Ocelot had decided early on that if you had to go on a trek through the Amazonian jungle in the dark, there were worse ways to do it than in the company of a Great Dragon.
The heat was still as uncomfortable as ever. The flies still went after every inch of their exposed skin, and the sweat still ran down their backs without evaporating in the high humidity. The difference was that, despite the fact that they could all hear the sounds of the jungle predators off in the distance, nothing bothered them. It wasn’t even as if the denizens of this particular corner of the Amazonian rainforest avoided them—it was more like they simply did not pay any notice to the interlopers in their domain. “So,” Ocelot had said soon after he had noticed this fact. “Are you doing this, Gabriel?”
“Doing what?” The dragon had taken point and was pushing his way through a particularly thick clump of vines, stopping to consult his handheld GPS once he got through.
He waved his arm in a sweeping gesture to encompass their surroundings. “This. Keeping all the nasties from bothering us. I know it’s been awhile since I was in Amazonia, but I know it wasn’t this easy last time.”
Gabriel started off again. “I am not keeping them from bothering us—I am merely preventing them from noticing us. It is less—intrusive that way.”
“You’re worried about messing up the ecosystem?” Ocelot supposed that shouldn’t have surprised him—Gabriel had never struck him as much of a back-to-nature type, but it seemed to be a trait many dragons had in common.
“This is every bit as effective and probably less noticeable should anyone be paying attention to our activities.”
Kestrel moved to catch up with him. “Do you think they are?”
Ocelot did likewise, remembering the conversation he’d had with Kestrel on the boat the previous day.
Gabriel didn’t answer for several seconds. “I think the possibility exists,” he said at last, carefully. “The attack in Iquitos disturbs me.”
“Us too,” Ocelot said. “We were talking about it yesterday. Especially after Aubrey said it sounded like they were dragging their feet down here about getting the expedition going.”
“Do you have any evidence that anyone’s watching us?” Kestrel asked.
“No. Just suspicion.”
Ocelot felt the hairs on the back of his neck tingle. If a dragon was suspicious, then he was downright nervous. “Uh—Gabriel—is there any chance you could do anything to speed this along a little? Like maybe summon a spirit to track down their location, or go astral, or—”
Gabriel nodded. “I was going to do that soon. I would hesitate to astrally project unless absolutely necessary here, but a spirit should be effective. I wanted to get closer, because even powerful spirits can go awry here and I don’t want it to have to travel far to find them.”
“Is this close enough?” Ocelot was trying to look around everywhere at once, glad now that they all had low-light vision and could rely on the scant moonlight for visibility. Flashlights would make them stand out like beacons if anyone was looking.
Gabriel regarded him for a moment, then nodded. “All right—I wanted to get a bit closer, but this should be fine. Hold on.” He moved a few paces off and closed his eyes. He remained deep in concentration for a few seconds, then a large form shimmered into half-existence in front of him. Ocelot and Kestrel watched it with curiosity, but it wasn’t clear enough for them to get a good look at it. After a few more seconds it winked out. “There,” Gabriel said, satisfied. “If it doesn’t lose its way and fail to return, it should be able to tell us where the group is. I hope they stayed together—it will be significantly more difficult to find them if they have separated.”
“Can we keep going?” Ocelot asked, trying to keep the impatient excitement out of his voice. They were close now, he could feel it, and ever minute they were having to wait to find Winterhawk and the others seemed an eternity.
Gabriel nodded. “Yes—the spirit will be able to find me when it returns. Let’s move on.”
Another hour passed and the spirit did not return. “Do you think he got lost?” Kestrel asked. “It shouldn’t take him this long, should it? Unless they’re—”
“They’re out there,” Ocelot stated, glaring at her for emphasis. “But—” he continued to Gabriel, “She’s right, isn’t she? The spirit should have found them by now.”
Gabriel sighed. “We must have patience. The astral plane here is—extremely complex. Even spirits, especially non-native ones, can find it difficult to navigate. It is not a matter of locating someone in a building or in the middle of a desert. It—” He stopped abruptly.
“What?” Ocelot demanded.
Gabriel closed his eyes for a moment, then pointed. “Over there. I saw something.”
Immediately Kestrel and Ocelot tensed and unslung their weapons from their shoulders. Gabriel put up his hand, motioning for them to wait, and crept forward. After a few moments he stopped, looking down at something on the ground.
