The Darkest Hour, Part 2
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…
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.
~ The Darkest Hour, Part 1 ~
And now, the conclusion…
* * * * *
The Darkest Hour, Part 2
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building
As Madoc lifted his sword to the livid, snow-filled darkness of the night sky, the armies of the Unseelie were materializing into the air around the four sides of the skyscraper, each and every one poised and eager to begin the assault.
Garlon and a legion of mounted Unseelie sidhe hovered before the north side of the Eyrie, having the honor of being the force that attacked from Madoc and Maeve's quarter.
"Wait for the command!" he ordered sharply, seeing that a few Unseelie were champing to be unleashed.
To the east, Sekhmet and her were-cheetahs led the second force. Row after row of beastlike Unseelies -- Grimalkin at the head of a pride of winged cats; a herd of kelpie-horses, seaweed in their manes, stamping their sharp hooves and snorting steam; a scattering of gaunt Wendigos, all teeth and claws and ice-colored fur -- assembled on the top of a near-by building, eager to begin the slaughter.
"Prepare for battle, my children," she said to her followers, before looking to her brethren with a calm, feral smile. "And prepare to fight as never before!"
The ranks that threatened to boil over the west approach were led by Herne and Surtur. The Yell Hounds milled about the feet of their master, and the Fire Giants massed behind them beat upon their shields with their red weapons and roared back at the thundering sky.
Finally, the skies to the south were left to George Harrison, as he and his Halfling squads filled the sky above that approach, all under the watchful eye of the four Unseelie masters -- Anodos and Sciron, Eraclea and Niamh - soldiers that Madoc left to ensure the Halflings' loyalty.
"Wait for it ... wait for it!" George said, hovering before the first row of attackers, his own eyes glowing with barely-contained power.
As the defensive shield solidified around the Eyrie, a flash of lightning curled down from the sky, wreathing Madoc's sword in unholy light.
The four armies surged forward. Those Unseelie that could unleashed salvo after salvo of magic blasts, bolts, and scores of elfshot, while their brethren that lacked distance weaponry charged directly at the shield, intent on slashing, ramming, or ripping their way through.
However, the energy-shield held firm as the salvos rippled over it, turning the air in front of it into a hell's soup of riotous energy. The charging Unseelie fared little better, colliding with the shield only to be repelled like toys flung aside by an angry child.
From all sides, the commanders exhorted their forces back to the fore.
"Turn and attack! Bring that shield down!" growled Surtur, as beside him Herne gestured the Wild Hunt forward to bolster the front ranks.
Sekhmet snarled and brought up her hands. "No shield can withstand that which was the Eye of Ra!" She fired two brilliant bursts of sun-yellow energy at the castle, but they were deflected away as if they were mere flashlight beams off of a mirror.
Garlon looked on grimly as his forces fell back. "Don't give up! That shield has to come down!"
* * * * *
Inside the communications room, Xanatos and Goliath watched with Elisa as they monitored the assault from the remote cameras. At first, it appeared that the shield would not withstand the attack. As waves of Unseelie forces were thrown back, Xanatos smiled in grim satisfaction.
"That should keep them out," Xanatos said confidently to Goliath, as the two of them continued to watch the monitors. "It'll take a miracle to get Madoc in now."
* * * * *
Far below, in the iron-plate-lined sub-basement, powerful shield generators hummed with quiet efficiency. Though the devices' coils glowed cherry-red from the tremendous draw of power, automated systems compensated for the usage, enabling the essential machinery to run smoothly long into the night.
Until something small fluttered through one of the venting ducts, its wings giving a whining snarl as it righted itself and buzzed down to the generators below.
Before the fly reached the floor, it suddenly burst into a flash of green light. It pulsed for several seconds, before it reformed into the leather-and-denim-clad form of Loki.
"Whew! Next time, I want to travel first class," he groused. "Doesn't that detective ever carry any gum in his pockets!" Loki turned around, taking in his surroundings for a second, before he broke into a gleeful, evil grin. "Ah, well! No rest for the wicked! Time to throw a wrench into this monkey!"
With that, he formed a ball of blazing energy and lobbed it towards the nearest generator, watching with a laugh as the ball exploded on impact, savaging the machine.
"Oh! The fun the others are missing! But, I guess it's only fair since I missed out on a lot myself, trapped in that thrice-cursed Gate!" He turned to fix his eyes on another generator, as white-green beams of eldritch light lanced out, liquefying the machine in seconds.
"I've missed the Black Plague!" he crowed, puffing out his cheeks to blow on two more generators, which ground to a halt as his breath magically froze them solid.
"The Spanish Inquisition!" Lightning lanced out from his fingertips, discombobulating several more generators.
"That sci-fi show's thirty-year reunion!" Loki reached into one pocket and pulled out an enormous monkey wrench. He studied it critically for a moment, then shrugged. "If the cliché fits..." he yawned, and tossed the wrench into the guts of the last generator, watching as it snarled, tangled, and eventually tore the insides to scrap.
As the savaged machines could no longer supply power, the overlaying hum of power going to the shields rapidly dwindled to nothingness.
Grinning like a fox in a chicken coop, Loki waved one hand to bring up a pool of shimmering energy. Inside, the image of Madoc and Maeve - astride their fay steeds - appeared, showing them atop the building just across from the Eyrie. The Unseelie Lord raised his head and looked at the Nordic trickster with a arched eyebrow. "Report, Loki."
"Mission accomplished," he said with relish. "Time to Ragnarok and roll!"
With Madoc smiling in approval and Maeve rolling her eyes at the pun, Loki turned and made a dash for the stairs to the building above, eager to join the fray with his fellow Unseelie...
* * * * *
When the shield vanished, a cry ascended from the ranks of the Unseelie. The hordes surged forward again, this time with nothing between them and the battlements above. The mounted knights rode their airborne steeds up; scores flew by their own power, while others clambered up the sides using claws, fingers and talons.
On each side, the generals pushed their followers onward, using their own powers to keep the defenders at bay. Soon, most of the host was gripped in the early stages of battle-lust, and it was all the generals could do to keep them focused on the main advance on the castle, instead of attacking the Eyrie Building proper.
* * * * *
The alarms had gone still, and the only sound in the elevator was that of the slow tick of floors. Fox watched the numbers increase, refusing to look at her mother.
"Fox ... "
"You said it should wait until we were upstairs."
"We need to talk."
"We have nothing to discuss."
"You're angry. Will you at least tell me why?" The patience on her face was infuriating. Fox refused to give her the satisfaction of an answer, although privately she made a quick and dirty list of reasons about a mile long.
Rather than grow upset at her silence, Anastasia actually smiled. "You used to do this when you were little, you know. It didn't work then, either."
"I'm not little anymore. But I guess someone who's over eleven thousand years old wouldn't notice that."
"I noticed," came the soft reply.
"I'm honored that you deigned to --- Whoa!" she shouted, grabbing onto the bar as the elevator jerked roughly. The lights went dead and the elevator came to a halt. "What in the world?"
She tapped the elevator buttons, not expecting anything to happen. Nothing did.
"Great," she muttered, opening the phone panel to call a maintenance crew… who should have evacuated the building. She closed the panel again. "Just great."
"If the lights are out, the power is out," said her mother.
"No kidding," she responded. Her stomach clenched. "If the power's out, the generators must be down." The force field was run by the generator. "We need to get upstairs right now." She swallowed her pride. "Will you take us there?"
Anastasia nodded. She raised her arms and closed her eyes. Then she opened them again in surprise, with a little gasp of pain. "I can't."
"What do you mean you can't? You can wiggle your nose and level the city if you want!"
"True, but I can't transport us out of here if there is iron surrounding us."
"Iron?" She had vague memories of blueprints on David's desk after an Unseelie raid on their computing system. She could not prevent a weak chuckle. "Part of our latest security system: iron rods in the elevator shafts."
She grabbed the phone again. If the field was down, Alex could be in danger. She couldn't protect him, but Coldstone and Coldfire could until she arrived.
As she punched in the code, her mother said mildly, "For your next security system, you may wish to keep in mind that most beings who might threaten you magically wouldn't be using the elevator."
The phone let out a keening wail, followed by a static-filled burst. At least something in the building was working.
* * * * *
On the battlements outside, the shield wavered under the continued assault, then it began to fade out completely.
Brooklyn snarled. "Blast it! They got to the shields!"
"What happens now, dad?" his son asked worriedly.
"Now the battle begins," Sata said flatly.
There was a tiny sound as of radio static, and Coldstone and Coldfire went rigid. They turned to each other and nodded.
"Our presence is needed in the nursery," said Coldstone, and without any explanation, he and his mate ignited their jetpacks and zoomed off in the direction of the castle's living quarters.
"Now??" asked Brooklyn, before his attention was drawn by a swarm of incoming Redcaps, the first Unseelie to swarm over the walls.
* * * * *
Fox hung up the phone.
"So now we wait," said Anastasia.
Fox ignored her, and inspected the ceiling of the elevator car. Getting up there wouldn't be hard. She slipped off her shoes, then climbed up onto the smooth brass bar, balancing as she had in many a long-ago gym class.
"Spot me," she said. Her mother moved next to her.
Fox felt around the edge of the ceiling, her fingers looking for the catch.
"If Alexander is in any danger, Puck will be able to protect him," said her mother.
"No. He won't." She found the catch and turned it. The panel came loose. She flipped it up and over and looked out. The access ladder could easily be reached from the top of the car. Briefly she considered leaving her mother while she went for help. Instead, she pulled her head back in and fixed the woman with a calm stare of her own. "Coming?"
* * * * *
The last of Demona's automatic defenses clicked into place as she ran a final check on the wards she had placed around her secret room. "Good," the red-haired gargoyle said to herself, absently buckling her iron mace to her waist, testing its weight before leaving it there. "All of my preparations are complete. And, with Angela's warning, nothing should touch my house this night." She reached down and hit a button on a control panel on the desk. "And, should anything try, I have my Iron Valkyries to deal with them."
Touching another button concealed the security console once more, hiding it behind a one-inch thick iron plate disguised with a wood veneer to match the rest of the cabinetry in the small alcove. She had taken pains to make improvements since the disastrous battle with Sehkmet and her accursed cheetahs; any Unseelie daring to enter her house tonight would not find her security systems so easily disabled.
She walked quietly into the adjoining living room, and headed directly to where her small worktable stood near the hearth, the warmth from the blazing fire greeting her as she approached. She pushed the heavy drapes aside, pausing a moment to look at the storm raging outside, the clouded sky barely visible through the swirling snow. Demona growled softly, letting the curtains fall back into place as she turned her attention to the lone book resting open on the table.
"I should have realized things were coming to this point," she muttered. "It's already lasted too long. It was foolish to think the moment would not come when this Unseelie Court," she spat the words distastefully, "would make a final offensive. But still," she added, anger and annoyance in her tone, "I expected Goliath to be unprepared, though I don't know how I could have been so blind as to not see this night was coming." She touched the leather-bound book, seeming to draw comfort from it. "True, I do not possess the gift of foresight Michel had, but I do have my own means of precognition." Her talons traced down to one passage, written in a familiar script in a mixture of French and Latin:
A Usurper will come to the New City,
War will besiege the tower with fire,
Rage swelled like a fire within her, burning with an intensity she had not experienced in what seemed like ages. "A war upon humans ... perpetrated by this Unseelie host." Demona snorted. "They can do what they will with the humans! Enslave them - wipe them out for all I care! Save me the trouble of having to plan their demise ever again!" But the words were hollow in her mouth as she spoke them; the fiery feeling of rage dimmed as quickly as it had flared. How long had it been since she had spoken or thought that sentiment and meant it? How long had it been since the hatred that had sustained her for centuries had quietly gone missing? Certain humans she still hated, of course: the Canmore descendants, the Hunters, who had harried and hounded her for centuries; that wretched honorable fool Macbeth, who had betrayed her so long ago; Elisa Maza, of course, that went without saying; but...
"Andrea," she said aloud, suddenly. Her friend - her only friend... the one person who had found her, befriended her, and helped transform the human half of her life from a tedious drama in which she monotonously played her self-assigned role into a real life that she had actually begun to enjoy living. The one person she had given up everything for less than a year ago, unable to accept losing her as the cost of the one spell that could have eliminated the Unseelie threat utterly.
Guilt flooded over Demona in a suffocating wave. She had spared her friend's life then... but now she was just as likely to be killed anyway. Killed or enslaved... the thought made Demona tremble, recalling the words her daughter had spoken through her tears all those months before. If they win, we will become their slaves. Every nightmare image of the past two years flickered through her mind like a macabre movie reel. Demona drew in breath in a shaky gasp.
"Angela," she murmured, all other thoughts pushed immediately to the back of her mind. "I can't let them hurt Angela." Her reason for fighting the Unseelies, the only reason she really needed.
She stalked over to the glass doors that opened onto her balcony and pulled them open. The cold wind gusted in, tossing her wild hair as snowflakes danced in spirals around her. Two steps and a leap, and she was airborne, headed towards the direction of the Eyrie.
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building
Anastasia closed the hatch behind her, then joined her daughter in a half-crouch, just as the building rumbled ominously. A cloud of fine particles fell down the shaft to rain on them and the car.
Fox could not hold back. "Good thing I'm used to working without magic, isn't it, Mother?"
"I never doubted you could." She closed her eyes again. "The Puck had a hand in designing this, didn't he?"
"Yeah." Her chest went tight. Even now he was protecting them.
"What is it?"
"He's dead," Fox said flatly. "Earlier this evening. Right outside of Cyberbiotics. They were going after Alex and me, and he took the shot."
She turned her face away and pretended to look at the ladder. Their private elevator didn't stop on every floor, but she spotted a door about thirty feet above them that they could probably jimmy open with a little luck. Thinking about the problem was easier than thinking about Owen, and she made herself consider the climb in detail until she could face her mother again. "Are you ready to...?"
Anastasia's face had gone pale, and her voice was very low. "Is the body here?"
Fox nodded, and suddenly felt bad. She had known him for a long time, but her mother had known him for thousands of years. "No way to prepare," she whispered, too low for her mother to hear.
"I'd like to see him."
The building shook again. Goodness only knew what was happening outside. "This isn't a good time."
"I know. It's important."
Fox shot back, "You have funny ideas about what's important, Mother! Right outside, Madoc and Maeve and whatever nightmares they've brought with them are trying to kill our friends, not to mention my son and my husband. Bluestone's been tortured, Owen is dead, the entire country has been declared under a state of Emergency, and as far as I can tell, all of this is because ten thousand years ago, you refused to go on a date with Madoc!"
"There was more to it than that."
"Ask me if I care!" she shouted. The sound reverberated through the elevator shaft. She took a deep breath.
"Are you finished?"
"No. No I'm not. Not by a long shot." She didn't have time to waste on this. She should be climbing the ladder, getting upstairs, but her anger had finally broken loose and would not be restrained. "Where were you?" she demanded.
"What do you mean?"
"Last January. Daddy died. You were watching close enough to show up for our anniversary, you had to know he died. But you weren't there. Did he mean that little to you, that you couldn't even come to his funeral?" She couldn't bear the other half of her own question, and left it unsaid. Tears she thought had finally dried threatened her again. "Where. Were. You."
