Chapter 4, part 4

There was something there. Something small, on the floor, sticking out into the hallway. Ocelot switched to mag vision, zeroing in on the object, already afraid he knew what it was. The mag verified his fear. Reaching around behind him, he motioned Winterhawk forward. When the mage was next to him, he said under his breath, pointing: “Take a look at that.”

Winterhawk paused a moment, staring intently where Ocelot was pointing. “I think things just got a bit more interesting,” he said grimly.

“What is it?” Fang asked, hesitantly drawing up to them.

“Looks like a severed arm,” Winterhawk told her. “Propping open the door.”

Fang gasped, quickly looking over her shoulder at Striker.

“Come on,” Ocelot said. “Looks like we found what we’re looking for. Let’s go, but be careful. We don’t know what did that.”

Slowly, carefully, the four moved down the hallway. Ocelot was still in the lead, with Winterhawk behind him, then Fang and Striker. They reached the door unmolested; the stench grew worse with each step. The heavy metal door was propped open by a man’s arm, severed just below the elbow. The torn end stuck out into the hallway, the mangled flesh shining blackly in the red light. A puddle of blood (it had to be blood, even though it too looked black) had pooled up under the arm. Fang moaned a little in the back of her throat, and though Striker gripped her arm protectively, she could feel him trembling too.

Winterhawk squatted down to examine the grisly thing, seemingly impervious to the horror of it all. “It’s been ripped off,” he said with no emotion. “P’raps bitten.”

“Not cut,” Ocelot said.

The mage shook his head. He pointed to the ragged edges of the wound, and Fang had to turn away. “No, not a chance. Whatever did this wasn’t terribly discriminating.”

Striker glanced nervously toward the door. “You think it’s in there? Whatever did it?”

“I’d bet what we’re looking for’s in there,” Ocelot said. “Or at least it was.”

“So we have to go in,” Fang said, her eyes darting back and forth down the hallway.

“I’ll go first,” Ocelot said. “Everybody stay close--”

“But not too close,” Winterhawk cut in. “If there’s anything magical in there, let’s not give it the lot of us in a clump and make its job easier, yes?”

Ocelot nodded. “Yeah, that’s true. Okay, then you two follow us in after a couple seconds. Then we can spread out and watch each other’s backs.” He looked around the circle of faces. “Everybody ready?” At their nods, he flung the door open, leaped over the arm, and entered the room.

The room behind the door had evidently been some sort of lab, but right now it looked like something out of a vision of hell. The red emergency lights continued to cast an unwholesome glare over everything in the room, illuminating lab benches, metal cabinets, overturned stools, and other such paraphernalia. The stench, which had been nearly unbearable in the hallway, was even worse in here: it smelled like a charnel-house on a stiflingly hot day. Outside in the hall, the smell rolled its way out to where Fang and Striker waited. Fang shoved up the visor of her helmet and clamped her fingers over her nose. “What’s wrong, Paul?” she whispered. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this at all. Nobody said anything about severed arms and--”

He nodded. “I know. Something’s wrong. But we gotta get in there, or they’re gonna think we’re runnin’ out on them.” Gently, he took her arm and guided her toward the door. “Stay near me. I’ll take care of you.”

Inside, Ocelot and Winterhawk were taking quick stock of the situation. It was quickly obvious what the source of the smell was: the rest of the body formerly attached to the severed arm lay in the middle of the room, horribly mutilated. There was blood everywhere: streaking the walls, across the lab benches, all over the floor. “What the hell--?” Ocelot said quietly. It appeared from their initial inspection that there was nothing else living in the room. “Any ideas?”

Winterhawk shook his head. “Nothing definitive. Lots of speculation, all of it probably wrong.” He didn’t even glance to his left as the door opened again; he knew that Fang and Striker were coming in.

If he had looked at them, he would have seen Fang’s eyes widen in horror, and Striker stiffen up. Instead, he was looking at Ocelot, and so therefore got to see the thing that was causing such terror in the two newcomers.

A...thing...was rising up from behind one of the lab benches behind Ocelot. A huge, hellish thing that moved with unearthly speed, chittering madly, clicking enormous mandibles and diving toward Ocelot. Winterhawk barely got time to yell “Down!” before the creature was on his friend.

But Ocelot was yelling at the same time, gesturing with his own cyber-enhanced reflexes at something behind Winterhawk. The mage was ducking when he felt a white-hot pain lance across his back, and the chittering was louder. It was right in his own ears now.

Fang screamed. She and Striker had had the clearest view of what was going on: two giant creatures that looked for all the world like outsized ants had risen almost simultaneously up from the debris behind the two runners and leaped upon them, mandibles and horrible hooked appendages clicking. She screamed again, wheeling on her brother. “Paul! Paul, what do we do? What do we do?

Ocelot tried to ignore the pain and think straight. The creature had attached itself to his back and was now trying to dig through his armor with its clawed upper appendages. Winterhawk was in almost the identical situation, writhing back and forth in a vain attempt to dislodge the creature. Ocelot knew that the mage didn’t have the strength to do it; he wasn’t sure he himself did. Their only hope would be to work together. “‘Hawk!” he yelled, drawing his sword. “Turn around!”

