27. - Epilogue 2

It was the sort of beautiful day that is rarely found outside areas where few people ever get to see them. The only thing marring the silence of the pristine, cloudless blue sky was the faint chup-chup-chup of helicopter blades as the small craft approached its landing spot.

Inside, the two occupants of the passenger compartment paid no attention to the pilot, who was going about his business with discreet efficiency. They sat in companionable quiet, looking out their respective windows at the grandeur of the mountain scene spread out below them.

“So,” said Alastair Stone at last, “Are you ready for this?”

“No,” said Ocelot without looking at him. After a moment, he added, “But I’m not ready to miss it, either.”

Stone nodded and subsided back into silence for awhile, gazing back out the window. “Have you talked to them since—?”

Ocelot shook his head. “No. She sent me a couple of messages through encrypted sources—probably Gabriel’s deckers had something to do with it. But nothing other than that. Not until—”

Stone nodded again. He too had gotten the invitation two days ago—cryptic enough that any prying eyes wouldn’t be able to make sense of it, but clear enough that he himself had no trouble figuring out its purpose.

It was time, and they were invited to be part of the event.

With one exception, it was the first time he and Ocelot had seen each other in eight months when they met there at the tiny airport where the small, state-of-the-art ‘copter was waiting to whisk them off to the a place deep within the Algonkian-Manitou lands. They had looked each other over like a couple of cats, neither quite sure what to say to the other. It hadn’t been long, though, before their old ways had taken over once again and they were hashing over the past few months like they hadn’t been apart. Stone had noticed immediately that Ocelot seemed more on edge than usual, but he knew the reason why and didn’t bring it up. He was well aware of how hard this was for his friend.

A lot had changed in eight months. The eerie dreams had finally faded to rare vestigial mini-nightmares that barely fazed him any longer. He had thrown himself into his work, taking on almost the courseload of a full-time University professor but remaining firmly in his comfortable world of classes, study, weekly pub crawls, and early-morning runs around the Manor’s grounds. He hadn’t taken any jobs in his “other life” and hadn’t expressed any interest in any more trips abroad. For his part, Rodney Leifeld had done exactly what he’d said he would do: he had supported Stone, worked to clear the remaining paperwork and bureaucratic hurdles resulting from the tragic trip, and been a welcome presence, along with Aubrey, when Stone needed someone to talk to. He was grateful to both of them for it.

“How’s Cynthia?” Ocelot asked, swiveling around in his seat.

As always happened when anyone mentioned that particular topic, Stone smiled, his whole face brightening. “She’s well. Very well.”

“She settling in?”

“As much as she ever settles anywhere,” he said fondly. “She’s in Paris now, unveiling her autumn collection.”

Ocelot shook his head in amused amazement. “Man, if anybody had ever told me a year ago that you two—”

“Tell me about it,” Stone said, still smiling. “I still pinch myself occasionally to make sure I’m not dreaming, and it’s been three months now.”

“Life’s funny sometimes, that’s for damned sure.” He looked out through the helicopter’s front window. “Speaking of that, it looks like we’re getting close.”

They were. Stone and Ocelot were quiet again, watching as the pilot skillfully brought the ‘copter down and perched it neatly on a narrow ledge that hadn’t appeared to have been there only seconds earlier. They could see a figure standing there waiting for them. Getting out, they waved thanks to the pilot, who immediately fired up the helicopter again and took off over the craggy peaks. Stone wondered if Ocelot knew they had been flown in by a spirit, but decided not to bring it up.

The figure on the ledge approached, and they saw immediately that it wasn’t Gabriel. It was mostly humanoid, looking like a man-shaped form hewn from the rough stone of the caverns. “If you will follow me,” it said, its gravelly voice deferential, “I will take you to the master. He apologizes for not being here personally, but he is in the midst of a delicate magical technique that cannot currently be interrupted.”

Stone and Ocelot both tensed. “We’re not—too late, are we?” Ocelot asked.

“Too late?”

“The—baby isn’t here yet?” He seemed oddly disturbed by the thought, despite his clear misgivings on the subject.

