For several minutes there was silence. The dust settled, but the noisome odor of death and steaming entrails and blood still remained stubbornly in the air, already beginning to mingle with the putrid stink of decay.
Slowly, one by one, the party members staggered to their feet and regrouped near the cliff face where there were fewer bodies. "Condition?" Gabriel asked. His bright violet eyes looked strange in his blood- and grime-streaked face; he held his right arm at his side over a bloody slash wound. Like all the others, he had many more.
Everyone looked at everyone else. Kestrel and Ocelot were leaning on each other, and Joe held up both Winterhawk and 'Wraith despite grievous wounds of his own. Stefan supported himself by leaning against the cliff; he looked like he wouldn't be standing if he didn't do so.
"Why did they stop?" Winterhawk rasped, his gaze taking in the blasted, now-still battlefield. "They had us."
"Yeah," Ocelot added. His heart was beating so fast he thought it would never quiet, most of it from fear rather than exertion. They had been every bit as bad as he'd remembered them. And these are only the little ones. "Why the hell did they turn and run like that?"
"I don't know," Gabriel said. "They could have killed us—and yet they did not."
"Perhaps they wanted us alive," Stefan said.
"Then why attack us in the first place?" Gabriel turned slowly to face his brother.
Stefan did not answer.
"Maybe they just wanted to scare us," Joe said, then clamped his teeth together again against the pain of his numerous wounds.
Gabriel considered. "Possibly..." he murmured, then looked up. "At any rate, they were waiting for us. And they've deprived us of some very valuable assistance."
The runners looked at each other in fear as the realization sunk in that they were missing someone. "Harlequin," 'Wraith said.
Winterhawk nodded. "He remained behind to fight the ones that got through."
"He's—uh—not likely to be coming along later, is he?" Ocelot asked. In his mind, the odds had just shifted decidedly away from success without the painted elf's experience and power in the group.
Gabriel shook his head ruefully. "No. The ritual is highly complicated. Even for Harlequin, it would take hours to reconstruct it, and doubtless he will be weary from his battle with the Enemy."
"If he survived," Joe said, sounding like he hadn't wanted to say it.
"There is that too," Gabriel said. He looked very serious.
"Uh—" Kestrel spoke up, "before we go too much further, can you magical types do some healing?" She looked like she was about to drop, her tanned skin pale under a coating of blood and dirt.
Everyone looked at Gabriel. "Are you up to it?" Ocelot asked.
The young dragon nodded. "Most magic seems to work properly here, so I hope that healing magic will as well." Turning to Kestrel, he reached out and grasped her shoulder, and the familiar golden nimbus surrounded her. In less than a minute, her wounds had disappeared.
Stefan, not surprisingly, moved off to heal himself as Gabriel finished with the others. Winterhawk volunteered to help with healing, but the drain from the spells he had cast was affecting him almost as badly as his wounds; Gabriel told him to rest after he was healed and not worry about doing any more magic right now.
Ocelot moved over to Kestrel after his injuries had been dealt with, experiencing a little bit of wonder. He had never had the benefit of a dragon's healing before; he was struck by just how complete it was—and how comforting. With Winterhawk—in fact, with any mage or shaman by whom he had ever been healed—the feeling was somehow different. He couldn't describe how, exactly, but Gabriel's touch had brought him not only relief from his wounds, but a small measure of relief to his psyche as well. Standing here in the afterglow of it, relishing the lack of pain in his body and his mind, he didn't feel quite so afraid anymore. He knew that would pass quickly, but for now he stood back with Kestrel and let it do its work.
Gabriel finished with Joe, 'Wraith, and Winterhawk, and then lastly healed himself. By the time he had finished he looked tired, but not nearly as much as one would expect after casting so many offensive spells followed by so many healing spells. Stefan stood off alone, eyeing his brother with a strange look, but still didn't say anything.
"All right," Gabriel said, surveying the territory. The smell from the dead Horrors was getting truly appalling now in the oppressive heat; almost everyone was wondering why they had eaten so much at the bar before leaving. "We need to move on."
"Which way?" Ocelot asked. "Looks like we're gonna be sloggin' through dead bodies whichever way we pick." He didn't look pleased by the prospect of squishing through Horror guts to get anywhere, but he knew they had to go somewhere.
