Chapter 4, part 6

It took nearly two blocks of full-speed walking before Ocelot came to his senses.

He stopped, aware that he had not seen any of the scenery around him from the time he left the motel. He was standing in the middle of a sidewalk in a seedy neighborhood composed largely of apartment buildings badly in need of repair, or perhaps of condemnation. Of the few cars parked on the street, none was whole: one was missing its front wheel, another its windshield, and a third had yellowing, formerly-clear plastic taped badly to its driver-side window. Two ragged children of indeterminate gender hid behind a dumpster and watched as the relatively well-dressed, frighteningly-fast man came storming down the street like he was looking for someone, and decided to make themselves scarce. It wouldn’t have mattered: Ocelot didn’t see them, even after he stopped.

He realized that he had no idea where he was going. Back to Seattle, he’d said. But the van was in the parking lot of the motel. What was he going to do, walk? Get a cab? In this end of town, at this time of night, that was a real laugh riot. He’d never been to this part of Chicago before, but a bad neighborhood was a bad neighborhood, regardless of its location.

The rage had deserted him almost as swiftly as it had come on, leaving him ashamed of what he’d done. Okay, maybe Johnson had double-crossed them. Maybe he had set them up. But was that any reason to snap at Winterhawk? He was only trying to be reasonable. Somebody had to. The memory of what he had just done came back to him in a rush, and he clenched his fists, knowing there was nothing he could do to take it back now. He had deliberately hurt one of the few men in the world that he considered a true friend. He’d hit him far too hard, leaving him lying unconscious with two kids that he wasn’t convinced yet that he trusted. Even if they were trustworthy enough not to kill the mage, or leave him to the scum that might break into the room after they left (to Ocelot’s own defense, he remembered that she was a Dog shaman, but it didn’t help), Ocelot still wasn’t sure that they might not at least try to salvage what they could out of this abortive run by relieving Winterhawk of a few of his valuables when he couldn’t resist. And even if that wasn’t true, something was still trying to set them up. That he was sure of. And with Winterhawk unconscious and Ocelot gone, that just left the two kids. Wouldn’t that be a great time for something to--

Ocelot whirled around and took off at a full run back toward the motel. Further down, safe behind the dumpster, the two children watched him listlessly and then returned to their task of trying to find something to eat, sell, or play with amid the garbage.

Ocelot knew something was wrong immediately. He braked his headlong progress when he reached the parking lot of the motel, his eyes instantly going to the windows of the two rooms they had rented.

Or, where the windows used to be. And where the door used to be. Both had been ripped from their frames and tossed aside with a strength that was troll-level, or worse. From inside the room, even out here, Ocelot could hear the sounds of combat. Oh, God, what had he done? His hand snaked into his pocket, the smooth shaft of the monowhip’s handle settling in his palm like it belonged there all the time, and then he was running again, pounding up the rickety wooden steps three at a time, down the narrow walkway toward the room, and inside--


One swift glance took it in: the room seemed full of twisting bodies, some human or metahuman, some...not. On the far side of the room in the corner, Fang stood behind Winterhawk, who was pale and barely standing, but still managing to hold off one of the ant-creatures with his mageblade. Blood ran down the side of his face; more stained Fang’s shoulder as she concentrated on holding up the shimmering wall kept a second creature away from the two of them. Striker, on the other side of the room, was using his own huge katana to slash at a third creature. As Ocelot took stock of the situation, Striker’s creature lashed out with a claw and drew it across the troll’s abdomen, leaving a bloody trail behind it.

Ocelot’s quick assessment took over and he launched himself toward Fang and Winterhawk. Striker, though injured, was a troll, and trolls were notorious for being tough. Ocelot wasn’t sure exactly how Winterhawk was even awake, and Fang’s spell didn’t look like it was holding. As Ocelot reached them, the ant-thing raised two appendages and brought them down on the barrier, which flared and disappeared. Fang moved further behind Winterhawk, her mouth and hands moving as she tried to weave another spell, but this left two creatures on Winterhawk, who was already sagging against the wall.

