NOWHERE TO HIDE (Part 2 of 2)

Written by: Shauntell Holm and Jonathan Cotleur

Outline by: Shauntell Holm and Jonathan Cotleur

With Contributions by Damien Tobin

* * * * *

The Caves

Diomedes, Thersites and Desdemona landed softly outside the cave entrance.

"If we don’t find them here," Diomedes grumbled, "we might as well turn back. It’s already rather close to sunrise."

Desdemona caped her double-layered wings over her shoulders and bent down to examine the ground. "There are tracks, at least three of them," she pointed out hopefully. Her eyes followed the footprints into the cave. "They lead inside."

"Well," gulped Thersites, peering uneasily into the blackness. "Looks like this is the place."

Desdemona led the way in, followed by Diomedes. Thersites hesitated outside for a moment, unwilling to hand himself over to the abominable darkness just yet. "You know, our brother is right. It is getting awfully close to sunrise. Our leader will be worried..."

"Our leader is also worried about our brothers and sister," Diomedes reminded.

Thersites grumbled as he followed his rookery siblings in. A few moments later, they emerged from the corridor into a large cavern buried deep within the rock face. Above them was a crack in the ceiling, which provided adequate light.

"Well," Thersites declared, "looks like no one’s home. Maybe we should head back."

Desdemona and Diomedes ignored him as they began to search the chamber for clues.

"The floor shows signs of a struggle," Desdemona observed cryptically.

In the center of the cavern, Diomedes knelt beside a small chasm in the ground. "This doesn’t look like it was created very long ago." As he spoke, a low groan emanated from within the chasm.

Desdemona joined Diomedes beside the hole. "Hello?" Diomedes called.

There was another moan, followed by a weak voice. "Brother? Is that you?"

Diomedes and Desdemona exchanged glances, both recognizing the voice of their brown-skinned rookery brother. Desdemona called, "It is us, brother. Are the others down there with you?"

There was a pause before Javin answered, "No, I fell down by myself. I don’t know what happened to them."

"Can you climb out?" Desdemona asked.

"I think so," Javin replied uncertainly. "I will try."

They waited and listened as the sounds of falling pebbles echoed up, and then of talons gripping rock. After a few minutes, Javin emerged from the darkness, as if from a black pool. Desdemona and Diomedes reached their hands out. Javin took them, and together they pulled him out.

Javin was pretty beaten around the edges, but all-in-all appeared to be well. As Desdemona finished her visual sweep of him, she asked, "Do you have any idea what happened to our brother and sister after you fell?"

Javin nodded heavily as he took in some breaths of fresh air. "We were attacked," he revealed, "by our brother the bandit leader, and his bandits, as well as the female warrior we encountered during the Rite of the Warrior last year. Her gargoyles fought alongside the humans in full battle gear. They ambushed us and... I fell in."

The reactions from all three gargoyles were of uniform shock.

"How long ago was this?" Diomedes demanded.

Javin massaged his head as he tried to think. "I can’t be sure from being down there. I came to only a few minutes ago. It is... still the same night we left, is it not?"

Desdemona nodded sympathetically. "It is, brother. You were not out that long."

Diomedes was deep in thought. This gave Javin an uncomfortable feeling. Finally, he spoke. "You’re sure that that’s the whole story?"

Javin nodded. "To my recollection."

"You didn’t leave anything out?"

Javin shook his head. "No, Brother."

Desdemona gave Diomedes a skeptical look. "What are you trying to imply, brother?"

"Nothing," Diomedes answered defensively. "It just seems... odd, to me, that this is the whole story." He turned a suspicious eye to Javin. "If I recall, there was some level of tension between you and our lavender brother before you left."

Desdemona corrected, "So our leader recalls."

"I noticed it, too," Diomedes insisted, and returned his attention to Javin. "As a matter of fact, I noticed how you’ve been acting particularly strange this night and the last. And now, we find you alone and unharmed, without any trace of our brother, or our sister."

"I..." Javin stammered.

"Stop making paranoid accusations, Brother," Desdemona scorned.

"I don’t mean to interrupt," Thersites joined in, cutting short Diomedes’ reply, "but couldn’t the enemy still be around here?" He looked over his shoulder nervously.

"Our brother is right," Desdemona declared. "We should leave this place."

"And return home," Thersites suggested, "where we can gather the others. We can’t go after all those gargoyles and the bandits by ourselves, after all." His voice quavered slightly as he considered the possibility.

Diomedes shot an icy glare at Javin, who did his best to avoid making eye contact. "All right," he finally said, "let’s return home."

Everyone made their way back to the cave entrance, but as they got closer and the shadows receded, the outlines of four gargoyles standing just inside the opening became visible.

"Going somewhere?" the lead gargoyle, with her arms crossed authoritatively over her chest, inquired. Three pairs of white incandescent eyes lit up the darkness as Atalanta’s warriors drew swords from their sheaths.

Thersites let out a startled gasp.

Atalanta grinned, then spotted Javin in the back. "Ah... I see your lavender beauty’s victor is still alive."

Javin shrunk under the startled gaze of Desdemona, accompanied by the iron glare of Diomedes, but no one could react more.

"Seize them," Atalanta commanded. Her three gargoyles lifted their weapons and charged forward. She remained where she was, her arms still crossed, with a self-satisfied smile.

The three gargoyles emerged from the black shroud of the tunnel with resounding roars. Thersites, who had been the most anxious to leave the cavern, stood in front and shrank before their unveiled ferocity. Diomedes and Desdemona turned their attentions from Javin and assumed hasty battle stances.

Three deadly blades sliced the musty, cavernous air in unison. Desdemona swiftly dodged the first one, allowing her attacker’s sword to strike the rocky floor with a loud clang. Diomedes grabbed the fist of the second, and twisted the gargoyle’s wrist until he lost his grip on the handle.

The last gargoyle, the one that charged from the middle, was by far the bulkiest. He went straight for Thersites. Thersites stumbled backwards and tripped over a protruding rock. His arms flailed uselessly as a cry echoed from his throat and gravity asserted its pull on him. His back met the cavern floor in a painful crunch, but he was too frightened to wince as he saw his attacker’s sword come down on him. He squeezed his eyes shut and rolled.

With a spark, the sword ricocheted off the cavern floor. Thersites let out a startled yelp. Then, at the realization that he was still alive, peeked one eye open. He didn’t have much time to savor his slim escape from death before the angry gargoyle swung his blade a second time. Thersites rolled in the other direction and managed to almost dodge another blow, but this time the blade managed to catch the tip of his wing.

Thersites cried out, causing Diomedes to spin around to face him. The breastplated gargoyle saw his hapless rookery brother with his arms covering his face and the his burly opponent readying for another blow, but before he could act, Desdemona called out, "Brother, behind you!" Diomedes turned in time to see his disarmed opponent throw a punch in his direction. He dodged the strike, and returned one of his own.

Javin remained unscathed behind the fighting. He was about to help Thersites, when something drew his eyes to the cave tunnel. He stared into the darkness illuminated by Atalanta’s crimson eyes. They narrowed into slits as she strode forward, confident she had acquired her chosen victim’s attention. He-- the would-be slayer of his mighty lavender brother.

In an observation that sent a shiver up his spine, Javin saw her eyes de-illuminate almost the instant she entered the light, as if they glowed only in the dark. Her gaze frightened him even more than before, as now he could see the look with which she locked eyes with his. It was a craving. Her mouth opened and she barred her teeth hungrily.

In the front, the gargoyle that Diomedes had disarmed reclaimed his dusty sword from the cavern floor. Diomedes was facing Javin. He spotted Atalanta’s predator-like approach to him, and became momentarily distracted. Thersites shouted a warning to him from between the legs of his opponent, just as the gargoyle brought his sword forward. Diomedes was snapped back into attention, and ducked in time. The blade swept over his head, after which Diomedes dropped his attacker with a clean swipe of his tail.

Thersites attempted to knock out the legs of his own attacker in similar fashion. He flung his tail at the burly gargoyle’s shins. It pounced from the dust-layered ground like a snake and struck both legs right on target, but with no effect. Thersites slammed both feet into the gargoyle’s knees next. This succeeded, and his opponent fell.

At the same time, Desdemona jumped and unfurled her wings. They were able to catch enough of the cave air to keep her suspended for a few seconds. With her opponent off-guard, she lashed her foot forward and hit him straight in the jaw. He grunted and stumbled back, as Desdemona alighted and, with both fists clenched together into a makeshift mace, sent him doubling over onto his backside. His sword clattered to the floor as a small dust cloud arose from the impact.

Thersites scrambled to his feet, searching for a weapon. Before he could locate one, his opponent rose back up, a deep growl brewing in his chest. In a moment of blindness, Thersites punched his attacker. The other gargoyle’s head whipped to the side. Thersites gasped, unbelieving, but in a moment his smile faded. The gargoyle turned back to face him. Baring a mouthful of snaggled teeth, he grabbed Thersites by the shoulders. Thersites pounded on the giant’s chest uselessly, before he was lifted and tossed, a wail straining from his throat.

Diomedes and Desdemona locked eyes over the bodies of their two fallen adversaries. "The tunnel," Desdemona declared.

Breathing heavily, Diomedes shook his head. "Not without our brothers, we aren’t leaving," he said as he held his left shoulder.

"Brother, you are hurt-"

"It is just a sprain," he insisted.

"Then you go," she ordered. "I will retrieve our brothers." She sensed an objection and cut it off, "It is not our place to weigh our lives to those of our captured brother and sister, nor perhaps to all those of Wyvern. Word must get through to the others!"

The sounds of groans emanated from the two downed gargoyles, beseeching urgency. "We have not the time for this, Brother," Desdemona insisted impatiently. "One of us must go, now."

Diomedes did not reply, but only growled as he turned towards the tunnel, discovering another sprain in his lower leg as he did. Desdemona rushed after Thersites. Diomedes made it into the tunnel, but hesitated as he was about to lose sight of the cavern. He looked from the blackness that would lead to freedom, to his rookery kin.

Javin searched frantically for something, anything, to defend himself with. His eyes fell on a dust-covered sword lying in a forgotten corner. He raced forward and grabbed it. Atalanta continued towards him, unfazed, as she drew her own sword from her sheath. Javin glanced at the other blade with a sickening feeling.

"Come, young one," she beckoned, "prove yourself in combat with me, as you did with your brother." She saw the panic in his eyes, and felt him take some measured steps backwards as she herself slowly advanced. A smile crept along her lips, curving them unnaturally around her fangs. "There is nowhere to run... and nowhere to hide."

Javin confirmed, to his terror, that she was quite right. She had forced him to the rear of the cavern. Lacking any other option, he steadied his weapon in front of him with both hands, his eyes sinking as he saw the blade wobbling slightly.

Without warning, Atalanta swung her sword. In one powerful horizontal thrust, it seemed to slice the atmosphere in two. Javin barely ducked below the blade that was meant to take off his head. It instead cut through a low-hanging stalactite. The piece of sliced-off cone fell to the ground just as Atalanta brought her sword back around for another pass. Javin jumped back and the blade narrowly missed his gut.

Atalanta’s eyes flashed between their normal white and the bloody crimson that threatened to take them over. She swung her sword at Javin again, this time glancing off his shoulder. Javin struggled awkwardly with his weapon.

Atalanta’s eyes finally turned completely red and she swung her sword a final time in a snarling rage. Javin managed to intercept the strike with his sword at last, but it flew from his hands. Javin started, but then Atalanta grinned and tossed her own weapon away, which caused him to start again.

Atalanta took advantage of the distraction to lunge at Javin, swiping at him with her sharpened talons.

"Brother!" Desdemona called. Thersites looked limply up at his sister. Four shaky versions of her stared back at him, before he lost consciousness. Instead, Desdemona gained the attention of Thersites’ attacker. Her eyes stayed on the husky gargoyle as he marched forward. She unfurled her wings, as if to stand against the wind of his approach.

The brute snorted before taking a swipe. He surprised her with his speed, but she was able to dodge easily.

Javin’s heart pumped wildly as he strained to keep Atalanta from clawing out his eyes. He lay struggling on his back in the rear of the cavern now, unable to see what was happening up front. The fear that he was the only one left was inescapable.

He ducked to his left and Atalanta’s talons drove through the cavern floor, engraving three deep, long gashes. With her eyes aglow she brought both hands up, clasped together over her head, and prepared to drive them into Javin’s face.

Javin’s muscles moved before his thoughts could catch up with them. With both hands he intercepted her blow, then flipped her over himself with his legs. He heard her land behind him, but did not spare the second to confirm it with his eyes as he dashed to his feet and ran.

He felt a surge of relief as he spotted Desdemona still present, engaged with a large gargoyle. He turned to head for her, when a blade appeared out of nowhere and sliced through the membrane of his wing. He spun around to face one of Atalanta’s revived fighters, who smirked at the damage he’d inflicted, in spite of the purple bruise on his jaw. Javin readied to take him on with bare hands.

