The specific location did not look familiar, but the purpose of this place was all too easy to discern.
Gabriel and Stefan stood only a few meters apart, but it might as well have been worlds. The high stone walls of the cavern rose above them, disappearing into dimness at least twenty meters above. The walls were carefully carved out to form the chamber in which they now stood; the floor was made of the same stone covered over with a layer of soft sand.
It was a dragon's lair—but whose?
When the fog cleared and he could see the place where he now stood, Gabriel turned quickly toward Stefan, but his brother was already fading out as if he had never been there. There was no sign of Kestrel or any of the other runners. "Stefan?"
"Why do you call for him?" a voice spoke in his mind. "Was he your partner in my betrayal?"
Slowly Gabriel turned back around.
A massive figure was standing before him, although it had made no sound in entering the chamber. Gabriel did not need to see the figure's eyes or the color of his scales to know who it was—he knew by the voice. He knew immediately by the voice. "Telanwyr." Grief gripped him; he could barely speak his old friend's name through it. He never thought he would hear that particular voice again.
"Yes, my traitorous young student. It is I." Telanwyr stepped out of the fog, his huge head lowering until it was in front of Gabriel and only about a meter away from him. "I do not understand how you can even face me after what you have done."
Gabriel shook his head, holding his ground. "I have done nothing, Telanwyr," he said softly. "It was the Enemy. They used Stefan to lure you to your death."
Telanwyr shook his head. "Gethelwain, my student—I had such high hopes for you. You were the finest of your generation. Tell me—what did it take to convince you to betray me? After all I have done for you, all the things I have taught you? What could it have been, Gethelwain?" His voice in Gabriel's mind sounded infinitely sad and weary.
Gabriel fought his grief as it welled up again. How could Telanwyr believe that he had been responsible for his death? Perhaps that is what he thought at the moment he was destroyed, the thought came into his mind, and that is what he believes now. You must convince him otherwise. Yes. That was what he must do. "Telanwyr—please. You must believe me. I give you my word that it was not I who contacted you. I did not even know you had come until your—dying cry—hit me." He stepped forward, right in front of the great head. "I would have died myself to save you, had I known!"
Something rumbled in the back of the dragon's throat. "And now you lie to me under cover of your word! Oh, Gethelwain—the others warned me against taking so much time with you. I should have listened to them. You had such promise, but I see now that you are no better than your miserable brother." He paused a moment. "And why are you in that form? Are you ashamed of your true one?" Lunging forward so fast that it was nearly impossible to follow the movement, he slammed into Gabriel with the tip of his nose, driving the young man down into the sand.
Gabriel fell hard, the wind momentarily knocked from him. "Telanwyr!" he cried, trying to get his breath. "Do not do this! I am here to avenge your murder! The Enemy has deceived Stefan, but he is here to right his error. Please do not make such accusations of me!" He struggled to rise again.
"I should kill you here and now," Telanwyr said implacably, bringing one great claw above Gabriel so he couldn't get up. "That is what is done with traitors, is it not? Your brother should well know that, as should you. It would give me great pleasure to watch my contemporaries rip you limb from limb. Or perhaps to do it myself!" He opened his mouth, baring his razor-sharp teeth and bringing his head in close.
Gabriel lay very still. He could feel Telanwyr's hot breath flowing over him. "Telanwyr—I am not lying to you! What can I do to prove that to you, if you will not take my word?"
Telanwyr did not answer. Instead he lowered the sharp claw a bit more, carefully aligning himself so it hovered right above Gabriel's shoulder. Still silent, he brought his foreleg down until the claw was just touching. "Do you know how it felt to die, young Gethelwain? Do you know how it felt to have your flesh torn from you by explosives, and then to have projectiles ripping through you—deadly poisons delivered into your lungs? Do you know how it feels to have a laser split your head? Do you have any idea of the pain I went through?" With each sentence, he brought the claw a bit lower until at last it punctured the young man's skin.
Gabriel gasped as blood welled up around the dragon's claw. "Telanwyr—do not do this! Let me explain to you what has happened. If you still wish to kill me then—" He trailed off. "Please."
"I am not going to kill you. I would not soil my talons on such a job. I have others to do that for me." Telanwyr's mind-voice sounded amused at the thought. "And I have no use for your explanations." Drawing back, he yanked the claw up and out of Gabriel's shoulder.
Again Gabriel drew a sharp breath at the pain, his hand flying up to cover the wound as blood seeped between his fingers. He quickly got to his feet before Telanwyr could get into position again, never taking his eyes from the dragon.
Telanwyr wasn't trying to get into position, though. In fact, he was backing up.
And there were dark shapes coming out of the shadows.
