When Stone came to, they were still moving, but slowly. Overhead the canopy of vines and jungle flora crawled by, making it look like the jeep was jouncing its way through a long green-clad tunnel. He raised his head a little, pleased that the headache seemed to have downgraded itself from ‘sledgehammer’ to ‘several small animals tapdancing, and not quite in unison.’ Still unpleasant, but not enough to render him nonfunctional. “What—?” he began.

Ocelot turned in his seat. “Ah, you’re back. You okay?” He carried an assault rifle cradled in his lap, pointing outward, but didn’t seem to have more than his usual level of tenseness. The portable GPS unit had been restored to its place in the jeep’s dash.

Stone nodded. “I will be,” he rasped. He looked around: Kestrel was still concentrating on driving, and Hsu and Merriwether sat silently in the back with him, watching the scenery. “Where are we?”

“Almost there,” Kestrel told him. “Maybe another half-hour or so back to where we left the others.” She sounded distracted.

Stone immediately knew why. “What about Gabriel?” he asked hesitantly.

“We haven’t seen him since—back at the installation,” Ocelot said before Kestrel could answer. “We figure he’s waiting for us at the river.”

Kestrel tensed, and Stone could see she didn’t believe that at all, but she said nothing. He turned to the students. “Nice job back there,” he told them, and meant it. “I doubt we could have handled that thing without your help.”

Hsu nodded slowly. He still looked shellshocked by the whole business. “Glad—we could do it. But I do hope we don’t have to fight another of those things.”

“Me too,” Merriwether said. “I’ve never seen a spirit that big.” Her eyes got wise as she made a connection. “That—back there—that was a dragon, wasn’t it?”

Stone nodded. “Feathered serpent, actually,” he corrected. “South American variant.”

She let her breath out slowly. “And your friend—Gabriel—do you think he was able to fight it?”

“It ain’t after us, is it?” Ocelot said from the front. “I’d say if it had taken Gabriel out, it would be after us next. That didn’t happen.”

Hsu shook his head in amazement. “You said he was a good mage, but—one guy taking on a dragon? I don’t know...”

“He can handle it,” Kestrel said, her tone a little dull. “At least—I hope he can.”

“I don’t understand,” Merriwether said. “What was a dra—a feathered serpent doing there? If we were in his territory, wouldn’t he have come after us a lot sooner?”

“Wanna know my guess?” Ocelot said.

“Go right ahead,” Stone said, settling back again. He still didn’t feel up to sitting upright.

“I think it’s behind that installation.”

Hsu’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Think about it,” Ocelot said. “Here’s a secret testing facility out in the middle of the Amazonian jungle. They couldn’t just build it out here without somebody finding out, which meant they had to have permission. Maybe the wizworm was bankrolling the operation.”

“But why?” Stone asked. “What would a feathered serpent want with an experimental ultrasonic gun? Well, aside from the monetary gain, of course. We can’t discount that.”

“I wonder...” Kestrel mused. When everybody turned to look at her, she went on as if talking to herself: “I wonder if this doesn’t have something to do with the civil uprisings in the Yucatan.”

“You mean...the serpent’s financing weapons that can be used by the rebels?” Ocelot asked.

“Or the Azzies,” Kestrel said, nodding. “Who knows which side it’s on.”

“But if it was Aztlan, wouldn’t we have found an Aztechnology facility out here?” Stone asked.

“Who knows?” Kestrel said. “Corporate politics makes for some pretty strange bedfellows. We’ll probably never know for sure.”

“That’s okay with me,” Hsu said. “I don’t care, as long as we get out of here alive.”

Apparently nothing wanted to mess with something as large as the jeep, because although they saw numerous snakes, birds, and a few things even larger, none of these approached them as they continued to pick their slow way through the jungle. Everyone settled back to rest and consider his or her own thoughts until at last Kestrel glanced over at the GPS. “We’re close. I think I caught a glimpse of the river up there through the trees.”

“Do you remember where we left the rest of the group?” Stone asked, looking around.

“Should be right—” Kestrel pointed off to the left, cutting off as someone rose from behind a tree. Her hand went to her gun, but she lowered it (as did Ocelot) when they saw that it was Kevin Frasier.

Then they were surrounded: Frasier, Kane, and Dr. Whittaker all emerged from their cover and hurried over. “You made it!” Frasier cried, grinning as he saw that the two prisoners were with them, alive, and seemingly as well as could be expected. “You did it!”

Whittaker, forgetting propriety and his usual reserve, pulled first Merriwether, then Hsu into a bear hug. “Oh, thank God,” he moaned. “Now we can get out of here, go home—”

“Where’s your friend?” Frasier asked suddenly. “Gabriel?” He looked around, expecting to see him approaching in another jeep.

