The morning of the second day in the cell dawned pink-tinged and uneasy—as usual.
For the occupants of the prison, the hours had crawled by slowly, seeming to stretch out endlessly with no relief. There had been no indication regarding when this would change.
They had spent much of the time sleeping—at least half-sleeping, since it was hard to do much else on the uncomfortable stone floor. It passed the time most efficiently, even though much of their sleep was haunted by vague nightmares and queasy images. At least the smell had faded. The runners now firmly believed the old idea that living long enough around even the most horrible of smells will result in their fading in intensity until they eventually go almost unnoticed.
By unspoken agreement, they had not often checked on Gabriel. It was partly because they were afraid of what they might see, and partly because it did no good and only disturbed them. Several times they had heard the creatures out there with him—apparently the elf-Horror had given them the green light to do what they wanted within certain boundaries. None of them wanted to see that. The few times they—mostly Kestrel and Stefan—had gone to the window to attempt to communicate with him, he had been unconscious. Kestrel had been the last to concede that it was probably for the best if they simply acted as if he were not there, especially since the Horrors had put him out there for exactly that reason—to upset them.
They had talked some, although less than it might have been expected. None of them were particularly in the mood for conversation. Surprisingly, the previous day Stefan had asked Ocelot if he had told the others the story that Gabriel had told him in Ravenwood Academy's confinement room; when Ocelot said that he had not, Stefan urged him to do so. Now that it had come out, the dragon seemed to feel it was important that the others knew as well. They had reacted in much the same way Ocelot had, but in deference to Stefan they had asked no questions.
After that it was a succession of attempts to sleep, exercise sessions (these were mostly done by Ocelot and Kestrel—the cell wasn't big enough for Joe to move around much, and Winterhawk and 'Wraith seemed content with simple stretching exercises), and quiet meditation. They did not discuss much about their plans; the general consensus seemed to be that they could not plan anything specific when they did not know what would occur. They had the basics—the specifics would come later. Besides, they were reasonably sure that the Horrors were listening to them, so there was no point in giving them any more ammunition than necessary.
There had been no contact with the Horrors: no one had come down to check on them, to bring them food, even to taunt them. Oddly, though, they had not noticed any diminishing of their capacities from being without food and water. They had not even noticed their lack of hunger and thirst until Joe had commented that he was surprised that he didn't feel hungry after all this time since his last meal. That was fine with them, though—even starving would have been preferable to the sort of food the Horrors would likely have brought them.
The ragpile had not moved again.
Now it was the morning of the second day, and Stefan's soft voice awoke them from their fitful slumber:
"He is gone."
All around the cell the runners snapped to full wakefulness. Kestrel stared at him. "What did you say?"
Stefan sighed. "It has begun. They have taken him." He indicated the window.
Kestrel was the first to reach it, but the others weren't far behind. She gripped the bars so tightly that her knuckles whitened.
The two poles were still there, along with the chains and the manacles. Gabriel was gone.
"When did they take him?" Ocelot demanded. "I wasn't asleep—I would have heard something."
"Not necessarily," 'Wraith said.
Winterhawk nodded, but did not speak.
"So it begins," Stefan said, still gazing out the window at the spot where his brother used to be. "They will come for us soon."
Ocelot didn't say it, but he hoped Stefan was right. If they were going to get their shot, he wanted to do it. He didn't think he—or 'Wraith, for that matter—would last much longer locked up in this cage.
Almost as if the whole thing had been carefully choreographed—or as if the Horrors had been listening outside—the heavy wooden door at the top of the steps rattled and opened, and six of the big guard-creatures descended in a line toward the dungeon level. "About time," Ocelot called to them.
They ignored him. All six of them carried wicked-looking weapons: spears, curved scimitars, and axes. Five of them stood back while the sixth used its key to open the cell door. It grinned, stepping aside. "Showtime, kids," it announced. "Out."
