NOWHERE TO RUN (Part 1 of 2)
Written by: Shauntell Holm and Jonathan Cotleur
Outline by: Shauntell Holm and Jonathan Cotleur
With Contributions by Damien Tobin
Illustrations by Shauntell Holm
Computer colouring by Tony "Marlos" Teakles
* * * * *
Asrial sighed with uneasiness as she glided through the air with her clan mates. Their location was not clear to her, but she could make out the tops of trees poking out of a heavy mist below them. The air was deathly still and Asrial knew that something was about to happen. She looked at her lavender-skinned rookery brother and saw that he had the same apprehension in his eyes.
Suddenly, the air was full of arrows. They stung each member of the clan without warning and caused them to fall into the unknown depths of a now terrifying forest. Creatures began to appear, their features difficult to discern against their hideous black skin. Their red eyes pierced the soul; burned into her eyes.
The attackers hovered in the air more easily than her clan mates, their ragged bat-like wings beating fiercely with each heartbeat.
Fuchsia and Diomedes were smitten from the sky by their opponents' gleaming blades. Asrial could do nothing but glide about and try to help those who still remained of her clan, watching in horror as each fell before her before she could reach them, each slipping from her grasp...
Then she noticed Goliath heading in her direction, and felt relief swell in her, knowing he was all right. But then she screamed as he was knocked out of the sky by a shadowed figure. She heard him grunt, saw his stinging gaze as the wind drained from beneath his wings, felt him fall.
Roaring with grief, Asrial glided as hard as she could to catch him, but was stopped when Roland came before her. He laughed in her face. She gasped, terror seizing her, as Roland's features twisted into a smirk and he flew off tauntingly. Goliath was already gone. Only an ocean of mist stared back at her. Her limbs began to move again, freed from the invisible vise that seemed to hold her before. She charged after Goliath anyway, intending to plunge herself right into the mist, into the depths from where the attackers emerged and her comrades had disappeared, into the very heart of the darkness. Only to be stopped by another shadowed figure.
Snarling in anger and grief, Asrial looked about her to discover who this new taunter was. But she could see nothing. Angry, grieved tears flowed down her face as she tried to peer through this strange figure. Then her heart froze at the sound of a low and menacing voice that spoke with powerful hatred. But she could not understand the words.
The figure drew a twisted sword from her side and swung it through the air. And through the gleam of the moon's light against the oncoming blade she recognized with fright the face of her attacker. It was Atalanta.
All at once, Asrial was falling. Falling, falling, falling...
And then sunlight blinded her.
She awoke gasping for air, her lungs too tight to breathe. All around her the resonating sounds of roars and crumbling stone. She relaxed, her eyes coming into focus on the faces of her clan mates, alive and well, and her heart steadied to a normal pace.
"Sister?" came a deep, but gentle voice beside her.
Asrial looked up into the face of her handsome lavender brother. "Um," she stuttered, "I - I'm fine."
Goliath eyed her. "Are you certain?"
Asrial nodded unsteadily. "I am. I just... I had..." She quickly climbed off her
perch and walked away. "Please excuse me."
As soon as she felt she was an adequate distance from Goliath, she sighed to herself. Without giving it much thought, she resolved to head for her workshop. Her workshop was a place where no nightmares could trouble her. Or was that an illusion?
Even when she had sat down to work the nightmare replayed in her mind. She couldn't shake it. She couldn't concentrate. She looked for something to do, and found a gadget that she had had difficulty with the other night. She had hoped a good day's sleep would give her inspiration for finishing it.
"Maybe not inspiration, but a desire," she mumbled.
With her attention focused on her gadget, she shed the haunting visions of her dream, and got to work.
* * * * *
Near the castle battlements, many of the clan's elders were gathered for a short discussion. Their minds were on many things, but the most important matter to be resolved was that of a Second in command. Almost a year had passed without one and it was time that their Leader chose a warrior fit for the job.
As usual Hudson wasn't quite willing to discuss the matter. Frustration was his constant companion these days. But he had allowed himself to be dragged along by Agamemnon. It was a forceful tug, one he grunted against. But he went along. After all, it would do no good to make a scene.
"Leader," a female elder announced as Hudson and Agamemnon joined their circle. "We have gathered to discuss the needs of the clan, and to divide the chores among the young ones tonight. However, we all feel that the first priority for tonight's gathering is to find an answer to the question of who will be your next Second. Have you yet made a decision?"
Hudson sighed irritably. "Nay," he replied, "I have not."
"Then when will ye?" asked the Eldest, folding her arms across her chest. "We've gone for a year without one, you know. We should not put it off for much longer."
"Yes," put in an older, balding elder. "I second the Eldest. We cannot go a second year without a second Second!"
For a moment everyone was silent, as gazes with curious, doubtfully-arched brows became fixed on the elder who had spoken.
"I agree," another elder said with a certain air of hesitance, stepping up to Hudson as a light breeze rustled his greying hair. "Anything could happen, and if we were to lose ye we would be as a ship without a rudder. Please, if ye dunna make a decision tonight, make it soon. We cannot wait any longer."
The Eldest added, "Remember, there are many fine young warriors to choose from. By putting this off, you give the impression that none of them meet your expectations for a Second. We all need resolution on this matter."
Hudson shook his head. "Aye, I will give it thought. And I will make a decision soon. But not before I am ready to." With that, he excused himself from the gathering and walked away.
"Well," grumbled Agamemnon as he turned to the Eldest. "Not to turn the subject on ye, but have ye found an apprentice yet?"
The Eldest nodded. "I do believe that I have. I hope to make a final decision tonight."
"Well then," Agamemnon replied, "at least we will have some resolution this night."
* * *
Sitting off to the side, Goliath shook his head and sighed as the elders broke up. It didn't look like the Leader would be choosing anyone anytime soon. He decided he would seek out Asrial. His rookery sister had looked disturbed this sundown.
"I should see if she is all right," he concluded.
Along the way, a trio of rookery sisters walked up to him. One was the shapely young female to whom Brother Edmund had given the name Fuchsia. Another was a blue lass with a beak, blue-green hair, ribless wings and a bony knob at the end of her tail. She wore a white tunic with a brown leather belt, complete with leather arm and leg bands. Gold earrings hung at her ears and another ring sparkled on her left middle finger.
The third sister was quite different. She had a human face with long, dark blue hair that had a single streak of white stretching through the middle. Her wings were similar to his own but with two fingers instead of one. Her skin coloring was a cloud blue. She wore a tunic similar to her darker sisters, only it was a mild violet in color. She even wore leggings that extended from beneath her loincloth. Her tail ended in a tuft of hair.
"Um, hello," Goliath stuttered in surprise.
"Good evening, brother," Fuchsia greeted in a tone that Goliath recognized with a nervous chill. His rookery sisters were in flirtation mode. "You're looking rather handsome tonight." She smiled as Goliath blushed. "Where are you off to?"
"Uh, to visit our sister," Goliath replied, pointing to Asrial's tower. "She was disturbed by something earlier tonight and I just wanted to be sure she was all right."
"I'm sure our clever sister is fine," said the blue sister curtly. "She probably just had a daymare. We all have those."
"Brother," announced the white sister. "Has Leader yet chosen a second? I'm a little worried..."
Goliath’s voice and stance visibly relaxed. "No, he has not."
"Hmmm," said the white sister. "Well, he'd better choose soon."
Goliath nodded in agreement. Then Fuchsia lit up as if to a sudden revelation. "You know," she suggested demurely, "you would make an excellent choice."
Goliath nearly gulped. "Choice?"
"For Second," the white sister agreed. "I believe our sister is right."
Goliath stiffened as he felt their eyes on him. "I appreciate your... faith, in me, but I am sure our Leader will be the best judge of who to be Second."
"If you were named, though, you wouldn't... turn it down?" the blue sister asked.
"No, of course not," Goliath responded loyally. "I will do as our Leader sees fit."
"Well, anyway," the white sister began hopefully, "would you like to join us tonight for a game? Some others will be coming along, and - and we were wondering if you'd like to join us too."
Goliath took a step in place. "I don't know. I must first visit our rookery sister. After that, I may have duties to attend to..."
"Oh," the white sister said disappointedly. "Well, your strength would boost our team a great deal."
"I'm sure that it would," Goliath muttered, then cleared his throat as he looked up at Asrial's tower. He could see her inside working away on her latest invention and appeared undisturbed. "I'm sorry. Perhaps tomorrow night."
"Oh, that's all right, brother," said Fuchsia understandingly. She patted his shoulder, which earned her a glare from her two sisters. "We'll come by later and just - visit then."
"Of course," Goliath replied. Fuchsia smiled warmly in reply, her hand still on his shoulder. He forced a smile, which he held nervously as she slid her hand across his chest.
"Good-bye, brother," she finally said, and joined her departing sisters. They walked off, exchanging hushed scorns and giggling. Goliath released a sigh of relief and walked inside the tower.
* * *
Iago grumbled in disgust as he watched the scene with Goliath and the sisters play out before him. While he was busy with his chores his giant lavender brother was busy chatting away with his adoring fans. It was impossible to concentrate on anything with such a disgusting scene taking place. How could Goliath be engaged with flirting like that and not be swayed by it? Those were lovely females. Was he playing hard to get? Might he take all three?
With a sigh Iago turned from the sight as the sisters and Goliath parted. He himself got nowhere near that kind of attention from anyone, especially females. But Goliath, with that wooden act of his, attracted them with ease. How did he do it?
"The knave!" he growled in a low voice. "He has a jewel in his hands, but would toss it away. And they come back! If I were lucky enough to have so many loyal females vying for my attention..."
"Maybe sometimes that's best, brother," came a frustrated voice behind him, causing Iago to turn. It was Diomedes. He was looking about the area in a way that suggested that he had lost something.
"Lose something, brother?" Iago asked curtly.
"Yes, our red-haired sister," Diomedes replied with anger seething from his voice. "I can never find her! She's always sneaking off, and I have no idea where to..." He stopped as he peered around a corner, slumped his shoulders, and turned back around.
"To find her," Iago finished.
"Yes," Diomedes agreed. Then his features unwound enough to take on a curious expression. "But my love is my concern, not yours. What does seem to be yours, brother? Our brawny brother is lucky. But why does it bother you so?"
"Because he does practically nothing, and yet cannot go very far at all without receiving praise!" Iago snapped as he continued his chores. "He is the elders' pet champion. If I had his looks I'd have what he has."
Diomedes stared at his brother. "I don't think his looks are the only things that earn him attention. But still... at least he has sisters who don't disappear on him."
Iago snorted. "Hah! The fool spends all his time with a rookery sister who hides herself away in a tower tinkering with tools. I don’t know what to make of the irony. He has all those females but chooses to be with the one who is most..."
"Bizarre," Diomedes finished. He shrugged, then mumbled, "At least our lavender brother knows where to find his chosen. Unlike me."
Iago muttered some more unsavory commentary under his breath, which culminated in, "He's not the only male in the castle. Why can't I get some attention?"
Diomedes was already turning to leave, when he responded quietly, "Maybe you would, if you had a better attitude."
Iago turned to glare at his brother, but Diomedes was already gone.
* * *
Goliath watched Asrial silently for a moment. She was hard at work on another invention and wouldn't meet his gaze. She was still disturbed. By what he didn't exactly know, but he now realized that his blue sister's comment about her being troubled by a dream had a good chance of being correct.
"Sister?" Goliath asked softly as he entered. She didn't respond. "Sister!"
Asrial jumped visibly with a gasp and turned to look at him with wide eyes. "Brother! You startled me!" She immediately turned away to try and clean up the mess that was all around her. "I didn't see you come in... which is not abnormal."
Goliath studied his sister for a long moment as he knelt down beside her. She still wouldn't meet his gaze. "Sister, what is wrong?" he asked gently. "You have seemed very troubled ever since you woke up tonight."
Asrial was silent a moment as she fiddled with another gadget, evidently searching the floor for a missing component.
"Sister, please tell me what is wrong," Goliath pleaded with her. "Did you have a nightmare? Did someone hurt you?"
Asrial looked at him, but didn't immediately reply. "I-I would rather not talk about it," she said at last, looking away. When she did, she found the missing component she had been looking for and picked it up.