Gabriel took a few steps back, dropping to a defensive crouch as the shapes advanced on him and quickly resolved themselves into black-furred, humanoid creatures with burning red eyes and wicked clawed hands. He tried to shift to dragon form, but apparently that was not included in the selection of actions allowed in this particular corner of the metaplanes. Gathering his magical energies, he then tried to fling one of his punishing area-effect spells at the approaching monsters—
—and nothing happened.
Magic isn't functioning here either? Gabriel took another step back, realizing he was in trouble now. He had no weapon, and without his magic or the ability to transform to his true form, he had only his human-based fighting skills on which to rely.
Something laughed maniacally behind him.
Spinning, he discovered that more of the creatures were coming up behind him. They moved nearly as fast as he did.
He was surrounded.
The creatures moved in—
Stefan's gaze darted quickly back and forth as the scene resolved around him. "Gethelwain? Answer me!" he snapped out when he did not see his brother next to him. "Where are you?"
There was no answer from Gabriel.
"Gethelwain!" he called, louder and more insistently. Had his brother deserted him? Left him alone to deal with the Enemy on his own?
"He is not here."
It could not be.
"Gethelwain!" His voice grew more desperate as his mind tried to deny what he was hearing. "Damn you, brother! Show yourself now!" Don't make me face this alone.
The voice—the other voice—chuckled, but there was no mirth in the sound. It was a nasty, unkind chuckle. "You never were brave enough to fight your battles on your own. But now you seek the aid of a child? I am ashamed of you, Sildarath."
Stefan wheeled back around, rage quickly taking the place of fear. "Do not even speak to me of shame!" he bit out.
A dark shape detached itself from the darkness and came forward into the cavern. Massive and green-scaled, the dragon moved with well-oiled grace. His eyes burned with some strange inner light; there was something subtly—wrong— about him. Something in the way he moved, the way his head swayed back and forth on his long neck like a cobra waiting to strike. Something in the core of his being, so deep that it had to be an integral part of him.
Stefan stared up at him, his expression mingled fear and hatred. He knew very well what was wrong. "What do you want?" he demanded.
Again the unwholesome chuckle. "Sildarath, that is no way to speak to your father. You will show me the proper respect or I will show you my wrath."
Stefan snorted. "Respect? I would not honor you with the title of 'father.' Not after what you have done."
The dragon's head swiveled down until it was in front of Stefan. "What I have done? Who are you, child, to judge what I have done? You display astounding hypocrisy. I did what was necessary. The others did not see that it was the only way. They saw only their short-sighted plans, their temporary measures. I would have saved them all, if they had not interfered!"
Stefan stared at him, too shocked to speak.
The dragon bared his teeth in what looked like a sick smile. "But you should understand that now, my son. Despite your insolence, I am proud of you. You have followed well in my footsteps. You have identified the true source of power and sought it out. You have at last made it possible to rid yourself of that insufferably self-righteous young brother of yours. Too long have you existed in that one's shadow! Bravo, my son! Now all you must do is to finish the job. Destroy your brother and join me in the true Power. We will rule together over the world with the Power at our side!"
Stefan continued to stare, his mind having trouble processing what he was hearing. The old hatred of Gabriel tried to rise, but it was squelched almost immediately by the deeper, far more abiding hatred for the one who stood before him. The one who had betrayed them all. "You are dead!" he cried, his voice booming through the cavern. "You were destroyed like the mad thing that you are! How can you come back to haunt me now, here?"
Once again the dragon laughed. "There is no death, Sildarath. There are merely differing planes of existence. I am more powerful here than I ever was when I was what you so naively call 'alive'. Here the Power has accepted my gift and has in turn given me what I have always sought." He paused, cocking his head a bit sideways. "And I can see that they have accepted your gift as well. You make a mistake in trying to fight it. Embrace it, my son. Cast off your brother—he only seeks to hold you back from what is truly yours. He is not as strong as you are. He will not seek the Power. Take what is yours and claim your destiny."
Stefan took a step back, his burning eyes never leaving his father's face. He was shaking with a rage that threatened to consume this fragile body in which he was a prisoner. He tried, but he could not do what he most wanted to do: change to his true form and rip his father to pieces where he stood. Instead, he waited.
Part of him, a tiny part in the deepest reaches of his mind, was tempted. Come, a little voice said to him (the Enemy? Had Gethelwain failed to block all of its influence after all? Or just his own lust for power?). Come and claim the power. It is what you want...your father was not wrong to claim it, back so many years ago...They were wrong to destroy him for it. Come, take what is rightfully yours...
The cry broke from him almost involuntarily, pained and strangled in his throat. "No! I will not! It ends here!" He lunged forward toward his father.
"Pity," the voice said as if it knew all along that this was the answer he would choose. "Then I have no more need for you. I have many children, after all...Perhaps you would like to get acquainted with some of your other brothers..."
The dragon faded from view.
