Debts

by shapcano


Dedicated to some people who care:

To my chummer Aislinn, whom I owe for getting me back on track, because she cares enough to help.

To my chummer shadorat, whom I owe for demonstrating how it should be done, because the rat cares enough to do it right every time.

With an acknowledgement to Digger who inspired the story with his plot suggestion in the Shadowrun Archive.

Thanks, guys!


Hey! This serial follows the lost boys stories listed above it. Reading them in order may make the story clearer. Or not.


"Sensei, excuse me, but we need ya for a conference out here" the dwarf said after knocking on the door to the Physical Adept's room. The flute music within immediately stopped and a few seconds later the door opened. Framed in the doorway was a 6-5, 215 lb. human male. Short brown hair, bright blue eyes, regular features, no visible scars. The face was handsome enough, but lacked the distinguishing characteristics to identify it with a particular racial group. At the moment it bore a look of inquisitiveness.

"Is there trouble, Lug?" he asked the dwarf.

The muscular figure's face was unreadable. The glinting silver eyecovers that shielded the cybernetic repair work the Gillette had required after an unfortunate encounter with some insect men, added to the mystery by keeping many subtleties of expression unreadable. Only the armorer's long time partner, the swordsman and fellow street samurai, Hamon, might have been able to decipher the dwarf's mental state. Unfortunately, the master of the paired Katanas' usual method of communication was through Lug, so the stocky figure's inscrutability remained impenetrable.

"I dunno. Hamon, Itami and Mouse have somethin cookin. Dey just said ta get you and Doc and meet dem in da kitchen."

"I'll get Doc, if you like", the phys ad offered.

"No disrespect, Sensei, but the elf's in dere watchin old vids. You go and it's more likely you'll end up watchin with him, than you'll get him to come down. I'll get him."

Acknowledging with a guilty smile that the armorer was probably right, Glendower bowed to the dwarf's wisdom and headed down to the Warehouse/Headquarters kitchen.

When Lug got to Doc's quarters he found the mage staring pensively at a blank telecom screen. The 2 dimensional black and white film being projected on the blank wall continued to run unobserved. Some guy in a sombrero was singing "...I've lost my shirt, I've lost my shirt, I can't be happy without my shirt...."

Lug called out several times "HEY, Doc!" before the elf turned to see him. If Owen was handsome in a generic way, Doc had the high powered good looks associated with Sim stars. His white Mohawk, green eyes and sculpted elvish features were perfect enough to turn heads. Those features were currently marred by a look of distraction.

"Yes?" the mage asked.

"We got somethin brewin. Can you come down to da kitchen?"

"Alright,"

Oh, drek. He's ignoring his movie and answering in single words. Somethin is definitely up. I got the feeling this is going to be one of them interesting days. Lug thought as he and Doc made their way down to the kitchen.


".....so we taped it to a drone, one of Itami's floaters, and he sent it way, way up, and then Baboom! Huge explosion. I'm....uh....sorry. I just saw it was marked important and brought it in. I....I...coulda killed us wit dat stupidity, I ...just...uh....."

"Hey, Mouse, I told ya, it wasn't like anybody was hurt, and you'll know better next time because this is a lesson that will stay with ya." Itami said.

As Hamon nodded, Owen said "Yes, Mickey. With Itami's prompting you called 'I adjust' before the move was recorded and the game was lost. Null perspiration, chummer. The question now is, who is sending us fan mail?"

Itami answered, "Unless it's one of the few survivors of the High Hats, I don't think it was for me. The 88's aren't happy with me, but they just don't seem the c-12 types. Unless they've changed, I could see them blowing themselves up, but this package was too sophisticated to be their handiwork."

"How so?" Owen asked.

"Well, I don't think it was just on a timer. The explosion occurring four minutes after the package was brought inside is just too big a coincidence if that's the case. I think the timer was activated as a backup when the package was lifted. I think the prime detonation method was supposed to be opening the envelope." Pointing to the trid screen, the ork rigger said "I also ran a search engine over the front camera vid. Our delivery boy drove up in a Westwind, which was outta the price range for the 88s I knew." Itami activated the screen which showed a green, low light camera image of a larger than man sized figure in slouch hat and long coat exiting the car, placing the envelope without touching the fence, re-entering the car and driving off.

Mouse added, "I guess it could be a corp after me for revenge because of the decryption program..."

"Nah," Lug said. "C-12 costs money and there's no profit in killing us now. Why spend the money for a hit at this point? It's possible if the slots from ITC are still alive, but I'd think they'd be more concerned with survival than revenge. It is worth the corp's time to ice those clowns rather than have them go public with how they made several AAA's look bad, but this doesn't feel like a corp job. Too much left to chance. What if we never notice the thing? We usually go in and out through the loading doors in a vehicle. How long would that have sat there before we even saw it? Corps, in my experience, are less patient and more efficient. Want to have a complete report for tomorrow's staff meeting and 'still waiting for our letter bomb' isn't a corp answer."

"Now Hamon and I know a couple of people who could put this sort of thing together and one who may not like us enough to try." Getting a nod from his partner, Lug said, "A certain elf demolition specialist named Drake strongly disagreed with our decision against torturing a captured sec guard for information when we were on a run a while back. He took our rejection of his plan personally and his oars are far enough outta the water to think this was a good idea. If it's him, we can expect to find more of this sort of fan mail in the future."

"I don't know", Owen said. "It's a possibility, but if you or Hamon were the targets, why not put your names on it to insure that you opened it. 'Important' may be a way of targeting all of us, thinking we'd gather around to open the envelope, or...."

"Or it would be aimed at you, boss, as the person who would get an important package for the group." Itami finished. After a moment of silence as the group thought about other potential bomb senders, Owen said "What about you, Doc?"

"Hmmm, oh uhm, yes."

"Doc?"

"Sorry, continue, please."

Shrugging, Owen said, "I probably have the largest group unhappy with me. Fuchi may have learned of my role in getting the star the information on their ghoul experiments, but I agree with Lug's assessment that this is less competent than usual for a corp hit. This is also not personal enough a calling card for the Mafia with whom I have had disagreements in the past. The federal faction whose plans we forestalled? Also unlikely. No, it might be the survivors or the families of any number of unfortunates I have dispatched in my travels. Remnants of the Sandmen, or the Wetboys, Night Hunters, High Hats....... by the Powers, this is depressing. I suppose I'd also include Humanis...."

"Why those fraggers, Boss?" Mouse asked.

"Well lets just say that we haven't exchanged Christmas cards since I robbed a chapter house, which was later destroyed, fought at a training center, which was also destroyed and robbed a Regional big wig before his chapter house in Newstead, N.J. was destroyed."

"Jeez, Boss. I'd love to hear some a dose stories." Mouse said.

"Perhaps, another time Mickey. When I feel a need to punish myself by reliving the carnage I've left in my wake." The phys ad said pensively.

"Hey, Doc!" Lug exclaimed. "Sensei's taken over the distracted-hero-haunted-by-his-past role. That means you gotta quit doing it and go back to being the gabby one."

Amid the group's chuckles, Doc mumbled, "Sorry, lost in thought...."

"Unfamiliar territory, eh?" <more chuckles> "Wanna buy a map?" Lug continued.

Finally Doc snapped out of his reverie saying "Well minimus, should I find myself in need of a pathfinder in the airy maze of my own musings, I will certainly seek a better qualified Chingachook than yourself. Perhaps even someone capable of counting to 11 without moving their lips or removing their shoes."(This was followed by a chorus of "Oooooohs" from the lost boys and a grinning nod from Hamon.) "I apologize to the gentlemen among us and, oh, what the hell, to you too, squat, dark and ugly, for my inattention. I'm afraid I will not be participating in unraveling the enigma of the explosive missive, as I have received a call from someone who was once very special in my life and who is in need of aid. I wish you the best in this latest adventure...."

"Whoa! Hold on there, pointy ears." Lug interrupted. "Just because you're a high brow snob, in love with the sound of your own voice, doesn't mean that we won't help ya. You just gotta crawl a little and......."

"Crawl? Crawl?! Why you pea brained......."

"Doc" the Phys ad said in a quiet voice, stopping the elf's rant before it began. "I believe that Lug was simply snapping us out of our introspection. He got you with his taunting and he got me by deliberately provoking a silly verbal battle." After a quick nod to the dwarf, Owen continued "He was correct in saying that we are a team and that we all owe each other. Whatever the problem is, we'd all like to help."

After a moment of silence Doc said to Lug "Thank you, my friend. And thank you all, but I don't know what exactly the mission involves. I just know that a woman I knew a long time ago called me here and asked me for my help. I..... we need to rendezvous to learn the particulars of her request in..." consulting his antique Rolex watch, "precisely two hours. The fact that someone from my distant past was able to get in touch with me here would lead me to suggest that, pending a determination of how exactly she learned my number, we consider this location a compromised base of operations and take as much equipment as we possibly can with us. Since we may be compelled to conduct our affairs sans the accustomed resources of this luxurious domicile and since our activities are further complicated by the mystery currently under discussion, it would be apropos ......"

"English, Doc." Lug cried.

With a look of exasperation to the heavens, the elf thumped his chest and said "UGH. Dis place no secret. Bad guys come here. We go. Get job. Take all stuff with us. Bad guys maybe follow. Make job harder. We be ready." Doc then commenced scratching himself like an ape to the amusement of the team.

"My good fellow, may I express my delight at your pithy summation of the strategic parameters of the impending situation." Lug said with a grin as the lost boys howled.

"If Abbott and Costello are quite through," Owen said with a chuckle. "The point is well taken. Heavy armament, full gear. We may get separated from our rolling stock and need to be able to survive. Itami, you and Doc work out security for the building. Back here in 10 minutes. Mickey, you go with Lug. He'll fit you out with some armament and armor. 10 minutes. Hamon, you and I need to go over strategy for a mobile team. Let's go."


"I told you that letter bomb thing would never work! First of all, one of his pet tuskers picked it up, and second, he launched your 'Tamper proof, Xray proof, unopenable package' into orbit before it went off, letting everybody know that a bomb attempt had failed. If you'd listened to me....."

"SHADDAP! Fraggin noise is makin my ears bleed. You ladies wanta fight about da fraggin fireworks, do it after you're outside a my fraggin car. We didn't ice da target, the fragger knows we tried and I gotta tell Mr. Smith how bad we screwed up. Now shut the frag up and let me think."

Thinking was not the strong suit of the hulking figure behind the Westwind's wheel. J. Henrison or John Henry as he was known to his fellow Humanis clubbers, had risen in the ranks of the policlub more for his ability to use other's heads than his own. He used these heads (primarily belonging to Metahumans) for substitute punching bags, soccer balls and the occasional doorstop. On this assignment he had been warned, however, that if he used his usual methods he would likely find his own head removed from his 6'11, 340 lb. hulking body. Mr. Smith had even given him a pistol with the instructions "If you have a thought about attacking the target using only your muscles, do the organization a favor, put this in your ear and blow the thought right out of your head. It will be quicker, less painful, and you'll reveal less about us." Since Mr. Smith had never been known for his sense of humor, John Henry understood that his leader was telling him that the usual method of mano a mano physical attack on his target would be suicidal so he shouldn't do that. Which is why he had taken Boomer's plan on the letterbomb over Ivy's objection. Ivy, who insisted on being called Ninja, was the least silent "assassin" John Henry had ever seen. The old UCAS ex-WAC might be hell with her long gun, but she had opinions on everything, was never wrong, and loved to share her hindsight at an ear splitting level. More than once he'd caught Boomer, Fast Eddie Felson, the Hanson brothers and even Little O looking at her with murder in their eyes.

Da slitch keeps this up, somebody's gonna cack her noisy ass John Henry thought. But that don't help me explain to Mr. Smith why we failed to take out the target. Fraggin plan sounded fine. Double trigger fail-safe and all, but the target must have figured out what was goin on and sent the surprise to heaven before it went off. I wonder if he magicked it to find out what was inside. Frag! I wish we had more magic than just Little O. The dweebs ok for healing spells but he's no combat spell worm. Drek! At least we know where their home base is. Now how do I explain this frag up to Mr. Smith?


"....so between our machinist's technological wonders and my own magical additions, 'neverland' is about as secure as we can make it. Knowing your own hesitation about the use of deadly force and it's consequences when accidentally applied to the merely curious, Brother Hanzo and I have established a ear splitting alarm and recorded vocal warnings before any of our, uh, nastier surprises go active. Does this meet with your approval, oh conscience-stricken strategist?"

"Hmmm" Owen said as he examined the list of magical and technological security. "I suppose for a ten minute job....." As both lost boys began to take umbrage, Owen grinned and continued "No, no. I was kidding. It's great. Excellent job." When the rigger and mage did not appear entirely mollified, Owen said "In fact it's better than great. Fantastic. The single most brilliant building defense I have ever seen. You've anticipated absolutely every possible contingency in the most efficient yet tasteful, no, artistic manner....."

"Ok, boss, Ok. We get the point." Itami said.

Doc frowned and said "Itami, old sport, just because your tired of basking in our leader's adulation does not mean that everyone is satiated. If you would care to continue, friend Owen, I believe you were to the point of recognizing the art in the plan...."

"Ah, Doc, much as I can think of nothing more enjoyable or satisfying than spending the day telling you how brilliant your plan is, duty calls. Perhaps another time." Owen said as he pointed at the approaching Lug and Mouse.

"Well," Lug began, "unless he deliberately attempts to get his fool head blown off, Mouse should survive. Since I ain't had time to do much testing with firearms I gave him a Browning Max power for a pistol and a Franchi SPAS-22 for his long gun. As you can see, his deck's got a reinforced Kevlar case, in the event he uses it as a bullet shield again and I've cobbled together enough armor that he should survive anything but a solid hit from a .50 caliber. Best I could do in 10 minutes."

"You look like you're ready for Urban Brawl. How's it feel, Mickey?" Owen asked

"Kinda heavy, but I'm ok."

"One word of caution, Mickey. You still need to stay out of the line of fire, just like before. Much as I trust Lug's evaluation, you step up at the wrong time, thinking that armor will protect you, you will get your fool head blown off. Think of your armor as only a little protection from ricochets and you'll be more likely to survive."

"Alright, gentlemen, Hamon and I have reviewed some strategy and we believe that the best course of action is to go for flexibility. This means the Brumby, the Jackrabbit and the SAAB. The Roadmaster would make a better base, but damaged as it is, I'm afraid it will be too conspicuous.....

"Boss," Itami interrupted. "Give me some muscle and twenty minutes and I can have it fixed up good as new. It's a much better mobile base than the Brumby, and it's big enough for a couple of bikes, in case we need real flexibility."

"But who is going to set up your security system if you're fixing the back of the truck?" Owen asked.

"Let Abbott and Costello do it. Doc's gotta do the magic drek anyway and Lug's been around enough to know what to do. Besides he can entertain Doc. You and Hamon and Mouse can bang the back of the truck into shape and I'll...I'll supervise."

"Have we got the time before your rendezvous, Doc?" The phys ad inquired.

"Yes." the mage answered. "The meeting place is about 40 minutes away, so we should have time."

"Ok, guys, you heard the supervisor. Let's get to it."

As the group began moving towards their assignments, Lug noticed Mouse was shaking his head. The dwarf sam paused and asked, "What's wrong?"

"The Boss came up with a plan with Hamon, cause they're the strategists and then at a word from Itami, he just....dropped it. Wasn't his plan any good? When you're the leader, don't you get to tell everybody what to do?"

"Like I said, Mouse, the best qualified in the area is the one we gotta listen to. Itami knows what's involved in fixing the truck. If he says that it can be done in 20 minutes, and that we should use it, he's the expert and we do what he says. Being the leader doesn't mean having the biggest ego. It means doing what's best for the team. You watch and see if Sensei doesn't do the grunt work with a will since that is what's needed. The leader's also gotta listen to the experts. Anything else is just stupid."


Ten minutes before the appointed moment, a largely repaired Roadmaster and a pair of cars pulled up in front of the gate to the palatial estate. Doc, driving the SAAB Dynamit 778 TI led the caravan. When a large and alert uniformed sec force appeared from thin air with guns at the ready, Doc explained that he had been invited and that the rest of the team was with him. The Elf woman who immediately called the house for instructions was not happy about the unexpected visitors and even less pleased when she was instructed to admit them to the estate without any kind of security screening. She would have been downright furious if she knew that the high flying wolfhound drone which had been making wide undetected circuits around the outer perimeter of the estate was relaying the images of this encounter to a hidden rigger.

Following a pair of heavily armed Trolls, the lost boys were conducted through the richly appointed hallways of the mansion. After a brief wait in the "music room" their hostess, a tall, beautiful, elf woman with long blonde hair, swept into the room.

"Doc," she said, "Thank you so much for coming. It's very good to see you after so long. I......I need you help."

"Sara" Doc acknowledge without moving towards his hostess. "Allow me to introduce Mouse, Itami Hanzo, Lug, Hamon and Owen Glendower." He said, indicating each of the lost boys in turn. "You sounded quite desperate on the comm. Please tell us what problem would cause you to call me."

Nodding to each of the lost boys as they were introduced, the beautiful blonde elf woman seemed to be brought up short by the accusatory tone of Doc's question. After a lingering pause she said:

"My...my child has been taken. Galgra had excellent security in place, but apparently the kidnapper hired a first rate shadow team which penetrated the safeguards and took my child. Galgra's duty to my house is the only thing that has kept him from either committing suicide over the shame of his failure, or rushing off to retrieve the egg himself. It was Galgra who suggested that I contact you, Doc. He offers his life to you as the blood price for my child."

At the first mention of Galgra's name, Doc's fists began to show whitened knuckles. When Sara's explanation finished, he rasped out "Details" through clenched teeth.

"The attack took place at 11:00 last night. I was out of the country at the time. The kidnappers apparently employed a powerful earth elemental to tunnel under wards that surround the property and past security. Galgra estimates a team of at least 4 but probably no more than 8. They came up, in through the basement and began moving through the house. My....child was kept in a concealed and warded room at the center of the house, but the magic user got through nearly all of the wards without being detected which means that somehow he had help. From the looks of things, one of the shadowrunners touched the egg prematurely, tripping a spell trap which reduced him to slime and set off the alarms. As security attempted to respond, the decker, who had rascalled all of the house's internal monitors, set off the main gate's alarms and the rigger wrested control away from Galgra's security rigger and forced the majority of security's attention on the main gate. Tano rushed down to the room and..... well, she gave her life, taking two of the runners with her. In the outer chamber, she must have blown the decker away with her grenade gun, because my people are still cleaning up the traces as there wasn't enough left to identify it's sex. Ironically, the deck seems untouched. Then, as Galgra reconstructs it, she began fighting with her spear for fear on damaging the egg. She managed to kill a heavily cybered troll in combat, but Galgra thinks that another member of the shadow team blew her arm off in the midst of her fight. The troll crushed her head with his dying blow and then his own head exploded from some sort of cranial bomb. It was also powerful enough to leave us very little to work with, other than mangled oversize cyberware, in identifying the remains."

"The shadowrunners then grabbed my child and retraced their path to the basement, where they took the egg back down their hole. Galgra has since executed the security rigger who failed. His security people tried to follow the kidnappers, but the earth elemental closed the hole behind them and there was no way to follow that trail. I was summoned, but upon my return I could not establish any sort of link with my child. It's like the egg is being hidden behind some powerful magic veil or ward. I.... I can't penetrate it or even locate it. I need help, Doc. Will you save my child?"

Doc's eyes flashed briefly and then softened as he addressed the blonde woman. "You knew that answer before you started, didn't you? Of course, I'll do what I can. But you keep that....that...." Pausing to take a deep breath and compose himself, Doc continued "Keep Galgrathandrien the hell away from me or I will kill him, and I won't need his noble sacrifice as a blood price to do it."

"Thank you, Doc," came the soft voiced reply.

"You mentioned that the opposition hired a shadow team. I'd guess that means you haven't gotten a ransom demand and that you have some idea who may be behind this. You'd better give us whatever you've got, including guesses and the reasons behind your deductions", Doc said.

"No, we haven't been contacted at all. The egg is due to hatch within the next 100 hours, so there is little time. I had been approached several times in the past by a mage named S'ssral the black. He was desperate for a sample of my feathers, talon clippings, anything. I have no idea how he learned about my egg, but the man is not sane. I....I can't bear to think about what he might do with my child." The carefully constructed facade began to crack as the woman attempted to hold back tears. "Please, Doc. I...I need...."

Doc moved toward the sobbing woman and obviously wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her, but some internal struggle prevented him from doing anymore than placing a hand on her shoulder as he softly said "Don't worry, Sara. We'll find your child"

The elf mage straightened and asked his team mates: "Any questions?"

When Hamon made a gesture that looked like someone working a comm unit, Doc remembered to ask "By the way, Sara, how did you know how to reach me?"

"Galgra had the security people find it. He seemed very embarrassed that it took them so long to find you. Why?"

"Hmm....what? Oh, uh, never mind. We'll get moving now."

"Doc.....thank you. Thank you all."

"Wait until we've done something. Then you can thank us" Doc said as he led the team back to their vehicles.


Standing at the front door, Sara was perplexed when the lost boys did not re-enter their vehicles. At Doc's insistence, Itami had begun scanning the vehicles for bugs. After several minutes when the team had still not re-boarded, Sara asked "Is there a problem?"

"No. Your hospitality is much as I remember it." Doc answered, "We'd just prefer not to take anything out that we didn't bring in."

Coloring slightly at the Elf's reference to their past, Sara asked "What do you mean?"

Doc brought over the handful of tracking devices that Itami had already removed from the vehicles. "I mean these", he said. "They are tracking devices. Installed no doubt by the same person who suggested that you ask for my help. This way he can make sure that when I extort greater and greater amounts of treasure for the safe return of your child, as I doubtless will, being a goronagit (Barbarian), a rinelle (rebel) and a shadowrunner, he will be able to find me and dash to the rescue."

Blushing furiously, Sara called for the elf whom the team had encountered outside the front gate. When she arrived Sara said "Tanchacti Springbreeze! What is the meaning of this? How could you allow this house to be placed in such a position? Does our honor mean so little? You knew that I seek aid for the recovery of that which is most precious. I, I myself am reduced to begging for help and you treat my guests like they were thieves? How will I apologize for this shame? On the name of your family, I charge you to tell me now, did you do this on your own or were you told to do this by another."

"I was ordered to do this, mistress." the security officer acknowledged with downcast eyes.

"Very well. Give command to your second. Bring the one who has placed my house in this impossible position to the red room. I shall deal with both of you at once." After a few seconds to get herself under control, Sara turned back to the lost boys and said "You have been wronged by members of my house. I ask your pardon. Please forgive ......"

Doc said "Instead of the entire ceremony, why not just tell your people to undo the harm they've done so we can be on our way?"

Sara eyes glowed red with fury and she inhaled as if she were trying to inflate herself. Then, abruptly she turned and stormed into the house. A minute later there were a swarm of security people removing active and passive trackers from the vehicles. Eventually Itami pronounced the vehicles clean and everyone piled into the Roadmaster for a conference. After Doc had insured against magical eavesdroppers and Itami had activated the white noise generator, Lug said, "Excuse me, Doc. The next time ya decide ta interrupt an embarrassed Draco form in mid apology, could ya let me know? I'd like ta be in another time zone before ya start."

"Have you ever heard the entire elven ritual of apology, my good dwarf?" Doc asked. "Suffice it to say that we might start this afternoon, take a small break for breakfast tomorrow and still be going strong come lunch time. The issue confronting us is a tad bit too time sensitive for the usual fol-de-rol. I merely pointed it out to our hostess in a dramatic, and if I may say, highly satisfying manner. Perhaps we might deal with other questions before I hand the reigns of authority back to our fearless leader......What, no questions at all?"

Mouse raised his hand in the cramped rear of the Roadmaster. "I'm sorry ta be so dense, but could somebody tell me what's goin on? First you guys say there's got ta be a leader, then everybody seems ta switch that title aroun all the time. Da boss makes a plan, Itami changes it, we get here and Doc's the leader, we get into the truck and Doc's gonna pick a new leader. Pretty elf lady lost her kid and some kinda egg. We're gonna help get it back, but the elves we're helping bug our rides.....I'm confused."

"Welcome to the Shadows, Mouse." Lug replied. "We've talked about flexible leadership before, but I don't seem ta be gettin through to ya......How about this- Let's say ya got 2 decks. One's a Fairlight and da other's a Radio Shack. There might be times when ya don't want ta risk the Fairlight, when the Radioshack will do the job well enough. You pick the tool that's best for the situation. Same goes with leadership. Doc knows the players here. He knows what to watch for, who to believe, what to listen for. He's the best one to lead. Sensei listens while Doc uses his advantage in the situation. We get back out here, Doc, for all his brag, wants the best planners to figure where we go from here. He could do it, he has run his own teams, (and well enough to keep him in high style) but when he knows there is somebody even better at it than him in the group, he naturally wants the best job done and lets them do it.Only a tyro puts his ego above what the team needs to survive."

"Succinctly put, my height challenged friend, although I am less than sanguine over being the RadioShack in your analogy." Doc said. "On a more practical level, Mouse, the 'pretty elf lady' is a feathered serpent. Her missing child is contained in the stolen 'egg', which is approximately the size and weight of brother Lug. I have a long and less than cordial relationship with her security chief. He bugged our vehicles, no doubt believing, in his blinkered philistine pig-ignorance, it was in the best interests of his lady. That it violates every standard of polite or civilized behavior to seek aid and then mistrust the person your asking to help you, never occurred to him. That it embarrassed his lady and I aggravated the situation by not listening to her ritual of apology means that she will doubtless take out her frustration on him. An eventuality which creates for me feelings of warmth and contentment."

"Doc was da leader because he knew da security slot well enough ta ask that I check for bugs." Itami explained. "Since we're here to help, ya wouldn't expect that you'd need to watch yer back here, but because Doc had special knowledge and was in charge, we're not gonna give away everything we do."

"Any other questions?" Owen asked. "Alright then. Mickey, we're gonna need you to dig up what you can on the hottest deckers in town and what teams they might work with. If you find you need to contact a fixer for info, please don't make any deals or accept any favors. They have a way of coming back at the most unpleasant times. Promise payment for what you need and I'll give you the creds. Yes?"

"I'm sorry ta be such a pain, but I don't know so I gotta ask. How come we didn't set any price with the elf-dragon lady?"

"That was Doc's call, Mickey. We're in this to help him and if he doesn't ask for payment then we take it on faith that he knows best. Besides, wouldn't you feel a little creepy negotiating with a mother about how much you would charge to bring back her baby?"

"Uh, yeah, when ya put it that way, drek, now I feel bad about asking" The ork decker said in a quiet voice.

"Aw, hang wit Doc, Mouse. He'll teach ya how ta say anything without ever thinking twice." Lug said.

"And thank you, short-of-charm, for that backhanded compliment. Your alternative, Mouse would be to hang with the halfer and learn how avoid distracting others by never saying anything of interest."

"On that happy note," Owen interjected, "Hamon, you and Lug will work the other side of Mickey's inquiry, looking for prime teams. Doc, you're after data on S'ssral the black among the spell worm community. Itami you'll coordinate out of the truck as our rolling base. I'm going to check with my sources on whatever I can get about this raid. Everybody remember, this is a bear hunt. The black hats are good enough that we need to stay careful and we've only got 90 hours. (I know she said 100, but I don't intend to be a midwife on this deal- lets get mama and baby together before we are confronted with that problem, ok?) Let' go."


2


"Op team split. Repeat. Op team split. Prep to commence. Add single op......"

"Wilco, ya fraggin loon, could ya just say it in fraggin English? Yer abbreviations probably make perfect sense to you, but we don't know what the frag yer talkin about. " Gerracioti admonished his rigger.

"Roger, General G," the dwarf rigger replied, knowing how much the title annoyed the team leader. To further tweak the Troll he said "Op would be opposition, split would mean break up or divide, repeat would mean say again, prep means prepare, commence means start, add would be increase......."

"If you think I won't come over there and pound the snot outta ya, smart ass, ya got another think comin. I'll hit ya in da head so hard you'll have to unroll yer socks ta blow yer nose. I'll....."

"They're on the move, General." The dwarf rigger interrupted "Their leader is on a hog, oh uh, I mean a motorcycle. The rest split up like we thought."

"Alright. Bonaire, remember, ya don't take the slot out until after I've seen him in action and given ya the green light. Wilco, stay with the truck. Finster, da magic user's yours. Nightsbane, you stay with the sams. Everybody remember, our intel on these clowns is incomplete. Nobody moves until we know what were dealing with and we can make a clean sweep. I ain't havin another straphangin spell worm on this job, even if he is footin the bills. Move."

As the lost boys left the estate and began heading in different directions each vehicle developed a "tail"from among the Mechanics.


"So, you're telling me that you've tipped your hand and revealed to our quarry that he's being hunted! Is that what you're telling me? In the name of a pure humanity, John Henry, how am I supposed to deal with this level of incompetence?" Mr. Smith wiped the sweat from his brow as he continued to pace. The short, overweight norm with outrageously luxurious eyebrows, chain smoked as he hurried back and forth over the threadbare carpet of the Humanis chapterhouse.

"We cannot have this, John Henry. We simply cannot have this. I warned you about the fact that the target has traced our operatives sent against him in the past. Didn't I tell you that? And what happened as a result? Do you recall? Do you remember my saying how, in each case where an operative was traced back to his home base, that base was eventually destroyed? Didn't I say that it was of paramount importance that this target be denied the opportunity of tracing you back here? Your failure has now put the organization in danger, John Henry. Real danger. The only way I see out of this is for you to take your team as well as Baker and Charlie teams. Reacquire the target. Set up an ambush and eliminate him. An all out effort is required here, John Henry. You know where his hideout is, correct? Well then, take what you need and get him. Kill his menagerie of meta-animals if you can, but make sure you get the prime target. Neither you, nor any member you take with you is to return here under any circumstances, unless it is to bring back proof that you've completed your mission. You must not fail!"

Nodding at the instructions John Henry thought I wonder just how much of this concern is over the organization and how much is this slot's worry for his own precious hide. He sure as hell is nervous! Well, I'll bring back the fragger's head, along with a bunch a meta ears and he'll be so relieved I'll get a boost up in the policlub. Maybe even get some major operations... yeah. I'd like that. Well, first I guess I'd better go set up an ambush and take the fragger out.


Nightsbane followed Lug and Hamon at a distance. Supremely confident in his abilities, the Phys Ad had been annoyed at Gerracioti's decision not to assign him to the other team's leader. He'd heard enough about the other adept's accomplishments from the data that Zixx had uncovered, that he was anxious to test himself, mano a mano. With Titan, Dudgeon and Zixx all dead, however, he had finally accepted Gerracioti's assignment with the thought that two experienced sams might give him as much challenge as a single Owen Glendower.

Lug and Hamon made for McGillicutty's. Along the way they made calls asking for face to face meetings with several fixers, spacing each appointment apart. They also arranged for a private back room in which to conduct their conferences. After arriving the pair began reviewing their own estimations for the top teams in the plex, so that they would have a starting off point for their conferences with fixers.

"Raven's group?" Lug asked. When Hamon looked askance at the suggestion, the dwarf shrugged and said "Yeah. I didn't think so either, his boys and girls might have the mojo and cojones to pull this off, but I can't see him stealin babies. I figure that the Wrecking Crew, the Dancers and Stomper's people can also probably be eliminated for the same reason. What about Shenobi?" When his partner pointed at him, Lug said "yeah, those fraggers would do anything for the cred, and they might be good enough to pull it off. Who else?"

After a moment's thought Hamon held up three fingers. "The sisters?" repressing a shudder Lug continued "yeah....I guess those slitches would be hard enough and they certainly wouldn't give a Momma or baby any slack. Who else?"

After a few seconds Hamon mimed drawing a bow. "Orion?" Lug asked. "Naw, he's a loner. Besides, his specialty is hitting individuals, not stealin kids. The Sandmen are gone, or I'd say they might try somethin like this. How about the Rastas or the Amida Tong?" Hamon shook his head signaling that there were only 8 in the attacking team. "Yer right, too subtle and too few for either a dem. They'd both come with more bodies and more blood shed. Well, we'll ask Caesar if he can come up with some other top team names when he gets here."


Ah, now this is more like it Mouse thought as his cartoon icon flew above the pulsing data lines. My meat may be riding around in Itami's truck, but in the matrix I'm not some stupid kid who always has to have everything explained to him. Here I know what's what. I just gotta check some virtual bars and see if I can find a wake.

In the third virtual bar he visited, Mouse found some icons he recognized "Hoi, Tank man, que pasa?" the icon of an ancient Sherman tank turned and said "Mouse, decent res. You upgrade?"

"Yeah, fuch-6. Got response time up da yin-yang."

"6? Steppin up. You rollin in cheese?"

"Naw. Hooked up with a class team. Hey, lemme ask ya. You heard anything about a prime cowboy goin ta da final round-up, like last 12?"

"Not me. Hey, Spydrr. This is my bud, Mouse. He's lookin for a big boy who went south real recent. You hear anything?"

"Yeah. Hoi, Mouse. I heard that Zixx bought the farm last night. You guys know Zixx? Silver Mantis icon. Extremely heavy. Fast, deadly, res like Fairlight. Not Zeus but definitely on Olympus. Had a fan, name of Firecat, used ta shine his progs and follow him around. Seems Cat got real good at pickin up Zixx's work and must a clued 100's of smarts to find the Mantis whenever he showed up so Cat could watch. Personally, I think the Gato bugged the progs he sold Zixx so the smarts could follow the trail, otherwise I don't believe you ever find a single plug head no matter how many frames ya set up. Anyway, last night he got some indicators that Zixx was runnin and went to look. Saw his hero's icon shatter all of a sudden and says it wasn't from the matrix, which means his meat got broke in RL. Cat's been cryin in his beer over at Baltimore's. You know, enlarging the legend. By the time he's done Zixx will be bustin fuch on a whim."

"Hey thanks, Spydrr. Owe ya. Headin over ta Baltimore's ta see what more I can hear. You guys wanna come?" Mouse asked.

"Naw. I gotta get back to my meat anyway. Later." Tank said as his image began to fade.

"I'm gonna hang here awhile, Mouse. Catch ya on the grid."

"Chill. Later."


Knowing that his quarry was a powerful magic user, Finster had begun creating concentric rings of stationary watchers around his target's locale. The mage had reasoned that any spirit sent in pursuit would likely be discovered by the elf. This discovery would tip his hand, putting the elf into a higher state of alert, making Finster's job that much more difficult. No, by simply placing the watchers in larger and larger circles, Finster would be able to track his quarry without alerting him with a pursuing spirit.

As Doc drove from Sara's estate, he began analyzing what magic had been involved in the previous night's attack. Although his assignment had been to look into S'ssral the Black, Doc felt he should also look at the magic used by his opposite number on the other shadow team and try to determine how much was done purely by the other spell worm and how much had been done with the aid of S'ssral, either before the fact or on the actual run.

Doc suspected that the disabling of the various wards and barriers had been accomplished by some form of artifact. He would need to return to his condo and check his library for references to ward breakers. He also suspected that a magic user about to violate a Feathered serpent's home would hesitate to begin the attack by summoning a very powerful earth elemental. Unfortunately, Doc thought, knowing that means I can't conclude that my opposite number is hermetic. The elemental might have been summoned by S'ssral, or even another of S'ssral's flunkies to insure that the black hats could hit the target.

As a matter of course Doc checked astrally for pursuit several times. He discovered several watchers, but none moved to pursue him, so he felt relatively sure that they were not seeking him and that his passage therefore would be unremarked as he returned to his home.


Itami cursed as he rigged the Roadmaster in a meandering orbit around the downtown area. He had hardly used the Condor long range drone that Mouse's bomb had forced him to sacrifice, and now it would be the perfect spotting platform to observe pursuit. Had it not been blown to pieces, the ork might have launched the drone to check for anyone tailing him from a distance. As it was now, he could and did launch shorter range observers like the rotodrone, but despite the fact that no pursuit was revealed, the back of his neck still itched.

Damn! That Condor would be perfect right now, if I hadn't had to use it to get rid of the kid's package. On the other hand, if I hadn't used it that way, the lost boys would be simply a memory and the surviving equipment would just get picked over by the scavengers. I should be happy it was just equipment and not one of us that blast took out. Itami thought, But Damn! I still feel like I'm being watched.


Recognizing that the lost boys had not yet come up with a satisfactory answer on who had sent them the letter bomb, Owen did a very foolish thing. Before he began tracing down the mystery team that had absconded with Sara's child, he returned to the warehouse area to check on neverland. After riding around the area for a few minutes, he stopped at public comm.

"Felix, Owen here. I have some biz for you."

"Drek, babe. I like hearin from ya, but how come you always got biz for me and you won't ever take my jobs?" The troll fixer asked.

"Felix, my dear, must we plow the same field with each conversation? I am not taking assignments from anybody. That's not going to change. Now, I have a chance for you to make some easy cred, if you'd like. If not, I'll get the data somewhere else."

"Dammit, babe! You're doing it again, ain't ya? In one breath ya tell me that yer not taking jobs and in the next ya want ta buy data from me. Now, unless you've become an undercover reporter for one a da newsfaxes or trid stations, what the frag do ya need ta buy shadow data for?"

"Felix. Are you this nosy with all your customers? Forgive me for being blunt, but is it any of your business why I need the data? I'm helping a friend and....."

"Well, ain't I a friend? How come ya never help me?"

Owen paused for a few seconds and then seemed to change the subject asking "How's Jeanie?"

After a somewhat longer pause a subdued Felix said "I apologize, Owen. You have helped me out and it was shitty of me to suggest you haven't. I'm sorry, I just dream about you and me teaming up to take some impossible jobs and uh, sometimes I get carried away."

"Don't worry about it, Felix. Enthusiasm is good. However, if you really dream about work, I'd suggest you think about some time off."

"What do you need, babe?" the fixer asked.

"Well, it seems a top team did some work last night and I'm involved in undoing it. I need anything you can get on S'ssral the Black and a team he had working for him. They look to be a top flight group, so be careful with how you look for this. They could be good enough to seriously object to anyone nosing around and the word I already have on the spellworm is that he's not playing with a full deck, but has mojo to burn. I'll pay you whatever you tell me is reasonable, but I need whatever you can get as fast as you can Safely get it. Do you need some working capital up front?"

"Naw. Yer good for it. Get back to me in 4 hours, ok?"

"Ok. Thanks Felix. I appreciate the help."

As Owen was about to call Madame Magdelena he got the sudden twitch that meant someone was aiming something at him. He began a jerky and seemingly uncoordinated run towards a small office building about two blocks away.


Bonaire and Gerracioti watched with interest as their target began his awkward run away from the public com unit. Both shadowrunners were far too cautious to use their comm units, so both watched in silence, Gerracioti from his car and Bonaire from the roof of a bodega a block further away, as the Phys ad would run incredibly fast for some seconds only to stop short and then walk slowly off in another direction. The leader of the Mechanics, not being a sniper, took a few extra seconds to realize that this erratic movement pattern made it nearly impossible for a sharpshooter to get a bead on the moving target. Far from evidence of insanity, the strange non rhythmic movement demonstrated that the Phys ad knew he was being targeted. Although this should have pleased the Troll who would now not need to hire some local muscle to see the Phys ad in action, Gerracioti shook his head in wonder as Glendower circled to the side of the office building and with barely any hesitation began scaling the outside wall.


"I know I said it was an easy shot, John Henry, but the son of a slitch felt it as soon as I laid the crosshairs on him and he's moving right at the building. Send everybody now!.................... Yes, you fucking idiot! If I could have hit em wouldn't he be dead by now? Use your head, you moron! You're supposed to........."

Ivy's delineation of the rules died in her throat when Owen pulled himself up onto the roof. Recognizing that the ancient SVD (Snayperskaya Vinyovka Dragunov) sniper rifle was the wrong tool for close work, she dropped the long barreled Sov bloc weapon and drew her back -up, a miniature MP5KA4. Before she could bring to bear the 1.5 pounds of pressure the trigger required for the weapon to begin spitting death, the kansetsu geri (kick to a joint) that Owen delivered to her elbow caused the machine pistol to leap from her hand.

Ivy thought of herself as tough. She had seen 52 winters and been through a lot in her time, but the combination of the phys ad's rep and her own fear of torture unmanned the ex-WAC. Rather than risk betraying her fellow Humanis members (and actually rather than being subjected to the nerve torture that Escrima had described) as Owen removed the Shuko he had used to scale the building she turned and leaped from the roof. Like the braves of Native American legend she made no sound as she plummeted to the earth, giving the charging Humanis members and the observing Mechanics the impression that Owen had killed the woman and thrown her corpse to the ground below. Everyone winced at the dull thud the body made as it impacted on the street.


Although muttering under his breath about his inability to question the sniper about who had hired her, Owen recognized that the dozen and a half figures running his way were probably not hurrying to congratulate him. Without hesitation he picked up the sniper rifle and began popping targets. Although he knew that the bloodshed might make him feel bad later, he understood that in order to have a later in which to feel bad, he would have to kill some people before they killed him. Harkening back to his training with the compound, he heard Father Quinlan's jolly advice about seeing targets rather than people. Like a machine, he took a breath, found a target, began to exhale and squeezed the trigger. "Head shots only, please, young man." He heard the old Jesuit's voice, "I don't care for perforated torsos that require second shots." Squeezing off headshot after headshot, Owen made every one of the 10 rounds in the weapon's clip count. When the weapon was empty he dropped it and picked up the machine pistol.

The jumping SMG continued it's inconvenient habit of leaping out of it's wielder's hand as a round from another sniper caught the weapon and sent it spinning from Owen's stinging hand at nearly the same instant he heard the bullet's supersonic <CRAACK>. Oh Frag! Glendower thought as he ducked and rolled across the roof. Where did that come from?

Bonaire was thinking the same thing , but had the luxury to answer his question by scanning the roofs of adjacent structures. Eventually he zeroed in on the sniper on the 8th floor of a distant building. Whoever these clowns are, they must have had a crossfire ambush set up on one of these warehouses. Bonaire thought When their target showed up out of position one of the snipers must have spotted him and somehow the Phys ad realized he was being scoped. When he went after the one sharpshooter, the other took a little time to set up on the new target. It's just the damned Phys ad moves so fast and the sniper is so distant, I don't believe the shooter is going to succeed. Just as Bonaire began considering how easy it would be to "lend a helping hand" to the other sniper, Gerracioti double clicked his comm unit as a warning. FRAG! the Mechanic's long gun specialist thought. How did he know I was thinking of lining up on the fraggin phys ad? Sometimes that Troll is spooky.

Denied the opportunity to help the unknown sniper out, Bonaire watched with interest as Owen ducked into the the roof top stairway door, the only way off the top of the building. Noting that there were still 8 norms standing and that 6 had entered the building with SMG's or shotguns in hand, Bonaire imagined that the fight in the stairways would be brief and one sided. He was correct.

"Why is your answer always more force? Why not try thinking your way out of your problem, just for a change." Owen recalled how Abbess Dee had despaired of him when he studied Wing Chung because his fascination with the short direct centerline attacks of the art prevented his mastering chi sao (sticky hands). Chi sao is a close quarters training exercise involving two practitioners moving against each other's wrist and forearm in small circles. The theory is that it helps develop sensitivity for predicting and countering one's opponent's moves. Finally the Abbess herself had taken to the chi sao exercise with Owen and proceeded to regularly knock her large pupil down. "What good is all the force of your attack if I do not receive it and my counters leave you sitting on the floor? The most effective tool for self defense you have is between your ears! Use it."

Racing down the fire stairs Owen remembered the tiny woman's lectures and smiled. He then began pouring his vials of super adhesive onto the second floor landing. As his hunters entered the stairwell on the first floor he raced back up stairs. As he might have done before absorbing the Abbess' lessons, his opponents rushed to bring the superior force of their weapons to bear. To give his glue time to work, when the policlubbers got past the second floor landing, he tossed a stun grenade down the stairwell as he ducked onto the third floor. The noise of the thunderflashes in the confined and echoing space of the stairwell convinced Owen's pursuers that all hell was breaking lose above them. They retreated to the landing and after standing there while waiting for the noise to die down, were just discovering the holding power of the layer of glue on the floor when Owen tossed a CN/DM4 gas grenade among them. Within 20 seconds 3 of pursuers were vomiting so hard that they could not even lift a weapon. When Owen pulled his rebreather off long enough to use a simple acoustic trick to throw his voice and followed it with another stun grenade, the blinded and stuck Humanis members who had not dropped their weapons to empty their stomachs began ripping through their ammo clips in an attempt to hit the target that was apparently in their midst and killing their team mates. Between direct SMG hits, ricochets and an errant close quarters shotgun blast, Owen only needed to deliver one Katate uchi (single handed sword strike to the side of the head) with his short staff to administer the coup de grace to the sole survivor of the 6 attackers. Of course, it had to be delivered from the stairway's innermost hand rail, as Owen had no desire to be caught on his own fly paper. As Owen continued to use the rail to descend past the abattoir the landing had become, he sighed at the fact that he still did not know who was attacking him. That every one of his attackers were norms led the Phys ad to believe that Humanis might be after him again, but lacking some sort of confirmation, he did not want to completely rely on that assumption.

The phys ad exited the building in a great hurry, attempting to avoid another exposure to the distant sharpshooter. He also knew that there were at least two attackers still outside waiting for him, and he didn't want to offer them an easy target either. When he left the building he did not find any living opposition, near or far. He wasn't being scoped by the distant marksman, his combat sense told him and the two opponents who had not entered the building had seemingly disappeared. As he anticipated the wail of approaching Lone Star vehicles he removed and hid his rebreather and stood pointing at the sprawled dead bodies. A passing pedestrian asked "what happened?" and Owen said "I don't know, look." Discovering another body a little further away he drew the attention of another pedestrian asking "Oh look! What happened?"

There are two bizarre but predictable verities which began with industrialization and continue in the awakened world. First, wherever there is some form of accident or tragedy, there are people who will come and look at it. At 4:00 am a burning building will attract a crowd from miles around. A completely empty street will fill with the curious in the dead of night despite terrible weather if a staggering drunk wanders into the path of a passing car. The second, and corollary truth is that two people who watch each other approach the scene of an accident or tragedy will honestly ask each other "what happened?" in spite of the knowledge that the questioned has no more data than the questioner. Many times a theoretical answer is adduced and then is spread to the remaining spectators.

Owen used both these circumstances to affect his escape from the scene of the battle. First he helped form the crowd of onlookers by gawking at the bodies and pointing them out to perfect strangers as he invited their speculation by asking what happened. When a small norm woman opined "Gang violence" he echoed the verdict to the newcomers who flocked in. By the time the Lone Star patrols were establishing their cordon around the scene of the crime, Owen was part of the group of two dozen who had gathered to see what was going on. As more spectators began to arrive ( a codicil to the previously expressed industrial era truisms is that the larger the crowd, the greater the interest, and of course, the greater the interest, the larger the crowd, etc. etc.) "show's over, nothing to see here, move along" became the litany of the badges. Eventually Owen allowed himself to be ordered out of the area and returning to his bike, simply rode away.


"Hoi, Firecat. I'm Mouse. Chummer name a Spydrr said I could find ya here."

"Whatya want?"

"Chummer a mine, hot runner name of Loki got cacked on a run last night. Tough street sam with enough cyber ta jingle.....

"Never heard a him"

"Yeah, well, I guess that's possible, but he was a pretty wiz dude. Spydrr said you might have lost a pal too. I was wonderin if dey both got chopped together. Yah, know, maybe they were working together."

As the silence grew, Mouse finally said, "Look man, Loki was my brother. I...I gotta find who killed him, make the fraggers pay. Ain't you ever wanted, needed ta get even? I know ya don't know me or nothin, but can't ya just give me a clue if my brother and your pal were working together?"

Firecat seemed to consider for a moment and then said "Sorry about ya losin yer bro. I, uh, don't think it was the same job as Zixx. Zixx was a part of the Mechanics. Very choice group from outta town. I mean, Zixx was from here but he hooked up with this team from Cleveland. Nova hot. I don't remember ever hearin of him runnin with anybody named Loki, so I guess yer gonna have to keep lookin. Although emotion among icons in the matrix is often a matter of nuance and projection, Mouse let his silence last long enough for Firecat to say "Maybe you'll get lucky and find somebody who worked with him......I could maybe swap you some smarts I got no need for anymore....."

"Naw, uh...thanks for the offer but uh.....drek! I got nothin ta trade with ya. This ain't even my regular deck and.....uh..... well, I'm sorry about yer chum and sorry to have bothered ya." Mouse said as he turned away.

"Wait a minute chummer, why don't ya sit down and tell me about yer bro and I'll tell ya about my man Zixx. Sounds like we could both use somebody ta talk to."

Twenty minutes later Mouse left Baltimore's Virtual Homewood Deli with enough information and borrowed smart frames to comb the brag boards of Cleveland as well as consult every local resource he could think of for data on the Mechanics. If the young decker suffered any twinge of conscience for misleading the grieving Firecat, he assuaged it with the knowledge that a) he had provided a willing listener to the Cat's boasts about his hero, b) had been effusive enough in his thanks that the decker might be a contact in the future and c) he was going to bring back valuable data to the lost boys without having to ask any of the old hands for clarification or advice.


In addition to being a sophisticated Elf around town and something of a bon vivant Doc was a meticulous record keeper. Personal Journals may have gone out of style a century and a half ago, but Doc kept one and, at times like this was glad he did. Keying on phrases "the Black", "*, the black" and the name S'ssral he combed his ongoing memoirs for references to Sara's prime suspect. He also searched his library for references to ward breakers. After a few hours of research he had culled out the following relevant matches:

2051-

Met a very interesting norm today. S'ssral is a fairly intense individual with a fascination for artifacts. Quite a researcher. Probably 33 years of age, he is an initiate of the squared circle. Although quite intelligent and driven, his research (or possibly his rite of initiation) has apparently severed the voluntary muscles of his face. No matter how angry, happy, etc. this man gets, his face always maintains the same expression. He has no trouble saying words and can even manage the trickier diphthongs but smiles, frowns, grimaces are all beyond him. Rather fascinating, really. One might convince oneself that he is an animated waxwork like the old Hebraic tales of the golem.

2054-

Heard that S'ssral has achieved dominance in his initiatory group. Some gossip that the last master of the squared circle (McMahon) had a ward fail when attacked by a heavily armed shadow team. Word has it that none of them survived to name who hired them and how "incredibly lucky" S'ssral is to take over at such a young age. I wonder.....

2054-

I suppose it was predictable, but the norm running the squared circle has added "the Black" to his title. It's so dramatic and forbidding. I'm impressed! Oh, kids, this is a scaaaaaary one. <sigh> If only I could have a dramatic color. Mauve? Perhaps tope?

2055-

The Squared Circle is offering orichalcum and spell formulae for authentic data on the Bajang Jitte. All that I've heard is that it is a corrupting artifact useful in spell destruction. Heaven only knows why they are so interested....

2055-

Squared circle is done. Gone. Some sort of internal struggle. Only the circle master survived. Details sketchy and very suspect.

2056-

Came across a dire warning in Shirokinukatsukami's eighth scroll today. Warning from the eater of dreams that with each spell the Bajang Jitte destroys, it's corrupting power grows. It's wielder becomes more bajang-like with each use. Shame the squared circle went out of business. I could use the bounty they were offering.

2056-

Why is it when you can't use it anymore you stumble across all kinds of data that you once looked for? Found a full description and history on the Bajang Jitte in Ihara Saikaku's Tales. Only about 11 months too late. Well, if I ever get asked again, here's what I've found:

"The bajang is an evil and malignant creature found in tropical jungles. It's true form is that of a stunted and evil looking humanoid with bird-like feet and clawed hands. It is a shape changer most often seen as small wildcat."

"..... and so the bajang took the symbol of imperial law, the Jitte carried by every local constabulary officer, and turned it into a symbol of evil. The tree of the mightiest bajang was used to fashion the Jitte and it soaked in the blood of 666 spirits. The corrupters took the sword breaker and worked their evil for 1,000 nights until no magic could stand before it. The bajang then tricked Kobei Momochi into taking up the weapon against the mad Wu Jen Funakoshi. Although Kobei ended the wizard's reign of terror, he paid a terrible price as his ironwood Jitte became more important than his wife or children or the people of the province who looked to him for help. He grew strange and traveled the countryside finding users of magic to destroy. When there were no more spell casters in the provinces to destroy he went to the capital to kill the wizards of the court, but he fell before the samurai called Akira Two-blades and the Bajang Jitte was lost."

Shaking his head, Doc wondered if he would get a chance to determine the truth about the legend of the artifact and if he did, whether he would survive to record the next chapter of spell breaker's tale.


3


While Mouse was dashing about the Matrix from the rear of the Roadmaster, Itami's itch continued to torment him. Finally he came up with a plan which might confirm his suspicions. Pulling in to refuel, Itami left his prized Steel Lynx drone propped up against a dumpster near the gas station. He had brought the drone out covered by a tarp and simply left the unit's optical system uncovered. He knew that no rigger worth the name would be able to resist the mystery involved in finding out what exactly he had just done. He climbed back into the refueled Roadmaster and began his orbiting patrol.

Eventually Wilco brought his Wolfhound in for a closer look at what his opposite number had been doing at the gas station. When the tri-barrel of the Lynx was up to speed, Itami, finally confirming that he was under observation, released a hail of lead which shredded the long range drone as it wandered in too close.

Wilco took this very personally. He had lost a customized observation drone and as expensive and annoying as that was in itself, it meant that the rigger's opposite number in the lost boys had been aware of the observation and had unilaterally ended it. Bad enough to have a drone taken out by such a simple ambush, but to be called, in effect, clumsy, to have another rigger say "I know what you've been up to and I'm not impressed" was more than Wilco could stand. In spite of Gerracioti's orders the rigger began planning an ambush to take out Itami. Meanwhile, Hanzo pulled back into the gas station and loaded the lynx back onto the truck. Mouse was unaware that anything had happened.


Lug and Hamon were the most frustrated of the lost boys. After interviews with a wide range of fixers, the list of who probably didn't do it was quite long, but they had not made much progress on discovering who had stolen Sara's child. Eliminating suspects was nowhere near as enjoyable as chancing upon the identity of the opposition team.

Nightsbane, meanwhile, had grown restless also. The Phys Ad had marked the procession of what he imagined were informants entering and leaving the bar. He'd gotten no word from Gerracioti and was becoming frustrated by the boredom. Since he was certain that the final goal of the exercise would involve eliminating the other team and since his confidence in his own abilities was great enough to believe that he alone was adequate to the task, when Lug and Hamon finally exited the bar, his loosely organized ambush was waiting..

As boundless as his confidence was, the phys ad knew that if he tried to take the Gillettes out from any distance he would likely both fail and increase the risk of injury to himself. No, the way for a physical adept to take a pair of well equipped sams was to get up close and personal where the razors' firearms would be difficult to wield. To delay the pair and set up his attack, he used one of the many concealed blades he kept about his person to flatten the two tires on the Jackrabbit which did not already appear deflated. Initially spotting a pair of flats on the beat-up sedan, Nightsbane's first thought was to simply wait. Then he recognized that the pair of deflated tires was entirely too coincidental to be believed and surmised that the appearance of flats might be a ploy for the security of the vehicle. But, I bet they can't handle 4 flats Nightsbane thought as he deflated the remaining wheels. This will slow them down enough for me to get in close and eliminate them. The phys ad thought as he settled in to wait for his prey.