"Oh," Anastasia said softly. "Oh, child." She reached out towards Fox, but Fox pulled back. "I thought Owen knew, but without his powers ... " She broke off, troubled. "What you must have thought of me. Fox, I was there."
Anastasia waved her hand in front of her face. For a moment, nothing happened, and then a mist appeared before her face, like a ghost visage, and was gone again. She frowned. "I can show you better once we're out of here."
Fox vaguely recognized the face, although her memories of the actual funeral included little more than the cries of sea gulls and the salt-stink of the sea. "Dr. Sauder?"
"I took a gamble that she wouldn't be in attendance. I thought Owen would recognize me anyway, as he had in this form, but apparently he didn't."
Fox floundered at the revelation, her carefully crafted beliefs crumbling. "But why?"
"Madoc and his followers were everywhere, and I had already come into contact with him once. I couldn't risk his discovering my true identity. That would have put you and Alexander into much greater danger."
"But you went anyway."
"Of course I went." Tears glistened in her mother's eyes. "I loved him, too."
* * * * *
Queen Florence Island
Just barely ducking his head, Natsilane felt the whisper of the war ax passing over him, imbedding into the tree behind him with an impact that buried the blade up to where it met the shaft of the handle.
Holding his war-shield in front of him, the young Native American healer barely had time to brace himself against the charge of his enemy before the two of them met in a crash of bodies. Rolling, Natsilane shoved his attacker off, coming to his feet at the same time as the other did.
"Very good," the powerfully muscled warrior said, his war-painted face smiling unpleasantly. "You fight almost as well as some of my former followers."
"I get by," Natsilane gasped under his breath.
The Unseelie hefted a war club into view, baring his teeth in a feral grin. "But not as well as I!" Ictinike burst into a long, yammering war cry, lunging forward to bury the business end of his weapon into the young healer's skull.
Natsilane responded with block from his shield, feeling the crunch of the blow all along his arm. Biting back a cry of pain, he swept forward with one leg, knocking the sidhe warrior flat on his backside before he sprang back and drew his own hatchet. Before Ictinike could recover for another swing, the healer swung with all the strength he could bring to bear, laying the flat side of his ax blade against the Unseelie's head.
It didn't feel like much of a blow, but Ictinike fell back in a boneless sprawl, seemingly vanquished.
The young healer gripped his shield arm, drawing a calming breath as he reached inward to heal the bruised tissues and bones. "Well, that was simple enough," he said with a snort. "Almost too simple! I'd thought they'd send more than just one."
Just then, there was sound of heavy footfalls from somewhere behind him. Turning, he nearly turned ghost-white at the sight of a huge, hulking, human-like creature that shambled forward. Its dark skin stretched over two boulder-sized fists as they knotted powerfully. The ogre snarled and raised both fists in a challenge...and, behind it, a howling horde of white-furred Wendigos came running.
Natsilane breathed a prayer to his ancestors, and strode forward.
* * * * *
Fara Maku urged the villagers to run faster, his own feet pounding on the jungle floor as he brought up the rear. A child, no older than six, stumbled on a tree root and began to wail.
"No! Do not stop!" He scooped him up, depositing the boy in the arms of an older youth. "Run for the river, and don't stop until you get across!"
"Fara," a woman in the middle of the pack called back, "some of these young ones cannot swim!"
The young man looked back, seeing the smoke and the light from the blaze that was consuming their village. "Use logs to carry them across," he replied earnestly. "I will do what I can to stop these intruders. Now, go!" The press of women, children, and village elders rushed on towards the river, leaving Fara Maku alone for the moment.
"Oh, Tea, where are you!? I cannot face these... intruders alone!" Looking back at the way they had come, the light and smoke had grown. Which meant now the fire that consumed the village was now spreading to the jungle beyond. Fara was afraid, but, he had to try to stop them from reaching the rest of the villagers. Their men hadn't lasted long against the alien beings that had appeared - seemingly - out of thin air, especially when they started shooting fire and weird beams of light out of their hands and eyes.
And where these touched, everything burned.
Just then, the foliage burst apart in a shower of branches, vines, and leaves, making Fara duck. Harsh laughter met his ears as he looked up, seeing several of the alien men... floating there. Strangely dressed in clothing that was as outlandish as their pale, different hued skin, they looked at him with an air akin to gods.
"So, beast-man, where are your people now?" one of them said mockingly. "They can't be too far away, since we just found you!"
"You attacked my village, when none of them had done anything to deserve it!" Fara shot back, coming to his feet hotly.
"They were in the way of our real target," another one, the leader of the Unseelie warriors, replied with a cold smile. "You. And now that we have you, you will die by our hands."
Fara bunched his fists, feeling the triple-mark on his shoulder begin to burn. "I will not lie down and die so easily. If you wish to kill me, you will have to fight me!"
More cruel laughter. "It makes no matter to us, beast-man! Surrender or fight... either way, you will not live to see us slaughter the rest of your village!"
At that, Fara let the transformation take shape. His body contorted, making him growl, then cry out in pain. His cries merged from that of a human's, into the high-pitched scream of a powerful, jungle predator. His fingers merged into paws with razor-sharp claws. His mouth filled piercing fangs and sharp-edged teeth. A flash of yellow, cat's eyes and a swish of fur against the leaves, and Fara Maku was a man no more...
The Unseelie warriors looked at each other, then at the transformed Fara. "Impressive... for a human."
The panther, Fara, snarled, his limbs bunching as he bared his fangs and claws to strike.
"He is mine," one of the more bloodthirsty ones breathed, making a long blade materialize in his hand. He swept forward to attack, but Fara sprang at him with a roar. Both claws and blade swept through the air as they both met mid-way, springing apart to eye one another.
Fara's claws cut deep. But, the Unseelie's blade cut deeper.
Seeing the changeling stagger from his wound, the first Unseelie groused, "Get on with it! We still have the rest of Anansi's people to deal with!"
His words were followed by a sudden chorus of gunfire, coming from somewhere inside the surrounding foliage. At once, three Unseelie vanished in a flash of crimson light and smoke. The rest scattered, realizing someone was using iron bullets, melting back into the jungle.
On their tails, a cluster of men - whites and blacks - burst forth into the clear space. At their front was a familiar woman in shorts, tank top, and red headband.
"Fara!" Tea called out. She snapped at one of the men, "Get the first aid kit from the Jeep! The rest of you keep your eyes open for those strangers!"
Fara the panther came limping up to her side, snarling softly as she knelt to check his injury.
"It's a good thing I did come back," she said, wincing at the sight of the gash under his fur, "there's been attacks like this on two villages close by! The wardens and police asked for everyone's help, so I called in some of my former... friends." She nodded to some of the men; former poachers that were now called back to help stave off the attacks.
The man who had gone to get the first-aid kit returned. "Tea, we found the villagers across the river! What do we do with 'em?"
Tea took the kit and started to work on the wounded changeling. "Put as many as you can in the jeeps, and get them out of here! The rest of us are going to try to stop the rest of these invaders!"
* * * * *
The Caledonian Forest
"Quade! Behind you!" Rachel shouted, her fox-colored body arrowing upward as she drew her longbow to the ready.
The huge male whipped around in midair, barely avoiding the diving thrust from the Unseelie female that nearly had him from above. He clipped her a vicious blow as she screamed past.
Below, flying wing-tip to wing-tip, Kirstie and Rachel took aim with their bows and let fly. The Unseelie let out a shriek, clutching the place where the two bolts pierced her, before plummeting towards the forest below.
There was hardly any time for the trio to speak, when three more dark warriors rose to attack.
"We canna let them get above us again," Rachel shouted to the others.
"We can nae let 'em drive us back any further, either! We're gettin' too far from th' others," Quade growled, dodging several short bursts of eldrich light.
Kirstie let fly with another arrow, cursing when her target dodged. She reached for another, when a double shot caught her high on her left shoulder and wing.
Rachel screamed in rage, "Kirstie!" Before either she or her mate could act, another score of green bolts snapped between them to isolate their wounded daughter from their attempts to rescue her. Kirstie couldn't seem to stay airborne, as her wings folded before she began to plummet.
A shout went up from the attackers, "Get that one!" The triad swooped up to intercept her falling body, shooting at the other two as they came on.
Uttering a curse, Quade shoved Rachel out of the way of one volley, barely making it clear himself before he angled around. "Kirstie! Hold on!"
As the Unseelie closed in, Kirstie bit back against the fiery pain in her wing and spread them both in a last-ditch effort to keep herself from either crashing into the forest or becoming an easy target. The brown-skinned female pulled a dagger from her tunic and flung it at the closest attacker. The enemy screamed and vanished in a flash of red, while the others swerved away to avoid meeting a similar fate.
Rachel slid next to her daughter, holding her up at the side while Quade covered their retreat. "Och, Kirstie, are you a'right?"
"My arm feels numb...an' I dinnae think I can keep flyin'," she panted.
"We'll get you to safety," Rachel's towering mate said grimly. "Once we evade these hounds, we need to get back to help th' others! We've got t' protect the hatchlings!"
* * * * *
The Grotto of the Caledonian Clan
As Kylie watched from her place at the entrance of the cave, Jamie stood just inside its protective arch, her bow at the ready. "Be ready, child! They're lookin' to charge again," the elderly leader of the Scottish gargoyles warned.
Beside the dark-green female, one of the few young males that arrived several weeks ago from London stood panting, his chest and arms bearing cuts from the blows from the enemy. "Where are the others? They shouldn't have taken so long!"
In the middle of the entrance, Tori kept her spear pointed towards the clearing beyond. "Concern yourself wi' dealin' wi' these harpies, boy! We've enough to worry about as it is!"
Three other young males from London were outside the cave; all bore minor injuries. They faced off against a cadre of Unseelie poised opposite them in the small patch of clear space between the cave and the forest. At their head was the Morrigan, hovering a few feet above the ground, her features twisted into a mask of joyous rage.
"Ye were wisest t' surrender now," she taunted, her hands curled into claw-like fists. "And it's a quick and merciful end I'll promise ye!"
Jamie drew her arm back, taking aim at the ragged sidhe-woman. "Like ye gave to my mate, and our friends as well, ye butcherin' hoodie-crow?" she called out, remembering the look Curran gave her before he led several of these alien foes off on a chase through the pines, and what she reasoned was his last roar just moments later.
"Hold, Jamie! Let's not waste our chances tae buy more time!" Kylie whispered.
"Aye, th' longer we hold out, the sooner Quade and th' others can come to help us," Tori added.
The Morrigan's eyes glittered with cruel pleasure, and she laughed high and shrill. "Quade and th' others," she mocked, "it's no help to anyone they'll be!" She pirouetted in the air, the tatters of her black garment swirling about her. "Nothin' but food for the ravens t' carry back to their little ones ... an' we'll see if your little ones 'll be so fortunate!"
Jamie spat, loosing her bolt just a breath behind her reply. Unlike a few that had taken her shots and vanished in a flash of red fire and smoke, the Morrigan transformed into the shape of a large crow, the bolt passing harmlessly beneath her. She let out a harsh caw, flapped higher into the air and reverted to her woman-shape, hovering, again whirling in place, her voice raised in a singing chant:
"The raven ravenous among corpses of men," she sang, her voice like the skirl of pipes, like the shriek of carrion-birds, piercing, exultant. "Affliction and outcry and war everlasting.... Death of sons, death of kinsmen, death, death!" The Morrigan made a sweeping gesture towards the cave entrance. "Take them all!"
Her Unseelie cohorts broke into a run, rushing straight for the entrance. The young Londoners charged forward and met them halfway, stopping all but two of the Unseelie from getting through them.
Jamie nocked another arrow and bent her bow nearly into a perfect crescent, holding her shot until they were just a few paces from the entrance. She released it with one motion as she reached for a pair of knives she had planted into the earth before her.
One faerie warrior felt the metal arrowhead pierce his chest, but met the fourth London youth as he charged up to finish him with a slash from his long knife. The youth howled, pitching forward in mid-stride as he raked his talons over the Unseelie's exposed face. Both toppled and rolled onto their faces, and neither rose again.
The second drew forth a shortsword, her ear-splitting battle cry going straight to Jamie's marrow as she attacked Tori. The blond-haired Valkyrie avoided the wild swing, then thrust her spear into the Unseelie's middle, heaving her to the side of the entrance with a violent slamming motion. This left her open to the Morrigan, who fired a blast of green light at the tall female, catching Tori broadsides. When she crumpled, another Unseelie leaped forward to stab with her sword.
"Tori!" Jamie jerked her knives free, holding them against her forearms to block the blade as she charged to Tori's defense. Before she reached her fallen sister, a flint-blue blur slammed into the Unseelie from the side just a hairsbreadth from plunging his sword into Tori's exposed back.
Jamie slid to a stop at Tori's side, holding her guard, watching as the two masses tumbled into a pile of snow and pine needles, snarling and growling like two wild beasts. Suddenly, a high-pitched shriek rose from the two obscured opponents, cut off suddenly as a sickening snap resounded, followed by an eternity of silence. Slowly, one of the two rose and staggered back towards the entrance, but it wasn't the Unseelie...
"Curran!" Jamie shouted, her joy undisguised as she jabbed one of the knives into the earth again, recovering her bow to cover her mate's approach. "Are you a'right?"
The male gargoyle's sight never left the Morrigan and her fellows as they withdrew from the remaining Londoners. He used his one good arm to draw a dagger from his waist-belt. "I've been better, love, but I'll survive. Kylie?" he asked.
"She lives, but Tori's hurt," Jamie replied. "And I think we lost that poor lad back there!"
Curran made a motion to the other two youths. "Back... if they want a slaughter, let them come into the cave!"
The others gasped. "Curran, no!" Jamie protested. "The rookery --"
"And how long will the rookery stay safe if we're slain?" He gestured at the dark cavemouth behind them. "The tunnels are defensible. If they can only come at us in ones and twos...." His eyes flared white, and his smile was a hard grim thing. "They'll not so much as breathe near one of our hatchlings while we still draw breath, my heart."
Jamie hesitated, then nodded. "Aye," she agreed finally. "Back. And the battle stays far away from the little ones!"
Curran and one of the two youths covered their retreat, while the other helped Jamie drag Tori into the cave. It was only when he turned so that his back faced the entrance that Jamie spied the ruin of one of his wings, and the gash along one shoulder through his tunic that was edged with dark crimson.
The Morrigan glared at the two gargoyles with blazing eyes, her teeth bared in that glorying rage. "Aye, we'll have our slaughter, gargoyle! Not one of ye will live to see another sunset!"
She moved forward, while the Unseelie beside her fanned out as they advanced on the Caledonians' cave...
* * * * *
The Grange Hall was already packed when Beth slipped inside, unknown faces looking at her and away again towards the masked dancers in the center. As she made her way towards them, she noticed that most of the faces were Navajo, but dotted among them were paler and darker complexions. Some were plainly tourists, trying to escape the cold snap which had gripped the rest of the country, and drawn in by the thought of seeing Real Live Indians. They would snap pictures of the dancers, despite the signs that clearly asked them to refrain, and they would go home believing they had seen a touch of some ancient magic.
Beth hoped they were right.
"Beth?" She turned her head and spotted him: round face with the last traces of acne fading, dark eyes behind thick glasses. She recognized him from a history class they'd shared.
