"All right," Harlequin said. He was all business now, at least for the moment, even though with his makeup streaked and his hair awry he looked more insane than ever. "I've never done this before with so many people, so this will be a new experience for all of us. You two," he added, addressing the grim-faced Gabriel and Stefan, "are going to provide most of the power. I'll provide the navigation." He grinned. "You're the fire hydrant, and I'm the hose. If anything goes wrong, though, you'll have to be prepared to help me take control of the ritual." Turning, he now spoke to the runners. "If this works right, we'll end up very near the Bridge—or where it used to be. It's an easy place for me to get to, though probably not the best one. From there—" he shrugged "—we'll just have to play it by ear." His gaze raked over the assembled group. "Last chance to chicken out."
No one spoke.
"Okay," he said briskly. "Then let's rock and roll." Stepping into the circle, he pulled out a disposable lighter from his jeans pocket and one by one lit the eight candles in the center. Each candle was blue in color, veined with intricate silver tracings. The circle itself was full of patterns made with the tracings from similar candles, which now resided, unlit, around the outer edges. Harlequin walked to the edge of the circle and picked up one of the candles, which he also lit. "Are you sure you can handle this alone?" he asked Frosty.
"What's to handle?" she asked with a nonchalance she clearly didn't feel. "If you can't be safe in a Great Dragon's lair, where can you be safe?"
Harlequin didn't answer that, but everybody in the room noticed the drawn look on his face. Raising the candle, he motioned to the five runners. "Please step inside the circle," he said, "but be careful not to smudge anything. Stand in the center, facing inward."
Carefully the runners complied with the elf's instructions. Joe, especially, had to step precisely to avoid smearing the complex sigils. When they were in their appointed places, Harlequin turned back to the two dragons. "Gabriel, you stand on that side, facing inward," he said, indicating a spot just inside the circle. "Stefan, you exactly opposite him on the other side." After they complied, the elf paced around (he never seemed to worry about touching the symbols, but somehow still managed to avoid them effortlessly), lighting the remaining candles around the perimeter with the one he held in his hand. A musky scent like burning incense began filling the area, though it dissipated quickly as the smoke wended its way upward.
Harlequin dripped wax from the candle into his other hand and moved around the inner circle, quickly touching each of the runners' foreheads with the wax. Repeating the procedure he did the same for Gabriel and Stefan, and then for himself. "Okay," he said to the dragons, "just like we discussed. Let's go."
With that he began slowly pacing around the interior of the circle, about halfway between the runners and the dragons. Gabriel and Stefan moved in the opposite direction from Harlequin, mimicking his steps perfectly. All three were murmuring something quietly, but none of the runners could tell what it was. The five of them looked at each other, their eyes showing controlled fear and some anticipation. This had not been the way they had done it the last time; they wondered how long the process would take.
The world began to swirl around them—
Their vision began to shift—
Frosty's panicked cry cut through the room as she leaped from her chair and pointed at something above their heads. All eight participants in the ritual immediately redirected their attention to the place where she pointed.
Something was coming through.
"Shit! Keep it going!" Harlequin barked, stepping quickly out of the pattern. Whatever was pushing its way through the doorway they had opened was large, furred, multi-legged; it didn't look to be the only one. "Gabriel! Stefan! Keep it going—I'll handle this!"
"Harlequin—" Gabriel began, his face lined with the strain of generating the magical power to fuel the ritual.
"No!" the elf snarled. "Don't argue! Get everyone across! Quickly, before it's too late! GO!" Jumping out of the circle, he raised his hand and a sword appeared in it.
The runners stared, but they were powerless to help now. Frozen in their positions, they watched and waited.
Gabriel and Stefan, realizing that Harlequin was right and they probably wouldn't get another chance, immediately shifted roles, with Stefan taking up the task of providing the raw power while Gabriel directed both that and his own power toward carrying the seven of them across to the metaplanes.
