For a moment Ocelot was seized by total panic. His gaze darted around but saw little: plains, jagged mountains, reddish sky. No sign of the dormitory room. Scrambling to his feet so fast he almost overbalanced and fell over, he dropped down on his knees next to Gabriel and grabbed the young man's shoulders, lifting his upper body up from the ground and shaking him. So intent was he that he didn't even notice that Gabriel was back to his normal human form, and that his own hands and forearms were the tanned, muscular ones of his adult self. "Gabriel! Wake up! Now! Come on!"
Gabriel's eyes flew open. For a moment his expression hardened until he realized who was calling him. "Ocelot?"
"Wake up!" Ocelot cried out more loudly, trying to take in everyone at once. "He's gone! We're not there anymore, and he's gone!"
All around him his companions were awakening and leaping to their feet as they realized they were not where they had been when they had begun their night's sleep. All of them, including Ocelot and Gabriel, were dressed in the same clothes that they had been wearing what seemed like eons ago at the ritual circle that had sent them here, with the exception of their armored coats. "What the hell—?" Winterhawk began.
"Where's Stefan?" 'Wraith scanned the horizon, but they were the only living beings to be seen.
Kestrel ran a hand through her hair and blew air loudly through clenched teeth. "Oh, man..."
Gabriel extricated himself from Ocelot's grasp and stood, joining his own grim search to the others', with similar results. "They have taken him." His voice held defeat.
"But how?" Joe demanded. "We had a watch—who was supposed to be on watch?"
"I don't think it would have mattered," Gabriel said quietly. "They have deceived us as to their plans. The Fates were able to warn us that the Enemy was coming for Stefan, but they were not able to tell us the way in which they would do it."
"So—is it too late?" Winterhawk spoke hesitantly as he took another look around. "Where the hell are we?"
Gabriel shook his head and sighed. "I don't know. I have no idea where they might have taken him. The sort of sacrifice that they must be planning takes a great deal of time to prepare, though—they can do some of it without his actual presence, but they will require him to be there for most of it. That means that, assuming we were not asleep for long, they cannot be more than halfway into it. If we can find him and disrupt the ritual before then—"
"But how are we supposed to find him?" Joe interrupted. "He could be anywhere."
"If we are meant to find him, it will not be difficult," Gabriel said, sounding a bit distracted. "And we must do so quickly. Perhaps the Fates—or whatever other entities have a stake in our success—have managed to transport us to where they have taken him." Closing his eyes, he lifted up off the ground and floated several meters above their heads.
All the runners were startled. They were so used to being without their cyberware and magical abilities that it had not occurred to them that things might have changed. As Gabriel made a new examination of the area from his new higher vantage point, the runners took stock of their situation. Wherever they were, this place didn't seem to have a problem with cyberware or magic. Even obvious cyber like Ocelot's cyberspur, Kestrel's hand razors, and 'Wraith's pinprick white eyes appeared to be present and accounted for. To test his magic, Winterhawk levitated upward to join Gabriel in his search.
By the time he got up there, though, Gabriel was already coming back down. "I think I've found something," he told the group. Pointing, he indicated a direction heading toward the jagged mountain range. "There are a large number of beings in that direction." Closing his eyes for a moment, he cast another spell and paused to study the results. When he opened his eyes again, he looked fearful and resolute. "They are there. And the ritual has already begun, as I had feared. Come—we must hurry."
"Wait a minute—are we just gonna walk in there?" Ocelot demanded. "They'll have us for lunch. How many of 'em are there, anyway?"
"I don't know—I didn't count them." Gabriel sounded distracted. "I can cloak us in a concealing illusion, but I do not know how effective it will be. It might be sufficient to get us close enough that we can disrupt the ritual. If we can manage to do that, then at the very least they will be forced to begin anew. That will buy us some time. But we must go."
Ocelot—most of the runners, in fact—were not anxious to go into such a situation without weapons, but it seemed to be the only thing they could do. At least I've got my spur, he thought as he hurried along with the others after Gabriel had cast his spell, and Kestrel's got her razors. It's better than nothing. Joe was bending down as they went, picking up large rocks from the barren landscape and shoving them in the pockets of his coat. Winterhawk and 'Wraith rounded out the grim-faced parade heading over the rise.