"Hi," he said, moving to her side. "I didn't expect to see you here. I guess I should have ... " His voice drifted off awkwardly, and he fingered his hat. "Are you here for the Dance?"
"Um, yes." Now that she'd found him, Beth wished she could lose him again. If Coyote were to be believed, strange magics were about to be summoned, and she really didn't want one of her classmates around if trouble arose.
"I guess you are. That was a stupid question." His eyes went to the floor.
"Henry, I have to ... "
"Beth, what's the holdup?" Coyote was suddenly beside her, looking intently at Henry.
"Sorry. I'll be right there."
Henry, the image of politeness, stuck out his hand. "Henry Pocano. And you are?"
"Call me Coyote." He grinned, and she saw his teeth had tiny points. So did Henry, and he stepped back.
"I have to go," said Henry, and he nodded towards Beth. "See you there." He waved his hat, and she saw that it was in actuality a compact hide drum. Then he was through the crowd and stood with the dancers.
"C'mon," said Coyote, and he took her hand, leading her through the gathered people like wind along the desert. The Hall was bigger than she remembered, and filled with haze. She could not see the dancers on the other side of the circle, and that was odd because she had plainly seen them when she'd walked into the room.
A handful of musicians sat on benches to one side of the circle. Beth took a seat on the edge of a bench, unwrapped her flute from its protective cloth, and brought it to her lips.
The music, when it began, startled her. These were the same sounds as she heard on her trips to the reservation, and from the University's mostly Hopi music club during concerts. The tune which came from her own flute was one her Grandmama had sung to her long ago on a near-forgotten visit. When Coyote had reminded her of it, not three weeks back, she had been surprised, as she was still surprised, that something so simple and ordinary could carry any magic with it.
The Dance began.
She knew the masks, the costumes, how this face was to mean Crow, and that Snake, and the prancer who broke the rhythm was none other than Coyote. The patterns of their movements, the twists of their bodies, all had been a part of the Way of Things since time out of mind. She had watched them with wonder, and with the eyes of a cultural researcher looking from outside at a society. Tonight, she opened herself to the possibility that there was another reason the dancers had learned these ways and passed them to their grandchildren, that some knew of the precious secret they guarded, that the time would come again when the dance would be the only thing standing between the People and destruction.
The figures before her writhed. Now they were people with normal jobs and lives who dressed in old clothing, and now they were the living embodiments of figures from mythology. No, not mythology. Snake and Crow and Spider and Scorpion and Coyote were the history of their people, her people.
She closed her eyes, letting the music take her where it wanted to go.
Inside her eyes, she still saw the figures, the people around her. The watchers at the edge of the circle were barely shadows, and shadows too were some of the musicians, some of the dancers. These were the people for whom this was only another tradition, something else to be performed, or watched, with no more significance than a school recital. She sensed Henry beside her as a vibrant turquoise drumbeat, counterpoint to another woman she did not know, whose instrument thrummed in shades of maroon and ochre. Her own flute was the yellow of corn and sand, skipping along the layers of the drumbeat as an insect skated along a shallow pond.
The music flowed towards the Dancers, who wore their true faces now. Snake slithered between Crow's long legs, and Coyote laughed his howls, in a form she had never seen him wear but knew for his own self. Hare touched the music, and grew more frenzied. The sound was a river, renewing them.
The others came.
Beth trembled as she saw them behind her closed eyes: dark creatures they were, with faces stolen from her darkest dreams. They lurked to the sides of the circle, seeking something.
"It has to be here," said one, malevolence dripping from him like rainwater. "The ley lines form nodes everywhere around this place."
"Maybe you were wrong," hissed another, whose form was part eagle, part coldness from the heart of space.
Henry shivered. Beth opened her eyes. The circle around her was the same as before: dancers, watchers, the smoke. She saw two strangers standing in the crowd, one a tall hulking figure, the other small and oily. She dared not stop the music, not now, and she tried to make Henry understand with her eyes that everything depended on their continuing to play.
He nodded, slightly, and closed his eyes.
The dancer in the Coyote mask drew close, then inclined his head towards the strangers. He knew they were there. Of course he knew, she reasoned. They were his kind.
Again she shut her eyes, tried to hide behind the yellow notes, but still she saw the dark spirits as they entered the circle, and she could not stop them.
"Hello, Cousin," said the oily one to Coyote.
"It's been a long time," said his huge companion.
"Why are you raising magic here?" The voice crackled.
"You cannot hope to defeat Lord Madoc with a puff of human fire."
"What are you protecting?" they asked in unison.
"This," said Coyote. He held something tightly within his hands. When the two bent in to see, two spiders emerged from his fist, leaped onto the demons, and bit them. They yowled, and both swung for the Trickster. Coyote spun away from them. Snake and Scorpion moved between him and the dark spirits. Scorpion tasted more music, then stung the taller demon.
"How dare you!"
The Hall rocked with noise, as the tall one threw some kind of energy towards Scorpion, who took it full. The dancer fell, and Snake angrily struck at the oily one. Coyote, as a coyote, ran forward and bit the giant on the leg. He received a kick in the gut for his efforts, and fell. Beth sent a soothing melody towards him to ease the blow, but she could do nothing more.
Scorpion slowly began to move again, and Beth felt a surge of relief. As far as she knew, only Coyote was a fairy, or Fair Person, or whatever. The other dancers were humans, Qaletaqa like herself, and they were guarding the portal to Avalon with their lives.
The shorter attacker got off a good shot to Spider, who screamed in pain. Beth's eyes shot open again, and she saw the woman who danced as Spider, clutching her belly. Beth remembered a protection charm she had brought with her. She dropped the flute, and frantically dug through her pouches until she found the small, beaded ornament. She tossed it towards the Spider dancer, who clutched it to her chest. Beth took her flute up again and closed her eyes once more.
As it was, her notes almost came too late, and their energy boosted Crow, who fought with the giant in close battle. Snake's form was covered in a bright green glow, but she seemed to be recovering. Coyote knocked the giant over, letting Crow free.
The battle raged on.
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building
As the hordes swarmed over and around the castle, there was a peal of bells ringing out from its battlements. Undaunted by the sound of iron bells, the Unseelie forces pressed on, forcing the defenders to fall back.
In the midst of this, several hidden doors opened up, disgorging scores of Xanatos' Steel Clan robots. The constructs peeled off and began inundating the enemy ranks with particle fire. Several Unseelie fell from the first volleys, and others when they came in close contact with their iron-based chassis, but, once aware, the Unseelies began to try to bring the robots down.
Across the way, Madoc and Maeve observed the battle from their rooftop post.
"Look at them," the Unseelie lord said to his co-ruler, pointing out the clan's use of their bells. "They think to stop us with a few paltry bells!" With a taunting chuckle, he began to jeer at the defenders with an ironic verse:
"Hear the loud alarum bells - Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night, how they scream out their affright!"
On the battlements, Elisa fired several rounds after a flight of the tiny winged wisps. When she paused to reload, an Unseelie warrior appeared, laughing as he struck at her with a blast of green light. His aim was thrown off when Angela slammed into him from the side, snatching him away and tossing the disoriented fairy into the path of several blasts from some of the Steel Clan robots.
"Too much horrified to speak, they can only shriek, shriek, out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire..."
Xanatos, long since abandoning his bell, laid a withering hail of iron bullets from his hand cannon upon a mass of beastly Unseelie as they scrambled over the edge of one wall. Gathering whatever of their number that still stood after his attack, they sprang into the air with jaws agape and claws bared...
Maeve watched with one arched eyebrow, while Madoc continued to recite the old verse, his taunting directed at the defenders, as again and again they fell back and rallied to repel his followers.
"Leaping higher, higher, higher, with a desperate desire, and a resolute endeavor.
Now - now to sit, or never, by the side of the pale-faced moon."
Oh, the bells, bells, bells! What a tale their terror tells... of Despair!
How they clang, and clash and roar! What a horror they outpour, on the bosom of the palpitating air!"
Maeve sniffed slightly. "Not a bad rhyme, but give me Yeats. Poe's got nothin' on him."
A sidhe rider approached at a gallop; as the black horse drew closer, the rider was clearly visible as the lavender-skinned wisp handler. She pulled up in the air slightly below them and made a hasty bow. "My Lord, I've received a report from one of our wisps out in the city!"
Madoc stopped and faced her. "Give us the report then, Rhea."
"Sire, one of the creatures that existed in the Labyrinth has been sighted elsewhere in the city. It appears they were not all destroyed by Umbriel, as he claimed."
"What?" Madoc almost snarled, but recovered his former composure. "Send some of our troops to the Labyrinth and tell them to destroy it completely. Leave not one soul they find within alive." He paused, and his voice went coolly ironic. "Make certain that some of Sekhmet's werecheetahs are among them. Perhaps one of them will know how their mistress was so easily deceived."
"And send some of the Halflings to hunt throughout the city and kill any living member of that clan they may find."
"Yes, m'Lord!" Rhea turned and galloped off to do as she was bid.
"Another loose end to deal with," Maeve snorted. "We should have known that they were still alive before all this!"
"True. As well that Umbriel is already dealt with."
The storm above them seemed to grow in intensity, filling the skies with lightning and thunder.
* * * * *
Brooklyn furiously rang his bell with one hand, retreating from a line of magic bolts that two of the Unseelie were raking at him along the side of one of the towers. When it didn't faze them, he snarled and raised his rifle, spraying a fan of red laser shots that missed the two soaring fay. One of them dipped and clipped him on the shoulder with his boot as he shot past, sending the crimson gargoyle sprawling over the stones.
"This is not working!" he snarled, watching as Xanatos landed just a few feet away, wresting one of the more beastly Unseelie to the ground before he clouted it with the large bell in his fist.
"It looks like they got the Fenton devices online," Xanatos panted.
"No kidding! Heads up!" Brooklyn whipped his weapon over Xanatos' shoulder, triggering a blast that swept three Redcaps out of the air.
"Thanks," the billionaire said, watching as the bodies of the underlings came to rest against one of the walls.
"Save the thanks for later," Brooklyn said, "we've still got a fight on our hands!" More Unseelie dove at them, and they were separated.
* * * * *
The sounds of battle were distant from here, muted. Matt Bluestone lay still on the hospital cot, his eyes closed, in the unconsciousness of bone-deep exhaustion. Sara Jasper sat on the chair next to him, her hands folded, waiting.
The medics had taken him off the saline IV a brief while ago; he'd responded well to the treatments for shock, they'd told her, and should be waking up within a few hours. She had decided on her own that he would not be alone when he woke.
A hollow booming sounded, closer than the rest of the noise. The floor shook, just a little, as if a wall had been knocked down somewhere not too far away.
"This wing," Sara said aloud, very quietly.
A much closer crash, and she jumped. There were voices outside their small room, in the infirmary's outer office: inhuman voices that squealed, growled, gibbered, in a cacophony of violent glee. Glass smashed to the floor, and a peal of spiteful laughter went up.
Sara slipped from the chair and moved silently to the door, put her hand onto the doorknob. Something was very close on the other side of it, something with that didn't care how much noise it was making. She drew in a deep breath --
And hit the door hard with shoulder and hip, felt the door knock aside something small but heavy with the force of a blow, was through and had it closed behind her in the same instant.
The room was nearly full of minor Unseelies -- five of the Redcaps she remembered all too well, two gaunt scaly-feathery creatures that looked tough as leather, something two-footed but tusked and snouted like a boar -- all staring at her. And beginning to smile, and advance.
Sara set her back to the door, flexed her empty hands. "All right, you little clods," she growled. "You're not getting past me."
Suddenly, a tan cannonball burst in from nowhere, barreling into the boar-snouted thing in the center. The other goblins watched as the missile and its target went end over end, snarling and yapping, distracted long enough for Graeme and Ariana to plunge into the midst of them with almost identical war-whoops. The fight was ugly and mercifully brief.
Ariana bounced out of the tail end of the fight, went for a cabinet marked with a plus sign inside a circle, and opened it. She pulled out something that looked vaguely like an Uzi and tossed it to Sara. "Iron bullets," she said. "You're gonna need some."
Graeme left the last feather-creature to Nudnik and went for the cabinet himself, drew out a pair of iron knives and tucked them into his belt. "You missed the briefing," he said. "There's little caches of weapons all over the building, marked like this --" He tapped the little iron-symbol with one talon. "We can use 'em and the Unseelies can't touch 'em."
Sara blew out a sigh. "Thanks, kids."
"Hey, no problem-o!" Graeme replied with a grin.
Ariana scowled down at a bad scrape on her arm, then pushed her hair out of the way and looked up at Sara. "You gonna be all right here?"
Sara waved them on. "Go on, I'll be fine."
"Oh-kay! Nuddie! Let's go boy!" With that, the twins were off to help where they could.
* * * * *
Broadway, Lex and Sata were in the lee of one of the walls, waiting out a volley of elfshot and blasts from several Unseelie warriors. Sata had long since discarded her bell for her katana and wazakashi, holding them at the ready.
"Something's not working right," Lex said in a puzzled tone, flinching when one of the shots struck up a spray of stone and dust. "The bells should be stopping them cold!"
"Maybe the bells don't have enough iron in them?" Broadway asked.
Lex shook his head. "They're nothing but iron! It's got to be something else!"
Sata reached out and snared a Redcap by the scruff of its shirt as galumphed past. It started to struggle, squabbling and cursing, until she clubbed it with the pommel of her short sword. "Perhaps we can find out what that something is, before we are defeated," she said pointedly.
Lex started to disagree, but then reached out and turned the Unseelie's misshapen head to the side, plucking out what looked like an earpiece or a hearing aid between two talons.
"What is it, Lexington-san?" Sata queried, letting the grey-skinned goblin slip to the stones.
"This has gotta be it." He peered closely at the little device, frowning. "The Fenton piece Sara was telling us about.... I don't get it."
"What?" asked Broadway.
Lex's ocular sensors whirred as he focused in closer, and his frown deepened. "I can see the filter, but the circuit itself is barely there...it isn't enough to balance the wave intensity. They shouldn't be working if they're all like this." He studied the piece for a moment longer, then blinked. "Wait a second...." He turned to look at the wall that was shielding them. "Broadway, gimme a boost!"
The burly gargoyle looked over at Sata, who merely shrugged, then he set his bell aside and made a basket with his fingers, holding them out for Lex. "Here you go," he said, "Alley OOP!"
The smaller gargoyle stepped into his hands, vaulting up to the top to cling to the edge. Lex took a cautious peek over the wall. All around, the swarm of the Unseelie horde nearly blocked out the night sky. He switched his optics back to the mag-res scan setting, training his eyes on the attackers. He could see other metal forms - mostly those of the all of the Steel Clan robots, and a brief glimpse of traces of what could only be Hudson's sword or Brooklyn's blaster.
Lexington growled in frustration and tried scanning on an energy signature setting. His eyes widened in surprise. "Got you!" The tiny spark on each Unseelie, the magnetic signature of something receiving radio waves... all the same frequency. A transmission being beamed down to the Unseelie, channeled into the electronic devices that all of them were wearing.
He dropped back down so quickly he nearly landed in a heap, making Broadway think Lex had been hit by an Unseelie shot. "Lex! Are you all right?"
"I get it now!" Lex exclaimed, ignoring Broadway's concern as he held out the earpiece. "These things are remotely controlled! The wave intensity's calculated somewhere else, and transmitted on a carrier signal from somewhere above us... from a satellite or something!"