A series of smaller shapes rose up from the darkness and began moving forward.
As they stepped (or rather, shambled) into the light, Stefan's heart began to beat faster as sweat broke out on his forehead.
The shapes were young dragons, barely more than hatchlings.
Or—they had been dragons at some point. Now, though, their bodies were twisted into grotesque mockeries of their former noble shapes. Their hides were blackened in spots, bloody in others, and Stefan thought he could see the tiny writhing forms of worms in patches on some of their flanks. They had once been of a multitude of colors: green, blue, gold, red, silver—but now all of their colors had dulled to where they were barely indistinguishable from each other, uniform grays with tiny hints of their former hues. They glared at him with malevolent black eyes that burned with tiny glowing red pinpricks, their claws and teeth bared as they advanced on him. "Come to usssss....brotherrrr...." they whispered in his mind. "Join ussssssss...."
Stefan staggered backward, trying to summon magic to destroy these disgusting things. He soon found, though, just as Gabriel had, that magic would not help him here.
The little dragons lurched toward him, stumbling awkwardly like young creatures do, but never halting their forward progress. They seemed to be moving faster than their clumsy gaits would suggest, or else there were more of them than Stefan thought there were, because they surged around him, surrounding him.
The ring drew inward, and the tiny claws drew closer.
Stefan tried to retreat, but there was nowhere to go.
Gabriel moved in a blur, lashing out left and right, forward and behind, but still he was not fast enough. There were too many of the furred creatures, and they were hitting him from all sides. No single attack hurt him much—their claws were small and the creatures themselves were weak—but the injuries were beginning to stack up as the battle wore on. He took another step backward, striking out savagely with his foot to contact the neck of one of the creatures. With a sickening crunch of breaking bone, the thing sank to the ground. Three more surged forward to take its place.
Desperately Gabriel tried to think this through as he forced himself to fight on out of sheer instinct. He was glad now that he had spent all that time in his distant youth learning human fighting styles; most dragons did not bother, since they rarely needed to fight in this form, but he had always been fascinated by the different ways the humans and metahumans had to fight. His studies were paying off now.
Where was Stefan? He had briefly spotted his brother earlier, but now he was nowhere to be seen. Ignoring the pain when the creatures struck him and the sensations of numerous tiny rivulets of blood trickling from various parts of his body, Gabriel forced his mind to consider the question at hand. This was a test. The Dweller never presented a test that the subject could not pass. Sometimes the tests were merely difficult, while other times they contained a trick within them—something to force the subject to move his thoughts in a different direction. To "think outside the box," as it were. Why would Telanwyr not believe him? Why would he send these creatures to kill him, instead of doing it himself? Telanwyr had trusted him fully—if he had given his word that he had not been the one to betray him, then why would his mentor not believe him? What could this possibly be testing? He remembered how he had felt when Stefan had told him what had happened: the anger, the grief, the guilt—
That was it. That was why Telanwyr had not believed him.
Because he did not believe himself.
He knew that he was not the one who had betrayed his mentor—Stefan had done that, using his form as a disguise. But he recalled how the guilt had tightened around him when he realized that Telanwyr had been calling for him, and he had not been there.
He might have been able to help, if he had been there.
But I could not have helped. Had I been there, they would have killed me too. I could not have saved Telanwyr. If they had killed me, I would not even be able to avenge his death.
And he knew it was true.
He had to find his brother.
"Stefan!" he called out as loudly as he could as the creatures' claws raked at him. "Stefan! I know you're here! I know you're close by! Answer me!"
But there was no answer.
Grimly, Gabriel fought on.
Stefan pivoted as he kicked and punched madly at the diseased little dragon-creatures that were swarming around him. "Get away!" he bellowed, sweeping two of the small creatures from where they had locked themselves on to his arm and crushing the skull of another beneath his foot. It died with a startled squeak; a few of the others skittered backward a bit, watching him. "Brotherrrrrr..." they continued to whisper in his mind, over and over until he thought it would drive him insane.
If he wasn't already there.
The little things seemed almost playful in a malign sort of way, skipping and dancing around him with their lurching baby-steps, nipping at his arms and legs with tiny sharp teeth. Each one was a bit less than half the size of Stefan's human form, which meant that if they were real dragons, it could not have been long since they had emerged from their—
Stefan drew a sharp breath as he finally understood. "Damn you, Father!" he screamed into the air.
The young dragons began to laugh as they attacked, alternating the sound with their whisperings. They came in en masse again, leaping on Stefan's back, climbing up his arms and latching on to him, drawing more blood. As one climbed over his hand he could feel the tiny worms wriggling on his skin. Convulsively he slammed his other hand over them, feeling them squash and ooze. The dragonet dropped off, leaping backward. Its left flank was covered with a weeping, gangrenous wound; along the side of its neck the flesh was blackened and rotted. The others bore similar wounds and marks. For every one he destroyed, more appeared from the shadows; each subsequent wave appeared more mangled than the others, with twisted limbs and black bleeding holes where teeth and claws should have been.
