The explosion ripped through the unarmored Mercedes as the radio detonator set off the ten kilos of C12 that had been hidden in both the roof and the undercarriage of the car.
Bialosky died instantly. Cut off in mid-hum, the dwarf didn't even have time to scream before he was vaporized.
Telanwyr's cry of agony when the explosion tore into him transformed into a deafening bellow at the same time his human form transformed into his true one, erupting up through the ruined roof of the car. Gravely injured, bleeding and disoriented, he nonetheless managed to propel himself upward on powerful wings, his only thoughts of escape and of betrayal. Gethelwain, why have you done this? his mind cried out through the pain.
Kresge was the closest to the blast, so he got the best view of the enormous blue-green form coming up out of the remains of the Mercedes. "Holy shit! Look at the size of that thing!" he breathed into the commlink.
"Can the chatter, Two," Cutter's voice snapped immediately. "Get ready with that designator!"
Already the twin Sentry-mounted Vindicators on either side of the road were doing their jobs, firing full-auto APDS rounds upward into the dragon, ripping great red stitches in his flanks before he got out of their arc of fire. Cutter quickly swung his vehicle-mounted ATGM (the Great Dragon—how appropriate, he thought randomly) around and waited for Kresge to get the target designator locked in. Down the road he could already hear Marko letting loose with his Panther cannon; the explosion hit the dragon on the far side, away from Cutter, so he couldn't see if it was effective.
"I'm in the air, Boss," came Slyde's confident voice. "I'll be on him in a sec."
"The drones are up," PK added. "Ordering them into position now."
"Okay—get ready to switch to ultrasound. Big boss said he might go invisible."
Affirmatives came back quickly from the five mercs.
On the astral plane, still well hidden, the thing watched in satisfaction as the plan played itself out. The pawns were performing as expected, and had done very well. The most important part of this had been done right—the explosion had gone off within the designated perimeter. As the dragon's blood rained down into the confines of the thing's ritual circle, it felt the power coursing through it. Speaking the words of a foul and ancient spell, it set about dismantling the dragon's magical defenses so as to leave him open to the pawns' continuing assaults.
Telanwyr was in trouble and he knew it. The pain from his wounds was incredible; it was making it hard for him to think, to plan a means of escape. Already their weapons were tearing into him, injuring him from all sides. Whipping around madly in midair, wings beating, he tried to get a bead on his assailants. He wasn't going to run away yet—he might be hurt, but he was still functional and well capable of dealing with the threat. The damage the explosion had done to his less-protected human form had been considerable, but now that he was in his true form with all his defenses up, it would be unlikely that they could hurt him this badly again.
In his mind, they had made a grave tactical error by not killing him with their first shot. Focusing his mind, he concentrated on calling in some backup of his own.
"Got him!" Kresge said into the radio. "On target! Nail 'im, Cutter!"
In the back of the MPUV, Cutter saw that Kresge had gotten the target designator locked on the huge but fast-moving form overhead. Taking careful aim with the Great Dragon, he squeezed the trigger and launched the armor-piercing warhead. Just as it was designed to do, the missile tracked the signal put out by the microwave designator, penetrating the dragon's armored hide behind his front legs and exploding there, tearing a meter-wide gash. The dragon bellowed again in rage and agony. Cutter hurried to load another warhead.
Well concealed in her Jeep nearly half a kilometer away, PK directed her four drones into their positions, giving them their instructions as they went. The dog-brains inside each drone were capable of following limited instructions and taking limited initiative; PK took full advantage of this while still keeping individual corners of her mind available to orchestrate each drone's activities should it become necessary.
The Wandjinas' instructions were very simple: fly an erratic pattern around the dragon, staying near the rear and away from the head, and fire their weapons (two machine guns and one Vanquisher minigun each). The actual firing part was where PK wanted to control things herself, of course. You didn't leave things like aim up to drones when it was this important.
The Sundowners' jobs were more important and more tricky, so PK spent more of her time personally making sure that they got where they needed to be. They were small (at least compared to the dragon—damn, that thing was big!) and would likely therefore be overlooked, but getting them into position was going to be a dangerous business. If that thing spotted them and knocked them out of the air, the feedback could be enough to seriously impair PK's ability to function and control the other drones. Better to wait until the time was just right than to be impatient. The other guys were doing a good job already—she'd get her chance.
