In the cage, the team was losing hope.
They remained in their seated positions, barely reacting as Gabriel faded away, sent off to his ordeal. It wasn’t that they didn’t care, but simply the knowledge that, no matter how much they did care, it would have no effect on the outcome of the situation.
Their minds were numbed by shock and by the effects of their injuries. The four of them were slumped in various positions around the cage, too restless to take comfort from physical closeness.
None of them paid any attention to the Horror, and for the moment it was returning the favor. Its attention was fixed on the floating TV screen, watching as Gabriel made his way out of the cabin, found the car, and went roaring up the driveway toward the road. It chuckled to itself and appeared to be pleased about something.
In the farthest corner of the cage, Ocelot didn’t even look up. His chest and leg burned where the zombie-things had raked him with their poisoned claws; he wasn’t sure which was worse—the burning in his body or the burning of despair and hopelessness in his mind. He kept replaying the scene back at the installation, watching helplessly as the bullets tore into Winterhawk, as he screamed and fell, as the wall came plunging down onto his legs. He kept seeing ‘Hawk’s eyes as the mage ordered them to go on without him. What the hell am I kidding? What are any of us kidding? This thing is gonna kill us one by one and get its rocks off watching us suffer. That’s all it’s here for. He forced himself to open his eyes and concentrate on the TV screen, hoping it would drive the visions away. When it did not, he focused instead on the Horror, watching it as it strutted and chuckled and gained strength from Gabriel’s desperation. Ocelot felt his anger growing, a red core deep within him that bloomed steadily brighter, and he did nothing to curtail it. The anger fought the effects of the wounds, the poison, the despair. The anger gave him strength. I’ll kill that thing...just give me one chance and I’ll kill it...
Of the the others, only Joe and Kestrel were watching the screen. Kestrel, in fact, was riveted to it, oblivious to anything else around her including her own pain. Of the four she had taken the least of the injuries from the zombie claws—her shoulder and side burned, but neither of the wounds was deep. All that mattered to her now was that Gabriel complete this new task successfully and be returned to them. She too was angry—angry that the Horror would use a facsimile of her to goad her friend to faster action. She fixed her mind on sending the thought to Gabriel, wherever he was: That isn’t me. I’m still here. Don’t let that thing deceive you. She had no idea if she was getting through, but the act of concentration kept her focused for now, and the sight of Gabriel’s plight on the screen temporarily drove away the other thing that was haunting her: the visions of Winterhawk’s death.
Joe was the only one who was trying to do anything about his wounds. As he too watched the screen and willed Gabriel to succeed, he painfully ripped pieces of cloth from his shirt and attempted to tie up the bullet wound on his arm. It was tough going because his other arm was nearly useless from the hit it had taken when the barrier had slammed down upon it, but he was giving it his best shot. Perhaps he was only doing it to give himself something to do with his hands; perhaps he still had hope that they would prevail. Even he wasn’t sure which it was.
‘Wraith had withdrawn into himself. He sat pressed against one of the two far corners of the cage away from the TV screen, his head bowed until his chin rested on his chest, his posture even in its slumped attitude managing to convey a near-military stiffness. His leg, where it had been grazed by one of the guards’ bullets, had stopped bleeding on its own as had the zombie-slash on his upper arm; the pain and the burning were still there, but he barely felt them. The only movement of his body was a very slight, almost imperceptible rocking forward and backward.
Across the amphitheater, Stefan remained as he had been, chained and like the runners unable to do anything but watch. He too seemed very interested in the events on the screen, but there was a droop to his posture that had not been there prior to the runners’ return from their ordeal. Occasionally he cast glances at them; none of the runners was looking at him, but if they had been, his sadness would have been clear. After only a few moments he returned his attention to the screen and became even more focused than Kestrel.