As the frustrated duo were leaving the bar, Hamon knelt down to tie his shoe. Since he was wearing zippered boots, Lug immediately twigged to the fact that his sharp eyed partner had spotted something wrong. He looked at the norm's face and followed Hamon's eyes to the car. It took only a few seconds for the dwarf to recognize what Hamon had immediately seen. The vehicle was no longer listing to one side as it usually did when Owen's anti-theft system was working. That meant all of the tires were flat, which might mean a vandal with a fixation for balance, but more likely meant someone wanted the pair to find leaving difficult if not impossible.

Working in tandem with his partner, Lug began scanning the area south of their location while Hamon checked to the north. The average looking but apparently unarmed norm who chose that moment to step out of the Cuppa Joe Coffee shop and begin sauntering up the street, set off instinctive alarms in the dwarf's mind. "Got him" he said in an undertone "Male, norm, 6 foot, 190, sauntering up this side of the street looking oh-so-casual."

As Hamon stole a glance in his direction, Nightsbane realized that he had been spotted and began running towards the sams. Although his sliding step devoured distance at an amazing pace, when Nightsbane arrived he found that Hamon had drawn both swords and Lug was firing a narcojet pistol at him.

Give them credit for not attempting a shootout on a busy downtown street in daylight, the Phys ad thought, but unfortunately for them, playing by my rules means that they both get to die. Just prior to launching his attack, Nightsbane's body went into a state of hyper sensitivity. The adrenal rush of all of his senses operating at peak efficiency was orgasmic. Although he'd heard of an ability described as "combat sense" his own hyper-aware state processed sensory input that had nothing to do with combat. He could smell dozen's of distinct aromas simultaneously and his exposed skin became sensitive enough for him to tell within 2 degrees the ambient air temperature.

As Nightsbane slipped into his hyper-aware battle mode he filled his hands with his favorite weapons, a pair of dikoted Haladie. The double dagger from Rajput consisted of two short curved blades attached at either end of a straight handle. Extremely difficult to use and nearly never seen in the modern world, very few could defend against the weapon when wielded by a master.

Nightsbane dodged the "phtt, phtt" of Lug's narcojet, but was brought up short by the weaving wall of steel that Hamon erected with his Katanas. The Phys ad had faced, defeated and killed swordsmasters of the two swords schools before, but each of them had been based on the principles of espada y daga (sword and dagger). Whether the off hand held a Main Gauche or a Wakasashi, the theory still involved a primary attack weapon and a parrying blade. Nightsbane had defeated his two-sword opponents by moving inside of the prime weapon, engaging the parrying weapon and attacking with his own "off hand". This approach, he saw would clearly not work with the sam he was facing because his opponent did not have a prime weapon. Both left and right katanas were the same size and were wielded with equal skill and speed. Working with incredible precision at blurring speeds the swords attacked without exposing a vulnerability. Even the whirling dance that Nightsbane did to avoid Lug's darts as he probed for a weakness did not reveal a way through the spinning swords.

In a one-on-one battle Nightsbane still believed he would prevail as he was certain he could dodge and outlast the Razor. No matter how brilliant his technique, the samurai would tire wielding his twin swords long before the phys ad exhausted himself with his double daggers. The problem was that this wasn't single battle. Any slowdown on Nightsbane's part would get him tranqed by the dwarf.

Feigning a strike at Hamon, Nightsbane launched himself at Lug. With the dwarf gone Nightsbane was sure he could outlast the sam, but Lug had worked with his partner for many years. As the phys ad started his move away from Hamon, Lug fell backwards firing both his dart gun and the flashpack from his belt. The Phys ad easily evaded the darts. He did not evade the flashpack.

The 2.5 million candela burst of light was never intended as a daytime weapon, but it was an inspired choice by the dwarf as it caused the hyper-sensitive phys ad such pain that he broke off the attack. Before he even began to scream about the pain in his eyes, his body was launched in a hurtling leap over the supine dwarf. Nightsbane's training took over and as he returned his knives to their scabbards he dropped flash pellets and quickly ducked around the corner. The escape route he had planned to use to avoid Lone Star after killing the Sams now became his only means of escaping the attack that he had started. Working with only his memories and his sense of hearing, Nightsbane took four running strides and then leaped up some 15 feet to catch the bottom rung of an external fire escape. Before the ladder had even touched the ground he was on the third floor balcony heading for the fourth. He had actually reached the top and was making his way across the roof by feel before Lug and Hamon had picked themselves up and determined which way their attacker had gone.

"Well, that was....interesting" Lug said "I'd say that the team we are researching seems to dislike publicity. What do you think?"

Shrugging Hamon asked "Why Flashpack?"

"I saw his pupils dilate completely as he came up the block. No iris, all pupil. Mag on these" Lug said as he tapped his silver eye covers "gave me the clue. You know Sensei always says to turn an enemies own strength against him. Plus," the dwarf chuckled, "as I fell over on my ass it was the first thing I grabbed! Just don't tell that to Mouse. I'd like him ta think I planned it." The partners shared a smile and then Lug added philosophically, "Well, at least we'll have something to talk about when the team gets together."


"Excuse me, sir. I hate to interrupt you" the spirit said.

"What is it threepeeoh?" Doc asked.

"Well sir, there seems to be a magic user quite intent on learning the exact limits of the range of your house magic. Nothing overt, sir, but a persistent probing designed to determine the thresholds of accidental contact. If you'll forgive my saying so, sir, I believe it's quite rude. I thought it best to bring it to your attention."

"Thank you, threepeeoh. I'll handle it."

"Very good, sir," the spirit said as it vanished.

Centering himself, Doc attuned himself to the magical bond with his surroundings. As he felt the borders of his home, he became aware of the probing his guard spirit had warned him about. Doc's disembodied, astral self watched from a distance as the intruding Magic User continued to test the sensitivities of Doc's barriers. Have to give him credit. Doc thought, 9 times out of 10 probing that tentative would be ignored as unintentional. If it weren't for seethreepeeoh's need for attention, I might not have been aware of this either. After watching for a few more minutes, the elf thought, This mage is entirely too good to be allowed to continue this data gathering. I'll have to put a stop to this.

Instantly Doc's astral form appeared before the other magic user. "If you'd like to see me, why not simply approach my home in the mundane world and set up an appointment, Mr......?"

The hanging interrogative did not prompt the other magic user to respond. The faceless humanoid form of glittering silver cocked it's head at Doc as though studying him for a moment before turning away and stepping aboard a surfboard. As it was about to ride away, Doc said quite forcefully "No, I'm afraid that won't do. You will respond to me before you leave as I find the ill manners implicit in your ignoring my question quite intolerable."

With a gesture, the barrier which had surrounded Doc' domicile suddenly encapsulated the surfer. Suddenly encased in a sphere of elastic ether which gave like a balloon, but would not break, the silver humanoid simply attempted to ride his board through the barrier. When the board encountered too much resistance, the magic user, looking back over his shoulder at Doc, opened his hand, releasing a barracuda which became a blur as it launched itself at the elf. Doc studied the way the streaking astral predator rebounded off the spherical shell after deforming the barrier. The manabolt spell faded after failing to break through, only to be replaced by a miniature Torpedo Shark which began ramming the balloon like walls of it's prison. Doc recognized the danger of the shattershield spell and began creating new layers to the bubble that his silver opponent's spell was weakening. While Doc reinforced the barrier, his glittering opponent created another miniature Torpedo Shark and launched it at the barrier also. The surfer then began physically pushing at his elastic prison in one area while his board rebounded off a different portion of the globe.

Doc estimated that he might be able to reinforce the barrier long enough to exhaust his opponent, but, that it might be a close contest. Being a cagey tactician, rather than exhaust himself in this astral contest, Doc continued to gesture as though he were reinforcing his wards when in fact he had stopped. Although he knew that this would eventually allow his opponent to break free, it might also be of some advantage in a later contest for the other magic user to believe he had taken a full measure of the elf and proven himself to be stronger. Although there were dangers to this approach, Doc understood that he might be too evenly matched with his opponent to simply overpower him and thought it would be worthwhile to create some disinformation. His overconfidence may be an ally that I can exploit later Doc thought. In fact, let's lead him to believe that my magic is mostly defensive.

After much struggle and the production of a third shattershield/Torpedo Shark, the surfer freed himself. Once out of his bubble, he released another Mana bolt/Barracuda at the seemingly exhausted elf who barely managed to stop the spell in a net of magical energy (mana barrier). The surfer shook his shiny head as he rode away, believing the brief astral encounter had revealed the total strength of his opponent.

As soon as his opponent was gone, Doc re-erected his house wards with a gesture and went back to his research.


"Bonaire, I can't believe you're serious. Da Fraggin Phys ad twigs ta da fact that he's bein scoped, zips across an open field, scampers up da side a da building like a fraggin bug, an tosses da sniper off da building. After given her da flyin lesson, he uses her gun ta pop 10 of her buddies, (all head shots, I hope ya noticed) and then walks outta da building dat another half dozen fraggers just went inta to kill him. The only three who walked away from the frag up wuz da big norm who looked ta be in charge, da little spell worm who made them both disappear and da sniper on da other building." Pausing for breath, Gerracioti continued "Ya saw da son of a slitch wipe out, what 17 fraggers, same as me right? So how the frag do ya sit there sayin fraggin 'doable' when I gotta change my fraggin shorts from just thinkin about how tough this frag is gonna be ta cack?"

"General," the sniper replied, "You're overestimating the opposition's ability. Granted he was able to eliminate a fairly large group of inept amateurs, but even you have to admit the ambush was set up on another location. The norms had to reposition on the fly and they weren't very good or thorough. I acknowledge that in close up work, a physical adept always has an advantage, and that this particular individual used a sniper rifle to good effect, but I don't in any way believe that makes him invincible. With sufficient planning, perhaps capitalizing on the other group for distraction, a long enough shot will take him down before he can react. You saw that the second sniper had a shot....."

"Yeah. One shot. But....."

"One shot is all a competent marksman needs, Gerracioti. In fact if it takes more than one bullet the sniper isn't worthy of the title." Bonaire said haughtily, "But, as I was saying, the Phys ad's 'early warning system' didn't prepare him for the second shot, did it? He reacted well and avoided getting targeted a second time, but you saw that he didn't really know where the second shot had come from. Now, if the second or perhaps even third sniper were me, I'd do more than knock an SMG from his hand. Give me a steady high platform on a calm day with the RAI 300 and I'll put a round through his brain from 2 Kilometers, regardless of his armor, before he even realizes he's a target."

The Mechanic's leader thought for a moment before speaking as the pair drove back to their HQ. "I like the idea of usin some expendable fraggers fer distraction, particularly if it's dem Humanis fraggers dat Mr. X told us about", the troll said, "I just think we've gotta have a helluva backup plan if it don't work, cause I want that fragger very dead and cold before he starts coming after me. Let's see what everybody else has got."


As the Mechanics headed back for their headquarters, the surviving members of Humanis' ambush team drove their Renault-Fiat Eurovan out of the area.

John Henry, Little O and Snapper were all badly shaken from their encounter with the Phys ad. Nobody had been mentally prepared for the slaughter of having their team wiped out in a matter of minutes. John Henry felt guilty at losing so many Humanis members, angry that his expectations had been totally unfilled and frightened, both of Mr. Smith's reaction to the debacle and that the "target" might come looking for the leader of the attack team. He mumbled to himself as he drove the nearly empty van. Little O, who was new to the entire business of assassination ambushes, was still shaking over how quickly everything had gone to drek. Snapper, with the calm assurance that snipers always seem to have, was only upset that the initial ambush had been set up improperly and that she had only hit the machine pistol, rather than her real target. Just have to be more accurate next time, the muscular woman thought as she watched her companions. John Henry is taking it hard, but then he just had his whole squad shot out from under him. Little O is just waking up to the fact that Humanis plays for keeps. Well, the little frags gotta learn sometime.

As Snapper turned her head to look out the window the 16 rings she wore in her left ear clinked together, reminding her companions that she was no stranger to assassination work. She had a loop for every target she had eliminated and the musical clink of the rings hitting each other did nothing for the confidence or comfort of her fellow policlubbers.

"Wait here." John Henry curtly ordered as he pulled into the Stuffer Shack's parking lot. "I gotta call in."

Twenty minutes later the huge norm returned to the vehicle. He pulled out and headed downtown without a word.

"What did Smith say?" Snapper finally asked.

"Bout what you'd expect. He's pissed we lost so many an failed ta take out da target, he 'grieves for da pure heroes who gave their lives for our noble cause', he's glad I didn't come back in person. He's sending 2 dozen dis time with da warning dat 'we must not fail'." John Henry said. After a few minutes hesitation he continued. "Ya know, I don even tink he wuz dat surprised we didn't get da fragger. I tink he knew dat dis son of a slitch is hell on wheels and just hoped we'd get lucky. Well, I'll show him. Next time......"

"Yeah, next time." Snapper agreed while wondering if her old M24 SWS was enough weapon for the job. Little O said nothing but continued to wonder about alternate career choices.


Nightsbane sat in his makeshift rooftop perch and waited for his sight to return. As the tears flowed freely from his overloaded eyes he railed at the injustice of the world. No fragging way that little twerp used that flashpack as part of his strategy. Ok, maybe falling on his back might have been an outstanding way of avoiding my knives and giving himself more time with his dart gun, so maybe, just maybe it was intentional. But no way did he plan on a daytime use of that damned flashpack. The bastard halfer hit it by luck or accident just as I was looking at it. FRAG! That hurt. Well, my little halfer, you wait. Payback's a bitch and when I catch you it's gonna take you a while to die. I think those silver eyecovers might just be a nice momento, so I think I'll just take them the next time I catch up with you. And your partner's gonna get a chance to try those swords as a suppository.


In his underground lair, a cavernous ancient telephone cable junction, S'ssral the black's patience warred with his sense of elation. He had spent years preparing for the ritual. First the painstaking and often dangerous research, the testing of hypothesis, the confirmation of formulae. Then the months of preparation, precise tonal qualities to be mastered, specific components to be gathered, an now, finally in just a few brief days and the celestial bodies would be at their most auspicious, the mana would be most abundant and the powerful innocent would be his to sacrifice. Although his face betrayed nothing of his excitement, he patted the soft leathery exterior of the stolen egg. In the coming days the egg would harden into a brittle enough mass for the life within to break free and look upon the world. At that precise moment, S'ssral would sacrifice the truly innocent yet powerful life force in a horrific dark ritual, opening a portal to a realm of power unimaginable. His years of research would pay off beyond the wildest dreams of mortal man.

Mentally grinning to himself, he thought about his "partner" and how "Mr.X" had come through with every detail needed to procure the most valuable piece of the exercise. Let him play his games of vengeance, S'ssral thought, his goal is so petty compared to my own that it's really quite amusing. I wonder how far along his plot has progressed. Well, no matter, in a few short days I will be beyond such petty concerns.


"........I can't believe you could be so stupid!" The troll raged "Wasn't da last thing I said dat we needed ta gather data, first hand intel, before we could come up with a plan fer dese fraggers? So what do I hear when we come together ta compare notes? Fraggin Wilco has tipped his hand and lost da fraggin long range drone ta the enemy rigger. Goddamned Finster got inta some fraggin astral duel wit da odder team's spell worm and got away, so now he's tryin ta pass it off like dat was his fraggin scoutin plan. Nightsbane tops it all off by admittin dat he actually attacked da pair a sams on a fraggin city street in da middle of da fraggin afternoon. Not only did he get chased off, but he didn't even wound da fraggers he was tryin ta nail. What is it, you stupid fucks think I'm talkin fer my health? I tole ya dese fraggers were good! I told ya ta gather intel! The only ones who followed da fraggin orders were me an Bonaire. "

"Give yerself a gold star, general." The Phys ad said in a low but intense voice. "But the next time you call me stupid, ya better be unloadin dat fraggin Jackhammer at me, because I will definitely fuck you up, permanent." (The Jackhammer Mark 3 A2 is a Close Assault Weapon, a shotgun with a 10 round capability that can be fired like a machine gun in automatic mode.)

Wilco, who was also less than happy about getting reamed by the team's leader, recognized that somebody had to defuse the situation before Gerracioti and the Phys ad went after each other. "Ok, ok, let's remember were on the same team...."

"Aw, shut up!" Gerracioti and Nightsbane said in unison. As they turned back to each other, Bonaire started to laugh nastily. The incongruous sound was enough to distract both Mechanics from their fury with each other. Finally the sniper said:

"Sorry, but ya gotta admit, it is pretty funny. I mean, that you two might do the lost boys job by killin each other. I figure they'd be grateful cause whoever wins, were gonna either be without a strategist or a close quarters champion, and maybe both."

The two simmered for a minute as the sniper's words sank in. Then with a sort of mutual nod they backed off their threatening postures and went back to the strategy session.


"The other team calls themselves the Mechanics" Mouse began, "It has ta do wit a real old slang expression for assassins. Their leader's name is Gerracioti. As you can see, he's a Troll. I wasn't able to get exactly what cyber he has, but from some of the stories I've found, I'd guess wired reflexes and a cyber limb or two. There's also some guesses that he has some sort of tactical computer in his skull. He was a mercenary in a couple of military campaigns before he decided to run the shadows. Always works wit a Jackhammer autoshotgun, so he usally leaves stains rather than opponents. He and Bonaire are the founders of the group.

"I didn't get any photos of Bonaire. He was a merc with Gerracioti. He's described as a norm, 5'9", 175 lbs. He's the sniper. Definitely got cutting edge cyber optics, and his right arm is some kind of gyro-rig so he can fire his sniper rifles from an amazingly steady platform. This guy's a legend working with the RAI 300." Seeing the perplexity on the faces of the other lost boys, Mouse explained, "The RAI 300 is a very long range sniper rifle. Fires an 8.58mm round (very high velocity, very heavy bullet). The receiver is a solid bar of steel with openings only for ejection and the magazine. There's an adjustable tuning rod in the long bar underneath to dampen barrel vibration and well, there's loads of other tech stuff I downloaded about it, but the main thing is the rifle is heavy, unwieldy but exceptionally accurate through 2000 meters. Bonaire's got an impressive tally of confirmed kills from more than 2 klicks away!"

As his team mates absorbed the implications of a sniper with accuracy of two kilometers, the decker continued, "Their rigger is a dwarf named Wilco. Even though he's got the military sounding name, this guy never saw any action as a soldier. As far as I could find, he started out with the Pit Fiends, a biker gang. He was so good as a mechanic that he started putting together some creds for a rigger interface. After a while he grew out of the gang and started riggin the shadows. 'Sgot a pretty good rep for workin wit multiple remotes an...... what's wrong, Itami?"

The rigger replied "Uh.....just really weird. Different gangs, different plexes but it's practically my story. Kinda spooky. Like the guy could be my brother or something. It's eerie, but I knew he had a drone followin me, even though I had no way of knowin it. Like we wuz thinkin on the same wave length or somethin............ Uh, I'm sorry, Mouse, what else did ya find?"

"The magic user's name is Finster. Not a lot about him except he's pretty good. Hermetic. 5'11", 165 lbs., norm, male, black hair except for a patch of white behind his right ear. He's.....he's got a problem with joygirls dat made the maf put out warnings on him. He ...uh..likes to hurt women. A lot. I read about some of the stuff and.....well, before he left, he couldn't pay for sex anywhere in Cleveland because of what he likes to do." shuddering, Mouse continued, "I couldn't find if he was an initiate or not......"

"He is." Doc said with uncharacteristic brevity and motioned for the decker to continue.

"The Phys ad is called Nightsbane. He's a nasty. 6'1" 195 lbs. Likes ta work real close with a pair of double bladed daggers. One of the watcher boards in Cleveland talked about his hyper-awareness in battle. Said he all of a sudden had so much sensory input that he was defending and counterattacking before his victim tried his first move. Also heard he's got a mean temper. When some zip in da Dread Crows flipped him off and laughed, he hunted the slot down and crucified him as a scarecrow, an then cut off the middle digit on about 20 Dread Crow hands as a lesson to da gang. Not a nice guy. He's one a da reasons da Mechanics left Cleveland."

"He was getting well known for hunting down da go-gangers, but dey had some Yak ties. When da Yaks 'suggested' Nightsbane develop another hobby, he sent them back to their boss, one tattoo at a time." Mouse continued, "With a go gang and the Yaks unhappy with them, the Mechanics got pulled into a run against Ares which was a double-cross. They ended up with Ares and Renraku both gunning for them. When they killed the fixer who had given them the job and the fixer who was trying to square things for them, they outlived their welcome in Cleveland. They had Ares, Renraku, da Yaks, da Dead Crows and da fixers of da plex all looking for their scalps with Maf help. They split, set up shop here and are just starting out. That's about all I could get."

After a few seconds of silence, Itami exploded "Well how da hell is da boss supposed to work wit dat, Mouse?Ya didn't get shoe sizes, Mother's maiden names, favorite trid shows, none a da important stuff dat da boss an Hamon need ta plan. Jeeze! Ya gonna be dis useless all da time?"

Too stunned to react, Mouse stood with his mouth hanging open until Hamon began to applaud. Soon all of the lost boys were clapping and Owen said "Excellent job, Mickey. Really top notch. You got us a full scouting report on the opposition with more detailed legwork than we had any right to expect. Very impressive."

Before continuing with their reports each of the lost boys congratulated Mouse personally. Itami grinned and said "GOTCHA" while Lug brought the young Ork back to earth with "Not bad kid, BUT now ya got our expectations up. Ya gotta do at least dis good every time. Or" he deadpanned quietly "we'll kill ya".

The reports continued with Itami explaining his strange sense of premonition warning him of the other rigger's observation and his drone ambush, and then Doc estimating the strength and methods of his opposite number as he described his astral encounter. Doc also shared the fruits of his research on S'ssral the Black and his conclusions about the Bajang Jitte being used as a ward breaker to affect the kidnapping. When Hamon chose to describe the Phys Ad's attack on he and his partner, everyone was surprised by the sam's sudden volubility and impressed with Lug's brilliant counter attack. Right up to the minute when the dwarf interrupted to say "If I'd grabbed a little lower when I fell on my ass, da bastard mighta gotten a face full a piss, it was dat well planned."

As this statement started everyone laughing, a chorus of toppers brought on more laughs

"Well, it sure woulda surprised him."

"Hell, it would kill him on the spot."

"How? He woulda laughed himself ta death?"

"Not at all, in his hyper-aware state he'd instantly know what Lug drinks and would have died of amazement."

"Are you kiddin? Dat's gotta be some kinda deadly neuro-toxin."

"I still vote for laughin himself ta death."

"WHAT'S SO FUNNY ABOUT DWARF PISS??" Lug roared, re-dissolving the lost boys into gales of laughter.

Mouse watched with a combination of amusement and admiration that Lug was secure enough to make fun of himself. Thinking about it, and about how relaxed he felt with the group, the decker realized that the clowning was a deliberate tension breaker, as Itami's rant had been, designed to keep everyone loose enough to deal with a deadly serious situation without losing perspective. He idly wondered if his old team would ever have developed to the point where egos were secondary to the needs of the team.

Finally everyone calmed down enough for Owen to tell of the ambush he had walked into. Mouse recognized that although the Phys ad was giving a detailed and dispassionate account of what had happened, something in his eyes betrayed the fact that he was sickened by what he had done and that reliving it was intensely unpleasant. This was so much the opposite of boasting that the decker actually felt sympathy for the team leader's guilt, while at the same time he was astounded at the phys ad's prowess. Disturbed by the sudden change in atmosphere, Mouse listened without commenting on the team's analysis.

"No magic in the attack is surprisingly incompetent" Doc said. "With a two sniper cross fire and 18 other attackers, you would think a decent strategist would have included someone to toss a sleep or a glue spell, if not a fireball."

"If they'd put a few drones up ta keep ya pinned in the sniper's kill zone, dat also mighta been enough," Itami added "Sounds like dey wuz plannin on usin bodies ta do dat, stead a drones. Not much value on flesh and blood."

"An ya say dey wuz all norms, huh?" Lug asked "Smells like Humanis ta me. Magic's a premium, drones cost more dan members, dey were bloodthirsty and incompetent. What more proof do ya need?"

Hamon had been sketching out the ambush Owen had described. Looking at the paper he said "Early. Out of position. Playing you on the fly". As he laid the paper on the floor he indicated where neverland was and everyone immediately saw why the ambush had gone so wrong. Although Owen had been in the general area of the warehouse, the ambushers had planned their kill zone around the lost boy's base and had been surprised when Owen hadn't been where they expected him to be.

"Well, my friends, it looks like we've got 3 problems. 1st we've got to find Sara's egg, which means we've got to get a line on the current whereabouts of S'ssral the Black. Second, we've got to do this within the next 86 hours while staying away from our HQ. 3rd we've got to deal with the unhealthy attention of an unfriendly shadowteam that wishes to do us serious hurt and just to make life interesting we've got to assume that Humanis or some other group of loony toons is looking to tack our hides up in the trophy room. Any comments?"

After several seconds Mouse said quietly "Is this a bad time to ask about vacation benefits, boss?" causing everyone to chuckle.


4


"Let fraggin Mr. X contact the losers from Humanis, " Finster insisted. "He's obviously got some kinda contact to know that they wanted the Phys ad, so let him use his network to set up the fragger. I still say that I should be allowed to concentrate on the elf. I've seen him work and I know I can take him, but I want to prepare....."

"Look, Finster. You gotta do it." Gerracioti said."I can't, Wilco can't, we gotta keep Bonaire out of it so he can snipe from long range and Nightsbane ain't, uh, temperamentally appropriate for the role. X is fraggin useless and said specifically that we were to have no further contact with him until the job was done. You're the only one who can get those slots to co-operate. You set up the kill zone, Wilco an me lure the fragger in, Nightsbane makes sure he don't get back out and either the Humanis fraggers pop him or our ace in the hole takes him out from long distance. With their leader gone, we play a variation on the sams, the rigger and the decker and the elf goes last. Fish in a barrel if we add the racists firepower to our own. An if some of them go down in the process, who's gonna care?" When the magic user seemed unmoved by the plan, the Troll added, "an if you wanted to take some of Humanis' females off someplace for some extra-curricular activities, I won't raise a fuss, PROVIDED, you wait until after the trap is sprung. What do you say?"

The faraway look in the magic user's eyes as he nodded was disturbing enough for the troll to immediately regret his offer. Rather than rescind it, he reminded himself that he desperately needed the mage to go along with his plan and that the females mentioned were people who hated, hunted and killed their fellow sentient for no other reason than a genetic anomaly. They wouldn't hesitate to ice me, the merc thought, Why should I care what Finster does to them? As a matter of fact, Wilco and I are gonna have to watch our hoops if were gonna avoid getting cacked by friendly fire in this little ambush. Somethin to bear in mind.


Mouse didn't really see the strategy of the plan, but he knew from the objections that the team repeatedly raised that Owen was sticking his neck out. The phys ad had constructed a case for what he would do if he were running the other shadowteam.

"First, I'd try to eliminate the other team's leader. At least you demoralize your opponent and with a lot of groups you remove the best strategist and the organizing principle. So, if I'm them, I want to target me. It doesn't matter that you guys don't actually need me because they don't know that and have to assume that the opposite is true. If I were them, I'd set up a trap, and remembering that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, I'd form an alliance with the Humanis clowns so I could use them to focus major firepower in the trap." Turning to the members of the group Owen said "Hamon, Mickey, anybody, jump in when you disagree..... Anyway, I'd bait the trap with something the opposition wants. Since the egg is too valuable, I'd probably offer a personal challenge or somehow get the other team's leader to follow an 'unsuspecting' team member into the kill zone."

"Boss, I agree wit everything ya say, " Itami blurted out, "But how does the fact that it's logical to assume they want ta ambush you translate into it bein a good idea ta go along with what they want? Why walk into the fraggin trap?!"

"Itami. I'm not suicidal. If the trap is there, I want to spring it without getting caught. If I can do it, the alliance is damaged, possibly broken, and we're working with more manageable opponents. The other side is reduced to running after us, and we hopefully thin their ranks in the process. I need you to neutralize as many of the policlubbers as you can, meaning you're going to have to prepare some extremely nasty munitions for your drones. I need Hamon and Lug to work on the other side's drones. Either turn their rigger into teeny tiny meatballs or blow up any drone he sends into the field. I need Doc to eliminate their sniper who will be on the most distant fringe of the battleground with his fraggin 2 klick rifle."

Amidst the hubbub of objections Mickey saw Hamon give the boss a small nod. Owen held up his hands and continued "I know you expected to face your opposite number on the other team, and I'm sure each of you could beat your mirror in a one on one battle. But that's what everybody expects. Rigger vs rigger, sam vs sam, adept vs adept. The challenge is to keep the other side off balance by avoiding a simple test of strength. They'll expect that our rigger will be occupied by their rigger. When he isn't, when he instead is dropping bouncing bettys among the policlubbers all hell will break out. Their rigger will be looking for an opponent while his allies from Humanis, instead of massing firepower on me will be defending themselves from Itami's drones. I also want to hit them before their setup is complete, which will hopefully give me a way out." Seeing that there were a myriad of questions and objections the Phys ad put the interruptions on hold by saying, "Look, just think about it for a few minutes."

While everyone was examining the plan Owen signaled Mouse over to the side. "I guess you noticed I didn't mention you, Mickey. Before you begin feeling slighted, let me explain why. You have the most important job of all. I need you to use the time to set up the checkmate. You're my fianchettoed Bishop who becomes a discovered check and shifts tempo. Now, I know that you want to be in the thick of the battle 'trading pieces', but all of this is a feint. If the other side keeps us occupied long enough, which is all they have to do, our clock runs out and we lose. I need you to do whatever you can in the matrix to get the data on S'ssral's location. It may not sound like it, but we both know how dangerous it can be for you with nobody watching your meat if you get into trouble in cyberspace. I don't have anybody who can watch you closely enough so you're going to have to handle it alone. What you do is more important than anything that happens in the confrontation with the other team because it will determine whether we save Sara's child or not. Without the data that only you can dig out, the other team is gonna win on time. Do you understand what I'm talking about?"

Mouse took a full minute to examine Owen's speed chess analogy. Thinking of himself as a well protected Bishop whose position would give him a discovered attack leading to an eventual checkmate made his assignment much more palatable. Deep inside he was also relieved that he was not going to have his friend's lives depending on his ability with his new weapons. He also recognized that Owen was taking a huge gamble on the newest lost boy being able to uncover the data. He stood a little straighter as he nodded to the phys ad and resolved that he would not let his team mates down.


"Excuse me, oh master planner, but upon further discussion your merry band have developed a few interrogatives of their own." Doc said as Owen turned back to the group. "We're wondering, for example, how you know when the nefarious Mechanics have their nap time."

When Owen looked quizzically at the elf, Doc continued, "Your expression leads me to speculate that you consider our question a non sequiter, however, without advanced knowledge of the sleep cycles of our adversaries, we were wondering how you could plan for the sociopathic mage Finster to conveniently absent himself from the ambush at a crucial moment. Is this another case of narcolepsy?"

"Yeah," Itami agreed, "an how do you figure dat dere fraggin Phys ad is gonna just stand there and watch while you try an kill however many snipers Humanis sets up."

"And while your at it, maybe you could explain why Hamon and me are joined at the hip." Lug interjected, "Ya figure were only useful if we're together?"

"Er...uh... well....ya see.....uhm.....ahem, (Jeeze guys, ya gotta make me look bad in front of the kid?)" Owen said to the chuckles of the team. Then seriously he continued "What do you guys suggest?"

"First of all", Lug said, "ya can leave da rigger an his toys ta me. I got enough ordinance ta blow his hoop to da moon and I don't need Hamon fer dat. If I can announce us by droppin a few mortar rounds on 'em from a little portable rig I got, I can keep the rigger busy by myself. Who knows, I might even get lucky and squash a few Humanis types with Itami." Lug said with a nod to the rigger. "Let Hamon hunt yer sniper. Ya wouldn't know it ta look at him, but he does more dan slice an dice. If he takes out da sniper, he can use da fragger's popgun ta give us a little bonus support."

Hamon then said "keeping the enemy off balance makes sense, but we suggest Doc lead Finster on a chase in the astral. Not an out an out battle, but something distracting enough to possibly endanger the mage's physical body while his spirit is trying to kill Doc....."

"Yes, well," the elf interrupted, "It was phrased much more positively when we discussed it, but the general idea is that I hold the mage's attention while one of you violent types create a difficult living condition for his body".

"I'm still not satisfied that sendin da boss inta da middle a dis drekstorm is a good idea" Itami interjected. "Even if da rigger, da sniper, da mage and every single Humanis fragger are occupied, he's still facin an augmented Troll wit a autoshotgun an a physical adept with hypersenses in da middle of a fraggin battlefield. Dat's long odds ta start, then ya gotta admit dat some a da Humanis frags are gonna get in on the act- maybe a sniper or two, PLUS, if we create desert wars anywhere in da plex it's a good bet dat da Star will drop by before its done...... I don't like it."

Over the course of the next twenty minutes plans were proposed, examined, refined and rejected until a solution was arrived at which gave the lost boys' leader a more than average chance of surviving the ambush. Unfortunately for the plan to work the lost boys had to arrange for the opposition to ambush Owen in a very specific locale- the rail yards.


The rail yards for the plex were a huge fenced-in area with long lines of empty and loaded freight cars crossed by miles of steel rails. Owen liked the idea not only for the isolation it provided from non-combatants, but also for a little known escape route from the area which he was sure could get him out of a tight spot if he could reach it. The only problem involved finding a way to convince the opposition to set up their ambush for him there. Itami suggested the way.

Network 23's most popular children's trid program was Mrs. Falbo's Tiny Town. Mrs. Falbo, a strange, middle-aged norm woman with rhinestoned glasses and a sequined tutu, was aided on the program by a huge hulking figure named Mr. Messenger who wore a jester's cap and a perpetual grimace of pain. In addition to his on-air aid to Mrs. Falbo, Mr. Messenger ran a very lucrative information service. He made a fortune selling data to anyone who could meet his price.

The long-time runners in the plex had all been burned at one time or another by the grimacing Mr. Messenger. His information was very reliable and accurate, but never exclusive, meaning that he could and would sell you data about virtually anything, but then would sell the fact that he had sold you the data to anyone concerned enough to meet his price. He would then turn around again and sell you the fact that he had sold you out, as well as to whom he had sold the data, if you were clever, paranoid and rich enough to buy the new information.

This endless sale and resale of data had not endeared him to his customers who all felt that they had been burned by the big man. Several had attempted to express their displeasure in a physically permanent way, but Mr. Messenger always managed to have protection just good enough to dissuade his dissatisfied customers. Although they found it difficult to express their displeasure by beating the tar out of the huge norm, his customers did vote with their wallets, refusing to purchase further data from him.

Mr. Messenger, being an astute business man, recognized this trend in his customers and, believing that the shadows would always have up-and-coming innocents upon whom he could prey, did not change his methods. When an experienced team did come back to him for data a second time, he knew he was being used for disinformation, and if he could squeeze sufficient funds out of his clients, sold this data also.

"Dat's da problem," Itami said, "Da opposition is new enough ta town dat they're perfect victims for Messenger's game. BUT, if we talk to him at all, he's gonna smell a rat and probably sell them the fact that we musta wanted them ta have dis data or we never woulda talked ta da fat slob ta begin wit."

In the ensuing silence Mouse quietly said "I could do it."

As each of the lost boys turned their attention to him, Mouse continued. "I set up a meeting wit him ta buy data about da Mechanics. I let it slip dat my flop is near da train yards because da team dat I'm deckin for is a paranoid group of old hands. I let him know dat I'm not as good a decker as I'm supposed ta be, which is why I've gotta buy da data. He sells me whatever he has and den sells da Mechanics da info dat a newbie decker hired by an experienced shadowteam living near the rail yards is researching them. If they don't know how many faces did slot has, it should suggest ta them dat an ambush at the rail yards would be a way to go."

"My dear rodent", Doc replied after a moment of absorbing the plan, "you have a devious, cunning, and frightfully underhanded way of thinking. I like it."

"Good one, kid." Itami added, "Ya got brass."

"Brass, hell." Lug said, "He's got brains. Nice plan, Mouse."

Hamon and Owen shared a look and then each nodded and smiled at the decker, which meant more to him than the others' praise because it made him feel like an old pro.


"Look, no offence intended, but you're being incredibly foolish and short-sighted" Finster said to the Humanis team leader. "You want Glendower dead, we want Glendower dead. You have a large amount of ordinance that you can bring to bear, we bring magical and technological power to the deal. Our rigger has drones that can drive the Phys ad into the kill zone and I have spells that can blast him to a cinder. We also have an excellent long range sniper, a tactician with an advanced battle comp and a phys ad of our own to counter our mutual enemy....."

"Yeah? " Grunted John Henry, "If yer so fraggin good, why dontcha take out da fragger yerselves? How come ya want a 'liance?"

"Because, it doesn't make sense for us to work apart. Yes, we can take him, but there will probably be a cost to our team. You could take him, but again, there would be a cost to your team. If we work together, however, we could bring so much force to bear that neither side might suffer any loss at all. That certainly seems desireable to me......"

"I dunno," replied John Henry after considering the proposal for several minutes. "What ya say sounds good. God knows I don wanna lose any more members, but yer suggestin I work wit fraggin metas. Ya got a troggy and a halfer and dat means trouble. I'd rather go back to da membership wit another team wiped out while tryin ta do my assignment dan ta haffta tell 'em dat my guys got zapped bein backstabbed by some fraggin subhumans dat I trusted."

Thinking quickly, Finster said "Wait, I just thought of something. What if I was an animal trainer and I offered to help you get the Phys ad and I brought along a pack of hellhounds? You'd use the animals to your best advantage, wouldn't you? I mean, you could use another species as tools to accomplish your goal without it meaning that you wanted one to marry your sister, right? So just pretend that my team is your pack of Hellhounds. As long as we help get the job done, who cares what race we are? "

"Hm........................ Yeah, I guess ya got a point." The huge norm said slowly. Then as suddenly as a striking snake a huge hand shot out and grabbed the lapels on Finster's armored long coat. Drawing the mage in very close the policlubber looked Finster straight in the eye and said "But if a hellhound turned on me, I'd kill it where it stood. If a shadowrunner turned on me, especially a fraggin meta-animal or somebody who worked wit 'em, he'd be a long time dyin. Get me?"

Barely keeping his own temper in check, Finster ground out between clenched teeth. "I understand you perfectly. Do we have a deal?"

"Yeah" John Henry grunted, "But you keep da fraggin Metas da hell outta da way, or dey might catch a stray round, accidental like."

Nodding as he walked away, Finster's thoughts about the Humanis strike team leader exactly mirrored John Henry's thoughts about the shadowteam's mage. The shared thought each had of the other was : I'm going to kill that fragger.


Mouse found Mr. Messenger working out of a corner booth at "EATS" diner. The fat man's customers took seats at the counter while waiting for a regal nod from the big man, signifying that they were permitted to approach his royal presence. Mouse found himself between an angry sam, who kept muttering to himself and a pair of young norm females who spent most of their time giggling and whispering to each other.

When Mr. Messenger gave the sam the nod of approach, the ronin sprang from his stool like a man possessed. Before he could take a step towards the fat man's booth, a pair of Trolls bracketed the norm while an obviously cybered elf sam held the barrel of a Ruger Superwarhawk against the back of the Gillette's skull. "Hey, kittycat," whispered the elf. "You don't want ta do anything sudden. It might be bad for your head, know what I mean?" The sam paused as though assessing his chances of success when a very heavily muscled dwarf woman stepped up and tossed a haymaker into the warrior's bread basket. As the sam started to double over the Trolls grabbed his arms and dragged him over to their boss's booth.

Mouse could only make out snatches of the conversation, but he saw the pitiless way the fat man shook his head and overheard the information seller say "..... not my policy. Information, all information is the lifeblood of business. It's not my fault if you assumed ........." and a little later, "....... no, I honestly don't care that they died, pal, that's not my lookout. Don't blame the messenger! Har-har-har!......" Eventually the sam was dismissed, but after being escorted to the door he suddenly turned and yelled "This ain't over, you fat piece a shit!" As the trolls started reaching for him, the sam slipped out the door. Mouse received his nod of approach but when he sat down at Mr. Messenger's table the Buddha-like figure held up a hand while he looked out the window. Mouse's seat was too far from the shaded armaglass to see what the fat man was watching, but he clearly heard the sound of truck brakes followed by a loud THUD. "Ah" said Mrs. Falbo's big helper, "People shouldn't say mean things............. Now, what can I help you with young ork?"

"I uh, need ta, uhm well, I want, uh...."

"Come, come, come, time is money and you are wasting both." the fat man said with a sigh. "Allow me to venture an observation or two, young fellow. You are new to the shadows, yes? Judging by the plug at your temple, you are a decker, yes? You have been hired to unearth data which has thusfar eluded you, yes? Rather than have your rep suffer, you have sought me out as a ...shortcut to the data you need, thinking that you will be able to replace the money this data costs you, but your reputation might not survive the blow it would receive were you to come up empty on this assignment. Have I about summed it up?"

Mouse gave a wide-eyed, slack-jawed nod, causing the fat man to laugh. "No magic, youngster, just a wealth of experience. Perhaps if you told me something I didn't know....."

Like the true neophyte he no longer was, Mouse gushed out his planned story, pausing to let the big man ask cunning questions to gain precisely the answers that Mickey wanted him to have. When he'd given the big man sufficient data to insure that the Mechanics/Humanis ambush would wind up in the rail yards, Mouse asked about the cost of the data he wanted.

"2500 nuyen," the info merchants said after a canny estimate of the decker's worth.

"2500?! Did you say 2500?"

"Oh, I believe I did" the grimacing trid personality said, "Please excuse me for mis-speaking. 3,000 nuyen. Would you care to bargain further?"

"But....but...."

"Oooh, I'm starting to feel like saying another number....." the fat man threatened.

Thoroughly deflated Mouse looked down and quietly said "Deal."

"Don't be so downcast, youngster. So what if it's more than you're being paid? Your reputation is worth it, yes? You will be able to amaze your new friends with your efficiency and you've learned a valuable lesson. Next time you come with your hat in your hand you will know better than to argue about price, yes? I should be able to supply you with the data you want in a few hours. You may go."


Two hours later, Mouse returned to the Diner and reluctantly handed over 3,000 nuyen. In an inspired piece of improvisation, the decker had asked his teammates for an odd means of paying the information broker. When the time came for Mouse to settle up for the data, he produced a certified stick with 2750 on it, 210 nuyen in scrip and 40 nuyen in coin. The decker's obvious reluctance to count out the last few coins did nothing to change Mr. Messenger's patient grimace, but it did confirm the information broker's opinion that he had taken every cred that the decker could lay his hands on. The satisfaction Mr. Messenger felt at the ork's downhearted sighs and longing looks after the vanishing fortune completely gulled the sharp-eyed fat man to the decker's true intentions. Mouse did not even allow himself to feel satisfaction until he was well away from the Diner.


Twenty two minutes after Mouse's departure, Nightsbane entered "EATS". The Mechanics' legwork on the informant allowed the phys ad to recognize his quarry immediately. As he approached Mr. Messenger's booth, the fat man's pair of Troll bodyguards stepped out in front of him. Nightsbane paused and looked up at the vacuously grinning Meta humans and quietly said "You're in my way". When the Trolls continued to do their impression of a wall, Nightsbane shrugged, looked up, smiled and then went into action. Smashing his heel into the instep of the troll on the left, he grabbed the testicles of the metahuman's partner. Squeezing with all his might, the phys ad rotated his wrist to draw the bodyguard out of the way as though he were a door. While the right door was swinging open Nightsbane delivered a teisho-tsuki (karate, palm blow) strike to his left hand opponent's hip. The troll, already off balance and standing with all his weight on one leg from the fumi-waza (karate, crushing blow) to his instep, spun on his pivot point, providing a clear path to the info merchant's booth. Clear that is, until the muscular Dwarf woman slipped out of the neighboring booth directly in front of the phys ad while Nightsbane heard the hammer being cocked on a Ruger Superwarhawk from somewhere behind him.

Without pausing the phys ad continued his forward momentum, delivering a sharp hitsui-geri (karate, knee strike) which caught the dwarf woman on the nose. Simultaneously ducking and spinning while he moved his right arm with a whipping motion, Nightsbane tossed one of his daggers at the elf behind him. Because the cybered elf sam's role was to intimidate rather than kill, he did not want to actually fire his weapon in the diner and so he hesitated long enough for the phys ad to launch his attack. Dawg (the cybered elf sam's name) found Nightsbane's blade sticking through the upraised palm of his non-gun hand and screamed in both frustration and pain. Little Lulu, the muscular dwarf woman bounced back from the floor with a growl, only to catch the phys ad's ushiro-geri (karate, back kick) on her already broken nose. She was still seeing an explosion of light and pain when the Phys ad spun and stepped up to Mr. Messenger's table.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk" said the grimacing fat man. "I'm afraid that's going to substantially increase the cost of the info I have to sell. You really must........"

Watching as the physical adept shook his head and picked up a table spoon, the fat man asked "What are you...."

Quick as a flash, Nightsbane reached out and grabbed the fat man's huge hand. Using the back of the spoon on the back of the trapped hand, the phys ad caused such pain that the ever grimacing information dealer squealed like stuck pig. If the violence and commotion had not already made the pair in the booth the center of attention, Nightsbane's next action did. Smiling at the big man's tear streaked face, the phys ad said "watch" and to a loud <CRAACK> and the sound of glass breaking, Dawg's head exploded. Had any of the diner's customers dared to look up from their positions on the floor of the greasy spoon they would have seen the hole in the window which had admitted the high velocity round which had vaporized the sam's cranium. No one did.

Nightsbane maintained his smile as he released the info merchants trapped digit. "We don't need any more....demonstrations, do we?"

"No, NO! No." said Mr. Messenger as he examined his throbbing appendage. "I don't understand this at all. I have information to sell you, yes? There is no need for violence. We just need to come to a price, yes? You have....."

The phys ad sighed loudly, shook his head and picked up a fork. He said, "We are new in town. We don't want to negotiate price. We think you should give us the information we want in the interest of good will."

"Good will? Good will? I can not pay my people with your good will. I have overhead...."

"Well, we can help you with that. Bonaire...." the phys ad said to the room. Within the next 6 seconds there were two more holes in the windows of EATS diner accompanied by two more <CRAACK>'s as the sound barrier was shattered.. Sigfried (the troll with the damaged reproductive equipment) made a prolonged gurgle from a kneeling position on the floor as the newly opened aperture in his neck allowed blood to fill his lungs. Roy (the troll with the crushed instep) was spared this pain as the round which had blown through his chest had removed enough of the metahuman's heart to end his life instantly. With a calm precision Nightsbane leaned down and with incredible force, drove the fork through Little Lulu's eye and into her brain. He then brought the gore covered utensil towards the cowering fat man and cleaned the viscera off on the merchant's lapel before returning it to the place setting.

"Now, you see. We've shown you our good will by reducing your overhead. I think it's only fair that you reciprocate by telling us everything we want to know. Don't you agree?"

The fat man was nodding his head so hard that it looked to be in danger of detaching itself from the info salesman's neck and ending up on the table of it's own volition. Unfortunately, a lifetime of wheeling and dealing from a position of strength makes for habits that are tough to break. Before the conversation was over the fat man had twice attempted to withhold data, giving Nightsbane the excuse he needed to tear off both of Mr. Messenger's ears. After retrieving all of the data that was available Nightsbane asked, "But if you betrayed your last employer by selling data about him to me, what would prevent you from selling data about me to someone else?"

When the quivering fat man's mouth gaped open like a beached fish in response, Nightsbane thought for a minute and then snapped his finger exclaiming "Wait! I know." After searching among the corpse littered diner floor, Nightsbane came up with Dawg's Super Warhawk. Giggling he said "Hey! Let's do a robbery. You got any creds?"

Reluctantly Mr Messenger tried to dig out the creds he had taken from Mouse with his uninjured left hand.

"Aw. Is that a problem, I mean, my hurting your hand and all?" the Phys ad asked with mock sympathy.

When the big man shrugged neutrally, Nightsbane said "Here, let me get that. I'll just search your body." With cold calculating precision the phys ad then shot Mr Messenger in the groin, three times in the stomach and once in the head. As the merchant's corpse slumped forward his Doc Wagon squealer began going off. Nightsbane cursed as he reached into the dead man's pocket and pulling out a cred stick scattered coins and scrip all over the floor. Responding to a voice in his earplug radio Nightsbane said "Frag! How was I to know he had a damned squealer on his ankle? I checked his fraggin wrists!..... Yeah. Well, I'll know the next time I gotta off a damn Trid clown from some kiddie show. Right now.............. alright.... Alright! I'm fraggin leavin." Putting the severed ears into the corpse's mouth as an "artistic touch" the phys ad quit the diner to join his team in setting up the ambush in the rail yard.


5


While the lost boys continued preparing for their ambush of the ambushers at the rail yard, Mouse was ensconced in the armored Roadmaster preparing for his foray into the matrix for data on S'ssral the Black. One of the things that the decker had picked up in his dealing with the more experienced team of shadowrunners was the sense of continuity that each exhibited. They were who they were because they had developed distinct styles over a long period of time. Doc would still be Doc if he wasn't with us. The Boss would still be the boss, all of them would still be the same if for some reason the lost boys stopped existing as a team. Who would I be?

When he added this introspective line of reasoning to his consideration of Mr. Messenger's methods, the young decker did some growing up. His first stop when entering the matrix was Baltimore's Homewood Virtual Deli. He quickly found Firecat.

"Hoi Mouse! What's shakin, Omae?"

"Firecat. I got some stuff to tell ya. Ya ain't gonna like it but I figure that its better I come clean with ya now, so just listen ta what I gotta tell ya, ok?"

Firecat's ears came forward as the icon "listened".

"First of all here are your smart frames. I know ya don't need 'em right now, but I took 'em with a lie and even if ya give em away, I don't deserve 'em."

"I don't have a brother named Loki. I lied to ya. I knew you'd lost a chummer and I figured it might be a way ta get ya to help me get data I was after. I made the whole thing up because I needed ta get info about the Mechanics. I used your frames to gather as much data as I could and then I went back to this team of experienced runner's who let me join and played the hero on the back of your work. I'm gonna come clean with them when this is over, even if it means that they drop me, but I figured I owed it to you ta tell ya the truth first. I'm sorry, man."

Firecat sat perfectly still and asked "When did ya grow a conscience?"

"Hell," Mouse responded, "I dunno. I've started ta see that a stand-up guy doesn't cut corners and I'd like ta be a stand-up guy. I've also seen that if yer a sleazebag sooner or later everybody knows yer a sleazebag and I don't want that rep........ Look. I did get somethin. It ain't much, but it's all I got. The decker who was workin with the Mechanics, I assume it's your boy Zixx, got zapped while on an extraction. He was workin for a spell worm name a S'ssral the Black, and tryin ta steal a kid. Nobody's sure whether the sec force got him and then got zapped or if it was the employer or what. I gotta dig out where dis spell worm is hidin so the team can get the kid back to its mama."

"I.... look what I did to ya was shitty. No excuse. I got ya when you were feelin low and pretended I was in the same boat so I could get somethin outta ya. That's wrong. I'm sorry, man. You tell me what you want me ta do and I'll make it up ta ya, cause I figure I owe ya. That's..... that's what I had ta tell ya."

The seconds of silence dragged on in the virtual world as Firecat considered Mouse's words.

"So what, now I'm supposed ta fall all over myself about how cool ya are fer admittin ya lied through yer teeth?" Firecat asked

Although he toyed with the idea of agreeing to lighten the mood, Mouse knew that it wasn't honorable to try and play off what he had done as though it weren't important. He continued to stand and wait for Firecat to render his verdict.

"Ya know, I could really frag ya up fer what ya did. I mean, it pisses me off ta get used by a fraggin newbie. I'd say you were a worthless piece a dog drek, but I guess I gotta cut ya some slack fer bein young and stupid..... and ya did admit what ya did like a stand up before I found out about it, luckily fer you..... and ya brought back the smarts. I guess I'll let it go. But if ya ever fraggin lie ta me again, or I hear yer runnin some scam on a chummer, first I'll frag yer rep, then I'll frag yer progs and then I'll have some a my RL buddies frag yer meat. Ya read me. cheese eater?"

"Yes"

"Alright then. Where'd ya get the 411 on Zixx gettin cacked?"

Mouse realized that he was putting himself and his team at risk by trusting Firecat with info about a run in progress. On the one hand he knew he owed the other decker and wanted to clear the debt, but on the other hand he owed it to his teammates to keep faith with them and not endanger them or the mission. He walked a moral tightrope in answering the decker's questions. When Firecat said "wait here a minute" and disappeared in a puff of smoke, Mouse was very worried about having possibly betrayed his team. He'd tried to be careful, but had he been circumspect enough? How could he face the lost boys and tell them that he had put all of their lives at risk to reassure a strange decker? What would he do if Firecat took the data to the Mechanics and they didn't set up the rail yard ambush, but attacked when his team was unprepared. What if the decker went to S'ssral and told him to hide because he was being sought? How would he face Sara if his actions cost the mother her child? Racked by guilt and doubts Mouse waited the endless seconds while the other decker was gone, resolving to never put himself in a position like this again by cutting corners.

When Firecat reappeared in a puff of smoke it seemed to smile and said. "Ya got balls, Mouse. Ya told me as much as ya could ta get back to even with me but then you sat here dyin inside cause ya weren't sure if you had said too much. Ya sweated it out when I told ya to wait because ya owe me. I coulda been selling you and your team down the river, but ya stayed instead a runnin after me ta see what I'd do. I watched ya the whole time. You were sweatin blood, wasn't ya? Maybe ya are a stand-up guy after all."

Although he wanted to break down with relief when he found the other decker had just been testing him, Mouse thought about how the other lost boys might handle things. After a little reflection he pulled himself up and looking straight at the other icon said "I'm serious about being sorry for lying to you, and I meant it when I said I owed ya. You figure ya need a backup or somebody ta guard yer meat or anything, you can call on me. I'll.....I'll see ya around."

Before Mouse could jack out, Firecat said "Wait. Uh.... You, uh figure on goin after this S'ssral slot, don't ya?"

As Mouse's icon came back into focus, he said "Yeah. If I can figure out where ta start, I'm gonna try ta find out where he's hidin."

"Well, maybe I'll... uh.... tag along. It's been a long time since I dealt with a straight shooter and ....uh.. before I trust ya with somethin vital, like backin me on a run, I'd like ta see how good ya are. Besides, I figure that maybe this S'ssral slot got Zixx iced, so I may want a little payback. You.... don't mind, do ya?"

"Hell no. I'd love the company and even if I didn't, I do owe ya, so let's go."

"Ok, where are we goin?"

"I'm not exactly sure. I thought I'd look at local brag boards, watcher boards maybe some virtual bars where mage's teams might hang out. Unless you can think of other places....."

"Yeah, as a matter of fact. We can send my smarts after some of this and I can show you some other places...."

And so Firecat and Mickey the Mouse set out to search the Matrix for S'ssral the Black.


