They were standing in a room. The walls were a flat, unrelenting black; a persistent shifting mist filled the air.
The runners could see only a short distance; it appeared that they were somehow arrayed in a circle, with each person only able to see dim outlines of the others. Only five outlines. Who was missing? "Is everyone here?" Winterhawk spoke up urgently.
"I'm here, Dad."
Winterhawk's eyes widened as the figure stepped out of the mists. Small, slim, dark-haired, dressed in a neat school-uniform blazer and pressed gray pants. "N—Nigel?" the mage whispered.
The child's eyes showed pain and sadness displayed on a face so very reminiscent of Winterhawk's own more than twenty years ago. "Why did it take you so long to find me, Dad? Didn't you look?"
Winterhawk stared at the boy. Something in the back of his mind told him that this was just a trick—an illusion. But it looked so real, so tangible. So alive. "You're—not real," he said raggedly. "You're nothing but a phantasm. Just a trick of the mind."
"You never wanted me around, Dad. I knew that. I can see why you still don't want to think about me." Still the boy's eyes were sad and disappointed.
"That isn't true," he protested in spite of himself.
"Yes, it is." The child nodded, his eyes never leaving Winterhawk's face. "You know it is. If you'd have really wanted me around, you'd have tried harder to save me. You wouldn't have killed me."
Winterhawk stared at him, unable to speak for a moment. Then, finally: "There—was no hope. You were dying. The pain—you were in terrible pain. It was what you asked for."
Nigel laughed cynically, with a very unchildlike sound. "That's what you wanted to believe, isn't it? You wanted to believe that it was what I wanted, so you could get rid of your guilt about being relieved that you were gonna be rid of me."
"No!" The mage stepped forward, but Nigel stepped back out of reach. "No! That isn't what happened. You're just an illusion trying to get into my mind! I won't let you do it." He straightened up, staring resolutely at the boy with cold blue eyes.
Nigel shrugged. "You can believe whatever you want." Again his expression saddened. "But what else am I supposed to think? I've been here, waiting for you. It's so cold here, and there's never anybody to talk to. If you didn't want to get rid of me, why didn't you come to find me?"
'Hawk closed his eyes briefly, thinking of the little grave in the tiny cemetery on the outer edge of his land in England. "I—"
"I know you didn't want me around," Nigel continued. "If you did, you wouldn't have killed Mum." Tears formed in his expressive gray eyes. "First Mum, then me. Why didn't you love me, Dad? All I wanted was for you to love me."
Winterhawk looked away, fighting unbidden emotions that were coming crashing back far too fast. He had thought he had successfully dealt with those feelings, but now— "Nigel—what do you want me to say to you?" His gaze darted back and forth, but his companions had faded to the vaguest of shadows.
The boy grinned, again in an unchildlike manner. "You won't get off that easy, Dad. You're just feeling bad because you think you're supposed to. Aubrey loved me—he accepted me right away. But you were suspicious. You're always suspicious. You don't trust anybody. The only reason you're upset is because you're a good actor, right? You think that pretending to be upset will make you really feel it. But it doesn't, does it, Dad?" He emphasized the title.
"No!" Winterhawk spoke too loudly. "I—I didn't believe you at first, but once I realized who you were—" He broke off, trying to get his voice under control before continuing. "I didn't want you to die, Nigel," he finished in a near-whisper. "I would have done anything to save you, if I could. You know that. I know you do."
Nigel eyes showed interest, and something else behind it. "Anything?" He thought about that a moment, then smiled. "But you can bring me back, Dad. You can. I thought you knew that. I've been here all along, just waiting for you to come and fetch me." He extended his hand toward Winterhawk. "Just take my hand, Dad. Take my hand and I'll come back to you. Then we can go home to Aubrey and catch up on all the stuff we've missed. Come on." Wiggling his fingers invitingly, he smiled a little wider. "It's all you have to do. Prove to me that you really do love me, Dad. 'Cause I still love you."
"So there ya are, ya two-timin' coward."
Ocelot's head snapped up as the figure before him took form.
"'Bout time you came back so I can finally get a chance to kick yer turnie ass."
For a moment Ocelot didn't recognize the young man—barely more than a boy—who stood before him. Hulking, shaven-headed, festooned with tattoos and earrings and dangling chains: a boy's eyes looking out of a man's body. "Hugo?" A little louder: "Hugo? Is that you?"