The lunge came. Javin slid to one side, and kneed the gargoyle in the nose. In the other gargoyle’s momentary distraction, Javin whipped the sword out of his opponent’s hand with a quick swipe of his tail. The weapon landed face-down in the ground, and both parties rushed for it. Javin slid across the floor and reached it first, sending up a gush of dust that blinded his enemy long enough for the younger gargoyle to grab the sword and stand back up.

Desdemona realized she wasn’t going to win. This gargoyle was twice as strong as she, and even if she could defeat him, his brethren were regaining consciousness. There was no way she could make it out with Thersites. But Diomedes had made it - that was certain. And all that mattered.

Without warning, someone jumped onto her attacker’s back. Wrapping his arms around his neck, he attempted to use his weight to pull him down. Desdemona’s eyes widened when she saw who it was.

"What are you doing here?!" she demanded.

"I haven’t the time to state the obvious, Sister," Diomedes responded through clenched teeth.

"You doom us all now, Brother!"

"Not if you get yourself and our brother out of here," Diomedes retorted in between struggling gasps of breath.

Desdemona would rather have kicked Diomedes for his heroics, but ran for Thersites instead. Heaving him onto her shoulder, she started for the tunnel.

Atalanta picked herself up with a frustrated growl as she saw Javin’s escape. In a fury, she stalked up to the back wall and reclaimed her sword from the rock that had swallowed half the blade. It felt weak in her hand, and she quietly cursed its inferiority to her old one.

With quick strides, she marched back towards the front. Her eyes caught sight of Desdemona with Thersites, almost up the tunnel. "Stop them!" she ordered.

The remaining gargoyle lying between Desdemona and the tunnel roused himself. He rose to his feet, wincing from the lump on the back of his head. Thersites felt heavier in Desdemona’s arms at the sight of this new obstacle. Her mind raced as the gargoyle closed the distance between them, until he finally threw a punch. Desdemona dodged it, but could not move away in time to avoid the second. She stumbled, Thersites falling from her shoulder; but her eyes lit up as she reclaimed her balance and settled into a fighting stance.

Diomedes winced, and his eyes shut as his opponent slammed him into a wall. He could feel his ribs buckle. In a desperate effort to free himself, he brought both fists down on the gargoyle’s head. There was a grunt, but no release. Diomedes repeated the move, finally forcing his opponent to collapse.

Javin took his newly acquired sword and lifted it above his head. He stood over his opponent, who had collapsed to the ground, coughing and gagging from the risen dust,. As the dust cleared, Javin stared down at the other, who was unguarded and vulnerable: curled on the floor of the cave with one hand to his throat and another trying to rub the dust out of his eyes-- which only ground it in deeper.

Suddenly, he wasn’t looking at an enemy gargoyle anymore. He was gazing down at the bruised and beaten form of Goliath, who was coughing and choking on his own blood, similarly laying on the floor before him, open and defenseless. The sword was no longer a sword. It was a broken piece of stalagmite, raised over his head in a show of ultimate strength. As his defeated adversary opened his eyes and looked up at him, a flow of quenched tears ran down his cheeks. The stalagmite dropped.

Javin lowered his sword, his eyes distant and glazed over. The other gargoyle snatched the sword right out of his hands. Javin came back into focus to the sight of his opponent about to behead him. He gasped and ducked, the sword passing over his head.

When he came back up, his opponent was grabbed from behind. Javin stared in astonishment as Diomedes gripped the other gargoyle from under the shoulders and held him, the captured gargoyle’s sword lashing out wildly as he tried to wrench himself free. Javin grabbed the gargoyle’s wrist and plucked the sword from his hand.

"Go, now! Help our sister and escape!" Diomedes bellowed. Javin hesitated. "I’m not about to let the one we came to find be the one to be left behind!" Diomedes added with a snarl as he tried to keep his captive at bay.

Javin nodded briskly and turned to go, but a spine-startling voice cut him off. "Return here, boy, and face me!" Atalanta’s voice reverberated.

"Go!" Diomedes repeated.

Javin turned and ran. He could feel Atalanta at his heels. He couldn’t tell if she was or not, he couldn’t even trust his own senses. When he came upon Desdemona at the mouth of the tunnel, he didn’t slow. With a howl, he rammed the gargoyle blocking their exit. Taken by surprise, Desdemona joined him. Together, they overpowered and toppled the gargoyle.

Javin was ready to exit, but Desdemona hesitated.

"Go, sister!" Diomedes called again. "Return to the castle and tell the clan what is - UGH!!!" Atalanta slapped him across the face, then strode forward with her sword. These pups would not escape her.

In the corner, Thersites roused himself from his enforced nap and looked up. Separating him from Javin and Desdemona was Atalanta as she neared the two would-be escapees. His eyes went from hazy awareness to full shock as he realized he was being left behind.

Before the mouth of the tunnel, Atalanta swung her sword over Javin’s head, spun around to kick Desdemona in the midsection, then faced Javin again to block his punch. With his hand still clutched in hers, Atalanta side-kicked him in the face. Javin stumbled back as his head was whipped to the side.

When he came to, he found himself meeting eyes with Thersites. Atalanta followed the direction of his gaze momentarily. In that instant of distraction, Javin drove his fist forward and punched her.

Before Atalanta could regain her equilibrium, Desdemona and Javin grabbed each other and darted into the tunnel. Atalanta brought her hand away from her cheek to reveal a purple bruise and snarled at the retreating gargoyles, but did not attempt to follow.

Diomedes was brought to his knees and the bulky gargoyle from Atalanta’s band grabbed Thersites. Atalanta surveyed her two standing warriors. The third rose wobbly to his feet, hesitant to announce his presence to his infuriated leader.

"Take them away," she snapped.

* * * * *

Desdemona followed close to Javin’s heels as they emerged from the tunnel and they continued running as fast as they could on all fours across the open heath to the shelter of the woods, and from there, up the hillside. There was a blur of time that could have been anywhere from mere moments to long hours and then Javin suddenly snapped back to full awareness and found that he and his rookery sister were sailing homeward through the air.

He risked a glance behind them to see if they were being followed. Across a rift of sky the hillside they had taken off from lay empty, the woods behind it vacant and still. He sighed inwardly and turned his attention back to their course.

"No one is following us," Desdemona’s cool voice informed him. "We were the only ones to emerge from the cavern entrance."

Javin shivered, and Desdemona seemed to notice. "You were not completely truthful back there with us, were you, my brother?"

Javin stopped breathing.

"I thought so," she continued evenly. "Our brother was correct in his accusations, wasn’t he?"

Javin shook his head wildly, quickly finding himself victim to an anxiety attack. "I never meant for him to be harmed! I had nothing to do with our enemies being there. I didn’t know!"

"I believe you," Desdemona assured, again in that soft-spoken, deadpan voice. "Would you like to tell me what you did do?"

Javin’s defenses crumbled. With a sigh, he answered somberly, "I was... jealous of our rookery brother. Of the attention he received. The praise. The privilege."

"So you led him to the cave?"

"The cave was only a location. Someplace that was not the castle. Where we... where I could prove myself over our brother in combat."

"What did our rookery sister have to do with any of this?"

"She was... a witness. Someone to oversee my victory." The word tasted bitter in his mouth.

"This does not seem like you," Desdemona observed. "This whole plot... you were the only one behind it?"

Javin nodded. "It was my responsibility," he confessed. "All mine."

Desdemona remained unconvinced, but made no attempt to further the issue.

There was a moment of silence, and then Javin choked on a sob. Tears overflowed from his eyes. "I have disgraced myself and everyone of my rookery. I am pathetic... not worthy to be a part of the clan." He reared his head back and let out something between a roar and an anguished cry. "Not worthy even to be called a gargoyle!"

He sniffed and blinked, letting the wind wash away the last of the tears. Redness still rounded each eye. "I deserve to be with our traitorous, thieving brother." He shook his head implacably. "Even after the deed is done I have managed to wreak catastrophe. Thanks to me, our two brothers are now set to meet the same fate as our brother and sister."

"Stop berating yourself, Brother," Desdemona cut in sternly. "You have made a mistake. We are all entitled to errors in judgment."

Javin snorted. "I bet yours have never resulted-"

"Stop it. We all fall prey to the petty desires and misconceptions of youth. Listen to the wisdom of the elders in these matters, Brother. None of us are perfect. To berate oneself over one regretful act is a dishonorable thing."

"Somehow, I don’t think the rest of the clan will react so impersonally."

Desdemona frowned as she studied Javin, then returned her eyes to the misty horizon.

* * * * *

Asrial awoke with a start. She blinked and waited for her eyes to come into focus, but they never did. Only an unfathomable darkness stared back at her. Her breathing was the only sound she could hear. The air, she noticed, smelled musty and old. It left a bad mineral-like aftertaste in her mouth.

She realized her back was numb. She tried moving, and brushed against a hard, uneven surface: a cave wall. Her limbs were bound, at the wrists and ankles by rusted iron chains. They rattled in the darkness, echoing off every wall. She listened carefully, but was unable to discern how large of a chamber she was in. She released a sigh of defeat and decided the only thing she could do was wait.

A drop of water disrupted the silence. She jumped at the unexpected sound, then realized what it was and relaxed, amused at herself.

"Hello, sister," a cold voice greeted from the void.

Asrial’s heart froze. She instantly recognized the voice as Roland’s. Her eyes darted in either direction, trying to find the source, but she could not see anything through the blackness. She blinked to ensure her eyes were still open, but it made no difference.

"Where are you?" she asked, panic gripping her. There was an unbearable silence, in which Asrial stopped breathing. She mentally coaxed herself. It was obvious Roland was trying to rattle her. She couldn’t let him.

"Right here," Roland answered softly. The answer could have come from anywhere, she realized with a cold chill. Then, without warning, something brushed against her face. It was a talon.

Asrial screamed. Her tentative calm was shattered in an instant. She jerked against her bonds frantically, trying to pull herself away. She struggled desperately, the sounds of rattling chains filling the chamber. The jagged edge of one wrist cuff bit into her skin and she cried out in pain.

"Careful now, Sister," Roland warned her, "you may cause yourself injury. There will be plenty of time for that later."

Asrial wanted to scream again, but her lungs were collapsing in on her. She felt as if a vice were being applied to her chest. All she could do was lean against the wall and let herself cry.

"Frightening, the dark, isn’t it?" Roland asked her in a deadpan voice. "We gargoyles are night-dwellers, and yet we still, like our human counterparts, thrive on light -- whether it be the moon’s and star’s or the sun’s. Without some shred of it, even our night-sensitive eyes cannot see."

"What have you done with my brother and sister?" Asrial asked through a choked sob, her voice barely a whisper but more than audible in the dead silence of their surroundings.

"So concerned with their welfare, even in the face of the jeopardy to your own?" He chuckled coldly, then continued in an uninterested tone. "Well, you needn’t worry over them any longer. They were promptly put out of their misery." His voice turned venomous. "Yours, I wanted the pleasure of prolonging."

Asrial was shocked into silence. She tried to push Roland’s claim away with logic, but her logic betrayed her, for what reason could he have for lying to her? What could he gain from keeping them alive? The realization sunk into her with a coldness that chilled her to the bone. It was her fault. She had failed them. It felt unreal. Nausea overcame her as Roland reached forward and caressed her cheek again, causing her to shudder.

Unseen latches unlocked and a door swung open. Faint torch light filtered into the room, and Asrial could make out Roland standing inches from her face. He turned around as the door opened.

The shadow of a sentry standing just outside the entrance reflected on the wall. It stiffened as a second shadow passed it, and Atalanta walked in.

"I do not wish to be any later for my important meeting than I already am," she said upon entering. "But I do intend to see this prisoner you’ve kept from me, Thie-" She stopped cold.

Asrial could see Atalanta staring at her with open shock. Her eyes burned with an intensity that made the young tinkerer turn away.

Atalanta turned to Roland with a glare. "Why was I not informed of the importance of the prisoner?!"

Roland made no reply as he glanced off to the side.

"Were you planning on keeping her from me? Do you realize how important she is to me?!" Roland refrained from saying anything, confirming Atalanta’s suspicions. "You were!"

Roland sneered. "I leave you with both of the others. All I take for myself is this one, and this dissatisfies you? There are plenty of other candidates for you to take your warrior aggression out on."

Atalanta pointed a vindictive finger at him. "This one is the only one I care about. You, Thief, will not deal with her. I will have that honor! Now move aside!" Roland knew better than to disobey, and with an extravagant sweeping gesture, stepped out of her path.

She strode up to Asrial and unsheathed her sword. Asrial trembled as she felt Atalanta’s hand grip her throat and lift her off the ground to the full extent her chains would permit.

Asrial closed her eyes as Atalanta brought the sword to bear on her. But before the blow was delivered, she snorted and dropped her. Roland quirked an eye ridge as Atalanta faced him. "Do you have something to say, Thief?"

Roland remained silent as Atalanta turned back to Asrial, now hanging limply from her chains and choking. "It cannot be done this way," she snarled, frustrated with the inconvenience of the situation. She reached for the chains and prepared to pull them out of the walls, when Roland laid a hand on her arm. Atalanta stared at his hand with deadly incredulity, then looked up to meet his gaze.

