A collective gasp went up from the five runners—and from Stefan—as that sunk in. "What?" Ocelot demanded. "Gabriel, are you fuckin' crazy?"
Again Gabriel ignored the runners. "It's true, is it not? You're not sure you can complete your ritual with Stefan. That's why you've been preparing this circle even longer than it would have normally taken, and you're still not certain."
Interest grew in the Horror's eyes. It withdrew the knife, leaning it up against the side of the altar, where it rested on two of the corpses. "Go on..." it said slyly.
The young man did not waver. "I will make this offer: Release Stefan and I will take his place."
"Gabriel, no! You can't!" Kestrel cried. She gripped his arm, but he still paid her no heed.
From the altar, Stefan spoke, his voice raspy with pain. "No, Gethelwain. Do not—"
"Is that all?" The Horror asked, the interest growing even further on its face. All around them, a low murmur began from the crowd of spectators.
"No. You will remove your taint from Stefan immediately, and you will allow him and my friends to observe the ritual."
Winterhawk, Ocelot, and the rest of the team exchanged dumbfounded glances. Was Gabriel insane? Had the sight of his brother on the altar driven him over the edge? If he gave himself to the Horrors, then all was truly lost!
The Horror took a few steps toward the spectator box containing Gabriel and the runners. "And if I agree to this, then you will take your brother's place in the ritual? You will cooperate with us? Willingly?" The pace of its speech had picked up a bit; its entire bearing suggested anticipation.
Gabriel nodded. "Yes."
The Horror considered that for a moment, and then its eyes narrowed as its sly smile grew a bit wider. "Your word, dragon?"
Gabriel's gaze remained steady. "First you will release Stefan from his promise and remove the taint."
The runners had given up trying to influence Gabriel; they knew it would do no good. They had to content themselves with sitting back tensely and hoping that the dragon knew what he was doing.
"You wound me, young one," the Horror clucked in mock dismay. "Don't you trust me?"
"My hatred for you is stronger than I have ever felt for any being on this or any other world," Gabriel said calmly, with just an edge of coldness. "Release him and then you will have my word. Not before."
"You know," the Horror said, putting its hand to its chin in a pose of thoughtfulness, "I could just continue with your brother and take my chances. We both know that the chance that his power is sufficient is so great as to be almost certain." It appeared not at all bothered by Gabriel's pronouncement.
Gabriel shrugged. "You could do that," he admitted. "But you won't. You would rather have me for your ritual, and you know it. We both do. You know that my power will be sufficient." His gaze hardened again. "Choose. My offer does not stand forever."
The Horror eyed him, trying to discern any ulterior motives. More than just its own posture conveyed anticipation now: there was an almost palpable feeling of it in the air, as if the powerful being on the other side of the Chasm was somehow adding its own desires to the mix. Stefan, still struggling against his chains, closed his eyes. Silence hung between the foul elf-creature and the young man as their eyes locked.
Finally, the Horror grinned, showing shining pointed teeth. "All right, dragon," it said, "I accept your offer. You and your foolish brother will change places." It turned toward Stefan, then looked back over its shoulder toward Gabriel. "You know, I'm not sure which of the two of you is the more foolish—the one who did it for hatred or the one who is doing it for misguided loyalty." With that, he resumed his path toward the altar as the throng of Horror-creatures cheered.
The runners crowded around Gabriel. "Why did you do that?" Kestrel demanded, worry and anger fighting for control of her features. "They're just going to do to you what they were going to do to Stefan."
Winterhawk nodded. "And if what you said is true—if his power isn't enough, but yours is—then why are you giving them what they want?"
Gabriel's eyes were quiet; he appeared serene and without fear. "It is the only way," he said gently. Indicating the altar with a head movement, he continued, "The ritual had almost reached the point beyond which it could not have been safely stopped. The chance that Stefan's power would not have been sufficient is very low. I wasn't willing to take the chance. Not when the stakes are so high."
"So why, then?" Joe asked. "What good will this do except get you killed instead of Stefan to bring this thing over?"
Gabriel was watching the Horror as it worked around Stefan. "Time."
"Huh?" Ocelot stared at him.
