-CHAPTER ONE

"He who fights monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.

And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you." -Nietzsche

She sat alone in the dark office, the only light being a burnt orange glow coming from the VR display hanging in the air in front of her. Her fingers danced across the projected virtual display, manipulating the various holopics. The disembodied voice of the investigator she hired briefed her on his findings.

"…speaking? This guy was some kind of legend in the runner community." His whiskey and cigarette worn voice stated.

"Shadowrunners are not interested in legends unless they are football players, Urban Brawlers or sim porn stars. If the general population knew of him and the full breadth of his exploits, he would be more a villain than legend." She replied to the air. "Not many people make a hero or a legend out of such a person no matter how successful he may be."

The investigator continued, "Meh. The people I managed to interview spoke highly of his skills but not to well about his personality. That one elf bitch, Blade, that fixer I saw in Seattle seemed to be rather happy that he was dead. The words she used were, 'Those that hang with him tend to hang for him.'

"His results were certainly much admired but the fact he was so cold hearted, not to mention mercilessness, understandably, seemed to push people away."

The lady in shadow started sorting through the virtual images in the air before her.

The first was of a group of young, Asian elves, clothes dirty and unkempt. A hand drawn sign was positioned in front of the group. A child's scrawl in Japanese Kanji was translated in red ink along the bottom edge of the image, "Yomi Island Imperial Education Class, 2036." A red circle was drawn around the face of an elven youth, no more than 10 years old. Even this young, she noted he had a hard look in his eyes.

The Investigator narrated for her. "Right after this image was taken he was recruited by a mid-powered Oyabun as a sort of valet and messenger. I couldn't dig up why the Yaks took up an orphaned elf, but at some point he ended up in the Watada-rengo family under Akira Watada himself.

"I found out that he was in Seattle in January of 2043 when the Yakuza cleaned house. All I know about his involvement in that is that he got very bloody and was permitted to go freelance by Watada soon after that."

The next image was dated 2052. It showed the Asian elf sitting at a table outside a sunlit café. She recognized the location as a coffee house in downtown Seattle. There was a small mug with the establishment's logo on it beside him on the table. His right forearm rested on the table and a cigarette between the fingers of his right hand hung negligently down from the edge of the table. It seemed a careless pose but looking at those dark eyes showed he was missing nothing going on around him. He was both waiting and stalking…like the true predator she knew him to be.

The third image was from a year later than the last one. It was a face and shoulders and left arm, blurred out by motion, but of the same man. He was looking with careful, narrowed eyes at something, probably the photographer's face. I miniature camera on a lapel pin or shirt button she guessed. Also, given the glint of metal in the elve's blurred hand, unmistakably a blade of some sort, she guessed it was the last image the photographer had taken.

The fourth image was from just a few weeks ago. Taken from the left flank and from quite close. It showed the same man in a dark suit without a tie. That caused her to smirk a bit…he had always despised ties. It was understandable enough; she had seen the garrote scar around his neck.

He was walking down a wide, empty street and passed a shuttered shop whose sign read "Pacific Imports". He looked as if he was going somewhere urgently. The clean-cut profile was pointing straight ahead and the crook of his right elbow suggested that his right hand was in the pocket of his black leather sport coat. She reflected that the image was probably taken from a camera installed in someone's cyber-eyes and while in a parked car. She thought he looked as dangerous and as determined as ever.

Almost reading her face, the detective voiced, "He was rushing to break stop some old bag from getting rolled. When the punks saw him they tried to scare him off but when he wouldn't back down they split in a hurry."

The fifth and last image was marked "Pass 2072". The corner of the Confederate American States flag and the stamped letters "…uix Checkp…"were visible in opposing corners. The image, which was greatly enlarged, was most likely made at a city sector checkpoint. She carefully went over the projection of the face in front of her.

It was a dark, clean-cut face with a scar running from his left earlobe toward his chin along his jaw-line. His deep hazel eyes were wide and level under straight, narrow, black eyebrows. The hair was slicked back from his forehead, displaying a very pronounced widow's peak. He had cut his hair shorter than she had remembered…no longer sporting his trademark ponytail.

The investigator spoke up. "So it would seem your guess was correct. I did a background check and the man in those last images, Ken Milner. Turns out nothing past 15 or so years old pans out. Roughly the same time our Yakuza assassin, Ken Matsuya is declared dead and lost at sea off the coast of Greece. Upstanding businessman Ken Milner shows up in Denver just under 8 months after Matsuya is fish food. His background is tight but my hacker was able to push through it. Whoever set it up was no slouch"

"Thank you for your hard work. I assume you remember my requirements for confidentiality?"

"Of course."

"Then the remainder of your payment will be in the agreed upon account shortly." She disconnected the call before the investigator could respond.

