32.

When the runners arrived back at Gabriel's place early the next morning, Harlequin had not yet arrived. Neither had Stefan.

None of them had gotten much sleep the previous night. They had returned to their respective homes without much conversation; there wasn't much they could say, really. All of them were consumed by thoughts of what had occurred. When Ocelot picked them up in the truck shortly after sunrise, he noticed that all of them were as subdued as he was. They climbed in without comment, taking their accustomed places as if they were preparing to head out on an everyday run. He noticed that they had even dressed for business. Each one had been waiting and ready to go when he'd pulled up. They'd stopped very briefly at a drive-thru fast food joint to grab some breakfast—they hadn't wanted to take the time, but they suspected that nobody at their destination was going to be fixing breakfast and it might be the last food they got in quite some while.

Gabriel's door was answered by Kestrel, who let them in with a brief greeting. She was dressed in the same clothes she had been wearing last night, but her wet hair showed that she'd had a recent shower.

Gabriel himself was pacing around the room restlessly. Ha nodded polite acknowledgment to them as they came in, but it was clear that his attention was somewhere far away. Still, though, he looked significantly better than he had last time they had seen him: his posture no longer had the exhausted slump, and the haunted look in his eyes had faded in intensity somewhat. Clad in faded jeans and a long-sleeved white knit shirt with the sleeves pushed halfway up his arms, he looked more like a nervous college student than an ancient dragon.

"Sleep well?" Kestrel asked, pitching her voice low to avoid disturbing Gabriel's pacing.

"Like shit," Ocelot admitted. "You?"

"Not much better." She watched Gabriel as she spoke. "He, on the other hand, slept like a baby, which I guess is good."

"How long you guys been up? And when's Harlequin and Butt-head gonna show?" It didn't even occur to Ocelot to be jealous of the fact that she had spent the night at Gabriel's; Guess I've come a long way. Or else I just got more important things to worry about than whether my girlfriend's boinking a dragon.

"He said they should be here soon, but there's a lot of morning left. Guess you guys were a little anxious, huh?"

Ocelot shrugged. "Might as well get it over with."

"It appears that dread and sleep don't mix well," Winterhawk added.

There was another knock on the door. Kestrel moved to answer it, but at that moment Gabriel came up from his reverie and held up his hand, heading for the door himself.

Apparently Stefan had managed to get some small amount of sleep himself, because like his brother he looked more rested than he had the previous night; he did not, however, look more relaxed. Sweeping into the room without a word to the runners, he addressed Gabriel. "I see your painted elf is not yet here."

"Give him time," Gabriel murmured, and resumed his pacing. Stefan immediately moved off to the other side of the room, ignoring the runners' glares, and set up a pacing pattern of his own, punctuating it with long pauses to look out over the Seattle morning.

The final member of their party did not arrive for another half hour, and when he did, he was not alone. Harlequin grinned as Gabriel opened the door. "You're still here. That's a good sign. Not sensible, maybe, but good." He was dressed in much the same manner as he'd been yesterday, except today his T-shirt sported a huge pair of red lips with a protruding tongue and "Rolling Stones 1982" across the front.

The woman with him looked to be somewhere indeterminately between early and late twenties; she was quite tall and very striking, with stark white hair and blue eyes. She wore jeans, a loose-fitting sweatshirt, and athletic shoes; her expression suggested that she was not entirely sure what she and Harlequin were doing here.

The clown-faced elf's sharp eyes took in the room; one eyebrow quirked upward when he saw the runner team. "Well," he said casually. "Thought I might find you guys here."

Gabriel approached, while Stefan remained where he was on the other side of the room. The young dragon regarded Harlequin's companion questioningly. "Harlequin," he said in greeting, his eyes grave. "I wasn't aware that you were bringing—colleagues."

"Frosty's not a colleague," the elf said. "She's my student. And she's not going with us. She's going to guard our bodies while we're off gallivanting in the Netherworlds." Motioning her forward, he said, "Frosty, this is Gabriel. I told you about him before, remember?"