"Time," Gabriel repeated. "It will buy you time. A ritual of this potency is highly personalized—they cannot use the same one for me that they used for Stefan. That means that it will require time for them to prepare a new one. If I had allowed them to complete their sacrifice of Stefan and it had been successful, then all of us—all of the world—would have been doomed. I had to do something." At this point, he turned to face them. Rarely had they seen him look more serious; it was clear that he had not arrived at this decision lightly. "It is up to you and Stefan now. If they allow you to remain together, work with him. You and he are the only hope the world will have." He smiled slightly—it was an ethereal, faraway thing. "I have faith in you. I think that together you can do it. And remember—Fate is still with you."
Kestrel gripped his arms and closed her eyes. "Gabriel—Gethelwain—I—"
He returned the grip, closing his hands around her arms as well. "There isn't any other choice, Juliana. You made me promise you once that I would ask for help if I needed it. I am asking now. From all of you."
She opened her eyes and met his. "I hope I can have as much courage as you do."
He shook his head; his gentle smile made him look very young. "It isn't courage, Kestrel. I've never been more frightened in my life. But I know what will happen if we fail. There is no other option."
"How touching," drawled a voice.
Everyone swung quickly around. The Horror was standing there, right in front of the box. It hadn't been there a moment ago. Shaking its head, it grinned with foul glee. "If all of you are quite finished with your Kodak moment, we'll get on with things." It pointed. "Observe, dragon: we've kept our end of the bargain. You can check if you like."
Gabriel and the runners looked beyond the Horror. Stefan was being released from the shackles on the altar; as they watched, two large creatures hoisted him roughly up and dragged him over next to the Horror. His head slumped forward; Gabriel thought he was unconscious until he saw his eyes open slightly. Another creature opened the door to the box and made an exaggerated "after you" gesture to Gabriel.
With a last look at his friends, Gabriel exited the box and approached Stefan. "Sildarath?"
Stefan's head raised just a bit. "Gethelwain, why have you done this?" he whispered.
Gabriel didn't answer. Instead, he reached out and gently touched his brother's bloody forehead. Closing his eyes, he concentrated for several minutes while all around him the gazes of the Horror, its minions, and the runners were locked on him. At last he pulled his hand back and met the Horror's eyes.
"Well?" the thing asked.
Gabriel nodded, once. "If you have done as you have promised and not attempted to deceive me," he said in a tone both soft and chill, "then I give you my word. I will go willingly."
The runners looked away, closing their eyes.
The Horror smiled. "Excellent. Take him!" he barked toward his minions. Two of the large creatures came immediately forward and locked their grips tightly around Gabriel's arms. "Go—put him somewhere until we're ready for him." Dismissively he turned back to the runners and Stefan, the latter of whom was still being supported. "As for our guests here—" he spoke the word as if it were an insult "—take them to the dungeons. They can remain there until it's time to watch me slice our dear young dragon up into a light snack for the Master. I'm sure he'll be hungry after his long trip." It laughed and stalked off, back toward the altar.
The creatures grinned big nasty toothy grins at the runners as they shoved Stefan forward toward them. "Here—you carry him. We don't want him. And don't try anything. We ain't supposed to kill you, but we can make you wish you were dead."
Joe stepped up and caught Stefan before he fell, lifting him effortlessly in his massive arms. Bloodsoaked and pale, he was nearly unconscious; he didn't even raise his head as Joe picked him up.
Several more creatures appeared and began herding the group out of the amphitheatre. At one point or another every one of the runners turned back to get a final look at Gabriel being led off in the opposite direction. He walked with his head held high between his two hulking captors, and did not look back. The runners all wondered if they would ever see him alive again.
The place where the creatures took them had not existed prior to their discovery of the amphitheare—they were all sure of that. As they came up over the rise where they had been hiding before, they saw to their surprise that the landscape had once again been transformed. Instead of unceasing reddish dust and rocky terrain, they were greeted by a street made of black cobblestones and a small collection of dingy buildings that would have looked at home in 17th-century colonial America. "What the hell—?" Ocelot muttered, looking around.
