The place where they reappeared looked strangely but not fully familiar, as if someone had tried to recreate a location by cobbling together a collection of memories from the various individuals who had been there before and didn’t quite get it right.
They were all together as they had been before except for Uneki, still in the same positions they had been in while talking to the spirit. The runners and Gabriel looked around quickly, tensely.
They were standing in the middle of a tiered bowl-shaped arena carved in red stone. Almost as one the six newcomers stiffened as they simultaneously realized why the place looked familiar: it was at this location that they had fought their final battle against the Horror last time they were here. It was at this location that Stefan had thrown himself into the Chasm when it became clear that it would be the only way to destroy the thing that had threatened them all. This was the amphitheater that had stood in the same spot before everything but the altar had faded in preparation for the final battle.
It was the same, and yet it wasn’t. For one thing, it was much smaller. They all noticed that immediately: the previous arena had been large enough to hold thousands and had been occupied by shrieking, gibbering creatures, very minor Horrors and their ilk, all intent on watching the sacrifice that was to have been made that day, the ritual that would have brought Verjigorm, the Great Hunter, into the world from the place where it had waited across the Chasm. This one looked as if it could hold only a few hundred at most; the tiers seemed closer, more intimate. At the moment, the seats were empty. In fact, the entire place was empty and deserted. A brisk wind blew across the ground, stirring up the familiar red whorls of dust.
“What the hell—?” Ocelot began.
“Welcome,” said a voice.
All six of them whirled around in the direction from which it had spoken. Standing there where it had not been before was a figure they all recognized: a tall, slim figure dressed in a flashy suit covered by a long overcoat that swirled around him as it moved. The figure grinned at them. “Good to see you could all make it.”
“Oh, shit...” Ocelot muttered under his breath.
“Is that—?” Kestrel started.
‘Wraith, Winterhawk, Joe, and Gabriel simply stared at the figure with undisguised hatred. It was the elf from the previous time they were here—the elf that had seduced Stefan into betraying himself, the elf that had seen to the destruction of Gabriel’s mentor Telanwyr, the elf that had presided over the time of terror that had led up to the attempted sacrifice of first Stefan, then Gabriel. It was the elf that had changed into something loathsome and horrible for the final battle—the elf that was supposed to be dead.
“Oh, good. You recognize me. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen each other, hasn’t it? You’re all looking well...” He looked pointedly at Gabriel, who was still wavering on his feet in his bloody ragged clothes, as he said this.
“You’re dead, you bastard!” Ocelot yelled, his face a mask of rage to cover the fact that he was shaking.
“What’s that line?” The elf tilted his head and put one finger to the side of his head as if deep in thought. “Ah yes!” He looked up brightly. “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. I believe that’s the one.”
“No...” Gabriel said in a harsh whisper. “No...You are dead...We all saw you die...felt you...die...”
The elf grinned. “You thought you saw your brother die, remember? Can’t always believe what you see. Oh!” He raised one slender finger as he remembered something. “Speaking of your brother, he really should be here to join our party, don’t you think?”
He snapped his fingers and the runners gasped. Off to one side of the amphitheater’s center ring, a large, indistinct figure began to take shape. It shimmered in the air for a few moments, then resolved itself into—
“Stefan...” Gabriel whispered, bowing his head.
It was indeed Stefan. He was in his true form, towering over the lower tiers of the stands; there was still a suggestion of his old powerful figure, but he shimmered slightly, vague and indistinct. He was bound by chains and manacles secured around his legs and his neck, fastened at the other ends to stout metal rings set into the ground. Another set of chains had apparently been fastened directly to his wings—ghostly apparitions of bloody wounds marked the place where they had been driven through. His head was lowered, his posture slumped. When he became aware that there were others there he looked up. Spotting Gabriel he slumped still further. “I am sorry, brother...” His voice was audible to all of them but it too was faint and seemed to come from far away. “Had I known, I would never have tried—”
Gabriel moved to approach him, but a large muscular creature appeared from out of the ground and grasped his arm, preventing him from getting any closer.
“Oh, this is indeed touching,” the elf drawled. “It’s really too bad we can’t give our two brothers time to have their reunion.” He feigned sniffling into a handkerchief.
“What the hell do you want?” Ocelot demanded. Kestrel, standing next to him, could see that his entire body was trembling; she knew it was not just from fear but from the keyed-up feeling of wanting to act and being unable to do so.
“Yeah,” she growled. “You sure went to a lot of trouble to bring us here. Mind letting us in on why?”
