1. Prologue

The unseen observer smiled, in its way. It would have been a profoundly disturbing sight, had there been anyone else around to see it.

There wasn't anyone else around, however. The observer had this particular corner of astral space pretty much to itself for the moment. It liked it that way. There were others of its kind, of course, but they were few here and they had their own errands. The more common denizens of the area tended to avoid the observer—those that even knew of its existence, that is.

Especially those that knew of its existence.

For the others, the ignorant ones, it was more an instinctive thing—a feeling that all was not right here in their domain. In response, they merely diverted their paths almost unconsciously, flowing around the vicinity of the observer as water would flow around a discarded bit of garbage in a clear running stream.

At this point in time, the observer was quite pleased with itself. No reason why it shouldn't be: it had the thing that it wanted more than any other thing there was.

More than almost any other thing.

It had spared little attention for keeping track of how long it had been free; time didn't work the same way here as it did where it had originated, and besides, it did not matter. Things would happen when they happened. The observer could afford to be patient now—as long as it kept well hidden, it could afford to watch, to wait, to plan. Let the others run about with mad glee, cutting swaths of destruction and despair behind them. They were, ultimately, the stupid ones. There was a place for the stupid ones: they were the ones who drew attention away. They were the ones that got caught. They were the ones who lulled the defenders into a false sense of security, causing them to think that danger had passed, while their smarter, subtler, wiser brethren could remain unseen and unnoticed until they were ready with their plans.

Of course, the observer was certain that the stupid ones would not be pleased with their sacrifices. None of them—at least none that occupied such a low station on the food chain—had any comprehension of the long-term plans of their betters. Their purpose in life was merely to destroy, to rend, to kill. Mindlessly, or almost so.

The observer was different.

Occasionally, when it took the time to consider the matter, the observer still found time to be surprised that it had managed to get across and slip past the defenders without being killed. It knew (they all knew, one way or another) that few of its level of power had made it across the abbreviated bridge before it had been once more destroyed, and fewer still had stood successfully against the defenders and their power. Many had fallen that day to the swords and the spells of those charged to protect this world from the observer and those like it. Powerful as the defenders were, though, they were few and the invaders were many. Inevitably there would be those who would slip past the lines and lose themselves in the vastness of astral space until it was time to continue with their plans.

They were nothing if not patient, these few. Most of the denizens of this place thought in terms of their tiny time intervals and planned their lives accordingly, rarely having the foresight to take the future into consideration. After all, to each but the exception of a few, what was the future? Their lives were over scarcely before they had begun. By the reckoning of the observer and those like it, they were inconsequential. At times useful, and certainly at times amusing, but ultimately inconsequential to those whose perceptions spanned the eons.

But there were others. The rare ones. The interesting ones. Those who knew of the existence of the observer and its ilk—those who might possess the power to affect the struggle, should they choose to rouse themselves sufficiently to use it.

The dangerous ones.

The observer's twisted smile grew a bit wider. It had watched, and it had waited. And it had seen. From its vantage point, unnoticed and hidden, on the astral plane, it had focused its attention on the conflict that had played itself out. Conflict between the special ones was always of interest, but in this particular case it was of more than ordinary interest. Not only because of the nature of the three who were involved, but also because of the potential that it created. All three were powerful—more powerful than the observer had ever had the chance to directly encounter in its timeless existence. Under normal circumstances, the observer would not have presumed to involve itself in their affairs, due to the high likelihood that one or more of them would notice it and destroy it. It was strong by the standards of those that had made it across the bridge, but not by the standards of the three entities whose lives were intertwined—some voluntarily and some not. But now, with circumstances falling as they had, the seeds of a plan had begun to grow in the observer's mind. The seeds were small now and unformed, but they promised great possibilities if the plan could be brought into being slowly and carefully, so none of the three would become aware of it until it was too late for them to act. Yes, the observer thought, satisfied. Slowly and carefully. And soon I will not be alone in my planning.

Now, however, it was alone and therefore had to be cautious. Any one of the three could bring about its downfall if it was not. Its first task was to choose its playing piece, the opening gambit in its game. Would it be the most powerful of the three? No, that would be unwise. That one's experience would point up the subterfuge before it was begun. The youngest? The thought crossed its mind, but was quickly discarded. The youngest, yes, but also the one with the greatest promise. And without question the most resistant to corruption. While it would be most pleasurable to get hold of that one before it went on to realize its full potential, that would have to be for another time. The observer knew that moving too fast and seeking too much would be its undoing. When things had progressed to the next stage, perhaps then it would consider that avenue.

No, it already knew the answer to its dilemma, and that was why it was smiling. There really only was one answer; the fact that it had worked itself out so perfectly was only an added feature. The hatred was deep—it burned with a strong flame within the third one's heart. Hatred, anger, frustration, jealousy, contempt, shame: each was a weapon in the observer's arsenal. These were the things that would serve as a counterbalance to the power that one possessed. And if that power could be harnessed and bent to the proper purposes, then—

—then, the observer knew with satisfaction, things could really start to happen.

The plans were set. It was almost time to begin.

The observer began to move. The few remaining denizens of astral space that had previously been courageous enough to come near quickly found other pursuits.

Things were good.

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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.