Goliath was poised to say something more when a gruff voice at the door made him look up.
"Lad, Lass," Hudson addressed as they turned to face him. "We're startin' a huntin' party and we need some more gargoyles to go along."
Goliath turned to Asrial as they both stood. She fondled the gadget in her hands nervously, and Goliath decided to respond for the both of them.
"We will go, Leader," he announced, quickly looking to Asrial for her vote of confidence.
"Good," Hudson answered concisely. "Meet in the courtyard right away, then."
Goliath nodded as Hudson left the tower, and turned to Asrial. She glanced out the window and set down the gizmo that had been in her hands. Then she turned to him as he reached out a hand for her to take. She took it with a smile.
"You always seem to know what's best for me," she said.
Goliath smiled. "Dreams swell within the confines we create for ourselves."
Asrial lifted her eye-ridges. "That's very poetic."
"The wisdom of Brother Edmund," Goliath explained. "I cannot recall an instance wherein he was ever mistaken in his advice."
"I believe you are right," Asrial replied thoughtfully. She grabbed his arm and, together, they exited the workshop.
* * *
Ten minutes later, everyone was assembled in the courtyard as told. Othello, Desdemona, and Iago were being handed the necessary weapons for hunting. Diomedes wasn't too far off. He was looking upset.
"Oh joy," muttered Iago knowingly. "Here we go again."
His companions looked at him as Diomedes approached. "Has anyone seen our red-haired sister?" he asked them. The others shook their heads and Diomedes growled with frustration. "By the Dragon, where is she!?"
"Brother!" called a feminine voice a few feet away. Everyone turned to watch Demona rush towards them, waving her arms. "Brother, I was trying to find you."
Diomedes growled upon seeing her. His cheeks grew red as he felt the eyes of his rookery siblings on him. "Where were you!?" he growled with more anger than he intended. "I've spent half the night lookin' for you!" Then, as an afterthought, he added, "Like I always seem to be doing..."
"But I-" Demona began.
"No!" Diomedes retorted as he dragged her off to the side, avoiding eye contact with the others present, and feeling his overall body temperature rise out of control from humiliation. Everyone exchanged concerned, bewildered looks, except Iago, who looked on with a lazy gaze.
Diomedes stopped with Demona a few yards away, and looked her in the eye. "Every night you seem to disappear without explanation, and then return at the most... inopportune times."
Demona's eyes fell as she realized how she must have embarrassed Diomedes. He was a very proud gargoyle. The others could hear what Diomedes said, but tried to make it look like they couldn't.
Demona hesitated for a moment as she looked at the others. Iago whispered something to Othello, causing him to restrain laughter. She turned back to Diomedes. "I... I was..."
"Well?" demanded Diomedes impatiently in a hoarse whisper.
Demona couldn't answer. She finally gave up, and lowered her head.
"Brother," Goliath interjected innocently, "we must leave for the hunt." Diomedes looked up to see Goliath standing beside him. The others in the group were dawdling aimlessly, pretending to be transfixed by the patterns in the stoneface. Goliath had evidently been given ambassadorial duty.
"Then go," Diomedes growled with a wave of his hand. Goliath backed away and rejoined the others, and the five of them took to the air.
A few minutes of silence fell between Diomedes and Demona, and then they looked at each other again. With the others gone, Diomedes was able to calm himself to some extent.
"What are you hiding, sister?" he asked simply. He succeeded in keeping his voice calm and level. "Are you doing something... bad?"
Demona stared at him in shock. "No!" she cried.
"Then where are you going for all hours of the night!?" Diomedes snapped. A few heads turned to them and Diomedes backed down with a little embarrassment. Some humans had wandered into the vicinity. He wrenched his neck in agitation, and came up more closely to her. "Whatever it is, you can tell me." Demona seemed about to speak, and Diomedes leaned in anxiously, coaxing her on. Her mouth opened... and then it closed again.
"Argh! Fine!" he exploded. He spun around to storm off, but came face-to-face with the unlucky humans, who stared at him wide-eyed. He realized his eyes had flashed a bright white and he was baring his fangs. Groaning with further agitation, he turned in the other direction and stomped away.
Demona watched his departure in stunned silence. She wanted desperately to go after him, but without the truth anything else she could say was meaningless.
"Trouble with friends, lass?" asked a gentle voice behind her. She turned to see a female elder, one from the a rookery younger than the Eldest, approach her.
"Oh!" Demona let out. "Y -yes, I suppose."
The elder studied her a moment. "Lass, I overheard some of yuir conversation, and I dare say that if ye want friendship ye should be willing to give it as well."
Demona nodded with a sigh. "Yes." Had anyone not overheard their argument?
"Then why don't ye do it?" asked the elder. "I'm not seein' a whole lot of honesty here, lass. He's right to his anger, ...though perhaps not to such forcefulness." She paused to study Demona another moment. "What was it that ye were so afraid to tell yuir brother?"
Demona looked at the elder and held back a sudden wave of apprehension. "Something I'm not ready to talk about," she replied.
"Can't ye at least tell him before ye run off that ye'll not be available for a time?" the elder asked.
Demona shook her head. "No, because he'd keep asking questions."
The elder shook her head. "Well then, lassie, yuir in a rut." She patted Demona's shoulder. "But just remember that in order to get friendship, ye need to give it."
Demona nodded solemnly and then walked away. The elder watched her go with a frown.
For several minutes Demona wandered along thinking about what the elder and her brother had said. They were both right, of course, but they would both condemn her for learning magic with the Archmage. Though he was a good teacher, he was frequently quite rough on her. She didn't really understand why, but she still endured it. And above all else, he expected absolute devotion.
She heard a light rustling sound to her left and stopped. When she didn't hear it again she moved on, but as she did, the rustling sound came a little more loudly. She looked to her left to see a figure curled up in a hole in the castle wall. Surprised, she leaned in to get a closer look. She felt an adrenaline rush and readied for a fight. Whoever it was, they wouldn't sneak up on her.
Then she discovered the identity of her 'assailant' and let out a somewhat annoyed sigh. "Thank you, brother, for nearly giving me a heart attack," she remarked. "I suppose you were listening in on everything, too?" She snorted. "The classic eavesdropper."
Thersites winced. "Shh!!" he whispered fiercely. "You'll give me away!" After a moment of silence in which he evaluated if any had heard them, he continued, "I wasn't listening in on anything."
Demona shook her head at him. "Of course not. You were avoiding your chores. Brother, you'll never learn anything if you spend the rest of your life hiding away."
"So?" Thersites retorted snidely. "Better than wearing out my hands and giving myself a permanently bent back doing what-what they have in store for me. . ."
"Your chores wouldn't be so hard for you if you did them more often," Demona remarked. "The elders would stop hounding you so much, too."
Thersites remained indignant. "I prefer my trade-off, thank you."
Demona just shook her head and began to walk away. She wasn't in the mood to argue with her cowardly brother. But before she got far she was greeted by another elder. This elder was a male with long greying hair, and a stunning resemblance to Goliath. He also had a greying beard and greyish-lavender flesh. But he was much more gruff looking.
"Lass," he said in a deep, weathered voice. "Should ye not be attending chores like the rest of yuir kin?"
"Uh..." Demona stuttered, looking around. "I was just... doing some thinking."
The elder quirked an eye ridge. "Come along, lassie," he said gently, taking her hand. "Ye're gettin' ta be as bad as yuir brother, ye are. I would have thought that..."
He stopped when his acute hearing caught the sound of leather wings rustling against a stone wall. He turned to look at the hole and grew suspicious. Demona watched mildly as the elder reached inside and seized Thersites' hand, pulling him out from his refuge.
"Hey!" Thersites yelped in loud protest.
"So, hidin' away again, are we?" growled the elder as he led Demona and Thersites away. "By the Dragon, what is it with youth these days? Why, in my day..." He trailed off as Thersites gave Demona a glare. Demona just shrugged and looked away.
"Looks like someone hasn't been practicing what they preach," Thersites whispered under his breath. Demona heard it, but only in the back of her mind. Her thoughts were on a realization... that her life was now comprised of two things: Her lessons with the Archmage and her chores. When she wasn't doing one, she was doing the other. In between was her personal life - Diomedes - quenched and suffocating...
* * * * *
Later That Night, On the Hunt
Goliath grunted and stretched out the kinks in his muscles as he set down his and Asrial's catch.
Asrial took a deep breath of the woodland air. She was substantially more relaxed now than she was cooped up in her tower. "Some fresh air and a little exercise seems to have worked in clearing my head," she announced pleasantly.
Othello and Desdemona had also managed to catch a good buck or two. He watched as his brothers and sisters approached.
"I see you all had a good hunt," he commented as they dropped their catch and began to organize their weapons. "I think we have enough to last us two nights."
"Aye, I think so too," Desdemona agreed as she tied the legs of the deer to a broken branch. "The elders should be pleased with this."
"More than they will be with our brother and sister," Iago commented sourly. The others looked at him. "Did you see the way they fought? What do you suppose is going on between them?"
"I don't know," admitted Othello as he gathered their weapons into a portable bundle and hefted it over his shoulder. "But I do know that our fiery-haired sister won't be making any friends anytime soon if she can't learn to start being honest. She should tell us where she is going before she disappears like that. Such disappearances are not acceptable, especially not to the elders."
"Perhaps so," said Desdemona as she tied the second buck and the doe. "But that's not for us to decide. Let our brother and sister solve their own problems. We would be no help."
"I agree," said Goliath as he lifted the two deer that he and Asrial had caught over his shoulders. "And in any event, now is not the time to argue the point. We've been out here long enough; we should return to the castle."
The others nodded. Iago looked like he had more to say, but held his tongue. As he followed after Goliath and Othello, he caught sight of Asrial. She was still gathering up her snares and looked afraid of something. He didn't bother to ask her what was wrong, however. He knew all he would get in return was a brush-off.
Asrial slowly stood as her rookery kin began to leave for home. She was out far behind them, and didn't want to become involved with their conversation. Her dream, as if on cue, had come back to her as soon as she realized it had left. It was the first really terrible dream she had ever had and she didn't know what could have triggered something so intense.
"Sister?" came Goliath's voice from ahead of her. "Are you coming?"
Asrial nodded and hurried to catch up. Dawdling was getting her nowhere and luckily no one had yet asked if she was all right. In fact, while returning home little conversation was shared between anyone until they arrived. They all seemed like they had other things on their minds. As they landed in the courtyard, Agamemnon came forward to greet them with his usual hurried gait.
"Glad ta see ye all made it back," he said to them wryly. "Now, hurry and deposit all that with the butcher and the cooks. You've returned just in time for a training session."
The youth nodded and quickly left to do as they were told. Asrial headed off to her tower to deposit her snares, while Goliath and the others greeted the cooks and butcher. But along the way he was stopped by the same rookery sisters he had met earlier that night. They all flustered before his presence.
"Hello, brother!" said the blue sister cheerily. "Enjoy the hunt?" She looked at his shoulders and gasped. "Ooh! You sure get into your hunts, don't you, brother?"
"Uh," stuttered Goliath, as he looked at himself. "Well I... I suppose so. But," he cleared his throat, "what are you three up to?"
"We were wondering if you've changed your mind," said the cloud blue sister hopefully as she peeled something off of his shoulder.
"Well, not really," Goliath told her with a patient smile, eyeing the soggy leaf in her hand. "I have been told that there is a training session shortly. I am sorry..."
"Oh, so you are going to fight?" asked Fuchsia, holding his hand. "It's always so exciting to watch you fight."
Goliath's cheeks flushed instantly as he let out a laugh. It was a short, almost convoluted chortle that caused the sisters to freeze immediately and Goliath himself to want to clamp his mouth. He cleared his throat nervously. "Thank you, sister," he said politely, trying to regain his proper pitch. "I will be fighting tonight. Everyone has been called to do so."
"Oh, of course," said Fuchsia. She released his hand and the three of them left. As they did, they sneaked short glances in his direction and giggled to themselves.
* * *
Iago observed the display from afar. "Sickening..." he muttered to himself. "He just stands there!"
