The Darkest Hour, Part 1
Written by: Todd Jensen, Batya "The Toon" Levin, and Stephen Sobotka, Jr.
With additional material by: Christi Smith Hayden, Kathy Pogge, and Patrick Toman
Story concept by: The TGS Staff
Illustrations by Jennifer "CrzyDemona" Anderson
Previously on Gargoyles…
Madoc: "A very long time ago, Lord Oberon usurped the throne of Avalon, the throne that was mine by right. When I asserted my right as the Fair Folk's true ruler, he banished me and all those who held with me to the outside world. And ever since then, that pretender has been misruling my people and my kingdom, to their detriment. I am going to recover what is mine by right."
"Forward!" cried Madoc, raising his sword aloft. "Ride throughout this city, my warriors! This is our night!"
Cheers answered him, cheers from the assembled Unseelies. Madoc nodded in satisfaction. "This is only the beginning!" he roared over the cheers.
Umbriel stared back at the motionless body of the sign-carrying prophet. "Was that really necessary?" he whispered to Garlon.
"Was what necessary?" Garlon asked, confused. He followed Umbriel's gaze to the crumbled man and his crushed sign. "Oh, you mean the human." He shrugged. "What about him?"
Umbriel gaped at the faded man. "What do mean, 'what about him'? He just died!"
Garlon gave Umbriel a look of non-comprehension. "They all die, boy."
"Your punishment will seem an eternity," Selene began.
"But the time will come," continued Phoebe.
"When even Oberon cannot deny your might," concluded Luna.
"I will be restored?" Madoc asked, his eyes beginning to gleam with thoughts of revenge.
Maeve looked at the sisters intently. "What are you three about?"
The sisters exchanged a glance, engaged in a silent debate.
"Oberon's edict of banishment still stands," said Selene breaking the silence after many long moments. "You both are unwelcome in Avalon, as are all who hold with you."
"Never seek to return," said golden-haired Phoebe. "Your exile is eternal."
For a few moments, the Weird Sisters were silent. Then, silver-haired Luna held up her hands, and a small glowing sphere formed in them. She passed it to Phoebe, who in turn, passed it to Selene. And as each one did so, the sphere began to grow larger, and strange images formed in its depths. Images that Madoc and Maeve had to crane their necks outward to see.
"But know this, Lord of the Unseelie Court," said Luna, in a clear, loud voice. "The time of your diminishment will not be forever. The hour will come when you regain your ancient might, and your followers will assemble once more."
"And in that hour," said Phoebe, "let all mortals tremble, for the return of the Unseelie Court will be dreadful indeed. The hour of its re-awakening will be a time of woe for many."
~ The Rising ~
* * * * *
The Darkest Hour, Part 1
* * * * *
April 29, 1999
The Brocken, Germany
Madoc Morfryn, Lord of the Unseelie Court, seated himself in his chair at the head of the council table in the War Room, and silently gazed at the faces of his immediate vassals, already gathered there.
The brown-haired and utterly nondescript Garlon. Loki Laufeyson, one of the most infamous tricksters among the Third Race, and the leading renegade of the Aesir tribe. Herne ap Cernunnos, the antler-crowned master of the Wild Hunt. The wild-haired Morrigan, a sower of discord and strife wherever she went. The haughty lioness-headed Sekhmet. Anath, her chief rival among the war-goddesses of the ancient Middle East, who sat as far away from her at the council table as she could and gazed at her with thinly disguised hostility, hostility which Sekhmet returned in her own icy stare. Huitzilopochtli, who had once been worshipped by the ancient Aztecs as their utterly ruthless god of war. The dark-haired and unkempt Ictinike, who had been similarly worshipped among the Plains tribes of North America. Surtur, the dreaded fire demon who led the Sons of Muspell, who shrouded himself with darkness and held a flaming sword in his hands. Rangda, the Dark Lady of the East, whose name had been used to strike fear in the hearts of the people of Bali for many generations. And Queen Maeve, his co-ruler for ten millennia, seating herself at his side - at his side, where she had always been.
"We are all present," he said, nodding approvingly. "Now, to begin. We have finally - thanks to our contacts in Japan - confirmed those suspicions of ours of a clan of gargoyles hiding in that small village known as Ishimura. That completes our tally of all gargoyle clans across the globe -- twelve all told."
"Which means, in turn," put in Maeve, "that we can finally move in and annihilate them all, thus ensuring that the prophecy can never be fulfilled. And after that, there'll be nothin' to stop us from enslaving the humans and conquering Avalon."
Madoc reached out over the large map of the world upon the council table, and gestured over it. Semi-transparent images of gargoyles blossomed across the map, indicating the locations of the clans. "Our first move must be to attack those places, and see to it that none of the gargoyles there escape. No mercy is to be shown, no quarter given - with two exceptions. The gargoyles in Manhattan known as Goliath and Angela must be taken alive. They have been to Avalon, and we must obtain the spell needed to reach our former homeland in order to invade it."
"But we get to kill 'em afterwards, don't we?" asked Loki.
Madoc nodded. "And when we invade Avalon, we must slaughter the gargoyles dwelling there as well, down to the last one. That will not be too difficult to carry out, in truth. According to the information that the Banshee gave us before she defected--" Maeve scowled at this moment, but said nothing -- "Oberon has named the gargoyles there his guard of honor - which means that they will form his first line of defense to counter our invasion. They will all quickly perish."
Maeve caught Loki's subtly disguised yawn of boredom and smiled ferally. "Don't worry, trickster we're just gettin' started." The map began to blossom with new images: a colossal clay figure, a man in unearthly silvery armor, panthers and costumed dancers. "It would seem that the touch of Avalon's magic has spread all over this globe." The fay queen's eyes glowed an unholy green. "But before this night has ended, we'll wipe it clean again." Loki and his companions leaned forward eagerly. "The only mortals that shall be Avalon touched will be of our choosing, the slaves we allow to serve us."
There was a general murmur of agreement before Madoc gently cleared his throat.
"Garlon, what is the report from London?" asked Madoc. "Has Mr. Montrose's factory completed work on its main project yet?"
"Almost," said Garlon, nodding. "But there's been some holdup here. The inversion apparatus is having trouble isolating the right sound. We've lost almost half our test subjects already. The men have been working on a filter circuit, but there have been problems in the manufacturing process, something about a parts shortage. I've asked the gnomes if there's an alternative, but they haven't been able to come up with anything."
"Couldn't, or wouldn't?" asked Maeve. "Those slaves have been somewhat willful of late."
"They're at a genuine loss, my lady," said Garlon. "I don't think that they're being difficult on purpose this time."
"Well, we will need to find the answer, and swiftly," said Madoc. "Where are the devices now?"
"Already in our storerooms here, my liege," said Garlon. "Once we know what we need to do to complete them, we can easily turn them over to the gnomes, and have them install the last component swiftly."
"Then we must find another way," said Madoc. "I think we need to go back to those whose work first inspired this project. Appeal to their... spirit of scientific inquiry."
Garlon nodded. "I'll send some small contingents there at once, my lord," he said.
"Very good," said Madoc. "This council is dismissed, for now. Prepare your forces for battle. We must be ready to depart at a moment's notice."
The Unseelie nobles rose from their seats and left the hall. Garlon was heading for the door when a hand caught at his elbow. He turned around to see the Morrigan beside him. "What is it, Eris?"
She smiled up at him. "A word with you, milord?"
* * * * *
April 30, 1999
Emrys Hawkins glanced at himself in the mirror, and nodded with satisfaction. "Yes, I think that I look tidy enough," he said, laying the comb down on the table. "Well, it looks as though I'm all set to leave."
There was a sudden knock on the door to his room. "Yes?" he asked.
"We're holding a council at the Mystic shop," said Arthur's voice.
"Well, thanks," said Emrys. "Just tell me what you decided on when you get back."
"You don't understand, Emrys," said Arthur. "You have to come with us. We need everyone there."
"What?" cried the boy sharply. "Arthur, I have other things to attend to this evening! I can't come! You'll have to go without me."
"That is out of the question," the king replied. "Una's been consulting her cards again. They all seem to indicate that something very nasty is going to happen."
"I always tended to be skeptical about just how reliable Tarot cards are," Emrys retorted. "For all that we know, it could be just another false alarm."
"I doubt that," said Arthur. "Whatever it is that you're planning on doing this evening, you will simply have to cancel it. We must meet to decide a course of action at once."
Emrys sighed. "All right, I'll come," he said. "But I still think that this is probably going to turn out to be just a repeat of the Wootsie debacle."
He muttered something under his breath. "Why did it have to be the very night that Corbie and I were going out to the cinema? Some people have no sense of proper timing!"
* * * * *
"I tried the cards three times tonight," said Una. "And each time, they pointed to the same pattern. Something terrible is to come, this very night. Before tomorrow's dawn, much sorrow and grief will unfold, and the Unseelie Court is bound with it."
"You weren't able to gain any details, were you?" asked Colin Marter. "Will it be another Basilisk night, or something worse?"
"Worse, I fear," said Una. "In fact, the cards say that before this night is done, there will be many losses." She frowned. "But the precise nature of those losses, I was unable to determine. The picture that they gave was confused and enigmatic. I will need time to study them."
"I don't suppose that you've got anything to add, do you, Merlin?" asked Rory, looking straight at Emrys, who had been seated beside Arthur, looking sulky since the council had first begun. "I mean, you know the future and all that. Could you tell us what's supposed to happen?"
"Don't you people ever learn?" asked Emrys in disgust. "I don't control these future visions of mine. I never have. They come when I need them, and when I don't need them, they stay away. You won't believe just how often I've had to tell that to people, Mister Dugan. Now, don't even think of asking me about the future again! If I know the answer, I'll tell you, but not otherwise!"
Rory was not the only one to stare puzzledly at the boy after he gave his outburst. "Well," said Griff, finally breaking the uncomfortable silence, "what do you suppose we should do?"
"Until we know the precise nature of this danger, that is hard to decide," said Arthur. "We must be ready for all possibilities. Griff, I want you to telephone the estate and let Michael know about this. Tell him to have all of the gargoyles there on stand-by alert for when this peril strikes. They must be ready to come to London at a moment's notice."
"Right-ho," said Griff, rising.
"Una, consult the cards again," said Arthur. "Maybe you can find something in them to help guide us further. And Emrys, assist her."
"Assist her?" asked Emrys. "Whatever for? Arthur, with all due respect for the company here, I've always felt that Tarot cards weren't the most reliable means of divining the future. Besides, I am getting tired of you always looking to me the moment something around here goes wrong. You're a grown man, Arthur! You should learn to think for yourself, rather than turning to me whenever you've got a problem!"
"That's not what I meant - " Arthur began.
"You're all capable of settling the Unseelie Court without me!" snapped Emrys, rising to his feet, and sweeping the assembled council with his angry gaze. "Deal with this yourselves! As for me, I've got better things to do!" And with that, he stomped out of the room.
Arthur stared after his rejuvenated advisor in silence, and then sighed. "I don't know what it is," he said. "He didn't seem happy to come with me here, and he was out of sorts all the way here."
"You don't suppose he was planning on meeting his girlfriend tonight, do you?" asked Leba.
"Well, it's entirely possible," said Arthur, after a brief and thoughtful silence. "In truth, the last time that I saw him like this was during the time that he was courting Nimue. He was always refusing to attend my councils, insisting that he had business in Brittany to attend to, and then - " He suddenly fell silent again, a troubled look on his face now.
"Several years spent imprisoned in the Tower of Air?" asked Griff.
"Precisely," said Arthur. He gazed worriedly at the door that Emrys had slammed behind him.
* * * * *
Corbie was standing at their usual spot, waiting quietly by the curb.
"Hi, Corbie," he said, smiling. "Sorry I'm late. My guardian wanted me to go to a meeting with him, but I managed to ditch him."
She nodded. "So we're going to the cinema tonight?" she asked him.
"Yes," he said. "We can still make the ten-thirty showing. All we need now is a cab."
Just as he spoke, a black taxi cab came driving down the road. Emrys hailed it, and it halted just where he and Corbie stood.
"The Odeon, please," he said to the driver, as he and Corbie climbed in.
The driver nodded and drove off. An odd smile formed on his face, as he pulled his cap a bit further down over his mousy-brown hair.
* * * * *
Somewhere in Europe
"Reports around the world confirm that this sudden mysterious weather pattern is indeed global," Travis Marshall was saying on the television screen. "Our latest reports indicate that some of the worst of the snow storms are taking place here in the northeastern United States, with blizzard conditions currently gripping much of the eastern seaboard. Similar abnormally strong late-season winter storms are also affecting most of Great Britain and a large section of central Europe, but regions across the entire planet have been affected by what many meteorologists are saying is the farthest southward dip of the jet stream to ever be recorded."
Travis looked off camera as a paper was handed to him. "And this just in. The White House has just issued an official State of Emergency for all of the United States east of the Mississippi River. And it appears that the governments of several European countries may shortly be following suit - "
Mr. Duval stared at the screen, then pushed the intercom button by his armchair. "Giles!" he said.
"Yes, sir?" asked his aide's voice.
"I want an immediate meeting of the Inner Circle," Duval ordered. "Send out word to all upper-echelon members at once!"
* * * * *
Isle of Honshu, Japan
At a small roadside shrine, a pair of monks paused to rest in the shade of the ruined columns that once supported a stone roof.
"I say it is foolish of us to have traveled this far," the one said to the other, stamping his feet to keep the evening chill from turning them into ice. "Especially at night!"
The second replied, "We must take the risk, Brother. The vision I have seen grows stronger and more clear with each passing day."
The first monk scowled. "Brother, I am with you in faith, and as a friend, but this vision must be madness! Evil unchained..."
"An evil unchained will raise an army against the islands of the Sun, and the first attack will fall upon a stone village, where only the spirits -- the sleepers-that-watch -- can stand against it." He turned to look down into the valley below. "But, these spirits will fail, unless the sleepers do not rest. That is what I have seen. And that is why we must travel to Ishimura."
"Stone Village." The first monk pulled his robes tighter against his body. "Are you quite certain there are these... sleepers there?"
"They must be there, Brother," the second said, his eyes glittering with emotion, "or our homeland will not survive to see another day." Pulling himself to his feet, he motioned to the ill-used path that led down the mountain side. "Come. We have rested long enough. When next we pause, it will be inside Sendai Castle!"
* * * * *
In the bushes, two pairs of eyes glittered.
"Did you hear, Akaru-san?"
"Hai," came the answer. "When even the human seers are having visions, it must be close. And the Banished Ones plan to strike Ishimura, or I am a one-tailed fool!"
"The prophecy," said the first and lighter voice. "He could never pass by that village while the two mortal races live together there."
"Find the Master and Mistress, Kinu-chan," ordered Akaru. "Tell them it's to be tomorrow. They'll know what to do."
The female nodded. "And what will you do, Akaru-san?"
"Hush," he told her. "Are we not of the Seven-Tails? And forbidden to act, yes, but surely not forbidden to... make suggestions."
"But, what of our Master's Lord? His word--"
"Kinu-chan!" the male reached over to grip his companion's shoulder. "Our Master will speak for us. He will witness that we have not broken Oberon's law. And," he added, "the Queen will speak for us, as well."
Kinu nuzzled him briefly, sighing once as she stirred herself. "Just be careful, beloved," she whispered. "If our Master and Mistress do not come in time, you will be lost when the Banished Ones attack!"
Returning her nuzzle, Akaru motioned her on. "Go, isogi! I shall go to Ishimura. They will need a little help to prepare for the coming storm."
* * * * *
"I'm not closing the store, Matthew," Mr. Jaffe repeated.
"But the city's declared a state of emergency," Matt Bluestone told him. "People are supposed to stay inside. They're predicting killing temperatures tonight."
"All the more reason," Jaffe said stubbornly. "Anyone comes outside in that because there's no food in the house, they're going to need someone to be here. And they're not going to find my place closed." He busied himself with something behind the counter. "Besides, I'll be inside in the warm. You're the one out patrolling the streets."
"That's our job," Matt argued. "The captain's put every available cop on the beat to try and keep the city safe right now."
"Exactly," Jaffe answered. "And it's my job to sell groceries, and right now is when folks will need it most."
Matt pushed a hand through his hair and tried again. "Mr. Jaffe, you could wind up trapped here."
"So I'd be better off trapped in my apartment?" Jaffe shook his head, chuckling. "Listen, Matthew. If it starts to look that bad, I'll empty the cash register and go home, and leave the heat on and the doors unlocked in case anyone comes by."
"That's the best I'll get from you, I guess." Matt shook his head. "If that's a promise...."
"You coming, Bluestone?" Sara Jasper stood in the doorway, wearing a heavy parka and scarf over her street clothes.
"Be right out," Matt called over his shoulder, then lowered his voice. "Mr. Jaffe, will you please be careful? That's all I'm asking."
"Of course, Matthew." The old man touched his shoulder. "You take care of yourself out there."
Matt joined Sara at the door, and the two continued down the snowy street. "Stop for coffee soon?" he suggested as he pulled his gloves on.
"Definitely," she agreed. "I'm wearing three layers under this coat and I'm still cold."
"I suppose the phrase 'huddling together for warmth' wouldn't go over too well?" Matt asked, straight-faced.
"Drop dead, Bluestone," she said amiably.
* * * * *
"And right here in New York, the storms still show no sign of ending, but rather, are growing worse," said Travis Marshall. "We urge all citizens to remain indoors at all costs, and not to venture out. Emergency rescue teams are being organized even as we speak -- "
"How very intriguing," said the shadowed figure seated in the wheelchair. He continued to watch the television screen thoughtfully, an odd expression upon his face.