The elf turned its roiling eyes on her and smiled; she had to suppress a shudder. “You don’t understand,” he said. “I didn’t go to any trouble at all to bring you here.” He indicated the five runners with a glance, then pointed at Gabriel. “All I really wanted was him. I’ve already got one brother—thought it might be nice to have the matched set.”
“No!” Stefan’s eerie faraway voice cried out across the arena. He was struggling vainly against the chains, beating his wings, tearing at the bonds. “You will not—”
The elf turned and made a gesture in Stefan’s direction; the dragon screamed and sank down, his breath coming so fast and hard that his entire body was wrenched by the effort.
Gabriel, eyes blazing, tried to rip himself free of the creature that was holding him, and for a moment it seemed that he would succeed—he managed to jerk his left arm out of the creature’s gasp but then it tightened its grip on his right and threw him down hard to the ground. Before he could get up it seized him and clamped its fingers around both his upper arms even harder than before.
The other runners almost simultaneously tried to go to his aid, bringing five more creatures up out of the ground to grab them.
The elf clucked. “Oh, we can’t have this. How am I going to talk to you if you’re too busy trying to escape to listen to me?” With a languid wave of his hand he conjured a large cage next to the runners; it was made of metal with thick, substantial looking bars and a solid floor and ceiling. The door was open. He watched, smiling, as the creatures hustled the protesting runners and Gabriel into the cage, then slammed the door shut. “There,” he said, satisfied. “Now I’ll wait for a few moments while you assure yourself that there’s no way out of my cage without my permission, and then we’ll talk.”
Ocelot and Joe immediately began trying to break the bars of the cage, the latter because he was the only one of the team who might be strong enough to do it, the former because he had to do something to bleed off some of his rage-borne excess energy. Winterhawk, Kestrel, ‘Wraith, and Gabriel did not bother. The three runners waited, while Gabriel moved to the front of the cage and continued to watch the elf with a very cold expression in his violet eyes.
The elf smiled as Joe’s and Ocelot’s efforts got them no closer to escape. They tried everything they could think of: testing the bars at different points around the cage, trying to bust the top loose from the bars, bracing themselves against one corner and trying to press the bars outward with their feet; nothing worked. “I’m telling you it’s no use,” the elf said. “You see, this is my realm—my little corner of the world. I and those like me control things here. If I say you get out, you get out. If I say you float in the air—” Kestrel suddenly levitated off the floor of the cage and floated a few centimeters off the ground “—then you float in the air. If I say our little golden dragon boy here has to live life like a common human...” He shrugged. “Then so be it.” Grinning at Gabriel, he said, “How do you like being without your powers, dragon? Isn’t it fun being a puny human? You don’t look like you’ve dealt with it very well so far...”
Gabriel’s eyes were as cold as ever, and his smile was even colder. “I’ve figured out your game, you know. You’re doing this because you can’t kill me. You haven’t any claim on me unless I succumb to your attempts to corrupt me. You’d best not waste your time, because it isn’t going to happen.”
“We’ll see,” the elf said, unperturbed. He was still smiling. “Yes, I’m well aware you’ve figured it out. You’ve been yelling it like a madman for the past couple of days. I fear your poor brother had begun to think you’d come unhinged on us.” He began pacing again. “But you don’t have it quite right. It’s true we cannot kill you, or bring you to our side—yet—without your consent. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still have our—methods of influence.”
The elf raised his hand and pointed at Gabriel. Suddenly a white-hot pain, much worse than ever before, worse even than the pain from the bracelet at the asylum, gripped the scar on his side. He screamed and dropped to the floor of the cage, writhing.
Before any of the runners had time to react, the elf lowered his hand again. Gabriel stopped screaming and lay there in a heap, panting. Kestrel dropped down next to him and helped him back to a sitting position.
“See?” the elf said. “We do have our influence. Our power might not be strong in this age, but when we concentrate it properly, it is still formidable. Do not forget that. And do not forget also—” He paused a moment for emphasis “—that while perhaps it is true that we cannot kill you—, are you willing to take the chance that we cannot kill your friends as well?” As he said this, he redirected his attention pointedly from Gabriel himself to Kestrel.
Gabriel dragged himself up to his feet and stood gripping the bars. His eyes were like two chips of ice, his jaw set hard to stop it from trembling with rage. “What... do... you... want?” he said through gritted teeth.
