This is a write up of a game at the last DunDraCon. Not everything that happened in the ga

---
Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

This is a write up of a game at the last DunDraCon. Not everything that happened in the game happened in this story and not everything that happened in this story happened in the game; but it's a fairly close approximation. Chuckle. MUCH thanks go to Carl Rigney for not only running the game but doing a wonderful job working this thing over as an editor. And thanks to Bruce (Hachiman) Harlick, Mark (Kilroy) Bailey, and Kathy (Catskill) Fugitt for giving me solid feedback on their characters. Plus the countless folks that helped with editing detail. It *all* helped. The game was run on Carl's particular varient of Shadowrun, and I hope that the story pleases. Phyllis ------- Saraquael watched with narrowed eyes as Ben Ali strode quietly into the Highlands Graveyard, a rent-a-rack. Saraquael was curled up in the back seat of Renowyn's little sports car, her delicate face impassive, her tiny body comfortably relaxed. Part of her wanted to flinch as a squat, heavily bearded man in leathers with an arrowhead through his cheek came by and whistled at them. Renowyn smoothly got out of the car and the go-ganger narrowed his eyes at the speed with which Renowyn moved. Renowyn's hand flashed quicksilver under the neon from the Graveyard's sign. The ganger moved away. Saraquael only blinked her mismatched blue and yellow eyes, following Catskill's lead. Catskill watched the goings on with quick interest, utterly at ease in the front seat. Much of her interest was focused on the quiet efficiency and exquisitely dressed form of Renowyn. Cat's ease was all the more striking for the fact that she wore only a silver-grey spandex bodysuit. The bodysuit showed every muscular inch of her short, slender length and her beauty was as much a product of the evident power in her body as the striking features of her Eurasian heritage. Catskill ran her hands through her short black hair in frustration as she frowned at the list in her hand. She turned to Saraquael, "Looks like we have everything we need, except for a square of pure, virgin silk. Any ideas as to where to pick that up?" Saraquael frowned a bit, "Maybe Pierre? He made that silk blouse for you a little while back. He might have some more of it." Catskill grinned and got on the phone. Renowyn got back into the car and Catskill's body relaxed into his long length. He smiled and accomodated Cat's body while she continued to speak. Cat bantered and bartered with the same ease that she had dug out all the other information that they had needed for all their other jobs. Ben's bulk showed up under the lights and he made his way back to Renowyn's car. His movements were slow, solid, but graceful for all his bulk. When Saraquael could see him under the street lights his normally generous mouth was set in a hard line and his brown eyes were dark. "Thanks..." his voice was so soft Saraquael could barely hear it, the drawl almost incomprehensibly thick, "Thanks for waiting for me. Y'all have been extraordinarily kind." "Did you get everything?" Saraquael's voice was quiet. "Yeah. Everythin' Lady Sabre said would be there was there." The accent slowly dissipated with his tension. Catskill finished her conversation on the phone and Renowyn started the car. Ben continued, "Got replacements for just about everything the muggers took at SeaTac. Even a phone. I really do appreciate you lettin' me use your phone, Miss Catskill." "No problem, Ben. I think we're more than even." Cat smiled, "Sabre got us the information we needed for this run. Some of it I wasn't able to get from any of my other sources. Hittin' a magical target can be hazardous to the health without the right information. Besides, it means that we will have your... capabilities to help back us up." Saraquael sighed softly and played with the slender braid of the tail off her flat-topped hair. Ben had told Sabre his specialty in the bar when he had borrowed Catskill's phone for the call. Saraquael wasn't sure how she felt having another shaman in on a job; but what the Spirits provide one would be foolish to refuse. Ben was very quiet during the ride to the dressmaker's house. Catskill and Renowyn went in to get it and came out with a several square yards of cream colored fabric folded in a packet small enough to fit in one hand. As they made their way to the target, Catskill quietly said, "I think I'd like the guys to stay as backup in case we need them. Sara and I can probably handle it, but if we holler, come runnin'." There was only quiet agreement in the darkness of the car. All of Saraquael's impatience, her tension and her anticipation, she held back until the last ten minutes of the car ride. Then, soothed by the white sound of the wheels on the pavement, which sounded so much like a soft Seattle drizzle upon a roof, Sara softly cried to the world her heart's desire in the soft croon of a mother cat. She called gently and sweetly, enticing the spell with her love of stealth, her need for hiding, her delight in the trickery's possible, and her desire to keep Catskill safe. Gently laying her emotions upon the True World, she called for the shadow of invisibility and the spell came, born of her desires and the womb of the world. {Strong, so strong,} Sara smiled as the spell lived and walked, to gently embrace her friend. Catskill disappeared and, for a second, the air laughed. The guys let them off a little ways away from the main gate. Saraquael had fun watching the car door open by itself, but once outside, she shut it so that the cameras wouldn't have anything to balk at. Sara waited, pacing along one section of the wire fence that surrounded the exclusive complex that was Merlin's Court. It was a neighborhood rumored to have the highest concentration of methodical magicians in the city. The place made Sara's skin crawl at the cold, hard, forced shapes in the life around her. The ruthlessly shaped trees and bushes, the bright barreness of the gene-tampered flowers, and the machine cut flatness of the grass were reflections of what these people did to their lives and the power of their living. She paced before the fence, impatient for Catskill's return but knowing that the job would take time. The spirit of the spell that she gave to Catskill coiled from her, one slow coil at a time, irritating her, calling her like a small child needing attention or appreciation. Out of the night, an old, ragged tom cat came yowling to the fence, a battle-scarred warrior demanding an audience. He looked at her, called her commandingly and then stalked off into the darkness. Sara froze in indecision. Catskill had said that there were probably motion sensors on the fence and, besides, Sara knew that she wasn't strong enough to go over. For a second longer she hesitated and then ran back to the car. The dark window of Renowyn's car slid down at her approach. "I... I think she's in trouble," Sara said, worriedly, "I'm not exactly sure what to do, but something tells me that Catskill is in real trouble." "Get in." She got in and they drove up to the section of fence that they knew was close to the address of the house that Catskill had gone into. As they got out Sara saw a fire bloom from the roof of a house, flowing unnaturally DOWN the roof and wall. Suddenly the fire broke around something that was wildly running towards them. It screamed, high pitched and shrill, and smoke bloomed off it. {Thank you}, Sara caressed the living sorcery with her pleasure at its work and she let loose of it like tossing a bird back to the winds. Catskill abruptly appeared. Saraquael reached out and hissed in confusion at the white hot edge of pure flame. Not living, seperated, it was a creature of abomination. No balance, no tolerance of anything that it could not transform or change, the Flame sought simply to consume. So very different from the living desire and concerns of the Spirits, she was confused by it, baffled by its strangeness. Then the Fire licked at Catskill and Cat screamed again. Driven by that sound, Saraquael squalled a battle call and put every sharp, bloody edged bit of her anger and terror into trying to hurt that unnatural creature of seperation. The Fire wailed and spat in pain and tried to hit her back. Exhilarated by its pain, knowing now that it could be touched as the Spirits could be touched, Saraquael slashed at it again with her will that the Fire return to its place. The Fire flickered. Before she could loose another attack, something that tasted of tree-shadowed waters, inhuman patience, and immense strength snapped dripping jaws of power and snuffed the Fire out. She turned to find Ben Ali. She stared at him for a long moment, but Catskill's sobs brought