Chapter 4, part 7
Fang was only half-awake now, her mind zoning out as everything finally caught up with her. She glanced down sleepily at her chrono, realizing that they had about another hour of flying before they landed to refuel, and then another two hours or so after that. This thought did not comfort her; she wished she could fall asleep so the time would pass faster, but she was having no such luck.
The plane was almost completely quiet now. Even Striker’s snores had settled down to a soft breathing not much louder than Ocelot, who couldn’t even be heard from across the aisle. Fang figured Winterhawk must have fallen asleep too, but she didn’t turn around to look. She thought about going forward to talk to the pilot, then thought better of it: she didn’t really want to see where they were going, and she doubted the dwarf woman was much for idle chit-chat anyway. She sighed, risking a glance out the window. The sky was slate-gray, uniformly boring.
The thought came unbidden into her mind, and it did not come in words as such. It was more that she had an urge to turn around and look behind her, though she had no idea why. She almost ignored it as a product of her overactive imagination, but there it was again: the urge to turn back. Paul--?
She turned around quickly and looked at her brother. He was still asleep, and looked fine. Nothing wrong with him. What, then--
Her gaze fell on Winterhawk. She would have screamed, but she was struck speechless by the sheer shock of what she saw. Eyes widening, she stared: he sat leaned back in his chair like he was sleeping, but the entire lower part of his white shirt was soaked in blood. More ran down from the side of his head and pooled up in his collar, forming a spreading red flower down his right shoulder and chest. All this she took in in a scant few seconds, drawing breath to scream again, when she saw something else: as she watched, another cut appeared across his left cheek, spontaneously beginning to bleed. One second it was not there, the next second it was, but there was no sign of anything attacking him. Immediately, Fang knew what was going on: Winterhawk was under attack on the astral plane, and if somebody didn’t help him soon, he was going to die. “Oh, blessed Dog...” she whispered under her breath.
Without regard for her own safety, Fang flung herself back down into her own chair and separated her astral form from her body. It did not even occur to her to wake Ocelot or Striker to help Winterhawk or watch over her body; all she knew is that if she didn’t somehow deal with whatever was menacing the mage’s astral body, none of the rest would matter. She mumbled a prayer asking Dog to give her the strength she needed, and then she was there.
The trail was not hard to follow. Winterhawk had not gotten far from the plane when he had been ambushed. Fang drew up in terror, stopping well back from the scene of carnage. Two horrific--things--stood over the unconscious mage. His aura was dangerously dim; she did not think he had long to live if she did not intervene.
The creatures looked up as one, their fell stares fixing immediately upon her as if they had known she was there all along. Slowly, like two cats playing with a half-dead mouse, they approached.
Fang gathered herself, drove down the bright taste of panic, and wove her mana barrier spell, interweaving it with a plea to Dog to help her. She couldn’t do this herself, and she knew it. If her totem did not aid her, there would be two dead bodies on the plane very shortly.
Winterhawk’s consciousness returned, but only slightly, a hesitant kitten pawing tentatively at the huge black abyss of his pain. He did not open his eyes; he didn’t think he had the strength to do that. All he wanted to do was die. That would end this pain. And it wouldn’t be long now, that he knew. He could already feel the dimming of his aura, the massing of his last resources in his inner core trying to stave off the inevitable. He tried to tell them to forget it--they weren’t welcome. Just go away, leave me alone--
And then there was that blasted dog barking in his ear.
What dog? He was on the bloody astral plane. There weren’t any dogs here.
The barking grew louder, somehow turning into the archetypal irritating late-night bark of a dog that won’t shut up when you’re trying to get to sleep, the loud bay of the hounds on the hunt, the short sharp startling sound of a watchdog frightening away a burglar.
“Go--away--” he said, but he wasn’t sure he actually got it out. Maybe it was just in his mind.
The dog was right in his face now. Even with his eyes closed, he could smell its hot, potent breath, feel its presence right next to him. The barking grew yet louder. He tried to bring his hands up to his ears, but they would not move. Nothing would move. He barely managed to get his eyes open to see what this damned dog looked like--
There was no dog there.
Somewhere, off to his left, though, someone was screaming something at him. He couldn’t quite make out what it was. Turning his head was a task that added new dimensions of pain to his already fully-stocked supply, but somehow he managed it without passing out again. He stared.
The creatures, the scorpion-thing and the snake-thing, were approaching a glowing barrier behind which crouched--he blinked--a humanoid, furred, female form with the head of a dog. It was this new being who was screaming. Desperately focusing his concentration, Winterhawk tried to make sense of the screams. The evil things were getting closer to the dog-woman now.