They expected to be taken back out to the amphitheatre where the previous aborted ritual had taken place. Instead, upon leaving the jail building, their escorts indicated for them to turn in the opposite direction. The runners and Stefan exchanged glances, but none of them spoke. Glancing back over his shoulder, Ocelot could not even see the amphitheatre off in the distance, although they had been able to see it from here two days ago. He shook his head. The world had gone insane—might as well deal with it.
Their destination loomed ahead of them, another place that had not been there two days ago. Where before the cobblestone road had simply led out of town, now the way was blocked by a massive building that looked like a combination of town hall and church—again consistent with the sort of thing one might see in seventeenth-century America. Huge and white-painted, the building had great wooden double doors which were currently closed, large windows tinted so dark that nothing inside could be seen, and a tall twisted steeple that soared up into the sky. Instead of a cross, though, the steeple bore a misshapen emblem that made the runners vaguely queasy to look at it.
They didn't get much chance to do so anyway: as they and their guards approached, the double doors swung open. The creatures poked them with their weapons, indicating for them to enter.
Inside, the building was even bigger than it appeared from the outside. Most of the enormous space was taken up with tiers of wooden benches, separated from the front part of the room by a waist-high wooden partition. The area beyond the partition was shrouded in darkness; no matter how hard the runners craned their necks and squinted their eyes, they could not penetrate the inky black.
As in the amphitheatre, most of the seats were occupied. Now, though, the Horror-creatures were in mostly human form, clad in dark somber suits and drab dresses that fit with the mood of the room. "Looks like the bloody Salem witch trials," Winterhawk muttered as they were led in.
'Wraith nodded. That thought had occurred to him as well.
This time they were herded up to the front of the seating area, directly in front of the partition. A group of seats had been carefully roped off with a black silken cord; hanging from the cord was a card with the word Reserved written on it in calligraphy. "Guests of honor," one of their guards said with a nasty laugh. "You guys are real V.I.P.s." The rest of the guards thought that was funny too; they were laughing as they prodded Stefan and the runners into the indicated area and removed the rope.
Even from the front row they still could not see past the curtain of darkness that hovered over the front part of the church. Winterhawk turned to Stefan. "Can you still use magic?" he whispered.
The green slitted eyes met his gaze in silent reply.
'Hawk nodded and returned his attention to trying to pierce the veil.
"Well, well," said a voice from the darkness. "Everyone's here now—we can begin."
The lights switched on.
The front part of the church/courtroom was much larger than the rear part, even though again it did not look possible from the outside of the building. The view was dominated by three objects: an enormous window, a real judge's bench, and the altar.
The window was easily ten meters tall, rising high up in the rearmost wall of the building. Rounded at the top like a stained-glass window in a church, it seemed to be formed of a single sheet of clear glass. Behind it, the Chasm could be seen looming out into the distance.
In front of the window was a wooden judge's bench. This one was real, as opposed to the stone facsimile from the amphitheatre. It was made of some sort of dark wood and intricately carved. Behind it, dressed in a black robe and long white powdered wig, was the Horror. It grinned at the assembled group, its bony fingers wrapped around a black gavel.
Finally, in the middle of the floor, was the centerpiece of the show: the altar. Again, it looked subtly different from the one they had used for Stefan: instead of red-veined black stone, this one was made of solid red stone with darker red veins running through it at irregular intervals. It was a bit smaller than its predecessor as well, although the ritual circle that surrounded it seemed to be larger and more intricate. Everywhere there were patterns carved into the stone floor, candles, sigils drawn in some dark substance (blood?), and other magical artifacts that the runners could not begin to identify. The only thing that was missing was the corpses arrayed around the altar.
Gabriel occupied the same position his brother had only two days previously: chained naked to the altar by his wrists and ankles, his arms and legs stretched out to full extension, he appeared to be unconscious at the moment. He wasn't as bloody as Stefan had been; in fact, the only wound on him appeared to be a shallow slash across his right shoulder which had already stopped bleeding. He had been healed of his previous injuries and otherwise looked unharmed, which in one way made it worse—the slash looked somehow obscene on his otherwise flawless form.
