Gabriel had lost track of time again; they hadn’t been back since Stefan had left.
They had left the naked light bulb burning above his head; it hurt his eyes, so he didn’t look up at it.
He drifted in and out of awareness, never quite losing consciousness but never quite regaining it; his head ached while at the same time feeling light and swimmy. The pain was a formless thing that engulfed his entire body, leaving him weakened and exhausted.
He had trouble concentrating, but he did his best to keep alert, to do what little he could to keep his body ready to act should the opportunity arise. He had little faith that such an opportunity would arise, but he nonetheless refused to give up. At least it was something to do.
Every few minutes he moved around as best he could, raising his aching arms to bring feeling back to his shoulders, flexing his fingers, rotating his wrists in the tight bonds. He couldn’t do much about his legs; he could barely move them now, numbness having settled in long ago, but he did what he could, shifting his knees back and forth, raising his feet, gripping the concrete floor with his toes. He didn’t know if it would help, but he knew it couldn’t hurt.
He wondered if they had broken anything with their beatings. He didn’t think so, although he wondered a bit about one of his ribs. It hurt to move his jaw, but not as much, he didn’t think, as it would if it were broken. None of his teeth seemed to be loose, either. He couldn’t get rid of the sour taste of blood in his mouth. His nose he couldn’t be sure about: it had stopped bleeding before Stefan had arrived, but since he couldn’t see it or touch it he couldn’t tell. All he knew was that it hurt. Everything hurt. He felt hot and achy and vaguely feverish.
The places where Stefan had dug his fingers in hurt the most right now, because they had been the last. He had, over the course of Salazaro’s questioning, employed whatever mental discipline he currently possessed to add each new pain to the cloth of the whole, weaving it in, filing it away—he couldn’t make it stop hurting, but he could control the intensity somewhat.
At least he could before. Stefan’s claw-wounds stubbornly refused to join the tapestry, as did the pain from the scar on his side. That particular pain was and always had been different from all the others—while they, even the severe ones, seemed superficial, transient, the side wound felt as if it reached into the core of everything he was and clenched itself around his soul. If he had been given the choice at that moment, he would have gladly chosen to bear all the other injuries in exchange for ridding himself of that one. As it was, he didn’t have a choice, which meant he was forced to deal with all of them.
Adding to all of this was the fact that he had been growing progressively more hungry, and especially more thirsty, as time went on. It was an odd, unfamiliar feeling, experiencing hunger from a human standpoint. He had never been hungry in human form before; like all dragons, he didn’t have to eat often and took his real meals in his true form once a month or so. Each of those meals, usually comprised of several large herd animals (part of a group he kept on land he owned, tended by a spirit, for just that purpose) was enough to keep him going quite nicely until the next one was due. His human-form enjoyment of practically everything edible from pizza and hot dogs to the finest of multi-course meals and the most exotic of ethnic cuisines was more an amusement than anything else—he liked the taste of the food, but the tiny portions would not have even begun to sustain his massive draconic form.
Now, though, the hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach was getting more distracting, and the thirst was worse. He wondered if they intended to leave him here to starve—perhaps they thought that he might be a bit more tractable after a few hours (days?) to think it over. He didn’t want to think too hard about that—or about the fact that he feared they might be right.
He had tried everything he could think of to loosen the bonds on his hands and feet, but nothing had worked. He suspected that they had wet the ropes before tying him up, so they would constrict as they dried and form an even tighter hold on him. He had extended his elbows outward, trying to stretch the rope enough that he could get one hand through it; he had wriggled first one leg, then the other against the chair-leg with a similar hope—but both had produced the same results: sore limbs and no perceivable stretching of the ropes. Finally he had slumped in despair, not giving up completely, but giving up for the moment. I’ll just rest for awhile, he promised himself. Then I’ll try again.
Without the attempts to escape his bonds to occupy his mind, he found it drifting back to his apartment where he had left his friends. A stab of guilt struck him, as it always did when he thought about them—Should I have done it the way I did? Should I have told them in person, rather than leaving a note? Was I afraid of their response if I told them face to face? They could not have stopped me...
What was I afraid of?