Slyde, meanwhile, was coming up over the ridge in his Yellowjacket, already bringing the twin missiles mounted on the 'copter to bear on the dragon. He flew the Yellowjacket in a fast and erratic manner, preventing the dragon from getting a fix on him. Not that it was trying at the moment, but he wasn't taking risks. He knew that his part was one of the most important in this operation, a fact which was a source of considerable pride to him. That dragon was going down, and he was going to be the one to take it down. "Take that, motherfucker!" he yelled, loosing the two missiles with a flick of his mind.
Unlike the warhead Cutter had fired from the Great Dragon ATGM, these missiles were not "smart," but that only meant that Slyde would have to make sure to get his aim right. Nothing to worry about—the thing was bigger than a fraggin' house! Sure it was fast, but so was Slyde. He grinned a manic grin as the two missiles hit the dragon, one in the side and one in the back of the neck, and exploded. "Whoooeeee!" he shrieked into the radio.
"Quiet out there!" Cutter ordered, but Slyde could hear the excitement in his voice as the dragon screamed again.
What was happening?
How were they hurting him so easily with their weapons? His magical barriers and his natural armor should have been sufficient to ward off all but the most powerful of them, but yet still they were getting through! The pain was getting nearly unbearable—how many more missiles did they have? Even one such as he couldn't stand up to this kind of punishment indefinitely.
Telanwyr fought to put some more distance between himself and the attackers, but that wasn't easy to do when he didn't know where they were or how many of them were lurking in the forest below. He could see the heat-traces of several of them and their weapons—he would deal with them first. But they were continuing to hit him; if he went in any closer he would give them a better shot at him. If he tried to get away without identifying where all of them were hidden, they would continue to fire on him and could injure him even more severely. He didn't like the choices he had, but he knew that his best chance of getting through this would be to put distance between himself and the attackers and try to hit them from afar. If luck was with him, his elementals would take care of some of the threat.
From his vantage point in the tree where he was perceiving the astral plane, Trent spotted the elementals before any of the others did. "Boss!" he called in the radio. "Elementals! Earth heading your way, and fire coming in at ten o'clock toward my position! Big ones!"
"Got the earth-guy," Cutter's voice came back after a couple of seconds. "Look sharp, everybody—there might be more of 'em. Trent—can you take 'em?"
"Not both. I'll get fire, then go from there."
"Roger that, Six."
Trent was already conjuring, hoping that his biggest forest spirit would be sufficient to keep the huge fire elemental busy and off his teammates' backs. His eyes widened as the elemental came through the trees—that was the biggest one he'd ever seen! Over four meters tall and shaped vaguely like a semi-upright flaming lizard, it shambled toward him, moving quickly. It was a good thing that the underbrush and trees were fairly damp from the prodigious rains they'd been getting lately, or they would have to deal with a forest fire in addition to the dragon.
Marko heard the information about the elementals over his radio, and realized that he would probably have to deal with one of them. He wasn't pleased about it—he would much prefer to continue to fire big bang-bangs into the side of the dragon—but as the biggest and strongest of the team, he'd have to take out big strong ground threats to keep them off the others. Aiming his Panther, he blew off one more shot at the darting dragon and grinned as it hit, then stomped off through the forest toward the elemental's last reported position.
Near the initial explosion site, Kresge continued to move around in the back of the truck, attempting to stay under cover while keeping the microwave designator locked in on the dragon's speeding form. His was one of the most vulnerable of the six positions: he had to be somewhat out in the open to allow the designator to do its job, but he didn't have the mobility of, for example, Slyde in his Yellowjacket. Like PK, he was stuck in his position and had to rely on the hope that the dragon would be too busy dealing with other threats to notice him. That might not be such a wild hope, he realized as he focused in again: the dragon's hide was ripped and bloody, and his grace seemed to be deserting him. Kresge recognized the behavior of a creature fighting for its life. The dragon was going to be, if anything, more dangerous now.