her attention back to her friend. Catskill swarmed up the fence and set off alarms that made Sara just want to put her hands over her ears; but she and Renowyn helped Catskill off the fence on their side. The alarms called to the uncaring night as they all piled into the car and drove off. Catskill was sobbing in pain. Ben started chanting in his deep soft voice and Sara felt the air thicken with his call. The hair on the back of her neck prickled and danced, and she felt the spirits come swirling in at his beckoning. Sara pulled out the medical kit, knowing that after his call all the surrounding spirits of healing would be exhausted. All she could do was rely on the physical medicines. Catskill sighed and relaxed as the healing spirits flickered and dimmed. Ben collapsed back into a corner of the car. Sara gently worked on the light burns that were left with the medkit, spraying and spreading and bandaging as she went. Catskill's voice was shaking slightly as she said, "Thanks." Ben's soft voice answered, even as his eyes remained closed, "You're quite welcome, lady." Catskill's emerald eyes questioned Sara. Sara shrugged and laughed, softly, "I'm a better hunter than healer." Even as she thought, it's always good to accept what the Spirits provide. Renowyn's arm went around Catskill, but he immediately withdrew it as she winced at the touch. "Sorry." he mumbled. "It's O.K." she said as she carefully leaned up against him, and he let her arrange his arm for her comfort. Catskill sighed as she relaxed. "What happened, Cat?" "It was spooky. Real spooky. Getting into the neighborhood was easy, I just slipped through the gate when a car went by. It was so dark I couldn't see the house numbers. 'ventually I found it, but couldn't find a way in. There were weird faces on the knockers and doorknobs. I swear the faces actually changed their expressions in the time I scoped front and back. All the windows were dead black. But there was an air vent on the roof, so I went for it. Sick thing about it was, when I was halfway into it, I suddenly realized the frame looked like one big mouth. "It was a weird vent, all lined with wood, real wood, sorta like panelling. At the bottom of the shaft was a mirror and I didn't want to land on it, so I swung wide. The walls were all brick. There was a tiny metal door on one side..." Catskill's voice turned wry, "That's when I realized that I was in a furnace. Got me to scat, fast, outta there, After I let go of the door, though, it started to close on me so I just grabbed the nearest thing to stick in there to hold it open. Turned out to be a skull..." Cat's voice was thick with her disgust. "Down there it was as dark as I've never seen it before. I actually had to turn on a bit of light to see by. There were all sorts of weird things down there. The bookshelves were all locked up, and it felt so creepy in there that I didn't want to stick around any longer than I had to. "The box was right where they said it'd be, with two candlesticks and a funky wavy dagger next to it. The wrap worked like a charm. It was easy to tuck into the carry-all. Soon as I was done I went back to the furnace and pulled the skull out. When I put it down the slottin' skull started to flame... So I just got out of there as fast as I could." her voice started to shake. "Raced it up the damned chimney and just jumped from the roof; but it just kept coming and coming after me." She shivered, "I thought it had me dead." Renowyn sighed and said, ever so softly, "You're safe, Cat, you're safe now." Catskill soundlessly relaxed into Renowyn and they were quiet as they drove back to Catskill's apartment. As they went, Saraquael watched the sky blush and brighten and she saw the clear moment when the sky was divided into night on the west and day in the east. Then the sun hauled itself into the sky and it was morning. They all crashed at Catskill's plush townhouse. Sara found a corner of a windowseat in the sunshine and happily napped in the warmth. Seattle sunshine was infrequent enough that it was best to take advantage of it when it happened. After her nap, Sara took a shower and found a change of clothes. It turned out that they were clothes that Catskill had borrowed from her. Nothing is ever a coincidence, she thought smiling, as she slipped into a bright red tunic. She belted it with silver and then pulled on black and silver spandex pants. The black hightops of her working clothes went on top of purple socks. The neatly tailored, heavy black armored coat that she had worn last night provided the finishing touch. Catskill was on the phone again, Renowyn's phone, as hers was a smoking ruin. The Flame had eaten everything it had touched. "Tell Jerry we have his package, and we'll deliver it at the pre-arranged point." Once they arrived in front of the bagel shop near the park by the Space Needle, Sara chose to stay in the car, up in the driver's seat, while Renowyn and Catskill went into the shop. She was fascinated by all the dials and knobs, buttons and lights, and proceeded to play with them. In the back seat, Ben softly muttered a light chant with his eyes closed and relaxed into a corner of the seat. She raised one eyebrow at the activity and went back to playing with the video controls. Eventually, a man slipped out of the shop and leaned against the wall. He looked around, pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Catskill and Renowyn came charging out of the shop and stopped abruptly when they saw him. Looking utterly nonchalant he spoke to them. Catskill's eyes narrowed but she handed him the bag. He handed her a couple of credsticks. Sara saw Catskill tense in anger and got out of the car. The man handed Catskill another 'stick and took off down the street. Two motorcycles growled at her as they passed by... The sound of two gunshots and then the repetition of the sickening crunch of an accident pulled all of them in the direction of the park. Catskill was the fastest of them all, but Sara was on her heels. A handsome Japanese man was looking with detached interest at a headless body lying in a pool of its own blood. He had a long, bloody knife with a Japanese grip in his hand and blood flowered brightly on his plain clothing. From the clothing on the body, Sara recognized the man that Catskill and Renowyn had dealt with at the bagel shop. The Japanese looked up as they entered the clearing and then at a man that ran in from the opposite direction. Sara felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle in recognition. It was Kilroy, another man that they had met at the bar when Ben had introduced himself. After a sweeping look around the clearing through neon red glasses, Kilroy made directly for them. There was a balance to his movements, he was graceful with a power that reminded Sara of Catskill's movements. Light brown hair, cut as short as short could be and wry eyes shaded by the glasses were in a face carved from having seen too much. His longcoat was a deep, rich maroon and his pants were the color of night. The tailored shirt was the soft grey of Mt. St. Helenes' ash. A large, red doctor's bag was slung on his shoulders. He went directly to the Japanese and demanded, "Did you do this?" "No. Two others did." A small sheaf of delicate, white paper bloomed >from a pocket with the flick of two fingers. The Japanese used the paper to clean his blade in one smooth motion. "They attacked me. I believe that they did so because of that." He nodded in the direction of a park bench. Sara wrinkled her nose in puzzlement and then saw the bulk of the box underneath the bench. The man checked the blade carefully and with a deft, curving movement sheathed it. The papers fluttered away into the dappled shadows of the woods like red and white butterflies. "Where are they?" The man gestured in the direction of the woods, "I believe you will find them in that direction." The next words were said deadpan, "I do not believe they will be going anywhere soon." Sara saw amusement glint from his dark eyes. Kilroy sped off in that direction. Sara hesitated and followed, seeing that Catskill stayed in the clearing to talk with the Japanese. There were two bikes smashed into trees, with mangled riders nearby. Kilroy hunkered over the further one and threw open the huge, red Doctor's bag. A tangle of chain lay near the biker next to Sara and she looked closer at it to find that each link had an antique razor blade spot welded to it. A few links on one end of the chain were left unmodified, possibly for a handle. There was blood, bits of skin, bone, flesh and hair caught in the links. Sara moved well clear of the razorchain, her eyes watering as she suppressed her gagging reflex. Sara bent over the biker, avoiding the blood where she could. He was far too hot, his breathing too fast, and