“No, sir.” The weird thing about elementals was that their tones never changed. “Merely preparation.”

Thus reassured, Ocelot and Stone followed the elemental. It disappeared into what looked like solid stone, and they followed it without hesitation. Neither of them had ever been inside Gabriel’s lair before, but both remembered a similar instance almost a year ago when Kestrel had done the same thing. The effect was odd but over quickly: they emerged into a large brightly lit cavern. Apparently the illusion that covered this entrance only worked in one direction.

The elemental turned to face them, and as it did it held out its arms and formed a large platform between them. “It will be faster if you will allow me to convey you,” it said. “We have some distance to travel.”

Ocelot looked at Stone, who shrugged and climbed onto the platform. After a moment he did likewise. He doubted this would be the weirdest thing he would see today.

Once its passengers were safely seated, the elemental started moving. Its speed increased significantly until it was moving with ease through the halls of the lair at a very healthy pace. Ocelot and Stone could only hold on and watch the walls and occasional openings flash by. “This place must be huge,” Ocelot muttered under his breath at one point.

They kept moving, passing through open caverns, along narrow ledges, and next to beaches bordering a vast network of underground lakes and rivers. It was about twenty minutes by Stone’s chrono when the elemental finally slowed and then stopped. It set them gently on their feet and resumed its humanoid shape. “The master and the lady are beyond in that cavern,” it told them. “They await you.” Its service thus discharged, it melted down into the rock floor and disappeared.

“Okay...” Ocelot said, letting his breath out. “Let’s do this.” He moved toward the opening to the cavern the elemental had indicated, and Stone followed him.

They didn’t know what they expected to see, but whatever it was this wasn’t it. They both stopped and stared into the room. “Uh—” Ocelot finally got out.

The cavern looked more like a room than a chamber hewn from living stone. It was lit by what looked like natural sunlight streaming in from a window in the far wall, even though Stone and Ocelot both knew they were deep underground now. In the center of the room was a large, comfortable looking bed; on the far side was a large trideo unit flanked by a state-of-the-art stereo system. Unseen speakers were piping what Ocelot knew to be one of the mellower of Kestrel’s favorite bands into the room. Kestrel herself lay in the bed, a heavy comforter pulled up around her chin. She was smiling. The only indication that she was to be giving birth any time now was the obvious bulge of her abdomen rising under the comforter. She certainly didn’t look like she was in any kind of distress. “Hi, guys,” she said. “Not quite what you expected, is it? C’mon in.”

They didn’t move. Currently neither of them were looking at her: instead, their attention was fixed on Gabriel, who was crouched down next to the bed, deep in concentration. Around him on the floor, extending out several meters and completely surrounding the bed, was an intricate magical circle which glowed faintly even against the illusionary sunlight. He appeared to be putting the finishing touches on something—as he finished, the one part of the construct that wasn’t glowing began to do so. He stood then, swiping his hair off his forehead, and smiled at them. He didn’t look tired as they might expect; in fact, he looked even more radiantly happy than Kestrel did. “Welcome,” he said. “Forgive me for not meeting you at the entrance, but I had to finish this before the baby arrived.”

“Uh...sure,” Ocelot said, uncertain. He was still looking at Kestrel, his expression unreadable.

“What is that, exactly?” Stone asked, professional curiosity finally breaking through his surprise.

“This?” Gabriel indicated the circle, picking his way over it with care to stand next to Kestrel’s bed. “It’s a small enchantment—mostly designed to ensure that Juliana feels no pain during the birth process, but it’s also the first step in the larger enchantment I’ll need to set up after the child is born.”

Stone grinned. “You know, Gabriel, from what I understand you could make a fortune as an obstetrician if you can pull that off.”

“It’s simple, really,” Gabriel said with a shrug. “It’s just a matter of tricking the body into believing that it isn’t feeling pain. I’ll be monitoring the process throughout the birth to make sure that nothing goes wrong, but so far everything seems to be progressing normally.”