Bonaire traveled to the rail yard alone once the ambush site had been selected. His position would be far enough from the action that it was unlikely he would ever be discovered, but force of habit compelled the sniper to act as if the mission had been compromised, his allies were his enemies and the opposition were hunting for him. He knew that this caution ran at odds with the serene self confidence that most snipers had, but habits that kept him alive in some of the hottest spots on the planet were not quickly or easily discarded. And, of course, Bonaire was not most snipers. He was unique. Whether it was the creation of his ammo (he hand cast the bullets and hand loaded each and every round), or the fact that he never worked with a spotter, Bonaire was radically different from most long gun specialists. Whenever on assignment, Bonaire generally ignored distracting radio chatter, whether it was directed at him or not, and never inspected his kills. Once he focused on a target, got in sync with his quarry's movement patterns and finally sent his personal message of death on it's way, he didn't need to check his accuracy, and particularly with the RAI 300, never needed to check his lethality.

Climbing slowly to the top of the water tower which overlooked the rail yards, the first thing the sniper did was to attach a heavy nylon climbing rope to the rail that surrounded the water tank's walkway and then to run the rope through a D-ring in the repelling web harness which fit over his black stealth suit. His instant escape secured, Bonaire began unpacking the large hardsided case which contained his weapons.

The Calico M-2000 machine pistol, like the Ingram Super Mach 100 used a Helical Feed system and a clip which held 100 rounds. The Calico, however, was a much more accurate weapon because it's long barrel not only balanced the large clip which loaded on the rear of the gun, but also gave each round enough twist to keep the projectile stable over it's flight to the target. Bonaire clipped the bulky light supermachine gun to one thigh, a cougar fine blade in it's sheath to the other and promptly forgot the personal protection devices. His attention was completely riveted on the bulky, primitive looking RAI 300.

With the practiced ease of a master and the care of a lover, Bonaire began assembling the ugly metal pipes into an sublime engine of destruction. He set up the adjustable bipod on the bar which contained the tuning rod that dampened barrel vibration. He screwed the long free floating barrel into the receiver and set up his custom fitted buttstock. When the telescopic sight was properly adjusted for the bullet he had selected, and the wind, barometric pressure and temperature had been noted by the computer in Bonaire's head, the sniper settled down to wait.


The 27 warriors for a pure humanity understood their role in the ambush that was about to unfold. John Henry had seen to the disposition of his troops as Gerracioti, the master tactician had indicated (through Finster, his liaison with the Humanis forces). They were secreted at key points on, in and under empty box cars, hunkered down in drainage ditches and behind piles or railroad ties. The three snipers were placed on the roof of a switching tower, on a roadwork crane and on the roof of huge salt/sand shed.

Snapper and her spotter Blinky had absented themselves from the strategic placements before the policlubber had arrived at the ambush site. "Look, John Henry", she said, "These slots we're workin with might be completely reliable. But then again, they might not be. Wouldn't ya want at have some backup somewhere that the Metas don't know about? A backup, just in case these fraggers ain't given us the whole story, or in case they figure on usin us and then turning on us. I'll make my own way to the rail yard. I'll take my spotter and go hide out in one of those livestock transports. The sides of those are open enough to shoot through without being seen. If I can bullseye the Phys ad, fine and dandy, but even if I can't it gives us a backup in case our 'friends' turn unfriendly. What do ya think?"

"Yeah." The huge figure replied, "Yeah. Dat's good thinkin. I like havin a backup. An I'll tell ya what. If you get a chance to zero in on the fraggin spell worm, Finster, ya got da green light ta put him down at yer convenience. I'll take responsibility fer da 'accident'. I know dat son of a slitch is upta no good. I don't trust him as far as I can spit and if he falls to friendly fire in the confusion, well dem's da breaks." When Snapper nodded her understanding, John Henry actually smiled.

Armed to the teeth with a cornucopia of firearms, more than one of the policlubbers had laughingly referred to the setup as overkill. Rick Chvotkin, a wag among the Humanis warriors, had jokingly asked "How many times do we plan to kill this one pounder, hoss?" to the amusement of all except the expedition's leader. With a backhand that propelled the wiry jokster a dozen feet, John Henry asked "Hey smartmouth, didja go to da funeral of da last 17 guys dis fragger cacked? Wait'll he rips yer heart out through yer hoop before ya tell me we got too many guys here. Until he does, you just do what yer fraggin told."

With the shinning example of a still groggy Chvotkin before them, none of the strike team members wanted to further annoy John Henry, so questions about wrong seeming details, (the strange boxes at the the end of the drainage ditch, or the green plastic rectangles that said "front" between the two piles of cross ties) went entirely unasked.


Finster shook his head as he again glanced over at Nightsbane. Rather than secreting himself behind some camouflage, as the mage had advised, or even simply waiting patiently, the phys ad was running around like a 6 year old on a sugar high. Finster noted that the adept had already shattered two railroad ties, doubtless astounding the watching Humanis trash with his Karate prowess, and was now tossing his throwing spikes into a telephone pole. His abilities are impressive, I suppose, the mage thought as Wilco and Gerracioti left to decoy the opposition leader into the trap, but he ought to start getting ready for when the rigger and the troll bring our guest back to the party. Heh, when we finish these fraggers, I will have a little party of my own with some of these Humanis slitches...... the mage thought as he scanned astrally to locate the choicest candidates. As the shape of the elf magic user from the other team sped by, he thought What the...... as he quickly summoned an earth elemental to protect his sleeping body and launched himself into the astral after his opposite number.

As soon as Doc was certain he had captured the attention of the Mechanic's mage, he sped up and the chase through the astral was on.


The armored Roadmaster parked quietly among the trucks in the lot on the far side of the rail yard contained three seemingly unconscious bodies. While Mouse's mind roved the matrix with Firecat, his body sat slumped in the rear of the truck, across from the sleeping figure of Doc, whose astral form had just begun a game of tag with Finster's spirit. In the driver's cab Itami's mind was living through his connection with his hidden Steel Lynx drone and the nearly overloaded rotodrone which was high above the yard. When he spotted the Mechanic's van pull out and drive away he clicked his comm link twice, letting his teammates know that the ambush of the ambushers could begin.

Lug, on the roof of the Glover building, smiled grimly as he depressed the first set of radio switches detonating the Claymore V's that he had planted in the rail yard in advance. When the lost boys had arrived at their plan to attack their attackers, they had surveyed the rail yard and boobytrapped the areas where the Humanis troops would most likely be hidden. Since even Gerracioti's tactical computer had to work with the limitations of time and geography, nearly all of the hiding places chosen had been "prepared". Therefore, the dwarf's first action answered, in the most universal sense, the questions that those policlubbers who had wondered about the green rectangles marked "front" had failed to ask. Of course, once his answer had been delivered, the question, and indeed all earthly concerns, were no longer a worry to the policlubbers who had been ripped to shreds by the thousands of ball bearings that the anti-personnel devices had blown through their bodies.

Itami used the few seconds of confusion that the explosions caused among the 21 Humanis survivors to get the tri-barrel of his Steel Lynx up to speed as he rolled the drone in the gap between two sets of tracks. By judicious use of the drones ability to rise or squat the rigger was able to hose lead not only at those in or between boxcars, but at those hiding under the car as well. The overloaded Rotodrone released one of it's bouncing bettys to eliminate those secreted on the boxcar's roof. The anti-personnel device (100 fin stabilized, Teflon coated, steel darts surrounding a C-12 core) did not actually bounce, but did detonate approximately three feet above the car's roof, killing everyone within it's 10 meter blast radius and injured several of those on the ground.

Lug meanwhile had sent the radio control code for the pair of spring loaded boxes at the opposite ends of the Humanis filled drainage ditch to release their deadly surprise. Both boxes had tossed out weighted monowire nets. As planned, the nets dropped over the Humanis ambush party which died in a slow and gruesome manner. Itami continued releasing his remaining bouncing bettys over the scattering group of ambushers.


When Owen heard the double click of Itami's signal, he quickly began climbing up to the roof of the switching tower. Although he regretted it, the phys ad knew that with his team-mates lives in danger, he could not afford to be soft hearted. He silently knelt between the prone sniper and spotter, whose attention was completely focused on the scene below and delivered a pair of Chin-na strikes to the Lingtai cavity with phoenix-eye fists. (The Phoenix-eye fist has a single protruding knuckle which delivers a great deal of force to a very small area. The Lingtai cavity is located between the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae- striking this area causes arrhythmia and cardiac arrest.) While his victims were dying of coronaries, Owen used the Barrett 121 heavy sniper rifle to eliminate the sniper team on the roadwork crane. The pair on the roof of the salt/sand shed were just becoming aware of their predicament when Owen's shot took out the sniper. The spotter immediately slid down the roof's incline to escape.

If Nightsbane had been a 6 year old on a sugar high before, his current level of hyperactivity was now indescribable. He twitched like a man covered in fire ants as he attempted to focus on some threat he could eliminate. Finster was sleeping behind a humanoid made of dirt and stone, which probably meant the spell worm was in the astral, but everything else was going to hell in a handbasket. Humanis slots were being blown to pieces or squealing like rats as monowire nets diced them to pieces and the only thing to fight seemed to be fragging drones. As he checked the sniper locations his eyes lit up as he saw the target he'd wanted all along, the other phys-ad. "Gerracioti, Wilco, get the frag back here. It's a set-up" he said before tossing the comm unit to the ground. With a howl of glee the phys ad began running towards the switching tower.


When Hamon received Itami's two click signal he began freeing himself from the straps which secured him under the water tower's walkway. He was on the side opposite the rail yard ambush and so was completely unobserved as he climbed up onto the metal walkway which girdled the water tower. In his survey of the area around the rail yard Hamon had quickly seen that the height and distance made the location ideal for a long range sniper and so he had secreted himself with the idea of ambushing the ambusher. He made his way silently around the water tank expecting to catch Bonaire completely unaware. As he crept up on the prone figure he must have caused some vibration on the walkway, because as he brought up his Ingram SuperMach 100, Bonaire opened up with his Calico.

Bonaire was lying on the catwalk, sighting through the RAI 300, but he had allowed his right arm to drift down to the machine pistol on his thigh. Without drawing it from its holster or sighting in any way, the razor began spraying the water tank behind him. Hamon's response was immediate, and he was aiming the super machinegun. Unfortunately, Hamon caught a round through his right wrist and another through his hand causing him to drop the weapon after putting only a dozen rounds through Bonaire's feet and lower legs. When Bonaire heard the weapon fall he rolled onto his back, with the intention of finishing the meddler who had wounded him, but Hamon had already thrown a dagger with his good left hand. The razor's backhanded, southpaw, dagger toss was right on target and actually severed the trigger and middle finger of Bonaire's cyberarm.

Growling, Bonaire dropped the weapon and went for his own knife, but seeing his opponent draw a katana from his back, the sniper simply rolled off the walkway intending to repel to safety. It took the wounded Hamon a few seconds to see what had happened and slice through his opponent's line. Bonaire dropped the last twenty-five feet of his descent without the slowing action of his rope anchor and attempted to land upon his wounded legs and feet.


As Finster realized that the elf was leading him on a chase away from the rail yard, he turned to flash back to his body. At that precise instant, Doc again surrounded the silver humanoid and his board with his elastic shield. This confirmed Finster’s belief that he was being delayed and, believing, as he did, that he could beat the elf in a straight up Magic duel, the frustration of being held by an inferior made his blood boil. He screamed as he released shatterspell after shatterspell to free himself from his prison, but apparently the elf had learned from his last experience and the miniature torpedo sharks spent more time bashing against the barrier

When the surfer finally broke out of his bubble prison, the elf was drooping and his spirit seemed about to retreat to his body. Finster quickly grabbed the astral form and, tired as he was, took a moment to gloat over his helpless enemy. The elf did not appear to have the strength to break free or defend himself, which brought a chuckle to the Mechanic’s mage.

The chuckle of superiority was short lived, however, as he noticed that the elf seemed focused on something in the real world. Looking down he perceived that a nearby explosion of one of Itami’s anti-personnel munitions had sent steel darts at his physical body and the thighs and groin of his form were not shielded by the hulking earth elemental. Dropping the elf without another thought, the mage leaped back to his body just in time to pass out from the pain of having his upper legs and crotch violated by fast moving steel penetrators. The only thing which saved him from further damage was the fact that the elemental had not been released from it's protective duties because the magic user's foray into the world of conscious thought had been so brief. Doc, nowhere near as tired as he pretended, noting that his work here was done, returned to his body in the rear of the Roadmaster.


Owen and Nightsbane arrived at the base of the switching tower at the same time. When Nightsbane launched a barrage of throwing daggers, Owen dodged and blocked the blades with a nearby scrap of 2 x 4. The Mechanics' phys ad screamed with frustration at his opponents speed, but did not receive a retaliatory strike. Where Glendower stood quietly, even placidly with his short staff held loosely in hand, Nightsbane's knuckles were white on the handles of his paired Haladie, as his eyes seemed to start from his head. Each time his opponent inhaled or shifted his weight, Nightsbane jumped to a new position. Owen stopped moving altogether in order to force his opponent to attack again.

With a scream Nightsbane began a flashing series of moves with his double bladed daggers. He spun, dipped and twisted as he closed with his opponent, always maintaining a whirlwind of slashing, thrusting daggers. Although quite impressed with his opponents speed and ferocity, Owen made no move as he was certain the other Phys ad was looking for a reaction to counter. Finally the two physical adepts were close enough to reach each other. When Owen still did not give Nightsbane anything to counter, the screaming fighter began a series of kicks so rapid that his legs seemed to become a blur.

Using his short staff to block while dodging his opponent, Owen still had not made any offensive move. Nightsbane, recognizing this and seeing it as a ploy to make him exhaust himself, suddenly stopped his attacks and waited in an engarde position. The two fighters might have stood motionless for hours, but both heard the Mechanics van returning. A slow smile broke over Nightsbane's face as he sensed that the stalemate would soon be broken by the arrival of his team mates. Owen shrugged and moved towards his opponent.

Recognizing that Glendower was trying to close inside his dagger's attack range, Nightsbane thrust his left blade at the approaching Owen, as he stepped forward and slashed with his right blade and his left leg attempted a low sweep. Owen turned the thrust with his staff, blocked the slash with his forearm and kicked sharply at the sweeping leg. Although his kick to Nightsbane's knee landed, the other phys ad smiled and shouted "first blood" when, by bending his blocked slashing arm, he was able to cut his opponent with the haladie's second blade. Giggling, Nightsbane confided "It's poisoned" as though he had just pulled off a great practical joke. Owen's response was to look down at his bleeding arm and then with inhuman speed to launch an Aldabis sa Ilalim ([Escrima] backhand strike to the knee) with his staff. The already injured knee bent with an audible crack as perspiration broke out on the grimacing Nightsbane's forehead.

The spinning backfist that Nightsbane attempted next was completely unexpected. No sane individual would attempt such a move with a shattered kneecap, but, then again, Nightsbane had never been considered a member of that large subset of metahumanity. Essentially pirouetting on his undamaged leg, Nightsbane's move lacked the speed and force he was accustomed to. Owen simply ducked under the arm and used his staff to deliver a Saksak sa Sikmura ([Escrima] thrust to the stomach).

As Nightsbane stepped back with his injured left leg and doubled over from the blow, Owen placed his left foot on top of his opponents right thigh. Nightsbane brought his right arm in for an overhand thrust which Owen blocked with his staff. Nightsbane then duplicated the move with his left arm. Owen grabbed the inside of his opponent's elbow while simultaneously stepping down with his left foot and bringing his right knee up above his opponent's shoulder. Nightsbane had never seen the Malaysian Bando move which translates as "Monkey climbs tree" but a second later it was what broke his neck when his opponent, kneeling on his shoulders suddenly twisted violently to the right.

As his autonomic nervous system shut down, Nightsbane could not distinguish between the crack of a sniper rifle and the sound of his vertebrae shattering or he might have died happy. Unfortunately, because he could not control his body in those last seconds he was denied the sight of his prone opponent who was lying a few feet away with a sizeable hole in his chest and a growing bloodstain spreading over his stealth suit. It is unclear if Nightsbane even heard Owen's burbling wet gasp or the rattle as the blood bubbles formed in the nose and mouth of the lost boys' leader.


"Frag! Ya got him Snap......." Blinky's last words were cut short as the round from the RAI 300 popped Snapper's head like a pimple and continued right through her spotter. In spite of his injured wrist and hand, the extreme distance, the unfamiliar customized weapon and the fact that his target had the cover of firing from inside a boxcar, when Hamon recognized that Owen had been hit, his fury gave him the accuracy he needed. Wiping a tear of frustration from his eye Hamon began methodically killing every remaining Humanis ambusher with cold precision.


"Frag! Itami! This is Lug. They got Sensei, repeat Sensei is down. He looks real bad! He's under the switching tower. Get Doc and the truck over there NOW!"

The Dwarf sam placed his laser targeting reticule over the van which had just pulled into the rail yard and as soon as he got a good tone, hit the button for simultaneous launch of all twelve tubes of his NR 8464 PRB. Resembling some bizarre fireworks device the NR 8464 PRB was essentially 12 linked mortar tubes which were pre-loaded and fired electrically. The rounds were smart bombs which, once launched, guided themselves towards the laser designated target. Since there explosive power was intended to clear an area of 300 square meters, with all of them focused on a single vehicle the most accurate descriptions of what was about to happen ranged from overkill to vaporize.


"Frag! We're painted!" Wilco screamed as he ripped the connectors out of his head and leaped from the van. Gerracioti was bailing out of the passenger's side with only the Jackhammer in his hand. Although both Mechanics were moving away from the van, the explosive force of the detonation tossed them like rags an additional 30 feet from the blast site.


"Frag! Ya set us up!" Screamed John Henry as he rounded on the unconscious form of Finster. The Humanis strike team leader had seen another group of true believers blown to hell and realized that his people were taking sniper fire. Since the only sniper who was not a Humanis member was the long range specialist that his "partners" had supplied, he naturally understood that the other team had turned on him. More than anything else, he wanted some vengeance.

The earth elemental interposed itself between the massive norm and it's bleeding charge but the norm actually tried to push the elemental out of the way before he started pounding it with his fists. When the elemental struck back John Henry's unconscious form was found a dozen feet away. Dimly recognizing that the metal raining down from above might do damage to the human it was supposed to protect, the elemental considered trying to take out the rotodrone but then decided it would be easier to move its sleeping charge someplace else. It engulfed the mage and sank into the ground.


"FRAG!" Itami yelled when he got the word from Lug. He immediately attempted to simultaneously pilot both the rotodrone, to provide Owen with air cover, and the Steel Lynx, to provide Owen ground cover while driving the Roadmaster so that Doc could provide magical healing. Although he desperately wanted an estimate of how badly the Phys ad might be hit, he had no more concentration to spare on anything other than the input he was getting from his mechanical interfaces.

The mage, returning to his physical form, felt himself being jolted as the Roadmaster lurched out of the parking lot. "I say, brother Hanzo, is there a reason for this unseemly haste?"

When the rigger did not respond Doc put on his headset and said "Lug, Doc. What's happened?"

After a few seconds the dwarf replied "It's Sensei, Doc. He caught a sniper round in the chest. Looked bad. He was on top of the other phys ad when suddenly he got ripped away. He's under the switching tower and I don't think he's moving. He doesn't answer. Itami's trying to get you to him, stat."

"Frag" was Doc's only response.


6


While the battle raged in the rail yard, Mouse and Firecat were busy exploring the matrix. Upon leaving the virtual bar, Firecat activated the "smarts" (semi-autonomous search programs), which appeared in the matrix as small flames darting in every directions. As soon as the cat finished instructing them on the parameters of the search and the areas to be targeted, they were released to pursue their investigations.

The cat then led Mickey's cartoon mouse icon to an old Victorian style house with a sign out front reading 1313 Mockingbird Lane. When Mouse stopped short at a stroke of lightning and a rumble of thunder, Firecat said "Don't mind that. It's just Lurch showing off." she pulled on a round knob at the front door, which Mouse supposed was a signal of some sort because when Firecat released it there was a sound of a fog horn. Immediately after that the door was opened by a cadaverously thin 10 foot tall troll wearing a butler's morning coat who groaned "yyyyyyyyyyyyoooooooooouuuuuuuuuu rrrrrrrrrrraaaaaannnnnnnggggggg?"

"Hoi, Lurch. Nice lightning effect. This is Mouse. Newbie. He's ok. Needs skinny on a spell worm. Knew this was the place to come."

"Fffffffffoooooolllllllllllooooooowwwwww mmmmmmmmmeeeeeeeeee" said the sepulchral voice as the skeletal Troll began making his way through the house. After leading the deckers to a large living room filled with bizarre furniture the troll wandered off going "uuuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhh" while shaking his massive head. Almost immediately a 4 foot tall mass of hair in a bowler slid into the room saying "HoiFirecatgoodtoseeyouwhatdoyouwantwho'sthiswhatdoeshewant?" Mouse was trying to figure out what sort of code was being used when Firecat replied "HoiitneeddataonS'ssraltheblackcurrentlocationpriorityofferdatarunnerteammechanics" when the creature didn't move Firecat said "andzixxpassingdata"

The hairball was silent for a nanosecond and then said "SorryaboutzixxofferlowacceptedOTS" and then slid out of the room. Mouse asked "Wha....?" Firecat replied "OldTimesSake". When Mouse brilliantly repeated his initial "wha......?" the cat said "Sorry. Lurch runs a slow comm program, so of course, It runs a tweaked speeder. It took me a half dozen visits before I caught on and wrote a prog to handle the variables. It won't talk to you until you create your own. Has this thing about twinks buyin off the shelf and daring to enter his domain. Confidentially," the cat said while lowering it's voice, "I think it's elitist bull, but the hairshirt knows more about the spellworms than any other 6 sources in the matrix. I think he was a frustrated mage himself."

"Well, well, well" interrupted a gruff voice from a huge black barghest icon which suddenly entered the "living room" from behind the deckers. "Look what the cat dragged in! I been looking fer some pussy, heh-heh-heh. You remember I told ya we'd meet again, cat. Took me a long time ta heal after you sandbagged me, but I got a new attack utility that you'll just die for. Let me show you...." Firecat's icon burst into a bright orange flame in preparation for the Barghest's attack when suddenly Lurch appeared and said "ppppppplllllllaaaaayyyyyrrrrrroooooooommmmmm". Immediately Mouse, Firecat and Barghest were transported to a gigantic open room. Without being told, Mouse knew that if he did not jack out immediately he would be prevented from doing so. Remembering what he owed Firecat, he elected to stay.

"LURCH! The Mouse isn't part of this. Let him go!" Firecat yelled at the ceiling. She then turned to mouse and said "Get out while ya can, chummer. This ain't gonna be pretty."

Having made his choice not to jack out, Mouse stepped up and pulled a cartoon water gun out of his pocket.

"Hur-hur a squirt gun? What ya gonna do, make me damp?" the glowering barghest asked.

"It is a squirt gun, but that's not what you should be worried about. You should be worried about what I got it loaded with." Mouse calmly replied.

"And what's dat?" The huge dog icon asked. Before Mouse could answer, The barghest yawned and a black mass of insects flew out of the icon's mouth and attempted to smother Mickey. Firecat yelled "No!" and the Barghest laughed as the cartoon mouse disappeared beneath the bug covering.

"So much fer yer friend, pussy" the barghest said, "I hope you give me a little more challenge."

"You suck, Winston." Firecat said. "The newbie wasn't part of this. Ya didn't have ta cack him!"

"AW....too fraggin bad. He shoulda run an you should watch yer own hoop, pussy." The barghest said as it spat an ice ball at Firecat.

Dodging nimbly, Firecat avoided the hard white projectile, however, where it landed a huge black cobra suddenly appeared.

"You bastard!" Firecat yelled, "You're carrying fraggin Corp Ice! The cat charged the barghest at incredible speed, slashing through its flank with a razor sharp claw. Unfortunately the Barghest kicked out with a hind leg before the attack was complete and sent the cat sprawling across the giant room.

As Firecat attempted to recover and Barghest screamed about the gash down it's side, both suddenly spun at the hiss of the giant black cobra. Launching itself at the injured Barghest with the speed of thought, the Cobra sank it's fangs into the giant dog's throat while it's sinewy coils wrapped around and around it's prey. Barghest screamed "AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH NOT ME! NOT ME! Nnnnnnnn" as it's icon began to fragment and disintegrate.

Finding it's prey gone the hissing snake turned it's attention towards the horrified Firecat, still attempting to regain it's feet. As the snake reared a shrill whistle sounded and an open basket suddenly appeared. After the attack program docilely climbed into the basket a lid suddenly appeared which closed down on top of it. As an astounded Firecat watched, a cartoon hand appeared holding the lid. Then an arm and then eventually an entire cartoon mouse grinned at Firecat and twirled a watergun on his finger with a cocky grin on his face.

"MOUSE! BUT.....BUT.....MOUSE! How the hell?....." a happy but surprised Firecat asked.

"A little sleaze so his bugs attacked a construct and I could stay outta sight, a little reprogram on his attack prog and Ta-da. Say, why was he so pissed?"

"Wait a minute, wait a minute. Firecat said "The sleaze was good. Very good. When you pulled the watergun?"

"Yeah. The team I'm working with have told me ya don't pull a gun to talk somebody down, but since the big doggy didn't know that I knew better, he (and you) allowed for a newbie's change of image as he readied an attack prog. Before ya ask, I use a squirter because my boss, a very, very arctic hombre uses one. Anyway, when I looked like I was pulling it, what I was really doing was setting up a dupe and hiding. That's why "I" never expected the yawn would be an attack"

"Chill, very chill," the cat said, "But how the hell did you reprogram the ice?"

"Well, it wasn't really ice." Mouse replied, "just an independent attack program set up by Barghest to scare the drek outta ya so he could distract ya for his own attack utility. Shadorat uses them all the time."

"But, it cacked Barghest" Firecat protested.

"Oh, it was deadly enough," Mouse admitted, "but you'd have beaten it easily in a straight up fight. It was just an attack prog. Fast and deadly, but not smart enough to adapt to some of the different things you would have thrown at it. Barghest got geeked because he wasn't ready, he was already hurt, the prog was as scary as he could make it, so, not surprisingly, it scared him and I don't think Lurch let him jack out."

With a growing respect Firecat nodded at the logic of Mouse's analysis but asked "Reprogram?"

"Independent attack progs are pretty simple.....uh.....directed is the best way to describe them. If you can recode the target line the prog is yours. The Shadorat is really good at it. He can do it on the fly cause his coding is so precise. I designed a short cut." Mouse said as he held up the watergun. "a drop of this reintializes the target sequence answerable to me. Unless, of course, the suckers running like a level 3 targeting routine or has a scenario subroutine preceding attack activation."

"Far Fraggin Out" Firecat said "I'm impressed. And you know Shadorat. Very chill. But why did you stay at all? You could see that the bastard wanted my blood, and you didn't know what he'd use to attack, so you didn't know if your squirtgun would work, so why didn't you run?"

"I owe ya" Mouse said as though the answer was self evident, "I couldn't very well clear the debt if I let the big doggy smoke ya, so I hung around."

"Damn. You really are a straight shooter." Firecat said with surprise and appreciation. Then turning to the ceiling Firecat yelled, "Lurch! We're done in the playroom!" instantly the pair were back in the living room and the hair mass said "Newbie'souttasightSubtleBarghestwasgettingtobeapaininthehoopanywayHere'syourdatagiveMousetheaddressvery oldworldandclassyHe'swelcomebackVCD"

"TTFN" Firecat replied

This time Mouse tried "huh?" and Firecat actually laughed and said "VCD is Via Con Dios (means go with God). TTFN is Ta Ta For Now. The rest of it was It saying he thought you were OK and that you were invited to return. Lurch and It both are aware of what happens in the playroom and I think they liked the subtlety of turning a program on is master, impressed them a lot. I know it impressed the hell outta me."

Thinking of his teammates' example, Mouse simply nodded once at the praise and didn't make anything more of it. Firecat, It and Lurch all thought of this as very good form.

Mouse was, however, a decker, which meant he had the patience and methodical nature to return to his earlier question. "So why was Barghest after ya?" he asked again.

"We, uh....ran together for a while when I was younger. He had a real focus and taught me a lot about following through and being a professional, but he got a little to um....practical. If he got the paydata and it got the team zapped that had gotten him onsite, he really didn't care. He was taking me on....I think it was my second or third run. We had pulled some files from a corp research lab. We were on our way out when he saw the sec forces that had been sent after us. He had a pretty good eye for tactics and strategy and saw that if the two groups of sec guards got distracted before they reached a certain point, there would be a way out of the trap we were in, but if we waited we'd all be in a hell of a firefight. He sent everybody from the shadowteam into the meat grinder telling them that the coast was clear if they hurried. Once they were in the midst of the firefight, he took the data and ducked out the back door. I was stuck. Following him woulda been safe, and I was real green, but I just couldn't leave that team to die. I tripped a whole drekload of alarms behind the sec teams, making them think that there were other groups about to attack them from behind. Two of the team members, (and me) got out. Gina, one of the sams died a few hours later. The other sam, an ork called Bull asked for my help. We went looking for Barghest and when I was confronting him in the matrix, Bull found his body in RL. Bull took a long time with Barghest and it wasn't at all pretty. Barghest just kept saying 'if ya don't kill me you'll be making the worst mistake of your lives because if I live I'll find you.' Every time he said it Bull hit him harder, but he just kept on repeating it. It woulda been better if Bull had just killed him, but the ork just wanted him to pay for what he'd done by suffering for a long time. Thanks for finally closing that chapter. I appreciate it."

Mouse and Firecat reviewed the data that It had brought them. Much of the data rehashed or amplified stuff that Doc had already revealed from his research of S'ssral the Black, so it was not new for Mouse although Firecat was seeing it for the first time. While they were examining It's data, Firecat's smart frames began returning with the info they had accumulated from multiple sources and Mouse found the general area of S'ssral's subterranean hideout.


"FRAG!" Itami yelled as he pulled the Roadmaster up under the switching tower. Doc had already jumped out of the back of the moving vehicle and was checking to see if Owen was still alive. The Phys ad was lying flat on his back starring blankly at the sky. When Doc saw the hole in Glendower's chest, the amount of blood around the wound and the blood bubbles around the phys ad's nose and mouth he breathed a hushed "frag" himself.

Kneeling beside the lost boys leader Doc said "Owen, can you hear me?"

The phys ad responded with a weak "what?"

Relieved that the teams leader was not already dead, Doc repeated "I asked if you could hear me."

"What?"

"I just........" Then Doc got it. "You know, for such a holy man, your choice of timing for juvenile humor leaves something to be desired. How badly are you hurt?"

Weakly Owen gasped out "Do.....you mean.....aside from.....this......sucking....... chest wound?"

Doc said, "Alright, alright, not my best question. I'm going to have to get the bullet out before I try to heal the wound, my friend. Now you........"

Owen beckoned Doc closer and whispered "Went right through......its gonna leave a mark."

"Good God!" Doc exclaimed as he recognized the extent of the injury and how close Owen was to death. He immediately cast his most powerful healing spells, attempting to close the wounds and stop the bleeding. The magic quickly began knitting flesh, blood vessels and nerves back together. Beyond even Doc's expectations the glow of the spell absorbed the blood that had been filling Owen's partially collapsed lung. As the organ expanded to it's original size almost of it's own volition the elf mage observed the phys ad's trance state and recognized that the phys ad's own power was boosting the effectiveness of the spell.

While Doc was spell casting, Itami's drones provided cover for the exposed pair. Although the rigger desperately wanted to personally check on his boss, he knew that there were still Humanis members and Mechanics loose in the yard and his teammates were better protected by his armored and flying drones than they would be if he gave into temptation and grabbed a gun to stand guard. He did call Lug and asked how long they had until LoneStar arrived.

"The radio traffic that I'm getting on LoneStar's frequencies ain't showing nothin." Lug responded. "Either we're getting dummy traffic because the star's changed encryption codes or the fix was in on this job, probably from Humanis. I ain't interested in living here permanent, but so far were...wait one" After the crack of a sniper rifle Lug resumed "so far were ok. How's sensei?"

"I ain't been outta the truck to see. Doc's workin on him. How much more opposition are we likely to face?"

"Can't be too much more. We've taken out all of the Humanis slots, least I can't see any of em moving. The other team's spell worm is gone, their phys ad's dead, Hamon's replaced their sniper which means what's left is the rigger and the troll. Even if they survived the van blowing up, I don't think they're gonna be in any shape to mount an offensive."

"Ok," Itami replied, "Can you cover Hamon if he meets here?"

"Yeah, but it would probably be better if we stayed with the plan and he covered me to you and then we picked him up on the way out."

"Alright. Let's do it. We need to get the boss someplace safe."

Although everyone was upset that Owen was badly wounded and each wanted an explanation for how it could happen that the team's leader could have caught a sniper round while being covered by a countersniper, drones and a high artillery site, nobody was anxious to blame anybody else until all of the facts were known. An example of professionals in action, each knew that the after action debrief would be the time and place to assess blame, not in the field when lives were still in danger.


"So it looks like he's within a 4 block radius here" Mouse said as he and Firecat laid out the fruits of their research on a virtual map of the plex. "Since we know he's not in here or here, I'd say the suggestion that he's gone underground sounds like a good one. The question is, how do we determine what's under here. I'll hack the power company's data if you'll make a run at water and gas. After that we'll both have to try..........what is it?"

Stopped by the laughter of Firecat's icon, Mouse waited while the other decker created a number pad in the matrix. After pushing several numbers a loud masculine voice said "How can we help you?"

Speaking with the basso profundo voice of a troll, Firecat responded "Yeah, uh, Miss utility? This is Herbert Manning of city parks and planning. I got a crew down here from Sander Construction puttin in a water fountain. They got a back hoe ready to dig up part of the street at 4th and Richmond Ave. I asked if dey called you and da foreman gimme a look like I was crazy. Are they gonna bust up anything if dey start diggin?

"Wait one."

Forty seconds later the voice came back on the line. "Mr. Manning? Miss Utility here. Tell that crew that the line they want to tie into is on the other side of the park. They need to dig at 7th and Winston, AFTER they've gotten the permit and authorization from us and been checked out by works. Mention the 20,000 nuyen fine and if that doesn't straighten them up, you tell them that they'd have gone down about 6 feet where they were planning on digging before they'd have broken through the roof of the biggest goddam ancient telephone switching station you ever saw. Might've collapsed an entire block and done millions worth of damage, not to mention how many might've been killed."

"Holy Drek! You mean they were right on top of it?"

"Well, between you and me they might have missed it. The blueprints I'm looking at say that the thing ends 20 feet from the intersection, but you tell them exactly what I said about how close they were to a major accident so maybe next time the stupid slots do what they are supposed to and check before they break ground. This could have been a real bad one Mr. Manning. I think those stupid bastards owe you a case of suds."

"Now that, I will tell them", Firecat said with a deep laugh. "Thanks Miss Utility. I appreciate it."

Because the decker's icon was a cat, very little was required for Mouse to see a look that was at once aloof, smug and self satisfied. As he bowed his acknowledgement he filed away the number for Miss Utility against future needs.


Itami leaned out of the drivers window and yelled "Hey Doc! Is da boss ok? Can we move him? I'd like ta get the frag outta here before somethin else happens." Doc was looking up and raising one hand to signal when the drain effect of the spells he had cast caught up with him and his knees buckled. As the elf was collapsing next to the downed phys ad, Itami yelled "FRAG! FRAG! FRAG!!!"

Donning a short range repeater, which allowed him to maintain contact with his droids, Itami swung down from the cab. As he lifted the elf's unconscious body and laid it in the back of the truck, he gritted out "This wasn't in the plan, Doc. I don't need fraggin complications now." He turned back to his other charge as Lug, carrying a load of ordinance that was clearly double his own body weight, made his way to the truck.

"Drop that stuff in the back and help me load the boss," Itami said. "I don't know if it's ok to move him, but I don't like our chances if we spend more time hanging here. Let's load him carefully and get the frag outta dodge."

"Sounds like a plan," Lug said as he dropped off his artillery. "Hamon caught a round through his wrist so he's gonna need to be patched up too."

"Drek!" Itami said, "Don't these stupid frags know that we're the good guys. We aren't supposed ta get all busted up."

"Riiiiiiiggghtttt" Lug said, "Just one thing. Next time, don't slot those BTL chips before the run, ok? It'll be safer for all of us if you aren't wacked outta yer skull when our hoops are in your hands."

"Look, I ain't as witty as Doc, but I gotta tell ya, the only way I'm fillin my hands with yer hoop is if I am whacked outta my skull." Itami responded. Then after a few seconds he added ".....and, ya know, even then........"

"Alright, alright, ya proved yer point. Even tuskers got a sense of humor. Now holster that razor wit before ya hurt somebody and take Sensei's feet."

With a touch as gentle as it was at odds with the corpse strewn, fire and explosive damaged rail yard, the dwarf and orc placed the trancing norm on the floor of the Roadmaster. Itami swung back into the cab and started heading the vehicle towards the water tower with Rotodrone and Steel Lynx following along behind.


After sliding down the huge sloping roof of the sand shed, Kevin Dockery desperately searched for a place to hide. Between the explosions that had taken out his fellow Humanis clubbers to the sudden sniper fire that had killed Barb, he knew this ambush was an unmitigated, complete, total, 100 percent, grade-A, certified, frag-up. Ducking around so that he was inside the shed, the policlubber began making his way around the massive sand pile. Suddenly he spotted Barb just a little further around the pile. Barb? But....I saw Barb get shot. The confused spotter thought. She was laying right next to me when that sniper round blew through her neck. So how could she be down here and... why is she taking off her leathers?! Man! What a body ! And that look! She signaling me to come closer. I guess I better say something.

Clearing his throat as he approached his naked and seductively smiling partner, Mr. Dockery might have realized the extent of his error and spent his last seconds on regret about it, but the incubus which had plucked the vision of his naked partner from his mind, wrapped it's tentacle around his throat and quickly squeezed the life out of him. The awakened creature was hungry, and killed him before he recognized the extent of his blunder or was able to feel any self-recriminations. The land octopus turned from hunting red to it's hiding blue gray color as it settled down to it's meal. Had it been sentient it might have congratulated itself that it's new territory was yielding more than devil rats for meals.


The one handed climb down the watertower's ladder was tedious and difficult. More than once, Hamon, reviewing the events that led up to the death of the lost boys' leader, slipped and nearly fell to his death. When he eventually reached the ground he had hardly begun searching for Bonaire's body when the Roadmaster pulled up.

"C'mon, Hamon!" Itami shouted. "We gotta get da boss outta here!"

Because the rigger was piloting his drones back into the truck, he did not hear or respond to Hamon's suddenly excited question "You mean he's still alive?!" The sam ignored his own injuries as he jumped into the truck. He immediately asked his long time partner Lug for a sit rep.

"Sensei's the worst hurt. Sniper put a hole right through his chest. Doc threw all his healing mojo and passed out. Owen's in some kinda trance to help the magic, I guess. Mouse is still off in da matrix and Itami needs some direction on where to go next. He wants ta get outta here, but I don't think he knows where to go to. What do ya think, that big truckstop on the freeway?"

At the sam's nod Lug relayed instructions to the rigger and once they were moving turned his attention to his partner's injuries. "Drek, boy. You caught one in the hand and another in the wrist. I bet that hurts like hell. Let me see."

Fortunately Hamon did not have the paranoid objection to healing technology that Owen did, so the Medkit that Lug strapped on began it's diagnosis/repair. The sam closed his eyes and relaxed as the device began pumping painkillers through his system.

"Great, another fraggin sleeper," Lug muttered to himself.


Bonaire watched the lost boys' sam climb into the truck from the scrub brush that had sprouted up near the rail yard fence. The blood oozing from the holes in his mangled legs and feet lent an iron tang to the air, but the wounded sniper was too completely wrapped in a shroud of pain to notice the smell. He was still lucid enough to realize that as it got darker there would be more and more night predators drawn by his blood trail, and armed only with a knife, if he didn't get some help he might not survive. For the first time in his long career, he regretted his habit of not taking a comm unit to his high sniper position. He did not even have a wrist phone with him.

Wondering if it was more dangerous to hide or crawl, Bonaire began the two kilometer handwalk towards the ambush site.


After sinking with his human charge into the earth, the elemental dimly considered his next move. The metal falling from the sky had already hurt the mage, so returning to the surface was not good. But the mage had not given the elemental orders to transport him someplace else, so moving him might mean punishment. What was the best thing to do? Quickly surveying the area, the elemental saw the huge sand pile under a giant roof. What could be better? A pile of earth with a roof to keep the falling metal from damaging the magic user's frail body. The elemental and his unconscious charge immediately reappeared at the top of the sand pile.

The elemental recognized the feeding incubus at the base of the pile as a potential threat, but rather than risk the falling metal, decided to stay under the roof and keep an eye on the carnivore below. Eventually the land octopus finished its meal, and smelling the blood from the mage's wounds began crawling up the sand pile. The elemental amused itself by allowing the predator to climb up a certain distance and then shifting the sands so that it tumbled back down the slope.

The game of 'so near and yet so far' might have continued indefinitely, but the elemental got distracted by the wail of the injured mage as he returned to consciousness. Furious that he had been wounded and nearly blind with pain, Finster dismissed the incompetent elemental and prepared to heal his damaged thighs and groin. He used a telekinesis spell to draw the steel darts out of his injured body and was about to cast a healing spell when the Incubus struck.

Because the bleeding norm was a full tentacle length away and too badly injured to come any closer on his own power, the incubus used the horny hook at the end of it's longest tentacle to attack it's victim's throat. The tip did not penetrate far, but the rip caused by drawing the tentacle back drew a lot of blood.

Finster blindly launched a mana bolt which tumbled the carnivore back down the sand pile and stumble/rolled towards the opening in the shed, holding one hand on his bleeding neck and another on his damaged groin. When he got to ground level and stumbled out, he began weeping bitter tears. Beyond the incredible pain he was feeling, Finster wept because he was faced with the devil's own choice. He knew that his strength was failing and that the wound in his neck required healing to prevent his bleeding to death. He also knew that he did not have the strength remaining to completely heal both wounds. If he healed his groin first, he might not live to enjoy it as his neck wound would continue bleeding freely while he lay unconscious from the drain of completely healing his lower body. If he healed his neck and only partially healed his groin, he knew that further healing spells would not help after his body had adjusted to the partial healing. Cursing the universe he sat on the ground with his back against the wall of the shed, healed the wound in his neck and used the last of his magic power to do what he could for the worst of his groin. He cried quietly as he watched those wounds stop bleeding.


Gerracioti and Wilco returned to consciousness at the same time. Both had been tossed like dolls by the blast of the exploding van in opposite directions. They each awoke to a horde of devil rats and other, larger predators, feasting on the carnage the littered the rail yard. Picking themselves up and searching for other survivors they eventually found the sobbing, exhausted and wounded Finster and a little later, the crawling Bonaire. Nobody bothered to spend the time looking for the remains of Nightsbane or checking the bodies of the "allies" from Humanis.

Wilco found and hot-wired a beat up Toyota Gopher pickup a few blocks from the rail yard. Driving the truck back, he and Gerracioti laid their injured companions in the flatbed and drove off in search of Medical assistance.


John Henry picked himself up off the ground. There was a piece of metal shrapnel imbedded in his shoulder, right through the armored coat, but he yanked it out and shrugged off the pain. He was so furious at the betrayal by his "allies" that he didn't even identify the piece of comm aerial from Wilco's van that had violated his flesh. Exactly what he had worried about had happened. He had trusted a shadowteam that included meta-animals and they had betrayed him and slain his people. Well, the hulking policlubber thought, I told that spell worm what would happen to him if he turned on me. Now I'm gonna make him pay. And the other 'hell hounds' that turned on me. They're gonna pay too. I don't care how long it takes. I'm gonna make sure they die slow.

Pressing a stud on his wrist comm which told all the Humanis members in the rail yard to form up on him, he was astounded when only Little O came out of his hiding place at the electronic call.

"O, dere's gotta be more survivors a dis cluster frag dan you an me. I'll check dis way, you look over dere. Let's get our people and get da frag outta here." Without waiting to hear any input from the magic user, John Henry stomped off.

Little O did not have much in the way of offensive spells, but was patient and quite perceptive in the astral plane. Within a few seconds he had identified the only functioning humans in the immediate area were the pair who had just spoken. "Seeing" astrally that John Henry was approaching an octopus, Little O ran to warn the strike team leader.

The magic user was shocked when, gun in hand, he came upon John Henry approaching a big busty Troll woman dressed in a black leather S&M outfit, complete with whip and manacles. Shifting to astral senses, Little O again saw the octopus and screamed a warning to John Henry just before he opened fire. The rounds from the Predator injured the incubus enough for it's illusion to falter, causing it's victim to snap out of the seduction. Frustrated by it's recent loss of the human magic user Finster, the incubus, rather than retreating as it normally would, threw out a tentacle to snag or at least wound it's victim. John Henry, in an unbelievable feat of strength actually caught the tentacle with both hands and tore the flexible member's end off. Before the incubus could react to the shock and pain of this latest wound, John Henry had pulled the Ithaca 12 gauge pump from it's sheath on his back and blasted the beast to oblivion.

When Little O trotted up to congratulate the Humanis team leader, he picked the wrong time and place to manifest his inquisitive nature. When his questions made it clear that he had seen the dream lover the incubus created to attract John Henry, the Humanis strike team leader, with no warning at all, aimed and fired the scattergun's last round into the magic user's head.

"Sorry, O" the hulking norm muttered as he began reloading the shotgun over the still twitching, headless corpse, "I can't have the club knowing my preferences. It's wrong and disgustin an dirty but I can't help wantin it. Nobody can ever know. I'm sorry."

Mentally chalking up Little O's death as a direct result of the Mechanic's betrayal and therefore another debt to be paid, John Henry sheathed the shotgun and walked out of the rail yard having once again survived a 'foolproof' ambush.


7


"Well, Firecat," Mouse said with an air of finality, "I really appreciate all you've done. I've got enough data that the team shouldn't have any trouble getting to Mr. S'ssral the Black. Thanks for the help an........."

"Hold on there, partner." Firecat replied, "What makes you think you've got everything you need? Matrix cowboys gotta be thorough. Look close at the map. What's near the underground base you're taking your team into?"

Mouse looked at the three dimensional city map that Firecat had created. With a simple command his icon shrunk down to life size on the city map and he began studying the incredible detail of Firecat's mapping utility. Shooting back up to full size he asked "You wanted me to notice the Pachinko arcade?"

When cat failed to respond he began studying in earnest. After a few seconds he said "Ok. I see a couple of things. The Pachinko arcade usually means Yaks, which might not be a problem but ought to be factored into the strategy. The park itself probably has a gang or two who consider it their turf....." As he looked over at Firecat for reaction he saw the ghost of a smile and then the cat held up a paw with three nails extended. "Drek!" Mouse said, "Three gangs in that crummy little piece of park? How do you know......"

In a blink of an eye, Mouse found himself back at Baltimore's Virtual Homewood Deli. The cat indicated a huge wall mural of the plex with a sharply divided color pattern. Sauntering over to the artist, a gnome icon that seemed to be in constant motion, Cat called "Hey, Van go go, tell me about here" laying a paw on the park under discussion.

"ACK! Don't touch! Don't touch! Stupid Kitty! Maybe smear paints! Bad!" After assuring himself that the ever changing masterpiece had not been damaged, the Gnome continued. "Ah, you maybe see? Red dragons west, Creepers east, Warriors north. Yaks here, like Warriors. Buddy-boys forever, maybe 10 minutes, then ho-ho, many fine greets new buddy-boys! Maybe Creepers, no, Dragons, yes? Always same maybe never."

"I couldn't fail not to disagree with you less." Mouse said before Firecat could reply.

The gnome grinned hugely and then cocking his head studied Mouse as though seeing him for the first time. Indignant at, perplexed by, or perhaps simply celebrating Mouse's response, the gnome began huffing and puffing as though it were trying to inflate itself. It then proceeded to implode into a single point and vanished.

"Was it something I said?" Mouse deadpanned.


The kaleidoscope of images paraded by.

He and Smiley, giddy to the point of hysteria at their escape from Junn's poison class, discovering the greatest treasure that any pair of 10 year olds could imagine. Hidden beneath the floor boards in the burned down Journeyman's quarters they found an entire case of ancient flatscreen videos of Samurai movies. Excited enough to jump out of their skins the pair whooped and screamed as they planned how they could steal the ancient vid player out of the compound's library.

Two 12 year olds. He and his "little brother", a fomori troll, reciting line after line of memorized dialogue, mimicking video swordplay studied with an intensity never applied to academic disciplines. Conducting heated, endless, heartfelt, debates about the greatest of the cinema samurai, Yojimbo, the wandering ronin, or Zatoichi, the blind swordsman masseuse. The secret oath, sworn with the seriousness that only the innocent are capable of, that each would be true to the warrior spirit, and to each other, forever, while carving out legendary careers on the path to glory.

9 years old, armed with a broom handle, leaping into a group of larger, older boys who were developing a game which involved kicking a new kid, a troll whose helpless smile became a grimace with each new blow. Henry Red Hat screaming like a banshee because his "pal" had turned on him for a new kid who wasn't even human, and had shattered Henry's shin with a blow from the broom stick. Standing over the huddled troll and facing down 14 year old Rick Hall, calmly and coldly assuring the older student with absolutely no doubt, that if he made another move to hurt the Troll it would get him D.R.T. (dead right there).

16 years old, lovesick, searching for a secret rendezvous with the mysterious Anna, decoyed into a blind alley to suddenly find himself facing three masked fellow students swinging nunchuks, wondering if he would survive the beating. Suddenly hearing the whoosh of the heavy chain that Smiley was using as a Manriki-gusari. Feeling the flood of relief as his "little brother's" announced to the masked assailants- "Now if you go bruising me wee small friend, lads, I'm sorry to say, I'll be bruising yerself".

13 years old, black eye, broken ribs, dislocated shoulder, grinning like a maniac at the only other competitor still conscious in the "bear pit", his partner Smiley. The formori's horn was cracked, his nose was broken, he was spitting out a tooth and standing on one leg because the other was fractured, but he had the same look of triumph. When Master Reed had screamed "There can be only one!" the pair had each responded with a single finger salute and hobbled out of the pit arm in arm.

And then the parade slowed to images that burned into the memory like acid eating through flesh...... A look of triumph on Smiley's face as the fomori trapped the staff with his paired Tjabangs...... The terrible look of surprise as the hidden sword blade, drawn while the swordsman spun, slashed through the side of the neck................ The spray of precious rubies vomiting from the new made mouth as Smiley dropped his weapons and tried in vain to halt the life gushing from his throat............................... The sound of the blade thrust through cloth and armor and flesh and sinew and finally the heart muscle itself......................................................... The deafening silence and the startled look on his childhood friend's face as death's shroud descended.............................................................. The gasped final words: "Zato-ichi....Grayson, you're...Zato-ichi."

With a guilty moan of horror, Owen sank further from the world of consciousness.


"Sir, I understand that you've been injured but....."

"Understand this, Bitch! If the fucking doctor isn't out here in the next five seconds, I'm going to turn you into a fucking toad and pith your ass. I'm wounded, I'm in agony, I don't give a good flying godamn rat's ass about your fragging procedures. GET THE DOCTOR OUT HERE NOW!"

At that moment Doctor Larkin stepped out into the reception area of his private practice to see what all the noise was about. He immediately recognized that Laura, his nurse/receptionist/secretary was contending with a bloodied group of shadowrunners. Although he ideally would have liked to avoid dealing with the criminal element, the pay was too lucrative for a young medico with student loans. Because he had refused the corporate route, the staggering cost of his education was his problem alone and dealing with the odd yak, maf, ganger or shadowrunner was just part of a night's work.

"I'll handle this, Laura," he told the shapely, dark hared beauty. Doing a quick triage on his patients he said "Please take that man to room 3, prep him and then come to room 2 to help me. Gentlemen," he addressed the Troll and Dwarf, "If one of you could help my nurse transport that man, the other of you and I can move this man to room 2 where I can look at him."

Without further ado, Wilco threw a groaning Bonaire over his shoulder and signaled the nurse to lead the way, leering as he followed her. Gerracioti was gentler lifting Finster, who continued to curse a blue streak on his way to treatment.

Twenty minutes later, sadly shaking his head, Doctor Larkin rendered his medical verdict. "I'm sorry, Mr., uhm...Finster, but the injuries you've sustained have, in effect, castrated you. I assume there was some magic involved because the scrotum was badly damaged and then partially healed. Unfortunately the partial healing's net effect was to stop the bleeding and 'reset' the body. I don't believe further magic will improve the situation but, you're welcome, of course, to get a second opinion. About the only thing that I can do now is to repair your internal plumbing, which will mean removing this area entirely. You will want to think carefully about this and consider your options for bioware correction. This will require more time, expense and unfortunately cannot be done here. I'll be working on your companion while you review the pamphlets that Laura is getting for you."

As the doctor turned to leave, Finster caught the look of pity on the attractive nurse's face and snapped. Screaming with frustration that some worthless slitch would feel superior enough to pity him, Finster yelled "Fuck Bonaire! I'm your patient. Perform the surgery right now! I don't want fragging bioware! Just cut'em off! I'll still be 10 times the man you are....." At that moment Gerracioti stepped back into the exam room and jacked a round into his shotgun. "Is there a problem?"

"No, no." Doctor Larkin explained. "Your associate is requesting radical surgery while in an emotionally confused state of mind. Permanent, irreversible, major surgery. I've just been explaining that he needs to consider....."

"Do what he wants, Doctor."

"But, you don't understand....."

"No, you don't understand, Doctor" The troll said as he brought the Jackhammer to bear. "Do what he wants, now."

Swallowing his next protest, the doctor put on gown and gloves and prepared to complete the job that Itami's anti-personnel device had started: that of turning Finster into a eunuch.


"Hey, Itami." Lug said over the truck's comm system. "I think we need some more help. Do you know if Sensei's lady is in town?"

"Yeah, the boss mentioned he wanted to see her but this job was going to prevent it. Why? What's wrong?" The ork rigger replied.

"Well, Sensei keeps moaning, an like, shuddering, an I think his heart is slowing down. Doc's still out from the drain, so I can't ask him about it and Hamon and Mouse ain't in any condition ta judge, but I'd hate ta think we let him get worse when we could got some outside expert help. What do ya think?"

"I've turned towards the boss' doss. I agree wit ya 100 percent. I think we need another spell slinger who knows da boss and who we can trust. ETA is 5 minutes but why dontcha call anyway. Might keep her calmer when she sees him."

Neither the call nor the explanation did anything to calm Sayla Starseeker's fears. When she released the invisibility spell which she had used to enter the truck undetected, her beautiful face was marred by her concern over her lover's state. After magically asensing the phys ad she spoke with the two conscious lost boys.

"Doc pulled out all the stops on his healing spells because between it and Owen's trance, the physical damage from the wound is entirely gone. Unfortunately, it looks like Owen was also poisoned and I think he went into a trance to take care of that problem. I think he tranced so deep to help the healing that his spirit is wandering. From the impression I get, he's reliving painful memories. Things he feels guilty about. I've tried to reach him magically, but I can't find him. I don't know what to do."

