The five runners looked on from their cage in terror as Gabriel was flung back and down, impaled through the chest by the Horror’s massive spear. He didn’t even have time to scream before it was done. “No!!” Kestrel cried, putting every ounce of strength into a last attempt to budge the heavy bars. Next to her, ‘Wraith gripped them so tightly his hands shook, and on the other side Ocelot screamed obscenities at the Horror and pounded his fists into the steel. Winterhawk and Joe simply stood, stunned, almost as if they didn’t believe what they had just seen.
“My God...” Winterhawk mumbled. “He’s—still alive.”
The Horror stood over Gabriel, its feet planted wide apart, its hands on its hips—a victorious warrior over a fallen opponent. It smiled down at him, but there was a different quality to the smile now—any twisted sense of humor it had exhibited before was gone. Its eyes were two black pits of malevolence.
Gabriel was barely aware that it was there. His consciousness floated on a soupy mass of pain so intense that it was not even pain anymore, but merely an odd sensation of a slow spiral downward. Is this what death feels like? It was an impression rather than a coherent thought.
His vision cleared randomly, showing him the swirling form of the thick spear-shaft that protruded from his chest. He could feel but not see the blood welling up around it, and likewise could feel blood gathering and pooling beneath him and inside him—it was an odd, disturbing feeling. He struggled to speak but coughed instead, alarmed to see bright red droplets of blood flung upward. No...this isn’t the way...I can’t—
The Horror glared down at him. “Do you see now, dragon? Do you see how wrong you were? I could have had you at any time I desired. You are already mine. How foolish of you to think that it has ever been otherwise.” It reached out and gripped the end of the spear, moving it slightly.
Gabriel’s breath caught, his body jerking under the spearpoint.
The Horror smiled again.
Across the amphitheater, Stefan had quieted again, if not calmed. His chains held him down even against his last, most powerful lunge against the thing that had attacked his brother. Forcing himself to calm, he knew that there was only one chance now. Everything was up to Gethelwain. If he, Stefan, was going to affect anything, it would have to be now. He fixed his gaze on his brother and concentrated as he had never done before.
Inside the cage the runners wanted to look away from the scene but could not. Ocelot was on his way to screaming himself hoarse, alternating between increasingly inarticulate obscenities and the wild primal yells of an animal. Kestrel’s head was bowed, her resolve still there but fading. ‘Wraith had not moved and continued to grip the bars, while ‘Hawk and Joe simply watched.
They all knew it would be over soon, and none of them was sure whether having it be quick would be better in the long run.
The last press on the spear jerked Gabriel back to a higher level of consciousness—and with it a higher level of pain. He gasped, struggling for breath, reaching up with shaking hands to try to grip the spear-handle.
“It won’t work, dragonboy,” the Horror said, putting its hand on the end of the spear but at least for the moment not moving it. “This is it. The end.” It paused a moment, then glared down, its eyes blazing. “But it doesn’t have to be the end. You don’t have to die. One more choice, dragonboy. That’s what I’m going to give you. One more.”
Gabriel fought to glare up at it, but his mind was drifting again. The blood was pooling beneath him at a frightening rate now; the black edges of unconsciousness were beginning to enfold him. He lifted his head slightly and got a brief glimpse of Stefan—or a shimmering form in the vicinity of Stefan—then let his head drop again. The fear and the desperation rose; he tried to drive it away.
The Horror jerked the spear. “Listen to me!” it hissed. Its voice was in Gabriel’s mind now. “Listen, for this is the last choice you will have! You were correct, dragon. I cannot kill you or take you as my own without your consent. I cannot kill your friends, for it is only you and your brother who bear my mark. But take no joy from that, for I already have your brother, and your friends are my prisoners. I cannot kill them, true, but I can torment them for all eternity—just as I can torment you. And believe me, young one, your suffering will be the worst of all. All of this is because of you—the uncorruptible, whose one slip brought you within my reach. Now that I have you here, do you think that I will let you go?” When Gabriel didn’t answer, it glared down at him with its strange black eyes. “If you think what I have done to your brother is terrible, you have seen nothing until you see what I can do with a living being—an immortal being of your power level. You will beg me to release you from your torment, young one!” It paused, looking around it. “Do you want that? DO YOU?” The last words were shrieked as it shoved the spear again.
Gabriel screamed in pain, writhing. He could not move because the spear held him fast to the ground, so every motion caused the spear-haft to tear at him, to grate against his bones. “NO!” he cried. It barely came out as a whisper, followed by more bright red blood that ran down his neck.
“Of course not!” The Horror’s teeth were together now, its eyes shining with wicked intensity. “You would be a fool to allow it! And so I offer you a way out, dragon. Only one, and you must make the choice now. There will be no other chance, do you understand me? DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
Again the spear jerked and again Gabriel thrashed. “Yes!” The fear was getting stronger now as he felt more of his blood running from his body and the edges of the pain began to fade to nothingness.
