Ocelot fell hard when he was shoved into the small chamber, cracking his elbow into the far wall. He didn't have time to recover his balance before another figure was pushed into him; both of them went down in a tangled heap as the door slammed and the lock was engaged from the outside. The room was bathed in total, impenetrable darkness, so thick it was almost palpable.
The other figure struggled to separate itself from the tangle with Ocelot; off to one side he could hear the third figure pulling itself to a seated position. Far off, the sound of water dripping could be heard.
"Is everyone all right?" a voice asked. Young, concerned. Gabriel. He was across the room. That meant—
Ocelot redoubled his efforts to extricate himself from Stefan. "Yeah...I'm okay. Just whacked my arm. It'll be fine."
"Fine." The voice was a bit clipped, but not as hostile as it usually was.
Ocelot sighed, trying to find a comfortable position on the cold stone floor. He slammed his palms down in frustration. "This is just fucking great."
Across the room, Gabriel rose. Ocelot could hear him heading over toward where the door was supposed to be. First he rattled it; when that didn't work, he pulled harder. "Nothing. It won't budge."
"Let me try that." Ocelot got up and moved carefully over, grasping the door handle. Even putting all his (admittedly diminished, given his teenage form) strength into it, he couldn't make the door move at all. "From the sound of it, this thing's pretty thick. I think we're stuck here until they let us out, unless either of you two can put your brilliant dragon intellects to work on a way out." He didn't mean to sound so sarcastic, but the confinement was already getting to him. He hated being in a box, and that was essentially where he was. In a big, dark, cold, musty box.
"I don't think we're meant to get out of here," Gabriel said. "If you want to lift me up on your shoulders I can see what the ceiling is like, but I suspect it will do us no good. Do any of you have a light source?"
Ocelot fished around in his pockets, but found nothing that could produce light. "Nothing."
Gabriel didn't bother to quiz Stefan when he did not answer. "Do you want to try it?"
Ocelot wanted to try it. Anything that could provide a possibility of getting out of this hell-hole was something he wanted to try. Even as he boosted Gabriel up on his shoulders, though (he was surprisingly light, even for his size) he knew it would be to no avail. As Gabriel jumped back down, he confirmed it. "Nothing but solid concrete and wood beams up there. No way out."
"How's your jaw?" Ocelot sat back down, trying to find another subject to take his mind off the fact that he was trapped.
"It will be fine. No permanent damage."
"And what the hell was that stunt you pulled?" he demanded, turning to face Stefan—or at least the patch of darkness where Stefan had last been sitting.
"It was almost successful," Stefan said evenly. "A few more seconds and I would have snapped his neck." For some reason he seemed to have temporarily forgotten his self-imposed injunction against speaking to mere humans.
"But why? I thought you couldn't stand your brother, and now you're rescuin' him? It doesn't make any sense to me."
"It does not need to make sense to you."
"Hey—" Ocelot started to move toward Stefan with the intent to rearrange his outlook, but he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"Ocelot. Stefan. Please. It appears that we're going to be in here for quite some time, so I suggest we try to make the best of it. As we have seen, we aren't going to succeed without cooperation." Again, Gabriel's words sounded odd, delivered as they were in the clear child's voice.
Ocelot blew air through his teeth. "Okay. Fine. I'll play nice." He paused a moment, and then: "Would you mind—just to satisfy my curiosity—tellin' me why you stuck up for Gabriel? That would've been the last thing I expected you to do. It surprised the hell out of me when you dived past me to jump him. I thought you were Kestrel."
There was another long pause, during which Ocelot thought Stefan would not answer. But then he spoke, in the same even, controlled tone: "He was the Enemy."
"Huh?" Nobody could see Ocelot's face, but it was perplexed nonetheless.
"The teacher represented the Enemy. He might have jeopardized our quest had he injured Gethelwain."
Ocelot nodded, although again no one could see it. "Oh, I get it. Okay. So this is purely a self-interest thing. You didn't want to put the quest in danger." Yeah, and I'm the fraggin' Pope.
"Correct. Gethelwain has the highest chance of success. If he is lost, the quest is threatened and the Enemy gains a higher probability of prevailing in their plans."
"Okay..." He mulled that over for a few moments. His next words were drawn from him grudgingly, as if with great effort: "Well, whatever it was, it was a damn nice job. I was just gonna break his leg, but you went straight for the throat." If anybody had told Ocelot prior to this moment that he was going to be complimenting Stefan on his tactics, he probably would have laughed in the unfortunate person's face. He still didn't quite believe it himself.
"I intended to kill him. There is no point in fighting for sport."
That was Ocelot's philosophy of life too—it was even stranger hearing that coming from this guy he couldn't stand. "So why didn't you kill Gabriel when you had the chance? You've had a lot of chances, from the sound of it."