On the screen, the black car wound its way up the mountain, the roar of its powerful engine reduced to a rather unimpressive growl by the tiny speaker. Higher and higher it went, flung around bends and curves, the shifting beams of its headlights cutting eerie slices from the granite walls, the narrow strip of road, and the forbidding-looking forest of dark trees. Kestrel leaned forward a bit, drawn by the sight and unable to look away. “Come on...” she muttered.
She and Joe both flinched when the deer darted out on the road. They saw it before Gabriel did—apparently the Horror’s sick little movie had a director of sorts, because the camera angle shifted to a view facing the oncoming car, showing the dark form as it broke the plane of the headlights’ illumination. “No...Gabriel, look out!” The cry was pulled involuntarily from Kestrel, attracting the attention of both Ocelot and the Horror. She didn’t notice. She stiffened as the car swerved, sideswiping the mountainside with a shriek that carried all too well through the TV’s speaker—in fact, it seemed to reverberate all around the amphitheater.
The Horror laughed as the scene shifted to the inside of the car, showing the look of fear and determination on Gabriel’s face. “Thought I had him there!” it announced to nobody in particular. “Ah, well—soon enough, soon enough...”
The activity was enough to shift Ocelot’s focus from the Horror back to the TV. He joined Kestrel and Joe in watching Gabriel get the car back in its lane and continue up the road. “Bastard...” he muttered under his breath.
They kept watching. The car picked up speed again as it hit a short straightaway, making up the time it had lost in the curves. Then, once again, the camera angle shifted. An orange glow appeared around the next curve, as yet invisible to the car. “What the hell is that...?” Ocelot muttered.
Kestrel didn’t get a chance to answer before the black car came screaming around the corner. The view shifted to a reaction shot on Gabriel inside: his face showed determination tempered by confusion as he too spotted the glow.
The Horror was chuckling again.
It was only a few seconds before the glow resolved itself into the burning school bus hung up precariously on the hillside. The car slowed.
“Not much time...” the Horror said, its tone a nasty singsong. “Better get going, Dragonboy...”
Another reaction shot. Gabriel’s eyes blazed, darting back and forth between the road and the bus. His thought process was clear: should I stop and help them? Is it a trick? Or should I just keep going and save Kestrel? The car slowed slightly. Kestrel, Joe, Ocelot, and Stefan stared at the screen.
“No, you idiot—go on!”
Ocelot glanced over at the sound of the low mutterings from the Horror. His eyes widened. There was none of the malevolent amusement now: the thing looked pissed. Quietly, without turning his head more than a little, he watched the Horror while pretending to watch the screen.
Gabriel’s expression was angry and frustrated—they could all hear his growl as he wrenched the wheel to the left and pulled the car off the road in a spray of gravel. By the time the door flew open the anger was gone, replaced by resolve. He leaped over the guardrail and headed downward.
“No, you fool! Damn you—go on!”
Joe and Kestrel were still fixed on the scene on the TV and did not appear to hear the Horror mumbling under its breath. Ocelot, however, did. He gritted his teeth—watching it, he was rewarded with a very odd sight.
The Horror too was staring at the screen. Its fists were clenched, its body shaking with rage. As Ocelot watched, its shaking increased—it seemed almost as if it were trying to shake itself loose from something. In fact, for just a second—Ocelot wasn’t even sure he had really seen it—the thing appeared to lose its coherence. For the briefest of moments it was as if it were composed of hundreds, perhaps thousands of small black things—and then the vision faded and it was back to itself again.
Except for its eyes.
As Gabriel worked his way down the mountainside trying to reach the bus, the Horror’s eyes remained in that odd fragmented state for a few more seconds. Then its shaking ceased and its eyes, like the rest of it, returned to normal.
Ocelot quickly looked away, afraid that it would notice him watching it—and in doing so, he caught a glimpse of Stefan across the open expanse of red plain.
Stefan was looking at him.
As Ocelot met his eyes, the dragon almost imperceptibly indicated the Horror, then nodded once, slowly. Then his eyes closed and he bowed his head, stiffening as if in pain. He lowered his head to his forelegs and didn’t look up again.