"Hello, brother," came a new voice. Iago looked up to see his familiar brown-skinned rookery brother gliding down from an overhead battlement. This particular brother always struck Iago as a naive, superficial sort, full of the exuberance and often pettiness of youth and therefore utterly detestable in Iago's eyes.
Iago put on a friendly face as the gargoyle landed beside him. He cast one more glance at the three departing females.
This rookery brother was chestnut in color with a square, elongated face similar to Goliath's and Othello's, or perhaps better described as a cross between the two. He had elongated horns just like Othello's protruding from his head with a third, smaller horn in the middle of his brow. He was well muscled like Goliath, but not nearly as tall. He had joint spikes on his elbows and knees, and two spikes on each shoulder. There were spikes all along his tail, as well, ending in a tuft of dark hair. He even had spikes on his wings.
He could be considered handsome for a gargoyle, Iago supposed. He also wore leather gloves that were cut off at the fingers and extended to his elbow.
Despite his 'tough guy' exterior, this brother was soft-spoken and obedient. Combined with his youthful desire to be a part of the crowd, he usually blended into the background. Brother Edmund had given him, as he had all their clan, a name. His was Javin.
"Did you enjoy the hunt?" Javin asked him.
Iago sighed irritably as he delivered the doe he carried into the cook’s hands. "No," he grumbled.
Iago hoped he would go away now, but instead he followed him down the courtyard. "Going to the training session?" he asked.
Iago answered snidely, "Our entire rookery was called to attendance."
Javin looked at the stone blocks that composed the ground as their feet passed over them, momentarily put off. Iago pretended to ignore his presence, while keeping a careful eye on him in the hope that he would turn away.
Instead, he raised his head again and said, "I know our lavender brother will be there."
Iago didn't respond, only rolled his eyes and began counting off.
"I wish I could fight like him. I wish I had his strength, his ability..."
The words snapped Iago into full alertness, and he turned his gaze towards his brother.
Javin sighed as he punched his fists together. "He's such a good warrior. He can stand up to anything, it seems. Remember how he battled with the gargoyle warrior we encountered during the Rite of the Warrior? He stood up to her, whereas any one of us would have been knocked down. You know that's what attracts the attention of the elders so much, and all the females..."
It was evident to Iago by now that Javin had caught more of the spectacle between Goliath and the three females than that parting glance. He had probably watched the entire scene from his battlement overhead.
"I know what you mean," Iago chimed in. "His skills exceed all others', and what would you expect when his insurmountable strength earns him the special attention of the elders all throughout our years of training? Because we weren't born oxen we must be always in his shadow?"
"Yes, that's it, that's it exactly!" Javin agreed. "I want to be as good as he is, but I don't know that I can ever be."
"You're a fine fighter," Iago lied. In point of fact, he never bothered enough to know if he was or not.
"But not as good as he is," Javin insisted.
"No, maybe not," Javin consented. "But there are at least those who come close. Our breast-plated, white-maned brother, for instance."
Iago snorted. "Yes, he's just like our lavender brother. He seems to have his pick of any female he likes. Only he's not as much of a fool as our lavender brother is, and has taken full advantage of the situation by claiming the most beautiful and sought-after sister of our rookery."
They reached the training grounds, where an arena was set up. Several of their rookery were already there, gathered around the circle, with the elders off to one side in huddled discussion.
Iago continued to rant, finding Javin to be a satisfying outlet for his frustrations, and for that purpose, useful. "Most of our rookery is already starting to pair off, except for those three who are always hanging around our lavender brother. If he is not interested, then let him say so, otherwise take one of them and be done with it. But to keep all three to himself like that!"
Javin seemed to be thinking over what Iago was saying, which gave him a slightly uneasy feeling. Javin served fine as someone to vent on, but he wasn't so sure he felt comfortable about someone else pondering his personal problems. Then he took Iago by surprise by announcing, "Why not take his female?"
"Excuse me?" Iago asked blankly.
"Our brother," Javin reiterated. "Take his female. The quiet tinkerer."
Iago didn't know what to make of this proposition. He couldn't identify Javin's tone of voice. "What do you mean?"
"You said you'd like a mate of your own, but that they all flock around our brother. So with all those other females at his disposal, what does he need our tinkering sister for?"
Iago stared at him in stunned silence. Javin had not been serious. Iago discerned that almost right away. He had spoken with the air that one does when they suggest you do something outrageous and obviously out of the question, in response to a seemingly insurmountable problem and a particularly whimsy mood. Only Iago could have taken it seriously.
"But anyway," Javin said with a deep sigh, "it looks like the session is about to begin." He walked off to join the crowd as the elders started pairing everyone off.
Iago was left with a very intriguing notion in mind. If he couldn't have Desdemona, why continue striving for her? It was obviously not getting him very far. She was still with Othello, and seemed to have increased a dislike for him, in spite of his attempts to win her. So, if he couldn't get to her, why not get her to come to him? If only he could instill a sense of jealousy within her. If she could see him with another female, would that not sway her to him? And in any event, he might need... practice, and Asrial was a prime candidate. She was quiet and sedate, a perfect test subject. He could use her to find out how to better pursue Desdemona. Obviously, she was not seeing in him what was really there, and his continued attempts to make her see were further estranging her. If he could just make Asrial see... well, then he would know how to make Desdemona see.
And the irony was simply irresistible. It was perfect.
"Lads! Lassies!" called Agamemnon's voice. "The tournament will now be startin'."
Iago's thoughts dispersed at the announcement, and he snapped back into reality. Tournament? Since when had this become anything more than a training session?
He watched as the first two contestants were called into the makeshift arena. Demona entered the ring with an distracted look in her eyes, while Thersites was all but absent. His eyes darted nervously from the elders, whom he saw shaking their heads and whispering what he surmised to be misgivings amongst themselves, to the foreboding ring, to Demona.
Beside Iago, a fellow rookery sibling commented, "This ought to be a short fight."
Another sibling replied with a short chuckle, "Of course, why do you think the elders chose to put him in there first?"
Iago knew they were talking about Thersites, the renowned coward who would do almost anything to avoid putting effort into something, most often exerting more effort in his attempts to get out of work than what would be required if he only did it.
"Lass, are ye with us?" an elder called out. Iago moved his gaze to Demona, to whom the question had been directed.
Demona jerked her head up after a moment and replied, "Yes, I'm sorry, what did you say?"
The elder obviously did not like the idea of repeating himself. He exchanged dissatisfied looks with the other elders as he replied leisurely, "I asked if you were with us, lass."
Demona seemed to realize her error and nodded briskly, "Yes, elder, I am, I am ready to fight."
The elder narrowed his eyes for a moment, then turned to announce the start of the match. Demona's and Thersites' gazes met. But nothing happened. Demona just stood there. Thersites began to sweat. What was she waiting for?
"What are ye waiting for?" came an elder's voice.
Thersites tried looking into Demona's eyes, to plead with her, but she was looking into thin air, her mind only half-focused on the match. The realization hit him like a hammer.
"She’s waiting for me," he whispered, only half-grasping the concept. "She isn’t going to attack first."
The words resounded in his mind, distant and their meaning alien. He could hear the grumbling emanating from his rookery siblings. He could feel the elders’ hard gazes. With the pressure caving in on him, and his options nonexistent, he resolved to attempt something he had never attempted before. He resolved to attempt to try.
Thersites swallowed hard, gathered up his strength, and--was knocked down. Demona had finally struck. He got himself to his feet, intoxicated with relief and eagerly expecting another assault, but none came. She stood a fair distance away, poised in a defensive stance. A defensive stance!
"Fight back, she's not going to do all the fighting!" an elder ordered from the sideline.
Thersites grumbled to himself. "She would ordinarily, but no, tonight you have to be preoccupied with your personal affairs!" he seethed under his breath, too low for anyone else to hear.
Thersites released his agitation in a forward assault, a move that caused everyone to fall still for a moment. He launched towards Demona with his fist prepared to strike. He closed his eyes and threw his arm forward, missed completely, tripped from the loss of balance, and fell. When he reopened his eyes, he was laying with his face to the ground. The still silence had turned into subtle snickering and avoiding glances.
Finally, the elder called out, "That's enough, the match is ended!"
Thersites sighed a breath of relief as he peeled himself off the ground, shooting a vindictive glare in Demona's direction. "Thanks for nothing," he remarked. Demona didn't hear him. Her back was already turned, exiting the ring from the opposite side, without so much as a backwards glance.
From the sideline, the Eldest leaned over to Agamemnon. "Who do we assume won this match?"
Agamemnon shook his head. "I don't know, and I don't want to try to know. Let's just put this bewildering ordeal behind us, and move on to our next competitors. They should present a little more enthusiasm than we saw with those two."
"It isn't like our red-haired daughter to show such a lack of initiative," the Eldest observed with concern.
"She and her partner are apparently going through some rough points in their relationship right now," Agamemnon answered absently.
The Eldest recoiled. "You old bag of air, have you taken to eavesdropping now?"
Agamemnon shifted uneasily. "Of course not! It is rather difficult not to notice. I am surprised you haven't."
The Eldest withdrew in thought as the next two contestants entered the ring: Goliath and Othello.
"Now, this should give us some good exhibition of the youths' abilities," Agamemnon commented with pleasure. "I hope he's watching."
The Eldest smirked. "He's not liking it, but he's staying attentive."
They both sneaked a glance to Hudson, who stood cross-armed on the other side of the arena, watching things with apparent interest.
"He only stays attentive for the youths' benefit," the Eldest remarked cynically.
"Just as long as he's attentive," Agamemnon replied neutrally.
* * *
As soon as Iago saw who the next two contestants were, he sought out Javin. He found him near the front of the crowd, and joined him as the match began.
"The elders' pet champion," Iago remarked low enough just for Javin to hear.
Javin didn't take his eyes off the fight as he replied, somewhat absently, "If only I could move like that. Have that strength."
Iago grimaced to himself in disgust. This admiration of Javin's for Goliath was really beginning to leave a bad taste in his mouth. Admiration was useless. Envy was something different; it provided ambition. It was what Iago had to turn Javin's admiration into. Then perhaps he could get some use out of Javin. He seemed malleable enough. The drive was there, all Iago needed to do was point it in the right direction.
He waited patiently as the fight progressed, thinking over his plan. The fight was, of course, boring and totally predictable. Both Goliath and Othello were the elders' pets. They fought in top form, neither relenting nor striking anything remotely similar to a dishonorable blow.
From there, things escalated too predictably. Othello soon began to lose his temper, and thus began to lose his ground to Goliath, who managed to stay as calm as ever. Everyone was getting into the match. Cheers rang out from the crowd, drawing a disgusted sneer from Iago.
In the front, on the other side of the arena, were the three rookery sisters who had started flocking around Goliath lately. Iago scowled when Goliath pretended to falter at the sight of them. The cad would do anything to hold their interest. But in spite of his momentary distraction, which the three sisters seemed to be oblivious to their responsibility for, Goliath quickly regained the upper hand. The sisters continued to cheer even more loudly.
* * *
Watching from a short distance away was Hudson, who released a very frustrated sigh as everyone faced the ring and he felt it was safe to. He knew exactly why this out-of-the-blue "training session" was taking place. It was an act on the elders' part to goad him into choosing a Second. He supposed this was the best they were able to throw together on such short notice, and hoped that a demonstration of combat skills might get him to begin considering Seconds.
Hudson had to admit that the fight between Goliath and Othello was catching his eye, but tried not to put very close attention to it after he began noticing the elders sneaking glances at him. He wouldn't give them the satisfaction, nor the inclination to pursue him further about the decision for a Second. The decision was his and his alone.
He allowed himself a chuckle when he noticed Goliath falter from the attention of the three lasses. "If that vulnerability were ever exploited, ye could prove a liability," he said humorously.
On the other side of the arena, Agamemnon's face lighted up. "Did you see him smile right then?" he asked excitedly. "I think he sees something he likes."
The Eldest looked over casually and shook her head with a smile. She couldn't help but feel for Hudson in this position.
* * *
It was clear now who would be the victor, though there had never been any real doubt. Othello was holding strong, putting in every last ounce of energy he had into turning the tide, but although it was a close call- as close as one could get with Goliath – the lavender gargoyle was sure to triumph.
