Written by: Aaron Ziegler, Tony Teakles, Greg Bishansky
Finishing touches by: Christi Smith Hayden.
Story Concept by Christi Smith Hayden
Illustrations by: Tony Teakles and Christi Smith Hayden
Previously on Gargoyles...
Robbins: "It's really funny, come to think of it, I heard on the radio a little while before you came that someone was funding an expedition to find this Aeaea."
Robbins: "I didn't think anything of it, really. I figured it was just some really rich person with a lot of time on his hands. I never got the name of who was funding it, though. But imagine! That's something. Mounting a multi-million dollar expedition for the sake of an old Greek myth."
Hudson: "Myths and stories can often have a wee bit of truth to them."
Robbins: "Oh, I know that. They found Troy because someone believed in an old myth, after all. But...a cup that can turn people into pigs? I don't think so. I mean, they might find a cup, but I doubt it'll be able to do what the old myths say it does."
~ To Restore Amends ~
* * * * *
Brooklyn: "Another one?"
Elisa: "We thought we had a pattern to the crimes. The thief, or thieves, have been striking every first Tuesday and second Monday of the month. We had extra people posted at every museum in the city."
Broadway: "Did any of them see anything out of the ordinary?"
Elisa: "No, because this time, our thief didn't strike a museum." (pulls out a folded piece of hot pink paper with "Scottish Antiquities, October 25 - November 28" photocopied on it. "The object in question is a scroll."
Angela: "A magical scroll?"
Elisa: "I asked around. Maybe, maybe not. The display suggested it might contain 'spells of revelation,' but it also said it might be a recipe for haggis."
~ The Scottish Play ~
* * * * *
Sekhmet: "Yes, you were correct to consult me. This artifact is dedicated to Isis-Hathor, one of my later incarnations according to my current cult. See here," (stabs her finger at four symbols in a long narrow vertical box) "this cartouche bears the glyphs sacred to me. This cask is sealed with my name."
Madoc: "Sealed? What could it contain?"
Sekhmet: "I am not certain, my lord, but uuas," (points at a glyph) "is most prominent. That alone indicates great power. Where did you find this?"
Maeve: "Actually, we didn't. This was discovered in a recent find by noted Egyptologist Marian Reynolds. It was one of a number of items she brought back with her from her last dig."
Sekhmet: "Really? I should very much like to know what else she discovered."
Madoc: "And you shall. According to what we know, Dr. Reynolds has this artifact and a few others to be studied at her Long Island home. You are to go there to retrieve it and bring it here to be examined. Garlon will accompany you through the portal as he has other business in New York."
Sekhmet: "Surely, my lord, you must have better uses for a warrior such as myself. Skulking about in the dark like a common thief is a task better suited to," she flicked her amber-colored eyes to Garlon and back again, "others of your court."
Madoc: "Ordinarily, I would agree, but this is not yet the proper time to strike at our enemies." (hard look) "My order stands. Go to Long Island and retrieve the cask of Isis-Hathor."
Sekhmet: "As you wish, Lord Madoc,"
~ Disobedience ~
* * * * *
Madoc: "So your servant found nothing."
Sekhmet: "We must have been misinformed as to the whereabouts of Andvari's Ring. If it had been there, he would have certainly recovered it."
Loki: "Assuming that he would have recognized it, that is."
Sekhmet: (with a growing low growl) "Are you implying that my worshippers are fools?"
Loki: "Nothing like that at all. I'm just saying that if you want to get your hands on Andvari's Ring, you shouldn't be sending Egyptian werecats to go looking for it. Now if it was an old ankh of Osiris's that you were after, or the helmet of Ramses II, then that would make sense. But how can you expect anybody from the land of the Nile to recognize a ring from the Rhineland? That's my old stomping grounds, not yours."
Sekhmet: "And you truly claim to be an expert on that ring?"
Loki: "Hey, who do you think stole it from that wretched gnome in the first place? It was one of my greatest feats ever! I could recognize that ring blindfolded!"
Madoc: "Then perhaps we should dispatch you to Manhattan, that you may locate it, Laufeyson."
Loki: "Now, wait a minute," (staring at the Unseelie Lord) "You want me to search a city for a gold ring that probably belongs to somebody else, steal it from that fellow, and take out anybody who tries to stop me from doing that?"
Madoc: "That is precisely what I had in mind."
Loki: "I'll do it! Finally, a little bit of fun! I haven't seen any of that around this place since the Halloween Ride!"
~ Nocturne ~
* * * * *
* * * * *
The Brocken, Germany
Flickering torch light glittered on the contents of the vast chamber set deep within the inner recesses of the Unseelie castle high atop the Brocken, bathing its sole occupant in a radiant golden glow. The emerald-haired woman walked amongst the shelves and tables loaded various artifacts and trinkets. Jewels, scepters, swords, various cups, ancient and yet tingling with enchantment - all claimed as fruits of the upcoming war. Queen Maeve could hardly wait.
Queen Maeve carried a lit candelabra to a table littered with the treasure trove of magical artifacts she and Madoc had pilfered from Circe's palace on Aeaea. Her green eyes moved across the many items, soon resting upon a series of brass tablets with ancient Greek writing engraved upon them. She picked the tablets up and took them over to the chamber desk for further study.
She sat in the throne-like chair behind the desk, and looked through the tablets. "The Grecian Halfling turned out to be quite a capable sorceress in her day," she mused. She looked through the various tablets, through the various spells. When she came upon the seventh tablet, the spell engraved upon it caught her eyes. "Just like the pangs of Macha," she said, smiling, "Circe was a sorceress after my own heart."
She rose from the chair, and exited the chamber, carrying the seventh tablet in her hand.
* * * * *
The two Unseelie knights opened the enormous double doors to the throne room just before Maeve entered. She watched as Garlon and Grimalkin exited, obviously having finished delivering reports to Madoc about their campaigns in Manhattan and London. She entered the Great Hall and spotted Madoc standing out on the balcony overlooking the Hartz Mountain range beyond.
Madoc extended his right arm as a large brown hawk swooped down and perched upon it. With his other hand, Madoc held up a piece meat, the hawk grabbed the meat in its beak and proceeded to eat the flesh. "Beautiful, silent, deadly." Madoc whispered to the raptor as he stroked its back. Maeve took that moment to step forward. Madoc looked up at his Chief of Staff, and quickly noticed the tablets. "Ah, Maeve," he said with a smile. "What is it that you have there, may I ask?"
"Just something to help us secure the last few items in Manhattan that we will be needing, before the time comes for us make our final move," she said, smiling.
Madoc nodded. "Yes, we can not allow the Manhattan Clan to use such artifacts against us. We should summon Garlon, Loki, Herne, and perhaps Huitzilopochtli to retrieve them."
"You misunderstand, milord," she said as she handed the tablet to the Unseelie Lord. "This will be strictly a ladies' night out."
"Yes," said Madoc as he read over the tablet. "I see what you have in mind. Interesting - using the lunar influence upon the magnetic flux should yield spectacular results." He looked back up at Maeve. "It says here that the spell is dependent on the 'Three that is One.' Since your kinswoman's defection, your Triad is one element short, my dear."
Maeve sighed bitterly. "Aye, and I'll take it out of Banshee's hide the next time our paths cross, but the Morrigan and I have found a substitute."
"Really?" Madoc arched an aristocratic eyebrow.
"Lady Sekhmet has considerable knowledge of Egyptian mysticism. By the time the blood moon rises, she will be more than able to assist the Morrigan and me in raisin' our Triad. We will position ourselves at crucial power points in the city and invoke the spell." Her ripe mouth curved up into a wicked smile and her eyes glittered. "Then the girls and I will have a grand outing, we will."
The hawk in his hand twittered and Madoc handed the tablet back to Maeve to tend to it. "Is there anything else that you'll require for this outing?"
"Yes," replied the emerald-haired woman. "Sekhmet will be bringing her were-cheetahs but it's Anath, an' Rangda an' her witches that I'll be needing, as well as the female Halflings we have in New York. That is, if they have no other assignments at the time."
"They have no duties more important than this," said Madoc as he fed another piece of flesh to the hawk. "I will arrange to have them meet you in Manhattan at the appointed hour."
Maeve smiled and nodded before vanishing in a burst of green flame.
Madoc turned back towards the balcony and watched the falling snow. He stroked the hawk's sleek head with a careless finger. "Beautiful and deadly," he repeated absently. "Isn't it peculiar, my pet, that the deadliest of predators are almost always female?"
* * * * *
Manhattan -- Two days later
The sun had nearly set over the forest of gray buildings overshadowing the Conservatory Gardens. Outside on the streets, people rushed by, anxious to get out of the bitter cold, but inside the gardens near the domed building, three figures waited.
"When are they going to get here?" whined the skinny ash blonde woman as she paced. She was dressed all in denim with a hooded sweatshirt under her jacket and wore her ponytail pulled through the back of a bright red baseball cap. She kicked at a pile of snow on the edge of the sidewalk. "We've been waiting FORever."
Her companions, a leggy woman in a leather bomber jacket with her pale blonde hair tucked under a knitted hood and a dark-haired glam-rocker dressed all in black -- leggings, boots, trenchcoat -- merely sat and watched as she continued to pace. The rocker perched on the back of the park bench.
"I'm with Tanya, Candy. How did we get stuck with this? I'd have rather gone out of town with the guys."
"Chill, Rita. George said that he and the guys were ordered to stay out of Manhattan," answered the hooded blonde as she stretched out her legs and crossed them at the ankles. "Something big's going down and whatever it is, it's up to us gals to make it happen."
"Yeah?" Tanya's eyes brightened. "Girl power, that's us!"
Rita leaned over and muttered, "Oh, yeah… you're Candy, I'm Scary and she's Ditzy."
Candy disguised her choked laughter with a spate of coughing. Tanya turned and narrowed her eyes at her sister Halflings but at that moment, the portal nexus chose to flare to life. A twittering cloud of wisps flew out and Rita raised her arm to give the tiny winged creatures a convenient perch.
"They find you agreeable," the wisps' handler said, a short, elfin-featured woman with lavender skin, delicately curved ears and cropped dark hair accented with a silvery headband. "I should be jealous."
"No chance of that, Rhea," Rita replied with a fang-toothed grin. "The little nippers and I just see eye-to-eye, that's all." She snapped her teeth at them and the vicious little faeries tittered.
Candy stood up and faced the nexus as figures continued to emerge from the glowing portal. A tall woman with tawny hair and amber eyes stepped forth with an entourage of stylish young women, as polished and refined as any magazine covergirls. Their eyes, however, were not vague and disinterested, but kept focused on their mistress as she stalked into the frigid February air.
"Bah, such miserable weather. It would be better to discard these frail forms and travel directly to our destinations." She did an elegant half-turn, her coat flaring slightly as she regarded the one behind her. "Would you not agree, Queen Maeve?"
"We don't want to attract attention to ourselves, Lady Sekhmet," Maeve replied, once again taking the severe countenance and conservative green business suit of her former guise as Mavis O'Connor. "Circe's spell is quite involved, and will take at least an hour to cast once the moon enters the earth's shadow late this afternoon. We must complete the invocation by moonrise and there be too many interfering fools in this city that would be all too willin' to foul up our plans. This will be a quick an' easy battle if we let Circe's spell to do th' dirty work for us."
"I understand, my lady," Sekhmet sighed. "Come, my servants. We are to take the northern position." She and the bevy of cool beauties began to walk away, their high heels clicking against the concrete.
Maeve watched the Egyptian demi-goddess leave before turning her attention to the waiting Halflings. During the exchange with Sekhmet, the three genetically enhanced humans had formed a rough triangle waiting for the Unseelie commander to acknowledge them. Candy stepped forward and made a surprisingly gracious bow.
"Queen Maeve, we await your commands as ordered." Her tone was carefully neutral. Candy had heard things about Maeve and knew her capricious temper could be just as bad as Madoc's cold ruthlessness. She still had nightmares about his last visit to New York.
Maeve looked Candy, Tanya and Rita over, raising a cultured eyebrow at Rita's neo-Goth wardrobe and Tanya's casual togs. "Hmmm, adequate, I suppose." Her glittering emerald eyes focused on Candy. "You are the senior Halfling?"
It wasn't so much a question as it was a statement.
Candy kept a professional veneer on her face. "Yes, ma'am. How can we assist you?"
Her no-nonsense attitude seemed to placate Maeve. "Your assignment is to visit the following museums an' obtain the objects on the list. Start with the Metropolitan Museum of Art an' work your way south from there." She thrust out a strip of parchment which Candy took gingerly. "Begin at moonrise an' be careful to finish before midnight."
"Or what?" Tanya quipped out of the side of her mouth to Rita. "We all turn into pumpkins?"
Candy shot a murderous look over her shoulder before composing herself. "I beg your pardon, Queen Maeve. She's still a bit of a rookie."
"I'd seein' that she develops some common sense if I were you then," Maeve said sharply, "or she'll be findin' out firsthand what it's like bein' round an' orange."
"Yes, ma'am." Candy bowed and began to step away, the others following in her shadow.
The wisps swirled around the domed building as their handler spoke up. "And me, Dark Lady?"
"You'll join Anath's group, Rhea, but leave a few of your wisps wi' me. I'll be usin' them to help coordinate the moment the spell takes effect." The small elfin woman merely nodded her head and said nothing as she melted into the shadows.
There was a sudden flurry of motion at the edge of the roof, soon revealed to be a dusky black crow. Maeve raised her forearm, and the bird settled comfortably on her wrist. Its small black eyes darted around, looking at the halfings with its head cocked, as if deciding whether or not they might taste good.
"Ah, I am glad to see you so soon, my dear. You bring good news, I presume? The rest of our people are in position?" The crow gave raspy caw and bobbed its sooty head. "Excellent! Return to them, Morrigan, and tell them to begin the hunt at seven o'clock. The spell should have taken full effect by then, barring any unforeseen problems."
The crow cawed once more, this time with an almost interrogative tone. Maeve laughed, and scratched the bird beneath her beak. "You needn't worry. I can assure you that you won't be bored tonight."
* * * * *
Castle Wyvern, Eyrie Building
"You know," Fox commented bemusedly as she watched her husband tinkering with a telescope set up on the eastern battlements, "if I told anyone that you had called off a stockholder's meeting to fool around with that rickety old thing out here in the cold, they'd never believe me."
"Rickety? This?" Xanatos blew an errant lock of dark brown hair out of his face as he carefully polished the barrel of the antique telescope as it stood on its tripod. "I have you know, my dear, that this is a piece of quality craftsmanship. My great-grandfather brought it over from Greece and all the Xanatos men learned their constellations through its viewer." He looked at it wistfully for a few seconds. "I remember being more or less Alexander's age when my father started to teach me about the stars."
Alex looked up from where he had been 'helping' his father by playing with the case the telescope had been packed in. "Stars?" he piped up in a clear, curious voice. He frowned up at the purpling sky and then back at his father as if he was pulling a fast one.
Xanatos laughed and swung Alex up into his arms. "There's going to be stars soon enough, Alex. No need to help it along by wiggling your nose or whatever it is that Uncle Puck's been teaching you."