"Yeah, it's me, Ocelot." Hugo spat out the name like an insult. "Maybe I shouldn't call you that, though, huh? You ain't a Predator anymore. You skipped out. You betrayed us all."
Ocelot shifted position. Suddenly he was too hot, his heart racing. The metaplanes were a weird place, he knew that. Hugo was dead. He'd been dead for more than ten years. Could this place bring him back? He didn't know. "What are you doin' here, Hugo?" he demanded, slipping into his familiar gangleader tone of authority. "What do you want with me?"
Hugo snorted. "I told ya, man—I wanna kick yer fuckin' ass. I wanna pay you back for gettin' us killed and skippin' out with the nuyen." He paused, swaggering forward a bit. "We all know you planned it that way. You took us in there knowin' we'd get killed and then you took all the money for yerself."
"No!" Ocelot protested angrily. Somehow convincing this young man—a young man who had once trusted him with his life—that this was not the truth was very important to him. "No! It wasn't like that at all! It was a setup! The guy who hired us set us up. You know that. I know you do!"
"How do I know that?" Hugo sneered. "You never came back. You just took the money and ran. What did you do with it, Ocelot? Spend it on those cheap women you always liked so much? Booze? A new bike?" Again he swaggered forward, still just out of Ocelot's reach. He stood a good ten centimeters taller than Ocelot, chains jingling across his broad shoulders. "That money was ours, man. The Predators'. The Predators got hired to do the job, so the money was for all of us. If you didn't set us up, how come you didn't bring it back?" His expression clouded over even more. "Some of us got families, you know. Brothers an' sisters and mamas who coulda used some o' that. Just 'cause your ol' lady skipped out on ya don't mean the rest of ours did. We coulda got some better weapons so we didn't get killed so easy. We coulda been somebody with all that cash. You know? But you didn't think o' that, did ya? You just thought about yourself."
Ocelot stood silently under Hugo's onslaught, growing more and more agitated with each word. His mind raced as he fought to get his thoughts under control. "It wasn't like that!" he finally said desperately.
But it was like that. As he looked into Hugo's angry brown eyes, he knew it. He hadn't set his fellow gangers up—in fact, he had fought like a madman until he knew the situation was hopeless. He'd tried to get them out, but everything had happened too fast. They'd been dead before he could get to them. All he could do was run. But when the guy with the credstick had shown up—when the sniper had blown him away right there in his car—Ocelot had acted on pure adrenaline and instinct. Grab the credstick and run.
Even at eighteen, he had known this was the only break he was going to get. Either take the money and get the hell out of this life, or spend the rest of his days—which probably wouldn't be many—as the boss of a small-time gang. It was what he'd dreamed about: the chance to get out and make something of himself. It's my money now, he had thought. The other guys who worked for it are gone. I don't have to share it with anybody who didn't work for it. That rationalization had gotten him through many years, but there had always been the questions around the edges. Always the guilt.
Hugo sneered again. "You're nothin' but a traitor to your gang brothers. You don't even deserve the name Ocelot. You ain't a Predator. I lived for the Predators. I died for the Predators! What did you do? You ran away! Fuckin' coward is what you are!" Hugo's voice carried an inflection Ocelot was all too familiar with: the high-pitched sound of a young man trying desperately to cover imminent sobs with yelling.
Ocelot struggled to keep his voice level, which was difficult with his growing anger. "What do you want, Hugo? I can't go back and change things now."
Would I even want to? Quickly he submerged the thought. He didn't know how things worked here—did Hugo know what he was thinking?
Hugo made a "come-here" gesture with both hands, weaving around like a drunken boxer. "Come on, Ocelot. Come on, man. Gang rules. You the leader—you gotta fight anybody who challenges you. I'm challenging you! Or are you too yellow to fight me? C'mere and let me whip yer ass, you coward!"
"My child, what are you doing here?"
The voice insinuated itself into Joe's brain and into his bones: deep, resonant, somehow so much more than merely a voice. Although the speaker had never addressed him using words before, only images, Joe still knew without question who stood before him.
From the mists, the dim outline drew closer, filled out, grew shorter and wider. The massive furred form held a wisdom in its eyes that seemed to comprehend every mystery of the Universe.
