Go!” Gabriel’s voice echoed in their minds, almost as loud as the serpent’s had been. “Get out quickly! I will deal with him!” He was already moving forward, separating himself from his companions.

“Gabriel!” Kestrel cried.

Go,” he repeated. “I will meet you back where you left the others by the river!

Ocelot grabbed her arm. “Come on, Kestrel!”

She glared at him, but then nodded and took hold of Merriwether’s arm again. She, like all of them, knew that things had just gotten a lot more dangerous, and their only chance at survival was to get out quickly.

Ocelot, not burdened by dragging along an exhausted prisoner, reached the corner of the building around which the jeeps were parked first. He skidded to a stop and peered around the edge, half expecting to see another contingent of Ares guards waiting to pick him off. Instead, he saw only two guards pounding around the opposite side of the building. For a brief second this brought relief as he swung his assault rifle around, but then he got a look at the weapons they carried. “Fuck!” he called over his shoulder, ducking back fast. “Now we know where the ultrasonics are!”

Behind them they could already hear the sounds of a battle, but they dared not look back to see if Gabriel had changed form and was taking on the feathered serpent as his true self. Ocelot wheeled on Stone. “Can you pick them off if they come around here?”

“Yes, but—”

Ocelot didn’t wait for an answer. Instead he vaulted upward, catching the edge of the single-story building’s roof and launching himself upward to land, catlike, on top. A moment later Kestrel did the same thing, leaving Stone with the two students.

“Dr. Stone—” Merriwether began, her voice shaking with terror.

“Quiet!” His voice came out as a harsh rasp; he didn’t even look at her. If he stopped now, he would have to admit to himself that the thought of facing those ultrasound guns—the things that had almost killed him—again was frightening him more than he realized. He knew he was running on sheer adrenaline because he had to, and the moment he slowed down he wouldn’t be of any use to anyone. Hesitantly he crept forward, a spell ready, and peered around the corner of the building.

There was no one there. Then he saw one of them—they had done the same thing: ducked back behind cover on their side of the building when they’d seen the escapees. Without turning, he said to Hsu and Merriwether, “Watch the corner behind us. If you see anybody, yell at the top of your lungs.” He didn’t check to see if they had even heard him. Off in the distance a primal scream of rage and pain rose to the skies, but Stone couldn’t tell if it was Gabriel or the unknown feathered serpent.

“‘Hawk!” It was Ocelot’s voice, and it was above him. He spun, barely catching himself in time to avoid throwing a deadly spell at his friend on the roof. The two students cried out in startlement but didn’t run—it sounded to Stone like some of the drugs were wearing off and they were getting their senses back.

“Don’t do that!” Stone snapped.

Ocelot grinned. “C’mon. Kestrel and I got ‘em. The jeeps are free for the moment. Let’s get our asses outta here.” He held two things up in triumph. Stone’s eyes widened: one was his familiar monowhip; the other was one of the experimental guns. He wasn’t wearing the backpack, though.

Kestrel dropped down next to him. She, too, carried one of the ultrasonic weapons along with her own assault rifle, and in her case Stone could see the straps of the bulky pack on her shoulders. Unlike Ocelot, though, she didn’t look triumphant—she looked worried. She glanced back over her shoulder in fear as the cries of the dragons rose again.

“What is that?” Merriwether moaned. She sounded like she couldn’t deal with the possibility of anything else bad happening to her today.

“Don’t worry about it,” Stone said. “Believe it or not, that’s our ticket out of here. Come on.” He grabbed Hsu’s arm, motioning for Kestrel to grab Merriwether. They ran.

There were three jeeps in the parking area, including the one that Stone had stolen the GPS from. He noticed it hadn’t been replaced. “Don’t take that one,” he told the others. “Not unless you replace the GPS first.”

Kestrel was already trying one of the others. It started up on the first try. “Our good luck,” she said. “Guess they don’t want to deal with keys if they have to get out fast.” She climbed into the driver’s seat. “Hurry up!”