* * * * *
"You'd never believe that it's the eve of Beltane," Emrys commented glumly as he looked out the window. The snow was piled high on the pavement on both sides of the London street, and the wind blew harshly, its whining clearly audible even from the relatively warm interior of the cab.
"Beltane?" asked Corbie.
"That's the first day of spring on the old Celtic calendar," he explained. "It's May Day now. It's one of the great turning points of the Celtic year, kind of like Samhain -- you call it Halloween now. According to Irish mythology, it's the night that winter and spring do battle with each other. It's even said that the great battle between the Tuatha de Danaan and the Fomorians was fought at Moytura on this very date."
Corbie's eyes gleamed. "Truly?"
"It's also Walpurgis Eve, if you want to get involved with Continental legends," he continued. "They used to believe, back in medieval Germany, that all the witches and demons would get together for a big feast, up in the mountains." He looked a little sheepish, just then. "I hope that I'm not boring you," he added. "I've always been rather fond of legends, and I can rattle on about them for ages. I hope that you don't mind."
"Not at all," said Corbie with that half-shy smile.
Emrys returned her smile, but something was nagging at him. He glanced out the window again, and frowned. "This isn't the way to the cinema."
Corbie looked as well. "Maybe 's a short cut?" She didn't sound certain.
Emrys leaned forward and tapped at the driver's shoulder. "What are you playing at?" he demanded. "You're taking us the wrong -- way...."
He trailed off. For a moment, he had seen the driver's eyes in the rear-view mirror. And for a moment, the eyes had been glowing green.
The driver said nothing, but accelerated sharply enough to throw Emrys back into his seat and turned off the street into an alleyway.
Emrys fumbled for the door handle with shaking hands, and caught Corbie's suddenly wide-eyed and scared gaze. "Something's not right," he said to her in an undertone, fighting for control of his voice. "Get out of the car as soon as it slows down, and run."
The cab swerved sideways and screeched to a halt, left side foremost in the alley, and Corbie jerked at her door handle. It didn't move. Emrys reached over, yanked the door-lock button up, and wrenched the door open.
Movement stirred in the alley in front of them, the dim distant streetlights reflecting off a bronze-studded club here, a set of glistening sharp teeth there; a shadow shifted, detached itself from the deeper shadows, and became a stumpy figure topped with a blood-red cap.
Emrys slammed the car door almost in Corbie's face, flung his own door open and was out of the cab, dragging Corbie along with him by the arm. Back the way they had come, back towards the street.
The alleyway behind the cab was already filled with Redcaps lined up three deep, their ugly grins glittering with needle-sharp teeth, and it was far too late to run anywhere now.
Corbie shrieked in terror. The goblins charged forward, their hard little fists striking, grabbing and holding on like clamps; snarling laughter rang in his ears. Emrys whirled, trying to ready a blast of raw-energy magic, but they were all around him and Corbie was too close, he couldn't strike randomly without hitting her.
Hard hands were closing on his wrists and elbows, on his ankles, dragging him downward, pinning him. "Run!" he yelled to Corbie. And to the Redcaps, "Leave her alone! I'll go with you, just don't hurt her!"
He was caught, held firmly, and the alley went silent around him. Corbie was standing there looking at him, Redcaps surrounding her but not holding her. For a moment, hope stabbed through him -- they'll let her go, she'll be all right -- and he stared back at her, willing her with all his might to run, to get away.
And then she let out a little bubbling laugh, and the laugh seemed to take shape and substance around her as a rising storm of darkly glittering mist. Her clothes and body melted in the glitter and re-formed -- dead pale skin, a tattered black shift that hung in shreds just past her hips and left her arms and legs and feet bare, but those same dark brilliant eyes and that same wild mane of black hair...
The Redcaps drew back from her slightly, leaving the Morrigan hovering a few inches above a small circle of ground. She flitted closer to Emrys, leaned forward, and kissed him lightly on the tip of his nose. "Silly Merlin," she said affectionately.
Emrys stared at her, his mind reeling.
"Now come along," said the Unseelie woman, still with Corbie's sweet husky voice. "Your da's waitin' for us."
For an instant he was frozen numb with horror. Then "NO!" he screamed, and threw his weight violently forward, fighting to tear free of the myriad hands that held him.
They bore him down, still struggling, and then a weighted fist struck the back of his head and sent him spinning down into darkness.
* * * * *
Sendai Castle, just before sunrise
"Hiroshi! Oy! Hiroshi-kun!"
The older caretaker of the castle turned from his early morning tasks to face the speaker. "Hai, Kino! What can I do for you?"
The local youth looked excited, standing at the entrance to the exterior court of the castle. "Hiroshi-kun! A pair of priests from the mainland are here! They want to speak to someone in charge of protecting the castle!"
Hiroshi frowned. Normally, the mayor would have handled this, but he was still asleep. "Tell them I will speak with them in the courtyard shortly." He quickly rose to go to the inner courtyard to check on his friends. "A visit in the dark of morning, by mainland priests? Hmm, wonder what's going on?"
* * * * *
After seeing to his friends, Hiroshi emerged from inside the inner courtyard through a sliding panel. There, two men dressed in Buddhist robes stood waiting with Kino. On hearing his entry, they turned and faced the caretaker, bowing low in greeting.
"I am Hiroshi, caretaker of Sendai Castle," he said in welcome, bowing in return. "How can I help you, shimpu-san?"
The first one rose and said, "My name is Wakai Tora, of the Jizo Priesthood. My companion is Ogi Shijin. We have come a long way to Ishimura from Tokyo to find this place."
Hiroshi started. "Tokyo? For what reason have the two of you come here?"
Wakai looked at his companion briefly, then replied, "Because of a vision. A vision of death and darkness."
The caretaker and his young friend looked at each other worriedly. "Please explain your... vision, Wakai-san. Perhaps it will explain this further, ne?"
Taking a deep breath, the priest began, "One night, while I sat in contemplation, I beheld a vision of a great darkness, coming to seize the world in a fist made of darkness and fire. One of the tips of the fingers of this fist came down on a Stone Village, where those I could only identify as 'sleepers-that-watch' were shattered before the sun could set and wake them..." At this, the priest could see the worried, fearful look Hiroshi and Kino exchanged. "Do you know where these spirits can be found? They must be warned!"
Before either Hiroshi or Kino could reply, Ogi came beside his companion. "You are frightening them, Wakai," he reproved. "They do not know what to make of your words." He cast a look around at the castle about them. "These 'spirits' of yours may not even exist!"
A sudden rush of wind on wings and a thump prevented anyone from saying any more, as a large figure strode from the shadows to face them.
"On the contrary, Honored Ones," Kai said with a grim look at Ogi, "we do exist."
The disbelieving priest gawked at the sight of the gargoyle leader, but Wakai immediately came closer to Kai, bowing low in deep respect. "It is you who are the Honored One," he said, holding his bow until Kai returned it graciously. Rising, he looked up at the gargoyle and added, "Are there more of your kind about?"
"I am Kai, leader of the Ishimura clan. And yes, we number many, Shimpu-san. Please, tell us more of this vision. Can you tell what this darkness is, and why it comes to our village?"
Shaking his head, Wakai replied, "Ie, Kai-sama -- I do not know what this evil is. Only that it comes, and unless you can fight beyond the dawn, you and this village are lost."
Kai stared unblinkingly at the priest. "We gargoyles cannot fight the sleep that turns us to stone at dawn. It is how we revive and heal."
"But, you must! The evil will not care if you sleep, and once you are destroyed, everyone here will be killed! I have seen it!"
Hiroshi spoke up. "I can rally the villagers to defend the village after sunrise. We only need to get the elderly and the children to safety."
"T-That would be wise," Ogi said, overcoming his shock at seeing Kai.
"But it will not be enough!" a strident voice said, ringing over the courtyard.
Kai and the four humans turned this way and that, searching for the owner of that voice. "Show yourself! Come out where we can see you!" Kai shouted. Suddenly, there was a flash of blue light just a few feet from the right of Kai, which faded to reveal a figure that neither the humans nor the gargoyle had ever seen…
"Forgive my rudeness," the being apologized with a deep bow. It was humanoid in general, except that it had the head and hind legs of a fox, with arms that ended in three-fingered hands, covered in shimmering white fur. A dark kimono, with a crimson obi, and a necklace of ivory shaped like a butterfly clothed its body, leaving not one, but seven tails sticking out of the back where they waved like a constantly moving fan. "My name is Akarui-me," it continued, "and I am in agreement with the revered shimpu."
The humans were flabbergasted, but it was Kai that named the creature. "Kitsune," he breathed. "A Fox Spirit! Our kind has not seen one of you for years upon years!"
"Hai, Kai-sama, I risk a great deal coming before you," Akaru nodded, "but the time has come and you are in need of my counsel. The shimpu-san is correct when he says a great evil is coming, for there is a gathering of oni -- hideous ogres -- preparing to attack Ishimura."
Kai growled. "Then we will stop them!"
"But I told you, Kai-sama," Wakai said, his voice nearly cracking as he faced Kai, "they will not attack now! They have only to wait until dawn, when you and your clan can be crushed in your sleep!"
"Honored Brother, there is more to come, and worse," the Kitsune said gently. "The oni do not attack alone, for leading them is Atsuma, the August Star of Heaven...chief lieutenant of the Dark Lady Rangda, who herself serves the highest lord of the Banished Ones." The others were hushed, staring at the Seven-Tailed one. "And yes," he finished, his head bowed, "they will not attack in their full strength until dawn."
"What can we do then?" Hiroshi asked.
Akarui-me held up one pawlike hand, gestured briefly, and opened it. Upon his palm lay a narrow scroll. "That is why I am here," he said. "I cannot cast the spell that will free Kai and his people from their stone slumber... but you can." And at the last words, he turned and pointed one finger with its delicate claw. "You can, Ogi Shinjin, last wizard of Nippon."
The priest gaped wordlessly for a moment.
"Ogi?" Wakai stared at him, then turned his stare to the fox spirit. "A wizard?"
"If he so chooses," Akaru said lazily, turning the slender scroll over in his hands. "He has the talent within him."
"I?" Ogi whispered.
"You, honored one," the kitsune nodded. "You can save Kai's people so that they can in turn save this village."
The priest's eyes flickered from the kitsune, to the gargoyle, to the awe-stricken Wakai, and back to Akaru again. "I alone?"
Akaru spread his hands. "I am forbidden to act directly. All I may do is give the spell to one who can cast it. And you are the only one here who possesses the gift for sorcery that your ancestors had. Your friend the seer --" his own gaze went to Wakai -- "is powerful enough in his own talent, but could not cast this spell. So yes, Ogi Shinjin: you alone."
Ogi swallowed, and his eyes went to the scroll in the kitsune's hands. "What must I do?"
* * * * *
Manhattan, just after sunset
The Eyrie Building
Elisa stepped out of the elevator and strode down the hall to the main conference room, shaking the last bits of melting snow off her umbrella. As she opened the door, the voices inside did not pause -- an indication that the strategy session had already gotten fairly intense.
The conference room was set up as a defense center, with maps and high-tech surveillance gear spread about. The clan was variously sitting or standing around the table, and David Xanatos stood at its head, apparently leading the discussion.
"...Pinpoint strikes, that don't look like random violence and aren't meant to," he was saying as Elisa entered the room, pulling off her gloves. "They've dropped the pretense, and that can't be a good sign." He looked up from the map spread on the tabletop. "Detective Maza. Good of you to join us."
"Unseelie activity again?" She stepped up to the table beside Goliath, brushing lightly against his wing-cloaked shoulder.
"Worsening," Goliath told her. "In London and Japan as well as here. Xanatos suspects that Madoc is preparing some decisive move."
"I agree with him," Brooklyn said. "They've stepped up their movements over the past thirty hours, and they're going for something specific. Something big's about to go down."
"Their timing's good, I'll give 'em that," Hudson said darkly. "Right in the teeth of this beast of a winter. This snow's crippled the city, worse luck."
"What makes you think it's luck, Hudson?" Xanatos turned from the table to tap a light-pointer against the electronic map on the wallscreen. The view shifted from a political view to a weather view, dominated by whites and pale blues. "It's not just this city. The entire planet's suffering the worst winter ever recorded since the Little Ice Age. It's supposed to be late summer right now south of the Equator," he pointed, "and they're worse off than we were back in August. Meanwhile, we've got sheets of ice floating in the Hudson, and the East River froze over hard enough to walk on last night."
"All of which means what?" Elisa cut in. "Besides less talk about global warming."
Xanatos paused, and seemed to consider his next words. "Detective, are you familiar with the term Fimbulwinter?"
The room seemed colder as he said the word. "I don't think so," she said carefully.
"It's a belief out of Norse mythology," he continued, "involving the battle between the gods at the end of the world. The Fimbulwinter is, simply enough, a winter that lasts for years, in which the sun doesn't show for months at a time. Now, whether or not the old Norse knew something we didn't, Owen tells me that our enemies are quite capable of bringing about the worldwide winter we've been experiencing." Xanatos brought down the pointer with a clack on the table. "I don't believe for a second that this winter happening simultaneously with their attack is a coincidence."
Elisa looked around the room, and frowned. "Where is Owen?"
Xanatos looked at his watch. "He was taking Fox to an appointment, they took Alexander with them. Should have been back by now," he added in a lower voice, frowning.
"Matt is researching the police records for reports of 'supernatural' crimes, to see if that gives us any hints," Brooklyn said. "And we're waiting for word from Dracon about what the city's underside knows."
Goliath's face drew in slightly in distaste, but he made no other reaction to the mention of Dracon's name. "We've spread the word of how to deal with Unseelies among those who would listen," he said. "If only there were more. Humans today pride themselves on lacking superstition --"
"Which doesn't stop them from calling us demons," Angela added with fine contempt.
"But it does stop most of them from nailing a horseshoe over the door," Xanatos finished. "Not that a horseshoe would be much help without the spell that goes with it, but there's the real problem -- no one believes that our enemies even exist. If I thought there was half a chance I wouldn't be laughed off the air, I'd be buying commercial time and telling citizens to form an iron-bar militia. Develop some kind of emergency broadcast signal that meant Unseelie attack, hold drills the way they used to do for air raids." He shook his head. "Can't be helped. We've got our fighting force and that'll have to be enough."
Brooklyn reached to point at the map on the table. "If we stay in contact with the other clans," he said, touching England and Japan with the tip of a talon, "we should be able to put our information together and maybe figure out what's coming before it hits us."
"And if not?" Lexington asked.
Brooklyn gave a wry half-smile. "If the Timedance taught me anything, Lex, it's how to improvise. You plan, you think ahead, and then everything changes and your plans go up in smoke. So you make another plan."
Xanatos nodded. "Well said. We've got our defenses, and we've got some idea of when we'll need them. All we can do now is keep our eyes open." He glanced down at his watch again, his frown deeper this time. "Where are they?" he said aloud.
"Could've been delayed by the snow," Elisa offered. "It's nasty out there."
He shook his head. "Fox and Owen both have cellphones. They'd have called if it was just a delay."
"You suspect trouble?" Goliath asked him.
Xanatos seemed not to hear. "I don't like this. I'm going to page her," he said, and reached for the telephone on his desk.
He paused, his hand hovering over the phone, then touched the speakerphone button. "David Xanatos," he said.
"David?" It was Fox's voice, but blurred by static, further blurred by a fear that was almost hysteria.
"Fox? What's wrong?"
A breath that was almost a sob, and, "We're on our way. I need a medical team standing by, stat." A click, and the cool hum of a dial tone.
There was only a moment's shocked pause, and then Xanatos said sharply, "You heard her. Move!"
* * * * *
"We were coming out of the Cyberbiotics building when they hit us," Fox was saying to her husband as the trauma team scrambled around the back of the limousine. Her voice was low and tightly controlled, undercutting the babble of medical jargon. In her arms she held little Alex, who in turn was clutching his stuffed fuzzy and refusing to let go.
"They were definitely Unseelie," she went on, "and they were using some sort of small crossbow. There just wasn't time, none of us had time to react...." She drew in a long shuddering breath. "And he took the shot meant for us."
The medics were bundling the wounded body onto a gurney. A doctor with steel gray hair, his voice clipped and precise, assessed the patient: "Gunshot wound, right upper quadrant, profuse bleeding --"
His technician, a tall, gangly ebony skinned man moved his fingers from the victim's carotid artery and picked up his wrist. "I'm not getting a pulse!" He palpitated the wrist again, concentrated on listening with his fingers. "Wait, there it is -- very faint and thready." He shot the doctor a worried look.
"I... I don't know how I got him into the car...." Fox was trembling in reaction, now that there was nothing more she could do and the medical team continued their dreadful litany. "Oh, David," she almost wept.
The doctor tore the stethoscope from his ears, settling the device around his neck. "He's shocky... tachacardia. Let's get him inside before he goes into defib." The gray-haired medic looked up from his patient. "All right, Start two lines, saline and O neg -- wide open. Let's get him upstairs. Maybe we can do something there," he added under his breath.
David reached out and caught his wife in his arms, held her tightly with their son between them. He drew her head down onto his shoulder, and then raised his own head to look down at the gurney as it passed them.
The technician quickly taped the first I.V. line into place and started the second. A moment later he announced, "I'm in! Let's go!"
Holding the life-sustaining fluids above the body, the medics raced for the refuge of the Eyrie Building.