"But wouldn't they need a base or something to control it?" Broadway asked.
"One big computer would do it...but where could it be?" Lex asked himself.
Sata, while she didn't have Lex's in-depth knowledge of technology, did see what Lex was talking about. "Somewhere close by, perhaps?"
The olive-green warrior shook his head. "I don't think Madoc would be that cocky... it would have to be from a secure place. Somewhere that we can't get to easily...."
His musing was cut short by the arrival of several more Redcaps, all of which had heard the sounds of their stricken brethren and were now closing in on the trio, cackling.
Sata snarled and stepped between Lex and the little creepers, brandishing her katana. Before anyone took another breath, the blade flashed out in an arc, sweeping along the line of Redcaps before she returned it to an overhead-guard position. Confusion marked each of the Redcaps faces, until they noticed that their head gear had fluttered to the ground, a perfect slice marking the place where Sata's weapon cleaved them in two.
Sata growled once, her eyes flashing like crimson fires as a ribbon of light flickered along the edge of her sword.
"Uh-oh..." one of the little underlings had the sense to utter, and then the whole gaggle turned on their tails and ran off.
"Hmp." She snorted, looking back at Lex and Broadway. "We have a key to our enemy's immunity to our bells. It must be exploited."
"But, how? We can't just go out there and start unplugging their ears!" Broadway reasoned.
"All I need is to get to Xanatos's computer room," Lex growled, more to himself than to the other two. "I can initiate a search for Madoc's computer from there."
Just then, a new volley of elfshot and bolts rained down from above, missing the trio, but drawing their attention to a new phalanx of Unseelie warriors.
"Broadway-san! We shall distract them while Lexington-san goes to this computer room," Sata said, taking charge of the situation, as she flipped her katana to her other hand, while reaching up to pull two of her ornamental hair sticks from her bound hair. "Go! Now!"
Lex didn't hesitate, but shouted, "Good luck!" over his shoulder as he darted away.
Broadway floundered for a second. "You too!" He then decided to get with it, reaching down to lift a large, jagged section of stone from the ground. "Ready, Sata?"
The jade gargoyle only nodded, and together they both lunged out from the shelter of the wall. Broadway roared as he heaved the stone at the flying Unseelie, only to see them shoot it into gravel with a concerted volley.
This gave Sata the chance to fling both hair sticks - each tipped with a point of iron - at the distracted flyers. One hit one Unseelie in their chest, and the other embedded itself in another one's arm. They both screamed in agony, and the quartet retreated.
"Smooth move, Sata!" Broadway said admiringly.
Sata nodded, but pointed to where more Unseelie were advancing. "Come. We still have an enemy to face!"
* * * * *
Lex scrambled through the hallway just behind the main doors of the castle, heading for the computer room. At first, he was shocked to see some of the damage inside the castle, but it fortunately wasn't in the general direction he was headed for.
"Just hope Alex is okay," he said to himself, before he gave a mental shake and returned to the task at hand.
He arrived in the computer room moments later, making his way to the console that Xanatos had linked up to the massive mainframe several floors below.
"I hope at least some of the back-up generators are working, or else this is going to be a really short trip," he quipped absently, keying in the start-up sequence for accessing the mainframe. To his relief, the system began to hum to life as he keyed the power switch. He tapped his talon on one of the armrests of one of the chairs, thinking of what he would need to do. "After I locate his computer and transmiter, I have to disable it somehow. Grrr, Madoc probably has the transmitter rigged with redundant back-ups!" He scowled in frustration, coming just short of banging his head against the screen.
Suddenly, he had another flash of insight. Reaching for the transceiver that he was still carrying, he thumbed the TALK key. "Xanatos! This is Lexington! I need your help!"
A reply came back, laced through with the underlying sounds of a particle rifle firing, "Can you be brief, Lex!? I'm trying to stop some lion-headed woman from blasting out the east towers!"
"I just need to know where you keep a copy of the virus you used on Coldstone," Lex told him. "I think I can use it to put the whammy on the central processor for the Fenton devices."
A pause. "Understood," Xanatos said. "You're in my office? Look in the safe behind the third bookcase. The access code is Bug Hunt."
Lex turned around, his eyes quickly finding the right location, and confirming it with his optics. "Got it! It shouldn't take too long!"
"Whatever you're going to do, just do it fast!" There was another blast of energy weapons, and a unearthly scream, then the link went dead.
"Right," Lex said, quickly leaping over the desk to the bookcase. Not wasting time, he ripped away the false shelf and books, revealing a round, steel door with a 36-key access pad. Gingerly, but as fast as he dared, he jabbed the tiny keys with a talon tip. As the last letter was entered, a loud tone sounded as the lock released. Pulling the door open, the olive-green warrior found one memory disk inside.
"Yes!" Snatching the disk, he darted back to the console, just as the screen came alive. Talons flying over the keyboard, Lex watched as he coaxed the computers to link up, while running a check on the mainline connections and the out-going broadband lines.
A sudden rumble shook the windows of Xanatos' office, making Lex flinch. "C'mon! C'm-ON!" He breathed a little easier as the screen reported that the lines were operational.
"Now, let's reach out and touch someone." He started up the outgoing access, making changes to the search parameters on the fly. "Search for any large computer that might be controlling a transmitter. It has to be linked to a satellite or something ... somewhere that isn't supposed to have access to that kind of power or ... bingo! Five are currently linked up now! Let's see ... two are government-run ... one's a scientific research system ... wait a minute. In the mountains in Germany?" Lex grimaced at the screen, tapping a few more commands. "A-ha! Found it! Its routing signal is going to a satellite beaming a carrier signal right at the city!"
Another rumble shook the building. He quickly opened the data drive, inserting the disk with the virus before setting up a file-transfer subroutine. "Now ... let's just see if Madoc left a back door in his security net." Keys clacked as he tried to establish a direct terminal connection, and was surprised that his connection went through without a hitch, but when the screen came back with "ILLEGAL ACCESS: TERMINATE CONNECTION!", he wasn't.
"Oh no you don't!" Lex growled. Reaching back behind his ear, he removed the extension jack and plugged it into the port on the console. "Let's see if you can stop this!"
The screen flashed ACCESS PERMITTED for a second, then flicked back to ILLEGAL ACCESS: TERMINATE CONNECTION, then seemed to hesitate. "Gooood computer," Lexington said in a mock-soothing tone, as long lines of binary streamed from him to the remote host. "Now, you're going to hold that connection open until I get in, right?"
The screen flickered and did not reply.
"Yeah," Lex muttered with a grim satisfaction. "Pays to know a second language. All right...." He focused on the computer through the cyberlink, his eyes half-closing. "Let's you and I have a little talk."
* * * * *
Emrys ducked as one of Sekhmet's werecheetahs lunged at him, and breathed a relieved sigh as it missed him. "Things are rapidly getting out of hand around here," he muttered. "I must say that I don't like this at all."
A few wisps flitted past, a Steel Clan robot following them and firing lasers at them. The tiny fay nimbly eluded the blasts, however, flying wide of them. Suddenly, they halted. The robot in its own turn halted, ready to fire at them, but at that moment, three Redcaps that had made it up to the top of the tower above dislodged some stones from the battlements down upon it. The Steel Clan robot fell to the ground, breaking apart upon impact.
"So much for Xanatos's iron protection," said the youth, shaking his head. "There's got to be something that I can do."
He raised one hand. "Just a little something to nullify the lesser fay," he said to himself. "If I can do that, then the gargoyles and robots can concentrate on the bigger ones, and we just might be able to stop them."
A sudden blast of magic struck him from behind, toppling him forward on his face. He looked up groggily just as the wisps and Redcaps swarmed all over him, pinching him eagerly and binding his wrists and ankles. "No," he groaned. "Twice in one night. This is really starting to get out of hand."
The wisps finally managed to hoist him off the ground, and flew over the battlements, with him in their grasp. "No, don't drop me!" shouted the boy for a moment, but he then saw that they were gradually lowering their altitude, once they were away from the castle. Emrys did his best not to look down at the streets and buildings at such a dizzying distance below him.
"You're taking me somewhere," he said. "But where?"
The wisps merely giggled wickedly, and made no more reply than that.
* * * * *
In the thick of the fray, Garlon and his squad of sidhe warriors hammered their way past two Steel Clan, landing in the courtyard below the fighting. "Lord Madoc may wish to capture Goliath alive, but there is one sure way of stopping those beasts cold! It's time to take a hostage!" He motioned towards the heavy doors with a savage jerk of his hand, blasting them apart to hang on their hinges. Looking towards the Unseelie that had followed him, he said sharply, "Come!"
As swiftly as they could, the Unseelie drifted down the halls. Suddenly, a remote security device popped out from the floor beneath them, peppering one of the warriors with particle fire. Garlon threw himself to the side, as did the others, leaving the hapless warrior to fall screaming to the floor, clawing at the tiles in pain. The plain man's eyes flared once, and the remote exploded into a ball of shattered fragments.
"There may be more of these, and I don't have time to waste being cautious!" Garlon and the remaining Unseelie began firing at the walls, ceilings, and floors, taking out more of the internal security measures as they made their way deeper into the Eyrie. Several floors, and casualties, later, Garlon realized he'd arrived at a spot he'd visited before.
"This is it! The child's nursery is down here," he explained. "Once we have him, the rest of the gargoyles will surrender without so much as a whimper!"
Before he or any of his warriors could take a step down the hall, one of the side doors opened with a bang, revealing two metallic figures blocking the way. "Halt, Unseelie! You shall go no further!" Coldstone growled. Beside him, Coldfire snarled in counterpoint.
Taken briefly aback, the brown-clothed Unseelie's lips tightened in a grim smile. "We shall see, gargoyle. Unseelie, attack!"
* * * * *
A quick series of katana strokes and a pair of Red Caps disappeared in a double flash of red light and acrid smoke. The jade green gargoyle smiled briefly, then ducked as a volley of blasts from three Halflings lanced over her shoulder
Intent on their pending victory, the Halflings failed to notice a quartet of Iron Clan robots, zooming in with particle cannon ablaze. A para-human disintegrated in a flash of white fire and his two remaining companions leapt into the air, their places quickly filled by more of their kind as they gave chase to the Iron Clan warriors.
Over it all, the back-up defenses - lasers, missiles with frangible iron warheads, and other assorted weaponry - were doing their best to knock down more of the horde that swarmed over the castle like an anthill that had been kicked by an angry child. But, even though they ran on the castle's independent generators, the machines didn't have an unlimited supply to fling at the Unseelie.
Through the fire, a pair of Unseelie clustered with a half dozen Halflings, firing score after score of green bolts and other assorted power effects into the defenders. In the middle of it, George Harrison watched as his fellow attackers whittled down their opposition.
To his right, one of the Halflings dropped down to get a better shot at the burly gargoyle - reports claimed he loved the big leader's daughter, and that he'd be covering her like a hawk - only to succeed in opening himself up to one of the big particle cannons on the towers below. There was a scream, just as ribbon of yellow sliced through the hapless target, leaving nothing behind.
A sudden eruption of magical energy warmed the air and the Halfling lieutenant looked up as a sidhe knight waved his hands, creating a giant fireball. He loosed it on the nearest tower as others of his kind added their magical energies to the barrage. The structure exploded, raining stone on to the battlements below.
"Hah! That's for 'em!" Tanya cackled, flipping shots of green fire from her hips like some twisted version of a gunslinger. Two shots clipped a Steel Clan robot, sending it careening into a flight of Wisps. The whole mass roared past, spiraling downward to where it all slammed into the roof of a nearby building. The aftermath lit the night in another fiery display.
Zed glared at her disgustedly. "Nice shootin', Tex! We don't need you downing our guys, too!"
One of the Unseelie "masters" - a dark knight that had been sent to help oversee their assault - snarled, "Enough! Concentrate on the gargoyles and their allies! The sooner we defeat them, the sooner Lord Madoc can turn us loose to the real task: conquering this entire planet for his glory!"
George's blue eyes flashed like frozen fire. Doubts he'd attempted to push away resurfaced with a vengeance as the warrior's words slammed home. Once the Unseelie had defeated the gargoyles, Madoc would turn his forces on the human race.
His race. "No," he muttered as he examined his oddly pointed fingernails. He wasn't quite human anymore. He was a slave; a mutated, twisted slave of Madoc, and while he wanted to do something, the geas Madoc had put on him prevented him from any sort of attack against members of the Unseelie Court.
His mouth twisted in irony, reacting unconsciously as he added his own blast of green fire to his team's assault on an Iron Clan robot. If he turned the burst of magic on to the sidhe knight that stood at his flank it would help the gargoyles, but he wasn't sure he wanted them to win, either.
So it comes down to that, does it? he admitted to himself. Which group of monsters should win tonight? The gargoyles are freaks of nature, but staying a step ahead of Madoc is a sucker's game.
His thoughts, burning in his head like a beacon, drew the attention of the "master".
"Turn your attention back to the assault, fool!" The mental voice of the Unseelie overseer echoed in George's head, scattering his thoughts like a spray of droplets in the wind. And with the overseer's presence so close to his mind, he dared not even grope for the scattered fragments of his train of thought.
There was nothing that was his own.
* * * * *
"Inside the tunnels! Get them all inside!" Talon roared. He stood at the center of the Labyrinth's main hall, directing the flow of refugees so that they did not bottleneck at any one exit.
The Labyrinth was in a pandemonium. People, families, carrying knapsacks and duffel bags and small children, dashed up one corridor and down another. Sharon and Claw were each stationed at one end of the main hall, trying to keep the flight from turning into a panic; the clones, under Maggie's supervision, worked to close off the living quarters and the little hospital.
Delilah pushed her way through the crowd to Talon's side. "Our last lookouts just came in," she reported, with only the faintest tremble in her voice. "They say the Unseelies are almost through the iron doors. Maggie says we have to seal off the escape tunnels and pick our place to stand and fight."
Talon nodded. "She's right," he said, and raised his voice. "Everyone, move it! We're closing the tunnels!" The last stragglers came rushing past him, and he stepped aside to let them through.
"The others are coming with the iron weapons," Delilah said, and then her forehead kinked in worry. "Doctor Goldblum! Where's Doctor Goldblum?"
"Home with his family," Talon told her, "and I hope they're all right. Better if he's away from the fighting."
She bit her lip and nodded. "I guess so...but what if someone gets hurt?"
"Then we take care of it ourselves," he said, and tried to sound as confident as he could.
Maggie and the other clones were coming towards them...followed by about a dozen of the Labyrinth denizens, each carrying something made of iron: a crowbar, a wrench, a twisted fragment of subway track. "They wouldn't leave," she said before Talon could open his mouth. "They want to stay and help."
One of the humans behind her, a small middle-aged man with a straggly brown beard, nodded vehemently. "You've given us a place," he said, "and never asked a thing in return. This place is all most of us have. We're not about to run away while you fight to protect it."
"Right. What Al said," added a taller man, clenching his hands tightly about the rusty crowbar he held. There was a general murmur of agreement from the tiny band of determined men and women.
"Talon, we can't send them away," Maggie murmured for his ears alone, low and urgently. "We can't."
Talon looked at her.