his pulse was even faster. She quietly sang to the local healing spirits. She gathered them and told them where to go, but she found the way solidly blocked. Stymied, she sat back on her heels and frowned at the man. Ben walked into the area and looked over the carnage. He said, "Lady, there is magic on them. Something that seems to be binding them..." Sara carefully sat down against a nearby tree, finding a soft hollow wasn't too wet or lumpy and reached up and out into the True World. It was like remembering how to breath again, a relief, a marvel to see things as they really were. To walk again in the form that was most natural for her. On four legs and with all her strength rippling through muscles only evident on this plane of living, all moving under fur the color of deception. The earth under her feet sparkled with all the thousands of tiny lives that busily went their way with utter disregard for her. She looked around and saw Ben in the form of a powerful man with an alligator's head. She curiously looked at the others that had gathered. She smiled at Catskill's familiar smooth furred darkness, a blend of cat and woman that was one with the shadows, strong and lithe, bright in its definition. Renowyn's was faded, as tattered and patched as an old, overabused coat. She sighed softly to see it. Sara was intrigued by the brightness of Kilroy's aura. The Japanese man's... she frowned. He was very bright and as sharp as the steel blade he carried with him. He had a centering that a mage would be envious of, but it almost looked as if the long knife held a piece of his soul. She finally turned to look at the two bikers. Gold chains bound the two weakly flickering souls, chains that were themselves bound to a slender golden line that faded away with distance. "O.K. What do we do?" Ben looked at her, amused, "Well, probably try and break the chains." "Why not trace 'em to where they came from?" "It'd be dangerous to go that far. Best we take care of this quickly, and then return." "But it's Wonderful here!" she said, peering at the sparkle of the sap that ran up one of the maples. His smile was warm, "You haven't been up here much, have you?" "Well... yeah... you're right. The littermaster kept saying how I shouldn't strain myself too much. He said that while my spirit's strong, my flesh isn't strong enough to stand my absence for too long. I've never had to break anything, before, though. What should I use?" "Walll..." he drawled, "You kin just hit it with whatever mana weapons you have, or..." he reached over to the chains of the man nearest him and using both hands broke it. The chain snapped with a bright spark of light. He chuckled, "You kin get your hands dirty." Sara circled hers a couple of times. She called up a small dart of magic and sent it against the golden bonds. When it hit they crackled and made wonderful shattering noises, tiny cracks appeared all over the surfaces of the chains. She studied the beauty of the affect for a moment, but then Ben reached over and yanked it apart. She wrinkled her nose in disgust at his crassness and was about to yell at him, when the auras of the men that the chains had bound flared, flickered and then blew out. Sara wanted to ask Ben if they had killed them by cutting the binding, but she was a little afraid of the answer. She shivered and felt her body pulling at her, hooking its claws back into her, like a cat whose mistress has been away too long and wanting attention. She sighed felt her stiff and painful body and shivered. For a second it felt as if her flesh had cooled in the brief time that she had left it. She opened her eyes to see Kilroy frantically working over the body of one of the bikers. He finally sat back and swore a blue streak as he finally gave up. For a long moment, he just bent over the dead body, then looked at Ben and her with resignation. "All right, what happened?" Kilroy asked, as he started to put things back into his doctor's bag. Saraquael remained silent, to let Ben explain, while she carefully wiped the blood off her hands onto the grass. ------ When Catskill was told about everything, she borrowed Renowyn's phone to call Sabre. "If anyone knows what to do with this thing, she will." Catskill setup the meeting with Sabre and Helix for the Watering Hole. She told both Kilroy and Hachiman, the Japanese, about it as well, as there seemed to be enough interest in the box to bring down some heavy artillary. Hachiman agreed, politely, that it would be best if they dealt with the box as a group. Both Kilroy and Hachiman agreed that all would evenly split the proceeds of the box, whatever they might be. Sara wasn't quite sure if Hachiman was hiring the rest of them to help or if they were hiring him, but the end result was basically the same. During the walk back to the car Catskill touched Sara on the shoulder. Sara slowed to look at her friend and then stopped when Catskill gave her the high sign. "Here," Catskill said quietly, "This is for you, for the house job." She handed Sara two certified cred'sticks for 5000 nuyen. "Wow." Sara said, her eyes bright, "Thanks." Then shyly, showing her sixteen years, Sara said, "And lots of thanks for doing the negotiating. I... I still don't know what to charge folks for these things." Sara skipped back to Renowyn's car, leaving a quietly smiling Catskill to walk back with the rest of the people. ----- Sabre was dressed in silver gauze over a basic black bodysuit. The silver sword that dangled from her ear flashing in the lights from the dance floor. Her waist long black hair flowed behind her in a wave of darkness. As before, she did bits of business as she wandered over to their table. Helix was a slightly bouncing shadow behind her. Saraquael was fascinated with the sparkling light that crawled along the helix that dangled from Helix's ear amid the long, curly brown hair. Sabre sat down at their table and nodded to Helix, who came forward. Hachiman pulled out the carry-all and set the box, still wrapped in the slightly charred silk, on the table. Helix carefully undid the wrappings, looked at it for a long moment. She studied it from the front, each of the sides and the back without touching it, carefully holding her long hair back with one hand. She finally faced the front of it, hesitated for a moment and then threw back the lid. Several of them jumped. Sabre looked at Helix with one raised eyebrow. Helix grinned and shrugged, and then looked in the box with great interest. Sara couldn't resist and popped up to take a look as well. It was a perfectly normal wooden box, except for the bottom. The bottom was nothing. The nothingness of a night sky empty of stars. It was simply not. Sara tried to pull her eyes away from it but felt something tug on her, something within that box wanting a part of her... She abruptly sat down and shivered while Helix confirmed that the contents of the box was whatever it was people were looking for. Sabre talked with Hachiman and Catskill about the business arrangments. Helix looked like she wanted to keep the box of Emptyness for herself, and Sara shivered. Finally, they decided that Sabre would keep it for them until they figured out what they were going to do with it, and as a final option, they could have her sell it for them. In either case, she would recieve a commission of 10,000 nuyen. Sara couldn't help but hope that it would be in Sabre's hands for a long, long time. After Helix and Sabre left with the box, the group sat for a long, quiet moment amid the noise and life of the bar. Sara sighed and Catskill looked at her. "Did you see?" Sara asked softly and when her friend shook her head Sara went on, "There was Nothing in the bottom of that box. A Nothingness as big as the universe down in the bottom, there, and it scared me, Cat, it scared me." "Well, what are we going to do with it?" asked Renowyn. "Why don't we put it up for sale, like Sabre suggested?" said Kilroy. "Shall we sell it to the highest bidder, perhaps?" Hachiman looked troubled even as he said it. Catskill gazed steadily at Saraquael huddled in the chair. "I'm not sure I'm comfortable with selling that to just anyone. It seems to be a really powerful magical item, and there are a lot of people out to get it. But the bidding system would be a good way to find out who is interested in it, yes?" Relieved to have someone else reflect her fear and acknowledge it, Sara nodded quickly. "Hai." said Hachiman, his features lightening as well. The others agreed. And Hachiman offered to set up the voice mail drops. Sara watched, fascinated by the quickness with which he did the delicate work of setting the system up through his wristphone. Each movement was utterly precise. She smiled at him when he looked up to see her watching him, and he gave her a quick smile back. As