The Darkness Below

by Eddie Nygma

Judge's Note: This story was very well written, and if I'd been judging on that alone it would have been a serious contender for the top spot. What nudged it from the running was that the author's portrayal of Winterhawk just didn't quite ring right with me. Yeah, he bitches and moans about things, but when the chips are down, he drops the act and does what needs to be done. This story painted 'Hawk as more than a little ineffectual, which didn't work for me. However, as I said, the writing was great and I enjoyed the story overall.

"You must be joking!" Winterhawk's patrician features scrunched in distaste as a malodorous wave washed over him. "You want me to go down there? But I'm wearing patent leather shoes! Bloody hell, Ocelot, this suit is worth nearly two thousand nuyen!" The mage plucked at the lapels of his blazer, an aggrieved look on his face.

Ocelot grinned lopsidedly as he surveyed 'Hawk's charcoal and mist grey Armante original. "Well, it's definitely the right colour for this kind of work. C'mon, 'Hawk, move it." He waved a hand towards the open manhole. "Waitin' won't make it smell any better."

"Two thousand nuyen, Ocelot," Winterhawk reiterated, bringing a sigh from his companion.

"Fine then. I'll pay for the dry-cleaning. After you."

'Hawk grunted irritably. "And for the shoes," he muttered, taking a reluctant step towards the manhole. Crouching down beside it, he placed his hands beside the rim, looking around for a ladder. As his head drifted over the opening, a particularly vile gust of wind filled his nostrils, bringing with it all the rich scents of the Seattle sewers. 'Hawk gagged and staggered back, nearly falling to the street surface. "Bloody hell!" He looked up, fixing Ocelot with an evil look. "Your countrymen need to seriously consider reducing their intake of soy products."

Ocelot's grin was remarkable for its innocence. "Gee, 'Hawk, does it smell bad?"

"Don't push it, Ocelot," the English mage growled. He glared at the ex-ganger for a second, before sighing and seating himself on the edge of the hole. "I'm going to suffocate," he said mournfully as his feet searched for the rungs below. "I just know it. I don't know how anyone could possibly consider working in this filth, let alone living in it."

"Oh, that's easy." Reaching into his pocket, Ocelot produced a pair of small, white objects. "They use these."

"And those are?"

"Nose plugs, of course." Lifting his head, Ocelot tapped the side of his nose, indicating the plugs he already wore.

Winterhawk stared at Ocelot flatly. "And when, may I ask, did you intend to inform me that you had those?"

"Oh, I would've gotten 'round to it eventually." Ocelot grinned and tossed 'Hawk the plugs he held.

"Really. So nice to know." 'Hawk snorted as he pushed the plugs into place. Instantly, his nasal passages were filled by a flowery scent. "Lavender. How charming."

"Thought you'd like it. Now are we gonna go, or what? That vamp won't wait forever."

'Hawk grunted again as he began to make his way downwards. "A vampire hunt in the sewers. Now that's really charming."

Something had told the mage that staying in Seattle after their last job was a mistake, but he'd ignored the feeling of doom. Normally he would have taken the opportunity to return to his home in England for a well-deserved break, but this time he'd decided against it. He'd heard rumours of a magical object of sorts, an ancient, unique statuette, that was hidden somewhere in Seattle – or about to go up for auction, depending on whom you spoke with – and he was very interested in acquiring it; or at the very least, studying it. That meant he had to stay in the city, at least for a while, and so he'd suppressed the little voice telling him that something bad was sure to happen and settled in to do some research.

He supposed he shouldn't really have been surprised when he'd gotten the call from Ocelot, then – not half an hour ago, in fact. Ocelot had never been able to sit still for long and often took on solo jobs when the rest of their team was unavailable. On occasion those jobs got him in over his head and it seemed this was one of those times. So it was that, just as he'd been heading out the door to a Pink Floyd revival concert, he'd taken the fateful call.

Ocelot had been calm as he'd told 'Hawk about the job. Too calm, on reflection. He'd even apologised for interrupting the mage's plans for the evening, but impressed the urgency of the task on him. 'Hawk had nevertheless been reluctant to become involved. Then Ocelot had given the details. Or some of them. 'Hawk had been hooked from the instant he'd heard his friend had been retained to hunt down a vampire. The English mage held a particular antipathy towards the bloodsuckers and hadn't hesitated any longer, only taking the time to grab his mageblade and a few other items of gear before heading out the door. It was only on his arrival at their rendezvous that Ocelot had informed him that the vampire's lair was located in the sewers beneath Seattle.

As he started down the ladder, Winterhawk decided he'd never forgive Ocelot for that.