From the bed, Kestrel’s eyes twinkled. “I told him that some women get off on that whole pain experience of birth—shared sisterhood or something. I am not one of those women.”

“How do you feel?” Ocelot asked, moving closer but stopping short of the circle.

Gabriel waved him forward. “You can come in—just don’t step on the lines. I left walkways.”

“How considerate,” Ocelot muttered, but he looked more amused than annoyed—that is, the part of him that wasn’t still looking overwhelmed. He did move in closer, though.

Kestrel shrugged. “I feel pretty good, all things considered. Gabriel sure kept his word—I wasn’t bored for the last eight months here. I had every toy I could possibly want, and if I wanted something that wasn’t here, he brought it in.” She pointed to her datajack. “You should see some of the sculpted systems he had access to. I’ve taken more vacations in the last few months than I have in the last few years.” She looked up at him. “I’ve missed you guys, though. I’m really glad I got to get out of here for a couple of days so I could attend the wedding. I’d have hated to miss it.”

“So—” Ocelot said, still sounding like he was walking through a minefield, “—uh—how long before—?”

“Not long now,” she said. “I can feel him moving around in there. I think if Gabriel wasn’t working his magic on me, I’d probably be feeling some pretty painful contractions by now.”

Gabriel nodded, confirming this.

“Have you—figured out who will—?” Ocelot let it trail off. The conversation he and Kestrel had had with Harry had gone easier than they had expected, but it had still been hard on both of them. To Ocelot’s immense surprise, Harry had not asked questions about the situation, and hadn’t even charged them anything for his services. Furthermore, and even more surprising, he hadn’t showed much amazement at Kestrel’s unexpected pregnancy. As far as either of them could determine, there was no suspicion in the fixer at all: he had believed their story and acted accordingly. He promised to find a suitable couple to adopt the child, and to make all the arrangements in secret so neither side knew the details of the other side. It was all either of them could ask.

Gabriel smiled a little. “I know. Juliana does not. She says she doesn’t want to know—that it will endanger the child should anyone become suspicious.”

“Plus it’ll be easier that way,” she said, for the first time looking a little uncomfortable. “Making a clean break is always easier than dragging things out.” She shifted position under the comforter, gritting her teeth a little.

Gabriel was immediately attentive. He glanced up at Stone and Ocelot, indicating a couple of comfortable looking chairs on the other side of the room. “I think it’s time. You can sit over there—through that doorway you can find food and drink, and if there is anything in particular you want, call for Kri and he will get it for you.” He looked down at Kestrel, his expression growing a bit more intense. “I’ll have to ask you to excuse me now, though—I believe I’m needed here.”

The two men exchanged glances with each other and with Kestrel (who gave them a thumbs-up signal and a gritted-teeth grin) and then moved off as directed. They both looked nervous—both of them pointedly avoided the world occupied by things like birth and children, and actively shied away from any knowledge about the subjects. This was a black box to both of them. As much as they both wanted to support Kestrel, they knew they were more useful right where they were—out of the way.

Things moved quickly after that, and any trideo dramas Ocelot and Stone might have chanced to see about the birth process didn’t prepare them for what they saw. Gabriel no longer paid them any attention: his entire focus was on Kestrel. He had done something to the air around the bed that simulated a gauzy curtain surrounding it—Ocelot grudgingly admired the fact that even in the midst of all this, Gabriel was still being considerate to both Kestrel (who doubtless didn’t want the observers seeing everything) and to him and Stone, who didn’t really want to see everything. Gabriel kept up a low, comforting commentary to Kestrel throughout the process, using his magical abilities to give her pinpoint updates on what was going on. It was all so calm and orderly that when after an hour or so he finally said, “All right—I can see the top of his head now—” Ocelot had to give Stone a prod in the arm to wake him from the light doze he had fallen into. The two of them leaned forward in their chairs, watching the fuzzed outlines with growing tense interest and anticipation.

A few minutes later Gabriel stepped back from the bed, holding something in his hand. There was a sharp smack and then the sound of a high, keening wail. “Yes!” came Kestrel’s triumphant voice from behind the veil.