A staccato series of sharp-sounding crunches followed by eerie roars drew the wealthy family's attention to the walls above. Alex thrust a parka-clad arm over his father's shoulder. "Look, Da! Gargles geh'up!"
"Yes, Alex," Xanatos replied. "The gargoyles are getting up."
"We're lucky he doesn't go to school yet," Fox commented wryly, "otherwise we'd be in for some interesting parent-teacher meetings."
Nudnik came racing up towards them. Alex squirmed in his father's arms and squealed, "Puppy!! Nuddy-puppy! Wan' down!"
Xanatos obligingly did as he was instructed and laughed as his son was promptly bulldozed over by the young gargbeast. "I admit one thing," he commented to Fox, "it may have taken a little getting used to but it's nice to have another family in the castle."
"And we don't have to get Alex a pet," Fox agreed as they watched their redheaded toddler giggle and wrestle with the gregarious garg pup. Nudnik seemed to realize his human playmate was not as strong as the twins and was content to wiggle beneath Alex's weight and swipe the little boy's face with a wet tongue.
"Nudnik!!" Graeme called exasperatedly as he trotted up. "Play nice with Alex!"
The young gargoyle beast whined at the sound of his master's voice. Alex piped up in his defense. "Nuddy pwa' nice!" he insisted. "Nuddy gud!" He scratched behind Nudnik's fan-shaped ears for emphasis.
"Alex is fine, Graeme," Fox said. "He loves to rough house with Nudnik."
"One of a beast's duties is to guard and care for the young," Sata said as she walked up with Brooklyn and Ariana. "I am pleased that Nudnik has found a way to be useful to you."
"Think nothing of it, Sata," Xanatos said as he peered through the telescope to sight it. "Yeah, there it is now. The moon is just now starting to crest the horizon."
"The Blood Moon?" Ariana asked. "I still think that sounds creepy. Why do they call it that?"
"Well, if you look at the moon through the telescope, Ariana," Xanatos said, "you'll see that it's turning a reddish color. That's because it's passing through the penumbra, the lightest part of the earth's shadow. It's still reflecting the light of the sun but through the filter of the penumbra and that's where it gets its unusual color. As the lunar eclipse continues, passing through the earth's shadow, it will become an even darker red, thus its name, 'blood moon.'"
"Cool!" Graeme commented as he waited to take a turn at the telescope. "How did you know all that, Mr. Xanatos?"
"Yeah," Brooklyn agreed. "I'm surprised. I would have never thought you'd be an armchair astronomer."
"What's so surprising?" Xanatos asked. "I come from a long line of sailors. We Xanatoses have been navigating by the stars for generations. When I told Pop I was going to start teaching Alex astronomy, he sent me the family telescope to continue the tradition." He regarded the antique fondly. "Of course, I did have the lens replaced with something a bit more high tech but it's still the Xanatos family heirloom."
"It is important to maintain tradition," Sata said approvingly. "A strong family must know its past in order to travel the unknown path ahead." A knowing look passed between the Ishimura gargoyle and her mate.
Brooklyn laughed. "Too true, my love. Too true."
Goliath landed lightly a few yards away, Hudson besides him. "I do not mean to interrupt your lesson, Xanatos," he rumbled, "but Coldstone and Coldfire are missing. Do you know where they've gone?"
"Not a clue, Goliath." Xanatos turned to his wife. "Fox?"
"I remember hearing them leave about an hour ago." Fox gestured towards Owen who was coming towards them with a heavy wicker basket and several large thermoses. "I thought a picnic supper would go good with our stargazing party. Owen? Goliath was wondering where Coldstone and Coldfire have gone. Did they say anything to you?"
The pale man set his burdens down carefully before replying. "Yes, they did. I was out here earlier setting up the space heaters so you and Master Alex could be comfortable while you observed the eclipse."
"Where did they go?" Goliath asked. "They have been acting strangely lately."
"According to Coldstone, there was a disturbance in the electromagnetic field surrounding the city. I believe Coldfire wanted to wait but he would not hear of it. They did not tell me their destination but they were headed in a northerly direction."
Hudson frowned. "D'ye think there's something wrong wi' them, Goliath? 'Tis strange for Coldstone and Coldfire to leave wi'out saying anything t' us."
"I don't know, old friend. The blood moon has always been a sign of ill-tidings." Goliath stared out at the rising lunar phenomena. "I wonder what strange omens this one will bring."
* * * * *
Somewhere over the Bronx
"Have you realized yet, just how pointless this is?"
Coldstone scowled deeply at his companion. "You made your opinions quite clear before we left the castle. If you truly consider our mission to be so 'pointless', you should have stayed behind!"
Coldfire's golden metal countenance shifted into an expression of sheer exasperation. As a robot, her face was not nearly as flexible as it had been when she was flesh, but she seldom had any problems expressing her feelings. "My love, it's been nearly two hours. The others have most certainly awakened by now, and they will have no idea where we have gone-"
"I did instruct Owen to inform them of our mission," Coldstone interrupted.
"Perhaps, but the Bronx is well outside of our clan's usual protectorate, and they would have no idea where to look for us, if we were needed. Furthermore, we have not seen even the slightest sign of our quarry. If he is even in the city, he could be miles away, and we would never be able to find him. IF he is in the city. The world is a much larger place than it ever was before-" Coldfire paused a moment. Neither she nor her lifemate liked to speak of their deaths. "-than it ever was in the old days. Without the need to rest, and with a nearly indestructible body, our evil brother could be thousands of miles away, across the ocean, or even beneath it. We have agreed not to pursue him, at least until our clan is safe. What makes you so certain that he will return, rather than find a safe place to hide and plot, as he has always done?"
"You are here," Coldstone replied bluntly. "And wherever you go, he will eventually follow. I will not let him take you."
Coldfire sighed. "My love, I am not one to be so easily taken."
"But he will try," Coldstone insisted. "And when he does try, it will be far better to be the hunter, tracking him, attacking him in the open, rather than to sit and wait, while he worms his way through our defenses. A clean battle is much easier to face than a knife in the dark."
"That may be true, but while we continue in this fruitless pursuit, we leave our home unguarded. Coldsteel is not the only enemy our clan faces."
"He is the greatest threat to you and me," Coldstone answered, his eyes hardening further. "The Unseelie Court has done little of late, and it is a waste of time for us to sit around the castle with all of Xanatos' defenses while the others are frozen in stone."
"I do not agree."
"Then why did you follow me?" Coldstone snarled.
"I am your mate," Coldfire replied, a bit coldly. "I go where you go, even when one of us is being too pigheaded for his own good." No further words were exchanged.
* * * * *
In a grimy alleyway not far from the heart of Manhattan, a handful of women waited patiently for the signal that they knew would soon come. Even the least observant of people would be able to tell that these were hardly normal women. One, tanned and athletic, wore bronze armor, and carried a double-bladed battle-axe in one hand and a shield in the other. Another, with short hair and long, pointed ears, wore a headband with the sigil of a seven-pointed star on her brow. Tiny, beautiful, winged faerie creatures rested on her shoulders and forearm, and occasionally launched themselves into the air to exercise their wings by flitting around their mistress's head, and by buzzing the heads of her companions. Even the most ordinary of the women in the alley could be distinguished by their slightly pointed ears, and the way that their eyes seemed to glow with hidden power.
Unusual or not, they had yet to be disturbed. This was largely due to the spell being woven by one of the more ordinary of them - an invisible shield that made the alley more ordinary and inconspicuous than usual. Those few mortals who passed that noted the alley's existence suddenly found their attention on more interesting things and thought no more of it.
The chill winter wind picked up and the number of passers by had dwindled significantly. One leather-jacketed young man, however, was surprised to see a small, black bird swoop down out of the night sky and dart into the alley. His eyes watered as he tried to stare after it and after a few moments, he shook the strange sensation off, and continued on his way.
Within the high walls of the alley, however, the bronze-armored woman had a question of her own. "So, what is the word, Morrigan?"
The black crow settled to the ground for a moment before disappearing in a brilliant flash. In its place stood an ethereal figure, tall, gaunt, and pale. A wild tangle of black hair crowned a hauntingly lovely face, a face marred by dead black eyes and lips. "The word be seven o'clock, Anath. I'll be casting th' final cantrips wi' Sekhmet an' Maeve just before then," the Morrigan answered. "We're not tae move 'til th' spell takes effect."
The warrior woman nodded thoughtfully. "Seven o'clock. And are the others in position?"
"Rangda and her witches wait in the east," the Morrigan replied. "Sekhmet and her followers have taken their place northwest of the spell's center. The rest of the Halflings are ready to spread out from the center." Her pale face twisted into a grin. "All we have tae do is wait for th' fun tae begin!"
"Very well. The sooner we're done with this, the better." A grim and somewhat hungry look entered Anath's eye. "I can't say that I approve of Maeve's plan. It seems like such a waste. All those strong, healthy young men..." She trailed off. "But orders are orders."
"Say what you like," answered the Morrigan, "this is one evening I'm going to enjoy!"
* * * * *
Angela rapped lightly at the balcony window, smiling to Demona as she opened the doors for her. Tugging lightly at her mother's hand, she pulled her onto the patio. "Look at the moon tonight, mother." She pointed up into the sky at the full and faintly reddish moon. "Isn't it lovely? The moon never changed color on Avalon."
"It's a lunar eclipse, sometimes called the blood moon, and it's just beginning. It is my favorite moon. Even in my long life, I've not seen it often, and rarely so bright. It has only begun to turn, but it will be very red later tonight." The immortal gargoyle stood perfectly still for a moment, her upturned face glowing softly in the moonlight.
"But for now, we do not have time to enjoy it. You must continue your lessons if you are to be prepared." Demona turned and walked inside, moving with determination to the study.
Angela sighed softly and gave the moon a parting look before following her inside. "What will tonight's lesson be, mother?"
"Levitation. Tonight you will learn how to move yourself with your mind."
She laughed. "But why, mother? I can surely glide faster and easier than I could levitate. What need does a gargoyle have for that?"
Demona laughed in return at her daughter's question. Even after all the centuries, she remembered asking the identical question to the Archmage when she'd been his apprentice. She gave the same reply, though in a far kinder tone than he.
"True, levitation is less useful for a gargoyle, but there are many times where it can be extremely useful. It can be used to check your falls should you not be able to use your wings or to maneuver in tight quarters. It is also a critical key to many higher telekinetic spells."
Angela scratched her brow ridge. "I'm still not sure how useful it could be. Would not a more practical lesson be..."
Demona silenced her with a raised hand and continued. "Trust your mother, Angela. It is a valuable lesson in many ways that may someday surprise you. I once used it to glide down a subway tunnel while your father, Goliath, and his clan were unable to glide after me."
"Very well then, mother. I'll trust your judgment."
"As you always should, my daughter. Now, the key to levitation - any telekinetic spell, really - is clarity of the mind..."
And so, the debate over, the lesson began.
* * * * *
High above the city, Maeve surveyed her battleground with all the cool demeanor of a chessmaster setting up a board. She found the cold winter air invigorating as it bit into her lungs. To the north, she could feel the burning radiance that was Sekhmet's life force, throbbing with a predatory grace. From the west, she could sense the Morrigan's power building, streaming forth like a dark ribbon to intertwine with hers. And in the center of their triangle, their enemy's lair, the ostentatious castle atop the skyscraper dramatically lit with spotlights. Her lip curled.
With a sweep of her cloak, Maeve returned to the circle she had carefully traced at the foot of the broadcasting antenna. The chalk diagram was curious blend of archaic Grecian formulae and the twisting Celtic patterns she favored and in the center rested Circe's tablet on a tall ebony stand. A few twittering wisps perched nearby, watching anxiously. The moon was growing darker as it rose higher into the sky. Maeve rested her fingertips lightly on the surface of the bronze tablet and reached out.
Sekhmet's solar fury and the Morrigan's dark light came cresting in upon her as Maeve began to weave the intricate spell. The watching wisps huddled together, frightened by the visual effects that Maeve's spellcasting was giving off. The bronze tablet, that had carried the dormant spell for centuries, had begun to glow a deep but vibrant shade of blood red, and pillars of bright light occasionally erupted from both it and Queen Maeve. The words of the spell came from her lips in a low, guttural voice unlike Maeve's own, and were impossible to follow, both because they were spoken in ancient Greek, and because they were muttered at a pitch that made the wisps whimper and moan.
Magical power began to flow between the three Unseelie women, their energies becoming focused and intensified by the bronze tablet. An invisible pyramid of power began to rise over the unsuspecting city, faint crackles the only sign that unseen forces were at work. Maeve took a bronze dagger from her belt and held her hand over the tablet.
"Hear me, O Queen of the Night! I invoke thee, Trimorphos, Diva transformis, triple-headed goddess on this night of nights, beneath the Blood Moon!" She paused and in one swift stroke, slashed open the palm of her left hand. "I invoke the ancient curse of the Blood Moon upon all men of an age to oppose me. On this night, while the light of the Blood Moon shines in the heavens, let them know the pain of the moon times and let them know what it is to be weak."
Exactly three drops of Maeve's blood hit the bronze tablet when an enormous pulse of red light erupted from it like a magical nuclear bomb, coursing through the Unseelie queen and racing up the tower of metal behind her. The light reached the tip and flooded outwards, away from the building and across the city, lighting the sky seemingly from horizon to horizon for a few seconds in an unearthly glowing pyramid over Manhattan.
Maeve looked up at the ruddy moon in the sky up above, the irises of her eyes temporarily transformed to blood red. She smiled wickedly.
"It has begun."
* * * * *
Within the circle she had traced in the dust of the alley, the Morrigan ceased to chant the archaic Greek words that she had for the past hour. A hoarse gasp rattled in her throat and her body spasmed as the sky above caught on fire. The others waited breathlessly. Suddenly the Morrigan laughed gleefully as if nothing unusual had happened, and rhymed,
"The spell is cast,
the hour's struck!
Tis now the time
Tae run amok!"
Ignoring her companion's frivolity, Anath addressed the others in the alleyway. "Rhea, release the wisps." The lavender woman with the faerie-like creatures nodded and whispered to her half-dozen or so charges. The tiny, glimmering figures spread out in every direction.
"The rest of you, spread out as well. Gather all of the artifacts you can detect, and report back to Rhea each hour. If a wisp reports the presence of an artifact she can't move, recover it for her. There should be little or no resistance, but if anyone attempts to stop you, you may respond with whatever force is required. Now, go!"
* * * * *
A golden-haired woman in a black leather jacket, pants and high-heeled boots slid gracefully from the shadow of the hedge. She was followed closely behind by a quintet of women in dressed similarly at the height of fashion.
The woman sighed and turned her amber-colored eyes to her elegant entourage. "Once again we are lowered to the task of thievery. I will be glad once this war," she spat it distastefully, "is over and we can cease this skulking about in the night." She raised her arms and her features changed, human woman becoming the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet once more. "Assume your true natures, my children. Queen Maeve believes this owner of this house to be a worthy adversary, so perhaps this one task will not be totally beneath us."
