Although none of them slept very well that night, they were all shocked and startled out of slumber by a loud, unpleasant bell that seemed to go off interminably—at top volume—somewhere above their heads.
All five runners instantly leaped out of bed, eyes darting around looking for threats, and only calmed down when it registered on their sleep-fogged brains what the bell signified. "Shut that fucking thing off!" Ocelot yelled at the ceiling.
Gabriel and Stefan had both come up to sitting positions, but hadn't had quite the reaction the runners had. Before either of them could say anything, the bell stopped.
The runners allowed themselves to relax. Ocelot, who had gotten the least amount of sleep of the team because he was half-afraid Stefan would try to murder them all in their beds, sighed. "Great way to start a morning." It was still dark outside, with only the faintest hint of light shining in through the window far above.
"It's only going to get better, I'll wager," Winterhawk said.
They arrived downstairs en masse about half an hour later, after changing into the fresh uniforms they found in their armoires (they hadn't been there last night, but nobody was asking questions at this point). Only a few minutes after the bell had gone off, Mrs. Brant had come by and unlocked their door, yelling in that they were expected at breakfast at six o'clock sharp, and that they'd better not be late. They (or at least some of them) had considered indulging in civil disobedience, but changed their minds when 'Wraith reminded them that they still hadn't learned all the details of their situation. Ocelot (naturally the ringleader of the stillborn disobedience movement) had reluctantly conceded that he was right.
The dining room was as unhospitable as the rest of the mansion. It was a great, high-ceilinged hall done in somber colors, with row upon row of gray tables surrounded by row upon row of gray chairs. The windows, tall and narrow, were covered by drab curtains; the only light in the room came from the dusty chandeliers hanging above their heads. "This looks bloody appetizing," 'Hawk commented.
"We weren't here last night," Joe said. "It was closed. We ate in the kitchen."
"Which was about as depressing as this," Ocelot added.
This was the first time they had seen evidence that there was anyone else present other than the group itself, Mrs. Brant, and the dour man who had greeted them on their arrival. The dining room looked like it could have held about a hundred students, but now only a few of the tables were occupied by a handful of children ranging in age from around ten to around seventeen. All of them looked up as the newcomers entered, and a quiet hum of conversation was touched off among them.
Some of the runners would have liked to have gone off and eaten at their own table, but they didn't get the chance to voice this opinion before Gabriel immediately headed for one of the occupied ones. Sighing, the others followed him.
The table he had chosen was already claimed by four other children: two boys and two girls. All four of them looked to be around fourteen. "Mind if we sit here?" Gabriel asked, favoring them with his best angelic smile.
They all shook their heads, indicating the empty chairs with glances. They seemed to be eyeing the runners—and especially Gabriel and Stefan—a bit oddly, but said nothing about it. "You're new here," one of the girls said. "You just got in last night, right? I heard them talking about you."
"Yeah," Ocelot said. As usual he waited to see where Stefan sat and then chose his own seat as far away as possible, but at least he was subtle about it this time. "This is some creepy place."
The four teenagers looked around nervously when he said that, then one of the boys nodded. "It is, but there's nothing to do about it. If you complain, they punish you."
"He's right," one of the girls added. "A few weeks ago, during regular session, one of the boys complained about the food. They beat him and put him in the lockup all day, and he had to go without food the whole time."
"The lockup?" 'Wraith raised an eyebrow.
"It's this room that's all dark, with no windows and no furniture," the other girl said. "And no heat. It's down in the cellar. I've never seen the inside of it, but that's what they—the kids who've been in there—say. They say they've even heard rats in there." She shivered. "Once you go in there, you don't disobey again. Nobody wants to go back."
"Some school," Joe said, shaking his head. "Great way to teach kids anything."
They had to halt their conversation for a few moments, because Mrs. Brant and two other similarly-dressed women came by at that point and began serving breakfast. By the way in which they flung the trays down on the tables, it was apparent that they weren't terribly pleased with their jobs. Winterhawk looked down at the contents of his plate with distaste. "I think this is supposed to be eggs and—" he pointed "—what is that?"
"I think it's oatmeal," Kestrel said with a similar expression.
Joe hesitantly tasted it. "Yeah, I think so." Satisfied that whatever it was, it wouldn't kill him, he began eating.