Expertly, Ocelot swung the whip. It contacted the second creature, the one that had just burst through Fang’s barrier, and opened up a slash on its midsection. Ichor spewed from the wound; the enraged creature spun itself around and swiped at Ocelot, but he was already out of range.

Winterhawk wasn’t about to let an opportunity like this go by. With the second bug occupied, he could devote his full attention to the first. But he was feeling so dizzy--the slash on his neck where the bug had gotten through his armor was hurting like it was on fire. He swung, but even his normal strength was gone. The mageblade hurt the bug; unfortunately, the small wound only served to anger it further. It took another swing at Winterhawk, who just barely got out of the way in time. Fang was still working on her spell. She had no enhanced reflexes; the bugs were almost as fast as Ocelot, and although Winterhawk and Striker were both slower than the bugs, they still made her look like she was moving in slow motion.

Ocelot whipped at his opponent again, lopping off one of its slender clawed legs. The one on Winterhawk and Fang surged forward once more, but by now the shaman had gotten her barrier in place. “Hold it,” Winterhawk said through his teeth, shaking his head harshly to knock the sweat out of his eyes, swinging the black blade at the thing’s midsection.

“I’m--trying--” she mumbled. The barrier was a difficult spell; she didn’t think it would hold up for long. She didn’t think she would hold up for long.

From behind Ocelot came a triumphant bellow. Winterhawk spared a quick glance over and saw Striker completing the downward arc with his katana, his massive strength cutting through the bug by pure brute force. The thing flared and disappeared just as Ocelot’s bug in the foreground did likewise, its head having been separated from its body by Ocelot’s monowhip.

That left only the one bug, and it had already been hurt by Winterhawk. Ocelot made short work of it; in only a few seconds it too disappeared, leaving the four of them standing where they had fought, panting. Winterhawk looked up at Ocelot. “Well,” he said brightly. “Lovely time--you picked to come back. You--” He pitched forward. Ocelot caught him before he hit the ground, laid him down on his back on the floor.

Fang hurried over to him, pausing to cast an accusing glance at Ocelot. She pointed at the wound on the mage’s neck, which was now flaring an angry red. “Can these things poison you?” she asked.

Before Ocelot could answer, Striker staggered into view. He had multiple wounds, none of them appearing immediately serious, but all of them bleeding. “‘Rika,” he said, his normally strong voice faltering, “I don’t feel so good...”

Fang looked down at Winterhawk again, then back up at Striker. “Oh, no,” she said under her breath. Then, louder: “Paul, lay down. Stop moving around. Now.”

Striker knew better than to argue when his sister spoke like that. He sat down against the bed, lowering his huge body down as gently as possible. Like Winterhawk, he too was pale and sweating, and his wounds had the same red halos around them.

Ocelot was already up and rummaging around in his duffel bag. “Here,” he said, tossing something to Fang. “Put this on Striker. It’s an antidote patch. Won’t do a whole lot, but should help some.” He had taken out another one and was heading back over to Winterhawk.

Carefully, Fang put the patch on her brother, who by now had passed out against the bed. “They won’t die, will they?” she asked fearfully.

“Don’t think so,” Ocelot said grimly. “They aren’t badly wounded. Trolls are tough, and I think ‘Hawk’s mostly trashed from what I did to him.” There was regret in his tone. “Can you heal ‘em up? That might help some. Then we need to get out of here.”

“Out?” Fang looked at the two unconscious men. “We’re not going to get them out of here until they wake up. I know you’re strong, but I don’t think you can carry Paul.” She didn’t even notice that she was so nervous that she had failed to use Striker’s street name.

“Just heal ‘em. I don’t want to be here when the cops get here.” Ocelot got up and started moving around the room, tossing things into bags and stacking them near the door. Fang bent to her task, healing Winterhawk first in the dim hope that he might awaken and then be able to heal Paul. When he didn’t, she set about casting the spell again over her brother.

It wasn’t long after that, though, that the mage did awaken. Ocelot, his packing completed, was pacing the room nervously, looking out the window every ten seconds or so. So far, no one had dared get near the rooms. Ocelot knew that wouldn’t last long. When Winterhawk showed signs of stirring, he hurried over to him and helped him to a sitting position.