Ocelot and Stone, caught up in the moment in spite of themselves, grinned at each other in relief. Both of them, far back in their minds where they wouldn’t admit it to anyone (including themselves), had harbored the persistent fear that something was going to go wrong. Now that it hadn’t, they could relax.

Gabriel dropped the comforter back over Kestrel and then dropped the veil, leaning forward to put the squalling child into her arms. He rose and faced Stone and Ocelot, his bright violet eyes shining. “Gentlemen—it’s a boy.”

Stone was about to say something at least somewhat appropriate when there was a gasp from the bed. Everyone immediately wheeled around to face Kestrel, the two onlookers with fear jumping to their eyes. Could their concerns have been correct after all?

Kestrel didn’t look distressed, though—just surprised. She was staring at the baby with a mixture of wonderment and shock. “He—”

Ocelot bounded over there, ignoring the circle, but Gabriel was already there first. “What?” Ocelot demanded.

She looked up at him, then indicated the little reddish bundle in her arms. “Look—look at his eyes.” To Gabriel, she added, “I guess we know what his ‘feature’ is now...”

Ocelot didn’t have any idea what she was talking about, so he stood there in confusion and waited for the baby to open his eyes again. Stone joined him, curiosity once more overshadowing his discomfort with the situation.

It didn’t take long. The newborn rooted around, clenched his fists, let out another long wail, and then opened his eyes. Stone and Ocelot stared. “Uh—” Ocelot began.

“Uh—” Stone agreed.

The baby, oblivious to the excitement, only began crying again, squeezing his eyes—his solid violet eyes with the slitted pupils of a dragon—tightly shut in the effort.

“All right,” Gabriel said at last, appearing in the doorway of the comfortable cavern where Kestrel, Ocelot, and Stone waited. “I’m ready.”

Three days had passed since the baby’s birth, and none of them had seen Gabriel more than a few minutes during that time. Instead, Kestrel had spent her time attending to the baby with the help of a couple of Gabriel’s on-call spirits and the various how-to trids she had absorbed during her eight months in the lair, and Stone and Ocelot had spent their time keeping Kestrel company and doing their polite best to avoid any sort of baby-tending duties. She hadn’t minded—in fact, she was feeling rather proprietary toward the small bundle who, once he’d been cleaned up and dressed, turned out to have fair skin, wispy blond hair, and an inquisitive manner that reminded his mother very much of his father. It didn’t take her long to get used to the eyes—after all, she’d seen dozens of people with cybereyes every bit as odd (including Ocelot’s ice blue cat eyes) and thought nothing of it. The baby’s were remarkable only in that he was so young.

She had consciously made an effort to refer to him only as “Baby,” “the little guy,” “Junior,” or other terms of similar vague endearment, and no one had asked her why she hadn’t picked a name for him. They knew. It would just be harder to give him up if she named him. Ocelot privately wondered if she was going to be able to do it. He was about to finally give voice to this concern when Gabriel made his announcement.

They all rose. Kestrel had explained to Stone and Ocelot that Gabriel had been preparing an extremely complicated ritual designed to disguise the baby’s nature from anything but the direct scrutiny of a more powerful Great Dragon. Because the ritual’s effects would have to last many years and grow with the child, the preparation for it was long and arduous. Gabriel had apologized at the beginning for his absence, but told them that his complete concentration was vital to success. He had given them the run of the lair and promised to return as soon as possible.

“The ritual’s ready?” Stone asked.

Gabriel nodded. He looked tired but satisfied. “Yes. If you’ll all follow me, we’ll begin.”

He led them down a series of stone hallways that Stone would have sworn had not been there the day before (more illusions, he decided) and stopped in front of a stout wooden door. Swinging the door open, he motioned for them to precede him into the chamber beyond. In Kestrel’s arms, the baby fussed quietly: even he seemed to sense that something big was to come.