During the time everyone else was concentrating on their food, Winterhawk, who was a rather finicky eater under any circumstances, and 'Wraith, who made it a point to observe what was going on around him even more diligently than the average runner, both noticed something odd. Their four tablemates, when they thought no one was looking, kept shooting glances toward Gabriel and Stefan. They would look quickly and then look at each other with puzzlement evident on their faces, then return their attention to their plates. They had repeated this cycle twice and were stealing their third glance when Winterhawk said casually, "What is it that you keep looking at?"
"What?" Four pairs of eyes came up, guiltily. "Uh—nothing," said one of the boys.
"No," 'Wraith said. "Gabriel and Stefan. Why?"
Upon hearing their names, Gabriel, who had been watching another table, and Stefan, who had been staring into his plate without eating much, looked up.
The four teenagers looked at each other, and one of the girls smiled sheepishly. "We're sorry. We were just trying to figure something out."
"What?" Gabriel asked. He looked very interested in the answer.
"Well—" The girl didn't meet their gazes as she spoke "—Robert here heard Mrs. Delany talking to Mrs. Brant, about you new kids. She said that you two—" here she indicated Gabriel and Stefan with a subtle head movement "—were going to have a hard time of it, because the headmaster hates your kind. Mrs. Brant said that was understandable—that none of the staff around here likes your kind very much. So we were trying to figure out what they meant." Her tone became apologetic. "Sorry—we didn't want to hurt your feelings or anything. It's just that we can't figure out what 'your kind' is. You don't look much different from the other new kids."
Gabriel and Stefan exchanged glances, but neither said anything. Ocelot spoke up to fill the silence: "So who's this headmaster? Is he the tall skinny guy we saw last night?"
One of the boys shook his head. "No, that was probably Mr. Harner. He's the assistant headmaster, and he teaches some of the classes."
"Nobody's ever seen the headmaster," one of the girls said.
The other one nodded. "He never comes here. He just talks to Mr. Harner on the telephone and tells him what to do."
"Just like Grimmer," Winterhawk whispered to 'Wraith, who nodded.
"Does anybody even know his name?" Joe asked.
"Nope." The four looked a little surprised to realize that. "Everybody just calls him 'the Headmaster'. And nobody wants to get sent to him, 'cause kids who do never come back. That's where you go when you get expelled."
"Never come back..." Gabriel murmured.
"Don't worry," the girl said, mistaking his thoughtfulness for a young boy's justifiable fear of such a frightening personage. "You look like the kind of kid everybody likes. Just don't make any trouble and you'll be fine."
Gabriel just nodded, distracted. Stefan looked at him sideways but said nothing.
Before anyone could inquire further about the mysterious headmaster, they were startled once again by the loud bell sounding somewhere far above their heads. "Shit!" Ocelot muttered, glaring darkly upward. "I wish I had a gun so I could shoot that damn thing out."
All around them, children were standing, pushing their chairs in, and filing out of the dining hall. "We're all in the same class for the break session," one of their companions whispered. "Since there's so few of us and only a couple of teachers. C'mon. We'll show you."
The classroom to which their new acquaintances led them continued the Dickensian atmosphere of the rest of the school quite nicely. The room was large and dark, without windows, and contained rows of old-fashioned desks with scarred wooden tops and uncomfortable wooden chairs. Up at the front of the room was an enormous desk made of some kind of hard black wood, its surface completely devoid of any items. Behind the desk was a tall wooden chair, and behind that was an aged blackboard that looked like it had not been new in this century, and a closed door. There were no posters or other decorations on the walls.
The group filed into the room, with the runners, Gabriel, and Stefan following their four tablemates. "Don't sit in the front," Robert whispered. "Nobody sits in the front."
Taking his advice, the group selected seats halfway back and off to one side. There were enough desks in the room for about thirty students, but there were only around fifteen in evidence. "I'm getting flashbacks to boarding school again," Winterhawk commented to nobody in particular.
"You went to a school this depressing?" Ocelot put his feet up on the chair in front of him, then thought better of it and put them back down again. Instead, he yanked the knot in his tie down a little further.
"Not quite. But bloody close. In England we called it 'traditional'. I always just called it dreary."
"Dreary's right," Joe agreed, looking around.
The door at the front of the classroom opened, and a man entered, carrying an armload of books. He walked slowly forward to the desk and slammed the books down on it. Immediately all the class' regular students faced front, sat up straight, and regarded the man attentively.
The newcomers recognized the man right away: it was Mr. Harner, the dour figure who had met them at the door upon their arrival the previous night. If anything, he looked more dour now than he had then, his chill gaze skimming over the rows of students as if looking for someone to punish. After a moment he bent to pick up one of the books from the desk. "We shall continue the lessons from yesterday," he said in his deep, sepulchral voice. "The older children will do the algebra exercises I will write on the blackboard, while the younger children will do the long division problems on pages 47 through 50 of the workbook. Is that clear?"
