Whittaker and Kane were not happy about the idea of sitting tight until Stone and his friends returned, and neither was Frasier. The difference was that the former pair came to their feelings out of fear, while the latter came to his from indignation at being left behind.

“Look, Frasier,” Stone said, “Someone who can handle himself in a fight needs to remain behind and make sure everyone’s safe. Even with Gabriel’s magical protections, I’d feel a lot better knowing that someone who knows how to use a rifle is here.”

Frasier sighed. “You know that’s bollocks, Dr. Stone, and so do I. I’m not used to being left behind when there’s work to be done.”

“I know,” Stone told him, nodding. “But listen to me—I don’t think you should risk assensing too much here, but take a look at Ocelot and Kestrel and tell me why I’m saying what I’m saying.”

Frasier did as he was told, and his eyes widened. “They’re—both packed so full of cyberware they barely register on the astral.”

Stone nodded again. “Exactly. I hate to say this, Frasier, but you’ll be a detriment in this group. I can’t keep up with them, but I can move faster than you can. You’d be left behind in ten minutes.”

Frasier sighed again and kicked at the ground. He glanced at Gabriel. “What about him? He assenses as a mundane, which I know isn’t true.”

“Exactly, “ Stone said with a grim smile. “Don’t you worry about Gabriel—he’ll be looking out for the lot of us.”

“Someday I’m going to ask you more about this, Dr. Stone,” Frasier said, finally giving in.

“Maybe I’ll tell you some of it. We’ll go to a pub and have a few ales. I owe you a bloody bit more than that. For now, though, keep a good hold on that rifle and stay quiet—we’ll leave you food and supplies, and we shouldn’t be gone more than a day or so. Can you hold out that long?”

Frasier gave him a half-grin. “We’ve held out this long, haven’t we? What’s another day without a shower?”

“That’s the spirit,” Stone said, returning the grin. He didn’t tell Frasier that he wasn’t feeling nearly as confident about this whole thing as he was projecting, including his own involvement in it—he was still exhausted from his ordeal and from a general lack of good sleep, but there was no way his friends were going to leave him behind on this one. It simply wasn’t an option.

They prepared to go: Gabriel moved off by himself and began weaving his protective enchantments while Ocelot and Kestrel gave Frasier, Whittaker, and Kane a quick primer on survival. They left them the remainder of the food in their packs and their spare canteens and admonished them once more to remain where they were, stay quiet and try to rest, and above all not to run off. “We won’t run off unless your protections fail,” Kane told them. “If that happens, all bets are off.”

“We’ll hurry,” Kestrel said, glancing over at Gabriel, who was finishing up.

None of them except Gabriel knew exactly how right she was. It wasn’t fifteen minutes after they had left the students’ location that he stopped. “We need to go much faster than this,” he said. “Even with what I did back there, I don’t feel comfortable leaving them alone for two days.”

“Got any ideas?” Ocelot asked. “We could run, but I doubt ‘Hawk is gonna be able to keep up after everything he’s been through. Hell, I’m not sure I can keep up in this fraggin’ heat and humidity.”

“That’s not what I had in mind,” Gabriel assured them. For the first time in awhile, he smiled. “How about if we fly? Or rather, I fly and you ride?”

Stone’s eyes widened. “But wouldn’t that be just a bit obvious?”

“Not if we’re invisible and shielded. I thought about doing it before, but I decided that those people back there have already been through enough without our having to explain me to them.”

Kestrel nodded. “Yeah, I can see that. Especially since we all thought we had a boat to go back to.” She glanced at the others. “I’m up for it if you guys are.”

“Anything that will get Merriwether and Hsu back and get us out of here faster is fine with me,” Stone said.

“Yeah,” Ocelot said, sounding a bit more reluctant than the other two but still willing. “Let’s get this done and get the hell home.”

Logistically it ended up being interesting, because there wasn’t a clearing nearby that was big enough for Gabriel to change to his true form. In the end, he levitated himself upward, turned invisible, and then shifted. He then used another levitation spell to bring Stone, Kestrel, and Ocelot up and communicated with them telepathically until they were settled in their places between his massive wings.

“If anybody looks up here are they gonna see us floating along like fraggin’ Superman?” Ocelot asked a little nervously.