Ocelot paused to shoot out the tires of the third jeep before leaping into the remaining GPS-equipped vehicle and firing it up. Stone practically shoved the two students into the back of Kestrel’s car, ordering them to “Stay down!” and then threw himself into the passenger seat of Ocelot’s jeep. Almost as soon as he was set Ocelot was off, waiting for Kestrel to pull out in front of him.

“What about Gabriel?” she yelled back over her shoulder, hesitating. None of them could see the two dracoforms now, but everybody could hear them.

“He can take care of himself!” Ocelot yelled back. “He’s giving us a chance to get out—let’s take it!”

“He’s right,” Stone called. “He’s bigger than the other one. It shouldn’t be much of a contest.”

Kestrel looked dubious, but she knew they were right about having to get out. She gunned the engine, leveling the ultrasound weapon to take out anything in front of them.

They broke free from the cover of the building and immediately saw five Ares troops bearing down on them, using other buildings as cover. The sound of automatic gunfire filled the air, for a moment covering the sound of the battling dracoforms. “Down!” Ocelot yelled, swerving in wild evasive maneuvers to keep them from the line of fire. Two rounds tore through the windshield, but the armored glass held enough that it didn’t shatter. Driving with one hand he swung his assault rifle around and let loose a volley of rounds, none of which hit but all of which served to make the troopers duck back from the onslaught.

Stone, peering through the bottom few centimeters of the jeep’s cracked windshield as he crouched in the footwell, got a bead on two of the soldiers and released his spell. They clutched their heads and dropped. “Step on it!” he yelled, fighting drain. “I don’t know how many more times I can do that!”

“The gate!” It was Kestrel this time. Like Ocelot, she was driving erratically to present a bad target, but she was looking up ahead. The heavy chain-link gate that separated the complex from the rest of the jungle was closed, and they all knew the whole fence was electrified.

“Shit!” Ocelot snarled. He knew they couldn’t just plow through, not without risking electrocution. But if they levitated over they would lose their vehicles, and he doubted the students would make it very far on foot. He glanced quickly over at Stone, hoping the mage had an idea. He—

“Get down!” Kestrel ordered. Then, suddenly, a high-pitched whine split the air, the gate was gone, and the air was full of deadly flying shrapnel. “Yes!” Kestrel whooped, raising the ultrasound gun into the air in exultation as two more of the unsuspecting guards were cut down by pieces of fence moving at high speed. The two jeeps screamed out of the complex and down the barely visible, already overgrown road leading away.

As they plunged into the jungle Stone risked a look back over his shoulder, and thus he was the only one of their group to see the two massive forms—one glittering gold, one rainbow-hued and feathered—locked in combat high above their heads. He wasn’t a praying man, but as the vegetation loomed once again and obscured his view, he uttered a short plea to whatever gods that might be listening that he had been right about Gabriel’s chances.

He didn’t have long to consider his plea, though, for suddenly there was a screeching ahead of them and Ocelot was slamming on the jeep’s brakes so hard its back end slewed around and almost caused them to spin out. “What the—?”

And then he saw it. Rising up not ten meters in front of them was what looked like an animated writhing mass of vines and vegetation. It was blocking the road, which at the moment was the least of their worries. It was also coming closer.

Kestrel hadn’t had as much warning and her jeep had spun out fully, crashing into the thick growth on one side of the faint road. Her vehicle was on its side, but already she and the two terrified students were crawling free of it and scrambling to use it for cover. “‘Hawk—” Ocelot yelled, his tone suggesting the leading edge of fear, “—what the hell is that thing?”

“Jungle spirit, most likely,” the mage said quickly, feeling his heart thundering in his chest. Just when we thought we were safe—will we ever be safe again? “And a damned big one, too!”

The spirit wasn’t idle while they speculated about its nature. Making a deep, primal rumbling sound in the back of whatever passed for its throat, it moved with obscene ease through the tangled mat of vines that made up the jungle floor. It didn’t have a face, but it paused for a moment as if peering back and forth between the two groups of potential opponents, gauging which to attack first. Then it struck out with ropy tentacles, snatching up the jeep behind which Kestrel and the students hid and flinging it toward Ocelot and Stone. The two barely ducked out of the way fast enough and the jeep sailed past them to crash into the unseen dimness.

