How could you let him leave?
"How could I make him stay?" Minh answered softly. "I have told him that it is our clan’s job to protect those who cannot defend themselves. That we are the chosen, that the Long are the children of the celestial gate. After telling him that, how could I then tell him that we must let the suffering continue?"
Do you know what you have done?
"Something I should have done long ago," Minh answered as she met Auri’s gaze. "We watch the gate, we protect the way. We were never meant to take the place of the least of your brothers, let alone Gabriel. Lei Yung has left his post as the Keeper of the Gate so that Gabriel might be protected until he finds his way home. Lei Kai is the youngest among us, and I have neglected his training in favor of your concerns. I am correcting that mistake."
Minh stiffened as the room shook with Auri’s rage.
"Do not take that tone with me CHILD," she answered as she arched her neck regally. "My father ruled here when you were still young. My kind has fought and suffered for your cause. Our blood and the blood of our ancestors lies mingled on the battlefields of old. Kai must make is way in the world if he is to grow. If he is to take his place as Lei Yung’s successor, he must be ready. Now more than ever, the Keeper of the Gate must understand the world below."
It was not your decision to make.
"And I did not make it," Minh answered as she smiled a slightly self-satisfied smile. To anybody else, it would have been a warning. To Auri it was a friendly reminder of who he was speaking with. She was Lei Minh, matriarch of the Long family and custodian of their lore.
His chuckle filled the air.
Perhaps, your true calling is to keep me from taking myself too seriously.
"You have a great burden," she answered. "But you also have friends who care about you."
It is good to know. Thank you, dear lady.
Minh nodded slightly, there was concern in her eyes, and respect in her voice when she spoke. "And you dear friend, rest when you can. And do not forget to laugh."
There is so little to laugh about these days.
"I have a friend, who even now, finds things to laugh about. It is her defense against the enemy’s madness."
Minh took a deep breath as she thought of Duck. "Even now, when hope fades from sight, she chooses to laugh. She has lost everything but her soul, and even now she fights alone to keep it."
And you will not intervene for her?
"She understands our way far better than most, though she would tell you otherwise," Minh told him. "She would not forgive me if I were to leave my post to fight her battles."
"Especially now," Minh answered sadly. "She was my first friend among this generation. She taught me the strength that still lives within the hearts of men. She and those she calls her family. They fight as we do, for causes beyond themselves. Even now, in their suffering they fight to keep the flame alive."
Our prayers are with them.
"Boss?" Meri called as she reviewed the comm gear.
"What you got?" Wulf asked as he looked over her shoulder.
"Morse code," Meri answered. "Radio, military."
Wulf shook his head. "Meri, you ever think of English, speaking: correctly."
"Boring," she answered with a shrug. "Its an S.O.S. I’m trying to triangulate it now."
"Don’t you have to move around for that?"
"Sort of," Meri answered. "I’m moving to different relay stations, trying to get a fix on it, the problem is its bouncing all over the city. We have to isolate the originating signal, then back track from there."
"See what you can come up with, but don’t spend too much time on it." he answered. "If its military, they’re probably already working on it, and we really need to get a line on MindBender."
"You got it," Meri answered as she once again slipped into the matrix interface.
As her eyes glazed over, Wulf shook his head. They had to find something soon.
"You look worried boss," Gris stated as he put a hand on Wulf’s shoulder.
"I am," Wulf stated as he turned and faced the group’s Voodoun. "According to Sable, MindBender is working on converting a Decker to their cause. And if that’s not bad enough, he also says that Briar’s looking for a new host."
"Well, I no worry ‘bout da deckers boss," Gris stated with a smile. "They too independent. And MindBender, he control the mind, which is where de decker lives."
Wulf shook his head. "He did a good enough job controlling Daff."
Gris shrugged. "He play with Daff’s mind, yeah, but he not control de man. Is a different ting." He stopped again and then grinned at Wulf. "Course, I could be wrong."
"How to instill confidence in those around you..."
Gris just smiled at him. "I do what I do."
Wulf took a deep breath as he looked at his friend and teammate.
"Now boss, why you look at me dat way?"
"Gris," Wulf stated with a sigh. "I may need you to try and locate MindBender."
"Boss, you know I do anything you ask," Gris told him. "But please don’t ask me."
Wulf saw the pleading look in his friends eyes and bowed his head. "I won’t ask unless its absolutely necessary," he promised.