Kestrel gripped Ocelot's hand tightly. Stefan leaned forward, his jaw tightening and his fists clenching in his lap. The other runners looked on grimly.
The Horror grinned again. "I see our little spectacle has made its impression, so we'll get started." It tapped the gavel on the bench, then lightly jumped down, robes flapping, and approached the altar. "Ladies, gentlemen, and others!" it called in a voice that carried through the entire room, echoing up into the thick wooden beams supporting the ceiling. "How nice of you all to come, to witness this most historical and important event!" It began pacing around like a showman making a pitch, its bearing almost maniacally animated. "For today, after millennia upon millennia, we welcome my Master, the Great Hunter Verjigorm, to the world! Oh, what a reign the Master will enjoy! How long he has been waiting to have his revenge!" It paused to look down at Gabriel, who was now semi-conscious and glaring at it with all the intensity he could summon. Grinning, it placed its hand on the middle of Gabriel's chest; pointing its sharp fingernail, it pierced his skin and traced a bloody scratch down several centimeters. Gabriel gritted his teeth, but did not cry out; neither did his glare waver. The Horror stuck the finger in its mouth, savoring the blood a moment, and then returned its attention to the assembled group. "And this, my friends, is the young dragon who has generously volunteered to welcome the Master to this world. We have already made use of one of his accursed race to lay our initial groundwork—and the Master has great plans for another when he arrives." It looked straight at Stefan when it spoke the last sentence.
Gabriel and Stefan both caught the implications of that at the same time. Gabriel struggled to rise, straining against the chains holding him down, as Stefan leaped to his feet. "You have released him," Gabriel said through still-clenched teeth. "It was a requirement of our bargain."
The Horror laughed, replacing the hand on his chest and shoving him back down. "Oh, but we have released him, foolish young one, just as we have promised. Your brother will not be used as a sacrifice. You see," it added, an edge of mocking in its tone, "dragons are not the only ones who can keep their word—and not the only ones who can find other ways to get what they want." It smiled down at him. "The Master, you see, has more use for your brother alive than dead. Once he has taken his rightful place here, your dear brother will be the first to fall before him and become his slave."
"NO!" Stefan cried, rage darkening his face. "I will not! I will die before I serve you!" Gathering his energies, he clasped his hands together and pointed his fingers at the Horror. Crackling blue power arced from his hands and streaked toward it—
—and bounced back against some invisible barrier, flinging back into Stefan and hurling him backward over the benches and into a group of creatures.
The Horror's laugh grew louder; it was practically dancing with glee as it watched the dazed Stefan struggling to rise. "Do you see how ineffectual he is?" it asked Gabriel, who was observing the scene with some alarm. "Do you see now that your friends cannot save you? Bring in the children!" it barked toward the back of the room.
Joe and Ocelot, meanwhile, were hauling Stefan back to a seated position. The dragon's eyes were unfocused; he appeared to be confused about where he was. "Stefan?" Joe called to him. "You okay?"
Stefan put a hand to his head as his vision cleared slowly. Then he closed his eyes. "We are lost," he said.
"What?" Ocelot glared at him. "Why?"
His eyes opened again; he met Ocelot's gaze with one that contained no animosity, only resignation. "Gethelwain has put his trust in us—in me—and I do not think that I can help him." He paused. "That was one of my most powerful spells. Had I not gotten my barriers up in time, I would have killed myself with my own spell. If their barriers are strong enough to deflect my full power—" He shook his head in despair.
Before anyone got a chance to answer him, an unseen back door opened and several creatures came in. They led a group of children, ranging in age from six to about fourteen, each one dressed in a white robe. They moved sluggishly, as if drugged. "Oh, shit..." Ocelot whispered. He remembered this all too well.
