It was early evening, and Gabriel was exhausted.
It had already been a week since Telanwyr had died, and yet he was no closer to the answer than he had been the night he had killed Slyde.
He had just returned from another of his seemingly endless series of forays onto the astral plane in search of information about the mysterious elf who seemed not to exist. With so little to go on—no description, no name, not even any more astral traces to follow—he knew that his chances of discovering anything that would help him were extremely slim, but still he had to continue trying. Someone had engineered the death of Telanwyr, and that someone could not elude him forever.
In addition to his own astral searching, he had also put out discreet feelers to his large and varied group of contacts, some of whom had dealings with some very unusual people and beings. So far they had come up with nothing. That, unfortunately, did not surprise him—he had not given them all the information, but merely told them that he was looking for a strange elf, probably an immortal, who had been in Seattle during the past week. He had given no indication as to why he was looking for this elf. With sketchy detail like that it seemed unlikely that any of his people would turn up anything, but he was not yet ready to bring anyone else fully into the investigation.
He knew he would have to do so soon, or risk letting it get away from him to the point where neither he nor anyone else would be able to find anything. It may have already progressed to that point. Already he was beginning to mentally sift through the other Great Dragons he knew or had at one time or another met, deciding whom he would go to first if it came to that. Lofwyr was an obvious choice—the most powerful of their kind on Earth, especially now that Dunkelzahn was dead—but Gabriel would not seek him out. He had only met Lofwyr once, a very long time ago, and although he was not completely certain why, he had not felt comfortable around him. That one was always looking for ways to twist things to his advantage, and his mind was so keen and so convoluted that Gabriel—intelligent even by Great Dragon standards but still plagued by the inexperience of youth—did not feel confident in his ability to keep up with him. Making a deal with Lofwyr wasn't a wise thing even for another dragon to do.
He continued to tick off names, but each one had some reason why he did not wish to ally himself with him or her—at least not yet. He felt very much like a human child who had somehow stumbled upon a very important secret, and who was trying to determine which adult to approach with it. Like that human child, he was becoming increasingly certain that he could not handle this on his own, but to trust the wrong adult would be to have the situation removed from his control and perhaps abandoned for lack of evidence, discounted as a mere childish notion.
No, he would continue as he had been for a few more days, and then, perhaps when he had rested and removed the fog of fatigue from his mind, he would consider his options further. Until then, he had to press on.
He had spent the past couple of days searching the astral for the two elementals—earth and fire, the little spirit had said—that Telanwyr had summoned to aid him in his battle with his assassins. So far he had found no trace of them, and he was beginning to believe that they had been destroyed, probably by the same forces that had eliminated all the other evidence from the scene. The little air elemental continued to aid him, but its help was by its very nature limited. He had, as he had promised, released it from his service when it had returned with news of Slyde's whereabouts; however, it had continued to hang around him, seeming to take a liking to him. Although had enlisted its willing help in his search, it had been unable to turn up anything further. If nothing else, he had begun to enjoy its company on his searches; when it wasn't off looking for evidence on its own, it followed him around like a faithful puppy. He did not know its name and at this point would not presume to try to discover it, so he began thinking of it as Whisper. It appeared pleased with the name and responded readily to it.
Right now, though, he was alone. Slumped across his soft leather couch in human form (it was easier to slump in human form; in dragon form he always had to worry about knocking over the furniture), he closed his eyes and listened to the pounding of his head. He had been out a long time on this search; not as long as he had been during his initial hunt for evidence, but almost. And this had not been by any means the first such trip this week. Even Whisper was starting to worry about him, gently encouraging him to return to his body and allow himself to rest before he did himself real harm.
He had one more avenue to try before he planned to concede that he needed help. It would take some preparation, but it was always possible that an answer might be found on the metaplanes that could not be found on the astral. Sometimes one did not have to know what one was looking for in the Netherworld—it knew, and if you were sufficiently adept in interpreting its clues, you might find insights that had previously eluded you. The Netherworld was a dangerous place, though, even for a Great Dragon, and therefore Gabriel would wait until he had regained his strength before beginning the ritual that would take him there. He did not want to admit it, but he was nonetheless becoming certain that he would not find what he sought on the astral. The elementals were surely destroyed, and any other clues that might remain must have long since dissipated.
His head continued to pound, becoming more and more distracting. He knew he was risking serious harm if he kept up this pace; he'd been forcing himself to remain awake and continue with the quest, fearing that if he spent too much time sleeping off the effects of his astral jaunts, he would let vital information pass him by. Now, though, it was finally catching up with him. His constitution was strong and his will considerably stronger, but everyone had limits and Gabriel was afraid that he was nearing his.
He didn't realize he had fallen asleep until he felt a strange buzzing in his head and, fighting to consciousness, heard a persistent knocking on his door. His innate time-sense told him that he had been asleep for almost two hours; he didn't feel much better than he had before he had dropped off. His head was still foggy and his thoughts nebulous and indistinct.