Kai felt his pulse quicken as he continued traveling on foot. There was no way he would be able to reach Eclipse before Bear faded forever. ‘This will not do,’ he thought as he looked beneath his feet. ‘The storm drains?’ he wondered as he neared the grate. Then he remembered Joey telling him about Eclipse’s hideout in the drains.
He looked around before he approached the grate. Once he was sure no-one was watching he wrenched it free and dropped into the tunnel below. Here he would be able to change and travel unseen. At least that was his hope.
Again he focused on Eclipse’s thoughts, almost missing those of the seven men who now surrounded him. As he prepared to shift, their motion caught his eye.
"What do you think you’re doing?" one of them asked as he thumped something into his hand.
Kai shifted his focus and suddenly realized he had stumbled into something. The men stared at him like a pack of wolves would stare at a sheep suddenly appearing in their midst. He forced himself to remain calm.
"I am sorry to have intruded," he stated formally. "But, I must leave you now."
"You ain’t going anywhere pretty boy," the man stated as he signaled the others. "At least not with them fancy cloths of yours."
"You have a point my good man," Kai answered formally as he allowed himself half a smile. "This mode of travel is far too slow."
The men stood in shock as the Asian man’s features blurred. There was no time to register what they had seen before he was gone. They stared in shock as their minds refused to acknowledge what they had seen.
"That was... was..." one of them muttered.
An illusion nothing more
The words were tinged with laughter, but none of them believed it.
Kai took a deep breath as he flowed through the tunnel. He was closer now, he could hear Eclipse as he kept count. But Bear was fading from his mind.
BEAR do not leave. I am here.
The thought was so weak he could barely hear it.
Lei Kai. I have been searching for you. You must hold on.
There is no more. I am sorry.
That is not acceptable! There is so much out there and you are needed.
There was silence in his mind as he reached out to the fading image of his friend. "NO!" he yelled vocally and mentally. The vocal response came out as a roar.
Eclipse felt his strength waning. His muscles were rebelling against him as he tried to continue administering CPR. His own chest was aching from the effort.
As he tried to continue he heard a noise behind him, and then a roar. ‘What now?’ he wondered as he turned to face the new threat. As he turned, he saw a pair of eyes staring out at him from the darkness.
He was breathing heavily as he lifted his head and swore. He could tell from the sound that whatever it was was big. The eyes alone seemed almost as big as his head. He staggered away from Bear towards the new threat.
"Leave us alone!" he yelled as he picked up a rock and threw it at the creature. As he moved closer he recognized the form. "Haven’t we been through enough?" he demanded of the fates.
As he lunged at the large form, he found himself gently restrained, the creatures eyes swirling in distress. Distress?.
Rest my friend. You have nearly killed yourself trying to keep him alive. It is my turn to see to it your risk was not in vain. We will continue this conversation later.
With those words echoing in his mind, Eclipse found himself floating, his mind safely cocooned away from the pain and exhaustion. His last vision was that of an oriental dragon, leaning over Bear, its head tilted, as if listening for a breath.
Bear, I am here.
Kai stretched out his senses as he reached for his friend’s spirit. Repairing the body had been fairly simple, once he figured out the mechanics. There was some damage that he knew would have to be fixed later, but it would do for now. It was strong enough to hold the spirit until he could heal the rest. He began expanding his consciousness as he tried to locate that which was Bear.
The problem was that the spirit had drifted far from the body, far from the pain. Even now, it was hard to trace.
Bear, you must help me.
The response lacked form or thought. Emotions and images were all he received.
Kai tried to understand the emotions but some of them were so foreign to him that he was forced to focus on the images. He saw the ring of fire and destruction that Bear had stood against. As he focused on the image, he understood the emotions that were associated with it. Fear, determination. Surrender.
It is over. Eclipse delivered you from that end.
He did not understand the next image. Try as he might, all he saw was a sunset and the silhouette of a horse as it raced against the wind as he watched, the horse blurred, changing into the form of a bear. He could tell that the spirit was fading. ‘Was this Bear’s way of saying good-bye?’
Please, don’t go. I need your help.
The bear turned. The expression was uncertain, as if trying to remember something. As he stood watching the bear changed again. This time into a man, Bear: Daniel.
I can help you back, but you must come with me now. Time is running out.
The man squinted at him then nodded as he recognized his friend.
Duck. Kai, help me. It has her.
I know. But before we can help her, you must help me.