There was a murmur of yes, sirs throughout the room in which the newcomers did not participate.
Mr. Harner nodded, gave the class one last glare, and then opened his book, turned, and picked up a piece of chalk. He began writing on the board, his back to the class.
Ocelot watched him for a moment before glancing over the classroom. Except for their own group, all the other students were either removing musty-looking workbooks from their desks or noting down algebra problems in old-fashioned notebooks. He returned his attention to Harner, who was getting quite animated in his problem-jotting. He had already broken one piece of chalk and was well on his way to breaking other. He was attacking the board like he had some kind of personal vendetta against it.
"Wonder if he can sit down with that stick up his ass?" he whispered to Winterhawk, grinning.
Carefully he put the chalk back down, and slowly turned around. "Who spoke?" he said, his tone dripping ice.
No one said anything.
Harner examined the faces of the students again through his wire-rimmed glasses. Then he started to move. Walking slowly, like a stern monarch surveying his subjects, he made his way down one of the aisles, glancing at each face as he went.
He stopped in front of Gabriel's desk.
"You," he snapped. "You were the one. What did you say?"
Gabriel shook his head, appearing not at all bothered by the fearsome presence towering over him. "Nothing, sir."
"Don't lie to me, boy." Harner's voice got lower but more menacing. "What...did...you...say?"
Ocelot turned around in his chair. "It wasn't him," he drawled with contempt. "It was me. Why don't you come try to pick on me instead?"
A low murmur of alarm began among the regular members of the class.
Harner didn't even turn. "Don't try to cover for this little troublemaker. It won't work." He glared at Gabriel. "Tell me the truth, boy!"
"I always do, sir," Gabriel said calmly. He still appeared unruffled by the situation.
Suddenly Harner's face purpled with fury and he began to shake. Before anyone could even move, he hauled off and backhanded Gabriel across the face so hard that the blow knocked him off his chair. "Don't lie to me, you little whelp!" he screamed.
Several things happened at that point. Ocelot, moving cat-quick, jumped from his chair and silently lunged forward, grabbing the arm with which Harner had struck Gabriel and trapping it next to the teacher's body, then using his foot to take Harner's knees out from under him. Rage bringing his street-fighting instincts to the surface where they overcame his rational mind, he was intending that his next move would be to break Harner's leg.
He never got the chance to do that. Before he could, he caught a glimpse of another figure hurtling forward with an inarticulate cry, arms forward, heading straight for Harner's throat. At first he thought it was Kestrel, but then—
As Ocelot felt Joe grab his shoulders and begin to pull him up off Harner, his eyes widened in shock at what he saw: sure enough, Stefan, eyes blazing and face a mask of wrath, had clamped his hands around the protesting Harner's throat and was proceeding in an attempt to bang his head repeatedly into the floor. Ocelot was so surprised by this that he didn't even fight Joe's grasp.
Ocelot turned, still held by Joe, to see what was going on in the other part of the room. Gabriel was picking himself up off the floor despite Kestrel's protests and heading for Stefan. Winterhawk and 'Wraith, unsure of how best to be effective and reluctant to get involved in a physical confrontation, stood back and watched the scene play out before them. The other students stood even further back, distancing themselves from what was going on.
As Gabriel reached Stefan and tried vainly to pull him off Harner, the door slammed open and Mrs. Brant entered, followed by three strong and angry looking men. "Everyone stop this instant!" she cried, her voice splitting the air like a siren. When it became obvious that Stefan wasn't listening to her, she made an imperious gesture and the two men surged forward. One grabbed Gabriel and the other locked his hands on Stefan's shoulders and yanked him, still flailing, off Harner. The teacher slumped, gasping and clawing at his throat.
Mrs. Brant balefully regarded Gabriel and Stefan, now held securely in the grips two of the men. "What is going on here?" she demanded.
Both of them glared right back and said nothing.
"That—that hoodlum tried to kill me!" Harner croaked, pointing at Stefan. "And that one was assisting him!" Here he pointed at Gabriel.
"Wait a fuckin' minute!" Ocelot stepped forward.
"No. That will be all." Mrs. Brant nodded as if that had been exactly what she had expected to hear. She turned to the three men. "Take them downstairs." Pointing at Ocelot, she added, "That one too. Let's see if a day in the cellar will do anything for their outlooks."