He closed his eyes and allowed his head to fall forward slightly. Juliana, of course. She could have stopped you.
He knew the little voice in the back of his mind was right. None of the others, Ocelot, Winterhawk, Joe, ‘Wraith—none of them could have said or done anything to stop him from continuing the course he had chosen. But Juliana—
Juliana could have had the chance.
In his mind he pictured her: her bright, glittering green eyes, her slender, wiry frame, her shock of short white-blond hair, her smile. He had given her his life that day more than two years ago, in a dark cave on an island where he had been prepared to die but still feared it—and he had never regretted that decision. Humans and metahumans fascinated him: their lives were so short, but so bright, shining with purpose and spirit and vitality—so different from his own people who, with their near-assurance of immortality, made decisions slowly and carefully, sometimes after years of consideration. Even most of the elves, long-lived as they were, existed only for a few moments in the spans of dragonkind’s perceptions. Gabriel, as a child in the Fourth Age who grew to the cusp of adulthood during the Sleep, still retained many of the impressions and beliefs of his childhood. He knew that eventually he would have to settle down and take his place among the doings of his own kind, but that was a long time off. Until then, he enjoyed spending time in the world of the young races—learning their ways, exploring their fascinating technologies (dragons, due to their prodigious magical abilities, had never needed to develop technology; Gabriel had often wondered if they had the proper mindset to have done so even without considering magic, but he supposed he would never know that), observing and being part of their complex webs of relationships. All of this he had been introduced to by Juliana, and he would be forever grateful to her for that. She had not only saved his life—at great potential risk to her own—but she had shown him what he had needed to know to live in this new world without revealing what he was. She could have merely chosen to assist him in removing the imminent danger and then gone on about her business, but instead she had chosen to remain with him. In Gabriel’s mind, that had raised her to a level rarely occupied by any being he had ever known, human, dragon, or otherwise.
He smiled a little without realizing it, thinking over the things the two of them had done together over the time of their acquaintance. He knew his mind was wandering, but just this once he let it wander. The thoughts were pleasant and right now he could use a few pleasant thoughts.
He remembered the baseball games, the odd little ethnic restaurants in bad parts of town, the far-too-fast drives in the countryside, their whim-driven jaunts around the world. He remembered the first time she had shown him trideo and how he had refused to remove himself from its presence for several days, fascinated by the images. He remembered teaching her about the history of his world while she taught him how to drive a car. He remembered her laughing good-naturedly at his taste for Godzilla movies, Urban Brawl, and chocolate ice cream, and his dislike of “cutesy” or uncomplimentary images of dragons in pre-Awakening pop culture. He remembered the way she looked at him the first time she saw his human form, and then later on when she didn’t think he noticed—
He closed his eyes a little tighter at that thought, which had brought back other, more recent memories. He wished he could drive the images from his memory of the time after he had hurt her—seeing her there, broken, bleeding, and knowing that he had caused it. The Enemy caused it, he reminded himself, but that didn’t make any difference to him. The only thing that did was that he had hurt her, very nearly killed her. If he could only forget—
But he did not want to forget, he realized. The anger, the memory of the rage he had felt at the Enemy—the rage that had driven all vestiges of the madness from his mind—that was part of what was keeping him going now. He was not going to let them win. He would die first.
But death had other consequences.
Quickly he forced himself to think of something else, and was surprised at what his mind settled on. More images: Kestrel again, but not bleeding, not injured—smiling. Wrapping her arms around him, pulling him close—
He wondered if she knew he had never done anything like that before, and decided she probably did. She had been patient, gentle, joyous—and he had responded. It had surprised him at the time, although he certainly would never have told her that. She had asked him once before and he had let her know his feelings on the matter: that he would do as she wished, but that the two of them were so different that it would have been awkward at best; she had respected his wishes and not pushed the matter. He could see, though, that it was not over, even if she had thought for awhile that it was. He had not read her thoughts and never would without her permission, but she could not hide her aura from him.