On the gurney, bloodied and limp, lay the unmoving form of Owen Burnett.
* * * * *
The doctor appeared in the door to the emergency room, her face tired and drawn. David Xanatos turned to her and took one swift stride forward. "Doctor...?"
She shook her head slowly. "I'm sorry, Mr. Xanatos," she said as gently as possible. "We did everything we could."
He faced her, mouth open as if about to speak further, frozen in stark disbelief. The room had gone utterly silent.
"There was...extensive damage to his system," the doctor continued quietly. "More than we can account for. We think they might have used explosive bullets, but we couldn't find any fragments at all -- "
"Thank you, Doctor," Xanatos said abruptly, his voice calm with only the barest perceptible brittle edge. "That will be all."
* * * * *
23rd Precinct Station House
A styrofoam cup of coffee sat cooling on Matt's desk, untouched.
He looked up from his computer and caught the full force of Captain Chavez's frown between the eyes. "Captain?"
"Aren't you supposed to be off shift?"
"What? Oh... Yeah," he admitted, glancing at his watch. "Had some things I wanted to check on, is all."
"You're assigned to the beat with Jasper tomorrow again. You need some rest," she said flatly.
"Is that an order?" he asked.
She gave him a measuring look, then finally shook her head. "Not yet," she said. "But I expect to see you on your feet and awake when you check in tomorrow."
He tossed off a little salute. "Yessir."
As Chavez moved off, Matt returned his attention to the database in front of him: a list of Unseelie-related crimes -- taken from reports of "elf sightings", of crimes that seemed supernatural in nature, of the vandalism and graffiti including the seven-pointed star or the cryptic slogans -- sorted to indicate which of them had involved actual theft.
His hunch had played out: there had been a sharp increase in the past thirty-six hours. Break-ins, thefts of objects both magical and high tech, often with simple valuables stolen at the same time -- but never only valuables. Not even from the wealthier victims, most of which had suffered damage rather than theft. And here... Matt turned to the most recent report, faxed to him just minutes ago, that a group of vandals had broken into a research facility that was performing studies on sound waves. The report included a witness's description of the vandals as "a bunch of weirdoes in Vampire costumes." Uh-huh.
Something about the report was tugging at the edges of his brain, trying to get his attention. Matt read it through again, frowning, then picked up his phone and dialed.
The phone rang twice, then, "Jasper here."
"Sara, can you check on something for me?"
"Bluestone?" Her voice was tinny over the speakerphone for a moment, then came into focus as she picked up the handset. "What is it?"
"Listen, you know that report you faxed over just now? Can you find out if there've been any similar reports filed today?"
"I'll check," she said doubtfully. "Are we on to something?"
"You'll know as soon as I do," he said, and hung up.
About ten minutes later, while he was looking up a report of a microfiche theft from a university library, Sara called back. "Almost the same description as the sound lab break-in," she told him. "And get this, it was hit at the same time. This one was some sort of metallurgical lab, right downtown."
Click went a tumbler somewhere in Matt's head. "Dr. Rupert Fenton," he said aloud.
There was a startled pause on the other end of the line. "Yeah. His lab. Where'd you get that name from?"
The title of the scientific magazine's cover article stared up at him from the crime report. Drs. Rupert Fenton and Arthur Kendall, A Study of Phase-Inverted Sonic Interference. And the people working in the sound-waves lab had been students of Dr. Kendall. "Listen, Sara? Meet me at that last site, Fenton's lab, in about twenty minutes. Okay?"
* * * * *
The Brocken, Germany
The doors to the great hall were flung open, and Garlon and the Morrigan entered, at the head of a small band of Redcaps.
"Good tidings for you, my liege," said Garlon, bowing low to the throne where Madoc Morfryn sat. "Most excellent, in fact."
"Indeed?" asked the Unseelie Lord, staring down at his two vassals. "And what, may I ask, is it?"
The Morrigan flitted forward and bent a low curtsey in the air. "I've brought ye a bit of a gift, milord," she said, and gestured to Garlon, who stepped aside to give him a clear view of the goblins. And in their midst, his hands bound behind his back, was a still unconscious Emrys Hawkins.
"A little somethin' to celebrate the victory," the Morrigan added, smug as a cat in a dairy.
Madoc stared down at his son, an unreadable expression on his face. For a long while, he gazed at the lad, not speaking a word. At last he spoke.
"You have done well, Morrigan," he said. "And be certain that I will not forget your act." He turned to the Redcaps. "Take him away to the dungeons. I will deal with him later, when I have time."
The Redcaps turned and dragged the boy out of the throne room.
* * * * *
"I wouldn't have made the connection except for one thing," Matt was saying as they ducked under the POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS tapes and stepped into the lab. "One guy's working with sound waves in music, the other with resonance in ferrous metals. Put 'em together and what have you got?" He pointed to the wind chimes hanging from the doorframe, flicked the bottommost chime with one fingernail. "Bells."
The room had not been badly vandalized. Nothing was broken; the file drawers had been pulled out and emptied, but their former contents were intact. Floppy disks lay in a pile beside the computer desk, as though someone had gone through them one at a time, looked at the contents, and tossed each one to the floor.
"And this article...." Sara flipped through the printout they'd brought along, reading carefully. "As far as I can tell, they're talking about a silencer."
"Like, for a musical gun?" Matt asked.
She rolled her eyes at him. "It's like this. You know what sound waves are made of? Compression and diffusion of air molecules, pressure changes moving through the air?" She moved her hands to illustrate, together and apart again. "Like coils on a Slinky."
"Right," he said tentatively.
"So if you get two wave-patterns, moving in the same direction, you get interference. If you could get two waves exactly out of step with each other, they'd cancel each other out, zero. Basic physics."
Matt raked one hand through his hair and sighed. "Sara, just for a second pretend I don't know anything about basic physics, and tell me what you're talking about? In little words?"
"Oh, come on, Matt," she said cheerfully. "You have to learn some long words sometime. Mol-e-cule. Can you say that? Sure you can...."
He gave her a look.
"Remember the Slinky?" Sara suggested. "It'd be as if you gave one end of it a push and a pull simultaneously. Nothing would happen. Right?"
"Yeah," he said doubtfully. "But we're talking about sounds, not a solid object."
She shook her head. "It's a question of scale, that's all. Sound's made of lots of little tiny objects colliding and moving apart again. Stop thinking with your ears and try to visualize it."
"I think I get it," he said after a moment. "So that's what Fenton was up to? Trying to build a silencer?"
"Not too far off," Sara said, pointing to the paper. "According to this article, he actually put together a diagram of a working model. Pretty simple, really; it's just a microphone, an amplifier, and a pair of speakers. The sound gets picked up by the mike, amplified and inverted so it's exactly out of phase with the original noise. Then it gets pumped out through the speakers. The original wave and the new wave cancel out, and you get silence. Or that's the theory."
Matt raised his eyebrows. "It didn't work?"
"So far, only for one noise at a time. See, the key to the silencer is an arrangement of circuits that makes sure the canceling wave is just the right intensity; otherwise you'd be worse off than when you started. Lots of different sounds at the same time would confuse it. So there's a filter of some kind, the thing focuses on just one sound, isolates it, and silences it."
"And that's where Dr. Kendall's research came in," said Matt. "He was studying metal resonance, had theories about the connection between the atomic composition of the metal and the quality of the sound it makes. So they worked together, and wrote that article...."
"And they both got their labs attacked by Unseelies," Sara finished. "And if they found what they were looking for, they've got the blueprints for a defensive weapon that'll nullify our side's biggest advantage."
They were well into the lab by this time, surrounded by the detritus of the search. "Any hope they didn't find it?" Matt asked.
"Don't know." Sara shook her head. "But I'm here to tell you I don't like our chances."
Matt picked up a stack of papers and put them down again. "A diagram, you said? Like, a sketch?"
Sara was looking at the floppy disks. "I'm not sure. Something tells me they were on the right track with the computer, but...." She paused, looked hard at the computer again, then reached out and pulled open the drawer of the desk it sat upon.
A faint burnt smell came out of the drawer. Inside lay a small metallic padlocked box.
"A disk safe," Matt said. "Why didn't they take it?"
Sara tapped the box with her fingernail. "I think they tried," she said. "It's iron." That burnt smell.... "Here, give me a hand --"
With some effort, they took out the safe and broke open the padlock. Inside were a single disk and a sheaf of printouts.
Matt picked up the papers and looked at them. "Fenton Circuit," he read aloud. "This looks like our mother lode. They didn't get it."
"...Yet," Sara said.
The two looked at each other as the realization came to them. The room was silent but for the whistling of the wind outside.
"Let's get out of here," Matt said hoarsely.
"Right," Sara agreed. "You've got the printouts?"
At the window, unseen by either of them, a small form flitted away.
* * * * *
The Brocken, Germany
Emrys opened his eyes. Torch-lit stone walls were passing in front of him. The Redcaps were dragging him down a corridor, muttering among themselves. His wrists were tied together behind his back.
The realization went through him in a stab of pain. "The Brocken," he murmured aloud. I'm actually here. They've got me.
He shivered. Got to get out of here, before my father shows up.... Come on, Merlin, think of something!
He looked closely at his captors. Only four of them, all Redcaps, barely paying him a glance. Maybe, just maybe....
He clenched one hand, and mumbled a spell as he brought his fingers sharply apart. Sparks of blue light shot out from his fingertips, one burrowing into the ropes that bound his wrists, most of them striking the Redcaps. The goblins let go of him, and danced around, trying to beat the small fires that were singeing their jerkins. Emrys leaped to his feet at once, his bonds parting easily and falling to the floor, and dashed down the corridor. Fortunately, they were still too busy to stop him.
"I've got to get out of here," the boy muttered as he rounded a corner, and flung himself fast against a wall. "The trouble is, where's the nearest escape route?"
He suddenly heard the sound of approaching footsteps, and hurriedly recited a quick invisibility spell. He vanished from sight just as a small troop of Redcaps and wisps came into view, a couple of sidhe knights leading the way.
"You have your orders," said one of the knights, halting the Unseelie soldiers. "Now go to Manhattan, and carry them out."
He gestured, and a glowing hole opened in the corridor in front of them. It expanded into a portal, showing the snow-filled streets of New York. The Redcaps and wisps headed through it.
Emrys scarcely wasted a second. He rushed through the portal after them, and was on the other side in a moment. He paused on the sidewalk, and then bolted in the opposite direction from that which the Unseelies were going. He rounded a corner and stopped, steam puffing out of his mouth in the winter chill.
For a moment he just sagged against a brick wall, arms wrapped around himself, shaking from the release of tension. Safe. Oh, praise the skies, safe.
He looked up at the sky and shivered again, as much from the cold as from fear. "He'll be after me in no time," he said aloud. "I've got to get somewhere safe. If anywhere in New York is safe," he added, thrusting his hands in his pockets and starting down the snow-piled sidewalk. "If anywhere in the world will be safe anymore."
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building
Gathered in the main hall, the clan and Elisa waited with David, who was still looking numb from the fact Owen was dead.
Lex murmured softly, "This is getting serious."
Sata nodded. "Madoc has struck us a heavy blow."
Brooklyn looked to his leader. "What do we do now? Madoc's done playing with us. Now he means business."
"What can we do?" asked Angela.
"We can do one of two things," Goliath replied. "Stay inside the castle and strengthen our defenses to wait for Madoc to come to us, or we can patrol the city as we have before and see what else the Unseelie have done."
"We have to find out what Madoc is planning," Lex asserted. "I say we patrol the city!"
"I agree," Sata added.
"Who knows what those Unseelie scum are doing," Broadway growled.
Goliath saw affirmative nods from the rest. "Then it is decided. We shall patrol. But some of us must remain behind to protect the castle."
Coldstone's cybernetic eye glowed briefly. "My mate and I will remain, Goliath."
"Bronx and Nudnik will be with you as well." The big gargoyle turned to face his elder. "Hudson..."
"I'll go wi' ye, lad! Ye'll be needin' every able body in the sky this night," the old soldier replied firmly.
Goliath nodded. "Agreed. We must all keep in touch with one another."
"You can use two-way radios," Elisa suggested. "Xanatos should have plenty on hand for his security force."
Together, she and Goliath turned to face the stricken businessman. Xanatos looked up from his silence, the haunted look in his eyes making him look much older than any of them had ever seen before. "I can get some from the communications room. I'll... be right back. Excuse me." With that, he rose and left the hall, leaving Elisa and the others looking after him with concern.
* * * * *
After returning to hand out the small, two-way transceivers, David asked absently, "Does everyone have at least one?"
Goliath slipped the radio around his neck by its lanyard. "We all do, Xanatos."
David fidgeted with one radio left over from the bunch he had retrieved. "Good. I have to see to Fox and Alexander now, but I'll be in the communications room shortly. Someone should be there to monitor your progress since..." His words trailed off, unable to voice the fact that Owen would have usually been at that post now.
No one knew what to say, but Elisa stepped over, placing a hand on his arm. "No. I'll take care of the radios. You go see to your family."
David looked at Elisa, an unspoken understanding passing between them. He nodded, and turned to face Goliath. "We'll be waiting for your return. Good luck."
As he started to walk away, Elisa held onto his arm for a moment longer. "Xanatos--" She paused. "David... I'm truly sorry."
Nodding once more in gratitude, David left to go find his wife and son.
Goliath cleared his throat. "Let's go." He turned to lead the members of the clan that were leaving to the outside.
Angela and Broadway moved outside together, when she said suddenly, "I have to warn Mother!"
"Hurry and return, Angela. I want you to patrol with Broadway and Lexington," her father said, waving her on and watching her dash off to call Demona. "As for the rest of us, Hudson, you're with me. Brooklyn, take either Graeme or Ariana and let Sata take the other to patrol in pairs."
"Understood, Goliath," Brooklyn replied. He and Sata paired off with the twins.
"Remember, if you do encounter any Unseelie, report to Elisa or the others. Do not take any action against them without assistance!"
"We gotcha, Goliath!" Lex said emphatically.
Goliath motioned to Hudson and the others, before looking to Elisa. "We shall return," he said softly.
Putting on a brave face, she replied, "Just be careful, Goliath, okay?"
Nodding, he joined the old soldier on the wall, along with the other pairs. In seconds, they departed the castle in a rush of swooping wings.
Angela returned to the parapets in a rush, taking her place with Lex and Broadway.
"Is Demona okay?" her beloved asked.
"I warned her to prepare for the worst," Angela replied, taking the burly gargoyle's hand and squeezing it briefly. "She's strengthening her defenses around her house. I think she'll be okay."
"Then let's get going!" Lex said, giving Elisa a last smile over his shoulder. "We'll be in touch!"
With that, the trio launched themselves into the night sky, winging off into the snowy darkness.
Elisa watched them disappear, her face folding into worry. "Be safe out there, guys." Turning away, she headed back inside to man the communications room.
* * * * *
Demona stood quietly in the entry hall, her hand still resting on the telephone receiver that she had just set back in its cradle. The brief conversation she had just had with her daughter replayed quickly in her mind.
"So the Unseelie are finally making their move," she spoke aloud to herself. The words came calmly; the full realization hit like a tsunami a moment later. Demona's eyes flashed red for an instant as she jerked the phone back to her ear and jabbed a button on the speed dial with a shaky talon.
Inhaling deeply, Demona tried to compose herself as she listened to the phone ringing at the other end of the line. One ring. Two. Three. Then suddenly...
"Hello, this is Andrea," her friend's voice said cheerily.
Demona sucked in a quick breath. "Hello, Andrea," she began quickly. "It's me, Dominique."
On the other side of town, Andrea Calhoun pulled her feet up onto the sofa and snuggled back into the cushions as she scooped up the remote with her free hand and hit the "mute" button to quiet the television.
"Dominique! Hi! I didn't expect to hear from you tonight," she said, smiling. "How are you? And what do you think about this crazy weather?" she added, watching as the TV picture flickered. On the screen, the view went from Travis Marshall, looking warm and comfortable in the news room, to Nicole St. John, standing on the windblown street corner outside the building, knee-deep in a drift with snow billowing in the air around her. Andrea shivered in empathy.
"I'm fine," Dominique answered quickly, "and that's sort of the reason I called," she continued hesitantly, answering the second question as well.
Andrea nodded absently. "I haven't seen a storm this bad since the '79 blizzard... and that was in February. This is supposed to be spring." She chuckled. "If you ask me, I think they should fire that stupid groundhog." The young woman waited for her friend to answer with her own familiar laugh as she often did, but she heard only silence. Andrea sat up, her face taking on a look of concern. "Dominique? Is everything okay?"
"Andrea, I..." There was a pause, and the older woman cleared her throat. "I want you to stay in tonight, okay? It's dangerous out there right now... much more than it's ever been before."
Andrea frowned slightly at the cryptic statement. "Dominique, I'm not sure I..."
"Just do it, please. I'll... I'll explain it all later. Now promise me," she insisted.
Andrea took a quick look over her shoulder, at the whiteout the blowing snow was creating just beyond the frosted-over window. She had no intention of going out into that for any reason anyway.
"Okay," she answered, humoring her friend. "I promise. I'll stay right here tonight."
"Thank you, Andrea," Dominique said, as if a burden had suddenly been lifted from her. Andrea hesitated, worried for her friend but not sure what to say. "I'll talk to you again soon," Dominique spoke again after a few moments. "I have to go now."
Andrea's brow furrowed. "Dominique, you aren't going out into this storm, are you?" she asked carefully.