The thing grinned as it watched the show. He still hasn't figured out that I've reduced his magical barriers! it thought, pleased. Subtlety was its specialty, but even it hadn't dared hope that things would work out quite this well.
Obviously the Master had blessed the plan. Perhaps it was even observing its servant now!
The Master was going to be very proud.
In the sky, Telanwyr continued to thrash around, looking for a means of escape or a target. At this point either of the two would have been equally desirable. Suddenly the air was full of little darting machines, but he couldn't get a shot at any of them. They were moving too fast—some of them faster than he did, others being careful to remain out of his line of sight. More explosives had ripped holes in his hide; he was starting to notice the beginnings of the effects of blood loss now. Where were they? How many of them were there? What—
His shifting gaze fell upon the glowing form of one of the attackers down below. The figure appeared to be standing in the back of a vehicle, pointing some kind of weapon at him.
With a quickness that seemed incongruous with his enormous size, Telanwyr swung himself around, reared backward in the sky, and projected a great gout of flame downward, aimed straight at the figure in the vehicle.
Cutter saw instantly what he was doing. "Kresge! Get out of there!" he yelled over the radio. "It's—"
Kresge didn't even have time to move before the flames engulfed him and burned him, the Jeep, the designator, and several meters of surrounding forest to blackened cinders. His dying scream was abruptly cut off.
Cutter didn't give himself time to mourn his fallen comrade. Sweating, he brought the Great Dragon around and squeezed off one final shot as Kresge died, hoping that the designator had still been functional long enough to guide the warhead in to its target. Rewarded with the sight of the missile tearing into the dragon's shoulder and blowing another massive bloody crater, he did not cheer. That one had come at a high price. "Kresge's down," he said dispassionately, bending to grab his heavy machine gun. "Keep your eyes open out there."
Slyde hung back in the Yellowjacket and began powering up the Firelance. Bastard likes fire? he thought, his grin almost orgasmic in its delight. I'll show him some fire, right down his fuckin' throat!
"Okay," PK said. "I'm sendin' the Sundowners in now. Get yer masks on and get ready. Don't know quite what this is gonna do to 'im." With a small corner of her mind she directed the two Wandjinas to continue what they were doing, allowing them to fire their three weapons under their own power. The machine guns and Vanquishers were doing some small amount of damage, and more importantly they were keeping the dragon from orienting himself on any one place. Even if they didn't hit as well as they had been, they would still provide an annoyance. She considered Kresge's death to be partially her fault, because part of her job was to keep the dragon disoriented. Couldn't worry about that now, though—her most important duty was coming up now. Carefully, shifting her vision to see through the drones' "eyes," she guided the two sprayer drones in close to the dragon's head.
She hadn't had a chance to use these yet—they had been one of the new acquisitions provided by their employer—but she'd made sure to look them over before putting them into service. The modifications were nice: Sundowners were normally employed as farm drones, to spray pesticides and nutrients over a large area, but these had been doctored to allow them to spray a much higher concentration of material over a smaller area. Instead of the normal 25 x 25 x 10 meter cloud of the stock Sundowner, these were set for 10 x 10 x 10. Additionally, their 50-liter spray tanks had been reduced to only 20 liters to allow for some engine modifications for increased speed and maneuverability. She would only get one or two shots each out of the things, but she didn't think there would be time for more anyway. She was looking forward to keeping these babies when this job was over.
Trent couldn't spare any attention for what was going on in the sky—he was too busy dealing with the fast-approaching fire elemental that was bearing down on him. He gasped as it drew closer: it was bigger than he thought! His forest spirit tried gamely to get in its way and intercept it before it could reach Trent, but the spirit was too small. Further, its wooden body was highly vulnerable to the searing flames coming off the elemental's form. As Trent feverishly tried to summon another spirit—earth, maybe, or rock—while at the same time scrambling to get out of the tree and put some distance between himself and the elemental, the massive fire creature shoved past the forest spirit and leaped into the tree, surrounding the shaman instantly and cutting through his magical protective barrier as if it wasn't there. Like Kresge, Trent screamed; the scream petered out into a gurgling cry and stopped.