“He’s not with you?” Ocelot demanded, also looking around in a similar fashion, except this time at the area where the group had been hiding.

Kane shook her head. “We haven’t seen him since you all left. Did you get separated?”

Kestrel nodded slowly. “Yeah. We—got separated.” With a bleak look she turned her gaze back in the direction from which they had come. “Ocelot, do you think he—”

“I think he’s fine.” Ocelot’s voice was firm. “Let’s just wait and see for awhile, okay?”

The others were talking among themselves, and in a moment Whittaker’s voice rose in astonished terror: “A dragon?

“Don’t worry about it, Prof,” Ocelot told him. “It was handled.”

Maybe it was handled,” Hsu muttered. “I know you have confidence in your friend, but do you really think he could fight a dragon?”

“Damn straight I do,” Kestrel growled.

Whittaker took a deep breath. “I—uh—do hate to say this, but—well—how long are we going to wait? What if—well—” His words dropped off in uncertainty.

“What if he doesn’t come back?” Ocelot finished for him.

“He’s coming back,” Kestrel insisted, glaring at Whittaker. “And we’re going to wait for him. If he doesn’t come back by tomorrow morning, I’m going back after him.”

“Kestrel—” Ocelot began.

“Don’t even start, Ocelot!” She redirected her glare on him with the speed of a snake. “There’s no way I’m going to leave here without knowing what happened to him. You and the rest of the group can go back, but I’m not.”

Stone moved unsteadily over to them. “Kestrel, Ocelot, please—let’s not get into it now, after all we’ve been through. I don’t think it will hurt for us to remain here for awhile waiting for Gabriel’s return. It’s unlikely the remainder of the force from the installation will come after us this far, and we’ve proven we can handle ourselves out here. But at some point we’re going to have to make a decision.”

Kestrel nodded. “Yeah...” she mumbled. “I know. But not yet, okay? Not yet...”

Whittaker didn’t seem to care for the idea of remaining there any longer than necessary, but it was equally clear that his rescuers weren’t inclined to leave one of their number behind, and the students were firmly in the rescuers’ camp. Keeping a close eye on the river and anything that might be approaching from that direction, they settled down to wait. In truth, many of them (particularly those who had been on the expedition to rescue the prisoners, and the prisoners themselves) were grateful for the opportunity to rest for awhile. Stone went down to the river and washed the blood from his face, then fashioned a pillow out of a pack he borrowed from Kestrel and lay down against a tree, letting himself relax voluntarily for the first time in days. The small animals had almost finished their tap-dance number, which was a relief. Aside from bone-numbing exhaustion, he was beginning to feel vaguely human again.

Two hours passed. The temperature rose along with the humidity, and spells of brief rain soaked them to the skins. Ocelot pulled out his comm unit and tried to get a signal, but they were too far away from civilization, and besides, the battery was all but dead. One by one the others showed signs of restlessness, pacing around the riverbank and trying to find things to keep them occupied. Finally Kane sighed, but said nothing.

“You want to go home, don’t you, Ms. Kane?” Stone asked gently, coming up behind her and looking out over the river.

“Of course I do,” she said. “Don’t we all? But I know we can’t leave somebody behind. I just wish we knew something.” She paused, then turned to look at him. “Dr. Stone, did he have a chance? Was it really a dragon? Because if it was, don’t we have to face the fact that maybe—” She trailed off.

“It was really a dragon,” he told her. “A dracoform, at any rate. And you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you that I’m confident that Gabriel was able to deal with it. I can’t say more than that, but I know what I’m talking about.”

“He does,” Frasier said, approaching from the other side. He grinned a little at Stone. “I’ve learned that over the last few days—he might sound like he’s barking mad, but he hasn’t steered us wrong yet.”

“Thank you for that vote of confidence, Mr. Frasier,” Stone said dryly.

Kane sighed. “I do hope you’re right,” she said, moving off. “We’ve lost so many already...”

When she was gone, Frasier stood next to Stone and looked at the river. “He’s more than he seems too, isn’t he?” he asked suddenly.


“Your friend. Gabriel.”

Stone shrugged. “Aren’t we all? I think we’ve learned that on this little trip, if nothing else.”

Frasier was about to answer when there was a rustling in the trees behind them. Immediately everyone was on the alert: Ocelot and Kestrel readied their guns while everyone else stood at stiff readiness and waited.

The trees parted and a figure emerged. It was Gabriel. He looked around at everyone staring in astonishment back at him and smiled a little. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. “Did I miss anything?”

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