Frosty stepped up next to Harlequin, nodded. "I remember. Somehow I thought you'd be—taller." A small smile hovered around the corners of her mouth as she first glanced upward at where he would presumably stand in his true form, then looked him over appraisingly. "Not bad, though. What is it about dragons and looking young and gorgeous, anyway?"

Gabriel had to smile a bit in spite of himself. "Because we can?" he offered innocently.

Harlequin grinned. "Hey, at least he's honest." Indicating the room, he added, "Come on. Looks like our little party's all here, so we'd better get this show on the road before somebody chickens out. Like me, for instance." Everyone in the room could see the strain lurking beneath his almost maniacally cheerful demeanor.

Ocelot came forward, as did Winterhawk. "We're going along," the former said flatly, in a tone that suggested that no argument would be accepted.

"Oh, really?" Harlequin asked with a raised eyebrow. "Haven't had quite enough of the stuff of madmen's nightmares, eh? Last time didn't do it for you? Want some more to tide you over for awhile?"

"Gabriel told us about Thayla," Joe said from where he was standing back with 'Wraith.

"Yeah, as soon as I saw you here, I thought that might be it," the elf admitted, brief sadness crossing his painted features.

"This is not their fight," Gabriel said quietly. "But I have promised them, given their previous involvement with the Enemy, that I would consult you before making a decision."

From the other side of the room, Stefan watched the proceedings intently, but he still did not approach.

Harlequin's sharp green eyes fixed on the young dragon. "So you're leaving it up to me. Is that what you're saying?"

Gabriel nodded once, his eyes never leaving Harlequin's.

The elf thought about it for several moments, pacing around and making exaggerated "thinking" gestures—putting his finger to his forehead, cupping his chin in his hand, pursing his lips as if deep in rumination. The four runners, Kestrel, and Gabriel watched him but didn't speak.

Finally, Harlequin stopped, his head coming up quickly to face the assembled group. Shrugging casually as if making a decision regarding what sort of ice cream to order, he said in an offhand tone, "Sure, why not? Bring 'em along."

"Are you sure?" Gabriel asked. He looked at Harlequin as if he didn't believe that the elf had put the proper amount of thought into the situation. "As I said, I will accept your advice, but—"

"Listen," Harlequin cut him off, stopping in front of him. His voice wasn't flippant now. "These guys are in the middle of all kinds of shit there's no reason for them to be in the middle of. Things happen when they're around. I'll tell you this, kid—Fate's one bitch I don't argue with. And if you know what's good for you, you won't either. She does what she does, and we just follow along and try to keep our heads on straight while we're getting screwed."

Gabriel didn't speak for awhile. Then at last he sighed. "All right, Harlequin." Bringing his gaze around to meet the runners' he nodded. "I'll accede to your greater experience."

"See?" Harlequin said, shooting a glance at Frosty. "At least somebody around here respects my experience. Feels good for a change."

Stefan had had about enough of this. "Brother," he protested, crossing the room with quick steps, "do not be a fool! There is no reason for them to accompany us!"

"Shut up, Stefan," Harlequin said conversationally. "You've already made your contribution to this show. For once try listening to somebody who's got more sense than you do. You might learn something that way."

Gabriel quickly moved to defuse a potentially heated situation. "Please," he said, raising his hands. "Harlequin—Stefan—there is no time for this. We have to begin."

"Do they always bicker like that?" Frosty asked Winterhawk under her breath as the two dragons exchanged glares.

"No," the mage whispered back. "Usually they're trying to kill each other."

"Oh," she said as if that answered everything.

"Do we have to go to the site of the Great Ghost Dance again?" Joe asked.

Harlequin shook his head. "Nope. That's one silver lining in this sick little cloud: with firepower like these two are slinging in addition to my own, we can do it from here if you want. Unless," he added with a glance toward the two dragons, "you've got somewhere you'd rather do it."

"I don't understand," Winterhawk spoke up. "I thought last time you said that the mana level wasn't sufficient to perform the ritual unless you were at a site of power."