At her command, the five women began to alter. They opened their elegant garments and let them fall away as the change quickened. A rich coat of fur sprang easily over their bodies as they bent down, resting their increasingly paw-like hands on the ground. Feline muzzles and ears grew forth and midnight black tearmarks ran from their eyes down to the corners of their mouths. Within moments they were completely altered, five cheetahs identical to any on the African savanna save for their bright red eyes.
Sekhmet stroked the head of one of the lighter colored cheetahs, Amarath, as she examined the stone wall. The were-cheetah purred and nuzzled against the Unseelie's leg. The iron trellis along the top would make it difficult to climb over and the large gate was iron as well. She could easily fly herself and her minions over it, but the leftover energy from her magical merger with Queen Maeve and the Morrigan had left Sekhmet in the mood to be a little more physical.
She spread her arms wide and a section of the wall glowed with an amber light. It began to crack and crumble, leaving a seven-foot high opening in the wall over the mound of rubble and under the upper ledge into which the iron trelliswork was embedded.
"Search the townhouse, my followers, and slay any who would oppose the will of the Eye of Ra."
Zuri, the darkest furred of them, gave an excited snarl. Eager for battle, she and the others rushed through the opening and then began to stalk quietly across the grass, using the statues and bushes dotting the lawn as instinctively as their wild African cousins, all their keen senses focused on the hunt.
* * * * *
<BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!>
The sound of the alarm was firm, but not loud or piercing, as to not alert anyone outside the home. But it was strong enough to startle Angela and she fell onto the mound of sofa cushions and velvet pillows. As Angela extricated herself from the soft pile they'd built as a safety net after her first failure, Demona rushed to her desk and turned on the monitoring system. With a few keystrokes, it showed an image of the grounds outside.
"Cheetahs? In New York City?" Demona raised a curious brow ridge. "Were-cheetahs, more than likely." She opened a concealed compartment in the wall and removed a pair of heavy rifles. "It seems someone has decided to eliminate me." Her eyes glowed crimson and she activated the power cell on her weapon. "They will not find me so easily disposed of."
But when Demona thrust the second rifle into Angela's talons, her daughter looked at it reluctantly. "I will help you defend your home, mother, but I am just not comfortable using these weapons. I might shoot you instead of them."
"When faced with an enemy, we should defend ourselves with everything at our disposal," Demona growled as she replaced the weapon on its rack and sealed the panel, rendering it once more invisible. "But you have a point. I'll have to give you a lesson in weapons-handling some other time. Hurry."
They rushed to the front door, but Demona caught her daughter's shoulder before she could charge outside. Demona opened another panel and activated its monitor. "You'll find, my dear, that it pays to be prepared. Wait until my signal."
* * * * *
Outside, Sekhmet and her followers crept quietly forward, stalking towards Destine Manor. The black tip of Zuri's tail flicked in anticipation as she stalked. It was moments like these that she enjoyed most, feeling all the more the 'hunting leopard' her birthright made her.
* * * * *
Demona watched the were-cheetahs with narrow, glowing eyes as the raiding party came closer. Her attention focused on a golden-brown one nearing a small fountain. As it stepped beside the fountain, the wall monitor chirped, lighting up a red button. The moment the were-cheetah had tripped the electronic eye beam, Demona pressed the red button. The were-cheetah let out one startled yowl before it was jolted by a powerful electrical field. A faint whiff of singed hair reached the watchers inside as the animal collapsed to the ground.
"That's frightened the others," Angela observed. "They're looking back at someone." Her eyes narrowed and then widened in surprise. "Mother, that's Sekhmet! We've had trouble with her before. She's very powerful!"
"Is she now?" Demona said, calmly punching in a set of numbers. A drawer slid out and she took a compact headset from it, fitting it neatly around her shapely pointed ear. "That's nice. I haven't had a truly interesting opponent in ages." She tapped her earpiece with a talon. "Valkyries, on-line. Units 2 and 4, intruders on the perimeter. Move on my mark."
Angela frowned, eyes on the monitor. "Mother, they're charging the house!"
"NOW!" Demona yelled as she kicked the door open and stormed out, firing her blaster directly at the humanoid figure directing the were-cheetahs. "Valkyrie 2, take the Unseelie. Valkyrie 4, with me!"
The shot struck Sekhmet's shoulder, scorching her fur and causing her to stumble back with a hiss of surprise and pain. The eyes of the other four were-cheetahs flared and they growled and sprinted in swift retribution at Demona. Mid-stride, they shifted smoothly into their intermediate form, becoming a sleek blend of human and feline. The humanoid cheetahs tackled Demona, blunt claws and sharp teeth extended as they sought vengeance against the one who'd struck at their goddess. The dark-furred one caught hold of the weapon's strap and tried to pull it away as Angela rushed out to assist her mother.
Sekhmet snarled in pain and glanced at the wound for a moment. It stung sharply, but the mark was fading and her fur was growing back over it quickly. The permanent damage had been worse to her leather jacket than to her. She took a step forward the battle, but paused as her keen feline hearing heard a growing rumble in the air. Two metal warriors, similar in design to the red-haired gargoyle, flew into view from the other side of the house. One dove towards her and the other towards her servants, doubtless to help their mistress.
Sekhmet growled at the incoming Valkyrie robot, moving away defensively as it unsheathed blasters from its arms. It leveled the weapons at her and fired. Prepared for the attack this time, she blocked it with a rippling shield of golden energy. She could sense the heavy feel of her enemy's iron plating, like an acrid scent all around it. She would have to bide her time with this foe.
Angela slapped one of the cheetahs back with her tail and stood at her mother's back. The gang of were-cheetahs ran and snapped quickly at them, rapidly dancing back from their attacks. The second Valkyrie landed beside them and assisted to break up the mob by force, tossing them aside like stuffed toys.
"Why doesn't it fire?" Angela asked over her shoulder.
"That would violate its primary function," Demona answered, jerking the gun back out of the dark were-cheetah's reach and firing a quick burst at it. "Namely, protecting its owners. It can't risk hitting you or me."
The were-cheetahs dodged the energy bolts and growled, hackles raised. Two of them faced the Valkyrie robot while the other pair harried the gargoyles. With their unnatural speed, they managed to evade the robot's attacks, but their teeth had no effect on its metal plating. The gargoyles were stronger than they were, but the were-cheetahs were working in concert as a team, giving them no chance to rest.
Sekhmet growled and leapt aside gracefully as the robot fired at her. She led it away, towards the side of the townhouse and into the sculpture-lined garden. Now, with a large gargoyle sculpture between her and it, she released an explosive ball of flaming energy. The statue flew into big chunks, smashing the robot into the ground. While the iron-rich robot was unaffected by the magical attack, the rubble pinned it down for the kill.
Snarling, Sekhmet broke off a piece of the wrought iron fence to wield like a spear, ignoring the stinging pain as it burnt her hands. She leapt at the robot as it began to rise, thrusting the makeshift weapon through the robot's neck and into the ground. "Always go for the throat," she growled as she blew on her stinging palms.
The dark were-cheetah growled as her short, powerful jaws clamped around the blaster that had just risen from the robot's right forearm. While the upper plate served to protect it, the underside was unprotected and vulnerable to the were-cheetah's bite.
"A brave move," Demona noted, "but stupid. Valkyrie 4, full defensive mode!"
Sekhmet returned to the battle to see dark were-cheetah mewl in pain as she was tossed aside by the remaining robot, its arm leaving an arc of black smoke as the damaged limb swung. "Zuri!" she cried out, as the dark were-cheetah landed in a dense thatch of shrubbery. A low, throbbing snarl permeated the air as she stalked towards her enemies. "Foolish mortal creatures," Sekhmet growled, "no one harms my servants and lives." A crimson fireball began to form above her head.
"Valkyrie 4," Demona ordered, "Full frontal assault!" She started to fire on Sekhmet when the dark-furred were-cheetah, having used the landscaping to her advantage, sprang from the bushes to ambush her.
Sekhmet's leonine eyes blazed with triumph. "Excellent, Zuri! Hold my prey!"
But intent as she was on Demona, Zuri had clearly forgotten the other gargoyle present. Angela broke free of her struggle with one of the other were-cheetahs and called out, "Mother! Behind you!" as she tackled Zuri.
An inhuman screech had Demona's full attention however as the Unseelie warrior before them released her will upon them. She dodged and felt the heat of Sekhmet's energy blast as it grazed past her, super-heating the air. She whipped her tail at the pair of were-cheetahs crowding here, forcing them back for a moment. She took an appraisal of their odds and they weren't good at all. On the ground, dealing with Sekhmet's minions would have been an even match for them, but Sekhmet alone would be too much for them.
A millennium of being the prey of the Hunters had taught her many things, not the least of which was when to retreat. Demona fired off a burst at Sekhmet that exploded off an invisible force field in a vibrant display of pyrotechnics. She grabbed Angela's wrist and started to run towards the townhouse wall. "We must flee, my daughter. I cannot let them kill you." They leapt high onto the stone wall, then into the air to glide away.
Sekhmet snarled and tossed a pair of parting fireballs at them, but did not pursue. The four were-cheetahs gave hoarse, barking growls as their enemies fled, before running up to encircle their goddess, purring in pleasure.
Sekhmet smiled at them and scritched Zuri's ears lightly. Zuri gave a pleasant chirp and nuzzled into the Destroyer of Worlds' hand. "Yes, you've done well, my servant. Clever girl, ambushing them after they threw you in the nasty bushes."
The Egyptian demi-goddess knelt beside the first were-cheetah that had been knocked out by Demona's defenses as she struggled to rise. "Easy now, Amaranth," Sekhmet said soothingly. "Zuri and Sarianna are here to care for you until you recover. It is not your fault that these base creatures used such despicable tricks against us." Still dazed from the shock, Amarath gave a hoarse mewl and bumped the top of her flat head against Sekhmet's hand.
"Do not worry, my pet," Sekhmet replied. "We will make them pay for the indignities they've done to you tonight. The time of reckoning will come soon enough." Her eyes glowed a deep amber as she glared off into the distance where the two gargoyles had fled.
The Destroyer of Worlds turned to the house and blasted the heavy door asunder with a destructive wave of magic. "Ransack the house, turn it upside-down if you must, as long as you find the golden daggers before dawn. Do what you will with the rest."
With a whoop of chirping barks, the gang of were-cheetahs charged into the house, all eager to be the one who'd discover the blades and earn their goddess's favor.
* * * * *
Castle Wyvern, Eyrie Building
"What happened here?" Angela asked as soon as she and Demona set down on the parapets of the castle. The antique telescope lay fallen against the cold flagstones, a partially eaten picnic scattered in a disorderly drift around it.
Demona frowned. "Odd. There's evidence of magic being used here recently."
"That's the odd thing, my dear. It's very faint and diffused, almost as if there's a thin layer of magic all around us."
Before Angela could inquire further, Bronx came thundering out of the castle, whining as he came towards them. He barely wasted half a growl at Demona as he circled them, crooning anxiously before turning back towards the castle and looking over his shoulder at them.
"I really don't like this," Angela murmured. "I've never seen Bronx act this way."
"Neither have I," Demona answered. "Come, Angela. There is something terribly wrong here and only Bronx knows what it is."
The gargoyle beast led them into the castle, strangely silent for that time of night. Demona shuddered and wrapped her wings around her shoulders. Angela looked at her with a wrinkled brow.
"Mother? What is it?"
Demona shook her head. "Deja vu, my dear. It's not important."
A high-pitched keening wail came from the clan's quarter and the two gargoyles broke into a cautious run. They were not prepared for the sight that greeted them.
Lexington was slumped across his keyboard, his round cheeks a sickly shade of lime green. Bronx whined and butted Hudson's unresponsive hand as the old gargoyle lay moaning in his recliner. Collapsed on the couch, Xanatos tossed restlessly, his normal tanned complexion now pale and ashen. Goliath was leaning heavily against the wall, barely standing, with Broadway collapsed at his feet. The same mournful cry that Angela and Demona heard before rose again as Nudnik lifted his head and howled.
"Nudnik," Brooklyn rasped out as he pushed himself up into a sitting position against the end of the couch. "Put a sock in it, will you? My head's pounding enough as it is."
Ariana scrambled over her father to tap Nudnik on the snout. "Hush up, Nuddy. That's not helping." She glanced nervously over at her mother. The fierce warrior from Ishimura had an unconscious Graeme cradled in her arms, her brow wrinkled with worry as she crooned softly to her son.
"Aiiie… Chibi saru-kun!" Sata blotted the sweat from Graeme's face with her own silken sleeve. "Graeme-kun, please wake up! Please open your eyes and tell Mother what's wrong!"
"Yes," Demona demanded, "would someone tell us what's going on? Has this city gone mad?"
"Demona?" Goliath said weakly. His knees buckled and he slid down the wall sit besides Broadway. "It was so sudden. One moment, Broadway and I had just returned from taking the beasts to the park and next, it was all we could do to make our way into the castle. My skin was on fire and my muscles were screaming with each step." His head wobbled and he squeezed his eyes shut. "The lights – the room -- they're spinning."
"Hush, Father," Angela said as she knelt between him and Broadway. "Mother and I are here. We'll sort this out."
"Sata? Ariana?" Fox's voice called out. She and Elisa came into the room, carrying Owen between them and Alex trailing behind them with his thumb in his mouth. "It's worse than we thought. I found Owen face-down in the Great Hall."
"Hey, it's like this all over town," Elisa said as she helped ease Owen off onto the couch with Xanatos. Her eyes widened as she caught sight of the tall lavender gargoyle huddled against the wall. She vaulted over the bodies in her way to get to him. "Goliath! I thought that whatever this is was just confined to just humans."
"Clever deduction, detective," Demona said tartly as she crossed her arms. "What was your first clue?"
"Demona." Elisa left Goliath's side to start towards her but Goliath reached out and grabbed her ankle in his massive hand.
"Wait, Elisa," Goliath said weakly, "This strange sickness reeks of sorcery. Demona may have some knowledge that could help us."
Elisa ground her teeth in a visible effort to calm herself down. "How can we be sure she didn't cause it?"
Demona snorted, "Because, human, this is the night I spend with my daughter. Angela can vouch for my good behavior."
Angela, after examining Broadway, looked back up at Demona. "Mother, Father's right. There is something very strange about this. How could only the males be affected if not by sorcery?"
Demona frowned "Possibly, my dear. Something about this is very familiar, if only I could put my finger on it."
In the meanwhile, Fox was trying desperately to revive Owen. "Come on," she said harshly. "Fine guardian you are, sleeping on the job!"
Alex put his hand on Owen's knee. "Unca Puck?" he piped in his high, childish voice. "Wak' up!"
Instead of the usual whirlwind pyrotechnics that normally accompanied his transformations, Puck appeared in a puff of smoke that fizzled into nothing almost as quickly as it formed. "O-o-o-oh," the trickster moaned, putting his hands to his head and drawing his knees up to his chest. "Did anyone get the number of the bus that hit me?"
"Oh, no," Fox said, "not you too."