'Hawk's lips twisted and a shudder ran through his slender frame as his hands came into contact with the slimy rungs for the first time. He didn't even want to think about just what it was that coated the bars, but he found that the instant the thought occurred to him, he fixated on it, morbid speculations running through his mind as to the exact chemical composition of the substance squelching between his fingers. He hurried down as fast as he safely could, only slowing when one foot slipped from a rung. He loosed a terrified gasp and grabbed the bars with white-knuckled ferocity as the fear of falling headlong into the sewage below him overrode his disgust of the ladder. The moment passed quickly, though, as he realised he was in danger of touching the rungs with his face! He pulled back with a yelp, somehow managed to get his foot back into place and scurried the rest of the way down the ladder.

Reaching the base of the ladder, 'Hawk peered down into the gloom below him, a look of pure loathing on his face. It took him a few seconds to steel himself enough to take that final step. "This is just...just...oh, bloody hell!" 'Hawk exploded in as soft a voice he could manage as words failed him. Closing his eyes, he stepped off.

The sensation wasn't as bad as he'd expected, but it was definitely worse than he'd hoped. Something squished beneath his right foot, releasing a pungent stench that nearly overcame the masking of the scented nose plugs. 'Hawk was gasping when Ocelot dropped surefootedly into the sewer beside him. The mage felt his stomach turn queasily as his friend's impact sent a wave of...something spattering across his shoes and trousers. "Did you really have to do that?" he demanded.

Ocelot grinned and shook...whatever it was he'd landed in off his boots, forcing 'Hawk to hop back hurriedly in order to avoid the spray. "Oh, sorry 'bout that, 'Hawk. Better get movin'."

'Hawk shot the ex-ganger a dirty look before turning to move off. Then he hesitated. "Shouldn't you be going first?" he asked.

Ocelot shrugged. "Suit yourself." He brushed past the mage easily and stalked into the depths, his head flicking back and forth in a cat-like fashion as he scanned the area for any danger.

Winterhawk trailed in his friend's wake, his face slipping into what he hoped would not become a permanent grimace. Taking his first deep breath since entering the sewers, he broke into a fit of coughing. "Wonderful," he mumbled mournfully when he could breathe again. "Now I can't smell the air – I can taste it!"

"Quiet, 'Hawk," came Ocelot's soft-voiced reply. The Englishman looked up to see the samurai's back retreating into the shadows ahead of him. He shivered as for the first time the dismal closeness of his surroundings began to encroach on him and scurried after his friend.


Winterhawk thought he'd never been in such a wretched place – and he'd been in many awful places throughout his career as a shadowrunner. He trudged along miserably, plonking his feet down one after the other, only managing to avoid pondering just what it was he was walking through by playing mental games of only slightly less distressing nature with himself. 'Guess which district the effluent is coming from' quickly became his favourite, followed closely by 'How much of my shoes are being dissolved with each step?'

Ocelot wasn't much help at all. He'd taken his position as point man to heart, moving out ahead of 'Hawk and not even responding to the mage's half-hearted attempts at conversation. 'Hawk had given up just a few minutes after they had entered the sewers and his gloomy reflections had soon expanded to fill the void.

For a short while 'Hawk had distracted himself by thinking about the statuette he'd been attempting to obtain, but that had only lasted long enough for him to miss a sudden drop-off in the sewer. He'd come back to the present in time to sense himself falling forward. His arms and legs flailing desperately, he'd somehow managed to save himself from what promised to be a particularly nasty fall. As his feet had come down, waste, human and other, had splashed up the legs of his trousers, soaking them both thoroughly and unpleasantly.

'Hawk had needed a minute to compose himself after that little episode, but Ocelot hadn't seemed to notice, instead continuing to make his steady way in the direction of the vampire's lair. So 'Hawk had hurried on, unwilling to be left behind. And so they'd made their way deeper into the sewers of Seattle.

Winterhawk soon lost track of time. Minutes passed as quickly as hours in the darkness below the city streets – which was to say, not at all. Even with the occasional flash of light through a manhole or grate above them, the darkness seemed almost complete and his cybernetically enhanced vision did little to help. He supposed that the journey must have had much in common with a bad drug trip. His experiences in the sewers soon faded into a confused hotchpotch of images. After a few minutes – or was it hours? – he couldn't even recall in which order the multitude of loathsome events had transpired. The thought occurred to the mage that the concept of prisons was misplaced – if society wished to reform its miscreants, all it had to do was sentence them to labour as sewer workers for a period of time. Even the hardest, most depraved criminal would crack within a matter of days. He just knew it.