The knocking sounded again. It was louder this time, as the caller sounded more urgent. Who could it be? Few knew the way up here uninvited; the elevator was rigged so it needed a code before the visitor was even allowed to know that this floor existed, let alone given permission to reach it. Fuzzily he dredged up the list of people who knew how to get here: Kestrel did, of course. Possibly one of the four runners—Winterhawk, Ocelot, ShadoWraith, or Joe—if they had been paying attention, but that had been a long time ago. Had he changed the code since then? He shook his head rapidly, trying to clear it. There was only one way to find out who was there: take a look.
Shifting his perceptions (even as exhausted as he was, this tiny astral effort didn't tire him) he reached out to look at the other side of the door. He was already sure he knew who it was: Kestrel, coming up to see how he was doing, since he hadn't communicated with her since he had left her townhouse a few days ago. Almost casually he glanced outside the door.
It was not Kestrel.
He stiffened, drawing a sharp breath. His eyes widened. Adrenaline forced awareness back into his tired mind as all his senses heightened. Fatigue dropped away.
But it was Stefan. The figure standing outside his door could not be anyone else: tall, powerfully built, dressed in a fine suit, he waited like an impatient businessman to be admitted. Like Gabriel's, his masking was flawless, meaning that his true nature did not show through, but it did not need to.
Gabriel knew his own brother when he saw him.
How had he gotten up here? How had he made his way past the wards without alerting Gabriel to his presence?
The buzzing went off in his head again. Perhaps Stefan had not gotten past the wards unannounced after all, Gabriel realized. Perhaps the warning had simply been ignored by a mind too tired to process it.
Whisper had been right. He had pushed himself too hard and now he was going to pay for it. He was in no shape to fight Stefan now. If there was a fight, he would lose.
He would die.
He thought of escape, but rejected it immediately. He would not flee. He would not show fear. If he was to die for his mistake, then so be it. He would at least die fighting.
Stefan knocked again. Pounded, actually. "Gethelwain!" His voice carried effortlessly through the closed door. "I know you are in there."
Why was he knocking? There were no wards on the door. If he wanted to come in, he could have broken it down with ease. What did he want? Gabriel shifted to his preferred method of communication, projecting his thoughts through the door. "What do you want, Sildarath? Why have you come here?"
Stefan likewise shifted to mind-speech. "Let me in, Gethelwain. I have something I would—discuss—with you." There was an odd inflection in his tone, but Gabriel could not identify it.
"You must think me quite a fool, Sildarath, if you think that I will admit you to my home." Gabriel forced a strength he was not feeling into his voice. He knew that showing weakness to Stefan could be a fatal misstep.
There was a short pause—almost as if the man on the other side of the door was biting back the desire to make a sarcastic remark. Then, slowly, in a tone that sounded as if it were not at all accustomed to such words: "Please. Gethelwain, it is...very important that I speak with you." There was another pause, and even more slowly: "I...give you my word that I will not harm, attack, or threaten you in any way for the duration of my visit."
Gabriel stared at the door, simultaneously watching both the inside and the outside. Stefan sounded stranger than he had ever heard him sound. The confident arrogance was gone from his voice; the mocking that was so much a part of him when he was speaking to his hated younger brother was nowhere in evidence. Was this a trick? Did Stefan have something planned, only waiting for Gabriel to naively give him entrance to his home?
He hesitated. He knew he was too tired to fight Stefan right now; the adrenaline that coursed through him would fade long before he would be able to make an effective offense. He also feared that fatigue had slowed his mind—was he missing something obvious? Swiftly but carefully he ran through possible scenarios, but he could think of no reason why Stefan would come to him in his own home. Aside from his lair, this was the place where his power was strongest. For a dragon to seek to attack another dragon in his home—even a dragon as depleted as Gabriel was—was folly at best and madness at worst.
"Gethelwain! Please." Stefan's mind-voice was taking on an edge of desperation; either he was a very good actor or something was wrong. Unfortunately for Gabriel, he knew that Stefan was in fact a consummate actor. Again he hesitated, his mind warring between curiosity about Stefan's reasons for being here and apprehension about letting him in. His mind flew back to the time six months ago when he had last seen his brother—he remembered the pain and the blood and the horrible sensation of his life-force slipping away from him while he was powerless to stop it. He remembered Kestrel, battered and bloody at Stefan's hands. He remembered how his brother had murdered and manipulated innocent people for the purpose of luring him into a trap. No, he decided. If Stefan wanted to talk to him, it would have to be on his, Gabriel's, terms. And it would have to be some other time, when he was rested. He looked at the door, preparing to send that thought through it to the man on the other side.
At that moment, though, Stefan said something that immediately settled the issue. "Gethelwain—I know about Telanwyr."
Gabriel froze. For several seconds, he did not speak, continuing to stare hard at the door as if it might hold the answer. Then, carefully, he said, "What do you know about Telanwyr?"
"Let me in, and I will tell you. Please. I have given you my word." Stefan knocked again on the door.
On the other side, Gabriel listened to his brother. Did Stefan sound—frightened? The urgency was back in his voice, as if he feared that something would catch up with him if he didn't get inside. One final time, Gabriel considered. Stefan would not lightly go back on his word, he knew. Trust and honor were powerful things among his kind, and any dragon whose word could not be trusted was looked upon with great suspicion—or worse. And if Stefan did know something of Telanwyr's death—
Suspecting that he was making a grave mistake, Gabriel opened the door.