"Huh?" Puck looked around. "No aging Irish rock bands around here, sweet cheeks. You must be mistaken."
"Let me," Demona said and took Puck's chin in her hand, turning his face towards hers. "Listen to me, Puck. Angela and I were attacked by an Unseelie raiding party tonight and combined with this strange illness that is affecting the males of all three races - I don't believe in coincidence. Something is afoot. What is it?"
"My dear cousin Circe always did have a twisted sense of humor," Puck said as his form wavered, going to Owen and back again. His head lolled to one side and his eyes rolled up to focus on the high window. "Our lady moon does not smile upon us tonight," he mumbled and with a sigh, he went limp and Owen slid bonelessly off the couch into the floor.
"Unca Puck?" Alex poked Owen in the chest with one finger. He stared up at Fox with bewildered blue eyes. "Mommy?"
Fox lifted her son into her arms. "It's okay, Alex. He's just taking a little nap, that's all." Her look at Demona and Elisa asked quite a different question.
"What was that stuff about the moon?" Elisa asked, frowning up at the crimson orb peeping through the window. "I know it's a lunar eclipse but that's all, isn't it?"
Demona snapped her fingers. "That's it." She turned to Fox. "Xanatos still collects books on magic, doesn't he? When he and I were working together, he had just acquired some ancient Greek texts and was having them translated."
"Yes," Fox answered. "They're in the library on the east wall."
"There's something I want to check," Demona said thoughtfully. "While I'm gone, you might want to make the males more comfortable. If I'm right, it may be some time until they're well again." She turned on her tail and stalked out of the room.
Elisa watched her go and sighed. "Like it or not, she's right. So, what do you want to do, Fox?"
"Let's move David and Owen into their own rooms," Fox suggested. That'll free up some space in there and we can move some of the mattresses from the guest rooms in here on the floor. Let's keep them all together for now."
Elisa nodded. "That's just as well. Goliath and Broadway are much too heavy to move anyway."
With Angela's help, the two women managed to move Xanatos and Owen into their own quarters and turn their attention to the gargoyles. Elisa returned to find Hudson staggering across the room, gritting his teeth against the pain.
"Please, Hudson," Ariana pleaded as she tried to guide him back to his chair. "You must rest!"
"Hudson, you shouldn't be up. Is there something wrong?" Elisa asked.
The old gargoyle shook his grizzled head. "Nay, lass. I just wanted to check on the clones, to see if they're all right." He then added quickly, "...and the mutates of course, lass."
Elisa gasped in shock, "Oh no, Derek!" She rushed to the phone and quickly dialed up the unlisted, secure number for the mutates' private quarters.
"See?" Ariana wheedled, looking up at Hudson with her most appealing expression. "Elisa will take care of it. It's going to be all right."
"Nae, lass," Hudson replied gruffly. "I'll nae rest until I know my pupils are well."
* * * * *
Claw sat quietly in the lounge, reading a paperback in silence. It had been given to him by one of the more trusting residents of the Labyrinth, most likely because of its cover. The lead character, an anthropomorphic tiger, was scanning around a corner with a futuristic rifle at ready and a dark-haired woman dressed in black behind him.
He was so deeply caught up in the story that, when the phone rang, he started violently and nearly fell out of his seat on the sofa. Holding a large paw to his chest, feeling his heart race, he looked at the phone, then around the room. Luckily, no one was there to notice his shock.
The phone kept ringing. He reached for it out of habit, but stopped himself before he'd picked up the receiver, exhaling heavily and drooping his arm back to his side. He then turned as if to call out down the hallway to the others rooms, but he sighed loudly and his shoulders sagged. He couldn't ignore the call - it might be urgent - but neither could he answer it.
Luckily, Maggie - wrapped in a thick bathrobe, fur and hair clinging to her like a soaked cat - came running out from the hall, ending his dilemma. "Oh Claw, I'm sorry. I was in the shower and almost didn't hear the phone."
Taking the receiver, she answered the call. "Yes?" After a pause, she said quickly. "Calm down, Elisa. Run that by me again slowly." A brief pause. "Yes, everyone's fine down here. What's the matter?" Maggie's golden eyes grew wide and startled as she listened. She shot a puzzled look at Claw. "Don't worry, Elisa. We're on our way." She hung up the phone.
Turning to Claw, she saw him looking up from his seat at her with a look of feline curiosity on his face. "Elisa says that all the men in Manhattan are sick with something. How are you, Claw? Do you feel all right?"
Claw shook his great striped head vigorously, indicating that he felt fine.
"Then whatever it is, it must be mostly above ground." Maggie chewed on her talon for a few seconds. "Claw, go find Sharon and Delilah, and bring them here. I'll explain everything once they're here." With that, she turned and rushed back down the hallway, to wake up Talon and to dry herself off quickly.
Claw, puzzled but sensing the urgency, rushed off to assemble everyone.
* * * * *
Castle Wyvern, Eyrie Building
"I have it!" Demona announced triumphantly as she re-entered the room, carrying a heavy book as lightly as a newspaper. "It was Puck's reference to the Blood Moon that did it." She opened the book and traced a few lines with a talon. "The ancient Greek sorceress, Circe, was rumored to have a Grimorum engraved on brass tablets. She was cast out from the world of men to live in exile on her island. As revenge, she devised a spell to be cast by the light of the Blood Moon to 'return all pain I have suffered at the hands of men.'"
"How horrible!" Angela exclaimed.
"Rather admirable, I thought," Demona said absently as she continued to read. "An apt punishment for the way they treated her. A classic scenario."
"I don't care why she did it," Fox said impatiently. "How do we fix it?"
"According to this text, we must find the tablet that the spell is engraved on and destroy it before the last rays of the blood moon die away." Demona drummed her fingers on the open book. "I can help, if you will allow it."
"How are we going to find this magic tablet?" Elisa asked. "It could be anywhere in the city."
"Circe would have used the system of magic she was most familiar with," Demona said, thinking out loud. She noticed Ariana peeping around Elisa, looking lost and pensive, and beckoned her forward with a small smile. "Little one, I will need some things from the kitchens. Can you find me a large silver bowl, a bottle of spring water and some olive oil?"
Ariana, after glancing at her mother for approval, brightened and scampered off. Demona took in Elisa's skeptical look. "Yes, detective, as strange as it might seem, I am often kind to small children and animals."
Elisa shrugged. "I never said that you weren't, Demona."
Soon the required ingredients were gathered, along with the silver bowl. "The spell I am about to cast requires a grouping of three, all with some aptitude in magic. Angela will be one," Demona paused a moment, "and I suppose Fox will have to do for the other." Demona handed the bowl to Angela, and the water to Fox, keeping the oil for herself.
Angela's eyes widened, "I see! The traditional coven: the maid, the mother, and the crone--oh, sorry, Mother," Angela added apologetically, as Demona glanced at her somewhat disapprovingly.
Demona's gaze quickly softened, however, at her daughter's quick deduction. "That is correct, Angela. Three is a very powerful number in the ways of magic, and absolutely necessary for this particular spell. Let us go into the library where we will be able to concentrate." The three of them left Elisa and Sata in charge of the others and went down the hall where they took their places around a table.
"Now, my daughter, listen carefully, as I cast the spell on the oil." Angela and Fox both listened raptly as Demona chanted in Greek, while passing her hand over the bottle of oil. When she was finished, the oil glowed a soft white for the briefest of moments. Angela nodded to herself, while Fox merely looked confused.
"What? What did she do?" Fox asked Angela.
"Hmm? Oh, she keyed the oil to herself," Angela replied. "Now it is responsive to what she is thinking. It makes sense, considering that she's going to be asking the oil to show her specific events. Otherwise, it'd probably just show us some general, unfocused picture that wouldn't help us at all."
"Very good," Demona said approvingly. "Now fill the silver bowl halfway with the spring water." Angela placed the bowl in the center of the table, and Fox obediently filled it. Once that was done, Demona added a few drops of the oil to the water. The oil quickly spread into a shimmering rainbow film across the water's surface.
"We must link hands," Demona said, grasping Angela's hand with one of her own, and distastefully offering Fox the other. The three now formed a ring around the bowl. "Now, concentrate on the oil. Will it to show us that which we seek. Empty your mind of all else, and eventually the colors of the oil will reveal all. It will take time, but we must be patient." Angela and Fox nodded grimly, and began to stare at the bowl.
* * * * *
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The three female halfings lurked outside the museum, floating over the sculpture garden roof on the ground floor. None of them seemed to notice the bitter sting of the cold wind as they landed lightly on the roof. The one in the denim jacket blew a lock of her blond hair out of her face and looked up at the reddened moon above them. Its light gave everything a russet tint. She turned back to the wall and cracked her knuckles.
"C'mon, girls," Tanya said cheerfully, "time to shake and bake!"
"Ease back," Candy said quietly as she walked across the roof to one of the windows overlooking the first floor." Let's make this smooth and sweet." Her eyes glowed bright turquoise and after a few seconds, Rita and Tanya followed her lead.
"Clever trick," Rita murmured. "I can see the electronic eye beams from here. How'd you know?"
Candy shrugged. "I worked for a security firm had contracts with a lot of the hoity-toity businesses in the city. It's just common sense that they'd be here." She diverted a ley line to form a pentagram in the center of the eye beams. They traveled along the electro-magnetic pathways of the ley lines without breaking their circuit and as result, keeping the alarms from sounding. Rita and Tanya stepped in and melted the glass. The three Halfling women dropped into a small gallery filled with stained glass designs by Louis Tiffany and Frank Lloyd Wright.
"Okay, ladies," Candy said as she pulled the list from her pocket, "we'll have to split up to cover more ground. Rita, you go to the Egyptian wing. There's several items there – an ankh from Tanis, some jewelry belonging to some chick named Meryt, and a few other things. Maeve says you can identify them by their residual energy signatures."
Rita shot her a fanged grin. "Got it, boss." She dashed away, her black trenchcoat melting into the shadows.
"And me?" Tanya asked eagerly. "What do I get?"
Candy regarded her carefully before tearing the end of the list off. "Here you go," she said tersely. "Grab one of those shopping bags from the gift shop on your way to the Greek and Roman wing. I'll be in the Renaissance section."
"Shop 'til you drop! Shop 'til you drop!" chanted Tanya as she skipped away into the east annex.
Candy shook her head and groaned. "First, I had to put up with her in the Quarrymen and now this," she muttered to herself. "When this gig is over, I'm going to have a long talk with George about his recruitment policies." She shuddered and headed off on her own assignment.
* * * * *
Tanya hummed happily to herself as she trotted across the cavernous lobby of the Met, her footsteps echoing off the high vaulted ceiling. This was the first real mission she'd been personally selected for since she'd joined the program and she was enjoying all of it except for her partners. Rita was okay, even though her snake fangs gave Tanya the creeps. She had known Candy from their days in the Quarrymen but for some reason, Candy didn't like her very much – why, Tanya really couldn't say.
Grabbing up a bright red shopping bag, Tanya allowed her magically heightened senses to see the infrared security beams, picking up the light as some of it scattered as it passed through the air. Clearly visible, the reddish lines criss-crossing the room could easily be avoided. She studied the layout of the Greek and Roman wing carefully, noted the strange red glow beneath the black and white tiles.
"I'll bet the floor's pressure sensitive, like in those spy movies... a Secret Agent X sort of thing." Tanya said to herself, remembering the summer's blockbuster spy movie and humming the theme song under her breath. She squinted with one eye and found what she was looking for – the telltale blue-white streamer of a ley line streaking the length of the room. Tanya grinned.
"One small step for regular people, one giant leap for ME-e-e-e-e-e…!!!" Her new physical strength propelled her across the floor to the ley line where she made a sliding landing. In her pre-Halfling days, Tanya had wasted a lot of free time on her roller blades and she had taken to the ley lines like a fish to water.
Zipping gracefully through the displays, Tanya kept an eye on her list, checking each item off as she retrieved it by using her Unseelie powers to melt the glass of the display cases and re-seal it after removing whatever object she was after. Growing more confident with each successful retrieval, she approached the central display case Maeve's notes described.
Hovering over the display case, the Manhattan Halfling eyed its contents, searching for the ornate golden ring rumored to belong to the Mage of ancient Rome. It was there, sure enough, resting on a mat of black felt, but something had already caught Tanya's fickle fancy.
Tanya peered through the Plexiglas case, examining the elaborate necklace inside. Its silver was slightly tarnished with age, but beautiful none-the-less. It was composed of three major bands of silver links with a lace-like web of silver strands between them. Meshed into this lacework were a pair of nickel-sized brown agates.
"Just like Steve's eyes," she mumbled softly, her face growing softer and sadder as she looked at the two stones which almost seemed to look back at her like the boyfriend she'd once had. He'd disappeared on her about four years before, but she still thought of him from time to time.
"Hmmm… I'm sure the boss lady wouldn't mind if I took a little something for myself," Tanya said She rubbed her fingertips together before twirling them over the Plexiglas as she'd done to the other displays. Obediently, it began to ripple and go soft. "Come to Momma, you pretty thing, you." A foot-wide opening formed in the case above the necklace. She then reached in snatched up her prize up quickly, briefly wary of an alarm, but none came. Dropping it into the pocket of her denim jacket, she grabbed the ring she'd been sent to find and stashed it with the others in the bag.
With a self-satisfied smirk, Tanya stepped back - and right off the ley line, landing on her backside.
"OW!!" she yelped just as the room was filled with the loud klaxon of the security alarm. She got to her feet quickly and dashed towards their break-in point. Rita was coming from the opposite wing, her trench coat pockets full of loot and a silver ankh around her neck.
"Hey!!" Rita called, "Who messed up?"
"Beats me," Tanya lied, her face a blank slate.
Candy staggered through an archway, a heavy tapestry slung over her shoulder. "It doesn't matter who set off the alarm," she said, through clenched teeth as she tried to balance the heavy load. "We're done here and we've got some more stops to make. Let's get out of here!"
"Ooooh, I feel like Santa Claus."
"Funny, you've got the facial hair to match."
"Why, you goth freak, I oughta -"
* * * * *
"...covering the mysterious illness affecting men of all ages in several parts of the city. Once again, this is Nicole St. John filling in for Travis Marshall." The attractive blonde woman grimaced slightly, shifted in her seat and leaned towards the camera. "We're down to myself, a camera woman and two others in the booth here in the studio, but we'll continue to bring you news and up-to-date coverage of this crisis.
"We've received word from emergency officials on the current area affected by the yet unidentified sickness. A large section of New York City has been struck." As she spoke, the screen changed from her face to map of the city, roughly showing the affected areas. "The southern half of Manhattan, sections of Queens and Brooklyn along the East River are affected. Isolated cases have been reported as far north as the Bronx but the majority of cases appeared to be centered around Central Park South." The image returned to the reporter as she continued. "Safety officials report that it is too early to speculate on the cause of this strange illness but wish to emphasize again the need to stay in your homes and men are especially cautioned to not enter the affected parts of the city."
