Stefan had not slept for a week. He was beginning to wonder if he would ever sleep again.
He often lost track of the passage of the hours over the past few days, although he knew with full certainty that it had been a week since the night Telanwyr had died. That date would be forever etched in his brain until he was no more.
He was no longer in his office in Boston, and he was no longer in human form. He had left the office three days ago, offering no explanation to his underlings for his absence. He did not need to explain anything to underlings. The business could survive for a few days without him, surely.
His lair in upstate New York was large and well concealed; he had long ago purchased vast tracts of mountainous land under a variety of pseudonyms and then proceeded to snarl up the legal proceedings to the point where no one short of another very determined dragon would be able to trace any of the so-called 'owners'. Once he had constructed his lair there, he had, by means of powerful illusion spells, wards, and mundane defenses, made sure that his privacy would be completely preserved. As far as his far-flung neighbors knew, the land was owned by a corporation that did not take kindly to trespassers. A couple of unfortunate near-fatal encounters involving snooping hikers had ensured that no one bothered him here anymore.
It was just the place for him to go to be alone with his thoughts, and to try to sort out what was happening to him.
He lay stretched out languidly on a huge ridge overlooking an even larger cavern, his sinuous, green-scaled tail flicking back and forth over the edge like a cat's. To a casual observer, he might have looked relaxed; to anyone who knew him well, the tension and exhaustion were clearly evident in his slumped posture and in the way his head rested limply on his forelegs.
Anyone who knew him well might have also been alarmed at the fact that, clutched in his talons, he still held tightly to the red-veined dragon statuette. His claws jerked slightly, spasmodically around the thing, but did not let it go.
It would not allow him to let it go.
He had tried many more times in the past week, as he became more and more aware of the hold it was exerting over him. Each time, though, he had not been able to move more than a few meters away from it before it began calling to him, compelling him to retrieve it. Once, using every ounce of his considerable willpower, he had managed to separate himself from it for a full half hour before the pull had become so strong that he could no longer bear it. After that time he had hurried back to it, grabbing for it like an addict grabs for a needle after a long dry spell. He had clutched it in his hands, rubbing it, feeling its comforting tendrils insinuating themselves back into his mind, assuring him that everything would be all right now that he had it back in his possession.
It had been then that he had decided to leave the office.
The statuette didn't seem to have any opinion about where he traveled; it remained quiet and unmoving in his pocket as he caught the flight for New York and drove up, still in human form, to his lair. It did not object when he changed to his true form; in fact, it had seemed somehow pleased. Stefan had been pleased too, for awhile. He knew of the necessity of maintaining human form most of the time to hide his true nature from the small ones, but he always felt more at ease when allowed to assume his rightful body. He had hoped that in dragon form, he might be better able to resist the statuette's call.
It had not been so.
The hold of the thing had been stronger than ever, and the nightmares that had plagued him since the night of Telanwyr's death had grown worse to the point where he did not even attempt to sleep anymore.
Worst of all, he could feel the elf watching him.
Not all the time—in fact, not even most of the time. But every once in awhile, when he had finally achieved a bit of respite or managed to temporarily forget about what he had done, about the statuette, about the elf—that was when the feeling came. It was as if a pair of malevolent eyes were looking down at him, mocking him, forcing their dark stare into the deepest corners of his mind. Every time he thought it had finally lost interest in him, it was then that it came back stronger than ever. He could feel its hold on him, similar to that of the statuette but subtly different, begin to solidify.
Stefan was afraid.
It had taken him several days to admit that to himself. It was not in Stefan's nature to be afraid. He was a producer of fear, not a victim of it. With the exception, perhaps, of a larger and stronger dragon, there was nothing else on Earth that Stefan feared, or so he thought. There was nothing else that could even be a threat to him, as long as he was on his guard and did not make foolish mistakes of trust like Telanwyr had. What else, he reasoned, could threaten him?
The small ones? Out of the question. They were for him to manipulate, and no real danger to him with their small weapons and ill-conceived plans.
The invae? They were only strong when they were organized, and this did not have the feel of their ways.
The immortals? They were too busy fighting their petty battles among themselves to mobilize sufficiently to do something like this, and again, this did not have the stamp of their handiwork, even though the agent had been an elf.
The other dragons? It seemed unlikely. For it to have been the other dragons, it would have to have been a setup. Stefan knew no dragons who hated him sufficiently to lay such a plan—not to mention to kill Telanwyr—just to snare him. Most of the other dragons did not pay him much attention, since he was young and not part of their machinations.