“Good. Here is your choice, then: To save yourself, you have but to give me your brother and the small ones. The small ones are here at your behest and thus you control their fates. You are bound to your brother by blood, and because he is dead he has no further decision in the matter. Give them to me and you will be returned to health and sent back to your home. Otherwise, you can choose to die—because, you see, it is possible for me to kill you if you consent to it—and then you become mine until the day when my Master returns, at which point you become his. Do this and your friends go free, as does your brother. If you do not make a decision, you doom every one of you—your brother, your friends, and yourself—for all eternity.” The Horror leaned once more on the spear, its malign gaze fixed on Gabriel’s eyes.
Gabriel struggled to keep his vision from blurring. The spear-point dug into him each time the Horror moved, sending new blossoms of pain shooting through his body. His thrashing was growing weaker now, even as the pain grew stronger. “I—”
“Decide, dragon. Now. It is the best deal you will get. Think. Your brother is already dead. Your friends will be dead before you know it, just tiny sparks in a lifespan such as yours. Give them to me and you will go free. Or die. It is up to you.”
Gabriel let his hands fall back to his sides. He had never felt fear like this before—not even the time in the cave, when Kestrel had found him near death from Stefan’s attack. The pain was so intense...he couldn’t think straight—it would be so easy to just—
The Horror’s face blackened with fury and it snatched the spear-hilt, wrenching it sideways. “CHOOSE, you fool!” it screamed. “NOW! Or I’ll take the lot of you!”
The pain exploded in Gabriel’s head, in his chest, in his entire being. For a moment, everything was fully lucid as the pain drove away the growing feeling of fading in his brain. He looked up at the Horror and for a split second he saw its body shimmer and fragment into hundreds of pieces—and then it solidified and the fragmenting was only in its eyes. The merciless black was replaced by countless tiny pieces fluttering around madly like angry bees—
—and one of them looked familiar.
All at once Gabriel’s fear was replaced by a gripping, inexplicable rage as at last he understood. Heedless of the effect the effort was having on his torn body, he drew a deep shuddering breath and cried, “NO, damn you! If this is your game, then take me! Do it if you can! DO IT!” His voice trailed off into a cry of pain as more blood spilled from his chest and his mouth, but his eyes were clear and blazing.
For the first time since his brother and his friends had arrived in the amphitheater, Stefan allowed himself to relax.
The words hit the Horror as if it had been struck by a physical blow. It staggered backward, its wild gaze fixed on Gabriel in a combination of rage, fear, and agony. It threw back its head and screamed—a great, piercing shriek that reverberated around the amphitheater, echoing and growing stronger and louder as it did.
Gabriel’s own scream rose in its wake as several things occurred simultaneously, so quickly he scarcely had time to react to them:
His side flared with a bright pain that eclipsed even the agony of the spear, as if someone had thrust a burning poker into him—but then, as suddenly as it had occurred, it was gone, leaving behind it an odd sensation of rightness.
The spear faded and disappeared, although the wound did not.
The Horror took two more steps back, its body appearing to be coming apart at the seams.
The cage containing the runners faded from view.
The chains holding Stefan did not fade, but whatever held him voiceless did. “Brother—fight it!” he cried into the chaos. “Fight it now! Before it re-forms!”
The Horror seemed in no immediate danger of that. Pieces of it detached and broke into their component parts, which then became small black flitting things, whirling around the same general shape. It was still in the form of the enormous monster-thing, but it was as if the monster’s structure was now made up of hundreds of smaller parts that had all cooperated to construct a coherent whole. The pieces buzzed and screeched angrily at each other, the Horror’s enraged cry splitting into many pieces and adding to the cacophony.
Gabriel was stunned by what had occurred—it took him a moment to realize that the spear was gone. “What—?”
The Horror screamed again, its fragmenting image forming an expression of fury as it spun away from Gabriel. “If I cannot have you, I will have them!” it shrieked and began moving toward the runners. Its speed was still considerable even though pieces of it were breaking away and veering off in all directions.
“Fight them, Gethelwain!” Stefan cried. “They have no more power over you! I will hold them here!”
At that instant Gabriel saw the thing bearing down on his friends. “No!” he cried, and was surprised to feel the magic and the power coursing through his body. It had been so long he had nearly forgotten what it felt like. Could he—
He didn’t think, but simply acted. Leaping up, oblivious to the pain, he shifted his mind and threw himself forward. As he ran, the bleeding young man shimmered, grew, and took on his true form, screaming defiant rage into the pinkish sky.
The Horror hesitated.
Ocelot and ‘Wraith were nearly thrown forward, off balance as the bars of the cage faded. “Shit!” Ocelot yelled, righting himself quickly.
“The bars!” Kestrel was quick to move outside of where the cage had been. “Look out!”
The five runners flung themselves sideways as the disintegrating Horror bore down on them. “Finally!” Ocelot whooped, and threw himself into the fray.
Gabriel, now in dragon form and significantly less affected by the spear wound and the broken arm than he had been as a human, lunged at the Horror with another enraged cry. He knew almost viscerally that this would be a physical fight—no magic now. He also knew it was a fight he would win—unless any of the things were allowed to escape. Keep them here, Stefan. I will do the rest.