For the next several minutes the runners watched tensely as Gabriel fought smoke and fatigue and injury to rescue the children trapped inside the bus. The Horror was strangely silent now, watching but no longer commenting. Once it appeared as if it was considering doing something, but instead it remained where it was, several meters away from the cage, and kept watching. Stefan’s head remained down and his eyes remained closed.
Gabriel had them all out now. The watching runners allowed themselves a bit of hope as he handed the last child safely down into the waiting arms of friends, but then stiffened as they saw the tree cracking and heard another child’s scream of warning. When Gabriel lost his balance mid-jump and crashed to the ground, Kestrel leaped up, injuries forgotten, and gripped the bars of the cage. After a moment, Ocelot dragged himself up and joined her. Together they watched the children revive Gabriel, and their gazes met when the boy told him that he could not reach the top of the mountain on the road.
“That’s it...” Ocelot whispered.
“What?” Kestrel returned her attention to the screen, where Gabriel and the boy were now heading back up the hillside toward the car.
“That’s why it’s pissed...” He was almost talking to himself.
“That thing. Didn’t you see it? It got pissed when Gabriel decided to help the kids. It didn’t want him to do that.” Ocelot decided not to reveal anything about the strange sight he’d seen—not yet. He was afraid the Horror might be listening to them, although it appeared as intent on the onscreen drama as they were.
“I don’t get it...” she began, but then light dawned. “Right...” she said slowly. “Because if he hadn’t stopped to help the kids, he wouldn’t have found out about the shortcut—”
“—and he’d have ended up at a wrecked bridge,” Ocelot finished, nodding.
“So saving the kids—”
“—might’ve been what he needed to do to beat this bastard.” Ocelot nodded back toward the screen. “It’s not over yet, though...”
They watched the car creeping its way down the dirt track and then coming back out onto the main road. The cabin was visible up ahead.
“I’m not in there...” Kestrel whispered, trying to focus her mind again. “Gabriel, it’s not me...I’m here...” Her hands tightened around the bars.
The car pulled to a screeching halt in front of the cabin. A moment later the door opened and Gabriel half-ran, half-staggered up the path to the door. The scene shifted to the inside of the cabin, where “Kestrel” waited, shackled to the big timber. Kestrel and Ocelot, but not Gabriel, saw her face, turned away from the door. The evil smile on it made their skin crawl.
The door flung open and Gabriel rushed in. “Kestrel” rearranged her features into an expression of fear and relief as she was “awakened” and rescued. “Don’t do it, Gabriel,” the real Kestrel urged from the cage. “Get out of there—”
They started out the door. “NO!” Kestrel yelled as her false double sliced her claws down Gabriel’s back. “Get away from him, you—”
The Horror was smiling again. It stood only a couple of meters from the cage now, its head thrown back, its eyes half-closed, taking in the energy from Gabriel’s physical pain and the emotional distress of the runners. Its expression turned to one of frustration again as Gabriel slammed the door in his attacker’s face, shoved the tree limb into the door-pull, and made his escape.
As Gabriel faded from view along with the car, Kestrel finally let the adrenaline drain from her body and dropped back down to a seated position. After a moment, Ocelot joined her.
Gabriel reappeared not inside the cage but in front of the Horror. He swayed briefly and then slumped to the ground in a heap, breathing heavily.
The Horror stood over him, smiling. “Welcome back,” it said, prodding him with its foot. “I must admit I’m surprised. I didn’t expect you to risk your precious friend for a bunch of kids you weren’t even sure were real. I’d like to say ‘well done,’ but really it’s just going to make things harder for you in your next test.”
Gabriel didn’t answer. He remained on the ground; the only motion of his body was the rise and fall of his back as he breathed. His jacket was in bloodsoaked tatters where the false Kestrel had attacked him.
