Chapter Twenty-Four

Dante's Inferno wasn't the sort of place that either Winterhawk or Ocelot would have chosen to spend an evening, but a job was a job. If a night of rubbing elbows with the in-crowd and the in-crowd wannabes of the Seattle club set, being subjected to music played far too loudly for human consumption, and dealing with rivers of post-adolescent hormones and waves of post-apocalyptic angst was the price of finding the source of the other half of their growing problem, then so be it.

Apparently they were possessed of sufficient trendiness (bolstered by a generous supplement to the requisite cover charge) that no one looked too closely at them as they entered. Winterhawk, resplendent in a baggy black Euro-cut suit shot through with glowing electric blue threads, led the way through the writhing crowd with more confidence than he was feeling. I'm getting too bloody old for this sort of thing, he told himself sourly as two young women who looked barely out of high school gave him the eye while sidling past. Although I'd love to get a look at the place on the astral. He continued pushing through the crowd, confident that Ocelot was close behind without actually having to look. The weight of the staff was a little uncomfortable, tightly wrapped up and attached to a harness Ocelot had rigged up for him to wear beneath his overcoat. The coat was as baggy as the suit--'Hawk had specifically gone for the oversized look when they had gone clothes-shopping this afternoon, hoping that it would hide the staff from prying eyes. He didn't like having it this close to him, but there was no helping it. The chance that they'd get in carrying a duffel bag or a briefcase (at least without arousing a great deal of suspicion) was low indeed, and the last thing he and Ocelot wanted was a lot of attention right now. As it was, the bouncer at the door had noticed it, but another judicious application of nuyen had quickly convinced him that it was simply a harmless magical trinket that was not even going to come out of its holder for the duration of the evening. "Always carry it," 'Hawk had told the bouncer conspiratorially. "Belonged to me mum. Never leave home without it." The troll had waved him past without another word; undoubtedly, judging from some of the clientele they had already encountered, an eccentric Brit with a stick didn't even register on the night's Weird-O-Meter.

Ocelot had opted for a bit less conspicuous suit--his was charcoal gray and didn't quite fit perfectly over his muscular frame, although it would have taken someone with a good eye to notice. They hadn't had time for any sort of tailoring, and both of them still had no desire to go home. Following 'Hawk in, Ocelot hadn't been surprised when the bouncers had discovered the pistol he had in his jacket; he also wasn't surprised that they didn't catch the monowhip up his sleeve. Almost nobody did. "So," he said, yelling to be heard over the driving beat of the latest techno-angst hit, "now what? Albrecht didn't tell us where this meet would be, except that it was here. We can't check the whole place."

'Hawk nodded. "They're here," he yelled back.

"How do you know that?"

The mage patted his coat in the place where the staff was hidden. "I can feel it. Don't ask me how, but I can. It's--pulling at me. They're here somewhere."

Ocelot's skin crawled a bit at the thought of that. He wasn't at all pleased with the thought of that thing influencing Winterhawk, even in such a beneficial way. "You think they know what they've got, or just that it's something powerful?"

"Don't know. I wouldn't be surprised, though, given what they're trying to do with it."

Ocelot moved up next to 'Hawk, shoving past a small knot of tattooed teenagers. A new thought had just occurred to him. "You don't think they'll-- use it, do you?"

"Let's hope not." Winterhawk's expression was grim. "Especially since we don't have any idea what it does."

"Except that it's probably a weapon." Ocelot didn't look any more pleased about the situation than 'Hawk did.

The two figures remained well back so they wouldn't be noticed in the throng of people, but close enough that they could keep their quarry in sight. "Where do you think they're going?" one asked the other. "This seems an odd place to bring the item..."

"If he even has it with him," the other replied, pausing a moment to concentrate on pushing through the crowd.

"Oh, he has it with him. He hasn't let loose of it yet. There's obviously a reason they're here other than a burning desire to dance the night away--would have been nice if they'd told us what it was."

His companion didn't answer for a moment as he relayed their coordinates to their compatriates in other parts of the club. "Don't worry about that. Just keep them in sight or the boss'll have our heads. We've got people on almost every floor. Whatever they're doing, we'll find out and then we'll make our move."

"You gettin' any more messages from that thing?" Ocelot shoved his way past two men with multicolored hair who were staring into each other's eyes and caught up with 'Hawk.