"The Netherworlds are rarely the same place twice," Gabriel said, half to himself. "Sometimes a way appears when there was none before. Perhaps we should look for it."
Immediately the runners began scanning the horizon, glad for something to do to take their minds off the carnage around them and their near-death experience. After a few moments Winterhawk rose up above the group and continued his scrutiny from there. "What are we looking for, exactly?" Kestrel asked Ocelot. She was trying hard not to show the fact that she was feeling very much out of her element here; even the other runners, including Ocelot with his deep-seated fear of these things, seemed to be dealing with the situation adequately. She wondered if they were as frightened as she was, and just doing the same thing. As long as they could take it, she could too—there was no way she was going to let Gabriel see that she was afraid, not after she had practically bullied him into bringing her along.
Before Ocelot could answer her, 'Wraith's quiet voice split the silence. "There," he said, pointing.
Sure enough, beyond the legions of smoking dead Horror corpses, a narrow path snaked off and disappeared over a hill. Everyone present would have put a large amount of money on the fact that the path had not been there before.
"How bloody convenient," Winterhawk said.
"Moo," 'Wraith said.
"You got that right," Ocelot muttered under his breath.
Gabriel did not reply; instead, he came down from the rise where he had been standing and started toward the path. "Come," he said, motioning for them to follow.
The runners hesitated, mentally preparing themselves to slog through the Horrors, when they realized they did not need to do so. Gabriel stopped before the bodies, looked at them a moment, then pointed his hand at them. A huge gout of flame shot out from it, incinerating the bodies into ash in a stripe two meters wide by about three meters out. "Stefan?" he said without looking back.
Stefan joined him and began doing the same thing; apparently he wasn't any more enamored of the idea of dirtying his feet with these foul creatures than the runners were. It looked as if they were taking energy from the act of destroying the things—possibly the reason why Gabriel had chosen not to simply levitate the party to their destination.
With the two of them working together and the runners following up behind them, it only took a few minutes to plow through the bodies enough to reach the path. Winterhawk watched them work, noting idly again how well they functioned together when they weren't trying to kill each other. From the back they looked more like father and son than brothers, Gabriel's casual clothes, slender build, and short spiky hair constrasting with Stefan's corp-chic suit and powerful physique. He wondered if dragons could choose their primary human forms or if they were the manifestation of something in the individual dragon's personality, and made a mental note to ask Gabriel about that when they got out of this hellish situation.
Of all the runners, 'Hawk was the one who harbored the least amount of hatred for Stefan based on what he had done. He did not, of course, like to be manipulated any more than any of his teammates did—in fact, all four of them had a serious problem with it—but he had been manipulated before by many other people, things, and beings: by Fate, by the Horrors, by the insect spirits, by the various Mr. Johnsons for whom the team had worked over the years. One more Great Dragon wasn't going to significantly push him over the edge. The fact was, some of the things their employers had maneuvered them into doing and some of the situations into which they had been put by those same employers awakened far more anger in 'Hawk's mind than Stefan's duplicity had. That was not to say that he liked the dragon—far from it. But he was fairly sure that of the four he was the most likely to put the situation behind him and move on.
He glanced back at Ocelot; his friend was bringing up the rear of the party along with Kestrel. The two of them were talking quietly as Ocelot wiped his spear-blade off on his pants and stowed it in its holder, then set about re-tying the leather cord that held his ponytail together. In front of them, Joe took an unaccustomed spot in the middle, while 'Wraith moved along quietly next to 'Hawk himself. "Thinking?" the elf asked, turning to look at him. 'Wraith's white eyes with their pinprick black pupils showed little expression; it was difficult for anyone who didn't know him well to discern what was on his mind.
"Can't stop thinking," the mage admitted, pitching his voice low to at least attempt to avoid being heard by the two dragons. "Or do you mean, what am I thinking about?"
'Hawk shrugged. "Never expected to be back here, I guess. I thought we were quite finished with this particular unpleasantness."
"As did I," 'Wraith agreed. A measurable troubled expression appeared on his face. "Wanted to ask Harlequin—the Bridge. Gone? And Thayla?"
Winterhawk nodded soberly. "Yes, I'd very much like to know how that little trick was accomplished as well. And if the Bridge is destroyed, where did all of these—" he indicated the dead Horrors on either side of him with distaste "—come from?"