they talked, a woman entered the bar. A woman in nut brown, ragged leathers. She was barefoot and sported a head of flame colored hair all golds, reds, and all the auburns there were. The bright colors were all tangled together in hair that looked as if it hadn't been combed for months. Deep, shadow filled green eyes looked about her curiously, wondering at all the sights there were to see. Sara noticed her startled reaction as her hand passed through a holographic sign on the wall The woman looked around the bar, searching for someone. Then, spotting Renowyn, her whole face lightened, and she came over to them. She stood over Renowyn's chair and said, "You *must* help me, sir." Saraquael started laughing at the look on Renowyn's face. Ben turned to look at her and she quieted, but she couldn't get rid of the grin on her face at Renowyn's look of bewilderment. "Uhm... help you with what?" "An Evil. A terrible Evil. You must stop it." she said, her hands plucking at Renowyn's sleeve. Sara stopped grinning when she saw those hands helplessly moving. "You have to stop the evil men from doing it again." "Doing what, lady?" asked Catskill, her tone cool. "A Great Evil! Something of great destruction which must be stopped." the woman said, as if that explained everything. Sara frowned, perhaps it did. The others started talking about whether or not they should help. The woman stomped her foot, got up, and said only to Renowyn, "I'll take you there, and after you see what they did, you'll *have* to stop them." Renowyn shrugged, "Why not? All we have to do is wait for the bids, this might be fun." Then to the woman, "What's your name?" "My name?" for a moment, her eyes roamed around the walls, "Miller," she said, "Miller Douglas." "And where will you be taking us?" Hachiman asked. "To my home," she said, softly. "It's out in the woods a little ways." Kilroy laughed as everyone got up, "Looks like we're gonna do a Jojo." Hachiman, Catskill, and Renowyn chuckled as well. Ben and Sara looked at each other in puzzlement. Catskill laughed. "A Jojo is helping someone else out gratis. Hmmm..." she said, growing more thoughful, "Thing is that Jojos usually turn out to be a bit more dangerous than anyone thought..." Renowyn grinned, "What could be dangerous about taking a girl to her home?" Saraquael decided, after what felt like the first hundred miles of hiking, that she didn't like woods. She realized that she didn't like the woods one bit. They were messy, muddy, cold and wet. Very wet. They smelled of things better forgotten and better left alone. But here they were trompling through the woods at night like it was broad daylight without even a full moon to guide them. The pedometer built into her wrist phone/watch/secretary said that it had only been two and a half miles, but her feet argued quite convincingly that the meter was lying. At first it had been kinda fun. A party in the woods, a jaunt through the cold, crisp night air. The air was clean and just rain washed, full of the sharp scent of pine and the musky scent of wet earth. The frogs sang to them and the wind caused the branches to whisper in voices like the sea. The sound of water dripping, dropping, and chuckling as it flowed from the trees, along the ground, and in hundreds of tiny stream beds was as omnipresent as Sara's own breath. But, as the hike went on, the ground felt like it was constantly dropping out from under her feet or slapping the bottoms of her feet when she didn't expect it. The light drizzle that wouldn't have bothered her at all in the city, collected in the branches of the trees and dropped huge, glopping blops of water on her from above. Then the wind started blowing right through her. Her sneakers were getting wet and she was getting tired. She was concentrating so hard on her woes that she ran right into Ben's back when he stopped. "What?!" she said in a hissing whisper. "Listen." was all he said. She listened and couldn't hear anything. "I don't..." she suddenly realized that that was what he was talking about. There was absolutely nothing to hear. No movement at all, no frogs singing, no bird chirruping, no squirrels, no animal sounds whatsoever. Not only that, the wind was utterly still, and, most shocking of all the sounds of water had been shut off as if it had flowed from a tap. Quickly, in her need to know, she fumbled to reach a spell and felt it unfold its wings around her. Through the spell she sensed the lives of those that had come with her. For a second she thought that that was correct, in the middle of the wilderness there shouldn't.... She hissed into the silence and felt Ben jump at the sudden noise. "It's ALL dead..." she wailed softly, "NOTHING is alive. Do you understand? The trees, the grass, there should be something..." Involuntarily she hissed her distress into the night through clenched teeth. Ben stiffened but stayed on his feet. After a moment he sighed, "Even the ground is dead. It seems to be a circle of destruction, with a radius of... hmmm... 'bout 100 feet, just what's in sight. Beyond that the forest's normal. Here, though, the wood's gone. Even the shielding property of the dead wood's gone. The trees're transparent, ghosts even in the True World." his voice was subdued. "You know..." he hesitated, "the strangest thing is that it feels jus' like looking at that stuff in the box." "I want OUT of here." Saraquael spat out with an amount of force that surprised her. She knew she was showing her distress but didn't care. She stalked back the way that they came. As she passed Miller she saw the tears that sparkled on the woman's cheeks. They backtracked to the top of a knoll. In the light of the half dead moon they could see the circle of stillness. It wasn't anything specifically wrong, but after knowing what to look for, Saraquael could see that the circle of stillness imprinted on the woods in the valley. She couldn't call it death, as it wasn't nearly as natural as death. "Who did this?" Renowyn's voice was quiet. "Two men." The tears slid quietly down Miller's face, "One was short and arrogant in his power, the other felt like a dead, rotting tree, that if you broke it open would spill dead and dying insects all over you. They were here when the moon was bright, and they did this with a box and a book." "What did they look like?" Kilroy asked. "I already TOLD you." Miller said sounding frustrated, as she wiped her tears away on her brown leathers. "One was short and..." "... arrogant in his power... yeah..." Renowyn sighed, "That description could fit a great number of people. Do you have any more details?" Miller sighed, "No, I do not have anymore details. That is all I could see from here. That those two did some ceremony with their tools, and THAT happened." Renowyn sighed. "Let us go back." said Hachiman. "The lady said that they had the box there. It is possible that one of those interested in obtaining it will lead us to the men that did this crime." They started back to the cars. ------- After another hundred miles of hiking Saraquael had gone numb in the head and toes. The toes, because the wet sneakers were now soaked, soggy messes and the cold was getting right through the shoes. The head, because she decided that enough was enough and had started to just concentrate on each step as it was being made. She was miserable. Renowyn and Catskill were in front of her. Ben was behind her. "We're almost there, little one." said Ben quietly after she tripped over some rock and started swearing under her breath. Surprised she said, "Thanks." And she felt better for his words. The next several steps were a whole lot easier. A dark shadow blurred by. A hot spray of blood hit her in the face. The woods snarled and a human screamed in mortal agony. Sara got a confused glimpse of moonlight flashing off a bright blade and then the sound of machine gun fire. Two figures grappled too quickly for her to see with a creature that snarled and screamed its rage in the voice of a wolverine but impossibly huge. Another burst of machine gun fire and the creature started to run away. One figure followed the beast, a slightly curved blade of brightness was in his hand, the blade fell in an arc of light, the beast screamed and quickened its stumble away into the woods. The man looked with longing after the injured wolverine, but he hesitated and with a single, completely coordinated movement, turned back towards them. Sara saw that he was Hachiman. She turned away to see Renowyn on the ground, his arm practically ripped off. He had been the source of the blood that had sprayed her and the scream that still echoed in her head. Ben kneeled on the soft ground beside Renowyn. Ben's soft drawl quickened, hardened into a demand for help, for healing. He shuddered as the magic flowed through him in a