Winterhawk’s jaw hurt.
That was the first thought that managed to reach him as he opened his eyes and discovered that he was flat on his back on the safehouse’s couch. The second thought that reached him was that Ocelot was sitting in the chair right next to him, watching him with a decidedly suspicious look. The staff was nowhere to be seen. “Just stay there,” Ocelot said.
‘Hawk rubbed his jaw and sighed. “Well,” he said ruefully, “I did tell you to do that, didn’t I? I guess I’d forgotten just how caught up in your role you tend to get.”
Apparently satisfied that ‘Hawk wasn’t going to make a lunge for the artifact, Ocelot relaxed slightly. “Didn’t do any permanent damage, did I?”
“Nice of you to ask,” the mage said in a sour tone. “But no, I don’t think so. How long have I been in the land of Nod?”
“Only a few minutes.”
“Where’s the staff?”
Ocelot’s suspicious look returned. “Why?”
Winterhawk sighed and sat up carefully, testing his equilibrium. “Don’t worry--I’m not planning to lure you into a false sense of security and then make a grab for it. Believe me, I don’t want to touch that thing again for any reason. And not only because I don’t want to get pasted in the jaw another time for my trouble.” He ran a weary hand through his hair and regarded Ocelot for a moment before continuing. “I have to commend you, my friend--you figured it out before I did. The bugger’s got some sort of very powerful control-based enchantment on it. I could have had you dancing the Watusi in your knickers on the top of the Space Needle if I’d wanted to. Not that I’d want to,” he added hastily.
“Uh...yeah.” Ocelot leaned forward. “So you’re telling me that whoever’s holding that thing can make other people do whatever they say?”
“So it appears. Now, admittedly, there are a lot of variables involved: f’rinstance, does it only work for the magically active? Does it work on multiple targets? How powerful is it? I mean, you’ve got a tough mind, but you’re no match for a powerful mage, say, or some of the stronger paranormal beings. But still--artifact-level power like that is nothing to shake a stick at. No wonder everyone’s after it.”
Ocelot took a deep breath as he considered the ramifications. “Shit...” he finally said, half to himself.
“Yes, exactly,” ‘Hawk agreed. “And there’s more. It’s a damned insidious item--I had no idea that anything was odd until you told me to make you do something. But looking back, I don’t think I was in any hurry to put the thing down. It didn’t feel like a compulsion, but that only makes it all the worse.”
Ocelot nodded. “I didn’t feel anything weird either at first. I just found myself...I dunno...wanting to hear what you were saying. I was more interested in listening to you than usual. It was like I couldn’t take my eyes off you while you were holding that thing. And no offense, ‘Hawk, but you ain’t that interesting.”
Winterhawk nodded almost as if he was distracted. “We need to find out more about it-but I don’t think I’m going to do that with firsthand examination. I did realize one other thing, though, and this is not going to make you happy.”
“What?” Ocelot’s eyes narrowed.
“It’s got a friend.”
“Huh?” He stared at Winterhawk. “You mean there’s another one of those things out there?”
“Looks that way.” The mage rose and headed for the small kitchen; Ocelot immediately got up and trailed him. “Not sure of the details, because I didn’t have hold of the staff for long enough, but from the impression I got, there’s another piece that goes with this one.” He began opening cabinets until he found the closest approximation of tea the place had to offer, then started searching for cups.
“The same sort of thing?” In one smooth motion, Ocelot leaped up and perched on the edge of the kitchen counter.
“Not sure. Possibly something complementary, rather than identical. I’m afraid that’s all I got before you popped me.”
“Sorry,” Ocelot said in a tone that suggested he was anything but. Magic (at least the variety that wasn’t on his side) made him nervous. Big mysterious magic made him positively itchy. Again, he caught himself wishing he hadn’t answered his phone. “If you don’t mind, I don’t think I’m gonna take a chance on letting you pick up that thing again to see if you get any more broadcasts from Planet Weirdshit.”
“Quite all right.” ‘Hawk found the cups; he waved one in Ocelot’s general direction, and when his friend shook his head, put it away and began heating up water for his own cup. “But we’re going to have to find out something about it--now that we’ve got a better picture of its power, it might be easier.”
“We also need to find out who’s after it,” Ocelot pointed out. “Finding that out will probably give us a better crack at getting more info on what its powers are. Gotta figure if they’re after it, they must know something about its capabilities, right?”
Winterhawk nodded. “Probably.” He finished heating the water and dropped the teabag into the cup. “Inefficient as it is, I don’t think we should split up at this point. I’m going to need to do some research, and we should probably call Harry and get him looking into who might be after us. Any other bright ideas, or is that enough to go on for now?”