She sat alone in the dark for several minutes, looking at the images floating in front of her. She took a small tele-com from her pocket and slowly…deliberately dialed a number from memory.

"We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others

that in the end we become disguised to ourselves

- Author François de la Rochefoucauld

It's 75 degrees and partly cloudy…in January. You have got to love Denver.

Comparisons to his dreams from the previous night were not lost on Ken as he walked to work. Gone were the cane and jewelry, and the expensive Italian tailored suit was replaced by an off the rack charcoal slacks and blazer that was just short of high shine, a plain white dress shirt and an obnoxious tie that was a father's day gift. He still kept looking over his shoulder…half expecting to see three gangers stalking him. But no. No Dissassemblers. No drizzling rain. No fountain. Ken was just another wage slave bustling along with the other wage slaves down Colfax headed to the downtown checkpoint.

For the thousandth time Ken bemoaned the headaches of living in a sectored city. He and his family lived in the CAS sector. Ken worked in the Sioux sector while Angela worked in the UCAS sector. Sometimes Ken felt that the process of carving up the city took less paperwork than what was required of its citizens, who needed a plethora of residence papers, passports, school trip visas and work visas and the applications involved in each of them. The whole "tax-free" thing was a good perk though.

Ken was still trying to get used to living under the domain of a Great Dragon with apparent attitude and sibling rivalry issues but it was still a good place to get lost and re-invent yourself.

Ken strolled up to his storefront noting, thankfully, that no new graffiti or bullet holes marred the steel protective shudder. After unchaining and raising the heavy door, he thumbed open the lock to the sliding gate. A quick change from sport coat to an apron and Pacific Imports was open for business.

After arriving in Denver and gaining his new identity, Ken soon discovered a life retired from the shadows was boring and he desperately needed something to do. Using contacts he developed in China, Japan and South East Asia, and through several covers and bribes, Ken was able to set up shop as a purveyor of true Jade jewelry, expensive silks and authentic oriental antiques. Soon after he added specialty teas and spices to his inventory. Every now and then his shipments would include gaudy Asian decorations like tacky wall scrolls, small statues of Foo dogs and other beings from Chinese mythology or cheaply made knives and swords. So now his shop looked like something of a cross between a Chinatown pawnshop and an Opium den. And Ken wouldn't have it any other way. The local talismongers bought the jade to make fetishes and focuses, tourists bought the brick-a-brack, and the resident geriatric population loved his variety of teas.

He wasn't open an hour before he was getting his ear chatted off by a member of said geriatric population. Mrs. Chen was a widow who lived in a small apartment a block away from Ken's shop with just her four cats to keep her company. Ken was busy filling her order from the glass jars behind the counter while she animatedly filled him in on the local gossip and goings on, reinforcing Ken's belief that Government and Corporate Intelligence gatherers should look up old Mrs. Chen and give her a job as an instructor.

The day went on as usual. A visit from Sylvia, the Elven talismonger with the looks of a simsense star (and a flirty nature that, despite his promiscuous nature when he ran the shadows, never failed to make Ken uncomfortable), resulted in a sale that covered the shops rent for the following month. Later that afternoon Ken busted an Ork juv named "Mouse" trying to steal the same gaudy bracelet she'd been trying to boost for months. Ken decided to offer her a job to earn it...as always. And as always she refused.

A call from Angela asking him to pick up a bucket of chicken on the way home and it was closing time. After turning on the alarms and securing the metal shutter, Ken strolled back home. He noticed some dark clouds coming over the mountains to the west.

There was a storm coming.

"Very few people can be totally ruthless. It isn't easy; it takes more strength than you might believe."

-Han, "Enter the Dragon"

The hotel room was dark and dusty. The only light was leaking in through the half closed blinds. He sat alone in a chair in the corner, sniffing a gray powder off the back of his burn-scarred hand. He was a typically stock Ork. Wearing ragged clothes…unkempt if not quite up to homeless standards. Greasy, wiry hair peeked out from under a knit cap. Aside from his badly damaged right hand, the entire right side of his face was badly scarred from a burn…leaving him with a cataract and rheumy eyes that he used to look over the room.

What was tied to the bed was once human, and given the clothes scattered about the room, more than likely she was a lady of the evening. She was naked…but not that you could tell because the flesh had been stripped from her body. Her eyes were burned out empty voids and the ragged breath coming from the lipless mouth showed she was still alive.

The Ork in the corner held out his right hand, palm up and a small flame sparked in the palm of his hand.

In a voice barely above a whisper he spoke "Take her".

The fire elemental jumped from his hand and began incinerating the creature on the bed. Fortunately she had passed the point of feeling pain some time ago.

As the Ork looked on…a small smile on his face...he felt his pocket secretary begin to ring.