The day had passed with agonizing slowness for the four runners locked in the room. The hours crawled by one after the other while the door to the room remained locked and still. Once they thought they heard someone going by, but whoever it was continued past without stopping even when they called out.
Eventually, upon exhausting their discussions, concerns, and speculations regarding the status and treatment of Gabriel, Stefan, and Ocelot and discovering that there was next to nothing to do in the room (they had even attempted to raid the other armoires, but found nothing except clothes and a few textbooks which none of them had any desire to read), the four of them settled down into various attitudes of repose. 'Wraith sat down cross-legged in the far corner and induced a meditative state that he used to calm and focus his energies; Winterhawk lay down on his bed and closed his eyes—whether he too was meditating or asleep was not clear, but either way he seemed to be unreachable; Joe, after a brief and unsuccessful attempt to contact Bear, also lay down on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. Kestrel, whose relaxation techniques had more in common with Ocelot's than they did with any of the others', took off her jacket and tie, rolled up her sleeves, and began performing various katas and martial-arts exercises. Eventually, upon finishing her workout and taking a shower, she too stretched out on her bed and soon fell asleep.
It was later that evening—they could tell because the light filtering in through the windows was growing dimmer—that they finally heard a key rattle in the lock. Coming immediately to readiness, the four of them waited.
The door swung open and Mrs. Brant stood framed in the doorway, her ample form blocking most of the hall behind her. "Have you children thought sufficiently about what you've done?"
"Where are our friends?" Kestrel demanded.
Mrs. Brant glared daggers at her. "I asked you a question, young woman. You will answer it, and not with another question of your own."
"We've had quite a lot of time to think, Mrs. Brant," Winterhawk said smoothly, stepping forward. "Would you mind, if you please, giving us an update on the status of our friends? Will they be returning here this evening?"
She turned her gaze on him, and it softened only slightly. "They will be returned to your room later this evening. Until then, you will come downstairs for dinner. The other children have already eaten and returned to their rooms. Now come along."
Normally the runners would have rebelled against such an order, but all of them were anxious to get out of the room, so they followed.
When the door to the lockup opened suddenly and light streamed in from a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling, all three occupants of the tiny room shied painfully away from the glare. "Come on," said a gruff voice. "Get up."
Even smarting from the light, Ocelot, Gabriel, and Stefan didn't have to be invited twice. They scrambled to their feet and hurried from the room without looking back. "Nice of you to come get us," Ocelot said sarcastically. "Did we miss dinner?"
"No dinner for you. Mrs. Brant's orders." One of the men motioned them forward. "We're to take you back to your room."
They hadn't had anything to eat since the morning's breakfast; Ocelot, for one, was getting hungry. "What kind of outfit is this?" he demanded. "No food all day?"
"Shoulda ate the rats." The other man chuckled nastily. "Now come on, unless you wanta go back in there again for the night, and miss breakfast too."
Gabriel touched Ocelot's arm and shook his head. Clear in his eyes was the message, Don't make trouble now. It will do us no good. Ocelot sighed in frustration and nodded. Together the three of them followed the two men.
When they reached the door to their room upstairs, the men stopped and turned back to them. Pointing at Stefan, one of them said, "You. Mr. Harner wants to see you first thing in the morning."
Stefan's eyes narrowed. "Why?"
Gabriel and Ocelot looked at each other. Was more punishment in store for the attack on Harner? And if so, why wasn't it being administered to them as well?
The man pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. "You're going with Mr. Harner to meet the Headmaster tomorrow. They've been on the phone about it for an hour or so. He's coming here especially to see you."
"I am not going anywhere," Stefan said.
Again the nasty chuckle. "Oh, yes you are. It's all right here on paper—with your signature and everything." He flashed a piece of paper, but too quickly for anyone to read it. "Severe cases of misbehavior get sent to the Headmaster." He nodded, pursing his lips thoughtfully. "This is the first time he's ever come out, though. Usually they go to him. You must be a special case." The last sentence was accompanied by an unpleasant smile.
"He says he's looking forward to seeing you," the other one said, rather ominously. "He says he's been expecting you for a long time." He flung open the door. "Now, inside."
Stefan faced them defiantly. "I said I wasn't going anywhere. Not now and not tomorrow."
Gabriel stepped forward. "If we're to see the Headmaster, we'll all do it together or not at all."