Joe immediately dropped down into the cross-legged, seated position he always assumed when attempting to communicated with Bear. Although the method was unlike any he had seen before, Joe did not think it odd that Bear would be here to test him. Who better to do so, after all, than the totem to whom he had given his service? "I am here to help my friends," he said. "To defeat the Enemy."
"You do not belong here, child," the deep voice said gently. "This is not your battle."
Confusion settled over Joe's features. "Why is it not my battle? I don't understand. The Horrors—"
"You have been deceived, young warrior. You and your companions have all been deceived." Bear lowered down to a half-sitting, half-reclining position, its wise brown eyes never leaving Joe's face.
"Deceived? How?" The troll leaned forward slightly.
"The great wyrms use you for their purposes. They care not about whether you or your companions survive. They care only for their feud with each other."
Joe stared at Bear. This did not sound right at all. "But—how can that be true? Gabriel hasn't lied to us. And Harlequin trusts him."
"Gethelwain is more honorable than most, but he is still a member of his race. All of them are deceivers who care only for their own affairs. When you are no longer useful to them, they will turn on you. It is the way of their kind. Believe me, young one—I will not lead you astray as they will."
Joe sat there, silently turning Bear's words over in his mind for several moments before speaking again. "I want to help fight the Horrors. I want to help my friends to make sure that those things don't get across the Chasm again. I can't leave them now."
"You and your friends must all abandon this quest," Bear said solemnly. "Before it is too late for you, you must return to your homes. The wyrms are already plotting with each other to use you as their pawns—to sacrifice all of you so that they might succeed in their own purposes. They care nothing for you, save for your value as playing pieces in their game. It is the way of their kind, and has been for eons." Bear's voice softened, filling Joe with a sense of belonging to something larger than himself. "It will take courage, young one, but courage is something you have in abundance. You have followed me since your last time here—have I ever deceived you?"
"No..." Joe said slowly.
"Then you must listen to me now. Your life depends on it. You are of my people, Tatan'ka Wanji'la. I will protect you. But you must heed my warnings. You are not safe here."
Again, Joe thought Bear's words over before replying. Something was scratching at the back of his mind, trying to get him to notice it, but he couldn't determine what it was. "I..." he said, still speaking slowly and deliberately as if considering every word before allowing it to exit his lips. He shook his head. "I can't betray my friends. I knew I might die when I agreed to go along."
Bear's head lowered a bit. The huge creature looked disappointed. "I am sorry to hear you say that, young one, because I did not want to force you to make a choice. I had hoped that you would follow me of your own free will."
Joe's gaze came up. "A choice?"
"I advised you against this. I am not accustomed to having my children defy me, since I seek only their well-being. But you must make your own choice. If you choose to accompany the wyrms on their ill-advised errand, then I can do nothing but move on and seek others who are more receptive to my teachings."
Joe stared, fear rushing through his body like an electric shock. Was Bear saying what he thought it was saying? "You'd—leave me if I don't give this up?" No! It couldn't be—anything but that! Ever since Joe and Bear had found each other, the young troll had felt as if he had found his purpose in life. Bear had filled a void that he hadn't even know he had. To lose that—it would be like losing a part of his own body! To have to make such a choice here—it was unthinkable. "I—can't—"
Bear watched him serenely. "Make your choice, young warrior. There is no turning back."
"Well...look who's back."
The voice, the familiar grace of movement, the grin—Kestrel recognized the person who came out of the mist the moment he spoke. It had, after all, been only a year and half since she'd last seen him.
Since she'd last seen him alive.
"Raptor," she said, eyes wide with fear and confusion. Alone among all the runners, Kestrel had never before dealt with the metaplanes. Seeing him again, here—it couldn't be!
The handsome, auburn-haired elf grinned a little wider, but there was something nasty in his eyes that had never been there in life. "Long time no see. Looks like you're doing fine."
"How—are you here?" she asked. Was he a ghost? An illusion? Some kind of waking dream?
"You mean how am I here, since I'm dead?" Raptor continued to grin. "Oh, you'll figure it out eventually. This place is pretty strange—lots of things can happen. Didn't you know that nobody's ever really dead? Big or small, you never really disappear completely. Hell, I bet even Dunkelzahn himself is wandering around here somewhere." He chuckled as at an absurd thought. "When you die your spirit hangs out here for eternity. Boring as hell, that's for sure."