"We're getting closer. That's all I can tell." Forty-five minutes had passed since they had showed up at the Inferno, and so far they had managed to charm and/or bribe themselves down to the sixth level. The way the club was built, you entered on the top floor and then descended various ramps that led to the lower "circles". Naturally, the lower the circle you were able to attain, the higher your star was (or was perceived to be) among this week's glitterati. All around them, bodies writhed and swayed in time with the driving beat, and infernal-themed decor glowered at them from every angle. The favorite color around here seemed to be black, with red being a distant second. As 'Hawk and Ocelot made their way through, they were treated to the sight of a pretty good cross-section of what the young and wannabe-young of the club scene were into right now: increasingly bizarre tattoos, scars, piercings (some examples of the aforementioned three items which moved, glowed, or otherwise didn't just sit there), deliberately shocking makeup and hairstyles, odd clothing (or lack thereof--Ocelot was held up for a moment as he watched one particular young woman communing with the beat while wearing nothing but a large tattoo, a spiked dog collar, and a big grin), and everything in between. If it could be done to a human or metahuman body, chances are it could be found somewhere in the Inferno.

Normally Winterhawk would have been quite interested in people-watching, and perhaps even finding a place to sit back and observe the place on the astral plane, but right now he seemed to be getting more and more preoccupied as they penetrated deeper and lower into the club. Ocelot caught his arm. "'Hawk?"

"What?" He was obviously reluctant to stop his forward progress.

"Slow down. You're gonna miss something if you keep charging through like this."

"No, I'm not. We're still getting closer. I don't think they're all the way at the bottom, but we have to hurry. I don't fancy marching in on them in the middle of this meeting, do you?"

"Given that we don't know exactly who they're meeting with, no," Ocelot agreed. "But slow down. You're gonna make people suspicious."

The mage slowed down fractionally for about ten seconds, then resumed his old pace. Ocelot sighed and followed. Ice cream, he thought sourly. In my next life, I'm gonna sell ice cream.

"They're picking up speed," the man said to his companion. "Do you think they've spotted us?"

"Don't know." The second man paused to wait for the other to catch up. "Let's spread out and see if we can get closer. It'll be harder to notice us if we separate. Just don't lose 'em."

The man nodded. He was very uncomfortable in the trendy suit he'd been forced to wear to blend in with the crowd. "I hope we get this over with soon. I'm getting sick of chasin' these two drekheads all over town."

His companion didn't answer; he was already moving off to the right flank, trying to close up some of the distance between himself and his objective.

The man sighed and hurried to follow, mirroring the other's actions to the left.


The urgency in Ocelot's voice caused 'Hawk to finally slow his pace a bit, although he did not stop. "What?"

"You gotta stop for a minute. Hang out over here by the railing, like you're watching the chicks down below."

The mage didn't look happy about complying, but he knew by Ocelot's tone that something had changed. He moved over as directed and fixed his gaze on a barely-dressed young woman one level down. "Now...what is it?"

"I think we're bein' followed."

Years of practice kept any reaction from showing in 'Hawk's posture. "How can you be sure?"

"I'm not. But I've seen the same guy three times out of the corner of my eye--once on the first level, once on the third, and once here. Either he's plannin' to ask one of us to dance, or he's followin' us for some reason."

"Shall we try to grab him?" 'Hawk stuck his hand in his pocket, verifying through the fabric of his overcoat that the staff was still where he'd left it.

"Might be more." Ocelot was leaning with his back to the railing, looking sideways at 'Hawk while scanning his peripheral vision. "Anything you can do astrally?"

"Not likely in here, without a lot more to go on. I wouldn't want to leave my body, and without knowing who's following--"

"Okay. We're--shit!" he swore suddenly. The man who had been following suddenly appeared off to his right and several meters back--and he was talking into some kind of device as he approached. Moving far faster than most clubgoers, Ocelot grabbed the mage's arm. "Come on! Looks like he's seen us, and he's callin' in backup!"

As usual when the situation turned grim, 'Hawk didn't argue. Instead he hurried along with Ocelot, glancing back over his shoulder in time to see yet another man peel off from the crowd and begin quickening his pace. "Another one!" he hissed under his breath.

Ocelot's only reply was to increase his speed once again.

They almost made it to the ramp leading down to the seventh level. If they had been moving just a little faster, they might have. But as they approached the pair of sepulchrally-attired trolls who guarded the portal leading to the lower circles, the air was suddenly split by the sound and the impact of a loud


Ocelot, again moving at full jacked speed, locked one arm around Winterhawk's nearest arm and one around the railing of the catwalk as all around them the building swayed, people screamed, and chaos (well, more chaos than previously, at any rate) ensued. As the sound and the shockwave began to fade away, the strident blare of alarms joined the pulse of the beat and the screams of the clubgoers. Some of them were still dancing.

"What the hell was that?" 'Hawk yelled in Ocelot's ear, looking around wildly for the source.

Ocelot didn't answer. "Come on," he said instead. "Things just got fucked. We gotta get outta here."