The massive, shining blue beam of light that flew from Stefan's hand pierced the barrier before them as if it were made of the flimsiest paper. A bright light flared over the runners, momentarily blinding them, as the Horror-creatures in the tiers scrambled to obey their master's frantic order.
The world changed.
Suddenly the building, the seats, the judge's bench—all were gone, replaced by only the stark and arid red plain and the Chasm. There was no town, no amphitheatre, no structures—
Save for one.
The altar was still there, but now it was a crude stone thing, not the intricately carved structure that had stood there previously. The Horror looked the same, as did Gabriel. The thing was screaming at the top of its voice now, still trying to salvage its ritual. In rage, it rammed the knife downward.
The knife hit Gabriel, but in the Horror's fury it had swung wildly and thus missed its mark in the young dragon's heart. Instead it pierced his side, glancing off his ribcage. Blood welled up around the wound, crackling with energy. The Horror's scream mingled with Gabriel's cry of pain as the thing fought to draw back the knife and try again.
It wasn't to get the chance, though. As the barrier shimmered out of existence, Stefan and the runners were already in action. Leaping upward, Stefan shifted form, transforming into the enormous, green-scaled dragon that was his true self. He bellowed in rage, heading straight for the Horror.
The runners were not idle. "We gotta cut that line!" Ocelot yelled. "Come on!"
The Horror-creatures were already surging forward. They seemed to be everywhere.
"Look!" Joe cried, pointing. "We're glowing!"
And sure enough he was right. The light from the spell that had bathed them still hovered over them, outlining their forms in crackling blue fire. "Let's hope it's something helpful," Winterhawk said grimly. "We're buggered if we have to fight all these things."
But it was too late for hope now. It was time for action.
The Horror-things continued to approach, some of them splitting off to head toward their master while most of them went for the runners. They were no longer dressed in their drab finery, but had returned to their former misshapen appearances. Many of them carried weapons.
"Stay together!" Ocelot yelled. "If they split us up we're dead!" He ducked as one of the things swung a scimitar at him, then brought his foot up lightning-fast into the thing's gut. He was rewarded by a pained Oof as the thing staggered backward.
"We can hurt 'em!" Joe's cry was almost exuberant. For too long he'd been forced to sit and watch. Now he could finally do something. He waded in, swinging his massive arms at a pair of the creatures.
The Horror saw Stefan diving for it and realized that it would not survive the attack of a near-fully-grown Great Dragon in its current form. "You will die, young one," it hissed at Gabriel, and then it changed.
Stefan was almost brought up short in shock at the sight of the Horror's true form. No one on Earth had ever seen it, and even the creatures on the astral plane had avoided the sight. The unassuming-looking elf grew and stretched out, its slender body becoming bulbous and covered with rot and running sores and yellow eyes with blood-red pupils. The thing was almost as big as Stefan, with great clawed forelegs and a maw that seemed to hold the blackness of oblivion within its confines. "A foolish mistake from a foolish child," it whispered to Stefan, its voice like the sound of rotten flesh being ripped from dead bones. "You will pay for your foolishness, and the Master will have you and your accursed brother for his own!" Lunging forward at a far greater rate of speed than one would have thought such a bloated thing could achieve, it launched itself at Stefan. The two met with a great crunch that shook the land all around.
Gabriel, semiconscious now, watched the battle rage around him. He could not see the knife wound in his side, but he could feel the blood trickling down and pooling beneath him, joining that from all the other wounds the Horror had inflicted on him. This one was different, though, and he knew it. The large black knife with which it had been inflicted had been enchanted for just that purpose. Though small, the wound was the most serious of all. He knew that he did not have long, but he struggled to remain conscious and continue observing the battle. If they are successful then these wounds will mean nothing. But if I die here—
His vision was already starting to fade. I must not give up. They have done so much—I know that they have it within them to do this. I have placed my trust in them. I will give them what little power I can give them, in the form of my hope.
Ocelot, Winterhawk, and the other runners were having a hard time staying together despite their efforts. The Horror-things were coming in from all sides and seemed to have it as their main purpose to separate the five of them. Divide and conquer. Even Winterhawk, who, with his magical abilities working once again, was laying waste to the things four and five at a time, was barely making a dent in their numbers.
The only thing that was saving them, at least so far, was the strange glow that surrounded each of their bodies. If there was any doubt in any of their minds that Fate was behind them in their endeavor, that doubt had been laid to rest the first time one of the creatures had brought an enormous club down on top of Joe's head. The thing should have bashed the troll's brains in, but instead the club deflected against the glow, which flared briefly a brighter blue and then settled back into its previous intensity—or perhaps just a bit dimmer.