"Yeah, that's true, but I didn't have two fraggin' Great Dragons helping me last time, either. That should be more than enough juice to get us all over. I hope," he added, glancing around nervously. To Gabriel and Stefan, he said, "Don't just stand there, kids. Let's get going. Frosty, can you go down to the car and bring up the big bag I put in the trunk?"

"Yes, Sahib," Frosty said sarcastically, but she moved toward the door, muttering something about "...treats me like a slave..." and "...one of these days..."

Harlequin ignored her. Instead, he began stalking around the perimeter of the enormous room, occasionally glancing off as if trying to gauge something. He looked up, examining the high glass-enclosed ceiling, then raised his hands like an artist framing a painting. "We'll need all this furniture out of the way," he commented in the offhand tone of an employer giving orders to servants, then continued his wanderings.

Surprisingly, Gabriel immediately moved to do as the elf ordered, telekinetically picking up couches and chairs and lining them up along one wall of the room. After a moment Joe and Ocelot joined in (in their own more mundane way). 'Wraith and Winterhawk stood aside and watched, figuring (probably rightly) that the job was sufficiently covered, while Stefan ignored them completely. In less than five minutes, all the furniture in the vicinity had been stowed away. Winterhawk finished the job by magically gathering the shards of broken statue and depositing them in a heap in a corner.

By the time Frosty returned ten minutes after that, stumbling in with a large and apparently quite heavy duffel bag clutched with both hands in front of her, Harlequin had already begun his circle-casting—there were numerous strange chalk-marks located in strategic places around the marble floor. "About time," he said without turning. "Did you go get lunch too?"

"Next time carry your own bag, Your Highness," she snapped back. "What have you got in this thing—lead?"

Harlequin's only answer was to take the bag from her, drop it on the floor, and open it, pulling out candles, crystals, and other assorted magical items. These he arrayed haphazardly around the bag. Rising, he motioned for Gabriel and Stefan to come over, and soon the three of them were deep in conversation, muttering quietly to each other like a group of grim-faced college professors discussing a particularly knotty problem.

Winterhawk, standing a little away from the rest of the team, watched them with a series of emotions ranging from great curiosity to mild envy. As a magician himself, and one who hated allowing any aspect of his craft to escape his notice, 'Hawk nonetheless knew that these three were so far out of his league that he probably wouldn't have understood them even if he'd been included in their conversation. They were an unlikely threesome of world-savers: Harlequin was his usual insane-scruffy self, looking more like a street performer than one of the most powerful magicians on the planet; Gabriel, jeans-clad and smooth-faced, with one errant lock of inky hair falling over his forehead, didn't seem old enough to be involved in something of such import; Stefan, elegant and tailored even at this hour of the morning, his features actually beginning to show some interest now that he was doing something, should from the look of him have been on his way to catch the train into town and an elevator to his corner office. 'Hawk sighed; he wasn't used to being a member of the B-level team in this or any other operation.

"Full of themselves, aren't they?"

Winterhawk turned to notice Frosty standing next to him. "What?"

She hooked a thumb toward the threesome. "I know how stuck-up His Nibs can be, and now we've got two Great Dragons to go with him. Good thing this is a big place, or we wouldn't fit in here with all the egos." She smiled a little bit to take the edge off the words. "So—how'd you guys meet, anyway? You didn't mention anything about hanging out with dragons last time we got together."

Winterhawk's mind flashed quickly back to their last foray into the metaplanes, accompanied by Frosty (they had known her as Jane Foster back then). "It's a long story," he finally said. "Remind me to tell you sometime."

"Oh, we'll have plenty of time," she assured him. "From what I understand, this circle they're discussing is gonna take hours to put together. I was thinking about heading out for awhile, since all we'll be able to do until they're done is sit around and count our toes."

Almost as if he had heard them, Harlequin came momentarily up for air. "You guys can go grab something to eat if you want," he said. "We'll be at this for a long time, and there isn't much else you can do until we're done."

Ocelot came back over, eyeing the three suspiciously. "Yeah?"