That night, after he had hurt her, after he had brought her back to health and watched over her, racked by guilt, as she slept, something had changed. Even now he wasn’t sure what it had been, but that night he had looked at her—differently. There had been none of the reluctance borne of the fact that she was human and he was not, that among his people the telepathic component of the act was every bit as important as the physical, that he had gently turned aside her advances in the past. That night he would have given her anything she wanted, without question. The night seemed long ago now, and was not likely to be repeated, regardless of what happened to him here—he had seen the subtle change in her aura the next morning, mirroring his own feelings that what they had shared had been something special and unique, but something that, having been completed, could now move on to the next level. He had never felt closer to Kestrel than that night, but more than anything it had heightened their bond of friendship and the feeling that no more such nights were needed.
He sighed, shifting painfully in his seat, and opened his eyes. Juliana, I wish I could have—
Had there been something moving in one of the room’s shadowy corners, or was it just a trick of the light and his exhaustion?
He leaned forward, concentrating.
It happened again: a slight, small motion and a very faint skittering noise.
As he watched, the movement repeated a third time, this time accompanied by a pair of small, shiny eyes that glittered in the overhead light.
Gabriel frowned. A mouse? How did a mouse get in here?
The shadowy form moved a little out of the protection of the corner. When it did, Gabriel could see clearly that it was not a mouse, but a rat: a little gray creature with bright black eyes and a long pinkish tail. It stood briefly on its hind legs and regarded him inquisitively.
Gabriel sighed. As if the situation here weren’t bad enough, now he had rats to contend with. He hoped there wouldn’t be more, and wondered once more how it had gotten into the room. There must be an opening of some kind behind me, where I can’t see. I wonder if there are more of them in here.
He closed his eyes a moment to listen, but did not hear any more of the soft skittering noises of tiny feet on stone floor. When he opened them again, the rat was still there. It was back on all fours again but it was still watching him.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, surprised at how weak and rough his voice sounded in his ears.
The rat stiffened a bit, then chittered something and moved closer. It moved cautiously, never taking its eyes from Gabriel’s face.
“Go away,” he ordered softly. “You don’t—want to be here.” It hurt to speak, more now than before.
The rat ignored him and continued to move closer. When it reached a distance of about a meter away, it paused again, rose to its hind legs, and chittered once more.
Gabriel tilted his head in question. It was odd that it was coming this close to him; most of the rats he had encountered in the past tended to like dark small places where they could hide. This one seemed terribly exposed out in the middle of the floor under the glare of the lightbulb.
It paused there for a moment, then dropped down and continued its forward progress. It seemed to be heading directly for Gabriel.
“No...” he whispered. Was this Salazaro’s, or Stefan’s, idea of a joke? Sending rats in to torment him, to bite him when he was unable to defend himself? He tapped his feet several times on the floor, trying to scare the rat away.
It didn’t budge. It simply sat there and watched until he was finished, then moved forward again. This time it circled around a bit, approaching him from his left side.
Gabriel turned his head so he could keep watching it. His heart was beating a little faster, his muscles tensing. This rat was behaving in a very unratlike way. What did it intend to do?
It was next to the chair now. He had to lean over painfully to see it, and his eyes widened when he did—it had come right up to the chair-leg and was currently on its hind legs again, its forepaws resting on the ropes binding Gabriel’s left ankle.
Gabriel tensed. Was this a prelude to its climbing up his leg? He threw himself violently forward and then back, his back smacking against the chair-back with a sound thump.
The pain was incredible, adding to his belief that Carl and Gus had managed to break at least one of his ribs during their ministrations. He clamped his eyes shut and gritted his teeth, afraid to cry out for fear of bringing one or more of his captors into the room. He breathed short sharp gasps and waited for the pain to dull down again, then opened his eyes.
The rat was still there. It was looking up at him, a surprisingly—compassionate?—expression in its black eyes. “Go away...” he whispered, not having the energy to do anything else.
It didn’t go away. Instead, it leaned forward. After a moment, Gabriel could hear a tiny rasping sound.
He drew a deep breath and forced himself to look down at it, expecting to see it gnawing its way through the thin fabric of his pantleg in anticipation of reaching the flesh of his ankle.
But that wasn’t what it was doing.
Slowly, methodically, the rat was gnawing through the rope.
When it noticed him watching it looked up at him for a moment, met his gaze, and then returned to its task.