Kestrel stared. "What are they doing with those—" she stopped. She already knew the answer.
The runners looked at each other. They remembered their last trip together to the metaplanes, with Harlequin. And they remembered the litter of corpses around Stefan's altar.
"Why kids?" Kestrel asked softly.
The Horror must have heard her. "Innocents, my dear. Our young dragon here is quite the innocent himself. A fitting touch, wouldn't you say?" At that point it turned away, ignoring her, and raised its hand into the air. Around it, an unseen, tuneless chant began. One creature came forward with a dark-bladed knife, smaller than the one the Horror had been preparing to use on Stefan.
Gabriel watched the children being led in and closed his eyes briefly. He knew that, somewhere back on the material plane, their drugged bodies lay waiting to die. They were probably street kids—there was always an overabundance of them—homeless, parentless, SINless. The Horror's agents had probably found them with no trouble at all. The same kind of kids he tried to help when he could. And now they would be killed.
Do not think about it. You cannot affect it. He knew it was true, but he didn't have to like it. Despite the Horror's words, he was not an innocent. He knew the stakes here. It was Stefan he had to worry about now. If Stefan lost his will, then they were all lost. Opening his eyes, he looked across at his brother.
Stefan felt the gaze on him and looked up to meet it. He shook his head, once. I cannot. I am sorry. Forgive me.
Gabriel's gaze grew harder. There was no communication—magic could not pass through the barriers surrounding the altar and blocking the partition—but the intent was clear. You can. You must. He continued to hold Stefan's eyes, willing his brother to have strength, to believe, to fight on.
Something in Stefan's expression changed. Slowly he nodded. I will try. I can do nothing else.
On the altar, Gabriel smiled slightly. It was all he could ask for.
The next hour was the stuff of which nightmares were made. The Horror, all business now, set about the task of laying the framework for the main part of the ritual, wielding its grisly knife with the skill of a master. One by one the children fell under the Horror's knife as it plunged the wicked blade into one heart after another, allowing the spurting blood to spray over itself, over the altar, over Gabriel, taking on a fiery power all its own as it coated the area. They did not even scream, so deeply drugged were they, as they watched their fellows die before them. As each one died and was drained of blood, the Horror snatched up the body and tossed it against the side of the altar, creating a grim base. By the time it had finished with the last child, both it and Gabriel were completely covered with blood.
The runners didn't watch much of the slaying. Even Winterhawk, who was able to calmly observe carnage that made most sane men physically ill, and Stefan, who presumably had seen much worse, did not watch. Winterhawk and the other runners used the opportunity to take in the details of the rest of the room, while Stefan appeared to be deep in thought. All of them, even the mundanes, could feel the power level around the altar beginning to rise. There was anticipation in the air, but it was a twisted and unwholesome anticipation.
Ocelot, still gripping Kestrel's hand and not sure if he was giving comfort or getting it, was looking everywhere but at the altar. He wondered how they could get all this stuff in a space contained by the building they had entered, but didn't worry too much about it. Magic was like that. No point in thinking too much about magic, because it just gave him a headache. His eyes swept over the massive ceiling-beams, the huge window with the Chasm beyond it, the judge's bench, the chairs, the creatures, the telephone—
Ocelot poked 'Wraith, who was sitting on his other side, in the arm. "Hey."
The elf seemed glad to have something on which to concentrate. He raised an inquiring eyebrow at Ocelot.
Ocelot pointed. "Look. There's a phone over there. And it's off the hook. Wonder why?"
It was plain to see why none of them had noticed it before: it was tucked away in a dim corner next to the judge's bench, where it could be overlooked easily in favor of the more compelling views and gruesome spectacles occurring in the room. It was on a simple, unadorned wooden pedestal, the kind that might be used to hold an art object. The phone itself was utterly unremarkable except for its antique design: it was the thoroughly utilitarian, indestructible, government-issue, rotary-dial telephone that might be found in just about every office and suburban house circa 1955. And, as Ocelot had noted, the receiver was off the hook and lay next to it on the pedestal's surface.