Instead of turning, Winterhawk seemed to gather himself for a moment, then gestured almost with rage toward Ocelot. “Die, you bastard!” Ocelot heard him hiss, then felt the heat of a spell blooming around him. The creature’s hold loosened, but didn’t break.

“Turn around!” Ocelot yelled again, wondering in the periphery of his mind what had happened to Fang and Striker, but unable to spare more than that small thought for them.

Winterhawk staggered forward, trying to comply. The thing weighed as much as he did. With an effort of will, he managed to wheel around about a quarter turn. This was enough for Ocelot, who swung his sword in a mighty arc at the nightmare on Winterhawk’s back. Off in the distance, Fang screamed again, and Ocelot thought he heard the heavy clump of Striker’s footsteps as he approached them.

The sword contacted the creature, cleaving through its hard outer surface to the works inside. The ant-thing uttered a thin, piercing cry, dropped off Winterhawk’s back, and disappeared, leaving bloody trails behind where its claws had breached the mage’s armor. Winterhawk swayed, then righted himself and drew his black-bladed sword from beneath his coat. Forcing himself to move around behind Ocelot, he repeated his friend’s action at the second bug.

The magical blade went through the creature like it was made of butter. It, too, screamed and dissipated into thin air, leaving more blood behind it.

Striker screamed.

Winterhawk and Ocelot, gasping and bloody, glanced at each other, unsure for a moment what they’d heard. It had been a long time since either of them had ever heard a troll scream. “Get it off me!” Striker yelled on the edge of hysteria. “It’s on me! Get it OFF!” He ran forward, clawing ineffectually at the thing that was clawing at his lower back. Fang followed, eyes wide, fumbling in her handbag for something, anything, that could help them.

Winterhawk looked at Ocelot and then both of them were in action again, moving forward with a decent amount of their old teamwork. The bug on Striker wasn’t attached to him like their own had been; instead, it stood on its hind legs and clutched at him with its upper legs in a revolting parody of dancing. The troll was in the process of going off the deep end; he would be no help in this. Fang was no better.

Ocelot arrived first; he didn’t want to slice at it as he had done with Winterhawk’s; the thing was moving too much and he was afraid he might hit Striker. Instead, he used the flat side of the blade to swipe at its legs and lower abdomen, putting all of his considerable strength into the effort. If he could get it off Striker, then they’d have more options.

The swipe was successful; the sword contacted the bug’s legs and knocked them out from under it; the thing scrabbled madly at Striker’s back but could not get a grip. It went down on its back in a heap of swinging legs.

Winterhawk, like a man possessed, raised his mageblade and drove it down into the thing’s abdomen, looking as if he was trying to pin it to the floor. If the floor hadn’t been concrete, he might have succeeded. As it was, the sword’s tip sunk deep into the creature’s gut, spewing noisome ichor across the bloody floor. The bug, like the other two, screeched and disappeared.

A strange silence fell over the room for a few seconds, broken only by the sounds of Fang’s sobs, Striker’s soft moans, and the quick sharp breaths of Winterhawk and Ocelot, both of whose eyes were in constant motion, looking for more of the horrific creatures. “Come on,” Ocelot said at last. “Let’s get out of here.”

Fang hitched in another shuddering breath, her eyes so wide that the whites could be seen all the way around. “What--what were those things? They were awful...They were...” She broke into a fresh bout of sobs. Striker, however, couldn’t help her just then; he was dealing with his own terror.

“Come on now,” Winterhawk said briskly, though he was feeling anything but brisk. He’d seen this kind of mind-numbing terror before, and they had neither the time nor the power to drag both her and Striker out of here unwillingly. “That was bad, but it’s over. Ocelot’s right--we’ve got to get out of here.” He took a deep breath and sagged against one of the walls, feeling the blood trickling its way down his back. He didn’t add, There might be more of them, and we don’t really want to meet them, do we? but the unspoken words hung in the air anyway.

“It was on me...” Striker muttered under his breath. “It was on me, and it was gonna kill me...”

Ocelot, ignoring him, moved over to the door and looked out. “Coast’s clear,” he reported. “For now. Come on--we’ve gotta go.”

“I take it we’re scrubbing our little mission, then?” Winterhawk asked from next to Fang.

“Screw the mission,” Ocelot agreed. “I don’t need money bad enough to mess with those things again, do you?”

In answer, the mage gripped Fang by the upper arms and shook her roughly. “Come on,” he hissed in her ear. “We’ve no time for hysteria now. You can be hysterical when we get out of here in one piece.”

A huge hand fell on Winterhawk’s shoulder, clamping down like a vice. It wasn’t hard enough to hurt, but it easily could have been. It was Striker. Apparently, the perceived threat to his sister was one of the few things that could have brought him out of his stupor. “Don’t touch her,” he growled, though his voice was still shaky.