flood. Renowyn screamed as his arm grew back onto his shoulder, the nerves, the bone, the blood vessels growing together, and then the flesh growing over the spider's web of vessels. Ben was covered in sweat and shaking by the time it was done. Catskill pulled Renowyn up and half carried, half dragged him as he stumbled to his feet. Saraquael offered her support to Ben, seeing that the spell had taken a great deal from him. He smiled as he took it. While her slight strength didn't help him all that much, she knew that she felt far better being in contact with someone human as they moved through a darkness that could spit out something that could kill a man so quickly there was no way to guard against it. Hachiman and Kilroy came after them, moonlight gleaming from Kilroy's machine gun and Hachiman's blade. They stayed to the rear as the rest of the group moved as quickly as they could towards the cars. As they got within sight of the cars, Saraquael heard something huge crashing through the woods toward them. There were huge snapping sounds, as if the creature were breaking apart trees as it came behind them. One final burst up the hill to the cars and then both Sara and Ben turned to look at what was following them. The cold light of the moon showed another impossible beast. Half bear, half warthog, and the ugliest parts of both beasts. Saraquael shivered, wondering if the unbalance of the dead circle had distorted this whole forest into utter insanity. Both Kilroy and Hachiman had stayed back to guard their path, when the others reached the car, they sprinted for the cars as well. Saraquael watched in some wonder at the two men's speed and grace. Hachiman swarmed quickly up the slope. Kilroy tripped on something and went sprawling. The beast roared, seeing its prey fallen. A gun cracked the night air with its report, and Sara looked over to see Renowyn, leaning his weight on his car, using the support of the car to steady his balance as well as his aim as he shot at the wartbear. It didn't even slow the monstrosity down. Sara felt Ben stir. She stepped away from him and gathered herself, shutting out the hard barks of the gun. She felt Ben let loose a flood of magic in the direction of the beast. The beast kept coming. Using her outrage at Ben having to so extend himself, she managed to push past her tiredness, the itch of a dirty body, the ooginess of her sneakers and reach for other emotions. The cold taste of Renowyn's blood on her lips, the crashing of the oncoming beast, and an echo of that scream of agony all fed her hysteria. She poured the near-madness into the True World and opened herself to channel its answer. Chaos flowed through her, screaming with laughter and tears. It splashed in bright pyrotechnics flashes against the mind of the wartbear. The wartbear stopped. Then it jumped to the side, flattening several square yards of blackberry bramble, screamed and then blundered into a pool of water. Blindly, it swayed, lowing in confusion and staggered away. Kilroy gave her a look that warmed her to the bone as he made it onto the pavement and to the other car. Hachiman opened the car doors and Sara collapsed inside, on top of Ben. All she wanted to think of was how good it would feel to take a long, hot bath. But the copper salt of Renowyn's blood wouldn't clear from her mouth and the echos of Chaos played through her heart. Saraquael rested against Ben while they drove back to the city. She napped for short intervals and then woke with a start. Renowyn and Catskill lost them sometime on the drive back, and when they tried to call Renowyn's phone, all they got was, "We're sorry, this number has been temporarily disconnected." Then they remembered that the arm that the creature had tried to take off had been the one with Renowyn's phone on it. So Hachiman dropped her off on her doorstep, and told her that he would contact her if anything interesting developed. He gave Saraquael his phone number as well, in case she needed to contact him. As she got out of the car, she saw Ben looking sad and lonely in the back of the car. She remembered that all he had to go to was that coffin. "Come on." she said. "Me?" he said, looking a little surprised. "Who else?" she said half laughing. "Hachiman has a perfectly good place to stay and you need your rest after that amazing healing you put together tonight." His big, warm hand took hers and used it to climb out of the car. "Thank you, ma'am." "No problem." she said a little smugly. Maybe she'd finally find out what his hands would feel like on her shoulders. ------- Sara took a long, luxuriously hot bath with bath salts and oils and bubbles as well. She scrubbed her hair and then soaked until she started to wrinkle. She got out and dried herself with a huge day-glo pink bath sheet. She pulled on a silk nightie that caressed her skin and then over that a kimono styled quilted robe with kittens tumbling in play patterned on the front and back. She then went to look in on Ben. He had moved into the guest bedroom and the door was opened just a crack. For a moment, she thought that a monster had eaten him, but then she saw that the huge, knobby, green creature had Ben's tired eyes. He was covered in green armor and getting ready to go to sleep. She quietly moved away, towards the kitchen to get a bite to eat. She found the refrigerator half emptied. She just looked at the emptyness then back at the door to the guest bedroom and shook her head. She managed to find the salmon pate' and told the oven to toast a couple of mini-bagels. Sara nibbled her way through her meal, sipped a glass of milk, and shuddered to think of just how Ben had managed to eat so much in just the time it had taken her to take a bath. Then Saraquael curled up alone in her bed and quietly went to sleep. She dreamed of many things, of marble desks, balls of string, pyramids, spider webs, stolen horses, and a man getting his heart cut out. But she didn't remember any of those dreams in the morning. ------ "How could you EAT that much?" Saraquael was flabbergasted by the utterly desolated shelves of her kitchen cabinets and the refrigerator. Everything but everything was gone. "It wasn't easy." Ben Ali said sleepily, "I don't know how you can stand all that liver pate' and you could die from all the fat in that milk and butter. The seafood, though... Mmmm..." he hummed with contentment, "That was just wonderful." "Well, you're just going to have to go out and buy me some more groceries." The phone chose that moment to ring, so Saraquael missed the look of outrage on Ben's face and the look of contrition as well. He pulled out the 5000Y 'stick that Catskill had given him the day before and then put it away again with a sigh as he remembered the revelation he had had that the spirits didn't like it if you worked only for the money. "Hello?" "Yeah, Catskill here, what's up?" "Oh, I don't know. Hachiman dropped us off here, and..." "Us?" Saraquael laughed self-consciously and turned to frown at Ben, "Well, soon to be one, I'm about ready to kill him for eating everything I own, even the smoked salmon I was saving for a special occasion." He mock cowered. "Ben's here, I thought it'd be more comfortable for him than the silly coffin place, and after last night the company has been rather welcome." "Yeah... I know the feeling." in the background Sara heard a faint "Hi, Sara!!" "Renowyn?" They shared a giggle. "Yeah. Anyway..." "Yeah... anyway, Hachiman said that he would get back to us if anything interesting turned up on the bids and he gave me his number for us to call in case we turned up anything interesting." Saraquael gave Catskill the number. "Great. Thanks!" "Sure, no problem. Hopefully he'll find out something interesting before the Lug eats me out of house and home." Sara wrinkled her nose in Ben's direction, and he laughed softly. "Oh... yeah. Just how is Renowyn doing now?" Ben's eyes narrowed at the question and he cocked his head in question. "He seems to be doing just fine, says that the arm still feels a bit weird at times, and he's eating prodigious amounts as well; but it looks like the work Ben did is holding up just grand." Sara nodded at Ben and he sat back again. Catskill giggled and then covered the speaker as she reprimanded Renowyn for something. Sara felt a stab of envy. "Keen... Glad to hear it. Hmmm... guess that's it." Sara said. "Yeah. Take care." "You too. Bye." "Bye." For a long moment Saraquael held the phone in her lap and just looked at it, feeling intensely mixed up. Lonely and angry and a little confused. Remembering the darkness and the blood of the night before made the spat about groceries seem so stupid in comparison. Ben got up out of the sofa and walked over to her, his bulk looming over her. For a second she remembered the cruel shape of his alligator's