Roland remained unfazed as he explained calmly, "Even you don’t have the time to deal with her this way. Unless, of course, you want to do a rush job. You’re a day late already for the appointment with our benefactor." Atalanta retained her grip on the chains. The links creaked as she tightened it.

"I don’t care!"

Roland narrowed his brow as he added firmly, "You know how important it is to please Him."

Atalanta glared at Roland for a long moment, then glanced at Asrial. With a spiteful snarl, she released her grip on the chains, letting Asrial catch on them with a painful moan.

"Very well," she relented with a smirk, looking at Asrial. "I do not have the time to deliver a proper death at the moment. But be warned, girl. When I return, I will give you the worst of any of my victims. What you have thus experienced will pale to what I shall do to you! Be ready to face me."

She shot an icy glare in Roland’s direction, as he stood to the side with his hands folded in front of him. "And you be warned, Thief. She had better still be breathing when I return. If you lay a finger on her while I am gone, I will have your head."

Atalanta re-sheathed her sword and stormed out of the room, already muttering plans for Asrial’s future. Roland sighed irritably.

"What are you going to do to me?" Asrial asked weakly, the fear quenching her voice like a vice.

Roland grinned. "Nothing my faithful cohort wouldn’t approve of... yet. I think the better question for now would be what you are going to do to yourself. You have never experienced it, have you, sister? True dark. The absence of light, or sound, or warmth. Total and complete solitude."

Asrial looked up with fear in her eyes, causing Roland to smile. A drip of water echoed through the chamber again, and Roland’s eyes glanced upwards towards the source of the dripping. "The stalactites," he explained. "They line the ceiling above us, dozens of protruding spikes looming down, each growing longer drip by drip..."

He looked back down. "The dripping will be your only assurance that you’re still sane after a while, and ironically, also the thing that will eventually serve to drive you out of that sanity."

He turned and headed for the door, adding, "I look forward to seeing how long you last before dawn... or, rather, hearing how long you last." He chuckled coldly as he stepped through the door. "I’ll be back soon," he assured, "and we can continue our ‘games’ together."

With that, he disappeared and the door creaked shut, taking with it all traces of light and drowning Asrial once more in cold unfeeling darkness. Alone, she began to cry.

* * * * *

Roland nodded to the human guard who stood watch outside the door and walked down the cave corridor. Torches lit the way every few feet. He arrived at the next ‘cell’. Like Asrial’s before it, it was little more than a brick-covered rock cavity with an iron-reinforced wood door. He peeked in through the small eyehole in the door and spied his two prisoners. The once mighty Goliath lay in a disheveled heap, beaten and broken, and looked barely conscious. He, like his rookery sister, was still securely chained to the stone wall. Then his eyes widened as he spotted two more faces chained up beside them.

"When did these two new prisoners arrive?" he asked the human guard.

"Her Most Royal Highness brought them in a moment ago," he answered. "She caught them near the mouth of the cave like the other two."

Roland smirked. "So they come to rescue their brethren, only to be captured themselves." The guard did not pay attention to his leader’s mutterings. He and the rest of the group had become accustomed to such eccentricities and knew better than to ask the bandit leader about them.

Roland stared into the peephole and listened intently to the conversation within. He heard them exchanging the usual saccharine dribble, asking if each other was all right and speaking of their hope that help would get through. He smirked. The discussion touched briefly on a brown-skinned brother of theirs. Roland recognized the sibling they spoke of with little description; it sounded as if he was a traitor. The twisted-horned brother then agonized over their situation some, followed by basic exchanges of information and the resolution that they must form an escape plan.

"Roland?" asked the guard. Roland turned to him. "What did ye want done with them?"

"What did Her Highness say she wanted done with them?"

"To leave them be until she returned. She also left instructions to kill one of them if they proved unruly, to serve as an example, but beyond that to not lay a finger on them."

"That’s it?"

The guard sighed theatrically and smirked. "She also said not to listen to what you said to do with them, but to obey her orders."

Roland snorted and they both shared a brief laugh.

"So, what are we goin’ ta do with them?"

Roland laid a hand on his thief’s shoulder and led him up to the peephole. He obediently peered in as Roland explained his plans.

"The gargoyles are perfect to train upon," Roland gleefully pointed out. "They are excellent fighters, and heal every night, leaving them good subjects to fight for some time. Pitted against one of Her Highness’ warriors they should provide adequate combat training. And, properly drugged, for you and the others, as well."

"Ye’re suggestin’ we use them for dummies, then?"

"Reusable dummies," Roland corrected, "that fight back. But better than a mock opponent, because they will be fighting for their lives. Puts a lot more enthusiasm into it, wouldn’t you say?"

"I would," the human replied. "But what about Her Highness?"

"She may not like it, but then she isn’t here, is she? She will return from her trip to find five prisoners in prime shape, awaiting whatever fate she deems fit. Any injuries we produce will be long vanished with the sun’s rays, and if we accidentally kill one... well, then there was an unfortunate escape attempt."

"But her gargoyles. Surely ye can’t be countin’ on their silence?"

Roland shrugged. "I won’t need it. Let her find out the truth. It becomes a big misunderstanding. Besides," he added bitterly, "it’s been her gargoyles that have been costing us our engagement with Wyvern. They need some practice."

The guard chuckled. "So, will we be bringin’ them out to the grounds?"

"Not all at once," Roland explained. "For now, just the big one. He’s already in a ragged condition. The best suited to use for demonstration."

The guard nodded and opened the cell door. A stream of light poured in, outlining the forms of Roland and the guard like black shadows. Goliath squinted under the torchlight, where his cracked lip and bruised eye could be made out clearly.

Roland stood in place as the guard walked in, joined by another guard from down the corridor. Together, they unlocked Goliath’s bonds and dragged him out of the cell with knives to his throat.

"No, you mustn’t!" Fuchsia cried. "He’s too weak! Please, take one of us instead!" Diomedes and Thersites chimed in with their own shouts of disapproval, yelling for Roland to have some ounce of gargoyle in him and let Goliath stay.

Their pleas fell on deaf ears. Roland smirked, amused by their pathetic displays of righteousness.

In the corridor, one of Atalanta’s students arrived and took Goliath from the two humans. "Make sure you drug him first," Roland warned. "He may be weak now, but he’s a strong one, and will put up a good fight - and possibly escape."

"You cold-hearted blackguard!" Fuchsia yelled.

"He'll be killed if you give him a drug in the condition he’s in now!" Diomedes added.

Roland made no reply as he closed the door on them.

* * * * *

Time was impossible to keep track of from within their cell. The only assurance they had that not more than a few hours had passed was that dawn had not yet come. Minutes had gone by, perhaps an hour or two.

Diomedes tried once more to stretch his chains. The attempt resulted in a wet pop and Diomedes collapsed with a yelp of pain.

"I told you that would happen," Thersites said smugly from his corner in the cell.

"I don’t see you trying anything!" Diomedes snapped back as he grasped his shoulder.

"Are you all right, brother?" Fuchsia asked in concern.

Diomedes nodded briskly. "Yes, I just... I hope dawn comes before they do. I’m more worried for our lavender brother than I am for my shoulder."

Fuchsia lowered her head at the mention of Goliath, and Diomedes noticed with some concern. "Are you all right, sister? I’m sure he will get through it. Our brother is very resilient."

Fuchsia nodded half-heartedly. "I know... I just..." Her eyes fell on his shoulder, which was turning a disconcerting shade of purple. "Can I take a look at your shoulder?"

"It’s fine, really," Diomedes replied, but Fuchsia leaned over anyway. Diomedes stood still as she examined the shoulder. Her eyes trailed down his back along the left shoulder blade. "There’s a lot of discoloration," she observed. "Do you feel anything?"

Diomedes shrugged. "It stings a little."

Fuchsia leaned back. "You know, it was very brave of you to stay behind so that our brother and sister could escape."

Diomedes felt his cheeks warm and replied dismissively, "With my shoulder injury, I wouldn’t have been able to glide. I was the right choice to stay behind. Our brown rookery sister is faster on her wings, anyway." His mood darkened. "As for our brown brother, I just hope he was worth it."

"You still have your doubts about him?"

"He led you and Goliath into that cave. It couldn’t have been coincidence."

"He seemed just as surprised by their ambush as we were. He seemed only interested in defeating our lavender brother on his own."

"Believe what you wish," Diomedes sighed. "But from the grief he’s caused so far, I will never speak to him again."

Thersites sat with his legs arched and his head in his hand. With the other hand he picked up pieces of rock and tossed them across the room. Diomedes and Fuchsia didn’t interrupt his wallowing.

"They haven’t returned yet, I suppose that’s a good sign," Diomedes said glumly.

Fuchsia nodded hesitantly. "Yes, our brother must still be standing."

"But when he falls, they’re going to return for the rest of us... we’re all going to have to go out there and face whatever they have planned for us," Diomedes stated plainly. He turned to Thersites in the corner. "Including you. Are you prepared for that, Brother?"

Thersites snorted. "If it wasn’t for you and our sister forcing the role of good Samaritan on me, I wouldn’t even be here now!"

Diomedes scowled. "Forgive us for thinking it might do you good to get a little exercise and help out every now and then."

"I wasn’t needed," Thersites bit back. "And I also don’t recall being consulted on the decision to leave me behind."

"Stop grumbling, you’re not the one with the dislocated shoulder," Diomedes replied.

"No, I’m just the one who got himself thrown into a wall."

"It’s not my fault you never bothered to pay attention during our training sessions!"

"It wouldn’t have become an issue if you hadn’t dragged me along! What possible use could I have had in going with you?"

"Exactly what I’ve been thinking!"

"Brothers!" Fuchsia interrupted harshly.

Thersites plopped back down in his corner with a scowl on his face, as Diomedes leaned back against his wall.

"We’ll never leave this cave alive," Thersites mumbled. "They’ll beat our brother to a pulp, and go from him to the next of us, one after the other, one dropping after the other, until we’re all dead!"

"Stop it," Diomedes replied lowly.

"Are you prepared for that?" Thersites mocked.

"Don’t think about what might be so much," Fuchsia reprimanded. "You’re only putting yourself on edge."

"Not to mention the rest of us," Diomedes agreed. "Your pebble tossing was a lot less troubling, Brother. I much preferred it to the whining you’re doing now."

Suddenly, footsteps approached from outside and the door unlatched. It swung open with a stream of torchlight like before, and three figures stood before them. The man in the front stepped through the door and eyed the three gargoyles critically, as if inspecting cattle. They looked away from him, as much from the bright light as from his disturbing gaze.

Thersites was able to see him better from his corner, and noticed that this man was most likely Roland’s Second in Command, judging from his clothing and authoritative gait. He gestured towards two of the three prisoners, and the men behind him rushed in to unchain Diomedes and Fuchsia from the wall.

Thersites watched in horror as they were roughly led away with swords to their throats. "Wait!" Thersites cried, "where are you taking them?" The man met Thersites’ panicked eyes with an indifferent momentary stare, then turned and walked out of the room, the door creaking shut behind him.

Thersites cupped his face in his hands. Goliath had not been brought back. Did that mean he was dead? Now Diomedes and Fuchsia were gone, off to meet the same fate. He was the only one left.

* * * * *

Castle Wyvern

Hudson sighed with uneasy impatience as he paced the floor of his perch. Dawn was nearly upon them and neither group of young gargoyles that had left had yet to return.

Down below Hudson was Demona. She looked about the parapets where she was supposed to meet Diomedes in sorrow. He was not there. With an anguished sigh she sat down and buried her head in her arms. She had tried to escape the Archmage as fast as she could, but that had not been fast enough. Again, she had let him down.

Hudson spotted her. Curious, he glided down to greet her. The swift sound of his wings and pound of his feet on the stone floor startled her. She looked up in surprise.


"Lass, what are ye doin’ here?" he asked her curiously. "I thought ye went with yuir brother to find the others."

"I was... I got detained," she stammered.

Hudson eyed her doubtfully. "Detained? By whom?"

"The Archmage." It slipped from her lips before she realized it. She gasped at her own words and hurried to cover for them. "He needed help in... cleaning his laboratory, and I - he saw me, and asked - told me to assist him."

"The Archmage be tellin’ members of me own clan what ta do?" Demona did not answer, and he sighed. "Well, lass, I appreciate ye helping the old hermit out with his chores, but he has his and you have yours. I’ll have ta talk to Prince Malcolm about this..."

"No, no," Demona said abruptly. "It’s all right... it won’t happen again, I know it. He was just in very bad shape and I felt... sorry for him. I thought our brother could carry out our mission on his own."

Hudson was obviously not taking well to the revelation that his orders were circumvented, but did not react beyond a raised brow before Demona changed the subject. "Are our brother and the others not back yet?"

Hudson nodded. "Aye," he answered. "He evidently left with one o' yuir sisters and that twisted-horned brother o' yuirs. But no one's seen them return yet, and I am gettin' worried."

Hiding in the shadows, Iago listened carefully to the conversation between his leader and rookery sister. He concluded it was unnecessary to tip off Leader as to where Javin and Goliath could be found, as he had apparently already taken the liberty of dispatching three siblings after them.