"Then—you're not really dead? Indy? Cabal? Geist? Are they here too?"
The elf shrugged. "Probably. We kinda lost touch with each other after the big blowup, you know. Kinda lost touch with a lot of things, come to think of it. Our arms, our legs, our heads—" he clucked in mock shame. "Very messy. But I guess you weren't there to see it, were you?" he added as his eyes fixed on hers. "You were off saving wounded lizards or something."
"You knew I would have been there if I could!" she said, a little too loudly. "I told you to go without me! Why did you wait so long? You could have made it if you hadn't waited!"
Raptor shook his head and sighed through his teeth in the manner of a disapproving father whose child had just given him the wrong answer. "See, babe, we couldn't do that. We were a team. We all understood the idea of teamwork. You work with somebody, you put your butt on the line for 'em. I guess you didn't ever really understand that, did you?"
"You can't say that!" she said, guilt and anger warring for control of her voice. "I was as much a team player as any of you! And I saved your butts a few times, too, if you'll remember. But I got hung up. I'd have gotten back faster if I could have. I didn't want you all to die for me!" As if to compound her guilt, the faces of her teammates swam through her brain, coming back with a clarity that she didn't think she could summon up anymore. She remembered her brief romance with Raptor, a couple of months before the accident, and wondered why she had never noticed this side of him before. "I didn't want you all to die," she whispered again, lowering her head.
"Of course not," he said, the sarcasm clear in his tone. "You've had it so bad since we died, didn't you? Jetting all over the world with that overgrown lizard—didn't anybody ever tell you never to trust a dragon, babe? They'll screw you over every time. Thought you were smarter than that. But now you've got your pet dragon and that ganger boyfriend of yours—what else do you need? Not us, for sure. You're probably glad we're gone."
Even though his words angered her, Kestrel felt the guilt and grief overwhelming her anger almost immediately. "I'd bring you back in a minute if I could. All of you. I wanted to die with you in that helicopter. But I can't."
Raptor shrugged. "Sure you can. If you really want to, you can join up with us again. We can go find Indy and Geist and Cabal and be a team all over again." He smiled, this time with the smile of the old Raptor—cocky and shy at the same time. "I'd like to have you back, babe. We made a good team." Extending his hand, he took a step forward. "Come on. Don't break up the team. Do what you should have done back there on the island."
ShadoWraith simply stared. There was nothing he could say.
The woman who emerged from the mists was beautiful—so beautiful that there were not words to describe it. Tall, dark-haired, green-eyed, her skin fair as the finest alabaster, she wore a flowing red gown that accentuated the perfection of her flawless figure. Moving with inhuman grace, she stopped before 'Wraith and smiled. "It's been a long time," she said. Her voice was musical, slightly husky in a seductive way. Her dress swished softly around her legs like the faintest sound of a spring wind.
"Too long," 'Wraith said after a slight pause to get himself under control.
Desire had found him. He wouldn't even admit it to himself, but he had been searching for her ever since he had last seen her—danced with her—and now she had found him. A small smile touched his lips.
"I wanted to see you again," she said in that soft, irresistible voice.
"I have been hoping I would see you again."
She frowned—it looked incongruous on her beautiful features. "Why?"
The question caught 'Wraith by surprise. "I believe we have much to—talk—about," he said at last.
"Talk?" she said with a musical little laugh. "That has always been your problem, you know."
"Indeed?" Again 'Wraith was confused. But then, Desire didn't have to make sense. Sense was not her purpose—senses were.
"You're the only man I ever met who wanted to talk to me." She shook her head in disgust. "I knew I was wrong to waste my time on you. You're not what I was looking for. Not anything like what I thought you were." She started to turn away.
"Wait," 'Wraith said urgently. "What—do you mean?"
She stopped, half-turned. "I thought I could bring you around. Show you the true meaning of desire. Of passion. But I've been watching you all this time. You don't have any passion." She held him with her bewitching gaze. "Perhaps you did at one time, but no longer. I would have been better off to seek out one of your friends. The mage, perhaps, or the troll. They have passion. They would know what to do with me."