"Try not to think too hard about it," Winterhawk suggested in the same tone. "It's not too good for the sanity."
"Not that I've got much of that left at this point." Ocelot sighed and continued to trudge along. He was entertaining thoughts of trying to overpower their guards and escape, but retained at least enough sanity to realize that it would not have done him any good. There were too many of the creatures, they were too well armed, and—most importantly—where could they go? No, much as he hated it, he knew they were going to have to play along and try to figure a way out of this.
The guards led them to a squat, blocky building near the edge of the tiny town. While several of the creatures held spears trained on them, one pulled out a large, old-fashioned ring of iron keys and opened the stout metal-strapped wooden door. Once inside, the team was led down a flight of stone stairs. As they descended, an unpleasant smell began to rise from the darkness below. The runners looked at each other but said nothing.
The Horror hadn't been exaggerating when it had referred to 'the dungeon.' What met the runners' eyes as they reached the bottom of the stairs fit the classical definition of such a place frighteningly well.
Two large cells, enclosed by thick iron bars, flanked a stone walkway between them. The floors of the cells were spread haphazardly with dirty-looking straw, but contained no beds or other furniture. The walls and floors of the cells were stone as well; the only light came from a tiny half-window carved into one of the cells' walls at eye level, indicating that they had not quite gone a full floor underground. In the other cell, three dead bodies in various stages of decay lay on the floor alongside what looked to be a large pile of old rags. All around the runners, the stench of rot and death and waste permeated the air.
The lead creature stuck the key into the big sturdy lock on the cell with the window and swung open the door. It creaked alarmingly but looked nonetheless strong and impenetrable. "In here," it ordered, pointing. "Hurry up, or I'll change your mind and put ya in there." It pointed toward the cell containing the three rotting bodies.
Still thinking it unwise to start a battle here, the runners allowed themselves to be installed in the indicated cell. The creature slammed the door shut behind them and locked the door. "There," it said in satisfaction. "You have fun. The Master will have need for you soon enough." With that, it and the other creatures headed back up the stairs.
Kestrel immediately went over to the small window and leaned on it, putting her head down on her arms.
Winterhawk looked around at their surroundings in disgust, but said nothing. It was a testament to the gravity of their situation that he did not have a sarcastic remark handy. Instead, he looked at Stefan, still held in Joe's arms. "Look at this place. We can't put him down on this filthy floor. Not with wounds like that."
"Can you heal him?" 'Wraith asked, coming over.
"I don't know. But I'm certainly going to try." Looking around again, he tried to find a relatively clean spot on the floor. There wasn't one.
Joe solved the problem by carefully sitting down and holding the unconscious Stefan in his lap. With his great height and width, he made as good a platform as they were going to get. "There. Do it now."
As Winterhawk came over and squatted down next to Stefan (reluctant to sit down fully), and 'Wraith went over to examine the lock on the cell door, Ocelot approached Kestrel. Gently, he touched her arm. "Hey..."
She looked up. Her eyes were almost as haunted as Gabriel's had been. "I don't know if I can take much more of this, Ocelot..."
He sighed, nodding. "I know. I don't know if I can either. But Gabriel's counting on us. We gotta do something."
"But what?" she asked in despair. "Maybe you guys know more about this kind of situation than I do, but what can we do against something like that? How will we stop it if Gabriel can't? Stefan's hurt—"
"'Hawk's trying to fix him up." Ocelot shook his head, leaning one arm on the cold stone wall. "I'm so scared right now that I'm getting numb to it. There's only so long you can be scared shitless before you either go crazy or you get to where you don't notice it. I figure we're dead anyway, so at least we'd better try to do something."
"We don't even know how long it will be before they get the ritual ready. We don't know how much time we have." She sighed. "I'll do it. Whatever it is, I'll do it. But—"
He gripped her shoulder. "I know. Just think of it as a job. That's how I try to deal with it. If I think of it as a job then I don't think about all the bad stuff. If you worry about Gabriel, you aren't gonna be able to function, and we need that right now. Remember—if we do this, he'll be fine. And if we don't...then we'll be past caring about Gabriel or anybody else."
