The runners stared at the two dragons. "Verji...gorm?" Winterhawk said, confusion showing in his eyes.
"Not so loud!" Stefan said urgently, glancing around in fear.
Ocelot leaned forward. "Who the hell is this guy?" He kept his voice low too; the dragons' fear was starting to infect him already. Anything dragons were scared of...
Gabriel's violet eyes came up to settle on his face. The fear was still there, but he was trying to control it. "Did your parents ever tell you stories about the bogeyman when you were children?" he said, barely audibly. "Verjigorm is the bogeyman that dragon parents tell their children about."
The five runners exchanged horrified glances. "And..." Winterhawk began, "...they're going to bring this over?" Suddenly their chances of success had just gone from slim to negative in his mind.
"But how?" Joe demanded. "Something so powerful—I thought it wasn't possible to do that with the magic level this low."
"And how can you be sure?" Kestrel added. Gently, she added, "Could you be mistaken?"
Gabriel shook his head miserably. "No. I don't think so. All the signs are there. I was reasonably certain that they were attempting to bring something powerful across the Chasm—otherwise they would not need to sacrifice Great Dragons to do it. But if you are correct—and I believe that you are—that the Fates are attempting to influence these scenarios to give us insights into what the Enemy is planning, then this is the only logical answer. An extremely powerful Horror who hates dragons—it all fits. From the sound of things, it's already got an agent on our side of the Chasm, preparing the way."
"The elf," Stefan said, nodding. His complexion was as drained of color as Gabriel's was; he looked like someone had just whacked him over the head and he hadn't completely recovered from the shock yet. Figuratively, that was probably close to the truth.
Gabriel nodded too. "Probably. Even that one must be of a reasonably high power level—otherwise it would not have been able to deceive you long enough to secure your cooperation—and more importantly, it would not have been able to engineer Telanwyr's death."
"But you didn't answer my question," Joe reminded him. "If this thing's so powerful that dragons are scared of it, how are they going to get it over? I thought the Great Ghost Dance wasn't even strong enough to finish the job of completing the Bridge—and that's gotta be tougher than bringing one Horror over. Even a powerful one. Right?"
Gabriel shook his head. "It doesn't have to work that way. The Enemy can be summoned by those who know how to do it. I had thought that knowledge to be lost, except perhaps among the most powerful of the Great Dragons, who would never use it. But if one of the smaller Enemy—a minion, perhaps, with such knowledge given to it by Verjigorm itself—were able to make it across the Chasm..." he trailed off, lowering his head to his hands.
"So you're saying..." Winterhawk said slowly, "that it doesn't take a high level of magic to sustain them, but merely to provide the power to get them over here in the first place."
Gabriel nodded without raising his head. "Once they are here, the level is high enough to sustain even the most powerful of them. Especially if they remain in astral space." He sighed. "Stefan, I don't know what to do. I don't know how to stop this."
That admission frightened the runners more than the realization of what they were up against. None of them had ever heard of Verjigorm and no frame of reference for its power level, but they all knew how strong-willed Gabriel was. To see him in such despair—
Kestrel spoke gently again. "Is there any way we could—get someone else to help us? Now that we know what's going on, can we...I don't know...go back? This Harlequin guy, or—you mentioned other dragons before—"
"No..." Gabriel shook his head. "It is far too late for that now. It would take too long to return and seek the other dragons. I doubt that those of sufficient power to help us would even believe our story." His eyes came up to meet hers, and Kestrel was shaken by the look of utter loss in them. "Consider it, Juliana—what would happen if a human child were to stumble upon a plan to summon some ancient evil into the world? Even if the adults to whom the child took the story believed such an ancient evil existed, how likely would they be to believe the child was not deluded or worse? By the time we were able to convince anyone, it would be too late." His gaze dropped again. "We are children, Kestrel. Children who have discovered something we cannot hope to prevail against."
Ocelot looked at Gabriel and then over at Stefan, who was still staring off into nothingness. "So...you're just giving up?"
Gabriel sighed. "No. We cannot give up. I will fight this with all my power. But I don't think it will be enough."
"It won't if you have that attitude," Ocelot said roughly.
'Wraith nodded. "Must fight. Always a chance. Not here yet."
"Right," Winterhawk added, hoping he sounded more encouraging than he felt. "P'raps if it's not here yet, we can stop it before it gets here. Yes?"
Gabriel looked up at him. "It is our only chance," he whispered. "Once it is here—" He shook his head, lowering it back to his hands.
Joe looked like he was trying to decide whether or not to say something. Finally he took a deep breath and spoke: "Can you—tell us about this Verji-whoever? I like to know what I'm up against."
"No, you do not," Stefan said. He looked at Gabriel.
Gabriel nodded. "I will tell you what all young dragons are told—it is a story that is told to hatchlings, partially to teach and partially to ensure that such a thing is never allowed to occur again." Taking a deep breath, he began, speaking in quiet but stronger tones.
