SHC4 Episode 15: The Long Way Home

Pit

The next few seconds are crucial. The five know that any delay will cramp their options and hand the fight over to their uncanny foe!

“Got a prayer for us Dan?” Sandi asks, poised on the lip of the vast pit.

“Not right now,” the lay preacher replies, regret filling his voice.

“I’m OK to test it out, see if we can hit it,” Sandi suggests.

“I’m right behind you… this G3 should do some real damage… I’ll go in for a toe-to-toe if I have to,” Cliff growls.

“Keep spread out! The last thing we want to do is supply that thing with easy targets!” Hitch warns.

Sandi flips herself off the ledge and lands running, making it into cover behind a large stalagmite about fifty feet counter-clockwise of the ledge. Cliff follows, clumsy in his tac-vest: he makes it to a stalagmite just a few feet in, but still in cover. Up on the ledge, Dan points out what appears to be steps over to the left, allowing descent for those not so athletically gifted. He sidles that way while Paul and Hitch plan their options.

“I only have a few spells left; after that I’m stripping them from the PDA’s chip,” Paul frets.

“Then as I was the only one to conserve firepower, it’s down to me to do the damage now!” Hitch avers.

Uncoiling swiftly, the undead dragon sidles with unbelievable grace – like a vast and evil cat – clockwise, lining up both Sandi and Cliff! As it opens its jaws, Paul snaps the same web-like spell Hitch used in the tunnels above into its mouth: but the dragon simply shakes the effect off and focuses on its prey!  An evil green tendril-like essence gushes over Sandi who shrieks in horror as her very soul is invaded by hell-spawned foulness! Although terror threatens to root her to the spot, she raises a shaking gun and shoots: the sound tiny in the vastness of the cavern, the shot well wide. Cliff gasps in relief: the gaseous attack has dissipated just short: he switches the G3 to auto-fire and sprays a burst at the dragon which gracefully evades it. Its burning eye-sockets glint mockingly.

Dan eases himself down the rock steps. Reaching the foot, he turns and jogs heavily over to join Hitch, who by this time is well in cover some twenty feet clockwise from Cliff.

“I did say, spread out!!!”

“Boyee, I ain’t built for this!”

The dragon whips its head around to focus on Dan, and races over, terror rolling like a wave before it, and snapping down cobra-like over Hitch’s chosen stalagmite. Instead of Dan, its mighty jaws close over Hitch, who screams in agony as he wrenches his shoulder from between its fangs! He’s still standing – or fleeing! He races clockwise still further, well away from Dan.

Paul jumps down, trusting to his stony skin to absorb the impact, and runs to Cliff’s position. With a surge of adrenaline he casts a spell on Cliff that makes the armored bodyguard appear to shimmer in and out of existence, and then slams a lightning bolt into the dragon – to no particular effect!

Hitch finally feels he has enough distance to do what mages do best – fire safely from vast distances! Bolts of arcane fury spray from his fingertips into the dragon – but as with Paul’s bolt of lightning the blasts have no effect. Dan executes what in a fitter man would be a sprint, away from the dragon over to the illusive safety of Cliff and Paul – illusive, for the dragon slowly, menacingly, stalks forward toward where Dan Cliff and Paul are clumped! Cliff, the cold sweat springing from every pore, switches back to single-shot. These will be the magical bullets he’s hoarded for hours. And this time, his shot is true! The dragon can be hurt!

In response, it sends a blast of pure force that lifts all three of the clustered heroes and slams them back into the pit face. Paul’s stone-skin allows him to survive and Cliff shrugs off such minor damage but Dan sinks to his knees, held alive only by the power of the lance and cup.

“Good luck!” Paul snaps, casting a last stone-skin on Dan then sprinting away counter-clockwise, toward Sandi who is now further counter-clockwise, nearing the pit face toward the giant AV screen. He notes, as terror heightens all senses, that Rieker has switched back on and is grinning triumphantly down at the fight from the screen.

Before the dragon can close on Dan, a wall of flame drops around it, a circle of burning heat. It immediately begins a counter-spell, but even so, the heat begins to do some damage. And, thinks Hitch to himself, it can’t attack Dan while it’s busy countering my wall of fire! Sure enough, Dan gets to his feet and runs counter-clockwise along the pit face, seeking cover, without being further attacked.

 

Downfall

Perhaps fate now takes a hand: or perhaps an over-confident foe shows his hand too soon. Over by the pit face further counter-clockwise from Dan, Sandi is enveloped by a vast pillar of evil flame! Even as she screams in pain from the unholy damage, she knows that there is no way that came from the dragon! Her tortured gaze fastens on a small gap below the giant screen. She’s now about thirty feet shy and ten feet below it: and from that angle, she can see Rieker himself immediately behind the screen! Forcing her legs to work, Sandi totters forward toward the screen, bringing her second gun out and blazing away with everything! Shots punch through the screen, some of them into Rieker, who is rocked backward, a look of pure shock on his face.