head up in the True World and saw his lumpy armored skin and was frightened. Then she looked up into his gentle eyes and remembered how he had knelt in the mud to save Renowyn's life. Slowly she leaned against him, swallowing a lump in her throat as she felt his big hands at the back of her neck. She closed her eyes and put all of her slight weight against him. His skin was surprisingly soft over the hardness of the armor and warm against hers. It reminded Sara of the smooth, soft skin of a pet snake she had once held. She could feel the power in his hands, but they only gently rubbed and kneaded the muscles of her shoulders and neck. She purred and he chuckled. One arm went under her legs, the other stopped rubbing her neck and slipped around her shoulders and he picked her up like she weighed nothing. She paniced and started to wriggle away, her first instinctive response to helplessness. "No... no... little one, I'm not..." She looked up and saw the hurt in his eyes and grew still. Patiently, slowly he gathered his words, "I'm just goin' to go over to sit in the couch, all right?" "All... all right..." she said in a very small voice. He smiled wryly, "On my word as a Southern Gentleman, I won't do anything you don't want me to, ma'am." And true to his gentleman's word, Ben just carried her over to the couch and sat down. He held her in his arms did absolutely nothing but hold her close to his warmth. Gradually, she curled up in his lap, her head in the hollow of his throat, her face against his chest. Slowly he started to knead the muscles of her neck and shoulders. She felt a little like she was melting as she relaxed into him. Both at once they said, "I'll pay for the groceries." They both started to laugh so hard they cried. Which started Saraquael onto a real crying jag that had her sobbing into his shirt. He gently stroked the back of her head and neck while she cried herself out and wisely didn't say anything. They spent much of the rest of that day just curled up on the couch, talking and just sharing each other's company. They both paid for the groceries. ------ The phone rang while Saraquael was napping on a sunshine filled ledge. She growled at it, but it didn't stop, so she picked it up. "Hello?" "I am calling to speak to Saraquael." Hachiman's voice was level. "This is she." She wondered, a little confused by sleep, if that was the correct way to say it. "Ah, good. Miss Sabre arranged for a meeting with one of the bidders. She provided a warehouse out in West Seattle for the meeting and the box will be delivered to 1040 S.E. 86th at fourteen forty-five. We are to meet with the potential client at fifteen hundred." Saraquael hastily converted the number to three in the afternoon. "Will Mr. Ali and you be able to make it to the meeting at fourteen forty five? I wish to inform the group of what has developed since we last met." She looked at her watch, it was a little after noon. "Sure. We can make it." "Very good. I look forward to seeing you." "Yeah. See ya." Sara and Ben got there just as a nervous looking razorgirl with stripmirror shades and black synthleathers walked in with a familiar sized box. Hachiman greeted all of them politely at the door of the ragged, hole filled warehouse. He took the box from the razorgirl and set it down on the meeting table. The razorgirl sat down against a wall and started looking through a vidmag. Kilroy was already in the room. Catskill and Renowyn showed up ten minutes later with Miller in tow. "There were three messages. The first offered 10,000Y. The second was a woman who said that she was interested in the object in question, though she was looking for a different object. The third said that he was surprised that there was another one of these objects, but that he was interested in obtaining this one. I assumed that the last was from the man you stole this from. The first sounded as if he were the person who hired Jerry. I followed up on the second." Hachiman's eyes narrowed. "It was Raven Two Shadows." Saraquael shivered at the naming. Ben looked at her questioningly. She said softly, "They say that on bright cloudless days if you look very closely you can see a second shadow following her, the accumulated ghosts of those she's betrayed and murdered waiting to take their vengeance." Catskill looked a little exasperated, "That's only a story told to scare little kids. She's a shaman for Renraku, a very good one." Hachiman nodded, "I met her for lunch at the arcology. She had said that she was more interested in a book that was about as big as two hands held together... "Made of real paper and bound in wood..." finished Renowyn. "Yeah... we've heard of that, before." Hachiman continued patiently, "She was very polite, very well mannered and very interested in what the box contained." "Yes, indeed, I am very interested in what the box contains." The voice was low, husky, almost soft enough to be a whisper. It sounded as if every word bore a painful cost and it came from a razor thin figure in the doorway. Raven Two Shadows was about 180cm tall, razor thin and as ribby lean as a greyhound. Her short night black hair matched the color of her eyes, which were round even though her coloring suggested an Asian background. Her black leather jacket had its arms raggedly ripped off and her right arm gleamed pure liquid silver under the lights. The leather pants hugged her rangy musculature and her belt was studded with iron, with a buckle that glinted of beveled edges and blades. Raven stepped into the room, moving as swiftly as Saraquael had seen Hachiman move, with the same lack of haste. Sara was surprised at the comparison and saw the collectedness of Hachiman as he and the Raven bowed to each other. The razorgirl nervously banged on her vidset as she tried to make it change the channel and snapped her gum. Raven looked at the girl and the girl wilted into a quiet puddle. Miller hissed in anger, "Why are we talking to her?? She... she's," she threw her hands up in frustration, "Can't you see?" Raven ignored her and smiled at the group. "Thank you for meeting me here." she said in her soft-rough voice. "You have it?" "Hai." Hachiman pulled the silk lined box out of the pack the razorgirl had brought it in. Raven's black eyes blazed with her interest. "Mmmm...." she said as she opened the box. "As I thought..." In front of their incredulous eyes, she reached into the box and pulled the Emptiness out. Then she poured its slow motion between her hands. She played with it. Sara was fascinated by how it flowed between Raven's hands in slow, smooth ropes of fluid grace. "Do you know what it is that you have here?" Raven asked with humor in her husky voice. They all shook their heads. Saraquael realized her mouth was open and quickly shut it. "Have you ever heard of an old substance called Silly Putty?" She laughed at the puzzled expressions. "It was a strange substance with many interesting properties, but one of them was the capability to lift print or pictures through physical proximity. One would simply lay the substance over what one wanted copied and it would lift an impression from that surface. This does much the same thing, but only with magical experiences." Sara saw that Raven's human hand was starting to look raw, red, and abraded. "Like a memory?" Renowyn asked. Raven thought a moment, "Somewhat. But it only remembers magical things that happen near it. Also, as all things magical can only reside in something alive, this is alive. Alive and hungry for experience, memories." Her human hand looked like the skin was being eaten away by the Nothingness, but Raven didn't seem to notice. Kilroy looked troubled, "That's been near a bit of nasty magic. Is there any way to erase that bit of memory?" "You would take a memory away from it? That is all it has..." the soft voice sounded regretful as the Emptyness flowed from quicksilver to steadily redder hand. Slowly, regretfully Raven poured the Emptyness back into the guarding box. Thoughtfully, she said, "There is much that I and mine could do with the capabilities of this substance. I will offer 10,000 nuyen better than your second best bid for it, whatever that may be." "Thank you for letting me examine this for myself." Raven closed the lid to the box gently and patted it like a pet with her quicksilver hand. "We do have other bids." Hachiman said, as he stood up. The others followed his example hastily. "Yes, I understand." Gracefully, she bowed to those in the room. "Good afternoon." They bowed back and she swung out the door, looking with interest at the bright red palm of her human hand. They all sighed one sigh of relief. The razorgirl bounced up off the ground and her swagger was back as she popped her gum. "Ya done?" "Yes, we are done. Thank you for your service." Hachiman