“Where did it come from?” Ocelot demanded without taking his eyes off the thing. “You said they didn’t have magic.”

“They have a bloody dragon!” Stone yelled back indignantly. “Now they have magic!”

“Fucking great!” Ocelot was already going for his monowhip. “Can you fight it?”

“A spirit probably summoned by a dragon. Sure. No problem! I do it every day before breakfast!” Stone’s sarcastic tone did nothing to hide his growing fear.

The spirit had apparently sensed Stone’s magical nature and thus considered him a prime target. With a roar it rose up and flung itself in their direction, tentacles waving.

“Get down!” came a voice from behind them: Kestrel’s. Ocelot barely got a glance at her leaping to the top of the overturned jeep and bringing the ultrasonic gun around before the spirit was blocking his view again. “Let’s see what he thinks of a snootful of this!” she called savagely.

Ocelot dived at Stone, dragging them both down and to the side as the spirit lunged past. He expected to see the thing explode in a hail of tossed salad any second now, just as soon as Kestrel could—

Nothing happened. The spirit swung back toward them, unharmed, whipping its tentacles in a most malevolent fashion.

“Damn this piece of junk!” Kestrel screamed. She ripped the backpack from her back and flung it aside along with the Ares weapon, drawing her assault rifle in its place.

Ocelot didn’t ask what had gone wrong. There wasn’t time. Instead he leaped from behind cover and slashed at the huge spirit with his monowhip, and was rewarded by a wet scream as several of the lashing tentacles were sliced free. “Eat that, asshole! ‘he yelled. “‘Hawk—little help here!”

Stone was already in action. He had backed off a bit and was now making his way back over to where Merriwether and Hsu crouched behind trees on the other side of the road. Kestrel had her assault rifle on full auto mode and was spraying the spirit to little avail: the thing was just too strong to be much affected by even powerful firearms. Ocelot had a better chance with the monowhip. “Hsu! Merriwether! Are you with me?” Stone called.

They both looked at him with eyes that were still full of terror, but they were clearer now than they had been. The drugs were wearing off at last. “What—?” Hsu stammered. Behind Stone, the spirit screamed again as Ocelot lopped off another of its many limbs, and then there was a grunt of pain as it connected with one of its own attacks.

Stone didn’t have time to mollycoddle the students. “Hsu! Hit it with a stun spell! Now!” he barked. “Merriwether—you’re with me! Astral!”

He didn’t wait to see if they would respond, but instead flung himself against the far side of a heavy tree and launched his consciousness into the astral. Yes, it was dangerous, but right now the spirit was more dangerous. The transition was wrenching—he knew his fading strength wasn’t going to hold for much longer and he was running on the astral equivalent of adrenaline. I hope Gabriel takes care of him before he sends any more of the damned things after us—I’ve got my doubts we can handle this one.

After a second of disorientation he spun around to face the spirit. The thing was huge and alive and potent—he could see by the areas leaking glowing life-force that Ocelot had hurt it with his monowhip, but he hadn’t slowed it down enough. Immediately it lost interest in the mundane hacking away at it and turned to face the bright pulsing form of Stone’s astral body. Stone began forming the beginnings of a banishing, hoping he’d have the power to do it. At best he could keep it occupied while Ocelot continued to assault it back on the material plane. Where the hell is Merriwether?

And then she was there next to him. Her astral form looked like some kind of archetypal earth-mother in a flowing gown and long braided hair held in place by a circlet of flowers. She glowed with the brightness of someone who had not had cybernetic enhancement, but her aura was dulled from the drugs and flaring from fear. “Dr. Stone—”

Stone spoke through gritted teeth, fighting to keep his concentration focused on the patterns he was forming. “Keep an eye on the area,” he ordered. “If anything attacks—deal with it.”

“How am I supposed to—?”

“I don’t care, Merriwether!” His voice came out harsher than he wanted—the pattern had almost slipped when he had to duck out of the way of one of the spirit’s wayward attacks. “Just do it!”