"This is their home and they have the right to defend it," she whispered fiercely, still too quietly for anyone else to hear. "If you deny them this, you take away the only pride they have."
He turned to look at the small band of men -- bunched together in a small huddle, clutching their makeshift weapons like talismans, clearly afraid and just as clearly determined to fight -- and at the gargoyle clones, his own little clan, not looking so very different at all.
"All right," he finally said. "All right. But you stand when I tell you and you run when I tell you, got that?"
* * * * *
St. Paul's Cathedral
King Arthur and Cavall halted, and looked about them. The fighting had driven them out of Soho and away from the Mystic shop by now, ever eastwards through London. They now stood in the shadow of the ice-encrusted dome of the great Cathedral.
"This is not looking good, my friend," he said to the gargoyle beast, as they faced their new foes. Many of the Minions had already fled into the shadows, but reinforcements had arrived: a troop of Unseelie knights, mounted and fully-armed. Their glowing crimson eyes stared out at Arthur from beneath their visored helmets.
Griff suddenly swooped down and alighted next to the king. "Looks like you're in a spot of bother, Arthur," he said. "I don't suppose you'd mind my pitching in."
"Not at all, my friend," said Arthur. "Where are the others?"
"Most of the clan seem to have wound up in Hyde Park," said Griff. "But that's about as far as I can make out. It's not looking too good. We're getting scattered."
"I know," said Arthur grimly. "But we must continue as best we can."
The captain of the Unseelie horsemen shouted an order, and the knights lowered their lances and charged forward. "What I wouldn't give for a couple of anti-aircraft cannons right about now," Griff muttered.
The night was suddenly split by a flash of golden light, as the Gae Bolga coursed towards the Unseelie knights. Several of them were dismounted by the impact of the bolt, vanishing in a fury of sparks and crimson fire. Rory -- Cuchulain -- cried out eagerly in ancient Gaelic, as the spear of light returned to his hand.
"On the other hand, that'll do nicely," Griff reconsidered.
"Well done, my friend," called King Arthur to him, turning to the new arrival. "You seem to have evened the odds against us."
"Aye, but for how long?" Rory asked. "They seem to be getting tougher." His face hardened in a grim set, and it was Cuchulain's face -- not replacing his own but somehow overlaying it. "But I held Cuailgne alone against the full war-host of Connacht two thousand years ago, and it's scarcely better the odds were then! We'll stand against them, Pendragon! We'll stand!"
"Let us pray that we can do more than that," said Arthur grimly. And then one of the few remaining Unseelie knights was upon him, and it was nothing but strike at him with Excalibur, while Griff, Cavall, and Cuchulain each handled their own foes.
Griff braced his feet on the pavement, grabbed the end of a spear that was coming at him, and threw the wielder in a high arc over his head. He held on to the spear as the Unseelie sidhe went flying, and used it to parry the next attacker's blow as, behind him, the first struck an iron lamp-post and fell to the ground with a shaken groan.
Rory moved through the battle like a dancer, a terrible smile on his face and his reddish hair flying. In his hand the spear Luin sang and blazed like a shard of the sun, and the Unseelies flinched back from its dire light as much as from the deadly blows. Cavall leaped and slashed by his side for a moment, then romped back through the battle to Arthur, the look on his face more wolfish than doggy for the moment.
Excalibur met the Unseelie knight's blade with a clash like cymbals, disengaged and swept forward. The sidhe parried and struck, and Arthur retreated, the snow slippery and treacherous under his feet.
The rush of air behind him was his only warning, and it was nearly too late. Arthur ducked and twisted to one side, and the flail that would have smashed in his head instead impacted on one armored shoulder. His whole shield-arm went numb at the blow, his shield slipped from nerveless fingers. Arthur reeled against a wall, set his back to the smooth stone and raised Excalibur again. Four or five Unseelies moved in on him, and as he parried the first strike and was already moving towards the second, the third drew back a spear for a move that would take him in the gut.
The spearman jerked, cried out and collapsed to the ground. The hilt of an iron blade stood out from his back.
A hoarse battle-yell sounded, and a gray-haired figure whirled into the midst of the Unseelies surrounding Arthur. The long black coat flapped about his ankles as he struck about him with mace and sword; three of the sidhe knights fell before him and the other two backed off a small distance, leaving a small breathing space, enough time for the figure to turn to Arthur. "How goes the fight, Pendragon?"
Arthur stared. "Macbeth?"
Rory and Griff had fought their way over and dispatched the last two knights, and the four stood in a brief bubble of silence and calm. "Macbeth?" echoed Griff. "This is a grand turnout, what?"
"I knew this would be coming soon," Macbeth said, "but I didn't expect tonight. As well I had some of my armory still here."
"It's good to see you, but -- what are you doing here in London?" asked Arthur, bewildered.
"Class trip," came another voice, and a slender woman slipped from around a corner to join them. Her red-gold hair was coming loose from its tight knot at the back of her head, she carried a drawn sword, and she looked as though she were enjoying herself immensely.
Macbeth stared at her, and threw up his hands. "Joanna...."
"The students are safe at the hotel and they don't know what's going on," Joanna Walker said. "I left them watching a remake of The Tempest."
"I thought I told you to stay with them," Macbeth said, his voice low and controlled.
She gave him a cheerful smile. "You did. Repeatedly. That's the trouble with me, Len; I don't take orders worth a -- Behind you!" Her sword came up in her hand as she shouted, and Macbeth turned barely in time to parry the vicious blow aimed at his head. Joanna lunged through under his arm and her blade took the Unseelie through the chest, as the next one leaped at Arthur with a chilling shriek.
The square around them was suddenly full of attackers, and any further discussion was unceremoniously tabled for the moment.
* * * * *
Leba's ironbound quarterstaff cracked against a sidhe knight's head, spun in her hands and slammed butt-first into his throat. She was already turning to face the next one as the fay collapsed into a shriveled heap in the snow.
The fay's shield turned her staff, and his weight bore towards her. Leba retreated a few steps, setting her back to a heavy oak tree, and swung again; this time the block jarred both of her arms to the shoulder. The Unseelie raised his sword to strike -- and shrieked horribly as a pair of iron knives thudded into him, one transfixing his sword-arm and the other seeming to sprout from his forehead, just between his eyes.
Dulcinea pulled Rosinante to a halt beside the oak and panted "Have you seen Rory?"
"Lost sight of 'im...a while back." Leba swept her quarterstaff viciously at another Redcap. "Get back, you little wart!"
"Cover me." The dark-haired woman swung down from the saddle and darted in behind Leba to retrieve her throwing knives from the sidhe's body, and was back up on Rosie in the space of a breath. She squeezed with her knees and pulled back on the mane, and Rosinante reared and struck with her iron-shod hooves at the attacking Unseelies. Some fell beneath them; most of them ran.
"You can't find Rory?" Leba asked in the momentary lull, getting her breath back.
"He could be with Arthur," Dulcinea answered. "He's not with the gargoyles. It's not going well. They've got us all scattered."
"Can we regroup?"
In answer, Dulcinea held out a hand to help the other woman up behind her. "We can start trying here," she said. "Come on."
* * * * *
Michael grimly rallied the clan again amid the snow-draped trees of Hyde Park. "We can beat them," he said, his teeth clenched tightly.
"I'm not so sure, leader," said Brock troubledly. "You must admit, it's not looking good for us. Aper's badly wounded, and we've already lost Drake. And dawn's only a couple of hours away. Once the sun rises, we'll be easy targets for them. And the new hatchlings back home -- " He shook his head, looking sick. "I don't like to think about it."
"Then we must simply make certain that we win this battle before dawn comes," said Michael. He stared at the Vampyres before them, his eyes glowing white, and prepared to launch another attack.
* * * * *
The Whowie opened its eyes to a monochrome world, filled with moving blurs. There was a dull throb from one of its eyes, and it recalled pain from a spear thrust or an arrow. The memories of London grew hazy as the forms before it caught more substance.
The voice in its head gonged and thrummed like the loudest of shouts. It knew Madoc's voice, the texture of his thoughts slithering through its own like a gentle ooze, coaxing it to wakefulness.
From its perspective, the street materialized with great slowness before it. A hurly-burly rush of garish grays, sharp blacks, and stinging whites assaulted its pained eyes. A large, noisy metal thing turned away from it sharply, impacting into another. The cacophony of noise which ensued hurt the tender flaps of its ears, and it bellowed.
Then, to get its bearings, it flicked out a heavy, sticky tongue.
The world exploded into form in the tastes: acrid gasoline exhaust, a light taste of smoke from stacks not quite meeting the government emissions regulations, all overwhelmed with the pungent effluvium of fresh, living meat.
A creature, probably human, screamed, again filling its ears with dreadful noise. Its eye ached, its ears hurt with the noise. All around it was confusion and noise and stench. And it hungered.
The Whowie roared its freight-train grumble and turned its attention towards feeding.
* * * * *
Dingo slammed his fist into the yielding jaw of the last of the robbers. The man's three companions lay sprawled through the alley, groaning. The suitcases they had been carrying stood neatly against a wall, their stiff, black leather looking too prim for the surroundings. The last thug's head landed beside them, and was still.
Dingo shook his hand, then went to the suitcases. They were locked with a discrete electronic latch.
"Unlock it for me, mate?"
"Should we not return the money to the proper owners?" The Matrix's normally many-layered voice was vaguely tinny through the speakers in the silver suit, which was its current form.
"We will, we will. I just need ta check we got the right bags, is all." He placed his fingers against the lock. It hummed, then sprung open. Inside the suitcase, sure enough, a cool million smiled back at him. He whistled. "Sure is pretty."
"Now we will return it to the bank," said the Matrix.
In his younger days, Dingo would have protested. It was one thing to rob a bank. He'd never really had the stomach for stealing on his own. On the other hand, these gentlemen had already liberated the cash from the bank. He was just redistributing the wealth, he might have said, closed the case, and had himself a fine time, feeling it his right as a payment for the hard work he'd just done in catching these reprobates.
He closed the case. "Right, then. Put in an anonymous tip to the cops while we find somethin' a tie up these blokes."
"Reports coming in," droned the Matrix. "A large unidentified creature has stopped traffic on Rundle Street. All police units in the area have been dispatched."
"Affirmative. The reports suggest it may be an overlarge frog."
Dingo knew better than to think the Matrix was joking, but he had to wonder. "For real?"
"May I suggest we investigate?"
"Yeah, but ... " He looked at their handiwork. "Put in the call anyway." He rummaged through a trash bin near the back of the alley until he found some discarded plastic tie wrap. It was a matter of minutes before the robbers were properly bound. "That'll hold 'em. Let's go see the froggie, shall we?"
* * * * *
There were a few things Dingo believed in without really thinking about it. For example, he believed with a fair surety that the sky was up, the ground was down, fire was hot, and frogs were things about the size, shape and temperament of well-used softballs. Most frogs he had encountered were content to sit still and occasionally bring a quick death to unlucky flies. He'd seen commercials where they sat on their pads all day and croaked while lizards plotted their downfall. He'd even heard stories of how one, when granted a kiss, turned into a handsome car salesman. Or something.
Frogs as a rule did not have six legs in his world view. Nor were they the size of a tractor-trailer. He would, however, admit that they probably smelled as foul, just in smaller amounts.
Currently, it seemed to be entranced by the blinking of a four-way flasher on the back of one of those new Bugs. The driver's side door was crushed, the other slammed up against a stoplight pole. Inside, he saw the driver, a pale young man, shaking in fear of the monster licking his bumper. Then another face popped up from the back seat, a kid no more than five or six, looking out on the scene open-mouthed.
The creature butted its head against the car, and sparks sizzled from the light pole through the body of the car. The creature roared, in pain or frustration, Dingo couldn't tell.
"Species unknown," said the Matrix. "Structure suggests it is a Whowie, a creature from Aboriginal myth."
"Does that look like a myth to you?"
At some point, he was going to have to figure out how to program his partner a sense of humor. Maybe he should contact Fox and her mom.
The Whowie lashed out its tongue with deadly aim, smashing the back window of the Beetle. From inside, he heard a scream, as the father bolted over the back of his seat to pull his child away.
Without even thinking, Dingo raised his arm. A laser cannon formed, and he fired. The Whowie's attention redirected itself squarely onto Dingo.
"All right," said Dingo. "Let's party."
* * * * *
Ian Jaffe closed the empty cash register, hung up his apron, and reached for his coat. He looked around the shop once more, then went back behind the counter and took out a roll of tape, a piece of white poster board and a red marking pen. He busied himself with them for a while, then placed the sign in front of the counter and stepped back to survey it:
DOOR OPEN - CASH REGISTER EMPTY. TAKE WHAT YOU NEED. GET HOME SAFELY. -- I.J.
He nodded to himself, taped the sign inside the store window and began putting on his coat.
The window shattered behind him. Snow gusted into the little market as Jaffe spun around, to see a crowd of short stumpy figures in the street outside.
"Hey! You kids!" he shouted. "What do you think you're doing?"
Another rock flew out of the crowd, smashed another pane of the window. Jaffe's stomach tightened and his heart thudded in his chest. There was a chorus of gleeful yells, and the crowd charged forward, the first ones leaping toward the broken window.
Jaffe let out a yell of shock. They weren't, as he'd thought, juveniles looking for kicks. Those grayish faces under the bright red caps were not human, and heaven only knew what they were looking for. They spilled into the shop, smashing things, throwing things, laughing.
"G-get out!" he yelled, backing away. "I'm warning you--"
A blow hit him in the stomach, doubling him over. Something else struck him in the knees from behind, and he crashed to the floor.
The little red-capped horrors swarmed around him, their harsh laughter rasping in his head. One of them swung a brass-studded club, missing his head but striking his shoulder. He clenched his teeth, but a cry of pain forced itself out between them.
The raucous laughter stopped suddenly, replaced by yells of dismay. There were larger shapes around him, human-sized, their faces hidden by ski masks, wielding heavy chains and crowbars with frightening skill -- and they were attacking the Redcaps. And -- Jaffe blinked -- driving them off.
The last of the goblins was running away. Jaffe looked up at his rescuers uneasily; those ski masks, and the ease with which they handled the thug weapons.... He refused the hand one held out to him and managed to get to his feet on his own. "What do you want?" he managed.
"That any way to talk to an old friend?" One of the figures pulled off its ski mask, and grinned at him. Dark hair, white streak --
"Dracon?" Jaffe blinked again.
One of the others handed him a heavy bar of metal. Jaffe took it automatically, his mind unable to keep up with the right-angle turns.
"Iron's the only thing hurts 'em," Dracon told him. "You see anything that looks like it oughta be in a horror movie, you swing this at it. They won't get too close to you. Got it?"
"Y-yes," Jaffe said. "Why...?"
"Just doin' our bit to keep the streets safe," said the one who'd handed him the iron bar, with a grin in his voice. "The little elves want a city, let 'em take over Des Moines. New York is Tony Dracon's territory."
"You wanna get yourself home quick, old man, and you wanna stay inside," Dracon said quietly. "It's gonna be an ugly night."
* * * * *
Talon jerked Maggie aside as the clumsy barricade before them started to topple over backwards. Stones and metal shattered on the floor where they had been, and a volley of green bolts streamed in through the gap in the defensive wall.