She nodded slowly. "That's not very comforting, you know. But I get it." She gave him a small smile. "I'll be okay. After all, I'm a professional."
"That's the spirit." He pointed. "Come on—let's see if they've got him patched up yet."
Over near Stefan, Winterhawk was deep in concentration, running his hands about six inches over the dragon's chest. As the runners watched, some of the injuries began to close up and disappear. "None of these are serious," the mage muttered, almost to himself. "It looks like they were trying for the greatest amount of blood with minimal real injury. I guess they were saving that for the real show." He sighed. "If I can get him conscious again, he can do most of this himself, with his much stronger magic. But first I have to get him awake."
Almost as if he had heard Winterhawk, Stefan's eyes fluttered open. They widened as he saw all the faces surrounding him. "You're all right," Winterhawk assured him. "Except we're locked up in a stinking hole of a prison cell and they've taken your brother away."
Stefan sighed. "Gethelwain..." he whispered, shaking his head. "I've always said you were too idealistic for your own good...now you have certainly proven it to be true."
"He said he was buying us time," Joe told him. "We have to figure a way out of this. Can you heal yourself the rest of the way?"
Stefan took a quick inventory of his condition and nodded wearily. Without further comment he set about doing so. It did not take long, although the runners got the impression that it had taken longer than it would have if Stefan had not been through such an ordeal. They watched as the remainder of the wounds closed up and a little color came back to his complexion. After he finished the healing process, he cast another spell: the air shimmered around him, and for a moment his usual severe corp-style suit hovered into existence. Then, as if he had reconsidered, the suit morphed into simple black slacks and shirt.
"Nice trick," Ocelot said. "I don't suppose you could magic us up some chairs, could you?"
Stefan didn't answer that, and Ocelot didn't seem to be bothered by that fact.
"So what happened?" Joe demanded. "Last thing we remembered, we were going to sleep in that dorm room, and then Ocelot was freaking out waking us up here and you were gone."
"I don't know." Stefan slowly rose from his position seated on Joe and unsteadily propped himself upright against the stone wall. Glaring down at the smelly straw on the floor, he gestured and flung it across to the other side of the room. "I did not think that I would sleep, but apparently I did so. When I awoke, I was—chained to the altar and they were preparing to begin the ritual."
Winterhawk shook his head. "It appears that we're not meant to figure this place out. I'd thought we understood the process, but apparently the metaplanes are still capable of throwing us a few surprises."
Joe nodded. "I thought we were gonna have to fight the people at the school. It made sense, with all the other ones."
'Hawk turned back to Stefan. "I don't know how much you heard, but if your brother wasn't fooled, then you've been released from your promise, and the Horrors don't have their claws into you anymore."
Stefan closed his eyes for a moment, then nodded slowly. "Yes...I think I can sense it. I feel—weak, but the unease I have felt ever since—the elf's arrival is gone."
Joe was testing the bars on the door and the window, wrapping his huge hands around them and devoting all his considerable strength to trying to weaken them. His loud sigh of frustration indicated his lack of success. "These things are damn tough."
"Yes," 'Wraith said. "Locks are complex as well."
"There's probably more going on here than it appears," Winterhawk said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they've bolstered the locks and the whole place with magic. Otherwise Stefan here should have no trouble breaking out of a stone-and-metal prison."
Thus challenged, Stefan pushed himself off the wall and approached the bars. Staring hard at them, he made a gesture in the air and whispered something under his breath.
The bars didn't budge.
"I think you are correct," he acknowledged reluctantly. "So we remain here. Until—?"
"Until the ritual," 'Wraith said.
Ocelot nodded. "Gabriel made them agree to let us watch it. I don't know why."
"Maybe that was the only way he could be sure they'd keep us alive that long," Kestrel said.
"But how long is that?" Joe came back over to the group. Addressing Stefan, he added, "Do you know?"
Stefan shook his head. "Probably at least two days. It is a very complex ritual, and they will be overly concerned with verifying that everything has been constructed correctly, since they have only one chance. They had prepared most of it when I awoke, but as Gethelwain said, they must begin anew for him." He sighed. "I cannot fathom him—but yet he may have done the only thing that will give us even a small chance to succeed."