They entered the chamber—and stopped, all three staring wide-eyed and slack-jawed at what surrounded them. Gabriel had to gently push his way past them to get inside. “It’s a bit more complex than anything I’ve ever done before,” he admitted. “I’ve taken into account as many possible eventualities I could foresee, which I hope means that the child will suffer no undue scrutiny during his life. It—” he broke off, realizing that no one was listening to him. They continued to simply stare.

The chamber was black. The velvety black of a moonless night surrounded them on all sides: walls, floor, ceiling. On every inch of every surface, shining in faint blue all around them, were signs, drawings, and sigils, held together by intricate lines and writing in some language none of them even had a frame of reference for. Though faint, the tracings provided enough light for them to see by, illuminating them in eldrich backlighting. The effect, especially after Gabriel silently shut the door behind them, was that they were floating in some vast, endlessly dark space.

“Wow...” Kestrel finally breathed. The baby in her arms gurgled and pulled impatiently at his blanket, then began to cry softly.

“Wow indeed...” Stone was looking around with a professional eye. He could no more make sense of the writings and images than his companions could, but he could sense the sheer power behind them. He had no doubt that this was a ritual strong enough to hold off the scrutiny of most of the world’s most potent beings.

Ocelot took a step forward, noting the small raised stone platform in the center of the room. Carved from its top was a cradle, and inside the cradle were a number of small, soft pillows. Next to it were placed what looked like several stone cups and a long, narrow knife made from a material Ocelot didn’t recognize. Although it was black, it was a different sort of blackness from the room. Somehow, though it shouldn’t have been possible for it to do so, it too glowed.

Gabriel let them take it all in for a few moments, then said softly, “Shall we begin?” He held out his arms for the baby.

Kestrel had spotted what Ocelot had seen moments before. “Gabriel—what’s the knife for? And the cups?”

Gabriel took a deep breath. “The ritual I will perform here is very powerful and very old. Part of the time I have spent away from you was in study, to ensure that I have all the details correct and have not missed anything. It is imperative that it be done correctly the first time—there will be no second chance. The knife is part of the ritual, which requires symbolic life force from its participants.”

“You’re going to take blood from the baby?” Kestrel drew back with him involuntarily.

“Just a few drops, Juliana.” Gabriel’s voice was soothing, his eyes clear. “From him, from you, from myself—and from Ocelot.”

“Me?” Ocelot demanded, surprised.

“We want to present the charade that you are the baby’s father, do we not? By adding your life force to the ritual, we will be able to fool any but the most exacting scans anyone might perform on the child.”

“Like blood tests and such,” Winterhawk said.

“Yes, and magical examinations. It won’t withstand a full DNA scan or an aura analysis by a strong magician, but such things are rare—we shall have to hope that he won’t do anything requiring them until we’re able to tell him of his true nature.”

Kestrel was still trying to get around the blood. She looked at him, confused. “You mean, we’re going to tell him? But—”

“Eventually,” Gabriel said. “When he grows to adulthood, he has a right to know. What we are doing here today is meant simply to allow him to have a safe—and normal—childhood.”

She nodded slowly. Somewhere in the back of her mind she had known they would have to tell him someday. A bit perversely, the thought comforted her. “Okay...” she said after a moment. She let her breath out. “I trust you, Gabriel. I know you won’t hurt him.” Even so, it was with some reluctance that she handed the small, blanket-wrapped bundle over to the young man.

Gabriel took the baby and laid him gently in the stone cradle, arranging the pillows and blankets around him with care. He tool several moments at this, and when he looked up at them again, there was something odd in his eyes. “There is something else,” he said at last.

“What?” Ocelot asked, moving in closer.

Gabriel’s gaze met each of the others’ in turn. “While preparing this ritual, I have built another component into it. Something I want to offer to you all, in gratitude for everything you have done for me in—recent events.” He paused, then spoke again before any of them could say anything. “It is purely voluntary, I assure you, and refusing will not affect the primary ritual in any way. But I hope that you will accept. It is the least I can give you for all you have done.”

Kestrel tilted her head. “What is it, Gabriel? What are you talking about?” The others looked equally confused.