For a moment, the two just stared at each other, each one sizing the other up like a pair of predatory cats in disputed territory. Then, as if concerned that Gabriel would change his mind, Stefan stepped swiftly into the room.
There was something wrong with him; Gabriel could tell this immediately, although he had no idea how he could tell. Stefan looked the same as he had last time Gabriel had seen him in human form, right before their battle: a few centimeters taller than Gabriel, dark-haired, fair-skinned, with piercing black eyes like an eagle's. Unlike his brother, though, who didn't look a day over twenty years old, Stefan appeared to be in his middle to late thirties—he had the look of a human male in his prime, at the height of power and strength. Dressed in a dark tailored suit in the current cutting edge of corporate fashion, he effectively projected the image of a ruthless CEO for whom nothing important escaped his knowledge.
Until you looked at his eyes. That was where the problem was. There was something very strange in his gaze.
Gabriel backed off a few steps, warily. He was not afraid of Stefan per se; however, he did have a healthy respect for the fact that his brother was both larger and stronger than he was. As he looked at Stefan, though, it appeared now that fighting was the last thing on his mind. Of course he could make his human form look like anything he wanted it to, but even with that the fatigue was showing through. Gabriel realized with some surprise that Stefan looked as tired as he himself was.
What was going on?
"All right," Gabriel said softly, evenly, speaking aloud rather than with his mind. "What do you know of Telanwyr?"
Stefan did not answer right away. He began pacing around the end of the huge room in which he was standing, never wandering more than five meters or so away from Gabriel. Approaching the window, he put his palms against it and stared out, looking down at the other buildings and the street far below. He moved with a stiffness that was at odds with his usual graceful motion; every few seconds, his right hand strayed to the pocket of his suit for a moment before returning to whatever it had been doing.
Cautiously Gabriel moved toward him. His defenses were at full alert, his magical and physical barriers prepared to intercept any surprise attacks that Stefan might throw at him. With a flick of his mind, he summoned a small group of watcher spirits and silently ordered them to patrol the area seeking anything out of the ordinary; Stefan was tricky, and perhaps his promise not to attack had not included allies he might have enlisted. Even with all those precautions, though, Gabriel somehow knew that Stefan was not currently a threat to him. Something was very wrong. "Stefan?"
Stefan turned back around to face Gabriel, his back now pressed against the thick armored glass of the window. He took a deep breath, paused, then took another deep breath. He looked like a man who was steeling himself for a very difficult task. When he did speak, it was in a ragged, wasted tone. "I—have much to say to you, little brother," he said. "But before I do—I would ask that you promise to listen to me before you take action. Hear me out. After that I will leave it up to you what to do." His eyes, somehow haunted, came up to meet Gabriel's. "Do you promise?"
Gabriel looked hard at the man standing before him. This was the brother who had tried to kill him twice, and nearly succeeded both times. This was the brother who hated him more than anything else on Earth, who could not let go of the events of the past and put his animosity behind him as vestiges of a bygone age. This was the brother who had captured and tortured him when he had first awakened in the Sixth World, and from whom he had barely escaped with the help of Kestrel. This brother was now standing before him, his eyes full of fear and his tone full of pleading, asking for him to listen and to reserve judgment and action until he had finished. This was not the Stefan he knew.
"All right, Stefan," he said quietly. "I will listen."
Something (relief?) flickered across Stefan's features. "I know this looks odd to you, Gethelwain," he said in the same tired tone. "It is the last thing I would have desired to do as well, but when you hear me, you will see why it was necessary. When one is out of choices, one must make decisions that are not as one might wish to make."
"You're speaking in riddles, Sildarath," Gabriel said. He had not yet sat down, and he did not intend to. Even with promises in place, he did not intend to relax his vigilance. "You said you knew something of Telanwyr."
Stefan nodded. "I know how he died."
That was not what Gabriel had been expecting to hear. He leaned forward, eyes narrowing dangerously. "How do you know such a thing?"
"Because—" Stefan said, unable to meet Gabriel's gaze, "—I helped to kill him."
A long silence hung in the air as Gabriel, shocked temporarily beyond the ability to speak, simply stared at Stefan. "You...did...what?" he whispered at last, measuring each word carefully in shaking tones.
Either Stefan was a better actor than even Gabriel would have given him credit for or else he was utterly miserable. Still not meeting his brother's eyes, he murmured, "I helped to kill him, Gethelwain. But there is more. You agreed to hear me out."
Gabriel was not listening. Standing rooted to the spot where he had heard Stefan's pronouncement, he closed his eyes, clenching his fists so hard that his arms trembled. Rage and grief and hatred welled up inside him from where they had been waiting patiently for an outlet; he felt the tide growing within his mind, threatening to wash away any semblance of rational thought, and he fought against it. He could not lose control now. If he did, then Stefan was almost certainly dead, and he was as well. If he attacked Stefan now, as every impulse in his being was urging him to do, then regardless of whether he was able to kill his brother, he would certainly succeed in destroying himself. A tiny corner of his mind reminded him of the incident with Slyde, of how he had told Kestrel how much he feared another such loss of control.
Slowly, with deep breaths and sheer force of will, he centered away the rage, feeling it melt away from him like water rolling down a hillside. It was not gone; it pooled up in the foothills and patiently waited to rise again, but for now he could function with it. He opened his eyes and relaxed his clenched fists, allowing his hands to fall to his sides. He looked up.