"I gave my word that I would not." The statement was flat and emotionless, spoken in the same tone in which someone else might say the sky is blue or cats have four legs.
"And that's all it takes?" Ocelot was the kind of guy who only kept his word to people he cared about—otherwise, he was perfectly happy about giving it and then breaking it later if he needed to. It was one of the things he learned long ago about surviving in a mean world: the only people who matter are the ones you trust. Everybody else is out to screw you and just looking for a way to do it. Therefore, screwing them back—first—was the only smart thing to do.
The next person to speak was not Stefan—it was Gabriel. "Yes, Ocelot," he said quietly. "That is all it takes." He paused a moment as if trying to decide how to continue. "Your skepticism is understandable, given your lack of understanding of dragon society. Let me see if I can clarify the situation for you a bit.
"Dragons are by nature rather contentious creatures. The protocols and etiquette among our race are very much concerned with preserving dignity and station and with avoiding conflict. We have elaborate rituals for everything from greeting one another to asking favors to raising disagreements in such a way that they don't result in conflict. No one wants this conflict, because it would not only reflect badly on the combatants, but might leave all of dragonkind open to revealing things we'd rather not reveal. Hence, all the rituals."
He paused again, considering. "In the short time I've been awake in this world, it appears to me that many of the rituals from the previous age have been—abbreviated or eliminated altogether. But one tradition that I do not believe will ever be eliminated is that a dragon's word is not broken. Once given, it can be trusted fully." Gabriel chuckled, just a bit. "Of course, we rarely give it. Dragons are masters at making the appearance of giving their word without actually doing so. But if a dragon tells you I give you my word that he or she will or will not do something, you can trust it with your life."
"And—he did this? When?" Ocelot leaned forward, a little interested in spite of himself. He still wasn't sure whether this was just more of Gabriel's naivete, but he was at least willing to listen.
"Back on the night when he first came to me, asking for my help. He did not volunteer it, but when I asked him to do so, he did it readily. He has given me his promise that he will not harm—or cause anyone else to harm—me or any of my friends. Since you are all numbered among my friends, he cannot harm you. That was all that was needed."
"But what about your mentor?" Ocelot's tone changed, took on a bit more of an edge. "Are you just gonna let him get away with that?"
"That is between Stefan and me, and it will be dealt with when this is over."
"In other words, it's none of my business and I should let it go."
Ocelot thought that over in silence for a few moments. "Okay," he finally said. "But there's still one thing I don't understand."
"What is that?"
"You said he promised not to harm you. But you said he clubbed you over the head back in that army thing."
There was a long pause. "By the letter of the agreement, he has broken his word. But by the spirit, I do not think so. He was acting with my best interests in mind. I do not consider that he has broken his word to me."
Ocelot sighed. Dragon relationships were too fraggin' weird for him. It was probably best to leave it that way. "Well, anyway," he said after a pause, "it was a damn nice attack. I wish you'd killed that bastard." Unable to sit still any longer, he stood and began pacing around the tiny room as best he could, feeling the walls and doorframe for imperfections. "I wonder how long they're gonna leave us in here."
No one answered; there really wasn't any point, since none of them knew.
Ocelot spent the next few minutes continuing to pace, but found nothing encouraged him that they might be able to escape from the small room. Disgusted, he sank back down against the wall. The floor was still cold, but at least it wasn't wet.
He lost track of time, but he thought about half an hour passed in near-silence, the only sounds being the slight shifting and soft breathing of the room's three occupants, the far-off sound of water dripping intermittently, and the occasional skitter of some small creature. He sat with his back pressed up against the wall, his knees drawn up and his hands clasped around them, trying to keep his mind occupied so he didn't think too hard about how dark and close this room was. He wasn't afraid of the dark—on the contrary, darkness was usually his friend. Confinement, however—that was another story. Not fear, but an irrational anxiety that threatened constantly to force him into explosive action just to do something. He was glad that 'Wraith was not here as well: he had the same problem to a worse degree. The two of them together in this box would not have been a pretty sight.
Gabriel and Stefan, on the other hand, seemed to be dealing with things quite adequately. Barely moving at all, they sat without speaking, their breath coming slow and even instead of harsh and fast like Ocelot's own. "How can you guys just sit there?" he finally demanded, unable to keep quiet any longer.
"What is the alternative?" came Gabriel's soft reply.
Ocelot sighed raggedly. "Never mind. Don't mind me. I just don't like bein' caged up, that's all."
"Is there anything I can do to help you?"