Ocelot vaulted over at top speed, fearing the worst. “What is it?” he snapped again. Then he too stopped.
Gabriel was staring down at the remains of a human. Whoever it was had obviously been dead for at least a few hours: the body had already been set upon by the local predators and was missing large chunks; perhaps even more disquieting was the fact that some of the vines had already poked their way through parts of it and were growing upward out of the skin in a most macabre fashion. The smell wasn’t too bad yet, but it was getting there fast.
Kestrel skidded to a stop behind them and stared down at the body. “Oh, my God...” she whispered.
Gabriel had knelt down next to the body. “I don’t think this was one of Winterhawk’s group,” he said. “Look at the clothing.”
Ocelot nodded. “He’s dressed like they did back in Iquitos. Like the townspeople.”
“Perhaps one of their guides?” Gabriel suggested. He was dividing his attention between the body and the surrounding area.
Kestrel was examining the face. “Look at his expression—what’s left of it anyway. He was terrified.” Her breath caught and she leaned in for a closer look. “Guys...” she said, her voice dropping to barely above a whisper.
Ocelot got down there next to her. “What? Did you see something?”
“Can we risk a flashlight if we cover it?” she asked. It seemed the question was rhetorical, because she was already digging in her pack for one. She put her hand over the end and turned it on, shining the light into the corpse’s face. Immediately she stiffened. “Do you recognize him?”
Ocelot looked closer, trying not to pay too much attention to the places where carnivores had torn pieces out of the cheeks, one of the eyes, and the nose. “Should I?”
Gabriel spoke softly from above. “Pablo Escuela.”
“Remember, back in town?” Kestrel reminded him. “He’s the kid who broke into our room and tried to kill us.”
If Ocelot’s hackles were tingling before, they were dancing a jig now. “But...” he said slowly, “He was in jail. Back in Iquitos. How the hell did he get all the way out here? He couldn’t have been following us, could he?”
Gabriel didn’t answer; he had leaned in closer and was examining the body. “Whatever killed him,” he said, “it wasn’t an animal. It’s difficult to tell now that the animals have disturbed the body, but something caused massive systemic shock in this man.”
“What do you mean, massive systemic shock?” Ocelot asked. “Death will do that to you.”
Gabriel shook his head. “No, that isn’t what I mean. Something caused most of the blood vessels in his body to burst. I see evidence of extensive internal trauma, long before the predators fed on him.”
Kestrel whistled softly. “What—what could have caused that? Magic?”
“Possibly,” Gabriel said. “Again, it’s difficult to get a reading because the area is so profoundly magical, but I would say not. This doesn’t look like any spell I’ve ever encountered, and there are no traces of increased magical activity around the body.”
Ocelot was getting impatient again. “This is all great, but who knows if it even has anything to do with ‘Hawk? Whatever it is, if it doesn’t help us find him, I say let’s just go on. If the kid was following us, it serves him right if he got his ass nailed.”
Gabriel shot him an odd look, then sighed and nodded. “Yes—let’s find Winterhawk. After that, depending on what condition they are in, perhaps we can—” He stopped as a shimmering appeared in the air in front of him. For a moment his eyes went unfocused, then he nodded and snapped back to awareness. “The spirit has found a small group of people in close proximity to each other. It was not able to discern if any of them was Winterhawk, but it thinks so.”
“Alive?” Ocelot asked quickly.
Gabriel consulted the spirit again. “Yes. Alive.”
“Then let’s go!” He grinned in spite of himself. “Where are they?”
“Some distance south of where we expected the plane to be. Apparently they chose to leave the plane and try to find civilization on their own.” Gabriel slung his pack over his shoulder. “Come. The spirit will guide us.”
The news gave Kestrel and Ocelot renewed energy. That, coupled with Gabriel’s magical intervention to keep the jungle from impeding their progress, meant that they made even better time than before. They stopped briefly only a couple of times for light meals of energy bars from their packs, water, and local fruit, and Ocelot was reluctant to do even that. Finally, three hours or so later when it was getting near dawn, Gabriel held up his hand for them to stop. “We’re close now,” he said softly. “The spirit has faded, but it communicated the likely location to me before it left, and we are near it. Keep your eyes open—they will no doubt be watchful for threats.”
Ocelot was about to ask Gabriel if he could just send another spirit out to tell Winterhawk they were coming when Kestrel suddenly stiffened in front of him. “What?” he whispered.