"I hope we can take that chance and make something of it," Kestrel said quietly. She didn't sound convinced that this was a foregone conclusion.
Winterhawk had wandered over by the bars, glancing across the hallway into the other cell. The three corpses lay there, the flesh rotting from their bones. He suspected that they were the source of most of the appalling smell. "I wonder what they did," he said, mostly to himself.
To his shock, the pile of rags beyond the corpses moved. He started violently, taking a couple of steps backward. "Bloody hell! That thing's alive!"
That got everybody's attention in a hurry. As they crowded around the bars, craning their necks to see what Winterhawk was talking about, the ragpile shifted again. "Who's over there?" Ocelot demanded. He didn't want to say it out loud, but he was half afraid that any minute now the corpses were going to animate as well and begin shambling around the cell. After everything they'd been through today, that might just have been the final straw for him.
The rags shifted around again. In a strangely birdlike fashion, a head poked out from beneath them. It looked around, then dropped back down again.
"Who are you?" Kestrel demanded. "Say something! Are you all right?"
The rags cackled, a high-pitched and disquieting sound. "All right?" a voice croaked. It too was high-pitched, shot through with the kind of raspiness that results from either too many cigarettes or too much overuse. The head poked up again.
This time, though, things made more sense as the head swiveled on its scrawny neck to face them. Bright sharp eyes, wrinkled skin, sharp nose and chin, toothless mouth—the adjective "birdlike" fit the figure quite aptly. As it rose a bit, it became clear that the head wasn't under the pile of rags, but rather attached to it—as in, the rags were clothing the rest of the scrawny body. "All right?" it repeated in the weird quavering voice. "Not all right! Not all right at all!"
The runners and Stefan exchanged glances. "Is there anything we can do for you?" Joe ventured. He didn't have any idea what it would be, but he felt like had to at least ask.
"Do?" The old woman-thing cackled again. Her sharp little beady eyes took in the assortment of onlookers and she grinned, showing pink-gray gums. "Must do."
"What?" Joe looked confused. He wasn't the only one. "What should I do?"
"Nothing!" The wrinkled head shook back and forth rapidly. "You—nothing! Not you do. You do!" Her gaze swept the group again. "Dark days coming. Bad for children." Apparently she thought that was funny, for it sent her off into a paroxysm of mad giggles. Then, as if someone had cut her strings, her head dropped back down again.
"Hey—you okay?" Ocelot called, eyes narrowing. When he got no answer and the ragpile didn't stir, he turned back to the group. "What the hell was that about?"
Winterhawk shrugged. "Atmosphere? After all, what's a proper dungeon without a freakish old crone and a pile of rotting corpses in the next cell?"
"Well—is she dead?"
"She lives," Stefan said. Shaking his head, he returned to his former spot. "This is irrelevant to our difficulty. We must make plans."
"What plans?" 'Wraith met Stefan's eyes. "Cannot overcome them. Too many."
"But we still have our powers and our cyberware," Winterhawk pointed out. "P'raps we can catch them by surprise."
"That's the only thing that makes any sense to me," Ocelot said. "If they're all focusing in on Gabriel, maybe we can hit 'em with something before they know what's up."
Kestrel turned to Stefan. "Can you change into your real form?" She wasn't in any rush to see the big green dragon—especially since last time she had seen Stefan in that particular form, he had been trying his best to kill her and Gabriel and the rest—but she had to acknowledge that having a Great Dragon on one's side in a fight could be nothing but a good thing.
"I dare not attempt it here," he said. "But I think that I can." He fixed his gaze on her, and his eyes changed from their normal obsidian-chip human appearance to solid green with slitted pupils.
Ocelot glared at him. "Hey, enough of that, okay? 'Yes' would have been sufficient." He sighed, shaking his head. He was still getting used to the fact that Stefan was not the enemy any longer. Maybe he would be again when this was over, but right now they couldn't afford strife among themselves. To change the subject, he said, "Okay, so you can change into Tall, Green, and Scaly. Maybe that'll be enough. It sure makes things look more possible anyway."