Gabriel smiled a little. “What I am doing here with the child violates dragon law—his very existence violates it, as you know. What I offer you does not, though it somewhat frowned upon in this Age. It is offered rarely and never lightly.” He indicated the cups and the knife. “The child, as a dragonkin, will be all but immortal, carrying the blood of the dragons from which he is descended. I cannot offer you that same immortality, but it is within my power to give you a very limited form of it.”

Stone’s eyes got wide. “What—do you mean?” he asked in a hushed whisper.

“If you desire it,” Gabriel said softly, “I can extend your lifespans. Not significantly—perhaps another twenty to thirty percent over your natural spans—but the beauty of it is that it will slow the aging process to the point where you will remain essentially as you are until the last years of your lives.”

Ocelot stared, hardly daring to believe he’d heard it. “You mean—we wouldn’t get any older? We’d just—stay this way until—” He shook his head. There had to be a catch somewhere. There just had to be.

Gabriel nodded. Seemingly picking up on Ocelot’s concern, he smiled a little. “I assure you, I am capable of doing it. I have been considering it for awhile now, but this ritual gives me the opportunity.”

“What—does it require?” Stone asked, his tone a little shaky.

“From each of you—only a few drops of blood.”

“And from you?” Kestrel met his eyes nervously.

“A—bit more.” He met her eyes.

“What?” Stone demanded. “I sense you’re not telling us the whole story, Gabriel.”

Gabriel sighed. “It is why this is not offered lightly—I cannot lie to you about its nature. Essentially I am offering you all a tiny fraction of my own life force—such a small fraction that I will barely notice its loss. When mixed with each of your life forces and added to an elixir I will create and you—if you choose—will ingest, it brings about the change. It is instant, irrevocable, and does not require any sort of future fortification.”

“Will it hurt you?” Kestrel asked, leaning forward across the small platform to look into his eyes.

“Yes,” he said simply. “But only briefly.” His violet eyes met hers. “Juliana, let me do this. I have no way to repay any of you for what you did for me—for my brother—against the Enemy. This doesn’t begin to repay that, but it is a small gesture I can make. I ask you—all of you—to let me do it.” His normally soft, even voice shook with more emotion than any of them had ever heard from him.

Stone and Ocelot exchanged glances, but neither spoke. Instead, they both looked at Kestrel. Her gaze was still locked on Gabriel.

“Think about it,” he said. “It will give you the chance to see this child grow up, to still be young when he is an adult. If you won’t do it for yourselves, or for me—” He indicated the baby. “Do it for him.”

She looked at the child, then back at him. “Gabriel, I’d never do anything to hurt you—”

“Birth is painful,” he reminded her. He chuckled. “Well, not in your case, but usually it is. Sometimes a little pain is worth enduring for something more valuable. That is how I feel about this. Please, Juliana, I beg of you—let me give you this gift.”

Several minutes dragged out as she remained silent, continuing to alternate her gaze between the child and Gabriel. Tears glittered in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks as she nodded once.

Gabriel smiled and put his hands on her shoulders. “Thank you, my friend.” He turned to Stone and Ocelot. “And you—will you accept my gift as well?”

Ocelot, too, nodded slowly.

“I—would be honored,” Stone murmured, inclining his head.

Gabriel’s smile widened. “Good. Then it’s settled. If you’ll all take your places surrounding the child, we’ll begin the ritual.”

After it was over, Stone found to his surprise that he didn’t remember much about the details of what had transpired. It was a long process, every bit as arduous as Gabriel had described it. The young man stood over his son, intoning incantations in some strange arcane language, tracing intricate patterns over him in the air. Around them, the etched symbols and words on the walls glowed more brightly as the process went on, going from faint blue to a white so brilliant it was almost painful to look at. At one point he picked up the black-bladed knife and traced more patterns with it over the child, then motioned for Kestrel and Ocelot to extend their hands, palm up. Methodically he nicked each palm and allowed a few drops of blood to drip into one of the stone cups. He did the same to his own palm, mixing his blood with theirs, all the while reciting more incantations. A glowing nimbus formed in the cup, extending its radiance a few centimeters above the rim. Then, with utmost gentleness, he likewise nicked the baby’s palm. This time, though, instead of dripping the blood into the cup, he dipped his own finger in it and stirred the contents of the cup. There was a faint whooshing noise and a puff of smoke formed above the cup. His voice grew louder and more insistent, his jaw tightening as the cadence of his words became less of a recitation and more of a song, rhythmic and hypnotic. He dipped his finger in the cup again and when he withdrew it, it was covered in blood and surrounded by what looked like an aura of bright blue. Bending over the child, he drew a symbol on his forehead with the blood.