"Won't last forever," 'Wraith said between breaths. "Must do something." Of all the runners he was at the most loss without a weapon in his hand. His mastery of firearms would not help him here, and, like Winterhawk, he was not physically tough enough to take too many hits. When the glowing armor failed, he would be in big trouble.
"We need to get to that line!" Ocelot yelled again. "That's all that matters."
"What about Stefan?" Kestrel got out as she slashed a creature's eyes out with her hand razors.
Winterhawk glance over at where the dragon and the Horror were now locked in combat only meters away from Gabriel's altar. "I don't think we can help him," he said. "Ocelot's right—we have to get that line."
"But where is it?" Joe slugged a creature out of the way and glanced over toward the chasm. "The phone's gone!"
He was right. The telephone had disappeared along with the rest of the trappings of the church/courtroom.
"Where did it go?" Ocelot demanded. The things were coming in thicker now. Taking a big risk, ducked under the axe one of the things was swinging at him, jamming his cyberspur up to the root into its gut. The creature screamed, spurting yellowish-black blood all over him, but dropped the axe. Ocelot snatched it up and tossed it to Joe.
"It's got to be over by the edge of the Chasm," Winterhawk said, puffing. He was already tiring, the drain from the large area-effect spells he had been casting taking its toll on him. "Let's work our way over there."
"Careful!" Joe warned. "Remember how nasty it was over there last time. If that wind catches you—"
"Maybe we can pitch a few of them in." Winterhawk flung another spell at a group of creatures coming in from his left side; they clutched their heads and dropped. Immediately 'Wraith and Kestrel surged forward and grabbed two of their weapons: the elf hefted a scimitar, while Kestrel chose a staff. Thus armed, they turned their attention to another group approaching from the other side. At the same time, the group of runners began backing up, retreating toward the edge of the Chasm.
"Protect 'Wraith—he's got the best eyes," Ocelot said as he struggled with another creature over possession of a black spear. "Somebody's gotta spot that thing or we're all dead!"
Stefan and the Horror were well-matched, and that disturbed the dragon. It had already gotten several wicked shots in on him, slashing at his chest and forelegs with its dripping claws. Everywhere the Horror had wounded him he felt a burning sensation—the poison was not strong yet, but he could feel it working its way into his system. This could not be a protracted fight.
They had given up on casting spells at each other. Here, with Verjigorm's power—or even a tiny portion of it—supplementing its magical barriers, the Horror was barely scratched by Stefan's most powerful offensive magic, while Stefan's barriers were holding against the Horror's own offenses. Instead they had fallen to the level of physical confrontation, a primal struggle of two titanic creatures ripping at each other tooth and claw. Stefan was reminded briefly of his battle with Gabriel six months ago, something that he now regretted. He was having trouble now remembering the hatred he had felt for his brother, let alone summoning any of it up. He risked a sideways glance at Gabriel, still a prisoner, naked and vulnerable in the midst of the battle but still watching him with quiet confidence—and redoubled his efforts, slashing at the Horror with his claws and gouging with his massive teeth. I will not fail you, Gethelwain. I have given you my word and I will keep it.
The runners were making progress, but not as fast as they had hoped. Already their glowing armor was beginning to fade, with no end in sight of the creatures that were stumbling over the dead bodies of their fellows to reach their prey. "Anything, 'Wraith?" Kestrel called.
"Not yet," came the terse reply.
Ocelot had gotten hold of the spear and was now wielding it with deadly precision, keeping the things at bay from his side. Sweat ran down his forehead and his back; his muscles burned with pain. He knew that if he was feeling this way, then Winterhawk and 'Wraith must be feeling much worse. Joe could go on forever, but he was taking the brunt of the attacks as usual. His armor was dimming dangerously. He was making good use of the creature's outsized axe, though, cutting a swath through the things on his own side of the fight. "We gotta move faster!" Ocelot yelled desperately.
'Wraith knew the urgency of the situation and concentrated harder on his task, trying to ignore the fighting around him. His sharp eyes scanned the edge of the Chasm, looking for any sign of the means of communication the Horror had strung across it using Telanwyr's death-energy as the power. It had to have some tangible form, or they would not have been concerned with hiding it. It could be very small, but it had to be nearby—
When he finally spotted it, he almost missed it, passing right over it without even seeing the narrow red cord that snaked out of the Chasm about ten meters away, anchored down by a piece of the red rock right on the edge. The end of it appeared to be plugged directly into the ground. As he stared at it, a little spark of energy crackled around it and the ground nearby glowed slightly. "Got it," he said sharply.
"Where?" Joe looked around but saw nothing. He had to turn his attention back to the battle as another creature tried to take his head off. His armor was now only a flicker.
"There." 'Wraith pointed. "Red cord. Near rock."
Winterhawk allowed himself a brief moment of levitation up over the crowd. "Yes! I see it!"
"Let's go!" Ocelot spoke through gritted teeth. "We're losin' it here!"