He continued to watch, half in fascination and half in fear, as the creature went about its business. Its progress was slow but steady; occasionally it would halt for a moment and look up at him, moving its mouth in the manner of a cat who has just eaten something that did not agree with it, but always it returned to gnawing after no more than a couple of minutes’ rest.
Gabriel had long ago lost track of time and his innate time-sense didn’t seem to be operating at the moment, but he surmised that it must have been about fifteen minutes before the rat had chewed its way through most of the rope binding his left ankle; it was still wrapped around him, but it felt looser. He longed to stretch his leg out, to restore full circulation to it, to move, but he did not; not yet. Instead he continued to watch the rat.
It had backed off a bit and was looking at the rope as if admiring its handiwork. It looked up at him again, chittered, and moved closer.
Halfway to the chair it stopped suddenly, raising back up on its hind legs and cocking its head toward the door as if listening to something. A few seconds later Gabriel heard the sounds of footsteps approaching. He stiffened, looking first at the door, then at the rat.
The rat was already moving. It scurried around behind him. For a moment he could neither see nor hear it, but then he felt the light touch of tiny paws on his bound hands as the creature climbed up the back of his chair and settled itself between his wrists. Its small furry body was warm and either hummed or shivered, he couldn’t quite tell which, against his bare skin.
Gabriel lowered his head and closed his eyes. Perhaps the footsteps would pass by; perhaps if whoever it was came in, they would think he was asleep or unconscious and leave him alone. It was a long shot, but at least it was a chance. If he was awake when they came in, he didn’t want to think about what they might do to him—especially if they discovered the gnawed rope. Part of him marveled at the tiny creature’s ingenuity at not gnawing all the way through—how could it have known? Still, it was often best not to question the motives of the Netherworlds too closely, especially when they seemed to be on your side.
The door opened. Gabriel was seized with an almost palpable temptation to open his eyes, to see who had entered the room, but he fought it and kept his head down.
The footsteps were heavy—that meant it wasn’t Stefan, who walked with a light tread despite his tall, powerful form. It could be Salazaro, or it could be Carl or Gus sent in to check on him. It could, of course, be someone else entirely. He slowed his breathing and waited tensely, hoping the visitor wouldn’t walk around behind him and spot the rat. He could feel it trembling a bit and wondered if it was nervous about being found too.
The newcomer came a bit closer; Gabriel could hear his slightly heavy breathing and feel his presence less than a meter away. He remained there for what seemed an eternity, then moved away again. Gabriel heard the sound of the door opening, and then his vision went completely dark. The door closed.
He’s turned out the light.
He waited about thirty more seconds to make sure no one else was going to come in, noting that the rat seemed in no hurry to move either. After that he opened his eyes slowly. As he expected, there was little difference between the room with his eyes open and with them closed: the whole place was bathed in the same near-pitch-darkness as before, with light provided only by the same slender crack beneath the door. He let his breath out slowly and allowed himself to relax a bit.
The rat was on the move again, but not far. Gabriel could feel it shifting position, then felt its long tail brush against his back as it began chewing away at the ropes holding his wrists together. The little feet tickled a bit, but it was a rather pleasant sensation in contrast to all the places that were in pain.
He tried to stay as still as possible so as not to disturb its progress. It took a little longer this time—probably around twenty minutes—before he could feel the loosening of the rope’s grip around his wrists. Again he had the overwhelming urge to move, but again he resisted it. The rat had done the same thing it had done with his ankle: gnawed away all but a thin strand of the rope in one spot and left it otherwise in place.
It moved again, and it was on his shoulder. He turned his head toward it even though he couldn’t see it, imagining what it would be like to meet the little glittery black eyes only centimeters from his face. The creature remained there for a few seconds, then scrambled down the front of his shirt into his lap. It paused there a last time, finally turning to make its way carefully down his right leg.
“Why are you doing this?” Gabriel whispered.
Of course there was no answer; he hadn’t expected one. A few seconds passed and the rasp-rasp of gnawing began once more.