Kestrel was looking perplexed. "There's something I don't get. Why is it that in—the last place we were, in that school—magic didn't work, Gabriel and Stefan couldn't change form, and we didn't have our cyberware, but here all of those things work? Wouldn't you think that these... Horrors would like it better if we couldn't do that kind of stuff?"
"The Enemy does not control this area of astral space," Stefan said. "They are strong, but they are not omnipotent. Even they must work within boundaries. Since this is not their native plane, they must expend a great deal of energy to power their illusions. They have managed to create barriers through which magic cannot pass, but they cannot do so for the entire area. Undoubtedly this is one of those areas—that is why they have put us here until they have need for us."
Ocelot sighed. Apparently when Stefan got going on a lecture, he was every bit as bad as Winterhawk in full 'professor mode'. He wondered if there was something about mages—even draconic mages—that made them like the sound of their own voices. "So," he cut in before Stefan got up too much of a head of steam, "what you're saying is that maybe we can break their illusions if we punch hard enough?"
"Crude," Stefan said, nodding, "but essentially true."
"In that case," Winterhawk said, "we should conserve our energy until it is needed. As long as they are not attempting to injure us and they haven't begun the ritual, we should be safe enough here. It's just a matter of patience."
Again Ocelot sighed. Patience was one thing he had in short supply. Glancing around, he could see similar expressions on the faces of his friends—all except for 'Wraith, who was as inscrutable as always, and Stefan. "I'm gettin' tired of sitting," he said in frustration. "I want to do something. I can't stand all this sitting around waiting for things to happen!"
Winterhawk was about to reply when 'Wraith's posture stiffened. "Wait." There was a pause, and then: "Heard something." Without waiting for an answer, he moved over to the window and looked out. The other runners and Stefan quickly joined him, pressing in close so they could all see.
The window was at ground level, but they could still get a reasonably good worm's-eye view of what was going on outside. Several large Horror-creatures like the ones that had been their "escorts" to the dungeon were milling around several meters away from the window, in an area facing the main cobblestone road that wound its way through the small town. Two of the creatures were carrying thick black metal poles, each one about four meters tall and about fifteen centimeters in diameter.
"What are they doing?" Kestrel leaned in a bit more to get a better look.
"Whatever it is," Stefan said grimly, "they want us to see it. Otherwise they would not be doing it outside our window."
The group fell silent as they observed the creatures' progress. First the things holding the poles put them down on the ground and stood back; after a moment, another creature came into view, carrying a large contraption resembling an outsized hand drill. One creature held the top of the drill while another turned the crank. The drill sank down into the ground far more easily than it should have given the stony composition of the terrain, and far deeper than the actual length of the drill bit would have suggested.
This done, they carefully measured off several paces (it would have been almost comical if it had not been so disquieting) and repeated their performance about three meters away. The entire process of drilling the two holes took about half an hour; during that time none of the prisoners moved from their spots.
"Okay..." Ocelot muttered as he watched. "So they're gonna put those poles in the holes they drilled, but why?"
No one answered; even Stefan did not have an idea—or at least not one he wanted to share at the moment. They continued watching.
As Ocelot had predicted, the creatures hefted the two tall poles and proceeded to slide one down into each of the holes. By the time they were finished, a little over three of each pole's original four meters stuck up out of the ground. The things admired their handiwork for a moment, then another one came into view with a bucket. From the bucket, it poured some kind of viscous black substance around the holes, then stepped back. Ten minutes or so later, two of the workers came forward and each one grabbed a pole and shook it vigorously, testing it for strength. The poles did not move. They seemed as strong as the bars in the team's cell.
Kestrel sighed. The waiting and the uncertainty was getting to her as much as it was to Ocelot. When all else fails, try the direct approach. "Nice construction project, guys," she called out the window sarcastically. "What's it for?"
Surprisingly, one of the hulking creatures looked up. It grinned and sauntered over, looking like a construction worker on a break (except for the fact that its hide was a scaly yellow and it had two misshapen horns poking out from the same side of its head). It squatted down so it could look in through the low-set barred window. "You talkin' to me?"
Now I've done it, Kestrel thought. "Yeah," she said, forging ahead. "What's that thing for?"