Frosty hurried to join Harlequin as the first of the creatures dropped through the portal in a grotesque parody of childbirth. It landed on the marble floor with a squish and immediately headed for the circle. Two more quickly joined it, dropping down on either side.
Harlequin gathered himself and unleashed potent magic against the creatures, frying them to sizzling piles where they stood. In the meantime, two more had come through, and more were following. The things were frighteningly fast.
The elf cast a quick glance toward the portal; the Enemy had been waiting. They had known of the ritual. They were there, prepared, when the doorway between the planes had been opened. The only way to stop them now was to close the portal, but he couldn't do that until the others had gotten through. It wouldn't make any difference if they stopped the ritual now and did it over again—most likely it would be worse, for the Enemy would have had more time to prepare and to summon its minions to the place. No, it was now or never. Grimly he cut down another gibbering monster as still more dropped through the hole. Beside him, Frosty cast her own magic, nowhere near as powerful as his own, but at this point every bit helped. "Hurry up!" he called desperately to the dragons. "I can't hold them off forever!"
Gabriel's only answer was a curt nod. His eyes were closed, his face, like Stefan's, set and streaked with sweat. Both dragons looked like they were engaged in a tug-of-war with the fate of the world at stake; perhaps that was not so far from correct.
Harlequin and Frosty were nearly surrounded now. Harlequin's hastily-erected barrier spell was keeping the Enemy away from the circle, but he didn't know how much longer it would hold, or how long it would take the fiends to realize that they could climb over the top of it. He slashed with his sword and continued casting spells, but he knew that if the team didn't do something soon all would be lost. Frosty was bleeding from a gash in her arm where one of the Horrors had slashed at her, and Harlequin himself had barely escaped the same fate by using his phenomenal dexterity to dance just out of reach. "Come on, kid..." he muttered. "Do it. I know you have it in you. Do it..."
Inside the circle, there was a soft whump sound and the doorway abruptly slammed shut, snapping one unfortunate Horror in two. With an earsplitting shriek the thing died, half of it dropping through and landing with a wet gory thud on the floor while the other half presumably remained on the other side. Quickly Harlequin and Frosty made short work of the remaining Horrors, then stopped to take stock of their situation.
The floor around the circle was littered with blasted and bleeding bodies: bodies with hairy legs, bodies with tentacles, bodies with claws and stingers and mandibles. All of them were dead; the stench of death hung in the air. Inside the circle, the seven travelers had dropped like boneless dolls where they had stood; the runners were sprawled over each other while the two dragons lay on their opposite sides of the circle. A quick glance at the astral plane indicated that the dragons' auras were not masked now—each one glowed like a tiny sun inside the fading light of the now-inert circle.
"Well," Harlequin said with a sigh, allowing himself to slump as his sword disappeared. "They made it somewhere, at least."
"I hope they're all right," Frosty said, sliding up her sleeve to view the wound on her arm in preparation for healing it. "Are you going to go after them?"
The elf shook his head ruefully. Sweat ran down his face, streaking his makeup and making little red runnels down the white of his cheeks from the diamonds around his eyes. "Can't. I can't do another ritual now—I'm too wiped out. Besides, I'd never find them anyway. This one is all up to them now."
"You think they can handle it?" Frosty looked at the mangled bodies of the dead Horrors and shivered. She had faced these before, but she never got used to it.
Harlequin didn't answer for a long time. Instead he began pacing, nudging Horrors distastefully with the toe of his cowboy boot. Then he crossed the room and gathered up a handful of couch-pillows. Returning to the circle, he straightened out first the two dragons and then the five runners, laying them out on their backs and putting pillows under their heads. "Do I think they can handle it?" he repeated at last. He sighed. "Two underage Great Dragons who can't stand the sight of each other, and five runners who've caught the eye of Fate." Shrugging, he completed his task and dropped wearily into one of the leather chairs. "I damn sure hope so," he said. "'Cause if they can't, we're all fucked."
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.