Iago watched Javin intently. His features had subtly transformed from the openness of wonder to the tightness of jealousy. It was the expression Iago was able to read without thinking. Javin's admiration had turned into envy without any help from Iago, proving to him that Javin was an even better-suited accomplice than he had before predicted. At first he might have put on an air of innocent admiration, but deep inside he was jealous, and that generated hatred and loathing, the qualities Iago was hoping to bring out in him. Jealousy was a powerful weapon when properly utilized. And twisting things around to suit his own purposes was something Iago excelled at.
The match ended- Goliath victorious. He, of course, helped Othello up and they shook hands. Othello was somewhat upset, but still an all around good sport. Afterwards, the elders swarmed around him, patting him on the back and leading him away while singing his praises. Goliath took it all with a humbleness and modesty that made Iago's stomach turn. When he looked to Javin, he saw his features hardening, and smiled.
"Brother," Iago began, with false sincerity. Javin pulled his gaze away from Goliath and looked at him. "I believe I may have a solution to your problem."
"What is it?" Javin asked.
Iago shrugged. "It'll be a bit of a challenge, but I'm sure you would be up to it." He eyed Javin carefully. "Wouldn't you?"
Javin stared at his brother blankly, uninvited by the ominousness. "What do you mean?" he asked. "What challenge are you talking about?"
"Why," replied Iago, "the challenge of fighting our brother, of course!" He grew pleased when he saw the surprised look on Javin's face. "You wish to be better than he is, correct? You wish to earn just as much or more favor with the clan than he, correct?"
"But how can I beat him in a fight? He's twice the warrior I am!" Javin despaired.
Iago's face twisted into a grin that raised the hairs on Javin's tail. "Well, we won't tell him what is going to happen. We'll keep it... a surprise."
"Isn't that a little dishonorable?"
"Dishonorable?!" Iago replied in mock outrage. "We would only be evening the playing field."
Javin nodded unsurely. He had an idea of where this was going and wasn't sure what to make of it, although it was already beginning to tempt him. That temptation scared him as soon as he detected it, and Iago saw that.
"This fight would only be a mock fight," Iago continued quietly as a few elders passed by. "Someplace where it wouldn't be noticed by others."
Javin snorted. "What's the purpose of that? How can I prove anything to anyone if there's no one there to witness it?"
Iago glared at him. "You would prove something to our brother," he growled sourly as he ignored Javin's stare. Internally, he was grinning. Javin was playing right into his hands. "However, you do have a point." He pretended to think the matter over, then concluded, "Perhaps two or three others should go along. But who could they be?"
Javin shrugged as Iago watched him with a calculating smile. "I-I don't know," he said at last. "What if someone is suspicious?" He looked at his brother intently. "Besides, our tall brother cannot be fooled easily. How would we keep him in the dark?"
"Ye two!" shouted Agamemnon's voice from the circle. Iago and Javin looked up in sudden surprise. "Come on o'er here! Ye're next!"
Iago and Javin looked at each other, then walked into the ring. They passed by Othello, who seemed a little calmer now. But Goliath kept his distance as he sat and quietly spoke with Asrial.
"It seems our discussion will need to be resumed later," Iago muttered as they took their positions in the center of the ring.
* * * * *
One Hour Later
Grunts and groans escaped many of the young gargoyles as they dispersed to do whatever they wished. The training session was over and to many of them it had been much more forceful than others. What had the elders been up to? Why so harsh tonight? Goliath lingered to practice what he had learned and to speak with those dear to him, specifically, Asrial.
"You did well tonight," Goliath praised her, but Asrial laughed half-heartedly.
"I was little better than my red-haired rookery sister," she insisted. "I'm still so... possessed, I guess. I just can't shake off the dream I had."
Goliath frowned with concern, as a group of elders walked by. He could overhear their dissatisfied voices pointing out all the inadequacies of the evening. In truth, the "training session" had been pretty below par. The elders had seemed to be mumbling and sighing more than they were congratulating and praising. The stand-out disappointment of the evening had been Demona, whom they had tried to get some more enthusiasm out of by pairing her with Asrial in a second fight. What they received was a repeat of her first fight with Thersites, with neither party having their hearts in it.
"Under the conditions," Goliath insisted, "you performed admirably. You cared enough for our red-haired rookery sister that you did not embarrass her in front of everyone. She's going through some hard times."
"Yes, I just embarrassed myself and left her to embarrassing herself. It was a tidy arrangement." She let out a sigh. "I'm sorry, I guess I'm in an especially cynical mood tonight. I’d better go and do something constructive to get my mind off things before I really begin to get pessimistic."
"Do you need help?" Goliath offered.
"That's all right, I'm just going to be straightening up my workshop."
Goliath nodded hesitantly, and smiled good-bye as Asrial left.
When he saw her go, Hudson decided to approach Goliath. The elders were still watching him like a hawk. He decided he would give them some reassurance to get them off his back by talking with one of the contestants. And if he was going to talk to a contestant it might as well be one he was genuinely impressed with.
"Leader," Goliath greeted upon seeing Hudson.
"Lad," Hudson returned. "I'd have a word with ye, if yuir free."
"Of course," Goliath replied, and waited for him to continue. He could almost feel the gazes of the elders surrounding them. "What do you need?"
Hudson smiled. "Nothin' more than to commend ye on a job well done tonight, lad. I was most impressed by yuir skill. It is good to see at least a few of our clan takin' things seriously."
"Ah," said Goliath knowingly, shooting some glances into the surrounding areas where the elders stood eyeing the sky like in unconvincing disinterest. "Thank you, Leader. I only try my best."
Hudson patted his shoulder. "That's all we ask o' ye, lad," he said and turned to walk away. When he turned, at least half a dozen faces turned the opposite way, causing him to growl in frustration.
Goliath noticed the growl and hesitantly approached. "Leader, is something wrong?"
"Aye," Hudson growled, turning back to him. "It's the other elders, the stubborn lot! They simply won't leave me in peace!"
Goliath caught the elders' hasty departure. "I see."
Hudson nodded fiercely. "Ye see how they hound me! I'll be makin' a choice, but it'll be at my own pace, thank ye very much!"
Goliath, slightly taken aback from his Leader's temper, replied, "I understand."
Hudson looked at Goliath and sighed. "Pay me no mind, lad," he said gently, patting Goliath's shoulder. "Sometimes auld lions just need to roar."
Goliath smiled and nodded.
Hudson returned the smile and walked away. "Keep up the good work, lad," he called as he disappeared. "Perhaps yuir lazy brother will follow yuir example someday."
* * *
Iago grumbled a bit as he rubbed his aching back. He joined Javin as he watched Leader and Goliath converse. It was difficult to make out what was being said, but it wasn't hard to tell that Goliath was being complimented yet again.
"It never changes, does it?" Iago grumbled. "Our brother is never short of praise."
"Yes," Javin agreed with a frustrated sigh as he massaged a sore wrist. "I wish I could fight like that! He never misses a thing!" He shook his head and looked at his wrist, then he looked at Iago. "You were saying something before we were called on to fight."
Iago nodded with an inward grin. "It was only a suggestion that you should battle our large brother in a situation similar to the one we just exited. But do it in an area far enough away to escape... 'adult intervention'." He grinned devilishly. "I am curious to see how well you two would pit against each other, on a level playing field."
"So would I," Javin said, although his voice gave away some hint of uncertainty. "But our brother will still know that something is going on!"
Iago shook his head. "Not if we plan this out carefully." He put a hand on Javin's shoulder. "Remember that our brother does not look in the face of a challenge and walk away. He's not much different from our other brothers, after all."
Javin grinned a little. "True," he said, considering the options. To be able to prove himself against Goliath would be invigorating indeed! He would at last be able to obtain praise from others who usually gave it only to their lavender brother. Still, it was a worrying thing. What if he lost? What would that prove? And what if Goliath got hurt? He had no desire to hurt Goliath.
Iago seemed to read his thoughts. "Don't worry, brother," Iago assured smoothly, "This is for your benefit, not his detriment, unless all that modesty is really just a front to a proud and arrogant gargoyle. I believe that our brother would be happy to assist you, no matter what. Besides, there's more than one warrior in this clan. By standing up to him, you will prove that, and if he is anything like he seems to be then he will congratulate you on your victory."
Iago put a talon to his lip. "There only remains the problem of where to hold our contest."
"Do you have any ideas?"
Iago pretended to think for a moment. "Why don't we go to a cave?" he suggested. "One that is a good distance away from the castle so that the elders won't bother us."
"We are going to go behind the elders' backs?"
Iago locked eyes with him. "The clan elders," he insisted sourly, "are hypocrites, you know that."
Javin nodded, and Iago smiled in satisfaction. "So, does tomorrow night agree with you?"
Javin smiled. "I think it should do just fine."
Iago watched Javin walk away with an elated grin. If everything worked out like he hoped, both Javin and Goliath would be discredited before the clan. And with such a looming obstacle as Goliath out of the way, he could finally acquire some deserved attention from his rookery sisters - not to mention that the doorway to Second in Command would be wide open, and his for the taking. And once he became Second, many other things would soon become his...
* * *
Elsewhere, Hudson exited his talk with Goliath, turned a corner, and found the elders waiting for him. He stopped and took a wary breath, but kept himself from exploding.
"So," one of them began, "we saw that you were talkin' to our lavender rookery son."
Hudson nodded casually. "Aye. As if I was somehow unable to detect ye. Yuir not very good at keepin' yuirselves inconspicuous, ye know."
"We're sorry," the Eldest said with sincerity.
Hudson rose his hand. "It's all right, yuir just concerned, I know. I just wish ye'd have a bit more faith in my ability to come to a decision, and stop followin' me around!"
The elders shifted around and dragged their feet along the stone ground cumulatively, until one of them finally asked, "So, did ye end up gettin' anything out of the tournament? Out of yuir talk with the young one?"
Hudson smirked. "Unrelentin', aren't ye? Well, if ye must know, I did observe some things that caught my eye. But leadership requires more than combat skills. It requires patience, compassion, understanding, and dedication."
The elders all nodded enthusiastically, and prodded him on. "So? Is our handsome lavender son going to be our next Second?" Agamemnon goaded.
Hudson rolled his eyes and pushed his way through.
"What? Was it something I said?" Agamemnon asked defensively.
"Perhaps it is everything you say," the Eldest chastised.
* * * * *
An Hour Before Dawn
Javin sighed as he walked to his perch to do some thinking. On his way he bumped into someone very large and very lavender. Startled, Javin jumped back, and found himself staring into Goliath's face.
Javin was speechless at being in his idol's presence. He rarely approached Goliath because he was afraid he would not want to take the time to speak with him. He was always wondering if Goliath would like him or not. Iago seemed to believe that Goliath thought of others as unimportant when put next to himself. But was that true?
"Good evening, brother," said Goliath in his deep voice. "Where are you off to in such a rush?"
"Oh, uh," Javin stuttered, trying to search for intelligent words. "I was just off to my perch to do some thinking."
Javin immediately cringed. It wasn't an untrue statement, but what would a noble warrior like Goliath think of that? It was so unwarrior-like!
"Oh?" Goliath asked in interest. There wasn't a hint of ridicule in his voice at all. He even chuckled good-naturedly. "It seems that you and I are too much alike, brother. However, I usually do my thinking in the library over a book or two. I find myself so attached to the mysteries they unfold."
Javin's jaw nearly dropped. "You know how to read?"
"Only a little," Goliath admitted. "I can identify certain words, and am able to get a basic sense of what is said, but I am still at a primitive level compared to some of the humans."
His face grew melancholy as he glanced at the stars. "I try to read because I suppose it reminds me of Brother Edmund."
Javin sighed and nodded. "Yes, he was an unusually kind human. I find myself missing his stories and teachings." He looked at Goliath. "Do you suppose we'll ever see him again?"
Goliath was silent a moment. Then he shook his head. "I do not know," he admitted. "But I hope we will."
"So do I," said Javin with another sigh, then he sucked in another deep breath and started to head off. "Well, I'll move along. I don't want to trouble you."
"Oh, it's no trouble at all," Goliath told him as he stepped aside to let Javin pass. "But before you go I want to commend you on this night's exercises. You're a formidable warrior, and I'm sure that the elders would agree."