"Trent?" Cutter barked. "Trent! Report!"
There was no report—only silence.
"Shit!" Enraged at losing yet another soldier under his command, he pointed the machine gun at the dragon and let fly on full auto. The satisfaction as he hit was not enough to counter the sinking feeling that this was all going to be for nothing.
Marko waded in to meet the earth elemental, slinging his Panther across his back as he went and substituting his favorite hand weapon—a two-meter-long Dikoted claymore. He grinned, tusks gleaming. Sure the thing was big, but so was he, and he had taken down elementals before. This thing was going to regret the day that it decided to come after him, that was for sure.
The Sundowners flitted into position. PK focused her mind, moving the two drones into place, one on each side of the dragon's head. She wouldn't have much time—right now it seemed to be looking down into the forest for more targets, but it would notice the drones any second now.
Easy...easy...lower the left one just a bit...right in front of its nose and mouth...orientation just right...
With a mental command that carried through her vehicle control rig and into the minds of the two drones, she ordered them to fire.
The two drones had not been loaded with the same substance: on the suggestion of their employer, who admitted that even he wasn't entirely certain what would be effective, she had painstakingly filled one drone with a nasty cocktail consisting of DMSO and a drug known on the streets as "Hyper"—a direct neural stimulator that would serve to amplify any sensations, including pain, experienced by the victim in addition to causing severe disorientation. She'd had to be very careful with the stuff, because the concentrations she knew she'd need to be effective against something as big as a dragon would have been enough to incapacitate her—maybe even kill her—in an instant.
The second drone, however, was loaded with something even more deadly—something that had given her even more nervous moments while she had been filling the tank with it. Although she was using remote means to do so, safely ensconced some distance away while other drones performed the dirty work, she knew that any mishaps could be fatal. Cyanide was like that, especially because, again, she had used higher than normal concentrations to ensure that the dragon would be affected. There was enough of the stuff in the drone's reservoir to take out a small town if it was delivered right. Of all the mercs, she was probably the most grateful that their employer had chosen this spot for them to do the deed, as she was afraid of what might happen to any other people who were unlucky enough to be in the area. She had no particular desire to kill innocents. At least not without getting paid for it.
Instantly at PK's order the Sundowners shifted into action, spraying their payloads at near point-blank range into the dragon's face. "Yeah!" she shouted, pumping her fist, as the dragon screamed in agony.
NO! Pain...Agony...Must...Make it stop!
Telanwyr screamed again as the concentrated mists engulfed his head, working their way into his mouth, his nostrils, his eyes. The pain was excruciating. Fighting disorientation, he struggled to stay in the air as suddenly he wasn't certain which way was up. He could feel himself bleeding from multiple places now, the pain from each of his wounds seeming to magnify as the mists were sucked deeper into his lungs. His legs, wings, and tail thrashed madly as he tried to right himself—rational thought was being carried away by the agony and the confusion and the continued assaults.
He was afraid now. He could not remember any time during his multi-thousand-year lifespan when he was so in fear for his very existence. Must...concentrate. Must...get... away...Fly...away...Escape...
He felt it in a vague peripheral sort of way when one of his flailing legs crashed into something, and out of the corner of one of his stinging eyes he could see one of the tiny machines careening downward, where it crashed and burned. Focusing on that for orientation, he caught sight of another heat-source. Enraged, he drew his mind together enough to fling a spell at the heat-source before the madness and the pain took him again.
Gethelwain! How could you do this...Have I so misjudged you all these years?
In the Jeep, PK fought to maintain control of the other three drones as the dragon knocked one of the Sundowners out of the sky with his writhing leg. The feedback came immediately back through her connection, overloading her brain for a moment before she was able to concentrate again. She ignored the resulting headache; it wasn't that bad, and she'd certainly had worse. As long as she could keep the other drones out of the dragon's way, she might even get another pass with the remaining Sundowner. At least he'd taken out the one with the Hyper; she wasn't sure what might have happened if the cyanide drone had gone down and spread its deadly cargo over the forest.