The mage stared blankly up at Ocelot for a moment before light dawned. Then his eyes narrowed. Before he could speak, Ocelot said, “Look--I’m sorry. I was an idiot. But we don’ t have time right now--we have to get out of here. Can you stand?”

Winterhawk took a deep breath and thought about that for a moment. “I think I’d better,” he finally said.

Striker groaned and opened his eyes, but Ocelot ignored him, figuring (rightly) that Fang would attend to him. He stood up and offered his hand to Winterhawk.

The mage looked suspiciously at Ocelot’s hand for a moment, then took it, allowing himself to be dragged to his feet. He swayed alarmingly. “It wouldn’t do anything for the dignity if I got sick right now, would it?” he asked, his voice shaky.

“Probably not,” Ocelot agreed, casting another glance out the window.

“Well, I’ll do my best not to, then,” he said, but looked as if this was by no means a certainty.

On the other side of the room, Fang was helping Striker up. Mostly he was using the bed, but leaning just a bit on her as well. Winterhawk looked him over. “Do I look as bad as that?” he asked Ocelot.

“Yeah. I’d stay away from mirrors for awhile.”

“Thanks,” he said, giving Ocelot a dirty look. He pointed down at the floor near the wall. “Get my sword for me, will you? My stomach tells me I don’t want to bend over right now.”

Striker looked like he was able to walk under his own power, though he too had a bit of a green cast and looked queasy.

Moving slowly, the four of them got themselves and their gear down to the van. The bugs did not reappear, to their relief. Ocelot doubted that in their present shape they could have handled three more bugs. One would have been tough. He took the wheel this time, with Winterhawk slumped morosely in his usual spot and Fang and Striker sharing the back seat. “Where are we going?” Fang asked.

“To the plane.”

“What plane?”

“The one that’s going to take us back to Seattle.”

“What makes you think it’ll be there?” Winterhawk asked. “We’re early, you know. We rather botched the job.”

“Hey,” Striker interrupted. “Anybody else hungry?” Apparently his troll metabolism, combined with the antidote patch and the healing spell, had taken care of any remaining poison that had been in his system, and as usual his first thoughts were of food.

Winterhawk, without benefit of said troll metabolism, turned away from him quickly and tried not to think about food, but Ocelot and Fang, suddenly reminded of the fact that they had not eaten for quite some time, considered his question in a different light. “We can’t really stop anywhere looking like this,” Fang said doubtfully, looking at the state of their clothes. “Maybe somewhere that’s a drive-through, for some burgers or something--”

“Why don’t you have a bloody pizza delivered?” Winterhawk said peevishly.

Ocelot grinned. “That’s not a half-bad idea,” he said. Turning partway in his seat, he said to Striker, “Call somebody, kid. Have ‘em deliver it to the plane.”

“But--are we sure it’s going to be there?” Fang asked.

“We have to be optimistic about something, don’t we? Get a couple with everything.”

Winterhawk slumped further down in his seat, muttering to himself. Nobody heard what he was saying, and nobody asked.

When arrived at the airfield, all of them were a bit surprised to see the plane still sitting there where they had left it. Even Ocelot really hadn’t expected the pilot to wait for them, but there she was, tinkering away under the belly of the aircraft. She looked up warily when the van approached, but relaxed when she saw Ocelot behind the wheel and came out to greet the party with a wrench in one hand and a greasy rag in the other.

She stopped short (no pun intended) when she saw them. “What the hell happened to you?” she asked, staring. “You look like you got on somebody’s bad side, that’s for sure.”

“Long story,” Ocelot said quickly, seeing Winterhawk gearing up to reply in his usual caustic manner. “Bad day. How long before we can get out of here?”

“Finish the job already?” The dwarf looked surprised. She jammed the rag in her pocket and wiped her hand on her baggy, military-style pants.

“Uh--yeah. This morning.” He looked at his fellow runners, but none challenged the statement. Fang was looking at her shoes, Striker was examining his fingernails, and Winterhawk suddenly seemed interested in the sky. “We’re ready to go back. How long?”

She considered, looked back at the plane, considered again. “Hour, maybe. Maybe a little less if I really get moving. You in a hurry?”