said. "Chur t'ing." She hefted the pack and went out the door. "You CAN'T be thinking of selling the box to her, can you?" Miller's voice was shrill. "Couldn't you see? Can none of you see what she is made of?" Kilroy shook himself. Then slowly, he said, "There's rumors. Rumors that she once belonged to a Circle..." "Once upon a time..." Saraquael said softly, in a little girl's voice, invoking the old beginning that would make the terrible only a story for children at night. "There was a Circle intertwined, lover, friend, soul brother, heart sister. They were bright with power, arrogant in their assumption of doing what was right for the Earth Mother...." "Ecoterrorists..." breathed Kilroy. "And she was an arc in that Circle, part of the wholeness. She broke the Circle, broke all their lives, gave them over to their enemies who killed them all, but for her. She is now a hound to her masters. The arm is a reminder, a token of her obedience to them." Sara sighed, "That and the other are the stories I was told about her." "But do we have any choice other than the man who made it and probably used it to destroy that piece of forest?" asked Renowyn. Hachiman was working over his wristphone and a man's voice suddenly spoke from it. "I would be VERY interested in seeing your merchandise. If there is a second one out there, I am very interested in obtaining it." Catskill chuckled, "You mean he *still* hasn't found that it's missing?" "Or are there two?" Ben looked troubled. Another man's voice, "I'm just checking on what the lastest bid value was. Could you please call me with the information?" Then a clear woman's voice spoke, "I hear you have a hot item. I am very fond of hot items. Call me at this number..." Hachiman first called the one asking for the bid, and left the voice on broadcast to allow everyone to hear it. "Hi." "Hello. I am calling with the bid information. Our last bid was 120,000 nuyen. Are you still interested?" Sara blushed for Hachiman's audacity. There was a slight hesitation on the other end of the line, "Yes. I am still interested. I would like to enter a bid of 130,000." Those in the room went quiet in shock. Sara started to quietly giggle. "Thank you for your bid." Hachiman said with utmost aplomb. "I will keep you updated as to our auction." "Great. Thanks." and the speaker clicked quiet. "That," said Hachiman, "was the gentleman that offered the 10,000 just the other night." "Shit." said Kilroy with feeling, "Are we ever in trouble..." Hachiman called the second number while the rest of the group was still talking over the bid. He spoke for a while and then took down an address, entering it with quick, precise fingers on his wrist as he listened. "There is another who is interested in the box as well. She would like to meet us in downtown Seattle in half an hour. I believe we shall be able to make it with time to spare." -------- They pulled into the underground parking lot of one of the business buildings in the business district of Seattle. It echoed their steps as the seven of them walked to the elevators. The elevators were mirrored, panelled and had plush, smooth carpeting that swallowed their footsteps. The ashtrays were lined with marble, and the railings were of brass. When the door slid open, they opened to a reception area. There were six masked figures, tall and slender, in robes of purest white. The masks were detailed renditions of the Seven Elven Virtues. They bowed with a movement as graceful as water to the seven that stepped out of the elevator. Hachiman's bow was precise and lithe. Saraquael felt clumsy compared to them, but she politely bowed with everyone else. One of the masked figures gestured toward an open door. They all filed into the office. A shockingly human woman sat at the desk with her booted feet on the desk. Her hair was the color of new grass, and her eyes the color of mid-summer leaves. Behind her in the corner was another tall, slender figure in white robes, but the mask that it wore was entirely blank. There were slight indentations for where the eyes might be, a slight bump suggesting a nose. The woman casually waved at them, until Miller entered. The woman threw her feet to the floor and stood up abruptly. She bowed a formal, deep bow to Miller, who was oblivious to it. With a smile the green haired woman sat back down and put her boots back up on the desk. There were seven seats in the office. Each of the group took one, except Miller, who wandered about the office examining things, looking as if she were perfectly at home. "Hi, you may call me Deciduous. I hear you have something that may interest me..." It was Hachiman that described some of how they had come by the box and most of what they knew about it. Deciduous listened intently, asking intelligent questions. Sara watched, and soon became aware that there was almost a conversation going on between the two in body language. All the words were almost monotonic, but the subtlety of movement, of phrasing seemed to actually make a difference in how the other responded. Fascinated, Saraquael watched the utterly silent by-play. Finally, Hachiman ended by looking directly into Deciduous' eyes and softly said, "We are also quite interested in keeping this artifact out of the wrong hand." Deciduous' eyes widened just the barest fraction. Hachiman fell silent, and Deciduous thought for a long moment. Then she said, slowly, "I guess then, that this is an interview to allow you to determine if you would feel comfortable with selling the box to me." The group looked at each other, Sara knew that she hadn't really thought of it that way until now, but it was true. "Well, do you have any questions for me?" There was a long silence as the 'runners thought about what they could ask. Seeing that no one else was going to jump in, Saraquael hesitantly asked, "What will you do with it?" "It depends on the price. If I could afford it, I have some personal plans for it. If I cannot, Open Range Security would have to buy it. If the corporation bought it, the first consideration would be the profitability of the corp. This substance looks like it could have a great number of commercial possibilities.. but... in the interest of long-run profitability, it would be..." she hesitated, "unwise to use the destructive capabilities that are inherent in it." This time Saraquael's voice was a little more sure, "I will ask again. What would YOU do with it?" Deciduous met Sara's mismatched eyes and smiled, "I would use it as bait. Use it to attract those who are interested in it and find out their intents. I would research its capabilities and find out not only what it can really do, but how to work with it safely." There was a another long silence. Then Kilroy asked what was on all their minds, "How much can you afford?" Deciduous leaned back, "Adrian," she addressed the blank-masked one, "What am I worth?" The blank one spoke with liquid vowels in long, musical phrases. Deciduous laughed, "Love, that's very nice, but I meant, what are my material assets?" The figure spoke again, just as musically, but rather more shortly. Deciduous leaned back forward, "All I have in the world is worth 92K nuyen. Four thousand of that is tied into debts that I must pay. I can offer you the rest." Hachiman stood up, "If you will excuse us..." he said politely to Deciduous and Adrian. The two nodded. Then he turned to the 'runners, "Well, what do you think?" "I like her a hell of a lot more than any of the others." said Renowyn. Small mutters of agreement from everyone. Renowyn touched Miller on the shoulder as she wandered by. "What do you think?" Miller just looked at them with a smile and wandered onto another picture. "She looks really comfortable here." said Renowyn thoughtfully. Catskill said, somewhat worriedly, "I don't like the thought of taking everything that she owns." Everyone nodded. "How about 70,000 nuyen?" asked Kilroy. "It'll leave her quite a lot more, it's far less than we could get for it, but, heck, at least we'd know that it was in the right hands." "Yeah..." said Ben, "I agree. Let's sell it to her." "A vote?" Kilroy asked. "All in favor?" All six hands raised. "Good. I guess that's that." Hachiman went to tell Deciduous their decision to sell it to her. "There's one more thing..." Kilroy said, somewhat morosely, in a half-whisper to the 'runners. "What's that?" asked Saraquael, curiously. "We gotta get it here." The next afternoon everyone met at Hachiman's place. Sara was a little worried about Ben. He had stayed up all night pouring magic through the apartment until it was dense with it. The armoring was now readily evident to anyone that even looked at him, and his eyes had gone wide and wild. His movements were hasty and blurred with speed. She hoped that he would be O.K., but she also didn't really