She did not even know the spell was coming. One moment she was sitting in the Jeep preparing to send the drones in for another run, and the next moment her body was ripped limb from limb by an unseen arcane force that sent her individual parts spinning like gore-strewn missiles off in multiple directions. The Jeep, perversely, was untouched. Except for the bloody clumps that remained on its front seat and the shredded vestiges of the rigger control cable snaking down toward the floor, there was no evidence that anyone had ever been there.
Overhead, the drones flitted around, following their last instructions.
"Lost PK," Slyde said on the radio, grudgingly devoting a small amount of his attention to the alert that had popped up in the corner of his vision announcing that the connection to the ork had been severed. He was beyond caring about his fellow teammates now; all he was interested in was getting the laser locked on target so he could get the final shot on the dying dragon.
Cutter steeled himself at the latest announcement, refusing to allow the growing feeling that the operation was in jeopardy to affect his performance. That was three gone now: Trent, PK, and Kresge. Only himself, Slyde, and Marko were left, and Marko had the earth elemental to deal with. If this dragon was going down, he and Slyde were going to have to do it. At least the dragon hadn't gone invisible as they'd feared. He wondered if that had been more of their boss' doing, but didn't have time to dwell on it. Three of his people were dead and he had a job to do. Raising the machine gun again, he fired off another full-auto barrage at the twisting form.
Marko held his claymore ready and awaited the elemental's approach. "Come on, dirtball," he taunted through clenched teeth. "C'mere and see what I got for ya."
Big as the troll and even wider, the blocky creature shambled through the underbrush, pushing small trees aside to make room. Marko took a step back as he got a taste of the sheer size of the creature; like Trent, he had never fought one this big before. He didn't know much about magic (he looked on mages about the same way he looked on non-trolls) but he did know that if you weren't a spellslinger, you had to hit spirits hard to take them down. He raised the sword. "Come on...that's it. Just keep comin', you bastard."
The elemental, obligingly, waded in.
Half-blinded and more dead than alive now, Telanwyr continued to thrash madly in the air, unable to think clearly enough to form a plan of escape. The buzzing machines seemed to be everywhere, their guns firing more pain into his already wracked body. His mind was full of hurt and terror and bizarre images and floating mist; already he could feel the darkness beginning to descend on him. Was this how it was going to end? After countless thousands of years, after all he had seen and done and been, was he to be destroyed by a group of small ones with their tiny weapons?
He hardly thought that could be possible. They could not kill him so easily, not if they were working alone. There had to be something else.
Was Gethelwain involved? Was he here, hidden somehow and aiding in the destruction of his old friend and mentor? Even in his befogged state, Telanwyr had a difficult time believing that. The youngster loved him like a second father—what could he possibly have done to cause Gethelwain to turn on him now?
His eye caught another machine—a larger one this time—coming in from his right side...or was it his left? In his confusion he could barely tell up from down now. Struggling to orient himself, he wheeled his torn and battered body around to face the new machine.
Below, Cutter lined up another shot with the heavy machine gun. The dragon was moving fast and more erratically than before in his pain-shrouded madness; Cutter had to be careful not to hit Slyde, coming in with the helicopter. "Slyde! Not too close!"
"I got him, Bossman," the rigger's voice came back.
"Back off a little!" Cutter ordered. "I don't want to hit you!"
"Negative on that, Boss," Slyde said. "I got me a shot lined up and I'm gonna take it!"
"Slyde—damn you, don't—" Cutter's voice abruptly turned into a cry of terror as the fire elemental, forgotten after it had engulfed Trent, leaped into the back of the truck. The last things Cutter experienced before he died were the sound of his machine gun ammunition cooking off and the smell of his own flesh roasting.
The earth elemental neatly ducked Marko's first claymore swing, getting inside his reach with a grace not normally expected from something so large and ponderous. Too late, Marko remembered the other thing he had forgotten about spirits—unlike trolls, the bigger they were, the smarter they were.
As the troll flailed ineffectually and tried to bring his sword around again, the earth elemental flowed around him, filling his mouth, nose, eyes, and ears with hard-packed earth. Mercifully, he was unconscious before the elemental ripped his head from his body.