“No problem,” Winterhawk said, releasing his grip on her. “Glad to see you’re back among the living. Now come on. We have to get out of here. Help her, will you?” He glanced pointedly at the troll’s hand on his shoulder. “You’ve made your point, old boy,” he said in a low, dangerous tone, his eyes coming up to meet Striker’s. “You can let up now.”

Striker, still somewhat in a daze, nodded and let go. Gently, he took Fang’s arm and guided her toward the door.

Ocelot was waiting for them outside. “To the stairs,” he said, pointing. “We’ll go out the way we came in.”

They retraced their steps down the corridor and around the corner to the door leading to the stairs. Ocelot opened it and motioned everyone in; Fang and Striker went first. Winterhawk paused before going in, then stopped. “What is it?” Ocelot asked.

The mage pointed down the hall. “Wasn’t the elevator not working before?”

Ocelot followed Winterhawk’s gaze to the elevator at the end of the hallway. The light above it was now on.

And slowly, steadily, the floor indicator was moving downward.

Striker poked his head out the door. “What’s wrong?”

“Something’s coming,” Ocelot said.

His protective instincts seemed to have brought the troll back to normal, for he showed no sign of his former terror. “Want me to blow it up?” He indicated the Panther cannon still slung over his shoulder.

“Yeah,” Ocelot said quickly. “Do it now, before that thing gets to the bottom.” He stepped into the stairway door and after a moment Winterhawk followed him, switching places with Striker.

Striker unslung the cannon, pointed it at the elevator, and pulled the trigger. His timing could not have been better. The elevator had reached the floor where they were and the doors had just started to open when the huge shell tore into it and exploded. Ocelot and Winterhawk got a quick impression of waving legs before the elevator exploded into rubble. Striker dived into the stairway and slammed the door shut, looking more exhilarated than he had all day. “That should take care of ‘em!” he said.

“Let’s not hang around to find out,” Ocelot said. “Come on--everybody up.” He gestured for everyone to precede him, then pulled out a handful of tiny grenades from his pocket. Checking to make sure the others were safely out of harm’s way, he set each grenade’s timer for sixty seconds, then turned and bolted up the stairs after his teammates. His back was stinging; he hoped there was no poison in the ants’ slashes, but there was nothing to be done about it now. Winterhawk seemed to be bearing up all right, and since he was a lot less tough physically, Ocelot figured they’d be okay. If they could get out of here. “Go!” he yelled. “Hurry! We don’t want to be too close when those blow!”

“Where to?” Striker asked, still helping Fang. “Same way we came in?”

“No. They’ll expect us that way. Let’s keep going up. We’ll go out through the roof and get down from there. We’ll--” He paused to look back down as the grenades blew, taking out the door and most of the frame, then hurried up, not finishing his sentence.

Nobody argued. Everyone was alone with his or her own thoughts: Striker was worried, both about Fang and about the situation. Fang was slowly coming back to herself, wondering what they’d gotten themselves into, content to let her brother guide her steps for the moment. Winterhawk was trying to figure out how they were going to get down from the roof, since he suspected casting that levitation spell on everyone again with his injuries might well cause him to pass out from the drain. Ocelot was worried about what might be coming out the doors they had to pass in the stairway before they finally reached the roof.

As it was, nothing popped out at them from any of the doors leading to the roof. When they shoved open the last door and piled out into the night, the fresh cold air was a welcome relief from the close noisome hell down below.

Striker sagged against the doorframe, looking out over the edge of the building. “Now what?” he asked. He was not even breathing heavily from the exertion of climbing several flights of stairs in quick succession.

“We get the hell out of here,” Winterhawk muttered through quick sharp breaths. He was bent over, hands on his knees, still swaying. “And we don’t come back.”

“What about the job?” Fang asked tentatively, speaking for the first time since they’d left the lab. “We didn’t--get what we came for.”

Winterhawk’s gaze swiveled around to meet hers. “We’ll be needing to have a talk in a bit, my friend. For now, though, we need to leave.” He turned back to Ocelot. “I can get myself down with my levitation lock, but I don’t know about the rest of you--”

Ocelot shook his head. “No problem. Got it covered.” He drew aside his coat to reveal two grapple guns. He tossed one to Striker. “Know how to use this?”

“Yeah. But will it hold me?” Striker eyed the small gun with distrust.

“It’ll hold you and Fang too. You’re gonna have to carry her down. Unless you want me to do it. I don’t have another gun.”

“I’ll do it,” Striker said decisively, reaching for the grapple gun.

Winterhawk had been listening at the door. “Gentlemen, ladies,” he said slowly, “I think we’d best stop talking and start moving. Something’s coming.”

That got everybody moving in a hurry. Ocelot attached his grapple gun hook to the side of the building and climbed over the side, rappelling down quickly and quietly. After a moment, Striker repeated his actions, though he was not as quick or as quiet going down. In one hand he held the gun, in the other, he made a crook so Fang could sit on his arm and grasp him around the neck. Winterhawk, the last one down, stole one last look at the door before activating his levitation spell lock and floating gracefully over the edge.

The door was rattling.

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Copyright ©1996 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.