Gethanian!” he cried, and the walls of the chamber echoed with the word. As the fascinated onlookers watched, the bloody symbol sank into the child’s forehead, disappearing as if it had never been there at all. Gabriel’s shoulders slumped a little, but his eyes never left the child’s face. A moment later, the baby opened his eyes.

They looked like normal human eyes, colored almost the same shade of ice blue as Ocelot’s.

“There...” Gabriel whispered, satisfied. “That was the hard part. Now...my gift.”

He began to chant again, but quieter this time. Stone, standing with Gabriel on one side of him and Ocelot on the other, felt the faint touch of the young man’s mind on his; he didn’t resist it. In a moment he could see Ocelot tense a little as he got the same touch. Kestrel merely smiled.

They knew what he wanted them to do even though he didn’t use any words they could understand. One by one each of them held out his or her hand (in Ocelot’s and Kestrel’s cases, the one they hadn’t offered before) and allowed Gabriel to make a small cut with the knife. He gathered up three more of the stone cups, dripping each participant’s blood separately into one of them. Then his voice spoke in their minds: “I am preparing the elixir, and I will give you your instructions now, in case I am momentarily not able to do so. When the contents of the cup begin to glow, drink. Do not wait too long—the magic is fleeting and the potency does not remain for long. Whatever you might see, do not worry. All will be well. Do you understand?

They all nodded apprehensively. Kestrel, especially, seemed reluctant. “It is all right, Juliana,” came his reassuring voice. “I give you my word all will be well.

This time she nodded with a little more certainty. She smiled at him and once again made no attempt to stop the tears from running down her face.

I treasure you all,” the gentle voice spoke in their minds. “I wish there was more that I can do for you, but even a dragon’s power is limited.

He plunged the knife into his own chest.

Kestrel screamed. Ocelot and Stone, thunderstruck, gasped and reeled back in shock. For a moment, none of them had any idea of what to do.

Gabriel, the knife buried to its hilt in his body, swayed on his feet, staggering backward a step. His jaw was tight, his teeth gritted, his eyes clamped tightly shut against the sudden pain. Strangely, though, no blood sprayed from the entry wound—in fact, there didn’t seem to be any blood at all. As the three watchers gawked in stunned amazement, he slowly drew the knife out again. Still there was no blood—just a bright glow that eclipsed the dark luminescence of the blade. The glow shone both on the knife and on the wound. Gabriel, sweat standing out in large beads on his face now, struggled to remain upright as he dipped the knife into the stone cups, one after the other. Each one immediately began to glow with the same light as the blade. “Now...quickly...” he whispered, and dropped to his knees before sagging bonelessly against the platform where the baby lay.

It was Ocelot who acted first. He reached out and, with a glance at Gabriel’s still body, picked up one of the cups. Before he could talk himself out of it, he raised the cup and drained the contents. There was no taste, but he felt it tingling with power as it went down his throat. His entire body felt suddenly more alive, as if he was clutching a wire with a low-grade electrical current running through it.

Stone snatched up the second cup, and shoved the third into the stunned Kestrel’s hands. “Do it,” he told her harshly. “He did it for you, you know—don’t let it be in vain.” He too drank.

After a couple of seconds, so did Kestrel. Tears were streaming down her face now, and she was shaking. As soon as she had finished the draught she flung the cup away and dropped down next to Gabriel.

It was only then that Stone and Ocelot noticed that the strange lights in the cavern had all gone out, and the blackness had disappeared. Instead, they stood in a simple stone cavern, lit by the same bioluminescent moss that covered much of the rest of the complex.