They wound up behind another piece of cover with Brentwood, Malibu, Claw, and about half of the Labyrinth humans. Al was bandaging a middle-aged woman's badly burned arm; she hissed softly with the pain but made no other sound. The others crouched on their heels and looked at Talon.
"How are we doing?" he asked them.
"Not great," said a dark-skinned man. "They got Joey an' Tige, and we can't get near 'em without --" He tipped his head at the wounded woman.
"I'm goin' back out there, Dan," she growled, brandishing the crowbar she held in her good hand. "I'm goin' back out there and bash a few pointy-eared heads in --"
"Pipe down and hold still, Libby," Al told her. Grumbling, she held still as he tied off the bandage.
"Burbank and Hollywood went over there," said Brentwood, pointing across the main hall toward one of the surface tunnels. "With Delilah and Sharon and some of the other humans."
"Hollywood bashed one of the bad guys," added Malibu with pride.
"Heads up," yelled the youngish woman who was lookout. "Incoming!" There was a clang that could be felt in the bones as a boulder struck the iron-reinforced barricade. Another, and another.
"Can't hold much longer," Maggie said. "Do we go back or charge?"
Claw tapped him on the shoulder and made an emphatic gesture toward the barricade, a swooping movement of one fist, as if casting a thunderbolt. The intent of the gesture was unequivocal.
Talon glanced around. The two gargoyles and the humans looked back at him, waiting for his word.
"We can't keep pulling back," he said.
"All right," Libby cheered quietly, and started to stand up.
"Not yet!" Talon snapped. "We'll lay down a covering fire for you. You move at them, hit them and get away fast. Come back for here if you can; if not, go for whatever cover you find. Got it?"
He exchanged looks with Maggie and Claw, held up the fingers of one hand in a silent countdown -- four fingers, three, two, one --
Simultaneously, as if they'd rehearsed it, the three mutates popped up from behind the barricade and sent a barrage of electricity at the gathered Unseelies, shattering the huge chunk of concrete that they had been preparing to fling at the defenders. Redcaps and werecheetahs screamed, sidhe flung up hasty magical shields and cringed behind them.
"Now!" Talon roared.
"Yeeee-hah!" shouted Libby, and the Labyrinth defenders charged.
* * * * *
"Goliath, it doesn't look good for us," said Brooklyn, landing next to Goliath, Hudson, and Bronx. "They're mopping the floor with us! We've lost most of the Steel Clan already!"
Goliath turned and watched as yet another robot was hurled backwards by a blast of Unseelie-produced wind into one of the towers, shattering into hundreds of sparking fragments.
"Never thought I'd be sorry to see something like that happen to one of those guys," Brooklyn continued, gazing at the remains. "We've gotta do something!"
"I have an idea," said Hudson grimly. "We've got to take down the leader. Then we'll have a chance."
"What do you mean, Hudson?" Brooklyn began. Then he and Goliath saw the old gargoyle eyeing Madoc, who was directing the battle at the other end of the castle, Garm at his side. And they both understood.
"That is a good idea, my friend," Goliath began. "But we need a way to vanquish him --"
He was interrupted by Bronx, who charged from Hudson's side straight towards Madoc and Garm, growling fiercely. Garm growled himself in reply, and dove at the gargoyle beast. The two animals rolled about and about, growling and snapping at each other.
"Now!" cried Hudson. He launched himself at Madoc with a fierce battle cry, sword in hand. The Unseelie Lord turned in his direction and readied his own blade in return. The two swords met with a clash, more sparks flying. Madoc finally twisted his sword in an odd way, and Hudson went flying backwards, to hit the side of a tower with a loud thud. He slumped to the ground, unconscious.
"Hudson!" shouted Goliath. He rushed straight towards Madoc, growling, his eyes blazing white. Brooklyn was about to follow, when something grabbed him by the neck. He looked about to find himself grasped in the clutches of a tree branch, which had grown unnaturally long. Loki stood at the base of the tree, smiling smugly.
"Uh-uh-uh, TimeDancer," he said. "We've got a few scores to settle first. And this time, there won't be any interruptions."
Goliath was almost upon Madoc, when a bolt of lightning struck him in the back. He cried out, and fell forward, hitting the ground hard and blacking out.
Maeve joined Madoc as they stood over the unconscious leader of the clan, lifting her index finger to her lips and blowing out the thin trail of green smoke that issued from it. "That should settle him," she said.
"He is still alive, I take it," said Madoc. "We cannot extract information from a corpse, remember."
"Not to worry," said Maeve, with a wicked smile. "He's all ours."
"An easy victory," said Madoc. "Almost disappointingly so. Still, why should we complain?"
Behind them, Garm made one final lunge at Bronx, who was now standing just against the battlements. Bronx leaped out of the way in the nick of time. The Unseelie dog crashed into the parapet, breaking a part of it away, as he tumbled down over the side into the street far down below. Garm gave a bewildered yelp, before fading out of sight.
Bronx next charged towards Maeve, but she sent a second bolt of magic at him, and sent him spinning away into a corner, also stunned. "Wretched hound!" spat the Dark Queen, her face contorted in a grimace.
Madoc glowered at Bronx's limp form. "Garm is well avenged by the beast's death," he said, and turned back to Maeve. "Will you remain with the battle, or join me in extracting the information from this one?" He indicated the unconscious Goliath with his foot.
"I'll be staying," Maeve said. Her hair blew wild about her shoulders, and her face was set in a feral battle-grin. "There's still the Maza woman and this one's whelp to be dealt with. Either of them's like to know the spell we need, in case this one doesn't."
"Agreed," said Madoc. "Bring them back to base as soon as you find them." Maeve nodded in assent, and helped him load Goliath upon the back of one of the huge black fay-horses. Madoc mounted up and spoke quietly to the horse. Eyes glowing red, it reared majestically and leaped upward, its hooves striking sparks from the frigid air. There came a blinding brightness, and they were gone.
Two pairs of eyes, watching from the far parapet, saw them depart.
Angela was already moving. Elisa reached up and grabbed the back of Angela's tunic, and jerked her down hard to hide behind the battlement. "We won't be able to help him if we get caught," she hissed in the younger female's pointed ear. "You heard her. She's looking for us now."
"Let go of me!" Angela hissed.
"No. We'll be no good to Goliath if we wind up like poor Bronx." Elisa risked another glance over the parapet edge. Maeve had mounted her own horse, which took off galloping in a spiral down the outside of the building. "She's going to alert the others to look for us. We've got maybe one chance to get away and find Goliath."
"We don't even know where they've taken him."
"Yes we do," Elisa said grimly. "Where they had Matt. Can you find Fifth Avenue and 105th Street in this snow?"
Angela's chin rose. "Try me."
* * * * *
The elevator shaft had opened to a floor of office space, seven floors down from the castle, five down from the medical facilities. Outside of the iron-lined shaft, Anastasia's powers were back to their full strength. With a wave of her hand, not a wiggle of her nose, they teleported. It took Fox just a moment to get her bearings, and then she wished she hadn't. She had never actually seen the building's small morgue, and had been rather happy with that fact.
"Mom, we don't have time for this."
"I won't be more than a minute." Anastasia went through the door, which Fox was certain was normally kept locked. Sure enough, not fifty seconds later, her mother returned, face stony.
"...What is it?" Fox asked her.
Anastasia took a deep, shuddering breath. "Elfshot," she said, low. "They struck him with elfshot. In his human form, and without recourse to his magic, he was vulnerable as any mortal." There was a terrible note in her voice, implacable and shaken with grief and fury.
"The touch of it burns mortal flesh as iron burns my kind. The merest scratch causes fever, delirium, sometimes wasting. A wound that breaks the skin...." Her voice had gone rigid, clinical. "Don't blame your doctors, Fox. For any elfshot wound deep enough to draw blood, there is no cure. None."
She turned away suddenly, pressing the knuckles of one hand to her mouth. "A mortal's death," she whispered finally. "They used elfshot, against one of us. And I can do nothing."
"What do you mean, nothing?" Fox demanded. "You're here, aren't you? We're out of the iron, aren't we?"
Anastasia was shaking her head. "There is a prophecy of Madoc's downfall, that only a union of the two mortal races will defeat him. If any of his own race were to take the field against him...." She stopped, and her smile held bitter wisdom. "I don't need to explain to you about loopholes, Fox."
The younger woman nodded slowly. "So why did you come here if you can't do anything?"
The bitter smile trembled. "I came to warn the Puck," she said simply. "He was young when the prophecy was delivered, and we needed to be sure he remembered what it meant -- that he must not take a direct hand if Madoc was present, that he should stay out of the battle...."
"We need to go," said Fox, but gently.
"I know. Does David still want immortality?"
"Probably." He hadn't brought the subject up for ages.
"Tell him it's not all he thinks it might be." She waved her hand again, and the hallway was empty.
* * * * *
Taurus glowered at the advancing Unseelies. "We've thrown everything that we could at them," he said to Boreas, "and they're still coming. The invaders are gaining the upper hand."
"I know," said the winged leader of the New Olympians, nodding. "But we have reinforcements coming. Look!"
The New Olympian gargoyles had joined in the battle now, swooping down upon Unseelies with their fierce cries. Their attacks broke the faeries' formations, scattering them. But the Stymphalian Birds quickly launched a counter-attack upon the gargoyles, raining their arrows down upon them. Many found a mark, and more than one gargoyle fell wounded to the ground.
Talos raised one hand upwards towards the Stymphalian Birds, and pushed a few buttons upon his wrist with the other hand. At once, an odd screeching noise emanated from his hand in the direction of the Birds, which suddenly lost their concentration and began milling about in confusion.
"Sonic disrupter neutralizing the enemy," the robot began, but he was interrupted. A large fist rammed into his back, sending him hurtling into the nearest wall with a clatter. The noise halted, and the Stymphalian Birds regrouped.
"I know, repetitive," commented Proteus with a shrug, resuming his regular form. "But what works, works."
* * * * *
Kai snarled as a maroon oni with a dark blue face and a single eye chortled, swinging a club at his head. Recovering, Kai swung a large no-dachi, its blade cutting the oni a deep score in its arm. The creature howled from the burn of the weapon's iron, and leapt away to avoid receiving another cut.
Behind him, several oni had swarmed onto the wall and were fighting with several members of the clan, but none had managed to break through to the inner portions of the castle. Those that had been lucky or clever enough to slip through to the courtyard, only made it as far as it took one of the sharp eyed archers in the towers to draw on their Japanese longbows and cut them down with one or two well placed shots.
In front of him, more of the hordes were swarming up the walls, and while the Ishimura gargoyles were flinging them back, they never seemed to stop coming.
Just then, a large paw clamped around Kai's foot, and he looked down in disgust at the leering, fang-toothed grin that met his gaze with one of malice. Before it could pull Kai down into the melee below, Taira appeared and slammed the heavy head of an axe flat side down onto the oni's face. It screamed once, then pitched back into the milling mass of its brethren.
"Arigato, Taira-kun!" Kai said breathlessly.
Grunting, Taira replied by saying, "We need to get flyers up, Kai-sama!"
"No! They might have archers of their own," Kai reasoned. "Besides, our enemy is on the ground! We shall meet them, and defeat them there!"
* * * * *
As the battle boiled before them, Rangda and her crones watched as the gargoyles were holding their own against the onis. To her one side, Atsuma watched with an eager look of anticipation -- a look the Bali witch did not miss.
"I assume you wish to join the fray, Atsuma?" she asked icily.
Snapping his head around, the Japanese Unseelie's eyes glowed briefly from beneath a fan of his yellow-green hair. "It has been years since I used my full fury in battle, and, forgive me, but I want a chance to destroy these... winged rats!"
Rangda sneered, "Very well, Atsuma. Go and do your pleasure with these gargoyles. Lord Madoc wishes them destroyed, and so do I."
Grinning, Atsuma made a half bow to his commander, his yellow robe flapping in the air, then turned and rose slowly over the ranks of the seething oni and floated towards the battlements.
Rangda chuckled to herself. "Besides, you do have the right of it! The time for standing by is over... it is time to truly show these beasts who is their true better!" She motioned to her two crones. "Come! The best way to kill a snake is to strike off its head!"
* * * * *
On one of the castle towers, Sora and Riko were drawing marks on several of the oni that were making the most trouble. Among some of the best shots of the Ishimura clan, they let fly, the strings of their longbows singing as their bronze-tipped shafts quickly found their mark in a chest, back, or eye of some hapless oni below.
Just then, a movement over the battlefield caught Riko's eye. "Sora-chan! Over there!"
The light lavender female paused in drawing another arrow, looking to where her sharp-eyed companion was looking. "I see him! The one that stood with the leader... he is trying to fly over the castle! We can pick him off easily." She knocked her arrow to her bowstring, but a sudden shift in the Unseelies posture made her and Riko look a second time.
"What is he doing?"
Before Sora could answer, the figure of Atsuma was bathed in a glow of eldritch light, which surrounded him in a ball of energy. Before their startled eyes, the ball grew larger... larger... and larger still, until it BURST apart...
"Ancestors," Sora breathed, just a second before she leaned over and shouted to the battlements below, "Kai! Ryu! Ryu!" Facing her companion, she said, "Aim for the eyes, Riko-chan! If we can blind it-!" Both Riko and the older female took deadly aim at the monster below, releasing when Sora shouted "NOW!"
Their shafts flew straight and true, but the creature rose up at the last moment and the arrows struck against its armored sides with a clatter of metal and wood.
The beast that was Atsuma jerked his head around, its yellow eyes flaring at the tower like two bright spotlights. Sunlight glittered off its scales, while its muzzle flared and smoked as it took in great breaths. A laugh that was pure malice bubbled up from its throat, as it drew in a huge breath, the skin on the neck bulging as it drew back...
Sora's face paled. "Get out of this tower!" Before Riko could protest or move, the older female grabbed her with desperate strength and flung her out towards the inner courtyard...
* * * * *
Below, Kai heard Sora's cry of "Kai! Dragon! Dragon!" Turning towards the wall, his eyes widened as the looming shape of Atsuma's altered form rose up, casting a shadow over the courtyard.
"Shimatta! A dragon?" He was about to spring to the wall, when the flash of sunlight on metal revealed that shots from Sora's tower had been fired against Atsuma. The Ishimura leader blanched when he heard the dragon's laugh, and saw it draw back...
"Nooo!" His shout was drowned out by the roar of the dragon's fire as it raced towards the tower. He had time to see a lone figure come sailing out from it, just a second before the blast hit the top. An explosion of stone and wood sailed through the air. Atsuma kept his flame on the head of the tower for a moment more, then ceased, leaving behind a blackened, blasted shell where it once was.
Roaring, Kai started to lunge forward to avenge whomever it was that the Unseelie had just killed, when a trio of green bolts stopped him in mid-charge.
Coming to a landing before him, Rangda sneered as she turned her staff over and over with almost casual grace. "Now, gargoyle, we shall see if your steel is enough to face my fire!" Rangda spat, as she twisted her staff, making a single shining blade of light appear from its end. Beside her, her crones moved around the two, forming a ward that kept any other gargoyle from coming to their leader's aid.
Kai growled, but bowed formally before coming to the ready, his no-dachi swinging easily into an overhead position. "I am Kai, leader of Ishimura, and before this day ends one of us will die. It is karma. It is Bushido!"