She pointed. “I saw something move over there,” she whispered back. Quietly she pulled her gun down from her shoulder, keeping it pointed at the ground.
Ocelot and Gabriel immediately turned their attention in that direction. “I don’t see anything—” Ocelot began.
“There!” Gabriel said in their minds, pointing. “Stay near me—I am protecting us if it is a threat. Ocelot, call out to them.”
Ocelot was happy to do just that. “‘Hawk!” he yelled. “Uh...Dr. Stone! Are you there? It’s us—Ocelot and Kestrel and Gabriel! We’re here to take you back!”
There was a few seconds’ pause, what sounded like a quick muffled conversation, and then the vegetation rustled and a thin figure emerged with its hands up. “Please don’t shoot!” the man called. His British-accented voice shook with terror and fatigue.
All three of them rushed over to find themselves facing a man of about fifty with disheveled graying hair. His clothes were torn and dirty, his cheeks covered with gray stubble, and his eyes were nearly wild with fear. “Please,” he said, panting. “Don’t kill us.”
“We’re not here to kill anyone, sir,” Gabriel said, keeping his voice gentle. “Who are you?”
“I’m—Dr. Henry Whittaker,” he said. “Parabotany Department, London University.” He was fighting to catch his breath and looked like he might faint at any moment. “Please—did you say you’ve come to help us?”
Another figure came out from hiding in the trees. This time it was a woman in her mid twenties, tall and slim with short dark brown hair. Her face was crisscrossed with small cuts. She looked as disheveled as the man did, but not quite as terrified. Looking first at Dr. Whittaker and then at the newcomers, she ventured, “You’re—not with the men with the guns, are you?”
Ocelot was darting glances around the area. “Where are the rest of you?” he demanded. “Where’s Win—Dr. Stone?”
Whittaker was trying to speak but not having much success. The woman took up the conversation. “Did you come because of Dr. Stone’s watcher?” she asked, her eyes showing faint hope. “The one he sent when the plane was—?”
“Yes,” Gabriel told her. “Where is he?”
She let out her breath slowly, but didn’t look completely relieved by the information. “I’m Gina Kane,” she said. “One of Dr. Stone’s students. Listen—I can tell you the whole story now, but I don’t think that’s the best thing to do. We have to help the others. Everything’s gone wrong and Dr. Whittaker and I have about run out of options.”
As she spoke, Whittaker was looking around as if expecting someone to pop out of the trees at them. He barely seemed to be paying attention to Gina Kane’s words.
“Don’t worry,” Gabriel said softly. “Nothing will harm us for the moment. No one else is near.”
“How do you know?” Kane asked. Her tone was a mixture of suspicion and hope.
“He knows,” Kestrel said. “Now come on—tell us what’s going on. This is more than just a plane crash, isn’t it?”
Kane nodded, miserable. “Yes.” She visibly tried to pull herself together and arrange her story in a way that would make sense. “There’s—something out here. Something dangerous. We were trying to find a river, a town—anywhere we could get our bearings—but someone killed one of our guides. Dr. Stone and Kevin went off to try to find out what was going on so we wouldn’t stumble on it—It was only half an hour or so after they left that the men—the ones with the guns—attacked our group.” Her voice caught and tears sprang to her eyes, but her voice remained reasonably steady. “We got some of them, but—two of our group were killed. They—took—two others. Dr. Whittaker and I managed to get away, but now—” she shook her head. “We thought we’d be killed for sure.”
Ocelot was trying to make sense of all this. “You say Dr. Stone and somebody else went off to find something? What? When?”
“It was—about two...maybe two and a half hours ago. I don’t know—what happened—if they’re still alive—” She shook her head, sinking down to the lush carpet of vegetation covering the ground. “I just don’t know,” she whispered again.
Ocelot forced himself not to panic. “But where did he go? What did he expect to—”
“Someone’s coming,” Gabriel hissed, cutting him off.
“Oh, no...” Whittaker moaned, dropping down next to Kane.
Ocelot and Kestrel had their guns ready. They took cover behind trees and waited tensely.
Whoever was coming through the trees was making no effort to be quiet about it. The heavy thudding steps came closer, sounding almost like the newcomer was staggering under a heavy load. They broke through the trees and stopped, breathing heavily, not even seeming to notice the others. It was a tall young man about the same age as Gina Kane, and over his shoulder he carried the unmoving form of Winterhawk.
Copyright ©2003-2005 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of WizKids.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.