Kestrel was rolling Gabriel over. He looked pale, but the tight look of pain had gone from his features. Instead of the glow, a small trickle of blood now ran down the front of his shirt, but as she pulled it aside to get a better look, she could see that it appeared to be no more than the nick he had made in all of their palms.The baby forgotten now, she stroked his forehead and held his head in her lap, her tears dripping down onto his face. Stone and Ocelot stood waiting, silent and unsure of what to do.

It was several minutes before Gabriel opened his eyes, and the first thing he saw when he did so was Kestrel’s worried face. He smiled. “I told you everything would be well...” he whispered.

She was half laughing in relief, half sobbing. “Yeah...” she said, her voice husky. “Yeah, you did. And you always keep your word, don’t you?”

The helicopter arrived to take Stone and Ocelot away the next day. They had all said their goodbyes the previous night—true to his word, Gabriel had recovered fully from the strange ritual and showed no ill effects from it. The others didn’t feel any different following the eerie sense of power they got from drinking the magical mixture—Gabriel said they wouldn’t, and they probably wouldn’t see the results for several years so they would simply have to trust him. Nobody had any trouble with that, not anymore. Not even Ocelot.

That last night had been hard, because earlier the same day another helicopter had arrived, this one to take the baby away to his new home. Kestrel had surprised Ocelot by putting up far less of a fight than he’d expected about letting the child go—she had simply requested an hour or so alone with him. When she emerged carrying him in her arms, she said simply, “We’ve said our goodbyes...and he knows I’ll see him again. Someday.”

Gabriel had smiled. “Count on it,” he said. The pilot and the attendant, both spirits, had taken the baby gently away in his blankets, bowed to Gabriel, and left the room. Kestrel watched them hungrily but didn’t move.

Ocelot put his arm around her shoulders. “You know Harry will do right by him,” he said gently. “He’ll have a great life.”

“I know...” she whispered. “I know.”

She had elected to stay on at the lair with Gabriel while the others left. “We’ll be back in Seattle shortly,” the young man told them. “Juliana is simply...not quite ready to go back to the world yet.”

So when the helicopter arrived, it was only two passengers who boarded it. They waved as it rose above the peaks, watching the two tiny figures on the ledge until they disappeared into the mists. Stone leaned back in his seat. “Well, that’s that,” he said.

“Yeah.” Ocelot wasn’t sure whether he was glad or sorry about it. He was silent for several moments, then sighed. “So I guess you’ll be going back home to Cynthia and your University, huh?”

“Indeed,” Stone said. “That’s the theory, anyway. I do hope nothing else happens to change my plans.”

Again, Ocelot sighed. “I guess I never expected it to end this way.”

“What to end this way?”

He shrugged. “The team. Us. The whole thing.”

Stone swiveled in his seat. “Who said it has to end? All right, granted I’m probably out of the shadowrunning business, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get together. You know you’re always welcome at my home.”

Ocelot nodded. “Yeah, I know. And to be honest with you, I don’t think I’m sorry about all this. I know I’ve been living on borrowed time for awhile now. There aren’t too many old shadowrunners out there, you know?”

“Quite true,” Stone agreed. “So what will you do with yourself now? You’ve certainly got enough money squirreled away that you won’t have to work if you don’t want to, right?”

“Yeah.” A pause, and then, “I dunno what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll finally open up that dojo I’ve been talking about and never thought I’d live long enough to see.”

Stone chuckled. “Sounds like you’ll be living a little longer than you thought, if we can believe our young friend.”

“Yeah, ain’t that the truth.” He subsided into silence for several long moments. “Maybe we’ll even get to see the kid grow up. I wonder what he’s gonna be like. What kind of life he’s gonna have. And especially what he’s gonna do when he finds out someday that his daddy’s a dragon.”

“That, my friend, we’ll just have to wait and see about,” Stone said, smiling. “I have a feeling we’ll have the chance someday to do just that.”

Author's Notes

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