The other man shook his head, looking at Gabriel as one would look at a child presuming far too much about his level of power relative to the adults. "You'll get your turn someday, kid," he said. "The Headmaster said he'd much rather see you than your brother, but mouthin' off isn't enough of an offense for him to bother with." Silently three more men, their faces eerily similar to the first two, appeared from nearby doorways. "Get inside. Now."
There was really no question of fighting back. Gabriel suspected that if they tried, even more nondescript flunkies would appear to block their way. Sighing, he stepped into the room. After a moment Ocelot and Stefan, glaring back over their shoulders, followed.
The door slammed behind them.
Kestrel, Winterhawk, 'Wraith, and Joe met them at the door. "You're back!" Kestrel cried, unable to keep the happiness from her voice. Then she settled down and regained her dignity, looking them up and down. "You don't look any the worse for wear..."
"We survived," Ocelot said, nodding, with a little flippant smile. "Nothing we couldn't handle. Right, Gabriel?" He didn't feel quite that flippant, but he was damned if he was going to show it in front of Kestrel.
Gabriel shrugged with his own smile. "Nothing. A bit of darkness and boredom."
"Boredom," Winterhawk spoke up. "We certainly had our share of that today. It was ghastly. Nothing to do but sit 'round and contemplate our navels all day."
"Figuratively speaking," Kestrel hastened to add.
"So you've been in here all day?" Gabriel looked around the room, noting its general state of disarray.
"Got that right," Joe muttered. "They locked us in here right after they took you away. Hey—you guys eat?"
Ocelot shook his head. "Nope. They said we didn't get to eat until breakfast. This place is getting more like a damned Dickens novel every minute."
Joe sighed in frustration. "We shoulda smuggled something up—"
"Don't worry about it," Ocelot said. "We're big boys—uh—dragons—whatever. I think we can go a night without dinner and not suffer any lasting effects."
Gradually they all made their way over and sat down on the beds. "What was that I heard in the hallway about Stefan's going to visit the Headmaster tomorrow?" Winterhawk asked.
"I am not going," Stefan said, glaring at Winterhawk as if expecting him to disagree. When the mage said nothing, he subsided back into silence.
"I think we need to talk," Kestrel said. "You know—compare notes. We were talking about some things today, and wondering if you might have any insights. And it sounds like you might have some things to tell us too."
Gabriel drew his legs up to the edge of the bed and clasped his hands around them, looking very much like the ten-year-old boy he appeared to be. "What sort of insights?"
"Well, for one thing, we were trying to figure out why you," she said, glancing toward Stefan, "have suddenly started defending Gabriel."
Before Stefan (or Gabriel) could answer, Ocelot spoke. "'Cause they're the Horrors."
"What?" Kestrel looked quite astonished that he had answered, given that previously he had never said anything about Stefan that wasn't insulting.
"That's what he told me. Because the people who run this place represent the Horrors. It's that old 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' thing."
Stefan looked at him with some surprise, but nodded. "Essentially that is the case. I have agreed to provide whatever aid I can provide to prevent the Enemy from prevailing."
"Hey, he talks," Joe said, eyes widening. "What happened down there?"
Ocelot, Gabriel, and Stefan exchanged glances. Finally it was Gabriel who spoke. "Ocelot will tell you later. For now, the only important thing is that I think he has a better understanding of Stefan and his motivations. I think that will help us in our efforts."
The four remaining runners nodded. It was obvious that they—especially Winterhawk—wanted to question them further, but they refrained from doing so. "So what's this about the Headmaster?" Joe asked. "Stefan's supposed to go see him tomorrow but he's refusing to go?"
"From the sound of it, the Headmaster's comin' to him," Ocelot said. "But they didn't say what was going to happen after that. All he said was that Stefan had already signed somethin' that said he was going." He looked at Stefan. "Did you sign anything?"
"Of course not." Stefan snapped.
"Just a moment," Winterhawk said, staring off at nothing like he often did when he was thinking. "Let's see how this fits our metaphor, shall we? We've already decided that the Headmaster must represent whatever sort of nameless Horror is out there waiting to have the world as its hors-d'oeuvre—he's the equivalent of the thing on the train in our previous scenario. And Harner is its toady, who communicates with it so we never have to see it."
"Perhaps because we cannot see it," Gabriel said suddenly.
"What?" All six gazes fixed on him.
"Perhaps they cannot see it—because it is not here yet."
Stefan's stare grew harder. "Are you saying—that they are attempting to bring something over here?"