Stefan stood there where he had left him, watching. Oddly, there was no sign of mocking or ridicule on his face; it appeared that he had not moved while Gabriel had been attempting to master his anger. He did not speak.
"Tell me the rest, Sildarath," Gabriel said harshly, "so that I might be released from my promise not to take action."
Stefan did not react to the implied threat. He sighed, looking like a man who had seen and done far too much and who was now relieved to be sharing his burden with another—even if the other was his worst enemy. He pushed himself off the window and began pacing again, his hand once more straying into his pocket without his notice. "I know how strange this must sound to you, brother, after what I have told you—but I have come to ask for your help."
Gabriel's gaze was cold as ice. "My help? In what way could I possibly help you?"
"Let me begin at the beginning," Stefan said. He had not yet looked at Gabriel.
"Then do so." There was no hint of compassion in the younger man's voice. It was all Gabriel could do to speak to Stefan at this point, and it was all he would ask of himself.
Stefan paused to gather his thoughts for a moment before continuing. "Perhaps," he began, "you were curious about why I did not seek to contact you in any way after our—last meeting."
"Why you did not attempt to harm me or my friends again, you mean?" Gabriel asked. He shrugged, ignoring the way Stefan stiffened at the word friends. "I assumed you had tired of the game and planned to resume it again at some later date."
"No," Stefan said. "I was—encouraged to distance myself from your affairs."
"Yes. By a—friend of yours. A powerful friend."
"Telanwyr," Gabriel said emotionlessly. Of course. Somehow Telanwyr had heard of their current conflict and had attempted to put an end to it. How very like him, to have wanted to protect his friend and student. But— "And so you killed him for that?" He felt the rage returning, but once more managed to direct it away before it took hold of him. There would be time for that later.
Stefan shook his head. "No. Not—directly. Shortly after our battle, he came to me and—convinced me that it would be in my best interests if I left you alone. I gave him my word, reluctantly of course, that I would do so. But I kept it. That is why you and your— friends—" he bit out the word distastefully "—did not feel my revenge for what you did to me." As Gabriel's expression hardened further, he raised his hand. "No, Gethelwain. Please. I have not come to quarrel with you now. It is far beyond that." His right hand went to his pocket; when he spoke again, his voice was halting and unsure. "I kept my word, but I resented the necessity to do so. For the last six months, it has eaten away at me—the fact that I could not even approach you without breaking my promise to Telanwyr. I began to search for a way out."
"Then," Gabriel said, "you killed him to release yourself from your promise?" His tone was barely controlled now.
Again Stefan shook his head. "It is far more complicated than that." He sighed, running a hand back through his dark hair. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. Almost convulsively, he pulled off his jacket and threw it over a nearby couch. "A—few days ago, someone came to me in my office. An elf."
Gabriel took notice at that, his eyes sharp and intent. "Go on..."
"Yes. I had never seen him before. I did not know how he had gained entry to my office—it should not have been an easy thing for him to do. He convinced me that he had something to say that he thought I wished to hear, so I agreed to listen to him." He paused, looking at his brother. "He led me to believe that he was one of the Immortals—one with a vendetta against Telanwyr that was older than we are."
Gabriel leaned forward. He thought was beginning to grasp where Stefan was leading, but he said nothing.
Stefan continued: "As he spoke, he became more and more persuasive. I did not wish to listen to him when he began to talk of murder, but I could not help myself. His words spoke to something deep within me. As he casually talked about killing Telanwyr, I saw how my way could at last be cleared to seek a final confrontation with you, free of his influence and the promise he held."
"You could not help yourself?" Gabriel asked contemptuously. "Are you not more powerful than an elf, Stefan?"
Stefan did not take the bait. "I will explain," he said quietly. His voice was shaking. "As he continued, the idea began to look more and more appealing to me. I would help him to kill Telanwyr, and then both of us would have what we wanted. It would be simple."
Gabriel remained silent. He was struggling with his anger again and did not wish to dislodge his fragile control by speaking.
"As if watching myself from a great distance," Stefan said, taking Gabriel's silence for continued attention, "I agreed to help the elf. It was then that he began to employ even more insidious persuasion on me. Before he was finished, he had convinced me that he was actually helping me, and that I should therefore owe him something for his trouble."
Gabriel looked up again. "Owe him—what?"
Stefan sighed. "When it was over and he had left me alone, I could not conceive of how I could have been such a fool, but nonetheless I was. He asked for an unspecified favor, to be delivered at his—request at some later date."
Gabriel's eyes widened. "And you agreed to that?" For a dragon, the concept was practically unthinkable.
Stefan nodded miserably. "I told myself that after Telanwyr was dead, I would seek out the elf and kill him before he was able to claim the favor. I was certain that I was more than a match for him, despite his persuasive words."
"But—now that the deed has been done, you have been unable to find him," Gabriel said. His eyes, still chilled, met Stefan's. "If you have come to seek my help in releasing you from your promise, then you have come to the wrong place. I too am seeking this elf, and when I find him he will die. If that serves to release you from the promise, then that is of no interest to me."