Stefan closed his eyes in despair. If none of them, then who? Something was very wrong with him, and someone had been responsible for it. Someone who had not only wanted Telanwyr dead, but apparently someone who wanted a hold over Stefan himself. Someone who had manipulated him with the same level of skill that he routinely used to manipulate the small ones, and with equal ease.
If he did not know better, he would have sworn that this had the taint of—
His eyes flew open.
It could not be!
They were not here yet!
He shook his head quickly, trying to clear the thought from it. That was not something to consider. It had to be something else. If it was not, then the implications were—
The little dragon statuette thrummed in his claws. It seemed to be mocking him.
Confirming his fear? Or was it merely his exhausted, overactive imagination that was making him think that it was?
What did the elf want with him? He had done what he had promised—why was the statuette still haunting him? What did it want?
He remembered the other promise he had made, and his fear increased. The favor. He had promised an unspecified favor to the elf. He had done it thinking that he would have no trouble destroying the recipient before the favor was granted, but now he was not so sure that that would be possible.
And if the elf was not an elf, but rather—
His eyes widened, the fear sinking down deeper into his bones.
His desperation grew. He would have to do something. He could not merely remain here, allowing fatigue to sap his strength, his will, his very being. The longer he did nothing, the stronger the hold of the statuette and the elf (the thing) would grow over him. Soon, he feared, if he did nothing then there would be nothing he could do. Perhaps even nothing he would desire to do. Would the hold continue to increase until he was completely in the thing's power?
Something at the core of his mind rebelled against that thought. It will not claim me, he thought arrogantly. I am a Great Dragon. I am stronger than this puny artifact's power.
The little statue throbbed. Almost as if it was laughing at him.
And he knew that he was wrong. He was not stronger.
He had to do something, he knew, and he had to do it soon. This was too strong for him. He had to seek help.
But where? Who was powerful enough to help him, to break the grip this thing had on him? It would have to be someone stronger than he.
Telanwyr would have been the logical choice, but Telanwyr was dead. Dead because of what he had done. Shame gripped him as he thought about his part in the murder. What had he done? How had he allowed the elf to manipulate him so? He could see it now, but he knew he had not seen it then.
He could not go to any of the other dragons, for the same reason. Telanwyr had not been universally beloved among the other Great Dragons, but he had certainly enjoyed a position of respected counselor and advisor—Stefan did not think that he had even had an enemy among his kind. For him, Stefan, to go to them and tell them that he had participated in Telanwyr's murder—especially after what had occurred all those thousands of years ago—
—he would have been lucky to escape with his life. If he wanted to die, there would have been simpler ways to commit suicide.
Who, then? The immortals would not help him. As the elf had said at their meeting, there was no love lost between the Dragons and the immortal Elves, and undoubtedly any of them to whom he took this problem would look at it as a weakness they could exploit to their own advantage. Stefan looked at being exploited by those accursed elves to be only slightly higher on his list of desires than the problem he already possessed—it was simply trading in one bad situation for another one. Again, he would rather be dead, and there were easier ways to do it.
But that left no one. Aside from the Dragons and the immortals, there was no other group or individual on Earth with the level of power he knew would be needed to break this hold. Even a group of strong human or metahuman mages would probably be unable to do it, were he inclined to trust them far enough.
No, that would not work. He needed an extremely powerful magician. Someone who would not exploit his weakness, or take advantage of him. Someone he could trust implicitly. Someone who would not kill him for his transgression.
When the answer came to him, he almost jerked upward, he was so startled. At first he thought his mind was playing tricks on him, or perhaps the elf was planting thoughts in his mind. Gradually, though, through the fog of fatigue, he realized that this thought was one of the first in days that felt as if it had actually originated inside his own brain, instead of being manufactured by the elf, the statuette, fear, worry, or lack of sleep.
He resisted. It was absurd. That was the last place he wanted to go. It had been the start of this whole thing. How could his mind even come up with such a ridiculous idea?
But it was not a ridiculous idea, and somewhere deep inside he knew it. All the criteria had been met: Extremely powerful magician. Would, more likely than anyone else, not exploit him or take advantage of his weakness. Someone, though he had no idea why, that he felt he could trust. Someone who might be counted on to at least listen to his story before trying to kill him.
Someone he had hated for thousands of years.
How ironic that it would work out this way, he thought, even as he knew that it was the only answer—perhaps his only hope.
He would have to go to Gethelwain.
And he would have to do it soon.
Copyright ©1998 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.