The Horror spun, trailing black flitting things behind it, and found itself facing not a helpless prisoner but a near-full-sized Great Western Dragon. Immediately abandoning its attack on the runners, it attempted to evade Gabriel by diving to the side. The only problem was that apparently the coherence that had held it together up until now was fading fast: some of the small black pieces veered to the left, while others veered to the right. The Horror screamed again as it came apart, losing the form of the huge monster and breaking into its hundreds of tiny parts.
The black pieces shot off in all directions.
Stefan watched them, concentrating. For the first time in his near memory, he did not feel weak or in pain. Although he was only an echo of what he had been, an echo was enough. He kept his eyes fixed on the cloud of small creatures and set about doing as he had promised.
Gabriel roared and snapped at the black creatures, feeling a fierce triumph as he felt them crush under his teeth, his claws, the force of his wings. He could still feel the blood running down his body, but for now it was not important. Nothing was important but destroying these things. Not even one of them could be allowed to escape.
The runners quickly discovered that whatever the Horror had appeared to be, these new things that had made up its body were not all-powerful. In fact, split apart as they were they hardly seemed to have any power at all. They darted around like confused bats, searching for a way out of the amphitheater but finding none. At first the runners didn’t realize why the things would fly off toward what appeared to be certain escape only to abruptly change direction and head back toward the center, but then Winterhawk got a look at Stefan. “He’s keeping them in!” he cried. “He’s got some sort of barrier up, and they can’t get out!”
“Let’s kill the fucking things, then!” Ocelot yelled. His face wore an expression of near-insane glee as at last he was given an outlet for all his frustration and pent-up energy.
The others weren’t far behind him. Joe was already snatching up rocks from the ground.
Gabriel ripped another creature apart with his teeth, his mind ablaze with the desire to kill, to rend, to rid the world of these loathsome things once and for all. He let the hatred take control of him now, for there was no reason to stop it—these things had no redeeming features and a quick death was far more merciful than they deserved.
When they tried to evade him by flying higher, he took wing and joined them, swooping through the air, reveling in the feeling of flight, of freedom, after so long in a sort of psychic confinement.
He kept a corner of his consciousness locked on one particular creature, remaining aware of where it was but allowing it to remain unscathed for the moment.
He would have it in time.
The runners were experiencing what could only be described as a long-awaited catharsis as they provided ground support to Gabriel’s aerial attacks. Ocelot especially— but all of the runners to some degree—pleased to finally have the opportunity to act, were taking advantage of it in full measure. Ocelot had snatched up the fallen sword the Horror had offered Gabriel and was using it to cleave the black creatures in half; Joe flung rocks and smashed the things into the walls of the amphitheatre; Kestrel and ‘Wraith simply crushed them in their hands and beneath their feet; Winterhawk, his magical abilities restored when the cage had faded, took out great clumps of them at a time with his area-effect spells.
“These things are nothin’ but a bunch of wimps!” Ocelot yelled at one point. “They’re nothin’ when they aren’t together!”
“I wonder why they aren’t trying to reform?” Joe wondered as he smashed another one with a rock.
“Maybe they can’t.” Kestrel’s face was slicked with sweat but her eyes burned with fervor. “Maybe they need all of ‘em or something.”
“I don’t know and I don’t care.” Winterhawk fried another group of creatures with a spell. “Just kill the bloody things!”
The one-sided battle went on, and soon there were only a few of the creatures left. The ground was littered with small black corpses that, after a few seconds, melted into oozy black goo and sizzled into the red dirt. The one Gabriel had been keeping his eye on flitted away, looking desperately for a place to hide, but there was no place to hide.
The dragon advanced on it, its eyes implacable and burning with controlled rage.
“Wait,” it cried in Gabriel’s mind, its tone wavering, pleading. “No! We can—”
Fast as a snake’s strike, the dragon lashed out his neck and crushed the thing between its teeth. Its scream grew to a shrieking crescendo in his mind, and then was abruptly cut off as it ceased to exist.
On the far side of the amphitheater, the chains holding Stefan down began to dissolve. Gabriel backwinged down, landing next to his brother’s fading form. Behind him, the runners dealt with the last of the creatures.
“It is done...” Stefan said softly. His form was already starting to shimmer away, and his voice in Gabriel’s mind was but a whisper. “Thank you, brother. I knew you could do it. I am sorry for all I have put you through...”
“Be well, Sildarath. I hope that we will meet again someday—under more fitting circumstances.”
“As do I, Gethelwain. As do I...” His voice faded away and was taken by the faint wind. Unfurling his wings, he rose to his full height, head high, and floated upward. As he did, his image became more and more indistinct until at last there was nothing but the pink, cloud-choked sky.
Gabriel watched the spot for several more seconds, looked around the amphitheater to verify that no creatures had escaped them, and then began moving toward the runners who now stood in a little knot on the other side of the arena, watching him.
As he moved, he shifted back into human form. Bloody, exhausted, and staggering, he crossed the blasted battlefield toward the team. He was smiling a weary smile of satisfaction. “It’s over,” he said softly. “Let’s go home.”
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.