and the water’s great. Lots of deer and smaller critters for hunting, and somewhere around here is a cave you can use for shelter—it was empty last time I was up here a month or so ago.” He looked around. “You should be okay here...I’ll try to figure out something else as soon as I can and come back up to get you, but with your woodsman skills you shouldn’t have any problem.”
Joe nodded slowly. He hadn’t been completely sure about this, but the higher up they’d gotten the more sense he’d had that it was the right thing to do. He could almost feel the tension lifting from his shoulders. He turned to Ben and his eyes were earnest. “Thanks, Ben. I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Ben said. “Just take care of yourself and be careful.”
Joe watched as Ben bade him goodbye and turned to start back down the hill. He wondered how long it would be before he saw the shaman again, and a twinge of fear rippled through him as he thought about Ben dealing with what he, Joe, was afraid the problem was. He began to regret not telling Ben more about his fears, but the shaman was already gone.
He turned to look back at the pristine beauty of the mountain and the trees and the sky. Despite his fears about Ben, he still felt peaceful. An odd serenity was already beginning to cover him like a soft blanket.
“Better go find that cave so I can do some hunting before the day’s over,” he murmured to himself, and headed off. By the time he had located the cave and a good spot in the creek to fish, he had almost forgotten about everything but the immediate world around him.
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.