Inside the cage, Kestrel, Joe, and Ocelot watched him with concern. Even ‘Wraith raised his head slightly and fixed his odd gaze on the young man. All of them waited, unmoving, to see what would happen next. Stefan had not raised his head.
The elf-Horror looked down at Gabriel for a moment, then shook its head. “No, no, this won’t do at all,” it said. Gesturing, it summoned two large creatures, one on either side of the young man. At the Horror’s command they grabbed him and pulled him to a standing position, holding him under his arms. His face went white from the pain but he managed to glare at the Horror. There was no sign of the soot that had covered his face and clothes from the scenario, but the left side of his face was covered with dried blood.
“Better,” it said. “We need to have you awake and aware for this, because, you see, this is the time when you get to make a choice. It’s a very important choice, and the way you decide will have a significant impact on the rest of our little tests here, so choose wisely.”
It began to pace, walking in a circle around Gabriel and the two creatures who held him upright. “As you know—or at least you should, if you were listening to me—there are to be two tests for each team, you being one team and your friends here—” it indicated the caged runners “—being the other team. Well, now both teams have successfully completed one test each. That means you’ve both got one more to go.” It seemed pleased to be sharing this bit of knowledge, as if Gabriel were not by himself bright enough to remember the details. “Yes?”
Gabriel did not answer, except to continue to glare at the Horror with barely controlled rage in his eyes. He struggled in the creatures’ arms until he got his feet under him and shook free of their grips. They let him go; he swayed but remained upright.
The Horror didn’t appear bothered by its prisoner’s lack of response. “You’ll also remember,” it went on, “that in order to succeed in a test, only one member of a team must survive it. If every member of a team fails, then not only that team but the other team and our unfortunate dragon here become—or in his case, remain—mine to do with as I wish. Remember that, Dragonboy?” When Gabriel still did not reply, it nodded. “So here’s the choice. Never let it be said that I’m not sporting and don’t give you every chance to be successful. That means I’m going to heal up one of the teams before the next test. All the way, good as new, ready to go.” It smiled rather evilly. “But only one. The other team will remain in its current state for its next test.” It clapped Gabriel on the shoulder of his injured arm, grinning when he winced. “And you, my boy, get to make the decision.”
In the cage, the runners stared at each other in shock. Kestrel jumped back to her feet and leaned forward, clutching at the bars. She yelled something, but Gabriel couldn’t hear it. He couldn’t hear anything from the area around the cage.
The Horror shook its head. “Oh, no. No help from the peanut gallery on this one, Dragonboy. Make your choice. You have ten seconds. If you don’t choose, then I’ll leave all of you the way you are and we’ll go on to the next test like that.”
Gabriel, teeth gritted, held the thing’s gaze. He could still feel the blood on his back, the dull ache in the side of his head, the pain throbbing at his broken arm. He looked over at the cage and saw the runners there: bleeding, weakened, despairing. Kestrel was still yelling at him but he could see the paleness of her face, the way her body shook with the poison from the zombie’s attacks. He looked at the conspicuous absence of one of their number. He looked at Stefan, who had now raised his head and was watching his brother intently. They have already lost so much...I must give them whatever chance I can. It is my fault they are here.
He raised his head and once more met the Horror’s eyes. When he spoke his voice was clear and unwavering. “I choose my friends.”
The runners stiffened.
For a brief moment something terrible flashed across the Horror’s eyes. Once again they seemed to lose their coherence, once again its body shimmered, but it was over this time almost before it began. Clearly the Horror was not pleased with the decision. “So be it,” it snapped. “By your foolish sense of loyalty you have probably doomed all of you to eternal torment, but it is your decision to make.”
Turning away from Gabriel, it stalked over to the cage. “Looks like your little friend wants to prolong your suffering,” it said, and gestured toward them. The gesture looked like an afterthought.
Immediately a bright explosion of pain flowered in each of their cores, sweeping away all thought save the agony of being burned from the inside out. They fell, writhing, to the floor of the cage, their screams echoing around the amphitheater. A haze of bright light surrounded them.