You are included in my invisibility,” Gabriel’s mental voice came back. “No one can see you. Now hold on—I won’t let you fall, but I’m going to fly fast.

What followed was a wild ride. The three passengers hung on for dear life as the powerful wings pumped next to them, propelling them through the sky at a high rate of speed. Gabriel was true to his word, though: no one fell off. In one instance that appeared to be a close one, Stone lost his grip and tumbled sideways, only to come to a stop against a soft invisible field. Kestrel and Ocelot quickly hauled him back up and they were on their way again.

The trip that had taken them many hours on foot required only a couple of hours of flight time. At last Gabriel backwinged a bit, slowing down and losing some altitude. “Look below,” he told them. “That’s the facility down there.

All three of them crawled over to peer past the dragon’s wings and get a look. “That’s it all right,” Stone muttered. “It looks a lot bigger on the ground, but I daresay it’s big enough to be dangerous just as it is.”

“Are you sure they can’t see us?” From Ocelot’s vantage point, it appeared that they were frighteningly vulnerable to anyone who wanted to take aerial potshots at them.

Do not worry,” Gabriel said again. “Their weapons and tracking gear cannot penetrate my shields.

“Damn it’s nice doing this kind of thing with a dragon,” he said, only a little bit sarcastically.

I will set you down now, and join you in a moment,” Gabriel said. He moved about half a kilometer away from the installation and lowered the three of them down in the same way he had brought them up. In a few seconds, he had joined them, back in human form.

“Okay,” Ocelot said. “So how do we want to do this?”

“I think we should risk some astral reconaissance,” Stone said. “Our first priority is getting Merriwether and Hsu out of there, so we need to know where they’re holding them.”

“Let me take care of that,” Gabriel said. He stopped a moment, looking around as if he had suddenly heard something.

“What is it?” Kestrel’s hands went to her gun strap, but she didn’t unsling it yet.

Gabriel didn’t reply for a few moments, then shook his head. “Nothing. I was just sensing the same thing as before—a presence of some kind. It’s gone now, though.”

“Well, let’s get a move on, then,” Ocelot said. “The sooner this is over, the happier I’ll be.”

“Hold on—” Gabriel closed his eyes and appeared to be focusing elsewhere in classic astral-recon fashion. He was gone for about ten minutes, and by the time he got back his companions were beginning to get restless. “Datapad,” he said distractedly, holding out his hand.

Kestrel gave him hers, and he quickly sketched out the layout of the installation. “They have minimal warding on a couple of the buildings—probably the research lab and the place they’re holding the prisoners.” He pointed to each building as he described it. “This is a barracks here. This appears to be food preparation. These two are labs, and this back part here is probably a firing range. This building here is warded—I chose not to penetrate the wards, but given that the prisoners are not anywhere else in the complex, it appears to be a good bet that they are being held here. Probably security.”

“How many people?” Kestrel asked.

“About thirty at the moment, scattered throughout the complex. I didn’t range out seeking patrols, but judging by the number of beds in the barracks, I’d say the place has the capacity to hold about fifty troops, plus prisoners and about ten officers with their own quarters.”

“Some of them are dead,” Stone reminded them. “We got a couple, and Frasier said they did too.”

“Thirty...” Kestrel was saying, shaking her head. “I wonder how many of those ultrasonic guns they have.”

“No way to tell that,” Gabriel said. “Not without a time-consuming clairvoyance spell. I suggest that our best plan is to get in quietly, free the prisoners, and get out.”

“I want to frag this place so they can’t just go get another crop of prisoners and start up business as usual in a week,” Ocelot said.

Stone nodded. “Yes. I agree.”

Gabriel regarded them for a moment, then nodded. “All right. We’ll do it that way, then. I will protect you and assist in the destruction of the structures, but I won’t aid you in your killing.”

Ocelot had long since grown used to this kind of talk from the young man. “No worries there,” he said, his eyes blazing. “I think we can handle that all by ourselves. It’ll feel good to kick a few corper asses. If the local wildlife gets a snack out of it—hey, never let it be said that I don’t support wildlife.”