And then it came to him, all at once. “Go back!” she was screaming at him. “Go back! Go back!”
He went back.
Fang, seeing Winterhawk finally register her panicked screams and depart for the material plane, did likewise just as the creatures sensed their quarry escaping and were on her, crushing her mana barrier as if it was made of the flimsiest paper.
Her consciousness slammed back into her body with the force of a speeding freight train, leaving her momentarily disoriented, amazed that she had not been ripped limb from limb by the horrific nightmare creatures that had ambushed Winterhawk. No time to think about that now, though. She forced herself to stand up and turn back toward the rear of the plane. Astonishingly enough, the entire series of events had taken place, as far as Ocelot and Striker were concerned, in complete silence. Both of them slept peacefully away, unaware of what had just occurred and how close their two companions had come to death.
Winterhawk was not so far away from it yet. Fang quickly moved over to him, gasping. He was slumped over in his seat now, his shirt soaked with blood, his skin chalk white, his breathing shallow and labored. “Wake up!” she yelled, finally allowing some of her panic to take hold of her. She grabbed Ocelot’s shoulder and shook with all her strength. “Wake up!” she screamed again. “Help us! He’s dying!”
Ocelot snapped instantly awake, his enhanced reflexes carrying him to his feet, gun drawn, before he was completely aware of his surroundings. Then he saw Winterhawk. “My God--what happened?” He did not lower the gun yet, not sure that whatever threat had made such short work of his friend wasn’t still somewhere on the plane. Behind where he and Fang stood, Striker was coming awake with much the same reaction. Realizing that shooting a gun on an airplane was not wise, Ocelot smoothly stowed the firearm and drew his monowhip. All this took place in less than ten seconds.
Fang grabbed his arm, sobbing. “Help us,” she said. “What do I do?” The things she had seen on the astral plane, things like no spirit she had ever seen even in her most frightening dreams, drove rational thought indiscriminately from her mind.
Ocelot quickly assessed the situation. Stowing the monowhip, he gently picked up Winterhawk and laid him out flat in the aisle, then grabbed hold of both sides of his shirt and ripped it open. What he saw made even him, with his years of combat experience, go a little green. Striker turned away, and Fang’s eyes widened. Although there was no evidence of it from the outside save for the blood, the mage had been impaled on something that had gone in through the back and out through the front. This was no clean gunshot wound, but the kind of thing you didn’t see outside a battlefield. Next to this, the bloody slice on the side of Winterhawk’s head didn’t even rate Ocelot’s attention. Reaching into his pocket, he whipped out a trauma patch and slapped it into place over Winterhawk’s heart, finding it hard to get it to stick with all the blood. “You gotta heal him,” he ordered Fang, looking around again for intruders. He realized that anything that could do this to Winterhawk on the astral plane could pretty much have the rest of them for lunch should it decide to put in a surprise appearance in their midst.
Fang was sobbing, on the edge of hysteria, into Striker’s arms. She did not seem to have heard the order.
“Damn it, Fang, heal him!” Ocelot barked. He reached out and roughly grabbed her arm. “You can lose it afterward! Do it!”
For once, Striker did not take issue with the rough handling of his sister. Gently, he pushed her toward Ocelot. “Come on, ‘Rika. You gotta help him.”
Fang, gathering herself, nodded. “I--know--” she said between hitched breaths. She knelt down at Winterhawk’s head and began casting her spell, her voice shaking so badly that she could barely understand herself, but she knew that Dog would hear not her words, but her thoughts. Ocelot and Striker, weapons ready, took up positions at either end, Striker near his sister and Ocelot at his friend’s feet, their watchful gazes roaming the interior of the plane. They weren’t quite sure what they were looking for, but both of them were having uncomfortable visions of insect spirits.
The spell took quite a long time. When it was complete, Fang settled back, slumped with fatigue. She knew how close Winterhawk had come to death, and while the biggest of his wounds was now healed, she knew the others would need her attention too. They would have to wait awhile, though, while she renewed her strength. “There,” she said wearily.
Ocelot turned back around to look at Winterhawk. It was hard to tell through all that blood, but it looked like the ghastly wound had closed up and healed. Gently, he used his knife to cut the remainder of the mage’s shirt off and used it to mop up the worst of the blood, confirming his supposition. The head wound, not nearly so bad, had already stopped bleeding. It looked awful, but it didn’t appear to be life-threatening. Ocelot used one of the few blood-free pieces of Winterhawk’s white shirt to wrap around his head. Fang had returned to Striker’s arms and was once again sobbing softly.
