What they saw was a sight straight out of a nightmare.
The room had indeed changed. Where before they had been standing in what they thought was an extremely large office, the space where they now stood dwarfed that office as if it had been nothing more than a small bedroom.
The room they now occupied, if you could call it a room, stretched for the entire length and width of the building's top floor, which took up an entire large city block. The walls on three of the four sides were made of the same black, armored glass that covered the rest of the building; it soared up and curved at least fifteen meters from the floor, forming a glass ceiling dominated by the huge skylight through which the runners had been flung. The skylight was once again closed.
Most of the floor was clear—there was no sign of the obsidian desk, the art objects, the chairs, although the marble floor still covered the entire space. The ceiling was supported by four massive columns, each one a good five meters across, spaced in a wide rectangle that produced the effect of ringing the great space in the center of the room.
As impressive as the room was, though, it was not by any means the most impressive or frightening sight the runners were presented with when they opened the door. What they did see stopped them cold for a moment, staring with eyes wide, unable to look away.
In the center of the room, surrounded by the four support columns, two impossibly huge creatures from ancient legend were doing their best to tear each other apart. Gone were the strong, elegant older man and the handsome and compassionate younger one—in their places stood their true forms, rising up on enormous hind legs bulging with muscles, slashing at each other with talons and teeth, their tremendous wings beating the air behind them.
Stefan was even bigger than Gabriel. Unlike his brother's golden color and small, smooth scales, his body was covered with larger, more armored-looking scales of a bluish green hue. His eyes were green, burning with rage and hatred. As Gabriel got through his defense and slashed at him with a claw, the bigger dragon bellowed in frustrated pain, the sound echoing deafeningly through the cavernous room.
"Holy...crap..." Joe breathed.
"Bloody hell," Winterhawk agreed.
For a moment, the runners could do nothing but stare. All of them had seen dragons before, but none had ever seen anything like this. Winterhawk wondered idly if anyone else in this day and age had ever seen a sight like this—two Great Dragons locked in mortal combat. As far as he knew, Great Dragons settled their differences very privately, and mere humans and metahumans were not permitted to view their battles, verbal or physical. Watching the scene here was like watching two dinosaurs the size of small apartment buildings attacking each other; it was like something out of the trideos. But this was not the trideos. The blood was real. The bellows of pain were real. The way the entire floor shook when the two dragons made contact with each other was real.
This was life or death, and it didn't look like their side was winning.
Both dragons were cut and bleeding, but it was clear to anyone watching that if they continued with this physical confrontation, Gabriel wasn't going to last long. He already had huge slashes across his right flank from Stefan's claws; there was another gash above his eyes, causing him to shake his head to fling the blood away, and his chest was bleeding from yet another wound. It was hard to tell if he was slowing down because both of them were moving so fast, but although Stefan had his own share of gashes and injuries, he was moving with more power.
The runners didn't stand still for long. It was difficult to tear themselves away from the primal struggle going on before them, but they all knew that if they didn't do something, they were all dead.
"He's losing," Kestrel said desperately into the commlink. "Stefan's killing him! Gabriel, get away from him and use magic!"
"He said Stefan would ignore us," Ocelot said. "Let's use that."
"Wait to fire until we all get in position," Joe added. "Maybe we can hit him all at once."
Ocelot was already moving. "I'm takin' left," he said, breaking into full speed and heading for the big support column off to his left—the one closest to Gabriel. As he ran, he took a quick glance upward, trying to determine if there was anywhere he could shoot his grapple gun and get up above the combat. He didn't see one. Gripping his spear tightly, he kept going.
`Wraith, also moving at full speed, was already running toward the right-side column nearest him—and nearest Stefan. The column was big enough to provide decent cover, even against the dragon. As long, anyway, as he used a physical attack rather than a magical one. `Wraith planned to station himself behind the column and then set up a careful shot with the Barret before firing. He didn't know if the sniper rifle's high-powered rounds could punch through the dragon's barriers and his natural armor, but it was the most powerful weapon he had, and he was a master marksman with it. It was his best chance, so he was going to take it.
What he hadn't counted on, though, was the dragons' speed. It was hard to tell when they were locked in a clinch like that, but the way they were lashing out with teeth and claws, and the way their powerful tails flung around behind them, `Wraith suspected that they moved even faster than he did. This surprised him. Not much moved faster than `Wraith, and he counted on that in his strategy.
Kestrel took off in the same direction as Ocelot. She had a long-range weapon in the LMG, so she didn't plan to get any closer to Stefan than she had to. She didn't think that point-blank range was going to make enough difference to matter in how much damage she did to the dragon, but it might make a difference if he tried to take a shot at her. She knew what kind of damage those claws could do—much as she loved and trusted Gabriel, she still had to fight off a small flutter of nervousness every time he brought his claws, each one almost as big as she was, near her. And this was a dragon who would die before he would hurt her. Stefan had no such compunctions.