"Well keep talkin to him" Lug said, "His heart rate hasn't slowed any further since you arrived."

Sayla ignored the potential embarrassment and murmured endearments to her lover, pleading for him to return to her while Itami drove down the interstate and Lug uncomfortably watched the monitor and prayed for a faster rate.

Mouse chose that moment to exit the matrix. While he was being brought up to speed on the situation, Sayla healed Hamon's wounds and cleaned the painkillers out of his system and then returned to talking to the unconscious phys ad. While Itami parked at the truckstop on the interstate, everyone considered ways of snapping the team's leader out of his trance. Finally Mouse said, "I don't really understand this magic biz, but if you screamed for help, Sayla, I think that might reach the boss."

The silence that descended on the inside of the Roadmaster was broken only by Doc's snore. Mouse began to feel very foolish but just before he could retract his suggestion and apologize, Lug said "Kid, that's a great idea. Simple, straightforward, but, you know, I can't think of anything that would be more likely to get Sensei's attention either."

Itami said "Sounds good to me. Sayla, can you scream for help like your life's at stake?"

"Give me a moment" the beautiful elf woman said.

Mouse saw Hamon give him a nod and a thumbs up gesture and again felt how lucky he was to be part of this team. Suddenly, Sayla screamed "OWEN! HELP ME! PLEASE, OWEN! HELP!" and instantly found herself flat on the floor with her lover standing over her with a bared sword in his hand, scanning for enemies. The move had been so fast that nobody in the truck had even seen it and now no-one made any move or even breathed as the phys ad took stock of the situation. From the floor of the truck, Sayla said reassuringly "It's alright, Owen. You're among friends. You've been dreaming, darling. It's ok..."

The Phys ad took a long ragged breath and reassembled his cane sword. When he was certain the nightmare was over he said: "I'm sorry, babe. Are you ok?" as he bent to help Sayla to her feet. He found his arms full of a unselfconsciously relieved elf woman and for the next several minutes the other lost boys turned away as the lovers expressed their concerns for each other.


When Bonaire learned the extent of the damage his legs and feet had suffered from Hamon's Super Mach, rather than get upset, he began making phone calls. After several of these he informed Gerracioti that he would be absent for the next several weeks as he recovered from the surgery that would install cyberware replacements for his mangled limbs. Gerracioti recognized that his input on this was not being solicited anymore than it had been in Finster's case, so with a shrug he wished his long time partner farewell. Bonaire didn't bother to name the shadowclinic where the work would be done because neither Mechanic had any illusions about visits during recuperation. A private medical service's armed transport arrived some 20 minutes later and took Bonaire away.


"Sayla, I think........"

"No."

"Kitten, look, you don't....."

"No."

"But I......"

"No, Owen. I am not going home. I am not going someplace safe. I am not going to forget all about this. Doc exhausted himself putting you back together, so you need someone who can throw spells at least until he's rested. And I saw where the spell closed the hole. You know, the hole that went RIGHT THROUGH your chest? So, before you tell me that you can handle this, everything's under control, that you would be distracted worrying about me, or any other macho, protect-the-poor-female-drek, just don't even try it." The fire in the young elf woman's eyes as she folded her arms gave the lost boys' leader pause. When he said, "But babe, you know the team......." her eyes went nova.

Hamon began earnestly sharpening his Katana, Lug found his pistol was in desperate need of cleaning and Mouse remembered a bit of programming that required his immediate attention. When the pair looked at Itami he said, "Hey, don't look at me for help. She's absolutely right. You need somebody around who can keep you under control. If she'd been here earlier you wouldn't have played target in an ambush that we knew was coming...."

"You did WHAT?" Sayla demanded.

"Thank you, Itami." Owen said under his breath as he flinched. He then began explaining to Sayla what had happened. Ten minutes later a barely mollified Sayla said "We'll talk about this later. Why don't you do your debrief or after action, or whatever you call it and I'll pick up the story as you go."


Each lost boy explained what had happened from his perspective. When the others had each described the events as he saw them, Owen began describing what he had seen. The Phys ad admitted that the Bando move, while completely unexpected and unfamiliar to Nightsbane, and therefore very difficult to counter, was probably not the best choice in a situation with snipers around. "I assumed that the snipers would have one hidden back-up but not two. My own damn fault. By the time I realized I was being scoped and started moving, the sniper was squeezing the trigger. Sorry guys."

"Drek, Sensei." Lug responded. "I shoulda booby trapped da livestock cars. Anybody could see they was a nice sneaky location ta shoot from. I could at least have dropped a mortar round among 'em, maybe a shook 'em up. More my fault dan yours."

"Yeah, well I had the Rotodrone for an eye in the sky," Itami said. "If I'd a paid more attention I'd have seen 'em sneak in and den one of us coulda got 'em. Sorry, Boss."

"All know, if I'd been faster with the long gun, wouldn't have happened. My fault. I'm sorry, Sifu. I...."

"Oh, for crying out loud!" Sayla exclaimed. "I like teamwork as much as the next person, but can we finish the chorus of mea culpas and get to some conclusions? You were all in on the ambush, you all didn't catch the hidden sniper team and you're all sorry that Owen nearly paid with his life. From what I heard everybody immediately risked themselves to save my thickheaded man, and he survived, so let's stop wallowing in guilt and move on."

After a three second pause, during which Owen caught each team member's eye, Sayla was answered with a chorus of "Yes, dear."

This broke the tension and even Sayla laughed. Owen stood up behind the elven woman and embracing her, whispered into her hair, "Thank you, beloved."

Leaning back into Owen's chest, Sayla murmured "You're welcome." She turned and looked up into the Phys Ad's blue eyes and softly added, "But I'm not forgetting that we have to talk about deliberately setting off ambushes, Mr. Man."

Seeing that Sayla's smile had an edge to it, Owen whispered "Yikes!" which caused the beautiful elf mage to shake her head as she stepped away to resume her seat.

"Alright." Owen said, returning to the business at hand, "Let's do some estimates on the opposition. Humanis?"

"Twenty seven ta start. We didn't see anything moving at da end. Give 'em all the breaks and say four walked away." Lug answered.

"Not confident about a clean sweep?" Owen asked.

"Naw. Haveta figure one or two hid from da gitgo. Figure another was knocked out somewhere and, based on our recent over confidence, add another on principle. Not more dan four, but I wouldn't assume we got 'em all."

When nobody objected to the dwarf's estimate, Owen said, "Ok. Four racists go running back to their boss. What happens next?"

Uncharacteristically, Hamon spoke up, saying "17 yesterday, 23 today. 40 bodies. There aren't many groups that are going to take that kind of loss of manpower without having trouble. Odds are they will fall back and regroup before they send another couple of dozen dues payers out to buy the farm. We should have some breathing room from that direction."

"Anybody disagree?.....Ok. We assume that Humanis will be licking their wounds for a little while. What about the Mechanics?" Owen asked.

"Bonaire caught about a dozen slugs in his legs and feet." Hamon said "That, plus the drop for the last couple of stories from the watertower when I cut his repelling line means that either he gets lots of magical help or goes for cyberware. I've got his RAI 300. Unless their mage had lots of extra power, which I think Doc took care of, or they had magical help waiting in the wings, he'd be doubtful."

"Let's not be too hasty. You can buy a healer's help if you know your way around, so we may not have done anything but annoy the long range shooter." Owen said "I'd prefer not to repeat this last experience so, lets continue to include him in the planning. What about the rigger and the troll?"

"They drove in late an I turned their ride into scrap." Lug said. "Unfortunately, they bailed as soon as my laser painted the van, so they probably survived. I woulda gone huntin for em, in da interest a bein thorough, but we wuz worried about gettin ya outta dere before dey set up any kinda counter-attack. Figure we ain't done wit either a dem."

"Doc's out so we don't know anything for sure on da mage", Itami added, "but da elemental engulfed him and took him underground. I think he was hurt by da darts from my bouncin bettys, but ya gotta figure he'd be able ta heal himself and dat were gonna have ta deal wit him again, too."

"I broke Nightsbane's neck." Owen said quietly. "I know he's dead." After a few seconds the Phys ad said: "Mickey, I'd love to hear what you've unearthed about S'ssral the black, but honestly, at the moment I think everybody needs some time to rest. It looks like our opponents are not going to hit us anytime soon and I want to wait until Doc is back in action before we try to evaluate your data, anyway," lowering his voice Owen continued "I also think I'm gonna get my butt kicked by my lady, and I just as soon get that over with." Under Sayla's watchful eye, everyone avoided even the hint of a smile. "So," Owen concluded, "Can we grab some food and sleep and go back at this tomorrow?" When no one objected Owen followed Sayla into the motel.

"Uhm, should we uh.....ya know, offer da boss some moral support?" Mickey asked.

"Nah. She won't really kill him. Besides, much as I like da Sensei, it ain't smart gettin between a physical adept and a high level mage even if they're usually nice people." Lug responded. Meanwhile Itami had loaded the sleeping Doc over his shoulder and was making his own way into the motel. "Get what sleep ya can, Mouse," Lug advised, "We may not get another chance till this run is done."


8


There is an ineffable quality about cheap motels. A lingering sense of inappropriateness pervades these temporary stopping places, these warehouse for people in transit. "All of the comforts of home" as it appears to the faceless planners who design these metahuman storage closets. The coffin motels, are, of course, the worst for this desperate lack of "belonging", but the truck stop motels that grow like errant weeds along the blacktop of North America are not far behind. The professional travelers who utilize these grim stopovers have armored themselves against the psychic residue retained by the cheap furniture and cracked plastic. The truckers have learned to ignore the vaguely masked odors of a thousand previous tenants. Mouse the decker, had not.

After 20 minutes among the faded yellow drapes and uneven legged chairs the decker had gone off in search of.....anything. Everyone from the team was going to try to get some sleep. Those who were hungry had ordered dinner "to go" from the diner that served as "restaurant" for the motel, preferring to dine alone as exhaustion set in after the stress of battle. Owen and Sayla had taken a room, as had Lug and Hamon while Itami was rooming with the still sleeping Doc. This had left Mouse with a single, and since he had not participated in the battle his friends had been in, he was less interested in sleep and more concerned with finding something to do.

The Gift shop/souvenir stand had, as nearly all such establishments do, a limited selection of over priced, largely useless, merchandise. As Mouse looked over the extensive collection of interstate maps, (under the suspicious eye of a gap-toothed, blue hared matron) Sayla wandered in with the same look of someone searching for a relief from ennui.

"Hello, Mouse. What's happening?"

"Hi, Sayla. Absolutely nothin happenin. I got tired a da cubicle so I figured I'd come see if dere was something here worth reading or, you know......"

"Yeah. Just something to keep you from bouncing off the walls. Me too."

"Isn't da boss......" Mouse let the question trail off as he tried to find a respectful way to phrase his question.

"Isn't Owen what?" Sayla replied with a raised eyebrow.

"Oh, uh...I didn't mean...uh, I just thought dat you an him would be, ya know, talkin"

"You mean you thought I'd be giving him hell about stupidly risking his life, didn't you? Well, in spite of the show in the truck, he's really too exhausted for anything like that. He fell asleep before he even finished the sandwich he ordered. I'm sure Doc is still out, and I'd guess that the other lost boys are catching up on sack time after the fight too. Looks like you and me are on our own. Care to explore this place?"

"Well, uh. I don't know if we should......."

"Mouse. I'm going to check out the bar. You're welcome to come if you'd like, but I'm far too tense to sleep, and I thought you were looking for something to do. Of course, if you don't want to...."

"No, I'll go. I really am bored. Besides, da guys would kill me if I let anything happen to ya, not to mention da boss........"

"Mouse," the beautiful elf said with a hint of exasperation in her voice, "let me give you a little advice. You can learn a lot from Owen. He's a very good man who in many ways is an excellent role model. And in their own ways so are the other lost boys. They're all more concerned with justice than profit, which is rare and admirable in the world of runners. HOWEVER, they all have this blind spot where females are concerned, and I'm warning you not to pick it up. Women are not weak things to be protected. Understand? Unless we get transported into the matrix, it's a lot more likely that I will protect you than the reverse. Ability is not dependent on gender...."

"Hey, kid." A passing trucker interrupted on his way back to his room, "Dat ain't da kinda bar ya wanna take yer lady into. Pretty rough crowd."

"Thanks, buddy" Mouse turned to say to the trucker, only to turn back and see Sayla's back as she strode towards the Bar's front door with a determined gate. Muttering "Oh drek!" under his breath Mouse hurried after the elf woman.

As soon as they stepped into the smoky, noisy bar, Mouse knew what the trucker meant. The bar, which ran the length of the room, was backed by shelf space. Above this space was a platform where 2 norm females were "dancing" in the nude. (Dancing being the nearest approximation to the listless gyrations of the obviously bored performers.)

Before Mouse could utter a word a deep voice boomed out "AWRIGHT! DA SECOND SHOW! I'D PAY REAL CREDS TO SEE YA DANCE, POINTY EARS"

"What's your name, big man?" Sayla asked the beer bellied troll with the Yankees hat adorning his horn.

"I'M HERMAN, BABY. BUT YOU CAN CALL ME....DICK" the troll said to the obvious amusement of his fellow truckers.

"Well, Herman. Your voice is hurting my ears. Talk quietly"

"Sure, Sure." The troll replied in a quieter tone, "Baby, to see you dance, I'd whisper fer a year."

"Good, I'll be dancing right after you do"

"HUR-HUR-HUR" Herman chuckled, sharing a laugh with his fellow bar flies. "But baby, nobody wants to see me....."

".....And nobody wants to hear you either, Herman. Just drink your beer."

"Ouch, oh she got ya, herm."..."oh, drek man, she nailed ya"...."Walked into it Herman. Never even saw it coming." The chorus of good natured derision continued, but the troll acknowledged the hit by doffing his cap and proclaiming "I know when I'm outgunned. Roger," he told the bartender, "da lady's first drink is on me."

Sayla smiled and bowed to the big trucker as Mouse wiped off a table for them to use. When the pair was seated a somewhat washed-out, middle aged norm waitress came over to take the order. Noticing Mouse was keeping a wary eye on Herman and his party she said, "Don't worry about Herman. He's just a blow hard. All talk. He won't be no trouble.... The ones you need to watch fer....."

"Would be which ones, Mabel?" asked a sneering voice behind the waitress. Looking like she was expecting a blow, Mabel scurried away from the table, revealing 4 hard bitten looking characters. The sneering voice belonged to the leader of this group of truckers. "So what would a troggy and a keeb being doin in descent workin man's bar, anyway?" he asked no-one in particular. "And what should we do wit 'em?" The question hung in the silence as the seconds crawled by.

"We might be DOT inspectors, doing spot checks on mileage logs and checking weigh station tickets." Sayla said. "We might have taken a break and just stopped in for a cold one. That's who we might be. Do you want to know? 'Cause if I gotta show the tin to answer your question, sir, I won't be able to have my beer, and I'm mighty thirsty."

Mouse again showed his ability to play a situation on the fly by sighing loudly and making a show of setting up his deck. When Sayla turned and said "You have a problem, Murphy?" Mouse replied "No, ma'am. I just wish one time you'd wait until after we'd had the beer before you started the spot check. You knew before we came in here that you were gonna nail every heavy load or over-hours or unmanifested rig you could find. All to pump up your stats with the bureau. You say you're thirsty, but its all dramatic effect. I am thirsty, ma'am.You might consider my feelings....."

"Feelings? Feelings? What the hell do feelings have to do with anything Murphy? Do you think that FDC cares about your feelings or my feelings? And I don't appreciate that crack about pumping up stats, young ork. I'll have you know....."

Mouse winked and Sayla let out a breath. During the "argument" between the two dreaded bureaucrats, 'sneering voice' and his three musketeers had snuck out of the bar and back to their rigs before their paperwork could be demanded for checking. Because nobody understood all of the regulations that applied to interstate road traffic, even the rare trucker who wasn't running heavy or out of hours didn't want to take the chance of the professional paper pushers finding something wrong. DOT stood for Doom Of Truckers more often than Department of Transportation to the knights of the open road..

Because Herman and his dance enthusiasts were too far away and Mabel had retreated to the bar, all anyone knew was that the good looking elf lady and the young ork decker had sent 4 unpopular patrons on their merry way.

"You're pretty good, Mouse." Sayla acknowledged with a smile. "Quick on the uptake. Most of the deckers I've known are good in the matrix but stumble when they have to deal with a real life situation. Nice to see that Owen found someone who can handle a situation on the fly."

Mouse blushed at the compliment but quickly changed the subject.

"Uh...thanks. Are Owen and Doc both goin ta be ok? I know da boss was up an aroun fer a little while, but I never seen him so tired. An Doc, he seems ta be sleepin through everything. I guess dat magic drek musta been pretty major, huh?"

"Yes. Doc strained himself pretty badly pulling Owen back from the brink. Both of them will be ok after some rest, I hope. The only time I ever did anything comparable, I had such disturbing dreams....." Sayla said with a shudder.


Being a film aficionado, it is hardly surprising that Doc's dreams had the quality of cinematic vignettes. Unfortunately, the scripts were not selected with the joy of the viewer in mind.

******

He was 14 again.....the day had been a complete blur.... images flashing through his mind as he stared at the ceiling.... his parent's farewell at the massive wrought iron front gate..... topping the rise to see the magnificent grounds which surrounded the palatial estate.... the dean's insincere smile and obviously memorized welcoming speech.... the loneliness of being away from home for the first time hitting him with a near physical impact... the reassurance of Mrs. Fisher's open countenance as she reviewed his class schedule.... meeting Gal and listening to his laughter as he provided a running commentary along with his guided tour of the school.... being introduced to the sexy, long hared beauty, Sara and noticing the fascinating sparkle in her eye.... the way Sara's smile seemed to exclude the rest of the world, isolating just the two of them.... Professor Windsor's outrageous cloud of wiry gray hair, not quite covering the bald spot as the old norm finished the last of the evaluation tests.... Sandor's outrageous jokes about what they were probably eating for dinner.... the confrontation with Esa and his clique of bullies.... Gal's support preventing Esa's creeps from the "welcome party" that they had planned for the new kid....

His excitement was just too much to let him sleep. He had made it. He was actually here in the Regent's Academy. The ultra exclusive, only-for-the-exceptionally-gifted, school had admitted him. Here he could develop his mind and magic talent among some of the greatest spell weavers in the Tir. The largest hermetic library would be at his disposal. Universities like MIT&T would snap him up in a heartbeat after his four years here, and then, who knew? Graduate work or perhaps a royal appointment..... His heart sang at the possibilities. He leapt up on the bed and pumping his fist in the air went "YESSSS!"

**********

"Look, Windsor is old, he's only a norm, and you can always say it was an accident, an experiment that you lost control of. Besides, you'd only have to admit it if you got caught, and if you do it the way I'm telling you, there's no way you'll get caught." Sandor said with complete self assurance. "You'll definitely get a laugh out of Sara. Don't look at me like that.... Christo! Everybody with eyes can see how you've been mooning over her since you got here. Show her you're not a wimp. Gal would do it, just to see the breeder's hair helmet collapse. C'mon! You're not afraid are you?"

And so the water-balloon floated above the teacher's head for minute after minute of the boring lecture on sympathetic vibrations. Through the subdued giggles and hidden smiles of the class, the red orb had floated directly above the lecturer, until the poor teacher had glanced up and noticed the balloon, which promptly popped and drenched the old man. But it didn't seem funny when the bedraggled norm looked out into the class of guffawing youngsters and caught his guilty eye. And the bad feelings grew when Sara and Gal looked back and shook their heads as if to say "How childish. What a juvenile prank". He felt like a jerk. Then later, when he got kitchen duty after coming forward to admit his guilt and apologize, he got more derision from the class for being stupid enough to confess. How uncool could one kid be?

******

"She's all alone and it's so sad. You could be a very gallant knight and take her to the dance. It would be such a noble thing to do...." Sara said with that breathy intimation that it it would impress her. He'd fallen for the line completely and even suffered a moment of total panic when Chelsea, the plainest girl in the school had initially rejected his invitation to the formal dance, thinking it was a joke at her expense. Walking in with Chelsea looking at him adoringly through her corrective lenses while the rest of the class smirked and talked into their hands at his choice for company, he'd felt noble. He'd borne up well under the derision until, while getting his date some punch, he overheard his "friends" Sara and Gal laughing about their joke at his expense. He'd felt like such a fool and, more to his shame, blamed poor Chelsea. He'd been miserable that night and, worse yet, he'd made her feel miserable. It had taken him years before he could come back to gentle Chelsea and ask her pardon for his cruelty. He shuddered as he thought of how shallow he'd been.

*****

"Gal, I've made my decision. Can't you be adult enough to understand that I've chosen another? You don't own me. No man does." Sara said with an impatient toss of her head. How he swelled with pride as Gal had stomped off in a rage. His joy was partly due to the fact that he had convinced himself that she, the most wonderful, beautiful and adorable woman in the world, had selected him and partially due to the fact that he had bested Gal, his arch rival in everything.

It wasn't that he disliked Gal. He had a healthy respect for his handsome rival and they competed in everything: classes, clubs, sports. He enjoyed the competition and knew that striving against one with whom he was so evenly matched had propelled him to achieve more than he ever would have without his rival.

It was the weeks that followed that robbed his victory of it's joy. Gal had turned darker and more sullen after Sara's choice. He had walked around under a cloud, redoubling his efforts to outshine his former friend as though it would be enough to regain the woman's heart. But there was no longer any joy in their competition. Whenever Gal lost, he became more morose. If he won Gal found no joy in the victory. The sullen moodiness seemed to go on forever and when, searching for a way to heal the rift between his friends, he'd suggested that Sara show some kindness to their depressed compatriot, she'd flown off in a rage.

"He's acting like a child and your soft hearted indulgence of his tantrums shows that you are not much better! Don't you want me? Would you give me away like some toy that your playfellow wants more than you? Do you think I should share my heart? Perhaps I will. At least if I had chosen Gal he would have respected my choice enough to know that he'd gotten something precious. At least he wouldn't toss my love away." She'd raged.

*******

"You're such a fool! It's too broad to even be funny! She's a dracoform, you ass! A feathered fragging serpent, drek for brains! You claim to love her, and she hasn't even told you what she really is. How much can she care for you if she hasn't even mentioned her species? You're pathetic, you know that? Well, I've followed the ancient forms. I've pledged my life as a milessaratish, and she has accepted me! Our houses are linked. You- you're a joke. The plaything of an hour. When she tires of you, you had better run, because I will kill you for trying to come between us. She will never be yours! Never!" Gal screamed.

Stunned beyond even the ability to respond, he'd sat there through the rage of his one time friend. The words echoed dully through his mind as the venom of their delivery carried the impact of a physical assault. He winced at the fury, thinking A feathered serpent? Why hadn't she told me? It makes no difference to how I feel about her. She has to know that. Why would she accept Gal as a bondsman? He's of a noble house. His family will either sacrifice their status in the Tir or declare Gal a makkaherinit and void his declaration. Either way it will bring him great grief. She has to know that she's ruining his life. Why?

******

"I don't understand you. I swear I do not. First you act like I've done something wrong by not lording over you the fact that I am a feathered serpent. I treat you as an equal, and you throw it back at me that I haven't been honest. If you knew my age or power or experience, you'd be so self conscious that we couldn't be as close as we are, yet you act like I've done something wrong by keeping that from you. Then you ask me to give Gal some ray of hope so I accept him as my bondsman and you turn around and tell me I've ruined his life. Will you always be this flighty? You know I find you pretty and entertaining, but this vacillation is becoming tiresome."

"But his family....."

"His family will pledge themselves to me or they will not. It is of no matter. If they chose not to ally themselves, I will protect my bondsman. You need not worry, dear. Gal will keep me company while you are away at MIT&T. Perhaps that thought will bring you back more frequently" she said with a challenging smile. At that precise moment, he'd felt the flame of his passion for her die. That she could be that manipulative, using a mutual friend to excite his jealousy, just because she had no interest in college, quenched his desire for her in an instant. Had she accepted Gal because she'd had a change of heart or was that just another way of manipulating him? Did he really understand the way her mind worked at all? The change must have been immediately evident on his face because he saw a sudden fury in her eye.

"And if you do not return, Gal will comfort me through that too!" she said as she stormed off.

******

His planning had been meticulous. He'd research the tea ceremony and written a stirring invitation to both Sara and Gal, inviting them to a peaceful resolution to the rillabothien (unresolved relationship). He'd spent days preparing for the ceremony in private, making sure that every detail was harmonious. He was borrowing heavily from a culture he only knew from books, but somehow he felt it was the right way to patch things up with his friends. He was sure they would understand the purity of his intention and accept the gesture for what it was. He was wrong.

Oh, they'd behaved perfectly. They'd maintained the silence that the ceremony demanded and watched his preparation with focused attention. They'd each drunk from and passed the same cup of green tea. They'd silently listened to the nearby flowing brook. In his mind a great weight had been lifted as everyone had shared a peacful moment. Even Gal had smiled before bowing to him at the end of the ceremony.

Later that night, laying doubled over in bed, unable to make a sound, in more pain than he thought he could endure, he realized that the ceremony had provided his old friend Gal with the opportunity to kill him. Somehow his rival had accessed his medical records and discovered his allergy to bee venom and had then slipped the toxin into the green tea. Since he was the only one with the allergy, only he who would suffer from this addition to the shared cup and because he was having an allergic reaction, it was his own body that was giving him such pain. The toxin had long since been absorbed into his system, causing his body to war with itself. There was no magic that could remedy the body's natural reaction and his pain was so great he could not even cry out for help. As he lay there shaking in a cold sweat, hallucinating, racked with pain, he understood that should he survive the ordeal he would have to kill Gal, and possibly Sara, or leave them forever. He lay in that state of hellish pain for two nights, emerging changed by the near death experience to find the thoughtful "Do Not Disturb" sign tacked to his door.

In the early morning hours, a still shaking, pale, sunken eyed elf, whose hair had turned completely white, stumbled away from the Regent's Academy to begin a new life.


Mouse and Sayla were chatting quietly when beautiful elf woman suddenly slumped forward unconscious. Mouse had just enough time to begin springing from his chair when he was similarly victimized by a sleep spell. As the unconscious couple waited helplessly, the biker gang entered the bar. The atmosphere in the truckstop bar immediately began to tense. Just as a pregnant silence descends on the jungle veldt immediately after the Hyena pack begin to call, so too, the bar's collective anticipation became palpable when the yellow leather-coated Asian norms came in from the parking lot. Each member of the Tiger's Paw, in addition to his colors, had a triangular tattoo on his left cheek and wore his hair in a samurai top-knot. There were no females among the group and nobody looked older than 19. They also each exuded a sense of menace which seemed to proclaim that life, their own or another's, held very little meaning for them.

The green hared Tiger's Paw with the fetish festooned outerwear, laughed nastily as he approached the table where the victims of his sneak attack waited. Turning to the leader of the gang he said:

"Heh-heh-heh. Pretty good, eh, Ito? Looks like a decker and a pretty elf slitch, taken without a struggle. Big nuyen for the matrix boy...."

"Ome tada no baka-mono da! Damare!" (You're such an idiot! Just shut up!) the gang leader said as his pack began surrounding the helpless pair.

To their great credit, as soon as Herman and his fellow truckers realized what was going on, they started moving towards the besieged table. Unfortunately, the sound of slides being drawn back on semi-automatic weapons can be very arresting. On second thought, the truckers agreed by their lack of action, no one needed to catch an errant bullet to save a stranger. The Tiger's Paw magic user asked "Anyone want to interfere?" with the sort of silky menace that would much more intimidating after he had worked on it for a few years. He made a show of scanning the bar for anyone to object to his magic.

The gang leader, Ito, rounded on the magic user with a backhanded slap which rang through the bar. "Omae kasetto ningen jan!" (You're a real pain in the ass!) "I told you to shut up. Don't make me tell you again."

Kanemaki's eye's flashed at the stinging blow and words. He was a magic user! He was not some common go-ganger to be slapped around for speaking his mind! Just because Ito's uncle was some high and mighty Oyabun for the Red Storm Yakusa didn't give the leader the right to smack his betters around!

Fortunately for Kanemaki, the magic user saw the looks that Shiro and Azato were giving him before he started to lash out. Ito's personal bodyguard were strong, fast and deadly, without a shred of loyalty to anyone but Ito. If 'the big K', as he called himself, started throwing a spell, of if they even thought he was going to retaliate for the humiliating slap, they would kill him in the blink of an eye.

Kanemaki's face adopted a stone-like rigidity which made it impossible to read and he completely relaxed so that the human pit bulls would not attack. Disappointment, wariness and contempt all flowed across the faces of Ito's henchmen.

"Ya want the keeb slitch as well as da tusker, Ito sama?" Shiro asked while continuing to stare at Kanemaki.

"Yeah. Maybe some entertainment value there. If they're together, she'll make a nice handle for controlling the ork. Don't bust 'em up. They'll be more useful if they're undamaged" Ito said as he turned to scan the bar. "You slots saw nothin, understand?" he said to the rest of the bar as he turned to walk out.

Tanuri and Juro scooped up the sleeping pair as if they weighed nothing and headed out the doors while Ito's minders continued watching Kanemaki, looking for any excuse to demonstrate their homicidal proclivities. Eventually the three gangers made their way out to the bikes and rode off with the other Bosozoku (Motorcycle gang).


"Kitten?" Owen asked muzzily as he turned over in bed. After a few seconds without a response, The Phys ad took several long slow breaths and centered himself. Listening carefully, he made certain that he was alone in the room and then with cat-like grace he silently rose from the bed and began putting on his clothes. In a matter of seconds he had gone from half asleep to more completely awake than most meta-humans ever became. He smoothly collected his gear and 52 seconds after his first sound was turning the door handle to begin his search for his lady.

Unconsciously, he knew that something was wrong. He had been sleeping soundly when suddenly he didn't know where his lover was, and rather than be confused by this turn of events he immediately set out to rectify it.


"Excuse me, gents. I'm looking for some friends of mine....." Owen said as he approached a tired looking group of truckers in the bar.

"Yeah, a ork kid wit a deck and a real pretty elf lady?"

"Yes, have you seen them?"

"About 30 minutes ago. They wuz talkin at a table when all of a sudden dey passed out." Herman explained. "About 10 seconds later a bunch a cycle punks come in, scoop 'em up an walk out. Dey warned everybody ta be blind, but da elf lady had sand and smarts. I figure she rates better dan bein a plaything fer da Tiger's Paws. Besides, I won't be back dis way fer a couple a weeks an fuck dose guys anyway. We'd a done somethin at da time but dem gangers wuz packin and ready ta use da heat."

"Well, thanks. Does anyone know where they might have gone with my friends?"

Amidst shrugs and blank looks Mabel said "Last call boys. Time ta settle up."

Owen said "This is my party. Please clear tabs with this", as he held out a certified credstick. There followed a chorus of thanks, but no further information until Mabel pulled the Phys ad aside and said "They wouldn't know because this is just a stopping place for most of them, but if ya make it worth my while I can tell ya where the Tigers flop."

"The woman I love and a young friend's lives may be in danger. I'll pay whatever you demand." Owen said without hesitation.

Although there was no rancor to his tone, Owen's word struck the waitress like a physical blow. Mabel began to blush and cast her eyes down. After a few seconds she said hurriedly "I'm sorry. That was real wrong. The Tigers doss at the Claremont on Oronoco Street. They've got a clubhouse set up in the building. Used ta be a hotel, but after the fire it just went ta hell. The Tiger's Paw's leader's name is Ito. Got a magic user who probably was the one who knocked out the elf lady and the ork. I think there's about a dozen of 'em. Look......I'm sorry I tried to take advantage. I thought of the money and..... uh.... I'll be right back with your change." After deducting the trucker's bar tab from the cred stick she returned to find that the handsome norm was gone.


9


Although Owen's instinctive reaction was to rush off and find his lady and his young friend, several things conspired against him. He had no transportation as he could not drive the rigger's truck without Itami and the team had stored all their other vehicles before the fight at the rail yard. He had little or no data upon which to build a plan and a solo rescue attempt was chancy at best. Recognizing all of these factors he began banging on doors to rouse the other lost boys.

As he hurriedly explained the nature of the emergency, each set of teammates instantly became alert. Quickly gathering equipment, everyone, including the now awake Doc, hurried to the truck. Owen struggled to remain calm as the team hastily constructed a plan.

"Alright," Hamon said, "Itami drives us by the hideout, a block or two away and parks a block or two past that. Close enough to act as base, far enough to not be obvious. Doc, can you do a magic scan or something to see where they're holding Mouse and Sayla?"

Doc's nod was a testament either to the depth of his worry or the lingering after effects of the drain he had suffered. Hamon was sensitive enough to this to ask "Are you sure?".

Doc's response "Yes, I can handle a little astral scouting" gave the tactician the additional information that the magic user had not recovered enough to do much more than scout, as the usually long winded Mage would normally have given free reign to his loquacious nature if he were 100 percent recovered.

"Sifu, you will take the back door while Lug and I kick in the front. Itami, you'll rig the rotodrone to give us an eye in the sky and to take out any rats that slip out some emergency escape route. We don't know why these slots are doing this or who they are working for, but I don't want them to have another chance at something like this. Itami, how much time to the exit?.....Why are you stopping?"

Itami replied "Look!"

The team craned forward to see a strange scene to the side of the road. Sayla and Mouse were walking towards the truck and waving. Behind them, on the side of the interstate, were a dozen motorcycles and bodies scattered along the shoulder of the road. As the truck stopped, Owen jumped out and ran towards Sayla.

Her look of joy became one of perplexity as her lover ran past her. Hands on hips she turned to watch Owen confront a go-ganger who had been creeping up on Mouse and her with knife in hand.

Azato held the blade of the dagger along his forearm as he advanced in a classic knife fighter's crouch. He was not the least dismayed that his sneak attack had been discovered, but fired off a blindingly fast forward snap kick to distract Owen and then punched out at the Phys ad's head to bring the blade into play.

Ducking under the slash, Owen came up from under the extended arm, grabbing the wrist with both hands and pushing up as he turned his back to his opponent. As he stepped back, Owen brought his assailant's extended arm down across his shoulder, shattering the elbow joint. Then, rather than continuing the move into a shoulder throw, he lifted the arm again, sidestepped and spinning, brought the knife down and back into Azato's groin. As he buried the blade to the hilt, Shiro appeared and attempted an overhand slash at Owen's head with a Wakasashi.

Coming up from the crouch that Azato's demise had left him in with speed that literally made him a blur, Owen's left hand blocked Shiro's short sword wielding right while at the same time he fired a devastating palm heel strike with his right hand to the go-ganger's solar plexus. The explosive whoosh of air evacuating the Tiger's Paw's lungs punctuated, but did not stop Owen's moves. Bringing his right leg past Shiro's left, Owen swept back while pushing forward with his right hand and maintaining the wrist lock on the blade wielding arm. As Shiro's leg was kicked out from under him and he fell on his back, Owen slid down next to him, extending his left leg while kneeling on his right. There was a loud snap followed by a pop as the wrist lock shattered Shiro's elbow over Owen's thigh and the downward pressure forced the arm out of it's socket. The hammer fist strike to the ganger's abdomen that Owen delivered (this from a kneeling position next to his assailant) ruptured the diaphragm and ended the ganger's ability to breathe.

This classic example of Hwarangdo had happened so quickly that only Hamon's trained eye had been able to follow all of it. Mouse was still wincing from the sound of the arm breaking when Owen swept Sayla into his arms. Although he said nothing the hug he gave her conveyed a wealth of emotions.

While the lovers were reassuring each other the lost boys scavenged weapons and valuables from the go gangers. Itami heaved huge sighs continuously as he studied the bikes, knowing that he currently lacked the ability to salvage the vehicles as the team would not return to "neverland" until the assignment was over. At Hamon's direction the bodies and bikes were gathered into a single pile and incendiary charges were placed where they would do the most good in destroying evidence. After Itami had turned the lost boy's truck around and began moving back up the interstate, Lug fired the remote detonator and the Tiger's Paw became a smoky memory.


"Well, Mouse, what happened?" Lug demanded as the team moved back up the interstate. The decker gave a brief description of what had gone on in the bar prior to his being knocked out.

"....So we're talkin an all of a sudden Sayla goes ta sleep. I think 'oh drek! Magic!' and then I wake up on da back a dis rice grinder, holding onta this sucker in a yellow leather jacket. I'm tryin ta think a what ta do next when I look over and riddin right next ta me is dis other sucker in a yellow biker jacket with green hair. All of a sudden dere's dis well stacked woman sittin facin him on his bike. She's naked, blue and uh..you can see through her. He starts ta look surprised, this busty babe smiles and then pulls him inta her ti.....er..chest. His arms are flailing an he's tryin ta pull back but she's got him in a hell of a hug. After about a minute of struggle, he goes limp and she pulls him outta her chest. She tosses him at da bike behind him (I think his head went through da spokes a da front wheel) and then disappears."

"Da biker who hit green hair starts somersaulting up da road at about 80 miles per hour, leavin his flippin bike ta crash inta da rider who was next to him, who is tryin ta avoid hittin green hair's bike. Whoever's in charge musta figured somethin was up cause all of a sudden were pullin off the road. Now I ain't moved in all a dis so I keep playin like I'm asleep. One a dese little guys says somethin (coulda been Japanese, I guess) and guys are runnin back ta get bodies and bikes off da deserted road."

"I'm completely limp, so when my driver sits back I kinda slide off da bike. He says somethin unflatterin but before he can reach me da busty blue woman shows up and gives him da hug. Since it's real close I can see why she's...see through. It's cause she's made outta water. Den I realize that when she pulls dese guy's heads into her breasts she's drownin 'em" Mouse shuddered over the realization. "I don't know about you guys, but drownin....dats a tough way ta go and to have some busty babe force ya......." Mouse shuddered again.

"So the blue babe disappears again, an I'm lookin for Sayla when I see dis udder biker's Uzi fall outta da holster. He didn't move or nothin but da holster just sorta came apart. Well he bends over ta pick up da gun, an when he comes up he sprays like 4 a his buddies. I coulda see his face and he was horrified. Ya know, like one a dem awful accidents that happen in nightmares where ya got no control and things happen for no reason? Well, he's screamin he's sorry when da guy dat da boss stabbed in da crotch pulls out his pistol and shoots him. Den he's got da same problem as da gun just keeps bangin away and he kills two other guys. Finally he drops da gun like it was suddenly alive. He an da udder guy da boss did pulled out knives an when dey saw da blue woman went chasing after her."

"I went over ta Sayla and she's just sittin on da ground wit dis look a concentration on her face. When I met her earlier dis evening I told her I'd stick wit her cause you guys would never forgive me if I let somethin happen ta her. She told me dat my macho protect-da-female act was not appreciated and dat unless she was in trouble in da matrix, dere was a better chance a her savin me dan da udder way around. I was helpin her ta her feet when I realized how right she was an dat she had used her magic ta save us both when I couldn't a done a thing. Uh.....thanks for savin me, Sayla and uh..I'm sorry about da attitude thing...."

"Oh, don't be so hard on yourself, Mickey" Sayla said. "If it weren't for the bad example that your associates set, I'm sure you wouldn't cling to such outdated ideas about the female of the species. You're just suffering from some bad influences." She said as she looked around at the group. The only lost boy who was willing to look her in the eye was Owen who said "Sorry, sorry, uh... meant well....sorry. Hey, we're men. We're not supposed to be smart."

"Well then you can rest easy because you certainly live up to those low expectations." Sayla replied with an arched eyebrow. Then a smile broke through as she admitted "I suppose, however, I should say thank you for saving us from those two with knives. I thought they were gone or I never would have dismissed Aqua- my water elemental." She then lean forward to give Owen a chaste peck on the cheek.

"Aw shucks, ma'am, tweren't nothin. What d'ya suppose them varmints wuz after?" Owen said with a half grin.

"I'm sure I don't know, but then, since they're no longer with us, it doesn't really matter does it?" Then changing the subject without a pause, Sayla turned to Doc and asked "How are you feeling, Doc?"

"I'm still tired, but other than that I'm alright, dear lady. Thank you for asking."

"Well, let's get you back to bed so you can recover your strength. I dare say the rest of you could use some sleep, too."

Owen whispered something to Mouse who snickered. This caused Sayla to pounce on the ork and holding his chin in her hands she forced him to look in her eyes as she demanded "What did he say?" Pinned under the beautiful woman's gaze Mouse stammered until Owen admitted "Let the poor kid go, hon. I just said you were being Wendy so we all had to do what you ordered."

"Owen!" Sayla said with exasperation while Lug quietly asked "Who is Wendy?"

While the Phys ad sought forgiveness, Doc explained "Peter Pan, the leader of the lost boys leaves neverland in search of a woman to be the mother for his group. He finds an English girl named Wendy and brings her back to neverland to take care of the lost boys."

"Heh-heh" Lug snorted quietly, but quickly turned away when Sayla's flashing eyes sought the source of the laughter.


Something woke Mouse a few hours later. He groaned as he glanced at the cheap alarm clock on the plastic bedside table. 4:57? Why the hell am I waking up at this hour? As his foggy brain wrestled with this question he heard movement on the other side of the cardboard thin walls that separated his "deluxe" room from the neighboring suite. People were up and moving around in the pre-dawn darkness. When his brain cleared enough to realize that his neighbors were members of his own team, Mouse became genuinely alarmed.

Oh drek! More gangers come back to take hostages! Maybe the Mechanics had a back-up plan that is going into effect now! Oh drek! the decker thought.

Grabbing his shotgun with one hand, Mouse scrambled into his pants and boots as quietly as he could in the darkness. He threw on his armored jacket, grabbed his pistol and prepared to counterattack the assault group in the hall. Taking a moment to catch his breath, Mouse silently turned his door handle and burst into the hall.

Lug quickly signaled him to silence and as the decker's eyes became accustomed to the light of the hallway he saw Hamon, Itami and Doc waiting. The rigger signaled him to put his guns back in his room while Doc gestured for him to button up his shirt and finish getting dressed. Mouse's questions froze in his throat when Lug urgently signaled again for silence.

Shrugging, the decker did as the older hands seemed to be ordering him and returned his weapons to his room, finished dressing and maintained his silence. When all was in readiness, Lug led the group into the pre-dawn stillness.

Without a word of explanation the dwarf led them to a small clearing behind the truckstop property. Sayla and Owen were moving the last of the picnic tables out of the way to create a large clear area. Maybe its some magic drek Mouse thought, That's why nobody can say nothing.

Instead of inscribing a magic circle, however, the group arranged itself into two evenly spaced rows. Owen then went to where they were all facing and gave a short bow while placing his left hand on top of his right fist. Mouse, for want of any real understanding of the proceedings, mimicked the bow and gesture that his teammates were performing. In spite of the dozens of questions that were running through his mind, he was fascinated when Owen began the slow motion ballet of Tai Chi Chuan.

Although he had no idea why he was doing it, Mouse copied the "Grasping Sparrow's Tail" move that Owen had selected to begin the morning's exercise. The decker was unaware when his teacher had shifted from the Wu Chan Yu style to Chen style, but somewhere along the way he began to be very relaxed while at the same time completely focused. As he began to analyze this phenomenon, and therefore be distracted out of it, Owen caught his eye and seemed to demand that he watch carefully as his teacher moved from "Cloud Hands" to "Single Whip Low Stance" more slowly yet more fluidly than the decker thought humanly possible. Only when the exercise was over and he was playing it back in his mind would the decker realize with wonder that he had copied his teacher flawlessly without knowing what he was doing.

As the sun rose and the exercise continued, Mouse felt more refreshed and energized than he ever had after a full night's sleep. Somehow the silence, the concentration and the physical activity had combined to wake and revitalize the matrix magician. The small smile on his face found echoes on the faces of all of the other lost boys, including Sayla's.

As he saw Owen again face the group and repeat his earlier bow, Mouse recognized with some regret that the class was over. Although part of him wanted to babble about the experience and how it had affected him, another part told him that this was a secret joy. That analyzing, describing or even mentioning the experience would diminish it. He let the look on his face show what he was feeling and saw a hint of that joy in the face of each member of the group as they caught his eye and nodded.

So that's why they call him teacher Mouse thought. Without a word he showed me something about myself that I never knew. I'm gonna do this every morning. Wow. And to think, I would have missed this all if I hadn't woken up when I did. Realizing that his awakening was no accident, that the lost boys could probably have ransacked his room without making a sound or waking him, he felt indebted to his teammates for 'arranging' for him to share the experience.

After moving the picnic tables to their original positions the lost boys returned to the motel to wash up and have breakfast.


Alone.... somehow the other(?).... the warm, caring, (?) was missing. Incapable, as yet, of rational thought, in fact barely able to distinguish between self and other, the unformed personality could not deal with this input and so the mind returned to it quiescent waiting state. With greater integration and development the consciousness would have labeled the emotional state associated with this lack of support as frightening. At this point in development it simply shut down all attempts at conscious thought.

Outside of the egg, a man whose face never changed began his 18th consecutive hour of chanting and ritual purification. His concentration was so absolute that nothing of the outside world intruded on his consciousness either. So although there were two sentient beings within a few feet of each other in the gigantic, windowless, pentagram filmed room, neither was aware of each other or any outside distractions.


"......So, as I understand it, with our peerless leader and my humble self out of the action, no sweep was conducted to eliminate the nefarious miscreants who sought our untimely demise(s)?"

"Yeah, Doc. I admit it. We screwed up. Instead of hanging around and organizing a hunting expedition, we foolishly decided to get our two sleeping beauties to safety. I don't know what we could have been thinkin of......."

"Avaunt, you surly dwarf. I sought to solicit data not to challenge your wisdom. I would have been much more concerned had you chosen any other option. (You're not really going to eat all of that are you?) And before I heap any other imagined abuse on your pointy head, may I say thank you for putting our welfare before your natural proclivity for violence."

"Sensei, can you arrange for him to be drained all the time? I like hearin from him ever so much more when he don't say nothin." Then turning back to the elf mage, Lug said "And yeah, I'm really gonna eat all this. It's just da Troll lumberjack breakfast wit a double side order a corned beef hash and eggs. What's da big deal?" Jamming a pair of thick sausages into his mouth simultaneously, Lug added "And...mmf.... head's not.. mmf.. pointy. Your.. mmmm... welcome."

Shuddering, the fastidious elf turned to Itami and Mouse who had completely covered the table of the adjoining booth with the plates of their breakfast selections, which seemed to include virtually everything on the menu labeled as "From the Griddle". As the two orks looked up from their huge repast Doc exclaimed "Gaaah! Why is everyone acting like this is the last time they will ever see food? Don't you people......"

"Doc," interrupted Sayla, "Isn't that your third order of Belgian Waffles? Let the boys eat. (By the way, have you tried the French Toast? It's excellent) I mean, we all expended a lot of energy yesterday and now we need to recharge our batteries before we take on today's challenges....And you needn't look at Owen with you eyebrows all raised. I said we for a reason. I'm in on this. If I'm gonna be called Wendy behind my back..." she said while giving the team a hard look, "...I'm going to participate and the least one of you can you can do is bring me up to speed so I can be of use when the time comes."

Steepling his hands above his relatively light breakfast of cereal and fruit, Owen sighed and said "Ok. Lets start at the beginning so that we're all on the same page. Everybody feel free to jump in if you hear a potentially significant detail left out. Mouse, I'd appreciate your hanging back on the storytelling since the original reason for this session was to hear what you had uncovered in the matrix. We'll take your data after all of us are on the same page about how we got to where we are. Then we'll figure out what to do next."

Surprisingly, it was Hamon who pushed aside his emptied second plate of blueberry pancakes and began the recap.

"Doc got a call from an old associate. Feathered serpent. Female. Egg stolen while she was out of country. Hatches in 80 hours, plus or minus. We're going to bring it back......"

"Excuse me, brother swordsman, but your staccato, dare I say, Jack Webbesque delivery, is best reserved for shorter, clearer stories during descent hours of the day." Turning to Sayla, Doc then said. "Allow me, my dear, to supply some of the fascinating thaumaturgical details that our well meaning, but woefully uninformed breathern might miss......"

The game of "can you top this?" continued as each of the lost boys "corrected" his predecessor by bringing up a critical detail that had been overlooked. Although the game was fun, Mouse realized that the wisdom Lug had attempted to impart earlier, about a better final picture being constructed with the input of several different perspectives, really hit home. Where Doc glossed over the tracking devices that had been put on the team's vehicles, Itami found the importance critical. Where Owen dismissed the Humanis attacks, Lug insisted that the Mechanics and Humanis working together had to be considered. It was fascinating to the young decker how the combination of several perspectives created such a different picture than any of the component parts. Even Sayla got into the act when she ventured some opinions on the night's encounter with the biker gang. Eventually, however, all eyes turned to the decker and as the last of the dishes were cleared away, everyone waited for the data that he had extracted from the Matrix.

Although his initial plan was to just lay out the data he had uncovered, he realized that his friends might need to know how he got the data he had retrieved. He was not entirely comfortable with the decision but remembering that he had told Firecat he was going to come clean with his teammates, he told the entire story of his dealings in the matrix and of the process he had gone through to uncover the data. When he finished he was greeted by several seconds of silence.

"Thank you, my young friend. That was a fascinating glance into a world I fear I shall never enter." Doc said. "You amply repay the trust we put in you by giving us more than simple facts. I, for one, have great confidence that the info you uncovered is accurate, and though you downplayed it, your commitment to moral action, "straight shooting" is highly laudable. Well done."

"Hate to agree wit da windbag, but ya done good, kid" Lug agreed.

"Impressive" Hamon added.

"Yeah," Itami said, "ya handled it like a pro. I guess we won't have ta kill ya.....yet." and then gave the decker a grin and a wink.

"Well I think it was romantic." Sayla opined. When the team turned to her in unison with questioning looks on their faces she said "Well, It's obvious Firecat is a woman isn't it? Why else would she have helped Mouse and given him a second chance?"

Because everyone looked confused at Sayla's logical proof, and no one more so than Mickey, she said "Men! Honestly. Mouse, the next time you see her, you just ask her. You'll see I'm right."

After a brief pause the decker shook his head saying: "I'm sorry Sayla. That just isn't done. Shadorat, one of the most arctic deckers around, says that gender equals zero in the world of minds and only a fool needs that crutch to relate to another mind. No decker would ever ask, and if you somehow stumbled across that data you'd go out of your way to act like you didn't know."

"Really?" Sayla asked. "That's fascinating. I thought..... well I guess I didn't think. I assumed that the matrix was like...I don't know, like a telecomm grid. I never thought of it as a place where gender doesn't matter."

"Naw. Gender, race, age, all a that drops out. Thought's the only thing that matters, and uh...technical ability, I guess."

"Well, Mouse." Owen said, "You handled yourself well and I'm glad you gave us the details. Good job, (even if you don't end up going steady with Firecat)... Ouch!" the Phys ad exclaimed as Sayla twisted his ear in retaliation for his remark. Each of the lost boys chuckled to see their leader on the losing end of a physical confrontation.


Forty five minutes later, Itami pulled the truck up in front of the Epps & Essen Deli. As agreed earlier, the team would remain in the truck while Itami made use of an old contact for some specialized equipment. The Ork rigger climbed down from the cab and moving up an unmarked and litter strewn alley alongside of the deli, walked into an all but unknown courtyard. The "Lee Shen Curio Shop" at the far end of the enclosed quadrangle looked abandoned. In fact, the boarded over and darkened windows gave the entire courtyard the feel of abandoned vacancy. Only the spread three fingers and extended thumb on Itami's left hand while his right fist rested over his heart demonstrated that the rigger knew he was under the surveillance (and the guns) of a large number of very careful observers. After peering through the soot covered window, Itami had to throw his considerable frame against the door to get it open. As soon as he had squeezed through the partially open portal and the door had smoothly swung shut behind him, a wizened old dwarf squinted up at him from the counter saying "Itami Hanzo! What brings you to my fine shop on this fine warm lovely day, hmmm, yeah ?"

"Hullo, Lee. Need some strange stuff. You do some biz?"

"Oh yes, biz, yeah. That why am in my fine shop waiting here for you on this wonderful day, hmmm. What fine strange stuff you looking for today, Itami Hanzo, hmmm? "

"I need a dozen hard hats- white, a dozen safety glasses, a dozen beige jump suits with day-glow traffic vests, a couple dozen parking cones, a couple of saw horses with amber flashers attached, 40 feet of 12 inch venting conduit, one of those metal safety rails that surrounds an open manhole and a pair of Fuchi Telecom truck decals."

"Hmmmm.....yes, fine, that very good but, um, the fine jump suits in beige color have Renraku Logos stitched on back and no troll sizes in beige. Maybe you want fine green jump suits or lovely Renraku Telecom truck decals, yes?"

"Lee, you're disappointing me. I told all my friends that the illustrious Lee Shen can get anything. Now I have to settle for different decals?"

"Itami Hanzo! You never patient boy, no. You act like Lee Shen have whole world in back room. That not possible. You want take time, wait maybe 1/2 day....no. Of course. You shake head before poor merchant can even say words. You allatime make crazy speed. Not wait like normal fine ork on lovely day, so Lee Shen, fine merchant, give choices on what in stock. Now you act like 'bring down price because goods not precise to job', hmmm? But Lee Shen know you for many years. That fine trick not work. You pay 1,347 nuyen for loan. Loan. You hear? Loan. You bring back- no blood, no bullet holes, no smashed bag of tiny pieces like last time, eh? AND you say one word about fine price charged for Loan, Lee Shen double price and close shop on this fine day.......Deal?"

Sighing, Itami nodded as he began forlornly looking through his pockets. He was no longer phased by the strange prices the dwarf set, or by the fact that the excitable oldster never paused to wonder what his gear would be used for. He simply followed the ritual he always went through with Lee. If the wizened old dwarf cut short the bargaining session Itami always acted like he had to struggle to come up with whatever price Lee demanded. Of course, he always did have the necessary wherewithal as it would have been unthinkably impolite (and dangerous) to waste the old dwarf's time by bargaining without cash.

After surrendering his credstick and having 1, 347 nuyen deducted, Itami collected everything but the saw horses and carried them out to the truck. While the other lost boys were applying the decals and trying on the jumpsuits, Itami and Mouse went back to get the saw horses. When the team had everything together and everyone was clear on the details of their assignments, Itami drove the newly made Renraku Telecom truck to the site of the eggnappers underground base.


10


Deep below ground a single figure watched a bank of monitors through steepled fingers. Although he was annoyed by the runners he saw beginning their move on headquarters, Grant gave them credit for accuracy. Their disguise as a Renraku Telecom Crew had gotten them past the stupid go-gangers he had on retainer, and even the sniper team on the roof of the Westwood Apartments had not given them a second look. Hell, the mage's head of personal security thought, If I didn't know that there's no legitimate reason for them to be here, I probably would have ignored them, too. The details are perfect. Just right for coming in under everybody's radar. Just another work crew. Sighing as he picked up his comm unit he said "Base to watchdog. Base to watchdog. Are you stupid fraggin morons asleep or what? Take out the telecom crew. Now." He then dialed a number on his wrist comm and said "Scythe, how are you? .......um hmmm......that's nice. Oh, I'm fine. Say, Scythe, I was just wondering if you could see that 'Raku truck on the street.......oh good. See, I was wondering WHY THE FRAG DO I PAY YOU? Get your lazy hooped crew of good for nothings out to that fragging truck and bring me the heads of those bastards or by Saint Swiven, I'll mount yours on my wall instead!"