Already the vultures were gathering. The creatures of the plane, recognizing a lost soul, were drawing a circle around them. Kai coiled himself protectively around Daniel TwoBear’s spirit. Formless and twisted, they gathered near, slicing at Kai’s slender body for a chance at the morsel he protected. As he pushed more power through his image, something moved in from the side.
"I do so hate scenes such as these."
Kai swirled around Bear to face the speaker. He appeared in the form of Kai’s people, but he was a twisted version. Where Kai’s scales gleamed, his opponent’s were decaying and gray. "Rahalleth," he gasped in horror.
"So, you know of me," he sneered. "You are far too young to have met me."
"My uncle has taught me well the lore of our people," Kai answered calmly as he looked for an escape route.
"Come now cousin," Rahalleth told him. "You cannot fight me here, and I will not let you leave with that one."
"You, you are the cause of this misery." Kai stated in disbelief. "You were banished."
"Ah, but where one spell can send me away, another can always bring me back," he sneered. "Too bad you won’t be able to warn our dear kin."
Kai pulled himself together, but as he tried to deal with Rahalleth, the vultures attacked Bear. "No!" he screamed, as he pulled himself back around Bear.
Pain raked his sides as Rahalleth’s claws scraped across them, pulling at his scales and gouging the flesh beneath.
"You can barely defend yourself child, how can you hope to protect him?"
Kai shook his head in frustration. "Haven’t you done enough?" he demanded.
"Until the celestial gate is in ruins. Until the self righteous Lei Minh is enslaved, until Lei Yung lies eviscerated at my feet, it will never be enough! And since they are not here, I am forced to settle for you and this ... Bear."
Kai shuddered. He knew the story of Rahalleth, but he had never completely understood. Rahalleth, had once been one considered one of the great ones of his people. In defiance of the elders, he had studied the spells of humans. Studied them, learned them, improved them, until the day that the spells went horribly wrong and he had become something more than just what he was. Something more, and something less. He had never fully understood the change, but he knew that in the end it had taken Yung and Mihn working together to defeat what he had become. On the astral plane, he had no match.
"I am known by many names child," Rahalleth told him. "The ‘Dark Singer’, the Devourer, and my favorite, Corrupter of the Long. You will make a fine start child. And once I have you, I will have the power I need in the physical world."
Kai half listened to Rahalleth as he made his boasts. He knew he could escape alone, but without Bear, the risk was for naught.
Leave me. You must warn the others. He cannot be allowed any more power than he already has. You have to protect Duck.
Bear’s voice was weak and desperate.
You have sacrificed yourself for others, can I do any less?
The emotions filled him until he finally understood what Minh had tried to teach him. We are protectors, Rahalleth’s power was in greed and desire. It was purity and sacrifice against greed and no conscious. And here, Rahelleth’s power was far stronger than Kai’s.
As he tried to find a way for both of them to survive, images of Gypsy came to his mind. As he looked at Bear, he realized it was a message.
Kai smiled as he allowed himself a slight chuckle. He had seen Duck’s uncle in action at the gaming tables. With Gypsy you never knew what to do, for the man could bluff with the best of them "Very well." he told Bear.
Rahalleth noted the exchange, but didn’t understand it, or Kai’s sudden confidence. "Thank you dear cousin for sharing your plans with me."
"The knowledge will do you no good."
"Me no, I have no use of it. By my Mother thanks you for the information. She will be looking for you directly."
Rahalleth turned around as he heard the familiar roar of Lei Minh behind him. A cloud began to take shape as she neared, but then it was gone. When he saw no sign of her he looked back at Kai and Bear. They vanished with a smile. He lunged at the vanishing forms but, they were far enough away that he was unable to destroy them. He took what comfort he could in the fact that he’d hurt the youngster, then smiled. He still held cards to be played.
Your friends shall pay for that! Especially the woman!
Kai groaned as he lifted himself up and checked on his friends. Pain filled him as he felt Rahalleth’s rage and heard his vow. He forced himself to change, become human once more. It would be easier for him to work in this form, and there was still much work to be done.
"Forgive me Duck," he sighed heavily. He knew that Rahalleth did not make empty threats, but he also knew Duck’s heart in the matter. Bear was her first concern and therefore he made him his as well.
He checked on Eclipse who was still in the thrall of the healing spell he had cast. Kai released the spell, allowing him to return to consciousness. Then his attention was completely focused on Bear.
He checked Bear’s pulse and let out a sigh. He was alive, barely. Now he had to finish what he had started, or Bear would die. As he called the power to him he felt his breath catch. He realized that he had not escaped unscathed. The damaged from Rahalleth’s attack on the astral plane reflected in the physical. He was powerful indeed. Quite possibly more powerful than he was when Yung and Minh face him.