She tried, and mostly succeeded, to block from her mind the sight of Gabriel's wicked bloody wounds. She knew she would be no help to him if she succumbed to worry, but she couldn't completely erase it from her mind. He looked so much like he had looked when she had first found him, desperate and dying, in the cavern. That time, she'd been able to help him. But he was weakening. She could see that. Stefan was too, but not nearly as much. She was well aware how much stronger the bigger dragon was from Gabriel's telling her about it, but now that she saw them together she got the true story on a much more visceral level. If Gabriel had any hope of winning this fight, he was going to have to break free of Stefan and get into position to use his powerful magic. Stefan no doubt knew that, which was why he was trying so hard to keep his brother close.
Winterhawk saw no reason to get in close to the fight at all. As much as he hated to acknowledge it, he knew that his role in this battle was going to be one of support rather than of offense. As a combat mage with a full complement of powerful offensive spells, his usual position on the team was a much more active one. He prided himself on being able to take down, or at least soften up, large numbers of opponents quickly and easily. The team didn't really have a support role most of the time: between `Wraith's sniper rifle, Joe's axe and machine gun, Ocelot's melee-weapon prowess, and Winterhawk's magical punch, they generally operated on the "best defense is a good offense" philosophy.
This time, though, that strategy wouldn't work. `Wraith's Barret and Joe's HMG might—might—have a chance of getting through Stefan's armor at a weak point. Ocelot had a chance if he was brave enough to get in close to the dragon with his monowhip. Kestrel, `Hawk wasn't sure about, because he didn't know how good she was with her LMG. But as for himself, his strongest attacks were his magic and his mageblade. He knew that even though, according to Gabriel, Stefan's magic wasn't as powerful as Gabriel's, he was still a Great Dragon. That meant that even his weak magic had to be orders of magnitude more powerful than Winterhawk's. So hitting him directly with a spell was out of the question—it wasn't even worth risking the drain to try. That left the mageblade. The magical weapon might have a chance of hurting the dragon, since he was a magical creature and therefore more vulnerable to it than he would be to a normal weapon. Still, though, that was like saying that an elephant was slightly more vulnerable to a steel toothpick than he was to a wooden one. Even with his magically-boosted prowess with the blade, `Hawk didn't think he'd have much of a prayer of being effective. If it came down to his needing to, he would give it his best go, but for now he contented himself to activate his levitation spell lock and slide noiselessly along the same wall where the door was, maneuvering himself into position where he could keep an eye on as many of his teammates as possible and provide them with magical defense support should they need it. The longer Stefan ignored them, the better off they would be.
Joe, moving the slowest of the team, headed for the same column that `Wraith had already almost reached. Like the elf, he planned to get into position and set up a shot on Stefan; unlike `Wraith, his shot didn't depend on precision and careful aim. He was counting more on the "lead hose" effect. It wasn't often that he got the chance to open up with full automatic on his machine gun, but the results when he did were usually most satisfying. He remembered the time he had blown the stuffing out of an enormous Spider spirit using this same gun, but then reminded himself that this dragon was easily ten times the size of that spirit. This was going to take some effort; however, Joe was confident that he was going to hit his mark. "Say when," he said into the comm. With the gyro-mount stabilizing the gun, he could let loose at any moment on his way over to the pillar.
Nobody answered, because things were starting to happen in the middle of the room. Suddenly, Stefan broke his grip with Gabriel and backpedaled a couple of steps, gathering magical energy and flinging it in a huge glowing ball at his brother. Gabriel reared back on his hind legs as the spell slammed into his barriers, dissipating harmlessly in a flash of bright light and a sizzle like lightning. Eyes blazing, moving faster than the runners thought it possible, he hurled an answering spell at Stefan. The air crackled with energy as the tremendous bolt of magical force hit Stefan, sending the bigger dragon staggering backward, bellowing with pain. From where the various runners were watching, it didn't appear that much of the spell had made it past Stefan's defenses, but unlike Stefan's own spell, this one had at least gotten through.
ShadoWraith reached his vantage point behind the pillar. Raising his Barret, he sighted on Stefan's huge body and began taking careful aim. He would not fire yet: the position was not right. He knew that if he had a chance of hitting, it would have to be in one of the dragon's weak spots, as Gabriel had said. If he could punch through Stefan's magical protection, he'd need to hit a spot that wasn't covered by the thick scales. Settling back, `Wraith waited for his opportunity. He was patient.