Hitting the disconnect with disgust, Grant began donning the medium military armor that, with the loss of his SIN, was part of the meager legacy of his time as a UCAS Army Ranger. His "death" in that Denver Black Bag op had lost him his status as a citizen, but launched him in a career as a "Freelance security consultant" with some toys that the opposition usually lacked. He grimaced as he watched the bank of screens and readied himself for battle.


A generous lady luck smiled on the lost boys as they set up their traffic cones and saw horses around the manhole cover which would give them access to the ancient telephone junction room. It was Owen Glendower, the phys ad with combat sense that was first to be targeted by the sniper/spotter team on the roof of the apartment building across the street from the park. Coincidence, or a kindly fate, dictated that the elevated assassins get their orders just as Glendower stepped into view. Instead of being mowed down by the first shot from the pair on the roof, Owen sensed the scrutiny, recognized that he had been bullseyed and immediately began an elaborate and seemingly random series of moves. The net effect of this movement was to keep the sniper's focus while at the same time denying him a stationary enough target to eliminate. While the phys ad continued his jerky dance Sayla Starseeker recognized the movement for what it was and called for Breeze, her air elemental, to visit the rooftop and end the threat. The elemental did not understand why both humans were needed to operate the single long gun, but tasked with eliminating the threat, the elemental used her psychokenetic ability to tug a grenade off the spotter's web belt, (leaving the gren's pin behind) while simultaneously slamming shut the rooftop door. As intended, the noise startled the spotter enough to distract him from the slight tug. 3.2 seconds later, the grenade's blast tossed both he and his sniper partner off the roof to the street below. Breeze saw this as the completion of her assignment and disappeared.

Mouse, who had seen but not understood Owen's dance, did recognize that Sayla had summoned an elemental and immediately hit an alert stud on his comm unit. While Lug and Hamon hurriedly lifted the manhole cover, Itami launched the rotodrone while Doc nonchalantly pulled his Savalette Guardian.


Scythe's Red Dragons roared up the street as if they really were attacking an unarmed group of Renraku Telecom employees on a repair assignment. Candy, who was close enough to recognize the Ares Combat Gun that the Dwarf pulled out of the tool bag, and Doug, who was the first to hear the distinctive sound of an attacking rotodrone, simultaneously suspected that the tire chain and baseball bat they had selected for armament might be inadequate to the assignment. Within seconds, this brilliant piece of deductive reasoning was shown to be terminally accurate. Animal Mother, although not as perspective as Candy and Doug, died as quickly as his fellow gangers when Doc put a three round burst of heavy pistol slugs through the approaching biker's head.

BlackJack's strategy, upon recognizing that the supposedly unarmed prey were actually well armed predators, was to stop his Harley to unlimber the sawed off double barrel shotgun he had holstered at his belt. Where his idea of not continuing to ride into a buzzsaw had merit, his stationary status facilitated Hamon's feeding him 2 long bursts from the Ingram SuperMach 100 which the sam pulled out of his oversize tool bag. The light rounds were of limited use against ballistic armor, which might have saved BlackJack if he had been wearing any. As it was, he, like his predecessors, had rushed out of HQ at Scythe's screams without proper preparation for a firefight, and was therefore unceremoniously ushered onto a new plane of existence.

Scythe, a leader who preferred to lead from the middle of the pack (thereby reducing the odds of his being picked off as a straggler or being the first to encounter a problem situation like this) watch the aerial ballet of the hidden snipers as the plummeted to their deaths, followed by the violent departure of four of his own before he called the gang to a halt. He signaled Dormamu over and gestured for the biker to go to work with the contents of his saddle bag. Grinning and nodding like the pyromaniac that he was, Dormamu lit the wick on his first molotov cocktail. Buzzing twenty feet closer to the Telecom truck, the biker was about to toss the bottle when Itami sent the rotodrone at him.

If you asked the average man on the street about a molotov cocktail, you would likely hear it described as a bottle of gasoline with a burning rag jammed in it. As close as this is, it is not entirely accurate. A true molotov cocktail contains not only a mixture of flammables with varying burn rates, but also, some substance to act as an adhesive for the mixture, such as liquid soap. Dormamu had researched this subject extensively and believed that Lux brand dishwashing liquid extended the burn time of your average Molotov by approximately 18%, by limiting the spread of the flammable mixture and creating, in effect, napalm..

Itami cursed vehemently when, on his initial attack run on the biker, Dormamu changed targets and instead of trying to take out the telecom truck, launched the cocktail at the attacking drone. Suddenly, Itami's sensors were cutting out and he was losing both contact and control of the flying drone as its body was engulfed in flames. The ork rigger was cursing like a sailor as the drone dropped towards the earth.

Of course, virtually anyone you ask can immediately see the strategic flaw in throwing a bursting bottle of flammable liquid at a target above one's head. Gravity, functioning as it does, tends to draw whatever flaming liquid does not adhere to the target, back down to earth, stopping at any intervening structures, such as, for example, Dormamu's sadly unoccupied cranium. The pyromaniacal biker's last breath was released in the form of a high pitched keening wail as the flaming admixture landed on and adhered to, his head and shoulders, setting his upper body ablaze.

Mercifully, Itami's last command of the rotodrone, attempting an emergency landing, involved using the biker as a cushion. Dormamu's scream had just begun when it was cut short by the forceful landing of the rotodrone, also on the biker's head. Dormamu died before being able to exemplify the cliche of "riding around with his hair on fire."

Unfortunately, the heat of the burning biker and the burning drone combined to ignite Dormamu's remaining supply of cocktails fairly explosively. This caused Handman, Scott and Racer to become entirely pre-occupied with extinguishing their tires, bike and leg respectively.


Oh, for the love of Pete! Grant thought as he watched the drama unfold on the monitors while preparing himself for battle. How fragging incompetent can one fragging group be? I gotta look into hiring the Warriors. He shook his head sadly as he strapped on the backpack ammo box for the Vindicator minigun which he next mounted on his gyro harness. He was just putting on the suit's helmet when he observed the runner team putting on rebreathers while the Ork who had been in the truck pointed a grenade gun skywards and launched a barrage at the bikers.

Grant turned to another monitor as he connected the suit's own air supply and watched through his goggles as his go-gang muscle dissolved into a crying, vomiting mass of misery. Ooh. CN-DM gas, the sec man thought that will take the starch outta those stupid bikers. I guess I better get into position. And I think I'll take a little insurance in case they've got a spell slinger.


As the bikers began to feel the effects of the CN-DM4 grenades, Owen signaled Itami to activate the trucks security system and then get down the manhole. Once everyone was below ground, Owen rigged another puke gas grenade to the inside of the manhole cover so that anyone coming up from below could disarm the gas grenade but anyone coming down from above would release the spoon and set off the grenade. While he was thus engaged the lost boys were emptying their tool bags and putting on their armored jackets and equipment.

The phys ad moved ahead to lead his team through the sewers and was barely in time to jerk Mouse back from a T junction. Owen had no sooner grabbed the decker's arm and pulled him back than a hail of lead buzzed through the space Mouse had just exited. The swarm of steel jacketed death that Grant had sent to welcome the lost boys to the next life angrily SPRANGed against the tunnel wall before ricocheting in every direction.

Mouse managed to stutter "I.I....I......." before Owen tossed him back among the lost boys with a signal for silence. As the lost boys' leader paused to consider how to take out someone armed with a minigun who was waiting at the other end of a tunnel, Sayla stepped forward and said: " I can handle this, darling, if you'll excuse me."

Without waiting for Owen's reply, the elf woman called Aqua, her water elemental into existence and ordered her to take care of the minigun at the end of the tunnel. Aqua stepped out into a hail of lead and Sayla's bullet barrier fetish kept the ricochet's from doing harm to the team. While the elemental continued to advance through an entirely ineffective barrage of minigun fire, Owen whispered, "Sayla, please don't do that again. First, we are a team. If we solve a problem with magic it's because that's the best solution, not because one of us is proving something or demonstrating their prowess. Second, we need you and Doc to conserve your strength until we get to the magic user who stole Sara's child. You can't.........What's wrong?!"

While the phys ad had been talking the elf woman's eyes had gone unfocused and her knees had buckled. The keening wail that echoed through the tunnel punctuated Sayla's distress. As she sat on the floor of the tunnel in a daze she said "He dispelled Aqua. He's not a magic user, but he's got some sort of artifact and...when he hit her with it a couple of times she.....she...just dissolved...."

"Are you ok?"

The depth of concern in the phys ad's question shocked Sayla back to reality. When she saw the look of worry on Owen's face reflected on the visages of all of the lost boys she quickly whispered, "Yes, yes. I'm fine. It was just a surprise. That's never happened to me before. And you are right. I was showing off. I'm sorry. I know better. It won't happen again."

As Mouse watched everyone's attention turn back to the problem at hand he realized that he had just seen another aspect of teamwork in action. As soon as Sayla had acknowledged her mistake and apologized, everybody went on as though nothing was wrong. Even the boss let it go and I've seen how much he cares for and wants to protect his lady. I guess that's the way it's supposed to go, you screw up, you apologize, you don't do it again, everybody moves on. I wonder how long it took these guys to get to the point where they could handle mistakes like this.

"He's wearing an armored suit with it's own air supply." Sayla said, "When Aqua tried to engulf him, he pulled out some sort of artifact that...that ripped right through her. It looked like one of your martial arts weapons, a bar with a squared hook near the hilt, made out of wood. I only got a quick impression, but the thing seemed alive and...malign...filled with hate."

"The Bajang Jitte." Doc said. "It's a spell breaker that corrupts the user. I doubt we have time to wait for it to corrupt this particular user and it will disrupt any spell or mana it contacts."

Hearing movement coming up the tunnel, Owen signaled for silence and pulled a stun grenade from the bag at his side. Once everyone was prepared for what was coming, he pulled the pin and tossed the grenade around the corner. Needless to say, the thunderflashes were easily handled by the filters built into the military armor's helmet. Grant continued to advance up the tunnel, planning on driving the invaders right back out to the street. When Owen tossed a second stun grenade, Grant recognized it and continued his advance, drawing nearer to the junction where his quarry hid. He all but ignored the third stun grenade the runners tossed, recognizing it for what it was and continuing his advance.

This, as it turned out, was both exactly the wrong thing to do and precisely what Owen was counting on. Owen's stun grenades were called BeBops after the wife of the weaponsmith who built them. These grenades could be set so that all the thunderflashes went off simultaneously, turning them into extremely loud concussion grenades. The phys ad had used this setting on the last grenade he tossed and the explosion was violent enough to both stagger and distract the sec man. Before Grant could recover from the surprise, Owen had rounded the corner and delivered a Chiki Chagi (Tae Kwon Do crescent kick) to the armature of the Gyro mount. The violence of this chopping blow was sufficient to break the ammo line to the minigun, eliminating it's effectiveness as a fire arm.

Of course, the vindicator was still a wickedly effective club for Grant to wield with one hand while his other held the Bajang Jitte. He might have filled his hand with the Ruger Super Warhawk he wore as a sidearm, but Grant recognized from the speed and power of his kick that he was facing a physical adept, and refused to lower his guard long enough to draw the pistol.

Owen was also at something of a loss. The speed of his opponent's recovery testified both to the effectiveness of the armor he wore, and to the abilities of the wearer. With no idea which limbs might be cyber under the armor, the phys ad was hesitant to attempt joint locks or submission holds. The armor itself would be more than proof against blows or even his hidden cane sword. The Sten blade, a dagger whose blade was formed of a single crystal grown in zero-g and was only 17 molecules thick at the edge, might be effective in penetrating the Milspec armor, but the blade would only be long enough to hurt the armored figure if the attack came at one of the joints. As Owen considered this he and Grant circled.

In the crowded confines of the tunnel, Lug and Hamon were keeping all of the team back, particularly Sayla. Where the lost boys hoped for a glance of their leader in action, the elf woman was terribly worried about the effect contact with the malign artifact might have on her magically gifted lover. True, it was a spell breaker and Owen did not cast spells, but in the way he used magic, it was almost as though his spells were internal. Sayla was desperate to see her man defeat his opponent without touching the evil artifact. Lug and Hamon, however, were keeping the team in the entry tunnel, allowing nobody to enter the junction or the tunnel where the two combatants faced each other. To everyone's surprise, it was Mouse who, after catching a glimpse of Grant's back, yelled "Fire in the hole!" while throwing himself over Lug to touch the armored figure's backpack with an electric stun baton.

Everyone had thrown themselves down at Mouse's call, which was fortunate as a long rumbling explosion immediately followed. The explosion not only lifted the armored figure and propelled Grant over Owen's prone form and flat into the tunnel wall, but because it caught the sec man's arm at a strange angle with the minigun when he encountered resistance, it had broken the limb in several places, causing him to pass out from the pain.

As everyone, including a surprised and pleased Owen picked themselves up off the floor, Lug grabbed the much larger ork decker and backed him against the tunnel wall.

"WHATCHA DOIN, YA DAMN FOOL IDJIT?! Ya tryin ta kill us all? Are ya outa yer fraggin mind or jus stupid?"

"I...uh...got him, Lug. I thought...."

"NO YOU DIDN'T! If you'd a thought, ya wouldn't a put us all in danger. Whadaya think, dat nobody here but you knew a minigun electrically fires caseless ammo? Dat you was da only one to unnerstand dat wit da speed those things fire dey couldn't eject spent shell casings fast enough? Dat nobody but you could figure out dat an electric charge hitting dat metal box would start a chain reaction? Is dat what yer sayin?"

"Uh....no...."

"An a good fraggin thing, too. No, I'll tell ya what ya thought. Ya thought, 'here's a way I can impress da guys and especially Sayla. I'll take out da bad guy dat da boss is dancin wit and everybody will think I'm a fraggin hero.' Monster fraggin ego, dats all it was......."

As the armorer continued to read the young ork the riot act, Owen stepped forward to intervene.

"Let 'em go boss." Itami said. Before the phys ad could say a word the rigger quietly continued. "Da kids gotta learn, boss. So far he's done real good, but dis was a mistake. As bad as he feels, if you hadn't gotten down and dat magical dingus had killed ya cause it got blown through ya by his blast, he'd a felt a lot fraggin worse. He ain't been in enough firefights ta take da initiative, particularly when Lug and Hamon are trying ta keep everybody back. When da little guy gets done, he'll know it so he won't forget."

"We learn more from our failures than we ever learn from success" Doc added.

Owen nodded at this wisdom and started to turn away, but when he sensed the pregnant pause which followed this pronouncement he turned to see Doc's smile and realized that the elf had given him a movie quote. Owen thought for a moment and then said "Aw, Drek! 'learn more from failures than we learn from success".... Damn, Doc. Ya got me. What's it from?"

"Ghandi......YESS!" the elf exclaimed pumping his fist, "A comeback, perhaps even, dare I say it, a rally. I'm only behind by three!"

Sayla shook her head and stepped up very close to Owen. While looking deeply into his eyes, she slowly drew the grenade bag off his shoulder. Looking demurely down she again looked up at her lover and leaning closer, said softly "Put these in your pockets."

When Owen followed her glance down he saw she had two handfuls of grenades. His quizzical look got the response "I need the bag for something important" as the flirtatious elf woman stepped away.

Shaking his head, he watched as Sayla had Hamon use one of his katanas to nudge the artifact into the grenade bag. When it was closed she placed it in the smallest tool bag, then put that into a larger tool bag which she then gave to the quiet samurai, for safe keeping while warning him not to touch it. Seeing that Lug had finished his lecture Owen was about to signal the team to move out when Mouse said "Uhm, guys....I screwed up. I'm sorry. It won't happen again."

"Oh, sure it will. Next time, though.......we'll kill ya." Itami said jokingly while winking at Mouse.

When Owen said "Yeah, and if any a you HOMOS touch any a my stuff.....I'll kill ya", everyone looked at him quizzically except Doc who said "No, No, NO! I was on a comeback, it was a rally. This is so unfair!.............Alright, what is it?"

"Stripes" Owen said with a grin.

"Pardon me, boys," Sayla interjected, "but this is a stupid game. Shouldn't we be getting the egg back?"

Owen and Doc shared a look and seemed about to say "Yes, dear" in unison, only when the words were heard only Owen had spoken. Doc didn't say anything. Sayla ire had only a single target and as Owen mumbled "sorry, sorry, tried to make a joke, wasn't funny...sorry" and maneuvered to put team members between himself and his lady, he shot Doc several dirty looks for leaving him hanging. Doc feigned a look of complete innocence through it all.


"Maasssttteerrrrrr" the shambling creature said. "Maasssttteerrrrrr" it repeated after failing to get a response. "Maasssttteerrrrrrr" it said a third time, just prior to bursting into flame. As the corpse cadavre flaming body began stumbling about S'ssral screamed in fury and created a flame that was so intense that the body was completely consumed where it stood. Although his face remained placid, the magic user screamed in frustration.

"DAMN YOU, McMAHON! DAMN YOUR SOUL FOREVER! AAAAARGGH! Not only have you ruined all of my purification rites, all of my chanting and concentration, but you've finally achieved your own death! DAMN! I've enjoyed all the years of forcing you to serve me! The Mighty McMahon who degraded me as an initiate of the squared circle. The high master who was never satisfied with my service. How I enjoyed deposing you and then trapping your soul in your own corpse. It was delightful giving the orders that you had to carry out. AND NOW I CAN'T! YOU MADE ME DESTROY YOU!"

With a negligent gesture the magic user summoned a spirit and demanded "Why did the one known as McMahon disturb me against my orders?"

"Because you ordered him to, master" the spirit responded.

"WHAT??!!"

"You ordered that one to come to you, without fail, if the human, Grant, let any approach. All others you ordered not to disturb you for any reason...."

"Who approaches? Where are they? How many? Where is Grant? Has he lost the Jitte? Answer me!" the mage demanded.

The spirit quailed before the fury of its master but before it could stammer out a response the mage dismissed it and summoned another, more powerful bound spirit.

"Who has invaded my domain?" S'ssral asked.

"There are 2 humans, 2 orks, 2 elves and a dwarf" the spirit responded. "Two cast spells, three have metal in their bodies. One has body parts that are too new. One is a female. One has great power focused within......"

"Stop! Where are they now?"

"In the tunnels above."

"Damn! And where is my security? Where is Grant?"

"He is above in the tunnels, but is not conscious"

"Damn, Damn, Damn! Not when I'm so close! How did they.....oh never mind. Go. Stop them. Kill them. Now."

Having sent the spirit off to do his bidding, S'ssral the black called forth an earth elemental. "I have need of you again. My plan is nearly complete, but now others come to interfere with me. You must be ready. These invader should be easily disposed of, but I leave nothing to chance. Should I be injured or fall, you must take me, and the egg, underground to a place far from here. A place on the surface where we will not be seen by people. Do you understand?"

"Yes"

"Good." the magic user responded. He moved away from the area he had set aside for the ritual to another part of the cavernous room which contained technology. Normally, the mage would have disdained all things mechanical and used his ability to travel the astral to study his opponents, but S'ssral was attempting to work a very complicated and demanding sacrificial ritual and was leery of exhausting his reserves before the moment of greatest need. He mumbled "Now let's see who has dared to pit themselves against me" as he began checking the row of scanners above the console before him.

He clicked through multiple view and was just in time to see the fate of the spirit he had sent to stop the invaders.


The spirit, which had longed served the human who called himself S'ssral the black, found itself in a terrible new situation. The elf invaders were both recognizable as powerful magic users and the human who led the group carried within him a well of power that was staggering. These would not be easy to kill. The ones who had polluted their bodies with the metal were of no concern, but most alarming by far was the human with the wrong pieces in his body. Watching from the astral plane the spirit noted that it was not the blackness of metal, though there were some bits of that, it was the color of some parts of his body did not match other parts. He seemed almost a patchwork of different ages all existing in the same form. This was something the spirit had never seen before. It was he, the patchwork man, that carried the most dangerous weapon. The spirit could see the dark and hungry void in the bag the man carried at his side. This was an artifact that he had watched his master wield with fear as it disrupted and absorbed magic into itself.

The spirit knew that when it's master was not wielding it the artifact was always kept in the puzzle box which neutralized it. Even the master had treated the thing with a wary caution as the item was alive with hate and had tremendous power. Yet the patchwork man carried it like a forgotten shoe inside several bags. The spirit determined that the patchwork man would have to be stopped before he could utilize the artifact. If the human were possessed then the artifact could be used against the others, insuring their deaths.

The spirit's attempt to possess Hamon caused the sam to freeze in his tracks. Suddenly faced with a challenge of his ability to manipulate his own body the Gillette recognized that he was under a magical attack and to calm himself reviewed the Tai Chi exercise he had completed a few hours earlier. The spirit, which initially saw this as retreat and capitulation, could not make the samurai stop. As it observed minute after minute of the slow motion exercise it realized that this was the battleground the samurai had chosen for the test of wills for control. It had never battled in another's imagination before, but it was bound by the command of its master to stop and kill the invaders. Taking over the patchwork man with the terrible artifact was the first step. In Hamon's mind a duplicate appeared to wrestle with him for control of his body. Hamon continued to exercise.

The spirit struck at its opponents face and quickly found it's blow blocked as the counter move put it on the ground. It was surprised when the patchwork man did not pursue this advantage, but saw that he went back to doing the exercise slowly and fluidly. The spirit did not understand, but when it saw an opening it attempted to kick its opponent and again found the blow blocked and itself on the ground. After several minutes of this the spirit felt itself becoming insubstantial. It was losing the battle of wills. With the last of it's strength, the spirit tried anything it could to break the samurai out of the kata. It assumed sexually provocative forms in various states of undress, it became horrible monsters, frightening animals, loud noises, in all a bewildering array of distractions to the samurai's imagination. Hamon continued to perform the kata, hardly varying the speed except when his opponent actually attempted to attack. Then he would speed up enough to turn an exercise move into a genuine block and counter. Once the threat ended he slowed again to the speed of the morning exercise.

Finally the spirit lost cohesion and dissipated. When Hamon no longer sensed the other's presence he stopped exercising in his imagination and returned his attention to the real world. He found himself surrounded by the concerned faces of his friends.

"What gives?" Lug asked.

"Don't know. Something tried to take over my body." Hamon responded.

"You mean possession?" Sayla asked.

"Could be."

"Well my laconic friend. Since this is something we all may encounter, might I prevail on you to avoid your usual wry mouthed tersity and amplify? Precisely what happened?" Doc requested.

"Felt a presence. Wanted to control what I did. Thought about morning exercise. Relived it in imagination. Presence became double of me. Wanted to fight. I kept up exercise. Whenever he attacked, I blocked, countered and went back to kata. He tried distraction. Didn't work. Went away."

Doc sighed and shook his head. "Only you, my close mouthed friend, could describe a battle of wills with a spirit attempting to posses your body in half a dozen short sentences. The loss of control, even the thought of not being in control of your own body, would cause most metahumans, myself included, to panic. You didn't. You dictated the terms of the battle by focusing on the exercise with all of your will. To control you, the spirit had to overcome your will which meant it had to stop you from Tai Chi. The longer you maintained the exercise the more you were in control and eventually you caused the spirit to completely dissipate. Amazing. I'm glad you're on our side, my friend. I'd hate to be at odds with a character as focused as yourself."

Hamon responded with a single nod and then gestured for the team to move on. Each of the lost boys thought carefully about what they might have done, or indeed, might have to do if confronted with the challenge that Hamon had just overcome. At Owen's signal the team split into two groups to try to find an access to the next level.


11


"OF ALL THE DAMNED.......AAAAARRGGHHH! Why, why when I am so close, so very close to true power, to the realization of a dream, does this happen? I'm attacked by clods so brainless they don't know to be afraid when their bodies stop responding to their minds! It's so annoying!" S'ssral ranted at the air. "I'll kill them myself!"

He had started back across the cavernous room to pick up his arsenal of quickened spell foci when Lug opened one of the emergency access panels and fast roped down to the floor from the ceiling some thirty feet above. S'ssral threw a spell and the dwarf suddenly found himself grappling with a ferocious tiger.

The beast batted at the dwarf with a huge paw and sent the Ares Combat gun skittering across the floor. Ducking under a second swipe, the dwarf came up with his pistol, only to find that also batted aside. Moving as fast and as well as his cyber would allow him, the sam rolled under the man eater as it reared and roared. Quick as a flash the beast turned to pounce, but Lug regained his feet and screaming for help, simply ran away.

Hamon, climbing down the rope after his partner, heard the yell and saw the dwarf run from... nothing? Lug was moving as fast as Hamon had ever seen, dodging, ducking, rolling, zig zagging across the floor but the samurai could not see what it was he was avoiding. As Hamon released the rope he found a problem of his own as a huge python suddenly wrapped itself around the Gillette and began squeezing as it threw loop after sinuous loop of coiling muscle around the swordsman's frame. Hamon fell to the floor in the snake's crushing embrace. Mouse was the third down the rope and before he could take stock of the situation he was surrounded by a mass of huge bats, all intent on biting the decker's face. He flailed his arms wildly as he tried to protect his eyes.

Doc, the last of the group fast roping down from the ceiling saw his friends fighting invisible opponents and screamed "ILLUSIONS!" as he came down. Unfortunately, he yelled before activating the spell barrier focus on his lapel and so when he reached the end of the rope he was sound asleep.

The scratches and gashes on Mouses' face bled freely and increased in numbers as he tried to fend off the bats. Hamon struggled to flex his muscles and breath shallowly, to prevent the snake (whose tongue calmly flicked across his face), from squeezing all the air out of his body with it's crushing embrace. The thing saving him from running out of air entirely was that the snake's coils seemed to avoid contact with the bags Hamon was carrying and this gave him a little breathing room. Lug had twice been tagged by the big cat as it amused itself by playing with it's prey. He was running out of breath nearly as fast as he was running out of running room.

S'ssral's glee at the situation of the invaders, although not evident on his unmoving face, was there nonetheless. The jubilant mood was erased in the next second when he turned to find an ork male, a norm male and an elven female emerging from his secret escape passage. Recognizing that the elf was a magic user and was preparing to throw a spell, the mage inhaled in preparation for a spell of his own. Sayla's spell hit first.

The null spell, a spell of Sayla's own devising, was pretty much a one shot deal. Tremendously draining, the spell temporarily removed active magic from a target. When she worked with her own group for the Paladins of the Tir, she had previously used the spell to turn magic user's bullet and blade barriers off so that the spell slinger was vulnerable to mundane weapons. The last time she had used it, the Cyberzomie Jack had stepped into the spell's area of effect and the magic which held his spirit in his body had been weakened enough for him to die.

S'ssral screamed as the null spell hit. His body, previously that of a normal human male, twisted horribly as his face slid into an awful parody of a normal physiognomy. As his distorted and wrecked body sank to the floor an awful wailing shriek echoed through the cavernous room. Immediately the floor began to buckle and rise up like some sort of mini-volcano erupting. The elemental that rose up from the ground gestured at the egg where it rested in the center of the pentagram and a "wave" of floor quickly brought the precious burden to the site of the eruption. The elemental, a vaguely humanoid form made entirely of earth, scooped the huge egg under one arm, took the horribly changed mage in the other and sank into his hole. As Itami and Owen rushed to the spot the ground became the consistency of quicksand and the hole quickly filled itself before becoming solid again.


"Itami, see to the others I'm going to check on Sayla" Owen said.

The ork moved across the room to find the lost boys getting themselves together after the harrowing magic attack. Lug was standing bent over with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. Hamon was trying to stretch his cramped muscles as he went to retrieve his partner's weapons. Mouse was sitting on the floor and shaking from the after effects of the adrenaline rush while at the same time trying to place an ammonia capsule under Doc's nose to revive him.

Itami took the capsule from the young Ork decker and after giving Doc enough of a whiff to start him coughing, set it aside. He checked Mickey's face carefully while talking in a steady, quiet, voice.

"You're OK kid. Just some scratches. Nothing really major. Won't even need any stitches. Just have to get you cleaned up a little is all. Nobody's gonna laugh or even mention it if ya feel sick, kid. We all been there. Real world magic is scary drek, so if ya feel like bawlin or upchuckin, just go off to a corner. We'll wait for ya and everybody will understand. You're OK."

After a ragged breath the young ork nodded and Itami helped him to his feet. Lug, still breathing hard said "Frag! If I'd a had time....<Pant> I'd a dreked myself.....<pant> or at least <pant> pissed my pants." As the group shared a grim chuckle, Hamon put his hand on Mickey's shoulder in a pat of brotherhood. As frightened as Mouse had been seconds earlier he drew great reassurance from the gesture. As Lug was arranging his weapons he nodded at Mouse and said "We run inta that again, ya can be my guest at goin first" but then gave the young ork a smile that said they were equals and again Mouse felt good about being on the team.

Meanwhile Owen was solicitously sitting with Sayla while she tried to pull herself together after casting the null spell. Although the lovers both knew that there was nothing Owen could do to speed up the elf woman's recovery, they took comfort from each other's touch and quietly held hands.

When Doc had recovered enough from the stunning effects of the sleep spell, he checked Mouses' scratches and seeing they were too minor to warrant a healing spell, gave the decker a tube of topical anti-bacterial analgesic. When Mouse began reading the ingredients on the side of the package, Doc said, "My dear rodent, you will vastly increase the efficacy of the ointment if you will simply treat it with the respect accorded to any magical unguents dispensed by your resident hermetic thaumaturgist." When the decker looked over at Lug and shrugged, Doc sighed and in his caveman voice said "Ugh...you use dis...magic...face not hurt....make better." The handsome elf then pointed at the dwarf and said "Not work on little man....nothing make better.....face always hurts....everybody." Lug's single finger salute in reply caused Mouse to smile and indicated that the team was back on track.


Uhhhhhhh my head! Where are we? S'ssral the Black thought as he groggily sat up next to the egg. Scanning the surrounding he saw that he was indeed outside in an open area. The magic user noticed trees surrounding the grassy knoll where he was seated and a small pond just to the north. He scrambled over to check his reflection and was pleased but surprised at the unmoving but human visage that stared back at him from the water's surface. What a relief! he thought. Whatever that slitch threw at me stripped away the spells that I cast after that damned Jitte started changing me. What was that spell? I've never seen a single reference to anything like it. It just neutralized all of the active magic around me,.... barriers, everything. It's a spell I'd like to learn. It must have been very draining though because she never followed it up..... Glad I planned for the contingency of being knocked out of action. Now, where the hell am I? Some sort of park.......OH NO! Scrambling through the trees, the mage recognized that he was only a few dozen yards from the entrance to his underground sanctum. YOU IDIOT! he thought, You weren't specific with the elemental and the rock head put you outa sight above ground in a place where, as soon as you move you will be spotted. DAMN! DAMN! DAMN!


"....I'm tellin ya, it was a tiger, a huge fraggin dwarf eatin tiger. Sent my guns flyin outa my hands, batted me around, looked like it wuz gonna eat me as soon as it got tired a playin."

Doc nodded at the dwarf's description. He turned to Hamon, who said "Snake. Python. Wrapped me up fast, started squeezin."

Still nodding, Doc asked "And Mouse, you were surrounded by bats who attacked your face, eh?"

When the decker ruefully agreed, the mage turned to Sayla and said, "Apparently I was hit with a sleep spell as soon as he recognized I was a mage. How did you stop him?"

"I threw a spell of my own devising. It's called a null spell and it temporarily deadens or strips away active magic from a single target. I usually use it to knock down bullet barriers so that the magic user can taste the lead the rest of my team is throwing at him. I prepared it by force of habit and released it almost instinctively. If Owen or Itami had known it was coming they might have blasted the bastard and our job would be done, but since I didn't bother to tell them....."

".......We stood around with our thumbs up our butts." Itami finished for the elf woman.

"Thank you for another image which doesn't bear dwelling upon, " Doc said dryly "What happened when your spell struck?" he asked as he turned back to Sayla.

"He....changed. His body became shrunken and deformed and his face...ugh, his face became...."

"Inhuman?" Doc asked.

"Yes, exactly. How did you know?"

"I'll tell you in a moment. What happened then?"

"As soon as he shrieked and fell, the floor erupted." Owen continued the tale. "A humanoid made of earth stepped out of the hole and gestured at the egg. A, well I guess you'd call it a wave, formed in the floor and brought the egg to it. It tucked the egg under one arm, picked up the mage in the other and went back into its hole. Itami and I rushed over, but the floor became liquid, flowed into the hole and then solidified."

Nodding, the elf began pacing back and forth as he shared his analysis. "All right. From my research, I would surmise that when S'ssral the Black got his hands on the Bajang Jitte, he used it to propel himself to power. (What mage doesn't want to effortlessly break whatever spell opposes him?) Apparently S'ssral ignored the corrupting influence of the artifact until it had changed him into something that was not entirely human. He must have used some long term spells or quickened foci to keep his appearance hidden. Perhaps when he was researching these spells he learned how to create the very effective and focused illusion spells that he used to neutralize you gentlemen." He said while turning to Hamon Lug and Mouse. "When Sayla's spell hit him he must have lost the thread of the magic he was working and your illusory adversaries ceased to torment you. I'd guess that he had a contingency plan set up with the earth elemental whisking him to safety as soon as he was unable to act himself."

"So our next step...." Owen began.

"If you will permit me, most peerless of leaders," Doc interrupted, "Before we set out in pursuit of the miscreant, we need to search this area most carefully. Sayla and I need to examine the mage's library and insure that this place is no longer useable to him. We don't want him doubling back to a place he has prepared and in which he feels relatively secure. I'd suggest that the rest of you look for whatever the Bajang Jitte was being stored in, lest we succumb to the temptation to wield the nasty thing and end up like the unfortunate Mr. the Black. I'd suggest it would probably be some sort of rigid case, like a box, so that one wouldn't go rooting around through a bag for it and touch the business end by mistake. I trust this strategy is acceptable to you."

"Yeah, you're probably right, Doc." Owen responded. "Maybe we should also have a word with the armored gentleman upstairs to see if he has any idea where the elusive, what did you call him, Mr. the Black, might hide out."

Surprisingly, Hamon added "Need to search here, too. Could be hiding nearby."

"Excellent point, my close mouthed friend. By all means, let us insure that the nefarious spell wielding fiend has not secreted himself out of sight with the object of catching us unawares."

While Hamon and Itami began checking for other entrances to the junction room, Lug climbed back up the rope while Owen, followed by Mouse, went back through the secret escape passage.

Owen, Mouse and Lug retraced their path to the scene of the battle. Unfortunately, when they returned they found no trace of the armor, the minigun or the sec man in any of the tunnels. A careful search of the sec man's quarters did uncover several pounds of C-12 explosive, a bag of incendiary grenades and a Spectre SMG. Lug was very excited about the turn of the century vintage burp gun because all three of the 50 round clips with it were loaded with APDS ammo. Mouse also found an intricately carved wooden block which felt too heavy to be made of wood. He brought it with him when the team returned to the Junction room.

Sayla had discovered 4 huge books which she seemed quite enthusiastic about and a number of spell foci, while Doc was preoccupied with his own task. He was walking around the perimeter of the pentagram which occupied a huge segment of the room, making tiny alterations in the symbols painted or chalked into the floor. He erased many of the most complicated symbols and actually had Hamon pry a piece of inlaid silver out to the floor, replacing it with a bit of tarnished aluminum foil.

After several complete circuits he asked that all of the candles in the room be collected in a single spot. When they were, he made a pass over them with his open hand and an intense but brief flash of heat turned them into a huge puddle, further marring the carefully laid out mystical circle.

When he turned his attention back to the group he seemed particularly delighted with Mouse's find. "Ah ha! A puzzle box" the elf exclaimed. "I'd wager it's lead lined to insulate against the pernicious influence of the artifact. Let's see if we can ferret out it's secret." Pushing, prying and pulling, Doc eventually released a catch which allowed him to push a panel, causing one section to slide forward another to move back, and eventually a padded internal compartment was reached. Wasting no time, Sayla and Hamon transferred the Bajang Jitte into the puzzle box (which was indeed lead lined) and then Doc closed the box up. Both magic users were obviously relieved when the dangerous artifact was back in it's lead lined home.

"Any luck upstairs?" Sayla asked.

"No," Owen replied, "Our sec man seems to have run off and there was nothing in his quarters that might have indicated where he or his master went. How did you do?"

"Some research, spell formulae and foci that Doc and I may find useful but no back-up hideout address." The pretty elf woman responded.

"Well, we're not going to find him down here." Owen said. "Did you guys find any trace of his path astrally?"

"No," Doc replied. "Just as we've heard, the elemental erased his path as he went. Must have been a very powerful spirit."

"Well, lets head back to the surface and we can start looking again."


Word of the Red Dragons' difficult encounter traveled with the speed of gossip through the go-gang community in the area. The Creepers in particular, saw the incident as a heaven sent opportunity to expand their power and prestige as the Red Dragons' diminished. To this end Crazy Horse, Creeper war chief, tactician and bad tempered bully, had hit upon a daring plan. While a small force secured HQ against a sneak attack by the dastardly Warriors, the majority of the gang would attempt a confrontation in Red Dragon territory. When the undermanned and demoralized Red Dragons began retreating towards the park (inviolate neutral territory), an elite force would spring into action, cutting off the retreat. The elite force would consist of Baby Huey, a grotesquely oversized, amazingly stupid and even more amazingly violent troll, Gore and Skag, an adorable ork couple who referred to everyone as "meat", Zip, huge norm whose name could also be a descriptor of his mental capacity and Bad Billy Bower, a malignant dwarf with the singular ability to terrify even Baby Huey.

Carrying a small arsenal and following the frothing directions of their rabid dwarf leader as they crossed the park towards their ambush position, this happy band chanced upon the clearing where S'ssral the Black was attempting to decide where to go with his egg. Zip, when he recognized that the big oval thing was, in fact, an egg, found his imagination captivated by thoughts of a giant breakfast. As he droolingly walked towards his potential meal, S'ssral saw the encroaching threat and cast a spell. Screaming in terror, Zip threw down his weapons while yelling "RUN! DA GIANT CHICKEN IS COMIN TA EAT US!" and fled screaming into the night.

Bad Billy Bower's only regret at the departure of the screaming moron was that he hadn't thought to shoot him. Bad Billy knew that you were allowed to shoot anybody who didn't follow orders in a battlefield situation and he considered shooting one of the other elite team members as an object lesson about who was in charge. His attention, however, quickly shifted to the spell slinging norm who had made his stupid breeder run away. What was this guy doing in the park with the giant egg? Suspecting a dastardly Warrior trap, Bad Billy called for a halt and hand on SMG went forward to question the human.

"What ya fer?" Bad Billy demanded.

S'ssral the Black's mind, more agile than the combined intellects facing him by several factors of 10, instantly saw the potential benefits of using this group. He stepped forward and said "Ah, you heard my call. Excellent. We must hurry. I have the egg, but the dragon will send it's minions soon. We must get it to a secure location if we want to trade the egg for the beast's horde."

The thoughts flashing through Bad Billy's tiny mind caused a tempest of confusion. Call? What call? I didn't hear no call....Dragon? The Red Dragons?.... Wait, no, Dragon's egg. He's got a dragon's egg and minions comin ta get it. Who's minions? I heard a Manion, But I don't know no minion.....Trade?Trade the egg for a beast whore? Wha?

"What ya fer?" Bad Billy demanded more emphatically.

S'ssral thanked the powers that his face betrayed none of the exasperation he was feeling. He slowly explained "We trade egg for much gold. Nuyen. Many Creds. For egg. Take egg and hide. Then trade. Must hurry. Lone Star comes."

Each of the concepts outlined in this second communication where graspable by Bad Billy Bower. (Although, the blank looks on Baby Huey, Gore and Skag betrayed that many of the thoughts were too ephemeral for them to grasp) After approximately 30 seconds of intense concentration the dwarf, believing he understood the gist of the request grinned and nodded. He ordered Baby Huey to carefully lift the egg, smashing the troll several times with the butt of his rifle to insure the lummox understood not to damage the egg that they would eventually trade for creds.

As the dwarf guided the group back to an abandoned store front in Creeper territory, no one gave a thought to the original assignment which had sent the elite force through the park. The ambush of the Red Dragons was completely forgotten.


"WHERE DA FRAG ARE DOSE FRAGGERS, FOR FRAGS SAKE?" Crazy Horse bellowed as the retreating Red Dragons began entering the park. He turned to Tunney, his second in command and was preparing to repeat the question about his elite ambushers when he noticed the group climbing out of the manhole just up the street from the leader's position. Seeing that each appeared armed and were wearing the armored longcoats that were almost a uniform for shadowrunners, the gang leader snorted in derision. As he was about to turn back to the business at hand, (destroying a rival gang) Sayla climbed out of the manhole. Crazy Horse stopped dead in his tracks as a heavenly chorus sang a chord in his mind. "She's beautiful" he muttered as the team continued out of the ground. Turning to his second in command, he swatted the biker hard enough to raise a bruise saying: "Take ovah here. I'm gonna go get me some. Find Bad Billy. He's got some 'splainin ta do."

Having delegated his responsibility for the Creepers, Crazy Horse blithely jandered up the street with a cock-of-the-walk attitude while the gang battle continued behind him. As soon as this pretty keeb slitch knew who he was, the go-gang leader was sure, she'd leave the shadowrunning losers for a real man with some real status. And if she didn't have sense enough to make that decision, well, Crazy Horse had some experience there too. He shouted "Hey, Baby" and had just begun to flash his killer smile when Itami shot him.

As the ex go-ganger collapsed in a bloody pile, the lost boys and Sayla turned towards Itami. Their expressions ranged from inquisitive to shocked to total disbelief. In the ensuing silence the Ork rigger shrugged and said "Sorry" in exactly the same tone he might have used to excuse a belch. Realizing that with a gang battle raging nearby this was not the place to secure a detailed explanation of the rigger's action, Owen said "Let's get outta here, now". The lost boys hurried into the truck.


"HOW COME YER FACE DON'T CHANGE, MEAT?" Gore bellowed.

Skag's girlish giggle at the orkish witticism did nothing for S'ssral the Black's patience. He was squatting in a squalid storefront, trying to keep Baby Huey from licking the egg, (a habit he had apparently developed while carrying the item across the park). Between this occupation, jumping each time a stampede of thumb sized cockroaches raced across the refuse strewn floor, dealing with vacuous stares and insipid questions of the ork couple, and repeating his promises of gold to the Dwarf, the mage was rapidly approaching the end of his very frayed rope.

He'd lost the Bajang Jitte, an irreplaceable artifact, even if he no longer trusted himself to personally wield it. He'd also lost a haven he's always though of as well protected, which was, at least, clean and free of distractions. He'd lost the service of his personal security man, Grant. He'd lost a meticulously well prepared sacrificial circle and he'd suddenly found himself thrust among a group of mental defectives while being pursued by shadowrunners who had demonstrated their competence by finding his sanctum, defeating his guards and surprising him with a spell for which he was totally unprepared. All in all, not a good day.

On the plus side, he had some time before the powerful innocent emerged and could be sacrificed, he had a group of strong bodied, but weak minded servants with which to work and if the sacrifice was conducted properly, the power that would be granted him would be sufficient to make him a god.

He was debating how much magic he could afford to expend in controlling the go-gangers, while still retaining enough for contingencies and the up coming sacrificial ceremony, when a child, by looks 8 or 9 years old, entered the storefront. The 9 year old (male? female?) wore shot cropped hair with a single rat tail, baggy t-shirt and jeans and had a lit cigarette dangling from (his? her?) lower lip.

"Bad Billy, where da frag ya go?" the child demanded without pre-amble. "Big chief got scagged, T-man's got a major hard on fer yer hoop an da 411 from da C's is dat yer a yella punk."

"WHAT?" the dwarf roared.

"Hey, I ain't sayin it. Jus passin along street buzz. Don't go postal wit me. Plaver yer boys, ya don like it. Jus, if ya do, bring a rubber, cuz yer gonna need protection."

After looking around at the group while Bad Billy muttered, the child asked Skag "Who laid da egg, an who's stone face?" Skag's girlish giggle of reply caused the youngster to slowly shake his head. Bad Billy eventually arrived at his carefully considered response to the unfair innuendo that Skeeter (the child) had brought to his attention.

"You tell those fraggin bastids dat a) I don't fraggin answer ta big fraggin mouthed muthafraggers wot don't have da fraggin balls ta say dat drek ta my face and dat 2) It's none a dere fraggin biz wot da frag I do....

"Enough!" S'ssral the Black interrupted. The mage then threw a spell which captured the so-called minds of all present. Everyone suddenly realized that they should remain silent and wait patiently for the pearls of wisdom that their best friend S'ssral would share with them. As the mage spoke, each one of the go-gangers simultaneously realized that protecting the egg and the mage were the most important, fulfilling, gratifying things that they could do. That focusing on their role as protectors made them feel better than anything else on earth and that there could be no worse feeling than if something were to happen to either the egg or their best friend S'ssral. The go gangers (and Skeeter, who was also caught in the web of enchantment) understood that they couldn't live with the thought of something happening to their charges and became completely focused on the spell's orders.

Having secured the best protection immediately available, S'ssral perched himself on a relatively clean portion of what was once a counter and closed his eyes so that he could review everything that had happened in the past hour.


Having returned the "loaned" equipment to Lee Shen, the lost boys had agreed on a plan for utilizing their contacts to try and trace the egg. Since this legwork would be speeded up by utilizing all of the transportation options available, the team had returned to the junkyard where they had secured their vehicles. Before the team split up to start their search, Itami requested a meeting "sos he could clear the air."

"I know some a you, especially you, boss, are disturbed about my shootin dat ganger. Mouse, you're probably real confused an it's important dat you make some good choices, so I'm gonna explain. Now, I ain't justifyin myself, cause I didn't do nothin wrong, but kid, your still figurin out which way to go so dis is a real vulnerable time fer you. See, Mouse" The rigger said as he focused his attention on the young Ork, "we all got our own ways a doin things an we all got pasts. Now, da boss knows I'd follow him ta hell after all he done for me. I owe him my life a couple a times over. But dat don't mean he's always right or dat I do things da way he does. He's got a conscience about killin. It bothers him when he's gotta take somebody out. I respect da hell outta dat, BUT HE'S WRONG! I'm always gonna kill da udder guy before he can kill me. Fact a life. Dead guys don't bother ya no more. Even wit all his trainin and power an ability, (forgive me, boss,) but we seen where he chose ta knock somebody out, instead a chillin 'em, and it's come back ta haunt him. Like when dose bastards kidnapped Sayla. If he'd a killed 'em da first time, dey wouldn't a grabbed da lady for leverage."

Sayla and Doc both started to interrupt, but Lug said "Let him finish" and nodded for the rigger to continue. "We ain't playin out here. Countin Coup only works when everybody's honorable...." seeing that the decker was unfamiliar with the term, Itami explained "Hundreds a years ago native Americans would consider a battle over if a warrior demonstrated dat he could have beaten someone. Nobody had to get hurt once it was shown who woulda won. In fact, dere was more prestige fer countin coup dan fer actually killin somebody. Da boss always jus wants ta demonstrate dat he could kill somebody and den have dem stop fightin. But dat don't work in da real world cause folks jus aint dat honorable. Anyway, what I'm sayin is, when Hamon pulls dose overgrown steak knives or Lug draws one a his cannons, dey got no hesitation about what dere gonna do. Doc or Sayla don't hold some internal debate before dey start tossin mana around. Dey know exactly what dere gonna do. Ya can like da boss witout tryin ta act like him and ya gotta know what yer gonna do if dere's trouble or yer gonna get yerself killed......"

At this point Doc jumped in saying "You walk down road: walk left side, Ok; walk right side, Ok, walk in middle, pretty soon <splat> squish like grape". Shaking his head Owen responded "show me paint da fence, show me sand da floor" indicating that he had recognized Doc's movie reference to the Karate Kid. Snapping his fingers, Doc said "Damn!" as the pair turned their attention back to the rigger's lecture.

"What I'm sayin is, ya gotta work it out ahead a time, know what yer gonna do, cause pullin a gun an hopin fer da best will only get ya dead. Yer either doin it da boss's way an payin da price he does fer dat choice or yer dealin wit threats da way da rest of us do. No middle ground. Ya can't play dat on da fly, cause you'll end up gettin killed an takin some of us wit ya." After a brief pause to let this sink in, he turned to Owen and asked "I know you wuz surprised, but, was what I did, shootin dat guy down in cold blood, ok wit you, boss?" Without hesitating the Phys ad responded "I trust you, old friend. I know you did what you had to do."

"Would you a done it?" the rigger pressed.

"No. Probably not."

"Den was I wrong fer not followin yer lead?"

"You would have been wrong if you hesitated to do what you knew needed to be done because you were worried about our reactions."

"See, Mouse. Dat's what I'm talkin about. We disagree but support each other. Now, so's you unnerstan da whole story, I useta run wit a go gang. I dealt wit dat particular crud before. His name wuz Crazy Horse. I recognized him right off. He thought he was da universe's gift ta women and dat dey should be honored by his attention. When he was younger he ran what we called a train gang as a engineer. Dat means he had a gang dat specialized in rape. He'd pick some female, rape her and den let his boys each take a turn or two. It's called pullin da train. When dey wuz done if she didn't fight hard enough, he'd either scar her face up (called it da mark a da dirty nose- let other braves know she was a slut) or, if she did fight hard enough, he'd just kill her. Some a his 'rides' lasted days and I seen some...... hell, I.... knew one of .......well....let's just say I been lookin fer dat sick frag fer a long time. My conscience ain't gonna bother me one bit fer shootin dat dog down in cold blood." After letting this sink in Itami casually mentioned " Last I heard, Crazy Horse was war chief for the Creepers. About 30 go-gangers who follow his word like law. Did you notice he was callin out to Sayla?"

In spite of his earlier lesson with Sayla, Mouse felt real fury at the thought of the go-ganger targeting the elf woman, but he focused on the decision that Itami was asking him to make. He determined that the stun baton was not his weapon of choice and resolved to develop proficiencies with the firearms he carried.

Contemplating the disturbing implications of Itami's revelation, the other lost boys were silent as they split up to track down the egg.


12


"Are you serious?" Wilco asked, turning towards the troll in amazement. "You want to try and take out a shadowteam that's already kicked our hoops after they've crippled two of us and killed a third? These guys played us like a fish! They ambushed us at our own ambush, cost Bonaire his legs, Finster his nuts, Nightsbane his life, all of the gear in my van and, oh, did I forget to mention they iced about 2 dozen fraggin Humanis drekheads along the way. And. what did we do to them? Bonaire might have shot one of them in the arm. Our 'never miss' sniper is not even sure a that! And now you're sayin dat you and me should still go after 'em? What are ya, fraggin nuts or somethin?"

"Bad business to let 'em walk." Gerracioti replied. "We quit now, our rep is exactly like ya described- we're fraggin losers who got waxed. Johnson wants his money back, or he starts huntin us himself. I'm tellin ya, dat fragger ain't gonna understand or forgive or forget. With all the gear that got blown apart, can you afford to give back the retainer? I can't. Another thing- any of those Humanis slots survive and you can figure were gonna make their most wanted list. Now, we could have a nice ally in Mr. Johnson if the assignment's complete. Creds and a shadow to disappear into. We cut and run, instead of helping maybe Johnson gives Humanis whatever data he's got on us and all of a sudden da plex is way to warm for comfort."

"Screw it, then." the dwarf rigger answered, "This aint the only place on earth. Look, I wrote it off when Flash turned to a puddle of sludge from touchin dat egg. I didn't bat an eye when Thongor ended up in little pieces or when the temp decker, whtayacallit...uh Zixx got blown up. I said to myself, we can keep goin. Now the whole team is down to you and me and I gotta draw the line. This job is over. Look, we can pick up. Start someplace new. Clean slate....."

"Empty slate, ya mean. You really want to move on with no equipment and try to start someplace new with a laundry list of people who want your hoop? Even with a new identity, your talkin about suckin around for odd jobs and teaming up with wannabes, newbes and losers until you put together some creds. I'm tired of that drek. Better to salvage what we can here. Finster will be back in a couple of days and eventually Bonaire will be back with new legs. In the meantime we just hunt down one or two of the suckers from the team that hit us and start recouping our rep. What do ya say?"

"What do I say? I say adi-fraggin-os Gerracioti. Your a good leader, general. You put together a hard hooped team of pros. It's just that this time the other guy put together a harder hooped team and I don't intend to get geeked fraggin with them. Tell Johnson I know a bad bet when I see one and if he wants me, come and find me. I'll be somewhere on the planet. Later."

Without a backwards glance the dwarf walked away. Sighing, Gerracioti considered opening fire as a way of keeping everything in order. As the rigger continued walking up the street, the troll sighed again and decided that back shooting someone he disagreed with was an easy way out he had taken in the past to his regret. He shrugged and tucking his Jackhammer back under his long coat, headed into the bar.


"Hello, Felix. It's Owen."

"Yes?"

"I'd like to purchase some information."

"Yes?"

"I'm trying to get a line on S'ssral the Black's possible hideouts. The mage is currently on the run, or at least he's been chased out of his last dwelling and I think he's looking for a new place. I need to find out where ASAP."

"Anything else?"

"Well, yes now that you mention it, I notice that it's getting kind of cold here. I seem to have pissed off a certain lady......"

"Hey, babe," The troll fixer interrupted, "Before you start with the soft soap, I ain't pissed off. I'm just tired of begging. You know how good you and the team you've put together are. I know it, too. I admit, I'd like to have you and them working for me but I'm only going to run into the same brick wall so many times. Ya said, last time we talked, that you wanted to be treated like my other clients. So ok. I'm taking down what info you want. I'll get it and give ya a good price. If that ain't enough, find another fixer who can do a better job."

"Uhm...ok. I guess...." a stunned Phys ad replied.

"Jeanie will relay whatever I get to your drop box location. Code blue, priority immediate. Price is 700 nuyen per hour, 4 hour minimum, with a 2k add for paydata under da minimum and 3k bonus for confirmed current locale.(I assume you don't need a max on hours.) Reasonable wear and tear on my assets means death benefits for anyone I lose procuring the data. Figure guarantees, minimum, bonus makes it 10k+ contract. I'll take 5k up front. Soon as I see a transfer to account 34-50013-712-xgt-8 at FNB&T I'll get started. End trans."

After several seconds of looking at the now blank comm unit Owen slotted a credstick and made a call to transfer the funds.


Crockett hung up the comm unit and heaved himself out of the chair. What the frag.... the troll thought as he listened again for the noise that had come from his shop. I know I heard somethin out there movin among the bikes, the mechanic/garage owner thought as he lifted the nearest weapon, a heavy metal desk chair in one hand and "crept" towards the office door. As he reached for the knob a voice said "I hope dat whatever ya got in yer hand is delicious 'cause yer gonna have to eat it."

The troll's face lit up as he recognized the voice. Yanking open the door he bellowed "Itami?! Itami Hanzo! Son of a slitch! How da frag are ya, ya nasty scooter jock? Come in, come in! Damn, but its good ta see ya!" Setting down the chair the troll swept the rigger up in a crushing bear hug and lifted the 6-6, 265 lb. ork as though he were a small child.

"AOOF. Put me down ya big ape!" After being gently set down Itami looked up into Crockett's warty face and the two shared a fond grin as they looked each other over.