Demona twisted and untwisted the phone cord from around her index talon. Her lip trembled slightly as she pushed the question aside and tried to maintain an even voice. "I'll talk to you again soon, Andrea," she repeated. She hesitated. The next words came less easily; her tone was quiet, but sincere. "I love you. Goodbye."
She hit the "hook" button with her talon before her friend could speak again, and then set the receiver gently back into its cradle.
"And now I need to prepare for tonight," she stated. With a grim, determined look on her features, Demona headed for her workroom.
* * * * *
The Brocken, Germany
"My lord!" cried a sidhe knight, running into the throne room. "My lord!"
"Well, Maleger?" asked Madoc, looking at him sharply. "What is this about?"
"The boy's escaped!" said Maleger. "He broke free from the Redcaps in the corridor, and got away!"
"Got away?" asked Madoc, his voice even. "Got away where?"
"He must have escaped through the portal to Manhattan," said Maleger. "I felt an odd presence when Hudibras and I opened it. It must have been him. I did not know that he was free until I learned of his escape from the Redcaps, afterwards."
"And you have searched the castle?" Madoc inquired.
"All of it, from the watch-towers to the dungeons," the Unseelie knight replied. "He's gone."
Madoc frowned grimly, then turned towards the shadows that hung in the corners of the great hall, and spoke one word, in a voice of command. "Herne!"
A dark form materialized in the midst of the gloom, and stepped forward into the chamber. The stately, antlered figure of Herne the Wild Huntsman stood before Madoc, and silently bowed before him.
"Take your hounds, and go to the isle of Manhattan," said Lord Madoc. "Find the boy, Emrys Hawkins, and bring him back to me. But alive, and unharmed."
Herne nodded, and without a word turned and left the great hall. Maeve turned to Madoc, raising a single delicate eyebrow. "Alive and unharmed?" she asked quizzically. "You're being awfully tolerant toward the young whelp. I would have expected you ta ask for his ears on a platter."
Madoc shot her a sharp look, but did not reply.
The Unseelie queen opened her mouth to speak again, but thought better of it. Giving Madoc a last, curious glance, she turned to the other sidhe who demanded her attention and re-immersed herself in the ongoing battle.
* * * * *
The wind chimes danced in the gust from outside. Snow swirled into their faces as Matt and Sara opened the lab doors, pushing against the fierce cold and out into the street.
"Not much chance of getting a cab," Sara pointed out, gesturing at the snow-covered street. "Look at this. The plows are working overtime and the stuff just piles up right behind them."
"Subway?" Matt asked.
She gave him an incredulous look. "You're kidding, right?"
Matt shook his head. "You're right, it'd take too long. Even if we didn't have the snow to deal with." He glanced up and down the street. "They need the information we have, and soon. I'm calling it in."
He took out his cellular phone and tapped in ten digits. There was a pause, then he jerked the phone away from his ear as it emitted a shriek of static.
Sara raised her eyebrows. "I heard that from over here. That's some heavy interference."
"This blasted weather," Matt grumbled. "Well, direct phone calls should still be able to get through, as long as the lines are up. Think a random payphone's secure enough?"
"Safer than sitting on this till we get back," Sara agreed.
The snow had picked up again, changing with the falling temperature from the heavy, damp snowfall of the past several days to a stinging squall of fine powdery flakes. The sidewalks that had been shoveled as recently as that afternoon now bore an unmarred layer of snow not less than half a foot deep over them. Underneath lay a treacherous coating of ice. It was early evening, but the heavy lowering clouds covered the sky, blocking the moon and stars from view. Blowing snow hung in the air like a fog, making the sky seem to press downwards and hiding the tops of the taller buildings from view. Streetlights were lit, looking pallid and unhealthy in the dimness.
The closest payphone, on the near corner, had no dial tone. Matt jiggled the receiver hook a few times with one gloved hand, then gave up. "Come on," he said over his shoulder. "Gotta be a working phone around here someplace."
The second payphone had no receiver, and the cord dangled limp from the base, swaying slightly in the wind. The third seemed intact, but was beeping a constant busy signal and ignored all efforts to hang up and try again. "Well, at least that means the phone system isn't entirely down, right?" Sara pointed out. "Otherwise it'd just be dead like the first one."
"Yeah," Matt answered absently, already heading through the snow towards the next corner.
The fourth payphone had a dial tone. It also had frozen bubble gum stuck to its keypad, and the keys weren't working. Matt frowned at it. "Don't you think this is a little odd? That many phones out of order?"
Sara laughed. "Matt, we're in Manhattan and you find four payphones out of order and you think that's odd?"
The fifth payphone's receiver had been broken in half. The sixth was gone completely, the exposed wires sticking out of the kiosk still sizzling, laced with recent electric power.
Sara stared at it. "Okay," she said. "Okay, now that's weird."
The streets seemed more deserted than ever, the solitude unbroken even by a random floundering pedestrian or stalled car. And over everything lay the snow, softening corners, blurring edges of sidewalk and street. Standing closer together now, the two drew away from the phone, looking around uneasily.
A gust of freezing wind kicked up the snow from their feet, whined around their ears with a high thin keening. The wind grew in strength, whirling the fine stinging snowflakes into their faces.
And out of the whirling wind came a swarm of somethings that weren't snowflakes, diving at them. For a blurred moment they seemed like giant moths or insects, each glowing with its own color of pale light. Closer, they were visible as miniscule attenuated female figures, glimmering like moonlight, with large dark eyes and hair like cobwebs and rapidly beating gossamer wings -- and some with tiny curved daggers in their hands.
Several of the winged creatures flapped in Sara's face, and one caught heavily in her hair; she stumbled backward and nearly fell, shrill cold laughter dancing about her ears. Sara ducked her head and waved her arms as she might have to ward off stinging insects, striking one of them. Her hair swung in front of her eyes, and with it swung a tiny feral face, all eyes and delicate little fangs. The -- pixie? sprite? -- launched itself into the air with a fierce kick to her chin, circled above them, and folded its wings to dive again.
Matt, one arm flung over his face to protect it, grabbed Sara by the arm. "Come on!" he shouted, and the two began to run.
As they rounded a corner, above a snow bank popped a grinning yellow-gray face, one eye squinting and the other crazy-wide, every tooth in its manic grin needle-pointed like a shark's. Atop the face, like a gruesome joke, was perched a red baseball cap, on backwards. The thing gave a rasping shriek, leaped to the top of the snow bank -- it was no taller than a six-year-old child -- and launched itself directly at them.
They sprang to opposite sides, letting it pass between them. It landed on the snow with a crunch, and Sara saw that it was wearing high-topped sneakers. At the sound of its yell, twenty more like it poured out of various hiding places: underneath cars, behind trash cans, hanging from drainpipes, they boiled out onto the street and charged. Several went after Sara, grabbing at her coat, her hair, while as many piled onto Matt.
Matt kicked at one of the Redcaps, trying to dislodge its grasp on his other knee. Two others tried to grab his arms; he seized one of them by its hairy wrist and swung hard, knocking its head into the brick wall behind them. It let out a grunt and sank to the snowy pavement, only to be replaced by another.
One of them had seized his trenchcoat, and was pulling itself up onto his back. He shifted his shoulders with a jerk and whirled, trying to throw the creature off or knock it against the telephone pole. Three or four more caught at his coat on both sides, trying to pull him down.
"Too many of them!" Sara yelled from somewhere, matching his own thought.
He struck repeatedly around him, and again and again the Redcaps gave ground and swarmed back. A clang sounded near him; somehow Sara had fought her way to his side, and she was fending their assailants off with a trash can lid. "Won't hold them long," she said over her shoulder. "Move!"
They ran, their longer legs keeping them ahead of the Redcaps, through streets cold and treacherous with snow. The briefest pause now and the goblins would be upon them, and a backward glance showed that there were even more of them now.
And not just behind them. A trio of gray-skinned, bony hominids with four arms apiece jumped at them from a parking lot, and only the speed of desperation saved them. Sara had lost the trash can lid, and their guns might as well have been toy plastic ones for all the good they would do against the sheer number of their attackers.
Once, Sara went to her knees in a sunken gutter concealed by the drifts over it; Matt hauled her to her feet and they kept moving, doubling back on their own trail, squeezing through cast-iron fences that might deter their pursuit. Calling on their endurance training, on their familiarity with the streets they fled through, they kept moving until, until...
...Until they stopped, on the edge of the howling snowy wasteland that was Times Square. The huge billboards had been turned off to save energy needed for heat; the theatres were shut, the half-price TKTS stand deserted. A single message-board blinked in yellow lights high above street level: 4/30/99 . . . 4:55:30 PM . . . 14° . . . 4/30/99 . . . 4:55:35 PM . . . 14°
And for the moment, nothing pursued them.
"Think we lost 'em," Sara panted.
Matt leaned against a wall, one hand pressed to his chest, as he fought to catch his breath. "Out of shape," he managed. "Knew I should be ... working out more."
Sara nodded, gulping for air. "What..." She breathed in, tried again. "What did they want?"
"Huh?" Matt looked at her.
"They weren't trying to kill us," she pointed out, "or we'd be dead. So what did they want from us?"
He started to speak, paused, then blew out a breath of frustration. "We know what they want. How did they know we've got it?"
"How --" Sara shook her head. "Doesn't matter how."
"Does if they could find it the same way we did," Matt disagreed.
She shook her head again, and brought her right hand out of her pocket. In it she held a black floppy disk.
Matt raised his eyebrows. "You smuggled it out of the lab."
"They can investigate me when the war's over." Sara pocketed the disk again. "I checked around, and he didn't have another copy there. And if the spooks are chasing us to get what we know, they don't know where to find another copy either."
"Oh." Matt considered that. "Oh."
"Yeah," she confirmed. "Come to think of it, it did look like they were trying to get at our pockets...."
"There's only one way to be sure they don't get their hands on it." Matt looked grim. "I've got most of the details memorized. You?"
Sara paused as she realized what he was suggesting. "Yeah, I think so."
"Good," he said, and pointed across a nearby alley to where, in the alcove of a boarded-up doorway, a fire was burning in a metal trash can.
"Someone lit this to keep warm," Sara mused as they approached it. "Someone homeless who didn't want to get to the shelters...."
"Or who couldn't find one," Matt said darkly.
"What do you mean? Anyone could have told them --"
"How did we get to Times Square?" he cut her off. "We weren't heading anywhere near here. But what with being chased, and what with everything looking so different in the snow.... I don't think we're the only ones who might have got a little lost."
"Leading travelers astray," Sara said softly. "Isn't that what fairies are supposed to do, in some of the old stories? 'Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?'"
Matt looked a little sick. "Let's burn this thing and get moving," he said gruffly.
* * * * *
"I suppose that being in New York won't be so bad a thing as all that," Emrys said to himself, as he trudged down the snow-coated sidewalk, all alone. "I can see some of the sights...the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building. I wonder if those Scrolls of mine are still on display here. Too bad Corbie isn't here -- "
He broke off in pain, the words turning bitter in his throat, and clenched his jaw and eyes shut against the memory of betrayal. "It's happened again," he whispered to the falling snow, tears burning his eyes. "And worse than before. Merlin, Merlin, when will you learn?"
Suddenly, a long way off, but not far enough away for his comfort, he heard something. Dogs barking, baying. His eyes flew open.
"The Wild Hunt!" he gasped. "My father's doing, I know it!"
The baying and yelping began to draw closer, and Emrys broke into a run, his heart knocking against his ribs. He slipped and skidded more than once on the patches of ice here and there on the sidewalk, and had to grab hold of the nearest lamppost to steady himself. "Come on, boy," he muttered to himself. "There's got to be some shelter around here! There's just got to be!"
He tried a few doors of the various buildings that he passed, but found them locked. For a moment he frantically groped for the spell that would open any fastened door, but in his near panic it eluded him. No time--
Emrys continued to run on, his breath coming faster and terror-sweat beading on his forehead. Behind him, the baying of the hounds filled the world.
* * * * *
"I don't like this. We're looking in the wrong places," muttered Lexington, as he, Broadway, and Angela landed on top of one of the buildings. "Even the muggers are staying inside tonight. And who'd blame them, with this sort of weather?"
The winter winds - so unseasonable for late April - were growing colder, and Angela and Broadway had cloaked their wings about themselves to help keep warm. Lexington huddled up in a crouch, pulling his arms and their web-like wings about his thin torso to ward off the cold.
"Yeah, but the Unseelies will probably be out," said Broadway. "I don't think they're gonna mind all this snow. They probably like it."
Angela was barely listening to the two males, as she gazed down at the sidewalk. A different noise was coming to her ears, still faint, but growing louder. "Listen," she said. "Do you hear that?"
Broadway and Lexington pricked up their own ears and listened. "Sounds like dogs," said Broadway.
Angela nodded. "They sound like the yell-hounds that my mother and I met in Scotland last year," she said. "That could mean that Herne's in the city."
"That sounds like trouble," said Broadway uneasily. "Maybe we'd better let Goliath and the others know - "
Angela suddenly let out a gasp, as she saw a slight figure racing desperately down the sidewalk below. "Emrys!" she cried.
"Who?" asked both Broadway and Lexington. But Angela, instead of replying, dove down from the rooftop towards the young boy down below. Looking at each other and shrugging, the two gargoyles followed her.
The boy had halted by a street sign to catch his breath for a moment, a skinny-looking youngster with a mop of curly blond hair, around fourteen, warmly dressed. There was a look of near panic in his widened eyes. He turned back to look the way that he had come, his chest heaving with ragged breaths.
Angela landed in front of him in a rush of flapping wings, and the boy started in alarm. Then he took a closer look at her, and reeled forward to clasp her hands in overwhelming relief. "Angela," he gasped, with an unmistakably British accent. "Thank heaven, it's you."
Broadway and Lexington landed right beside her. "You know this kid?" asked Lexington.
"We met in London," said Angela. "This is Emrys Hawkins. Emrys, this is Broadway and Lexington."
The boy stared at the two gargoyles for a moment, half-squinting at them as if trying to remember something. "No!" he cried suddenly. "No horsy rides!"
All three gargoyles stared at him. "Um, Angela?" asked Broadway. "Is he ... often like this?"
"Well," began Angela uncertainly. But Emrys interrupted her first.
"Angela, they're after me!" he cried. "We've got to get out of here!"
"Who're after you?" asked Broadway.
"The Wild Hunt! They're coming this way!"
"The Wild Hunt?" said Lexington. "What're they - "
A pack of white hounds with red ears poured around the corner, barking fiercely. And among them there rose a tall, silent figure with antlers arching from his hood and a feathered mask covering his face. Angela stared at him in shock. "Herne," she whispered, recognizing him from the battle stories shared by Talon and the other mutates. She shivered, the reaction this time having nothing to do with the cold. "His pictures in the mythology books don't do him justice."
The hounds paused for a moment, seeing the gargoyles. Herne raised one hand to silently motion them forward, and they rushed upon the gargoyles, howling.
Two of the dogs lunged at Lexington, but the little web-winged gargoyle ducked quickly. They leaped over him and collided with the street post, which Emrys had just moved away from in time. Angela bore another dog down, while Broadway pulled a cast iron bar out from the railing in front of the apartment buildings and raked it against the rest of the fence. The ringing sound of the metal turned the nearest yell-hounds' growls into whimpers, but dampened by the snow, the sound did little to faze most of the others.
Herne spurred forward, extending his spear. A jagged bolt of lightning shot forth from its tip towards Broadway. The portly gargoyle dodged out of the way, and, in frustration, threw the iron bar at the Wild Huntsman. It struck him square in the chest, knocking him off his horse. The Unseelie contorted in pain, but without uttering a single word. His silence made it all the eerier. The three gargoyles and Emrys stared at him in wide-eyed astonishment for a moment, while the yell-hounds mulled about in confusion.
"Let's go, now!" cried Angela. "He'll take a while to recover from the iron, and that'll give us the time we need. Let's get back to the castle!"
"What about him?" asked Broadway, looking at Emrys.
"We'll take him with us," said Angela. "Quick, Emrys! Climb up on my back!"
The youth did so, clutching tightly to her, as she climbed up the side of the building. Broadway and Lexington turned to stare at each other in puzzlement for a moment. "What's so special about that kid, anyway?" Lexington asked.
"I dunno," said Broadway, with a shrug. "But if Angela says that he's okay, that's fine by me. Come on, let's go!"
They climbed up after Angela and Emrys, and when they had reached the top of the building, spread their wings, and glided off after them.
Herne finally flung the iron bar off himself, and stared in silence after the form of Angela carrying his liege lord's son away towards the Eyrie Building. Then he remounted his horse, motioned his hounds around, and rode back in the other direction.
* * * * *
Wind chased a flurry of snowflakes down the darkening street. Two figures pushed their way along the deserted, snow-covered sidewalk.
"Stop for a rest?" Matt puffed, his breath coming out in clouds through his frost-rimed scarf.
Sara nodded wordlessly, and pointed. The mini-market she indicated was closed, its steel shutter down for the night, but there were a few empty crates underneath its snow-piled awning. They made for the spot and sat down to catch their breath. Both were shivering.
"Give any more thought to that 'huddling together' method?" Matt asked after a moment, only half joking.
"It's looking better all the time," Sara answered in the same tone. "But if we stop too long I don't know if we'll start again."
"Right," he agreed heavily. "We keep moving. I'm gonna try one more time to find a payphone."
* * * * *
The Brocken, Germany
"So they have him," said Madoc, staring down at Herne.
The Wild Huntsman nodded, and withdrew himself into the shadows.