Ocelot was behind the other pillar, and he had an idea. In his mind, it was best if the team spread itself out as much as possible—at least then if Stefan started to notice them, with any luck he wouldn't be able to hit them all at once. As frightening as the dragon's magic was, even it had to have limits. With Ocelot's admittedly spotty knowledge of magic, most of it gained from Winterhawk when he was in a lecturing mood, he knew that the area of a spell's effect was governed by the power of the spell and the power of the caster. He also knew that, with some exceptions, most spells required that the caster be able to see the recipient. He didn't think Stefan was going to be able to spare time for anything too fancy, not with Gabriel breathing down his neck. Therefore, Ocelot decided that his next move would be to try to get as far over to the other side of the vast room as he could. The sight of the counterpart to the support column behind which he was now hiding gave him the means to do this. He pulled out his grapple gun, mindful of Gabriel's long and wildly thrashing tail, which kept dropping in and out of the area where he'd have to cross. He knew that one smack from that tail and he'd be out of the fight, so he'd have to be careful. "I'm going across," he said in to the commlink. Aiming the gun at the column, he watched for his chance to act.
Winterhawk, from his spot against the near wall, continued to move along it while keeping watch on all the combatants. His eventual intent, somewhat like Ocelot's, was to get over to the other side of the room, as far as possible away from Stefan, while still being able to see his teammates. Drawing his mageblade, he looked around. Where have those air elementals gone? he wondered. Odd that they'd just go away. Perhaps they were up on top of the now-closed skylight, on guard to make sure that no one tried to enter through that point. Possibly they had discharged their last service to Stefan and had returned to the astral plane—or he had released them once they'd done their job. Or there was always the chance that Gabriel had, with nothing more than a negligent flick of his power, banished them himself. For whatever reason, though, they seemed to be gone. Winterhawk was glad of that, since it was going to be hard enough dealing with the dragon without complicating matters.
Kestrel reached the other side of the support pillar that Ocelot was just getting ready to vacate. Readying her LMG, she spoke into the commlink. "I'm in position. Ready when you are." Waiting, she watched the two dragons. Good, she thought. He's back far enough he can use magic now. In her mind, the fight just tipped a little bit over toward Gabriel's side, despite his collection of bloody injuries. She knew that even though the gashes and claw-rendings looked bad, Gabriel would be able to heal them with no trouble once he bested Stefan. She had to keep reminding herself that in a creature bigger than a house, injuries that would look life-threatening in a human were not nearly so grievous. He was getting weak, true, but the power of his magic had not dissipated at all. In fact, the success of his latest spell seemed to fill him with more vitality than she'd seen since she'd come in.
Joe watched from his position on the other side of `Wraith's pillar, machine gun still trained on Stefan's midsection. Briefly, he wondered if he should switch weapons, using his Panther assault cannon in place of the HMG. The damage from each was roughly the same when you took into account the fact that the Panther fired exploding shells, but he was reluctant to use the Panther because of the possibility of collateral damage. As long as Stefan stayed away from Gabriel, it might be all right, but if the dragons, who were both moving at truly scary rates of speed, got back together again his shot might hurt Gabriel. It was even possible, though not likely, that he could miss and hit too near one of his own team members. No, he decided, at least for now he would stick with the HMG. He had enough ammo for it to do his best to make hamburger out of Stefan.
Stefan, perhaps knowing all too well that in a battle of magic he was going to lose, seemed determined to take the fight back to Gabriel. With a great and rumbling roar that shook the chamber from floor to ceiling, he bunched his hindquarters under him and dived at his brother, wings beating the air.
Gabriel was ready for him this time, though. He glared at Stefan and jerked his head upward in a dismissive gesture. The other dragon was caught in mid-air by a wall of magical energy that drove into his belly like a giant fist, reversing his direction and slamming his body into the far wall.
The sound was deafening; it was as if a bus had just collided at full speed with a stationary object. The heavily armored glass held, but just barely. The entire chamber shook again, the floor jarring like it had just been hit with an earthquake, the glass rippling. Stefan landed hard on his back and bellowed again, adding his rage to the cacophony of sounds echoing through the room. Gabriel moved forward to press his advantage.
ShadoWraith's carefully-aimed shot was thrown off by the sudden actions of the two dragons. He was having a bit of a hard time adjusting to the fact that they were both faster than he was; it was throwing off his strategy. Quickly, he got back into position and aimed the Barret, preparing to squeeze off a shot at Stefan's exposed belly. The dragon, still off balance, rose up, beating his wings to try to regain his equilibrium. `Wraith, only a few meters away and lightly built, was blown off his stance by the sheer force of the wind created by Stefan's wings. He didn't lose his footing, but he realized that he wasn't going to get a shot until the dragon's wings stopped their frantic flapping. He leaned against the pillar, held tight to the Barret, and waited. He was still patient, especially now that it seemed that the tide was turning. No need to do this fast as long as they were winning. Patience would win the day.