'Wraith raised an eyebrow. "Interesting. Doesn't fit."
The other runners had caught on that there was a conversation going on, and chose to join in rather than helplessly watch the Horror carving up defenseless children. "What doesn't fit?" Winterhawk asked under his breath.
Ocelot pointed. "There's a phone over there. And it's off the hook."
"Wrong time," 'Wraith said.
"What?" Joe scooted over a bit on the bench to get a better look.
"Wrong time," 'Wraith said again. He indicated the room with a glance. "Salem—colonial America. No phones."
Winterhawk nodded slowly. "You're quite right."
Joe pointed. "Look. If you look carefully—is that a cord coming out of it? It seems to be going back toward the window."
They all leaned forward, trying to spot it in the dimness. "Can't be sure," 'Wraith, who had the sharpest eyes, said. "Looks like it reaches the window and goes out through the wall."
"Of course!" Winterhawk whispered. "This is still the metaplanes we're on. Nothing's real—it's all metaphor. So a phone represents—"
"Communication," 'Wraith said.
"With the other side," Joe added, nodding. His eyes narrowed. "You think that cord goes all the way across the Chasm to that—" he paused, reluctant to say the name aloud in this setting "—you know, over there?"
Stefan, whom they had thought was not listening to them, suddenly took an interest in the conversation. "Yes..." he whispered, leaning in closer to them. "I think you have discovered something very important." He paused a moment, thinking, and then his eyes widened. "Of course... that is why they had to kill Telanwyr first."
"Why?" Winterhawk glanced over toward the altar; the Horror was pacing around it, chanting something and smearing blood on itself. Gabriel had turned his head to face them and was now watching them intently.
"Because they needed the power of a being such as Telanwyr to reach across the Chasm with their communication line," Stefan said, lowering his voice even further. "It all makes sense now. You cannot comprehend the level of power it would require to send even such a small thing across such a vast distance, and to hide it from prying eyes on this side." He sighed, looking away. "They have harnessed the energy of such a being merely to begin their plans. And now they plan to use Gethelwain to end them."
"So—" Ocelot began, "—what does this mean? Is he gettin' instructions from the Big V over there?"
"Metaphorically speaking, probably," Stefan said. "Instructions, and likely some small measure of its power."
"Does that mean if we cut it, that thing will lose some of its power? And maybe it won't be able to finish the ritual?" Kestrel allowed herself to look hopeful.
Stefan sighed again. "I do not know. It will undoubtedly help, although I do not know how much. It is something to consider, though, if we are able to get to it."
"That's the sticky part," Winterhawk said glumly.
The cadence of the Horror's chanting changed, attracting their attention once more away from their discussion. It had stopped pacing and stood once more in front of the altar, its face and powdered wig stained red from the blood. Several other creatures had taken places at various points around the circle. As the runners and Stefan watched, the Horror pulled out the knife it had been using on the children and waved it back and forth over Gabriel, still chanting.
"Is this it?" Kestrel looked frightened. "So soon?"
"No." Stefan's voice was strained. "Not yet." He met her eyes and held her gaze. "You must tell me, though—what is it that you think we should do?"
Behind Stefan, Winterhawk and 'Wraith exchanged surprised and sober glances as they immediately caught on to what Stefan was doing. Surprised because even they had not yet fully accepted the "new Stefan," and sober because they knew what he was attempting to do. The question had been irrelevant—his intent was to hold her attention.
"Why are you asking me?" Kestrel looked at him sideways. "I don't know. I can't even think straight. I—" She gasped as she looked beyond Stefan and saw what the Horror was doing.