“Quietly first,” Stone reminded him. “First we get the prisoners out. Once they’re safe, then you can have your way with the rest of the place. Don’t blow up the jeeps, though—we might need them, especially if Merriwether and Hsu are injured.”

“Good point, “Kestrel said, nodding. “If we drive slowly we might even be able to take ‘em back to the river. Beats walking.”

“Okay then,” Ocelot said. “Let’s go.”

Gabriel nodded. “I’ll make us invisible to them—it isn’t an invisibility spell, but rather one that will simply cause them to disregard our presence.”

“Like the one at the prison in Los Angeles?” Stone asked, glancing at Ocelot. His friend’s hair still hadn’t grown back from where the guards had cut it.

“Yes.” He regarded them for a few moments, closed his eyes briefly, then nodded. “Done.”

They moved stealthily out of the trees, creeping along the treeline until they reached the area opposite the fence nearest the building Gabriel had identified as warded. Ocelot, who hadn’t experienced the dragon’s concealing magic, felt very vulnerable when they left the cover of the trees and approached the fence. He could see Ares personnel patrolling the cleared space between the fence and the buildings. The two he saw didn’t have guns like the ones Frasier had described, though—just normal assault rifles. Still deadly, but at least he knew what he was dealing with.

When they reached the fence Gabriel silently levitated them up and over, setting them down only when they were outside the door to the building. As they expected, it was locked. “What now?” Kestrel whispered. “I didn’t exactly bring my maglock passkey or my electronics kit along.”

Gabriel considered. “I can defeat it, but it will probably trigger alarms. Alternatively we could wait until someone opens it, but that could take time.”

“I say just take it out and we’ll handle what comes,” Ocelot said. His rifle was slung at his side in a ready position, his monowhip in his hand.

No one had a better idea, since none of them had come to Amazonia with any inkling that they would be battling corp troops instead of slogging through stifling jungles. Gabriel leaned in close to the door, put his hand on it, and a few seconds later there was a faint pop and an even fainter crackle of electricity somewhere deep within the wall. Ocelot reached past him and tried the door. The mechanism moved freely. With a thumbs-up signal he stepped back.

“Stay near me,” Gabriel whispered. “I can’t protect you as well if you’re too far away.” That said, he swung the door open.

They half expected someone to start shooting at them, but no one was in evidence. If an alarm was sounding, it was a silent one. They were standing in a small room with doors leading off from either side. “Any idea?” Ocelot whispered to Gabriel.

He wasn’t listening—he appeared to be checking the astral again. After a few seconds of silence he pointed to the right. “There,” he said. “Now that we’re inside, I can see what is here without disturbing the wards. There are two prisoners held in small cells.”

That was enough for Stone. He strode over to the door and tried it—once again it was locked. He stepped aside to let Gabriel make short work of it, and then they were on their way down the hallway. “I’ll stay here,” Kestrel said once they were inside the door. “Make sure we don’t have any surprise visitors. Hurry up.”

Ocelot nodded and quickly caught up with the others.

The hallway was about ten meters long, lined on each side with five heavy doors with bars set into tiny windows at eye level. Stone hurried past the others and began peering into doors. “Here they are!” he called. “Down here at the end!”

“Dr.—Stone?” came a slightly slurred male voice from one of the two cells Stone was indicating. “Is that you?”

“We’re here,” Stone assured Peter Hsu. “Hang on and we’ll have you out of there.”

“Hurry!” an equally slurred female voice called from across the hall. “They’re—”

Stone didn’t wait to hear the end of that. He moved back while Gabriel broke the locks on the students’ doors, then he ran into Hsu’s cell. The student lay on a crude stained pallet on the floor; his hands were cuffed behind him with heavy plastic restraints and he wore a blindfold tied tightly around his upper face. Guess they didn’t have mage masks, he thought bitterly as he removed the offending cloth. “Little help in here,” he called.

Hsu looked exhausted, too drained to be afraid anymore. “Thank the spirits you came,” he said wearily. “They were going to let us go tonight—they were going to test those guns on us.”

“It’s all right,” Stone muttered. “You’re all right now—we’ll get you out of here and we’ll be on our way home before you know it.” He kept talking as Gabriel came in and casually broke the restraints behind Hsu’s back where the student couldn’t see.