Ocelot quickly took advantage of the opening created when Gabriel moved forward. Pulling the trigger on his grapple gun, he held on as the line shot out and wrapped itself around the support pillar on the other side of the room, then reeled himself in, skating on his heels across the polished marble floor. Reluctant to leave the grapple line wrapped around the pillar, he took the time to swiftly disengage it and retract it back into the gun, watching the two dragons out of the corner of his eye while he did it. So intent was he on these two tasks that he almost didn't see the shimmering form that began to manifest itself off to his left. "What the—" he yelled, snapping his head around to identify the movement he'd spotted. "Oh, shit!"
"What is it?" Winterhawk's voice came quickly over the link.
"Another one of those damned elementals!" Ocelot jammed the grapple gun in his pocket and raised the spear as the thing surged forward toward him.
Winterhawk, on the other side of the room, could just barely see what was going on over near Ocelot, but he had no trouble spotting the large air elemental that had come into being a few meters from his friend. Gripping his sword and almost glad to have something he could do, he rose high in the air and headed for the other side of the room. "I'm on my way," he said. "There in a minute."
Kestrel watched from behind her pillar as Gabriel sent Stefan careening across the room. "Best chance I'm going to get," she said, raising her LMG.
"Yeah, " Joe said, moving forward. He wasn't going to pass up a chance like this either. Winterhawk and Ocelot were going to be occupied with the spirit, and `Wraith was getting his balance and his aim back. It was now or never.
Kestrel let loose with a barrage from her LMG as Joe did the same with his gyro-mounted HMG. The heavy guns chattered in their hands, spitting out a blistering full-automatic attack from two different angles. Both Kestrel and Joe aimed at Stefan's belly as the dragon continued to twist himself back to an upright position.
The rounds plinked harmlessly off an unseen shield a few centimeters from Stefan's body.
"Fuck!" Joe yelled, nearly blowing out his companions' ears. "We can't hit this thing!" He was quite taken aback by this: he had never encountered anything that could take a full-auto hit from a heavy machine gun and not only remain standing, but remain completely unhurt. They were in trouble.
"He's right," Kestrel cried, though not as loudly. "We hit him with everything and it just bounced off!"
Stefan twisted around, finally getting himself back on his feet, his rage-filled eyes on nothing but his brother. Joe's and Kestrel's machine gun hits seemed not to have even fazed him—he continued to ignore them completely. The dragon looked a bit shaky, but it was clear that Gabriel's hit had been more effective at knocking him off his feet and off balance than it had been in injuring him.
Gabriel wasn't going to let that go, though. Continuing forward at high speed, he stopped in the center of the room and flung another spell at Stefan. This one flew, a pulsing beam of sparkling bluish energy, from his left claw, lighting up the room and forcing the runners—at least the ones who were paying attention—to look away for a second.
The beam hit Stefan dead-on in the chest. Once again, it appeared to contact an unseen barrier like the one that had stopped the machine gun rounds, but this time, the barrier did not hold completely. The spell exploded, casting trails of blue energy out in all directions as it hit the barrier, but some of it got through, searing its way into the dragon's chest. Stefan screamed in pain and staggered backward again.
This was the shot `Wraith had been waiting for. It looked to him like the dragon's barriers were weakened for the first time since the team had joined the battle. He knew he didn't have long to press this advantage. Taking careful aim, he quickly decided not to go for something obvious, like Stefan's belly or his head. Undoubtedly those vital areas would be the most well-armored of all, meaning that his shot would likely be wasted. Instead, he took aim at the junction between the dragon's back and his wing, right where the relatively slender bone structure attached the wing. A hit there wouldn't kill the dragon, but it would hurt him. And perhaps it would hinder his ability to fly. He didn't know for sure, but he had to take a chance.
The stunned dragon screamed again. He lurched sideways, yanking his wing in tight against his body. It took `Wraith a second or two to realize that he had actually managed to hit. He had claimed first blood. "Hit," he said dispassionately into the commlink. It didn't look like much of a hit, but everything was helpful. He hoped that Gabriel would take advantage of the diversion and move in with another spell.
On the other side of the room, Ocelot had his own problems. He was using his Dikoted spear to hold off the elemental, but not having much success in attacking it. Where was `Hawk? He was the one who was good at taking out spirits fast, with that black sword of his. Ocelot chafed at having to waste his time messing with the underlings while the main fight was happening off on the other side of the room. He had heard `Wraith's announcement and silently cheered—the behemoth could be hurt by one of the "puppies". He wasn't invulnerable. That meant that they had a chance. Okay, not a great chance, still. But a chance. Ocelot raised the spear to fend off another quick attack from the elemental. "`Hawk?"
"Right here," came the mage's fast reply. Dropping down from where he had been floating high above, Winterhawk immediately waded in and slashed at the spirit with his mageblade. The spot where he had hit flared momentarily red, after which the elemental seemed to dissipate somewhat. "Take that, you bugger!" he shouted at the big elemental, then backpedaled nimbly to set up another shot.