Ocelot thought about it for a moment. “We could try Trixy,” he said speculatively. “Isn’t she better at that divination stuff than you are?”
“Good man,” ‘Hawk said approvingly. “Hadn’t even thought of her. But let’s take a stab at this research first, before we get her involved. I don’t want to put her in danger.”
Or let anybody else in on this until we have to, Ocelot added to himself, sure that Winterhawk was probably thinking the same thing. “So where are you going to do this research?”
“Normally I’d access the London University system, since that’s the one I know best. All things considered, though, I think I’d prefer to keep this as far away from England as I can. As I said before, it simply wouldn’t do to have that trail lead to me should someone over there decide to pursue it. No, I think the preliminary stuff can be done at the U of W thaumaturgy library--I’ve got a friend there, so it shouldn’t be hard to get in. After that...” He picked up his cup, took a sip of the tea, and set the cup back down on the counter. “After that I think we might be needing to procure the services of a good decker.”
“Harry again,” Ocelot said. “Sounds like no matter what we do, we’re going to have to leave here soon. Can’t stay here forever.” He looks around nervously. “Do you think they can track that thing?”
‘Hawk shrugged. “It isn’t putting out much of a magical signature on the astral, which tends to make me think that it isn’t traceable--at least not easily.” He sighed. “The one thing that’s got me thoroughly baffled about this is still the question of how they found that Toby had the damned thing in his possession. He must have had it for years, so why would they suddenly become so interested in it?”
“Maybe they have the friend,” Ocelot said suddenly, before he even thought.
Winterhawk crossed the kitchen in two quick strides and grasped Ocelot’s arm, his eyes wide. “You may have it!” he said, nodding. “P’raps the companion piece has been lost as well, but if it were found and someone used its power--someone less scrupulous or less careful than we were--p’raps then it would be able to lead them to its counterpart. Yes!”
Ocelot looked around nervously. “So what you’re telling me is that we’re not even safe here, unless this place has a lot more magical protections than I think it does.”
“Unfortunately, if that’s the case, then that’s exactly what I’m telling you.” The mage seemed to have forgotten about his cup of tea. “Come on. Where did you put the staff? We need to get going, and the sooner the better. The longer we stay here, the higher the chance that they’ll trace us. I’d like to be on the offensive for a change, if you don’t mind.”
“You ain’t gonna get any argument from me on that,” Ocelot agreed.
The line was picked up on the first buzz. The voice was curt and abrupt. “Yes?”
There was a pause. “We have lost the target. Virgo and Scorpio are dead. Libra is in critical condition. Target escaped with his companion.”
This time, the pause was on the other end of the line. Finally, the voice asked, “Were you able to obtain any material for a ritual?”
“All right. Return to base, Leo. We will pursue other avenues. He cannot stay hidden forever.”
“Acknowledged. Leo out.”
Ocelot’s vigilance was beginning to tire him out mentally. If there was anything more boring than uneventful sentry duty, it was uneventful sentry duty surrounded by a bunch of crusty academician types who kept giving him the hairy eyeball because he didn’t look like he belonged here. That actually made it worse, because he knew that any one of the crusty academician types could be one of the group that was after the staff.
It was several hours after they had left the safehouse. They’d called Harry again to procure some more practical transportation, as ‘Hawk had flatly refused to ride on the back of Ocelot’s bike anymore. It hadn’t just been a question of reluctance due to fear--although the mage freely admitted to that--but rather that on a motorcycle they were far too vulnerable to attack should their would-be pursuers manage to locate them again. Instead, Harry had provided them with a nondescript sedan that would blend in nicely with the thousands of other nondescript sedans prowling the streets of Seattle. Ocelot’s Triumph was still in the garage of the safehouse; he’d pick it up later when things had calmed down a bit.
Right now, they were in one of the special rooms of the University of Washington library, Thaumaturgy division. Winterhawk had had to do some pretty fast talking to get his friend, who was one of the librarians there, to allow Ocelot to go in with him, but he’d stood his ground and eventually the woman had relented. “Just don’t touch anything,” she had told him, giving Winterhawk a look that clearly said, you’re responsible for him. ‘Hawk had flashed her a smile that had closed the subject nicely.