It had brought the knife down and made a slice on Gabriel's left shoulder similar to the one on right shoulder. As blood welled up from the wound, the Horror plunged his other hand into it and then flung a spray around the circle. Everywhere the drops flew, crackles of blue energy shone briefly in the air and then faded. Grinning and chanting, the Horror set about making more cuts and spreading more blood. Gabriel shifted slightly, but made no other move or sound as the knife sliced him again and again. His defiant gaze was still fixed on the Horror.
"No..." Kestrel whispered. "Gabriel—"
Stefan gripped her shoulders tightly. "You must not be distracted," he said in a tone that was harsh but not unkind. "He is depending on us. We must hold our focus!"
"Focus on what?" she demanded miserably. "What can we do? You couldn't punch through that barrier, so Winterhawk doesn't have a prayer of even trying. What can the rest of us do against this?"
"Whatever it is," Joe said, "we have to do it together. That was what the old lady was telling us. We can't do it on our own."
"But how the hell are we supposed to do that?" Ocelot glanced over at Gabriel and quickly back to his friends. "We all want to stop this thing and get Gabriel out of there. We're all on the same page, right? How can we be any more together than that? Are we supposed to hold hands and dance around in a circle?"
Winterhawk was staring off into space. "Possibly something like that might work..." he murmured.
Ocelot looked at him like he was crazy. "'Hawk, what are you talkin' about?"
The mage's gaze switched back on again. "There is precedent for it—the holding hands part, anyway. It helps to focus the energy of a group of people. Haven't you ever been to a seance? Sometimes people were even able to get them to work back before the Awakening, if their desire for it was strong enough."
Joe nodded. "Let's try it, then. We have to do something."
'Wraith and Kestrel looked dubious, but Stefan seemed to approve. "You are right," he said grimly. "We must do something, and soon. I did not want to tell you this, but we are dangerously close to the point of no return in the ritual—at least the part beyond which we will no longer be able to save Gethelwain, even if we disrupt the summoning. Most of the ritual had already been completed before we arrived. Come—let us try it."
Faced with that level of urgency, the runners quickly arranged themselves into as much of a circle as they could manage given the seating arrangements. The Horror, deep in its blood-lust, paid them no attention, and the other creatures in the tiers were likewise fixed on the scene at the altar. The tuneless cadence was growing louder, and the air was now fairly crackling with magical energy.
Winterhawk grasped one of Stefan's hands, while Joe took the other. Ocelot was next to Winterhawk, followed by Kestrel and 'Wraith, the latter of which linked the circle by taking Joe's free hand. "Concentrate," Stefan said quietly, closing his eyes. "Concentrate on Gethelwain, and on the power we will need to break the ritual. Do not lose your focus."
The runners leaned into the circle, concentrating for all they were worth. Winterhawk, trained in magical discipline, and Joe, who occasionally communicated with the totem Bear despite being a mundane, had no trouble getting their minds into the proper state; 'Wraith used meditation techniques to clear his thoughts of all outside influences, while Ocelot and Kestrel merely tried to focus their passionate desire to help Gabriel and prevent the completion of the ritual. Stefan, his mind and magical strength more potent than the five others' put together, forced himself to do as he had directed the others to do—to concentrate, to keep his focus, to think of nothing else—
"This is not working!" he snapped in despair after several minutes had gone by with no discernible change in their situation. Pulling his hands back, he shook his head and sighed. "I cannot feel anything. There is no power that was not here before." He dropped his hands in his lap and lowered his head. "The old woman must have been mistaken."
"We can't just quit!" Kestrel protested. "We have to keep trying! Come on—there's got to be something we're doing wrong. You guys said it yourself—Fate wants us to succeed. So what are we doing wrong?" Her voice pitched a bit higher—she sounded like she was about to lose it.
"She's right," Winterhawk said, his tone somewhat calmer but still strained. "We can't stop. What did the old crone say? That was have to cooperate. That was the key."
Joe nodded. "That love and trust and friendship were the important things."
"Hatred is impotent against them," 'Wraith added.
