Gabriel took a step forward. "Stefan." His voice was utterly devoid of emotion.
The other's smile grew a bit wider. "What, no greeting? No `how have you been'? I'm surprised, Gabriel." He made the name sound like the basest of insults. "You were always the well-mannered one in the family, after all."
"I have come," Gabriel said in the same emotionless tone. "Just as you apparently hoped I would."
"Yes," Stefan agreed, nodding. "I can see that. I give you credit for more bravery than I had thought. And I see you've brought your menagerie with you." His black-eyed gaze took in each of the runners, then returned to Gabriel. "You've acquired some new pets, I see. I should thank you for the opportunity to—play with them." His voice took on a silken purr. "I especially enjoyed playing with the female. Her reactions were most amusing."
Behind Gabriel, Kestrel stiffened. So did Ocelot. "Calm," came Gabriel's voice in their minds. "Do not allow him to goad you." Out loud to Stefan, he said quietly, "You have no right to use these people—any people—for your amusement. I've come because I cannot allow you to continue doing so."
Stefan laughed, an unpleasant sound. "Oh, Gabriel, I think your long sleep has addled your brain! You always did have an unhealthy affection for these creatures. I've been watching you—I notice that you spend a great deal of time in their form now." He looked Gabriel up and down. "And a fine form it is, too. Very attractive. I see your vanity has not suffered for your sleep." Smirking, he added, "Perhaps you have developed a taste for them in—dare I say—other ways?"
Gabriel did not take the bait, although he did notice the slight movement behind him as the team spread out a bit. Ocelot, on left end, moved up just barely into his line of sight. "If you wished to speak with me, Stefan, you might simply have requested my presence. It was not necessary to create such an elaborate charade."
"But I didn't wish to speak with you," Stefan said. He still had not moved from his position leaning against the desk. "Speaking is not what I had in mind at all, little brother. Oh, I will indulge you if you wish, though you must know that I am not inclined to do so after the last time I saw you. I wonder—would you be interested to know how many of my employees on that island lost their lives as a direct result of your escape?"
"Thirty-two," Stefan said, ignoring him. "That includes the three that you killed in your escape—they were the lucky ones, since they remained at their posts. The others—" he shrugged minimally "—were not so lucky." Clucking in mock sympathy, he looked at Kestrel. "And such a shame about your team, too."
"You bastard," Kestrel spat out between clenched teeth.
Stefan rolled his eyes and returned his attention to Gabriel. "See? They're so predictable. Insult their loved ones, or their sexuality, or their choice of automobile, and they react with such amusing outbursts. I can almost see why you enjoy keeping them around, Gabriel. They are interesting to watch. I understand they get much the same pleasure from watching the primates at the zoo."
Gabriel did not react visibly to the continued insults. "It won't work, Stefan," he said calmly.
"Oh, but it will!" Stefan chuckled. "Perhaps not on you—although even your benevolent resolve is not boundless. Your puppies, however, seem quite agitated by it."
Behind Gabriel, the runners were continuing to spread out, moving slowly and carefully so as to draw the smallest amount of attention to themselves. All of them knew how easy it would be for Stefan to hit them with a spell if they were all clumped together; chances were good that he could do it regardless of where they were, but they didn't plan to take that risk. Ocelot crept to the side, his hand gripping the smooth handle of his monowhip. His promise to Gabriel notwithstanding, he intended to take any chance he was given. Maybe Stefan was a dragon, but right now he looked as human as Ocelot himself did. That probably wasn't any advantage at all, but on the off chance that it was, Ocelot wasn't going to let the opportunity pass him by. Glancing across at his teammates arrayed behind Gabriel, he couldn't tell what they were thinking, and whether they intended to try to press the advantage themselves.
"Why do you insist on continuing with this old grudge?" Gabriel was asking. "It's been thousands of years. You've clearly made a success of yourself. Why do you continue to let jealousy and hatred of something that has ceased to be a consideration to you cloud your judgment and put you at risk?"
"Risk?" Stefan laughed, shaking his head in disbelief. "Oh, Gabriel, you do amuse me sometimes! Occasionally I consider letting you live just because I'd have to look hard to find a better source of entertainment! Do you honestly think that you represent a risk to me? Would I have lured you here if I thought that you did?"
Gabriel shrugged. "You do seem to be spending a great deal of time and resources seeking me out and causing trouble for my friends."
"Your friends." He spat the word out. "I would not have believed it had I not heard it myself. Your friends. You are a dragon, Gabriel. As puny and pathetic a specimen as you are, you are nonetheless a member of the noblest race to ever walk the face of this Earth. And yet you seek to squander that by befriending these—creatures. They are pawns, Gabriel. Pawns to be used, to be manipulated for our own ends. You treat them as if you consider them your equals. Your affection for this—this—woman makes me nearly physically ill."
Again, Gabriel shrugged, this time with the tiniest of smiles. "You're getting melodramatic, Stefan. As I recall, that was always one of your faults. Perhaps you might consider a career on the stage—?"
Stefan's face darkened, his fists shaking as they clenched in front of him. "Do not mock me, little brother," he said in a low tone, full of menace.
Gabriel's smile grew just a bit wider. "Why not? You brought me here because you wanted a confrontation. Did you expect me merely to stand before you and allow you to kill me? That isn't going to happen—although it was a close thing there for a moment, with you spouting all that deathless prose at me. At least I might have died laughing." He took a couple of steps forward, moving with calm disregard. "You've been awake longer than I have, Stefan, but I don't think you've caught up with the times yet. You're still living in the Fourth World, where you could deliver speeches like that to people with straight faces. I've learned that things are just a bit more cynical these days."
Several things happened in quick succession at that moment, although everything moved so quickly that an observer would have been hard pressed to pick out one from the other. The first was that Stefan, still in human form, struck out at Gabriel with a great bellow of rage, hands outstretched as if intending to rip him limb from limb.
The second was that Ocelot seized his advantage, lashing out with the monowhip as soon as Stefan began to move forward.
The third was that the other runners, beginning with ShadoWraith and continuing through Kestrel, Winterhawk, and Joe, raised their various weapons or prepared their various attacks, moving into positions around the two combatants.
The fourth was that Ocelot's monowhip smacked harmlessly into something a few centimeters from Stefan's body with a sizzle and a bright flash of light.
The fifth was that Stefan, his eyes blazing with frightening inner light, turned briefly and noticed Ocelot, then barked a phrase in some unknown language.
The sixth was that the roof opened up above them, revealing the clouds and the dark sky overhead.
The seventh was that Stefan raised his hands and cried, "Begone, puppies!" The runners were snatched up before they could react, sucked into spinning whirlwinds that had suddenly and without notice appeared on either side of Stefan. Horrified, they were borne up and up, flung through the massive skylight that had opened high overhead.
The room changed.
Gabriel and Stefan lunged at each other, shifting form.
The runners were falling.