“We’re homesick,” Winterhawk said sourly.

The pilot gave him a dirty look and continued addressing Ocelot. “Forty-five minutes, minimum. That’s if you don’t want to crash.”

“An hour sounds fine,” Fang offered, remembering that she was going to have to fly home on this thing, too. “Take your time. Safety first.”

Striker grinned, pointed. “Hey, the pizzas are here.” He was right: off in the distance a small, gaudily-colored delivery vehicle was making its way uncertainly toward them. It was obvious the driver had never been asked to deliver a pizza to an airplane before.

Ocelot shoved a handful of bills at the pilot. “Pay him, will you? He gets one look at us and he’ll run screaming away from here.” He and the others quickly disappeared into the plane.

“So now what?” Striker asked in a few minutes, through a mouthful of cheese, pepperoni and onions.

The four of them were back in their former spots, in various states of disrepair. “Now,” Ocelot said, “We go back and find Johnson.”

“You can’t kill him,” Fang said. “He’s our friend. He was our father’s friend. There’s no way he set us up. Don’t you understand that?”

“I don’t understand much right now,” he said. “I think you may be right--he didn’t set us up. At least not on purpose. But I think the possibility’s there that he might be being influenced by...uh...outside forces.”

“What outside forces?” Striker demanded.

“Three guesses,” Winterhawk said. He was feeling much better now; the wooziness from Ocelot’s smack in the head was wearing off, as was the ant poison. He still hadn’t been brave enough to try the pizza yet, though he was getting tempted.

“You mean--those bug things?” Fang ventured. “You called them spirits. I’ve never heard of any spirits like those before.”

“They don’t exactly advertise,” the mage said. “But we’ve had run-ins with them before. They’re quite capable of doing a lot more than influencing.”

“Like...what?” she asked in a do-I-want-to-hear-this? tone.

“Look,” Ocelot said, not unkindly. “You might want to get used to the fact that if that really is Johnson, he’s in a lot of trouble. If the bugs are controlling him, he’s already dead without our help. And if they aren’t--if he just decided to set us up for some reason--” he let that trail off, but everybody knew what he meant. As far as Ocelot was concerned, Johnson’s lifespan could be measured in hours.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Winterhawk pointed out. “Unless he’s an insect shaman, not many people can make those bugs jump through hoops. If he wanted to set us up, there are plenty of easier ways to do it.”

“So why would he do it, then?” Striker asked.

Ocelot shrugged. “That’s what we’re going to find out. If we get back to Seattle in one piece, that is.”

Fang looked up, back down at her lap, and then back up again. “ this hard?” she asked almost timidly.

“Huh?” Ocelot looked at her blankly, as did Winterhawk. “Is what hard?”

She spread her arms. “This. All of this. With the insect things and the mangled bodies and everything. Would you two consider this a hard run, or is this what you do every time you go out on a job?”

Winterhawk smiled at her, without a trace of sarcasm this time. “I see. You want to be reassured, you and your brother, that the life of a shadowrunner isn’t always like this. That this is one of the tough ones. Is that right?”

She nodded. “I don’t think I can handle much more than this,” she said.

“Well,” the mage said, “I can assure you--this is one of the tough ones.” He looked at Ocelot. “Isn’t that right?”

“Yeah. Bugs are always one of the tough ones.”

“You’ve fought these things before,” Striker said. “That’s easy to tell. How come we’ve never even heard of ‘em?”

“Just lucky?” Winterhawk offered. When the troll scowled at him, he shook his head. “No, I’m serious. We’ve fought them two or three times before, and they’re very scary. They’re very dangerous and very alien. Nobody really knows what they want and how they plan to get it. I’ve made a few guesses, and so have some other people, but nobody really knows except the bugs and their shamans, and none of them are talking. You ought to be glad that you’ve never heard of them, and hope that you never do again.”

Both Fang and Striker could get behind that: each of them would have been quite happy if they never had to hear about these nightmares again in their lives.

Ocelot and Striker were finishing up the last of the pizza and gathering the boxes together in an untidy heap when the pilot opened the cockpit door and stuck her head out. “You guys ready to go?” she asked. At Ocelot’s nod, she disappeared back behind the door and shortly thereafter the little plane had completed its takeoff and was on its way back to Seattle.