"Uh—Kestrel—" Ocelot began nervously. There were enough Horrors around this place without going out of one's way to attract their attention.
The creature's already ugly features got even uglier as its grin grew nasty. "That? That's for your pretty-boy friend. Boss' orders. We gotta put him somewhere until the boss is ready for him. Figured you might wanta keep an eye on him." It laughed, a thoroughly unwholesome sound. "Ain't we nice?"
It was then that the runners noticed the metal loops at the top of the two poles; the other creatures were attaching short chains to the hooks—chains ending in stout manacle cuffs. Kestrel's eyes widened. "No—" she whispered.
The Horror-thing laughed again. "Oh, yeah, chickie. You don't think he's gonna get off easy, do ya? You know how long the boss been after that one? We got him right where we want him now." Apparently tired of talking, he stood back up and headed over toward his friends, still chuckling.
Ocelot put his hand on Kestrel's back. There really wasn't much he could say that would help, so he kept silent.
Stefan didn't. "It was as I feared," he said quietly. "I had hoped I was mistaken." Shaking his head, he pulled back from the window and, using a spell to clear out an area on the floor, sat down. He clasped his hands over his knees and bowed his head on them.
Suddenly none of the runners wanted to watch the project any longer. One by one they drifted back into the middle of the cell.
"I think," Winterhawk said with no trace of humor in his tone, "that if we manage to get through this, I'm going to take up gardening." He dropped down against the wall, heedless of the condition of the floor.
They didn't watch when they heard the sound of more approaching creatures about an hour later, nor when the creatures' calls to each other mingled with the clanking of the heavy chains. Kestrel sat down next to Ocelot, her head on his shoulder, and closed her eyes. Stefan and Winterhawk each remained in their own worlds, while Joe and 'Wraith became interested once again in the bars facing the stone hallway. It was only when the sounds outside ceased that Kestrel hesitantly drew herself up and approached the window.
He was there, just as she knew—and dreaded—that he would be. He was on his knees, his head bowed in either exhaustion or unconsciousness—Kestrel couldn't tell from where she was. His wrists were clasped in the manacles, his arms drawn up above his head. His white shirt hung on him in bloody ribbons. There was no sign of any of the creatures.
Kestrel gripped the bars. "Gabriel? Can you—can you hear me?"
It took a moment, but his head came up. Surprise showed on his battered features, although it looked like he had not identified the exact location of the voice. "Kestrel?" Even in her mind his voice sounded ragged. "Are you all right? Have they harmed you?"
How very like him to be worried about her. "No—they didn't hurt us. We're all here. In the cell. You can see me in the window if you look over here." She stuck her arm out through the bars and waved it back and forth to provide a reference.
He nodded wearily. "I—see you. Is Stefan with you?"
"He's here. Winterhawk healed him some, and then he healed himself. They can do magic inside the cell, but they think there's some kind of barrier preventing it from getting out." She paused. "Gabriel—what have they done to you? I—I thought they needed you—unhurt—for the ritual."
"Nothing...serious. Do not worry about me, Juliana. I have withstood worse than this. They have put me here to distract you. You must not allow that to occur."
"Can't you—heal yourself?"
He lowered his head again. "They have forbidden it. Since I have given them my word that I will cooperate, I must do so." His eyes came up to meet hers across the distance. "Juliana, the time until the ritual is to begin will not be pleasant. You must remember—nothing matters except that you must make your plans. If you do not, then all is lost. You cannot count on me to be available to help you. I think they will prevent it. Can you do that, Juliana? Can you convince the others that this is true?"
Slowly she nodded. "I'll do it, Gabriel. I won't let you down. None of us will."
He gave her a tiny smile that she could barely see. "Good. Now go. Please. There is no reason why you should see this."
Kestrel took a deep breath, feeling her throat tightening with emotion. She did not want to walk away from him, but yet she knew he was right. Moving as if in a dream, she turned and went back to the others. Meeting Stefan's eyes, she asked, "Did you hear that?"
Stefan nodded, his expression more gentle than anyone had ever seen. "I heard. And he is right. If we are to help him, we must not allow distractions."