Her aura flared indignation for a moment, but then she got a good look at him and she nodded. “Okay—I’m here. You do what you have to do.”

Thus assured (but not terribly reassured), Stone promptly ignored Merriwether and returned all of his concentration to the task at hand. He knew he didn’t have a prayer of banishing this spirit—it was simply too powerful. At the height of physical condition and magical power he might hav e had a chance. Now, injured, exhausted, and drained, he knew the best he could hope for was to distract it, to deflect its attacks and keep it occupied long enough for Ocelot to take it out by mundane means. He hoped Hsu could do something—even a stun spell would be useful if the student could get it through the spirit’s defenses. And Kestrel—she must have a hand weapon somewhere. The woman bristled with as many deadly toys as Ocelot did. If only—

The spirit swayed as something hit it. “Yes!” Stone grinned to himself as he realized it was a spell: Hsu had come through after all!

It wasn’t enough, though. Hsu’s spell had helped but the student simply didn’t have enough magical punch to do significant damage to something this big and powerful. The spirit shrugged off the attack, shook its tentacles in a most disgustingly humanlike fashion, then waded forward again toward Stone.

That was it: at that moment he decided to risk an offensive spell of his own. The more he could reduce its power, the easier it would be for Ocelot to deal with it back on the material. He drew back, gathered energies, and let loose with one of his most powerful magical attacks.

It hit, but he barely saw it. His vision exploded with bright pinpoints of light, his head swimming with sudden gray clouds dancing in his brain. He heard the scream and saw vague glimpses of something flaring around the spirit, and then he was falling. This is it, then—

Something—somebody—caught him as he fell backward. “I’ve got you, Dr. Stone!” came a breathless, frightened but nonetheless resolute voice. Merriwether.

He struggled to get back to his feet. “I’m all right—” His voice came out slurred and muddy. “I—we have to—”

There was another scream, this one louder than any of the previous ones. Stone’s head snapped up almost involuntarily, and he could feel Merriwether stiffen in fear—but the spirit wasn’t going after them. If anything, it seemed smaller, its tentacles flinging around, writhing, reaching for anything it could grab. Stone felt Merriwether’s strong hands dragging him back out of its reach. “Let’s go back,” she urged. “It’s smaller—it’s dying—”

“Go,” Stone urged her. “I’ll follow—”

She winked out. A moment later, so did he. They didn’t get to see the spirit flare up in a final death-throe as Ocelot dealt it a final blow with his monowhip and sent it back to whatever metaplane from which it had originated.

The moment his consciousness slammed back into his body, Stone wished he had remained astral. His head pounded, throbbing like someone was hitting it with a sledgehammer. His vision hadn’t cleared, and he first felt and then tasted blood trickling from his nostrils. The drain from all the spellcasting had finally caught up with him. He blinked, disoriented.

“‘Hawk!” Somebody was hauling him up—no, two somebodies, one on each side. Ocelot and Merriwether. “Come on—we have to get out before that thing sends another spirit after us!”

He felt himself dragged over and dumped into the back of the remaining jeep. Kestrel leaped into the driver’s seat and the students scrambled in next to Stone. For a moment Ocelot wasn’t visible—he’d run off into the jungle. Stone was about to say something when he returned, carrying something heavy in his arms as he ran. He dropped it into the back of the jeep next to Stone and the two students, who could then see what it was: a spare battery pack for the vehicle, no doubt salvaged from its unfortunate counterpart.

“Go!” Ocelot yelled, swinging himself into the passenger seat. As he did, Stone got a good look at him: his shirt was ripped and there was a bloody welt across his chest and arm. Stone, running on autopilot mode now, struggled to get forward toward his teammate, but someone shoved him gently back down.

It was Merriwether. “Stay there, Dr. Stone,” she told him firmly. She seemed a lot more in control of herself now than she had been. “I’ll help him. You rest.”

He nodded, only too happy to comply. Settling back against the back of Kestrel’s seat, he closed his eyes. If he could just rest for a few minutes while they got out—

He didn’t even feel himself slipping away as the swirling gray mists finally took him.

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