Up in the Yellowjacket Slyde heard the dying cries of his remaining two teammates, but he felt no sympathy. He had never felt any particular bond or friendship with any of his teammates—they were simply people with whom he worked. As long as they did their jobs, he did his. But he could always get new teammates. Right now, the business at hand was to finish off this dragon. Maybe the big boss'll be so happy he'll give me everybody's share, he thought greedily. But first I gotta do this.
Relying on his vehicle-control-rig-enhanced speed (he had the fastest one on the market, a fact of which he was very proud) he backed the helo off a bit and watched as the careening dragon spun around in midair and tried to get a bead on him. A calm settled over him; a slow smile spread across his thin face as he mentally pushed the button that activated the Firelance. "Rock and roll, mo-fo," he whispered as the dragon reared back to project flame again.
The powerful laser beam cut through the night sky, contacting the dragon's head. There was no recoil, no impression that there had been a hit, but as Slyde watched, the beam cut through the scaled hide and stopped the dragon in mid-breath.
Telanwyr shrieked as the laser split his head, his entire form stiffening for a moment, stopped there in the sky like a great unmoving statue. During the few seconds it took the great body to realize it was dead, the dragon's bellow of death-agony echoed far and wide over the forest and across the astral plane.
Then his body began to plummet earthward.
"YES! YES! YES!" Slyde screamed into the radio, oblivious to the fact that no one was around anymore to hear him.
Almost no one.
The thing on the astral plane couldn't spare any concentration on celebration now. As the dragon died, it wove the final part of the ritual it had begun hours ago.
Slyde backed the helicopter off a bit, hanging back so he could watch the dragon—his kill!—hit the ground. After that, he planned on landing the Yellowjacket and seeking out the elf. He wanted his payment now, and he wanted to get his ass the hell out of here, as far as he could. Maybe he could even get a piece of the beast to carry as a trophy. A claw, maybe, or a tooth.
Things didn't quite go as he planned, though.
As he watched out the front window of the Yellowjacket, the huge body continued to fall. Any second now it would hit; it would probably cause a small earthquake in the immediate area, he figured.
But the body did not hit.
When it had reached a spot only about ten meters above the forest, the dragon's form was suddenly wreathed in some kind of bizarre, roiling red energy field. Slyde stared wide-eyed as the field surrounded the dragon, slowing and then stopping his fall. "Wha' the fuck—?" he muttered, leaning forward to get a better look.
And then there were things in the energy. Moving things. Writhing things. Oozing things. Things that slithered around inside the redness, moving toward the dragon with their twisted and misshapen arms outstretched and their mouths open.
Slyde blinked, certain he was seeing things, but when he opened his eyes again, they were still there. Even someone like him, with more than a passing acquaintance with the dark side of life, could tell pure, unadulterated evil when he saw it. His stomach churned, his guts filling with icewater, but he couldn't stop staring. It was as if something compelled him to watch whatever the final act of this grim little tableau was going to end up showing him.
The red energy field lit up the night sky, bathing the entire forest in a noisome glow that gave it a decidedly hellish aspect. As Slyde continued to gape, the writhing things moved in, surrounding the dead dragon, whose form was visible in silhouette inside the field. What were they—?
No—no, it couldn't be—
They can't be—
Slyde's protesting stomach finally gave up its hold on his last meal, but even being violently ill all over the Yellowjacket's control panel didn't stop him from continuing to stare. His mind would not let him believe what he was seeing.
The things were consuming the dragon's body.
It didn't take long; the entire process was over in somewhat less than a minute. It was like a repulsive parody of a school of piranha devouring some unfortunate creature that had fallen into their pool, except that in this case, when the things finished there was nothing left. The dragon's body had completely and utterly disappeared. At the end, when the final bits were being consumed, the color of the energy field changed briefly from red to a kind of sickish purple hue, and then to an equally unhealthy gray-pink. Then the light flared brightly and was gone along with the dragon.
Also, apparently, along with the hold the view had had on Slyde. "Oh shit oh shit oh shit..." he mumbled incoherently, blinking his eyes again and again. With no further thought of money or his employer or dragons or his former teammates, he spun the Yellowjacket around and sent it streaking away into the night at as high a rate of speed as it could muster.
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.