Goliath waved to him, and bid him good morning. Javin did the same, left in a state of dumbfounded shock.
He stared in amazement at Goliath's retreating form. His brother had actually complimented him! Him! Suddenly, Javin's spirits were uplifted. He raced off to his perch with a delighted laugh. If his brother truly thought he was a good warrior, then perhaps he wouldn't mind a friendly spar after all. A little friendly competition never hurt anyone. And with this newfound confidence, he felt more certain than ever that he could take on Goliath - and that he could win.
* * *
Goliath stretched with a yawn as he prepared for sleep. Dawn was only a few minutes away now and he was tired from the night's exercises.
With a grunt he hopped atop his perch and looked about the castle. All of the clan was preparing for sleep, while some gargoyles looked as though they were already in slumber. But others like the young rookery trio looked like they could stay awake until the last minute. The youngsters were running around chasing each other in some sort of game, creating quite a humorous scene.
"Um, rookery brother?" came a small voice to his left. He turned to see his brown brother approaching him with an unusually confident smile on his face. "I hope I'm not disturbing you, but could I borrow a moment of your time before the sun rises?"
"Of course," Goliath replied a little curiously. "What do you need?"
"Well," said Javin with a shrug, trying to think of how to say it. "I've got this little... outing planned, and I was wondering," he looked Goliath square in the eyes, an innocent ray of hope and excitement gleaming brightly within them, "Are you feeling up to a challenge?"
Goliath regarded his brother in surprise for a moment. Then a large smile crossed his handsome features. "You know me, brother," he chuckled. "I'm always up to a good challenge."
"Good!" Javin cried, clasping his hands together in excitement. "Then how about meeting me in the courtyard tomorrow night when the moon rises one quarter its cycle?"
Goliath shrugged. "Very well, brother," he agreed in confusion. "But why?"
Javin shrugged innocently as he shrank away for his perch. "Oh," he said, "You'll see."
Goliath watched him go with a puzzled look.
"Something is wrong," Goliath commented to himself as Asrial approached unnoticed from the shadows.
"Trouble, brother?" she asked quietly as she reached Goliath's side.
Surprised, Goliath turned to her. "I'm not sure - yet," he admitted as he watched his brother mingle with Iago at his perch. "He's usually not this outgoing. He's always been rather shy. I am glad to see that he is branching out, it just... concerns me."
He fell silent and Asrial watched Javin from a distance. "It is in his manner, more than in his words," she said as she settled into her perch.
Goliath nodded. "Yes," he said. "It is."
"Perhaps," Asrial began a little nervously. "Perhaps I should come with you tomorrow night? Just in case?"
Goliath nodded thoughtfully as he turned to greet the rising sun. "I think that would be a good idea," he said. Then he struck a fierce pose as the sun turned him to stone.
* * * * *
The Next Night
Iago found his envious brother near the stables putting away some barrels and cases, and even tending to a few hatchlings as they scurried about, stirring up trouble near the horses. Javin finally managed to chase off the hatchlings with a chuckle as Iago approached, and turned to greet him with a wide, open smile on his face.
"Brother!" Iago snapped, splintering Javin's jubilation in two. "Have you lost track of time? We must hurry if we are to continue with this challenge."
"I know, brother," Javin retorted matter-of-factly, "I've had a load of chores to do and I've been trying to chase off those hatchlings all night! I've been moving as fast as I can!"
Iago sighed resignedly. "Fine," he sneered as he started herding Javin towards Asrial's tower. "Now let's find our lavender brother and get out of here before we are stopped by more elders!"
Javin nodded as he followed Iago to their sister's workshop. They arrived just as Goliath was exiting, and he greeted them with a welcoming, if somewhat uncertain, smile.
"Good evening, brothers."
"Good evening to you as well, rookery brother," Javin returned pleasantly, though in Iago's presence before Goliath he couldn't help but feel uneasy. "Are you... ready to go?"
Goliath nodded. "I am ready." He glanced at Asrial who was watching from inside her workshop, then looked back at Javin and Iago. "But I was wondering if it was all right for our clever sister to join us tonight. I am sure that she too wouldn't mind getting out of the castle for a while."
It was a few moments before Javin noticed Iago's steel gaze on him, and he turned to Goliath in a stutter. "Oh, oh, of course!" Iago turned away with a disdainful, but satisfied, mien. "In fact I came with our brother," Javin went on, "to ask the very same thing. He wanted to come, also. And so, uh... would that be all right?"
Goliath shot a glance to Iago, who detected it at once and turned to face him with a forced smile. Javin did not dare look at either of them, as he waited nervously for Goliath's answer.
"Of course, brother," he finally replied. "I see no reason why not. After all, this outing was your idea." He looked up at the moon. "I suppose we will reconvene in the courtyard in a few moments' time?"
Iago and Javin nodded. "Of course," jumped in Iago, in an attempt to quickly excuse himself and Javin. He could sense Javin falling apart at the seams.
"We will see you then," Goliath announced, and they parted.
"He knows we're up to something!" Javin whispered frantically as they ducked into the nearest shadowed crevasse. "I told you he would!"
"Calm down!" Iago snapped disgustedly. "If you start that we'll never get this done!" He glanced inside the tower and saw his next target working hard over a new contraption. "Now, I am going to pay our inventive sister a visit. You go finish your chores."
"But my chores are already completed!"
"Well, then, go and gather some others to accompany us to the challenge."
"More? I thought we had our sister--"
"Do you want to go through all this for the benefit of but one of your rookery siblings? Besides, she is our lavender brother's female. We need someone more objective..." His features lit up. "How about our lavender brother's fan club?"
"Th-them?" His cheeks flushed bright red.
Iago sneered, "Oh, don't get all embarrassed on me now. You want females to notice you, don't you? Once you've achieved the standing of your rookery brother, you will have those three flocking around you instead of him, so you'd better get accustomed to the idea."
Javin nodded tentatively. "All right, I will try to find them."
Iago made no reply, as he gazed into Asrial's tower, and Javin took that as his exit cue.
* * *
Iago slipped into Asrial's workshop without notice, though that was not much of a feat, and he knew it. In front of him, with her back turned, was Asrial, the sounds of winding springs and some other less decipherable noises emanating from her work bench.
Iago smirked, as he straightened out his apparel and ran his fingers down his chin. His eyes traveled from the ceiling down, and back up again, then steadied with a gleam of self-satisfaction. He strutted forward.
"Sister!" Iago announced suavely, causing Asrial to jump. She spun around to see Iago approaching with wide arms.
Iago stopped in the center of the room, and peeked a look at the invention laying on her work bench. "Would you like any help?"
Asrial stared at him for a long moment, trying in vain to discern his expression. "I - I beg your pardon?" she finally said.
"I said, do you need any help?" Iago repeated as he came a little closer. "I just thought that I might stop in and help with whatever I could."
Asrial regarded him with a wary eye. "Brother, what are you up to?"
"Me?" Iago asked in mock surprise, seemingly taken aback. "Why, sister! Must I have a reason for visiting my favorite inventor?"
"That's funny," Asrial replied with a slight strain in her voice, "since you're usually the first to criticize me."
Iago released a sheepish laugh. "Well," he said, glancing about the room, "people can change, can't they?"
Asrial glowered at him. "Not like this." She folded her arms across her chest. "You're up to something."
Iago didn't seem to hear her as he pretended to discover the gadget on her workbench for the first time. "My, my, what is that?" he asked as he picked up the device, a motion which required his hand to reach behind her, and therefore caused her to stiffen momentarily.
Iago turned the contraption over in his hands a few times, making curious humming sounds and touching it in random places in the attempt to mimic genuine interest. It was an odd-looking thing, even for something out of Asrial's workshop, with hinges, wheels, and even little blades.
Asrial shrugged with a sigh as she approached him, took the gizmo rather roughly, and started to twist a knob on the bottom.
"I don't really know what it is," she admitted as she continued to wind it, "I sort of came up with it last autumn."
Iago watched intently as Asrial wound it one final time, and let go. The little blades on top began to spin at a furious pace, and the entire contraption rose into the air. Iago was amazed, genuinely, as he followed the miniature helicopter's course through the room with wide, captivated eyes. After a couple seconds, the blades stopped spinning and it crashed in one corner, dropping onto a cupboard. She giggled in spite of herself. "It's a flying machine!"
"So it is," said Iago in surprise as he watched Asrial walk over and pick it up.
She was already beginning to piece it back together as she walked back and set it down on her work bench. "It just has a habit of coming completely apart every time I use it, but I'm working on making it more durable -- and longer-lasting." Iago continued to look at her expectantly, so she continued to talk. "Flying devices have fascinated me for a while, since last year when we went through the Rite of the Warrior, and since then I've been experimenting with different ways of..." She suddenly broke off and let out an uneasy laugh. "Are you hearing a word I'm saying?"
"Of course!" Iago insisted immediately.
"Well, I have a tendency to... ramble."
"Not at all," Iago assured. He combed the room with his eyes for something else to keep the conversation going. So far, so good. He couldn't let the pace slow now. "You certainly do make interesting things around here," he commented absently as his eyes darted from one wall to the other.
Asrial was about to respond, when Iago's eyes fell on another interesting-looking invention. He ignored her as he walked over to it. "What is this here?"
Asrial looked at what he held as she went over to him. He was examining the invention with keen interest, like before. She paused to watch him, examining him just as he examined the invention. In reality, what he held was just a collection of miscellaneous parts that had stuck together over time sitting on her shelf. But despite that, could he be genuinely interested in her inventions?
Iago looked up after she didn't say anything, and their eyes met. Smiling, she took the 'device' he held and gave him a brief, extrapolated explanation of its function. He listened intently, not missing a thing. Asrial did her best to divert his attention from it, and brought him to another one of her real inventions.
She lifted it up for him to see, and began to describe it. Iago listened attentively, looking when she pointed, nodding when he sensed she needed reassurance that she was making sense, and even asking questions when he was confused. Goliath rarely asked her questions. Although he was always open-minded and supportive of her endeavors, he really never showed much interest in them beyond a surface glance. Iago, on the other hand, seemed to be enthralled by her every word.
As Asrial continued in her explanations with a vibrant enthusiasm, Iago contemplated the situation. These inventions of hers really were fascinating to him, to an extent. She was correct when she admitted to rambling too much, but he was willing to put up with it. Things were going too smoothly now to drop the ball. He watched her take a closer look at the invention she was explaining, and with her eyes off him, examined her more closely. She was quite lovely, he had to admit. Very soft, very delicate of stature, with a definite shape and an alluring, indescribable appeal that no other female had ever shown him. It was the intelligence!
Asrial was truly different from every other female in the castle. She was smart, beautiful, and docile -- no wonder Goliath had seen fit to claim her, even in light of all the other sisters he had to choose from. Perhaps he would claim her for his. She was a much easier prize than Desdemona to win, and a lot less confident too, which would make her easy to control...
"And this is the lever," she went on, oblivious to his wondering eyes, "which you'd use to start it... if I could just find that last component."
Iago smiled as he helped her comb the workshop in search of the elusive component.
* * * * *
A dozen or so hatchlings sat gathered in a large semi-circle around a lass their own age, as she told a story. Everyone was locked into an unwavering gaze and state of acute attention as the tale was unfolded. It wasn't a particularly thrilling story, by far not in the class as those hatchlings of such age were usually willing to sit and listen to, but their storyteller related it so eloquently and with such life that no one could help but be entranced.
And the hatchlings weren't the only ones listening. Off to one side were the Eldest and several other elders, all of them amazed at the skill the girl before them possessed. She told her story with an exuberance that kept every hatchling enchanted, and had the tale memorized word for word to boot.
The storyteller was of a slim, delicate build, about a half a head taller than her yellowish green, web-winged rookery brother. She had slightly wavy, pale-wheat hair worn in a single braid with a clasp of a simple Gaelic design, and a small tuft of similar hair at the end of her tail. Her skin was honey-tan with purplish peach highlights, she had bright green eyes, and had five round bumps along her forehead that might someday grow into small spikes. Her clothing was composed of a neutral-colored tunic and leggings, and a somewhat darker-colored fillet headpiece.