Now, several hours later, Ocelot almost wished somebody would bother them, just to provide some excitement. Winterhawk sat at one of the tables on the far side of the room, numerous old-style books open in front of him, pounding the keys on a dataterminal at a high rate of speed. Images flashed across the screen, but Ocelot was too far away to make them out. He’d tried looking over ‘Hawk’s shoulder for awhile at the beginning; that had lasted about half an hour until he had determined that the mage wasn’t finding anything useful. After that he had begun pacing, always keeping his friend in sight. The leather bag containing the staff was under ‘Hawk’s chair, wedged between his feet. Ocelot had finally relented back at the safehouse and returned the bag to him; after he had KOed ‘Hawk, he had carefully picked the thing up using the wad of old clothes in which it had been wrapped and shoved it back in the leather duffel with the kind of care he would have used for toxic waste. He hadn’t been tempted to touch it; this level of magic definitely fell into his stay as far away from it as possible category. Just being in the same room with it made his brain itch.
He wandered back over toward ‘Hawk again, giving a dirty look to the strange-looking little man who had already moved twice to get away from him. “Find anything? I don’t think I can take much more of this place...”
The mage seemed distracted, totally caught up in his research. “Possibly,” he murmured. “Nothing about the item per se, but...take a look at this.” He moved one of the old books over to where Ocelot could see it. It was opened to a page that, on closer examination, referred to the quasi-magical rituals practiced in ancient Egypt.
“You think this thing is Egyptian?” Ocelot pulled out a chair, turned it around, and straddled it.
“I don’t think it’s from Egypt...it’s much older than that. But look at this.” He turned the page of the book, and Ocelot’s eyes widened.
The picture that took up half the next page was an old-fashioned flat photo in black and white, but there was no mistaking the fact that one of the objects in it closely resembled the artifact that Winterhawk had pulled out of the leather bag earlier that day. “That’s it...” he said, half to himself.
“Not quite,” Winterhawk told him, but he was nodding. “But damned close. I think it would be reasonable to say that our item is from the same general class of objects.”
“The staff, or crook,” Ocelot said, reading over the mage’s shoulder, “represents the staff a shepherd used to lead his sheep, and is symbolic of the pharaoh’s caring for and leading his people.” Involuntarily he glanced down at the duffel on the floor. “Yeah...that thing would be good for leading, all right.” Looking back up at ‘Hawk, he said, “So you think that’s what this thing is?”
“It’s the closest I’ve been able to come to a guess,” the mage said. “When I tested it back home, I thought I might find that it dated back to ancient Egypt, given its appearance. But as I said, it’s much older than that. And look here at the companion piece,” he added, pointing.
Ocelot turned his attention back to the book. Crossed with the staff was another object that looked rather like a medieval-style flail. “The flail symbolizes a whip, which the pharaoh used to discipline his people.” He took a deep breath. “Oh, great. So this thing’s evil twin is a weapon.”
“This thing itself isn’t exactly a rubber duck,” Winterhawk reminded him. He closed the book with a thump, incurring an annoyed gaze from the strange little man two tables over. “But assuming that my information is correct and there is a counterpart, then it’s a reasonable bet that it might be such a thing. Then again, we could be on a completely buggered tangent and the real answer is somewhere else entirely.”
“Spoken like a true scientist,” Ocelot said sourly. “Do you think maybe we could get out of here for awhile? This place is making me nervous, and we really should be calling Harry about that decker. Not to mention the fact that the sooner we know who’s after us, the better I’ll sleep.”
‘Hawk nodded. He looked reluctant to leave with his research unfinished, but he could see that his sentry was looking like he was about to give up if forced to wait any longer. “All right, let’s go,” he said with a sigh, running his hand back through his hair and then closing up the books on the table and logging out of the dataterminal. “If you don’t mind, though, I think I’d like to meet Harry face to face, rather than doing this over the phone.”
In that, Ocelot was in complete agreement.
“Do you have news for me, Sagittarius?” The voice on the line sounded ominous, as if to say that if the caller did not have information, he had better have a very good reason for calling.
“Yes, sir. You might find this interesting. I’ve been doing some research on the shadowrunner friend of Stone’s, and turned up something...unexpected.”
“His street name is Ocelot. He runs with a high-end team that works for a local fixer named Harry. Other members of the team are ShadoWraith, an elven firearms expert, Joe, a troll samurai...and Winterhawk, a combat mage.”
“Oh? And do you expect these individuals to cause us any problems?” The voice took on a why are you telling me this? tone.
“No, sir...I haven’t finished. The elf and the troll appear to be out of town, but this Winterhawk...he’s the interesting one. Except for a few minor cosmetic details, his description matches that of Dr. Alastair Stone almost perfectly...not to mention the fact that they’re both British.”
There was a long pause as the party on the other end of the line digested this information. When he spoke again, there was a definite hint of satisfaction in his voice. “Thank you, Sagittarius. You have done well. I think you might have given us the leverage we need to accomplish our objective.”