Madoc frowned in anger for a moment, then sighed. "Well, David Xanatos's fortress will not be a safe refuge for my traitor son for long," he said. "Not when we are so close to fulfilling our greater goals."
He rose from his chair, his bat-winged cape swirling about himself. "I have waited fifteen centuries to punish him for his betrayal," he said calmly, though with an undercurrent of anger in his voice. "I can easily wait a few more hours."
* * * * *
Matt slammed down the payphone's receiver. "The phone lines are dead now," he said grimly. "Only way our message gets through is if we get through."
Sara lifted her chin. "We keep going then," was all she said.
The high-pitched keening on the wind was their only warning. A spiral of wisps came riding the wind, diving like a striking hawk -- and simultaneously, the street around them erupted with Redcaps, dozens of them.
The first wave hit Sara Jasper, and she went down under them. Matt shouted her name, flung aside the first goblin that came at him, and fought his way through the melee to her.
She came up gasping, striking aside the clutching hands of the Redcaps, and seized Matt's wrist. "Run," she managed, and they were running again, the goblins close behind them.
Matt was bleeding from a long cut down the side of his face, where a wisp's knife had scored him. The little winged creatures were keeping pace with them; abruptly a swarm of them swooped down before the two humans, trying to drive them back toward the pursuit. Sara pulled hard on Matt's arm, and they veered off into a side street.
Shrieking happily, the Unseelies followed them.
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building
"Here we are," said Angela, landing on the battlements and setting Emrys down. "We'll be safe here."
Broadway and Lexington landed beside her. Emrys stood looking around at his surroundings, a thoughtful look on his face. "You've been making a few changes around here, I see," he said.
The three gargoyles looked at him puzzledly. "What do you mean?" Broadway finally asked.
"Um, never mind," said the boy, walking out into the center of the courtyard to examine it the better. "I'll explain later."
Lexington turned to Broadway. "You know, there's something kind of familiar about him," he said. "I just can't work out what it is."
"Me neither," put in Broadway. "That's really weird."
"Well, Angela knows him," said Lexington. "Maybe she can tell us."
Angela seemed to have other things on her mind, however. Goliath, Hudson, Brooklyn and Sata had just landed in the courtyard, and Coldstone and Coldfire were approaching from another direction. Angela rushed forward to greet her father.
"Well, how did it fare with you?" asked Goliath.
"Not good," she said. "We met up with the Wild Hunt. They're already in New York."
Goliath frowned. "First Owen and now the the Wild Hunt, yet none of the others have sighted our enemy." He growled in frustration. "What game is Madoc playing now?"
"Owen's dead?" Emrys started forward, a shocked look on his face. "When? How did that happen?"
Goliath turned and stared at the youth, as did the other gargoyles. "Who are you, and what are you doing here?" he asked.
"My name's Emrys Hawkins," said the boy. "I'm from London."
"He was being chased by Herne and his hounds through the streets when we found him," put in Angela. "And we couldn't just leave him out there on his own, with the Unseelies around. So we brought him back here."
"And you're sure that you can trust him?" asked Brooklyn, looking at the boy a trifle suspiciously.
"We met when I visited London last year," said Angela. "He's a friend of the gargoyles over there, and of King Arthur too."
"That's kind of odd," said Brooklyn. "I think I recall seeing him before, somewhere." He frowned.
"He does look - slightly familiar," agreed Goliath. "But only slightly."
"Um, we can discuss this later, can't we?" said Emrys, looking a trifle uneasy. "Right now, I'd rather like to be indoors, where it's warm."
"I'll show you to our part of the castle," offered Angela.
"Good idea," said the boy. "I imagine that it's changed a bit since I last was here - I mean - well...." His voice trailed off uneasily. "Oops," he said.
"When were ye last here, lad?" asked Hudson, gazing directly at Emrys with his single eye. All the other gargoyles were looking at him thoughtfully, even Coldstone and Coldfire. Angela was the only one who seemed to understand, but she remained silent.
"A little over a thousand years ago, give or take a couple of decades," said Emrys, looking sheepish. "Well, I was somewhat older then; I'm younger than that now."
There was a stunned silence at that. "What do you mean?" Goliath asked.
"Could we explain this inside, please?" said Emrys, with a sigh. "I just don't feel comfortable going into that out here."
They followed him inside. Emrys had scarcely set foot in the interior of the castle, however, when something large and heavy rammed into him, knocking him off his feet. That same something then began to yap loudly at him, while seating itself on his chest.
"Nudnik!" cried a child's voice. "Get off of him!"
The gargoyle beast puppy finally clambered off of Emrys, and Graeme and Ariana pulled him to his feet. "We're very sorry, mister," said Ariana hurriedly. "It's just that he's really full of beans tonight, and - " She broke off as she took a closer look at him. "Who're you?" she asked.
"A human guest from London, my children," said Sata. "And one who is about to give a proper account of himself." She looked at the young human sharply. "You are going to explain yourself now, are you not?"
"Well, yes," said Emrys, looking at the twins and Nudnik. Bronx was not far behind, heading towards Hudson to greet him enthusiastically. "As I was saying - just before the three-hundred-pound puppy encountered me - I visited the castle for a while. I was using a different name then, of course - I change aliases frequently - and you probably thought that I was just a perfectly ordinary Welsh minstrel. Actually, I'm a bit flattered that you remembered me that well, given how much I've changed since then. Though not so much as you three have," he added, looking closely at each one of the trio. "I certainly remember you three chaps - do I ever remember you three."
"Wait a minute!" said Hudson. "Ye're not that wandering harper who showed up the same night that all those - those - whatever-they-weres appeared as well?"
"Grendel, Reynard, and Janus?" asked Emrys. "Yes, that's right."
"But how is this possible?" asked Goliath. "That was more than a thousand years ago. You could not still be alive by then, unless you are - " He broke off, and stared suspiciously at the boy.
Angela looked uncertainly at Emrys, and appeared about to speak. He saw the look on her face, however, and nodded reassuringly. "It's all right, Angela," he said. "I don't think that we need to have any secrets here."
He turned back to face the entire clan. "Well, the fact is, 'Emrys Hawkins' is just my current nickname. My real name is Merlin Ambrosius."
"You're Merlin?" asked Broadway in disbelief. "But - aren't you supposed to be a lot older than that?"
"I was older a long time ago," said Emrys. "I'm younger now. You're probably referring to the 'long white beard' business. As I had to explain to Arthur and Griff when they found me, I gave up that particular appearance long ago. Beards always tend to get in the way - no offense," he added quickly, taking another look at Hudson.
Goliath was about to say something more, but Elisa entered the room just then. "Oh, good, you're all back," she said, seeming very much relieved. "It's getting worse out there. They've just issued an official Snowstorm Alert for all of Manhattan." She broke off, seeing Emrys. "Who's your friend?"
"Someone whom Angela befriended in London last year," said Goliath.
"And it's worse than just a snowstorm," put in Lexington. "The Wild Hunt's on the loose."
"The Wild Hunt?" said Elisa, looking shocked. "That doesn't sound good at all. Madoc must be up to something big."
"Have you heard anything from Matt or Sara yet?" Goliath asked.
"Nothing," Elisa replied. "And that's worrying me. They could be in danger, and we don't even know where they are."
"But Merlin's here," put in Ariana. "He can help. Can't you?" she added, staring at Emrys.
"Merlin?" said Elisa, staring at the London boy.
"It's a long story, Detective Maza," said Emrys with a sigh. "And I really don't feel like repeating it right now. But yes, I'm Merlin. Well, I suppose that if you can accept a small clan of gargoyles living in Manhattan, you can accept a fifteen-hundred-year-old Welsh wizard who's taken the form of an adolescent."
"Why do we always seem to be a magnet for every legend in the world?" asked Elisa, apparently uncertain as to whether she should be astonished or amused.
"Well, never mind that," said Emrys. "Anyway, I'd better explain this to you. I'm not quite the wizard I used to be. My command of magic has - well, seriously dwindled thanks to being stuck in a kid's body. I'm currently at a level of - I'm not sure just what the right term is - "
"Semi-phenomenal nearly cosmic?" offered Graeme.
"Well, it's not quite the term that I'd have used," said Emrys. "But I suppose that it'll do."
* * * * *
"He should have been back by now," said Arthur, concerned. "What can be taking him so long?"
"This isn't the first time he's run out," Colin reminded the others. "Perhaps he's holed up somewhere to think things through. We shouldn't worry yet."
"I am not so certain," Una replied. "The pattern of the cards touched upon Merlin. They contained a warning that something terrible would befall him tonight."
"I think that we'd better find him," said Rory. "It sounds like there's more to this than him just tryin' to find a bit of time alone with that girl of his." The spear Luin, laid across his knees, hummed aloud in agreement.
Dulcinea was shaking her head. "I don't like this at all," she said. "If this girl's another Nimue--"
Leba sighed. "Has it occurred to you that if he's in danger, Corbie could be in danger along with him?"
"Leba, this isn't because she's a gothpunk street girl. It's --"
Rory lifted his head suddenly. "What did you say her name was?"
Leba blinked at him. "Corbie."
The spear hummed again, a hard angry tone. Rory swallowed. "Luin says we've met her before."
Dulcinea looked at them. "And it doesn't like her either?"
Luin was shaking in anger now, and Rory took a moment to calm it down, murmuring something in Gaelic. "It says she's the Morrigan," he said quietly.
Nobody spoke. Griff and Dulcinea both looked at Arthur, who sat up very straight and said nothing.
Leba was terribly still for a long pause, then said in conversational tones, "Sometimes I can be a very great fool, did you know that?" Rory gave her a questioning look; she closed her eyes and ran her hands over her face. "Corbie means crow. Gore-crow, hoodie-crow. Oh, good grief, of course."
Arthur frowned, and remained silent, deep in thought.
"So what do we do, Arthur?" asked Griff. "Send out search parties?"
"Not yet," said Arthur. "I am sorry, all of you. Nobody can desire Merlin's safety more than I do. But if Una's auguries are correct, the Unseelie Court may be preparing for a great assault upon London. If they do that, we should all be together, ready to resist them. We cannot afford to spread ourselves out and thus weaken our defenses."
"You're saying that we should just leave him alone for now?" asked Leba.
"It's a hard thing to do, yes," said Arthur. "But we have no choice. I am hoping that Merlin can protect himself for now. In the meantime, we must remain here, so that we can all help each other ward off the attack when it comes. If we divide ourselves, Madoc and his forces can defeat us, one by one."
"This still doesn't seem right," said Dulcinea. "Abandoning him, I mean."
"I know, my lady," said Arthur. "But what else can we do?"
* * * * *
A few minutes later, Arthur Pendragon stood on the rooftop of the Mystic shop, gazing out towards the south and east. Lightning flickered in the distance, and an icy wind howled all about them. The Once and Future King had drawn Excalibur from its scabbard, and now gripped it tightly in both hands. Cavall stood by his side, silent and vigilant.
"Do you suppose they're on their way here?" asked a familiar voice behind him.
Arthur turned around, to see Griff standing there. "I believe so, old friend," he said.
"I don't mind telling you," said Griff, "that I just wish they'd hurry up and get here. All this waiting is making me antsy. Just like it was during the Blitz. We never knew for certain if the Nazis were going to show up until they actually started bombing the city." A sudden thought then appeared to come to him. "Arthur, the stories all say that you were supposed to return from Avalon when Britain most needs you."
King Arthur nodded. "Although I'd given little thought to that foretelling these days," he said. "Elisa awoke me early, after all. Maybe that changed the prophecy."
"I'm not so sure," said Griff. "This place is about to come under attack from the Unseelie Court. If they win, they'll enslave the entire world, just like the Nazis wanted to do. And the sort of power they've got makes all those German planes look like toys, by comparison."
"So what are you saying?" asked Arthur.
"I'm saying," said Griff, "that maybe this really is Britain's greatest hour of need."
Arthur stood in silence for a while, the wind blowing his hair about. At last, he nodded.
"Maybe you are right, old friend," he said. "But only time will tell."
He clutched Excalibur's hilt tighter in his hands, as thunder growled. "Merlin, why did you always have to disappear just when we needed you the most?"
* * * * *
"We could try the subway," Sara Jasper said over her shoulder.
Matt shook his head. "You think they won't follow us there? And if they catch us in a subway car, we'll have no way to run. And I don't even want to think about what'd happen to the innocent bystanders. No."
The two were hunched under a fire escape in an alley, looking in opposite directions. The cast iron of the fire escape would be some protection from above, and would provide an escape route if the Unseelies attacked them from both sides at once. Snow was falling thickly now, and both of them were shivering again.
"How about we find a hardware store, buy something in iron that'll keep them away from us?"
"All the stores are closed."
"We could break a window."
"Mmmm." His tone was noncommittal, and Sara twisted to look over her shoulder again in growing annoyance. "Here's a thought," he added.
"Let's hear it."
He took a deep breath. "I think we should split up. Increase the chances that at least one of us will get through safe."
"Split up?" Sara turned around and poked him hard in the breastbone with one gloved finger. "You're trying to go noble on me, Matthew Bluestone," she growled. "You're planning something really, really stupid like leading them off so I can get away."
"I am not," he protested. Then his face changed. "You're not, are you?"
"No!" Her face went hot.
"Good," he said soberly. "Because for this to work, both of us have to be trying to make it back to the castle. Split up, we'll divide the spooks chasing us. Each of us will have a better chance, and we get a double chance of one of us getting the information through."
Sara chewed her lower lip uneasily. "I don't like this, Bluestone."
"Would you rather discuss it with our little flying friends?" he asked. "See if maybe one of them has a better idea?"
"Jerk." She drew in a deep breath and let it out again, slowly. "But you're right."
"All right," he said, and there was a charged intensity about him now. "Sara, listen. Get to a more crowded area if you can. Get hold of a weapon if you can. Keep moving no matter what. Head west, I'll go east, and we'll make two big loops and meet back at the Eyrie Building. Okay?"
"Right," Sara said. Her voice was unsteady; she swallowed and tried again. "Okay. And remember, stay where the flying ones can't surprise you from above. Double back, use every trick you can think of to throw them off. Be careful. I love you." She grabbed him around the neck, kissed him quickly on the lips, and then she was running down the alley away from him.
Matt stood there in the snow for a long moment, one hand still reaching out after her. "What?!"
Then he saw the movement in the sky above him that was not wind. And realized that for the moment Sara was running in the clear, and there were only a number of things he could do to ensure it stayed that way.
He kicked over a trash can next to him in the alley, and ducked out from underneath the fire escape. "Hey!" he shouted, and saw the flicker of iridescent wings coming closer. "Yeah, I'm talkin' to you, Tinkerbell! You lookin' for me?"
His boots crunched in the snow as he ran, away from the direction Sara had taken, and the falling snowflakes closed in behind him.
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building
"So what you're saying is that there's not that much that you can do?" asked Elisa.
She, the gargoyles, and Emrys were all gathered in the center of the Great Hall, Emrys standing in the middle of the clan and looking more than a little ill at ease. Bronx and Nudnik were still sniffing at him, but Bronx seemed to be satisfied with the boy, while Nudnik's continued investigation seemed based more on his usual general curiosity than out of suspicion.
"No, thanks to my last regeneration," said Emrys. "Not that it matters that much. I don't think that I could do that much to stop Madoc even at my peak. He's a full-blooded fay, one of the most powerful ever to live, and I'm just a measly half-breed. He'd make mincemeat out of me. He's come close to it often enough."
"You seem to know a lot about our enemy," said Goliath. "How is that?"
"Yeah," said Brooklyn. "Have you ever met him?"
"Only a couple of times," said Emrys. "But that was enough for me." He looked all the more uncomfortable now.
"Maybe we'd better accept what he says, and just leave it at that," put in Angela hurriedly.
"I'm sorry, but I don't think that that's an option," said a voice behind them. The gargoyles, Elisa, and Emrys turned around, to see Xanatos standing in the doorway. Fox was right beside him.
"When did you get here?" asked Elisa.
"We've just been listening to what you were saying for a while, Detective," said Xanatos, as he and Fox came forward. "We didn't see any reason to interrupt you until now." He took a close look at Emrys. "So this is the legendary Merlin."
"Who's feeling a lot less legendary at the moment," said Emrys.
"Now, Madoc Morfryn may be threatening this city and particularly us at any moment now," Xanatos continued. "We need to know what we can do to keep him out. Anything that you can tell us about him is vital information for us."
"Xanatos, I really don't think that this is necessary," Angela began.
"And what makes you say that?" put in Coldstone, turning towards her at once. "You told us earlier that you met this 'Merlin' in London, and know him fairly well. Have you learned something about him that you are keeping from the rest of us?"
The rest of the clan, particularly Coldfire, stared in shock at the cyborg gargoyle for his blunt question. Angela stepped back, looking uneasy. "Well," she began, "it's just that - "
"It's all right, Angela," said Emrys. "You don't have to tell them. I will."
He spoke up in a loud, clear voice, to address them all. "Madoc Morfryn and I go further back than anybody else here," he said. "For fifteen hundred years, we've been at odds with each other. And I've earned a special place of hostility in his heart - if he even has a heart, which I doubt. Because - he is my father."
Thirteen pairs of eyes stared at him in horror and disbelief. The other gargoyles edged back from Emrys at once, as if he was some horrible creature. Only Angela remained where she was. Xanatos raised his eyebrows, for once seeming taken aback.
"It's true," the boy continued heavily. "I'm the Unseelie Lord's son."
"Well, great!" said Lexington in disgust. "That just settles it! I say we make him leave at once!"