The hatchlings continued to listen with wide eyes and gaping jaws as they sat around the young gargoyle. Even the trio were sitting still and listening in awe at the marvelous things that had occurred in their clan's history throughout the generations. To see such enthusiasm for the clan's history painted a smile on every elder's face.
"The lass has learned to tell the tales as well as or, may I say, better than ye yuirself!" exclaimed Agamemnon in a whisper.
The Eldest smiled. "So I've told ye."
"So she is the one we've been noticin' mimickin' ye at dinner when ye tell yuir stories?" asked another elder.
The Eldest nodded affirmatively. "Aye, and now ye see how it has paid off."
"How many stories does she have memorized like this?" asked the second elder again.
"Only this and one other," the Eldest replied, "but soon she'll know the lot of them."
The storyteller finally came to her closing words: "The end."
As soon as the words exited her mouth, she slumped back and let out an exhausted sigh. The youths surrounding her immediately broke into excited chatter.
"Tell us more!" the red hatchling pleaded.
"Yes, please tell us another!" a second voice chimed in.
Soon the entire crowd began to plead, and their voices melted into one uniform "Pleeeeaaaase!"
"But I know no more stories," she told the begging children. "That was the only other story I've learned. Later, after I've listened to the Eldest some more, I will tell you another."
A resounding whine emanated from the crowd, as the children got up and reluctantly began to disperse.
"I'm sorry," the storyteller called. "I'll learn more soon! I promise!"
One of the elders leaned into the Eldest. "She's the same age as the young ones she recites to. And it does seem to have taken a lot out of her. Are you sure she can handle the responsibility ye'd be placin' on her?"
The Eldest nodded. "I am aware of her young age. And that is what makes her the perfect candidate. And she is a tad brighter, and more mature than the others in her rookery."
The other elders nodded, and Agamemnon whispered urgently, "Very well, but if ye want to tell her, ye better get to her quickly. Her audience is dispersing."
The Eldest strode forward. When the storyteller saw the Eldest, she jumped to her feet as if to stand at attention, and greeted humbly, "Eldest."
"Lass," the Eldest began gently, as she laid a hand on the girl's shoulder. "I have been listenin', and I must say that yuir talent surpasses anyone else's. Perhaps even this old crone's!"
The girl recoiled at what the Eldest said. "No, Eldest, you are the clan storyteller!"
"Yes, so I may be," the Eldest concurred. "But I am gettin' on in my years, child, and my memory isn't what it used to be. I haven't the energy of my youth. I need someone who has theirs."
The youth's eyes went wide. "Eldest, you cannot step down!"
The Eldest smiled warmly. "No, child, not yet, I won't. I do not need a replacement just yet. Just someone to follow in my footsteps, to be the next storyteller when my time has passed. To serve. . . as my apprentice."
The Eldest nodded expectantly, "Yes, you, child. I have seen how you hold to every one of my words, and repeat them with excitement to your brothers and sisters." Sensing the disbelief in the youth's eyes, she went on, "You like to tell stories more than to hear them, don't you?"
She nodded quickly, "Yes, Eldest. I do."
"And you would like to learn more?"
The girl thought about it for a moment, and then lit up as she answered, "Yes, I would. . . I would, Eldest, I would!"
"There now," the Eldest said with a chuckle, "it is settled." The other hatchlings were beginning to gather around the Eldest and her new apprentice with awed expressions. "Now come, child. And I will teach you all I know."
The Eldest took the lass's hand and led her through her rookery siblings to the group of elders waiting expectantly with large smiles for them. Everyone patted her on the back and congratulated her as they walked off.
* * *
Javin watched the scene unfold from a distance away. He stood in the center of the courtyard. Just a short stretch away the elders led the Eldest's new apprentice away, with a throng of anxious children following from the rear. He had listened to the girl's storytelling while waiting for the others to show up, and had found it quite entertaining. She was good. She deserved to be apprentice to the Eldest. But could he ever amount to anything like that? The girl hadn't tried, the natural abilities which earned her apprenticeship just came to her. Did such abilities come to him?
He shifted uncomfortably, and tried to cease this particular train of thought. It was giving him doubts, and on top of the apprehension he was already feeling for what lay ahead, that was something he didn't need.
He thought back to Iago's words. Iago had been adamant that Goliath was given unfair attention and glory by the elders, and that everyone else was simply a scale to use to measure him. It didn't seem to bother anyone else except for Iago and Javin, though...
The sound of leather wings made him look up, and he saw Goliath glide down with a grace that belied his size and might. He alighted and caped his wings about him.
"Hello, brother," were his vigorous first words.
"Hello," Javin replied with an uneasy side-step.
"I am ready to go, if all is prepared," Goliath indicated.
Javin nodded, and was about to say something more when a new face caught his attention. "Sister!" he exclaimed upon the sight of Fuchsia. Then, calmer and more composed, "What are you doing here?"
"Well," said Fuchsia demurely as she looked at Goliath, "I was wondering if I might come along. Our brother has had so many other obligations as of late, I thought I would join him." She shrugged. "Just curious to see what it is you boys are up to."
Javin and Goliath looked at each other. Goliath appeared unbearably calm to Javin, whose insides were tightening to the point where he almost couldn't breathe. He hadn't approached Fuchsia or her rookery sisters about attending tonight. He hadn't had the courage. Whenever he was in a beautiful rookery sister's presence, he seemed to lose control of himself. He could tell himself to loosen up, but that wouldn't equal results. Now, he was in that same trap - the trap he'd intended to avoid. He'd have had to have explained himself to Iago afterwards, and he knew the other garoyle would have probably chastised him thoroughly, but it was easier to put discomfort off for later. Now, he'd have to endure it forthwith.
Goliath cleared his throat. "Well, I don't see any problem with it." He seemed relieved that there was only Fuchsia, and not either of her sisters. One, he evidently felt comfortable enough around, as opposed to all three. "But it is our brother's outing."
All eyes fell on Javin. "Uh, no, of course not," he stuttered. "That is, yes, you can come. Of course."
"Well, then," Javin declared unsteadily, in a half-witted attempt to sound eloquent in front of Fuchsia, "Shall we be off?"
"Not yet, brother," Goliath interjected, causing both heads to turn. "We are still missing our brother and sister."
Javin bit his lip. Of course! "Oh, yes, I had forgotten."
Fuchsia made a lump in her cheek with her tongue and looked up as Goliath mentioned their missing sister. "So," she began, "what are you two up to?"
"To be honest, I do not quite know yet," Goliath answered. "I believe it is meant to be a surprise."
"Oh?" Fuchsia replied, struck with sudden extra interest in the excursion beyond the fact that Goliath was going.
"Well, I... can't spoil it yet," Javin explained.
"Well, of course not!" Fuchsia agreed jubilantly. "I just wish our tardy brother would arrive so that we can go to find out."
"And our sister," Goliath pointed out.
Fuchsia ignored the comment as she asked, "So, I know you can't tell us what, but can you tell us where?"
"Oh, just a little ways from the castle," Javin answered ominously. "In a cave."
Fuchsia lighted up at the revelation. "A cave, hmm? Sounds interesting." She eyed Goliath as he looked up at the moon's position.
By the way Javin had answered Fuchsia, Goliath guessed that "a little ways" was really an understatement and, after glancing at the moon, grew concerned.
"Perhaps we should go now," Goliath suggested finally, "without them. I know that our clever sister has probably just gotten herself immersed in one of her inventions and lost track of time."
Fuchsia nodded her firm agreement. "That's a good point. We want to get back in time for sunrise, don't we?"
Javin looked around the courtyard despairingly for Iago. "Well, yes... but, but what of our brother?"
"Perhaps he has found himself in a similar situation as our sister," Goliath proposed. "Our elders may have given him some extra chores to do."
Javin chewed his lip as he listened to Goliath. He knew that wasn't true. Iago had gone to see their rookery sister. How long could that have taken? How could he be doing this to him?
"Our brother knows where we're going, right?" Goliath inquired thoughtfully.
"I... yes, I think he does," Javin answered uncertainly. Why did Goliath think their brother would know the location? Did he suspect them plotting something together?
"Well then," Goliath resolved, "if he arrives after we've gone, he will know where to find us. He can bring our sister as well."
"Yes, I suppose that will be okay," Javin replied absently, somewhere between seething anger and overwhelming fear. His mind was racing, almost as fast as his heart. What was he supposed to say? How was he supposed to carry the plan out? This had been his brother's idea!
He followed Goliath and Fuchsia to the battlements, as all three of them unfurled their wings for lift-off. Suddenly, a voice called out to them. The trio turned in surprise to greet their leader. He had seen them gather in the courtyard waiting, and grown curious.
"Wait, ye three," he said as he came up to them. Each of the adolescents regarded him differently: Javin was stunned and speechless; Goliath was thoughtful; Fuchsia was absent and uninterested.
"Where are ye three off to?" Hudson inquired casually.
"Nowhere of any importance, Leader," Goliath replied calmly. "Just to a pre-arranged outing."
"An outing? Where to?"
It was an innocent enough question, but in this case an ambiguous one. Javin stiffened noticeably, and stopped breathing, although he didn't realize that at the moment.
"Our brother had hoped to keep it a surprise," Goliath explained.
"Oh," Hudson replied disappointedly. He eyed each of them coolly, stopping briefly on Javin, whose color was beginning to drain noticeably. He purposely avoided making eye contact.
"Could ye tell me where in the general vicinity ye'll be headin'?"
Javin replied nervously, "In... um, around, I mean, the caves. Off to the east."
"The caves?" he repeated briskly. "I see. Well then, I'll let ye be on yuir way. Just be sure to get back in time for sunrise. I'll have no last-minute shenanigans."
"Of course, Leader," Goliath assured.
As Javin and Fuchsia turned back around, Javin faster than his sister, Hudson stopped Goliath with his gaze. "Ye be careful now," he instructed. "Don't be doing anything foolhardy. Ye'd tell me if there was somethin' goin' on."
With his back turned, Javin froze.
"Of course, Leader," Goliath replied. "There is nothing going on. We are just going to get some fresh air."
It was the closest thing to a lie Goliath had ever told Hudson, but he couldn't be sure of what was going on, and until he did he wasn't about to turn Javin in. If there was something wrong, he would take care of it with Javin alone. There was no need to involve Leader; it would only bring unwarranted attention to a clan mate whom he felt was too shy for it. Perhaps he was seeing shades of Asrial in the other male. Or perhaps he hoped there to be.
Hudson left, and Goliath turned to rejoin his siblings. "Well, let's be on our way."
* * * * *
Iago smiled inwardly. So far Asrial had not even noticed the time. She was too busy talking and showing off her inventions. He saw little purpose in the gadgets she sported now. His fascination had dropped soon after her exhibition of her 'flying machine'. Everything else seemed dull and rudimentary. But he was becoming accustomed to the sound of her voice.
He felt fully confident in his new plan. He would forget about Desdemona. She was too dense to see him for what he was. He would take Asrial for his mate instead. Only this time, he wouldn't be so abrupt as he had been with Desdemona. He would gradually draw closer to her, and in the process draw her away from Goliath. Once they were mated Desdemona would be craving him out of jealousy, and he'd have both females for his own.
Iago only hoped Javin was able enough that the other gargoyle could carry out the evening's plans without his presence. He couldn't afford to accompany him for their plan now, he was too involved with Asrial. He felt her coming around. To abandon his progress with her now would be beyond question. Javin would just have to do things on his own. It was up to him alone to discredit himself and Goliath. He chuckled at the thought.
Asrial didn't notice the chuckle. She was too involved with the explanation of her latest invention.
"So, this connects there, and the wheels connect here," she mumbled as she decided between a wrench and a hammer. She tightened something where Iago couldn't see, and then pulled a rope. Apparently, that was supposed to make whatever it was do whatever it was supposed to do. When it didn't, she scratched her head and went in for another look.
He considered the possibility of Asrial being there when Javin and Goliath fought. He could estrange her from tall, dark and handsome in one night. But there were too many variables; too many things that could go wrong. She could suspect him. Javin could give him away. No, he was better off staying here with her.
Besides, remaining behind offered another benefit as well. He could be the one to conveniently relay his concern to Hudson that something less than noble just 'might' be happening over at the eastern caves.