Gabriel didn’t ask any more questions. He sat silently, trying not to be impatient as the last rope holding him captive was slowly and methodically chewed away. He had waited this long—he could wait just a little longer. Only a few more minutes—
The rat chittered and scurried back up into his lap.
“Are you—finished?” Gabriel whispered.
It chittered again.
He took a deep breath. “I—don’t know how to—thank you for this...I—don’t know why you did it...but...thank you...”
The rat climbed back up his shirt and perched on his shoulder.
Another deep breath. This had been the easy part, at least from his side of the equation. The rat had done all the work. Now it was his turn. He wondered if, after all this effort had been exerted on his behalf, he would be able to force his body to move enough to escape.
In the darkness, his expression hardened. He certainly owed it to the creature to try.
He remained silent for several seconds, listening for any sign of life outside the door—footsteps, voices, the sound of chairlegs scraping on the floor—but heard nothing. They’re being very quiet out there—if they’re out there at all.
He turned his head toward the unseen creature on his shoulder. “Ready?”
The small furry body brushed against his neck. It was still quivering—with anticipation?
He started with the ropes on his hands. Gritting his teeth against the pain he knew the action would cause, he attempted to pull his hands apart and break the thin strand of rope the rat had left remaining.
A low moan escaped his lips as the motion disturbed muscles that had not moved in many hours. Still, he kept going. The ropes didn’t break, but they did pull away from each other enough that he could wriggle his hands out and let his arms drop free at his sides.
That time he nearly screamed. His shoulders felt lit with white fire, his hands starting out nearly so numb he couldn’t feel them and then gathering the pins and needles of returning circulation. Moving hurt, not moving hurt—
He waited, eyes closed, trying to relax his knotted muscles, to remember all the mental discipline he was supposed to have. Supposed to have, he thought a little bitterly. That was when I was a dragon. How do humans deal with this?
Stop that, he told himself, his mental voice sharp. It is no excuse. Humans do this. You will do this. Your arms are free now. Get your legs free and get out of here before someone comes back.
Taking a deep breath, he switched his concentration to his left leg. It had had the tight bonds around it loosened for the longest time, to the point where it was feeling about as normal as could be expected under the circumstances. At least the prickly feeling had long since departed. Focusing all his energy on that one ankle, he moved his lower leg out away from the chair. The rope resisted, but under increased pressure it finally gave way. Gabriel gasped sharply as his leg suddenly extended much more quickly and sharply than he had intended. Two down, one to go.
He paused again to listen and was rewarded once more by nothing more than the sound of his own harsh breathing. One more.
A last time he gathered his energy, this time centering it on his right leg. Taking a lesson from what had happened with his left, he decreased the intensity of the pressure, aiming this time for a more steady push. Surprisingly, the rope broke away almost immediately. Gabriel wondered if the rat had done that on purpose. It continued to sit there on his shoulder, its presence noticeable only by a slight pressure and the movement of its feet as it shifted for balance.
He was free! The ropes were all broken. Now all he had to do was get up and sneak out of here before anyone figured out that he was gone.
What if the door is locked? a little voice said in his head. Rats can’t unlock doors, no matter how intelligent they are.
Don’t worry about that yet, he answered himself angrily. Until you get to the door it’s irrelevant.
He knew this was going to be the hardest part, but it was also the most important. If he couldn’t make it out of this place under his own power, he knew they would find him, bring him back, and probably do worse things to him than they had before. He didn’t know how much more of that he could endure without cracking. He had to get out now while he had the chance. It would be the only chance he would have.
He took a slow deep breath and thought of Kestrel. She would to this. She probably has done things like this in her life. She is strong. You must be strong too.
The rat waited, its body quivering a bit more like a small live wire sitting on his shoulder.
This is it.
He stood up.
And immediately fell back down again as his legs gave out underneath him, dropping him in a heap on the concrete floor.
The only thing that kept him from screaming as red-hot agony lanced through him (quick thought flitted through his mind as he hit the ground: that rib must be broken after all) was that the fall knocked the wind out of him to the point where all he could utter was a weak little half-moan, half-whimper.
His first thought upon coming to his senses enough to have a coherent thought was not of himself, but of the rat that had been on his shoulder. Had it fallen off? Had he crushed it? Painfully he tried to turn his head, to spot any movement in the near darkness.