"Gethelwain—" Stefan started to say something, then trailed off. After a pause, he asked, "Have you had any success in locating him?"
"No. Not yet."
The older man looked him over. "You look tired, brother. You have been seeking him all these days since Telanwyr's death?"
Reluctantly, Gabriel nodded. Then he glared at Stefan. "Perhaps, though, one murderer is as good as another. Have you finished your story yet?"
As before, Stefan steadfastly refused to rise to his brother's challenge. "No. I have not reached the part that has brought me here to you."
"How did you do it?" Gabriel said suddenly.
"How did you kill him? Were you there, that night? Did I somehow miss your presence?"
Stefan shook his head. "No. I was not there. I did not participate in the murder. My—task was to lure him to the place the elf had prepared."
"And how did you do that? I did not think that Telanwyr trusted you so much that he would travel so far at your request."
"He—did not." Stefan turned away, going back over to the window. His hand was in his pocket constantly now. It seemed to be growing more difficult for him to speak. "Even—even after all our history together, and knowing how I have hated you—it shames me to admit what I have done."
"Tell me, Sildarath," Gabriel said coldly. "What have you done?"
Stefan continued to gaze out the window, unable to look at his brother. "He—would not come for me. But he would come for you."
There was silence for several seconds. Then, very slowly, as if fearing that if he spoke too fast he would upset his tenuous balance again: "You...led him to believe that it was I who called him here?"
Stefan nodded without turning. One hand pressed against the glass of the window, while the other one remained in his pocket.
Gabriel took a step forward, his fists knotting involuntarily. "Then..." he said through clenched teeth, "he very likely went to his death believing that I had betrayed him?"
"No!" Gabriel spoke sharply, though he did not raise his voice. "Be quiet. You have—done enough." His words came only with effort, shaking with his struggle to contain the rage that threatened to become a flood that would submerge him. His mind raced, examining and discarding thoughts faster than he could process them. Had Telanwyr indeed believed that his friend had betrayed him—had set him up to be executed with missiles and machine guns and lasers? The confusion he must have felt—the disappointment, the fear, the hurt... Had his last thoughts been occupied with wondering why such a thing could occur? With examining his past to determine what he could possibly have done that could have resulted in such a traitorous action on the part of his beloved student? Had the cry of agony that had felled Gabriel at the football stadium been not a plea for help, but a final, enraged attempt to lash out at the one who had destroyed him?
Gabriel's fists clenched more tightly. Behind him, a stone sculpture on a pedestal exploded, shooting shards violently out into the middle of the room. Barely a second later, another sculpture on the other side of the room did likewise, cracking apart with a sound like gunfire. Pieces clattered to the floor around them.
Stefan turned back around. "Gethelwain—"
"Are you finished?" Gabriel whispered harshly, his eyes still closed. When he opened them, they were no longer the eyes of the young man, but those of the dragon. They fixed on Stefan with laserlike intensity. "Tell me that you are finished so I can have my chance to avenge Telanwyr."
For a moment Stefan met his gaze. "I wish I was, brother," he said. "If that were all that there was, do you think that I would have come to you?" Turning, unable to stand up under his brother's scrutiny any longer, he began once again to pace, the shards of the exploded sculpture crunching beneath his feet.
Gabriel did not move. His eyes followed Stefan's movements, but otherwise he could have been another of the sculptures.
Stefan spent several minutes pacing around in tense silence while his brother remained motionless. His hand in his pocket rubbed the statuette, but it did not bring him comfort. He could feel it sapping his strength, but like a drug addict who did not have the will to break off his addiction even despite the knowledge that it was killing him, he could not stop. He could feel the elf's voice whispering to him; however, he could not make out distinct words. Savagely he yanked his hand from his pocket. "Gethelwain, I am afraid!" he said desperately.
That was not what Gabriel had been expecting to hear. He watched Stefan, his eyes returning to their normal human appearance but his expression not softening in the slightest. "You, Stefan? Afraid? I did not think it was possible." He knew that the contempt in his voice was not necessary, but he did not care. At this moment all he wanted was for Stefan to finish what he had come here to say, because then he would die.
Or Gabriel would. At this moment, either would have been acceptable. His grief was nearly paralyzing—and here was the cause of it, standing right here before him. There was no more that needed to be debated.
Stefan looked down. It was as if he did not even hear the mocking in his brother's voice—or else he felt that it was deserved and therefore not worthy of comment. "I am afraid," he repeated in a whisper. After a pause he looked up. "You asked me if my mind was stronger than an elf's. You know that it is. I know that it is." Again he paused. "I think, brother, that—the elf was not in fact an elf at all. That is why I have come to you—you were the only hope that remained. I hope that it is not too late for me already."
"Too late?" Gabriel's anger stepped down a notch as his curiosity rose involuntarily. "Stefan, you speak in riddles again. Too late for what? If the elf is not an elf, then—what?"
In answer, Stefan wordlessly pulled the tiny dragon statuette from his pocket and held it out in his open palm.
Gabriel reacted as if he had been struck. Taking two quick, staggering steps backward, he stared at the thing in Stefan's hand as if it were a poisonous snake. "Where did you get that?" he rasped.
"The—elf—gave it to me," Stefan said. His arm shook as he resisted the urge to close his fingers around the statuette. "You—see something in it?"