Ocelot was racking his brain, trying to remember everything the old hag had said. "So we gotta cooperate. We gotta work together. But—"
"It's too bad we can't—I don't know—like meld minds or something," Joe spoke up suddenly. "Maybe that was what she meant. But we can't—"
"Yes, we can!" Stefan gripped the troll's shoulders, piercing him with his obsidian-chip gaze. "Yes..." he whispered again. "We can."
"Huh?" Ocelot glared at him. "What are you on now, Stefan?"
Stefan looked over at his brother on the altar. The Horror had finished with the knife; the young dragon was now covered with the same latticework of bloody slashes that Stefan himself had suffered two days previously. The Horror was standing back, its eyes rolled back in its head, reaching out as if invoking some sort of incantation. Around it, there appeared to be a faint disturbance in the air. "Come. We must hurry. Time grows very short."
"What do we have to do?" Kestrel had calmed down, but still spoke urgently. She leaned forward toward Stefan.
Stefan took a deep breath as if trying to center himself. "This will not be easy. Not for me, not for any of you. But I think it is the only way." He paused a moment, looking at each of them in turn, and then continued. "I can link us together, using a much more powerful form of the telepathy that dragons normally employ to communicate. It is a process akin to a mind probe—with all that that implies. It will require you to lay open your minds to me—and I mine to you." His gaze settled on Ocelot as he spoke. "It will require you to trust me fully, because I must control the spell. If you try to wrest control from me, it will disrupt the process and it will fail—with possibly disastrous results." His breath was coming a bit faster; clearly this was not an option he was anxious to employ, but just as clearly he was desperate.
The runners looked at each other. What Stefan was asking them to do—to leave their minds, their inner beings, fully open to him—
Could they trust him? Dragons were tricky, and Stefan was trickier than most. Was this just some sort of elaborate, carefully-constructed plan to have his revenge on them and on Gabriel?
But if he was telling the truth, then he would be as vulnerable as they. If it was true that they could disrupt the process—and that he feared that they would do so—then how could he still offer to do this?
Ocelot hesitated, remembering his almost irrational hatred of Stefan. He had been the longest in accepting the dragon's change. But had he accepted it fully enough?
He remembered his promise to Gabriel, that he would work with Stefan, and put aside his own feelings until this was over.
The old woman's voice came back to him, almost like it was speaking in his head here and now, rather than as a memory: "Hatred is impotent against it..."
He took a deep breath. Everyone was watching him now. They all knew he would be the weak link because of his hatred. Could he do this?
He looked at Kestrel. Her eyes were on him, haunted, pleading. She said nothing, but her feelings were evident. This was bigger than Ocelot. It was bigger than any of them.
But yet—it wasn't.
Ocelot let his breath slowly out and nodded. He looked Stefan right in the eyes with no trace of hate or mistrust on his face. "Okay, Stefan. Let's do it."
Next to him, Kestrel allowed herself to breathe again. The other runners' faces—even 'Wraith's—showed relief.
Stefan nodded solemnly, with something else showing in his eyes. Respect? "I need a few moments to prepare," he said. "Please do not disturb me until I speak to you again. At that point, join hands again as we did before." Without further comment, he closed his eyes and began what looked like some sort of breathing exercise.
The runners turned back to the scene on the altar. The shimmer in the air had grown larger now, although it still had an amorphous, bloblike shape with no discernible features. It hovered around the Horror, sucking in the blue sparking energy that flew around Gabriel. The young man was watching them again—he seemed to have figured out that they had come up with a plan, because his violet eyes were fixed on them with great intensity. They still showed no fear, but only confidence that his friends would succeed.
The Horror raised its head and uttered a phrase in an unknown language, and Kestrel gasped. From a door that wasn't there before in the side of the hall, the three creatures entered with the big black knife laid over their forearms. She touched Ocelot's arm and pointed.
Winterhawk noticed too, and nodded grimly. "I hope Stefan can get himself together quickly. I don't think we've got long now."