"Oh, don't worry," Harlequin admonished, shaking his finger. "We won't go anywhere without you. Go on—you'll be bored out of your skulls watching this. Trust me."

The five runners exchanged glances, each of them clearly reluctant to leave the room, but the thought of sitting around watching the two dragons and Harlequin construct a huge ritual circle didn't sound very appealing either—at least not to anyone but Winterhawk.

Kestrel looked at Gabriel questioningly.

"Go on," he said, sounding encouraging but distracted.

"Come back in about four hours," Harlequin added. "We won't be done by then, but we should be close. Something like this would normally take most of the day, but I'm hoping that with the three of us working on it, we can get done faster."

Again the runners exchanged glances, debating whether to stay or go. Finally, Joe broke the silence by saying, "Come on, guys. Harlequin knows what he's doing, right?"

Winterhawk, Ocelot, and 'Wraith nodded, while Kestrel looked dubious but willing to go along with the consensus. "We'll be back," Ocelot said unnecessarily in a tone that sounded vaguely like a threat, and the five of them, along with Frosty, filed out of the apartment.



When they returned a little less than four hours later, they were surprised at how the place had been transformed.

They had spent the intervening time sitting in a downtown bar, alternating between catching up on old times with Frosty and casting nervous glances around the room as if expecting something to jump out at them. Nobody paid much attention to the fact that the runners and Kestrel were doing most of the talking, while Frosty was content to ask questions and not volunteer much information of her own. Nobody pressed her; whether it was because they didn't really want to know too much about what Harlequin had been doing since they'd last seen him or because they were being polite was irrelevant—the result was the same.

She seemed particularly interested in the story of how Kestrel had met Gabriel—in fact, the two women hit it off immediately and appeared to be on their way to becoming friends, judging by the ease at which they conversed. "Lucky you," Frosty said half-sarcastically at one point. "Both of us get to meet up with fantastically powerful beings left over from another time, but you get the gorgeous young hunk of a dragon, while I get Mr. Conceited Elf himself." Something in her eyes, however, suggested that she wouldn't have had it any other way. Kestrel just smiled. Ocelot knew her well enough to tell that she was feeling a bit overwhelmed by all this, but she was hiding it very well. She had more bravado than most guys he knew; she'd be all right.

The other thing they had done, carefully, was fill Ocelot in on what Gabriel had told them while he was under the sleep spell. He had listened with growing anger as they described Stefan's deal with the elf/Horror; when they had finished he had stood, telling them that he had to go blow off some steam and would be back shortly. When he'd returned somewhat less than an hour later, he'd been more than a bit sweaty and disheveled, but looked calmer. Everyone had regarded him oddly, but nobody asked him where he'd been or what he had done.

The one thing they hadn't done, by unspoken agreement, during their time at the bar was drink alcohol. Instead, they had whiled away the four hours nibbling at bar food and tossing back sodas, mineral waters, iced teas, and whatever else they could find that wouldn't get them drunk. None of them wanted to be drunk for this. They were eating and drinking more to kill time than anything else.

Gabriel's penthouse looked quite different when they arrived back. The circle that Harlequin had begun constructing had been fully chalked in and marked off by the crystals, candles, powders, and wax-tracings. The candles were not yet lit, but they stood at several places around the circle, which itself had to be at least fifteen meters across. Harlequin stood at the center, arranging a group of eight candles around in a smaller circle, while Gabriel and Stefan worked on opposite sides of the large circle, carefully placing and aligning crystals. Around the outside of the perimeter were chalked symbols that Winterhawk recognized as extremely complex magical sigils, although he could not identify their exact nature. There were more of these symbols carefully drawn inside the circle.

Harlequin and Gabriel looked up as the runners entered; Stefan did not. All three of them looked like they had been working much harder than their task suggested: Harlequin's white facepaint was running a bit, and Gabriel's hair stood up in dark damp spikes from where he'd apparently been pushing it back off his forehead. Stefan had removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, so he now looked like a CEO ready to get down in the trenches. "Are you guys done yet?" Frosty inquired, moving over to the edge of the circle without touching its boundary.