"You do not?" Gabriel demanded, incredulous.
"I think," Stefan said slowly, finally succumbing to the thing's pull and gripping it tightly, "that I have come too far for that. He—it—concealed its true nature well." His eyes, haunted and fearful, came up to meet his brother's. "It is—the Enemy, isn't it?" He whispered the words as if afraid something would hear him if he spoke too loudly.
Gabriel nodded very slowly. He was not paying any attention to Stefan at this moment; all the rage that had been pooling up in his psyche drained away, to be replaced by cold, black, primal fear. No...it could not be. The Enemy—here? Already? But they were supposed to have been locked away, imprisoned on their own foul side of the Chasm for millennia to come. How could it be that they were here, and no one was aware of it? The fear gripped him more tightly than the rage had, holding him silent and immobile before Stefan.
Stefan, for his part, was paying as little attention to Gabriel as Gabriel was to him. With that simple nod from his brother, the confirmation of what he come to fear more and more over the past few days, he felt his entire world crashing around him. He was lost. He, the master manipulator, had been played for a fool by—
By the Enemy.
Would it never end?
He gripped the dragon statue, feeling it humming, writhing in his hand. It seemed—pleased.
It was the fear. It was eating the fear. It was using the energy of his own emotions to bury its tendrils deeper—
He summoned up his will and fought to speak. "Gethelwain—help me. Please. Do not let them have me. You are my only hope. I could not go to the others—you know that I could not. They would kill me for what I have done—they would kill me as they killed my father." That last was pushed out through a thick layer of resistance.
"How do you know that I will not kill you?" Gabriel whispered, but there was no force behind it. He looked like a man who had just witnessed a horrendous accident.
"Because you are not a killer, brother," Stefan said, still struggling. "You may hate me as I hate you, but if you look, you will see that I have not killed Telanwyr. My hatred for you has made it possible for the Enemy to hold me, but I did not murder."
Gabriel dropped down onto his black leather couch as all the strength left his body. He sighed, resting his elbows on his knees and burying his hands in his inky hair. "I don't know what you expect me to do, Stefan," he said. "I have no more power against the Enemy than you do."
"But they have killed Telanwyr," Stefan reminded him. "You know as I do that they do not act without purpose. They have used me—my hatred—for their purpose. But we do not know what that purpose might be." He paused, holding out the statuette again. "This item—I cannot separate myself from it. I have tried, but always I am drawn back to it. It—seems to be a way for the elf—the Enemy—to maintain awareness of my activities."
"And so you have brought it here," Gabriel said wearily, without looking up.
Stefan's voice took on an edge of desperation. "Gethelwain, I had no other choice." He dropped to his knees in front of Gabriel. "I know we have had our—differences—in the past, but if the Enemy is here—" he broke off, his meaning obvious. "I do not want to die," he whispered. "Even more, I do not want to become a pawn of the Enemy. My father's legacy must not continue through me." Again he stopped, attempting without much success to compose himself. "Please, Gethelwain. I am begging this of you. If you will not help me, then tell me where I might go. I don't think there is much time remaining."
Gabriel did not answer immediately. He remained in the same position, leaned over with his hands in his hair like a man who was too tired even to sit up. At last he sighed again. "You know I will help you, Stefan. The threat of the Enemy is far greater than our insignificant feud over things that should have been forgotten long before we slept." He raised his head and met Stefan's gaze, his eyes cold and purposeful. "But I will have a price for my help."
Stefan nodded. He expected that. Everyone had some requirement for rendering aid. It was the way of the world, even apparently for one such as his brother. "Name your price, then."
Gabriel continued to look straight into Stefan's eyes. "You will give me your word that you will neither attack, harass, harm, nor otherwise interfere with me or any of my friends in any way. Ever again. Nor will you make arrangements with anyone else to do any of those things."
"You have my word," Stefan said immediately.
Gabriel looked surprised, but Stefan's quick agreement went a long way toward convincing him that his brother was indeed as frightened as he appeared to be. He lowered his eyes again, nodding. "Later, when this is over," he said softly, "we will deal with your involvement in Telanwyr's murder."
Stefan did not answer. Rising to his feet, he began nervously pacing again. "I do not know where to begin," he said.
Gabriel rose as well. "Sit down," he said. There was something subtly different in his tone now, as if his agreement to help Stefan had changed his attitude. Although he was the younger of the two, he now took charge of the situation. He had no more ideas than Stefan did, but something had to be done. "Drop your masking. I want to get a look at your aura and see what I can find there."
"What are you looking for?" Stefan asked warily.
"I don't know. Perhaps nothing. But I want a look at that statue on the astral, at least."
Stefan, apparently beginning to realize that he would have to trust Gabriel more than he had hoped, lowered himself into a nearby chair. "Are you certain this is necessary?" he asked, a bit suspicious.
Gabriel's gaze grew hard. "Stefan, if you wish me to try to help you, you must trust me. Remember, it is not I who have attempted to harm you in the past, but rather the opposite."
Stefan nodded. "Do it, then," he said.
Resuming his seat on the couch, Gabriel slumped as his astral form once more separated from his body. He would not be able to be gone long; he was still tired from his last trip out, and he had not rested in between.