“Why, you, of course!” The elf sounded as if he thought everyone in the area should consider this the most obvious thing in the world. “That’s what we’ve wanted all along.” He grinned, once more resuming his pacing. “You know, it’s almost artful the way all of this has worked out. I never expected, when my allies managed to help me escape from the little trap your brother laid for me, that any of this would come to pass. I was not, you see, unaffected by the trip down. I lost a great deal of my power, and it simply wasn’t possible for me to try a direct approach as I did last time. Especially since you and your accursed friends have deprived me of communication and assistance from my Master. But, fortunately, my allies here managed to do something else as well.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder at Stefan, who was once again trying to work free of his bonds, albeit more carefully this time. “While we weren’t able to save your brother’s body, we were able to save his essence, his spirit, his soul, if you will. And because emotions come from the soul and not from the body, he has managed on his own to provide us with quite a nice bit of amusement.”
He smiled a particularly oily smile and moved closer to the cage. “The thought of tormenting your brother’s spirit for all eternity was pretty heady stuff, especially since, in my weakened state, I didn’t have any way to reach across to your plane and get anything accomplished there. I had to settle for second best, but that was all right. My power was growing, you know. All of us are growing more powerful, and you’d be surprised at how many of us are still here, biding our time. We could wait. In a few hundred or a few thousand years, I’d be ready to make my move again. Perhaps by then conditions would be right for the Master to attempt another return. But then your brother did something none of us expected.” He looked back at Stefan almost fondly. “He managed to get up the strength and the courage to try to contact you. It wouldn’t have worked at all except for the fact that you are brothers—and as for the rest of you, because of that little bond you all established between you last time you were here—that served to make your minds more receptive to each other’s—outside influences.” He was walking up and down in front of the cage now, just far enough out that Joe’s long arms couldn’t quite reach him. “He, of course, was very furtive about the whole thing, afraid that if we found out we might try to stop him. You see, we’d done some rather—unpleasant things with him already and I think he feared something even worse were we to get wind of his little plan. What he didn’t realize was that we were elated when we discovered what he was up to. We couldn’t reach across—but he could. And once he had opened the conduit, it was a simple thing to—” He paused a moment as if searching for a word “—to piggyback our message onto his. By the time our young friend here figured out what was going on and managed to block out our influence, it was already too late. We’d gotten our message across, and here you all are.” He looked positively gleeful about the whole thing.
“So now what?” Winterhawk’s glare was almost as cold as Gabriel’s. “You’ve got us here, what’s the next step? We do so hate being kept in suspense.”
“Hmm...” the elf said, pondering. He looked up. “Well, I could just kill all of you except the dragon.”
All around Gabriel, the runners stiffened.
“Or—” again the elf thought a moment before continuing “—I could see what happens if I offer our young dragon friend here the chance to give us what we want or watch each of you die rather horrible deaths one after the other. That might be more useful.”
No one said anything. They continued to watch and wait.
“I could do that,” the elf-Horror said. “But who knows? Some of you might prove useful. And I’m bored. This whole little scene has been very entertaining—I’d so hate to end it with the same old eviscerations or decapitations or all those other bloody ‘ations’ you all find so disturbing.” He paced around again doing his “thinking” pose. Then he smiled. It was a very unwholesome smile. “I know. Never let it be said that I’m not sporting. We’ll make a game out of it. I’ll even give you a chance—a tiny chance, to be sure...” He held up his thumb and forefinger with barely any space between them. “...but a chance—that some of you might make it home alive.” Approaching the cage again, he regarded each of them in turn. “So—want to play?”
“Fuck off,” Ocelot said.
The others, though they might not have used quite such terms, seemed to agree with their spirit. They said nothing.
Something changed for just a moment in the elf’s eyes. They seemed to fuzz out for a second, fragmenting into dozens of tiny pieces before reforming into the usual unwholesome black pits. The smile faded, then returned as he raised his hand and clenched his fist. Ocelot, inside the cage, gripped his throat, struggling for breath. Kestrel and Joe each grabbed one of his arms and tried to prevent him from clawing at himself, but they were unsuccessful. After a few seconds the elf released his hold and Ocelot fell back, panting, into the waiting arms of his friends. His glare didn’t soften one bit.
“You will show me the proper respect or accept the consequences,” the Horror said coldly. “I don’t think I phrased my last statement correctly—you will play. The only question is whether you choose to participate and possibly prevail, or whether you choose to simply do nothing and die.”
“Let them go,” Gabriel said quietly. “Whatever game you have in mind is between you, me, and Stefan. They were never meant to be here.”
The elf-Horror laughed. “Oh, no! They’re here now, and here they stay. Can’t have them heading off to gather up yet another dragon to bring to the party. I’m afraid I’m not quite equipped to deal with that one yet. No, they’re here, and they’re going to play.”