"Lexington!" cried Elisa in protest. "We can't just turn him out into the cold!"
"He's Madoc's son!" Lexington retorted. "He admitted it himself! We don't want that guy's kid in here! There's no telling what he'll do to us if we let him stay!"
Emrys turned on the little web-winged gargoyle at once, drawing himself up to his full height. A cold, commanding look shone in his eyes. "And if I truly were about my father's business," he asked in a stern, serious voice, "would he be trying to kill me? Think about that, before you accuse me."
"Well, it could just be a trick," Lexington protested, though in a weaker, less defiant tone of voice, as he stepped back. "Just like how he pretended to rescue me from that mob three years ago."
Angela stepped in at that moment. "And how about me?" she asked Lexington, her eyes flaring red for a moment. "Have you forgotten who my mother is?"
"Well, no," Lexington began, "but that's different."
"It is not," said Angela. "Emrys told me all about his problems with his father when we met in London. He refused to help Madoc in his schemes, and doesn't want to have any part of him. King Arthur knows all about it, and he trusts Emrys. Why can't you do the same?"
"Angela is right," added Goliath. "We have no right to judge this youth according to his parentage. A person should be judged by what lies in his or her own heart, not that of his or her parents."
He stared sternly at Lexington, who fell silent and hung his head a little.
"Thank you," said Emrys to Goliath and Angela. "It's a nice change to hear somebody say that sort of thing about me." He glanced at Lexington concernedly, and added, "Is - anything the matter with him?"
"You'll have to forgive Lexington," said Angela. "Madoc tricked him into thinking that they were friends, so that he could get at us. Lexington found out about it, and hasn't forgiven him for it since."
"So it's happened already," said Emrys with a sigh. "I should have remembered that. I saw it coming the last time I was here, but I don't think it really sank into me then." He shook his head in disgust. "Just one more crime to write on my father's slate," he said.
The elevator doors slid open just then, and Sara Jasper burst into the room, all out of breath. Everyone turned towards her at once.
Elisa was the first to start forward. "What is it?"
"We found it," Sara gasped. "The Fenton Circuit. They're after it -- " She broke off suddenly, noticing Emrys.
"He's a friend," said Elisa quickly. "Now, what's this about a circuit?"
"If they get it working, it can nullify the sound of iron bells!" said Sara. "Matt and I found it. But they're after us now, and - "
"Matt?" broke in Elisa. "Matt was with you?"
Sara stared at her. "You mean... he isn't here yet?"
* * * * *
The Conservatory Gardens -- Unseelie HQ
"Nothing on him," said a voice somewhere above him. "The female may have it."
"Does he hold it in his head, then?" Another voice, like a wild river under thin ice. "That will serve well enough, if it's so."
Matt kept his eyes closed. There was cold smooth stone under his face, and heavy rope around his wrists and ankles. He shifted as carefully as he could, testing his bonds.
"It wakes," said the water-voice. Cold fingers caught at his chin and turned it upward, peeled his eyelids back.
He stared upward into ice-colored eyes, set in a moon-white face. A thin female face, with high-pointed ears and hair that fell forward over her shoulders like a waterfall. Either she was clothed in something that looked like water as well, or else that was her skin; Matt couldn't tell.
She smiled, and Matt could see the glint of fangs. "You hold a powerful secret, little mortal," she told him. "A secret too heavy for you. Give it me and you shall go free."
"Drop dead," Matt suggested.
"He's going to be stubborn, glaistig," said another voice, heavy with amusement. Matt twisted his head and saw the speaker: a lavender-skinned woman with pointed ears and short-cropped hair in a darker lavender. She carried one of the wisps perched on her wrist like a falconer, and another rode her shoulder. And she was leaning against a brick wall covered with bare twisting vines of wisteria, next to a stairway going upward towards a trellis -- and Matt knew where he was, now; the Conservatory Gardens in Central Park. And he was on the ground, leaning against the rim of the central fountain.
"Stubborn. No doubt," the water-woman -- the glaistig? -- answered. She reached out for his face again, caught his jaw as he tried to turn away and turned him towards her. "Look at me."
There's no snow on the ground, Matt thought dizzily. How can there be no snow on the ground when we're outside?
"Look at me, little mortal."
Did they catch Sara? Please, no, let her have gotten away....
"Look at me."
* * *
He pushed open the door to the 23rd Precinct station house, held it open for Captain Chavez. "Don't tell me robots," he argued as they went down the stairs. "What I saw through those binoculars was no robot. It... it was a flesh-and-blood -- something."
Chavez gave him a tolerant glance. "Look, it was dark. They were a long way off."
They reached the sidewalk, and Matt paused. "You believe whatever you want," he told her. "But I know what I saw."
"Do you?" There was a sharp, unsettling note in Chavez's voice; Matt felt a vague disorientation. "What did you see? Tell me."
He took a step back; she matched his move, and stepped closer. "Tell."
* * *
Thunder cracked as the warehouse door swung shut behind him, closing out the rainy night. Matt took one cautious step toward the trapdoor in the center of the floor, edged closer to the halo of yellow light shining from the underground room.
A flash stabbed his eyes, brighter than the lightning outside and less transient. Floodlights. He gasped, shielded his eyes with one hand.
"Glad you could make it, Detective Bluestone," came a voice from across the room, the speaker silhouetted against the floodlight. Two figures approached him, the unmistakable outline of guns in their hands. Matt's eyes widened as the figure who had spoken came closer, into the light.
Tony Dracon reached out a hand and grabbed Matt's collar, pulled the detective's head close to his own and snarled into his face: "Tell."
* * *
The car screeched to a halt. Elisa let go of the wheel and turned on him, grabbing him by the lapels of his coat and then shoving him away again. "Are you out of your mind? You almost killed us both!"
"I won't give up until I get the truth, Elisa! The truth about you and the gargoyles!" He pushed open his car door, slammed it behind him, and shook his fists at the sky. "I know you're out there!" he shouted. "Oh, I know all about you! Now show yourselves!"
Silence. Behind him, he heard the other car door close, and his partner's footsteps approaching. "I know," he said quietly, and turned to face her. "I know. This is where you shake your head and tell me I'm wasting my time. Right?"
"Matt...." Elisa took a deep breath, and sighed. "You're making this a lot harder than it has to be."
"What?" He frowned.
"You know, Matt." She hit him with a pleading look right between the eyes. "Tell."
* * *
On the screen in front of him, Goliath struggled to keep from falling into the whirling blades below. Mace Malone leaned backward in his chair and admired the picture. "What a majestic beast."
"Goliath is some piece of work, all right," Matt agreed.
Mace smiled. "The Illuminati will be pleased, Mr. Bluestone. You make an excellent Judas."
Matt gave a shrug and a grin. "It's a gift."
The aged man leaned forward again and spoke into the microphone, his voice sounding in the other room. "I'm sure you've noticed by now, this is no ordinary hotel. The Cabal is designed to decimate one's grip on reality." On the screen, the room lurched and turned upside down; Goliath's claws missed their grip and he fell heavily to the ceiling/floor. "Once your defenses are down, we step in and strip your mind of its most precious memories and darkest secrets. By the time a guest leaves here... he's little more than a mindless cretin."
Strip your mind of its most precious memories...and darkest secrets.... The words sounded again in his head, in a different voice. Memories. Secrets. Secrets.
On the screen, Goliath was busily kicking his way through a door. Mace turned to Matt with a crooked smile. "Funny how the least little thing sets him off."
"Yeah," Matt answered, his mouth dry.
"Mr. Bluestone...." Mace was looking hard at him, and pushed himself up from his chair in one smooth motion. "Tell."
* * *
"I don't know how I'm gonna explain this one to the costume rental place," Elisa told Matt as she slid into the passenger seat of his car, tugging at the bedraggled red velvet of her gown. "Burn holes, grass stains -- I think this one qualifies as irreparable damage."
Matt said nothing for a moment, concentrating on steering past the crowded squad cars parked at the base of the hill. "I'm just glad that's all that got damaged," he said finally.
"That and a window," Elisa said, her tone determinedly cheerful. "And the time it's gonna take me to wash the lipstick off the mirror."
"But you're okay."
It was not quite a question, but Elisa nodded anyway. "Thanks for coming after me, partner," she said quietly.
"Hey, you'd have done the same for me. For any of us," Matt said. "There's more than one kind of partner."
Her eyes went distant. "Yeah," she said softly. "Matt?"
Elisa put one ash-stained hand on his sleeve, and said very quietly, "Tell."
* * *
Darkness, the smell of wet dust and old cement. Hunger roiling in his stomach, his mouth and throat dry with thirst, pain and the expectation of pain. Hands pulling on the ropes that bound him to the chair, untangling the final knots on the cords. "We have to hurry," said Sara Jasper's low voice. "There isn't much time."
"What's going on?" he croaked. The ropes fell away, and he pulled his aching arms forward and began to rub his chafed wrists.
"Come on," she said insistently, pulling him to his feet. "They're planning to execute you at the rally this evening." He staggered, and she hooked her right arm around him. "Sorry, almost forgot. Eat this and wait here." She dug into a pocket and pushed something into his hand.
Matt looked at the thing she'd handed him. Wrapped in waxed paper, a slightly squashed sandwich looked back at him. Corned beef on rye. His throat closed without warning; he swallowed hard and stuffed the sandwich into his coat pocket.
Sara's voice came from the hallway, talking to someone just outside the door. The someone responded, and there was a pause, then a grunt and a muffled thud as if something had hit the wall. After a moment Sara came back.
"Had to knock out the guard. He stayed at his post like a loyal Quarryman," she added with an ironic note.
Together, they moved out into the cellar corridor. "Where are we going?" Matt asked, as Sara led him by the sleeve of his coat under an arch and along a grungy brick-lined tunnel.
"That depends," came her voice from the dimness ahead of him. She turned slightly, took him by one shoulder and without warning shoved him back against the brick wall, hard.
Her eyes flashed in the faint light, and her teeth showed as she spoke a single word: "Tell."
The world shattered around him, and he cried out --
* * *
He cried out, through throat muscles that were abruptly raw and throbbing from repeated screaming. Against his face, the cold smooth stone was damp with his sweat. The glaistig drew back her hand, holding delicately in her fingers the thing she had torn from his mind, like a tiny scrap of light trailing from her grasp.
"Oh, well done, glaistig!" came the other elf-woman's voice in warm appreciation. "Lord Madoc has been waiting for this." Matt's vision was clearing, enough for him to see her release a small flight of the wisps, who took the tiny gleaming thing and carried it off.
The secret. It was important -- it was --
His vision blurred, and for a quick spasm he was disoriented to the point of nausea. He knew they had learned something from him, he remembered having a terrible secret to keep from them...but there was a ragged hole in his memory where the knowledge had been.
"Shall I kill the mortal now, Rhea?" the glaistig asked, in tones of indifference.
"This is no time to swat mayflies," Rhea answered. "Leave him there, or toss him out if you wish." A tiny smile fluttered at the edges of her mouth. "It's not as though he could do us any harm."
The dark was swirling down again as they took hold of him, and then he was on his hands and knees in the snow, with a cold wind wailing out of the sky.
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building
"You want some coffee?"
There was a pause before Sara looked up from where she was sitting. "What? No," she said, her voice distant. "No, thanks. I'm fine."
Elisa shot her a worried glance, but said nothing as she poured a mug for herself and walked over to the radio control desk where Fox sat.
"Okay, we're looking at somewhere on the Upper East Side," Fox was saying into the commlink panel. "It's gonna take a few minutes to triangulate the exact position, but that's the general area. Momma Bear out."
Elisa leaned to read the screen over Fox's shoulder. "Tracing his cellphone?"
"Yeah. The main communications satellite is down -- diamonds to doughnuts that's no coincidence either," the red-haired woman added. "But we're telling the Xanacorp satellite to transmit a signal to Bluestone's cellphone number, and piggyback a tracer on the signal so we can see where he is."
"You're not supposed to be able to do that, you know," Elisa observed.
Fox looked over her shoulder and gave Elisa a wicked smile. "I won't tell if you won't." She turned back to peer at the screen, sat up sharply and spoke into the commlink again. "Momma Bear to all Wings. We've got him. Repeat, we've got him: 105th Street and Fifth Avenue. Acknowledge."
"Wing-four. We read you, Momma Bear," came Broadway's voice, faintly laced with static but clear. "Let's go get 'im."
* * * * *
The snow dragged at his feet, the cold made every motion a torment. He had lost one of his gloves, and his left hand had gone mercifully numb. Matt struggled down the icy sidewalk, unable to see more than a few feet ahead of him, hoping he was still headed in the right direction.
Another snowdrift caught him in the knees, and he went down face first. He tried to get to his feet, his breath hoarse and painful in his own ears, a red mist swimming at the edges of his vision.
Matt dragged himself up to his knees, strained to pull himself up further, slipped and went down again, and lay still. Falling snowflakes began to speckle the back of his trenchcoat.
And high above, a winged shape in the snow-filled sky saw him, circled, and swooped low....
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building
Goliath appeared in the doorway, snow melting in his hair and dripping to the floor around him, supporting a crumpled figure on his arm.
"Matt!" Sara was on her feet and at his side before anyone else could move.
"Sara," Matt Bluestone managed. "You're all right."
"Better than you are," Elisa put in. "Matt, what happened to you?"
He was still shaking, and not just from the prolonged cold. "They happened. They got me. The information...."
"The specs for the Fenton Circuit," Fox said. "Jasper told us."
"I had it," Matt said weakly. "I had it.... They've got it now."
"They've got it?" Elisa's eyes widened. "Matt, you told them?"
"I didn't ... tell ... them." His jaw clenched, and he looked away from the women. "They ... took it."
Sara frowned. "But -- we burned the disk. And the printout. How...?" She trailed off, and a horrified understanding rose in her eyes. She bit her lip, and when she spoke again her voice was flat and matter-of-fact. "Matt, you're exhausted, sit down before you fall down." She stepped to his side and deftly guided him toward the couch.
Behind them, Fox was saying "David? Bluestone's here, get that shield up now. They've got the circuit specs."
Elisa's voice, interrupting. "He may need medical attention. He's been interrogated, possibly under drugs."
Fox again. "Okay, there's a chance the Unseelies won't be able to reproduce the circuit from the information they've got, but we need to start perfecting our backup plans, and fast. Our sonic defense may have just become completely useless."
The conversation continued, but Sara tuned it out as she helped Matt lie down on the couch. He gave a faint groan and turned his head on the bolster. "Shh," she said softly, bending over him.
He reached out and clutched at her hand, clinging like a drowning man. Sara gripped his hand hard. "I'm here," she whispered. He drew in a rasping breath and mumbled something in her ear.
She looked at him, her eyes widening slightly. Then she nodded, and held his hand tighter.
Unnoticed by anyone, a small insect crawled out of Matt's coat pocket and flitted out of the room, into the corridor.
* * * * *
The Brocken, Germany
"So now we have it," said Madoc triumphantly. "The devices can be finally completed."
"The gnomes are already working on it, my lord," said Garlon. "They will soon have all of the final components installed."
"Ah, these are very good tidings," said Madoc. "Now we can finally launch our assault. You all have your assigned targets." His gaze swept the council table.
The Unseelie Lords present nodded.
"Then ready your troops and prepare to depart," said Madoc. "Once the gnomes have completed their task, we march to victory."
A sidhe knight entered the War Room, and bowed low. "My lord and lady," he said to Madoc and Maeve. "The gnomes have finished their work. The ironsound devices are ready."
"Then it is time for us to receive them," said Madoc, "and to be away. Herne, Sekhmet, Surtur, Garlon -- follow me."
He strode out of the room, Garm trotting by his side. Maeve followed directly behind him, and the rest of the Unseelies after them.
* * * * *
The Conservatory Gardens
They came to the park in twos and threes, all save one that stood waiting by the empty fountain. Red-gold hair glowing like a candle's flame in the darkness, George Harrison watched as his fellow Halflings approached. Almost all of them were clad in dark clothes, as if they'd dressed from the same closet, even Tanya who had discarded her usual blue jeans for black denim. Rael and Rita were walking close together, not quite holding hands, but clearly relying on each other for support whether they realized it or not. Vince and Jake were hanging back, joking with some of the other goons recruited from crime gangs all over town. Candy strode out from the crowd, her long legs eating up the distance between her and George.
He nodded at her. "It's about time you guys got here."
"We all got together at The Shire earlier," Candy said. Her eyes flicked over him. "You should have been there. The troops are a little nervous."
"Better a little nervous than too cocky," George replied. "Whatever it is that's going down tonight, we can't afford to make any mistakes."
Zed wandered up to them. "So?" he asked as he pulled the collar of his coat up, "Where is everybody? I thought this was gonna be a party!"
Before anyone else could speak, a circle of blinding white fire flared outward from the center of the gardens, sending iridescent flickers along the shielding dome. When it faded, the previously empty space was filled to capacity.
Six of the thirteen thrones along the obsidian trellis were occupied: Sekhmet, Herne, Surtur, and Garlon ranged out to either side, and Madoc and Maeve were seated at the center in full armor, crowned with the last glow of the spellfire. Before them, the central fountain, dry all winter, sprang into life; atop the highest curve of water, the glaistig formed and swept them a low, graceful bow. "The caretaker of your garden welcomes you, my Lords, my Ladies."