Ocelot shook his head, but then spoke when he realized that Gabriel couldn't see that. "No...I just gotta deal with it, that's all. It would help if there was something to take my mind off it. I just can't stand the thought that they're winnin' and we're stuck in here. I keep feelin' like we're supposed to be doin' something else."
"I too have the same feeling," Stefan spoke up quietly.
That surprised the hell out of Ocelot. Ever since they had gotten to this Ravenwood place, Stefan had been acting not only out of character, but downright civilized. He caught himself wondering what could have turned him and his brother against each other so long ago. Never the soul of tact, he decided this was the best time of any to ask. All they could do was tell him to mind his own business, and they couldn't beat him up here. "So," he said in a tone that was conversational but a bit strained, "what is it with you two, anyway? Why have you hated each other all these years? Seems to me like several thousand years is a long time to hold a grudge, even for a guy like me who's a pro at it."
This time there was a very long pause. The minutes dragged on interminably as the water dripped in the distance. Finally it was Gabriel who spoke. "I do not hate Stefan," he said very quietly. Then another long pause, followed by: "Stefan?"
"What?" Stefan sounded weary but unaccountably not angry.
"I think—given our situation—that it would be better if he knew. It would—explain a lot of things, you must admit."
Minutes passed again. When Stefan answered, it was in a voice that sounded even more tired than it had the last time. "Do as you like." He sounded like he had no more fight left in him.
Ocelot remained silent. This was not going at all according to plan. The plan was that Stefan would get huffy and tell both him and Gabriel to mind their own business, and then everybody would subside back into tense silence. Instead, Stefan actually seemed, if not willing, at least not averse to Ocelot's hearing the story.
"Thank you, Stefan," Gabriel said quietly. He shifted position, his shoes scraping the floor in the darkness, and took a deep breath. "Stefan has not always hated me, or so I understand. As I think I told you once before, we share the same mother but have different fathers, and the egg clutches from which we were hatched were around five hundred years apart. I won't go into the details of the dragon mating process because it isn't relevant here, but it is fairly common for different males to mate with the same female over time. It is also fairly common for most of the young dragons from a Hatching not to survive their first hundred years. Many are lost to fighting and other factors—only the strongest survive, and only they are given any regard by the adults.
"As it happened, my particular clutch was quite small, and I was the only one among my clutchmates to survive the requisite time. I do not have much memory of that period—hatchling dragons are focused almost exclusively on food and survival—most of the higher mental processes don't develop until later on. At any rate, since I was the only survivor, I was given a great deal of attention by the adults—especially since my father was a member of an elite council that existed to deal with those situations that could not be dealt with by individuals—the closest thing that dragons ever get to a government. It was a highly-regarded position, and since I was his son, I was the recipient of much of that regard. People—even dragons—had more belief in omens and portents in those days, partly because they were more likely to be true. They believed that since I was the only one to survive, I must be destined for something."
There was a sound from Stefan's side of the room, but otherwise he said nothing.
Gabriel sighed. "I didn't say I believed it, Stefan. I am merely reporting the facts as I recall them." He turned his attention back to Ocelot. "So in the beginning, Stefan barely noticed me, let alone harbored any hatred for me. But as time went on, he began to resent the attention I was receiving. Through no fault of Stefan's, his father was not as well regarded as mine—in fact, it was a surprise to many that he had been able to succeed against all the others and mate with our mother. I cannot blame Stefan for resenting me, truthfully."
"So..." Ocelot put in slowly, "you guys have carried on a feud for this long because he's jealous that you got more attention than he did when you were kids?" That sounded so ridiculous to him as to be almost unbelievable. Surely dragons weren't that petty.
"No." Gabriel paused, gathering his thoughts. "No, that was only the beginning of it. Years went by, during which time both of us continued our studies and left each other alone. Both my father and Stefan's grew older and more powerful, though Stefan's father never did secure a position on the Council. He and my father disagreed on several occasions—at one point it almost reached the point of a formal challenge, but cooler heads were able to dissuade them from it.
"It was around this time that the mana level was rising higher and the Enemy began to appear in the world, though they were not yet strong enough to be a threat to us. The dragons began preparing themselves for their long sleep, knowing that this was the only way they would survive the Enemy. They had done it before during the previous Scourge. They still had years to go before it would be necessary, though.
"Meanwhile, another female dragon was ready to mate. To everyone's surprise, Stefan's father was once again successful. Makara was an influential dragon—she too was on the Council—and successfully mating with her elevated Stefan's father's status in everyone's eyes. Still, though, they wondered—Kinsatar was not the largest or the strongest by far among those in contention, but yet he had prevailed."
Again Stefan moved uncomfortably in his spot. Ocelot heard him get up and cross the room, then sit back down as far away from them as possible.