So it was that, when Ocelot finally turned and gestured for silence, 'Hawk had no idea how long they'd been travelling for. The ache in his legs told him it mustn't have been a short time in the same moment that Ocelot waved him forward. As the mage approached his friend, Ocelot gripped him by the shoulder and pulled him closer. 'Hawk winced at his touch. "Not so tight," he whispered. "Damn it, Ocelot, you feel like you've had hand razors implanted, or something."

Ocelot smiled apologetically. "Sorry, 'Hawk," he replied, loosening his grasp. "Guess I'm a little tense. Not every day we go after a vamp, huh?" He dusted the mage's shoulder off and Winterhawk grunted absently.

"That's okay. So...what is it?"

"I can hear someone."

'Hawk listened hard, but couldn't make anything out. Of course, that didn't mean there was nothing to be heard. "So?"

"Shhh!" Ocelot clamped a hand over 'Hawk's mouth. He ignored the mage's outraged glare, his expression intent. "We're near the vampire's lair," he finally told 'Hawk.

"Well, you might have said," 'Hawk whispered as soon as Ocelot removed his hand.

"I just did." Ocelot looked into the distance, his expression thoughtful. "All right, 'Hawk. If I remember the map right, there's a branch just ahead. I can use that to get around the vampire. You go in – carefully! – draw its attention, then I'll attack from behind. That should give it somethin' to think about, huh?"

'Hawk's frown was somewhat dubious. "I suppose so – but are you sure that's the best plan? I mean, I'm not exactly a terrifying assault force – that's usually young Joe's job."

"You see Joe around here anywhere?" Ocelot grimaced. "Look, with your magic, you're the only one who has a chance facin' a vamp head on, right? That's why I called you, right? I'll be more useful sneakin' up behind it while it's distracted." He patted the pocket where Winterhawk knew he carried a lethal monowhip. "If we're lucky, that'll be it – even a vamp doesn't come back when you've taken its head off, right?"

"I...suppose so."

"Of course so." Ocelot grinned and looked at 'Hawk steadily. For a moment the mage's startling sapphire orbs and the samurai's pale blue, cat-slitted eyes met. "Okay, 'Hawk?"

'Hawk felt his head swim abruptly. His chiselled features slackened and he felt himself sway from side to side. Ocelot's eyes filled with concern and he reached out, grabbing his friend's arm. "You all right, 'Hawk?" he queried urgently.

'Hawk paused, then nodded somewhat sluggishly. "I...I will be." He coughed, bringing up his hand to muffle the hoarse bark. "Sorry...I guess the air's really getting to me."

Ocelot's expression remained worried, but he slowly nodded his agreement. "Okay...why don't you try to walk it off, huh?"

'Hawk smiled wryly. "That could help." Straightening, he took a deep breath. "As a matter of fact, I'm feeling better already," he observed.

"Well...that's good. All right, I'm goin'. Gimme, say...five minutes, then head on in."

"Sounds good to me." 'Hawk grinned as Ocelot slipped into the shadows. His sudden spell of dizziness had passed almost as soon as it had come on and now he was feeling even better than before. What with everything that had already happened that evening, he was suddenly spoiling for a fight. It would be just the right thing to work out his frustrations. The minutes slipped by as he paced back and forth impatiently and he almost forgot his surroundings.

It was some time before 'Hawk realised he wasn't wearing a watch. He frowned as he looked down at his bare wrist. How long had he already waited? Three minutes? Four? Five? Maybe even more? He didn't know. Should he wait any longer? "One, two...oh, the hell with it," he muttered. Without another word, without another thought, he strode around the corner.

'Hawk's pace picked up as he moved and before he'd travelled a hundred metres he was nearly running, his shoes splashing through the shallow detritus, metahuman waste spattering unheeded over his trousers. He took a turn to the left, then the right, then the left again. As he rounded the final corner, however, he skidded to a halt in astonishment.

Ahead of him sprawled a vast cavern, dark and...evil, for want of a better word. Palpable talons of malignancy reached out for him, clawing for him, and it was only with a tremendous effort of will that he shrugged them off. He could see that he was surrounded, his thermographic vision picking out heat signatures all around the cave. He hesitated for only a second, then loosed a guttural laugh. If it was a fight they wanted, he was more than happy to oblige them.

The closest ones were off to Winterhawk's right, so it was with them he began. Throwing out his hand, he sent a ball of magical energy shooting out towards them. It exploded in their midst, sending bodies flying in all directions. The power of the mana sucked at him, but he simply laughed, rejecting its demands. It was his to direct, to control. He was the magic's master, not the reverse. Ignoring the pitiful shrieks sounding all around him, he sent two more energy balls flying out into his foes' ranks, dropping yet more of them, before they began to close on him.