The men nodded, preparing to hustle the three of them out.
Kestrel stepped up. "Just hold on a minute! Are you just going to let this—this bully get away with hurting little kids? If that's the case, maybe you should take all of us." The others nodded.
"There's no need to cover for them," Mrs. Brant said airily. She pointed at Gabriel and Stefan. "Especially not these two. Just as I said before, we all know they're troublemakers." To the men, she said, "Take them."
As the other runners made as if to protest and to block the path of exit, three more large men came in and interposed themselves between them and the door. Gabriel turned his head around as he was roughly shoved out the door and met the eyes of Kestrel, who was in front. "Don't cause trouble," he said. "It will only make things more difficult." And then he and Stefan were gone.
By this time, Harner had gotten himself up off the floor and was making a show of straightening his fussy little bowtie while casting venomous stares at the four remaining newcomers. "Mrs. Brant, I want them out of here. They may not be the main troublemakers, but they're disrupting the class. Take them up to their room for the day. They can work on their assignments there."
The woman turned to them. "You heard Mr. Harner. Up."
Kestrel glared at her and was about to say something when 'Wraith touched her arm. "No trouble," the elf mouthed, with a head gesture toward the door through which the two dragons had disappeared. "Worse for them?"
Kestrel got the message. Much as she hated to follow docilely along like a lamb to the slaughter behind this malevolent cow, 'Wraith's words had reminded her that it was not they, but rather their absent companions, who would get the brunt of the punishment for their misbehavior. Grudgingly she nodded and allowed herself to be herded out. The other students cast furtive and sympathetic glances at them as they left.
No one said anything until Mrs. Brant had trooped them upstairs and turned the key in their door, after informing them that they would be allowed out for dinner in a few hours 'after they'd had time to think about what they'd done.' At that point, Kestrel flung herself down on her bed with a loud frustrated sigh. "So now what?"
"We wait." 'Wraith sat down on the edge of his own bed, his face, as usual, expressionless.
"Until that collection of freak-show escapees decides to let us out of here?" Winterhawk looked like he wasn't thrilled by the prospect.
"It's either that or try to escape," Kestrel said, rolling up to a seated position. "And I'm not going anywhere without the rest of our group."
"You think they put them in that lockup those kids were talking about?" Joe asked.
"Probably," 'Wraith said.
"Lovely." Winterhawk began pacing, unable to sit still. "So they're down there with no light, no heat, and rats." He glanced sideways at Kestrel. "Sorry."
She shrugged. "Gabriel and Stefan are ancient dragons, not little kids. I'm sure a little dark and a few rats won't freak them out. And Ocelot's tough. It's just frustrating having to spin our wheels all day."
Winterhawk nodded. "I haven't even quite got my mind around what the purpose of this particular scenario is supposed to be. It sounds like this Harner is this place's answer to Grimmer, and we've got our mysterious headmaster—that has to be whatever they're trying to bring over, yes?"
Joe nodded. "Yeah, sounds right. But what are we supposed to do about it? If we were supposed to stop them from hauling our friends off to the lockup, we weren't very effective."
"Don't think that was it," 'Wraith said, but he didn't offer anything in its place.
"And then there's all this stuff about everybody around here not liking Gabriel and Stefan's kind," Kestrel mused, looking up at the high windows, "but nobody will say why. And they won't say what they mean by 'their kind'." She paused. "What sorts of things could they mean?"
"Well, it can't be males, people of a particular age, or Caucasians," Winterhawk said, sitting back down. "They're the only ones who've been identified as brothers—p'raps it's a family thing."
"Dragons?" Joe spoke up.
'Wraith shrugged. "How would they know?"
Kestrel nodded. "True. They seem to be taking things pretty much at face value around here. But aside from their being brothers, it's the only thing that's different between them and at least one of us."
"So someone either doesn't like their family, or doesn't like dragons," Winterhawk said, half to himself. Then he shrugged again. "I'll be buggered if I can figure it out. P'raps they'll have some insights when they get back."
"What I want to know," Joe said, "is why Stefan stuck up for Gabriel like that. I thought they hated each other, but now he's defending him. It doesn't make much sense."
"I suppose we can ask him when they get back." Winterhawk sighed. "But I wouldn't hold out any great hopes that he'll favor us with an answer."
Everyone nodded, looking bleakly around the room. It was going to be a long day, and none of them were looking forward to spending it locked in this dreary place. All in all, life was not looking good.
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.