Gabriel took a deep breath. "Forgive me, Stefan. I know this is difficult for you." A few moments passed. "What no one knew at the time—not even the other dragons—was that the Enemy had actually made greater and more subtle inroads into our world than anyone had suspected. They were looking for powerful beings whom they could corrupt by promising power and influence in exchange for their aid."
"Wait a minute..." Ocelot said under his breath.
"No." Gabriel spoke quietly but sharply. "Let me tell this, Ocelot, without interruption." Resuming his old tone, he continued, "The Enemy used Kinsatar's resentment and hatred as a gateway into his mind. They seduced him with promises of great power—the kind of power that would allow him to force himself into membership in the Council. If he would agree to do what they required, then in exchange they would give him the power he desired."
Gabriel moved again in the darkness. "Part of what they promised him was the strength to be successful in the mating flight with Makara. And part of what they asked in exchange was that he turn a portion of the resulting clutch over to them while making it look like they had met with mishap. It does happen sometimes—there are those who would steal or destroy dragon eggs when given the chance. Who would suspect that the children's own father would do such a thing?"
Ocelot's eyes widened. "He handed his own kids over to the Horrors?" he whispered.
"He tried to." The young dragon's voice shook a bit now with the memory. "However, before he was able to complete the exchange, he was discovered by my father. He immed-iately called in others, including Makara, and Kinsatar was seized and taken away. Close examination revealed that he had been marked by the Enemy—a much stronger mark, let me add, than the one Stefan currently possesses. Once this was revealed, there was no choice in what to do.
The shaking in his voice grew a bit more pronounced. "Of all the species on the Earth, we dragons hate the Enemy perhaps more than any others. We have no tolerance for them because we know the kinds of things of which they are capable. Some—including my father, Makara, and a few of the others—remembered the previous Scourge and how insidious and malevolent the Enemy can be. There is no question of tolerance where they are concerned."
Another sound of movement came from Stefan's corner, but it was impossible to identify exactly what it was.
"So—what happened?" Ocelot asked, keeping his voice low. He almost felt like he was talking in the presence of the dead.
"There was a trial," Gabriel said. "I was there as an observer, as was Stefan. The trial was merely a formality, though—everyone knew the outcome. Dragons are not merciful when it comes to the Enemy, nor to threats to their children. Kinsatar was sentenced to be executed. My father and some of the others carried out the sentence immediately." He trailed off, reluctant to go further.
Stefan, however, was not. "They ripped him limb from limb," he said in a dead voice.
"Right in front of you?" Ocelot demanded, shocked in spite of himself. He didn't question that it had to be done—he was corrupted by the Horrors, after all—but to do such a thing in front of his son?
"Right in front of all of us," Gabriel said. "After that, Stefan had a difficult time of it. The others constantly looked at him as if they expected him to show the same inclinations that his father had shown. He—"
"—I was the traitor's son," Stefan said bitterly. "While Gethelwain—the golden child in more than the obvious way—was the son of the great and respected Gilvirian, who had discovered the traitor in his treachery. I grew to hate him and everything he stood for, and the feeling merely grew over the years."
"Wait a minute," Ocelot said. "You were defending your father, even after what he did?" He felt his nascent sympathy for Stefan's situation begin to melt away.
"No," Stefan snapped. "I was ashamed of him and his actions. I did not even want to be associated with him. But Gethelwain and his father were always there, always a reminder of what had occurred. Even our mother was uncomfortable around me after that. I had gone from the son of an unregarded dragon to the son of a traitor, all because my cursed father was too weak to withstand the Enemy's seduction!" There was a pause, and then his voice came almost inaudibly: "And now, in my pride and my hatred, I have done the same thing."
Ocelot stared into the darkness, stunned. He didn't know what to say. After struggling for the right words and failing to find them, he finally said nothing.
"So now you know my secret," Stefan said with the tiniest hint of his old contempt. As before, though, he mostly sounded tired. "Gethelwain has agreed to help me make right what I have done because he has no more desire to see the Enemy brought into the world than I do. I will not repeat my father's mistakes." This last was spoken softly, but in the tone of an impassioned vow.
Ocelot continued to sit in silence, his mind racing as it turned over the things he had been told. Finally, quietly, he said, "Do you think we can do it?"
"We will do it," Stefan stated. "There is no alternative."
"But we don't even know what we're up against yet." He slammed his open hand into the wall. "And we're stuck in here for who knows how long."
"Patience, Ocelot," Gabriel said gently. "We will do what we can do. I believe that the Fates are on our side. We have only not to give up."
Ocelot sighed. "Yeah. But I was never any good at patience." Allowing his muscles to relax, he slumped back against the wall, suddenly tired. Right now, he wasn't feeling anything like the certainty being evidenced by his two fellow prisoners.
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.