Winterhawk’s eyes fluttered open. He looked uncertainly up at Ocelot. “What--?”
“You’re okay now,” Ocelot told him. “Just lay down until Fang can heal you up the rest of the way.”
“No...I’m all right,” he said, gingerly pulling himself to a sitting position. “Just a little...woozy, that’s all.”
“You’ve still got a pretty good chunk out of the side of your head,” Ocelot said. “Fang’s resting, then she’ll heal you up. What the hell happened?” Now that his friend was out of danger, he could afford to start thinking like himself again.
Winterhawk looked up at him, closed his eyes, and tried to think. “I--wanted to go talk to Harry. Get things--started a bit before we arrived. Figured I could visit him astrally and give him a few details. But then--” He blinked again and brought his hand up to his head. “I can’t think straight right now. Let me just sit here for a few minutes and then I’ll tell you.”
“I think I can help you now,” Fang said, her voice faint. She still looked tired, but Paul’s comforting presence had calmed her down somewhat. Moving back over to the mage, she cast her healing spell again, then settled back in a chair, her magical energies spent.
Winterhawk perked up considerably now that he didn’t feel like someone had buried a very large axe in his head. He looked over at Fang. “That was you, wasn’t it?” he asked gently.
“What was me?” she asked. Ocelot elected not to speak up just yet.
“On the astral plane. The dog. That was you.”
“I was yelling at you, yes. Trying to get you to wake up.”
“Yelling? You were barking in my face.”
She opened her eyes and stared at him blankly. “Barking? No, of course not. I was yelling. Quite a ways away from you. I thought you’d never hear me.”
“Then--who was barking? There was some infernal dog in my face, barking its head off. That’s what finally woke me up. It was--” His gaze locked on her. “No,” he said reflectively after a moment. “Not an infernal dog.”
Her eyes widened. “But--there was nothing over there with you. I looked. You were unconscious, and those things--”
“What things?” Ocelot demanded, but both Winterhawk and Fang ignored him.
“No,” Winterhawk said. “It was there. I heard it. But when I opened my eyes, it wasn’t there.” He paused. “It had accomplished its purpose: to get me awake long enough to hear you yelling at me.”
“Dog...” she said wonderingly, in a tone of near-reverence. She closed her eyes. “Oh, blessed Dog, thank you. Thank you...”
Winterhawk nodded. “And thank you from me as well. To both of you.” He looked up at her seriously, with none of his usual cynicism. “I owe you a great deal, Fang. If you hadn’t showed up--”
“It was Dog,” she said firmly. “He told me what to do, and I did it. Besides, I owed you one. From inside that building. You and Ocelot saved our lives.”
“Let me be grateful, all right?” Winterhawk said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve come that close to cashing in. I’m just glad you, or Dog, or whoever, was paying attention just then.”
Ocelot cleared his throat. “Will somebody please tell me what’s going on? What things? Did the bugs come back? What the hell is going on?”
Winterhawk’s gaze shifted over to his friend. “I told you, I thought p’raps I could give Harry a bit of a head start, so I decided to go pay him a little visit before we arrived. I looked around before I left, and there were no bugs. I doubt the small ones that we fought could have masked themselves from me.”
“Small ones?” Striker gulped.
“Relatively,” the mage said without taking his eyes off Ocelot. “Since I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, I went on. Didn’t get too far away from the plane when I got jumped from behind by something.”
“What?” Ocelot asked quickly. “Did the bugs mask themselves after all? Bigger bugs?”
Winterhawk shook his head. “No. They weren’t bugs. Nothing like bugs. That was the strange thing. I barely got a good look at them, but I could have sworn--” He stopped in mid-sentence. The small amount of color that was beginning to return to his face drained away as the realization that had eluded him on the astral plane now came crashing back. “No...no, it can’t be--”
Ocelot grabbed his shoulder. “What is it? Tell me, ‘Hawk. What did you see up there?”
The mage looked first at Fang, then at Striker, then at Ocelot, and the look that he gave his friend was full of meaning. “Remember that little business with Harlequin?” he said very softly.
It took only a few seconds for that to sink in. Ocelot staggered back as if he had been shot. “My God...” he whispered. “No...” To Winterhawk, he said sharply, “You could be wrong, right? You said you didn’t see them very well--”
“I saw them well enough,” Winterhawk said. His voice sounded tired and old. “I should have figured it out then, but I was a bit busy at the time...”
“You--know what those things were?” Fang asked, her tone clearly indicating that she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.
Wearily, Winterhawk nodded.
“What were they?” Striker demanded. “I thought you said these bug-things were after us, but now you’re sayin’ they aren’t bugs. What are they, then?”