"Long ago, before the dawn of time, the world was barren and dark. It was the domain of the Dark One, an unspeakably evil creature with one thousand and seven eyes. The Dark One created many foul minions to crawl and swim and fly over the face of the world, but eventually it grew tired of these because they were mindless things. It decided one day to create a different kind of creature—something in its own image. Thus were born the horoi—the Dark One's children." Gabriel shivered; obviously even the story itself frightened him. Stefan was doing no better.
"The horoi were foul and evil things, and soon they began to create their own children, each one trying to outdo the others for the favor of the Dark One. They became jealous and began fighting among themselves, littering the world with their corpses. The Dark One created new horoi to replace the lost ones, and this went on for many years.
"Then one day the Dark One spawned a horoi that was different from all the others. This new horoi was not interested in the squabbles of its brothers, and fled them by flying high into the sky, beyond the dark clouds. Eventually it discovered a place that the Dark One had not yet corrupted, and lay down to sleep.
"Ages later it awakened to discover that it no longer possessed the foul form of its father the Dark One. Instead, its body was covered with beautiful white scales. Instead of the loathsome shapeless form, it had four legs, a long neck and tail, and wings. As it marveled at its new form, it realized that it was alone. There was no sign of any other creature in the sky, on the ground, or in the waters. And the horoi realized that it was lonely."
Gabriel paused a moment, but no one spoke. All five runners were leaning forward intently, and even Stefan was listening.
"As it came to this realization," he continued, "the earth began to blossom under its feet. Grass grew, creatures appeared, clean water flowed—all around it the world was renewing itself. And as the horoi saw what was occurring, it wept with joy. It shed nine tears, and where each tear fell, a creature appeared. The first of these creatures was in the horoi's own image—and it called the creature Dragon. The eight remaining tears became the other races that were then called the Name-Givers: Human, Elf, Dwarf, Ork, Troll, and three others that do not exist in this age. The new creatures went forth and covered the earth with more of themselves, and for awhile all was well.
"Eventually, however, the Dark One found out about the horoi's treachery, and it sent its minions in a foul army to destroy what its traitorous child had brought forth. The battle went on for seven days and seven nights, with the horoi's children fighting against the overwhelming army of the Dark One. At last only the horoi and its nine original children remained. At that point, the horoi reared up and in a great voice that echoed over the land, it shouted, 'I am Nightslayer, Mother of Beauty and Father of Good, Protector of All that is Light! I command you to leave this place! Be gone!'" Gabriel spoke these words in a shaking voice, with an inflection that suggested that they had been taught to him by rote, like an American child from the previous century would have been taught the Pledge of Allegiance. Ocelot noticed that Stefan was silently mouthing the words along with his brother.
"At that point," Gabriel continued, "the very land itself rose up against the Dark One and its foul children. Terrified, the minions fled despite the Dark One's enraged exhortations that they remain and fight.
"As its minions ran away, the Dark One turned to the horoi. 'You will pay for your insolence,' it promised. 'I, Verjigorm, will hunt your children for the rest of time. I will slay every last one of them, and my minions will feed on their pain and terror.'" Gabriel paused. Again he had sounded like he was reciting from a book. Taking a deep breath, he went on. "Verjigorm promised that of all the horoi's children, the Dragon would not be given the mercy of death. Instead it would be tormented throughout time, corrupted and twisted and made Verjigorm's own. Then it fled, pausing to throw a great fireball at the horoi. It gathered its nine children beneath its wings, but was unable to protect itself from the fireball. The nine emerged from beneath their father's wings, but the horoi was dead."(2)
Gabriel looked up as if coming from a trance. "Verjigorm did not appear in the Fourth World—the speculation of the scholars was that it feared a direct confrontation with the Great Dragons at that time. However, its minions—in the form of corrupted dragons and members of its cult—were well in evidence, even in the days following the Scourge." He paused, his gaze meeting the eyes of each of the others. "And now it appears that it is attempting once again to use dragons to further its ends."
"And it wants me," Stefan whispered. He looked down. "What have I done...?"
"Well, it doesn't have you yet," Kestrel said resolutely. "And if I have anything to say about it, it isn't going to get you. Isn't that right, guys?"
The others nodded. After a moment, even Ocelot did. "You ain't goin' anywhere," he said. "Not while there's fight left in us. This thing isn't gonna win. We'll figure out some way to stop it."
Stefan did not answer, but Gabriel looked up at them with haunted eyes. "How can I sit here, paralyzed by my fear, when the five of you are showing such courage?" He stood up, moving calmly and deliberately. "I will do what must be done. I will continue to lead you, if you will have me, and together we will do what we must do. Verjigorm will not have Stefan, and it will not have me." His voice grew stronger as he spoke, though there was still a faint shake in it.
Ocelot gripped his shoulder. "Yeah. I know all about fightin' even when you're scared out of your wits. I've been scared this whole time. But we ain't going anywhere. We're behind you, kid."
'Wraith nodded. "Yes."
"Me too," Kestrel said.
"And me," Joe added.