In the end, he'd have Goliath and Javin out of the way for good. Both were a nuisance; Goliath with his rugged good looks and special place in the eyes of the elders, Javin with his petty jealousies and annoying self-doubt. They were so troublesome. This way, he would come out with Asrial and the esteem of the clan elders for stopping the fight.
"Hmm, that should have worked. Maybe the wheels were put in wrong..."
"I wouldn't know," said Iago with a confident smile. It was serenading time again. "Your works are beyond me. But I can see why our lavender brother hangs onto you so. You do indeed have a gifted mind."
Asrial gasped and stared at him. "Oh no! My brother! Your brother! The outing, we've forgotten all about it!"
Iago's smile melted into a resentful grimace as Asrial jumped to her feet and raced to her window. "Oh no, look at the moon!"
She backed away from the window and staggered back into a chair. "He was counting on me to be there."
Iago saw his chance to regain the situation, and advanced. He opened his mouth to say something eloquent and swaying to comfort her, but wasn't able to utter a syllable before she jumped back up from the chair.
"I've got to go after him," she stated, more to herself, and dashed out of her workshop with a barely audible good-bye.
Iago watched her departure blankly, without moving. Then, she ducked her head back in. "Brother, are you coming?"
Iago's eye-ridge twitched slightly, as he replied, "No, no... that's all right, sister. You... run along without me."
Asrial smiled and ducked back out. He heard her footsteps hurriedly echo down the stairwell.
* * * * *
"Ye two!" Hudson called. "Come o'er here. I need ta have a word with ye."
Demona and Diomedes glanced around in confusion for a moment, met eyes with each other from their opposite ends of the courtyard, then approached their leader tentatively.
"Yes, Leader?" Diomedes asked politely, without a glance in Demona's direction as she came up alongside him.
"Aye," acknowledged Hudson. "I need to ask if either of ye have seen yuir two brother's odd behavior. Yuir lavender and brown brothers left with one o' yuir rookery sisters earlier tonight to go exploring. I could sense a tension between them. Do either of ye know what might've been goin' on?"
Diomedes and Demona shook their heads in uniform predictability. "No leader," said Demona. "I've not seen nor spoken to either of our brothers since last night, and they seemed fine then. Well, our lavender brother did..."
"You didna see yuir brown-skinned brother?"
Demona rubbed her arm guiltily. "Well, perhaps... if I did I don't remember."
"Our brown-skinned brother isn't very talkative," Diomedes offered with a dismissive shrug.
Hudson thought about those words carefully, then explained, "I need ta be sure that nothin' is wrong. Would ye two mind trackin' them down so that I can know where they are? Ye two are accomplished trackers, among the best of yuir rookery."
Diomedes exchanged a quick look of apprehension with Demona, who turned her eyes to the ground. "Leader, I..." He looked anxiously from Hudson's intent stare. "I... we accept."
Hudson nodded his approval. "Good," he declared. "Start after them as soon as ye can."
He patted each of them on the back and left. For a few moments afterwards, the two of them remained standing and silent. Then Diomedes spoke, "We will meet back here in half an hour, and then leave?"
Demona nodded gently. Then, realizing more of a response might be needed, vocalized a "Yes".
Diomedes nodded with satisfaction and made a brisk exit.
Demona turned with a deep sigh and looked around for somewhere to go. Realizing she had no place in particular where she needed to be, she resolved to remain where she was until her brother returned.
"There you are, foolish child!"
Demona snapped her head around to face the Archmage, as he stomped up the stairwell behind her and strutted forward. "You're never where I can find you when I need you!" he exclaimed irritably, with slightly more strain in his voice than usual. He was stressed over something.
"I'm sorry, Archmage," she amended quietly, glancing around anxiously to ensure no one saw them together. It seemed an inability to locate her was turning into a running trend with everybody.
"What is it?" she asked her tutor in an urgent whisper.
"One of my experiments, it’s on the verge of collapsing! I need your help in stabilizing it," he explained as he took her arm. "Now, come, hurry, we haven't much time!"
"But Archmage, you said you wouldn't need me anymore tonight," Demona pleaded as she fought against the Archmage's grasp.
"I didn't anticipate the collapse of one of my experiments, now stop dawdling and come along. Now!"
Demona wrenched herself free and faced him squarely. "No, Archmage!" At his shocked expression, she felt her voice dwindle back to a whisper. "My leader has requested my aid, I said I would help..."
"Nonsense!" the Archmage seethed, as he reached out again and grabbed her. "This is much more important. He can choose someone else to go gallivanting on one of his errands. I require you."
"But," she despaired, as she allowed herself to be pulled along. "What will - how will I..."
"You can explain it to him later," the sorcerer snapped. "Make up any excuse you like. It's not my fault you have to hide your apprenticeship with me from your phobic clan!"
Demona finally ceased all struggling, and obediently followed her mentor to his tower. This wasn't the first time she'd been snatched by the Archmage and led away to his laboratory. She could think of an explanation later. Couldn't she?
* * * * *
Near the Caves
"I never noticed how muscular your arms are," Fuchsia teased as she glided beside Goliath, the two of them arm-in-arm.
Ahead of them soared Javin, leading the way to their undisclosed location while his brother and sister flirted like nobody else was there. Of course, there wasn't anyone else there. Only Javin! He snarled to himself under his breath and clenched his fists as he listened to Goliath's stumbled response, followed by Fuchsia's delighted giggle. He dared not look behind him, for he might see her snuggling her head on his arm.
Couldn't his brother see Fuchsia was flirting with him? No, he was too proud, too clouded to notice. And those stutterings of his earned him even more attention, whereas with Javin it would earn him a peculiar look. With Goliath's handsome features and herculean bulk, a suave demeanor and elegant speech weren't necessary.
His muscles tensed as he heard a light chuckle from Goliath. "Sister, I am not the only male in the clan."
Then Javin closed his eyes at Fuchsia's response: "To me, you are."
"I just keep remembering how you rescued us all from our estranged brother's bandits and his female gargoyle accomplice's warriors," Fuchsia explained. "You remember, don't you? During the Rite of the Warrior last year?"
"Well..." Goliath stammered, "I was not solely responsible. Our clever sister was integral in the rescue. If it weren't for her..."
"But she couldn't have done it without you, also," Fuchsia insisted.
Javin rolled his eyes. If Goliath was going to receive all this praise the least he could do was accept it, and not shrug it off like it was nothing, like it was not worthy of him. Did he know what he was shrugging off?
"I wish I had your fighting abilities," Fuchsia sighed wistfully. "Then maybe I'd be noticed by more males."
There was a pause, and Javin braced himself. Then Goliath replied warmly, "You're a fine warrior, sister." Javin sighed a breath of relief. His answer could have been worse. Then he added, "Your combat skills do not go unnoticed by many of our rookery. Myself included."
"Really?" Fuchsia replied elatedly. "You really notice me?"
"Oh, uh... well, that is," Goliath replied, taken off-guard by Fuchsia's implication.
"That's all right," Fuchsia assured him, "you don't have to say that you do. I've noticed you, though." She chuckled. "As if you hadn't been able to tell. Well, I had been waiting for the right opportunity... you know, to go somewhere with you together, and... talk. I guess I've just been too shy up until now."
Javin couldn't stand to hear another word. "Brother, sister, we're here!" he shouted behind him.
Goliath and Fuchsia jointly lowered their gaze to the landscape below them. There was dense foliage and many high-rising trees, but beyond them only sparse vegetation. The ground was mostly scattered rocks, with some dying yellow grass here and there growing up between the cracks.
They looked back up to see Javin swerve to the left and descend. They did the same, and landed alongside him in the center of some trees. A great boulder lay half-submerged in the ground, with several of its miniatures dotting the area. There were no birds in earshot.
"What a desolate place this is," Goliath observed. "Brother, are you sure this is it?" He surveyed the area doubtfully. "I don't see any caves."
Javin made no reply as he stalked forward and brushed away some loose branches. He knew he'd seen some sort of cave entrance on his way down. Upon moving the last of the branches, he was met with an airy crevice. "Here it is," he answered.
Javin moved to the side to allow Fuchsia and Goliath to look in. An impenetrable blackness stared back at them.
"It's rather... dark, brother," Goliath observed with an unmistakable trace of concern in his voice.
"It's all right, there's a hole in the ceiling of one of the caverns. I saw it from the air."
"I don't know, brother," Goliath replied. "It may be dangerous. I don't think we've ever explored this cave before. It is not familiar."
"Does that mean you're backing down from our challenge?" Javin snapped. "We came all the way out here just for this, didn't we?"
Goliath recoiled from his brother's outburst. "All right, brother," he conceded. "If you're sure there is light farther in."
Javin turned around without a word and melted into the blackness. "Come on," he called from inside, his voice echoing off the tight walls and giving him a sense of foreboding distance.
Goliath and Fuchsia obediently followed their brother in, one after the other, as Fuchsia whispered, "I'm beginning to have second thoughts about this 'surprise'. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to come, after all."
"I'm beginning to agree with you," Goliath whispered back. Ahead of them, Javin heard their words and tightened his fists again.
"Can you see how much farther there is to go, brother?" Goliath called.
"Not far," Javin replied shortly.
"It sure is creepy in here," Fuchsia whispered. "I can't see two inches in front of me."
"It is all right," Goliath assured. "It's not much farther."
Javin sneered as he pictured them holding hands through the dark.
Finally, they rounded a corner and came to an opening. Javin emerged and rose his head to take in the cavern. Its volume was breathtaking: an enormous stone chamber, with a high ceiling looking down at him from at least three stories above, and covered with massive stalactites two and three feet in length. The walls seemed far distanced , surrounding a wide, open clearing. Except for a few minor stalagmites here and there along the walls the floor was mostly flat.
Goliath entered, and then Fuchsia, as Javin stepped aside to make way for them.
"It's monstrous!" Fuchsia observed, her voice ricocheting off every wall with a deep, grand resonance that rose the hairs on her neck.
Goliath swept the chamber thoughtfully. There were several other, small holes like the one they had come in from; some off to the side that looked like they dropped off into pits, and others up along the walls about one story off the ground, adjacent to some stone ridges. At the cavern's peak was a crack perhaps four feet long and half as wide that allowed a stream of dusty moonlight into the room.
Goliath nodded to himself. "It seems we misjudged the cave from the outside," he concluded. "You were right about the hole in the ceiling."
He watched as Javin walked to the center of the cavern and eyed some of the surrounding stalagmites. "Now, brother," he said distinctly, the echo to his voice giving it an unintended rumble, "why have we come here?" When Javin made no reply, he added, "What kind of challenge were you speaking of?"
Javin spun himself around and crouched down fiercely, outstretching his arms in a fighting stance. The dust from the cavern floor rose eerily into the damp light that bathed him from where he stood. His teeth were bared.
"Brother, what is this?" Goliath demanded. "What are you doing?"
Goliath's words ground themselves against his brain. His mock concern. "You know what this is!" he exclaimed. "Come on! Fight me! Attack me! I can take you!"
Goliath stared at him blankly for a long moment, stunned and unmoving, then looked at Fuchsia, who took a cautious step backwards as she exchanged a worried glance with him. He turned back to Javin and responded bewilderedly, almost indignantly, "I will not fight you, brother!"
"Stop acting!" Javin retorted hotly. "Your pretence of righteousness will deceive nobody!"
Goliath looked at Fuchsia again, and Javin shouted, "Don't look at her! Look at me! I know you're just pretending hesitance for her benefit! Now attack me, or I'll attack you!"
"Brother, I do not know what this is about!" Goliath replied with some frustration.
"Yes you do!" Javin accused with an incriminating finger pointed at him. "My brother was right, absolutely right about you. You're nothing but an arrogant pretender!"
"A pretender to what? What are you talking about?"
Javin's voice seethed with frustration as he answered, as if the explanation were obvious and unnecessary, and Goliath was purposely trying to irritate him. "You are not the gargoyle everyone thinks you are! You don't deserve what you have, and I cannot stand to bear it any longer! All you receive are compliments, compliment after compliment, unchanging praise for whatever you do! You're revered by everyone, noticed by everyone, and given every privilege! No one ever notices me, no one ever praises me! Not the elders, not our rookery sisters, not anyone! They're all too busy gaping over you!"