'Wraith shook his head. This could not be. This wasn't the Desire with whom he had danced at the party. She couldn't be. That one had understood him. "You are not Desire," he said flatly.
"Oh?" Her eyes glittered with mirth. "Are you so sure, my stoic friend?" Her smile grew wider as she leaned forward a bit. "Are you willing to take the chance, after all the time you have spent pursuing me?"
"I have not been pursuing you," 'Wraith protested, a little surprised at how roughened his voice sounded in his ears. "I have been seeking Thayla. Only Thayla."
She laughed again. "Trying to fool yourself now, are you? You aren't fooling me. You aren't fooling your friends. Besides, Thayla is gone. There isn't anything you can do about that." She paused to look into his eyes again. "It's me or nothing, love. If," she added, turning back around to face him fully, "I decide to give you another chance."
'Wraith stared at her. "You—did not make a mistake. With the dance, I mean."
"Prove it," she murmured, once again injecting the throaty, seductive lilt into her voice. She reached out both hands to him; her fingers were long and lovely, the nails red-painted. "Come and dance with me again. Let me show you real desire. The dance before was only a taste of it. I can show you so much more, if you're not afraid."
'Wraith hesitated. "I—have a job to do now."
"What is more important?" she asked. She leaned forward a little further and locked eyes with him. "Come to me. Dance with me. I'll make you forget everything else." She rose, frowned, then smiled again. "Come with me now, or you'll never have the chance again. Desire doesn't often give second chances."
She extended her hands to him once more.
Around the circle, Winterhawk reached out to Nigel—
Ocelot brought his fists up and took a step forward—
Joe bowed his head and prepared to make a choice—
Kestrel moved toward Raptor—
'Wraith extended his hands to Desire—
All five runners heard the voices at the same time—two voices, from opposite sides of the misty circle.
They had almost forgotten about the circle—about the existence of their teammates around them.
Winterhawk and Joe stopped almost simultaneously and then staggered backward, crying out in what sounded like a single voice.
The other runners heard the voices and stopped as well.
The figures around the circle continued to beckon them.
"Stop!" Winterhawk called, his voice carrying surprisingly strongly given that they hadn't heard each other talking to the specters. "Don't do this. Fight it!"
The others hesitated.
"He's right!" Joe's voice boomed through the room. "It's not Bear—it can't be Bear! Come back to the middle of the circle! It's the team we need!" The great Bear regarded him silently.
Winterhawk tried not to look at Nigel's searching eyes. It was still too real, still too painful. "Yes—exactly. Don't believe them—they're not real!" He began stepping backward, slowly, toward the middle of the room. "I can't stay, Nigel," he whispered. "I hope you'll forgive me someday."
"What if they are real?" Ocelot asked, his voice strained. Hugo still bobbed and wove in front of him, grinning challengingly.
"Yes," 'Wraith added. She was so beautiful—would he ever have this chance again if he gave it up now?
"It's the right thing to do," Joe said. He too was moving backward. "I know it. I can tell somehow." He backed into Winterhawk and clamped his hand around the mage's. "Come on!"
Kestrel was the first to respond. "Sorry, Raptor," she said quietly. "I gotta stay with the living now. Good luck." With three quick steps she was next to Joe. She took the troll's other hand.
Ocelot stared at Hugo, the dead kid who'd been in his charge. The kid he'd failed so many years ago. "Life's gotta go on, Hugo," he finally murmured, almost convulsively throwing himself backward. He found Kestrel's hand and grabbed it. She gripped it tightly, obviously still dealing with her own demons.
That left only 'Wraith. "Come to me," Desire murmured. "They've all given up, but you don't have to. You can have your heart's desire—the answer to all your prayers and hopes and dreams. You can be whole again. Don't let this chance go by; you'll regret it for the rest of your life." She took another step forward, her lips parting sensuously. She ran her tongue around them. "Come to me..."
'Wraith stared at her, for a moment trying to block out the sounds of his teammates calling to him. His entire body was shaking slightly with the force of being torn by two worlds.
Then his shaking quieted as a calm settled over him. With the tiniest hint of a smile on his lips, he met Desire's eyes. "I don't dance," he said, and stepped backward to the team. Kestrel and Winterhawk took his hands.
The room faded from view.
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.