Striker yawned, rubbing his massive stomach in satisfaction. They had ordered four large pizzas; he himself had been responsible for finishing off two and a half of them. Bugs or no bugs, somebody his size needed a lot to eat, and when he was done, he needed a good nap. Ocelot, feeling much the same way, retired to his seat and soon the two of them were fast asleep, Striker snoring in low rumbles, Ocelot curled up like the cat that was his namesake. Winterhawk shrugged out of his jacket, tossed it over the back of his seat, and settled back, staring moodily out the window at the overcast sky. Fang glanced around at her three companions, deciding not to bother the mage, since he didn’t look very approachable at the moment. She was not sleepy in the least, but she knew that she needed some time to close her eyes and allow her mind to wander over the events of the past few hours.

As a shaman, even one as young as she was, Fang had seen plenty of spirits in her day. She had summoned spirits of Man, of Forest, of City to help her with needed tasks, and thought nothing of doing so when it was necessary. She had great respect for these spirits, and always treated them with courtesy; she knew that Dog did not approve of arrogance in his shamans. That was one of the reasons she felt a little uncomfortable around Winterhawk--the man seemed just a little too sure of his own abilities, and wasn’t afraid to let people know it. Whether he was really as good as he acted was irrelevant; to Fang it was unwise to tempt things greater than oneself by drawing too much attention to one’s activities. She herself was by nature rather quiet, usually content to let her brother garner the majority of the attention while she hung back and influenced, rather than directly affecting. She thought of herself as more of an anchor, someone that her friends and allies could depend on to support them. Ocelot and Winterhawk were both leaders, she could see that right away. She wasn’t at all surprised by the occasional friction between them, since each had his own way of doing things that inevitably conflicted with each other. She could also see, though, that their friendship went back a long way, and that like she would do for Paul or he for her, these two would likely be willing to die to save each other. That, she admired. As a Dog shaman, loyalty was the virtue she valued above all others. To desert her friends or those she had sworn to help would not even enter her mind.

Oddly, Dog had been remarkably quiet about the situation. When Fang tried to reach out her senses to touch his comforting aura, she found it there (it was always there--had it not been, she would have been immediately more terrified than she had during the insect attack) but remote, distant, as if Dog did not want to directly involve himself with the events at the moment. Fang wondered why; usually, when she had a decision to make or a tough problem to solve, Dog’s presence was there, gently nudging her toward a particular solution, or action, or conclusion. He never pushed or insisted; that was not his way. But she was usually sure the direction her totem wanted her to take. This time, she was not sure. This one went way beyond her meager experience, and she guessed that Dog was leaving it to her as a way to help her grow. She hoped she was up to it.

Behind her, Paul’s rumbling snores grew a little louder. Instead of finding them irritating, though, Fang was comforted by her brother’s proximity. His combination of huge size and solicitous gentleness (at least around her) made her feel safe and protected. He looked out for her, and she for him; since their father had died, they were all each other had. This was doubly true now that their father’s friend “Johnson” had apparently fallen into something over his head. She turned her head to look at Paul. Sprawled in his seat, head back, mouth open, huge polished tusks gleaming, he looked nothing like the small, tousle-headed boy Fang remembered from her days as a young girl, but she nonetheless could see the little boy in the big troll. She smiled to herself, turning back around. Winterhawk, his crisp white shirt still spattered with blood from the two bug fights, continued to stare out the window. With a day’s growth of dark stubble on his face and his hair in disarray, he resembled the dapper stranger who’d come breezing into the meet about as much as Paul looked like his childhood counterpart. Ocelot fared a bit better, if only because he had a darker shirt and lighter hair. He hadn’t even bothered to recapture the hair that had escaped from his long blond ponytail. Fang wondered if she looked as disheveled as her teammates, but right now it just didn’t seem important. She leaned back again and closed her eyes, once more allowing her thoughts to wander and hoping that Dog would show her the way.