The walk seemed to take forever. The air was arid and biting, the slight but constant wind blowing dust from shifting directions into their squinting eyes. The sun, if that was what it was, was a nauseating shade of sickly pink, hanging there in the reddened, cloud-choked sky like some kind of foul fruit ready to drop. Gabriel pressed on, appearing to be oblivious to the hellish landscape surrounding him. If he was afraid now, he wasn't showing it. He strode along purposefully, his eyes fixed on the way ahead. By the time he reached the rise, he was several meters ahead of the rest of the team.
At the top, he stopped. Abruptly.
The runners stopped too, a short way back. The sudden way in which Gabriel had halted suggested that he had seen something—something that had caused him to merely stand there, unmoving, at the top of the rise and stare.
Kestrel, after a moment, moved forward and drew up alongside him. "Gabriel—" she began, and then she saw what he was looking at. "Oh, my God—"
The others hurried forward and, just as Gabriel and Kestrel had done, drew up short at the scene laid out before them.
They had indeed found Stefan.
The panorama stretched out like some bizarre hybrid of an outdoor amphitheatre and one of the lower circles of Hell.
The area was shaped like a shallow bowl, its red-stone sides hollowed out into levels upon levels of tiers looking down upon the vast cleared-out space at the bottom. The bowl was not quite complete, though: it was fashioned like a slightly round-topped "U", open at one end. Beyond the open end, a massive chasm could be seen spreading out so far that it was only barely possible to see the other side as a dim and hazy outline off in the distance.
Every spot in all of the tiers was filled with some sort of loathsome creature; if the things' leaping and gibbering had not been so horrific, the scene would have been surreally reminiscent of some sporting event of the damned. All that was missing were the waving pennants and the guy holding the John 3:16 banner. On second thought, the guy with the banner was probably better off in his absence.
The creatures' attention—and indeed the runners' own—was focused, however, on the centerpiece of the amphitheatre: a great dark altar made of red-veined black stone. This object dominated the scene, drawing the observer's eye inexorably downward. Clearly this altar and its occupant were the stars of this macabre show.
Stefan, still in human form, was the occupant of the altar.
They'd had him for awhile, from the look of things. Naked and bloody, he was shackled by his wrists and ankles across the stone surface with heavy chains snaking down to unseen anchor points at the bottom of the structure. Arrayed around it were piles of what could only be lifeless corpses, their dead eyes staring at nothing, their bellies ripped open by some cruel weapon, their entrails spilling out.
"My God—" Kestrel whispered again. "What have they done?"
"They've begun the ritual," Gabriel said in a dead tone. "The bodies were innocents killed to provide the power to begin the most difficult parts."
No one wanted to ask how Gabriel knew that; most of them were shocked into speechlessness by the view before their eyes.
"What—can we do?" Ocelot finally managed to get out. "Can we stop it?"
"I don't know." Again, Gabriel spoke numbly, as if the sight was too much even for him. Then he visibly pulled himself together. "But we will try. They cannot be allowed to succeed."
He looked as if he had been about to say something else, but stopped when he caught sight of more movement down in the grim amphitheatre. Before, no one had looked beyond the altar, but now the motion there caught their attention. Another tall stone structure stood there, high and vaguely shaped like a judge's bench. Behind it was a figure who rose from where it had been seated, stood on top of the bench, and faced the crowd of foul creatures. "Well!" it cried in a voice that was at the same time cheerful and malevolent, and that carried across the distance as if they were all standing next to each other. "It looks like we have some visitors for our show! I do so love visitors!" Turning, he faced Gabriel and his friends. "And such distinguished visitors, too! Everybody's favorite juvenile dragon and his posse of misfits! Oh, do come on down! We've got a place all ready for you! You'll have the best seats in the house."
'Wraith looked at Gabriel. "The masking—?"
"Obviously isn't working," Gabriel said grimly. "Step back—we must make our stand now or we will not have the chance."
The runners, realizing not only that he was serious but also what he meant by his request, hurried to get out of the way of the young man's transformation. Each of them felt fear but also a bit of anticipation—it was finally going to be over, for good or ill.