As if to punctuate his words, Joe's armor flared brightly for a second and then disappeared. The creatures, seeing an advantage, renewed their efforts.
Stefan sunk his teeth into the Horror's body again, struggling not to gag at the stench and taste of rot that wafted across his nostrils and flowed into his mouth. The thing laughed, bringing its claws up over his back and raking across his wings, rending the tender membranes with great bloody slashes. Stefan screamed in pain, releasing his grip on the Horror and staggering backward. The thing pressed its advantage again.
Stefan began to feel fear. He was losing, and he knew it. Already slashed and bleeding from the thing's claws and its foul teeth, he could feel the poison continuing to take effect. His limbs were growing heavy, his vision clouding. Have I come so far to be defeated now? he thought in despair. They were getting precariously close to the Chasm; he knew that if he lost his step here, he would be sucked down into the swirling winds and never be seen again. The Horror seemed to be subtly steering him in that direction.
Stefan glanced once again over at his brother. Gabriel's eyes were closed now; he seemed to be unconscious, or perhaps just conserving his strength. Stefan could not tell if he was alive, but he suspected that he would know—somehow—if Gethelwain had died. He couldn't concentrate on that now. Leaping forward, he slashed at the Horror again and again. It was a small consolation to him that he appeared to have hurt the thing badly enough that it had stopped talking. He staggered onward.
The runners were moving over toward where 'Wraith had spotted the wire, but things were not looking good. Joe had so far managed to avoid the worst of the injuries the Horror-creatures were trying to inflict on him, but he had still already taken several bloody wounds following the demise of his armor. Ocelot and Kestrel were not doing much better, their own armor now having reached the dim stage that preceded its disappearance. 'Wraith and Winterhawk were trying to remain behind their comrades, since it appeared that the creatures didn't want to get too close to the Chasm and had therefore abandoned their plan to surround the runners from all sides in favor of attempting to surround them from only three sides. That left 'Wraith and Winterhawk, at least for the moment, relatively free of attacks and able to concentrate on the task at hand—taking out creatures with spells and keeping track of where the wire was.
As they drew closer to it, they could feel the energy growing in the air. Winterhawk, especially, seemed affected by it. His hand flew to his head and he staggered sideways, paling.
"What?" 'Wraith regarded him with concern.
"Don't—know," the mage gasped. "Power is—strong here. Like—trying to walk through—water."
Joe nodded. "I feel it too. This—buzzing in my head." A creature lashed out at him with a whip, opening up a long jagged wound on his arm. He clubbed the thing over the head and Ocelot snatched up the whip.
"It's the wire," Winterhawk got out. "That thing over there's fighting us." He struggled onward, but it was getting harder and harder to cast spells now. The power was sapping his magical strength.
Stefan and the Horror had reached the edge of the Chasm. Locked together tooth and claw, each of them tried to pitch the other one over into the abyss, but their strength was matched equally enough that so far neither had an advantage. "Give up, dragon," the thing hissed at him, spitting venom. "You cannot win. You have no power here."
Stefan ducked his head sideways to avoid the venom, lunging in at where the thing's neck seemed to be again. He did not answer, opting instead to sink his razor-sharp teeth into the thing's hide once again. If I can just get it off balance, I can throw it over the edge—
But he was weakening. He knew if he was going to do something, it would have to be soon. The Horror was still gaining power from its connection to Verjigorm, but even without that infusion, Stefan was losing hope that he could defeat it. Grimly he threw his weight into it again.
Ocelot paused briefly to glance over at the fight going on further down the Chasm. Stefan was wrestling with some kind of disgusting thing that chilled Ocelot's blood just to look at it. So that's what it really looks like—and if we fail we'll be that thing's slaves...or worse yet, slaves to the thing that thing serves...
His armor flared and disappeared. A creature, seeing its chance, aimed a slash and got in under Ocelot's guard, raking its claws across his side and hip. Ocelot gasped and staggered backward as Kestrel waded in to his aid.
They were almost there now. Only a few more meters. Ocelot gritted his teeth. Must hold on—
The Horror gathered all its strength and shoved Stefan sideways, screaming something in an ancient language that was probably better left untranslated. Then it cried, "Die, dragon! Die like your father did! Your line is good for nothing but to be used by us and then discarded to the wrath of your betters! Die like your miserable brother has done!"
Stefan cried out in rage, the red haze over his eyes not coming entirely from his many wounds. Digging his powerful back legs into the ground, he clamped his forelegs around the Horror's body and used his leg muscles to shove forward. The edge of the Chasm was so close—
The Horror fought for purchase in the rocky soil, and for a moment Stefan thought it was going to resist, shoving him backward. But then the thing's foot slipped on the loose gravel! Stefan screamed again, this time in triumph, as he felt the resistance begin to give as the thing staggered back, trying to regain its balance—
The Horror, screeching in protest, went over the edge—
—but before the top part of its body could completely go over, its forelegs shot out, its claws digging deeply into Stefan's shoulders, and its head came up, clamping its teeth even more deeply into the dragon's neck.