* * * * *
Manhattan - Eyrie Building
Embroiled against the Unseelie, Coldstone and Coldfire used whatever tactics they could to keep the dark warriors at bay.
Garlon's lip pulled back into a frustrated snarl as yet another of his companions fell under the attack of the cybernetic gargoyles. The much reduced assault squad had been reduced to two and they were pinned in a narrow alcove adjacent to the nursery.
He aimed again, firing a blast of magical energy that scored a direct hit against the metallic hide of the golden automaton. A circuit fried, filling the air with smoke and he grinned at his compatriot as he took aim again.
Both cyborgs were now facing the two warriors. They hadn't come out of the whole melee without some scars - mostly blast and scorch marks from magic blasts - but they weren't showing any signs of slowing.
"Are you prepared to surrender now, Unseelie?" Coldfire asked, her hands clenching and unclenching.
Garlon and the other warrior shot each other a glance. Distract them! The nursery doors are right behind us!
Before either Coldstone or Coldfire could make a move, the warrior let out a battle cry, swinging his sword in a glittering arc as he charged at them full tilt.
"Perfect!" The plain man turned and focused his attention on the nursery doors. Reinforced with the dreadful cold iron on the other side, but plain wood in front of him. Perfect. With a gesture he conjured a ball of fire -- not the greenish light of fay magic, but real fire, red-and-gold flames, crackling and wavering above the palm of his hand. He raised the hand, aimed at the nursery doors --
There was a scream behind him, but Garlon ignored it. "Come on, stupid beasts, come on...." he muttered.
And there, he sensed the rush coming from behind. Timing, exact timing -- He dodged the robot when her momentum was too great for her to stop, leaped aside and let the ball of fire dissipate as she crashed through the nursery doors. The squeal of tearing iron grated upon his nerves, but the satisfaction compensated for that: the golden gargoyle had fallen into the nursery, among the scattered shards of the door, leaving his path clear.
He stepped inside quickly, casting about for... and he found the Xanatos child, huddled in a small bed along one side of the room, clutching a stuffed animal, with a knit blanket pulled over his head.
"Found you! Now, you're coming with me, boy!" Garlon made a lunge for the bed, only to have both Coldstone and Coldfire reach him at the same time, stopping him just a few inches from the edge. The child pulled away the blanket and stared, his green eyes wide and terrified.
"Leave the boy alone!" Coldfire cried. Together, the two cyborgs jerked him away from the side of the bed.
Alex pushed himself back against the wall, clutching the stuffed fuzzy tighter as they began to manhandle Garlon away. Garlon snarled, feeling their metal bodies through the tears in his shirt and coat that their claws had made during the fight, the iron in them causing him no end of agony.
"Surrender, Unseelie! You will not have Alexander," Coldstone growled.
"Blast you to ashes," Garlon seethed, and with a tremendous shrug, he unleashed a massive blast of power, flinging both cyborgs off of him to clatter against opposite walls of the nursery. He roared in rage as he clutched the parts of his exposed arms and chest that had been burned by the iron in their bodies. "I'll send you to your deaths!" A moment of concentration, and a particle-beam gun materialized in his hands.
"Not before you, elf-dog!" Coldfire cried. She staggered back to the attack, but Garlon turned to meet her with a barrage of blaster fire, tearing her legs out from under her. She screamed in agony from the backlash of severed circuits and systems.
"Beloved!" Coldstone roared. Before he could recover enough to go to her aid, his foe fired once more, only this time at him. The blast tore out a massive chunk of his upper left shoulder which took out the arm attached to that side.
Both cyborgs reeled and collapsed, each one crying out in cybernetic agony from the damage inflicted on their bodies. Coldfire slumped against an upturned dresser, trying weakly to bring herself upright before collapsing, her glowing red optics dimming slightly.
"You... shall not... have... the child!"
Garlon had managed to shake off a little of the iron-burn pain, but it was still painful to move. "You are in no position to stop me, cyborg!"
Coldstone rose again, snarling, "We shall not... give up! You-will-not-win!" The damaged cyborg popped his forearm laser out to blast the Unseelie before he could attack the child.
"I already have," Garlon said, as he fired once more at the struggling gargoyle. This time the blast ripped the weapon from its housing before the energy flayed the rest of the armor from Coldstone's right arm. His bellow nearly drowned out the sound of Garlon's last shot.
"You are powerful, you mechanical freak... but not powerful enough!" Garlon said with a triumphant grin. Ignoring the pain he felt from the ironburn, he lashed out with a kick that connected with Coldstone's chin, snapping the cyborg's head around, and dropping him amid a clatter of metal against the floor of the nursery.
* * * * *
"Yes!" Lex exulted, then set to the task at hand. "Access the main search directory ... look for anything relating to any active devices or machines currently online."
"WORKING..." A small list of every machine currently on-system began to appear in a smaller window. When it stopped, Lex made a quick check to see if any were the redundancies that he feared. "Hope they're all there.... Initiating file transfer."
A blue line with a percentile number started to scroll across the bottom of his vision. When something flashed by the window, Lex barely reacted, but he hoped that nothing would interrupt the transfer.
The computer beeped. TRANSFER COMPLETE.
"Okay," he growled, and his eyes burned white for a moment. "Okay, Nicholas, let's see how you like this move.... Access local file and execute Run: filename LEGNV_2.exe!" The command given, he severed the transfer link and watched the diagram of the carrier signal, holding his breath.
The diagram remained unchanged for several seconds, then like magic, the image of the carrier signal flickered, then vanished altogether.
Lexington clenched one hand into a fist, a swift grabbing motion. "Gotcha!" He quickly tapped another sequence of commands into the computer. "Time to shut this party down!"
* * * * *
In the huge shaft of the main elevators, in a curved section above the main winch and gears, a domed part held the mechanism and mooring of a large iron bell, the kind seen in cathedrals and monolithic churches. At the command, a large cam cranked around, swinging the bell upwards.
For a moment it seemed to hesitate at the apex of its arc, then swung down, the clapper on the inside striking the side.
* * * * *
Throughout the tower, Unseelies clutched at their heads and cried out. A mounted party was galloping upwards through the air; most of the fay horses gave a terrible screaming whinny and twisted in midair, throwing their likewise screaming riders to fall, stunned.
"He did it!" Xanatos said, stopping short of shooting another Unseelie warrior as the non-human fell to the stones, swatted from mid-air by the affects of the ironsound. "Lex did it!"
"What did he do?" Graeme asked, coming up behind the man with Ariana right beside him.
"Lex did something to the Unseelie, I don't know what, but it's stopped their immunity to the bells," he explained. Together, they looked around at the writhing mass of bodies that were draped over the walls and parapets, as the Unseelie tried to recover from the sudden shock of the bell's ringing.
"Will it continue to affect them?" the red-skinned girl asked.
"So long as Big Ben here keeps ringing, it will," Xanatos replied. "It should give us the edge we need to start turning this around!"
"Then why isn't it still ringing?" Graeme asked, taking a worried look around. True to his observation, there was a silence present over the battlefield.
Immediately, Xanatos snapped open his communicator. "Lex! What happened to the bell?"
"Something must have caused some damage to the generators," Lex's reply came back, swelling with frustration. "They must have shorted out from the strain of activating the bell's mechanism!"
"Can you get them back online?"
A pause. "I can try ... but if the damage is more than the systems can handle, it may take a while."
"Doki!" Ariana gasped, looking at where several of the Unseelie were starting to recover and rise up. The Unseelie sidhe that had collapsed just in front of Xanatos was now looking at them in hate, his hand glowing with green light.
Xanatos pulled the twins behind him, just as the warrior fired off a blast. He took the attack in the center of his chest, the armor of his exo-suit bearing the brunt of it, as the energy shunted away like a lightning bolt hitting a rod. "Do what you can, Lex! We need those generators back online!"
* * * * *
The deep resonance of the bell still echoed in his bones as George Harrison struggled to his feet. He shook his head, trying to clear it as he scanned his landing point on the castle proper.
"Uhhhhnnn... I'd kill for some aspirin right now," he said to no one in general. He looked around, expecting to get jumped on by the gargoyles or one of Xanatos' machines, but found himself in the shelter of one of the lower walls.
"Small blessing," he mused, thinking what his Unseelie "master" would have said to that. It was then that it hit him: he couldn't sense the "master's" presence in his mind ... or that of any other Unseelie for that matter.
The bell. Its note still reverberated painfully in his skull, but while it no longer completely dulled his thoughts, it had the unexpected effect of drowning out his "master's" voice. Too much to hope that the link had been permanently broken, but for the moment....
"Lex! What happened to the bell?"
Abruptly, at the sound of Xanatos's voice, George crept along the low wall and risked a look over at the speaker. The armor-clad billionaire was talking to two younger gargoyles just a few yards away. George listened and heard the discussion about the generators shorting out ... and in a moment of pure clarity, George realized that unless that bell kept ringing, the gargoyles wouldn't stand a chance against the Unseelie Court.
"Something's stopped the Unseelie anti-iron sound gizmos from working ... but with no power to make that big bell ring and with everyone fighting for their lives..." He did a quick mental calculation. "They don't have anyone to go ring it manually." George smirked at the sheer irony of it all. "Looks like I'm the man for the job."
Glancing around for gargoyles, he slowly got to his feet. "Let's put an end to this, Harrison," he said to himself somberly. "No more living a lie." If the bell was as big as he thought, the sound at close range would be enough to do him in.
Resolutely, he reached up and yanked the filters from his ears, moving off towards the inside of the castle. Skirting a pitched battle, other Halflings and Unseelies fighting the iron robots, George was already feeling detached from it all. Halfway down one of the long hallways, the whipcrack voice of his Unseelie master began to pick at the edges of his mind:
You will not leave the Unseelie Court!
You will obey! Obey!
"Not a chance, pal." George set his jaw firmly and focused past the compulsion to obey the voice. "Get stuffed."
You will not leave.
You will not disobey Lord Madoc!
Where are you going?
George staggered under the weight of the Unseelie summons, his feet feeling like they were mired down. He tried to block out the voice, to get it off of his goal ... to reach the bell ... the bell...
"The bell ... the bells..." he murmured. Then, he said with more force, "The bells!"
A flash of memory, in such vividness and clarity that for a moment it seemed more real than where he stood now: sixth grade English... Mister Schotter, whom they'd called something a lot more vulgar behind his back, giving them poems to memorize. Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll, and... Edgar Allan Poe.
"Hear the tolling of the bells - Iron bells! What a world of solemn thought their monody compels! In the silence of the night, how we shiver with affright ... at the melancholy menace of their tone!"
The poem's rhythm became a mantra, helping him to filter out the Unseelie summons, which slowly got fainter and fainter with every word.
Grimly, he started off again, continuing to recite the verse as he made his way over to a huge metal access panel in the wall. He vaguely remembered, from his previous visit to the Eyrie, that it was a service access to the main elevator shaft.
"For every sound that floats ... from the rust within their throats ... Is a groan." A groan escaped his own throat as he felt the closeness of the iron, its burning cold seeming to suck the warmth from him.
He pulled the sleeves of his coat up over his hands, shielding them from the iron in the door, and yanked the latch clear, heaving the door wide. He then levered himself inside, finding hand and footholds on the thin ladder and grips that marched up the side of the shaft.
"And the people - ah, the people - they that dwell up in the steeple, all alone ... and who, tolling, tolling, tolling, in that muffled monotone, feel a glory in so rolling ... on the human heart a stone," he chanted, taking a firm grip on the rungs. Tolling, tolling, tolling, the bell's echo sounded dizzyingly in his head. Even though the surrounding walls of iron were making him want to cry in pain, he thrust his agony aside and started to climb.
"They are neither man nor woman ... they are neither brute nor human ... " The words stuck in his throat for a moment.
His ears, rising to a graceful point. His flesh that healed itself from injuries that would have killed him, should have killed him. His skin that could not bear the touch of the metal that was earth, the element at the base of human and animal blood. We are neither brute nor human.
"They are Ghouls," he gasped, picking up the poem again, cutting off the voice. "And their king it is who tolls ... and he rolls, rolls, rolls ... rolls! A paean from the bells! And his merry bosom swells ... With ... the paean of the bells!"
* * * * *
"Hit 'em again!" Rael snarled, flinging another green-glowing fireball at the lone Steel Clan robot that was plunging down on top of them. Beside him, Rita, Jake and Vince added their own shots to the volley. Just a heartbeat away from closing on them, the robot blew apart into a hailstorm of scrap, forcing the quartet of Halflings to cover their heads and utterly destroying the front window of a nearby coffee shop.
"Geez, that was... funky," Jake said. "Who's next?"
"Cool it, Jake! We're supposed to be lookin' for the mutants," Rael said, his voice colored with battle heat. "Or anyone else from that underground nest."
Just then, a flickering ball of light whipped past Vince's face, making him shoot back in surprise. "What the Sam Hill?" The ball wavered in flight and settled in front of Rita, its aura paled to a sickly color, sputtering and fading in and out.
"What? What happened to you?" Rita asked, her eyes wide with concern.
"Ah, man! It's another one of those fairy-light thingies!" Jake said with an exasperated sigh. "Look out, here comes more of them!" At his word, several more balls of light - looking brighter than the first one - zipped up to surround the first one.
"They're called wisps, you moron," Rita snapped, "and this one looks hurt!" She looked at it, listening with one ear turned towards the wounded creature. "Some shop owner hit it with iron! And chased off a bunch of other wisps, too!" She looked with concern at the wisp, which started to sink in the air before her. Reaching out, she cupped it in her hands, feeling the stress of its pain even as she held it.
Jake looked at the wisp and made a face. "Clap all you want, Rita...it ain't gonna bring that one back."
Rita shot him a glare that should have set his hair on fire.
"Knock it off, Jake!" Rael growled. "Someone's gonna pay for this. Rita, can the others tell you who did this?"
Rita looked at the bobbing wisps for a moment before answering. "Some Italian guy... runs a grocery shop a couple of blocks that way."
Rael thought for a moment. "Hey, I know that place! The old guy used to run us off when we came looking for work!" He glanced at Jake and Vince with a grin. "You guys thinking what I'm thinking?"
Jake nodded. "Yeah," Jake said, slapping his palms together with a spark of green light. "Payback!"
Rita took up the cue with a fanged smile of her own. "Hubba-hubba-hubba! I'll get one of our little friends here to lead us back there!"
"Wait! What about the Boss? Won't he get ticked if we leave the search right now?" Vince asked nervously. "Remember what happened to Casey?"
The others looked at one another, not having to be reminded of their former companion's demise at the hands of the Unseelie Lord. But after a moment, Rael gave a shrug. "Ah, it's not like we're gonna be missed. The big boys can take care of the mutants without us! C'mon! This was starting to get boring anyway!"
* * * * *
Officer O'Malley resettled his police cap as he turned to glance outside beyond the window of the small shop. A large, jagged hole dominated the center of the glass panel, marking the likely point of entry or departure for whoever had ransacked the store. Displays had been overturned, and the floor was littered with soda cans and mangled snack food bags. Mixed among the crumbs of potato chips and pretzels were jagged shards of white glass from the several fluorescent light tubes that had somehow been loosened from their fixtures on the ceiling. As O'Malley shifted his feet to avoid stepping in a pooling puddle of cola, the mess crunched noisily beneath his shoes.