Winterhawk sighed softly. Pulling back from where he had been gazing at nothing out the plane’s window, he stretched out his long legs in front of him and considered the situation. It appeared that he was the only one currently awake (except, he hoped, for the pilot). Ocelot and Striker were definitely in the Land of Nod, and though the jury was out on Fang, her eyes were closed and her breathing was regular. Even if she was awake, though, he wasn’t really in the mood to talk. He was not yet convinced that this situation was over, and he was quite sure that his companions did not yet see its gravity. Ocelot had fought these insect nightmares alongside him several times, but as a mundane, his friend simply did not know the whole story. No mundane could know, and most magicians in their right minds stayed as far away from stuff like this as they could. Winterhawk had been told occasionally that he was not in his right mind, but nobody really believed it. The mage just had an excess of curiosity that would have made a whole roomful of cats jealous, and he couldn’t stand the thought that there was something--specifically something pertaining to magic--that he didn’t know. As a result, he had spent a lot of time studying these insect things (as well as he could without going off to locate some to interview, that is) and had learned enough about them that the thought of having them on the trail of himself and his friends made him more than a little apprehensive. Being stuck on a tiny airplane didn’t make him any more comfortable, either--he had no fear of flying like Fang did, but he was quite sure that his companions would not be sleeping so easily if they knew just how simple a thing it would be for the insect spirits to materialize in the passenger compartment. He decided to keep that knowledge to himself--no sense in alarming them needlessly, and they needed their rest. He would just stay awake and keep an eye on things until they landed. He wasn’t tired, though he did notice the faint stirrings of hunger now that the insect poison had finally seemed to have worn off completely. The hunger wasn’t strong enough to stir him from his seat to check out the plane’s tiny refrigerator though; at least it wasn’t yet.

Much like Fang, unbeknownst to him, was doing across the aisle, Winterhawk allowed his mind to run over the day’s happenings, and more importantly, over what could be done about them. He abandoned the ordered reasoning of the scholar and let his quick, mercurial thought processes take over, flitting from one idea to another, discarding them almost as fast as they presented themselves. His highly-developed intuition, derived as much from his combat experience as from his magical training, often settled on a plan that he would never have considered had he limited himself to professorial structure.

If the bugs were after them, then it made sense that they wouldn’t be any safer in Seattle than they had been in Chicago.They needed some kind of an edge--more knowledge, a head start, anything that would help them stay just a bit ahead of the bugs and whomever (or whatever) was controlling them. If only he could get in touch with someone back in Seattle before they arrived, someone who could help them--


Winterhawk smiled to himself. Yes. Of course. Harry had gotten them into this; maybe he could do something to help get them out of it. At least maybe he could get a couple of his infamous information-gatherers onto the Johnson case so they would have a bit of advance knowledge to pick up when they arrived.

He almost raised his arm to punch Harry’s number into his wrist-phone, but immediately realized that was a bad idea for two reasons: one, the line was not secure, and two, if he carried on a conversation now, it would wake up everyone on the plane. The only private spot in the tiny craft was the bathroom, and Winterhawk was not about to conduct business from there. The security was more important, though; he doubted that Harry would even talk to him without a shielded line, and he didn’t have one, so that was that.

The other option was a bit more dangerous, but had the advantage of being secure and quiet: he could astrally project himself to Seattle and talk to Harry in person. Of course, the fixer probably would not like being interrupted (most probably in the middle of a compromising situation) but that couldn’t be helped. Winterhawk was willing to be somewhat considerate on his end of the transaction, but after what he and the others had been through, Harry’s embarrassment was the last thing on his mind. Not, he realized, that Harry could even be embarrassed. Besides, it was really the only logical way to do it.

That decided, Winterhawk took a couple of deep breaths and ran through a short series of relaxation techniques designed to loosen him up sufficiently that he didn’t return from astral space with a collection of muscle aches. Leaning back in his chair, he let his head fall back into the soft cushioning of the seatback and closed his eyes. He shifted his perceptions into the astral realm and then made the transition, feeling the familiar combination of pain and ecstasy as his astral form separated from his corporeal body.