"So, ya old grease monkey, how ya doin?" the rigger asked.

"Oh, fine, fine. Of course, I ain't some hot drek shadowrunner wit da plex buzzin about my latest exploits, but I ain't been shot at in more dan a month, I put by a little each week and I finally bought out old man Gunderson, so I'm da master a all I survey." the troll said as his gesture indicated the garage.

"What about you, Omae?" the troll asked "You must need somethin ta come back ta dis drekhole. Ya need at hideout from da star? A getaway ride fer some extraction? Ya know whatever ya need, if I got it, it's yours."

"Thanks, Crockett. I always new I could count on you." Itami responded."I'm ..uh.. sorry its been so long, but I didn't want ta drop ya in da drek wit da High Hats and after dat, well.... I'm sorta in charge a protectin dis guy and he's always gettin into stuff....."

"Hey, chummer. Null persp," the troll replied as he lit a flick stick. "Not many have heard da stories, but if ya know just where ta listen," indicating the garage behind him with a gesture from his huge thumb, "ya can pick up da skinny a what's been happenin wit a certain ork rigger who learned everything he knows about scooters right here. Ya done awright. Hooked up wit a top crew. Got a sorta rep as white knights. Proud a ya, kid. So what ya need?"

"I'm chasin a spell worm. Used ta live under dat park on 7th...."

"Yeah, yeah, I know da park, Creepers, Warriors an Red Dragons use it as neutral territory..... Hey, some activity dere recently. Buncha RD's got wacked fraggin wit a team....."

"I know"

"Oh, drek! Was dat your people? Outstanding. Runnin wit some heavyweights, neh?"

"Yeah, well, " the rigger confirmed, "Any udder word from dat neck a da woods?"

"Oh yeah. Here's a blast from yer past. Crazy Horse got cacked."

"I know"

"No drek? One a your guys?" when Itami repressed a smile and said "Naw", Crockett immediately jumped to the correct conclusion. "You?" he asked disbelievingly. When Hanzo nodded the troll said, "That, my friend, calls for a drink."

Dumping two soyakaff cups into the garbage can, and producing a 1/2 full bottle of Southern Comfort from the bottom draw of the desk, Crockett poured two generous slugs. As Itami searched for the proper toast to old friends, the troll quietly said "To Donna. Rest in peace, honey."

Itami reverently raised his cup and when he finished knocking back the fiery liquid, looked up to see the troll wiping his eye. Before he could say anything, Crockett poured them another drink and said "To my pal, Itami Hanzo. An ork who remembers oaths."

Itami took a sip to be polite, but waived off the refill. "Don't even try dat drek, Crock. I seen ya run dat game too many times and drink too many suckers right under the table. Thanks for the toast, but I am workin. Now, lemme ask ya, when Crazy Horse made his approach, there was some streetfight in progress. A course, ole drek fer brains saw a female and walked up witout anybody watchin his back, but what's da deal on da battle. Did the C's suddenly grow some stones?"

"Naw. Nuttin like dat. Dey heard, drek, everybody heard, how da RD's got spanked. Crazy Horse figured dey wuz ripe fer da pickin. Moved fast. Sent some a his best boppers across da park fer a jump out when da RD's had dere backs against da wall. Only thing is, da ambush team pulled an Amazing Randy. Disappeared. Never fraggin showed. So wit no anvil, da horse's hammer pushed da dragons into da park. Neutral ground. Big fraggin deal. Now Tunney's in charge. He's got a deal wit da laughs fer losin a couple a guys, includin his war chief, and doin nuthin but pissin off da RD's and paintin a big 'come an get it ' sign on his turf fer da Warriors ta see. He's beatin da bushes ta find out where his front line went to. Dat any help?"

"It might be, ole troll, it might be. If my spell worm somehow came up in da park, he mighta hooked up wit da muscle." Seeing that Crockett was about to argue, Itami said, "Believe me, Omae, dis spell slinger is a specialist at screwin wit yer brain. Unless things have changed more dan I'd believe, he wouldn't have ta work too hard to rearrange da mellons of a Creeper goon squad."

After thinkin about this another moment, Itami pulled himself out of his reverie and said "I gotta go, chummer. I'd like ta hook up some time when we could shoot da shit and get totally wasted. I know dat if we do it here it could compromise ya wit yer customers, so when dis jobs over, maybe ya could come visit my place."

"Yeah. Yeah, I'd like dat. Gimme a call. An Itami, thanks fer, ya know, Donna...."

"Null persp, chummer. Catch ya later"


Mouse entered the virtual bar and walked up to the Mosaic. The Gnome appeared and said "What you want, smart mousey, you still play with Kitty?"

"Sure, sure. Allatime maybe sometime never" Mouse responded.

"I say," the Gnome responded, peering over glasses which suddenly appeared on his mishapen nose. "It's not entirely cricket, old bean, for you to be affecting gnomespeak. It's, oh, dash it all, how should one put this, not sporting, to lift another icon's linqua franca. wot? Simply not done." Shifting from the exagerated british accent to a high pitched duplicate of the voice of one of the first animated cartoon characters he continued. "Ha-ha, isn't much fun, is it, kids?"

"Point taken" Mouse responded, "Sorry"

"Not to worry. Your concern with my mural?"

"Oh I was just checking to see the changes caused by today's battle."

"None thusfar," the gnome said "Tensions are high, the Red Dragons are weakened but looking for vengance, the Creepers are looking for their missing soldiers and the Warriors are trying to determine which of the two is most vulnerable to maximize the effect of their strike. At least, that's what I have."

"Sounds accurate as far as what I have." Mouse agreed.

"If you hear anything, I'd consider it a favor to hear about it asap. Like to keep the mural accurate."

"I'll get back to you as soon as I learn anything".


"Hoi, Lug. What'll ya have?"

"Draw one, Christie. Hey, ya do somethin different wit yer hair?"

"Yeah." the norm woman responded "French braid. Ya like it?"

"Oh, sure. Looks good on ya." The dwarf sam said as he sat looking around at the largely empty bar.

"Say, Lug. I was meanin ta ask ya...... yer partner, is he...um, taken?"

"As in married-taken or involved-taken or...."

Blushing, the bartender said, "Well, I've seen him a couple a times but he doesn't seem to have any women with him an I was wondering if he was available, that's all."

"Christie, Hamon is not only not involved at the moment, but is a super straight arrow. Lives his life with concepts like honor and loyalty foremost. Real Samurai drek, so if ya was to catch him, well, you'd never have ta worry about him strayin. Course, da udder side a dat is dat he's real quiet- REAL quiet, so if you want ta talk about stuff an actually get replies, yer barkin up da wrong tree. Now don't get me wrong, he's a great guy, I've partnered with him fer da past seven years and I've never had a complaint, but I know how ...............'scuse me. Lots of females care deeply about communication. Hamon's is mostly non-verbal."

After a few seconds, Christie observed, "Nice move there, avoiding stepping in it with a crack about women. Sounds like you've been exposed to some good influence. Anybody I know?"

"Sensei's lady. Elf named Sayla Starseeker. Pretty good spell slinger who's been helping us out, but make any generalization, no matter how much truth there is to it, and she's on ya like a cheap suit. Especially if it don't respect females. I'm spendin more and more time editin what I say sos I don't step on toes."

"Well, it suits you. I think its very nice that your becoming more sensitive."

"Thanks" Lug said without any enthusiasm. "Do me a favor an don't spread it around, ok?"

"It'll be our secret" the bartender replied with a smile.

"Speakin a secrets," Lug said, "You hear anything about a magic user name a S'ssral the Black, like where he's been seen or where he is now, ya let me know. Big creds in it for ya and I guarantee, no repercussions."

"I'll keep my ears open," the bartender assured the sam, "and maybe next time you stop buy you could bring your handsome partner with you." she said with a wink.

"It's a deal." the dwarf replied as he knocked back his beer and prepared to move to the next bar on his side of the street in the search for data on the lost boys' adversary.


The voices and noises were low in the smoke filled room that Hamon entered after making his way through the basement of a burned out tenement. The lull in the noise occasioned by his appearance was short lived as a thin norm male wearing a green visor and a sleeveless undershirt looked up from the card table and launched into his spiel.

"Well, well, well!" exclaimed the nasal and altogether too jovial voice, "New blood. Oh dear, that will never do. By the look of you sir, you're liable to view it with an entirely different meaning than I intend. I simply sought to announce that a fresh hand, a new source of luck and creds was preparing to enter our game of chance. Permit me to point out, friend, that we have two mages in the astral at all times to watch for any sign of magic and that there are several mechanical and visual device to detect any ...ahem, attempt to manipulate the laws of chance to one's benefit. Not that we believe any of our valued customers would attempt such a thing, we just want you to be aware that you can gamble here with the peace of mind that......"

"Shut up, Larry", the heavily cybered human guard interrupted. Stepping between the talkative dealer and the Gillette, the guard spent 30 seconds staring at the swordsman in complete silence. "Hamon" the inhuman voice finally rasped, "It's been a while."

"Kyle" The swordsman acknowledged with a nod.

"Gamblin?"

"Trackin data"

"Not here. Customers come ta play. Not talk. Ya wanna stay, ya gotta play."

As Hamon considered the ultimatum the tension in the room increased. Sensing that some of the gunsels just out of the light were edging around behind him, the sam shrugged and turned to walk out. Although the move was designed to reduce tension, until the swordsman had actually left the room a collective breath was held in anticipation of some sort of firefight. As he climbed the rickety steps, Hamon heard the sounds of normality resume behind him. Sighing, he continued his legwork.


S'ssral the Black agonized over his decision. He now had an enthusiastic, if intellectually limited, defense force for physical security. He wanted to return to the security of his base, to check his painstakingly prepared place of sacrifice and to consult his research to find exactly how to recover from the preparation time he had lost because of the annoying shadowteam. Unfortunately, he was savvy to the very real dangers involved in travel in and around the park with his defenders being sought by the area gangs. The mage also assumed that the invaders might have boobytrapped the entrance to his home against his return. He did have the option of using the powerful earth Elemental, but that spirit's services were nearly at an end and he dreaded working without being able to call on its aid.

After extensive internal debate, the mage summoned the elemental and, taking his security force with him, used it's power of traveling through its own medium to returned to his former abode.

"Do not touch anything." S'ssral said as the stepped from the elemental's hole. "Stay right here and wait." he continued.

When he was confident that his instructions were simple enough to have been absorbed, he stepped quickly over to where he had kept his books. DAMN! he thought. I suppose it was too much to hope for that they'd have seen no value in my research and left it behind. I'm sure I'll find my foci missing also. I knew I should have kept them hidden the mage thought as he checked and found all of his magic aids missing. It was when he checked the Pentagram inscribed in the floor that he became most upset.

They've ruined it! Damn their eyes, they've completely screwed it up. I could clean up the candles, but I'd have to redraw everything that was covered and here and....there and ......damn they've changed the symbols. Some are right some are wrong, some are missing, I'd have to reconstruct the entire thing to know I had it's protection. DREK! Using it in this condition would be more dangerous than doing without it completely! Damn, Damn, Damn. Weeks of painstaking work shot to hell. My purification, completely ruined. Oh, ho, when I complete the sacrifice my first action will be to track down everyone of those invaders and then slowly.....

<BA-BOOM>

The sound of the explosion jolted the mage from his pleasant thoughts of vengance. He turned quickly to find that the male ork, Gore, had wandered away from the area where he had been told to wait and had set off one of the anti-personnel devices that Grant had insisted on installing. Oh that's perfect! S'ssral thought, It did nothing to the invaders it was intended to stop because they were too smart to fall for it, but when I'm relying on street trash for defense, my security man's plan helps kill off my allies. Will anything ever go right?

Gore's action in tripping the device demonstrated the appropriateness of his street name, as that was literally all that was left of him. Skag, apparently thinking that if all the bloody pieces were in one place, some sort of magic could return her lover to life, began collecting the bloody chunks. Turning to S'ssral with her closest approximation of a look of supplication she gestured at the remains. When the magic user failed to respond she wailed "Help. Please help."

S'ssral, far from being moved to perform some magical miracle, was snorting with frustration at the stupidity of the go gangers. He was so annoyed at Gore's lack of discipline and subsequent lack of cohesion that he was oblivious to the mounting frustration evidenced by Skag. The fact the S'ssral's face never changed was interpreted by the ork woman as a deliberate refusal to use his magic to help Gore. The magic user's failure to explain either that he did not have the power to bring the ork back to life or that the damage was too extensive for any mage to correct, was interpreted by Skag's dim mind as the spell worm's deliberate decision to leave Gore dead as punishment for his failure to obey orders. S'ssral's sharp orders to return to the hole so that the group could leave did nothing to change this impression. Possessing enough animal cunning to hide her true emotions, Skag adopted a mask not unlike the mage's, but as the ork women walked away from her lover's corpse she promised herself that this would not be the end of the issue.


"Doc do you realize what this is?" Sayla asked in a voice fraught with concern.

"Yes", the elf replied, "I'm appalled by the audacity and stupidity of this magic user, to say nothing of my horror at the concept of his success, but yes, my dear, I do realize what the research amounts to. This S'ssral the Black is trying to reconstruct a ritual that will.....open a portal, I suppose is the best description, to another dimension, giving the 'elder gods' admittance to this world in exchange for a portion of their power. The arrogance to think that he could pull something like this off is so monumental as to be laughable if he were not so terrifyingly close to realizing his ambition. He'll wait until Sara's egg hatches and then sacrifice the life of the 'perfect innocent' to supply the energy to open the gate. "

"Yes but do you realize what must be meant by 'elder gods'? " Sayla asked with a shudder. "The horror that he's attempting to unleash on the earth....I mean look at this ......'walker between worlds'....'he who is not to be named'....'eldritch power'.....'eater of souls'.....'bactracian minions'....this is the stuff of nightmares made flesh. And what he will do during the sacrifice to that newborn......ugh! We absolutely have to stop this, Doc. I mean not only find and return the egg, but eliminate this sick frag once and for all."

"I agree, dear lady, I agree completely. I'm not entirely sanguine about the reaction of the leader of the expedition....."

"Don't worry about Owen, Doc", the beautiful elf woman replied. "He pays a price for taking a life and won't do it lightly, but if ever there was somebody who needs killing, it's this sick son of a slitch. Owen will see that. If he reads this description of the sacrifice he'll be so furious about what is being done to a newborn, nevermind that it's a dracoform, that he'll make absolutely sure the fragger dies. Now, I think we should destroy this research so that the next maniac......"

"Destroy? You mean, burn these books?" Doc asked, aghast. "You're not seriously suggesting that these ancient tomes, these painstaking reproductions and original works be consigned to the flames against the chance that they be misused......"

"Chance? Chance?! Doc, you can't be serious! These books have only one purpose. To provide information to those who would open a portal to another dimension and admit those denizens to our world. That's why they were written, that's why they've been preserved, that's what they'll be used for. They are evil and they only cause evil....."

"Wait, wait, wait." Doc said. "The rhetoric is getting too heated. Knowledge isn't evil. Only the way it is used....."

"Hoi, guys. What's going on?" Glendower asked as he came in.

"I am explaining to this young person," Doc said "That knowledge in itself is not evil. It may motivate evil or be used for evil intent, but one cannot rationally advocate ignorance....."

"Unless the 'knowledge' in question has world ending ramifications and can only be used for evil, " Sayla interrupted. "The research that this S'ssral character was conducting involves how to open a portal to another dimension and call down such horror....here, read this" she said as she handed one of the heavy books to the phys ad and directed his attention to the rite of sacrifice. As Owen read his face went pale and the muscles along his jawline stood out from the tension of his clenched teeth.

When the phys ad looked up the expression in his eyes actually caused Doc, an experienced shadowrunner, initiate grade hermetic mage, friend and teammate to draw back and swallow before he began again to argue his point.

"All right." Doc finally said."I'll admit these things are vile and twisted, but, what if, for example, the key to stopping this evil lies in being able to interrupt the ceremony at a key point. What if the only way to find that point is to be able to reconstruct the research. Or what if these other dimensional entities do gain a foothold in our world. Perhaps the only way to fight them is contained in these twisted writings. If the books are destroyed, those possibility disappear. We are dealing with the unknown, my friends, to destroy a source of knowledge before this unknown is defeated is wrong. We cannot allow emotional reactions to provoke us into a potentially disastrous course of action. Even the head of the Medusa, as terrible an artifact as it was, proved useful in defeating the gorgon .......or....uh.....the triton, or.... some other terrible beast."

"Where in Bullfinch did you find that one, Doc?" Owen asked. "Are you attempting to convince us based on the events in a Harry Hamlin movie?"

"Well....uh.....its still a good point" the elf said defensively.

"Oh, yes, I see what you mean" the phys ad responded while trying to maintain a straight face.

"Yes, your point is well taken," Sayla said as she failed to hold in her giggles.

"Now, see here! Just because I take an example from a classic film, there's no reason....." Doc's indignant and self righteous pose faltered in the face of the hilarity of the pair he was trying to convince. Eventually he joined in the laughter and admitted, "It was a pretty bad example, wasn't it?"

"Not at all, Doc." The phys ad objected, "We should always be prepared to deal with a gorgon.......or a triton or some other terrible beast." After a few more minutes of chuckles, Owen said, "I see your point. We will hang on to these against the need to use them in trying to foil this madman." When Sayla started to object, Owen continued "Because it's not wise to discard a weapon or shield before battling an unknown. However, advocacy of ignorance arguments notwithstanding, I don't intend to deal with this problem again, nor to leave the 'knowledge' of a formula to destroy the world lying around for some other madman to use, so these books will not outlast this crisis."

This solution pleased neither of the runners as Sayla insisted that the books should be destroyed immediately, while Doc continued to advocate keeping them someplace safe. Eventually both recognized that Owen's solution was based on protecting as much a he could. Doc redoubled his efforts to glean as much as he could from the texts while Sayla began investigating how such magical works could be destroyed.


Gerracioti was afraid. He was a heavily cybered street sam with experience as a mercenary, as a shadowrunner and as a survivor of more mean streets and fire fights than most people could dream of, yet the troll was afraid. He had a pair of Predator II's at his hips, concealed knives, a monowhip, and a fully loaded Jackhammer auto shotgun in his hand, but still, he was afraid. His room at the very pricey, very exclusive, ultra private hotel/club, a room that he had worked hard to keep secret even from members of his own team, had been entered in his absence. The security mages on duty had sworn up and down that the FAT bacteria traps made it impossible for anyone to enter his room astrally. They swore that the wards around the building were still intact and that none of the guard spirits had sensed any disturbance. The security team had multiple cameras focused on the doors to his room and none of them contained any evidence that the room had been entered in his absence. The logs from the sensors built into the walls and floors showed nothing, the roving metahumans, machines and awakened guard animals all had nothing to report, and all of them made a convincing argument that there was simply no way for anyone to enter his room in his absence. However, lying on the pillow of his unmade bed a small typed note read:

Finish the job.


13


Owen had no sooner made his decision on the disposition of S’ssral research books when the light on his wrist com began flashing. He knew this meant that Felix had uncovered some data on the opposition’s location and had sent the info to an electronic drop box. Wasting no time, the phys ad called in to a relay station, which called another relay which in turn called another relay station until an untraceable relay web had been set up. He then instructed the last box in the line to download from the drop box and transmit the encrypted burst of data through the entire chain to his wrist comm’s capture cache.

Running a lead from a notebook computer to his wrist comm, the phys ad fed in the 16 numbers and letters of his encryption code and read the data on the notebooks screen.

Babe-

Your spell worm has hooked up with some renegade bikers from the Creepers. My source tells me they are hiding out in an abandoned store front on Winston at 10th. Use this soonest as I’ve gotten indications that there are others after this data. No firm info on who else is looking, but I suggest you move.

Felix

"Mickey!" Owen shouted, "Get on the horn to Lug and Hamon. Have them meet us at Winston and 10th. Storefront where S’ssral is hiding. When Itami gets ....." At that moment the ork rigger opened the door to the truck and began climbing in.

"Hey, boss. Got some data on our quarry." Itami said with a grin, "Seems he’s hooked up with some gangers from da Creepers. Some kinda squad was supposed to be in an ambush for dat fight we saw. Dey never made it to da fight an nobody’s seen ‘em so either da mage turned dem ta ashes or....."

"Or they’ll be waiting for us at 10th and Winston, which is where the info I just got says S’ssral the Black is hiding...." Owen interrupted. "We need to hurry though, Itami. Mouse is calling Lug and Hamon to meet us there."

"Damn, boss. I thought I was bringin home da bacon. Gimme a second ta fire up da engines and I’ll have us there inside a 4 minutes. Ya want a subtle approach or....."

"No time for subtle, my friend. My data may already be in other hands. Let’s roll!"


As Gerracioti strolled up the street he was so preoccupied with thought of how his hidden sanctum had been discovered and invaded that he didn’t notice the black Westwind that rolled along half a block behind him. The troll kept shaking his head as he tried to imagine how anyone could have gotten past the security to drop a note on his pillow and slip away completely undetected. When his wrist phone interrupted his reverie, he stopped to flip open the viewer. He saw the fax notification pop on and said "display" to the comm unit. He saw this message:

10th and Winston.

Storefront.

Immediate.

Finish the job.

Swallowing hard, the troll Razor bellowed "TAXI!" loud enough to draw attention from the entire block. Jumping into the first cab which stopped the Samurai left the neighborhood in a cloud of exhaust to the sound of tires peeling out. The black Westwind followed.


Lug and Hamon each got Mouse’s call and began heading towards the destination the decker had given them. Although they understood the urgency required, each sam let Mouse know not to wait for them as they would have to travel for several minutes to arrive at the site.

"Boss says get there when you can, but with another group maybe buying this info, we can't wait." Mouse relayed. "Just please don't shoot any of us when you get there."


Tunney put his fingers in his mouth and gave a long piercing whistle. When he had the attention of all of the Creepers he bellowed out:

"LISTEN UP! I jus got a 'nonymous tip dat Bad Billy and dose udder drekheads is holed up at Sugah's. I'm gonna take Pacco's crew and Moe's crew and check it out. Da rest a you fraggers stay here and keep alert. Dis might be righteous or it might be some bogus trap from da wuzzy's or da drag queens. I don want dose muthafraggin drek eaters catchin us wit our pants aroun our ankles, so you bastids stay on yer toes. Let's go!"

With the cough and roar a dozen big bikes rolled out of Creeper's HQ.


Bad Billy couldn't figure out what he should do. Ever since they had gotten back from the trip to the underground switching room, (the single strangest trip in his entire life), the magic guy seemed depressed. Not that his face looked any different, but his overall attitude and demeanor seemed to be at a loss for what to do next. Lacking any indicator, the dwarf satisfied himself with the thought that the mage was probably thinking of a great plan for....something and let it go at that.

Skag? Well, Skag had lost her squeeze and in a rare instant of empathy, Billy allowed for the fact that she was probably moping around because her fellow tusker had been blown to little bitty pieces right in front of her. The dwarf shrugged as he figured that Skag had never been a major contributor in the planning and analysis phases of the gang action anyway.

Baby Huey? Now, viewed from a certain light that was actually funny. The damned troll has wrapped himself around the egg like he was some momma chicken. The dwarf thought and snorted as he watched the troll, who was sitting on the floor with his arms and legs around the huge ovoid, began to rock and softly coo to the egg. Maybe he is a momma chicken Billy thought, But I better figure how ta square dis wit....

At that moment Owen kicked the door in

Bad Billy was pulling his Uzi when Owen's squirter puffed two doses of elephant tranq and DMSO between the dwarf's eyes. As he slumped to the floor unconscious Skag carefully raised her hands as Baby Huey whimpered. The huge troll was whimpering because the fast thinking S'ssral the black had summoned a fire elemental which was manifesting within a few feet of the giant go-ganger and his precious egg. Pivoting on his butt, the troll put his back between the flaming figure that was coalescing in the room and "his" egg.

Doc and Sayla were dispelling the elemental and preparing for an arcane battle with S'ssral when Mouse screamed "BOSS, HELP!"


Tunney's scouting party were pulling up to Sugar's just as Mouse was guarding the front door and Itami was moving around to the back. As the roar of the gang's hogs echoed up the street, Itami abandoned his move for the rear of the building and hightailed it back to the front, knowing that Mouse would be overmatched. Itami reasoned that the bikers must have been the others that Owen had been so concerned to beat and he didn't want Mouse to try to hold them off by himself. He was coming back around the corner when a well thrown baseball bat caught him in the side of the head and dropped him like a bad habit.

Mouse had his scatter-gun unlimbered, but when Itami went down he screamed for help.


Owen was torn for a split second. The egg was in the arms of the troll seated on the floor who was attempting to simultaneously stand up while protecting the egg from the blazing heat of the fire elemental. The magic user in the rear of the room was frozen in the magical battle to keep his elemental from being dismissed and the ork woman with her hands behind her head didn't seem to be a problem. Doc had his Savalette Guardian in hand and was covering the room while Sayla battled with S'ssral. As much as he wanted to get the egg from the troll, Mouse's cry for help took first priority. At the slight nod from Doc after making brief eye contact, the phys ad quickly moved back outside through the shattered doorway.

On the street the phys ad found his young decker attempting to hold off a dozen bikers with his single scatter-gun. Before he could ascertain what had happened to Itami, Owen saw one of the bikers remove his helmet and snarl: "You fraggers get da frag outta here. Yer on our fraggin turf....."

Further explanations were made impossible as Owen's Goren Bee squirter sent another violent soul to the land of nod. Unfortunately, the trip to sleepybye land was accomplished so quickly the other go-gangers thought the trip might be permanent and with a howl of rage, began their attack.


Sayla found S'ssral's elemental extremely difficult to dismiss. She would have loved to have Doc's help, but was dimly aware that the troll with the egg was struggling to his feet while the ork woman had begun shifting from one foot to the other while mumbling under her breath. When the elemental finally began to fade, the Troll shouted something and the ork woman pulled a grenade from behind her neck and threw it to the floor as she fell forward. Doc fired a three round burst into the space she had just vacated and threw up a shield spell. Instead of exploding, the grenade began to spew a huge cloud of tear gas.


Recognizing that the squirter was of limited utility finding exposed skin among the helmeted and leather clad go-gangers, Owen holstered his pistol and assumed an en garde position with his staff. When the ganger known as Blue attempted to simultaneously wrap his spinning tire chain around the phys ad's head, while riding past, Owen's lightning quick reflexes allowed him to bat the swinging chain's end back into the spokes of the bike's front wheel. This caused such an abrupt stop to the two wheeler that Blue's momentum propelled him out of his seat and over the handlebars of his bike. Unfortunately the chain wrapped so securely around his wrist also served as an anchor for the high flying biker. When he reached the end of his steel tether the symphony of sound effects produced included <POP> (Blue's arm being pulled out of it's socket) <SLAM> (Blue landing flat on his back) <"OOOF"> (air evacuating Blue's slammed body) <SCREECH> (Paco's attempt to stop his bike as it rode up between Blue's splayed legs) <"UUUUHHH"> (Blue's reaction to Paco's limited success stoping the vehicle) <"AAAAAHHHHH"> (Paco's comment as the sudden stop of his bike launched him over his own handlebars) <CRASH> (Paco's forward flight is halted when his face encounters the headlight on Blue's stationary bike) <THUD> (Paco's unconscious body meets the asphalt).

Far from being able to listen to the cacophony he had orchestrated, Owen was busy trying to avoid small arms fire from the ganger with the Sandler TMP submachine gun while simultaneously avoiding Mouse's occasional blast of return fire with the scatter-gun. The other members of the Creeper strike force did what they could to complicate this task by throwing knives bricks and an occasional pistol shot at the Phys ad while racing around on their bikes.


The attack had just begun when, 1/2 a block away, a troll stepped out of a quickly departing cab. He pulled a Jackhammer auto shotgun out from under his long armored coat and began advancing on the developing melee. Three steps into his advance, the troll was struck from behind by a speeding black Westwind 2000. The contact not only propelled the troll some 20 feet up the street, but collapsed much of the front end of the car and hid the driver behind an inflated air bag. Gerracioti was just putting together what had happened and was attempting to get up when a loud <BANG> announced that the driver had deflated his vehicles' passenger restraint system. This sound was immediately followed by the noise of the damaged vehicle pulling forward rapidly to roll over the prone troll.

Recognizing that the driver would stop at nothing short of serious hurt, Gerracioti used his secret weapon. With his tongue he flipped a switch in the roof of his mouth, bringing his combat response system on line. For a brief second he remembered the explanation he'd received from Dr. Scott at the Moreland Labs complex. "The reflex toggle we've installed allows its wearer to transfer between two levels of wired reflexes. With this device you will be able to select standard wired and combat wired reflexes. Thus, you will be a fairly quick, level one wearer, easily adapted to normal living conditions, but, at need, you can change, in a fraction of a second, to a phenomenally enhanced combat adept. I've slaved your combat skill wire to the function. With it and your tactical computer you've become a battlefield nightmare. The only drawback to the system is that possession of this technology is limited to the military. It will have to be disabled and removed when you return to civilian life as it's discovery by civilian authorities would cause your termination."

Before Gerracioti's conscious mind could continue the stroll down memory lane, his body jackknifed into a back flip out of the path of the approaching car. As the car ran up over the curb, directly over the spot the troll had been laying seconds before, Gerracioti's tac computer selected and fired on the target of opportunity which would neutralize his unknown opponents' advantage. At the Jackhammer's double boom the Westwind's exposed undercarriage exploded. The first shot blew out the oil pan and the second destroyed the driver's side wheel and axle.

The Westwind 2000 is a well made car and is armored against several forms of attacks, however, none of the car's designers ever envisioned their car being attacked from underneath by a prone shotgunner after the vehicle's front end had run over a curb. After being subjected to this trauma, the car promptly died. Two seconds later the screaming form of John Henry leaped from behind the wheel. The huge norm had a pump action scatter-gun in one hand and an Ares High Velocity Assault rifle in the other. Screaming incoherently while moving inhumanly fast the Humanis policlubber fired both weapons as he came around the front of the car.

Gerracioti was operating at chipped speeds with pre-programmed attack routines. His Tac computer recognized that the fired Remington 990 was not a threat until the assault rifle was discarded and a hand was free to chamber additional rounds. To that end the troll rolled to his left as the pump gun was held in the advancing norm's right hand. As he rolled his Jackhammer roared as it blew out both the policlubbers' knees. As John Henry fell his assault rifle stitched a broad line up the troll's armored coat, but if Gerracioti even felt the slugs, he gave no indication.

Gerracioti continued to fire as he rolled to his left. His smart link continued to give the tac computer the targets it selected in spite of the norm's own wired reflexes' attempts to get the policlubber out of harm's way. A double hit from the troll's autoshotgun ripped through John Henry's left shoulder, depriving him of the assault rifle and of the means of reloading the pump shotgun.

As the troll's shotgun was about to peel away the policlubbers' face, John Henry did such an unexpected thing that the Troll overrode his combat wire's program. The Humanis hit man looked the troll in the eyes and smiled as he threw down his shotgun. Fortunately, the tac computer recognized the click of the deadman's switch that John Henry had rigged and the troll was rolling away from both car and policlubber when the c-12 went up.


As soon as the smoke grenade began releasing the tear gas, Doc attempted to shoot S'ssral and the ork woman. The dense white cloud made it difficult to be sure of his targets and fearing he might damage the egg he quickly holstered his weapon. He was about to lead Sayla in pursuit when a huge explosion in the street distracted both mages. Responding to the look on Sayla's face he said "Owen will be fine we <cough> need to <cough> go after the egg." After an agonizing few seconds the elf woman nodded and she and Doc attempted to penetrate the dense cloud of noxious gas.


Lug and Hamon were running up the street at their best speed when they were overflown by the choppers. Recognizing that the pair of Yellowjackets escorting the Hughes Air Stallion were heading right towards the rendezvous point that Mouse had mentioned the pair exchanged a worried look and attempted to run faster. After perhaps 30 or 40 seconds of running they heard the huge explosion a block away as the sky lit up from the pyrotechnics. This did nothing for their confidence.


Owen was proud of the fact that the decker seemed to be keeping his head. Each time Mouse fired at a target of opportunity he would load another shell into his shotgun. The phys ad made a mental note to compliment the young ork on demonstrating an experienced shotgunner's technique. As his Tagang Alanganin (Escrima, Backhand strike to the chest) left a go-ganger seated on the ground as his bike continued to roll up the street, the phys ad recognized that there was another battle going on between two huge contestants just up the block. Able to spare them neither time nor attention, Owen took advantage of the Sandler owner's reloading to draw and launch his chakram. The polycarbonate disc cut the gun wielder's arm off before he could begin firing again. Even the dim bulbs of the Creeper's scouting team began to realize that they were on the losing end of this battle as their numbers continued to decrease. Then the explosion hit.

Frustrated at his inability to complete his original assignment, plagued by guilt over his murder of little O, and embarrassed over the number of Humanis members he had lost, John Henry focused completely upon his oath of vengance. The primary target was no longer a concern, but the filthy meta-animals that had betrayed him, they would die if it cost him his own life. To this end he accumulated several large blocks of c-12. 1/3 of this plastique he secreted about his person and the remainder he hid in the trunk of his car. He set up a radio detonator with a deadman feature. As long as the foil in his right palm was in contact with the stock of his shotgun, the bomb was safe. If he lost or dropped the weapon, he and everyone in the area would be toast. He'd activated the bomb as he jumped out of his disabled car after his failed attempt to run over Gerracioti and when he dropped the shotgun his plans came to a fiery fruition.

BOOM

In spite of the picture created by trid and even sim sense special effects artists, the bystanders near the blast did not watch a slow moving fiery cloud rolling towards them like an avalanche. There was no cinematic moment of understanding where someone realizes that there is a terrible explosion and makes a decision to dive for cover before the blast reaches the individual. One second Owen was battling go gangers while Mouse shot from cover and the next Owen, the gangers and Mouse were lying flat on the ground, knocked there by the concussive force of the blast. There was no rolling thunder which preceded or followed the force. In the same instant that everyone was tossed to the ground the sound of the explosion hit.


The pilot of the Hughes Air Stallion hesitated at the huge explosion. The rigger saw the remains of the the car lifted into the air as it's rear became shrapnel blasting back up the block. Thinking that the car had landed directly on top of a figure rolling around in the street she thought What are the odds of that? "Feeling", through the link with the craft, the sudden thrust of the hot air and force released by the explosion, the mission's chief pilot had the savvy and experience to quickly regain control of the craft. Part of her mind noted the struggle that the lighter escort craft was having with the effects of the blast. I'll have to work with Hawkman on the simulator, she thought. Damn kids getting pushed all over the sky when he should be hosing down that street trash with his glue gun. Instantly accessing remote feeds she nodded at Sparrow's efficiency. The second Yellowjacket had used the glue gun mounted in the chin turret for this op to seal the back door on the storefront, insuring that nobody escaped. The more veteran of the Yellowjacket pilots was hardly buffeted at all by the blast, but the chief pilot Andrea "Ace" Skysong recognized that this was in part due to the position behind the shelter of the target building. Once Sparrow determined that nobody was getting out the back, she began patrolling north and east of the target site leaving her fellow pilots to cover south and west.

Mentally commanding the drop light to go green, Ace adjusted to the sudden departure of weight as the entire sec team fast roped or magically flew to the street below. Noting with some pride that the black suited team executed the raid with textbook precision, she saw that within seconds they had weapons trained on every prone figure on the street. She was about to relay the all clear to the higher ups when a pair of coughing elves came out of the storefront. Ace again nodded at the efficiency with which the pair were forced to kneel, hooded and cuffed. When this operation was completed, she gave the all clear signal.

The next person to enter the scene, an elf who levitated down to the target area, was so heavily muscled that it was difficult to believe his race. Beyond even the most extreme examples of bodybuilding, the red bearded figure had the muscular bulk to make Hamon look undernourished. His sharply pointed ears were at odds with his barrel chest and nearly comically thick arms and legs. His poses and arrogant sneer did nothing to improve the impression he created.

When all of the figures on the street had been lined up, the red bearded figure seemed about to begin a speech when a voice cried out "FREEZE!"

As the sec team searched for the source of the voice the leader barked out "Nobody move!" It was then that the team saw the ruby dot of a laser sight focused between their leader's eyes.

The silver eyed dwarf who calmly walked up the middle of the block had everyone's attention.

"I'm so glad you're bein reasonable" Lug said. "You guys bein elves and all, I figure you got some spell slingers with bullet barriers and blast barriers and all dat drek, right? Only, I'm willin ta bet ya ain't got no laser barrier spells, have ya? See, dats what my partner and me was countin on. Now da laser focused on yer bosses head, well dat won't do nothin to him. But if my partner don't keep a certain button pushed down, da full charge of da beam's gonna punch a big hole right through his brain. You guys think about dat for a second."

"Now I don't doubt you guys is fast and deadly an all dat drek, but believe me, dis ain't a good bet. Now, you just let me get my teammates, dat would be anybody who ain't wearin a freakin Creeper jacket, an we'll just be on our way. Ya try anything else an I'm willin ta bet we kill a bunch a you before you kill us. Do we have a deal?"

The silence on the street seemed to stretch forever. The anger building in the red bearded elf seemed volcanic in its intensity. With a barely controlled fury, through clenched teeth he grated out "Deal".

While Mouse helped Sayla and Doc over to Lug, Owen hoisted the still unconscious form of Itami over his shoulder. When he joined the group he nodded to the dwarf who said, "Now, were gonna head back up the street. We don't want ta have ta kill anybody......."

*WHO DARES TO THREATEN MY SERVANTS?!*

The thought echoed through everyone's head as the shadow of a feathered serpent passed over the block. The entire tableau froze as the serpent glided to rest near the sec team and changed into the form of a beautiful blonde hared woman.

"WELL?" Sara demanded with flashing eyes. "I asked a question!"

"Oh, were they your servants?" Doc asked with surprise, stepping forward. "Considering they just prevented the recovery of your child......"

"WHAT?!" the woman interrupted turning to the red bearded elf.

"Yes, you've found exactly the correct person to ask. Check with that steroid laden monstrosity on what he is even doing here. While you're at it, see if he has a good reason to take us prisoner just as we had your child in sight." Doc continued.

"Lady, we had word that your child was at this address." The red bearded elf responded "We organized quickly and rushed to recover that which is most precious. We did not know that the Doc Cu'o'c or his team were here. As we came upon the scene there was a huge explosion. There were bodies sprawled in the street and evidence of a battle in progress. We sought to secure the area....."

"And in the process, let the kidnappers out the back door, but sealed it closed behind them, preventing our pursuit. A worthy rescue, indeed. And, of course, never having seen the team that your lady requested aid from, or me, you and your security people were completely unaware of the identities of your captives. Is this straining anyone else's credulity, or is it just my cynical nature shining through?"

Before Galgrathandrien could respond to Doc's sarcasm, Sara asked, "What are you suggesting?"

"I'm suggesting that when you request aid from professionals you should let them do their job. That you either want us to recover your child or you believe that some muscle bound......"

Doc stopped as Sayla touched him on the arm. Stepping forward she said, "Who is at fault here is entirely secondary. Our goal is too important for us to dwell on slights and old jealousies. My name is Sayla Starseeker, Lady, and I am pledged to recover your child. We saw the egg just minutes ago and it was undamaged. The mad mage who took it is aided by a male troll and an ork female. They used a tear gas grenade and the distraction of the explosion to slip out the back of the storefront. Our teammate was knocked unconscious before he could guard that exit and your people, seeking to prevent escape, cut off our pursuit. Since the egg is being moved and no longer magically shielded it might be possible for you to establish some sort of contact. Please try."

Sara actually smiled and said "Thank the powers that someone can still think. Bless you for the hope you give to a mother, my dear. I will seek my own."

No one made a sound as the woman closed her eyes and sought her child. Finally she opened them and said "I felt her! I could sense my child!" As everyone let out a breath in relief, she continued more quietly, "She's found a limited, but nurturing mind. The reassurance, security and unconditional love that I was so worried about her missing prior to her birth, she is drawing from another source. I did not think such a thing was possible....." starting herself out of the reverie she gave Sayla a warmer smile and said "but I am greatly relieved. Could it be one of the mage's followers?"

"The troll who was carrying the egg was very protective" Sayla said. "I believe he would sacrifice himself to prevent the egg from being harmed. Do you have any sense of where they may have gone?"

"No, unfortunately not. But I will continue seeking. Gal, take my people back to the house. You and I have a great deal to discuss."

The red bearded elf seemed to pale as he bowed and said "At once, lady" and gave a hand signal for the sec people to head back to the chopper.

Raising an eyebrow, Sara said to Doc, "I'd apologize for the misunderstanding, but I'm sure you'd remind me that the time factor is critical, so I'll leave it for another time." She then turned to Sayla and said "I do thank you, my dear. Your kindness, consideration and clear thinking are a blessing. We shall talk again." With that she changed into a huge feathered serpent and flew away.


When the sec team departed and Doc had cast a healing spell on Itami's head, Hamon rejoined the team.

"Where's the laser?" Mouse asked.

Hamon pulled Lug's beloved Colt Cobra out of his coat and after holding it up for the decker to see, handed it back to the dwarf.

"No, I mean the laser that you had that muscle boy painted with. You know, the one from the laser gun that his spells couldn't stop." Mouse clarified.

When Hamon gestured back at the SMG with his head, Lug explained. "The laser sight from da Cobra's what we used. With dese", he said, indicating the silver eye shields, "I can use different light frequencies that are invisible except ta me or somebody whose got a siilar optical package. Common wisdom says dat's a good idea so ya don't become a target for somebody followin a beam dey can see back to da source. But sometimes I like ta dissuade somebody by lettin em know I got 'em dead ta rights. So I got a freq adjuster for da laser on dis. See. Dis makes a dot dat anybody can see. 'Course da red dot also looks like a real infra red ray gun job, so I just sold it and dey bought it."

<gulp>"You mean you didn't......you couldn't...... but....but what if they had called your bluff? If they...."

"If, if, if. If my aunt had balls she'd be my uncle. Dey didn't, kid. Don't worry about it."

As the team looked over area maps to see where they should search, Mouse shook his head and wondered how long he would have to run the shadows before he would have the courage to face down a crack sec team with a weapon he didn't own.


The groan that escaped from under the wreckage of the Westwind 2000 immediately preceded the creak of a cyber arm shifting the chassis to the side. Although the progress was measured in inches, eventually enough of Gerracioti's battered body was out from under the car for the troll to pull himself completely free. His crushed left cyber leg would no longer support him and he could see the bone fragments jutting out of his non bionic arm. Wincing at the pain from his bruised and damaged chest, the troll began dragging himself away from the scene. Damn. Wilco was right. This fraggin job is over. The troll thought OUCH. I need a vacation.


14


CONTACT!?.....distant......the other......the one known......warm........good.....distant? Other(?)contact.....good, but different......incomplete.....comfortable but.....? The developing mind within the hardening shell pondered the question briefly and lacking the experience to reconcile the contradictions, simply abandoned thinking about them and sought comfort in the link that was available to it.

"Dat's all right, honey." The trolls deep base voice rumbled quietly, "Baby Huey got you. Take care a you. Keep you safe. Happy, you be happy and safe and quiet, honey. Baby Huey got you. Take care a you. Keep you safe......." The mumbled litany of reassurance continued as Skag lead the Magic user and the troll through the sewer tunnels.

S'ssral the Black was amazed by the success of his escape. One minute he was facing a physical adept and a pair of powerful mages as his allies were incapable of action. The next minute, the phys ad had run off, the seemingly whipped ork woman had thrown a tear gas grenade, there was an explosion out in the street and then the ork had led everyone out the backdoor. Without even waiting for direction or orders the woman had single-handedly pulled up a manhole cover and directed the escape. The only problem had involved the troll's refusal to set down the huge egg in order to lower himself into the manhole, but again it was Skag who had solved the problem by assuring the troll that he could lower the egg to her and that she would not move until he had taken back his burden. Something had passed between the two through eye contact which had convinced the increasingly unreasonable Troll that he could, and in fact, had to, trust the ork woman if he was going to keep the egg from harm.

Now the questions: How had his hideout been discovered; How had they escaped from a seemingly impossible situation; And most importantly, where where they going, percolated through the mage's mind. Of course, S'ssral the Black's central preoccupation involved where he could conduct the ceremony of sacrifice, whose time was inexorably approaching.


"Thank you, kitten." The phys ad said quietly to the beautiful elf woman when they were alone. "You handled that perfectly. Diplomatic, reasonable thinking with a practical course of action that we might not have stumbled on for hours. You made that poor woman smile when we might have had a pitched battle with her servitors. Thank you, darling. You did very well."

Sayla blushed with pride at Owen's praise. Eventually each member of the team found a way to thank her and compliment her on her handling of the situation including Doc. "My dear, without your intercession, I fear my distaste for that red bearded hulk might have precipitated a catastrophic confrontation. Allow me to compliment you on your clear headed and diplomatic handling of a volatile situation. We are all in your debt."

In spite of their concerted efforts to find where S'ssral the Black and his pair of helpers had disappeared, the acknowledgment and gratitude of the lost boys touched Sayla. Overprotective or not, she thought, they are a sweet bunch. If I weren't already committed to the Tir, being "Wendy" to this team might be very tempting. With a sigh, she focused on the job at hand and while everyone else was studying the map, she stumbled upon the open manhole.

"Owen!" she shouted, "I think I've found it!"

The lost boys rushed to the spot and everyone but Mouse and Itami groaned.

"Sewers!"

"Why da frag does it haveta be fraggin sewers. I hate fraggin sewers."

"Drek!"

"How remarkably distasteful."

Mouse's look of confusion prompted Itami to say "Dese four had some fun in da sewers not too long ago. You'll have ta get dem ta tell ya da whole story later, kid. An army of Devil Rats, drekmen, a vampire, Ghouls. Real entertaining. Great heroic story."

Doc and Lug, who rarely agreed on anything, both turned simultaneously toward the Ork rigger and said in an unintentional chorus: "Blow it out yer ass!" which caused everyone else to laugh.


Using his left hand and his teeth, Moe pulled the tourniquet tight around his elbow. The bottom half of his arm and right hand, still holding the Sandler, were lying in the street at his feet. Once the stream of blood had slowed to an ooze he barked out orders to the few Creepers who still retained consciousness.

"Listen, you frag ups! We gotta get our own and get da frag outta here before da keebs come back or da fragger wit da stick remembers us. You and you", he said, pointing to two of the gang, "get any of Bad Billy's team what's still alive in dere, but DON'T draw any fraggin attention. I don't need to play with dem motherfraggin shadowrunners no more. Da rest a ya garb some a dese sleepin fraggers an get ready ta ride double. We're in sad shape and dis is da perfect time fer da Drag queens or da wuzzies ta hit us. We gotta get home soonest. Move it!"

Although the lost boys were peripherally aware of the departure of the go gangers, they were so caught up in plans for pursuit though the sewer tunnels that no one challenged the bikers retreat.

"I am certainly not slogging through that noisome and disease laden muck without a full chemsuit, my friends, and I would hasten to add that it would be most unseemly, to say nothing of how frighteningly unhealthy it would be for Ms. Starseeker to sojourn through that morass in only the protection of her leathers. I'd suggest," Doc continued, "that unless one is wild for a full spectrum series of anti-biotic injections after the fact, we consider alternatives before blindly stumbling through yon portal into the vile maze bellow."

"Doc don't wanna ruin his shoes" Lug translated.

Before the elf mage could fire back a rejoinder, Hamon asked, "Why sewers?"

Rather than dismiss the question, Owen said "They needed a way out where they wouldn't be seen, but I take your meaning. Every time the mage has escaped he's conjured an earth elemental to take him away. Why would he change his method?"

"Perhaps he ran out of services." Sayla answered. At the silent prompting of the lost boys, the elf woman elaborated. "With a very powerful elemental there are a limited number of services that are required before the spirit is released. The earth elemental may have completed his duty and may no longer be available to the mage."

"Which would explain why we were faced with a fire elemental instead of his more powerful earth elemental," Doc said while nodding. "I believe, dear lady, that you have hit it."

"Hamon question still applies though", Owen said, "I don't think that the mage chose to go down there as a way out. I think it might have been one of his helpers who suggested it. Now the gangers would probably have some hidden way out even if this wasn't their main headquarters. Maybe we should ask them where it leads."

Unfortunately, when the team turned it's attention to the go-gangers it found they were all gone.


Bardo inhaled the clouds of pungent incense as he felt the familiar tickle at the back of his neck. The dark ones were in motion. Moving with a languid grace which belied his tremendous speed, the short, heavy set norm picked out fetishes and foci for the evenings hunt. He sensed that the sewer's residents- the dark ones, were reacting to some external stimulus and his annoyance at this source of trouble was already growing. Bardo hated being "prompted" to act by outside forces. Like his totem, GATOR, the dark skinned shaman liked eating well and relaxing in his comfortable den. He did not like things from the upper world interfering with his ordered existence. He assumed that the disturbance he felt among the dark ones was caused by the upper world, as his recent destruction of Kalan and his thugs had ended the squabbling among the underdwellers and should have insured peace.

He sighed as he loaded his heavy spring gun and looked carefully at the three blades of his short Zinnor. Satisfied with the sharpness of the trident, he ordered the spirit of the place to allow none to enter until he returned. After stepping out into the north tunnel, he stopped, turned back and told the spirit to leave any dead bodies at the "front" door. He shook his head as he recalled how the last time, the spirit had used his order to tempt in the devil rats which it seemed to enjoy destroying and then had left their corpses scattered around the area which served as his living room. So much more convenient if he didn't have to search the bodies out.

Satisfied with his preparation the shaman activated the catseye ring on the middle finger of his left hand and began looking for heat trails with his infravision. After less than 100 steps he sensed a commotion in a left branch of the tunnel, and since he heard nothing distinct, assumed it was the dark ones scurrying towards or away from whatever had disturbed them by entering their world. Pausing long enough to take a final precaution, Bardo slipped on his headband, centering the powerful halogen light in the middle of his forehead. He smiled quietly as he thought of how the surprise of the suddenly activated bright light had won him several battles in the underworld. Last time it had been Kalan himself who had been frozen by the sudden painful brightness and easily run through by the y shaped head of the Zinnor.

Stepping closer to the tunnel wall, Bardo crept silently towards the left hand branch. He was just about to enter the tunnel when Gack darted out. The gnome- like figure was shrouded in darkened rags, but whether the garb was intended to camouflage the dark one or cover the deformity of a mishapen head and hump backed body was unclear. Gack's agitation and terror at discovering it was not alone in the tunnel lasted only until it recognized the Gator shaman's distinctive silouette. Relief and deference radiated from the tiny figure which squeaked out "Upperssss" as it gestured back up the tunnel and then sketched a bow before disappearing back up Bardo's path with breath-taking speed.

Yes, now there's a piece of news Bardo thought dryly as he marveled at the little creature's speed. Pity it was you I found and not Toggel. The mini-troll would have given me not only a complete description, but an in depth discussion of the reasons for the invasion of the underworld. Of course....since I can only decipher about 1 word in 5 from the dwarf woman, I might have been here for considerably longer and not really gotten anymore data than I have now. Ah well.

Listening carefully, Bardo heard the sounds of a group moving through the tunnels. Immediately recognizing from the level of noise that these must be the upperworlders that had invaded his domain, the Gator shaman found an ambush point and prepared to wait.


Mouse had less difficulty with the chemsuit suit than he initially imagined. Having once taken an involuntary detour through a section of sewer in order to avoid the attention of some hunting night stalkers, the ork decker remembered well the smell and was thankful that the rebreather he now wore eliminated most of the stench. He watched as the rest of the team responded to Owen's hand signals as if he were speaking volumes. Watching the Phys ads flashing hands and the response from the rest of the team, Mouse began deciphering the unspoken language. Fortunately the Boss had only signaled him to stay in the middle of the group, to avoid walking through as much of the channel of refuse that ran through the center of the huge pipes, and to watch carefully. The decker got enough of these signals to move without hampering or slowing the rest of the team and nodded his understanding.

Although Sayla and Doc knew they could probably speed up the pursuit by an astral examination, there were two things which argued against their doing so. First, they knew that their quarry had too much power and skill to risk alerting him to their pursuit by being caught in the astral. Second, neither wanted, in spite of the chemsuit suit, to risk having their unconscious bodies fall into the unspeakable slop which occupied the center of the pipe. Instead they relied on Hamon's keen hearing and Lug's heat sensing capabilities to track their prey.


S'ssral the Black jumped nearly a foot in the air when the voice from the darkened tunnel entrance said "Freeze". Heart hammering in his chest the mage considered a magical response until the voice softly said "You try a spell, I'll gig ya before ya can touch da mana." Recognizing that they must be facing a magic user of some sort for the voice to be so confident that death would preceed the thrown spell, the tired mage focused his brain on another approach.

"Can you read truth? Listen", S'ssral said, "We have just escaped from a team of shadowrunners. They invaded my home and then tracked us to our hiding place all because they are trying to get this dragon's egg. As you can see, my troll friend is trying to protect it and that's what we want too, but these shadowrunners have a pair of powerful elf mages with them and who knows what evil thing they will do if they get their hands on this precious life. Please, will you help us?"

GATOR's hiss of warning prevented Bardo from immediately agreeing to this course of action. He could feel the truth of the magic user's words, but there was something more to the story that was not being said. He was sure that his totem had sounded a warning to show his shaman that there was something more to the story.

"And where did you get the egg?" Bardo asked from the darkness.

"Is that important?" S'ssral asked with some impatience. "Look they will be after us. We don't have a lot of time. I don't actually know who paid the shadowrunners who stole the egg and I only have suspicions about who has hired this team, but I can tell you that I've lost most of the people who were helping me. The life in this egg is too precious to fall into the wrong hands. I swear, if we can get to someplace safe, I'll tell you the whole story from the beginning. Please. Help us."

Bardo knew that to conduct this group to a truly safe place he would have to take them to his home. Knowing how territorial old man GATOR could be, he ignored the second hiss of warning as he announced his decision. "All right. Come this way. I will take you someplace where you will not be found. Walk along the left side of this tunnel, but don't touch the walls of the pipe. Let's go."

The inexpressiveness of S'ssral's face prevented him from displaying the brief grin of triumph which might have given him away.


After stumbling through the darkness for nearly an hour, Owen signaled a halt. He surprised everyone by whispering into his comm. "That's enough, people. I don't doubt that Lug's seeing heat trails and Hamon's hearing movement, but I don't believe were still following the same target. I think we've got somebody leading us in a wild goose chase, and I've had about enough. Everybody stand still and lets see if the signs we've been following get any stronger."

Everyone waited in perfect stillness.


HE-HE-HE-HE! What a laugh! Stupid upworlders! Come down, track underside. Space Suits! Tech wiz-HA! Devil rat chasing tale! He-he-he. What a foolie! Up one tun, down other. Wander till upworld dies. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Make Gack, Toggel, Scutter all laugh till fall down!

In spite of his delight at the "foolie" of misleading the lost boys, the skeletally thin child took a moment to adjust the protective goggle he wore over the single eye in the center of his face. As he paused, Uly listened and quickly realized that his pursuers had stopped generating the racket he had been listening to for the past hour. The twelve year old recognized that the upworlders had probably been (to their own minds) quiet as mice, but then, in the underworld both hunting and survival required a level of silence that the surface dwellers could never imagine.