Ocelot did likewise, noting as he usually did how Winterhawk, who was usually the last guy to get into a physical confrontation against anyone because he was such an abysmal fighter, came into his own when fighting spirits. Even though a fair amount of his swordfighting prowess was magically enhanced by his weapon-focus blade, it was still a good thing to have on your side. Especially when fighting big ornery air elementals whose only purpose, it seemed, was to keep one or more of the team busy so they were out of the main battle. The elemental didn't seem so much to be attacking as it was to be getting in his way and preventing him from getting back into the fight.
Kestrel, her spirits buoyed by `Wraith's hit, lined up for another shot with her LMG. As soon as she fired, though, she knew it was useless. Whatever had weakened Stefan's barriers appeared to have gone, because her shots plinked off the barrier just like they had last time. Frustrated, she hoped that Joe would have better luck.
Joe was setting up another shot, but the gyro-mount was slowing him down as he moved into position. He saw Kestrel take her shot and saw the rounds hit and bounce off. Deciding that the momentary breach in Stefan's armor must have been caused by Gabriel's spell, he settled back to wait until Gabriel cast another and prepared to follow that up with another full automatic barrage.
Stefan recovered quickly from Gabriel's spell and `Wraith's shot; the spell had hurt him badly, while the shot had only injured him about as much as a bee-sting might hurt a human. Still, though, the thought that he had been injured at all by one of these insects infuriated him. It was bad enough that his runt of a brother, who had improved greatly in his magical abilities, was actually hurting him. But to allow himself to be wounded by this—elf—that was too much for him to bear. Pulling himself back to an upright position, he glared for a moment at Gabriel, then, cat-quick, turned his graceful neck around so his burning gaze fixed directly on ShadoWraith. Raising a claw, he lashed out at the elf with a deafening shriek of rage, intending to gut him like the insignificant vermin that he was.
`Wraith, who had been taking aim for another shot with the Barret, suddenly found himself the unwilling subject of Stefan's attention. His eyes widened in fear as he realized not only what the dragon intended to do, but just how fast he was doing it. He lowered the Barret and immediately dived off to his left, attempting to put the huge column between himself and the dragon's attack. Even as he did it, though, he knew that he was not fast enough. Any second he expected to feel the sharp claws ripping through his armor, through his skin, through his muscles—
And then there was a loud war-whoop echoing in his ears, and something was moving back there.
`Wraith hit the ground and rolled up, spinning around to see what was happening. Again his eyes widened at the sight.
Joe had seen what Stefan was planning to do. Overpowering the influence of the gyro-harness by main force, he had acted with more speed than `Wraith thought possible for him, diving between the dragon's claw and `Wraith. The elf's sharp intake of breath was heard by all of the other team members as Stefan's claws raked into Joe, driving the troll backward into the support column with a loud thud and a clang that shook the pillar so hard `Wraith could feel it around the other side. The wicked claws opened up huge and bloody gashes down Joe's front, cutting through his armor like it wasn't there.
Joe cried out in pain and terror, feeling the blood running down his chest and the tendrils of insensibility gripping the edges of his mind. Even his massive constitution couldn't take a hit like this. He felt the indentation in his back where the Panther, which had hung over his shoulder, had been driven into it, probably breaking bones. His lungs were on fire. His hands fell away from the HMG as his legs began to sag beneath him. Any second now he was going to topple like a tree. But he had saved `Wraith, given him another chance to hit the dragon. That was what he had been trying to do. The darkness began to settle—
Then, suddenly, he was angry. The red waves of rage, for just a moment, overtook the black grip of darkness, whipping up what little strength he had left into a berserk fury. Gritting his teeth, he clamped his hands around the HMG and raised it on the gyro-mount, his back flush against the pillar. He fired. Not even trying to aim, he let fly with everything he had left in the gun, spraying rounds even as his vision began to fail and his legs began to sag again. With satisfaction, he thought he saw small red wounds stitch themselves across the dragon's chest, and thought he heard it scream.
Then there was nothing.
"Joe's down," `Wraith said unemotionally, from around the other side of the column. Somehow that dead tone managed to convey more emotion than if he had been yelling in hysteria.
Gabriel had been taken by surprise by Stefan's sudden change of target. He had seen `Wraith's shot hit his brother's wing, but he didn't think that would have been sufficient provocation to convince Stefan to take his attention from the large threat—Gabriel—and redirect it to the annoying but essentially harmless non-threat. As Stefan wheeled on `Wraith, Gabriel acted on sheer instinct, starting over in the direction of the fight. There was no time to prepare a spell now—he would have to do something to get Stefan away from the elf and the troll, and quickly. But before he could get there, Joe made his desperate dive between `Wraith and Stefan and taken the brunt of the dragon's massive attack. Gabriel winced as the claws hit the troll and knocked him back against the pillar, then stopped short when Joe managed to get himself together enough to loose a barrage of machine-gun fire against Stefan before finally going down in a heap. He saw Stefan reel back—he was only slightly wounded, but nonetheless the troll had hurt him. Gabriel hadn't thought it possible.