From across the hall in the other cell, the ragpile rose again with a sound like old leaves rustling in the wind. "Bad time for children..." the old woman intoned in her creaky voice.
Ocelot had had about enough of this, and his patience was about to break. "Will you shut up over there?" he demanded peevishly, glaring across at her. "If you got somethin' to say, say it. Otherwise leave us alone. We got more important things to talk about."
She cackled. "Important things...important things...Oh, yes, very important. You know not what important means."
Ocelot started to snap at her again, but Winterhawk touched his arm and shook his head. To the old woman, the mage said, "What does it mean, then?"
She fixed her beady gaze on him, her bony hands coming out from beneath the rags to grip the bars of her cell. "Oh, yes...freakish old crone knows important..." She favored him with her toothless grin.
Joe came forward. "What's important?" he asked. He could make his voice very gentle when he wanted to; he did so now.
Her pink smile grew a little wider as she transferred her scrutiny from Winterhawk to the young troll. "Ah, yes...this young one knows passion. Troll knows love. Love and friendship...those are important. Trust is important. There is strong power in these. Hate is impotent against them. Nothing else matters." She laughed crazily again, but then her wrinkled, wizened features rearranged themselves into a mien of sanity, just for a moment. "Remember this..." she whispered. "Remember, for it is your only hope in this world."
She collapsed back into the pile of rags once more.
The runners stared at each other. "That was weird..." Ocelot said slowly.
Winterhawk was looking at the pile of rags. "No..." He spoke even more slowly. "What is weird...is that there isn't anyone there."
The runners spun on him. "What?"
"He is right," Stefan said. "There is no living being over there. Only the corpses. The rags are merely rags."
"We all saw that, right?" Kestrel asked, glancing around the cell nervously.
"Yes," 'Wraith stated.
Winterhawk nodded. "I certainly did. I insulted her, remember?"
Joe was staring off into nothing, a strange contemplative look on his face. Ocelot waved a hand in front of his face. "Joe? You still here?"
The troll's gaze switched back on. "I think I know what it was about," he said.
"The old lady. I think I get it. I—felt something when she was talking to me."
"Well, then, out with it," Winterhawk said. "It makes no bloody sense to me, that's for sure. What's the point of an old crone showing up to drop cryptic pronouncements from a ragpile? She's—"
"Fate," 'Wraith said suddenly.
Joe nodded. "Yeah. I think she was trying to help us."
Stefan was staring at them. "The painted elf spoke of Fate being with you—as did Gethelwain. I was not certain I believed them."
"Oh, believe it," Ocelot said. "We met weirder stuff than Fate last time we were here." He looked at his teammates. "Could it really be her?"
Winterhawk shrugged. "It's certainly possible. It's happened before. If so, we'd better figure out what the hell she was blathering on about and take it to heart in a hurry."
"It's obvious," Joe said, looking at the mage like he was a slow student, and obviously enjoying the reversal of roles. "She's telling us that we have to trust each other. That it's not fighting that's gonna get us out of here—it's love."
"Love?" Ocelot looked dubious. "I dunno, Joe—maybe I don't think Stefan here is the biggest asshole this side of Pluto anymore, but love? I don't think I could fake that to save the friggin' universe."
'Wraith took a deep breath. "Trust. Friendship. Must be genuine. Can't fake the Fates."
"Okay," Kestrel said. She'd been hanging back listening to this, but now she had to speak up. "So suppose that Joe is right, and our only hope is to work together in peace and harmony and all that stuff. How? Is she telling us that we can bust out of here? That we can mess up the ritual? What? I mean, I guess you can't expect Fate to just walk up and give you a crib sheet, but she could have been a little more specific, couldn't she?"
"That ain't the way she works," Ocelot said with a sigh. "She doesn't give you the answers. At least she never did before. She just points you in the right direction."
Joe nodded. "Yeah. You have to figure out what to do with it."
Winterhawk dropped back down to his seated position. He glanced up at the window; the light outside was getting dimmer. "Or maybe she was just a crazy old crone after all. I'll wager we'll get the chance to find out. I just hope that if she's on the level, we're quick enough to identify what we need to know before our chance passes us by."
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.