They appeared in the midst of Hell.

All around them the blackened landscape rose up, full of jutting rocks and unforgiving terrain and oppressive heat. The sky was blood red, the ground a treacherous sea of shifting slate in stark black.

When their vision cleared, they saw immediately that there were surrounded. Everywhere they looked, the leaping and shambling things were coming toward them, shrieking and chittering with the anticipation of what was to come. The only place from which the creatures were not coming was from directly behind them, where a the ground sloped upward and eventually became a sheer cliff wall rising hundreds of meters above them.

"Spread out!" Gabriel ordered, immediately assessing the situation and taking command. "We can defeat these creatures! They are many, but they are weak." Suiting action to words, he backed up toward the cliff wall. Stefan joined him, moving off several meters to his left.

The runners, all but Kestrel accustomed for years to fighting alongside each other, set up a half-circle pattern arrayed around the two dragons. Joe took the point, with Ocelot on his left side. Kestrel wasted no time in taking up the opposite position to Joe's right. That left Winterhawk and 'Wraith, who fell in behind the front line—Winterhawk because he could cast magic from anywhere, and 'Wraith, since he was not as physically tough as most of the others, to serve as a backup position to pick off any Horrors that got past the front.

None of the four teammates were surprised to discover that they possessed weapons that they had not brought with them; once again the metaplanes had provided them with what they needed. Joe pulled his massive axe from its familiar place on his back, while Ocelot drew his spear and 'Wraith his katana. Winterhawk, the only one of the team who had brought a weapon (since it had its own astral presence) already had his black mageblade out. Kestrel, confused but possessed of every bit as much savvy and experience as the others, quickly discovered and drew the katana at her side.

Gabriel and Stefan were already in action. For two beings who could not stand each other, they made a surprisingly effective fighting team. With the exception of a few spells thrown during the battle at Messina Tower, none of the runners had ever seen the two dragons let loose with the full power of their magic. It was a frightening thing to behold: each of them held both hands out before him, arcs of pure magical energy spreading out above the runners' heads and contacting the approaching Horrors.

The things screamed as they were cut down, falling only to have others take their places. The ones behind scrambled over the smoking entrails of their fellows without a backward glance, their entire minds devoted to the destruction of the seven on the rise in front of them.

Joe stepped up to meet them as they came forward, swinging his axe like a controlled mad thing and bowling them down two and three at a time with his massive strength. Ocelot and Kestrel, almost evenly matched in speed and prowess, used spear and katana to slice up more of the creatures, while Winterhawk, his mageblade in hand, concentrated on whittling down the small groups of those who hadn't quite reached them yet. 'Wraith, katana ready and moving at blurlike speed, covered the area between the front line and the two dragons, felling the creatures with quick precise cuts. All the time, Gabriel and Stefan laid down punishing magical covering fire, continuing to take down dozens of the things in a single shot. All around the team, the thick stench of blood and guts and sweat and fear clawed at their senses.

Still the monsters kept coming. The battle seemed interminable, and it soon became clear that they were losing. The things were coming in thicker than ever, scrambling over the bodies and pieces of bodies, some getting cut down and some getting through. The air was full of the shrieks of the Horrors and the cries of the team as the tide of the battle began to turn and more and more of the creatures were getting through. Even the dragons were not immune: Gabriel's white shirt was stained with blood from a slice to his side, and Stefan's left leg had taken a wicked claw-slash. The runners in the front line were faring far worse: Joe continued his assault on sheer drive despite multiple bleeding wounds, Ocelot and Kestrel were barely standing, and Winterhawk and 'Wraith were being overrun. The Horrors seemed to be focusing their primary attention on getting to Gabriel and Stefan, which meant that whenever possible they attempted to get around the front line rather than fight through it. Even attempts at levitation didn't help: some of the Horrors could leap vast distances, and others could fly. Levitation risked a plummeting death if the creatures managed to neutralize an airborne combatant, so they quickly abandoned it. Worse, the footing was uncertain and dangerous, the dark shale under their feet shifting and threatening to rob them of their balance at every opportunity.

"Can't—hold out—much longer!" Ocelot pushed out between breaths, impaling a Horror coming in from his right.

"They're—overrunning—us!" Kestrel agreed, panting as she sliced the head off another.

Winterhawk slashed at a spider-creature that had gotten too close to him. "Can't you two—change form?"

"No," came Gabriel's discouraging reply. "Already tried. Stefan?"

"No," Stefan answered grimly as he sent another wave of magic out to sizzle a clump of Horrors.

"Can you—send us—back?" 'Wraith gasped. He was reluctant to bring up that option for it would amount to admitting that they had failed, but failure now might mean success later, while death now meant nothing but death.

"Not—quickly enough." Gabriel wheeled around to zap a threesome that was speeding up on his right side, effectively ending the conversation.

The creatures were getting smarter now—or at least as smart as mindless things like this could get. They began to attack in groups, with some of them engaging the front line while the remainder poured through. And it was working: more and more of the Horrors were making it past the tiring runners to snap at the two dragons. The ones that remained behind were finding more success than before with their attacks, too—all five runners and both dragons were slicked with blood, both their own and the Horrors'.

Still, though, they fought on. They could do nothing else. None of them would surrender, and there was no way out. They would go down fighting if they had to go down. There were too many of the things—however, everyone on the team was determined to take down as many as he or she could before succumbing. Maybe it wouldn't make a difference to the Universe, but it would make a difference to them. They would either die here and awaken in their bodies on the floor of Gabriel's penthouse, or they would die for good, but either way they would go out knowing they had done what they could do.

The Horrors surged forward with renewed vigor, twenty or so at a time, clambering over each other, leaping forward, slashing and snapping with their claws and their teeth. Joe went down first under their onslaught, followed quickly by Ocelot and Kestrel. Winterhawk and 'Wraith, a bit further back, held out for a few more seconds before the tide of dark things washed over them. The runners' screams indicated that they were, at least for the moment, still alive, but that state did not seem likely to continue for long.

Gabriel and Stefan, exhausted, retreated backward until their backs were pressed against the edge of the sheer black cliff. They managed to take down a few more with their magic before the wave engulfed them as well.

And then the creatures stopped.

Almost as one entity, the mindless things halted their attack and stood still as if listening to something. They seemed to resist for a moment, and then, again as one, they changed direction and retreated, leaving the party bleeding and barely conscious—but alive—on the black shale ground.

In less than ten seconds, no living Horror remained in the vicinity.

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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.