They had just gotten Merriwether free when Kestrel’s voice came down the hallway, almost simultaneous with the loud klaxon of an alarm. “Incoming!” she called, leveling her rifle at the door and ducking back behind cover.

Hsu and Merriwether, still looking drugged, showed near-panic. “No...” Hsu mumbled. “Please don’t let them shoot us.”

“It’s all right,” Stone assured them again, hoping it was true. He realized just how much they were counting on Gabriel’s aid—he himself, Ocelot, and Kestrel could handle a lot of things, but thirty fully armed corp troops were probably not among them. At least without a lot more preparation and gear than they had.

“Come on,” Gabriel said, moving swiftly up next to Kestrel. He glanced past her out the door and then hurried out. The others quickly followed, with Stone and Kestrel practically dragging the frightened, disoriented students.

Outside the door two of the Ares troops lay on the floor, felled by Kestrel’s assault rifle. Ocelot scooped up one of their own rifles, shouldered it, and tossed the other one to Stone. Both were standard assault rifles—still no sign of the ultrasonic weapons. “I wonder if they’ve run out of their little toys,” Stone said as they waited for Gabriel to check what was in store for them outside.

“Or they’re waiting to use them on us outside,” Ocelot said.

Stone didn’t waste time with the rifle, instead slinging it on his shoulder for use as a backup for one of his friends. “They’re taking positions outside,” Gabriel said grimly. “We need to hurry—I don’t know if even my shielding can keep us all safe from this many of them.”

“Can you protect us from ultrasonic?” Kestrel asked.

“Probably. To some extent, certainly. But so many—”

Ocelot peeked through the tiny open door crack, watching the Ares troops falling out and getting behind cover. He couldn’t take a shot at them without opening the door far enough to leave them vulnerable. “It’s almost like they were expecting us—how else could they get it together this fast?”

“Can we go out a back door?” Stone asked, looking around. “Did you see one, Gabriel?”

“No. This is the only way out.” He moved up next to Ocelot. “Let me have a look. I might be able to drop enough of them with a stunning spell to give us an easier time of it.”

A flurry of rounds exploded into the side of the building and everyone but Gabriel dropped hastily to the floor. “Hurry up!” Ocelot yelled. “I don’t think they’re gonna wait anymore!”

Gabriel nodded. He stood still for a moment, then opened the door a little more and loosed a spell. Another volley of rounds answered, but none got through his shielding. “Let’s go,” he called to the others. “Stay close—we’ll head for the jeeps. I’m not bothering with the disregard spell—too many of them for it to do any good. If things get too bad, I’ll—take stronger steps. But I’d like to avoid that if possible.”

Kestrel wondered if “stronger steps” meant killing, or revealing his true form and thus his full powers. Her money was on the latter. She too hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

When they stepped cautiously outside Ocelot was once again struck with how useful it was to have a great dragon on your team—he couldn’t see all the Ares forces, but a good dozen of them lay unmoving on the ground, slumped out of their cover positions. Bravado aside, he knew that he and ‘Hawk and Kestrel would have been hopelessly outclassed by sheer numbers if they’d tried to do this by themselves.

They ran, with Stone and Kestrel still dragging Hsu and Merriwether behind them. The remaining Ares troops who hadn’t been taken out by Gabriel’s spell fired at them, but none of the rounds penetrated the dragon’s shielding. They fired back and managed to wing a couple of them, though the light security armor they wore and their cover made it hard to get a good shot. “Can you take out the lab?” Ocelot yelled as they ran by the building Gabriel had identified as the research laboratory. “Even if we don’t get the rest, we need to make sure they don’t—”

Gabriel didn’t wait for him to finish. He raised his hands and in mid-run flung a glowing ball of energy at the lab building. It blossomed around the structure and then it was on fire, blazing up into the sky.

“We’re almost there!” Stone called, trying to encourage the two exhausted students—and himself. “There are the jeeps, and they’re not guarding—”

That will be far enough,” a sudden voice boomed in their heads, loud enough to cause pain.

All of them whirled around, even Gabriel.

“Oh...holy shit...” Ocelot breathed.

Behind them, hovering in the sky with its iridescent plumage glittering in the early-morning sunlight, was a large and very angry feathered serpent.

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