Joe pointed across the room. "Look at the phone."
Everyone turned their attention to the pedestal next to the judge's bench. The blue energy that was arcing around the form in the air was also crackling around the telephone. It was almost impossible to see it clearly now because of all the power flying around.
"Hurry up, Stefan..." Kestrel whispered.
The creatures reached the Horror, which had begun chanting again, and offered the knife. It took it, holding the thing out in front of it and speaking what sounded like an incantation over it. Part of the blue energy broke away from the hovering form and surrounded the knife.
The runners held their breath.
"All right," Stefan rasped. "Now."
Immediately the group turned back to him. His face was lined with the effort of concentration, beads of sweat standing out on his forehead. He held his hands out. "Remember—" he added in a near-whisper "—do not try to control. If you want to save Gethelwain, you must trust me."
Winterhawk took a deep breath and grasped Stefan's hand. Joe reached for the dragon's other hand, but Ocelot touched his arm and shook his head. Joe backed off and Ocelot decisively took the place at Stefan's right side. The other runners quickly fell in and completed the circle.
Immediately they knew that this was going to be a different experience than before. As soon as the last handclasp was made, all five runners could feel power coursing through them, almost like low-grade electrical current. It was a strange but not unpleasant feeling. "All right." Stefan spoke in their minds now. "I am initiating the contact. Do not fight it."
Each of the runners in turn, radiating out from Winterhawk and Ocelot through 'Wraith, Joe, and Kestrel, felt something push its way into their minds. It was gentle and hesitant at first, but then took on more potency as it encountered no resistance. Ocelot stiffened as he felt it, but forced himself to let go. Hatred is impotent against it...
And then he felt it. In amongst his own thoughts, he could sense others that were not his. Thoughts of fear and pain and shame and determination. Thoughts moving so quickly that he could scarcely follow them, with occasional flashes of understanding like small silvery fish shooting by in roaring rapids.
And then there were others—jumbled images, slower but still flitting by. He was afraid he would go insane with so many thoughts that were not his inside his brain. Is this what it feels like to be able to read minds?
He wondered if anyone had ever read five minds simultaneously before.
Off in the distance, in what felt like another world, Kestrel gripped his hand more tightly. He barely noticed.
The thoughts continued to flash by, with the faster ones gradually taking control of the slower, feeding them all into one vast rumbling river so enormous that it could wash over everything in its path—such vast destructive power, but under the control of a sure and determined hand. A hand ruled by a mind that wanted nothing more than to right the wrongs it had caused.
All at once Ocelot understood.
He had wanted to believe before, but he did not know if he could do so. Now it was all clear to him.
Stefan's hatred—of Gabriel, of the runners—was gone. Not a vestige of it remained. It had somehow been burned away as if it had never been. It was over.
Ocelot released the last of his mental barriers and allowed the flood to wash fully over him. The last of his power, the part he had been holding back, was released. The river thundered onward.
The man that was Stefan but not-Stefan rose slowly, and the runners unconsciously rose with him. They moved as a single entity now.
The man raised his hands, bringing Ocelot's and Winterhawk's up with him. He opened his eyes.
At the altar, the Horror had raised the knife and was bringing it down over Gabriel's chest.
Gabriel was not watching the knife. He was watching Stefan. And he was smiling—a beautiful smile, terrible and cold, that even in the state he was in made him resemble nothing more than his angelic namesake. His eyes blazed with hope and confidence.
The Horror lowered the knife.
Behind it, through the great window, another figure could be seen taking form, far away across the Chasm.
Stefan brought his hands down and pointed at the Horror. His eyes were no longer black—they whirled with color now: Winterhawk's electric blue, Ocelot's pale blue, Joe's and Kestrel's green, 'Wraith's white.
The Horror's eyes widened as it finally realized what was happening. It barked something into the air and brought the knife down faster.
Stefan released the power.
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.