When he returned only a few minutes had passed, but that was all that had been necessary for him to find out what he needed to know. Stefan remained in the position he was in before, seated in the chair and watching Gabriel. "Well?" he asked. "What did you find?"
Gabriel took a deep breath, keeping his expression carefully neutral. "We must destroy that statuette."
An irrational sense of terror gripped Stefan as he closed his fist tightly around the object in question. "Destroy...it? Why?"
"Because," Gabriel said, "it already has a hold on you, and I can see it growing stronger. We might be able to break it if we destroy its focus—I don't know yet. But it will certainly continue to exert influence over you if we don't destroy it."
"I—do not think it will let you take it." Subconsciously Stefan moved away on the big chair.
"You will give it to me, then," Gabriel said. "Much of its power over you seems to be psychological. It does not appear to be a powerful item, but its enchantment seems to be concentrated in the area of suggestion and influence—I think that it is convincing you that it is stronger than it actually is. If you will give it to me, I think I can destroy it. It might be enough. The taint of the Enemy is strong on it—perhaps if we can eliminate it, then the Enemy's influence on you will be eliminated as well."
"How is it, then, that I did not notice?" Stefan asked. "I know you are stronger in the ways of magic than I, but for me to miss something such as that—"
"It is simple." Gabriel shrugged. "Its influence hid from you what it did not wish you to see—in much the same way as you employ illusions to deceive others. As for anyone else—your masking is powerful enough that it would have taken another dragon, and one more powerful than you or I, to penetrate it. If you had not let me see through your barriers, I would have missed it as well."
"Any other time," Stefan said in a fair imitation of his old sarcasm, "I would have been pleased to find that there is something you admit that you cannot do, little brother. Now, though—ironic, is it not? I am forced to rely on your powers, so I must hope that they are adequate to the task."
Gabriel ignored that. "When you have given the item to me and I have destroyed it, then we will determine the extent of the Enemy's hold on you. After that, we will discuss the next step."
"We must find the elf," Stefan said immediately. "We must destroy him. Perhaps he is the only one."
"I hope so," Gabriel said. "If there are others, then—" he shook his head. After a moment he stood, his exhaustion evident in the slowness of his movements. Approaching Stefan, he held out his hand. "Give it to me."
Stefan's grip tightened involuntarily around the statuette. Deep in his mind, he felt the Enemy's hold on him tighten as well. You will die if you relinquish it, a voice that was not a voice said. He will kill you. You must not trust him. He hates you. He wants you to hand over your power so he can destroy you...
Stefan clamped his eyes shut. "No..."
"Give it to me, Stefan."
"No..." Stefan could feel Gabriel's presence in front of him even despite his closed eyes. "I—cannot." He will kill you. He wants you to die. Just like your father died...Just like his father killed your father...
"Sildarath." Gabriel spoke sharply, with an authority he did not often employ. "Give me the statue. The longer you hold it, the more difficult this will be for you. Do not give in to the Enemy."
Stefan sat there, fists clenched, eyes closed, his entire body shaking with the effort of his will to overcome the voice of the Enemy. It continued, insinuating itself into the corners of his consciousness, reminding him of all the things that had been, all the reasons for his all-consuming hatred of his brother. The anger, the jealousy, the envy all rose up, fueled by the sibilant voice that spoke within the deep reaches of his mind. Dimly he heard Gethelwain saying something, but his brother's words did not penetrate the veil woven by the voice. "No..." he whispered. Unaware of what he was doing, he drew the statuette in closer to himself, clutching it to his chest like a life preserver in a storm-tossed sea. He would not allow his brother to take his power. It was what he had wanted all along. It was—
All at once, anger rose within him. Different anger. Anger not directed at his brother, or inward toward himself, but rather at the thing that had taken over his mind. At the thing that presumed to try to control him. "No..." he said again, but with a different inflection. He would not repeat the mistakes his father had made. He would not! He would—
Convulsively, he jerked up from his crouched position and lunged forward. With every shred of strength in his body and his will, he flung the statuette away from him toward Gabriel. It flew through the air and crashed into the wall on the other side of the room. Stefan had thrown it so hard that as it dropped to the floor, it left a dent in the wall where it had hit.
Immediately Stefan knew he had made a mistake. Leaping from the chair, he started after the statue, moving swiftly toward its call. Why had he thrown it away? He had just signed his death warrant! He just had to get it back, and then—
A figure intercepted him, diving for the tiny item. An instant before Stefan reached it, Gabriel snatched it up, closing his own hand around it. The look in his eyes was one of single-minded purpose. When he touched it, his face paled.
"Give it to me!" Stefan cried, hurling himself forward onto his brother's back. He could feel the statue calling to him, demanding that he reclaim it. With the strength of a madman he rained crushing blows down upon Gabriel, trying to pull his arms up and rip the statue from him.
Gabriel bore the barrage stoically, fighting to ignore the pain his larger and stronger brother was inflicting on him as the blows rocked his body back and forth. Clutching the statuette, he curled into a tight ball with the item at its center. It was a foul thing; it made him feel sick just to handle it, and already he could sense it pulling at his fading strength. The voice tried to whisper to him, but he ignored it easily. It held no allure for him. All he wanted to do was be rid of the loathsome thing, and for that he had to keep it away from Stefan. He focused his mind, concentrating fully on what he had to do. The pain did not matter. Pain was not an issue when dealing with something such as this, except as it served to remind you that you were not yet dead.
Stefan continued to claw at him, gripping his arms, digging strong fingers into his neck. "It is mine," he growled. "It is mine!" He grabbed Gabriel around the shoulders and threw him into the nearest wall with a great crash, then leaped to his feet and thundered after him.
Gabriel landed hard, the strength of the blow causing him to come up from his drawn-in position. He glared at Stefan and waved the hand that did not hold the statue. A bolt of mystical energy flung Stefan back several paces, over the back of the couch. The statue felt like a clump of writhing worms in Gabriel's hand, oozing between his fingers like maggots. Summoning the last of his power, he directed it at the tiny stone dragon. The last things he saw before the blackness took him were a massive flash of light and the madness-choked face of his brother as he came back up over the toppled couch.
When he opened his eyes, Stefan was standing over him. He was still in the same position, stretched half-lying, half-sitting against the wall, but although he was even more shattered with fatigue than he had been, he did not feel the pain from Stefan's beating. He looked down: clutched in his right hand was a small pile of red-black ashes that looked like dried blood. They trickled through his fingers and spread across the floor beneath his hand, where they disappeared.
Once more he looked up at Stefan. His brother's expression was neutral and unfathomable. He did not speak.
Gabriel gathered himself, rising slowly to his feet. "How long?"
"About fifteen minutes," Stefan said evenly. "I healed your wounds, since I have broken my word in inflicting them."
The younger man shook his head. "I—expected that. The grip of that thing was very strong on you." Still, he was surprised. Stefan had had an opportunity he would likely never have again—his hated brother helpless before him, unconscious, defenses down, ready to be killed at his leisure—and yet he had not taken it. Gabriel sighed, leaning against the wall for support.
"You have destroyed it," Stefan said. It was not a question.
Gabriel nodded. Aside from Stefan's interference, it had been easier than he had expected it to be. The item had been a minor one, its only powers lying in its ability to suggest and insinuate and deceive.
"I—could feel it," Stefan said, looking down at his hands. "It—screamed as you destroyed it, and then the compulsions left me."
Again Gabriel merely nodded. He was so tired he could barely stand up, but the night was not yet over.
"We must find the elf now," Stefan said, his face cold with anger. "We must find him and destroy him. If there are others we must destroy them as well."
"Not yet," Gabriel said. He stood up a little straighter, his gaze meeting his brother's. "There is something yet to be done first."
Stefan took a step back. "I know that there is the matter of Telanwyr—"
"No," Gabriel cut him off. "We must verify—that its presence is gone from you."
"But—you have destroyed the item—" Stefan began.
Gabriel motioned him back toward the chair he had vacated earlier. "This must be done," he said.
Stefan nodded reluctantly. Although he could no longer feel the statue's influence on him, he was still afraid, in the way that a cancer patient in remission always fears that the disease will make an unexpected reappearance. Slowly he dropped down into the chair.
Gabriel righted the couch with a gesture and sat down on it. When he returned from the astral plane after a few moments, his face was grim.
"Gethelwain—?" Stefan leaned forward. "Is it—?"
"The taint is still there," he said, his tone full of weariness. "It is as I suspected. The influence of the item is gone, but there is still the promise you have given." He looked up. "It has—marked you, I think."
Stefan gasped aloud. "No—it cannot be—" He had done what he had to do. He had brought the statuette to the one being who could—and would be willing to—help him, despite all his reasons for why he should not do so. His brother had agreed to help. He had destroyed the Enemy's conduit to him. But now—this? To be marked by the Enemy, he knew, was a grave thing indeed. Scarcely daring to hope, he met his brother's eyes. "Can you—?"
Gabriel shook his head. "I cannot remove it. That isn't within my power here, now. You know that." He sighed, getting up to pace. "It does not appear that the mark is strong enough to influence your actions now, but I think it will hold you as long as that promise remains. Either it will claim its favor, or we will find it and destroy it. I think those are our only options."
"—will kill you. Do you wish to take this to Lofwyr? To Ryumyo? Any who possess sufficient power to remove the taint will sense it and kill you rather than risk what might occur."
Stefan, miserable, knew that his brother was right. "So we are on our own, then."
"It appears so," Gabriel said softly. "Now, though, you must go. If I am to help you, I must rest. I think you must as well. We have little chance of success even at full strength."
Stefan lifted himself heavily from the chair. "And if it comes for me before we have rested?"
"Then we will do what we can do," Gabriel said. "Go now, Stefan. I am very tired, and I have a great deal to think about. I will do as I promised, but for now I ask that you leave me to my thoughts."
"And I to mine," Stefan said. He did not sound as if he was happy with the prospect. Turning, he started for the door. After a moment he turned back around; Gabriel stood in the middle of the floor amid the broken shards of sculpture, staring out the massive floor-to-ceiling window over the lights and the rain-soaked skyline of Seattle. His shoulders were slumped, and he appeared to have forgotten Stefan's presence.
Silently Stefan opened the door and left his brother's home, wondering if either of them would be able to sleep tonight.
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.