Across the room, Kestrel slung her LMG over her shoulder, pulling down her bow instead. She started toward the combat, staying close to the wall for now. She wasn't sure yet what she was going to do, but she knew that she wasn't going to do it with the LMG. If Joe hadn't been able to do more damage than that with a heavy machine gun, her light one wasn't going to be a factor at all.
Ocelot and Winterhawk both heard `Wraith's two-word report. "Shit," Ocelot said under his breath. Then, louder: "`Hawk, let's kill this fuckin' thing! They need us over there!"
"Right," Winterhawk said grimly, redoubling his efforts. He took another swing at the elemental, connecting with a solid blow. It wouldn't be long now at this rate. One or two more like that—"I just hope there aren't any more of these lurking about."
"Don't say that!" Ocelot drew back his spear and surged forward in a powerful thrust, spurred on by his frustration at being kept out of the main battle and his anger that one of their number had already gone down, perhaps permanently. The spear point penetrated the elemental and then Ocelot wrenched forward and up on the titanium shaft, ripping the point through the spirit's form. "Die, you motherfucking bastard!" he yelled, focusing all his rage-borne energy on that single spear-point.
With one final flare of bright red, the air elemental disappeared.
Ocelot staggered forward, overbalancing with the spear, but caught himself quickly. "Come on, `Hawk," he said breathlessly, turning. "Fight's over there."
Stefan reeled backward, sparing a quick glance down at the front of his body. That troll had hurt him! This wasn't supposed to be possible. These puppies of Gabriel's were not supposed to be able to injure him. He looked in satisfaction at the bloodsoaked figure of the troll lying in a disorderly heap next to the support pillar. One down. But then his gaze darkened. The elf had started this. The elf had wounded him, and caused the troll to take the attack that had been meant for him. The elf, who was now hiding like a coward behind the other side of the pillar. Stefan smiled, showing a mouthful of nasty-looking pointed teeth. Gabriel could wait for a moment. This upstart elf was going to find out the true error of his ways for having the arrogance to attempt to involve himself in a battle that was not his to fight. He stepped back and looked up high above him, at the black-glass skylight. Yes. That will do nicely.
Gabriel was preparing another spell when he realized with horror what his brother was planning to do. Stefan had gone mad! That was the only explanation he could find that would explain why his brother was continuing to direct his attacks at ShadoWraith while ignoring Gabriel himself. Before Gabriel could summon another spell and take advantage of Stefan's lack of attention, Stefan directed his gaze upward and gestured with a claw down toward `Wraith.
The subsequent actions occurred in the space of only a second or two. From above, there was a loud splintering noise as the force of Stefan's spell shattered the armored glass like it was made of the thinnest crystal. Then suddenly the air was full of a deadly hail of shards, all of them speeding toward `Wraith. They covered such an area that the elf could not hope to dive out of the way, no matter how quickly he moved.
Gabriel acted without thought, purely on instinct. Much like Joe had done but on a significantly larger scale, he launched himself toward `Wraith, interposing his huge body between the shards and the elf. `Wraith, realizing that there was now a barrier blocking the glass, flattened himself against the support pillar and waited. There was nothing else he could do. To step out now meant certain death.
"NO!" Kestrel screamed, hurling herself across the room toward them. "Gabriel, don't!"
The first of the glass shards slammed into Gabriel's magical barriers and bounced harmlessly off, but there were many more and Stefan had put all of his considerable strength into the attack. The great room reverberated with Gabriel's cries of pain as at last the shards began to penetrate his barriers and pierce his body. As `Wraith watched, stunned, from his place of refuge, the young dragon crashed to the ground next to him and lay still, gasping and bloody. The floor shook beneath him with the force of the impact.
Winterhawk and Ocelot got a good view of the whole thing from across the room. Ocelot gasped as Gabriel went down. Although he didn't know quite why, he stepped up his speed. What the hell was he going to do now? Their protector was down. Stefan had won. If he'd had any brains at all, he'd try to get his ass out of here before the dragon noticed him. Instead, he said into his throat-mike, "`Wraith?"
"Here." The elf's voice was quiet and a more than a bit shaky.
"Down. Not dead. Eyes open. Still breathing." `Wraith's voice came fast and harsh, sandwiched between breaths.
"I...live," another voice said in their minds. The voice sounded very weak.