Stefan, the pain almost making him insane, threw his body down on the edge of the abyss, neck thrashing, sinking his rear claws into the ground to hold his position. They hung there thus, the Horror dangling precariously with its hooks buried in Stefan, the dragon laying flat on the ground to prevent himself from being carried over.
And then, very slowly, the Horror began climbing.
"Look!" Kestrel shouted, pointing.
The other runners stole glances when they could and spotted Stefan with the Horror locked to him, teetering on the edge of the Chasm.
"Get the wire," 'Wraith said. "Cannot—help—Stefan."
All their armor was gone now. Joe was staggering, barely standing; Ocelot's side was white-hot with pain, joined now by more slashes on his arms and legs. Kestrel was bloody too, while 'Wraith and Winterhawk were nearly exhausted...
The creatures seemed interminable.
They were almost there.
The Horror laughed, as much as it could do with a mouthful of Stefan's neck. Most of it was in his mind. It disengaged one set of claws from the dragon's bleeding shoulder and sunk it in a bit further up. Stefan went rigid with pain. "Ah, foolish one, it is as I said! I will prevail. You cannot move, because doing so will cause you to lose your grip. But I will wait until you are dead, and then I will use you as my stepping-stone once again—as I have done all this time—and I will have my victory! There is nothing you can do." Its voice dissolved into peals of laughter again.
Stefan felt the blood running from him in dozens of places. He felt his brain begin to be consumed by the fog that would eventually lead to oblivion if he didn't do something soon. But he did not have the strength to dislodge the Horror—and even if he did, just as the thing had said, he would lose his balance and the thing would just climb over his body. He did not think that the thing could climb fully upward—not while he lived. But if he remained as he was, the Horror would wait him out until he died, and then—
On the altar, Gabriel struggled back to consciousness from the drifting miasma that had been threatening to pull him downward. The first thing he saw was Stefan and the Horror poised on the edge of the precipice.
And then he saw Stefan smile, and all at once he knew why. "Sildarath—no. There must be another way."
Stefan heard his brother's voice in his head and it brought him strength. Gethelwain was not dead after all.
"No," Gethelwain said again, urgently. "You cannot."
Stefan's smile grew a bit bigger, gentler. "I must. Even if we are successful in our efforts, the other dragons will see nothing but that I participated in Telanwyr's murder."
Gabriel's eyes met the one of Stefan's that he could see. "Yes, but it was not your doing. You were influenced by the Enemy."
"So was my father," Stefan reminded him. "I will not continue his legacy."
On the altar, Gabriel struggled against the chains, leaning closer to his brother. "I will argue for you. I will stand before all the dragons in the world if that is what it will take."
Stefan shook his head, a tiny little barely-perceptible movement. "I admire your loyalty, little brother. I don't deserve it. But it is too late for that now. We are only children. They will not listen to us. I'd rather my life meant something."
Gabriel struggled harder, but he had no strength left. "Sildarath—"
"Goodbye, Gethelwain. I am sorry for all I have done to you."
He gathered the muscles in his powerful rear legs and shoved forward with all his remaining strength.
The Horror realized too late what Stefan was doing. Desperately scrambling, it redoubled its efforts to clamber up the dragon's body, but the point of no return had already been passed. Stefan drove himself forward and out over the edge, his talons still sunk deep in the Horror's flesh.
He did not scream as the two of them plummeted down into the darkness of the Abyss.
The Horror did.
Gabriel closed his eyes and at last allowed the blackness to take him. But just before he passed out, he felt feelings wash over him, so strong that they were almost tangible things.
Happiness. Gratitude. The satisfaction of a wrong finally having been righted.
"Thank you, my brother." He did not know if the words in his mind were his or Stefan's. Either way was all right with him.
Winterhawk and 'Wraith, at precisely the same time, were making their final stand as their three companions held off the never-ending army of creatures. Both nearly dropping from fatigue, they knew they only had one shot at it. They looked at each other and nodded, unspoken communication passing between them. Winterhawk grabbed 'Wraith and lifted them both up, levitating them the final few meters toward the cord.
'Wraith raised his scimitar and, held there in 'Hawk's grip, brought it down with all his power on the conduit.
When it split, a massive charge came up through the scimitar, flinging 'Wraith and Winterhawk backward into the other runners. The cut ends of the cord sparked blue and then red, and then fizzled into nothingness.
A soul-chilling scream was heard from somewhere across the Chasm.
The scene faded to black as the sound of an old woman's laughter echoed through their minds.
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.