want to ride with him the way he was looking. When everyone started getting into the cars, Miller did not. "Aren't you going to come with us?" asked Renowyn. "No," Miller met his eyes with a smile, "I've seen what I came to see." Hachiman, Kilroy, and Saraquael rode in the armored patrol car. The other three were in a Ford Americar, following them. They went to an address that Sabre gave them and met a team of razorfolk with the box between them. They put the box in the middle of the front seat of the armored car. The rain was drumming on the roofs of the cars as they pulled out of the driveway. It was a hard, driving rain that flooded the windows of the cars and turned the glass into fun house mirrors for the outside world. Saraquael was curled up on the back seat of the big patrol car, nervous and quiet as they drove. Sara sighed and tried to relax. Kilroy looked back at her sigh, saw her smile at him nervously, and then winked and grinned. She smiled back at him and felt a little better for it. Gradually, Sara relaxed enough to listen to the song the wind and the rain gave to her. She hummed softly under her breath back to them. The engine and road noise would muffle any physical aspect of the song. Saraquael happily made idle chat with the rain and gave it back some of her pleasure in its presense, just for the fun of it. After a long while the rain laughed a final drumbeat on their roof and settled down to the lighter, almost random droplet pattern that was the trademark of a true Seattle rain. They were more than halfway to their destination. Sara looked around, again. This time, when she sighed, there was more boredom to it than anxiety. Kilroy's grin at her was amused. The grin disappeared, "Four bikers to the rear. Armored 'n comin' after us." Kilroy's voice was flat, hard. Sara popped up to look when the whole car was picked up and shaken by a giant hand. The car behind them looked like it was suddenly kicked and then kicked hard again, pieces flew >from the structure. Their car shuddered under another impact and Sara wailed. A wave of magic rolled over the car, and she put her fear and need behind her voice. Desperately, she threw all she had into her wailing scream of defense, asking with all her heart to shield her friends and herself from the wave of power. Then the power touched the defenses of the quiet Japanese. The wave curled over him and then crashed back on itself against the walls of his will. Sara stared with wide eyes at Hachiman, and he looked at her and raised one eyebrow in question. Then there was arms fire and he turned back to the job at hand. Both he and Kilroy fired a number of shots out the car. The car was kicked again by another explosion. "The Americar can't take any more of this..." Hachiman said grimly and opened the door. Saraquael was knocked onto the floor by a blast from Hachiman's door. Sprawled on the floor, she heard both of the men get out of the car and go off firing at the motorcycle riders behind them. She carefully pulled herself off the floor, staying well below the armored doors to the car, and watched the battle. A prickling at the back of her neck was her first warning. A cold wind blew about her, bone-chilling and knife-sharp. Something shimmered at the top of the car and coalesced into a grey mass of swirling mist, right above the brass bound box. Her ears started to hurt and she squalled in protest at the pressure on her even as the windows burst outward. Glass from the sunroof rained back into the car. A huge, booming voice laughed and laughed, "I HAVE it!! The fools!! The diversion worked to perfection, my Mistress, I HAVE the box!" "No." she said too softly to be heard above the Wind. But she knew that she had said it and that was enough of a start for her heart. She sang to the Wind, sang to it the snarling sing-song of a warrior, a challenger. Saraquael's spirit mask appeared, white eyed and snarling, needle sharp teeth gleaming, fur on end. In the depth of sound that was the Wind she knew that the young spirit of her song felt more like a frightened cat wailing and spitting at a wolf than that of the song of the old temple warriors of Bast. But sing she did and she sang the song of the building swaying, unbroken, the song of the hard, hard blacktop warming under the sun, and the song of a woman bent into the wind as she went where she pleased. She felt the magic flow through the song, finding and filling her true desire. And then Saraquael screamed in rage as a piece of her magic was ripped >from her. Her sense of the True World wavered as if underwater. The Elemental solidified, laughing as it reached to rip more of her magic from her. And she knew that what she had really asked for had been given to her, even as she snarled at the pain of the price for her gift. A blast of force seared the air. Ben's fear for her drove the 'gator snap of raw power that hurtled into the elemental. The Wind engulfed it, flowed around it, consumed it utterly. But it stopped laughing. Stopped laughing entirely as a blurringly fast figure leaped at it with a shining blade of steel. The blade travelled an arc of brightness that was achingly graceful and backed by every trained muscle in the body that bore it; it shone with a single-mindeness of intent that could only belong to a madman or a martyr. The brightness fell on the Wind like a crack of thunder. The Wind burst and fell away, thinly wailing its sorrow as it was sucked away from the world of men. Saraquael was left staring up into the black eyes of Hachiman. He gravely saluted her with his bright soul. In a quiet echo of the strike, he sheathed the sword with a single movement as clean and crisp as the new-washed Seattle air. ------ They pulled into the driveway a scant ten minutes later, all of them crowded into the patrol car. They pulled into the garage to face the six tall, graceful beings with faces hidden by masks and long coats that hung a bit too heavily, with bulges and odd shapes underneath them. Sara jumped when the security doors to the garage clanged shut behind her. Deciduous, in an armored coat, came through the doors, the blank faced one following behind her. The seven and she bowed to them with a movement as coordinated and graceful as a wave falling. The 'runners bowed tiredly back. Two of the masked warriors stepped forward for the box. Hachiman and Kilroy handed it over and Saraquael felt herself relax. Both lines of people bowed again and one of the masked people gracefully approached Hachiman. It passed its hands over Hachiman's hands and then bowed. Hachiman bowed back. Another quiet exchange of bows and the eight of them disappeared up the elevator. The security doors slowly lifted to show the Seattle rain. As they went out, Hachiman handed each of them a stick. Saraquael sighed as she accepted the 'stick. Ben was already on his phone, sounding like he was making a business deal with Sabre. Kilroy got into a cab and disappeared. Hachiman strode quietly to his battered patrol car and drove away with Renowyn so that Renowyn could pick up his car from Hachiman's. For a second Sara looked blankly at the back of the car. Then she shook her head and started, half-heartedly, to walk in the direction of the nearest underground bus station. She was feeling tired, dirty and somewhat out of sorts for having to walk. It didn't do to get used to being chauffeured around as she was when on a job. She turned the corner and pulled up short to avoid running over Catskill. Catskill's leathers looked as torn and battered as Saraquael felt, but Cat grinned fit to burst as she waved the bright, bonded creditstick as if it were a child's toy wand. "Hey, I know this WONDERFUL Japanese bath house that has its own restaurant right next to it, and THAT's got the freshest sushi this side of the Pacific..." "Yes." was all Saraquael needed to say, and the look on her face sent Catskill into a fit of giggles. The two of them started laughing fit to burst, and set off to the bus station, arm in arm. -------------------------------------------------------------------------- -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Well.. that's as far as that game went. Again... much thanks to Carl Rigney for running the game. I'm as anxious as anyone to see more of what happens to the Box and/or Saraquael. Also, I forgot to say a very big Thank You to Mary Kuhner and Catalina for helping Sara and I get a handle on how Magic *feels* for a shaman in Shadowrun. It was a *tremendous* help. Thanks for sticking with this and reading it through. ----- Phyllis Rostykus | "Looking down on empty streets, all she can see are ..!sumax!polari!li | the dreams all made solid, are the dreams made real." phyllis@eld.amc.com | - "Mercy Street" by Peter Gabriel

---

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank