"So that's the girl who pulled the thorn from the dragon's paw—or whatever," the elf said, watching as the elevator doors closed behind Kestrel. "You two make a cute couple."
Gabriel sighed. "Caimbeul. You obviously didn't come here to discuss Kestrel. If you did, then I suggest that you find more to occupy your time."
The elf shook his head vigorously. "No, I didn't. And would you please stop calling me that? Just Harlequin serves for now." He grinned, showing off his painted face in its full glory.
"Harlequin, then," Gabriel conceded, moving back into the room. "Why have you come?"
Harlequin followed him, taking in the huge room, the blasted sculptures, the high windows. Then his green eyes settled critically on Gabriel himself. "You look like crap, my young friend. What have you been doing with yourself?"
Gabriel shook his head, dropping down onto the couch with an air of total weariness. He didn't answer Harlequin's question, but looked up at him as if he expected the elf to say something else.
"Okay, no games," Harlequin agreed. "I'm here because some pretty weird shit is going on, and I'm trying to make sense out of it. Some things I've heard have led me to believe that you might be able to do that."
The elf began pacing around the room, moving not as someone who was uncertain of what to say next, but rather as someone who had to find an outlet for his pent-up energy. He stopped for a moment before one of the piles of shards from the sculpture Gabriel had destroyed, but did not comment. "I take it you know Telanwyr's disappeared," he said at last, carefully.
"He is dead," Gabriel stated.
Harlequin nodded as if he already knew that. "I suspected so, but I didn't want to say anything yet if you didn't know." He turned, fixing his eyes once again on the young man. "What do you know about it?"
"What do you know?" Gabriel countered, his intense violet gaze coming up to meet Harlequin's eyes. There was an odd undercurrent in his tone.
The elf raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Hold on, kid," he said. "Calm down. I didn't have anything to do with it, if that's what you're worried about. I always thought he was a pleasant enough old wyrm, though I never had too many dealings with him."
Gabriel dropped his gaze with another sigh. "No. I know that. I didn't mean to imply that you—"
Harlequin settled himself on the arm of the couch at the opposite end from where Gabriel sat. "I've been hearing rumors that somebody's been investigating his disappearance for a few days now—things have a habit of getting back to me, especially about situations as weird as this one. Is it you?"
The young man nodded without looking up.
"Found anything yet?" Harlequin asked, his gaze sharpening but his tone deceptively casual.
Gabriel did not seem to notice the slight change in the elf's tone. "What is your interest in this?" he asked.
Harlequin sighed. "Listen, kid. I know you're supposed to be some kind of dragon child prodigy or something, but there are a lot of things you don't know yet. I don't want to be here. I don't want to get anywhere near this whole fucking thing. But it's one of my weaknesses, you know? I can't pass up hopeless causes. And I think that if you don't spill what you know on this damned soon, it's going to be a hell of a lot more hopeless than it is now."
Gabriel looked up, startled by the harshness of Harlequin's words. "You know more than you are admitting to," he said softly.
Harlequin rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Of course I do. I wouldn't be here if I didn't. I'll cut you some slack because you're obviously about to keel over, but you need to listen to me. And you need to talk to me. The first thing you need to talk to me about is what the hell your brother was doing here a little while ago. Somehow I don't think you two kissed and made up and forgot to send out announcements. Very gauche."
"How—did you know Stefan was here?" Gabriel couldn't keep the surprise from his face.
"How could you miss him?" Harlequin demanded. "He was lighting up the astral like a beacon, even past the wards you keep up around this place. That was the first thing that set off warning bells—you're usually a lot more careful than that—and so is he." At Gabriel's look of alarm, he shook his head. "Don't worry—I don't think anybody else noticed. It just happened that I was at the right place at the right time, and you forget, I'm not without a few tricks up my sleeve that the average magical shmoe wouldn't be able to match." He paused, his expression growing serious. His grim visage looked very strange superimposed with the laughing clown makeup. "That's not the thing that caught my attention, though. If you want to make nice with your brother and throw a family reunion, that's none of my business. But there was something else—and that's why I'm here." He looked at the young man challengingly, as if daring him to come out with what they both already knew.
Gabriel looked down again, nodded. "Then..." he said slowly in a whisper, "you know about the Enemy."
Harlequin nodded in satisfaction. "Good. It's out in the open. Now that we've stopped doing the conversational tango, maybe we can get somewhere." Shaking his head he added with the tiniest hint of a crooked smile, "You dragons never could just come out and say anything. Always have to keep your secrets until somebody drags them out of you. Even kids like you are impossible."
"And you're any better?" Gabriel asked with a tiny smile of his own.
"Didn't say I was," the elf admitted, "But I've had a hell of a lot longer to accumulate secrets than you have, after all—especially since you slept through the last six thousand years. Besides, didn't anybody ever teach you that you shouldn't talk back to your elders, sonny?"
Gabriel thought about that. "No..." he finally said. "No, I don't think they ever did."
"Kids these days," Harlequin said in mock disgust. Then his face changed again, back to serious. "We need to talk, and we need to do it soon. Tell me what you know about this, and maybe between the two of us we can deal with it before it gets too big for us all." He reclined against the couch back, hooked his hands around his raised knee, and watched Gabriel, waiting.
For a moment Gabriel did not speak. He stared at nothing for awhile; however, it was obvious (at least to someone of Harlequin's experience) that he was not perceiving the astral plane, but rather seemed to merely be gathering his thoughts. Speaking slowly and carefully, he told Harlequin the entire story, beginning with the football game and ending with Stefan's visit earlier that evening. He left nothing out; he even reluctantly told the elf of his behavior with Slyde. When he finished, he regarded Harlequin with the look of someone lost and waited for the elf to respond.
Halfway through Gabriel's story, Harlequin had gotten up, unable to remain still any longer, and begun pacing around again. His face grew more and more grim as the young dragon continued; he seemed especially concerned about the account of the tiny air elemental, Whisper, regarding Telanwyr's death and disappearance, and also about the red-veined statuette Gabriel had destroyed. By the time Gabriel had finished, he looked disturbed indeed. He sighed. "Well, I won't tell you that your brother's an idiot, because you both probably already know that. If he hadn't kept up this ridiculous vendetta against you for all these years, none of this would have happened."
"He knows that," Gabriel said softly. "It is done now, though. We must deal with what is."
Harlequin looked at him sideways. "Lay off the fortune cookies, Grasshopper. It ain't that easy. I still don't know everything that's going on here, but the fact is, the Enemy's here. I don't know how many or how strong, but they're here, even though they're not supposed to be. And they've got their hooks into your brother, which means they've got 'em into you too. And probably me, since I'm fool enough to come over here and get in the middle of this. One of these days I'm going to learn to keep my head down and my mouth shut. It's a hell of a lot safer that way."
Gabriel listened in silence to the elf's ranting.
Harlequin paused for breath, then continued pacing. "Remember a year or so ago, when I told you about the Bridge, and how I and a group of runners—your friends—were able to restore Thayla's Voice and stave off the Enemy?"
Gabriel nodded. "I remember."
"Well," the elf continued, "that turned out to be nothing but a short-term solution. Dunkelzahn and I had this one out a number of times, disagreeing over methods, and—well, it turned out that he was right." A cloud of sadness passed over his face. "It was a shame that it took his death to prove that to me, but it did, and by that time it was too late."
Gabriel's attention was riveted on Harlequin now. "What do you mean by that? How could his death have convinced you of your error?"
"Because he killed himself to prove his point," Harlequin said soberly. "It's not common knowledge, of course—the world was having a hard enough time coming to terms with the death of somebody like Dunkelzahn, without adding the Enemy into the mix—but that's what happened. Thayla had fallen to the Enemy. He had to do something. What he did was to create an immensely powerful magical item that could be used to destroy the Bridge, and then sacrificed himself to provide the power it would need.(1) Otherwise, there was no way something that potent could exist with magic at the level it's at now. It was the only way, and he knew it." He sighed. "And now it looks like the whole thing's already starting to come unraveled, and it's only been a couple of years."
Gabriel was still staring at Harlequin. "Dunkelzahn—killed himself?" he asked, astonished.
Harlequin nodded. "Like I said, it's not common knowledge, but it's the truth. Trust me. I know. Sorry I had to be the one to tell you, but if we're going to deal with this, you need to have all the information I can give you."
The young dragon nodded. He had had so many shocks in the past week that one more did not add significantly to his burden. He merely accepted what Harlequin had told him and filed it away to consider later. If there was a later. "What—do you suggest we do, then?" he asked numbly.
"I think we'll need to go to the Netherworlds," Harlequin said. "I have a theory, but there's no way to test it without actually going there to see if it's right."
"What sort of theory?"
The elf dropped back down on the couch with a sigh, then looked sharply at Gabriel. "I don't want you to freak out over this, okay? As I said, it's just a theory. I have nothing to back it up but my experience and the fact that it fits with the few things we actually know about this. Some of the stuff you told me falls in, though, which makes me more nervous than you know." He paused, and his expression softened just a bit. "Why kill a Great Dragon?" he asked abruptly.
Gabriel looked uncertain, and shook his head.
"Why not an elf, or a strong human mage, or something like that?" Harlequin pressed.
"Power," Gabriel said.
"Gold star for the kid with the golden scales." Harlequin nodded approvingly. "Exactly. Loath as I am to admit it, you dragons are the most powerful beings on the planet. Sure, some of the eldest of the immortal elves might be better with the mojo than some of the dragons, but by and large you guys have us beat all to hell. So if you were one of the Enemy—or maybe a group of them—and you wanted to kill off something with a lot of power, wouldn't it seem logical to go after a dragon?"
"Yes, but why?" Gabriel asked. "Other than sheer love of destruction, what had they to gain by killing Telanwyr? And if that is all they seek, then why stop with him?"
"Okay, here's where it gets a little weird," Harlequin said, "but bear with me and see if this doesn't make sense. First Dunkelzahn kills himself to provide the power to charge up this immensely potent item of his. Maybe the Enemy catches wind of that—and maybe they think that they could do something similar."
"But how?" Gabriel leaned forward, his eyes locked on the elf's face. "If Dunkelzahn did what you claim, he must have made preparations, cast rituals—"
"Sure," Harlequin acknowledged. "To get it to work the way he did, he would have to have prepared the whole thing well in advance—or at least thought it out so he could be ready when he needed to do it. But maybe the Enemy did the same thing: prepared carefully until they found a suitable dragon for their purposes."
"Why Telanwyr, then?"
"I wondered about that," Harlequin admitted, "until you gave me the last piece of the puzzle: Telanwyr's agreement with Stefan. That put Stefan in the position of resenting Telanwyr's interference —it must have eaten away at him that he had to let you go after what had happened. So the Enemy—it must have been one of those who got through right before the Dragon Heart destroyed the Bridge, and then just hidden itself away—sat there and waited until it picked up on Stefan's hatred and resentment. They thrive on that, as you know. My guess is that it approached him and used its powers to move him in the direction he was already moving—just a little faster. By the time he figured out what was up, it was too late."
"Do you think he can be saved?" Gabriel asked quietly.
"Don't know." Harlequin shook his head. "I definitely saw the Enemy's taint on him, but if we can get to the source and eliminate it, then it might be enough. It won't be easy for him, though. It won't be easy for any of us." He sighed. "Why do I let myself get dragged into these things, anyway?"
"Then—you will help us?"
The elf sighed dramatically. "You don't think I'd have come if I wouldn't, do you? Like I said, I'm a sucker for lost causes—and besides," he added, his voice dropping and taking on a bit of emotion, "Dunkelzahn was quite fond of you when you were just a sprout. I think he had high hopes for you. I guess I'm still feeling a bit like I failed him by not listening to him, so maybe this is my way of trying to make up for it."
Gabriel watched him with quiet eyes. "Thank you, Harlequin. I think that we will need all the help we can get."
"Oh, you will," the elf said, his voice back to its normal flippant lilt. "No doubt about that. I haven't told you the whole story yet. There's still the matter of where Telanwyr went."
The young dragon's eyes widened. "What?"
"Why there was no body," Harlequin clarified. "That's the really weird-ass part of my theory, and I hope like hell that I'm wrong about this." He paused a moment, putting his thoughts together in coherent order, then continued: "Like I said, I wondered if the Enemy didn't get ideas from Dunkelzahn's death about powering things using the energy of powerful beings like dragons. If that's the case, then maybe—just maybe—they killed Telanwyr in order to use the energy from his death to power—something." The elf looked nervously around the room.
"Power—what?" Gabriel asked softly, leaning forward.
Harlequin shrugged. "That's the part I haven't a clue about, and that's the part that makes me nervous. For a Great Dragon to disappear without a trace..." He shivered involuntarily. "This is big stuff, kid. We'd better get started as soon as possible, while there's still time. Is your fool of a brother going to help us?"
Gabriel nodded very slowly, his mind still trying to make sense of all that Harlequin had told him. "I—Yes. He will help. He has gone off to rest, but he is very frightened. He has strong motivation to aid us in this."
"Good. He may be an idiot, but he's a powerful idiot, and we'll need all the power we can get." Harlequin looked distracted for a moment, then directed his gaze back at Gabriel. "Rest—I think you'd better do the same. We can't have you passing out from exhaustion in the middle of the ritual, and you'll need to be at your best when we get there." Standing, he made a show of straightening his coat. "I need to go look into a few things, make a few arrangements. I'll be back in the morning. Once the three of us are here, we'll figure out where to go from there." For a moment he looked at Gabriel, all the mocking and sarcasm gone from his painted face. "We'll do this, kid. Don't worry. If nothing else, we'll do it for Dunkelzahn. See you tomorrow." Without further comment, he turned and swept out of the room.
Gabriel watched him go, his tired mind shooting thoughts through so fast that he could not make sense of them. As the door closed behind the elf he shifted to dragon form again and slowly lay back down on the cool floor, trying to ignore the thoughts so he could sleep. The relief he felt at having someone as old and experienced as Harlequin involved was unfortunately almost completely offset by the dread brought on by the elf's dark theories.
1 The complete story is told in the three-part Dragon Heart Saga, written by Jak Koke and published by FASA.
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.