"Join ussssss...." one whispered.
"Lead ussss...." another entreated.
"Brotherrrrrrr...." the others continued their litany.
"Take the powerrrrrrr...."
"It is your legacyyyyyy...."
Stefan clamped his hands over his ears, but it did not help. The voices sounded in his mind. As he ceased to fight back for a moment the tide of little creatures surged forward again. They leaped and bit and chittered at him, never ceasing the undercurrent in his head. He was bleeding from multiple wounds now, flailing as he tried to keep the disgusting things from touching him.
Where was Gethelwain?
Was he dealing with something similar somewhere else?
Was he facing his own vision of hell?
Had he gone off, leaving Stefan to his fate?
The little dragons seemed to pick up on that last thought and altered their litany appropriately. "He is gone..." one assured him.
"Left you to die..." said another.
"He hates you..." a third whispered, one of its teeth dangling precariously from a bloody hole.
"He has betrayed you..." said a fourth, this one sporting a blackened stump where one of its forelegs should have been.
"Trust us..." others added, while the majority kept up the chant of "Brotherrrrr...brotherrr...brotherrrrrrrrr...."
"No!" Stefan screamed the word with all the power he could muster, his voice echoing back and forth through the chamber. His gaze darted around, still trying to spot Gethelwain. "Gethelwain!" he cried. "Brother, answer me! Help me!"
"Gethelwain! Help me!"
Gabriel's head jerked up as his brother's voice reached his ears. "Stefan!" he called, lashing out at another of the furred creatures. "Where are you?"
There was a moment's pause as if Stefan was surprised to hear an answer to his call, and then, "Here! By the wall!"
Gabriel looked quickly around again, not expecting to see anything since he had not seen anything the other dozen times he had searched for his brother, but this time, he was surprised to see Stefan several meters away from him. His brother appeared to be fighting off another group of the furred creatures. "I'm behind you, Stefan! Come toward me!" Slowly he began battling his way through the creatures toward Stefan.
Stefan nearly did not believe it when he heard Gabriel's voice. Was it another trick? But no, the little dragons were still keeping up their chant, trying to drown out his brother's voice. Trying to follow Gabriel's directive, he began moving backward, swatting the creatures away as he moved. Sparing a fast glance behind him, he stopped momentarily in shock as he saw his brother across the cavern, beset by still more of the little dragon-creatures. "I see you, Gethelwain! I am coming!" Gabriel, too, looked like he was struggling through the hordes of small bodies, trying to reach Stefan.
With renewed vigor, he blocked out the murmurs in his mind and booted another small form away from him.
Gabriel continued to work his way toward Stefan. His breath was coming hard and fast now; he was stronger and more resilient than a human of his equivalent size and build would be, but his reserves were not endless. Bleeding from dozens of tiny wounds, he was finally beginning to feel the effects of the cumulative blood loss. He knew he wouldn't last much longer unless he and Stefan could come up with something that would deal with these creatures more than one at a time.
He wondered why he had not been able to see Stefan before now. The cavern was large but not that large; even past all the writhing forms of his assailants it should not have been so hard for him to see his brother—or for Stefan to see him. They were only a few meters away from each other, it turned out. But until Stefan had called for him, nothing had worked. All his cries had gone unheeded. Had Stefan been calling for him all this time as well? If so, then what had changed?
The answer came to him so suddenly that it surprised him into dropping his guard, allowing one of the creatures to cuff him in the side of the head. He quickly set about fighting again, but now he had the answer.
Stefan had not called for him before.
That was the key.
Let me test that theory, he thought grimly as he drew closer to his brother. The furred creatures renewed their attacks with greater vigor as if suspecting that their prey would soon be out of reach.
Stefan kicked aside another dragon-thing as he finally reached Gabriel. The two of them, intent on their respective opponents, did not realize how close they had gotten until they backed into each other. Both spun around to face the other, glaring until recognition dawned. "There are too many of them!" Stefan said desperately as the little dragons moved in again. "We'll never kill them all! Not without magic!"
"That's the key," Gabriel said, shifting position so he was standing next to his brother, facing the creatures. To him, they all looked like the furred things. "Try your magic now."
"I have tried it. It isn't working here."
"Try it again," Gabriel ordered. "Together. On three—"
"Do it, Stefan! I'll explain later." He paused a moment, then: "One...two...three!"
Pointing his hands, he concentrated on the magic.
Stefan, on his other side, mirrored his actions.
Waves of pure power flew from their hands.
The creatures screamed and disappeared.
The cavern faded to black.
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.