And behind the fountain, upon the great lawn, were the massed ranks of Unseelie soldiers. Rank upon rank of sidhe knights sat silently, mounted upon the huge black fay-horses with their hot red eyes, as black banners with the seven-pointed star device fluttered above them. Spiral flights of wisps darted back and forth overhead, some perching on or near the lavender-skinned handler Rhea. Hundreds of the rank-and-file foot soldiers stood behind the knights: Redcaps, Fire Giants, Wendigos, and countless others less identifiable.
Zed blinked rapidly and shook his head. "Me and my big mouth."
"No kidding," Candy muttered as she took her place behind George and to the right. The slight movement caught the attention of the Unseelie leader and the Halflings as a whole found themselves under uncomfortable scrutiny.
Madoc and Maeve exchanged glances, and she tipped her head at the group of once-humans. "It's the only practical thing to do," she said matter-of-factly. "Garlon has other duties and after the displays of willfulness they've shown us, I'd sooner be sure of them."
He pursed his lips as he regarded the Halflings, then nodded. "I agree. Time to crack the whip." Maeve merely smiled.
"Man, did you see her eyes flare up like that?" Zed murmured. "That is one twisted chick."
Madoc stood up and walked to the edge of the railing. The Unseelie warriors beat their swords against their shields until he held up his hands for silence. "Tonight of all nights, we finally take back what is rightfully ours. Long have we waited for vengeance, long have we waited for an end to Oberon's tyranny, and now, beneath the Beltane moon, we claim our own! This is our turning point! Let the lesser races beware! Tonight we bring Ragnarok to the mortal world!"
At the sound of the word, "Ragnarok", each and every Halfling suddenly staggered. Some fell to the ground whimpering, others grabbed their heads, their eyes white-rimmed with terror. George remained standing by force of will alone. His breath caught in his throat as abruptly his mind was invaded. He could feel Sekhmet's cool disdain, hear Maeve's devilish purr of anticipation, and sense Madoc's icy grip on his soul. A desperate whimper behind him caught his attention.
Zed was curled up in a ball on the ground, foaming at the mouth and chanting over and over, "She's in my head! She's in my head!"
Candy staggered into George and grabbed his shoulder. Her eyes were wide and glistening. "What's going on?" she moaned. "I - can't - keep - them - out!!"
"Listen to me, Mr. Harrison."
George glanced up. Madoc was staring straight at him, with eyes as bright as starfire. His lips did not move but his voice echoed in George's head. "What you are experiencing is the full force of the geas spell that was part of the process that changed you and your fellows into the superior beings you are today. It was necessary to limit the effects to compensate for your less-advanced human metabolism. Tonight is too important to risk any weak links or defections." Madoc smiled coldly at this. "I know what you tried to do with Sevarius, Mr. Harrison. Leaving the Unseelie Court is not a good career option."
Inwardly, George cringed.
"Fortunately for you, I need your leadership skills tonight. Pull your people together and prepare them for the battle to come. You will obey any command an Unseelie gives you and you will obey it immediately. Disobey and the consequences will be dire."
In the meanwhile, Maeve had risen and had been giving out the battle assignments. She regarded the Halflings and cocked an eyebrow at Madoc. "And the Halflings, my lord?"
"George Harrison will command the Halflings as planned," Madoc said casually. "They will attack from the south with the others." His eyes drilled into George's skull. "They will do their duty, won't they, Mr. Harrison?"
George swallowed the bile in his throat and ground out, "We will do as you command, my lord." The second the words left his lips, the chaotic roar in his head dulled to a monotone buzz and uncontrollably, he gasped in relief. Around him, the other Halflings exhibited similar signs of release.
"See that you do," Madoc said curtly and turned away.
Turning, George glanced over his squad. Many of them were understandably shaky but were slowly pulling themselves together. Strangely enough most of the underworld goons recovered quickly, possibly because they were accustomed to recognizing authority. George reached down and heaved Zed to his feet. The Halfling hacker was still trembling and wide-eyed.
"What are we going to do, George?" Candy murmured over his shoulder. "I've got a bad feeling about this."
"We're going to do what we have to," George replied. "It's all or nothing now."
* * * * *
Coyote sat cross-legged in a small cave far from any human habitation. The Trickster had been busy. Along with his similarly minded brethren, he had spent many months awakening the spirits of magic within both those that visited and those that lived in the ancient land. Coyote had come to the conclusion that modern man was a tough act to impress.
"Still, it's been rewarding in its own way," he admitted. "The People are re-discovering the old beliefs and many are performing the rituals with one heart, not two." He stared out onto the desert. "I hope it's enough."
He closed his eyes and relaxed, sending his senses onto the winds and felt his consciousness extend far beyond the bounds of his physical form. He stiffened. A surge of fay energy vibrated in the air. Not one, but many, were taking corporal form upon the earth.
The Coyote became cunning. Using tendrils of his own energy he formed tiny facsimiles of himself. His doppelgangers opened their eyes and Coyote frowned. He withdrew into his self and thought furiously.
It's begun and they're coming. Time to warn the Qaletaqa. He dissipated his corporeal form and rode the wind far away from the cave.
* * * * *
Beth Maza yawned as she unlocked her apartment, tossed the keys on the coffee table and collapsed onto the sofa. Nine grueling hours of translating elderly informants' interviews had left her wiped. She snuggled deeper into the cushions and absently pulled a quilted throw blanket over herself before falling into an exhausted sleep.
* * * * *
Beth struggled in her sleep. She was fighting the monsters out of legend. A few were familiar to her, figures familiar from childhood stories and her personal studies of Native American myth. Others though were completely alien. "No ... get away!" she mumbled as she fought with the now constricting blanket.
"Beth! You've got to wake up! Now!"
She bolted upright, her eyes wide, and threw the blanket away from her. It struck a figure standing by the edge of her bed. With a startled noise, the figure pulled away the blanket, and Coyote grinned at her. "Is that any way to treat a supernatural being?"
"Coyote ... I --" she began, still disoriented.
"No time, Beth." He held up his hand and she settled immediately. "Listen to me. I have very little time. The Unseelie are on the move and this time they're not fooling around. I need to tell you a story -- actually I need to correct a story you've been told."
The girl swallowed her fear. She sat upright and listened intently. "All right."
"The creation story. You remember it, right?"
Beth nodded, pushing a hand through her short, dark hair. "Sure. The People climbed up from the first world to the second, despoiled it, and climbed again to the third, despoiled it and went to this one, the fourth."
"Right, but in actuality there were a few changes made to the true story. The legend is mainly allegory, a cautionary tale about learning not to spoil your own nest, but there was a little truth to the tale. The hole that they climbed through from one world to the next, is more like --" he gestured with both hands -- "a gateway, a door. And one of the places that gate leads to is Avalon."
"Avalon?" Beth repeated. "You mean like..."
"I mean Avalon, home of the Third Race. My home." His voice dropped somewhat. "Look, it's a long story and I really can't give you all the specifics. What you need to understand is that that gateway exists and that the faith of the People has kept it hidden and protected for over a millenium."
"Why didn't you tell me this before?" Beth demanded, confused.
"To protect you. We're at war and everything is on a 'need to know' basis. You didn't need to know before, but now you do."
"At war?" Unconsciously, she straightened, her head lifting. Elisa's words of warning and pleas not to get involved slammed home as she realized that this was not some game Coyote had invented to make her training interesting.
"With the Unseelie Court. You know what they have planned for your kind." Coyote's eyes flared as he spoke. "Anyway, they're on their way. They don't know specifically about this portal, it was created long after they were banished from our home, but they'll be attacking anyplace that smells of fay magic, looking for a weak spot in our defenses. If they find the gate, then we're all done for, not just the chosen warriors."
Beth blanched at the thought of Elisa, Derek, and their friends out on the front lines. She bit her lip, then breathed in and faced Coyote. "So what's our plan?"
He smiled a feral grin. "You're going to get together with some friends and create a diversion."
"Friends? Coyote, I don't understand."
"Come on, Beth, you don't think I'd let you go at this alone, do you?" The Trickster was smiling again. "I know just the place too. How do you feel about putting on your dancing shoes?"
"Coyote! You just told me this entire place was going to be under attack by a bunch of angry fairies, and you want to go party?"
Coyote shrugged. "Can you think of a better time?" Beth didn't smile. Coyote sighed. "It's not that kind of party, Beth. You know that tourist pow-wow the Navajo are holding down at the Grange Hall?"
"Good. You, and a few other people like you, are going to add some authenticity to the evening. You are going to raise a cloud of human magic that will protect the gateway from any chance of detection."
"Are you sure about this?" Beth said skeptically, even as she rose to dress and gather her flute and other talismans. "How will we know what to do?"
"You'll know," Coyote said, mock disappointment coloring his words. "Have I ever led you wrong?"
The youngest Maza didn't reply as she picked up her car keys and strode out of her apartment. Coyote felt her fear beneath the veneer of anger and his eyes softened. "Everything will be all right, Beth. I believe in you."
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building
David willed himself to remain calm. Haste would lead to mistakes. The system would go online in due course, well before the Unseelies arrived. There was no need to panic, to rush, to forget a command. He'd kept a watchful eye over the construction and operation, just in case....
Just in case.
His fingers paused over the keys, and he could not focus on the monitor.
"David?" Fox had entered his office, held two steaming mugs in her hands. He waved her over and accepted a mug.
"Thanks." He turned back to the keyboard.
"Is there anything I can do? To help?"
"There'll be plenty to do soon enough." He took a swallow of his coffee, bitter and scalding.
"Right." She held her own mug tightly, as she went to the window. The steam and her breath clouded the glass. "The waiting is the worst part."
David continued working. Hurry whispered in his ears, and he tried to quell it.
ERROR - PLEASE REENTER PASSWORD
He cursed, just as his phone buzzed. For a millisecond, he wondered why Owen hadn't ordered his calls held. With considerably less grace than a man in his position normally exhibited, he jabbed the TALK button. "What."
"This is Security, sir. There's a woman in the lobby who says she needs to speak with you. She claims to be your mother-in-law, and her picture matches the one we have, but the file's got a red label." That was the code to contact David, Fox or Owen before allowing the visitor upstairs.
David closed the connection and looked at his wife, who mouthed the word "Mom."
"Interesting timing," he noted.
"I'll go down and see what she wants." She set down her mug and went to the door.
"Fox, be careful. There's a chance it might not really be your mother down there."
She paused, then nodded. "I'll be careful. Back in a few." He watched her leave, and a sudden fear moved over his heart that he might never see her again.
He hit the TALK button again. "Keep Dr. d'Auber there. Mrs. Xanatos is on her way down. And evacuate the building of all non-essential personnel."
"That wasn't a suggestion."
"Yes, sir!" said the startled guard as David closed the connection. He turned back to the monitor, and tried not to think about what might be happening in the lobby or outside the castle walls.
Somewhere far below, alarms began to sound.
* * * * *
The noise from the alarms grew louder as Fox descended. Cocooned in their private elevator, she imagined the bustling throng of employees, shutting down computers, grabbing car keys and winter coats and briefcases, hurrying down endless staircases. Rumors would spread at the speed of thought: fire, radiation leak, imminent structural collapse. They would neither suspect nor understand the true approaching danger.
As the floors ticked down, her thoughts strayed to the person waiting for her below. A swarm of emotions vied for her attention -- too many to deal with, and she pushed them away. Now was not the time.
The elevator doors opened to constrained chaos. A river of coated and gloved business suits flooded the lobby, streaming out the revolving glass doors like a liquid sculpture. Fox waded through them, heading directly for the reception desk.
Dr. Anastasia d'Auber (formerly Renard) was waiting patiently, chatting with the guard on duty. She wore no coat, simply a green dress suit Fox recalled. Of course she had no coat; she had probably popped into existence and walked inside.
"Fox, darling!" Her smile was wide and genuine. Fox felt a frown on her own face. People continued to walk rapidly by her.
"When I was eight we had a cat. What was her name?" She'd prepared the question on the way down. It was possible the Unseelie would know the answer, but she doubted it.
"You were seven, and his name was Mister Boots. He ran away a few weeks later. What do I win?"
"All right, you're probably you. What do you want?"
Her mother drew back at the tone of the words. "It would be easier to tell everyone at once."
"Fine." She turned to the by now utterly bewildered guard. "Once the building is cleared, I want the rest of you out. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Mrs. Xanatos."
"Come on." She walked back towards the elevator, not waiting to see if her mother followed.
* * * * *
Xanatos finished typing the code upon the keyboard. "That should do the trick," he said.
"What're you doing?" asked Brooklyn. He, Goliath, Elisa, and Hudson were standing close behind the billionaire, watching him at his work.
"Preparing our defenses for the attack," Xanatos replied. "After our first clash with the Unseelie Court two years ago in the raid on Maddox Technologies, Owen and I --" The tremor in his voice was brief; they might almost have imagined it. "-- reprogrammed the security system that he had originally programmed as a defense against Oberon when my son was born. I've just set up the force field around the entire building. Hopefully that should keep them out."
"I dunno," said Brooklyn. "I seem to recall Oberon getting in after he found out that the force field didn't extend to below ground."
"Owen and I corrected that oversight," said Xanatos. "We reinforced the walls and floor of the basement with iron plating. That's enough to block any Unseelie from entering that way. This time, we really will be impregnable."
"But will that strategy be enough to keep out Madoc's legions?" asked Goliath doubtfully.
"Let's hope so," said Xanatos.
"I think that we should tell the others," said Goliath. He turned and left the room, Elisa, Hudson, and Brooklyn following him.
They found the rest of the clan, along with Matt, Sara, and Emrys, in the courtyard. Broadway was explaining to Matt and Sara about Emrys, while Angela was talking to the halfling boy himself. She turned to greet her father as he came out into the courtyard.
"Emrys was just telling me about how he was captured by Redcaps," she said. "And I've told him about what happened to Owen."
"I'm sorry to hear about my cousin," said Emrys. "We didn't meet that often, but I got along rather well with Puck."
"You knew that Owen and Puck were the same?" asked Elisa.
"Well, I do have some ways of keeping up with what some of my relatives are up to," said Emrys. He looked up at the force field now enclosing the castle and the Eyrie Building on all four sides. "You've set up defenses, I see."
Brooklyn nodded. "And if that doesn't work, we've got some more of those iron-clad Steel Clan robots. The Unseelies are going to have a tough time breaking in now."
"I think that I saw something," said Graeme, pointing to the south of the building. They went over to the battlements to look down, following the direction that he was pointing in. In the deserted streets far below, flashes of light were appearing, solidifying into dark shapes.
"The siege is about to begin," said Coldstone grimly.
"There seem to be more over in that direction, too," said Sara, pointing to the east.
"And over there," said Brooklyn, gesturing to the north.
"And there," said Angela, looking eastwards. "We really are surrounded now."
* * * * *
Faulconbridge landed on the roof of the Mystic shop, in front of King Arthur and Griff. Behind them stood Rory, the spear Luin in his hands; Dulcinea, holding her riding bow and wearing a quiver of iron-tipped arrows slung over her shoulder; and Leba, leaning on an iron-bound quarterstaff slightly taller than herself.
"Have you seen anything?" Arthur asked.
"I'm afraid so, sir," said the hawk-like gargoyle. "There's a whole crowd of Minions and Vampyres headed this way. And some other things with them."
"Other things?" asked Arthur. "Could you be a little more specific, please?"
"Well, one of them's a wild boar," said Faulconbridge. "A really huge one. It looks about as big as a rhinoceros. I wouldn't want to get too close to it."
"So they have Troit with them," said the Once and Future King grimly. "I might have known."
"Who's Troit?" Faulconbridge asked.
"The boar that you saw," said King Arthur. "He ravaged Britain when I was its king, and I had to hunt him down and drive him out. It cost me some of my best knights, too. And now it seems that we face him again."
Imogen landed on the roof just then. "Michael and the others are on the way here from the London estate," she said. "They left a good number behind to look after the barghests and guard the new hatchlings, but most of them are coming."
"Then that gives us some hope," said Arthur, holding Excalibur aloft. "Follow me, Cavall. It is time for us to descend and face them."
The gargoyle beast followed his master down the steps into the interior of the shop. Soon, fires came into sight, fires from the torches that the Minions were carrying as they neared the Mystic shop. Lucius rode before them on a great black horse, wearing a Roman-style breastplate over his robes. The plumed helmet of a Roman general rested upon his head, and he carried a long spear in his hand. Vampyres flanked the Minions, and the massive form of Troit thundered in their midst. Even the Minions showed little desire to draw close to the monstrous boar.
The Unseelie forces drew up outside the Mystic shop, and Lucius held up his hand. "Hold, all of you," he said. "Nobody attacks yet."
Cries of protest from the Minions rose up at once, and Troit gave a disgusted squeal. "Oi!" shouted Rodney. "We've come all this way here, and now we don't get a proper fight?"
"There are proper procedures to go through, first," said Lucius to the young man sharply. "Now hold your tongue. It is I whom the Dark Lord has entrusted with the command of these forces and not you. You do as I say. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir," said Rodney uncomfortably, stepping back.
"Thank you," said the former professor. He rode forward and pounded upon the door with his spear.
The door opened, and King Arthur emerged, clad in the full armor that he had worn when he had left Avalon, Excalibur drawn and gleaming brightly. Cavall stood by his side, growling at the mob. Behind the two of them stood Leo and Una.
"What business have you with us?" the last Pendragon asked Lucius. "Speak at once."