It was there, or something was. A small figure stood a few centimeters from him visible only as a dark shape. Relieved, Gabriel closed his eyes again. Every part of his body hurt. His right side, with the broken rib, felt like something was digging into it every time he moved the slightest bit. His left side, where the scar was, ached. His wrists, and ankles, raw and bleeding from the ropes, burned. His muscles throbbed with dull, steady pain. I’ll just stay here for a few moments...just rest here...the floor feels so good...cold... Wonder if I’m getting feverish...maybe the rat was a hallucination...
Something nipped him on the fingertip.
He gasped, stiffening, yanking his hand back away.
Chittering in the darkness. It sounded almost reproachful.
Gabriel sighed. The rat was right. He was going to have to get out of here. The pain didn’t matter. If he stayed and they discovered him like this, they would either kill him or torment him until he was forced to agree to something that would be worse than death.
He drew a long, slow breath and steeled himself for the attempt to get up. Perhaps if he used the chair, he could—
He froze, listening.
Had he really heard footsteps, or was it just his own mind playing tricks on him?
No, there they were again. They were coming closer, echoing on the stone floor. He could hear them more distinctly now, with one ear pressed to the floor. One set. Heavy tread, but not the same as the one earlier. He waited.
The footsteps continued to draw closer. Gabriel’s fists clenched involuntarily as he waited to see what would happen. He knew that no matter how strong his will was, his body was simply in no condition to fight. He might be able to get the first shot in, but that would mean getting up and getting into position before the unseen person reached the door. That did not seem at all likely.
The sound got still closer. If they find me like this they’ll lock me up more securely—they might even use chains or handcuffs. Even if the rat could help me again, it couldn’t get through those—
The footsteps paused. Right outside the door, from the sound of it.
A moment passed, and then the sounds resumed again. As they receded slowly into nothingness, Gabriel allowed himself to relax as a profound sense of relief overwhelmed him.
The rat chittered at him.
He raised his head slightly. “I know...” he whispered. No more time for rest now. By the time he managed to get up, enough time would have passed that it might be safe to make his break for it.
Scrabbling around on the floor, he slowly got himself turned around so he was facing the chair where he had been tied. His motions were a long way from his usual fluid grace—slow, jerky, filled with starts and stops as he waited for a particular pain to recede enough to allow him to think properly— but eventually he managed to grasp the chair legs and drag himself first to a kneeling position and finally to a fully standing one, supported by the chair-back. He stood there, breathing hard, allowing himself to savor his victory for a few moments before continuing. His head felt disconnected, foggy; he barely noticed the hunger anymore because it was one of the least demanding of his problems. Next step: cross the two meters or so to the door.
He felt something pulling on his pantleg and then on the shreds of his shirt; a moment later the rat had resumed its position on his shoulder and was chittering away in his ear. He had to smile a bit, reminded suddenly of the cheerleaders at the sporting events he had attended with Kestrel. “All right,” he whispered. “I’m going.”
He didn’t hesitate this time. He knew that sometimes the way to go was simply to do it, and this was one of those times. Clenching his teeth, he shoved off the back of the chair and took the two steps to the door, allowing himself to run into the wall next to it. His unoccupied shoulder took up the impact and added a new pain to his collection, but he was there. The door was right next to him. He could see the knob in the faint light.
He forced himself to pause a moment, to gather his bearings and to listen at the door. Shuffling over a couple of steps until he was in front of it, he pressed his ear against the metal surface and closed his eyes, trying to pick out any sign of sound on the other side. Like the floor had, the door felt good against his face, soothing his cracked jaw. He stayed there a little longer than was necessary, but did not hear anything outside. “This is it...” he whispered to the rat. “Are you...coming with me?”
The creature didn’t move.
“I’ll—take that as a yes.”
He was almost afraid to try the door—afraid that if it ended up being locked after all this effort, he might just collapse in a heap on the floor and give up. But that didn’t matter, because he knew he had to do it anyway. With a shaking hand he reached out, his hand resting on the smooth polished doorknob, and then convulsively he turned it.
It turned freely—he could feel the latch open.