Floating in the plane’s cabin, he paused to look down at its occupants. His own body, slumped in its seat as if asleep, radiated only a flicker of astral energy to indicate that it was still alive. In front of him was Ocelot, his aura flickering only slightly more than Winterhawk’s own, but his consciousness was still contained within his body. As always, Winterhawk felt a sense of frustration at the loss of potential there: Ocelot, if his life had gone differently, had had the rare quality that would have allowed him to become a shaman of the Wolf totem, but he had destroyed his aura with mechanical augmentation to the point where there was now not a shred of magical energy about him anymore. Winterhawk always hated to see that sort of ability wasted; he and Ocelot had had talks about it before, long ago. But really, it was of no consequence anymore; nobody could bring it back. Since Ocelot himself did not seem to mind the loss, Winterhawk tried hard to ignore it, but it was difficult to do. He moved on before he had a chance to think about it anymore.

On the other side of the plane, Striker slept. His aura was contradictory: weak, but nonetheless strong and vital. Winterhawk had seen this in trolls before; he supposed it had something to do with their enormous size. This particular troll wasn’t quite as tech-ridden as Ocelot was, but very nearly. Only Fang’s aura was pure and powerful: she had no cyberware whatsoever, nothing to mar the beauty of her inner core. The fact that she was magically active and not masking her aura at all meant that she was hiding nothing of her true nature; even Winterhawk’s cynical heart was warmed by the sunny good nature and latent strength possessed by the young woman. Now that he had seen her clearly, he would not mistrust her again. Around his companions, the non-organic parts of the plane were indistinct, foggy lumps of gray nothing.

He turned away from his friends, slipping through the plane’s thick walls as if they were not even there (essentially, on the astral plane, they were not). He looked around through the swirling mists of astral space, noting familiar landmarks; he had not been to this particular area before, but the astral realm was strange, and navigation was not accomplished by standard means. Carefully, he gazed all around him, tightening his grip on the comforting form of the mageblade in his hand. His astral form, the stylized image a magician constructs to represent him- or herself in this strange realm, was an idealized version of his own body: tall, thin, elegantly-dressed and black-cloaked, with twin-laser blue eyes that were, with the blue gem on the hilt of his black sword, the only spots of color on him. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he swiftly started off for his destination, moving with the practiced ease of someone who had been here many times before. This was nothing more than a quick jaunt for someone who, in the past few years, had braved the dangers of metaplanar realms far more dangerous than the astral.

It may have been his overconfidence that did him in, but more likely it was the fact that the two creatures that materialized near him were far better at masking themselves than Winterhawk was at seeing through such masks. The truth was, it would have taken either a hermetic ritual or a very lucky chance for him to have seen these creatures until they wanted to be seen. Unfortunately for Winterhawk, he didn’t have either.

One thing took form in front of him, the other behind. Winterhawk’s astral form slammed into the first creature before he could veer off course, getting a vague impression of something that looked like a huge snake with the torso of a demon. Stunned, he reeled back and felt the white-hot lancing of agony through his abdomen as the second creature impaled him on what looked like a long black spike. He screamed, the sound echoing out through astral space, knowing as he did that his friends could not hear him. He was on his own, and he was in big trouble. The thought terrified him more than he could ever remember being in his life.

The creature with the spike raised him up and cast him downward. He fell hard, trying to roll up into a ball and get out of there, but his mind wasn’t working right. He couldn’t remember how to return to his body. As he rolled, he got a good look at the creature: if forced to put an earthly sort of definition to it, Winterhawk would have said scorpion, but that wasn’t quite right--it had the cruel barbed tail and legs of a scorpion, but its body was...something else. Something he’d seen before, but couldn’t remember--

The snake-thing’s tail struck his head, opening a gash down the side of his face. His head reeled; he tried to raise the sword, which he had kept a death-grip on; he could not do it. His strength on the astral plane was formidable, but he could not make his mind or his body respond to his bidding. I’m going to die here on the astral plane, he thought, the cold edges of panic beginning to gnaw at him. They’re going to find me dead in my seat when they wake up. They’re--

The snake’s demon-torso wrapped its foul hands around his neck and began to squeeze. His last thought before he passed out was Aubrey, you were right...

Then nothing.

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Copyright ©1996 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.