But he found himself feeling uncertain about Javin’s timing. What could be taking him so long? He shook away slightly-disturbing images of his brown-skinned brother panicking over the body of a lifeless Goliath. What, then, could have possibly gone wrong?

* * * * *

The Caves

Thersites was ready to scream. He could not take the wait any longer. How much time had expired since Diomedes and Fuchsia were taken? An hour? Two hours? It couldn’t be long before dawn now. He desperately wanted to turn to stone, to escape the prison and his growing fears.

The realization hit him that, unlike the training sessions back at the castle, when Roland’s men eventually came for him, he would have to fight. At Wyvern, if he did not try, he would lose the match, but now, if he did not try, he would surely lose his life...

The cell door opened. Thersites looked up with shaky eyes as the light poured in and the shapes of several figures appeared. The Second in Command roughly pushed a worn and beaten Diomedes through the door, followed by an equally-bruised and tired Fuchsia. Both were covered in small cuts and abrasions, their skin smeared with dust. They looked like they had not slept in days.

Despite their condition, Thersites met them with hope-filled eyes. They had returned, in bad shape, but alive all the same. Diomedes and Fuchsia did not return his gaze. Both were grim-faced as they took their places back in the cell. No one bothered to re-chain them to the walls.

"Get him in there!" the Second in Command ordered in a gruff voice. Thersites gasped as he saw Goliath brought in next - not led, but dragged. Two humans held the mighty lavender gargoyle on either arm, wincing as they threw him through the door. Goliath landed face-down on the floor in the center of the cell with a heavy thud.

Thersites stared in horror as Diomedes and Fuchsia helped Goliath up. He groaned slightly as they pulled him forward the rest of the way so that the guards could close the door. He did not open his eyes, which were shut with large purple bruises over each one, nor move any limb in response. He simply let himself be dragged.

"They trained on us," Diomedes said in response to Thersites’ unasked question. "On him they beat." Diomedes’ eyes looked like they wanted to glow, but he had not the strength. Every syllable was venomous as it left his mouth. "When we arrived he was already taking rounds from four of Roland’s drunken dogs!"

"Quiet!" one of the guards ordered.

Thersites swallowed nervously as he stared at Goliath. Fuchsia rested his head in her lap, as Diomedes held his hand to add as much silent comfort as he could. Thersites knew of his brother’s reputation for being an unconquerable giant. The humans back at the castle had spoken of it often, but he did not know how far that reputation had carried until now.

Something was wrong. The door was not closing. Thersites looked up to see the Second in Command pointing a finger towards him. His eyes widened as the two human guards walked up to him and started to undo his bonds.

Thersites shot a terrified look in his siblings’ direction as the guards lifted him up by the arms. Diomedes stood. "No! Take me too," he said resolutely. "He can’t fight out there all by himself."

The guard slapped Diomedes across the face with the back of his arm, and Fuchsia hurriedly pulled on his arm to urge him to sit back down.

"We only need him now," the Second in Command replied.

Diomedes held back a growl and sat back down. Neither he nor Fuchsia could bear to watch as the guards dragged Thersites out of the room. The door shut, and they bowed their heads.

* * * * *

Castle Wyvern

As the skies began to brighten, shouts came from the watchtowers. Two gargoyles were spotted. Everyone rushed to the battlements to greet their clan mates. By now, news of their missing numbers had circulated throughout the castle. Even Asrial’s absence had been discovered. Half the clan was gathered on the forward parapets as Desdemona and Javin touched down.

A barrage of questions fell on them.

"Where’re our brothers and sisters?"

"Where’d you go?"

"What happened to ye?"

"Are the others safe?"

"Blast it ye two, talk!" Agamemnon bellowed.

"Silence, the lot o' ye!!" Hudson finally shouted with a roar as he landed. Everyone quieted down as Hudson turned to the two youths. "Now, what the devil's goin' on? Where are yuir missin’ kin?"

"And are you all right?" the Eldest added in concern.

Desdemona nodded. "We are fine, Eldest, thank you." With a deep breath, eyeing every clan member present nervously, she explained, "We were ambushed." She turned towards Hudson. "Our rookery kin not present with us now have been taken prisoner."

Hudson’s eyes betrayed his shock, but he tried to maintain a calm voice as he asked, "Taken prisoner by whom? Who ambushed ye?"

"The Rogue’s men and the gargoyle warriors we encountered last year during the Rite of the Warrior. They are apparently still working together."

Everyone exchanged anxious comments as Hudson narrowed an eye on Javin. He had yet to look up from the ground, as his sister did all the talking. "Lad, is there something ye’re not tellin’ us?"

Javin looked up nervously and exchanged a glance with Desdemona. She gave him a reassuring nod and he faced Hudson. There was a moment’s hesitation.

"Come now, lad, tell us what it is already," Agamemnon insisted.

Iago stood in the back of the crowd, biting his lip as he waited nervously for Javin to begin.

"I am responsible for what has happened," Javin finally admitted. Everyone waited for him to go on. "I led my lavender brother to a cave to... prove I could stand up to him. And defeat him. In battle."

Hudson’s voice was stiff as he asked, "Ye led him into the ambush?"

"Unknowingly," Desdemona jumped in.

"Did your lavender brother know o’ this?" Hudson asked.

Javin shook his head. "No. I tricked him into coming with me. He and my sister, who went to... serve, as a witness."

"What were ye thinkin’?" Agamemnon demanded harshly. "What did ye do this for? What did your brother do ta you?"

"Nothing," Javin answered in a whisper. He did not dare look at his rookery siblings, too afraid by what their reactions would be.

"We'll deal with his later," Hudson declared, earning him some admonishing looks from the elders who obviously wanted to deal with it now. "Right now we be needin' ta find a way ta rescue our clan mates. They canna be left in Roland's hands for long."

"We must form a search party this instant!" Othello declared from Desdemona’s side.

"Nay," Hudson answered somberly. "It's too close to dawn now ta go after them. We’ll have ta wait until tomorrow night. In the meantime, I’ll talk with the Prince. Perhaps he can spare some men to get a head start while we sleep."

The clan filed away, leaving Javin alone on the battlement. Everyone kept a distance from him as they passed. Disappointed sighs came from the elders who went by, accompanied by distraught, doubtful looks from his rookery siblings. Even Demona avoided him with a wary gaze.

A hand lightly touched his shoulder and he looked up into the face of his brown sister. He smiled half-heartedly and looked back down. Desdemona sighed and rejoined Othello, and the rest of the clan. Javin sat silently by himself, his only companions the predawn breeze and his own troubled thoughts.

* * * * *

Prince Malcolm sighed heavily. "The situation is dire indeed, my friend. You say both rogues are back in the area, united once more, and hiding out in some cave nearby?"

Hudson nodded. "Aye."

"Well, it’s doubtful that they’d still be there, seeing as how two of your clan were able to escape. But we’d at least have someplace to start."

"Unfortunately, dawn is moments away. Come tomorrow night, I can have the lass lead us back to the cave in question, but until then... I was hoping you could make some head-way with your men."

Malcolm put his hand to his chin. "I would like to help in any way I can, you know that. But in all reasonability, I can’t see how much progress we could possibly make without something to go on. Still... I will send some men. I cannot promise more than a few, mind you. But they will do what they can until your clan reawakens. In what direction did you say they came from?"

"The east," Hudson answered. "And I thank ye." He turned to leave, when something else struck him. "Ah yes. Ye should also know that, accordin’ to the lassie, those rogues looked ta be preparin’ for war."

Malcolm raised his eyebrows at the last revelation, as Hudson solidified before him.

* * * * *

The Next Night at the Caves

Grunts and growls were still echoing through the chamber as the cell door opened again. Bright torchlight flooded the room and the three young gargoyles shielded their eyes from the glare.

Everyone was hoping for their twisted-horned brother’s return, but received only Roland’s Second in Command. Their hearts sank as the husky man stepped into the room, a legion of human guards standing ready behind him.

"Good as new," he commented dryly to himself as he surveyed the three gargoyles. All were in prime shape, fully rejuvenated. Goliath, particularly, was a marvel to behold -- not a cut or bruise in sight. He appeared just as healthy as his two siblings.

Goliath scowled. "Where is our companion?" he demanded as he watched the human signal two other guards forward. There was not a hint of hesitance or wariness in his voice or stature now, with his strength returned to him. But the Second in Command was not in the least bit unnerved.

"Where yuir goin' ta be spendin' the rest o' the night," the human replied with a cruel grin.

Goliath and Diomedes growled as the two humans pointed swords at them and motioned for them to move. The Second in Command made a quick gesture with his hand, and the three men behind him rose crossbows.

"Don’t give us any trouble," the Second warned calmly. "Or else we’ll be seein’ if that stone sleep o’ yours heals arrows through the heart."

Goliath and Diomedes reluctantly allowed their captors to escort them out of the room. The sentries outside moved out of their way, but with their bows still carefully trained, as they walked up the corridor.

"You too, darling," the Second said to Fuchsia as a third guard came in to escort her.

All three of them headed up the corridor, each with a swordsman in front and an archer behind. The Second in Command trailed the procession from the rear. When they emerged from the corridor, they came upon a large cavern, not quite as high as the one they had been ambushed in, but at least three times as open.

"This is not as I remember it," Diomedes commented as he took in the cavern. The ceiling and floor were both enormous, flat, glacier-like slabs of rock, in between which was sandwiched this ‘thin’ fissure. But present, were at least double the number of ‘trainees’ as last night. More of the cavern had been opened up as well, by clearing away piles of rock - some intentionally-mounted, others not - and many of the larger stalactites and stalagmites. It was astounding how much some of these simple gestures opened the place up, giving it a great sense of depth and grandeur.

"I agree," Goliath added, awed but more wary than his rookery brother. In the far corners of the chamber he spotted previously-shrouded exits, each with armed guards in front of them. There were also old swords lining some of the cracks where the walls met the ceiling, with the blades pointed outwards, indicating possible avenues of escape - perhaps clear shots to the outside.

Uncountable numbers of torches filled the place. The last of the ‘improvements’ apparently made while they slept were the construction of individual, enclosed rings with the rocks presumably collected from the dismantling of the barricades. There were three in all.

"Our brother!" Diomedes exclaimed. Not far away two humans escorted a disgruntled Thersites between rings.

"That’s not all," Fuchsia added forebodingly. Eyes followed her gaze to the other end of the cavern, where guards led a despondent Asrial from a match. The guard stopped when Roland came up to her. Goliath’s face darkened as he saw their estranged brother put a hand to her face and whisper something hurtful to her.

They finally came to a stop in the center of the room, and the guards swarmed around them in a circle of swords. The Second in Command announced gruffly, "As you can see, we’ve been able to clean up the place over the day. It’s now been made to accommodate all of you at once. Our numbers have doubled, and so your chances of escape have halved. There will be no breaks until the sun rises, except the permanent kind. Do as you’re told, and you earn yourself our leftovers and the right to continue fighting."

"How motivating," Diomedes remarked sourly, earning him a bunt on the back of the head with a sword handle.

The Second stepped away and headed for another area of the cavern, where his presence was needed. "See to it that they begin the training," he ordered as he left. Several of the humans instantly let out sighs when he was out of eyeshot, and their guts visibly enlarged.

"If I gotta take one more day o’ playin’ soldier for the boss, I’m gonna quit this band," one of them grumbled. The threat was met with some low chuckling. "I swear it I will! We’re thieves, not the King o’ Scotland’s high guard!"

Goliath, Diomedes and Fuchsia exchanged curious looks.

"Hey, you lazy dogs!" a light-hearted voice greeted from behind. They turned to see another human approach them with Thersites in tow. As the humans began striking idle conversation, Goliath, Diomedes and Fuchsia made their way to Thersites.

"Brother, we are so glad to see you are alive and well!" Fuchsia whispered.

"Well, it hasn’t exactly been a night in the park, but thanks," he replied. "The truth is, I was just as worried when they didn’t return me to your cell as you probably were..."

"Yes," Diomedes said sarcastically, "Worried. That was it." Fuchsia elbowed him and he grinned. "Only a jest, Brother," he amended.

"It was no laughing matter out here!" Thersites replied. "They practiced on me until the last minute, and then just let me turn to stone as I was. When I awoke this sunset, I found myself in this new renovated prison camp, and they picked up on me right where they left off. It’s been horrific. Last night I didn’t know if I’d make it to dawn!"

"What about our sister?" Goliath asked worriedly.

Thersites shrugged his shoulders. "I don’t know where she came from. After I awoke tonight, she was the first they brought in. Our bandit brother was all over her from the moment she set foot in here."

Fuchsia sensed their captors’ conversation dwindling, and whispered urgently, "Before we’re split up, Brother, there is something you need to know. Last night in our cell, our brother and I came up with a plan of escape. We didn’t take into account the increase in security over the day, but I think it can still work." She looked to Diomedes for a gesture of approval, which he gave with a nod.

He looked at Goliath. "Do you remember much of what we spoke of, Brother?"

Goliath thought for a moment, trying to think through the mesh of words and thoughts from last night. "Vaguely."