Nicole glanced briefly under the news desk before continuing. "This as-of-yet undetermined affliction affecting all men, from teenagers to senior citizens, has caused a serious drain on medical, police and firefighting capabilities throughout the affected areas. The mayor's office wants to assure everyone that all female city staff in critical offices have been called onto duty to help with the crisis. Thankfully, while there are some reports of vandalism and looting, it has been to a far lesser degree than during a power outage or other emergency."
She looked towards something above and behind the camera. "Do we have them now, Christine? Finally!" she said, barely containing her frustration.
Turning back to the camera, she shifted her chair around and smiled. "In order to investigate the possible sources of this affliction, we have via satellite Dr. Josephine Addams, noted psychiatrist and expert in mass-hypnosis, and Dr. Yvette LeBlanc, a government expert in biochemical toxicology."
The reporter covered the sound of a small groan in a cough of her own and shifted her chair again with a nervous smile. "Let's begin with you, Dr. Addams. You've seen our news reports coming from New York. What is your opinion of the situation?"
The image became a split screen, giving a view of the reporter in New York and Dr. Addams in San Francisco. "I'm quite certain," the doctor began, "that what we're seeing is a repeat of the 'Lost Night' of December 1995. I'm sure nearly all your local viewers remember that night, simply because they do not recall it at all. Everyone in the city lacks any memories at all of that night and half of the next night. We have another case here where the power of suggestion was used."
The reporter nodded, then turned her head slightly. "You're shaking your head, Dr. LeBlanc. I take it you do not agree with Dr. Addams."
The half-screen view of the psychiatrist was exchanged for the biochemist in Washington. "Most definitely I do not, Ms. St. John," the other said with a lingering trace of her French accent. "This is most definitely the effect of an outside agent, most likely chemical, though possibly biological. Myself, I would liken this more to the 'Big Sleep' of June 1996 where a chemical leak caused the citizens of N.Y. to fall asleep. Given the distribution of the effects along the rivers, it most likely was transported by the water. Until more is known, I would encourage all the men in the city to not drink water taken from any tap."
There was another groan, though clearly not from Nicole this time. She pressed her lips together and a light thump was heard from under the desk, as if the toe of dress shoe had just made contact with something soft and heavy. She covered her mike and muttered under her breath, "Quiet, Travis, you're ruining my big moment."
The unconscious Travis Marshall moaned again.
* * * * *
District Attorney's Office
Margot Yale looked up at the short brunette standing in her doorway and scowled. "Who are you? How'd you get past Maxwell?"
"Well, I'm Quinn Ramsey, I work for Mitchell, Bryant and Rogoff?" She held up a bundle of manila folders. "I was dropping these papers off for the civil suit against Jon Canmore." Quinn looked back behind her. "And if Maxwell is this guy passed out behind the desk, I think you've got a little problem here."
"What?!" Margot went out and gawked at the site of her assistant collapsed on the floor. "He was fine not fifteen minutes ago. What's going on?"
Quinn shrugged. "You got me."
The receptionist came running up the hall. "Ms. Yale! Ms. Yale!"
"Calm down, Janice. Do you know what's going on?"
"I'm not sure, Ms. Yale. We're receiving calls, and it's very strange actually. Men are dropping like flies all over town, overcome with intense pain and nausea. No women are getting sick, although a lot of them are panicking. I've never seen anything like it."
Quinn's dark eyes widened and her hand went to her mouth. "Oh, no! Richard!"
"All right, Janice, conduct an investigation. And have whatever we know about this on my desk in ten minutes."
"Yes, Ms. Yale." said Janice, exiting the office.
Margot took the files from Quinn and went back into her office. "Brendan isn't much of a man but I suppose I ought to check up on him anyway," she muttered, sinking back into her chair and picking up the phone. She listened to the drone of the phone line for quite some time before getting the 'all circuits are busy' message.
The door flung open and Janice rushed back in. "Ms. Yale, remember that crisis I told you about?"
"Of course I do!" Margot snapped back. "You told me less than two minutes ago!"
"Okay, stupid question." she said. "Well, all the men here in the building have collapsed too, not just Maxwell."
Margot slammed her desk. "Can't there be one day that goes by without a crisis happening in my life. First those gargoyles, those nights I can't remember, those anarchists last Halloween, now this!" She threw up her hands. "Why me?"
"Karma?" Janice suggested.
* * * * *
Somewhere in Manhattan
"This is insane," Matt Bluestone scowled.
Sara nodded, refusing to take her eyes from the road as she and her companion raced toward their destination. "What's that make, the eleventh call we've gotten in the last half hour? People collapsing all over town, traffic accident reports--what on earth is going on?"
"Well, we're almost to the closest incident. Maybe we'll find our answers there."
"Sara?" the police radio suddenly spoke.
"I'll get it," Matt said, not wanting anything to interfere with Sara's speedy driving. "This is Matt, Elisa."
"Great, I was hoping you'd be all right," Elisa spoke with relief.
"I'm glad you care," Matt replied with some amusement. Then his voice turned a bit sharp, "Listen, Elisa, the town's gone nuts, so if this is just a social call-"
"You know me better than that," Elisa replied. "The town going nuts is what I wanted to talk to you about. Matt, you've got to stay out of this!"
"Are you kidding?" Matt asked in surprise. "C'mon, YOU know ME better than that."
"No joke. Matt, the Unseelies have cast some kind of spell. It only affects men, and if you get too close, it'll affect you, too."
"A spell that affects only men?" Matt repeated dubiously.
"Yes! It makes men extremely sick. Goliath, Xanatos, Owen, everyone here can barely move! Matt, you've got to stay away!"
"Matt, maybe we should listen to her," Sara said, worry clear in her voice. "We're almost at the first call, and that means-"
"Urgh!" Matt suddenly choked, dropping the radio to the floor and buckling over in pain.
"Matt!" the radio squawked in alarm.
Without a further word, Sara jammed the steering wheel around, causing the car to swing wildly around, tortured tires screaming their protest. She gunned the motor, and the car accelerated back the way they had come. Matt flopped back in his seat, breathing rapidly and clutching his gut. After traveling a block or two, his breathing slowly returned to normal.
"Are you all right, Matt?" Sara and Elisa asked in unison.
"F-fine," Matt gasped. "Okay, Elisa, I believe you now. I'm staying out."
"But I'm going back in," Sara announced firmly, pulling up to the curb. "If pulling Matt out of there cured him, it might cure others, as well."
Matt nodded, and opened his door to depart. "I don't know if that'll work," Elisa said. "Matt wasn't exposed when the spell was cast, so it might have been less effective... still, it's the best plan I've heard tonight. Let me know how it turns out. Over and out."
Matt replaced the radio and turned to Sara. "Okay, see if you can bring anyone out. I'm gonna find a payphone and put a call in to the station. I've got to let them know what's going on--the abridged version, of course--and make sure that they get the word out to all the male cops that haven't been affected. Hopefully, we can get the spell area blockaded off."
"Gotcha." Sara paused a moment, and then added, "Take care, Matt."
"You too, Sara."
* * * * *
Castle Wyvern, Eyrie Building
Ariana turned away from the television as the reporter continued to repeat the same information over and over. It made her feel all weird inside, like when she and Graeme had gotten separated from their parents during their travels with the Phoenix Gate. Unconsciously, she rubbed the armband that she and her brother both wore as result of that little misadventure. She didn't like to admit it, but Ariana found the absence of her twin brother more disturbing than anything else. Not having Graeme by her side just felt wrong and that scared her.
The way Mother was acting alarmed her too. When Graeme had collapsed earlier, Sata had barely left his side. Ariana had to help her father inside herself but Brooklyn seemed more concerned about Graeme than himself and that was puzzling too. Ariana was sad and jealous and worried and terribly, terribly confused all at the same time.
Lexington moaned and Ariana went over to check on him. She wrung out a soft cloth in a basin of cool water and bathed the sweat from his forehead. His eyelids flickered and a corner of his mouth curled up. The mental association between her uncle and the computer was so strong that her eyes automatically drifted to the computer screen. A program was still running. She hopped into the chair and scanned the screen.
Liz >>> "Lex?"
Liz >>> "Don't idle out on me now."
( *pokepoke* )
Liz >>>"LEX? What's up? Is something wrong?"
Liz >>> "I just heard on the radio that lots of men in the city are getting sick. Are you all right there?"
Liz >>> "I'm really worried, Lex.
Liz >>> "Lex?"
Liz >>> "Heeeeelp! Somebody? Anybody... help."
**Liz sits beside Lex and hopes he's all right.**
Liz >>> "Forget that!"
**Liz shakes you!** "LEX!"
Ariana chewed on a talon nervously, trying to decide whether or not she should send Liz a message. Sata had taught her children well on the finer points of etiquette and Ariana was pretty sure, computer or not, that jumping in on a conversation she hadn't been invited to was rude. She turned to Lex who was laying on the couch and tapped him lightly on the shoulder with her tail. "Uncle Lex! It's Liz trying to chat with you. What should I tell her?"
Lex groaned and struggled to sit up to help her, but a wave of nausea sent him back to the floor. "T-tell her the truth, sweetheart. Liz can take it."
"Well…, if you're sure." Ariana flexed her fingers on the keyboard and gave it a try.
Liz >>> "Lex! Are you all right?"
Lex>>> "Not Lex... Ariana. Uncle Lex is sick too."
Liz >>> "Ariana? Lex's niece? Oh no! Is Lex going to be all right? You're not all alone there, are you?"
Lex>>> "No, I'm not alone. But everyone's busy and I'm... I'm..."
Liz >>> "...You're scared?"
Lex>>> "yes." **sniffles** "Mother says warriors shouldn't cry but… but... I can't help it..."
Liz >>> "It's okay, Ariana. I'm scared too. Maybe we can help each other NOT be scared, okay?"
Liz >>> "Tell me… how Lex is doing?"
Lex>>> "He's right here. I'll ask."
Lex>>> "He says 'tell Liz that I can still whip more zerg butt than she can.' He smiled when he said that, I think he's trying to be funny."
Liz >>> "Ha-HA, Ha-HA, and you can quote me, kiddo." *L* "Tell Lex to take it easy and save his strength, I'm going offline." <aside to Ariana> But if YOU need me, I'll stick around and keep you company for a while, okay?"
Ariana bit her lower lip and stared down at her fingers on the keyboard for a few seconds before looking around. Lexington's eyes had shut and a whisper of a smile was still on his face as he dozed. Beyond him, Sata sat attentively besides a pallet where her brother and father fitfully slept, as did Goliath on another pallet not much farther away. Elisa was talking quietly on the phone across the room while keeping an eye on Hudson and Broadway. As much as she was tempted to chat with Liz, Ariana knew where her duty lay.
Lex>>> "I shouldn't stay - the others need me. But, domo arigato, Liz-chan - I think I can be brave now."
Liz >>> "Any time, kiddo. You keep your chin up."
* * * * *
Elisa hung up the phone and sighed. "That was Matt, again. Apparently Sara managed to bring some men out of the spell area. They've shown no improvement. Evacuation just isn't an option."
"But there must be something we can do." Sata looked back at Brooklyn and Graeme and frowned. She took Elisa by the elbow and led her away from where Ariana was tending to Lex. "Graeme has not regained consciousness since this strange sickness struck us. He seems to be suffering more from this than the older males."
"What's weird is that he's sick and not Alex," Elisa commented. Both she and Sata looked over to the redheaded tot curled up asleep in Goliath's reading chair.
"Perhaps not so strange, Elisa," Sata commented. "Alex is still very young while Graeme is in his twenties. He and Ariana both are growing fast to their adult sizes." A faint sound caught her attention, a high-pitched whimper ending in a rattling cough. "Chibi-saru-kun? A thousand pardons, Elisa."
Brooklyn had raised himself up on one elbow and had rolled Graeme onto his side as he rubbed his son's back. "He's been having a hard time breathing," Brooklyn reported to his mate as she sank to her knees besides them. "I don't like this."
"Neither do I, beloved," Sata replied. She shifted some pillows beneath Graeme's head and shoulders and watched anxiously as the young gargoyle began to breathe easier. Sighing, she bent towards Brooklyn and said in hushed, rapid Japanese, "I cannot help but think of the warning Samson gave us, do you remember, beloved? When we were told to guard the twins well?" Her face was serene as always but her almond-shaped eyes were shiny with unspent tears she refused to shed.
Brooklyn swallowed painfully and reached out to caress her face. "I know, Sata-chan." His eyes bore into hers. "I don't know how or why this is happening, but you and I must see that Graeme lives to do what he must do. If there's a chance to put a stop to this, you must go and see that it's done." A spasm racked his body and he said through clenched teeth, "You have to do it. Promise me, Sata-chan!"
"B-but…!" Sata's mouth dropped open and her lip trembled for a few seconds before she forced herself to stop with an iron will. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them, a deadly warrior of Ishimura was looking out. "I promise you, Brooklyn-san. I will make whoever has done this pay dearly for threatening my loved ones."
Elisa lifted a puzzled eyebrow and asked Ariana, "What was all that about?"
Ariana chewed her lower lip nervously for a few moments before answering. "Um, Father just told Mother that she shouldn't stay here and worry about them when she could be helping to stop it." She looked up at Elisa brightly. "That's what he said, more or less."
"Did he now? Huh." Elisa sounded unconvinced. "I'm with Sata though. I'd feel better going out and trying to solve this mystery. I only know basic first aid, not the kind of stuff that could help the guys right now."
"Then it's a good thing you called us," Maggie declared as she walked into the room, Sharon and Delilah following close behind, both carrying heavy satchels.
Sharon gave Elisa a short bow. "I'm sorry we weren't here sooner but I wanted to bring some testing equipment and medical supplies from Dr. Goldblum's lab."
The others tending the fallen in the Eyrie glanced up to see the threesome from the Labyrinth arrive to help. The newcomers stared at the clan's males, all groaning softly from their aches and pains.
"It's worse than you told me over the phone, Elisa," said Maggie in a hushed voice. "You wouldn't believe what we saw on our way over here. We had some isolated cases in the Labyrinth ourselves but they were all men that had been outside on the streets and had been returning back to the tunnels."
Sharon recovered quickly and began to move through the triage area while Delilah followed in her shadow. The panther mutate went to Sata's side to examine Brooklyn, but he weakly brushed her away, motioning to Graeme lying besides him.
"Please," Sata said formally, "my mate wants you to examine our son first. Graeme has been unconscious since this strange sickness first appeared. We have been giving them practical treatments, cool cloths for hot brows, warm blankets for cold bodies, but nothing seems to work!"
"It can be frustrating, I know," Sharon agreed, "Let me examine them. I've got some medical training from college and I've picked up a lot from my work with Dr. Goldberg. I can help."
Sata nodded and moved aside, making room for Sharon and her medical kit. "I will be most grateful for anything you can do, Sharon-chan."
Sharon inserted an electronic thermoscan gently into Graeme's ear and quickly noticed something alarming. "His fever is much too high." She looked up at Sata. "Ice – we need ice and lots of it. We need to bring his temperature down as quickly as possible." As Sata rushed off quickly, she turned towards Maggie and Delilah, who'd begun to recover from their initial shock. "Check the others too. If their temperatures are over a hundred and three, we'll need ice packs for all of them."