They stepped back, and disappeared.
Down in the amphitheatre, the elf/Horror laughed uproariously as the five of them reappeared, each one guarded by three large creatures with nasty-looking weapons. "Oh, young one! You are amusing! To think that you could triumph against us in our own domain!" The cheerful overtones dropped away from his voice, leaving only the evil. His eyes, cold and merciless, met those of the golden dragon who now stood on the hillside. "Now change back, now, or I will have your friends eviscerated right before your eyes. You might be able to stop one or two of them, but can you stop them all?"
"Don't do it, Gabriel!" Kestrel cried, struggling in the grip of a vaguely humanoid Horror-thing while two others pointed barbed spears at her neck and abdomen.
Gabriel watched them for a moment, then looked back at the elf/Horror. Almost resignedly he shifted form again, remaining there on the hillside.
"Good!" the Horror said approvingly as Gabriel's friends fought between relief and despair. "Now come on down here. We're not going to hurt you or your friends. Not yet, at least. Why would we do anything to injure our best audience?"
Gabriel briefly closed his eyes, then started down the hill toward the floor of the amphitheatre. When he arrived, he was surrounded by more of the oversized creatures; he and his friends were herded over to another boxlike area containing six seats. "Here we are," the Horror said, back to being cheerful again. "Box seats for the show. The scalpers would charge a fortune for these, you know."
"Six seats. Just as if they were expecting us..." Winterhawk murmured as they were pushed inside. The Horror closed the door behind them with an audible click and resumed its place on top of the bench, grinning down at them.
"Why did you do that?" Kestrel demanded of Gabriel. "This is more important than us. You should have done what you had to do." All around her, the others nodded.
But Gabriel shook his head. "No. I will not sacrifice my friends—at least not when it isn't yet necessary. There is still time." Turning toward the sight of the altar, he would say no more.
"Just so you know," the Horror said conversationally, now seated on the edge of the tall bench with its legs hanging over like a child on a playground swing, "Your seats are completely shielded, so don't try any funny business. You're here to watch—not to participate." It pointed at the box. "Go ahead—try it if you don't believe me."
Gabriel met his gaze, then pointedly looked away. On the altar, Stefan weakly turned his head to look at his brother. His eyes held fear and despair. Although he was covered with blood, he did not appear to be seriously injured. Instead, his body was crisscrossed with a network of small cuts that seemed designed to produce blood but leave the victim reasonably cognizant of what was happening. After a moment, Stefan closed his eyes again.
"We're right next to the Chasm," Ocelot said, pointing. "Did you see it over there?"
Winterhawk nodded. "What better place to bring something over? My guess is they've even gone to the trouble to find a spot where the gap isn't as wide as in some of the other areas."
"But what can we do now?" Kestrel asked, her gaze still darting around, trying to take in everything at once. She was trying hard not to show how freaked out she was by this whole thing, but her control was beginning to slip. "Gabriel—could they be lying about the shielding?"
Gabriel sighed. "I don't want to give them the satisfaction of testing it until it's needed. It's exactly what they want me to do. There is still time."
"You said that before," Joe said. "Have you got a plan you're not telling us about?"
But Gabriel did not answer.
Things were starting to happen near the altar now. The Horror/elf jumped down off the bench and moved over toward it; for the first time the runners became aware of the intricate circle that had been carved into the stone around it. "That's odd..." Winterhawk said half to himself. "I've never seen a circle carved like that."
"It's far more powerful that way," Gabriel told him without taking his eyes from the proceedings. "Carving the circle into living stone takes much longer to prepare, but it has a much higher chance of success, especially when performing a ritual of this magnitude."
"So you were right about their having prepared most of this ahead of time," the mage said.
Gabriel nodded. "It would have taken them at minimum two days—possibly longer—to set something like this up. I'm certain, though, that they had at least most of it prepared since they gave Stefan that statuette. They have been expecting this."
"Must stop it," 'Wraith stated. "We are irrelevant."
Ocelot nodded. "If they get that ritual finished and bring that Horror over, we're all dead anyway. I'd rather go down fighting."