Suddenly a figure stepped forward, its hands raised defensively. 'Hawk directed a powerful blast in its direction. The figure shuddered, but remained standing. Its hands seemed to part the force of 'Hawk's attack, letting it run off harmlessly. The mage smiled grimly as he saw that. He wasn't sure what the figure's minions were, but it – it had to be the vampire. "At last, a worthy adversary," he whispered.

'Hawk slowly advanced, sending out another magical blast, then another, taking a step for each bolt of power. The vampire weathered his assault, but with ever-increasing difficulty. It faltered as 'Hawk drew ever closer, its upraised hands shrinking back as it weakened. Seizing his opportunity, 'Hawk slammed two bolts at the vampire in quick succession and the monster's defences finally collapsed. One more blast, almost an afterthought, struck the vampire full in the chest and it crumpled to the ground.

'Hawk howled with triumph as he beheld his downed foe. He drew his midnight-black mageblade from its sheath and strode forward to finish the vampire off. It was only when something struck him painfully in the side that he recalled the beast's servants.

'Hawk whipped around, his sword held up defensively. Almost instantly he realised that the majority of his enemies were running from his assault. Most of those who remained were hanging back, apparently terrified by his demonstration of his power and prowess. Only a small handful – five or so – had the courage to approach him. He was unsure what – or which of them – had struck him, but although his side stung, it didn't seem to be a serious injury. And so he grinned, beckoning his enemies on. "Come, taste my steel!" he bellowed fiercely.

In response, the creatures loosed gibbering yowls and rushed towards him. Hawk clenched his teeth and strode forward, swinging his blade to force them back. The pair ahead of him skidded to a halt, then hurriedly retreated as the sword howled past their bellies. Immediately 'Hawk spun, bringing his mageblade around to ward off the enemies he sensed coming up behind him. In their turn, they retreated and 'Hawk continued his circle.

Coming around again, the mage found that, as he had expected, his original opponents were trying to attack his vulnerable back. His sword darted out to his left, spearing one in the hip as it flinched away, and sent it tumbling to the ground. The blade darted back towards the other, but it flowed aside, avoiding the blow with unbelievable ease, and leapt for him. 'Hawk recoiled as the creature's claws stretched out for his face, but he wasn't fast enough. He closed his eyes at the moment of impact, tensing against the tearing agony he knew was coming.

Something heavy and solid slammed into 'Hawk's face and abruptly he found himself lying on the ground, his mind fogged with pain and confusion, staring up at a dimly lit ceiling of stone. The howls of the creatures slowly resolved themselves into words. "'Hawk? 'Hawk! Damn it, 'Hawk, what the hell do you think you're doing?"

'Hawk frowned to himself. Didn't he know that voice, raised so angrily towards...him? A blurred face moved into his field of vision. The mage blinked slowly, bemusedly, as he tried to focus in on whomever was looming above him. "Are you insane, 'Hawk?" the voice demanded.

"No..." 'Hawk mumbled. "No...what? Kestrel?" The image before him finally decided to settle into the features of a furious woman, her short-cropped, white-blond hair framing a determined face dominated by angry green eyes. It was then he realised that it was, indeed, his friend, Kestrel. "What are you doing here?" he asked her, entirely perplexed.

"What am I doing here?" Kestrel's eyes blazed with outrage. "What the frag are you doing here?"

Winterhawk blinked again, his confusion only increasing. "Why, Ocelot asked me to come, of course," he explained helpfully. "He needed my help hunting a vampire." Kestrel's eyes widened as 'Hawk spoke, but he barely noticed as his words continued to spill out almost uncontrollably. "He said he'd flank it while I carried out a frontal assault." A tiny frown creased 'Hawk's lips. "Come to think of it, he should have been here by now. Where is he?"

Kestrel sat back on her heels, her expression stunned. "Ocelot...Ocelot told you that?" 'Hawk nodded eagerly and Kestrel's face whitened. "He brought you here, didn't he? Told you, what, that this is the vampire's lair?"

"Well, yes. Oh, by the by, did I get it? The vampire, I mean?"

Kestrel's eyes were sad as she looked at the mage. "Look around you, 'Hawk." Reaching down, she helped him to sit up. As he did so, his jaw dropped disbelievingly.