Now they were not making any noise at all and Uly was a little concerned. Not for the surface dwellers, who in his mind deserved whatever they got for invading the underworld, but for the questions that Bardo might ask. Bardo served GATOR. GATOR wanted easy pickings. That meant Bardo might want easy pickings and might not be happy with Uly for leading those pickings closer and closer to ghoul territory. Bardo might ask about tech or weapons or gear or creds that the ghouls would take when they killed the upworlders. The lack of noise either meant that they had been taken by the ghouls or that they had lost his track completely.

Grimacing at the need to be both this obvious and this loud, Uly smacked his crutch against the tunnel wall. When the Upworlders made no sounds of pursuit, his brow wrinkled in consternation. Could upworlders be that stupid? Could they not understand a simple follow-me signal. Unless the ghouls had expanded their territory, they should not have taken the upworlders yet and he had heard them just a moment ago.

Uly tried two more smacks with his crutch and hearing no sounds of pursuit, doubled back in a paralleled tunnel. When he got behind the area that the last sounds had come from, he gave a weak cry for help. He waited for a few moments, tried again and then cautiously moved forward. He was just sticking his head around the corner when he felt himself scooped up by an invisible force from which he could not escape. Although he kicked and squirmed with all his might as he floated into the section of tunnel that contained the upworlders, Uly made no sound. Too many times had he seen a trapped devil rat or bat draw bigger predators to an area with the sounds of distress.

Although he had never personally been touched by magic before, the Cyclops' young mind was adaptable enough to recognize that he was being controlled by one of the upworlders. Once he was certain that he could not escape by use of his muscles, he decided to think his way out. Thinking that he might lull the upworlders into releasing their hold he went completely limp and played dead.

Eight long minutes later his ears told him that none of the space suited upworlders had moved or given any indication that standing motionless while staring at a floating mutant child was anything but fun. With a sigh he opened his eye and asked "What you want?"

Slowly and distinctly Owen said "We are after a bad man, a mage. He is with an ork woman and a Troll man who is carrying a big egg. They came down here a few minutes before us and we thought we were chasing them. It turns out we were chasing you. We need to find them."

"You pay?"

Before Owen could respond Itami stepped up as if he were going to stomp the youngster. "We'll pay all right. We'll pay you for fraggin wit us, ya little drek. We'll pay ya fer keepin us runnin tru desse fraggin sewers by rippin yer fraggin hands off. Ya want dat pay?"

Mouse and Sayla were both shocked by this outburst and even more surprised when it was Lug, rather than Owen who grabbed the ork and spun him away.

"You leave da kid alone, tusker." Lug growled while assuming a combat stance. "He didn't know what we wuz down here for, or what he was lettin happen. The only way yer gonna touch him is if ya get through me, ya copy?"

As the two faced off, Mouse watched the youngster's reaction. It was tough to read much in the way of facial expression as the youngster's facial muscles were arranged differently because of his mutation, but he recognized that Lug, who was close to the child's height didn't seem to intimidate the youngster any longer. When he pulled off his rebreather to talk to the captive, Uly actually volunteered "ya got shiny eyes"

"Yeah. Accident a long time ago. My name's Lug. What's yours?"

"Uly"

"Uly, I promise dat we ain't mad and nobody's gonna hurt ya, but we gotta find out where da mage and da egg went. Can ya help us? Please?"

After thinking of ways to play this situation to his advantage, the youngster recognized that without more firepower on his side he would remain at the mercy of the upworlders. Since the most powerful person he knew was the shaman Bardo (Lund was strongest, but fat Bardo was a better fighter AND he had magic) he decided that Bardo was the best person to help even the odds. He thought briefly about gathering other underworlders involved but seeing the look on the ork's face, decided that speed in resolving the situation was of greater value than force.

Uly said "Dunno bout mages and eggs but take ya ta da man. He might know."


WARM.........GOOD.......WARM.......

"Dat's right honey. Huey keep ya warm. Take care a you. Keep you safe. Happy, you be happy and safe and quiet, honey. Huey keep ya warm. Take care a you. Keep you safe......." As the Troll continued his mumbled litany of reassurance to the egg, S'ssral the Black was recognizing what growing consciousness in the egg had immediately sensed.

This is a place of power! S'ssral thought. The mana lines must cross here. This sewer shaman has given himself a home atop a junction of mana lines. If he can harness and focus this power he is a formidable threat....or a powerful ally....yes.... Now, if I can convince him to go after those damn shadowrunners, he may be strong enough to keep them busy and I can use this place for the ritual.......yes.......that would be perfect. He would be out of the way and I would have a place and time to realize the power I have always sought....but how to convince him.......


15


Bardo was losing his patience. He had decided, in spite of GATOR's warning, to bring the upworlders to his home. Now, in addition to the displeasure of his totem, he was beginning to doubt the wisdom of his own action. The mage who was supposed to give him the background on how the egg had been taken was suddenly overcome with fatigue and kept asking for "just a few minutes to rest" or "a sip of water" before telling his tale. The ork woman had curled up in a corner and was looking at the mage she was "helping" in a most unhealthy way, and the troll with the egg had shoved the best chair out of the way with a hip check so that he could set the egg on the exact spot. The huge figure now sat on the floor, wrapped around the egg, softly crooning as he rocked back and forth.

This is not what I planned, Bardo thought. I wanted more data so I could decide what to do, instead I've complicated the situation by bringing these upworlders into my place of power. Stupid! On top of everything else, Bardo had begun to notice that the mage's face never changed. He was about to make a decision when S'ssral spoke.

"Thank you for your generosity. My name is S'ssral. This is Skag and the large fellow with the egg is Baby Huey. Before I begin, I'm sure you've noticed that my facial expression never varies. Let me reassure you, before you draw any erroneous conclusions. When questing for initiate status, I ...uh, encountered some difficulties. Paralysis of voluntary facial muscles was part of the price I paid."

S'ssral tone of regretful acknowledgment was so perfect that Bardo glanced down at his own left leg, which was covered with the scars of the bite marks from his own initiation quest. The momentary reverie caused by this memory was evident on the shaman's face and internally S'ssral smiled to see that he had found a way to distract the shaman.

"Initiation.......well, it changed the course of my life" S'ssral said with just the right wistful note. "I hope you won't let it cause you to mistrust me, as it has with so many who......can't touch the mana." The look in Bardo's eye at this statement was enough to tell S'ssral what buttons to press. "You've probably encountered it yourself. The wonder of manipulating mana comes at a terrible price of mistrust and suspicion. Even old friends can turn on you in a moment because of your 'gift'." S'ssral said with a small sigh.

"But, I digress," the mage continued "I need to tell you how I came to be in possession of the egg. The person who hired me, (I think shadowrunners call these faceless employers 'Mr. Johnson') concealed his identity. He promised an item of tremendous value if I would help in an 'extraction'. The reason he had contacted me is that my special area of expertise is penetrating magical wards. Although I say it myself, I have something of a reputation as ward breaker.

"The 'target' was confined behind several wards and I was to accompany a team of 'runners' who would break into the place where the target was being kept and breach the wards to effect the rescue. It sounded.... well, I may be a little childish, but it sounded exciting" The stone faced mage admitted embarassedly, "and the payment was astronomical. It seemed a wonderful opportunity.

"Well, a powerful earth elemental actually conducted us under, and I suppose through the majority of the mundane and magical security. We entered the mansion without any difficulty, but the next thing I knew some of the runners were plugging wires from the walls into their heads, others were pulling out all sorts of machine guns and rifles and everyone looked ready to kill."

Observing that he had his audience's rapt attention the mage continued. "I saw the egg and realized that, regardless of what anyone else thought, this was the most precious thing in the house. A life, completely helpless and fragile hung in the balance and I resolved then and there to make sure that this innocent life was not lost in vain. I saw that there was an enchantment protecting the egg and was racking my brains for what to do next when one of the runners touched the surface of the egg and discharged all of the energy involved in the protective spell. His skin blackened, bubbled and cracked and in less time then it takes to describe, he had gone from a strong vital metahuman to a melting pile of goo. It was horrific.

"I was still dealing with this shock when there was an explosion just outside of the room. It was where one of the runners had plugged himself into the wall, but before anyone could go to see what had happened, an elf warrior burst in. Magical energy fairly glowed off this one as she slashed and stabbed one of the trolls with her short spear. She was chanting something in elven and the troll was bellowing something in response but they went at like, well, like it was what they lived for. The troll had a huge sledge hammer, but the elf woman was so fast she was almost a blur. Finally the other troll aimed his shotgun at an area where no one was and as soon as the fight drifted into that area he fired, blowing one of the elf's arm off. The truly frightening thing was, this didn't end the fight. She continued slashing and stabbing while the troll continued swinging ineffectively with his giant sledge. Finally the elf screamed something and thrust her spear through the Troll's open mouth just as his sledge hit the top of her head.

"There was a HUGE explosion! The troll blew up at the same time the elf died. I heard one of the runners describe it as a cranial bomb with simultaneous supplementary implant charges but all I can say is that it was devastating. All of that violence and death taking place in a matter of seconds. Unbelievable."

Pausing for dramatic effect, S'ssral seemed to be lost in thought as he ascertained the effect the story thus far was having on his audience. Seeing the story unfold in his mind's eye, the gator shaman no longer looked on his visitors with suspicion or annoyance, but waited with the expectant air of a child hearing a wonderful story for the first time.

"Well," S'ssral resumed, remaining careful to bend the truth but never to say anything that was actually false, "I was in quite an emotional state, I can tell you, but I just felt that the egg had to be protected. The security forces were on alert, lights were flashing, alarms were blaring, and I just took command. I used a telekinetic spell to gently lift the egg before any more of those deadly elves rushed in to attack and guided it over to the hole where the earth elemental waited. The runners must have assumed that I was looking for a hostage, although they were completely wrong, and since I was the only one who could control the earth elemental, when I started heading that way the rest of the team came along. There were fewer of us then there had been just minutes earlier, but nobody seemed inclined to stay around any longer....... Do you mind if I sit down? I'd love to get off my feet." S'ssral asked with unfeigned exhaustion.

"Yes, yes.....of course, sit. Please" Bardo replied with an air ill concealed expectancy.

"Thank you....now where was I? Oh, yes. The elemental takes us back to an underground refuge that I have adopted as a sort of headquarters. The runners all want to know what I want with the egg. I think they expected I would ransom it back to the elves who had it or, heaven forbid, sell it to someone, (which I would never do). I told them that I would need undistracted solitude to study the egg before any final determination could be made, indicating that they would have to move out. Well, they did, but a short time later I regretted my haste in getting rid of them.

"I was doing some ritual preparation, because, as you know, ritual is as important to hermetic as shamantic magic, when one of the spirits I have watching the place warns me that my underground base has been invaded. I send a more capable spirit off to deal with the invaders, and because I don't know how powerful they may be, I set up an escape route with the earth elemental. The next thing I know, a rope drops down from the ceiling and a heavily armed dwarf slides down, followed by a norm and then an ork. These also had the look of shadowrunners, and since they weren't from the original team I had to assume they were from the elves trying to take back the egg. While I'm dealing with these intruders, sure enough, an elf woman steps out of another area and throws a spell at me the likes of which I have never seen. Suddenly, every bit of magic was ripped away from me. No protective spells, no fetish or focus linked spells, I swear it was liked my entire being was warped. I didn't even feel human after this hit."

Taking a moment to shudder at the memory of the spells effects, S'ssral observed Bardo's continued rapt attention. Satisfied that his story was having the desired effect, the mage went on:

"I was barely conscious but the earth elemental spirited the egg and I out of harm's way. We ended up in a small grove in a nearby park which is where I met these bikers." Leaning forward, S'ssral said in a conspiratorial tone, "I used a charm spell on them. It might not have been entirely fair, but considering what was at stake, I thought the ends justified the means."

Having confessed to this magical shortcut of questionable morality, S'ssral leaned back in the chair and continued. "They took me to their hideout, an abandoned and boarded up store front. I was just catching my breath when the door is kicked in by a norm whose glow was blinding. Brighter than the elf warrior who originally guarded the egg. Before a word can be spoken, he shoots the dwarf who had been leading the bikers. There is a call for help outside and in the blink of an eye he jumps back out, leaving me to face a pair of elf mages. Now I am just about at the end of my rope and I'll admit, more than a little frightened of both the spell that the elf woman throws and of what will surely happen to the egg.

"Fate, however is with us this time as Skag tosses a tear gas grenade at the same moment there is a huge explosion out on the street. This proves to be distraction enough for us to slip out the back door and into the sewer. We were wandering there in a desperate attempt to elude pursuit when you found us.

"So", S'ssral concluded "That is the story of how I and my associates came to be wandering through your underground domain without a weapon worth the name, carrying a dragon's egg, fleeing from an army of shadowrunners and elf mages. I swear I have not told you any untruths. Whether we are to be your guests and receive sanctuary here or your prisoners to be ransomed back to our pursuers, is entirely up to you. I don't think we have the power to influence you either way. I would only ask that you not use the egg as a means of profit with those damned elves. I hate to think of what will happen if the egg falls into their hands."


Mouse was determined that this time he was not going to ask the rookie question. He knew that Itami would never really threaten a child, or that if he had the lost boys would have stopped him as a group and not just let Lug handle the situation. So what was the explanation for Itami's threat of the one eyed kid and Lug's singular defense?

Think it through! The decker admonished himself. Itami threatens- what are the effects? Suddenly the kid has a single focus for all of his fear and anxiety. He may still suspect the group, in fact, he probably does, but he KNOWS that the big ork wants to do him hurt. Itami's threat to rip off the kid's hands is probably one of the worst deaths possible to someone down here because it would mean helplessness in a deadly dangerous environment.

Ok, so Itami's cruel threat gives the kid a single focus for his anxiety, but why is it that Lug jumps to the rescue? Hmmm..... Lug's no taller than the kid so they see eye to eye and speaking of eyes, the kid probably is going to identify most closely with someone his own size who also is somewhat different from the norm in the ocular department.

So, by a personal attack Itami gives the kid a focus for his fear and by a personal defense Lug increases the odds that the kid will identify with the person seen as having the most in common..... Sort of good cop/bad cop, like on the trid, only more scary because the threat has no restrictions at all. For all the kid knows, Itami gets off crippling people by ripping off their hands..... Wow. Nice piece of psychological manipulation. Those two handled it seamlessly.


Seething with frustration and rage, he paced back and forth in the spacious room, squeezing the old style bricks until the red blocks cracked and crumbled in his bare hands. So perfect! The plan had been so perfect! Every detail calculated! Hundreds of thousands of nuyen spent on computer scenarios for analysis! Psychology experts paid more thousands for advice on manipulation! The deadliest team of shadowrunners available! Finding the perfect damned mage! AAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH! I WANT MY REVENGE! REVENGE ON HIM! He betrayed me, denied me, CHALLENGED ME! He must PAY! The lone figure seethed, AND THE SLITCH WILL PAY TOO! She must see. Must know his inadequacy. Know that she relied on the wrong one and suffer the worst pains for making that mistake. THEN, then she will see how wrong she was. How stupid she was for making the wrong choice the first time and then going back and choosing wrong again. She will suffer terribly for wronging me.

As he thought about the depth of suffering he was attempting to inflict, the raging figure became more calm. Noticing the crumbling red bricks for the first time, the remains of the hardened clay were dropped and massive fingers were daintily brushed off. Yes. When she has suffered enough I will comfort her.....let her see the price her wrong choice has cost her. Let her bitterness at the loss focus on HIM. Let her interest and......desire? turn to anger and scorn. She'll revile him for failing at his task. Recognize that she's been wrong about him all along and then......yes....then I'll crush him. Defeat him in single combat. Kill him with my bare hands..... and when she is grateful and impressed and begins to understand my worth, yeah......then I'll make her chase me.... beg for my attention..... try to win my affection..... yeah. That will be perfect.

In a calmer, almost placid state of mind, the solitary figure's final thought was And it's almost time.


Mouse was still thinking about the psychological manipulation when the group came to a drier section of tunnels. The lost boys had been jandering along for some time, but were finally arriving at a more habitable area. Uly was still tethered to Doc by a magic spell, but after agreeing to take them to "da man" the young cyclops had been permitted to hobble along on his crutch. Mouse happened to be looking directly at the child when he stumbled and something in Uly's recovery struck a responsive chord.

"Stop!" Mouse whispered urgently into his comm.

Everyone except Uly froze in position. With a gesture Doc's spell swept the youngster into a floating helplessness above the ground. Since Uly was facing Itami when he was levitated, the ork insured silence with a deadly look while slowly drawing a large Cougar fine blade from his web belt.

After 45 seconds, Owen drifted back to where Mouse stood motionless. The phys ad signaled his question and when Mouse indicated a need to explain, Owen nodded but signaled for quiet.

"Kid tipped us.... stumbled..... rabbi's trap" the decker whispered.

The phys ad digested and translated the information he had just received. Mickey's saying that Uly just warned whoever we are approaching.... he did it by stumbling. Has the kid stumbled so far?..... hmmm... he hasn't, so this is an odd time for him to lack co-ordination....Rabbi's trap? What did he mean by Rabbi's trap? Seeing that the boss had not yet made the connection, Mouse mimed slapping at his own forehead. Immediately the light dawned for Owen. The Rabbi! Oy, such a mistake. Of course!

Owen realized that Mouse was referring to one of the Glover Park regulars. The group of chess players were well known to the phys ad who had lost many creds in the lightning games in the park. The Rabbi was actually a rabbinical student and brilliant tactician who had a "tell" that the other players had all learned to recognize. The "tell" involved an expectant pause after an apparent blunder. This initially prompted faster reaction and had led many speed players into devastating traps. As more and more players succumbed to these traps his opponents had learned to recognize the "tell". Although the Rabbi had eventually toned down what had become a red flag of warning to his opponents, he had never been able to entirely lose the hesitation. Something in Uly's movements must have reminded Mouse of the Rabbi's tell. Owen concluded. Nice job to catch something on the instinctive level and even more impressive that the kid trusts himself enough to stick his neck out on a hunch. Owen smiled and gave Mouse a thumbs up gesture and then rapidly flashed hand signals to the rest of the team.


Bardo was about to begin his list of questions about S'ssral's story when a huge, long eared Devil rat nonchalantly ambled into the "living room". The creature's complete disregard for the reaction it evoked was one clue to it's nature while it's absurdly long ears were another. When it sat back on it's haunches and said "Bardo, you've got more uninvited guests coming," the fact that it was a spirit became obvious to all.

"How many, how dangerous, where are they and what's the deal with the ears?" The gator shaman asked.

"Two orks, two norms, two elves, a dwarf and that little geek Uly. Which would be either 7 or 8, depending on how sober you are at the moment, tubby. How dangerous would also depend on when your last bender was, but I'd say their packing some major type mojo and firepower. Where are they? Two tunnels south and one east of the pipe that leads to your front door. The ears? Well, think of them as the answer to your next question, stout man. I heard one eye's tap of warning and following the singularly uninspired orders of my chubby master, came to tell you right away."

Although S'ssral had worked with spirit servitors since he could first shape the mana, he had never seen or heard of such a spirit before. It mocks the master who created it! the outraged mage thought. How can this shaman tolerate such disrespect? He must be weaker than I thought to allow such freedoms.

"Well, do you think, Briar, that you might find the time in your hectic schedule to delay these intruders while I prepare?" Bardo asked.

Sighing, the Devil rat replied, "Yes. I suppose so. Lord knows it won't be the first time I've had to bail your wide butt out of a tight spot." It turned to leave but then turning back said "Just don't make a habit of relying on me to pull your lard out of the fire, fat man. One day I may not come a runnin." It then seemed to smile and faded from sight.

Bardo immediately jumped up and began grabbing bits of equipment that he had set down while listening to S'ssral's story. He completely ignored his "guests" which annoyed S'ssral tremendously. He expected to be consulted on strategy and to at least be asked for some magical help. Instead, the Gator shaman cast powerful magical seals on each of the secondary exits and then with a word conjured a pair of huge alligators to guard the front door. "Stay here", the shaman ordered as he departed, "you'll be safe till I get back."


Owen signaled the team to draw back. He didn't know what sort of a reception they might be walking into, but prudence dictated that they wait for the other side to make the first move. They were in unfamiliar territory and who knows how many different sources of danger were up ahead with an alarm possibly already given. No, rather than rush in and force a fight when the other side had so many advantages, Owen decided to back off and let the fight come to them. The team retreated to a large t-junction where they could see the threat from three different directions.

Upworlders maybe smart.....see foolie I make, run away for foolie on Bardo. Big tusky teeth not hurt like promise ....maybe scared of little shiny eyes? Maybe scared of noise? Uppers confuse! The young captive underworlder thought.

As Uly considered the knotty problem of the lost boys' behavior he missed the tug of Doc's magic which he had become accustomed to. While testing for the limits of the "magic rope" which kept him prisoner he saw the pretty elf lady smile at him and nod for him to go. Growing up in an environment fraught with traps which sprung just when things seemed best, the youngster hesitated to just make a break for it. When it seemed he would not move at all Sayla sighed and caught Itami's eye. The orks low voiced growl was just the spark needed to send the cyclops scampering up one of the side tunnels.


Bardo stepped out of his den and sat down on the ground. He sent his astral self racing along the tunnels to catch up with his spirit familiar, Briar. Bardo smiled as he thought of the mage's reaction to the rat-thing's caustic humor. His face may not have changed, Bardo thought, but his entire body language radiated shock and annoyance. Maybe I shouldn't let the spirit treat me that way....

*Two questions, Tons-o-fun: First, how could you stop me and second, why would you want to, I mean, I've never called you anything really wrong, you know like witty, or handsome, smart......*

Ah, there's my little stand up comic, Bardo shot back, now before we get into a battle with these egg stealing invaders, please promise me you won't be making jokes during the fight, because, well, ya know, you are just so funny I might pull a muscle or something from the gales of laughter you cause....

*Yeah, well if you wouldn't confine your exercise to jumping to conclusions Mr. I'll-have-just-one-more-dozen-donuts-before-I-take-my nap, you wouldn't have to worry about pulling muscles....*

ENOUGH! Please, the hilarity is overwhelming. Now, what's happening?

*Nothing. Our visitors must have been sharp enough to twig to the alarm because they've pulled back and let the kid go. He's out there waiting on the fringe to pick over the spoils of the fight, no doubt, but our bad guys ain't been acting like bad guys. They are sitting back like they're waiting for us to make the first move.*

Keep an eye on them. I'll be here in a few minutes

*I'll count the seconds*


Knowing that the shaman had not actually conjured real alligators, S'ssral was tempted to asence the spirits that had taken those forms, but knew he needed to conserve his remaining strength for the ritual. Seeing that the egg's shell had become translucent and that there seemed to be a pulsing light inside it, the mage concluded that the time was almost here. The mana lines must be accelerating the process, S'ssral thought, I'll have to be ready to conduct the sacrifice right here.

Shoving furniture aside, the mage began chalking a magic circle around the Troll and the egg. Skag watched unmoving while Huey rocked and cradled the egg, constantly murmuring endearments. Before the mage finished his circle he realized that he was going to have to something about the two go-gangers before the asset of their protection of the egg became a liability. The other problem, of course, was that the mage had to retain enough power to control the energy that would be given to him in exchange for his opening the portal. How then to neutralize this pair without disturbing the guardians at the door, damaging the egg before it hatched, or exhausting oneself before a demanding and complicated ritual which would have to be recited entirely from memory.

S'ssral decided that a sleep spell, centered on the troll would have a wide enough area of effect to knock the ork woman out too. With a little luck, Skag might fall within the summoning circle with Huey and the egg and the go gangers could serve as a sort of appetizer for the elder god who came through the portal for the life of the powerful innocent. The mage hoped that the additional blood would help compensate for the fact that this site did not have any of the ritual purification and preparation of his underground base.

Can't be helped, the mage thought as he put his companions to sleep. Completing the circle, he began a tongue twisting chant composed of sounds that human beings were not intended to utter. A swirling point began to form above the egg.


16


Mickey watched curiously as Doc and Sayla did something in the tunnels to the left and right of where the runners waited. Next, Lug and Hamon moved quickly and quietly back and forth. They seemed to be setting up some small items in each of the three tunnels. They worked intently without making a sound but the decker was mystified by precisely what they were up to. His attention was quickly shifted to Owen, who was informing everyone in sign language about the dangers of firearms in this environment. He signaled quite clearly that the flare from a single shot could ignite the gasses present in the tunnels and blow them all to oblivion. Although Mouse wasn't entirely sure about the volatility of the invisible vapors, or their flash point, his past experience in sewer pipes amply testified to their existence. Man, he thought, I don't want to even think about what being down here without a rebreather would be like. Not to mention what you could catch without a chem suit. As if reading his mind, Owen's next signal cautioned against letting the chemsuit develop rips.

The phys ad then made sure that everyone had a weapon that did not involve explosives and when he saw Mouse was reduced to scavenged piece of pipe, shook his head and handed the decker his own Goren Bee. With a gravity that demanded focus and concentration, Owen handed the ork his custom made squirter and silently warned him about the care he demanded be taken of the weapon. Lug and Hamon had moved into their assigned positions, drawing narcojet and paired katanas respectively when the sound of humming reached the group.


*MY CHILD! My Child is in danger!*

The mental shout ripped through the minds of every one of her servitors as the woman started from her resting place. The thought carried a conviction that was absolute, tangible and even those who were not overcome by the sudden intensity of the emotion, knew that immediate action was required.

"My Lady!" Tanchacti exclaimed, "Please allow me to call Galgratha……." But before the security agent could complete her superior’s name, her beautiful blonde charge, who had been sitting quietly in the garden, transformed into a feathered serpent and launched herself into the sky.

"Drek." The elven woman muttered as she activated her comm unit. "Sec one this is two. Windrider is gone, solo. I say again, Windrider is without escort and in the air. Instructions?"

"Damn it, woman!" The voice snapped back at her over the radio, "How incompetent are you? YOU are responsible for our mistresses’ safety. How could you……"

"Recriminations later, One. Right now we need to respond to the situation." The elf woman interrupted in a coldly logical voice. "Shall I scramble air assets for pursuit?"

"Unless you’d prefer to watch the trid for reports on the carnage after the fact," the cutting voice replied, "Yes, I think it might be advisable for us to try to something along the lines that our security titles suggest. If that wouldn't be too much trouble, of course."

"Wilco. Out." As the elf woman was hitting the buttons on her wrist unit to scramble air assets and get the lady’s personal guard into action she thought: Snide piece of drek! Maybe he thinks he can keep a feathered serpent from assuming her true form when she senses her unborn child is in danger. Egomaniacal, muscle-bound clod! "Air units, Praetorians! The lady’s gone out alone. Scramble!", she shouted into the comm as she ran towards the helipad. Oh lady, I pray your little one is unharmed.


Momentary nonplused that his sleep spell had somehow dimmed the pulsing light inside the egg, S'ssral attempted to maintain his focus. MUST CONCENTRATE ON THE RITUAL! he mentally screamed to himself as he continued the litany of unpronounceable words. Each syllable became more difficult as a pounding pressure began between his eyes.

"Koshhall'n hebrn'thak nequalq thoturwaf."

A foul smelling breeze began to circulate.

Both Gator shaped spirits turned away from the exit they had been charged with guarding and slowly focused on the magic user in the center of the room.

"AN'LL NATHRAK NICTULL DIEN BAQAUVRT"

Small items from the room and dirt from the floor became swept up in the breeze which now cycloned around a point just above the egg. The gator shaped spirits hissed as they paced around the perimeter of the magic circle, snapping their jaws ineffectively. The temperature in the room dropped as the smell in the air became more foul.

IT BEGINS!, The mage exulted as a spot of purest blackness appeared above the egg and slowly began to expand.


Bardo knew, intellectually, that his opponents had chosen an area of tactical advantage. They had selected a junction to give themselves a pair of escape routes if they were losing the battle. Although a part of his mind recognized this strategy, the majority of his brain was focused on the most direct means of defeating them.

Closing his eyes he centered himself and put in a call to a horde of dangerous allies. Dozens of the devil rats who infested the sewers suddenly received the smell of food. Their anxious scramblings alerted others who had not caught the magic scent but who added to the horde streaking towards the right side tunnel that his opponents had chosen for escape. He sent Briar, who know assumed the form of a huge chimera, to attack from the left. As befitting a Gator shaman, he plowed directly ahead, spring gun and Zinnor at the ready.

The brilliance of the glow on the human warrior who faced him might have given the shaman pause, but like his totem, once set upon a course of action, he sunk his teeth in and would not let go. Bardo marveled at the speed and grace with which the physical adept avoided the 6 steel darts his spring gun launched. He moves like a ghost the shaman thought. He seems to be gliding slowly, but he is never there when the dart arrives. Perhaps I have finally found a worthy adversary.


"Aw, drek! Rats again." Lug whispered as he and Hamon shared a look. As the two shifted towards the tunnel where hundreds of hungry red eyes glared at them, Sayla whispered "wait".

With a gesture the mage activated the ward spell she and Doc had constructed and the first Devil rat to reach the invisible barrier <SCREEEAAKED> as it died. The rat horde became more cautious, but continued to slowly advance. The tunnel behind the first wave began to take on the look of a moving carpet as now hundreds of awakened rodents thronged to the feeding opportunity.

The <SCREEAAKS> grew in volume and number as the hungry mass attacked the barrier not only from the floor, but the walls and ceiling of the tunnel also. Whether it was the dead bodies dropping down from above or the feeding frenzy which drove the rats to climb over their fellows, eventually the barrier's killing field was breached by a live rat covered with the dead. Although the barrier continued to operate, within minutes dozens of rodents were through the magical wall. They advanced like a skittering, red eyed rug of death.


Doc heard the growing commotion behind him but remained focused on the huge chimera he faced. The sewer dweller has a trained attack chimera? Why do I have difficulty believing this? Perhaps he just likes his spirits to assume familiar forms.....

"Or maybe I'm something you've never seen before, smart ass." The huge lizard growled.

"Holy Drek, Doc! That thing talks" Mouse exclaimed.

"Yes, my young friend, and now you've given it my name. May I suggest that you content yourself with guarding my physical form as I'm going to have to battle this beast in the astral." Doc then assumed a lotus position on the floor of the tunnel and let his head drop forward as his spirit ventured forth. An apologetic and embarrassed young ork stepped over the body and began acting as sentinel.

Damn! I hope I didn't screw Doc up by saying his name. Who knows what that means to magic users? Drek! I gotta be more careful! Another internal voice added. You've done enough damage. Make damned sure that Doc's got a body to come back to, you fool. He's put his life in your hands. Don't screw this up!

Doc's astral form drifted closer to the chimera. From the way the creature was watching him, Doc knew that whatever the beast was, it could see him in the astral. As he concentrated he saw a Devil rat at the core of the giant awakened lizard and sensed that there was even further masking going on.

Why not stop the pretense, my friend? It's obvious that you are neither a rat nor a chimera. Doc's spirit thought at the awakened lizard.

*Because I like the pretense, you dandelion eating keeb. But as long as you're going to be so chummy, why don't you drop that little old ward your hoping I'll stumble into. That would be real friendly.* Briar responded.

Friendly, perhaps. Foolish, definitely. If you cannot breach it, however, you are not the threat I took you for...

*Excuse me, did I say I couldn't breach it? Did I? I didn't hear me say that. Granted my ears aren't as "sharp" as yours, Morkhan, but I really think if I were simple enough to discus my power with an adversary, I'd have heard myself doing it.*

Ah, gutter Sperethiel, how appropriate from a spirit spawned in the sewer.

The Chimera flared it's neck ruff, held up a single digit in the center of it's right claw and faded down to the form of a devil rat. It then turned, lifted it's tale and fired a burst of magical energy that illuminated Doc's hastily constructed ward. The magical barrier withstood two more shots before collapsing, whereupon the devil rat, looking none the worse for the experience, turned, smiled and thought *Let's get it on!* before vomiting a mana bolt at Doc's astral self.


HELP!HELP!HELP!HELP!HELP!HELP! the tiny consciousness within the egg wailed. Suddenly the good warm was gone, the 2nd other was gone, the first other was still gone and now something bad was coming. Cold and closed and wrong. Fear blossomed in the still forming consciousness and the tiny spark of life retreated from the outer world it had been approaching.HELP! HELP! HELP! HELP!

"MORDXOC'CEK GHADJNEB HVADXOR" S'sral continued the invocation. "COME WALKER BETWEEN WORLDS. WE AWAIT THY COMING, SHUBN'GGORATH. THY WAY IS CLEAR."

The pain between S'ssral's eyes had now become blinding. He could feel the trails of blood from his eyes, ears and nose freezing in the now howling wind of the chamber. The portal above his head had grown to only the diameter of a baseball, but already he could feel such power emanating from the hole that he found the strength to continue.

"LORD OF THE VOID, WE OFFER YOU ENTRANCE. K'DAQAT PAZAT'QR XOTKRAL"

Now everything in the room that was not in the magic circle began to move. Swept up in the cyclic effects of the freezing wind, everything had begun an counter-clockwise dance around the room. As they rose higher they spun faster and neither the size, weight or shape of the furnishings made the slightest bid of difference. As they hit the black circle above the mage's head they were drawn through as though they were made of fog. Bardo's spirit guardians lasted only a few seconds longer than the largest of his furnishings.

"HEED THE CALL, DREAD ELDERS. THY BANISHMENT IS AT END, THY TIME IS AT HAND! I OFFER THE ANCIENT BARGAIN OF INNOCENCE FOR KNOWLEDGE. GH'DTH AQ M'ZDOC'R!"

The teeth grating noise of a thousand blackboards scratched by a million nails was the response that issued from the now softball sized hole. Involuntarily shuddering the mage continued his chant.


Bardo's first lunging thrust at Owen was a feint. When the Gator shaman's trident was blocked to the outside by a sweep of Owen's short staff, Bardo spun in the direction of the block while going to the floor in an actual attack on Owen's legs. Deceptively fast and agile for one with such a stocky build, the shaman attempted to sweep Owen's legs while readying his Zinnor for another thrust. The phys ad recognized the discovered attack and leaped over the sweeping legs, but a part of his chemsuit was hooked and ripped by the shaman's barbed trident. Bardo's victory was far from complete, however, as Owen delivered a resounding rap on the knuckles of the trident wielder's hand as he spun away.

Quick as a flash Bardo caught his dropped weapon with his left hand. As the pudgy shaman sprang to his feet, Owen could see the glow of a healing spell repairing the damage to the shaman's right hand. When Owen's combat sense warned him that the shaman was using this lull to prepare a spell, the phys ad began launching a barrage of edged weapons at the magic user to keep him off guard. He saw the mage's nod of acknowledgment after the shaman was forced to abandon his offensive spell in favor of a defensive barrier to block the sudden host of projectiles. The two fighters circled warily.


"AW, DREK!" Lug exclaimed. "There's too fraggin many of 'em. We ain't gonna be able to stop 'em. What a way ta go. Eaten in a fraggin sewer."

"We're not dead yet," Sayla said, launching a sleep spell which stopped the horde of rats which had penetrated the barrier. As the hideous carpet ceased it's advance Hamon turned to Sayla with a smile and the pair shared a moment of relief until Lug said, "Uh, guys...." and turned on his powerful flash light. The walls, floor and ceiling of the pipe beyond the barrier, as far as the eye could see was a solid mass of bodies.

"Oh, drek." the pair said in unison.


Doc acknowledged internally that the ally spirit was both inventive and powerful. Each time he shifted focus to attempt to banish the spirit, it responded with a new attack, designed to be too dangerous to leave to existing defenses. It's just keeping me too occupied to deal with anything else Doc recognized.

*Right in one, weed breath. If I was you, I'd just ignore me and…UH OH!*

Briar, sensing the disturbance in Bardo's home, broke off the attack. Dropping his masking, the ally spirit took on the form of a tall, muscular norm with a face that looked like a beautified version of Bardo's countenance. *Playtime's over elf boy. Heavy drek brewing. You feel it?*

After a few undistracted seconds, Doc paled and whispered "By the powers, what is that?"

*End of the world drek. Truce?* Briar asked.

"Truce." Doc agreed.

*I'll get the fatman, you get your people. I take it you'll do more than run away.*

"Yes, if you'll stop talking and move! Speed is essential!"


"All right, I'm gonna give us a 5 second delay, then I'm gonna fire the flash packs. Maybe we can blind them, get the horde moving in a new direction." Lug explained. "You guys get the warning to the rest of the team and… Damn, where did they go?

As the dwarf had been explaining his plan to fire the flashpacks that he and Hamon had secreted in the tunnel, the horde of devil rats had gone. One second he was overlooking a sea of ravenous scavengers and the next, a totally empty pipe. The carpet of bodies that had covered the tunnel walls had suddenly and silently disappeared.

"What the frag……" Lug began, but stopped short as Sayla swayed on her feet. As the two razors rushed to steady the elf mage, they shared a look of concern over the beautiful woman's sudden lack of color. At that moment, Doc appeared from the other tunnel with Mickey in tow.

"Change in plans, my friends." Doc said. "Sayla just sensed what's happening. The ritual we disrupted at the mage's stronghold is apparently being conducted right now. We must get to the site before this dark ceremony is complete."


After launching his barrage of throwing weapons, Owen continued circling the gator shaman. Like his totem, Bardo kept his entire attention as well as his primary weapon on his opponent while moving as little as possible. Suddenly, with a speed that was hardly credible, considering his frame, the shaman launched a flurry of slashes with his trident. <Thok… THOK..thok….THOK..thok..thok> echoed through the tunnel as Owen blocked the zinnor slashes with his staff. The phys ad then moved from defense to offense and struck the outside of the shaman's left knee with an Aldabis sa Ilalim (Escrima, backhand knee strike) and followed with a Kata-te tsuki (Kukishin Ryu, one hand thrust) to the solar plexus.

The shaman involuntarily doubled over as the air rushed out of his lungs, but Owen's coup de grace to the back of Bardo's head never landed. Briar suddenly appeared above his creator and caught the descending hardwood.

*Truce! Major drek going down with your egg, man. Beat the fatboy later. Right now we gotta stop Bardo's new best buddy.*

Owen stepped back into an en garde position. He heard the ally spirit berate it's master, *And you, you fat fool. Stop thinking about counter attacks and pay attention. The mage you gave sanctuary to is conducting a sacrifice ritual using the egg he was protecting to open a portal to another dimension. You'd have felt it if you hadn't been so focused on fighting, lard butt!* .

"We have a truce, Owen." Doc said without preamble as the other lost boys came rushing up. "The madman has begun the ritual to sacrifice the egg. We have to stop him before he destroys us all."

"Follow me" the shaman gasped as he lurched off into one of the tunnels.


Tanchacti Springbreeze hung on for dear life as the chopper dipped and lurch in it's attempts to follow the wildly darting feathered serpent. The mother's panic over the danger to her lost child resonated in every darting move of the dracoform.

*CHILD! WHERE ARE YOU, MY CHILD? CALL TO ME!!*

"Commander, were getting squawks from everyone from city control to local shuttle jockeys. Sooner or later somebody's gonna escalate and toss an AA at us. Can we tell them something?"

"Tell them to mind their own fraggin......no. Identify us. Use the lady's name and say we are on a rescue mission. Say we will note non-interference with gratitude, but will respond appropriately to any other behavior also." That ought to shut them up. Nobody wants to top a dracoform's drek list. The security officer thought as she grabbed for a cargo strap as the chopper again made a sudden lurching change in direction and height. Please let us find the child in time, she prayed.


When the impossibly penetrating nails-on-blackboard sound stopped, so did the wind. An expectant hush fell over the room as whatever was on the other side of the hole waited for the next portion of the ritual. While S'ssral found the sense of menace nearly paralyzing, the intoxicating level of power which was almost within his grasp kept him going. For all his desire, however, he knew that the slightest error in the ceremony from this point on would earn him an eternity of indescribable suffering. He took a deep breath and focused his entire being on the task at hand.

"Wake, child. It is time for you to meet your destiny." He said to the egg as his hands traced a patern of attraction.

Help! Help! Help! Help! the tiny conscious radiated while attempting to sink further from the magical compunction of the mage's voice.

"You must wake. The time is now. It is your fate."

No! No! No! No! NO! the still forming will responded, but the mage recognized that the growing strength of the sacrifice's denial was a testament to the effectiveness of the call. Only a few moments now he thought as he drew the kris of meteoric iron from the folds of his robe. He watched with rapt attention as the first hairline crack appeared in the shell.


17


While Sara searched frantically for her endangered child and her house guard and air units desperately sought to keep up with her, a heavily modified Osprey II, bearing Doc Wagon markings landed at Sara's estate. Five figures dressed in medium security armor boarded the VTOL craft and waited for their hugely muscled leader. In spite of the logos emblazoned across security helmets and flak jackets, this team was not in the medical rescue business. They were, instead, what is euphemistically refereed to as counter-intelligence, a phrase long used to describe nefarious behavior deemed necessary by "our side". In this case, the hand picked "Fhay'd Aquki" were hard cases loyal only to the huge figure who was the last to board the craft. No word was spoken as their leader entered and signaled for the Osprey to lift.


The lost boys followed Bardo and Briar through the tunnels. The speed of the large shaman was amazing to the team as they struggled to keep up with overweight spell slinger. Everyone was conscious of a palpable sense of evil as Bardo slowed at a bend in the tunnel. Even Mouse could feel the danger that Owen was signaling.

The oppressive sense of wrongness and danger grew as the team advanced. Bardo and Briar edged to the left while the lost boys and Sayla moved to the right. In the middle of a completely barren room, S'ssral the black stood in the center of a magic circle with a long wavy dagger in his right hand and Sara's egg before him. There was an unconscious troll on the floor just in front of the egg and at the edge of the circle an unconscious ork woman lay sprawled. The pulsing blue-black hole above the mage's head was the last element of the tableau, but even looking at this gap was enough to overcome one with a sense of nausea. The view of this breach in the fabric of reality combined the worst effects of vertigo and claustrophobia with an oppressive sense of doom which brought the magic users to their knees. Even the wise cracking Briar was silent in the face of this hole in the world.

The worst surprise of all, however, occurred when the mad mage looked up from the egg. "Ah, ha! Perfect! An audience to see my transfiguration. The meddling fools who drove me from my sanctuary and the stupid shaman who gave me his home. Oh, sorry about your guardians and uh...furnishings. I'm afraid they didn't survive the first step on my road to godhead. Don't worry though. You'll be joining them as soon as the ceremony is complete." When the mage's attention shifted back to the egg, Mouse shuddered at the fact that the nose, mouth, ears and eyes in the unchanging face were all leaking blood and that this did not seem to disturb the magic user at all. The hair on the back of the decker's neck, already standing on edge, gave a further start when the mage intoned "GH'DTH AQ M'ZDOC'R!" and looked up again. His eyes were now perfect replicas of the basketball size hole floating just above S'ssral's head.

"The time is at hand" the mage pronounced with a voice which suddenly combined a discordant multitude of tones and seemed to echo endlessly.

As one the other magic users in the room and the ally spirit tossed offensive spells at the barrier. The magic struck the perimeter of the magic circle and was drawn straight into the hole above the egg. If anything they accelerated the hole's growth. Similarly, Hamon's and Itami's machine gun fire and Lug's concussion grenade, all used in spite of the danger of combustible gasses being present, did not even distract the mage from his ceremony.

"Awake! AWAKE! AWAKE!" S'ssral intoned over the egg in a chorus of voices. As the first crack in the egg's shell became visible to those outside of the circle, Huey and Skag began to move. Huey's first move was to protect the egg, but as he reached for it, S'ssral looked at him and pronounced an inhuman phrase "CLLA'XRDU". Suddenly the troll's body was outlined in black fire as the metahuman was frozen in a rictus of agony. With every muscle and sinew straining to the utmost, the huge troll began floating towards the portal above the mage's head.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Huey screamed in pain and frustration as he saw the blade in S'ssral's hand. Not only was he in agony from the magic fire that was consuming him, not only was he floating towards a terrible void whose very existence assaulted the mind, but the magic man was going to hurt the baby in the egg. Huey redoubled his efforts to break free of the magic, but the only result achieved was a series of <cracks> that sounded like pistol shots but were actually the troll's huge bones snapping from the strain as he continued his slow migration towards oblivion.

Skag, on the other hand, instead of moving towards the magic user, proved that she was cleverer than anyone would have believed. Allowing the magic user to focus on the troll, she crawled to the edge of the magic circle. Moving with an undersea slowness, the ork woman strained against the tremendous pressure present within the ritual ring. She had just reached the chalk outline when S'ssral realized that she too had been revived by his magical call to the egg. As focused as he was on the ceremony, the mage immediately recognized the danger.

"STOP!!" he screamed as the ork woman flung out a hand towards the chalk line on the floor. Before he could utter another sound the go-ganger's ragged sleeve created a break in the circle and hell literally broke loose.


At that precise instant, high above the city a worried mother heard her child's cry. Like a guided missile the feathered serpent arrowed through the intervening space, followed closely by a pair of helicopter gunships and a Hughes air stallion loaded with heavily armed security personnel.

*MY CHILD! MY CHILD!* The distraught dracoform screamed as she knifed through the night sky. Sara landed and began tearing up a section of street, all the time broadcasting her worry. Tanchacti ordered the gunships to establish a perimeter while the praetorians sought some way to aid their lady's excavations. No one paid any attention to the Doc Wagon Osprey II that arrived minutes later and landed two blocks away.


"Assuming she's digging right above target, directions follow: down, left, straight, right, left, straight." The decker said, "Total distance, 200 meters. Downloading schematic to tac scanners." 28 seconds later the Doc Wagon crew began moving through the sewers.


With the ritual circle broken  several things happened simultaneously. An invisible malignance rewarded the ork woman for freeing it by ripping her to shreds. Her agonized screams of pain were carried on waves of force which emanated from the broken circle. As the terrible presence turned its attention from the shredded ork woman, Mouse, Itami, Lug and Hamon were suddenly pinned against the tunnel wall. Sayla, Doc and Bardo stood for a moment against the storm before they collapsed to the tunnel floor, drained and exhausted. Briar suddenly winked out of existence in the face of the extra-planar force/entity that stalked the room. The black flames which had outlined Huey were suddenly extinguished as the troll was dropped on his head. The only two still functional metahumans in the underground lair were the mad mage with his kris poised above the cracking egg and the phys ad who was pushing back against the unseen creature of magic which strove to sweep him aside.

From the spot where she lay drained and helpless, Sayla watched as her lover began attempting to advance against the force of magic. She saw the skin of his face and hands purple, bruising as he fought the terrible power and malignance of the life that S'ssral had brought into the room. She recognized his posture as "Grasping Sparrow's Tail" from the Tai Chi he practiced, and cringed as each finger on his extended hands was forced backwards until a dry twig <snap> heralded it's breaking. Despite this pain and the blood streaming from his nose and ears, Owen grimly continued to advance.

The mage's face was as frozen as it had ever been, but his posture betrayed a growing disbelief at the phys ad's continued advance. "NO! GO BACK! YOU CAN NOT…MY EYES!" S'ssral the black screamed. To his surprise and horror, he realized that he had deviated too far from the ritual and no longer spoke with a multitude of voices, but only with his own. Had he been able to see his own face at that moment his horror would have been even greater as his eyes no longer resembled the void above his head. In fact, they no longer resembled anything other than two empty sockets in the mage's face.

"MY EYES! NOOO!" S'ssral screamed as the pain hit. "NOOO! NO! I HAVE A SACRIFICE!" he protested to the void. Reversing his grip on the Kris the blind mage raised the blade above his head to plunge it into the cracking egg he knew was in front of him. Owen screamed "NO!" even as he realized he could not reach the egg in time.


Sara continued to rip through the pavement like a being possessed. Huge chunks of asphalt and cement flew as she burrowed towards her endangered child. All of her energy was focused on reaching the egg.

Tanchacti not only arranged a protective cordon around her mistress but actually began hauling dislodged sections of paving out of the hole to help speed her lady's digging. Within seconds, others of the elite guard unit had jumped into the growing hole to do what they could to rescue the child. No words were spoken but everyone worked with a will to try to save the innocent in danger.


S'ssral screamed "GH'DTH AQ M'ZDOC'R!" as he brought the knife plunging down. Before it ended the life within the egg, however, his wrists struck an unyielding obstacle. He tried to draw back so that he could stab down again, but both his wrists were held fast. His demand "Whaaa" was cut off as he was lifted by the giant hand which had grabbed his groin. The pain was tremendous, but S'ssral managed to look out in the astral to see his body being lifted by the crippled troll who seemed to be thrusting him towards....... S'ssral's mind became a gibbering mass of fear as he saw what was waiting for him on the other side of the hole. He could not grasp the obscene mockery of life which eagerly awaited him. His final cogent thought before the last shred of sanity gave way to the evil which hungrily beckoned was How could I have been so wrong? Mewling and babbling as his head was thrust through the gap in reality, S'ssral the black's body quickly disappeared through the closing hole. "AAAAIIIIIIIEEEEEEEE...."His haunting wail of despair ended abruptly as the hole snapped close and winked out of existence.


Huey, in spite of the pain of the broken bones throughout his body, sank protectively over the egg. "Dat's allright, Honey. Huey's here. You safe. Don't have to worry. Huey keep you safe. Warm and happy. Don't be scared. Shhhhh. It's ok…."

Owen swayed dizzily as he watched the troll wrap his broken, bleeding body around the egg and began to gently rock. Smiling at the tenderness that the fierce giant obviously felt for the egg, the phys ad found himself thinking I guess God does watch over fools and children. Then, as the pain from his broken fingers and the massive bruising his body had undergone caught up with him, Owen found himself seated on the floor. Damn! That's not good. He thought. I gotta check on the team…ooh"

"Owen!" Sayla shouted weakly as she picked herself up off the floor. She stumbled/crawled to where her lover lay and started checking his injuries. She was too exhausted to heal even his broken fingers, but saw, with some relief, that he seemed to have entered into the meditative trance which he used for healing. He views magic so differently, perhaps that's why the magic storm didn't drain him. Either that or he's got more power than Doc and I put together.

Thinking of Doc, Sayla turned back to check the other members of the team. The lost boys were picking themselves up off the floor , checking themselves, each other and their weapons. Everyone looked wrung out and exhausted. Sayla noticed that Doc was talking quietly with the heavy set shaman. He seemed to be consoling the taciturn magic user, probably dealing with the disappearance of his ally spirit, the elf-woman thought. If they're as drained as I feel, it will be a while before they can……… Sayla's analysis ended abruptly as the sleep spell struck.


When Itami saw his companions dropping to the floor, his first thought was that somehow the mad mage was back and working more mojo. He'd been slammed into the tunnel wall hard enough to knock the wind out of him, and then held there by something he didn't even want to think about while the boss had been in some kind of a showdown with mage. He'd thought when the troll had tossed the gibbering magic user into that terrible hole in reality and the thing had snapped shut that it was all over, but now he saw his friends dropping like flies for no discernible reason. It couldn't be a gas attack as the lost boys had on chem suits and rebreathers, so it must be magic. But who could be doing it?

Twenty seconds later he got his answer as a Doc Wagon High Threat Response Team entered the room. Pretending to be as unconscious as his companions, Itami watched through silted eyes as they rolled the gurney in while simultaneously using their arsenal to cover all of the bodies on the floor. The team's leader began giving directions:

"OK. We don't have to worry about these. My sleep spell put them all out. Time is money on this one. Lets get the egg and get out of here. Sandor estimates we've got about 50 seconds before Mama busts in and the boss ain't gonna wait. Move!"

Continuing to watch while feigning sleep, Itami saw the difficulty the Doc Wagon team had in getting the egg away from the sleeping troll.

"Frag! Son of a slitch ain't conscious an he still won't let da fraggin thing go. Can I just shoot him?"

"NO. Can't risk it. Get his hoop on the cart and let's go. It ain't gonna be healthy in here in the next couple a minutes."

The ork rigger studied the precise interaction of the Doc Wagon team as they loaded the unconscious Troll and egg onto the crash cart and concluded These frags are pretty good. They must have worked together for a long time. Surprising that the mage's spell didn't take me out…

Before he could complete the thought the rigger "heard" in his head: Oh perfect! I picked an egomaniac. Just my luck.

WHO? Itami thought with alarm.

Perhaps the one who prevented that fragger's spell from putting you in la-la land, you dumb tusker! Came the response.

The shaman's ally thing? Itami guessed

My stars, not only is he a genius, he's an articulate genius to boot. Yes, oh massively brained one. Only I prefer being referred to by my name, which is Briar, rather than the highly technical description "shaman's ally thing". Now, before you start wasting my time with a lot of stupid questions about why I selected you, how you can hear me, etceteras, etceteras, etceteras, may I suggest you get off your butt and get after those fraggers before they disappear with the egg which I assume you are attempting to retrieve.

Uh…right. Itami thought as he gathered up his gear, took a deep breath and sprinted as quietly as he could after the disappearing Doc Wagon crew.


Sara broke through the roof of the shaman's one time sanctum to find nothing but unconscious bodies. She recognized Doc and his team, but her child, her primary concern was nowhere to be found. She could smell, could feel, the resonance of her frightened offspring, but the panic was gone and with it her communication with the unborn child.

*AAAAAAAARRRRRGGGHHHHHHHH* she roared at the sky in frustration. She had been so close to retrieving the most precious thing in her life, only to find it gone and no longer radiating the panic which had led her this far. At some level she realized that the danger which had so frightened her unborn must have passed as she could feel that the child was alive but wasn't getting enough communication to locate it. Seeing her faithful security force rushing into the hole to "protect" her brought the feathered serpent back to herself and with a sigh she resumed her metahuman form.

"It's not here, Tanchi". Sara told the security force commander. "There was some kind of crisis averted right here, but there is no sign of the egg. Perhaps someone here knows...."

Seeing the alacrity with which her security people moved to capture the potential sources of vital information, she raised her voice. "GENTLY! Gently. By the looks of things these people have all sustained damage trying to reclaim that which is most precious and AT MY BEHEST. They are to be cared for as my most honored guests, for they have received hurt seeking to aid us. See if they can be revived but be careful. They look like they've been through hell."


.....So you're sure the boss is going to be ok? Itami thought as he followed the heat trails of the Doc Wagon HTR team.

Yes, Yes, Yes. He's very tough. Tougher than you know. Tougher than he knows. He'll be fine, and before you start, so will everybody else. I'm sure. They're just exhausted and need rest. Now, can we possibly pay more attention to being quiet so this chase doesn't end with a surprised ork being turned into rat chow by an assault rifle in the hands of an eggnapper? HMMMM?

Ok...................But... Itami's next thought began.

Oh, for the love of mike! Listen. I'll use small words so your brain won't overload. PAY....ATTENTION....TO...WHAT...YOU....ARE....DOING! STOP....WORRYING...ABOUT...SHIT...YOU...CAN'T...CONTROL! DON'T...LET.....THE...BAD...GUYS...GET...AWAY! Is that simple enough for you, you curious tusker, or do I have to draw you pictures?

Briar saw that Itami's entire being was focused on the task. So much so that the ally spirit no longer had to caution the ork about the traps and pitfalls of the underworld environment. The spirit smiled with satisfaction at the ork's progress but was completely surprised when he heard the muttered whisper "Geeze, what a grouch."