Winterhawk stood. "Sounds like you've got your team, my friend. So where do we go from here?"
Stefan's gaze came up. For a moment he looked up at his brother and the five who were arrayed around him. Slowly, as if the words were being drawn out with great pain, he spoke: "Gethelwain—I have been wrong about your companions. They have no idea what they are going up against—except that it is a being that even the greatest among our race fear—and yet they stand with you. It is rare in any age to have such friends. I can see why you value them as you do." Then, having said too much, he lowered his eyes again.
Gabriel watched his brother's bowed head for a time, and, apparently feeling that the most compassionate thing he could do at the moment was to say nothing, turned back to the five runners. "We must prevent them from taking Stefan. If they return for him, we must fight."
Ocelot was still recovering from Stefan's astonishing pronouncement; apparently this was the day for surprises, both good and bad. But still, he perked up when he heard the word fight. "Yeah," he said, slapping closed fist into open palm, "we'll fight. There's plenty of stuff in here we can use if we need to. And even though we're in these kid bodies, we haven't forgotten what we know. We'll take 'em."
The other runners, glad to finally have something concrete to do, set about searching their room for anything that might be used as a weapon. Gabriel and Stefan did not participate in the search; the former remained seated on the edge of the bed, deep in thought, while the latter continued to look more than a bit shell-shocked by the situation.
Less than an hour later, the runners had amassed quite a collection of makeshift weapons. From the ties and belts in the armoire they had fashioned garottes, while pillowcases stuffed with heavy textbooks and tied off made effective clubbing weapons. Joe had gathered a small pile of wooden hangers to use as throwing implements, while Ocelot had pulled the mattress off one of the far beds and jumped up and down on the slats until they had broken, then made himself some hand weapons out of the debris. They decided against trying to break the windows for the glass (too easy for someone to spot them or hear them), but instead broke the mirror in the bathroom and used the long pointed shards wrapped in bedsheets at one end as decent substitutes for daggers.
"I don't think there's much else we can do," Ocelot said as he carefully put the bed he had broken back together in case Mrs. Brant decided to favor them with a surprise inspection. "There ain't much in here we can use as weapons."
"Probably on purpose," Gabriel said, finally taking an interest in what they were doing. He surveyed the array of weapons laid out on the floor beyond the farthest bed and nodded approvingly. "I doubt that this is intended to be easy."
"I wish we'd known about this earlier," Joe said. "We could have smuggled up some of the silverware from the dining hall when we had dinner."
"Too late for that now," Winterhawk said. "We'll just have to make do. When they show up for Stefan tomorrow morning, they'll be in for quite a surprise." He looked maliciously pleased at the thought of what would befall their captors.
"So what now?" Kestrel asked, looking around. "Do we just go to sleep and get up early tomorrow."
"Need a watch," 'Wraith said. "Make sure no one enters during the night."
Ocelot nodded. "Yeah. I wouldn't put it past 'em to sneak in." He sighed. "Okay. That's it. We have a plan now. Let's just hope it works."
Kestrel nodded. "Amen to that."
Mrs. Brant had not come in to inform them of lights-out by the time they settled down in their beds and prepared for sleep. They chose the watches by lot, with only Stefan left out of the choosing: 'Wraith would take the first, followed by Ocelot, Winterhawk, and finally Gabriel. Stefan did not comment on the fact that he was not included in the watches, nor on the competency of his guardians.
'Wraith took up his position in near the door while the others lay down. "Doubt I'll be doing much sleeping," Winterhawk said, taking a last look around the room. They had moved some of their collection of jury-rigged weapons alongside each bed in the event of an attack during the night.
"Nor I," Gabriel agreed soberly. He had not yet lost the haunted look in his eyes.
Kestrel looked at him worriedly, but said nothing. She knew there was nothing she could say now that would be of any help. The best thing she could do—that any of them could do—was to make sure that they were prepared for the confrontation that would occur in the morning.
Ocelot struggled fitfully to wakefulness. His mind refused to quiet; something was nagging at the back of it, and hard as he tried to put it aside, it would not go away. Something was wrong. Something that was pawing at him, telling him that he should wake up now—
A warm wind blew across his face. He rolled over, suddenly uncomfortable. The mattresses were hard, but they had never seemed quite this hard before. Must be sore from sitting in that lockup room all day, his subconscious suggested. But where's that wind coming from? Is a window open? There's something I need to do—
He opened his eyes.
Then he gasped in shock.
He was lying on a flat, arid plain. The earth under his back was a deep reddish color, and the sky only somewhat less red. The warm wind blew little whorls of dirt over the landscape.
Around him lay his friends, curled up in various uneasy-looking positions—asleep or unconscious. There was 'Hawk, and 'Wraith—Kestrel was a few feet away next to Gabriel, and there was Joe—
Stefan was nowhere to be seen.
2 This story is paraphrased from FASA's Horrors sourcebook for Earthdawn, written by Robin D. Laws, et al., and used without permission.
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.