Joe nodded too, looking at Gabriel. "You do what you have to do. Don't worry about us. This is more important."
Gabriel's haunted but determined gaze met each of theirs in turn. "I know," he said softly. "If it comes to that, then I will do as you ask. But it has not yet come to that."
The Horror over by the altar was now walking slowly around it, chanting something in a guttural language that none of the runners understood. Even Gabriel did not appear to be following what the thing was saying. The Horror continued its march around the circle, which was at least twice the size of the one that Harlequin and the two dragons had constructed to get the team to the metaplanes. Behind it, the red dirt swirled around, mingling with the blood that stained the ground from the corpses and Stefan himself. The Horror gestured, and several of the larger and more intelligent-looking of the other Horror-things came forward, taking positions around the circle as if they had been briefed in their duties beforehand. In the tiers, the other creatures continued to scream and shriek and gibber in anticipation of what was to come. The Horror/elf gestured again, and the swirling dust began to take a vague form up above the altar.
Gabriel stiffened, his eyes widening. "They're further along than I thought," he said softly, the fear evident in his voice.
"What?" Winterhawk demanded. "How do you know?"
"I just do," the young man said distractedly. "I can't follow the language, but the process is clear enough. They will finish the ritual in less than a few hours. I thought we had longer..." he trailed off, sounding at a loss again.
Kestrel touched his arm. "Gabriel—"
On the altar, Stefan turned his head toward them again. Joining the fear in his eyes was pleading—do something, he was clearly saying, although he did not speak. He must have known that the ritual was getting close as well. There was no trace of the arrogant, contemptuous CEO of Messina Corporation on his features now: he was in fear for not only his life, but perhaps for even more than that. The runners stared at him, unable to do anything else. They all knew that if anything was to be done, it would have to be Gabriel who would instigate it. All of them were on edge, prepared to do what needed to be done, but as yet they did not know what that was—or even if anything could be done.
Gabriel was no longer paying attention to them. His focus was riveted on the altar, on Stefan, on the Horror. He leaned forward, gripping the edge of the box, watching the ritual as it played out before him. Kestrel, upon glancing at his expression, could tell that his mind was warring with itself over something, but he gave no indication as to what that was.
The Horror's chanting grew louder, and the dust swirled higher. It was definitely taking some kind of form now, but it was still impossible to tell what the form was. The thing motioned toward something off to the far side of the circle, out of the view of the spectators. After a moment three of the Horror-things came forward, carrying a long blade across their forearms. The weapon was curved and barbed, its blade flat black and wicked looking. It seemed to suck up any light nearby and trap it within its darkness.
Stefan saw it approaching and struggled weakly against his bonds, casting another terrified glance toward his brother.
The Horror/elf solemnly took the blade from the three minions, who quickly faded back into the crowd as if even they were afraid of its power. Holding the blade over its head in both hands, the thing looked like some kind of demonic vision with the red mists swirling around it and the gutted corpses at its feet. The runners looked on, unable to take their eyes off the scene, nearly numbed by the shock of what they were observing.
The Horror raised the knife above Stefan, whose chest was now rising and falling so fast with his panicked breathing that, were he truly human, he probably would have fainted dead away. But that respite was not available to him. His eyes were so wide with fear now that the whites could be seen all around his dark pupils. As the point of the blade came slowly downward toward his chest, he cried out, "Gethelwain!"
"Wait!" a voice boomed out over the amphitheatre.
It took the runners a moment to realize that the voice was Gabriel's.
The blade stopped, hovering mere centimeters above Stefan's heaving chest. The Horror looked up, interest showing in its eyes. "Yes? Is there something I can do for you?" It spoke sarcastically, but the interest was unmistakable.
Gabriel stood. All the fear had left his face now, replaced by a hard resolve that gave him the look of some kind of pure hero from a bygone time. Stefan stared at him, shocked.
"Gabriel, what are you—?" Kestrel began.
He ignored her and spoke to the Horror. "You don't want him," he said in the same commanding tone, "and you know it."
"Oh, really?" The Horror put its hands at its sides and cocked its head sideways a bit. "And what do we want, youngster?"
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.