“You don’t want to know,” the mage said. “Believe me. I’m not being facetious. You don’t want to know what they are.”
Ocelot had dropped into a nearby chair, holding his head in his hands. His normally tanned skin had gone pale. “He’s right,” he mumbled. “You don’t want to have anything to do with this.” He looked up at Winterhawk. “I think things just got a lot nastier.”
Winterhawk nodded, idly untying the bloody bandage, no longer necessary, from his head. He looked as if he had barely heard Ocelot’s words.
Fang knelt down next to him, looking first at him and then at Ocelot. “I think we already have something to do with this,” she said gently. “We have a right to know what’s going on.”
“Yeah,” Striker added. “If whatever this is is gonna come after us, I want to know what I’m fightin’.”
The mage looked up at Fang. “What did you see?”
The shaman thought about it for a moment, shuddering at the visions. “There were--two of them. Horrible things. One--looked like a...big scorpion. Big and black, with lots of legs and a long tail with a point on the end. Only--its body was different. It was like it had--almost a human upper half.”
“Sound familiar?” Winterhawk asked Ocelot, swiveling his head so he could look up at him.
“God, yes,” Ocelot whispered, not raising up from his dejected slouch.
“What about the other one?” the mage continued, returning his attention to Fang.
“The other one--was like a snake. It had a long black tail...but its body was humanoid too. Not--not human. Evil.” Helplessly, she looked at Winterhawk. “Do you know what I mean?”
He nodded, reaching out his hand to gently touch her arm. “Yes, I know what you mean. And you’re right, much as I hate to say it.”
“So what are they?” Striker asked again. “Are they like the bugs? If there’s just the two of ‘em--”
“These things make bugs look like a walk in the park,” Ocelot said shortly. He sighed, “‘Hawk, what’s it mean? They’re back, and so soon--”
“I don’t know,” Winterhawk said. “I wish I did, but I don’t. Fang is right, though--she and Striker are in the middle of this now. They do have a right to know.” There was questioning in his tone.
Ocelot nodded, sighed. “Yeah. But they really don’t want to.” To the two of them, he added, “Trust me.”
Winterhawk pulled himself up to sit a little straighter against the side of the plane’s seat. If Fang had thought he didn’t look like himself awhile ago, she would not have recognized him now: covered in blood, pale as a ghost, missing his shirt, he looked like an animated corpse. His probing, brilliant-blue eyes looked especially strange; since they were artificial and therefore couldn’t be bloodshot, they gave him a distinctly manic look in contrast with the rest of his battered exterior. “Let’s start at the beginning,” he said in a fair imitation of what Ocelot called his ‘professor tone.’ “A few years ago, Ocelot and I, and a couple of other associates, went on a very strange run. Seems there’s this rather odd chap who goes by the name of Harlequin. We never really did figure out exactly what his story was, but by all appearances, he was an elf, and the most powerful mage it’s ever been my pleasure or displeasure to meet. I won’t go into the details because they’re not relevant right now, but suffice it to say that the purpose of this run was to save the world from some sort of threat that was approaching at top speed from somewhere out in the great bugger-all.”
“Huh?” Striker interrupted.
“Beings,” Winterhawk clarified, “from out beyond astral space somewhere. Horribly powerful beings with basically one thing on their minds--destruction. Apparently, these things get their astral jollies from pain and suffering. Preferably ours. Harlequin called them ‘Horrors,’ and I s’pose that’s as good a name as any to call them.”
“When you say ‘preferably ours,’” Fang spoke up, “Do you mean--?”
“Ours as in everybody on Earth,” Ocelot said.
“Quite right,” Winterhawk agreed. “At any rate, these things were getting close to reaching their goal several thousand years early. You see, whether or not they can bridge the gap between where they are and where we are has to do with the level of magic in the world. Not enough magic, they can’t raise the energy to make the jump.” He paused, glancing up at Ocelot. “That may explain why they haven’t followed us here.”
Everybody except Winterhawk immediately looked nervously around the plane. “You mean,” Fang said hesitantly, “They can get to the astral plane but they can’t quite make it here?”
“That’s exactly what I mean. The ones we saw were rather the runts of the lot, too. The big ones can’t hope to make it even that far yet. They need too much magical energy to sustain them.” Now that his injuries were healed and the fear of seeing the creatures again had begun to wear off just a bit, Winterhawk’s natural curiosity was taking hold of him again.
“And you guys have fought these things before,” Striker said. There was respect mixed with apprehension in his voice.