Scuttling with urgent haste rather than its previous delicacy, the dragon races through the last wisps of the dispelled flame to intercept Sandi’s path to Rieker. Its jaws gape and its claws strike shards off the stony pit floor. But Paul too, has seen what’s happening. And now his own bitter nature demands that he spite Rieker before Rieker can flee once more. Racing forward in a breath-taking display of bravado Paul places himself directly in the dragon’s path in order to get Rieker into range of his deadliest spells. They are spells that summon the freezing essence of that nether hell that is the preserve for traitors and funnel it into cone-shaped blasts. Paul has two of them and in another surge of adrenaline, he throws them both! Rieker begins to crumple under the first and with the second, simply falls. His eyes glaze in an expression of pure terror: for beyond the veil, he can see his many and fell erstwhile allies waiting to claim their prize.

 

Chomp

Paul has only enough time to say “Hah!” before the dragon hits him with everything it’s got. Even as a fireball lobbed by Hitch and a searing ray from Dan do real damage to the creature, it bites Paul and rakes him with its vast front claws. Paul gibbers from fear and screams with pain but remarkably, stays on his feet and is able to flee.

Sandi, where are you? I can haste you if you like?” Paul calls. There’s no sign of Sandi, who seemed bent on gaining Rieker’s position.

I’m up here behind the screen – be right there!You can do this, you can do this, Sandi assures herself. Every fiber of her being screams at her to keep hiding: but the guys are depending on her!

In a niche of the pit face, Dan prays hard, first for healing then guidance. All along he’s felt that still small voice telling him that the time to act was soon, but not yet. Now, a wash of confidence fills him. God has blessed him indeed: he can feel that all his spiritual weapons have been renewed. He moves quietly along the pit face ready for his moment. Some fifty feet away from him, the dragon is lit up by another fireball from Hitch. Dan sees Sandi leap lightly down from the ledge containing the giant AV screen – and Rieker’s corpse – and zig quickly in toward the dragon, shoot, then zig back out towards Paul who’s now well away counter-clockwise from her.

Paul castes his haste on her – but she’s not fast enough! The dragon charges, crushing Sandi up against the pit face! Its vast bony skull bores down, in what should in any sane world pin and crush the lithe young girl. But this is not a sane world: it’s a world where an undead dragon rampages amidst an icy pit. Sandi’s scream rises in pitch then breaks off – but then, even as Hitch slams a maximized array of arcane missiles into the thing and Dan readies a newly-granted attack, Sandi screams once more. This time, it’s defiant:

“Let’s be more than… this!”

Sandi steps up onto the dragon’s skull: she points both Glocks straight down: she opens up. Shards of bone fly off as at least half her bullets chew deep into the bitter bone. Cliff throws two shots into it, and Dan bravely advances to within about thirty feet and casts his globe of blinding holy white light. Outraged, the dragon whips its skull up: Sandi’s form can be seen spinning end over end up, then straight down:

xoxo guys!

The dragon’s jaws snap shut, and Sandi’s body, limp, falls softly to the pit floor.

 

Dust

Paul, groaning with the pain of losing both a meat-shield and saved spell, rips a lightning bolt from his PDA and slams it into the dragon! It seems to take full effect: and Cliff notes with trained eye that for the first time the dragon seems uncertain, even unsteady:

His knees are going, guys! Hit him with everything and he’s going down for the count!

Dan tenses: he feels his time is nearly at hand. As Hitch bathes the dragon’s bones fruitlessly with a fireball followed closely by more bolts of energy, Cliff places two good shots. At the second shot, the dragon nearly stumbles: even the untrained can see it is weak. With the word of the Lord ringing in his ears, and bellowing a prayer, Dan charges and carried by his own bulk and ineptitude, slams both the lance and his own head into its ribs. The lance sinks straight through as though the dragon were made of foam: and the great undead form shimmers and drops into dust!

Uttering a prayer of thanks, Dan rushes to Sandi’s side: she’s not entirely dead. Binding the gaping wounds that the saber-size teeth made, Dan pours healing mercies into her body and she opens her bright blue eyes and smiles up at him.

“I guess we won! Yay, team!”

 

Return

Recovering its composure and checking reserves of ammunition and spells, the team rallies then begins a search. Finding a way out seems a priority! It soon becomes evident that the eldritch icy glow is fading away, and that the vast cavern is warming slowly. Apart from a simple AV-slaved computer, Rieker’s ledge and body disclose nothing. Some corpse fragments in the center of the cavern suggest the grisly sacrifice that was made to empower the dragon. There seems no mundane way out.