Taking a stethoscope from her bag, Sharon fitted it awkwardly to her feline ears and listened carefully to Graeme's labored breathing. "This is not good," she whispered to herself, careful not to let the others hear.
* * * * *
"Finally!" Demona hissed. Angela and Fox jerked slightly, startled from their mutual trance.
"What is it?" Angela asked.
"Keep concentrating!" Demona insisted. "I can see... I can see... a skyline, but from above. Concrete, and an antenna..." Demona jerked back in her seat, breaking her handholds with Fox and Angela. "By all the infernal--WHY didn't I think of this sooner! Puck used the same tactic!" Demona growled in frustration, eyes flaring bright red.
"What did you see?" Elisa asked, attracted by what appeared to be the completion of the scrying spell.
"The World Trade Center! Only the prime casting area for a wide-area spell."
"Wait a minute," Fox asked, confused. "How did you see anything? The oil didn't look any different than before."
"Only because you have not been trained to read the colors, human," Demona snarled, still irritated by her oversight. "But I do speak the truth. The spell was cast from the top of the tower."
"Okay, now that we know where they are, how do we stop them? I doubt Maeve will stop just because we ask her nicely," Fox said.
"We must disrupt the spell," Demona growled. "The book says this can best be done by destroying the casting tablets, for they are a focal point."
Fox nodded in agreement, "I'll assemble some Iron Clan robots to help even the odds. Some will have to stay on guard here, in case they attack while we're out." She rushed from the room and down deep in the castle's substructure. Faced with a red-plated, heavily armored door, she tapped the elaborate entrance code and stepped into the armory.
"I'm going too, mother," Angela added. "My father, my love, my clan and the city are all at risk. Do not try to stop me to protect me, mother." Her eyes glowed red as she looked towards Demona. But the ancient gargoyle said nothing, secretly proud that her daughter was willing to fight for her causes. Perhaps there was hope for her yet.
They returned to the clan's suite to find that reinforcements from the Labyrinth had arrived. Sharon had Delilah and Ariana making and applying ice packs while Maggie and Sata helped give the patients some long overdue medication.
Elisa jogged back into the room and handed the thermoscan back to Sharon. "You were right," she said breathlessly, "Xanatos and Owen are running fevers too but not nearly as high as the guys in here. I made them take the ibuprofen but you'll probably want to check them yourself."
"Yes, I will," Sharon agreed, "Just as soon as things are stabilized here."
"Everyone," Angela called, getting their attention, "Mother and I have some good news!" Quickly, they filled the clan in on their discovery and their plan to destroy Circe's tablet and stop the spell.
"You're not leaving me out of this," Elisa said, taking her pistol from her holster and checking its ammo clip. "No way I'm staying behind."
"Nor I," said Sata emphatically with her hand on the hilt of her katana. "My family's honor is at stake."
"I'll stay here to monitor their conditions." Catching Sata's worried glance over to Ariana, Sharon added. "You've been very helpful to me, Ari-chan. I could use your assistance to care for everyone. Your family needs you to tend their needs."
Ariana stood proudly and nodded. "Father and Graeme can be the biggest babies when they're sick. I can handle them."
"I will stay, as well," Delilah added as she put her hand on Hudson's shoulder. "My teacher has taught me that a gargoyle's duty is to guard the castle. I will guard this castle in his place." Weakly, Hudson reached up and patted the hybrid clone's hand.
Demona glared at her scornfully from across the room and said nothing.
Maggie stood quietly aside listening to the discussion. In a soft voice, she spoke up. "You know that I hate all the fighting... but I can't sit by while so many people suffer. I'm lucky. My home is safe but it wasn't that long ago that we were the ones that needed help. Derek and I and all of us in the Labyrinth owe you a great debt." She raised her chin. "If you'll have me, I'll fight besides you."
Elisa put her hand on the mutate's shoulder. "Are you sure you want to come?" Maggie replied with a firm nod. The raiding party headed outside.
Just before they reached the courtyard, a hidden door opened and Fox stepped out, followed by a quartet of Iron Clan robots. Fox wore a heavy battlesuit of deep reds and blues. Demona and Angela hissed, recognizing beneath the modifications and upgrades the same armor that the female Hunter, Robyn, had worn to the battle at St Damien's Cathedral.
"Do you like it?" Fox asked with a devilish grin. "It took some work to get the schematics, but it handles like a dream."
"It's very you," Elisa commented dryly.
Scanning the group, she could see where they'd split off between those coming and those staying. Her face showing her concern, Fox nodded to Sharon, Delilah and Ariana. "You take care of my David while I'm gone." The trio nodded in return.
Fox turned to the others and held out a couple of compact headsets. "Just to be on the safe side, I thought these might be useful. Who wants them?"
"I'll take one," Elisa said quickly.
"I will too," Angela said, putting words to actions.
Nodding approvingly, Fox gestured towards the open courtyard. "Okay, no time to lose. More than just our men are counting on us. We've got a city to save." They rushed out the door, heading for the battlements, followed by the robots. Elisa snagged a lift from Angela and they were off.
* * * * *
Circling back over the city, Coldfire suddenly cried out, "My love! Look there!" She pointed to a dockside warehouse at the edge of the East River far below.
Coldstone complied, his synthetic optics focusing on the area of the harbor his companion indicated. A number of tiny, flying creatures were flying into and out of the warehouse. "What of them? Birds of some kind, no doubt."
"Look more closely! Would birds be carrying trinkets and baubles?"
Coldstone focused closer. "You are right! But it is not our concern. Our mission-"
"Beloved, there are times when I wonder if your head remains solid stone all day and into the night," Coldfire said crossly. "Our brother may be important, but it is also our duty to our clan to protect this city. Coldsteel can wait. This cannot."
"Very well," Coldstone snapped, irritably.
The two of them dove out of the sky, startling a handful of the flying creatures, one of which dropped the gauntlet she had been carrying. For a few moments, the tiny flying creatures and the mechanical warriors stared at one another. "They're beautiful," remarked Coldfire, somewhat taken by the tiny, winged women.
Abruptly, one of the creatures zipped at Coldfire, glowing bright green. Surprised, the robotic gargoyle held up an arm to block it. With a sharp clang, the creature struck and ricocheted off at an angle, leaving a shallow, sparking gash in Coldfire's arm.
"Beautiful, but dangerous," Coldstone remarked. "Are you all right, beloved?"
"Yes, my arm is healing itself even now," she replied. "What are they?"
"Unseelies, I would guess," Coldstone growled.
"I thought they'd be larger," his companion said dryly.
The wisps, for their part, had apparently been impressed by the resilience and quick recovery of the golden robot. They regrouped, snatched up the fallen gauntlet, and began to flee.
"Quickly," Coldfire exclaimed. "After them!"
A brief chase ended when the creatures dropped their cargoes into an open bag on the ground and alighted upon the shoulders of a distinctly elfin woman with short hair and a calm, bemused expression. A number of wisps flew about her, and as she gazed at the newcomers, she gestured with one hand, sending a few of them flying away at high speed. "Good evening," she said calmly. "What business do the dead have with me?"
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" Coldstone asked menacingly.
Unconcerned, the woman replied, "I am Rhea. I command my wisps to do the bidding of my Queen. Tonight, she bids me to gather items of magic power for her. And so I do."
"We cannot allow you to continue," Coldstone replied. "Whatever your dark intentions, this is thievery, and will not be tolerated."
"Very well, then. Enough talk. Let's fight." With a barely discernible gesture, a half dozen wisps launched themselves at the two mechanical warriors, who hastily dodged out of the way.
Coldstone responded with a barrage of laser shots. A few shots connected, causing stunned wisps to drop to the ground, but most were easily dodged by the agile little creatures. Coldfire had better luck, her twin flamethrowers creating a barrier that the wisps were reluctant to approach.
Snatching an attacking wisp out of the air with his clawed metal arm, Coldstone stomped towards Rhea, the minor gashes in his stone skin being healed by the enchantment animating him, even as the wounds to his mechanical limbs were healed by more technological means. Coldstone threw the wisp brutally against a wall, as he snarled, "Your creatures cannot defeat us. What can you possibly hope to gain by throwing them at us?"
"Time," Rhea replied, eyes lowered demurely.
"Time for what?" Coldstone asked. Then, a sense of impending danger told him to move, and quickly. He dodged to the side just in time to avoid being horribly impaled on a long spear.
"Me," the woman holding that spear smiled viciously. With a horizontal spin of her spear, she knocked Coldstone backwards to collide with an approaching Coldfire. The newcomer glanced at the wisp handler and said, "You have done well, Rhea. Gather the Morrigan and the others and return with our bounty to our Queen. I will dispose of these interlopers."
As Rhea departed, the spearbearer eyed her opponents. "Greetings, warriors. I am Anath. I must say that I am surprised to see a male still standing, however twisted and abominable a male he might be. I was assured that no male capable of reason would be spared."
"What are you talking about?" asked Coldfire, as she helped Coldstone to his feet.
Anath shrugged, ignoring Coldfire's question. "Perhaps we accidentally wandered outside the boundaries of the spell. No matter. We have accomplished what we came here to do. And with that in mind, I feel in the mood for a little sport."
Anath had barely finished her sentence, before she threw her spear with lightning speed at the recovering duo. Dashing apart from one another, the spear landed between them and exploded violently, shattering the concrete and knocking them down again. With a vicious yell, Anath leapt into the air and landed on Coldfire's back, driving her face-first into the ground. A new spear appeared in her hand and she swung with it, slicing cleanly through the golden metal tubes that fed fuel to Coldfire's flamethrowers. Another thrust, and the spear drove through the robot's shoulder and deep into the ground, pinning her down.
"Leave her alone!" Coldstone snarled, leaping at Anath, and knocking her off of his mate.
Anath laughed as she tumbled backwards with the berserk cyborg. She easily forced Coldstone aside with her shield, and was able to twist around enough to land comfortably on her feet. "I was hoping that would get your attention," Anath remarked. "You were the one I really wanted to face. I'd like to try an experiment."
The dusky fay woman stared at Coldstone, who had pointed his blaster arm at her and was about to fire. The fay's eyes began to shine a bright green color, while the rest of her demeanor seemed to be settling into a coy, attractive sort of stance. "Lower your weapon," Anath commanded.
"What are you talking about," Coldstone growled. "Why would I do... do such a foolish thing?" But even as he finished his sentence, he discovered to his surprise that his arm cannon had already retracted, and his arm was lowering. "What are... you doing to me?" he demanded.
"Silly, foolish male," Anath chuckled enticingly. "For millennia, I have had my pick of the finest, strongest, most desirable young men of the world. Few males of my own kind can resist my charms, much less a mortal, such as yourself. But it is as I suspected. Male you are, but perhaps your metal body shields you. Otherwise, you would be twisting on the ground in pain without any help from me. Now, come to me, that I might gut you like a fish."
Coldstone, now slack-jawed and unable to speak, slowly began to trudge towards the waiting fay, who adjusted her grip on her spear with eager anticipation. Much to her surprise, Anath's next sensation was one of exquisite agony, as a length of iron cable wrapped around her neck. She grasped ineffectually at the metal binding her, trying to loosen the bonds, even as her energy seeped away.
Coldstone, free of Anath's influence, wasted no time in firing at the captive fay, full blast. The energy weapon blasted Anath through the wall of a warehouse, and into the darkness within. Coldstone turned to see his mate, one arm hanging limply at her side, the other holding a whiplike length of cable. The end of the cable that had formerly been wound around Anath had been melted away by Coldstone's blast. "Are you hurt?" Coldfire asked worriedly.
"No, but you most certainly are," Coldstone replied with no less concern, gazing at the jagged hole in his beloved's shoulder, as well as the cut tubes hanging limply from her wrists.
"My wounds are... difficult," Coldfire admitted. "But they are healing. Don't worry about me. We must finish her, before she has a chance to recover."
Coldstone nodded, and leapt into the damaged warehouse. A moment later, he returned. "She is gone," he said solemnly. He held up a handful of half melted iron. "It would appear that my attack did more harm than good."
"Do not worry, my love," Coldfire said, reassuringly. "Between the iron and your laser, I believe that we dealt her a blow she will not recover from quickly."
Coldstone nodded. The two of them sat down to wait for Coldfire to recover. After a moment, Coldstone said, "Anath's words trouble me, my love. She clearly was not expecting to find any male able to oppose her--that all males would be stricken by some ailment."
Coldfire nodded. "She mentioned a spell. Could the Unseelies have cast a spell able to strike down every male in the city? Or, at least, within a significant portion of the city, if we are outside of it."
Coldstone considered that for a moment. Then, his countenance hardened. "My love, I must apologize. I refused to believe that any threat could outweigh that of our evil brother. But it is clear that these Unseelies are the greatest danger that our clan now faces. Once you have recovered, we shall return to our clan, and remain with them until the danger has passed."
Coldfire embraced her mate with her good arm. "You are forgiven, beloved. But we must not return yet. If Anath speaks truly, and I cannot see why she would not, then you could be in danger, should we attempt to return."
"You don't know that," Coldstone protested. "You know that we can feel no pain, no sensations... perhaps it is that which protected me from the spell's grip."
Coldfire considered that. "It is true that we feel no pain. But if the spell cripples those it affects... you and I both know that one need not feel pain to be brought low." She glanced meaningfully at her useless arm for emphasis.
"You are right, as usual," Coldstone sighed. "Very well. But we will contact our clan nonetheless. Perhaps they can tell us more of this ailment."
* * * * *
The World Trade Center
Maeve stood at the roof's edge, her cloak billowing in the chill air, and reveled at the chaos she had caused this night. Cars were blocking the streets, emergency vehicles fought to navigate their way past the snarled traffic, screams and lamented wails were music to her ears. With a wild laugh, Maeve leapt down onto the roof top and stepped lightly back to Circe's tablet on its ebony stand. She caressed its etched surface.
"A right wicked night, indeed, my dear departed Circe!" Maeve told the tablet. "'Tis a pity you're not here to join in the fun."
A golden disc appeared in mid-air and Sekhmet stepped out of it, followed by her were-cheetahs. Only the dark-furred one was in full cheetah form. The others were shifted into their anthropomorphic state, one carrying her injured comrade and the remaining one carrying a black leather attaché case.
"Your mission?" Maeve asked simply.
"Successful," Sekhmet replied dryly. She snapped her fingers and the attaché-carrying were-cheetah stepped forward. The demi-goddess opened the case and displayed its contents with a cool panache. "The golden daggers were not the least of the things that she-creature has hoarded away, my queen. We found a few more trinkets although I suspect she may have still more hidden. Her house is a veritable fortress." She smiled as the dark-furred were-cheetah at her side gave a strange, almost laughing wuff. "Zuri and her sisters were most displeased and decided to re-decorate her dwelling more to their taste."
"How thoughtful," Maeve said with a nasty smirk. "The look on Ms. High-an'-Mighty Destine's face in th' mornin', will be a sight worth seein', I wager." She gestured and a hole ripped open in the night. "Madoc and I arranged for a temporary portal to the Brocken to make the retrieval of our prizes more convenient."