Gabriel made a lunge for the Horror but was brought up short by the sudden flareup of the nearly-forgotten scar on his side. He fell to his knees and by the time he was able to get back up again it was all over.
The bright light faded around the cage.
The runners were still there, picking themselves up off the floor with wary expressions. Ocelot, who had thrown himself into one of the far corners of the cage with his writhing, rose to his hands and knees and looked down at himself in amazement. The pain was gone. The zombie claw slashes were gone. The fatigue had melted away like it had never been. Had the Horror done this? But—
His thought was interrupted by a yell from Joe. He could not make out what the troll was yelling—it sounded as if he were trying to say something coherent but had become tongue-tied in the process. Ocelot whirled around, fearing another threat—
—and overbalanced, falling hard on his butt, his jaw hanging open in shocked disbelief.
On the other side of the cage, another figure—one who had not been there a moment earlier—was slowly rising as if from unconsciousness.
Ocelot leaped up so fast he almost overbalanced and fell again, but he didn’t care. He practically fell on top of the mage, grabbing him, pulling him up. “‘Hawk, is that you?”
The other runners weren’t far behind him. They rushed over, staring down at the rising figure, hardly daring to hope.
The figure, for his part, didn’t appear to understand what all the fuss was about. He looked up at them, momentarily confused, and then raised to a seated position. “What—what’s going on?” he asked, his tone uncertain. If this was not Winterhawk, it was his perfect double. The appearance, the voice, the phrasing were all dead on.
Ocelot gripped him by the shoulders, nearly shaking him with his eagerness. “‘Hawk! How—” His eyes narrowed as he inspected the mage more closely. He looked up at the others. “How do we know that sick fuck didn’t—”
“What happened?” ‘Wraith asked Winterhawk, ignoring Ocelot’s question. “Not dead.”
“Dead?” Winterhawk ran a hand back through his hair and looked more confused than ever. “Of course I’m not dead. What are you talking about?”
“We saw you die,” Joe told him. “When the door came down. The machine gun fire—”
This was doing nothing to lessen the mage’s perplexity. “What door? What machine gun? Have you lot all gone mad?” He glanced around his surroundings. “Did we win?”
Kestrel crouched next to him, casting a look over her shoulder at Gabriel and the Horror. “We saw you die. They killed you in there.”
Winterhawk shook his head. “No, they didn’t. Whatever you saw, it wasn’t me. I was turning ‘round to look down the hall and next thing I knew I disappeared and turned up in some dark room. I’ve been there ever since. I think I fell asleep at some point, after trying everything I could think of to get out.”
“Enough!” the Horror called, grabbing Gabriel’s good arm and dragging him closer to the cage. “This little reunion is all very touching, but we’ve got business.” It turned back to Gabriel and studied him for a moment before speaking again. “So, Dragonboy, you’ve chosen like the pathetically honorable little soul that you are to heal your friends even though you knew they could win if only one of them survived. So be it.” It took a step back. “Now, you’ll see what a grave mistake you’ve made.”
Laughing, it took another step back. As it did so, its form grew larger, taller, wider. No longer in the shape of the slender elf, its body took on a more horrific, muscular appearance, bristling with claws and teeth, its eyes roiling with madness and hatred. When the transformation was complete the thing was over four meters tall, its skin a mottled red-brown plated with lumps and bits of armor in many disgusting colors. In its right hand it held a long, wicked looking spear. When it spoke again its voice was deep, guttural, like the sound of bones rasping against one another in the depths of some dark and loathsome cave. “Now you will see your error, boy. And you will suffer. You see, I lied. There is no second contest. There is only the last. Your friends cannot help you. You will face me, and you will fall—and then all of you will belong to me. Especially you, my young friend—just as it has been my plan since the beginning.”
It raised its spear and advanced as inside the cage, the runners looked on in terror.
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.