Before the glow fades entirely, the beating of vast wings is heard. Charles, and his two companions the Thunderbird Wakeeza and Woman-spirit Kweenoc, descend – or perhaps emerge is the more correct term.

“Congratulations,” Charles says, smiling with a slightly sly smile. “Things went as arranged then.”

“Was that totally bogus?” Sandi asks.

“Oh, some of what you’ve seen is not as it might appear… but then, what is?”

Hitch glances sharply at Charles and then scratches his head. Since meeting the spirits he’s studied up in odds moments on first-people myths and legends and Charles fits the Raven/Trickster profile. It seems likely to Hitch – as he expounds later – that Rieker was duped into placing his power in this one place where he could never escape until a conclusion was reached.

Dan hands the cup and lance over again. A blurred ripping kind of noise can be heard: the five stand alone on the open prairie.

“I’m tempted to say, this isn’t Kansas anymore,” Paul remarks.

“You should probably have said that a lot earlier.”

“So where are we?”

“I have a GPS app here… oh.”

“What?”

“This is still Kansas. We’re about half an hour’s walk from Lebanon.”

“Aw guys! You’re forgetting the important stuff!”

“What’s that, Sandi?”

“Let’s hug it out! Group hug! We rocked it! Totally awesome!”

 

Inside Lebanon, en route to their motel, the Academy team finds the body of the sniper. His wounds suggest that he’s been dropped from a great height. Later, Lois’ body is found, and her trauma matches that description as well.

Around twenty agitated and fearful citizens cluster around the city hall. Once they realize the team is not hostile, and Sheriff Arnolf vouches for them, they bust out a vote of thanks. As Dan offers up a public thanksgiving prayer, Arnolf offers his own thanks, and the observation that the team is the durndest Special Forces team he’s ever heard of.

 

O Suburban Diner, The Lights are Brightly Shining

Tessa rises from her seat at the diner and studies the five Academy members carefully as they filter in. In spite of the season, it’s a day like any other in this north-suburb diner: the Christmas spirit is marked by a spray-painted holly-and-berries design on the diner door. The hand-chalked menu, with close study, includes the item “Xmas jaffles $3.50.” Nor does any one of the five seem at all festive. Furtive, suspicious, watchful, wary, alert are all words that can be used to describe them. They’re mostly buttoned up tight in thick coats, though Sandi’s unbuttoned hers to reveal motorcycle leathers. And guns.

It’s been a few weeks since word got to her of events in Lebanon, Kansas. Christmas has come and gone. The downfall of Rieker has seen a drastic reduction of NFF activity and effectiveness. The G – and one or two other Federal agencies and local bureaus – have been busy dismantling NFF cells and bundling survivors off for Homeland Security processing. The new “proactive” capability of the Academy is proven. These five will make excellent allies, if handled correctly. And, it will be nice to see Paul again.

“Good afternoon,” Tessa greets them politely.

“Tessa,” Hitch responds, then: “We’re all agreed that we won’t start anything unless you do.”

“That seems an adequate basis for proceeding,” Tessa replies crisply, smoothing her pink suit and gesturing to a generously-seated bay.

A limo pulls up outside, and a male nurse-attendant wheels in an ancient. The rugged features of the Hagen family are recognizable to those among the team that pay attention. Tessa’s introduction confirms it: this is Gunther Hagen who, Paul mentally calculates, would be all of 96 years old.

“Well… you’ve proven yourselves in your last escapade,” the patriarch begins. “We’re already feeling some effects through the nexii.

“Now: you’re missing a campus. Much as we would like to handle things ourselves…” the pause underlines the bitterness of the following words: “…my offspring has proven useless and is compromised.”

“Does he know this?” Hitch asks.

“I can’t be sure of that. He may be aware or just a shell.” Hagen’s voice reflects the sadness he feels deep within, and his shoulders droop a little: then straighten again. “I think we can come to a cordial agreement much as once obtained between us… I have a means whereby you can re-enter Chicago.”

“When we do, we will fight evil,” Hitch underlines with classic supererogation.

The old man waves away the implication irritably. “Of course, of course, you’re the Salvation Army of the Occult. That’s understood. You’ll enter Chicago with the item I’m about to give you” – He gestures to the nurse-attendant – “and do what you do.”

“There’s a chance – a small chance – that your son Ralph is redeemable,” Dan pronounces.

Sandi, who’s still struggling with the image of marching in front of evil in a brass band, breaks in:

“But, aren’t we just gonna blaze in and shoot shit?”

“Each of these silver pieces grants the power to pass through the barrier,” Gunther explains, choosing not to respond to Sandi and handing out silver dollars.

“Then, you’re on your own.”

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