"In the name of Lord Madoc Morfryn, lawful King of Avalon and Emperor of the Three Races," said Lucius, "I, Lucius Tiberius Adrians, Chief Disciple and Legate to his Imperial Majesty, address you, Arthur Pendragon, former High King of Britain. You have been judged guilty of crimes of rebellion against the Dark Lord, waging war upon his loyal subjects and hindering their enterprises. Therefore, by the authority that has been invested in me, I declare you and all those who hold with you, traitors to his Imperial Majesty, and deserving of punishment. You are ordered to yield yourselves up at once to face trial for your crimes and receive the proper penalties for your disobedience, or be overwhelmed by us in battle."
"We have no intention of surrendering to you," said King Arthur. "And we will fight you to the last, even if we all must perish."
"And perish you will," said Lucius coldly. "Minions, attack!"
The Minions surged forward at once, charging for the Mystic shop. King Arthur stepped forward to meet them, and Leo and Una took up their places at his side. Griff and Faulconbridge leaped from the roof, carrying Rory and Leba, to land in their ranks behind their king; Imogen and Dulcinea, their bows already cocked, began firing iron bolts into the black-clad followers of Lucius. And diving out of the night came Michael at the head of the London gargoyles, come to join in the battle.
* * * * *
The sun had risen, and each and every member of the Ishimura clan took only a few moments to marvel at the sight of it, before the matter at hand spurred them into action.
"Riko!" Kai shouted, speaking to a pale-pink female, "Take our best spotters aloft to the watchtowers, and watch for any sign of Atsuma's forces. Sora-chan, we will need our best archers in the towers, now." He faced an older, dun-colored warrior, who sported a curved beak. "Washi, take five warriors to the rookery and secure it."
"Hai, Kai-san!" came the reply, as the others raced off to do their duty.
"Hiroshi and Kino will rally the villagers, and see that the elderly and children are taken to the harbor for safety," reported Yanagi - a tall, thin, yellow-green female with a flattened crest of horns - as she came to Kai's side, "and Taira has several of our best fighters on the walls."
"Let us hope we can do all we can to stop them from destroying this village," Kai replied. He turned to where Ogi Shinjin was kneeling on the stones of the courtyard, flanked by Wakai and Akaru. "You must go inside, where it is safe," Kai offered.
The fox-being gave a wan smile. "Unless you can defeat the enemy, or my Master arrives, no place is safe in Ishimura, my friend. But, I thank you for the courtesy and concern."
"We will take him inside, Kai-sama," Wakai said resolutely, "and stay with him to protect him while he regains his strength."
"Hai, we shall," Akaru agreed. "The first wizardry is always the most difficult...but he will recover in time."
"And he has given us the time we will need to guard him." Kai nodded. "Go. I will have warriors sent to aid you. Take him to the rooms in the lower tower on the far side. If any place can be safe, it will do for now." The priest and the kitsune helped the fledgling wizard to his feet, and helped him inside.
Kai was about call to another of his clan, when Riko landed beside him in a flurry of wing strokes. "Kai-sama! There is a strange cloud, a dark red one, coming over the mountain! "
The tall, gray skinned leader of the Ishimura gargoyles became more alert, "Show me this cloud, Riko-san."
"Hai!" She motioned towards the far wall, facing Mt. Zao, and the two vaulted to its top with a bound. Riko quickly got her bearings, and pointed. "There, Kai-sama!"
Kai looked at the cloud formation, a touch of pressing worry passing over his features. "Go, Riko," he said very quietly. "Sound the alarm now."
He watched her dash off towards the tall tower in the center of the village that held a large bell, where she landed and began to furiously pound the suspended wooden ringer against it. The bronze bell clanged, loud and frantic.
A high-pitched wail rolled across the sky, cutting across the sound of the bell and setting Kai's teeth on edge. Whirling around, he only had a moment to gasp out a prayer at the sight of dozens of evil-looking, misshapen creatures, boiling out from the cover of the black and red clouds. The creatures were laughing as they fell from the sky like a macabre rain.
Most were muscled ugly brutes with wide, fanged mouths, clawed hands, and skins of varied shades of red, blue, green, and black. Some had one spiraled horn, some had two. Others were thin, strangely shaped creatures with two-toed feet and two fingered hands. Their hair was an unkempt mop like ragged seaweed. All of the creatures had pupil-less, black eyes.
"Oni," he breathed, then raised his voice. "Kiken! Kiken! Ima mi-na mamorimas' mura! Isogi! Isogi!"
As the oni horde landed, they set upon the nearest things in blind battle-frenzy. Most carried clubs, a few had crudely made swords, but a lot were unarmed. This did not stop them in the least; they simply pummeled or kicked with their bare hands and feet.
Taira landed next to Kai. "Do we bring the fight to them, Kai-san?"
The Ishimuran leader shook his head. "Let them come and exhaust their charge. We will be fresh enough to push them back."
The horde came within meters of the face of the castle wall and stopped. The defenders watched perplexed as the oni gibbered and sneered up at them.
"What are they waiting for?" Kai asked aloud.
His answer didn't take long in coming. A tallish man with Asiatic features emerged from the seething mass of monsters. He was clad in a yellow kimono, trimmed in black. Matching black bands of cloth were tied about his wrists and ankles. Pointed ears angled out from his sickly green hair. The stranger moved with an arrogant confidence that exuded from him; as though merely walking would be beneath his dignity.
"This must be Atsuma," Taira whispered harshly.
However, the Unseelie did not address the gargoyles. Instead, he stood aside, bowing as another being - this one a tall, pale woman in a faded skirt and halter, the tips of her pointed ears visible through the wild fan of her dark hair - strode to the fore. A pair of women dressed in sarongs accompanied her, as a kind of honor guard.
"By order of my master, Madoc, Lord and rightful ruler of Avalon," the Unseelie female proclaimed, her voice reaching every corner of the castle, "all gargoyles are to surrender and be taken under arms from this village." She looked with a smug smile directly into Kai's eyes. "Failure to comply means death to all that lives inside this village... be they man or gargoyle."
"And, forgive my rudeness, if we choose to fight?" Kai asked.
"Then, you will die regardless," she replied, "and I, Rangda, will leave your bones atop the broken stones of this village as a warning to others!"
Kai looked at his forces arrayed on the wall. Many were looking at the horde with disgust, and a few were openly growling their refusal to comply. A short glance behind him revealed the appearance of Yoshi, who only had to give Kai a single nod.
Yanagi whispered softly. "The elders and hatchlings are safe."
For a span of heartbeats, Kai focused his breathing, concentrating on it and nothing else. Finally, he nodded briefly, then turned to face Atsuma with a look of utter calm on his face.
"What is your answer, gargoyle?" Rangda called out.
Kai faced the Unseelie fully, and performed a perfect bow, letting his clan know his mind. Coming erect, he said five simple words:
"We shall never surrender... Attack!!"
* * * * *
The Pyramid of the Guatemalan Clan
Zafiro stood on the apex of the stairs, looking out into the lush forest around the pyramid, listening to the eerie stillness of the night. While he rested on the great coil of his tail, the tip was twitching restlessly.
"Something is not right in the Green this night," he muttered to himself, casting a look around at the base of his home. "The animals are all quiet... like when the jaguar is stalking."
He sniffed the air, unable to shake the tension that he was feeling. "Something is in the Green... evil... Obsidiana?" Zafiro called out for his rookery sister, concerned since the other two members of their clan - Jade and Turquesa - still had not returned from their exodus to Avalon. "Mis cielos, I forgot," he said crossly to himself, "She said something about going to the river to get fish for our meal tonight."
He paused briefly, his face grimacing as he tasted the air once more. "It does not feel right for anything to be out in the Green tonight, much less one of us alone." Uncoiling his tail, Zafiro spread his feathered wings and launched himself into the night.
* * * * *
Down by the river, a splash and ripple betrayed the presence of a line of twine made of plant fibers, which was pulled taught by the weight of a large river fish. It thrashed beneath the surface of the water, trying to get free from the bone hook that was jammed in it's mouth.
A dark blue hand reached down from the branches above and yanked on the line, hauling the hapless fish into the air. The owner of the hand chuckled as she neatly gripped the slippery fish with her talons.
"Forgive me, amigo," Obsidiana said with a smile, "but I need to fill the bellies of my friend and myself." With that, she gaffed it, removed the hook, and placed the fish into a carry net tied to her waist belt.
She was about to move to another one of her fish-traps, when the sound of something settling in the branches above her got her attention. Keeping silent so as not to alert her presence to whatever it was above her, she soon heard a familiar voice.
"Obsidiana!? Where are you?!"
Grinning, she replied, "Over here! Wait, I'll come to you!" She dug her claws into the trunk of the overhanging tree and swiftly climbed upward, eventually, finding the speaker in the upper branches. "Zafiro! Look!" She pulled her net around, revealing four good-sized fish. "We shall eat well tonight."
Her companion looked at her grimly. "This is no time to worry about how well we are eating. Come, we must get back to the pyramid," he said sharply.
At his tone, the blue female looked at him with concern. "Why? What is wrong?"
"There is something wrong in the forest, and I for one do not want either of us out alone in it tonight!"
She looked at him skeptically. "Amigo, the men have not been seen for weeks!"
Zafiro turned to look at her. "That is not the danger I am sensing. Something else... something... evil is lurking in the shadows of the trees, and until we know what it is, we would be safer back at the pyramid."
Just then, something dragged the branches above them back, revealing the night sky overhead…
Just seconds before something large blocked it from view!
"A sound judgment, gargoyle," a deep voice said, filled with mock mirth, "but nowhere is safe in this forest. Not now, nor ever!"
A loud explosion ripped through the night, making the two Guatemalans turn sharply, just in time to see a large section of the forest go up in a blaze of flames.
"Mis cielos! What could have caused that?" Obsidiana exclaimed.
"Worry about it later! Go! Back to the pyramid!" Zafiro snarled. Together, both gargoyles took wing, just as something slammed into the tree they were standing on. Gliding as fast as their wings would carry them, they failed to notice the silhouette of a huge, man-shaped form which was rapidly overtaking them.
Obsidiana hazarded a look over her shoulder, and spied a giant man with feathered wings, dressed in Aztec armor, following close behind them.
"Before this night is over, I, Huitzilopochtli, will cast you down dead!" he roared, his laughter filling the night, as several other figures rose from the forest in his wake. One was a large batlike thing that shrieked horribly. The others were sidhe warriors, dressed in the ornamental battle dress of Aztec and Mayan fighters.
Zafiro and Obsidiana barely made a stumbling landing on the pyramid, just missing getting struck by Camazotz, as the monster passed overhead. "Watch your back! We must not let them destroy our home!"
* * * * *
The Old Synagogue
Max Loew laid a steady hand on the Golem's wrist. "Yosef," he whispered urgently, in a tone one might use to waken a sleeping person. "Yosef, they're coming."
Yosef the Silent, as the Golem was now called again, opened its heavy eyelids and looked up at its master. It nodded its huge head and rose to its feet, the movement rumbling like a small avalanche.
Leaning against the attic door, the elderly Rabbi Yanus watched. "A month ago," he mused aloud, "we sat at the Seder and recited This is a protected night. Tonight it is we who do the protecting, heh?"
"This is not a night to stay in and hope that death passes over us," Max returned, "nor a night to pick and choose between homes." He reached up to touch the iron breastplate they'd fastened around the Golem, brushed the sacred words inscribed upon it. "This is a night to rise up and fall upon those who would slay us. The dreams have told me."
Rabbi Yanus smiled. "I remember when you scoffed at the idea of dreaming what would come to pass."
Max dropped his eyes. "I still cannot understand why this least of the prophets' gifts has been given to me," he said with a small, embarrassed shrug.
"And do you think the prophets of old ever understood why any were given to them?" The older man gestured at the Golem. "There stands your answer. The Golem is needed, now more than even when it was first formed. And now you both stand to protect a much larger community."
They held each other's gaze for a moment, then Max nodded. He took the fringed prayer-shawl that hung around his neck, started to take it off -- then shook his head and settled it again on his shoulders. He reached into a pocket, withdrew a small gray skullcap and pinned it firmly into place on his head. "Tonight," he said quietly, "I do not think we need worry about being seen with these."
There was a sudden clamor outside the old synagogue, a roar of jeering voices mixed in with what sounded like animal yelps and howls. A few mocking words came clear: "Hero! Hero!" "Send the hero out to fight!"
Max looked up at the Golem. "That's us, friend," he said. "Come on."
Rabbi Yanus put a hand on Max's arm. "God go with you."
* * * * *
At sea, near New Olympus
"We should be almost there now," said Proteus to Phobos and Deimos. The three of them stood at the prow of the Naglfar, flagship of the Unseelie fleet, now fast approaching the isle of New Olympus.
"Excellent," said Phobos. "Are the Birds ready, brother?" he asked Deimos.
Deimos nodded. "Once we're through the concealment field and in sight of the island, we release them."
The Unseelie ships pressed forward through the artificial mists created by the New Olympians' cloaking device to seal off their island from unwanted visitors. They were all "ghost ships", sunken ships from various eras of history all raised from the sea-bed through Unseelie magic and repaired to be made sea-worthy once more. Some were ancient Greek triremes and Roman galleys, others Viking longships such as Naglfar herself, still others full-sailed caravels, frigates, and man-o-wars ranging in time of origin from the Spanish Armada to the Battle of Trafalgar. Unseelie troops stood upon their decks, crowded around large cages, while skeletons clad in the tattered garments of long-dead mariners manned the oars and sails.
Before them, the proud spires and towers of New Olympus came into view. "We are ready," said Phobos. "Let loose the Birds, now!"
The Unseelies opened the doors to the cages, and a flock of strange-looking birds flew out from them. They were the size of vultures, and looked something like a cross between vultures and hawks. But their feathers were bronze-colored, and glinted as though they had actually been forged from that metal. They were also very sharp-looking, as sharp as spear-points. They soared over the island, croaking aloud.
"Prepare to land," called Deimos. "And give no quarter!"
* * *
"Sensors indicate avian life-forms approaching," reported Talos, standing on the roof of the tower.
"Can you identify them as yet?" Boreas asked. He and Taurus were standing close by the robot, examining the horizon.
Talos nodded. "They are recorded in my memory files as Stymphalian Birds. These creatures have razor-sharp feathers that they can eject to use as missiles in combat, and are reported to be extremely dangerous."
"Then it is an invasion," said Taurus grimly. "And no doubt from those 'ambassadors'. I knew that they were not to be trusted."
"Is there any sign of ground troops?" Boreas asked.
"None as yet," said Talos. "But I would recommend preparing for them, all the same."
"I'll put all Security forces on duty at once," said the minotaur, descending from the platform.
* * *
Phobos, Deimos, and Proteus led the Unseelies up the slope towards the city, weapons readied. "The Stymphalian Birds should be serving momentarily as our first line of offense, to soften resistance," said Phobos. "But we shouldn't be overconfident. There should be much work for us to do."
"Granted," said Deimos. "Not that I'm disappointed. Winning a battle without getting to carry out any senseless violence or bloodshed can be so disappointing, don't you agree?"
They reached the top of the hill, and saw the city of New Olympus before them. Several figures were hovering in the air before them, mounted upon some sort of air-car vaguely modeled after a classical warship, complete with the eyes painted at the front of the vehicle. In the lead was the minotaur figure of Taurus, flanked by the fiery-haired Helios to his right, and Chiron the centaur to his left.
"In the name of the Republic of New Olympus," said Taurus grimly, "we order you to turn your forces about and quit this invasion. Persist, and we shall meet your strength with strength. We also order you to yield up to us the traitor and criminal Proteus in your company."
"Ah, Taurus," said Proteus, with a crafty smile upon his face. "Let me give you our reply in terms that even you can understand." And with that, he blew the minotaur a raspberry.
"Very well, then," said Taurus. "Security Forces, attack!"
The New Olympian sky-ships shot out their floating binders at the Unseelies. Phobos and Deimos calmly raised their hands, and sent bolts of lightning flying at the binders, shattering them. At the same time, the Stymphalian Birds swooped down, shooting their feather-arrows at the New Olympian Security Forces. Most of these missed, but some struck sky-ships, doing minor damage. A faun, piloting a small cruiser, suddenly slumped over the controls of his vehicle, groaning and clawing at the arrow imbedded in his shoulder.
"Playtime!" chuckled Proteus evilly, swelling up to into his cyclops-form and advancing upon the New Olympians. He snatched at sky-ships with his great clawed hands, forcing them to the ground. Helios readied a ball of fire in one hand and prepared to throw it at the shape-shifter, but a Stymphalian Bird arrow pierced his vehicle just then, reaching the engine and sending it into a sudden downtwirl that broke his concentration. The fire-haired New Olympian jumped free of the sky-ship moments before it struck the ground and exploded.
The Unseelies moved forwards, bolts of magic and elf-shot falling upon the New Olympians. Taurus was finally forced to order his forces to fall back, as it became increasingly clear that they were outnumbered. The invaders marched on, following their retreating opponents, entering the city.
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building
A flash of fiery red light appeared on the roof of one of the skyscrapers facing the Eyrie Building, and Madoc and Maeve, both mounted on faerie horses, materialized in it, Garm with them. They gazed down at their forces, positions taken up on all sides of Xanatos's headquarters.
"We are ready," said Maeve. "Our troops are in place." She closed her eyes for a moment, then nodded. "I've given the order. It's begun."
Madoc nodded, and drew his sword from its scabbard. Lightning flashed in the clouds overhead, and the blade gleamed eerily in reply. The Unseelie Lord slowly raised it aloft, pointing to the night sky, then uttered a single word. "Attack!"
The Unseelies down below raised their hands, and blasts of magical energy shot forth from their fingertips at the force field. The battle had begun.
* * * * *
To be concluded…