The runners exchanged glances. It wasn’t anything they hadn’t expected. Gabriel had to try to save them, but they all knew—they were sure Gabriel did too—that it wasn’t going to work. None of them spoke. They didn’t want to give the Horror the satisfaction of appearing to go along with its plans, regardless of whether they would ultimately be forced to do so. Overhead, the red-clouded sky was growing darker.
“All right, then,” the elf-thing was continuing, with a quick sideways glance over at Stefan. “The rules.” He returned his attention to the captives. “First of all, we can’t have you all together. That wouldn’t be sporting. You—” he pointed at Gabriel “—are one team. All the rest of you are the other.”
The runners and Gabriel looked at each other. Was this thing expecting them to be on opposite sides in some contest?
If the elf picked up on their line of thought he did not show it. “There will be two contests for each side. In order to win the contests, one member of the team must remain standing and alive at the end.”
“What kind of contests?” Ocelot demanded. “And what do we get if we win?”
The Horror looked like it was getting a bit annoyed at Ocelot’s constant questions, but it smiled. “I can’t tell you what kinds of contests ahead of time—only that they’ll be insanely difficult and you’ll have almost no chance to beat them, but you will have a chance. Otherwise it wouldn’t be fair.” His smile turned to a smirk, suggesting that being fair was the last thing on his mind.
“And—” Joe prompted. “If we win?”
“If you win,” the elf said, “Which isn’t very likely, but let’s just assume that at least one member of each team is able to complete the challenges—then you go free. Home. Sprung.” He fluttered his hands in the air.
“Oh, come off it,” Ocelot protested. “You expect us to believe that you’re ever gonna send us home? You’re just gonna kill us either way. Admit it. You’re gonna kill us and take whatever you want from Gabriel and that’s gonna be it. Right?”
The elf shrugged, looking into Ocelot’s eyes until Ocelot was forced to look away. “Maybe,” he said. “You’ve got no way to know for sure. I’d give you my word on it, but would you take it?”
“No,” ‘Wraith said curtly. It was the first time he had spoken since they had arrived here.
“Well then, there you go.” The elf smiled, spreading his hands. “You’ll just have to trust me. You’ve no other choice. As I said, you’re going to play. You can choose to just stand still and commit suicide if you want to, but I warn you—that will be the worst of all for you. If you let us kill you without fighting back, then you’re surely ours for all eternity.” He grinned at Gabriel. “That goes for you too, pretty boy. We can’t kill you against your will, true, but if you stand there and do nothing, that shows us that it’s your will to die, doesn’t it?” His grin widened. “See? It’s all so simple and elegant, isn’t it?”
The runners and Gabriel said nothing. Their chilled gazes followed the elf as he continued to move back and forth across the front of the cage. Beyond him, Stefan was back to trying to pull free of his bonds. He was looking straight at them as if trying to communicate something to them, but nothing was forthcoming.
“So here we are,” the elf said. “Who’s going first?”
No one in the cage responded.
“All right, that’s fine. You don’t want to choose, so I’ll choose for you.” He reached into the pocket of his coat and withdrew a large coin, gold on one side and silver on the other. He held it up for them to see. “Gold, the dragon goes first. Silver, the rest of you. Any objections?” When he got none, he raised his hand and flipped the coin high in the air. It spun end over end and landed with a slight puff of dust on the red ground. The silver side was pointed toward the sky.
“All right, then.” The elf grinned nastily. “You’ll be leaving in a moment. You—” he said to Gabriel, “will remain here until they return. If they return. There might be some more rules later, but those will do for now. The only one you have to worry about at the moment,” he added, turning back to the runners, “is that at least one of you must survive the contest. If none of you survive, the contest is over and—well—we’ll discuss that should the need arise.” He gestured upward and what looked like a large, old fashioned television screen appeared in midair, floating there as if it was anchored to something. Currently the screen showed jumbled static. The elf came over and stood in front of Gabriel. “You’ll be able to watch their progress, but you won’t be able to help them. Isn’t that gallant of me?” Without waiting for an answer he strode away again and snapped his fingers. “All right! Is everyone ready to begin? You’ll get further instructions when you get where you’re going, but you should like this one. It’s nothing you haven’t done before. I’m quite proud of it, actually. I’d say ‘good luck’, but you know—I don’t mean it!”
As the runners and Gabriel continued to watch him, chilled and silent, the elf smiled. He raised his hands and snapped his fingers. “Let the games begin!”
The runners vanished from the cage, leaving Gabriel alone. Across the amphitheater, Stefan was looking sadly at him again.
Copyright ©1999, 2000 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation and Wizkids.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.