Gabriel sighed. "I don't know. They used Telanwyr's death to power some sort of ritual—Harlequin is fairly certain of that. What we don't know is the purpose of that ritual. Perhaps now they are attempting to power another one."
"Using Stefan as the bait?" There was fear in Winterhawk's voice.
Stefan nodded bleakly. "The promise."
Kestrel looked perplexed. "What promise?"
"The unspecified favor that Stefan has promised the Horrors in exchange for killing Telanwyr," Gabriel said in a monotone.
"The signature..." Winterhawk's gaze came up again.
Gabriel and Stefan nodded almost simultaneously. "So they come to claim their prize," Stefan said. The weariness in his voice now dwarfed anything that he had shown before.
"Well, then," Winterhawk said with a briskness he wasn't feeling, "we'll just have to make sure that they don't have the chance to take you."
"And how the hell are we gonna stop 'em?" Ocelot demanded. "You saw the way it works around here—every time we fight 'em, more of 'em show up."
Gabriel met each of their gazes in turn, his eyes quiet but intense. "We will do what we can do. We will fight them as long as we have the strength to do so. We are not without our resources. We have simply chosen not to use them yet."
Stefan shook his head, looking down at his hands in his lap. "He is right, brother. I will fight, but—I believe it is too late. I have foolishly given myself to them, and now they have come for me."
"I don't think so," Gabriel said. "I don't believe we have no chance. If that were true, then the Enemy would simply have come for Stefan, and none of these scenarios would have occurred. Remember what Harlequin said—the Fates are behind us in this. I doubt that they want to see our world ravaged by the Enemy any more than we do. I believe that they are attempting to give us the answers we need by manipulating these scenarios."
"So where does the part where they hate you come in?" Joe spoke up suddenly.
Gabriel turned, frowning. "I don't follow what you mean."
"You know—that all the people who run things around here hate you and Stefan. We were wondering if it was because of something about your family. Remember, they said that the Headmaster especially hates 'your kind'?" Joe sighed. "So they must hate your family or something. That was the only thing we came up with. Either that," he added, "or they have a thing against dragons."
Joe had meant that as an offhand, flippant comment. Thus, everyone in the room was shocked by Gabriel's reaction to it.
He stopped, going suddenly stiff as if he'd been hit by an electrical current. All the color drained from his face, and his eyes went wide. "What...did...you...say?" he asked, forcing the whispered words out between breaths.
Joe backed off a bit, sure Gabriel had gone insane. "I just said maybe they have a thing against dragons," he said carefully. "It was supposed to be a joke."
"No..." Gabriel was still whispering. Very slowly, he turned to face Stefan. Reaching out, still with a slowness that made him look like he was moving underwater, he gripped Stefan's shoulders. "Stefan...no...it cannot be...they would not be so foolish as to attempt it..."
Stefan met his brother's gaze. "Tell me, Gethelwain. What is it?"
Gabriel was physically shaking. None of the runners had ever seen him even look frightened, let alone gripped by stark terror as he seemed to be now. "Stefan...It all fits. All the pieces...The power needed...supplied by the sacrifice of a dragon...more than one dragon..." He paused, taking a deep breath and trying to compose himself. It didn't work. "The Enemy...that hates dragons...Stefan, it cannot be! They cannot do this!"
As the runners continued to watch the exchange with confusion, light dawned in Stefan's eyes. He drew in a deep breath, his own eyes widened, and his hands snaked out to grip Gabriel's upper arms. "No, Gethelwain—" he breathed. "There must be another answer—" But even as he spoke, the fear on his face betrayed him. Whatever Gabriel was proposing, he knew it was the truth.
"Excuse me a minute," Ocelot spoke up. "Would you two mind letting us in on what's going on? What the hell are you afraid of? You knew before that there was a big fuckin' Horror out there tryin' to eat us for lunch. So what's the big secret you guys are so worked up about now?"
For several moments neither Gabriel nor Stefan answered. Then, still moving at half-speed, Gabriel turned to face the runners. "The big secret," he said softly, "is that we are almost certain now that we know which of the Enemy that they are attempting to bring over." All his energy exhausted, he dropped down to a seated position on the bed, his hands clasped weakly in his lap. "I did not think that anyone would be foolhardy enough to attempt it, but the Enemy has grown bolder in their plans over the past few years." He lowered his gaze to his hands for a moment, and then looked back up to meet the runners' eyes. He spoke the next word in hushed tones, as if he expected to bring down the wrath of the unknown upon them with its mere utterance:
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.