Nothing bothered them on the remainder of their trek, and Ocelot suspected once again that it was Gabriel’s doing. The students and Whittaker, who didn’t know the true nature of the silent, handsome young man who was providing their rear guard, were nervous and agitated--their eyes constantly darted around as if expecting gunmen to pop out from behind every tree and they jumped at every shadow and animal noise. “It’s all right,” Stone tried to assure them, particularly Whittaker and Kane. “I don’t think anything’s going to attack us now.”

“How can you be sure?” Whittaker demanded. “Those--men are around here somewhere. They could be tracking us as we speak.”

“You’ll just have to trust me, Henry,” Stone said. “Gabriel back there is a mage who makes you and I look like a couple of first-year thaumaturgy students. If he’s not worried, I’m not worried.”

Whittaker glanced back over his shoulder. “Little young, isn’t he?” he asked dubiously. “He looks like he could be a first-year thaumaturgy student.” It was clear he wasn’t prepared to trust his life to someone barely old enough to be one of his students.

“He’s--a bit of a prodigy,” Stone said. He dropped his voice down. “Remember that bit of--unpleasantness--I went through recently? No doubt you heard.”

Whittaker nodded slowly. “Yes. I--heard a bit about it.” He looked a little uncomfortable, as if not sure it was something that should be brought up in polite company. The truth was, everyone in the University’s magical departments had heard about it, along with significant numbers of the remainder of the school’s population.

“Well--Gabriel was the one who brought me back. I can’t explain the whole story, but suffice it to say that he’s the reason I’m back to the questionable level of sanity I enjoy today.” His half-grin showed Whittaker, who tended to be rather conventionally literal-minded, that he was kidding about the last part. He quickly resumed a sober look, though. “Honestly, Henry, I mean it. There isn’t another person on this earth that I’d have less hesitation about trusting my life to.”

For a moment Whittaker didn’t answer. Then he cast a surreptitious look up toward Ocelot. “What about--him? Forgive me, Alastair, but he hardly seems the type I’d expect to find among your circle of friends.”

Stone chuckled. “What, you think I spend all my time with you lot down at the pubs?”

“He sounds American.”

“He is. So is Kestrel. Ocelot--well, he and I have been through a lot together. He’s not the most tactful chap in the world, but you can count on him when things start getting nasty. Believe me--our odds of getting everyone out of here in one piece just shot up significantly with these three on our side.”

Whittaker nodded slowly, then let out a long, slow sigh. “I’m not looking forward to talking to Ram Prakesh’s family. It was terrible, Alastair--they showed no mercy at all. Ram was trying to run away, and they shot him in the back. The blood--”

Stone bowed his head. “I’m sorry, Henry. I wish I’d have been there.”

Whittaker didn’t reply. Stone looked up, wondering what was on the older professor’s mind, but didn’t ask. Instead he too sighed and continued to trudge along through the damp vegetation. All he wanted now was to get the two prisoners back alive and for this whole sorry situation to be over--or at least as much so as it ever could be.

“We’re getting close,” Ocelot said, consulting the GPS in his hand. “We should be breaking through at the river any minute now.”

Kestrel nodded, double-checking his readings against her own. She slowed down, and Ocelot did likewise.

Stone came up to see what was happening. “What’s going on?” He looked tired but alert.

“We’re getting close to the river,” Ocelot told him. “We don’t want to bust in on any surprises.”

The rest of the group caught up with them. “Are we almost there?” Gina Kane asked. She was trying hard not to show that the pace was exhausting her.

“Yeah,” Ocelot said. “Let’s all keep it quiet.” He turned to Stone and Kestrel. “I’ll scout ahead and see if we’re in the right place. We’re gonna be out in the open once we get near the river, so it’d be nice if we were visible for as short a time as possible.

Everyone waited tensely while he suited action to words, taking off into the trees. A few moments later he was back. He moved over to where Stone, Kestrel, and Gabriel were talking in low voices. “Guys, we have a problem,” he said.

Kestrel was instantly alert. “What? Are they at the boat?”

“There ain’t no boat.”

“What?” she demanded. She pulled out her GPS and checked the reading again. “But this is where it was.” Her eyes narrowed. “You mean Ruiz split out on us? After all we paid him? When I get my hands on that--”

Ocelot shook his head. “I think it’s worse than that. Come on and see.”

Frasier came over to them. “Is something wrong? Come on--don’t keep us in the dark. We have a right to know.”

Ocelot was about to say something but Stone nodded and spoke instead. “Yes, I guess you do. Let’s all go look.”

“Wait,” Gabriel said, holding up a hand. Everyone watched him as he closed his eyes for several moments, then opened them and nodded once. “All right.”

They followed Ocelot for a hundred meters or so until they stepped out from the cover of the vegetation and onto the riverbank. Beyond them the muddy river meandered by, quiet and undisturbed by whatever had occurred. “I’m confused,” Gina Kane said. “I thought you said there was a boat.”