"Almost," Harlequin told her. "You'll all want to do whatever you do to prepare yourselves—it'll be less than half an hour before we're through here."

The runners looked at each other and shrugged. There really wasn't much they could do to prepare themselves. Weapons would be useless, they knew; since only their astral forms would be taken to the metaplanes, any physical possessions they tried to take along would just be left behind. If they were meant to have something, they would have some representation of it once they got there, regardless of whether they actually carried it on their physical forms.

"Do you know where we're going, precisely?" Winterhawk asked, "or is this likely to be another metaphorical jaunt through the cobwebs of your—or Gabriel's or Stefan's—minds?"

Harlequin shrugged. "Who can tell? I know where we're trying to go, but with the Netherworlds, you never know exactly what'll happen. Once we pass the Dweller, we'll just have to see what the Universe throws at us."

"The Dweller?" Kestrel asked, looking back and forth between Harlequin and Winterhawk with a quizzical expression.

"You'll see," Harlequin said cheerfully. "Hope you don't have any deep dark secrets."

Stefan looked up from what he was doing and scowled, but didn't speak. After a moment he returned to his task.

The runners and Frosty moved off in various directions, wandering aimlessly around the room and watching the final construction of the circle. Winterhawk, especially, seemed interested in what the elf and the two dragons were doing. Ocelot drifted toward the window some distance away, and after a moment Kestrel followed him. "What's wrong?" she asked. "Besides the obvious, I mean."

Ocelot sighed, looking out over Seattle. The view really was breathtaking from up here, but he barely noticed it. "I don't like it," he said.

"Don't like what?"

"Stefan. I don't trust him. I don't care what Gabriel said about a dragon's word. That might be true for Gabriel, but Stefan's just treacherous enough to get us to trust him and then screw us over. Especially when you add in that promise he made to the Horror."

Kestrel mirrored his sigh. "If you're worried, you don't have to go."

"Yeah I do." He turned so he was facing her. "I have to go. I don't want to—hell, I'd give anything to be home in bed right now. But it's something I gotta do. I just don't like it."

She looked him over, noting the slight unhealthy pallor under his tan, the thin sheen of sweat coating his forehead, and the way his hands were never still. "You sure you'll be okay?"

Ocelot thought about that for awhile before answering. "I'm gonna try," he said at last. "I said I would, and I will. But I know what these things do to me." He shivered. "I wish we could get the hell on with it. This waiting's makin' it worse than if we just got going."

She gripped his shoulder and squeezed encouragingly. "Soon. I guess I don't know enough about this to be as scared as you are. Gabriel's talked about the Netherworlds before, but I never knew he could take other people—mundanes—with him."

"Maybe he can't," Ocelot said. "Maybe he needs Harlequin to do it."

She shrugged. "I don't know. I never asked." Smiling a little to try to calm him down, she added, "It just never came up as a good potential vacation spot, I guess."

"That's the understatement of the year." He ran his hands through his hair, smoothing back the strands that had escaped from his long ponytail. Turning so his back was against the window, he idly watched the remainder of his team. Winterhawk stood near the circle, his restless gaze taking everything in with professional curiosity. Ocelot could almost see the keys clicking in his head as he took mental notes. 'Wraith was a little further away, standing still and appearing calm, though one could never be sure what he was thinking. Joe was pacing around; like Winterhawk he was watching the final construction of the circle, but his attention was divided between that and keeping an eye on everything else in the room and out the window. Frosty was the only one seated, sprawled back in one of the soft leather chairs against the wall. Her eyes were closed; she might have been taking a catnap. Her job would not be exciting, but it would be very important: she was the one who had to remain behind and watch over their unconscious bodies while their spirits were off roaming the metaplanes. Ocelot didn't envy her.



He and Kestrel were still standing there several minutes later, silently sending each other mutual comfort, when Harlequin rose up from his crouch in the center of the circle. "Okay, boys and girls," he announced, his voice carrying effortlessly through the huge room. "Showtime."


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Copyright ©1998 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.