He sagged against the door in a relief that was almost as debilitating, for a moment, as the disappointment of finding it locked would have doubtless been. Then, though, he felt a little strength returning to him, a little more resolve. “We can do this...” he told the rat softly. “Let’s go.”
He opened the door slowly and blinked at the sudden influx of light that streamed into the room. Allowing himself one glance backward at the place where he had been held captive, he saw that the part of it he could not see when bound looked very much like the part he could see—a small, unadorned stone room with no windows and no other furniture save for a heavy wooden chair bolted to the floor. His mind flitted briefly over the question of how the rat could have possibly gotten in, but it didn’t settle there long. It didn’t matter, really. All that mattered was getting out.
The hallway was stone as well, lit by a couple of lightbulbs covered by crude shades hanging from the ceiling. It was chilly down here and there were still no windows—Must be a cellar, Gabriel thought. That belief was supported by the fact that off to his right a few meters down the hall, a stone stairway led upward into darkness.
He looked with dismay at the stairway: getting up there wasn’t going to be easy. He wondered what awaited him at the top, but decided it didn’t matter. He’d rather die trying to escape than starve to death in that room. He took a last glance around to see if there was anything useful down here and found nothing—the room he had occupied was the only one, so there was nothing but the room and the stairway.
Breathing in harsh shallow gasps to keep his broken rib from moving around too much, he pressed his back against the wall and began shuffling toward the stairs. He had to stop several times, clamping his eyes shut against the pain, fighting the temptation to drop to the floor, to rest. He knew if he did that, he would not get up again. He could rest when he was out of here. He refused to think about how long that would be or how much of this place he would have to find his way out of—none of that was at all relevant right now. What was important was the next step, and the next step after that. His mind returned idly to something Kestrel had told him about a long time ago: an organization that the humans had started back before the Awakening to help people deal with their addictions—their motto was One day at a time. It was a good motto; Gabriel changed it to One step at a time and made it his mantra as he worked his way down the corridor.
One time when he paused to get his breath for a few seconds he happened to look down at himself. He was shocked by what he saw: His white shirt, tattered and shredded, was soaked with blood in spots and spattered in others, his wrists rubbed raw and caked with dried blood from where the ropes had bitten into him. He couldn’t see his face, which was probably just as well—if it looked half as bad as it felt, he was all set to frighten small children and probably himself as well. It won’t matter if you get out, he told himself sternly. Move.
He had reached the stairs now. They loomed above him, seeming impossibly high. Without noticing consciously he counted the steps: fourteen. There was no railing.
He didn’t pause this time. He started, staying close to the wall for balance. Each step of his right foot lanced agony up into his broken rib, each exertion to pull his body upward tortured bruised muscles. His breathing grew sharper, harsher, but he moved steadily, not allowing the pain to impede him. He focused on images of Kestrel and of Stefan, taking strength from the thought that if he did not make it out of here, he would never see her again, never be able to help his brother.
(If he even wants help anymore, the little voice said in his mind)
(Hush, he snapped back at it)
When he finally reached the landing at the top his body was bathed in sweat and his thirst was ravenous. He closed his eyes, pressing his hands and the side of his face against the door, allowing himself to rest for a moment. He could hear no sound of movement on the other side of this door, and wondered if perhaps everyone was asleep or at some kind of meeting. Odd that they didn’t leave a guard, he thought, but then figured that the way they had tied him up, there wouldn’t have been any chance of his getting free.
No chance, he agreed, glancing at the rat that still sat on his shoulder. He opened the door.
Outside it was darkness. Cautiously he shoved the stairway door open all the way so the scant light from below could help him see; he could pick out numerous dark shapes pushed up against walls, covered with shrouds—a storeroom?
It was a big room, about five meters on a side. The floor was covered in thick carpeting that muffled his footsteps (not that his sock-clad feet would have made much sound in any case); there was a door on one side and a window covered by drapes on another. Far off in the distance he could hear the faint strains of dance music. As his eyes became more accustomed to the dimness, he could make out the shapes of some of the objects: long and oval, with heavy bases sticking out from beneath the shrouds that covered them; smaller, U-shaped, with smaller bases—gambling equipment. A stray thought struck him: they said they were holding Stefan at the Fortuna Club—I wonder if this is it?