Sandor's nervous energy was evident in the constant repositioning of the turbo-prop engines. Hooked up as the rigger was to the Osprey's mechanical systems, what for anyone else might have been a tapping foot became for him a pair of silent tilt rotors continually swinging from Vertical take-off to forward flight mode. Fortunately the rigger caught and stopped himself just before his employer made mention of the moving turbine engines.

Hmf Sandor thought. That's all I need. "Muscles" chewin my head off because I'm nervous and he decided to wait here for the team. I wonder why he....

At that moment he heard the three click signal that indicated the team's return was only seconds away. Guess I better let the big boy know they're coming, the rigger thought as he lit a single green light in the rear compartment. Eight seconds later he "felt" the rear hatch open as the team returned. As soon as he got the 4 click signal he started the engines and prepared to take off.


"What is this?" the red bearded giant asked as he gestured at the unconscious Troll wrapped around the egg on the gurney.

"Didn't have time to separate them, sir" the team leader responded while standing at attention. "The tusker is pretty badly hurt, but even unconscious he wouldn't let go. I saw a greater danger in working on site than in taking him with us."

"Hmmmm.....yes....I suppose so. Very well. Just keep that stinking trog away from me and dispose of him as soon as it is feasible."

"Yes, sir." Having worked for the muscle-bound elf before, Gates, the team leader, knew better than to expect any sort of compliment for efficiency. It had been his team's job to get the egg, they had gotten the egg, therefore they had done their job. No more and no less. Their employer had no use for anyone who could not do the job assigned and never bothered with compliments.

Gates swung himself into a webbed seat as the Osprey started to rise.


FRAG! Now how do I follow them? Itami thought as he watched the HTR team board the Doc Wagon Osprey.

Well, let's see. Maybe you could flap your arms fast enough to fly after them. Briar responded. No, wait. That might not work.....I know! You could run along underneath them until they get to wherever they're going.....no, you're probably too slow.......

Ya know, Briar, I'm a pretty easy going guy, but you're gettin on my nerves. Itami thought back at the spirit.

Hey, we've all got our problems, pal. Now, listen up. I'm gonna follow the plane-(see you don't have to learn to fly or anything). You go back and get the others. You bring them to me. You can home in on this: the spirit then whistled 7 notes. The sound went right through the rigger and although the spirit was no longer whistling, Itami continued to hear the notes repeating in his mind.

Oh, I get it. When it gets louder I'm closer and when it's softer I'm farther away. Pretty clever. Only thing is, this could drive me crazy if it went on too long.

More like a short walk than a drive, Briar thought in an undertone, then as if speaking to a very young child he thought sweetly, Then I guess you should find me just as quick as you can, my little tusker.

Just tell me one thing, Itami thought, How does the shaman put up with you?

Ah, he bitches a lot, just like you, but I bet he misses me. See ya soon orkboy. Itami sensed that the spirit had departed as the Osprey had taken off.

Drek. I better get the boss and the fellas. Itami thought as he headed back into the sewers. We ain't done yet.


18


Tanchacti paused as she supervised the collection of the unconscious shadowrunners. Hmmm. Not bad. she thought as she studied the form of the sleeping razor with the paired katanas on his back. Very nice shape without being as grotesque as Gal. Not a bad looking face either, she thought as his rebreather was removed. I wonder if he actually knows how to use those blades.....from what I've seen of this team and the fact that the lady trusted them with this mission, he probably does.... Interesting....

The security officer was pulled from her reverie as she sensed her lady's sudden focus on one of the tunnels. *COME OUT* Sara's mental command rang out, brooking no descent. All of the guard stopped what they were doing to focus their weapons on the tunnel in question. When the armed Ork stepped out of the tunnel it was only the guard's iron discipline that prevented them from opening fire.

"You are the rigger.....Itami Hanzo, correct?" At the ork's slow nod, Sara continued. "What happened here? Where is the egg? Is it safe? What so terrified my child that.......no, wait. Let's start simply. Why weren't you knocked out with your team?"

"Are they ok?" Itami asked as he pulled off his rebreather, ignoring the woman's question.

"We were about to attempt to revive them, however, you haven't answered my question" Sara said with less than perfect patience.

"Wake them up so that I don't have to tell the story twice." The ork replied.

Tanchacti felt the same growl she heard subvocalized by her praetorians at this tusker assuming such familiarity with her lady. Damn his impertinence she thought, but noticed the smile at the corner of Sara's mouth. Perhaps she's amused by this assumption of equality, but I don't find it funny at all. Ought to let me slap the damned runner down.... At that moment, however, Sara's eye contact and slow nod indicated that another course of action was to be followed. With a small sigh, Tanchacti gave her crew the signal to use the ammonia inhalant capsules to attempt to revive the unconscious shadowrunners.


Oh Drek! Mouse thought as he coughed his way back to consciousness. An elf in some kind of security armor was looking down at him and his immediate reaction was trouble. In spite of the elf's nod, the young ork decker was tensing to spring when he heard Lug say, "Now that's just stupid, Mouse. Ya don't know if yer among friends, enemies or somethin in between, ya don't have yer weapon, yer rebreather's been pulled off, an ya have no idea where yer team is or what they're up to. Why start a fight?"

Mickey didn't know which was worse, his own lack of analysis of the situation, being scolded publicly by the dwarf, or the smug look of superiority on the unknown elf's face. With a small sigh, he relaxed and saw his reviver give him a wink before moving away.

As he got to his feet he focused on more sounds of trouble.

".... and I'm telling you he's not unconscious, he's in a healing trance and since you don't know what you are doing I'd appreciate your leaving him alone!" Sayla's anger was unmistakable and he saw the elf security officer bridle at the tone. Before the confrontation could go any further, Doc's suave voice interrupted.

"Ladies, ladies, please. Although our peerless leader has doubtless caused more than his share of harsh words to be exchanged between rival members of the fair sex, we have more pressing issues than who gets to wake the sleeping Prince Charming, to wit, our own master of machines is fairly bursting with news. May I suggest we listen to his urgent communiqué?"

Everyone turned to Itami who said. "Doc Wagon team came in here. Tossed a sleep spell that put all of you out. Briar protected me so I didn't pass out." Looking over at an indignant Bardo, the rigger quickly added, "I have no idea why he picked me and he was too busy making snotty remarks to explain it to me. Anyway, they took the egg and the troll who was protecting it. He was knocked cold too, but they couldn't make him let go so they just took both of them. Briar and I followed. They took them to an Osprey they had waiting. When the VTOL flew off, Briar went with it. He sent me back to get you. He put a song in my head that's supposed to get louder when we get closer to where he is. It's still fading which means they're moving away. We gotta move now."

While everyone was absorbing the info, Hamon stepped forward. "Sayla- stay with Sifu. You" he said. Pointing at the shaman, he asked "Are you coming after your spirit?" When Bardo nodded, Hamon continued, "Ok. We need to get to the truck and get moving. Itami you're going to hafta leave the boss with Sayla. She'll watch over him till he comes out of his trance. We need you to home in on the spirit. Mouse, Lug, Doc, let's move. Ma'am," he said to Sara. "I understand your concern, but please don't delay us. Every second counts."

"Please," Doc added before the worried mother could make her case, "Time is of the essence. Your egg is still intact, but this latest player is either entirely new to the game or has been operating behind the scenes and undetected for some time. We must follow this lead immediately. We don't have time to start a new search."

Coming to an instant decision, Sara said, "Very well, but take Tanchacti with you. You can tell her the story as you chase these villains and she will find a way to relay the information back to me. I will make sure that your friends are cared for and ....you'd better take the chopper. It will be faster than your truck."

Although grateful that the feathered serpent was not demanding to hear the story before letting the team go, Doc disliked the implied exchange of hostages. He realized, however, that every additional second he spent bargaining increased the risk to the unborn child. After exchanging looks with Hamon and Lug, Doc said, "Very well. Provided she does not interfere with us and obeys orders. On her oath." The last took the security team aback, betraying, as it did, an insulting lack of trust and at the same time compelling the security officer's commitment.

At Sara's pleading look, Tanchacti said solemnly "I swear I shall do as you order."

After replacing the indignant pilot with Itami, the lost boys, minus Owen and Sayla, but with the additions of Bardo and Tanchacti, took the helicopter off to track down the egg.


Damn! Briar thought, Could they have gotten more fragging remote? This cabin is in the middle of nowhere. But what the......Hello.

The pair of air elementals that met him were not particularly communicative, but their intention, keeping astral travelers away from the clearing and cabin where the VTOL was landing, was abundantly clear. Once Briar decided that these "watch spirits" were simply guards keeping the magical perimeter clear, and not attackers seeking to destroy him, he breathed easier. Because he sensed this relief annoyed the bound spirits he exaggerated it.

Ahhhhh. So good to be free to travel all over the world...... oh, sorry, I meant of course, all over the world except for the tiny patch of ground that you are haunting.....excuse me, guarding. And doing a fine job, if I do say so myself. I'm sure such a powerful pair as yourselves could keep a much bigger area safe, but your summoner probably didn't understand your capabilities so he probably brought in other guards too, am I right?

As the spirit ally continued his aggravating circuit of the guarded area he continued to dish up huge dollops of mock sincerity and backhanded compliments. Not only was he testing the perimeter of the area under magical guard, but he was constantly seeking to goad the elementals into a state of such anger that they would make an exploitable mistake.

Ya know, I'm sure that I wouldn't stand a chance against the two of you, but then as long as I don't get any closer than this.... I don't have to worry about it, do I? Looks like your boss has finished unloading the airplane. Wonder what he wants the dracoform's egg for.....


"How ya feelin, Doc?" Lug asked quietly when the chopper was airborne. When the elf mage pulled his head out of his hands and opened his bloodshot eyes to look at the dwarf, the team's armorer hastily clarified his request. "Hamon needs accurate data to plan our next step. He's got that security slitch grafted to his side and she only seems interested in hearing his version of the action in the sewers, so I figured I'd better get him some answers on how everybody's doing. You and the fat shaman look like ya been rode hard an put away wet. Ya got any mojo left?"

"Unfortunately, my crude friend, your description is frighteningly apropos." The handsome elf answered. "I feel like several miles of bad road and I don't believe either Bardo the extra large or myself will be able to contribute much magic in the next action. I am, however, still strong enough to pull the trigger on this," he said as he drew the Savalette Guardian from under his long coat, "and I believe that the gator shaman's ability with both the silent dart gun he is reloading and that wicked trident are similarly unimpaired. I will get what rest I can, but I fear you must inform the swordsman that our help will be more along the lines of the mundane than the magical."

"I'm ok, Lug." Mouse volunteered with a certain amount of nervous energy when the mage sank back into his seat. "I don't think I was...er...drained or anything, and ...."

"Kid, yer hearts in the right place, and we may have ta use ya, but I ain't bringin no dead bodies back to Sensei if I can help it. You keep yer head down unless somebody from our team asks ya ta do somethin else."

Mouse looked directly into the dwarf's silver eyes before nodding to show that he understood the specific emphasis that the armorer had used. Lug nodded back and then said quietly into his wrist comm, "What about you, Itami? What's yer sit rep?"

"I'm fine, Lug. I wish I knew dat da boss was ok. I'm glad I'm not Hamon, tryin ta figure out what to do with no magic users, but I didn't get stunned by dat last spell like you guys so I'm probably in better shape dan any a you except the security slitch. What's her deal?"

"I wouldn't trust her at all," the dwarf responded quietly, "but Doc took her oath so I guess we gotta pretend she's one of us. Just remember, she gets the egg, even if it gets us all zapped, she's still the hero, so watch yer back."

"I hear ya. Likewise, amigo."


 The hugely muscled figure brooded darkly as he paced up and down in his lair. This has been one colossal frag up from the very start! Galgrathandrien thought. I got reamed at the beginning for the 'insurance' of bugging those vehicles, then my top-of-the-line hit team and the fragging policlubbers get their hoops handed to them. S'ssral gets chased out of his hideout, screwing up more of my plans. I send Gerracioti and the damned go-gangers in, they get their butts kicked, the mage gets away and I get reamed again for the attempted rescue. (Although, truth be told, that white-hared fragger did have me dead to rights, so I guess I should be grateful that Sara was too worried about her damned egg to listen to everything he was saying.) And now, I've had to use my own people to grab the egg before that white-hared freak could turn it over to the slitch. DAMN! I've got to come up with a strategy quickly so that momma can find her dead chick in the hands of Doc's team who were just not good enough to prevent the tragedy. Yeah. Then I can get back to the original plan. Glancing over at the cracked egg in the arms of the sleeping troll he thought. And that fraggin tusker is getting on my nerves....Hmmmm... maybe I can use him as part of the setup for why the newborn is dead...... let me kill him and the kid at the same time.....


Well, well, well. And I didn't think the vehicle had been built that could raise your sorry hoop, chubsie ubsie. Briar thought as he materialized in the chopper's cabin. Better tell that dim bulb Eatme Handsoap to set this thing down before he gets a missile up his tail pipe. Hey! Who's the new keeb slitch? The other one was prettier, but this one has a certain primitive quality that might make her enjoyable in a game of bouncy-bouncy.

Hello, Briar. Bardo thought back. You know you're radiating loud enough for the young lady to hear you.

No shit, Sherlock. How's she gonna know about your sublimated desires to make nik-nik if your faithful ally spirit doesn't manifest what you repress, fatso? As the chopper began to descend the spirit turned to Tanchacti and thought, So how about it, little girl? Want to ride the killer whale? Oh, I see ya got yer heart set on bedding the over-muscled swordsman. Whatsa matter, didn't ya ever read Freud?

Before the elf woman could formulate a response, Doc asked aloud, "Could we possibly put these vital social negotiations on hold until after we've had a scouting report on where the egg has been taken?"

Yeah, sure killjoy. Ruin my fun. Do you know how boring it is living in a sewer with only lard butt for company? I finally get a chance to hang with some minds that aren't constantly preoccupied with food and you come along and piss on my parade *sigh* Awright. Whatta ya wanna know?

"I wanna know how the shaman puts up with you." came out of the speaker grille.

Eatme! Buddy! That you? Hey, don't distract yourself and crash us. Remember, I've seen how small your mind is. Don't go overloading yourself, Handsoap.

"ENOUGH!" Bardo exclaimed. "We don't have the time for you to play these stupid games, Briar. Where is the egg?"

There's a log structure in a clearing approximately 300 yards to the north. The property is guarded by a pair of air elementals, approximately force 4 in strength. I've only seen 6 elves, although one of them was big enough for two, there may have been more inside......

"The big elf", Tanchacti interrupted, "did he have a red beard and a huge physique, er… lots of muscles?"

Oh, is that what physique means? DUH, thank you for clearing dat up. Yes. He had lots of very big muscles all over his physique as well as carmine hued facial follicles. He seemed to be in charge. He directed the others to bring the egg and it's convenient Troll carrying case into the cabin....

"Galgrathandrien!" Doc and Tanchi said simultaneously.

"Wait," Tanchacti immediately added. "First of all, might you have seen an illusion intended to make an observer think it was Gal and second, could you tell if he were under some sort of magical control?"

No. He looked to me like he was in charge, and I can definitely say he was not an illusion. I take it you know this muscle beach refugee?

"Yes," the elf woman answered, "but he's our security chief! My boss! How could he work against the lady's family? Its....."

"It's perfectly conceivable and even logical in its own perverse way." Doc said, "Bear with me for a moment......What if Galgra, whom you will agree is prone to paranoia, sees the lady's attention to her child as ultimately at odds with her own best interest. A child will siphon off time and attention that Sara might have spent enlarging her power or protecting herself. It's an additional vulnerability and a distraction. Now, let's say he comes to that conclusion. In a way, getting rid of the egg is in keeping with his duties to protect her......"

"Yes, but he couldn't harm another member of her house!" Tanchacti exclaimed. "His oath....

"...wouldn't cover something that had not been born yet." Doc interrupted. "Until the egg hatches and the rites have been properly followed, the child is not legally alive and cannot be considered a member of the lady's family. He isn't bound yet to protect it."

"But.....but, he knows how much the child means to the lady." The elf woman said. "How much its loss would hurt her. How could he......"

"Perhaps he wants to hurt her". Hamon said quietly. "You can protect someone from physical harm and still give them emotional pain. Perhaps he is hurt and jealous over the attention she is lavishing on her child. Maybe he wants to get back at her for finding something else more important than him." As Doc nodded the Gillette continued, "He ordered you to bug our vehicles. When we found out your lady was very embarrassed. He captured members of our team while S'ssral got away with the egg. It looked like coincidence but the net result was that Sara was frustrated and hurt. He knocked us out to steal the egg when S'ssral was killed. Again, Sara was a victim"

"Not making us look very good, either." Lug added as an aside.

"Would that be intentional?" Mouse asked.

The chopper got quiet as everyone focused on the decker. "I mean, what if he saw a way to 'help' his lady by getting rid of the egg and at the same time get back at an old enemy? Doc, I've seen how you've reacted with that guy and there's no love lost there. If he felt the same way and could make you look bad while protecting his lady by removing a threat that she didn't understand, he might have arranged the kidnapping, the Mechanics coming after us, S'ssral getting the egg......"

"Damn, Kid. I think you've hit it." Itami's voice said over the speaker. "Pretty sharp."

"Yes, my young friend." Doc added. "Given what I know of the individual in question, you have certainly constructed a plausible motive. It's even believable that he would be behind the scenes, pulling the strings as our lives were on the line. In fact, I can't see too many other interpretations of everything that has happened."

"That's all fine and dandy. The question now is what does that mean to us getting the egg back?" Lug asked. "We've got no magic, except what the smartass spirit brings to the party, we've got to figure that the opposition is armed to the teeth and planning on blasting the egg anyway. The bastard's probably got extensive surveillance and mechanical traps, a pretty crack crew to watch his back and on top of everything else, our time is real limited."

My, my, you're just a barrel of laughs, ain't ya, Bug? Briar broadcast.

"That's LUG", the dwarf corrected.

Lug, Bug, what's the difference? You're still short.

"Briar" Bardo said in a warning tone.

"Barrel of laughs or not," Tanchacti said, "He's right about the reception we can expect. My boss is a huge believer in things like multiple trigger land minds, automatic sentry guns with overlapping fields of fire, huge numbers of rigged sec drones, magical wards, guardians, you name it. If this is his fallback position you can bet that he's got every defensive measure imaginable waiting for invaders." Turning to the spirit she asked, "How big is the clearing around the cabin?"

75 to 80 yards in every direction, then another 15 yards of bushes before you get to the tree line.

"Yes. I'd say he's probably got killing ground arranged in concentric rings around the house. Every 10 yards or so a deadlier set of traps. I wouldn't even be surprised if the house itself is empty and the crew is actually in some sort of bombshelter basement. This is going to be a hell of a tough nut to crack."


Sayla's exhaustion made her feel like she was carrying around a huge weight. She just wanted to sleep. Her concern for her lover, however, galvanized her to remain conscious as the pair was transported back to Sara's home "where they would be safe". The elf mage empathized with the feathered serpent's worry and certainly wanted to see the child safely returned to its mother, but did not entirely trust the dracoform. I guess that phrase, 'never deal with a dragon' runs pretty deep. She thought. Her major concern, however, was the trancing Physical adept whose face still resembled a huge bruise after his encounter with the invisible force from the void. I'm sure his entire body is as badly bruised as his face, she thought. At least he seems to have been able to heal his fingers. That must have really hurt. I wish I had enough magic to help him.

"I'm sure he'll be fine, my dear". Sayla started as the feathered serpent's elven form spoke up. "I'll have some tea brought in and we can talk while you watch him. It will be a pleasant distraction since we both seem helpless to do anything more than wait and worry."

"You're very kind, lady" Sayla said.

"Oh, please. Don’t be so formal. Call me Sara." As the tall blonde woman took a seat she continued, "so, tell me everything that's happened since you started on this adventure."


19


"....but you wouldn't have to limit yourself to anti-aircraft missiles here and here." Tanchacti said while pointing to the hastily drawn map of the log building's surrounding area. "Put them here and here and here in concealed pits. Hell, put them right next to drone pits to add to the difficulty of a land attack. Or set up a pop up platforms with radar controlled vindicators and you can use them on attackers in the air or on the ground." As Hamon leaned back against the cooling helicopter, and continued studying the map for an exploitable weakness, Tanchacti continued. "Gal may be crazy with jealousy or in the midst of an elaborate revenge, but he certainly is not stupid. He will have taken as much time and spent as much money as he needs to have anticipated every conceivable kind of attack. I doubt if we could get at him with anything short of a nuke..."

"We could try walking a path of mortar fire up to his front door," Lug offered, "if we had a mortar."

"I'm telling you he's sure to have anticipated that and every other conceivable attack" Tanchacti countered.

"Then don't attack," Mickey said quietly.

It was a mark of how far the young decker had come that the entire group stopped whatever they were doing to hear Mouse's strategy.

"Go ahead, young tactician. We are all ears" Doc said.

Well, Briar corrected, some of us are more ears than others, DOC. Some of us are mostly stomach....

Seeing that nobody was rising to the bait, Briar quieted down and listened to the ork decker.

"Did Galgrathandrien set up the defenses of the lady's home?" Mouse asked the elf woman.

"Yes, of course. Why?"

"Would you say that it would be as strongly held as this place?"

"Easily" Tanchi responded with a quizzical look. "But I don't see where you are going."

"Why don't we do what he did," Mouse asked, "assuming that he was the one who planned the break-in at the estate?"

"Kid," Lug said, "I don't think S'ssral and the Mechanics are going to come back from the grave so we can hire them and...."

"Let him finish" Hamon said quietly."Go ahead, Mouse."

"Well we can't attack from the air or the land because he's sure to be prepared for that and any spectacular distraction will probably cause him to kill the child. Even if we were to negotiate or surrender, he'd probably destroy the egg as a precaution, right? So what we need to do is suddenly appear inside his defenses. We need to bypass all of his traps. We need to do what his team did when they invaded the estate."

"An earth elemental? It's a good idea, kid, but your talking major mojo that we don't have. Doc and Bardo are out of juice and Sayla is back with the boss." Itami said.

"Briar can do it." Mouse responded, "And Hamon is still carrying that ward breaker thing....."

"No. Absolutely not." Doc interrupted, "You don't understand the corrupting influence of that artifact, Mouse. It is ancient and evil, with tremendous power to warp the soul. In addition, conjuring an earth elemental with sufficient power is hardly......

Yes? Go ahead, long ears. Briar interrupted, I'm dying to hear your pronouncements on my capabilities. It's bound to be so much more accurate than ....oh, Bardo's for example."

"Briar, are you saying you think you have the power to conjure a great enough earth elemental that we can make this underground attack?" Bardo asked.

Well, um, I've never tried but I don't see why not....

"Briar," Doc interrupted before Bardo could explain the difficulties, "I know how to call an earth elemental. Could you...work with me to summon the spirit. It might be easier than doing it by yourself."

Sure. It would give me some reference points. Anytime your ready.

As Bardo was going to again object to the ally spirit of a shaman calling a creature traditionally limited to the hermetic realm of magic, Tanchacti interrupted with "And if you have something that will cut through the wards around this place, but it's cursed, I'd request that I be allowed to wield it. I know that you agreed to have me along more as an observer than a participant, but if Galgra has done what you believe he has done, he has stained the honor of our entire guard. Even if you are completely wrong, it is still partly my dishonor that someone left in our charge was ever taken to begin with. I cannot sit back and watch as someone risks their minds as well as their lives over something that I should have never allowed to happen. The dishonor must be expunged and that can only happen if a member of the guard lead the attack." Dropping to her knees with great drama, she said, "Please, I beg you. For the honor of my house, let me be the one to risk the curse of this corrupting artifact."

"You don't understand....." Doc began.

"I understand that every moment we delay brings my lady's child closer to death," Tanchacti interrupted. "I know that I have sworn my life and my honor to defend the house and that without some way through the magical wards around this place, we will never be able to save the child. I know that I am the freshest, that my will is strong and that I am the most logical choice. I also know that it is the best chance we have at success."

In the stunned silence that followed, Hamon stepped up to the elf woman, helped her to her feet and then slowly did a deep bow as he pulled the puzzle box out of the grenade bag at his side. Opening the box carefully he said, "Your courage does you honor. It would be a privilege to fight at your side."

"Indeed" said Doc

"Absolutely", "I agree", "Me too", "Yes". From the other metahumans standing next to the chopper.

Even Briar was impressed Not bad, sweetcheeks. Ya got guts. Now, if we can knock off the mutual admiration society, you guys can see a shaman's ally spirit work with a hermetic mage to call forth an earth elemental. Turning to Bardo he winked and thought, You really didn't think I wasn't aware of the theoretical difficulties did you, fats? I know everything you know. Fortunately, I also know a lot that you don't. The spirit then turned back to Doc, thinking, Anytime you're ready, Whitey.

Doc sank into a full lotus and said "Let's do it."


Gates swiveled his chair on the elevated second tier of seats facing the wall of monitors. Four of his team were arranged below him wired to their consoles. Each had direct neural feeds from the sensor nets around the building and each had command of a sector of drones and automated defense mechanisms. The fifth team member had no wires plugged into his head, but had a radio link and was waiting with hand poised above rows of blinking lights. Dawson looks edgier than his charges, Gates thought as he watched the para-animal trainer sweat. He's the one to let loose the least predictable element of this set up, the team leader concluded, shuddering as he thought about the hell hounds and bogies. As nasty as those dog variants are, I'd prefer them to that pair of Plasmas or even those Cockatrices, the sec leader thought. What a nasty piece of work the boss is, having those nightmares released behind the attackers. Really frag your day up to fight through enough of this security to realize it's hopeless, then turn around and find a horde of parabeasties looking to eat your hoop. I wonder if Dawson understands that the other four will rig their toys to kill everything in the field, including his pets. Well, if he doesn't, he'll find out soon enough if the boss is right about the runners tracking us down..... Speaking of the boss, where is "Big Red"? Probably working off nervous energy by lifting....

Gates was absolutely correct about his boss's activities. In another area of the underground shelter Galgrathandrien attacked a weight pile, clad only in unitard, weight belt and lifting shoes. Noting with satisfaction the "bow" in the titanium steel bar, the redheaded giant pressed weights that were hardly believable. His grotesquely huge arms glistened with sweat as he grunted through another rep. C'MON, DO IT, DO IT, DO IT! YA GOTTA GET BIGGER, BIGGER, BIGGER! SIZE DOES MATTER! LIFT THAT WEIGHT, YOU WIMP. YOU WANT TROGS TO STEP ASIDE FOR YOU? GIVE YOU RESPECT? THEN LIFT, DAMMIT!

As caught up as he was in the drive to increase his muscle mass, Galgra heard the troll's groan from the repeating monitor he had left with the egg. DREK! he thought, I can't even work out in peace without that egg finding some way to intrude. Well, I'm gonna squash that troll with my bare hands and then I'm gonna get rid of that headache once and for all.


Groggily the troll returned to consciousness. Huey didn't really know where he was, but he knew he was hurt. His leg really ached and every time he took a breath, his left side stung. Fuzzily looking around he realized there was something wrong with his eye, too. As he tried to make sense of this flood of information, he heard a pecking sound from inside the egg.

"No, no, no, no, no. Shhhhhhh, shhhhh, honey. Everything is fine. Huey's here. Shhhhh, shhhhh. You don't hafta come out, honey. All the bad mans are gone. Nobody hurt you. Huey is here. Shhhh, shhhhhh."

In spite of Huey's attempt to calm the restive mind within the egg, the tapping sounds continued. The troll began looking around for some help in calming "his" egg, but after finding nothing, resumed his rocking.

Galgrathandrien entered the room and said "Get up, Trog. It's time to die," with all the passion one might reserve for "Feed the dog" or "wash the car". The tone was so placid that Huey ignored it and continued rocking his egg. The the hugely muscled elf said, "Didn't you hear me, stupid? It's time to die. First you, and then your precious egg."

Huey heard and reacted to this. He started up and despite wincing at the pain in his side and leg, managed a snarl which made Galgra smile. "Did that get your attention, Moron?" The red bearded elf asked with a smile, "Do you understand now that your last sight will be me pounding that egg flat?"

"NO! YOU DON'T HURT THE BABY!! BABY DID NOTHING BAD!" Huey shouted.

"Think you're strong enough to stop me, Trog? C'mon. Let see." Galgra invited as he held both palms towards his opponent and began moving in.


Mouse didn't know if he was dreaming or awake. After what he assumed were a couple of false starts, Doc and Briar had called up... something. It wasn't one of the rock men that he had heard were the results of summoning an earth elemental, nor was it the kind of "spirit of the place" that he'd heard shamen produced. It was.... well, it was weird. It's lower body sort of blended into the ground, it's upper body resembled a lizard's torso and it's too large, human-looking head was topped with a single tuft of hair which kept changing color. The thing spoke (nearly continuously) in a reedy, high pitched voice, but not even Briar could understand it. Fortunately, it understood Briar and when he explained where he wanted to go the spirit had shrugged and gestured. Everyone was suddenly encased in a sort of bubble. Now the spirit didn't seem to dig or anything, but suddenly the bubble was underground. Mouse expected to feel some sort of movement as the bubble made it's journey, but instead felt like the bubble was keeping perfectly still while the earth flashed by around it.

Mouse watched as everybody seemed perplexed by the fact that there were flashes of color as the earth flowed around the bubble, but Tanchacti had no occasion to draw the artifact in order to penetrate wards. The decker recognized that the magic users were shocked at the spirit's ability, as it actually conducted them through the wards which surrounded the property.

Without any warning the bubble appeared in a large underground room. The spirit thing waved and sunk into the ground and suddenly there was no longer any bubble. Mouse found his attention riveted on the two gigantic figures in the center of the room.

The troll was limping as he and the over-muscled elf danced around the room. The pair were palm to palm with fingers interlaced in what was apparently a test of strength. When Tanchacti screamed "GAL", the red bearded figure turned, saw her and a look of pure fury passed over his face. Suddenly the troll was outlined in a crackling carona of electricity and Mouse could see that every hair was standing on end. The smell of ozone completed the decker's impression that the troll had suddenly been subjected to a massive electrical charge.

As the troll's body fell to the floor and lay spasamming, the elf gestured and suddenly everyone seemed rooted in place. Mouse heard Doc mutter "glue spell" before Hamon, Itami, Lug and Bardo opened fire. Mouse and Tanchacti immediately added to the noise as they too fired on the hugely muscled figure who stood laughing at the ineffectual fusillade. The decker noticed that Doc hadn't drawn his weapon, but seemed to be attempting to distract his opponent by gesturing as if he were throwing a spell.

"HA-HA-HA-HA! Did you I would be unprepared for mundane weapons? It's so disappointing to be underestimated. And what is that, my old enemy? A new dance step? I can see your power is gone. HA-HA-HA!"

Mouse could see that every shot was stopped before it reached the muscular figure. It must be a really powerful version of Doc's or Sayla's bullet barrier, the Decker reasoned.

The red bearded giant, still laughing, then began making plucking motions and the weapons were ripped out of the team's hands, only to float to a pile at Galgra's right side. When Lug and Hamon attempted to pull grenades the elf gestured again and they found that both their hands were stuck to grenade and pin. Galgra laughed as he said, "Count yourselves lucky that I didn't know what those were. If I had, I might have let you pull the pins and then glued them to your hands."

Mouse saw Briar launch some kind of spell at the hulking figure, but it too was stopped before it could reach Galgrathandrien. His laughter at the earlier attacks apparently did not extend to magical activity as Gal growled and threw a spell back which literally froze the spirit. Saying "Now you pay for daring to annoy me" the elf seemed to be summoning power in preparation for some spell that would completely destroy Briar, when a huge fist crashed down on his shoulder.

The wet report of a celery stalk breaking indicated that Huey's massive fist had broken Gal's clavicle. Normally a painful enough occurrence to render a sufferer insensible, the elf's amazing physique stood him in good stead. With a roar of fury the prone elf kicked out into the troll's damaged leg. With a cry of pain Huey went down. As the elf regained his feet and placed a glowing hand along side his neck, Mouse assumed he was healing the injury he had just sustained. How do you take out a spell worm with the power to undo any damage he takes? the decker wondered.

Standing over the whimpering troll, the elf pronounced a word of power , stunning Huey into unconsciousness. "You'll be a long time dying for daring to strike me, trog. But first, I have some other guests to entertain." When he turned back to the runners and grinned, Doc recognized how close to the edge his childhood rival was. He has to be juiced to the gills, heroic stature or not, to launch those 7 spells inside of 40 seconds and still be standing. And that's assuming his barriers were quickened to his shoes or his belt. By the powers! He's channeled enough mana in a short enough time to knock out a dragon. He's got to be whacked out of his mind. This isn't going to be much fun.

"Now, first of all, I'm going to take care of you," Galgra said as he advanced on the frozen ally spirit. "I've researched a new spell, which I was going to use on my old nemesis as well as the damned egg. It's a mana drain that gives me the power of whoever it hits. It will be interesting to see what it does to a spirit."

As Galgra reached out, Bardo screamed "NOOO!!" and threw his Zinnor at the elf. Like the bullets fired earlier, the barrier spells encasing the huge elf stopped the trident before it could reach it's target. At the black touch of the elf's hand Briar gave a despairing wail and faded from existence.

Without a pause, Galgra picked up the shaman's trident and turning on the magic user said, "And I don't appreciate distractions." Moving closer to the stationary figure he continued "Particularly not from fat frags like you." Then stabbing the bound shaman with his own weapon, the elf cruelly punctuated each word of his sentence by perforating his victim, saying "You....disgusting....tub...of.... lard."

Satisfied with the fountain of blood pouring from the shaman's multiple wounds, the elf said, "It'll be interesting to see how long it takes you to bleed to death, fatso. I'll be back to you in a few. First, I've got to deal with these others. Don't go away."

"Now, first of all, I think you all deserve some pain for annoying me." Galgrathandrien said with a gesture. Suddenly Mouse screamed as he was beset by the worst earache of his life. Through the haze of agony he was dimly aware of the groans of his team members as the pain set in. "Next, I suppose I have to make a decision. Do I let the great Doc Cu'o'c watch his team mates suffer and die, or do I keep them as an audience to their leader's humiliation? Hmmm. Tough choice. Oh, and don't worry Ms. Springbreeze, I haven't forgotten you. I just want you to watch me pull the mana out of the damned egg before you die, you traitor."

"You're....the...traitor." Tanchacti grated out through teeth clenched against the blinding pain.

"I? I, a traitor? No, no, no. I will protect the lady, even from her own destructive urges. I am truer to my oath than you have ever dreamed of, slitch. You are the one who have turned on a superior officer. Who has given aid to the enemy and who shortly will pay a hideous price. No, you are the traitor here."

Turning towards the helpless figure of Doc, he continued, "Although not the greatest traitor here. The greatest traitor is Doc. Doc, who wasn't satisfied to be my friend. No, that wasn't good enough for him. He had to try to beat me. To humiliate me. If I had a skill he sought to exceed it, if I did well in a class, he was always pushing to outshine me. Sucking up to teachers, toadying for a point or two, just to exceed my grades and make himself look good at my expense"

Standing over the handsome figure clutching his head, Galgra continued. "Once you came into that school it was never the same. Everything became a competition. Nothing was as easy as it had been. I can't tell you how many sleepless nights I suffered through trying to find a perch you couldn't knock me from. And then, then you took Sara. She was mine. I was the best and she was mine until you came around with your smooth talk and your pretty face and.......Well, times have changed, haven't they, old chum. Schools over. I've waited, I've watched and I've prepared for this day. Now it's here. Now you can see that I am the stronger and the smarter and the more powerful. The time has finally come for me to pay you back for some long-standing debts."


20


Gloating over the smaller figure before him, Galgrathandrien threw back his head and laughed at a new idea.

"You know, I just realized that the first payment for you should involve your failure to protect the damned egg! Perfect! A little bitterness as you stand there helplessly and watch the life you swore to protect die. Yes....NO WAIT! I have an even better idea. Here"

With a gesture the hugely muscled elf released the spell which held Doc's feet to the ground. Giggling insanely, Galgrathandrien said "We'll make it a game. You try to stop me. Prevent me from destroying the egg." With another gesture he stopped the pain for the other trapped runners. "These will be your cheering section. They can... encourage you. HA-HA! This will be fun. Ready, get set, go"

"Galgra, you don't have to do..... UHHHHHH!" Doc's attempt to reason with the hulking figure was cut off by a backhand which sent him flying across the room.

"I didn't say you could talk, you pig fragger!" Galgra grated out through clenched teeth. "The time for talking ended years ago. Sara chose you to protect her child. Now shut up and protect it or I'm going to kill it."

"Doc, It's a sucker's game." Lug called out. "He's gonna break the egg anyway, don't.... URK."

"Now, now. You're supposed to encourage Doc, halfer, not talk him out of the game. If you're going to use your breath to distract him, then you don't get any more breath." Galgra said as an invisible hand tightened around Lug's throat.

As Doc pulled himself to his feet, Mouse called out, "He's big, Doc, but he's got no balls. Not only does he rig the game but then he complains about the audience. He's nothing but a bighHHHHHHHHH..."

As the decker doubled over in pain from another gesture by the red bearded elf, Galgra asked "You think I'm going to allow you to insult me, tusker? You think that I'll punish this sawed-off runt but that I'll let you keep breathing air?"

When Bardo weakly called out "Coward" and Galgra turned to add to his punishment, Itami made eye contact with Hamon and nodded at Tanchacti. He hoped that the tactician in the group would read the throwing gesture and understand the idea. Gritting his teeth for the pain he knew he was about to endure he took up the taunting. "He's really pretty laughable, Doc. Ya know, he's really pretty small AHHHHHHHH"

"SMALL?! DID YOU SAY SMALL, YOU DAMNED TUSKER! I'LL SHOW YOU SMALL!" The enraged giant screamed as he gestured at the rigger. He grinned viciously as the ork reacted to an invisible crushing weight that was driving him to the floor.

Hamon drew both his katanas and then, looking at Tanchacti, threw the blades at the giant elf's feet muttering, "I would not even sully my blades with this honorless offal." As the enraged mage turned to punish this latest insult, Tanchacti understood what was going on.

He's trying to show me what to do. He's throwing his weapons at Gal. My firearms are gone but, if I were to throw this Tanchacti thought as she drew the artifact from it's lead lined box. Immediately a flood of images filled her mind. She saw the power of the Bajang Jitte and knew that no ward or spell could stand before it. She could defend her lady from any magical threat with the artifact and any magic user who dared oppose her would be destroyed. She could be her own woman, the artifact whispered, with power as great as the feathered serpent. Even Sara would fear the wielder of the Bajang Jitte....

With a start the elf woman recognized the artifact's influence. Her honor was her loyalty to her oath. Sara had admitted Tanchacti to her household because of the oath of loyalty and it was central to her existence. When the artifact whispered that she could cease to be milessaratish it had moved outside of the elf woman's very concept of herself. It was as jolting as suggesting that she grow more arms or live at the bottom of the ocean.

Shocked out of her reverie, Tanchi threw the Bajang Jitte at her former boss. As the ward breaker struck, it removed all of the giant elf's spell barriers. Doc, though exhausted and in pain, had watched his teammates carefully and was waiting to take advantage of any opening they provided. When the artifact struck the giant, Doc quietly said "Gal?" and smoothly drawing the Savalette Guardian from his jacket, put a three round burst threw his old schoolmate's forehead. As the giant toppled backwards, a shocked look on his face, an exhausted Doc said quietly "Debt paid in full, you sadistic bastard."


With Galgrathandrien's death, his "punishments" dissipated. The team found they were still stuck to the floor but were able to breathe, stand and think again. Tanchacti managed to step out of the boots, which were still stuck fast to the floor, and after ascertaining that Galgra was in fact dead, retrieved her weapons and checked the egg. As soon as he was sure it was intact she pulled out her medkit and placed it on the barely breathing troll. She looked up to see that Doc was in the process of putting his own kit on Bardo. As soon as the troll's life signs stabilized she took the puzzle box, retrieved the Bajang Jitte and placing the artifact inside, handed it back to Hamon.

"Excellent job, Tan." The swordsman said with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. "You must have been tempted, but you came through with your soul intact. Well done. Glad you were so quick on the uptake about tossing the thing."

The elf woman found herself blushing at the swordsman's praise. The fact that he had used a familiar nickname also added to the sec officer's pleasure. "Well, you throwing your swords was kind of a tip off. I mean, how often does a samurai surrender his soul." Hamon's smile and bow at this analysis gave Tanchacti another delicious tingle.


"For the love of heaven, Lug, please, please put those boots back on." Doc said as the team finally overcame the last of Galgrathandrien's spells.

"And I thought those puke grenades smelled bad" Itami stage whispered.

"Ya know, you guys each do have unrestricted permission to kiss my hairy white ass." Lug responded.

While Mouse chuckled and Itami theatrically shuddered, Doc said, "Even amidst the horrors we have witnessed in the past few days, you have created an image there which will disturb my rest for weeks."

Hamon, however, got down to business. Turning to Tanchacti he said "How are our patients?"

"The egg is showing signs it's about to hatch," she said, "We probably have an hour or less. The troll is stable but he's taken a lot of punishment. I don't think he'll wake much before the egg. Bardo is in worse shape. Gal really did a number on him with that trident and he's lost a lot of blood. Unless we can get him some real medical attention in a hurry, I'm afraid we may lose him."

"All right. We don't have the spirit to get us out of here and the stuff that was intended to keep others out will probably be real effective keeping us in. Ideas?"

"Could we distract the riggers who are guarding this place?" Tanchacti asked.

"That's one possibility." Hamon replied, "Any other ideas?"

"Can anybody imitate the big guy's voice?" Mouse asked.

Itami said "You think I'm going to allow you to insult me, tusker?" in an imitation so uncanny that it raised the hair on the back of everyone's neck.

"Hey, that's good enough to be creepy, Hanzo." Lug said, "How'd you do that?"

"I had to develop an ear for how other's spoke when I was working my way out of the gutters," the ork admitted. "Helped me out of more than one tight spot."

"I've worked with Gal for years and you've got it. His voice, timing and inflection, all perfect." Tanchacti said.

"Well, if you can assemble all of the riggers down here, we may be able to get out without firing another shot" Mouse responded.

"Hold on there, kid." Lug said, "I'm tired, I'm sore and I'm about at the end of my rope. Give us a breakdown of the plan so that we all know what we're trying to do."

"Ok," the decker replied. "Itami calls the riggers and demands that everybody assemble down here so that he can...uh...give them some new instructions. We knock them out, head up to ground level and take their Osprey. Simple."

"They betrayed......" Tanchacti began.

"Wait a minute." Doc interrupted. "I don't know who they swore their allegiance to, who they betrayed or what other sins they committed. My focus is to get the egg back to Sara. Let's accomplish that goal before we begin wetwork missions against oath breakers. Agreed?"

Seeing everyone nod and realizing that Doc did have the correct priorities, Tanchacti reluctantly agreed. Itami, however pointed out that even without riggers in control the automated systems would still kill anyone inside the perimeter.

"Yes," Mouse agreed, "But if we can get to the Osprey, wouldn't they have some sort of Friend or Foe transponder on board to prevent them shooting down their own transport? I was thinking that if there were a mind behind the guns it could override the FOF and blow us out of the air, but if we removed the metahuman controller, the mechanical systems would be easy to fox."

"Anybody have a better idea?" Hamon asked. Greeted with silence he continued, "Ok, we need to find a com unit to talk to the riggers. Doc, you and Mouse are our back-up. Have your guns ready to take out anybody who gives us trouble." Aiming his next comment directly at Mouse he said, "If there's any trouble at all, don't hesitate, don't analyze. Your team's lives are on the line. Shoot the fraggers." then turning back to the rest of the group said, "Itami, call them from behind that screen. Stay low in case this turns into a firefight. Lug, you're over there, I'm here, Tan, you make sure nobody makes the egg a hostage. Ok, non-lethals unless it escalates, right? Any questions? Ok, Itami. Up to you."

"Is anyone awake in there?" Itami demanded with Galgrathandrien's voice.

"Yes, sir." Gates responded to the comm call from his boss. "We have all stations manned and ready."

"Well get everyone together, put the defenses on auto and come in here. I want to know who did this to the egg."

"Sir," Gates said with some hesitation in his voice, "with the opposition's move imminent, is it wise to walk away from our defenses at this moment? Perhaps you could talk to us in here or maybe this discussion could wait....."

"Listen, you fool. If I thought it could wait I wouldn't have called you in here would I?"

"No, sir. I'm sure you had a good reason for your request. Are you asking for a 10-61?"

Tanchacti leaped up and desperately began signaling NO! when Itami said, "Listen, you half-wit. I don't waste my time with preparedness drills, nor do I call employees to ask them to ignore my last transmission, you moron. Stop arguing with me, get your sorry hoop down here NOW and bring everyone else or consider an alternate career as a test subject for our defensive capabilities. MOVE!"

"YES, SIR" Gates snapped just moments before he and his team were Narcojetted into unconsciousness.


With Tanchacti giving all the proper code responses the Doc Wagon Osprey landed at Sara's estate just minutes before the egg hatched. Owen had come out of his trance, so he and a tired but happy Sayla met the VTOL and rejoined the team. Together they escorted the egg into an anxiously awaiting Sara. The look on the elf woman's face was a combination of relief, joy and boundless love, and her tears of gratitude so moving that Mouse could only nod when Lug pointed out in a reverent whisper "Makes all the pain worthwhile, don't it, kid? It's the reward you was asking about."

Leaving the mother and child some privacy, the team went to check on Bardo and Huey. Both were still unconscious and under the care of medical and magical specialists. Relieved at the news that both would survive without permanent injury none of the lost boys made any objections when the lady's staff hustled them off to guest rooms where they could collapse.


Twenty four hours later a somewhat refreshed and recovered band of shadowrunners witnessed the naming ceremony for Sara's newborn. With the wide eyed innocence of the very young, Penelope waddled/slid up to each of the runners in turn for a sniff and an inquisitive glance. She was stopped by the loss she sensed from Bardo without being close to understanding it, and seemed delighted with the size of Lug, the only being smaller than herself. Huey's forlorn looks at the remnants of the egg shell also seemed to disturb the young feathered serpent until she smelled the Troll and then recognition dawned. Without any self consciousness she wrapped herself around and around his giant form, laying her head on his chest. When he failed to begin rocking, as he obviously was supposed to, Penelope gave a few gentle squeezes to make her big toy work. The look of peace and contentment that settled on the troll's features as he stood awkwardly rocking revealed the giant's joy and love for the newborn. A thought from her mother drew her attention and Penelope's desire was quickly communicated

*Can we keep him?*


As the lost boys began their fifth day of R&R at Sara's estate, everyone recognized that the time to depart was at hand. Sara asked for everyone to meet her in the music room.

"First of all, I'd like to deal with Bardo, who came into this unintentionally and has suffered the loss of his home and a piece of himself in recovering my child. I grieve for your loss and have racked my brain for some way to compensate you for everything you have sacrificed....."

Just, whatever you do, don't feed him or you'll never get rid of him, the long eared devil rat in the corner thought.

"BRIAR!" Bardo exclaimed with joy that was evident to all. "But how? You were destroyed. The elf's mana drain....."

Damned fat has gone to your head, chubby. Briar responded, You just won't pick up on any of the clues, will you? All right, we'll review them one by one. Pay attention. I.... occupied Eatme's so called mind, granted it was an impossibly tight fit, being such a narrow, small space, but the 64 nuyen question remains: where in the spirit ally's handbook does it say I should be able do that, hmm? A spirit ally making a choice to leave it's...uhm...associate to possess somebody else? I don't think so. Now this is after I avoid being sucked into the vortex that nutboy number 1 created when he opened a door to the void. Think, mullet head, did any other spirits survive?

Ok, so clue three. I work with a hermetic mage to summon an earth elemental. Have you ever even heard of anything like that? Ever? Did you take a look at my summoning? Did that tip you? Of course not. Too many layers of fat around your brain. Now clue four. I was "destroyed" after nutboy number 2 froze me and hit me with a mana drain. Fine. Suppose you tell me how the frag you freeze a spirit?

This starting to sink in there, fat head? Just because I hang around with you doesn't mean that you created me. I just happened to find you when you needed some help and I got some chuckles being the trusted lieutenant of the king of the sewers. You people always think you can codify everything and once it's been defined you don't have to think about it anymore. Well guess again , doughboy, the world don't work that way.

"But, gosh, Briar. Where have you been? I thought you were dead" I hear you whine. Well, look. First of all, maybe I figured you might appreciate me if you had to start living without me and....uh, well, I picked the only place worse than Eatme's cluttered head to hide when Big Red came at me for a mana sandwich. I jumped into Huey's empty noggin, thinking I'd attack the fragger from behind. I did, but he had more mana available to him than I would have believed and he knocked the big lummox out. Now, when you woke the clown up, I'm disoriented and there just aren't any clear paths in that troll's empty melon. Lots and lots of loops, very few reference points. It wasn't until he started dreaming of baby Penelope that I was able to find a way out.

"Well, I am very, very glad to see you, old friend. My life wouldn't have been the same without you...."

Aw, if your going to start blubbering I'm going back to that vast wasteland between Huey's ears. This could get gross in a hurry, tons-of-fun.

"Charming to the last." Doc said dryly. "Sara, may I present the last member of our troop, Briar. Briar, this is the mother whose child was taken, the lady Sara."

Yo, the rat responded. Now, you're handing out rewards, right? Cool. Just undo the damage you did to Fatboy's so called home, give him some creds to fatten himself up on and we're even.

"I see," Sara said with a hint of a smile. "And does Bardo get any input?"

Lady, he lives in a fraggin sewer, for cripes sake. If he had any ambitions don't you think he'd have found better living conditions? Just the repairs and some creds and let us out of here.

"Bardo?" the lady asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Who am I to argue, lady? I don't even know my own ally spirit. What he says will be fine."

"May I at least replace the furnishing you lost?" Sara asked.

Sure. In fact, it'll be fun to watch your elves decorate a sewer.

"Well, with that settled so nicely, let's proceed. Mouse, I've heard some very impressive things about your leaps of inspiration. A strategist who can think 'outside the box' is quite an asset. I don't know your world of the matrix, but my people tell me this will probably be of use to you. Please take it with my sincere thanks." One of the lady servants brought out Zixx's cyberdeck.

"But, but this is a Fuchi 9. And it's been souped up" the delighted decker said as he quickly unscrewed the outer casing. "This is arctic! But, it's way too...." looking up Mouse stopped in mid sentence as he saw his team giving him the high sign. Stopping to swallow hard he said "Uh, thank you very much for your generosity, lady. I'm grateful and I...hope Lady Penelope has a long and happy life....."

"No, my dear. It is I who am grateful to you." the beautiful woman said with a smile. Turning to Doc she said "He learns very quickly, doesn't he? And he's polite."

"He's also got courage, a sense of honor and tremendous ability or he wouldn't be part of the team" Doc said as though it was self evident. Mouse blushed as he studied his new deck.

"Sayla, my dear. To thank you for your help not only in risking your life recovering my child, but also for your calming words when I felt I would lose my mind with worry, please take this crystal." As the lady removed the pendant from around her neck and placed it in Sayla's hands she continued, "It is very, very old and has been used as an aid to meditation for centuries. I hope it will speed your centering and bring you speren (Harmony, peacefulness) in times of trouble. You may also find that you are less exhausted from channeling mana while you wear it. Thank you."

"Thank you, lady. I will treasure your gift." Sayla said quietly.

"Itami Hanzo. I know as little of your world of machines as I do of Mouse's life in the matrix, but I would reward you for your heroism none the less. My people have taken apart the traitor's hideaway. They have found uses for some of the drones and others they have placed in the Osprey that you arrived in. Please accept the plane and them with my gratitude."

"Thank you ma'am. If you or Lady Penelope ever need help again, please call on us."

With a regal nod but a pleased smile the beautiful woman turned to Hamon. "I do understand your world, swordsman. I know your code, and though I don't believe I can improve on your tools, I have a gift I believe you will treasure. This scroll" she said as she placed a lacquered box in Hamon's hands, "contains the only surviving drawings by Musashi Miyamoto. The kenjutsu he draws is a two-swords style of paired katanas. Since I understand you are one of a handful to have mastered the style, I think it is appropriate that you have it. Please take it with my thanks."

"Lady.....I...I..... thank you." the swordsman said after several false starts. Tanchacti beamed to see how deeply affected the razor was.

"And I can't very well thank Hamon and not thank Lug, who, by the way, my daughter thinks is wonderful." Before the surly dwarf could begin harumphing, Sara continued, "So for you, my fine brinksman, I have a new weapon. It is a custom made pistol. As you can see it's very sturdy and not very large. It will only fire 10 shots before it is entirely useless, but, the next time you face down a mage with a bullet barrier, you won't have to lie about the laser you have trained on him."

"You mean?"

"Yes, it's one of about a dozen self contained hand units in existence. It's designed by Spall and apparently uses some zero-g material for lenses or something. In any event, it's very effective and since you like to claim you have such a weapon, I thought it would be good if you actually did have one. Think of us should you ever have occasion to use it."

"I will. Thank you very much."

"Owen. You're a difficult man to find a gift for, however I have some contacts in the cultural preservation society offices in Chiba. I got you these. I hope you like them." She handed Owen a box of trid chips. When the Phys ad saw the cover on the first chips in the box his heart leaped to his throat. "Ran", "Sanjuro", "The Life and Opinion of Masseur Ichi", "The Seven Samurai". Suddenly he was again a giddy 10 year old with a box of contraband samurai films. Barely able to contain himself the phys ad said "Lady, in all the world you could not find a more moving gift for me. You have given me back a piece of my childhood. I know how difficult these are to acquire, how jealously they are guarded by private collectors. I thank you from the bottom of my heart."

"Oh, good. I'm so pleased you like them. Now, let's see, oh yes. Tanchacti Springbreeze. I haven't forgotten your part in saving my daughter, and I've heard that you risked your soul as well as your life. Did you actually beg for the chance to be the one to risk touching that ward breaker?" When the sec officer nodded, Sara said "Well, to have risked so much.... would you be willing to take over the security force? To command my guard? I can think of no one more worthy or capable of protecting my family."

"With the last breath of my body" Tanchacti responded with reverence.

"Excellent. Which just leaves you, my old dear friend." Sara said as she faced the handsome white hared mage. "How can I repay the Doc Cu'o'c for bringing me the heroes to save my child? For risking his life repeatedly for my daughter? What can I give you...."

"Give me your thanks, Sara, and let that be enough. Next time, you'll owe me." Doc said, "Between old friends like us, such is the way of debts."

End Trans


A personal note

First of all, thank you for taking the time to read this. (No, not this this, I mean the story this.... You...uh.. did read the story, didn't you?) Secondly, huge thanks to my friends online- Shadorat, DeckerM, Gantroc, Tat, Jennifer, Firecatt and AislinnF who maintained a steady stream of encouragement. You guys really kept me going on this one. Thanks to anyone who took the time to send me feedback. I really appreciate it. Finally, if you read this and enjoyed it, I'd ask you to recognize that you could probably do as well or better if you'd give it a try. You've got the imagination, if you add a little effort to set it down, you'd be amazed with what happens. I always am.

shapcano


DAT'S IT! DAT'S ALL! WE DONE! G'NITE!

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