He was in a cavern; yes, that was true...but everything else...everything else had been a lie. The cave was dry and clean, well lit and snug. 'Hawk suddenly felt very small as he saw raggedy people – fellow metahumans! – scattered around the grotto, some standing, others sitting or squatting down, and yet others lying on the stony ground, moaning in pain. A chill ran through him as he realised that something was very wrong, a realisation only reinforced as a group of the cavern's inhabitants closed around he and Kestrel, looks of hatred on their faces. "What happened?" he whispered, shrinking back from the vicious glares.

"You don't know?"

"I...I don't..." 'Hawk struggled to sort through his muddled recollections. "I...came in, and..." A look of intense horror suffused his face as his memories and what he now knew clicked together. "That wasn't the vampire and his servants I attacked, was it?" he whispered.

"No, it wasn't." 'Hawk looked up as the menacing circle surrounding them parted and an elderly elf shuffled through the gap. "You're a powerful young one aren't you?" the elf mused rhetorically. "I suppose we're lucky your heart wasn't really in it, aren't we?"

"I don't understand," 'Hawk muttered, his eyes downcast, his voice almost a whine.

"No, I expect you don't." The elf squatted down beside the Englishman, his weathered face creased sympathetically. As he fell silent, Kestrel began to speak again.

"'Hawk, you charged in and started throwing spells around like there was no tomorrow. Most of them weren't even hitting anything, but some of them...connected."

"Fortunately, your spells weren't too powerful and I managed to deflect most of their energy," the elf put in. "I suspect your disorientation interfered with your spellcasting– otherwise we would have been in much more trouble. As it was, some of our people were hurt, but we'll all live."

Kestrel breathed a sigh of relief at the elf's words, but Hawk's puzzled frown remained. "I...I attacked you? But...I'd never try to hurt...well, Kestrel at least," he finished lamely.

"No, I don't expect you would." The elf slowly rose to his feet. "My name is Finvara Brightwind. I lead these people; all outcasts from society like myself. This is our home – at least, until we are forced to move on again. Unfortunately, living beneath the city as we do, we often have rather...inhospitable neighbours. A few weeks ago, some of our people began to go missing. Fortunately for us, Kestrel's friend Gabriel recently heard item in our possession. He approached us, asking to examine it. We agreed, but in return we asked that he help us solve the mystery behind the disappearances. Kestrel..." 'Hawk looked up as Finvara's voice died, to see one of the sewer dwellers frantically waving to get the elf's attention. "If you'll just excuse me a moment – I won't be long." 'Hawk mumbled a mindless platitude of sorts as Finvara rose to his feet and swiftly vanished, the gathered ranks of metahumans melting before him.

"Gabriel was out of town on business when I got Finvara's message last night," Kestrel said, taking up the account, "but he'd told me about Finvara and I knew he'd want me to help. So I got in touch with Ocelot and asked him to help me figure out what was going on. We managed to track whomever – or whatever – is behind it all to a hideout about half-an-hour from here. Ocelot said he'd stay and watch to find out just what we're dealing with and sent me back to let Finvara know what we'd already found. Once he knew what we're up against he was supposed to come back here, not go and call you in."

Winterhawk could hear the worry creeping into Kestrel's tone. "When was that?"

"Nearly three hours ago now."

'Hawk frowned. "And he called me at least an hour ago." The mage shook his head. "This doesn't make any sense."

"I'm afraid it does," Kestrel disagreed. "Instead of coming back to meet with Finvara and I, Ocelot calls you. He tells you he needs your help hunting a vampire and doesn't say anything about Finvara, his people, or I. Then he leads you here, gets you to attack us, and disappears."

"Not like Ocelot at all," 'Hawk said dryly, although his heart was tightening in his chest as he worked through what Kestrel was saying.

"No, not really; and when you add it all up..."

"It sounds like we've been dealing with an imposter, doesn't it?"

"And I'm afraid it means Ocelot's been taken by whatever it is that's been preying on Finvara and his people."

"I'm afraid it's worse than that." Both 'Hawk and Kestrel turned as Finvara silently rejoined them, only his words alerting them to his presence. "Whoever was posing as Ocelot sneaked in while our young friend was distracting us and stole the statuette, killing both of its guards in the process."

'Hawk's expression was stricken. "I'm...I'm so sorry," he whispered. He still didn't know exactly what was going on, but now Finvara was telling him he was responsible for the deaths of two people.

"It's not your fault, my friend," the old elf said kindly, leaning forward to pat 'Hawk on the knee. "You were deceived – and unless I'm gravely mistaken, enchanted as well."

"Tell that to them," 'Hawk replied, looking sombrely at the ragged sewer dwellers, who continued to cast angry glares his way. The mage sighed. "It may not be my fault, but I'm still responsible for it. Without my help, this never would have happened."