It didn’t matter what it was, though. All that mattered was that he get out. “Door or window?” he whispered to the rat, not expecting an answer.
The rat chittered.
“I don’t speak rat,” he said wryly. “Door?”
“Right. You’re—the boss.” He immediately started moving toward the window. He was still going slow, but there was anticipation in his motion now. Windows led outside. Once he was outside he could hide, get away, find someone to help. Then he would come back here and try to convince Stefan—
A key rattled in the door on the other side of the room.
Gabriel’s blood went cold for a moment. He looked around frantically for a place to hide, and his gaze fell on one of the big tables by the window. Moving far more quickly than he thought himself capable, he hurried over and dropped down behind it just as the lock rattled a last time and the door swung open.
Gabriel crouched there, unable to see anything, concentrating on keeping his breathing quiet so the intruder wouldn’t hear him. He discovered that if he crouched a little lower he could watch the man’s feet as they moved past—dark-clad, booted, large.
They were running across the room now, toward the stairwell door he had left open. He heard a muttered oath, then he could no longer see the feet but he could hear the footfalls as they hurried down the stairs.
He briefly considered trying to slam the door shut and lock it to trap the man inside, but rejected the thought for two reasons: first, he didn’t remember if the door had a lock, and second, he wasn’t sure that in his current condition he would be fast enough to do the job before the man could reach the top again. Instead, he turned and concentrated on the window.
Gritting his teeth, he raised up and turned, ducking behind the heavy drapes. There was a light on outside which allowed him to see—dimly—that the lock on the window was a simple one. Even better, the window was tall and began close to the ground so he wouldn’t have to climb very far to get out.
The footsteps were coming back up the stairs again. Gabriel fumbled with the lock, lifting the catch and throwing the window open; it swung easily on oiled hinges and made no sound. Paying no heed now to his injuries, he clambered out and swung the window closed behind him. He saw the drape flutter and settle back into position behind him, and then he was out.
It was cold out here, and a little windy. The wind felt good on his fever-hot skin. There was no visible moon, but the reddish clouds glowed slightly and the building’s perimeter lights gave him enough illumination to see. He was standing in some kind of courtyard, but he could hear the sound of traffic far away, and farther still the sound of gunfire. He never thought he would be so happy to hear gunfire. He turned toward the courtyard’s exit—
He spun, and the pain was only the secondary reason why he regretted doing it.
Stefan stood there, resplendent in his tailored suit, flanked by four suited goons holding machine guns. He was smiling, and it was not a brotherly smile.
“Stefan...” Gabriel fought to remain upright, to face his brother without weakness.
“Good job breaking out—I have no idea how you did it, but that kind of ingenuity is something we can use.” He took a couple of steps forward.
Gabriel felt the rat moving around behind his neck, clinging to his shirt there. “Stefan, please—you’re not—” He was swaying on his feet now. The scar felt like it was on fire.
Stefan smiled. “Oh, yes I am, brother. Every bit. And I always have been. You were simply fooled by what you wanted to believe. You forgot—in our family we always took the long view. One does what one must, allies himself with those he must, for expediency’s sake. But never more than that. You should have learned that lesson long ago, but you were always too idealistic.” His gaze hardened. “Now—I will give you one last chance, because you are my brother and family is important to me. Will you join us? Will you give up this misplaced idealism to save your life, as I have?”
Everyone froze, for it had not been Gabriel who had cried out.
It had been the rat.
The cry was agonized, tortured, and for a split second, Gabriel was convinced—familiar.
“No!” he echoed, as the creature came back around to his shoulder. He glared at Stefan. “I won’t do it, Stefan.”
“So be it,” Stefan said dismissively, and stepped back, nodding toward his companions.
The goons fired their guns.
Gabriel saw the muzzle flashes. He heard the roaring budda-budda-budda as four machine guns fired simultaneously in his direction. He heard the rat on his shoulder scream as it was hit by a round and blown back.
He felt nothing.
Fade to black.
Copyright ©1999, 2000 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.