Ocelot nodded, taking over the story. “Yeah. Not something I really want to do again, either. I wasn’t kidding about these things, even the little ones, making bugs looks like newborn kittens in comparison.”
“You said you saved the world,” Fang said. “You weren’t exaggerating, were you?”
“Not a bit,” Winterhawk said. “This Harlequin chap sent us off to find a means to hold the beasties off for a few thousand years, and we succeeded. We thought that was that. Apparently, we were wrong.”
“So...” the shaman ventured, “If this Harlequin person is so interested in these creatures, how come he hasn’t shown up?”
Winterhawk shrugged. “No idea. He’s not infallible--these things whipped his arse right and proper when they caught him unawares. But we have no way to contact him.”
“So we’re on our own, is what you’re saying,” Ocelot said. It wasn’t a question.
“Looks that way,” the mage agreed. He didn’t look happy about the prospect.
“You know we’re gonna have to take care of this. All of us. Or we’ll never be safe again.”
Winterhawk considered that for a moment before answering. “No, I don’t think so,” he mused, almost to himself.
Ocelot looked at him strangely. “You mean we don’t have to take care of it?”
“No, that isn’t what I said. I mean, we don’t all have to take care of it.” He looked up at his friend, indicating Fang and Striker with a quick sideways motion of his head. “They’re not in this. They were pawns to get us back in the game. I’m convinced that if they just get off the plane and go about their business, they’ll never hear from these things again. It’s us they want.”
Ocelot thought about that, nodded slowly. “Yeah, I think you’re right. You think they’re after Joe too?”
“Who’s Joe?” Striker asked.
“One of our other friends who was in on this with us the first time,” Ocelot told him. “We kinda lost touch with him after our group split up.”
“Let’s hope they’re starting out with us, then,” Winterhawk said. “I’ve no way to contact him. Do you?”
Ocelot shook his head. “Nope. Maybe Harry does.”
“Hey,” Fang spoke up. “Remember us?”
Winterhawk looked at her, confusion evident in his eyes.
“You said we were just pawns. You’re talking like we’re not involved in this. Like you’re going to just say goodbye to us when the plane lands. We deserve more than that.” She met his eyes, her tone dead serious.
The mage shook his head. “Of course you do. That isn’t what we meant at all. We weren’t trying to discount your contributions--hell, I can’t do that at all, after you saved my life not half an hour ago. But there’s no reason for you to continue this. You don’t have any idea of the danger involved; why risk your life, and your brother’s, for something that isn’t even your fight?”
“But it is our fight,” Fang pointed out. “Mr. Johnson is our friend, and a lot of this seems to lead back to him. I think you owe it to us to let us stay with you until after we go find out if he’s all right.” Behind her, Striker nodded.
Winterhawk considered that, looked up at Ocelot for his assessment.
Ocelot shrugged. “It’s okay with me. They’ve proved they can handle themselves in a fight. And if those things really can’t get to this plane yet, maybe we’ll be safe at least for awhile.” He looked at them. “You know what we’re gonna have to do, though, don’t you? Soon as we land in Seattle, we’re going to pay Johnson a little visit. Check him out. Make sure he’s not under something else’s control.”
“And if he is?” Fang asked.
“Then we have to kill him,” Ocelot said simply. “There’s no other way.”
“You can’t do that,” Striker protested. “He’s our friend. Can’t you help him or something?”
“Listen,” Winterhawk said, sharply but not unkindly. “If he’s under the influence of the Horrors, or even the bugs, there’s nothing we can do. They don’t just control people’s minds. It’s not something that can be broken. If they’ve got him, he’s already dead. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
Fang sighed. “And--if he isn’t...under control?”
“We’ll have to see what happens,” Ocelot said. “Maybe he’s been duped by somebody, and he really doesn’t know what’s going on. In that case, we’ll tell him the score and see what he says. Maybe he can get out of this with his skin intact.” He did not believe that for a moment, and didn’t think Winterhawk did either, but there was no sense in alarming these kids needlessly.
Winterhawk was staring off into space. “There’s something I wonder...”
“What’s that?” Ocelot asked.
“This whole insect - Horror thing’s got me a bit stumped. What’s the connection between them? Have the insect spirits signed some sort of mutual aid agreement with the Horrors, or what? They hardly seem to have complementary goals...”
“You could have gone all day without saying that,” Ocelot groaned.
“Well, sit back, because there’s more. What if they got to Harry somehow? Maybe the weak link here wasn’t Johnson, but Harry. Anything’s possible...” His voice trailed off, and he shrugged.
“Shut up, okay?”
For once, Winterhawk took Ocelot’s advice.
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.