Stefan's rage was increasing. It had barely registered on him that his attack had felled his brother, an unexpected benefit. At that moment, he was beyond caring about that. The elf was still alive! This was the second time now that he had been cheated out of his kill! Almost ignoring the bleeding form of Gabriel, Stefan came around the support column, his eyes blazing with hatred, his teeth bared in a snarl. Rearing up on his hind legs, he raised his forelegs and formed a massive area effect spell, which he hurled with a great bellow of rage directly toward `Wraith. The fact that its area of influence affected Gabriel as well was, at least at this particular point in time, only an afterthought.
From halfway across the room, coming in from two different sides, Winterhawk, Ocelot, and Kestrel got to see the effect of the spell. As Stefan loosed it, Gabriel raised his head slightly. The spell rolled over him and `Wraith, once again hitting an invisible wall some distance away from them. Unworldly, greenish-hued flames flickered around the barrier, hungrily seeking an entrance. Even from where they were standing, the three runners could see the strain in Gabriel's eyes as he fought to maintain the wall against Stefan's magic.
As it turned out, he almost managed to hold the barrier long enough. The flames licked at it, persisting, looking for any crack in the impenetrable armor. Slowly, they began to dissipate, decreasing in size and brightness. They had almost gone when Gabriel's strength gave out, dropping the invisible wall. Several things happened then: the flames surged greedily inside, lapping around the dragon and the elf. `Wraith cried out involuntarily in pain, grabbing his head, and crumpled. Gabriel stiffened, his agonized cry broadcast through the runner's minds, and his head crashed back to the marble floor.
"Gabriel!" Kestrel yelled, running toward the fallen dragon and wrenching an arrow from her quiver.
Ocelot increased his speed toward the scene, his mind echoing with the cries of his downed teammates and the screams of the two dragons. Unbidden, Yiddish prayers from his childhood began to flash through his mind, undoubtedly trying to block out the other, much more suicidal, thoughts that were starting to take root there. He raised the spear and kept running. Am I crazy? Am I actually considering attacking a dragon with a spear? His next thought was even more farfetched: I'm behind him—maybe I can run up his tail and jam the spear into the back of his neck! He was crazy. But Joe was down. `Wraith was down. Now it appeared that Gabriel was down. If anybody was going to pull any rabbits out of any hats, it was going to have to be damn soon.
Winterhawk, still zipping along with his levitation spell, slowed as he reached the middle of the room, assessing the situation. He saw Ocelot and Kestrel running toward Stefan, and realized that he would be of no use doing the same thing. Hanging back momentarily, he tried to decide where he would be of the most help.
Stefan trumpeted triumphantly, rising up once more on his hind legs. There! That had taken care of the elf. Even his brother's magic hadn't been enough to stop his spell. He turned his attention back to Gabriel, taking a brief second to look him over, savoring the sight of his hated enemy bleeding and near death on the ground at his feet. That was the way this was supposed to go. Gabriel had hurt him, true: his guts burned from the spell that had hit him and gotten through. The child was good, Stefan had to give him that. But for all his power, he was still but a child. Stefan tried to find any sorrow for the fact that Gabriel's life would end so prematurely, but he could not. He had played second to this charmed youngster for far too long. It was time for it to end now.
He raised his forelegs again, forming the pattern in his mind for the spell that would rid him of his brother once and for all. Magical energy crackled and flickered around his claws, shooting back and forth, gathering power. The spell would take a lot out of even one such as he, but it was worth it to be sure.
Ocelot saw the spell forming and skidded to a stop some distance back. Even now, he wasn't that suicidal. He knew that if any of that mojo hit him, he'd go up like a cinder; he wasn't sure if he would be safe from it anywhere near Stefan. Hesitating, he once more considered his options, realizing that he didn't have many. For now, he decided to wait and see what would happen next.
Kestrel, too, came to a stop when she saw the magical energy. Raising her bow, she nocked an arrow but held her fire. Torn between her desire to help Gabriel and her fear that he was already lost, she too waited.
Where Ocelot and Kestrel saw an impediment to their plans, Winterhawk saw an opportunity. Still levitating about a meter off the ground, he positioned himself so he could see Gabriel past Stefan's rearing form. The bluish energy crackled around the dragon, eerily backlighting him against the black of the glass and the polished floor. Concentrating on Gabriel's still body, he noticed something that surprised him. "Bloody hell," he whispered in the commlink. "He's getting back up."
And he was. Slowly, painfully, Gabriel was rising on shaking legs. His eyes still closed, the young dragon appeared to be gathering himself to make one last stand. The only problem was, it looked like it was going to be too little, too late.
Or was it? Winterhawk rose up a little more as he finally saw his chance to affect the battle. Narrowing his eyes, he concentrated like he had never done before in his life.
Stefan threw the spell.