It was Stone who found the first indication that something had happened. He bent down and picked up an object from the ground, examining it. “I think the operative word, Ms. Kane,” he said grimly, holding up a ragged section of polished wood, “is was.”

“What do you mean?” Whittaker demanded. “What is that you have there, Alastair?”

“It’s a hunk of the boat,” Ocelot said.

“Here’s another one,” Frasier called, holding up a similar piece of wood.

“What does it mean?” Kane asked. “Are you saying the boat--”

Kestrel was looking at Stone’s find. “If I had to guess from this,” she said, “I’d say something very nasty happened to this boat. Like it was blown up.”

Kane and Whittaker gasped. Frasier stared. “B-blown up?” Whittaker demanded. “But--”

Gabriel was looking over the river, a clouded look in his eyes. “And Senor Ruiz with it,” he said softly.

“How do you know that, Gabriel?” Kestrel asked, coming over.

“I can feel it. It isn’t strong--I think it happened not long after we left--but someone was terrified here. Someone’s life force--ceased to be.”

Ocelot kicked a clump of vegetation hard enough to uproot it and send it flying into the air. “Damn damn damn,” he growled. “Not only does this mean that our ride’s fucked, but we’re back to babysitting again.”

“Hey,” Frasier said, eyes flashing,”You don’t have to worry about us. We can handle ourselves. We’ve done all right so far, haven’t we?”

Ocelot glared at him. “Listen, kid. This is reality. Yeah, you did okay. You got ‘Hawk out of a bad situation and I’m damned glad you did that. Maybe you can even handle yourself in this, though I’m betting you don’t even really know what you’re in for. But what about those two?” He indicated Kane and Whittaker with a curt head motion. “You gonna send them into combat? You want them getting shot at with assault rifles, with no armor and no combat training? You want to have them wait somewhere and hope nothing finds them before we take care of the problem? I’ll tell you this--I sure as hell don’t. But that doesn’t matter, because we’re doing it anyway. Ain’t no choice. We can’t call anybody and even if we did who knows whose pockets they’re in? We’re stuck.” He whirled and moved quickly off before the astonished Frasier could reply to his tirade.

Stone sighed and clapped Frasier on the shoulder. “Don’t mind him, Frasier,” he said. “Like I said before--he’s like that. But he’s right, you know.”

“I know,” the student said, his tone grudging. “But I don’t have to like it.”

“No,” Stone agreed. “You don’t. But that’s the way it has to be.”

Kestrel was by the river, conferring with Gabriel. “Do you still think we can do this?” she was asking as Ocelot came up to them.

“I think so,” the young man said. “It will be more difficult, but I think we can do it.”

“Somebody’s gonna have to stay with them while we go in,” Ocelot said. “With patrols out it’s too dangerous to leave ‘em alone.” He looked over at Kestrel, in a rare instance weighing his words before he spoke. “Maybe--” he started, then took a deep breath. “Maybe you should stay,” he finally got out.

“Me?” She looked puzzled. “Why me?”

Ocelot wouldn’t meet her gaze.

Then, suddenly, she caught on. Her eyes hardened. “This is because I’m pregnant, isn’t it?” she demanded. “Ocelot, damn it, I told you you can’t--” She cut off her words abruptly, looking over Ocelot’s shoulder with wide eyes.

He spun around to see what she had spotted.

Stone stood there behind him, an expression of astonishment on his face. He was staring at Kestrel.

She took a deep breath. “You--heard, I take it.”

Stone inclined his head. “I couldn’t exactly have missed it,” he said gently. “I trust--congratulations are in order?” He glanced back and forth between her and Ocelot.

They both shook their heads vigorously. “It’s a long story, ‘Hawk,” Ocelot said. “Maybe one to tell some other time. It’s weirder than you think.”

“I’ll take your word for that,” Stone said, tilting his head. “P’raps when we’re back to civilization.”

“Yeah,” Kestrel said. “Civilization.” She glared at Ocelot. “But I’m not staying behind. If you suggest it again I’ll slug you so hard you won’t need a plane back to Seattle.”

Ocelot put up his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay. Sorry!”

She nodded once in amused finality. “About time.”

“But that still leaves us with the same question,” Stone said. “We need to come up with something.”

“I think I can help,” Gabriel said, coming over. “If they are willing to remain in one place until we return, I can set up magical protections around that place so they won’t be noticed by patrols or by the local fauna.”

“They’ll be safe?” Stone asked, a little hope showing in his eyes.

“Yes. In this kind of time I won’t be able to protect them from powerful threats, but I do not sense any such threats in the immediate area.”

“Let’s do it, then,” Ocelot growled. “Remember, once we do this we’ve still got the problem of how to get back without the boat.”

“One problem at a time, “ Kestrel said.

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