Sekhmet nodded graciously. "Sarianna, take Amarath back home. Tana, let Sarianna take the case too. You and Zuri will remain with me."
The sound of voices turned the attention of Unseelie nobles to the arrival of the New York-based Halflings spiraling up on the ley lines around the building. Candy was weighted down with a heavy, rolled-up tapestry and the other two were toting heavy bags.
"The tapestry of Sir Nicolas de Maduc, I'm hoping?" Maeve asked lightly.
"Yes, ma'am," Candy replied as she tossed the tapestry through the portal with obvious relief and stretched out her back. "We got everything on your shopping list." She raised a disgusted eyebrow at Tanya. "Even though SOMEBODY triggered the alarms at the Met."
The denim-clad Halfling blinked and responded with one of her empty, scatter-brained looks. When Candy looked away, Tanya stuck her tongue out at her.
If Maeve saw that childish display, she ignored it. "Well done. With your additions, our work here is finished. I have already sent some of Sekhmet's servants, Rhea, Rangda and her witches back to the castle with the majority of our collection."
A flurry of black feathers and the Morrigan was suddenly there, her dress of rags fluttering around her as she stood perfectly still. "Th' humans are still runnin' about in a panic, cousin." Her dark eyes gleamed. "You really know how to throw a lovely party."
"Excellent," Maeve said. "Once Anath arrives, we can begin transport of the remaining items."
"Anath?" Sekhmet sniffed. "Wasn't she supposed to be with the Morrigan?"
"Aye, we were in th' beginning," the Morrigan said blandly. "We went our own ways though."
"Rhea and the wisps returned home some time ago," Maeve reported. "Apparently, they ran into some resistance, and Anath remained behind to deal with it."
"I dealt with it none too well, I'm afraid," a rasping voice called. Anath appeared before them in a flash of green light. The woman looked weak and tired, resting on her spear like a crutch, and a fiery red welt encircled her throat. "I had forgotten the damage the sting of cold iron could bring. I was barely able to escape with my life."
"Really?" Sekhmet purred. "Your fighting skills must have grown as soft as your backside if you let yourself be routed so easily." She examined her manicured hands idly. "My servants and I defeated two robots and two gargoyles and I didn't even break a nail."
Maeve ignored their age-old bickering and narrowed her eyes. "Were you followed?"
"No, my Queen," Anath answered. She raised her head and refused to look at Sekhmet. "I damaged my foes severely before I left."
Maeve thought quietly for a moment. Finally, she said, "Nevertheless, I am troubled. The blood moon is beginning to wane, and my spell must not be interrupted before the lunar eclipse has passed." Maeve gestured at the underlings that surrounded her. "The Halflings will provide a powerful deterrent, should any be foolish enough to attack us, but your aid could be useful as well. You will stay."
"I understand," Anath replied.
"You're going to finish the spell?" asked Sekhmet coolly. "Won't that kill every man that's suffering from it?"
"Cool," the Morrigan commented, her lips almost curling up in a smile.
"B-but," Tanya blurted out, "they'll all die!" Candy and Rita exchanged a startled look and stepped back, well out of range – just in case.
"There are always casualties in war," Anath replied for Maeve. "In completing this spell, we will destroy most of the enemies that provide the greatest threat to our cause. Those that die will hardly matter. Hundreds of times that number will die before this war is finished."
"I am afraid that the only ones who will die this night," a new voice called, "will be you." The eerie red light of the Blood Moon spell reflected off of the razor-sharp swords in the hands of a jade-green gargoyle on the neighboring tower. Behind her, other figures stepped from the shadows – gargoyles, humans and mutate.
"You have harmed our males," Sata's voice rang out, "now taste our vengeance!!"
* * * * *
Maeve glared at their attackers. "Oh, no, not this time!!" she snarled. "I'll NOT be havin' this spell ruined. Sekhmet! Morrigan! Annath! Hold them back while I bring down the full force of the Blood Moon down on their menfolk!" She stepped into her mystical circle and snapped out, "Halflings!! Guard the circle!!"
Raising her hands above her head, Maeve began chanting in ancient Greek. The chalk lines around her crackled to life, becoming a pattern of dancing crimson flames. Power channeled through the Unseelie sorceress and shot up the nearby communications antenna in a brilliant surge of pyrotechnics. Lightning answered in the sky above.
"Oh, yeah," Rita muttered under her breath. "Like she needs help from us!"
Tanya glared at the new arrivals as she finished tossing her booty into the portal. "Gargoyles," the ex-Quarrywomen grumbled. "I never got to face any before, but this is my big chance! And my new powers are a lot better than any silly hammer!!"
"You got that right," Candy said grimly. "Rita? You ready?"
Rita bared her fangs and hissed. "Wonder which one of these chicks likes ol' fat boy that I bit before? Maybe I should give them matching hickeys."
"Enough talking!" Candy took aim at a lavender gargoyle sailing in with a dark-haired human in her arms. She let fly with an energy bolt, breaking the gargoyle's grip and making the human fall several feet onto the rooftop gravel of the neighboring tower. She switched targets to the incoming flying robots and fired a salvo of energy bolts at them. "Let's get it on!"
* * * * *
Anath wasted little time before meeting Sata's attack. "Ah, a warrior from the East," the Canaanite warrior goddess observed with a grim smile. "I have fought others like you in times past, and rarely has the battle been disappointing. I will take great pleasure in spilling your blood tonight." Anath lashed out with her spear.
"There is an expression that my husband has been fond of saying," Sata replied as she eluded the spear. Her swords whirled almost faster than the eye could see, but each found itself blocked by shield or spear. The spear, however, was cut into two pieces, the spearhead and part of the shaft clattering to the ground. Anath leapt away.
"'Talk is cheap,'" Sata said and sank back into a defensive posture.
"Well said, warrior." Anath's smile broadened, and a new spear flashed into existence in her hand.
* * * * *
Sekhmet summoned a fireball and hurled it at the human in the red-and-black armor. She smashed into some structures on the opposite building and, satisfied, Sekhmet turned away. Tana was crouched staring at something in the sky and the ruff over her shoulders bristled. Zuri gave a growling snarl of defiance as her tail lashed back and forth like a whip.
Intrigued, Sekhmet stepped closer. "What is it, my children? What disturbs y-" Her eyes widened, her enlarged pupils reflecting the crimson moon above as her lips curled back from her curved leonine teeth.
"How dare she? How DARE she?" howled Sekhmet. "How dare a mere mortal try to resemble a GOD!?!"
* * * * *
"You, human, shall be the first to die," Demona snarled as she attacked the dark-clad Halfling with the wild black hair.
"I'm not human," the Halfling replied snidely. She seemed to step apart to both sides, and Demona found her leap taking her between two identical Halflings. Two pairs of hands flashed with energy, and Demona was propelled painfully into the concrete.
Demona leapt to her feet and spun to face the two. "Illusion. One of you must not be real," she challenged.
"I am as real as anything," both Halflings spoke in perfect unison.
Demona tackled one to the ground, and once she had her pinned, pulled back a triumphant arm to deliver a final, fatal strike. "First try," she crowed triumphantly. She was rather surprised when the "illusionary" Halfling grasped her raised arm in a surprisingly powerful grip. In the confusion, the pinned Halfling squirmed out from underneath her and grabbed her other arm.
"I told you," both figures droned, as they lifted Demona to her feet and stretched her between them. With the gargoyle thus immobilized, the two of them used their free hands to begin powering up another blast.
* * * * *
Maggie hovered nearby, flapping her wings occasionally to keep her position. When the time for battle came, she found herself wracked with indecision. She was uncertain if she'd even right to come at all for she truly did not want to fight. There'd been so much fighting already. But now it was necessary, not like when the mutates and the gargoyles had once fought on different sides.
She took a deep breath and rallied her courage, as she scanned the rooftop to see where she was most needed. A flash of light caught in the corner of her eye and she dodged with cat-like reflexes. The heat from the fireball that passed by nearly singed her fur. She was still staring after it when a second blast tumbled her from the sky.
Twisting as she fell, her body turned in the air as Maggie righted herself, landing on all fours as smoothly as a cat. The ringing in her ears was replaced by an imperious voice.
Maggie looked up only to find herself being menaced by two snarling were-cheetahs. An elegant woman clad in skin-tight leather with a lion's head strode up to her. She did not look happy.
"Bah! You presume to impersonate Sekhmet, pitiful mortal!" She wrinkled her nose like Maggie smelled like last week's garbage. "You are not worthy to lick my boots."
The former Margaret Reed from Ohio may have cowered from stuck-up snobs in the past but the new and improved Maggie the Cat was made of sterner stuff. The name Sekhmet brought up all too vivid memories. She stood up slowly, the static electricity emanating from her body causing the were-cheetahs to back up.
"So you're the one that trashed the Labyrinth all those months ago." Maggie's golden cat's eyes glittered. "You hurt innocent people and tried to destroy their home. How could you?"
"Stupid girl," Sekhmet retorted. "I am Unseelie and all places are alike to me. You and all your filthy underdwellers will bow to us."
Without warning, Maggie snarled and thrust a fist forward, hurling the full force of her electro-blast into Sekhmet, the resulting light show like a thousand lightning storms rolled into one. The bolt threw the Egyptian demi-goddess back through the air, crashing into an air-conditioning unit and ending up in an inelegant heap. She moaned once and was still.
"Nobody is going to bow to you," Maggie snapped. "Not if I can help it!!"
The dark-furred were-cheetah hurled herself at Maggie, fangs bared and snarling. Maggie zapped it and sent it tumbling heads over heels but with less voltage than before. The remaining were-cheetah had shifted forms into a bipedal human/feline mix and had lifted Sekhmet into her arms.
"Zuri!" the were-cheetah called. "Retreat! We must take our goddess to safety!" With Zuri guarding her back, she quickly carried Sekhmet across the rooftop and disappeared into the portal.
Maggie blinked. "An escape route?" She glanced at Maeve, body almost hidden inside a pillar of crimson fire. "Maybe if I take that out, that might be enough of a distraction to give the others a chance to get that tablet." She raised her hands to aim - and found herself tackled to the ground by a low-flying Halfling in a denim jacket. Ash blonde hair tumbled out from under a red baseball hat shook loose in the collision.
"It was a good idea," the Halfling said, "and it might have worked but really, pussycat, didn't anyone tell you not to talk to yourself? You never know who might be listening."
"Oh, shut up!" Maggie yowled and let loose with another electro-zap. It had even less oomph that the one before it.
The Halfling tumbled back in the air a few yards before recovering and righting herself. She grinned. "Oh... pretty kitty's got some claws. Let's see how pretty the kitty is after I shave her." She made snipping motions with her fingers like a pair of scissors, then flicked her hand open and shimmering, golden, six-inch blades appeared on the fingers of her right hand.
* * * * *
Elisa, Fox, and Fox's two remaining Iron Clan robots were facing off against the Halfling that was defending Maeve in her mystic circle. Somehow the blonde in the leather jacket had thrown up a force field that the robots were bouncing off of and still had the power left over to zing well-aimed energy bolts at Fox and Elisa.
"This is no good," Fox muttered. "They can't touch us, but we can't touch them, either."
"I don't think that's a problem," Elisa replied. "We're not here to fight them. We're here to destroy the tablet."
"You've got a good point," Fox admitted. "Any ideas how we can get to the tablet without them taking us down first?"
"Maybe..." Elisa answered, brow furrowed in thought. "First, we've got to collapse that force field so we can get a clear shot at that tablet. There's got be some way to get in."
"An' who says you'll be gettin' th' chance?" asked a mocking voice from above. The Morrigan hung in the air, the tatters of her dress floating about. Her hands suddenly filled with fire.
Fox didn't waste time. Twin missile launchers popped out her shoulder plating and fired a salvo out the airborne Unseelie. "Think fast, detective," she said bluntly, "They're popping out of the woodwork and we're running out of time."
* * * * *
Angela finally caught a sufficient updraft. She had lost precious seconds of battle time, and there was not a moment to spare. The first thing she noticed was that her mother was about to be pulverized. She dove, and snatched away her mother just as the two identical Halflings holding her released their charged energy. Demona was ripped free of their grasp, and each energy blast struck the other caster, knocking both to the ground and relieving both of consciousness. The two bodies shimmered a moment and then fused back into one.
"Thank you, my daughter," Demona said, as she and Angela landed a few yards away. "The Halfling took me by surprise. I had no idea that anyone would be capable of holding two bodies without going insane. To my knowledge, even most of the Third Race are incapable of such a task."
"Well, I wouldn't rule out the possibility that she was already insane," Angela remarked. She narrowed her eyes at the fallen Halfling and noticed the snake-like fangs. "I wouldn't be surprised if this is the same one that bit Broadway."
An energy blast split the air and both mother and daughter stared sharply across to the opposite tower. Maeve was bathed in red moonbeams, her emerald hair and her long cape swirling around her in the magical currents eddying around her. The circle was crackling with energy now, streaming up into the turbulent sky.
"She's raising the full power of the Blood Moon spell," Demona observed as she narrowed her eyes. "Alone? Is she insane?"
Angela bit her tongue and instead asked, "What do you mean, Mother?"
"This Unseelie sorceress is arrogant indeed," Demona answered. "She is attempting to finish the spell but she stands alone. That spell requires a certain balance." She glanced at Angela. "We should get out of range before it backfires on her and destroys us all."
"No, mother." Angela's eyes flashed. "I will not allow her to finish that spell and I will not abandon this fight to save my own skin. There must be another way."
Demona glared back at her, eyes hot. "Someday, I sincerely hope you'll grow out of this idealism of yours, but it would appear the time is not now," she snapped out between clenched teeth. "Very well then. Let us see how well you've remembered tonight's lessons…"
* * * * *
Sata blew the sweat out of her eyes with a quick puff of breath. The gargoyle could tell that her opponent was not fighting at full strength, but nevertheless, Anath was still quick and agile enough to block her every strike. The lightning fast jabs and strokes of her spear that took every ounce of Sata's speed to avoid and block. Worse, her wakizashi had been knocked to the other side of the roof, leaving her with only her katana to fight with.
"Wonderful, wonderful!" Anath enthused. "I haven't had a workout like this in centuries! I should remember to weaken myself the next time I fight a mortal. Otherwise, there's hardly any sport in it at all. Can you feel the blood pumping, my fiery young friend?"
Sata ignored her, fighting to squash the irritation she felt at the fay's light-hearted banter. She could hear old Omi-san's voice in her head: A warrior never becomes irritated in battle. To do so is to give your opponent an edge. But Omi-san had never fought a god. From the days of her very youth, Sata had been warned that the day could come when she would be faced with an opponent she could not hope to defeat and she had believed that if she ever encountered such an adversary, she would face her death with honor, fighting to the bitter end.
However, as blow after blow drove her back, a smaller, childish voice replaced Omi-san's in Sata's mind and for a bright moment that stopped time, Sata once again saw the moment the twins' eggs cracked. Felt the claws of the small green hatchling that would not wait for her to pick him up but instead climbed up her arm and wrapped his tail around her wrist like a little monkey, her chibi-saru-kun. Looked into the eyes of her firstborn and knew she would never let anyone harm him. The vibration of spear striking sword brought Sata back to the battle.