Diomedes frowned. "Well, listen now..."

"What is going on here!" Roland's voice roared. Everyone jumped, humans and gargoyles alike. "Get back to work, you idiots! These prisoners need to be escorted to the rings. You are to keep them separated. Now get on with your duties!"

There was some uniform grumbling as the humans roughly shoved the gargoyles apart. Thersites winced as his captor grabbed him on the shoulder and laid a sword to his back. "Well, I suppose we’ll have to continue this - AH!"

"Close yuir beak and get movin’," the human barked. Thersites obeyed, as the others were split off and led away into different directions.

* * * * *

Somewhere Over Scotland

Hudson stretched his wings to the limit. Time was growing shorter. It was already near midnight, and not a trace.

"Leader!" called Othello. Hudson looked to his side to see the young warrior glide up alongside him. "Our search party led by my mate and our brown-skinne brother to the cave yielded nothing. There were clear signs of past occupation and a recent struggle, but no leads as to where our rookery siblings were taken from there." He paused to growl some with frustration before adding, "It would appear the men Prince Malcolm dispatched were not so derelict after all. There really were no clues to be had."

Hudson’s hopes sank and he sighed irritably. "Very well. Thank ye, lad." Upon awakening, Hudson and the rest of the clan had been informed that the daytime searches discovered a cave they believed to be the one in question where the ambush had taken place, but that there was nothing found there to indicate where to find the missing gargoyles. Hudson had taken refuge in the rationalization that Malcolm’s men had simply not been trying very hard, but this news shattered such an assumption.

"How goes the rest o’ the search?" Hudson inquired half-heartedly.

Othello frowned. "From what I have been able to gather, not particularly well. But we will keep on trying until the sun’s rays stop us." With that declaration, Othello swerved on the nearest air current and glided off.

"Yes... indeed," Hudson frowned. He shook his head.

"I see yuir troubled," the Eldest observed. Hudson glanced to his other side to see the Eldest gliding beside him.

"How plain is that? And what are ye doin’ out o’ the castle like this?" Hudson demanded.

The Eldest recoiled indignantly. "I am still a member of this clan, I will have ye know. I was scouring countryside when you were still-"

"Please, spare me. Tonight, just this once," Hudson interrupted with a wave of the hand.

The Eldest frowned and laid a hand on his shoulder. "I know how this is affectin’ ye. But those five are all strong ones. And if we be countin’ our blessin’s, then they are all still together, and relying on one another in whatever situation they’re in." Her eyes hardened. "And we will find them. Nobody contradicts the wisdom of their elders, and this does not exclude you."

Hudson smiled momentarily, but it faded as fast as it came. "I just don’t wanta have ta call this search off. But it is lookin’ bleak."

The Eldest’s face was like an epitomizing mural of undoubting determination as she replied, "As I said, we will find them. And they will be all right." The words were pure statements of fact as they left her mouth. In spite of himself, Hudson felt hope resurface.

Below, Javin looked down as Othello glided by. The white-haired warrior grimaced as he passed.

* * * * *

Diomedes and Fuchsia were led to the back of the cavern, where their human escorts stopped. "Well, all the rings are in use right now," one of them observed, "ye might as well rest yeselves while ye have the chance. As soon as the next match ends, you’re goin’ in."

Both gargoyles exchanged concerned glances as they watched their brothers and sister in combat. Goliath was engaged with two of Atalanta’s warriors, a male and a female. Thersites, meanwhile, was being pitted against three armed humans. In the last ring, Asrial faced a female gargoyle, as Roland presided over the match personally.

As their escorts turned to watch the matches with pointing fingers, belly laughs and snide comments, Diomedes and Fuchsia leaned over to one another.

"They didn’t bother drugging any of us tonight," Fuchsia observed.

"That will definitely play to our advantage," Diomedes whispered in return. "But not if we aren’t able to inform our rookery siblings of the plan." Diomedes eyed their two human captors, flexing his claws as they rooted and snickered over the matches with their backs turned. "We could take them," he declared with narrowed eyes.

Fuchsia shook her head with a sigh. "And where would we go from there?" she asked rhetorically.

Diomedes grimaced. "It might be worth whatever punishment the Rogue administers just to take the pleasure..."

"Brother," Fuchsia said seriously. She did not turn her eyes away until she was sure she had acquired his. Then she continued, "We need to plan our strategy once the plan goes off. There are many more of the enemy now than there were last night."

"And who knows how many more in other parts of the caves..."

"For now, let us just worry about the ones present here. How many do you count?"

"Eight gargoyles, and somewhere around fifteen of the Rogue’s men."

Fuchsia nodded thoughtfully. "I have counted fourteen humans. No doubt they look like more when moving around as they have been. Add another six to that number for good measure, and we have twenty - twenty-eight with the gargoyles."

Diomedes growled. "That is too many."

"Two humans to a gargoyle, and that gives us eighteen."

"Still too many..." Diomedes shook his head as if to banish the uncooperative figures.

"Not if the plan works," Fuchsia reminded.

"No, but for that to happen we have to inform the others."

"If we can pass it along to just one of them," Fuchsia mused, "we would have a better chance of spreading it to all three."

"All right, ye three," the guard in front of them announced as he and his companion turned back around. "Ye’re both up."

Diomedes and Fuchsia looked to the rings, where they saw one of Atalanta’s warriors pick up an exhausted Thersites from the cave floor. The three humans he had been battling stood to the side clashing their swords together and shouting triumphant vocal slurs.

In the other ring, Roland oversaw Asrial from her match to a female gargoyle - the same one she had fought earlier. Both pairs of gargoyles headed for the main cavern entrance that led back to the cells.

"Time to be feedin’ the dogs," one of the humans mocked as he watched the gargoyles being escorted away.

"They’re being brought back to their cells?" Fuchsia asked before thinking.

The human turned to her with outright disgust on his face as he replied, "That be no business o’ yours. All you have to worry about is fightin’. Now get out there!"

A rough shove sent Fuchsia and Diomedes on their way. As they were about to be split off to go to their separate rings, Fuchsia slowed her pace. This earned her a rough jab from her escort, but that only resulted in her stumbling forward and then dropping. Diomedes’ eyes widened and he rushed for her. His guard chased after him.

Diomedes came up to Fuchsia, but before he could act further she gave him a concealed wink. The guard reached Diomedes and wrenched him back. Two other humans joined him and they began beating on Diomedes ruthlessly. Fuchsia forced herself to remain still as she sensed Roland approaching.

He eyed the humans clobbering Diomedes with mild interest, and then turned his attention to Fuchsia.

"Okay, let up!" the Second in Command yelled, pushing the men off Diomedes. "Ye’re gonna cripple him before he gets a chance to be of use!"

The men reluctantly backed away from Diomedes. He rose to his feet and the Second nodded to the men. They grabbed him by the arms and led him away.

The Second walked up to Roland, as he stared down at Fuchsia. Roland flipped her over with his foot and eyed her intently. With a sneer, he kicked some dust in her face and turned to him.

"Take her to the cell with the others to be fed," he instructed disgustedly. "It seems not all of Wyvern are as strong-stomached."

The Second waved over some men and they dragged her off.

* * * * *

The cell door swung open with a loud creak. Thersites looked up to see Fuchsia dragged in, then laid down on the ground. The two guards that carried her in casually cuffed the chains to her ankles and wrists, then walked back out and turned to the guard outside the door.

"Keep an eye on her," one of them instructed. "If she starts to come aroun’, bring her back to the training grounds."

The door closed behind them, and Thersites leaned up to Fuchsia. "Sister?" he whispered. "Sister, are you awake?"

"Are they gone?" Fuchsia asked softly as she lifted her head to take a peek.

Thersites started. "Yes, they left... Are you all right?"

Fuchsia nodded as she sat up. "Never better."

"What did you do, pretend to faint?"

Fuchsia grinned, and Thersites gaped. "If I’d known all I had to do to get out of there sooner was to pretend to pass out, I wouldn’t have stayed around to fight three drunken lunatics with swords and axes!"

"Don’t get jealous, Brother, the only reason I am here is to-" She stopped as she glanced at Asrial, a pained look crossing her face. "How is our sister?"

Thersites frowned as he followed Fuchsia’s gaze over to their sister. Asrial sat in the far corner of the room, huddled with her knees to her chest and her arms and wings wrapped tightly around her body.

"I think she'll be okay," he said with soft concern, "if only we get out of here soon. I don't think she's used to this sort of... training."

"I don't think any of us are."

"I certainly am not," Thersites mumbled in agreement as he fingered his ‘food’ - some scraps of fuzzy bread and rotting potatoes floating in translucent water. He lifted the bowl mockingly. "Care for some?"

Fuchsia ignored him as she leaned forward and whispered, "We have a plan of escape you need to hear."

"Well, it's about time," Thersites declared, setting aside his bowl and leaning over to listen.

"It was put together last night, when we were counting on some of us still being behind in the cell. You and our sister complete that part of the plan. Everything will be dependent on you setting things into motion."

"What are we supposed to do? We’re locked in here, chained from within and guarded from without."

Fuchsia smirked as she pulled out a steel ring with some rusty keys attached to it. "I got it off one of the humans as they dragged me down. I presume it will unlock your chains." She tossed the keys to Thersites, who caught them soundlessly. He let out a deep breath and gingerly hid them behind himself.

"The guard shouldn’t be very hesitant about coming in, knowing that we’re all chained up. When he does enter, you subdue him and escape."

"Then what?"

"You-" She stopped as they heard the door unlatch and the guard stepped in.

"Feeling a little better now, are we?" he asked mockingly. "Come on, then. It's back to the training grounds with you." He walked forward and knelt beside her as he reached into his pocket and withdrew a key. Thersites’ eyes radiated as he recognized it as the same as the keys on the ring Fuchsia gave him.

The guard finished unlocking Fuchsia’s chains, just as a voice echoed in from down the corridor. "Robert... are ye in there, man?" Another human appeared in the doorway.

"Just about to bring this one back out to the grounds," Robert answered, gesturing to Fuchsia.

"Why, ye can’t leave yuir post here," the new human insisted, catching brief glimpses of Thersites and Asrial. "Here, I’ll take her up for ye. I’m headin’ up myself, anyway."

"Thanks, Dugan," Robert replied, leading Fuchsia out of the cell. "Tell me who wins the fight with the big one later on, ay?"

The other man nodded his head as he led Fuchsia away, and Robert looked over the two bowls sitting untouched on the floor. "Ye better eat your food, beasties," the man advised cruelly, "because rotten or not it’s goin’ ta be the most you get in your bellies until tomorrow night."

Before closing the door, he aimed for Thersites’ bowl and spit. The hit struck the water with a plop. "Better hurry up, you’re not goin’ ta have forever before havin’ ta go back out." Laughing to himself, he turned and shut the door.

Thersites moved his bowl away with a talon and leaned back against the wall, biting his lip. "Great," he muttered. "Ten more seconds... but no." He put a hand to his temple. "Now what?"

* * * * *

Fuchsia passed both Goliath’s and Diomedes’ rings as she was led to her own, noting that Goliath looked at her expectantly when he saw her and deciding Diomedes must have been able to get to him in her absence. She gave each a wink, signaling that all was well.

As soon as she was out of eyeshot, she sighed and slumped dejectedly. She had not been able to finish explaining the plan to Thersites. Their only hope was that he had gotten enough to go on, but perhaps more essentially, being Thersites, that he chose to act on what he did have...

* * * * *

Thersites grumbled with frustration. So far he had managed to repeat to Asrial what Fuchsia had told him of the plan twice, holding up the keys for her to see in the hope that a visual aide might have an effect on her, but she remained unresponsive.

"Sister, please!" he begged in a strained whisper. "We can’t do this without you. I can’t do it without you. I don’t know what to do once we get out of the cell. I need your help! I can’t do this alone!"

He sighed, bowing his head, and gathered his thoughts. "I know that you’ve been through a lot... I don’t know what our evil brother did to you before tonight, but I did see how hard he treated you out there in the ring." She shivered, grasping herself more tightly. Thersites went on, "But... you’re not alone anymore, with him. You have us now. We’re here. I’m here. He won’t hurt you again, but we can hurt him back. And we can get home!"

Finally, Asrial shook her head and spoke. "I know. I just... I can’t stand this place." She suddenly raised her head and locked eyes with him. "I'm not usually like this... like a scared hatchling. I hate it." She lowered her gaze. "But here, with him, I feel... naked..."

Thersites reached forward, but stopped when the slack of his chains ran out. He took the keys and unlocked them, carefully setting them down so that they did not rattle, and crouched over to Asrial. Gingerly, he unwrapped her wings. Reaching down, he took her hands in his, and looked into her eyes. A combination of sincerity and desperation reflected in his. "Then let’s get out of here. Please, Sister."

"What can I do?"

"Improvise," Thersites answered intently. "Exactly the thing we need right now."

Asrial hesitated for a moment, then nodded softly her agreement. Thersites let out a breath of relief as he held up the keys. "Let’s get these chains off you, then we can get out of here." Asrial smiled.