Ocelot and Kestrel, from where they were standing, were in a good position to see what happened next, but they weren't certain right away that they understood it.
The powerful spell flew from Stefan's claws, its intensity almost forcing the two runners to look away. Neither of them was anxious to watch Gabriel die, and it looked as if that was what was going to occur. They didn't see any way that the dragon could avoid the spell in his present state.
But then something odd happened.
The spell's energy hit a barrier, but not the one that Gabriel had used before: the dragon's own barrier had been very close to his body, and invisible. This one was several meters out, flashing into being with a glowing translucence as the spell's energy contacted it. The spell blew through the barrier, but its light and power were dimmed as it continued on. Although there was still enough of it left when it hit Gabriel's own barrier to punch through and find its mark on the young dragon, it was clear that if it had been allowed to hit with its full energy, Gabriel would have been killed instantly. As it was, what little remained of the spell might have been enough: he collapsed again and did not move.
Off to the right and in their commlinks, Ocelot and Kestrel heard a cry of pain. Sparing a quick glance to the side, Ocelot saw Winterhawk clutch his head and drop to his knees, tearing his helmet off and flinging it aside. His nosebleed and pale face told Ocelot the story: `Hawk had been responsible for the first barrier. The feedback when it had been blown down had hit him hard. "`Hawk?" Ocelot ventured.
"Still here," came the ragged, whispered reply.
"Oh my God—" Kestrel whispered from where she had been continuing to watch Stefan. "No—Ocelot—"
Ocelot wheeled back around and gasped.
Stefan's attention was no longer on Gabriel. With a grace that didn't seem possible in a creature his size, he had turned himself around and now towered above them, his burning green eyes fixed firmly on Winterhawk. "You have made a grave mistake, mage," a deep voice reverberated through all their minds. The dragon looked clearly weakened from the force of the spell he had thrown at Gabriel, but he was doing better than almost all of them at this point. Gathering himself, he prepared to leap forward on the barely-conscious mage, who was teetering alarmingly on his knees.
But now Stefan was facing them.
Ocelot's hand closed around one of the special grenades he had commissioned as a rush job during the hour they had had to prepare. He gripped it tightly and waited. He knew that if he could get this past Stefan's barrier, he had a chance. A damn slim one, but anything at this point was better than nothing.
Kestrel swung her bow around and took aim. She was well aware that they'd have only one opportunity, and if they failed they were all dead. All thoughts of Gabriel gone for now, she focused her mind on making the shot count.
Stefan leaped forward with a mighty rumbling roar.
Winterhawk staggered to his feet and tried to move backward.
Ocelot pulled back his arm, checked his aim, and flung the grenade.
Kestrel set up her shot and let her arrow fly.
For a moment, everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. Kestrel and Ocelot did not move at all; they stood back and watched their respective shots almost dispassionately, as if viewing them on a trideo screen. The tiny grenade and the razor-tipped arrow flew through the air, crossing the distance between the runners and the dragon. The arrow flew sure and true, while the grenade traced a graceful arc up and up, then settled down to meet the dragon in mid-air.
Ocelot and Kestrel held their breath.
The arrow found its mark, piercing what little remained of Stefan's barrier and burying itself in his left eye.
The grenade exploded, spraying its contents—sulfuric acid mixed with DMSO—across Stefan's face. The DMSO, a carrier compound, combined with the acid to deliver it straight through the dragon's hide—including directly into his eyes.
The dragon screamed, a high, wailing shriek that threatened to deafen the remaining conscious runners even through their protective helmets. Blinded now, his leap fell short of its mark, his tremendous bulk crashing to the ground several meters short of where Winterhawk, his hands once more clamped over his ears, was trying to stagger back. Forelegs stretched out before him, Stefan landed hard, knocking Ocelot and Kestrel off their feet. Winterhawk, not moving quite fast enough, was caught by the leading edge of one of the claws and sent spinning backward, a long bloody gash running from the top of his left shoulder down to the middle of his chest. He fell and didn't get up.
Stefan thrashed madly, still shrieking, his wings beating ineffectually against the air and his claws alternately scrabbling at his eyes and lashing out in search of a target. Then, suddenly, before any of the remaining runners could even attempt to get back to their feet, the dragon bunched his mighty hindquarters and leaped upward, taking to the air in a movement that was frightening in its speed, especially given his current condition.
"He's heading for the skylight!" Ocelot cried, still trying to regain his balance in the wind produced by Stefan's wings.
Kestrel didn't get a chance to answer. Stefan reached the skylight, which was open following the spell that had caused the rain of glass shards. For a moment, he hesitated, hovering. Then, in a thundering voice that was even louder than his anguished screams, he spat out a single word in a language none of the runners understood.
And then he was gone, flying swiftly off into the night. As soon as he cleared the building, he winked out of sight.