"Daydreaming?" Anath laughed deeply. "You disappoint me. Have you no pride?"
A growl started low in Sata's chest and rose to a high-pitched, defiant eagle's shriek as she charged back into the Unseelie war goddess with a renewed strength. Her crimson eyes glowed brighter than the ruddy moon above. Sparks flew from their weapons as they clashed.
"Anath, forget her!" Maeve called. "To me, quickly! The spell must be protected!"
Anath spun to see that one of the three Halflings guarding Maeve had been eliminated and the other was fighting a cat-like creature not unlike Sekhmet, leaving only Candy to protect her Queen from Elisa, Fox, and two iron-clad robots. Anath cursed herself for losing track of the situation during her battle with Sata. With a cry of fury, she launched herself into the air, spear outstretched, and slammed into one of the robots. Ignoring the burning sensation where her skin touched the machine, she drove the spitted thing into the roof, where it lay pinned. She dodged back, and a few moments later it exploded.
Anath only had a moment to observe her handiwork when her legs were swept out from under her. She hit the ground and immediately tensed to spring to her feet, eager to skewer whoever had dared to attack her. When her eyes focused, however, she froze. Sata stood above her, shining katana pointed directly between her eyes.
"You will yield," Sata said calmly, "or you will die." The look she gave Anath dared the Unseelie to tempt fate.
"Elisa!" came Angela's voice over the comset. "Mother and I have an idea to bring down the force field. Can you and Fox be ready to take out the tablet?"
The dark-haired police officer glanced at Fox who nodded. "Do it, Angela."
"I'll deploy my last robot," Fox said, tapping a button on her helmet and quietly sending a signal to the two remaining Iron Clan robots.
"I'll take the chick in the leather jacket," Elisa said curtly, "you get that tablet."
"Got it in my sights," Fox replied as she lined up her arm blaster.
"They're ready, Mother," Angela reported.
"Very well." Demona pointed. "Look within the circle of the force field. There are some bags lying on the ground. Do you see them?"
"Seize them with your mind, feel the weight of them, visualize lifting them…."
Angela's eyes glazed over and she bit her lip in concentration. "Yes…"
Behind Candy's back, a red shopping bag rose from the pile of loot yet to go back to the Brocken. Neither she nor Maeve, who was deep into her spellcasting, noticed. A second bag rose steadily to join the first in mid-air.
"I have mine," Demona said carefully in Angela's ear. "Now, hurl the bag at that Halfling! Distract her enough and she won't be able to hold the force field. Now!!"
Angela ground her teeth and flung the shopping directly at Candy, hitting her just above the shoulder blades and knocking her off balance. Demona's improvised missile hit considerably harder and knocked her down on one knee but it was Elisa's gunfire that drove Candy face-first into the gravel.
"Alpha," Fox barked into her helmet mike, "Execute maneuver now!!" She and the robot separated, and then simultaneously fired, the robot unleashing a lethal blast toward the Queen of the Unseelies herself, while her own blast targeted the bronze tablet before her.
Maeve's eyes widened with horror as she saw the blast approaching. "NO!!" she shrieked, too wrapped in the spell to move.
"I've got you, cousin!" The Morrigan swept out of the sky like a dark wraith and snatched Maeve away from the mystic circle.
Fox's energy bolt struck the bronze tablet dead center, melting it into a puddle of steaming liquid. Without the engraved words of the spell to contain and focus it, the power of the spell suddenly discharged in a wide-spreading fine mist of crimson light, tinting everything in shades of red. A heartbeat passed, then another, and then the mists began to clear. The full moon came from behind the drifting clouds, cool and crisp and white.
Anath wasted no time in using the distraction to her advantage. She jerked Sata off her feet by her tail and bolted for the portal, passing through it just before Maeve and the Morrigan.
The Unseelie Queen turned back, her eyes once again emerald. "Don't think you've won just yet," she said in a bitter voice, still quavering from the shock of the spell being broken, "because you haven't." With that, she and the Morrigan disappeared into portal, which promptly winked away into nothingness.
Candy came to just in time to see the big guns of the Unseelie Court leaving. "Uh, oh," she muttered and struggled to her feet. She assessed the situation quickly and didn't like the odds at all. Rita had disappeared from where she had gone out so Candy figured that she had already left the party early but there was still one Halfling totally oblivious to current events.
Tanya had wrapped a force field tightly around the feline mutate and was chuckling softly. She ran her bladed fingers through Maggie's hair lightly. "Snip! Snip!" she teased. "Gonna shave you, stray!"
Maggie snarled and shut her eyes tightly, releasing all her stores of charge as soon as she felt the blades drift away from her flesh. Her fur stood on edge and sparks flickered rapidly all over her fur. The electricity danced over her and the Halfling.
Caught by surprise again, the shock scorched Tanya and threw her a dozen feet back into the rooftop gravel. She started to get to her feet and was startled to find hands pulling her up. She looked up into Candy's face.
"Leave her!" Candy ordered sharply. "Maeve's split and we're left holding the bag!"
Tanya gave a startled look around and realized the senior Halfling was right. She grinned smugly at Maggie. "Catch you later, hairball." Then both halfings jumped off the building and spirited themselves away.
* * * * *
A few moments later, the exhausted heroines gathered at the edge of the ravaged rooftop. "Well, it looks as though we're all in one piece," Elisa noted with relief.
"I cannot say that I am altogether satisfied," Sata noted. Her voice was calm, but the edge of anger beneath the calm was unmistakable even as she carefully leaned her sword before sheathing it.
"Well, I think things turned out great," Fox said enthusiastically. "This is the first battle that actually ended with some of our Clan robots still intact! It looks like our AI upgrades are really working out. David's gonna be very pleased."
"Please," said an exhausted and drained Maggie. "Can we just go home?"
"I agree," Demona said. "The spell has been nullified, and soon the humans of this area will recover. Our work here is done." Demona's look soured. "Besides, I must see if those wretched cats left anything of my home."
"I'll go with you, mother," Angela said.
Demona was surprised. "Aren't you eager to see Broadway and Goliath safe and sound?"
"You say they are, and that is enough for me," Angela replied. "I will see them soon enough. You helped save the clan tonight, Mother, and I think helping you put your house in order is the least I can do."
Elisa smiled at the tender display, "Don't worry, Angela. The guys are in good hands."
"All right, then," Fox commanded. "Let's head home." Sata carefully grasped Elisa, and the triumphant heroines took wing.
* * * * *
Demona and Angela could see the damage to the manor house before they even landed. In taking out their vengeance upon Destine Manor, Sekhmet and her were-cheetahs had left ruin in their wake. The lawn was littered with the shattered fragments of the statues that had earlier decorated it. Shards of glass lay in the grass beneath broken windows.
They landed in the courtyard and stepped over the remains of the large oak door as they entered. Angela held her nose.
"Eeeeeuw! What is that smell?"
"Animal musk." Demona had her face screwed up in distaste as well. "I'll have to have the cleaners in to fumigate the place."
Together they stood, side by side, as they looked round the foyer, which looked as if a hurricane with claws had gone through it. The security panel, which had been left open, was destroyed; its monitor shattered and the keypad broken. The Renaissance statuary used to destroy it was still lodged in its screen. Clawmarks ran over the walls and doors, deep scars in the oak paneling. The vases and portraits that once decorated the antechamber were broken and scattered across the floor.
"If I ever get my talons on that lion-headed wench and her were-cheetahs," Demona grumbled under her breath, "I'll turn them all into rugs!" She continued to grumble as they struggled through the debris, becoming more and more agitated at the state of her ruined house. An answering machine hung haphazardly off a table, blinking and playing its tape over and over.
"<BEEP!> Dominique? It's Andrea. Just wanted to check up on you. It's a zoo out there tonight! Call me and let me know you're okay. <BEEP!> Dominique? It's Andrea. Just wanted to --" Demona sighed bitterly and carefully re-wound the tape, setting the machine back in its accustomed place.
Angela, as if sensing her mother's feelings, gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze. "It's going to be all right, Mother. Aren't you the one who's always telling me that they're only things? You and I survived and that's what's really important, isn't it?"
Demona sighed with a mix of frustration and contentment. "You are right, of course, my dear. I will overcome this minor setback. It's only furniture, not my really importa-" Her eyes widened and she gasped. "My laboratory!"
Demona dashed down a dimly lit hallway to the right, carefully avoiding the litter of shattered cabinet that once stood at the base of the stairs. Angela started to follow but stepped on something dark and wet at the foot of the stairs. She knelt down, touched the strange liquid hesitantly, and sniffed her fingers.
"Blood?" Angela made a face and followed the trail towards the kitchens.
Demona treaded slowly as she approached the unremarkable door at the end of the hall. It felt as if a frigid hand was locked around her heart, squeezing it tightly. What if they'd noticed it? If they had, were her wards been enough to stop Sekhmet from getting in? What if they'd found his notes?
Fearful of the answers, she lay her hand on the door and a green light flashed around its frame before it slowly opened. Inside, she scanned the room, a random clutter of objects, jars of powders and unfinished circuit boards covering most of the horizontal surfaces. Chaotic though it was, it was her own chaos. Things had been left undisturbed. They'd not found her workroom nor Michel's notes which she kept inside.
Meanwhile, Angela followed the brownish-red trail of pale, bloody pawprints leading from the kitchen where they originated. She knew her mother kept no permanent staff at her home, but someone might have noticed the noise of the destruction and come to investigate. The room looked like World War Three had hit it, but there were no signs of a body, thankfully.
The cupboards had been torn open and many of the dishes shattered. The contents of the fridge and the pantry were scattered onto the floor, dry cereals and pasta spilt in patches on the white tile. Among the puddle of warm milk and trampled bread in front of the open refrigerator were the remains of packets of steak and veal torn open and consumed, the source of the bloody stains.
Relieved, Angela found a trash bag and started cleaning up the mess.
* * * * *
Castle Wyvern, Eyrie Building
All the way home, Sata had been silently mulling over Maeve's last words. Had they been too late? A cold pang of doubt sat heavily in her stomach. She could tell by the way she kept chewing her lip that Elisa was similarly worried. Finally the Eyrie building loomed into sight and as they grew closer, they could see Delilah talking to Coldfire and Coldstone on the parapets.
"Hey!" Elisa called when she and Sata touched down, Maggie, Fox and the remaining Iron Clan robot close behind. "How are the guys? Are they better?"
Delilah shook her head. "The same, some a little worse when I came out here to patrol the castle. I was telling Coldstone and Coldfire all that has happened." She made a little apologetic face. "It has been a while since I came out. Things could have changed."
Sata closed her eyes and took a deep breath to steady herself. She took her swords from her obi and tightened her hands around them, prepared for the worst. Just then, a big commotion erupted from just inside the castle, and Graeme barreled out with Nudnik on his heels and the other males not far behind. He looked at her and gave her that roguish grin he had inherited from his father.
Her swords fell unnoticed to the ground as Sata raced to embrace her son. "Oh, Graeme," she sniffed, holding him tightly, fingers ruffling through his dark hair. "Oh, chibi-saru-kun! I was so worried about you!"
Brooklyn sauntered up with an arm around Ariana's shoulders and laughed. "Gee, do you suppose your mother will be as glad to see me too?"
Sata glanced at him with sparkling eyes. "Baka-Brooklyn-san!" she said in mock severity, "You know very well that you were born under a lucky star, Timedancer." She laughed. "Yes, of course, I was worried about you too. Come here, my loves. Let me hold all of you."
"Well, my dear," Xanatos said a smirk, "have a good night out with the girls?"
"Just like old times," Fox said, taking the helmet from her head and shaking out her long red tresses. "How do you feel, David?"
"Fine," Xanatos answered. "Whatever it was stopped about fifteen minutes ago. Sharon's checked us all out. We're all a hundred percent A-okay."
Elisa and Goliath's reunion required very few words. She reached out to him with questioning eyes before touching him, assuring herself that he was well and burrowing into his arms.
Hudson, Broadway and Lexington standing around and taking it all in. Broadway scratched his head and asked, "Hey, where's Angela?"
Sata pulled away from her group hug. "A thousand pardons, Broadway-san. Angela went to help her mother put her house in order. She should be back soon."
"It's just as well," Lex commented, "it's just sickening how some males get all the attention around here."
Ariana giggled and bounced over to give all three of them both hugs and kisses. "There! There! And there!"
* * * * *
The Brocken, Germany
Maeve looked over the stolen trinkets in her possession. There was knocking at her door. "Enter," she commanded.
Sekhmet entered the chamber carrying what appeared to be a ruby necklace; the scent of magic radiated from it. "This is the last of them," said the lion-headed goddess.
Maeve took it from her and placed it with the rest of their trinkets. "Thank you," she said. "You are dismissed, Lady Sekhmet."
Sekhmet turned to leave but then stopped and faced the Unseelie Queen. "If I may ask, why didn't we finish it? The mortals were no match for us."
Maeve looked Sekhmet straight in the eyes. "The battle was lost, but our mission had succeeded. There was no point in staying. Our enemies in Manhattan shall be taken care of all in due time."
"I must confess that I found this to be a glorious night," said Sekhmet.
"It was at that." Maeve smiled. "You are dismissed." Sekhmet nodded and exited the chamber. Maeve turned her attention back towards the evening's haul. "All fine additions to my collection," she said, smiling.
There was a sudden knocking upon the chamber door. "Enter," she said politely. The door opened and Garlon stepped in.
"Lord Madoc requests your presence in the Great Hall, my Queen," said the man with the mouse brown hair.
"Of course," said Maeve.
* * * * *
Maeve stepped into the War Room to find Madoc once again standing on the balcony staring out at the Harz Mountains.
"You wished to see me, milord?" she asked.
Madoc turned and smiled. "I have news, Maeve," he said smugly.
"Go on," she said.
"I received a report from Huitzilopochtli and Camazotz earlier. There is a Mayan pyramid in Guatemala that has captured my interest."
"A Mayan pyramid? That hardly seems worth our concern," said Maeve.
"True." said the Unseelie Lord. "But a deeper investigation has discovered that there is a trace of magic about the pyramid. And there are rumors of demons in that area of the rainforest."
"Didn't Jackal and Hyena do a job in Guatemala for Cyberbiotics?" said Maeve.
"Yes," replied Madoc. "I did not inquire at the time, but they were dismissed from the employment of Cyberbiotics for botching an operation down there. If I knew where to find them now I would inquire."
"Gargoyles?" said Maeve.
"A possibility. I will have Huitzilopochtli conduct a deeper investigation," Madoc replied. "Now, how went your night in Manhattan?"
Maeve looked at him with a satisfied smile. "There's little more powerful than a good luck charm left in the city. Our other preparations are nearly complete."
Madoc returned her smile. "We have waited for this moment," he said. "Our time is nearly at hand, my dear Maeve. At last. It shall all come to pass."
"By this time next year...."
"Avalon and the entire world will be at our feet." Madoc finished.
* * * * *