* * * * *

The guard yawned with a large stretch. He wasn't used to sitting around all the time like this-- especially not at night and for such long hours. He needed sleep, and he couldn't get that in daylight.

Something broke against the door as he leaned against it. He turned around and peered into the peephole as the second clay bowl struck the door and shattered. A gush of putrid water came through the hole and splashed his face.

Grimacing as he wiped the liquid from his face, and wrinkling his nose at the smell, he pounded on the door. "You wretched beasts, you got that slop all over me!"

The sound of laughter emanated from inside and he stiffened. Drawing his sword, he unlatched the door and shoved it open. "I’m goin’ ta give you the beatin’ of a-" A tail swept his feet from under him and he fell forward, his face landing in a puddle of the foul, soggy drippings from the clay bowl’s impact on the door. He was about to pick himself up, when a sudden nausea overcame him and he dropped to the ground unconscious.

Thersites and Asrial exchanged a curious glance. "Potent stuff," Thersites remarked. They lifted Robert up and, using his sleeve, Asrial wiped the sludge from his face.

"What are you doing?" Thersites asked.

Asrial explained as they dragged him into the corridor and leaned him against the wall, "This way nobody will suspect anything if they happen to glance down the corridor or pass by. They’ll think he’s just sleeping." She pulled his metal helmet over his eyes and hooked the back of his steel mesh to the uneven rock to hold him up. "There," she announced.

Thersites looked him over with astounded eyes. "This is what I mean!" he declared. "How would I have thought to do something like this?"

Asrial smirked as she closed the cell door. "The only problem is figuring out what we’re supposed to do now."

"Now?" Thersites grimaced. "Now, we... uh, look around."

Frowning, Asrial followed her brother down the corridor in the direction opposite the one that led to the main cavern. As they walked, Thersites mumbled, "There has to be a search party out there led by Leader looking for us right now! All we have to do is get to them and we’ll be safe. Maybe... maybe we can come back for the others. It wouldn’t be long."

"That’s it!" Asrial exclaimed. "A search party! In the dead of night, what would be the best way to signal them?" At Thersites’ blank look, she answered, "A fire!"

"But... how? There’s nothing to burn. We’re in a cave!"

"Well, it will only work if we did it outside."

"That’s if we can find our way to the outside," Thersites remarked sourly. As he spoke, they turned a corner and came upon a wheelless wagon loaded with containers. They undid the cap on one and sniffed.

"Spirits," Asrial concluded.

Thersites brought his face away from the substance and wrinkled his nose. "Very strong spirits."

"If you could somehow spread this, we might be able to attract enough of the Rogue’s men to leave the main cavern relatively unguarded."

"But wouldn’t he immediately become more paranoid and increase watch on them with what men he has left? I would..."

Asrial pondered the dilemma. "We’ll have to come up with a second diversion, one to distract the troops left in the main cavern to give our rookery siblings the chance to jump them."

As Thersites looked around for inspiration, Asrial grabbed an armful of the alcohol containers and handed them to him. Thersites accepted the containers with some deliberation. "What am I supposed to do with these?"

"Go back up to the main cavern and use them to start a fire as soon as I start mine down here," she answered matter-of-factly as she started to uncork the remaining containers and spill them over.

Thersites stepped away as the toxic liquid washed over the amputated wagon and spilled over onto the floor. "But - how? They’ll catch me!"

"You’ll have to find another way into the cavern than the main one. We saw at least two other guarded portals." She gathered up the last of the containers and began trailing the liquid across the floor. In the rear of the cavern they were in Thersites could see several other items, most of them conveniently wooden or at the least victim to fire. No doubt they were currently in the camp’s pillage hold.

"But sister... are you sure you’ll be all right down here, by yourself?"

Asrial nodded absently as she continued her aqua vitae sabotage. "Light yours as soon as you reach your position." Thersites hesitated, reshuffling the flammable intoxicants in his arms. He went on his way.

* * * * *

Thersites heard the sounds of trampling feet and hearty, half-witted shouts. "Looks like I’ve found the place," he mumbled under his breath as he advanced towards the rocky entrance. Finding it this soon was pure, unadulterated dumb luck. As he neared, crouched and holding the whiskey containers carefully, he could see into the cavern. He was within the entrance almost directly opposite the main one that led from their cells. Just outside, on either side, were two guards - each of them a gargoyle.

Thersites sank back dejectedly. Gingerly setting down his arsenal of beverages, he slipped up to the entrance and peered around the corner. Neither gargoyle noticed him. They were both facing the matches taking place. That, and their responsibility was to keep the prisoners in, not unforeseen trespassers out.

He gazed over to the closest of the rings, wherein Diomedes was taking a beating by one of Atalanta’s warriors. He winced as the brute kicked Diomedes in the jaw. His rookery brother stumbled back and grasped his wounded mouth painfully. In a quick flick of his eyes, Diomedes caught sight of Thersites peeking out of the cave entrance. His eyes widened and Thersites realized that he was seeing him.

At a loss for what else to do, he brought forward one of the alcohol containers and showed it to him, then put his finger to his lips. Diomedes appeared relieved at seeing him, but puzzled by what he was being shown. Thersites realized his error and tried to signal him to forget it with a sweeping gesture of his hands. Diomedes’ eyes turned from confusion to fear, and Thersites wrinkled his brow, now the one confused.

"What are you doing back there?!"

Thersites jumped and looked up into the face of the gargoyle standing guard outside the entrance. His companion joined him and the two drew their swords.

"I - I can explain," he stammered. Two arms reached forward and grabbed him before he could plead any further.

"You’re not going to escape the fate of your comrades hiding back there," one of them declared as he twisted him around and shoved him forward. Thersites walked as he was instructed, meeting the worried eyes of Diomedes as he past.

The other gargoyle remained at his post, oblivious to the containers sitting just within the cave corridor as one of them tipped over and began to spill its contents...

Thersites’ captor led him to Roland. "We caught this one hiding in a corridor," he announced as Roland turned to face them.

Roland’s eyes darted up and down Thersites, then fell on his gargoyle captor. "Where did you say you found him?" The gargoyle pointed towards the entrance where his companion was still posted.

Roland analyzed the entrance briefly as the gargoyle went on, "What do you want done with him?"

Roland returned his eyes to Thersites. "This one was supposed to be in his cell with his sister. I wasn’t aware either had been brought back onto the grounds."

The other gargoyle shrugged. "Your men lack discipline. They do not adhere to your commands." Roland grimaced. Every one of Atalanta’s gargoyles seemed to speak her mind. They all sounded so much like her that it was bordering on cultic.

Roland called over one of his men, a young blond-haired human. Without looking at him, he ordered, "Go and check on the prisoners’ cell. Ensure the other one is still there and find out why this one isn’t."

"Yes, Roland," the thief replied and walked off.

Roland was able to tell who he was speaking to by the voice, and mentally catalogued it for later for when he returned with his report.

He returned his attention to Thersites. "This one is the weakest and most noncompetitive of the group. He has barely presented a challenge to our trainees." He shrugged. "Kill him."

Thersites squirmed, but his captor held onto him easily. "Just run him through?"

Roland shook his head contemplatively as he paced the floor, his hands folded behind his back. "If he’s going out, then he should go out with a bang. We might as well get as much use out of him as we can."

"So, what do you have in mind?" the gargoyle asked hesitantly. It was clear he did not like Roland’s playful attitude.

"A death match," Roland answered with a grin. "That ought to get spirits up and rekindle enthusiasm." Thersites gaped as Roland approached the nearest ring and ordered the fight to cease. A bewildered Fuchsia was led away to one of the other rings, her eyes filling with worry as she glimpsed Thersites in the custody of Atalanta’s burly warrior.

Anxious humans brought forward armfuls of old swords and began placing them around the ring by sticking them between the stones that formed the outer perimeter. Thersites watched in horror as they completed the modifications that transformed the ordinary ring into a death arena. He yelped as his captor lifted him up and threw him in. He landed heavily on the rock floor, surrounded now by a circle of blades and a growing throng of humans and gargoyles.

"Who would like to be the one to do battle to the death?" Roland asked aloud.

A husky gargoyle stepped forward. "I would." Roland sat back with a satisfied grin, as Thersites’ eyes widened. That gargoyle was the same brute he had faced back in the cave where he and his siblings had been ambushed by Atalanta. The mammoth warrior stepped over the protruding weapons and faced Thersites menacingly.

Shouts and roars echoed through the cavern as Roland announced, "Begin the fight!"

Thersites felt himself grow shorter as he looked upon his opponent. A thin string of drool hung from the barbarian’s mouth. Desperately, he tried recalling what he glimpsed of his brothers and sisters as they trained from his places of hiding. With a deep breath, he fell into the next best thing to a resolute fighting stance and looked up at his opponent. The gargoyle smirked, as the sounds of mocking laughter emanated from the surrounding crowd. The only ones not snickering were Diomedes, Goliath and Fuchsia as they each watched the fight from afar.

With a roar, Thersites’ adversary lunged forward. Thersites dodged his attack, but by the time he regained himself the other gargoyle was thrusting his fist forward. The punch struck Thersites head-on and he collapsed to the ground.

Thersites looked up to see the other gargoyle pulling one of the swords from its place with his bare hands. With another roar he lunged for Thersites. He rolled out of the way of the sword and got to his feet. In a frantic gesture he reached for the closest sword, but withdrew his hand in unexpected pain as he pricked himself on the blade.

His ducked under the swipe of his opponent’s sword and leapt to the opposite side of the ring, where he tried again to retrieve a weapon. He winced as he cut himself a second time.

"Brother, here!" a voice called out. Thersites looked in its direction to find a sword flying towards him. He caught the airborne weapon, but fumbled with it as he tried to grab the handle. It almost fell out of his hands entirely before he finally grasped and lifted it to block his opponent’s oncoming swing.

A human struck Fuchsia on her back with a club for tossing Thersites the sword. Behind him, Diomedes’ eyes flared white.

Thersites ducked, dodged, swerved and yelped as his opponent struck the sword out of his hands. He grabbed Thersites by the shoulders and lifted him up. The cavern was filled with the noise of shouting humans and gargoyles as their champion prepared to deliver the finishing blow.

Thersites watched helplessly as the sight of the swords loomed into view like spikes reaching up for him. He closed his eyes and, in a last-ditch effort, kneed the gargoyle in his stomach. The crowd silenced. Thersites felt his opponent’s grip loosen, and he wrenched himself free, dropping to the floor inches away from a skewed demise. He looked up at the other gargoyle and realized that he had struck him a hand lower than his stomach...

"Fire! There’s a fire in the bottom cavern!" Eyes turned to a frantic human as he rushed in from the main entrance, a thin veil of smoke trailing along the ceiling after him.

Roland turned to face the human, whom he recognized as the same blond-haired youth he had sent to check on the cell. His eyes hardened. "The cell. Did you check the cell? The guard? The prisoners?" At the human’s blank expression, Roland felt himself explode. "Where is the last prisoner?!"

The human stammered for an answer, but Roland did not give him a chance. He turned towards the crowd and ordered, "My men, come with me. The rest, remain here to guard the prisoners."

Thersites felt himself wince. He and Asrial had anticipated an even division of the enemy’s forces. Glancing at his rookery siblings, he saw that they wore the same worried look.

"Roland, we can’t do it ourselves," the blond human pleaded as Roland and his men gathered to head down the corridor. "It’s a raging inferno down there! We need the other gargoyles to get through it and retrieve water!"

Roland grimaced as he motioned the rest of his men down the corridor. "Very well. You, you, follow us!" Two gargoyles stepped forward. Thersites felt a swell of relief as he saw that one of them was his previous fighting opponent.

He gingerly stepped out of the blade-encircled ring, and a sword grazed his throat. It lifted him to his feet by the chin, and Thersites looked into the face of the gargoyle that had caught him back at the cave entrance.

"I’m still here," the gargoyle informed coldly, nudging Thersites back into the death ring as his rookery siblings joined him, herded forward by Atalanta’s other gargoyles.

As the two gargoyles had Roland fingered reached him, Roland grabbed the last human in the single-file chain heading down the corridor by the shirt collar. Eyeing the blond-haired human and the newly-acquired volunteer, he ordered, "You two stay here to take the gargoyles’ place."

Roland and the two gargoyles dashed down the corridor, and the two humans tentatively approached the ring where the Wyvern gargoyles were being held. Both species kept a healthy distance apart.

"Well, this is cozy," Thersites remarked.

* * * * *

A throng of humans rushed past the unconscious cell guard as he hung limply by his collar from the cave wall. "Come on, Rob, there’s a fire!" one of the passerbys yelled. There was no response. Roland and the two gargoyles passed by last.

When Roland reached the cell, he kicked upon the door viciously. The latch broke and the wood split from its hinges, drenching the inside of the vacant cell with torchlight. Roland growled as his eyes darted from the undone chains, to the previously-latched door, to the unconscious guard.

With a snarl he tore himself away before he lost control. The two gargoyles followed him wordlessly, down the bustling corridor and into the depths from which an increasing fog of black smoke was drifting up...