He realized he did not have enough strength to heal Bear and himself, and again he knew what must be done. Bear was his first concern.
Eclipse gasped as he turned and found Bear radiated with light. He recognized Kai sitting behind him, supporting him as the light surrounded them. As the light faded, Kai turned and smiled at him.
"All will be well," Kai told him as he eased Bear back down. "All will be well."
Eclipse started to relax as the light went out, and Kai fell to the ground. Eclipse pushed himself up and was surprised to find that there was no pain in his arms. His relief was short lived, for as he checked on Kai, he felt something warm and sticky.
"Dammit," he swore as he pulled Kai’s jacket off and felt his wounds. He could feel deep cuts along both sides of the man’s chest. As he struggled to stop the blood flow, he heard voices in the tunnels.
"Quick, it went this way!" "‘Gona catch as a dragon boys."
Eclipse knew they were looking for Kai. And suddenly he realized the ‘creature’ he’s seen had not been an illusion. "Seems your secret’s out old man," he whispered as he folded Kai’s jacket into a makeshift bandage and bound it tightly to his wounds. Then with the remaining power he held, he cast an illusion spell he hoped would keep them safe.
Tracker shook his head as he disconnected from the matrix. He’d managed to find the van that they’d used to pick up Duck, only to lose it in the suburbs. He had a partial plate, but he doubted even that would do him much good.
"Anything?" Boomer asked as he made the transition from matrix to real-world.
"A partial plate," Tracker answered. "They were headed down the expressway, to the burbs. Then nothing."
Boomer nodded as he tried to offer what support he could.
"What about him?" Tracker asked as he looked over at Kenny and Finagle as they worked on Whisper.
"Bender messed him up good," Boomer told him, ignoring the hostility in Tracker’s voice. "Kenny says they slipped in through his link with Jan. Nothing fancy, nothing permanent. Just enough to control him until they had what they wanted."
Tracker shivered at the thought. On one level, he knew it wasn’t fair to Whisper, but all he could think of was Duck. "We have to get her back."
Boomer nodded. He’d seen what Briar did to those MindBender couldn’t break. Neither of them were ready to face that possibility.
Justin watched Fen as their mother fussed over him. The years seemed to melt away as she cooked them both breakfast. Talk was lighthearted after the first half an hour. After Fen had arrived their mother had ushered him over to the livingroom where he recounted his escape from Briar’s men.
Justin remembered how tightly she’d hugged Fen after he told her about the fear and danger, but he also remembered the look he’d seen in Fen’s eyes when he thought no one was looking. It was almost predatory. He didn’t say anything then and now he knew he couldn’t tell her the truth.
He knew he’d have to find a way to break MindBender’s hold on his brother, but he didn’t have the slightest clue how.
He held onto the hope that Serpent had given him. ‘You are the sword, your brother the healer.’ Perhaps their brother would be able to once again save Fen. He prayed it wasn’t too late.
He knew his mother would never accept what he suspected. She had lost too much already and he could see that she still mourned for Kenneth, the brother he never knew. He prayed that he was strong enough to whatever might come next.
In the meantime, he would play along.
Twelve hours and he was no closer to breaking her than he was the first time he entered her mind. She did not cave into the helplessness. If anything she had grown stronger. The rage was gone, but replacing it was a gentle resistance that simply refused to yield.
This is not as I expected. But fear not, she will join us one way or another.
MindBender was surprised. To his knowledge, Briar had never been wrong about a ‘recruit’ before. "How did we fail, my lord?"
Our information was incomplete. Biased. We will need to learn from that.
She must suffer.
MindBender was again surprised by the wrath in his master’s voice. "But master, did you not want use of her skills.
No my child, I fear she will not serve as our link to the technology. Break her if you can, how ever you please. If you fail, I will give her to Ellingsworth. Perhaps she will serve as my new host. If nothing else, her pain will serve our purpose.
MindBender smiled. A broken mind, a broken spirit... the thoughts filled his heart with desire. Now she was his to play with as he pleased.
I reward those who serve me. You will punish those who won’t.
"Thank you Master!"
If you cannot break her within a day, leave her on ice for Ellingsworth.
"Yes," he answered joyfully. 24 hours of her life were all his, and if he succeeded, there would be so much more. If not, her pain could be used to torment others.
Enjoy yourself, you’ve earned it.