Finvara frowned angrily. "That's a very self-centred view, young man. If you could be tricked into helping this imposter, then someone else could have been fooled just as easily. Perhaps it wouldn't have happened as it did, but it still would have happened. You were just an unfortunate pawn."

Winterhawk winced at the elf's choice of words. "Well, I don't think I would have put it like that-"

"That doesn't matter," Finvara snapped impatiently. "The question is, are you going to do anything about it?"

"Of course I am!" 'Hawk struggled to his feet, his jaw set angrily. "Whoever it was who tricked me is probably holding Ocelot captive. I'm not about to let get away with this!" The mage stumbled over his wording, but his intentions came through clearly.

Finvara smiled again, evidently pleased with the reaction he had drawn from 'Hawk. "Then you will help us?"

'Hawk nodded emphatically. "Kestrel, you know where this...imposter is living, right?"

Kestrel nodded. "Give me a minute to get my gear together."

"Okay, go." 'Hawk turned to face Finvara as Kestrel hurried away. "Will any of your people want to come?"

The elf shook his head. "No. We are not warriors, I'm afraid. I don't know if we even would have been able to stop you without Kestrel's help."

'Hawk grunted. "That's probably for the best. Kestrel and I have worked together before. Anyone else might only get in the way." He paused. "This...statuette! Of course! It must be the statuette I've been hearing rumours about! I'll have to..." 'Hawk's excitement quickly faded as the fact that he'd soon be facing the current possessor of the statuette came to the forefront of his mind. "What does it do?" he finished in a more subdued tone.

Finvara smiled gently, but shook his head. "I'm afraid even I don't know. That's why I was willing to let Gabriel examine it. Perhaps someone of his...nature will be able to ferret out its secrets."

"His...nature?" 'Hawk looked at Finvara in astonishment. "What was that?"

Before Finvara could reply, Kestrel returned. "Come on, 'Hawk." She took hold of his arm as he hesitated. "Come on!" The speechless mage was dragged bodily from the cave as Finvara waved goodbye.

It was only when they had left the dry, disused portion of the sewers where Finvara and his folk left that 'Hawk managed to formulate his thoughts into words. "I think he knows that Gabriel's a...well, you know."

"Finvara?" Kestrel nodded, but her determined stride never faltered. "I think he does. He's a strange, old elf."

"Yes...yes, he most certainly is," 'Hawk decided.

'Hawk hadn't realised it at the time, having other things of more importance on his mind, but the smell of the sewers was much diffused within the confines of Finvara's cavern. When he and Kestrel returned to the dark, dank reaches of the sewer system on the other hand, he most certainly noticed. His face screwed up as the stench assaulted him once more. Steeling himself, however, he ignored it and forged ahead. Ocelot – his friend – was in danger and only he and Kestrel could save him. 'Hawk wasn't about to let a bad smell doom Ocelot.

'Hawk and Kestrel splashed onwards, nearly running in their haste to get to Ocelot. The journey was much different for 'Hawk this time. It was just as interminable as previously, yet for entirely different – and entirely unselfish reasons. His friend was in danger and every minute – every second – was one more in which something dreadful could happen to the ex-ganger. Kestrel's mind was occupied with their route as she led them through the sewers, her eyes intent on each bend, each new path. 'Hawk, on the other hand, had nothing to occupy him but his fears.

When Kestrel finally slowed, 'Hawk practically exploded in relief. "Are we there?" he asked, his voice hissing in the sudden silence.

Kestrel shushed him. "Quiet, 'Hawk." A look of unease passed quickly over her face. "Ocelot...he should be over there if nothing's happened," she said, pointing out what 'Hawk could barely make out as a crack in the wall of the sewer pipe. Kestrel's reluctance to examine the niche was obvious and 'Hawk drew a shaky breath. "Wait here," he told her.

Creeping across the sewer as quietly as he could manage – which wasn't particularly quiet, considering he was walking through at least an inch of waste throughout his trip – he peered into the crack. It was deep, going back farther than he could see – and it was empty. 'Hawk reached past the shattered edges of the pipe and lightly touched the dirt beyond. It was compacted, as if someone had leant against it for some time. But that someone was no longer there.

Turning, 'Hawk looked back to Kestrel and shook his head sombrely. She didn't respond, instead stealing across the pipe to join him. "He's gone," she said flatly and 'Hawk simply nodded. Kestrel sighed heavily. "Then we're going in," she concluded.

"Which way?" 'Hawk didn't ask if she was sure, if there was anything else they could try first. He knew what had to be done.

Kestrel half-turned, pointing over her shoulder. Part of the way around the bend just ahead lay another breach in the sewer wall. This one was much bigger, however, easily large enough for an average human to pass through without ducking. It was easily within sight from where they stood, telling 'Hawk that Ocelot had picked the ideal place to watch from – almost ideal, he corrected himself after a moment. After all, the samurai had been taken.

Again Kestrel took the lead. She held a weapon now, a compact submachine gun, and her expression was resolute – and angry. 'Hawk almost pitied who- or whatever had taken Ocelot. They crossed the few, short metres to the hole in seconds, taking up positions on either side. Their eyes met for a second, then Kestrel was spinning in, 'Hawk fractionally behind her.

Kestrel's gun tracked across the room, locking onto a figure that stood before them. She was squeezing the trigger when she realised the figure wasn't moving, as it had been tied to a thick pole in the middle of the room. She lifted the muzzle of the SMG at the last second, sending a short burst scything into the rocky ceiling.

"Well, that was almost very messy." Laughter, powerful and ironic, sounded from the darkness beyond the chained figure. "I'm almost disappointed you missed, Kestrel. Would you care to try again? I'm sure Ocelot won't mind."

'Hawk gritted his teeth angrily at the mocking voice. "Who are you?" he demanded.

"Oh, 'Hawk, I'm so disappointed. Don't you recognise your dear friend Ocelot when you see him?" A light suddenly flared above them, leaving 'Hawk and Kestrel blinking. When their eyes cleared again, they found themselves staring at the scene before them. Gagged and chained to the pole, Ocelot stared at them, his eyes filled with impotent rage commingled with hope. Beside him, with an arm about his shoulders, stood...Ocelot. The unchained Ocelot – the imposter, without a doubt – smiled at them smugly. "Truly lovely to meet you, Kestrel. Ocelot's told me so much about you. And you, 'Hawk...well, that really a nice suit you have. I hope I can get the stains out." Abruptly, the imposter sighed. "Honestly, Ocelot, I don't know how you can live with this ponytail. It's so cumbersome." His body seemed to quiver, then melted into that of a pale, dark-haired man, attired somewhat like Ocelot, in jeans and jacket. A wide smile surmounted his thin features, revealing fangs almost an inch! long. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Vincenzo di Lucca. You may call me Vincenzo. Of course, that means I'll have to call you dinner."

"You are a vampire," 'Hawk breathed.

"Well, of course. Duh, 'Hawk." Vincenzo scratched his jaw. "I find that lies usually work best if there's at least an element of truth in them."

"So you told me Ocelot needed my help hunting you down."

"And he did. He did indeed." Vincenzo grinned. "I mean, really, would he be in this situation if he didn't?" The vampire laughed.

Kestrel took the opportunity to whisper a few words. "Hit him, 'Hawk. He's too close to Ocelot for me to shoot him."

"Not yet," 'Hawk responded, his lips barely moving. "We need to get him away from Ocelot, where we can both attack him."

Vincenzo's laughter died abruptly and he bared his fangs. "What are you two whispering about?" he yelled. "Don't do that! It's not polite!" His apparent good cheer returned almost instantly as he inched forward. "You know, 'Hawk, you've been very helpful to me. You were a marvellous distraction, and now you've brought me dinner. How should I thank you for that?" Vincenzo giggled and his dark eyes glinted wildly. Saliva dripped unnoticed from the corner of his mouth.

'Hawk grimaced in revulsion. "You're insane," he realised.

The vampire shrugged. "Quite possibly. That kind of thing tends to happen when you live in the sewers as long as I have." Vincenzo's face twisted angrily and he took a step forward. "But you really shouldn't draw attention to other people's afflictions in public, 'Hawk. How would you like it if I called you...oh, I don't"

"Umm...I have eyes."

"Easily rectified." Vincenzo took another step, then smiled. "But, yes, you have been rather helpful. I really should reward you for that...but how?" One more step brought the vampire even closer. "Oh, I know! I'll kill you first. That way you don't have to watch your friends die."

Without another word, Vincenzo leapt forward. Kestrel whipped her SMG up, stitching a burst across the vampire's torso, but Vincenzo ignored her fire. Landing before her, his hands snapped out with blinding speed, grabbing her by the arm and slinging her across the room. She crashed into the wall heavily and slumped to the ground – dazed, if not unconscious.

While the vampire was distracted, however, 'Hawk quickly wove together the threads of a spell and tossed it off. The mana bolt blasted into Vincenzo with all the power of the mage's formidable will behind it, but the vampire barely wavered. Instead, he grinned. "You'll have to do better than that, 'Hawk." His hand blurred as it lashed out, taking 'Hawk on the point of the chin and sending him staggering back.

Gathering himself again, 'Hawk risked a quick look around. Kestrel was out of it and Ocelot was no help at all, of course, which meant it was all down to him. He sighed, then threw another mana bolt at the vampire. This time, Vincenzo held out a hand and the spell dissipated before it even reached him. "Gee, 'Hawk, I guess you're not the only mage around here," he observed snidely.

'Hawk gritted his teeth, fighting down a sudden wave of fear. It didn't seem that his magic was going to be much help against this particular foe, which only left him one hope. He retreated hurriedly out of Vincenzo's reach, then dragged his mageblade from its sheath. "Laugh this off, fang-job," he growled.

The black sword whistled through the air as the pair exchanged strikes and parries. 'Hawk's sword bit into the vampire's flesh whenever it struck, but that was a rare occurrence, as Vincenzo skillfully turned the blade aside, responding with flashing swipes of his claws that put the mage on the defensive again.

'Hawk blocked a low cut, then a high one – only the second blow was a feint. He only realised that as Vincenzo darted forward, slamming into his chest with tremendous force. 'Hawk cartwheeled back, flying through the hole in the wall of the sewer pipe. His eyes shut tightly – half in pain and half in dread – the mage flopped gracelessly to the ground. He managed to retain the presence of mind to keep his eyes and mouth shut as he splashed into the fetid liquid, but he could do nothing to save himself. A horrible second was spent with his face submerged, then he bounced back to his feet, an amazing feat inspired by unadulterated disgust. The mage stumbled back, almost losing his footing again in the slippery conditions. Shaking his head, he cleared away the worst of the mess, before wiping his face on his sleeve. Looking down at himself, 'Hawk bit back a groan. He lifted his head towards Vincenzo and saw the vampire emerge from the hole, a mocking grin on his face. "Right, that! is it. Think that's funny, do you?"

"Terribly," Vincenzo agreed.

'Hawk nodded his head, his filthy features twisted in an angry smile. Whipping his sword up, he loosed an enraged bellow and charged forward.

Vincenzo blocked the first blow, then the second, but 'Hawk was relentless, gripped by the throes of a nigh-berserk fury. The third strike took Vincenzo in the shoulder, nearly severing the limb. Vincenzo gasped and staggered back, but 'Hawk didn't stop. "Why-" he demanded, punctuating his words with a sweeping cut, "couldn't you-" a straight thrust, "live in the graveyard-" downward slash, "like any normal-" low cut to the legs, "self-respecting-" feint, and- "vampire!" 'Hawk's final thrust, powered by every ounce of his considerable rage, drove straight through Vincenzo's ribcage. The vampire shuddered, his eyes going wide. One trembling hand reached out for 'Hawk, then dropped as Vincenzo went limp.

Winterhawk let the dead vampire slide from his blade, then simply stood there, drawing in deep, shaking breaths as he stared at the body. Eventually he shook his head and stepped over the corpse. He still had friends to help.

A sigh of relief came to 'Hawk's lips as he ducked through the hole and saw Kestrel removing the gag from Ocelot's mouth. "What, don't I merit any assistance?"

Kestrel turned somewhat unsteadily, but the smile she flashed at 'Hawk was genuine. "I didn't want to spoil your fun, 'Hawk. You were doing fine."

Ocelot grunted as the gag fell away, then nodded his head. "Great job, 'Hawk," he agreed hoarsely. "Pity, though. Would've liked a shot at that bastard myself." The samurai's lips stretched into a wide grin as 'Hawk moved into the light, but he quickly smothered the expression. Not before 'Hawk caught it, however.

"Oh, so you think that's funny, too, do you?" the Englishman asked sourly. "Well, let me just remind you that you promised to pay my cleaning bill."

Ocelot blinked for a second, then tried unsuccessfully to kill a smirk. "'Hawk, I never said that."

"What? Of course you...oh. No. Bugger." 'Hawk's expression sank into one of extreme petulance. "That wasn't you, was it?" The mage slapped a hand to his forehead, then jerked it away again, looking at it in distaste. "Bloody hell!"

Neither Kestrel nor Ocelot could contain themselves and burst out laughing. 'Hawk glared at them for a second, then turned and stalked back into the sewers. "I'm going home," he muttered. Stepping through the hole, he trod on something soft. His foot sank down, then a flood of foul-smelling liquid cascaded into his shoe. 'Hawk whimpered.


(c) 2000 Eddie Nygma. Used with permission.