* * * * *

Goliath, Diomedes, Fuchsia, and Thersites stood back to back inside the ring of swords, surrounded on the outside by five gargoyles with raised weapons. Two humans stood to the side, and a sixth gargoyle stood at attention before the cave entrance nearby.

The humans engaged in a mock fight as they demonstrated to one another how they fought the Wyvern gargoyles.

"They aren’t so tough," the blond remarked.

The other human nodded in agreement. "Once ye get down to it, they’re nothin’ but overgrown animals. When you know how to properly handle them... the rest is child’s play, me lad."

The pair paused as they felt the gazes of their allies on them. "Of course we didn’t mean you," the human amended. "Ah, forget it..." With a dismissive wave he turned his back.

"So," Thersites inquired, "what’s our next move?"

"Don’t look at us, Brother, that was up to you," Diomedes responded.

"Silence!" one of their gargoyle captors shouted sternly. "I have never heard such insistent banter. You have lived among humans too long, and acquired their habits."

"Hey, and what’s that supposed to mean?" one of the humans demanded, as all of Atalanta’s gargoyles began to snicker.

The gargoyle standing at the cave entrance laughed as well, so distracted by the scene that he did not notice the warm liquid running past his feet. On the wall, a torch burned brightly, tiny fragments of glowing ash falling every now and then. One fragment struck the ground next to the liquid. Another landed right in it, but its glow was extinguished by the air a moment too soon. A third fragment fell and fluttered over the liquid playfully. The gargoyle continued to chuckle as a breath of air sent it skimming along the floor’s surface, and a fire spread across the ground.

The flame followed the liquid’s course along the cavern floor relentlessly, igniting every rivulet of the noxious drink within seconds. The gargoyle gasped as he saw himself suddenly standing amidst a pond of flame. It leaped up his legs and caught his leggings, lighting them afire and traveling upwards along his body. Chuckling turned to horrific screaming as the gargoyle ran forward and began patting himself down with his hands.

There was a moment of hesitation on everyone’s part as they caught sight of the afflicted gargoyle. Half his clan mates rushed up to him, while the other half stood in place, transfixed.

"Now!" Goliath bellowed. All four of them leapt over the sword barricade that encompassed them. Thersites and Fuchsia landed lightly on the cave floor outside, as Goliath and Diomedes rammed into two of their gargoyle captors. With their backs turned, they were taken completely by surprise.

Thersites and Fuchsia did not give the humans a moment to react before pouncing on them. With terror-filled eyes they feebly put up their arms in defense. One drew his weapon, but Thersites knocked it out of his hand.

With glowing eyes he lifted him by the shirt. "Not so tough when there’s only one of you instead of four, huh?" With that he threw him onto the ground.

Fuchsia finished her opponent with a quick whip of her tail, knocking him out cold. "Not very fast learners, are they?" she quipped.

Goliath and Diomedes, meanwhile, wrestled with their opponents as they rolled across the cavern floor. Goliath fought over control of his adversary’s sword. With a deep rumbling growl, Goliath overpowered the other gargoyle and forced the weapon out of his grasp. It flew through the air and landed some yards away. Goliath then punched him in the face. The gargoyle stumbled back, and Goliath punched him again in the gut. As he hunched over, Goliath delivered one final blow to his legs, and the gargoyle toppled over.

Diomedes fought as hard as he could, but he had not the strength of his rookery brother. The night’s matches had succeeded in taking too much out of him. Goliath tackled his brother’s opponent from behind, giving Diomedes a chance to recover himself. Then they both took hold of the enemy gargoyle and heaved him over the sword ring. He landed heavily within, sliding up and hitting his head on one of the rocks.

Goliath and Diomedes panted heavily, Diomedes leaning over with his hands on his knees. "It looks like our fellow gargoyles," he observed between gaping breaths, "aren’t as well accustomed to the real thing."

"Most likely why they’re here," Goliath agreed. "But it is not over yet, Brother. We can rest afterwards, or be laid to rest now!"

"Roll around some more!" one of the gargoyles instructed his flaming companion as he and a female patted him with their hands to suffocate the fire.

No words needed to be spoken. Goliath tagged Diomedes on the arm as Fuchsia and Thersites caught up with them, and they made a dash for the back cave portal. They leapt through the flames as if through Hades’ gates. Once on the other side, Thersites pointed to the remaining containers.

"Pour these over the fire," he suggested. The others mutely agreed and grabbed for the small wooden barrels. They showered the fire with the liquor, inciting it to grow larger and more ferocious in intensity. They threw the last of the containers into the inferno unopened, like an offering. They burst upon landing and sent forth an explosion of combusted air. The voices of the gargoyles on the other side soon drowned beneath the raging of the flames.

"Come, let us leave!" Goliath commanded. "Before they can regroup and cut us off at another intersection!"

* * * * *

Two gargoyles raced down the corridor carrying their comrade between their arms. Light burns scarred his legs and feet, and patches of his wing membranes were singed. As they passed Robert, he roused himself and lifted his helmet from over his eyes.

"What are ye doin’ here, human?" one of the gargoyles demanded.

Robert glanced around anxiously, trying to recall his bearings and remember what had happened to him. He saw that the cell door was open, and then noticed the burns on one of the gargoyles. His nose wrinkled at the smell of smoke.

"I don’t know... what’s happening? Where are you going?" The gargoyle scowled as he and his companion carried their injured comrade on. "Wait!" Robert shouted. "There’s smoke coming from that direction!"

"We know!" the gargoyle snapped. "There’s a fire!"

Robert turned in the other direction curiously. "What about the other way?"

"There’s a fire there too!"

Robert gasped. "What have I missed?!"

* * * * *

Roland shielded his night-sensitive eyes from the fire as they reached the bottom cavern. It was indeed an inferno. All of the loot and plunder they had spent precious months accumulating was now bathed in corrosive heat. The cavern provided an ideal place for a fire. It was enclosed enough to preserve the blaze, while still having access to branching-off tunnels that led to the outside from which it could draw in air. It was like an incinerator oven.

Roland glanced at his men, who stood behind him in dumbfounded shock. His eyes flared white and everyone hustled into action.

"There’s the pond right outside," one of the men reminded. "We’ve got to bring back the water!"

The two gargoyles volunteered themselves and joined forces with a couple of the humans. The gargoyles wrapped their wings around their bodies and leapt through the blaze, as the humans raced through with shields covering their faces.

Meanwhile, the others began to try to snuff out the flames with their shirts and save as many of their valuables from the inferno as possible. When the humans and gargoyles returned through the fire, they carried bucketfuls of water.

Roland motioned more men forward. "Go to the other side and fight the fire from both flanks!" Three of his men threw themselves through the fire in compliance to their boss’s command.

Soon a network was in progress, with humans making mad dashes back and forth through the flames, carrying with them on their return trips bucketfuls of their precious ammunition against the pyre that consumed their goods. Water splashed onto the fire from both sides, as the gargoyles climbed to the ceiling with the liquid and showered the cavern with it from overhead.

They appeared to be making some headway, but Roland could not tell if this was from their battle on it or if the fire was simply running out of consumables.

Outside, Asrial spied Roland’s men rushing in and out of the cave tunnel with buckets of water from the shroud of some nearby bushes. She watched with glee as the smoke drained from the mouth of the cave and rose into the sky in a giant pillar, growing thicker with every step Roland’s men made in quenching the fire.

Inside, the two gargoyles arrived with their burned comrade in tow. Roland turned to them with wide eyes as they began to explain to him what happened.

"So, basically what you’re telling me is that you’ve allowed them to escape." Roland’s demeanor was devoid of any feeling.

The gargoyles exchanged hesitant glances, and Roland turned away. With a raised hand he called back half his men. "Half of you remain here and continue fighting the fire. The rest of you are with me. We go to recapture our fleeing prey!"

From outside, Asrial saw several of the men drop their buckets and run into the cavern. The area was clear. "It’s now or never," she told herself, and dashed out from the bushes. As stealthily as she could, she made her way across the field to the cave, then worked her way around to the rear where she hoped she would meet up with her rookery siblings.

Roland, meanwhile, gathered his forces and moved out. They went through the cavern from the rear, where the fire did not extend all the way to the walls, to the tunnel on the far end that would lead to an intersection where they could ambush their escapees.

Outside, Asrial came to a crack in the cave. Through the hole she could see the fire raging on within, and beyond the flames the face of Roland. They locked eyes with each other. Roland did not grin; he simply stared at her with cold, hard, unfeeling eyes. The flames danced before him, illuminating his features in a ghastly luminescence, and reflecting in his eyes. She felt herself recoil, but could not move away.

Finally, his face relaxed and he mouthed the words ‘Hello pretty sister’. Then, with a flare to his eyes, he turned around and followed his men up the tunnel.

* * * * *

Goliath, Diomedes, Fuchsia, and Thersites breathed fresh air as they came upon the mouth of a tunnel. They could see the light of the stars through the opening only a few more yards away.

A row of armed humans filed out of a side-tunnel directly in front of them, causing the four of them to come to a halt.

"Oh, great!" Thersites cried. "Now what?"

Roland stepped out of the tunnel and turned to greet his adversaries with a warm smile. "Well, well, well. Not quite out of the woods yet, are we? What’s the next move? Or have my ex-siblings finally run out of ideas?" He surveyed his talons absently as he continued, "I’ll forgive this little infraction as long as you all return to your cell nice and quietly. I’ll only kill one of you. Say..." he pointed a casual finger at Thersites, "that one."

Goliath growled. "We have no choice." Roland smirked. "We must charge them!" His face fell, as Goliath and the others roared and ran for them. Thersites closed his eyes.

The two sides collided. Shield met claw. Sword met wing. Shouts echoed through the room. Roland growled as he fought off Goliath. The humans toppled. The gargoyles were getting through. One after the other, the Wyvern clan emerged from the fray. And one after the other, they came face to face with Atalanta’s warriors as they alighted before them, swords and spears at the ready.

Asrial came within eyeshot of the cavern exit just in time to see her brothers and sister cornered by Atalanta’s gargoyles. Her mind raced. If she tried to help them, she could give them the distraction they need to turn the tide... or she could get herself captured along with the rest of them. But she couldn’t just abandon her clan mates! Not on the slim chance that she could make it back with reinforcements.

From the distance where she stood, she saw Roland walk out of the cave and make a furious sweeping gesture at her brothers and sister. Faintly, she could discern the command he gave to Atalanta’s warriors, who held her clan mates at bay: "No more games! Kill them all and be done with it!"

Several winged shadows passed over her and she looked up to see gargoyles soaring towards the scene. Behind her, the rising column of smoke separated as dozens more approached.

From the rock ledge, Fuchsia’s eyes widened. "Our leader! He’s come!" Roland and the others turned their attentions to the sky as the Wyvern clan dove and knocked over Atalanta’s warriors. They landed in a blitz, quickly surrounding the ledge and coming even in number with Roland’s forces. But the advantage of one side was obvious: All gargoyles versus half gargoyles and half humans.

A brief skirmish ensued between the two parties, giving Goliath, Fuchsia, Thersites, and Diomedes the chance to free themselves and join their clan mates. Roland seethed from the rear of the fighting as he backed into the cave opening. His forces were being driven back and there was no possible way to turn the battle around. His ex-clan had come, and he knew they could not fight any longer.

"Retreat!!" he bellowed unwillingly. At the questioning glances he received from some of his troops, he repeated his command more spitefully, "Retreat, I say!" Most of the humans had no problem following the order, as they ran into the cave or dove off the ledge and ran for cover. Atalanta’s warriors took a more dignified exit, unfurling their wings and gliding off the ledge with vindictive snarls.

The Wyvern gargoyles let out a loud cheer of victory. Asrial caught up with the group and ran directly for Goliath. He caught her and they hugged. Taken up in the moment, Diomedes and Fuchsia turned to each other and also embraced. From the crowd, Demona’s face fell as she saw the two together.

Othello and Desdemona stood together, watching with satisfaction as their enemies fled, as Thersites let himself collapse against the rock face in an exaggerated gesture of fatigue and relief.

Hudson sighed, turning to the young warriors he had feared were forever lost. "Come all o' ye. Let's return home."

"We do not pursue the enemy?" Othello inquired dutifully.

Thersites answered his brother’s question for their leader with a hasty, "No!"

Hudson smiled as he faced Othello. "No, lad, I think we’ve had enough for tonight."

With the unfurling of wings the clan took off for home.

* * * * *

Castle Wyvern. Later That Night

Goliath sat atop the battlements alone. It was not far until dawn, but the night was still black and the moon shone brightly overhead. There was a cool breeze that swayed his hair as he contemplated the night’s events and admired the landscape before him.

"Brother?" a barely-audible voice asked from behind him. Javin took some hesitant steps forward and drew in a shaky breath. Closing his eyes, he opened his mouth to say something, but no sound came. He only succeeded in mouthing the words.

He tried again, and this time he found his voice. "I am sorry, Brother." He lowered his head, even though Goliath was still facing the other way. "I’m so sorry. I... I do not know what came over me."