He paused as he caught his breath, and put himself back into a defensive posture. "I am going to prove once and for all that I can be just as strong as you are, and then I'll be the one receiving praises for a change, and you will see the world by looking up!"
"This is ridiculous!" Goliath blurted out as soon as Javin finished. "You are acting like a hatchling, brother! I am not the only gargoyle of the clan who receives praise!"
Javin's eyes widened as Goliath crossed his arms. "In any case, brother, I am not going to attack you. If you want to fight, you are going to have to attack me."
Javin stared dumbfounded, gripped by sudden indecision. Goliath kept his eyes locked onto his. "What is it going to be, brother?"
Javin gasped, releasing a bottled up breath of air, and turned his head away. He had to break away from Goliath's gaze; he couldn't think.
Suddenly, Fuchsia came up to Goliath's side and grabbed his arm. "Brother, let's leave and return to the castle," she suggested urgently, risking a worried glance in Javin's direction.
Goliath was about respond, when Javin let out a battle cry and ran for him. It wasn't a roar by far, but a desperate wail of a yell. Fuchsia gasped as Goliath looked up, just in time to see Javin hurtle into him with his eyes ablaze.
* * * * *
Diomedes tapped his foot with growing impatience as he waited for Demona.
With an angry snort he opened his wings and leapt onto the parapets. Leader was depending on them to find their siblings; he couldn't wait around for Demona until she decided to show up.
"Where are you off to in such a bad mood?" came Desdemona's inquiring voice.
Diomedes relaxed his wings, but didn't dismount from the parapet. He explained, "I go in search of our brown-skinned and tall lavender brothers. Leader seems to be concerned for them, and has asked our red-haired sister and I to ensure all is well."
Desdemona looked around blankly, and Diomedes added bitterly, "Yes, you see how she hasn't arrived yet."
"And you were about to go without her?" Desdemona asked, in mild surprise.
Diomedes let out a resentful chuckle as he replied, "Our sister hasn't quite been reliable for keeping appointments lately."
Desdemona gave a resigned frown. "So I have been noticing."
Diomedes nodded, as Thersites presented himself. "If you ask me, our sister needs a serious attitude adjustment," he said firmly.
Diomedes sneered. "I don't recall asking you."
Thersites shrugged. "Just voicing my opinion."
"And an ironic opinion it is," Desdemona said with a smirk. "I think you're just sour from last night's training, when you were forced to actually try."
"How dare she. . ." Diomedes mumbled sarcastically.
Desdemona turned her attention back to Diomedes. "How long ago did our siblings leave the castle?"
Diomedes shrugged. "I don't know, perhaps an hour ago."
"I will accompany you," Desdemona declared matter-of-factly. "If Leader chose both of you, then you should not go alone."
Diomedes shrugged dismissively.
"Well, have a nice flight," Thersites waved, as he turned to walk away. "I hope you find them."
He stumbled as Desdemona grabbed his arm. "Oh no, brother," she said just as matter-of-factly, "you're coming too."
"I certainly am not!" Thersites protested, and tried to pull away, but Desdemona wasn't letting go.
"But there are bandits out there! And wolves! And any number of other flesh-devouring creatures. . ."
Diomedes rolled his eyes and respread his wings. "Stop complaining," he groaned. He pushed himself off his parapet.
Thersites gave an exaggerated groan of his own as Desdemona pulled him by the arm off the parapets, and they both followed Diomedes.
* * * * *
Goliath grunted and squeezed his eyes shut as he felt the back of his head strike the hard ground with a sharp sting. Then a numbing tingle swept over his senses. He managed to reopen his eyes to the sight of Javin's fist coming towards him, and moved his head aside. Javin's hand plunged into rock and Goliath swiftly got back to his feet.
Javin faced him, ignoring the pain in his fingers, as Fuchsia yelled something from the side. "Brother, please!" Goliath pleaded, but Javin didn't hear. His mind was a racing tumult of rage.
With a wail, he charged for Goliath again. This time Goliath was able to easily side-step him, and he fell onto the ground.
"I don't want to hurt you, brother!" Goliath insisted.
Javin picked himself up and threw himself at Goliath. "Stop calling me that!" Goliath stumbled as Javin punched him in the stomach, but blocked the next punch and pushed him back.
Goliath's unwillingness to fight enraged him even more. The ease with which he dismissed his attacks incited him to try again with double the force, drawing from a seemingly eternal well of energy.
Fuchsia tried to help Goliath, but Javin was full of such a blind rage that she couldn't get more than two feet towards him without feeling like she was stepping into a tornado. She lunged into the fray anyway, hoping to tackle Javin off-guard. Javin saw her, though, and swung his arm into her. The blow struck head-on and she went tumbling over to the side.
She bared her teeth as she felt the cold numbness in her jaw. Her eyes sparked a bright crimson and, with a snarl, she prepared to attack him again. Then something caught her attention, and the illumination left her eyes. She touched the bare ground in front of her, where the layer of dust had been brushed away with her impact. There were deep gashes in the rock, gashes too deep to have been made by an animal, and too clean to have been carved by a knife. She swept aside some more of the dust and found several more gashes in groups of three, and realized what they were: talon marks.
"Other gargoyles..." she breathed. Her eyes trailed around a stalagmite to a small area behind a stone ridge, and her eyes widened. Worn swords, tattered shields, maces, and pieces of armor lay strewn across the floor.
She looked up to Goliath and Javin, who were now locked arm-in-arm. "Brothers, we're in danger!" Javin ignored her plea, but Goliath turned to her in surprise. She lifted one of the tattered shields for him to see and pointed to the talon marks all over the floor. "Gargoyles have been here!"
Javin took advantage of Goliath's distraction and punched him in the face. Goliath grunted, stumbled back unsteadily and went down.
"Brother!" Fuchsia screamed, but Javin was deaf to her.
"Brother, listen to me...," Goliath pleaded as he held his head in pain, "did you hear our sister? Brother, we are not safe here." He tried to lift himself to his feet as he added, "This place is--" Another swipe from Javin silenced him. A deep rumble rose from Goliath, but Javin wasn't intimidated. He had tapped himself to the limit, and was going on pure adrenaline now.
Some pebbles rolled down from a higher ridge. Fuchsia stood still and heard the sound of footsteps above them. Fearful, she faced her brothers again, resigned to pry them apart herself if she had to. She saw Javin swing his tail around for one final strike. Goliath was flung into a semi-spin, and nearly fell over. Finally, Javin lifted him up and threw him over his shoulder in a show of victory.
Goliath struck the ground with a much more painful grunt than his previous ones. He growled as he tried to get back up, but Javin pushed him down with his foot. Then he broke off a nearby stalagmite and lifted it over his head.
"Stop, you'll kill him!" Fuchsia screamed.
Just as she did, Asrial entered the cavern. When she saw Javin standing over her brother with the stalagmite, she gaped in horror. Goliath lay coughing, wounded and weakened, as Javin loomed with fiery white eyes. He was in a state of pure, utterly consuming euphoria.
Fuchsia locked eyes with Asrial. Both sisters stood on opposite sides of their brothers. Neither was close enough to stop Javin in time, but Fuchsia ran forward anyway. Asrial remained in place, her limbs frozen with shock. She saw Fuchsia still looking at her as she ran for their brothers, and her lips moving, shouting something that appeared to be in warning, but the words were as if submerged in water.
"Now we'll see what the elders think of you!" Javin exclaimed fanatically, barely containing a laughter.
Time momentarily ceased, and then the cavern filled with the sounds of rushing footsteps and clattering weapons. Humans and gargoyles swarmed in from all sides, emerging from the corridors located in the corners and on the ridges some feet above. They all wore garb fit for war; steel mesh, breast plates, shields and helmets thrown over each body in varying combinations. Within seconds the entire cavern was filled with them. Those on the ridges stood ready with spears, as the ones on ground level directly beneath them extended an assortment of maces, axes and swords.
Fuchsia stopped in her tracks. To Asrial, it was all simply an extension of the surreal scene she was already witnessing. But to Javin, it wasn't even happening at all. He remained fixed on Goliath, to whom he was about to deliver the finishing, triumphant blow.
"Put down the rock, gargoyle!" commanded an indistinguishable voice from their surrounding captors.
The command snapped Javin out of his trance, and for the first time he saw their company. His arms lowered slowly, almost unconsciously, as he stared with wide, overwhelmed eyes. The rock slipped from his grasp and split upon the floor.
Suddenly, the ground creaked. Lines spread out from Javin's feet like an expanding web, sucking in the dust. The sound of crumbling stone echoed through the cavern, as the lines widened into cracks, and the floor began to crumble beneath Javin's very feet.
"Brother!" Goliath shouted. "Watch out!"
It was too late. Javin did not react in time. He only had a moment to lock eyes with Goliath, and then dropped. A cry echoed up the newly-formed fissure as their brother descended into the bowels of the earth, and then there was a thud. Fuchsia winced painfully, as Goliath dragged himself to his feet, intent on diving down after him.
"Stay where you are!" a voice ordered. Goliath hesitated at the sound of the voice, and tried to find its source. In one corner of the room, the troops parted, and Atalanta stepped out.
Asrial remained standing in the cavern entrance on the far end, so far unnoticed by the soldiers. Fuchsia's voice rang out to her: "Run!"
Asrial hesitated a moment, as she saw Goliath spin around to face her. He had not even realized she was there. His shocked expression kept her locked in place, until Fuchsia repeated her command more forcefully and she finally obeyed.
Atalanta walked up to Fuchsia and backhanded her across the face. She fell onto several troops, who grabbed her by the arms. "Who was that?" Atalanta demanded as she watched the shape disappear into the corridor.
"You, you," she pointed, "follow whoever that was and return them!" Two nearby soldiers, a human and a gargoyle, dashed after the escapee obediently. Then, Atalanta returned her gaze to Goliath and Fuchsia, and grinned. "Well, well, well. If it isn't our handsome young friend from so long ago."
Goliath growled weakly at her comment and fell to his knees, no longer able to stand up.
Atalanta grinned, then frowned. She turned to some more of her soldiers and motioned for them to come forward. "You two, take them away," she commanded. "When the others return with the escapee we will lock them all in a cell together."
Goliath and Fuchsia exchanged worried glances, but neither could react.
* * *
Asrial panted fiercely as she raced through the blackness of the small corridor. She reached light and bolted out into the open. With the cave now behind her, she continued to run on all fours. Her gaze was focused on the landscape in front of her. She dared not look back.
She didn't know what had just happened, and her thoughts were too jumbled right now to try making sense of them. She knew for certain only one thing: her clan mates were in Atalanta's custody. She had to return to the castle and retrieve help. From the looks of it, Atalanta's people were garbed for war. Was she planning on invading Wyvern and its proper? If so, she had to warn Hudson and Prince Malcolm.
Still in the clearing she felt open and vulnerable, but the treeline was almost there. She tried to increase her speed, but her limbs were already growing numb. "Come on," she breathed, "just a little farther. . ."
The trees brushed by her and she released a sigh of relief. Now, if only she could take to the air. The trees gave her a sense of protection, but she knew that logically she was confined while within them. Ahead of her she could make out the end of the woods and another brief clearing, beyond which there appeared to be a drop. If that was a hill, she could use it to glide off on.
"If only I had my far-seers," she breathed, "I could be sure."
The last trees whipped past her and she came upon a wide, open expanse. As she had guessed, there was a hillside coming up. Thirty yards more and she would be airborne; perhaps more visible, but she would make the exchange for the added speed flight would give her.
Suddenly, there was a swoop of wings, and Asrial heard a spine-chilling voice say, "Hello, pretty sister."
She gasped and looked up into the masked face of Roland, who glided not a foot above her. Startled and thrown into sudden panic, she lost her footing. With a cry, she found herself falling down the hillside that she had hoped would get her home. She tumbled down, falling over outlying rocks, her skin scraping against twigs, until she finally hit the bottom.
Roland landed a few inches before her still form, and gazed at her pretty face - bruised and smudged with dirt. A cold smile crept along his features, as Atalanta's men arrived from behind.
"I hope you enjoy your nap, pretty sister," Roland purred as the men lifted Asrial up and carried her away. "Because it is the last sound nap you'll ever have."
To Be Continued...