Winterhawk looked up, his surprise evident. To the best of his recollection, this was the first time Stefan had ever spoken directly to any of them except Gabriel.
"Sacrifices?" Winterhawk repeated, trying to keep his voice neutral so as not to set the dragon off. He wanted the answer to this question, regardless of who was providing it.
"What—sort of blood sacrifices?"
Stefan had apparently tired of talking to him, because he didn't answer. Gabriel, however, did. "Humans," he said soberly. "And metahumans. The Enemy can use them to create these weak minions in large numbers."
"You mean," Joe asked slowly, moving up a little to get into the conversation, "every one of these things used to be a person?" His features took on a look of dismay mixed with queasiness and resolve.
"Not precisely," Gabriel said, still not turning to face them as he continued to incinerate Horror bodies. "It would be more correct to say that the sacrifice of their spirits was used to power the ritual that created these creatures."
"So they don't—remember?" Joe asked with another sideways glance at the piles of bodies on either side of them.
"I don't know," Gabriel said honestly. They couldn't see his face, but his voice suggested that he was very serious. "I've never examined one that closely. I hope for their sakes that they do not."
Winterhawk, listening, shivered slightly. The thought of having one's spirit stuck inside of one of these fell things was worse than his former greatest fear—that of being taken over by an insect spirit. The thought of being stuck in one of these things and knowing about it was far too horrifying to even contemplate. He remembered the children slaughtered during the end of their last battle with the Horrors, and wondered if these creatures were created in the same way.
"So many of them..." Joe said, and trailed off.
They walked along in silence for the remainder of the time it took to burn through the bodies, and at last they stood on top of the hill where the path began.
The two dragons stopped, breathing hard from their exertions, as the runners fanned out alongside them. All of them looked at the path.
It led down a gently sloping hill, still made of the shifting slate, to a wide flat area bounded by a wider river. In the river was a boat, and next to the boat was a shadowy, hooded figure. "The Dweller at the Threshold," Winterhawk said, somewhat unnecessarily. He had not yet become an Initiate the last time he had been here with Harlequin nearly three years ago, so he had not recognized the same figure when it had blocked their path then. Now, a veteran of several of his own metaplanar travels, he was well acquainted with its nature at least, if not its full purpose. It had appeared to them in this aspect on their last quest with Harlequin, but 'Hawk knew that the way in which it manifested could vary infinitely depending upon the situation. He wondered if there was any significance to the fact that it had duplicated the same form for this quest.
"The what?" Kestrel asked, coming over to stand next to the mage. "That's the second time somebody's talked about the Dweller. What is it, some kind of weird ferryman?"
"Essentially," Winterhawk said, nodding. "It guards the entrance to the metaplanes. You don't pass it without passing some sort of test first."
"I guess you're not talking true or false, huh?" she asked sarcastically.
"In a way he is," Gabriel said. Kestrel gave him a very strange look, but didn't pursue it.
"Well, hey," Ocelot said, forcing his voice into a flippant tone that was nothing like what he was really feeling, "let's not keep the guy waiting, eh?" Without waiting for an answer, he started down the path toward the place where the Dweller stood. After a moment, the others followed.
The robed and hooded figure did not move or speak until everyone had reached it. "Welcome," it said, its voice sounding like it resonated from a very deep place, "to the Place Beyond." Although its face was hidden in the shadows of the dark hood, it appeared to regard each of them individually for a moment, speaking to each in turn. "Welcome, Tatan'ka Wanji'la," it began as it faced Joe.
It turned to Winterhawk. "Alastair Stone."
To ShadoWraith: "Johnathan Andrews."
To Ocelot: "Terry Symonz."
To Kestrel: "Juliana Harvath."
It paused a moment after that, stopping to settle its silent scrutiny on the two remaining members of the party before speaking again.
"And welcome to you, Sildarath, son of Kinsatar, and young Gethelwain, son of Gilvirian."
The runners exchanged glances—all except Kestrel, who reacted to the use of Gabriel's true name with a surprised start that had not accompanied the use of her own.
When the Dweller spoke again, it stood directly before the two dragons. "You seek to pass this place," it intoned, "but first you and your companions must prove yourselves worthy of the privilege." Taking two steps back, it shimmered and split, becoming seven different Dwellers. Each one took up a position in front of one of the party members and lowered its hood.
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.