There was a pause. The breeze rustled some leaves laying on the ground. Javin waited for Goliath’s answer, both desperately and unwillingly.

There came a sigh, and Goliath said, "Yes you do. It was jealousy, but unwarranted. I realize that you understand this now, and... I forgive you for what you did."

Javin stared with uncomprehending eyes as Goliath turned to face him. "You couldn't have known that our enemies would be in that cave. That was not your fault." He shrugged. "And in the end, we all came through all right. All of us, with something gained from the experience, however grueling."

Goliath smiled and offered him a seat on the parapet beside him. Javin swallowed nervously as he approached, and tentatively sat. "Not all of us," he corrected somberly. "I do not think that I will ever be looked upon by the rest of the clan as I once was." He looked away, trying to find a star to focus on. "I suppose it is a fate I deserve."

"It is a burden you must carry," Goliath agreed gently. "In addition to all the extra chores our leader has assigned you, which... makes everyone else's duties a little lighter." He smiled. "And so, perhaps your punishment will earn you back the respect of your rookery siblings sooner than you think."

Javin was silent a moment as he considered Goliath’s words. "Thank you," he whispered. "You do not know how much what you’ve said means to me." With that he quietly excused himself. Goliath watched him go with a thoughtful gaze.

For some brief moments Javin simply wandered the castle battlements, immersed deep in thought. He now understood the true reason why Goliath was looked upon so highly by the clan. It had little to do with his strength or physical skill. He was a true friend. He was a true warrior.

"Pssst! Brother!" Javin turned around to find Iago concealed in some shadows. "I overheard your conversation with our brother just a minute ago, by chance. I was wondering... do you ever plan on mentioning my involvement in all of this?"

Javin regarded his brother coldly. "No."

Iago released a sigh that betrayed his nervousness. "I see. Well, it was just that I had felt partly guilty for what happened, and was torn between whether or not I should tell our leader and the others of my part in it. But, if you do not want it to be, then I will abide by your decision, Brother." He smiled.

Javin did not return the smile. He simply stared at his black-maned brother indifferently. Iago cleared his throat awkwardly. "Well, um... anyway, it is good that... that you came through all right. I was happy to see you return safely last evening. I had been growing worried."

"I don’t recall seeing you there with the others to greet my sister and I when we arrived."

Iago shrugged with an uneasy laugh. "Well, I did not want to make a scene. You understand. The crowd and all."

"More likely you were spying me from afar with a careful ear to my conversation with our leader to ensure I did not give you away. Just as you were doing a moment ago."

Iago shifted uncomfortably. "You know that’s not true, brother... I... I only meant to look out for you." Javin’s stagnant expression remained unaltered. "So, how about our lavender brother, hm? I don’t know about you, but I would certainly say that he got off easier than he should have. Our brother has got this clan so tightly woven around his finger..."

"I do not think I want to have anything more to do with you, Brother," Javin interrupted, shocking Iago into silence. The slick-haired gargoyle stepped back, a haughty look on his face.

"What do you mean, Brother?" Iago asked innocently. "I thought we were friends."

"So did I." With that, Javin was gone. Iago sidestepped awkwardly as he glanced around the area to ensure no one had seen or overheard them.

From the castle courtyard, Desdemona watched from under the main tower. Her eyes narrowed as she observed her wily rookery brother.

"Does anyone catch your eye, my sweet?" Othello asked as he stepped up to her.

Desdemona shook her head, as she answered with a faint hint of resentment, "No one, no one at all."

Iago caught sight of his coveted rookery sister in time glimpse the hard, unforgiving look in her eyes before she turned away to go with Othello. The look told him one thing: she knew. With a glower he turned around and cursed something vindictive about Javin, Goliath, and Othello all rolled into one. Then walked off.

* * * * *

Goliath entered Asrial’s workshop, knowing he would find his reclusive sister here, amidst her tools and inventions where she felt at home. He saw her sitting with her legs up and her head on her knees with a serious, thoughtful expression on her face.

"Sister?" Goliath asked as he sat down next to her. "Sister, do look at me. There is no more need to be afraid. Roland is not here."

Asrial lifted her head, but kept her gaze distant on some far-away spectacle. "I know what that dream meant, now," she told him softly.

Goliath regarded her curiously, torn between whether or not to put an arm around her. He held back. "Is that what was troubling you last night?"

She nodded meekly.

"I see," he replied. "Sister, it is all right. The ordeal is over with." He lifted her face with a talon so she would look at him. "Do not hide like this. I am here for you, and so is the rest of the clan. Do not be afraid. I promise I will never let him hurt you again."

Asrial was still shy of a smile. Goliath detected that there was more to her mood than her torture by Roland’s hands. "I am sorry for not going with you," she finally said.

Goliath smiled. "It is forgotten, sister. It would not have made a difference if you had. And, eventually, you did... you came through, and for that I know I can always trust my faith in you."

Asrial smiled as Goliath stood up to leave. "I should be getting along. It is not long until dawn. I am glad that you are feeling better."

"Making the rounds, hm?" Asrial asked teasingly.

Goliath smiled wryly and left. On his way down the stairwell, he could not help but frown as he thought over his sister’s absence that night. He had not been completely honest with her when he said it was forgotten. Despite the fact that he knew her presence would not have changed things, he felt let down by her failure to arrive on time. It was an irrational feeling, but one he could not escape.

It hollowed him.

* * * * *

Demona flexed her fingers nervously as she approached Diomedes. He stood watching the hatchlings as they played a game with some elders. She could sense his frown even with his back turned.

"Brother?" She hesitated as she saw his back stiffen. "Are... are you all right?"

Diomedes did not turn around. "Fine," he answered half-heartedly.

Demona sighed at his reply. "I - I am sorry I was not there when you left."

"You’re sorry," he repeated flatly. "What? Were you too busy to help me? What was it you were doing that night? On that particular night, at that particular hour, when you felt compelled to abandon me. To let me and our leader down."

Stunned, Demona could only gape for words, helpless as Diomedes continued. "Well, I see that you have free time enough for me now, to inquire if I am all right. But where were you when I needed you?!"

He whirled on her. Demona stepped back, staggering for the right words. "I was... busy... helping someone," she said, looking away. "I thought I'd be done before we had to leave."

Diomedes snarled in anger. "You're lying to me, Sister! Until you can tell me the truth, just... " He shuddered with anger. "...Just stay away from me!"

He turned his back on her, pretending not to notice the sounds of sobbing as she ran away, tears streaking her cheeks. He struggled to ignore the stares of his clan mates as they gathered around and exchanged distraught looks. Goliath approached the scene just as Diomedes announced his final, definitive words to her.

He waited patiently for the gawkers to disperse, each of them chattering about what had transpired or else stunned and silent. When they had all gone, Goliath approached his brother, who stood with his back turned resolutely and his arms crossed.

"Brother, do you not think you may have been a little harsh on her?"

Diomedes recognized his lavender brother’s enviously even voice and turned to face him. If it was anyone else but Goliath, he would have informed them that it was none of their business. But Goliath was hardly ever intrusive of other’s affairs.

"She lies to me!" he explained. "She disappears for hours a night without explanation

or forewarning, and when I ask her about it she changes the subject. Or she makes up an excuse!" He looked away and clenched an angry fist. "I cannot love someone I do not know, who I can not trust... So, until she stops deceiving me, I am not going to talk to her."

"But Brother, surely devastating her was not necessary in getting your point across." Goliath stood his ground. Apparently, he was not about to let this go.

Diomedes was poised to answer with another counter-argument, but he yelled instead, "If you’re so concerned, then you talk to her!"

Goliath fell silent for a moment, then rumbled, "Then I will." He turned and walked away.

A few yards down the courtyard, Goliath heard someone calling him.

"Brother! Brother!" cried Fuchsia. Goliath turned to her. She was with the white-skinned female who had been flirting with him several times the previous night. "My sister and I just wanted to apologize to you."

"Oh?" Goliath asked. "For what?"

"For being such a nuisance," said the white female. "We were just... well, attracted to you." She blushed and fiddled her fingers shyly. "We were just trying to get attention, but we weren't trying to annoy you."

Goliath smiled.

"We'll give you more breathing space from now on, Brother," said Fuchsia, taking his hand. "I promise."

Goliath chuckled. "Thank you," he said. "And I must apologize to you, as well. I tried explaining that I was uncomfortable, but was not sure what to say. But, your company was not completely devoid of pleasantness."

Fuchsia grinned. "We’ll see you later, then. As friends?"

Goliath nodded as they left. "As friends," he agreed.

He eventually tracked down his blue-skinned rookery sister to the opposite end of the castle. Her sobs lead him around a tower, to where he spotted her curled up on the battlements overlooking the cliff.

He approached her with care. Softly, he inquired, "Sister, is it all right if I join you?"

Demona looked behind her in surprise. Upon the sight of her tall lavender brother she stood, involuntarily, and began to wipe the tears from her eyes bashfully. "Hello, brother," she greeted, trying to quench the tears that choked her voice.

"Do not get up, Sister," Goliath said gently, raising his hand. He walked up and sat down beside her. She sat herself back down, but remained stiff.

"It is a lovely night," Goliath observed.

Demona looked up, startled by his words, and gazed up at the sky. "Yes, it is," she agreed. She laughed uneasily. "I cannot remember the last time my brother and I just looked up at the sky together."

"The simplest pleasures are our most sacred," Goliath nodded. "These seem to be the ones you’ve chosen to cheat yourself of, lately, Sister."

"I cheat my brother," she corrected. "He has endured it long enough. He was right in what he did."

"We all have the right to our privacy. To have secrets. Our brother overreacted tonight, because he felt detached and unimportant to you. Those feelings manifested themselves into anger, and expressed themselves through unnecessarily harsh words."

"He practically banished me tonight."

"Words, Sister, are merely the rash expressions of oneself. They are spoken carelessly and without attention to consequence when one is angry, as well as without forethought to how they may harm others."

"I know," she sniffed. "But what am I to do now? Go back to him? I cannot without giving him what he wants... what he deserves."

"Then you must give yourself some time to consider what step you wish to take next. But you mustn’t compromise that which you hold dear on account of satisfying another’s burning curiosity, Sister. It is what you deserve. Your secrets are yours, not our brother’s."

"But how am I to ask this favor of him? He is so angry with me now as it is."

"Then allow him his own space for a time," Goliath told her. "He must be able to calm down and reassess things as well. Let him come to you. And when he does, tell him what you feel you can, and hopefully he will grant you whatever time you need."

Demona laughed, feeling her spirits lighten up immensely. "You make a fine substitute for Brother Edmund, Brother. I will do as you advise, I believe." She turned to face him. "Thank you."

Goliath nodded with a smile. "I am glad to be of help. If you ever need to talk... again, I will always have an ear open."

He stood and walked away, leaving Demona to ponder his words over the roaring of the ocean currents below.

* * * * *

A time of stress and worry had come to an end at last. Joy had taken its place and now the clan was enjoying another tale from the Eldest and her chosen apprentice. The clan had been well impressed with the lass’s memory, and were delighted as she told the tale to young and old. As the clan listened, they feasted on the night’s latest meal. Goliath and Asrial sat together at a table while Othello and Desdemona sat just opposite of them. Fuchsia sat next to her newest attraction, Diomedes, speaking softly with him.

Javin, having been excused from his chores to eat, sat on the parapets away from everyone solemnly listening to the joyous tale. Iago sat the farthest from everyone, casting jealous eyes about all. Demona kept herself indiscriminate among her brothers and sisters, at a healthy distance from Diomedes, but close enough to spot him with Fuchsia.

The tale ended and the clan took to their perches, assuming their poses as the sun rose from beyond the highlands afar.

* * * * *

The Next Night

Atalanta walked up to the cave entrance, where Roland leaned against a tree waiting for her.

"Believe me," he announced, "you do not want to go inside."

Atalanta’s eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about, thief?"

"The hold has been reduced to smoldering decay."

Atalanta’s eyes widened. "What?!"

Roland continued calmly, "The rest of my men and yours have left the area in search of a new encampment, except for a few who are remaining here to receive your most anticipated return."

Atalanta snorted at him.

"And, we're scraping together whatever's left salvageable," Roland added as he watched her cautiously. "We'll meet up with the others shortly."

Atalanta glared at him. "Just how did this happen?"

"Wyvern," Roland said simply.

Atalanta reared her head back and roared. Roland observed her coolly. "I leave for two nights and this is what happens?! Where is everyone? The prisoners-"

"Escaped," Roland told her evenly.

Her voice shook with barely-contained rage. "And you're not in the least bit concerned about remaining here?"

"Well," Roland replied, standing up from the tree. "Not really. Since they would have expected us to have moved on by now, but after that unearthly shriek I don't know..."

Atalanta sneered. "Just finish and let's go, thief," she mumbled and walked away.

"Well, not just yet," said Roland. Atalanta turned to him with a warning look in her eye. "Your meeting... how did it go?"

She sighed irritably. "We are to begin 'increasing our sphere of influence' and 'accelerating our campaign,'" she explained unenthusiastically.

Roland nodded thoughtfully as the traces of a cold smile formed on his face.