His partner, Officer Morgan, and one of the shopkeeper's sons were trying to cover the large, jagged hole in the front window with an improvised tarp to block out the cold. The temperature inside had dropped several degrees, it was all Morgan and the boy could do to keep from shivering against the frigid gusts as they taped a red and white advertising banner over the void in the glass.
"Can you tell me just what happened in here, sir?" O'Malley questioned the owner.
The burly man standing by the counter waited until his wife had finished securing a bandage over a cut on his head before he spoke. "What does it look like, Officer? We were attacked! In our own shop!" he said, waving one hand at the carnage around them.
O'Malley nodded diligently, his notepad ready. "And can you describe the assailants, sir? Let's start with how many of them there were."
The storeowner shook his head, as if trying to make sense in his own mind of what he had seen. "How many? I lost count, they moved so fast. I only got a good look at one, and she was the oddest looking thing I've ever seen."
O'Malley made a few notes. "Okay, sir. Let's start with that one, then. About how tall was she?"
The other man contemplated the question a moment. "About three inches," he decided at last, "give or take an inch."
The police officer blinked. "Excuse me, sir?" he said, "I'm not sure I heard you right."
"Three inches," the man repeated. "With wings, like a butterfly," he added, leaning forward to make sure O'Malley was writing it down. "In fact, it looked like a fairy right out of one of my little girl's picture books!"
Morgan stepped over as the storeowner's son finished taping off the tarp. "Excuse me... but, did you say 'fairy'?" the dusky-skinned officer asked incredulously.
"'At's right, Officer. Only those little glowing devils had some heckofa sting! Me and my boys, we stayed down until I heard Liza - that's my wife - start screaming. So, I got out a tire-iron that we keep to unstick the security gate in the morning, and I tried to whack em. Heh! Nailed one of em good, and that's when the whole swarm took off."
O'Malley and Morgan both looked at each other, then back at the owner with heavy expressions of disbelief. "So, you're saying you were attacked by a... swarm of pixies?" O'Malley asked.
"'At's what I said," the fellow insisted.
Morgan shrugged. "This is getting too weird for my tastes, Tom." Just then, the mike-speaker on the collar of his heavy-weather jacket began to squawk at him. Pausing to listen to the babble of the dispatcher, he grimaced and said, "They just got another report in... this time it's a bunch of flying things attacking the Xanatos building!"
Just then, the boy that had been helping Morgan stuck his head out the window briefly, before yanking it back in to say, "Papa! I think those critters are back, and it looks like they brought some help!"
"What sort of help, son?" O'Malley asked.
"Four weird looking punks. Dressed all funky like! I... I think they want to start more trouble!"
The owner stood up, shaking off the restraining arm of his fearful wife as he snatched up a shotgun from behind the counter and ratcheted a round home. "Ah, no! They come in here, they gonna get more than their daily recommended dose of iron!" He started to get up to go to the door, when Morgan held out his hand to stop him.
"Wait one moment, sir! Let us deal with this, before someone else has to get hurt! I suggest you get your family and take them upstairs where it will be safe, and lock your doors. Tom, call dispatch for some backup."
His partner looked at him with concern. "What are you going to do?"
"Sounds like some street toughs trying to take advantage of the storm. I'm going to try to talk them down before things get ugly," Morgan replied.
"Not without me," O'Malley said, directing the owner - who was cursing under his breath about not wanting to abandon his shop - along his wife and son towards the back. "Please, sir. It's for your own safety."
The owner fixed the freckle-faced beat cop with a hard look. "You just make sure you don't get whacked by those punks, son! We need good cops like you around here." With that, he turned to shepherd his family up the stairs.
O'Malley turned and joined Morgan at the door of the shop. "Sheesh! I'm glad he didn't decide to go trigger-happy on us. People these days watch too much of that live-cops show... then think they can take down the perps!"
"He's only trying to protect his home and family, Tom. Can't say I blame him. Hey, didn't I tell you to call for backup?" Morgan asked, peering outside to where he could see some movement against the storm outside.
"Right, hold on!" His partner reached up to hit the switch on his own mike. "Seven-Vincent-two to dispatch. Send backup to the Ritelli Grocery on third and sixty-sixth. Possible gang-related assault in progress."
There was a hiss, then, "Dispatch, seven-Vincent-two... All units are engaged at this time. Will notify and advise nearest unit. Stand by."
"Seven-Vincent-two, standing by," O'Malley replied, just as the jangle of the chimes on the door frame alerted him to the opening of the shop door and a blast of cold wind whirled through the ruin of the shop. He turned to see Morgan standing in the frame of the doorway, looking out into the night.
"Morgan? Dispatch said every unit's tied up."
"It might not matter, Tom," Morgan said, an unexpected sound of awe in his voice. "Unless we can get someone with a broomstick, maybe."
O'Malley didn't bother with a question, but looked outside himself and nearly choked at what he saw: four figures, hovering about a yard above the ice-covered sidewalk, dressed in the clothes of the street. Although the storm raged around them, nothing seemed to be touching them. The blowing snow curled unnaturally away from them, as if propelled by an unseen wind.
They came on ahead, settling to the ground and laughing among themselves. In the lead was a skinny man in a long dark leather coat. In his right hand he held a spray paint can, but as he spied the two cops he halted and made a motion to the others. The laughter died immediately.
"Well, looky what we have here," Rael commented, pitching the empty can aside. "I knew I smelled bacon. Hey, shouldn't you two be digging out the local donut shop?" he jeered. The other three laughed mockingly at the two beat cops.
Morgan shot his partner a look, then, clearing his throat, he stepped out onto the sidewalk. "You kids need to move along," he said. "Unless you know what happened to whatever it was that attacked the family that owns this shop."
At that, one of the two men behind the leader, the bald-headed Vince, snickered. "'Move along,' he said."
"What does he think we are? Law-abiding citizens?" Jake added with a chuckle.
Rael sneered. "Yeah, we know what happened," he said, waving at the store behind him. "That's why we're here - to show that slob what happens when he hurts one of Rita's friends!"
Morgan kept his composure, but his hand had gone automatically to the holster on his belt. "There's not going to be any more trouble tonight," he stated with authority. "Now I'm only going to give you one more chance to move along."
"Blah, blah, blah," Rita answered mockingly. "Stuff it, pig. It's payback time. That jerk shouldn't have hurt my friend," she said angrily, stroking what, to Morgan's eyes, looked like a flickering ball of light.
"That's right! Let's knock the slime around, see how he likes being on the receiving end for a change," Rael said darkly.
Morgan held up one hand in a commanding gesture. "I said move along," he intoned, his voice going low, "before somebody ends up getting hurt."
"Like us, maybe," O'Malley muttered under his breath. These punks had an air about them that set off all of his warning bells.
More laughter, as Rael floated closer to Morgan, peering down at him with a greenish-glow to his eyes. "And what makes you think we have to do what you say, cop?"
Before either Morgan or O'Malley could reply, Jake snarled, "Ah, this is getting bo-ring! Let's just fry them too!" As if he were pitching a baseball, he snapped his hand forward, hurling a bolt of bright red light at the older beat cop.
O'Malley grabbed Morgan's coat and jerked him aside, sending the dusky-skinned cop sprawling to the snow-covered sidewalk. Instead of hitting Morgan dead on, the shot took O'Malley in the left arm. Instantly, the sleeve of his heavy coat burst into flames, and the freckle-faced cop cried out in pain.
"Tom!" Morgan rolled back to his knees, and he would have jumped back to aid his friend, but Rael fixed him with a wicked smile.
"I'd love to stay and play," he said with a grim smile, holding his own hands out to form a glowing green sphere between them, "but we got work to do!"
Morgan fumbled for his nightstick, trying to scramble back out of range as Rael raised his hands for the blow. A split-second later, the sound of a twelve gauge, pump action shotgun barked into the night. The explosive roar was accompanied by the shattering of the glass panel of the shop's front door as a hailstorm of pellets blasted through and caught the Halfling square in the chest.
Rael shrieked an unholy high-pitched wail, the spell he was about to cast all forgotten as the force of the blast knocked him backwards. He sailed back for about twenty feet, finally hitting the concrete in a smoking, crumpled heap. Another blast winged Vince as he stared after his ex-leader, sending him skittering out of range.
Morgan didn't have time to be in shock over what had just happened. O'Malley was simultaneously trying to put out his burning sleeve in the snow and fend off Rita and Jake as they dove at him. The older cop turned to help his partner.
"Hang on, Tom!" He reached back and took a firm grip on the handle of his nightstick, then swung into the nearest Halfling. The strike, while not hard enough to kill, landed squarely alongside Rita's head. She screamed in agony as she fell back, landing roughly on the pavement.
Jake raised up, a snarl on his face as he poised to strike either Morgan or O'Malley, but there was another gunshot that passed awfully close to both policemen. Jake screamed as he fell back, the sound of the iron shot sizzling as it hit home. Jake was gone before he hit the ground.
Morgan turned just in time to see Vince dart forward. Hissing from the pain in his shoulder, the last standing Halfling reached out to drag Rita out of Morgan's reach.
"This blows big time! Let's get out of here," he said to his barely conscious companion, lifting her to her feet.
Rita looked about dizzily. "No! We can't leave Rael!" she protested, pulling away from him. She tumbled to her knees beside the fallen, unmoving Halfling, as Vince growled in exasperation.
"Fine!" the bald man complained, hoisting the limp form easily onto his shoulder and pulling Rita to her feet again. Finding a ley line, he jerkily shot into the air, dragging her along beside him.
Morgan hovered over O'Malley like a hawk, watching as the survivors took to their heels, vanishing into the storm. "Good riddance!" he said fervently. He turned his attention to his fallen comrade. "Hang on, let me get that for you," he said, quickly removing his scarf to bind a layer of snow around Tom's badly burned arm.
Just then, the storeowner stepped out through his front door, brandishing his shotgun in his meaty hands as he looked down the street. Snorting as he waved the smoke from the muzzle, he blew a raspberry at the long-gone Halfling thugs. "And that's what you get, you mess with us! Looks like Dracon was telling the truth about those freaks!"
Morgan turned, trying to absorb what the short man was saying. "Dracon?"
The shotgun-wielding storeowner nodded, but on top of everything else it was just too much for Morgan to absorb. "Never mind," he said, shaking his head. "I thought we told you to stay inside."
"And if I had, you two'd be deader than a doornail!" The short man said acidly. He tucked the weapon back inside the doorway, then turned to face the two cops. "Here, let me give you a hand, before your friend gets freezer burn and those goombas come back with more help! I only got so many shells in here!"
Sighing, Morgan nodded, but he said with conviction, "If they do come back, just say inside, okay? If there's more of them like that out there, then no one should be out on the streets tonight!"
Shrugging at the obvious, the owner stooped down and helped Morgan carry his partner back inside the shop.
* * * * *
The Conservatory Gardens -- Unseelie HQ
The glaistig stepped forward to take the reins of Madoc's horse, and she hissed in delight at the sight of the gargoyle draped over the saddle. Madoc let Goliath slide off the horse's back onto the ground, and then snapped his fingers. Adamantine chains and shackles materialized around Goliath's arms and legs, holding him fast to the ground.
"That will hold him," said the Unseelie Lord, with a satisfied nod to the water elemental.
She bent gracefully. "Aye, milord. How goes the battle?"
"It goes well, glaistig," he told her. "Only moments away from victory." He then turned his head, as he saw another figure in the Conservatory Garden. Emrys Hawkins, lying bound next to a bush, glowering at him bitterly.
"The wisps brought him in some time since, milord," the glaistig murmured. "Bound in spellcord, this time. He awaits your pleasure."
"I had almost forgotten about him," said Madoc. "And the gargoyle will not be awakening for a while as yet; at least I will have something to do while waiting." He strode towards the youth, his eyes grim.
* * * * *
Angela felt the invisible barrier before them. "It's some sort of magical force field," she said to Elisa at last. "That must be what they've used for their defense."
"So how do we bring it down?" asked Elisa.
"I can use a spell," said Angela cautiously. She then extended one hand towards the force field, closed her eyes, and concentrated.
A shimmering appeared in the air before them, and then a gateway formed. As Angela completed the spell, she staggered back, looking dizzy. Elisa quickly reached out to support her, and helped her through the gateway. Neither one of them noticed a shadowy winged shape follow them through, just before the gateway closed.
"Anything wrong?" Elisa asked the young gargoyle.
"I'm just a little tired," said Angela. "Spell-casting does take a lot out of me."
Elisa wordlessly offered her arm. Angela leaned on it, and the two moved further into the garden. Demona watched them from the shadows for a moment; then she heard voices, and turned to follow in their direction. She climbed a tree, perched on one of the branches, and gazed down at the scene in the main part of the Gardens below her.
* * * * *
"Hello, father," said Emrys sharply, as the Unseelie Lord approached him. "I see that you feel like talking to me."
"That I do," said Madoc grimly. "Did you think that I would not remember how much grief you gave me?"
"Not nearly a match for the grief you've given me, father," Emrys spat back at him. "Nor the hundredth measure of the grief you've brought to the world."
"That is hardly your concern," his father replied.
"Hardly my concern?" shouted Emrys. "You fathered me so that you could have a weapon to usurp the throne of Avalon, to conquer and enslave humanity! And when I refused to serve you, you hunted me and tried to kill me!"
"And would not you have done the same?" Madoc demanded. "What would you do with a weapon that turned in the wielder's hand?"
"Is that how you see it, father?" The boy's lip twisted with contempt. "You tried to trick Vortigern and his soothsayers into killing me, you tricked Nimue into imprisoning me in the Tower of Air, you followed me to Farthingham to do the job there! You tormented Arthur and destroyed his kingdom! Do you truly believe you did all that to dispose of a faulty tool?"
"You are a mortal and understand nothing," said Madoc, trying to sound calm, not quite succeeding. "And you needn't think yourself that important. Arthur's fall had nothing to do with you. It was necessary for my final goal."
"Oh, yes," said Emrys savagely. "'Necessity, the tyrant's plea'! Just like how you turned two entire races against each other just so that you could prevent some ancient prophecy and preserve your worthless life! Oh, I know all about your part in them, all the gargoyle massacres that you egged on. Mordred, the Hunters, the Quarrymen, they were just your pawns, doing your work without even knowing it!" Emrys's voice had gone low and ragged with emotion. "You used those people. You use everybody. You cheat and betray those who trust you, without one regret. There is no creature that loves you, and if you die, no soul will pity you."
The fay's knuckles were white on his clenched fists. "I am high lord of the Third Race, boy," Madoc snarled at him, "and I am your father!"
"Father?" Emrys gave a bitter, choked laugh. "I have no father." His breath sobbed in his throat, once, and then his voice was steady. "And you have no son."
Madoc stepped back involuntarily.
* * *
Demona simply stared, an even more shocked look on her features. The human boy's outburst had sounded too familiar for her liking.
* * *
The look of shock on Madoc's face changed to a look of anger. He raised one hand, prepared to gesture - and then halted.
"No," he said. "That would be too good for you. I want you to live for now. I want you to watch as I crush this world underfoot. I want you to watch as I lead my forces to Avalon and conquer it. I want you to watch as I destroy Oberon. I want you to watch as I obliterate the gargoyle race, and reduce humanity to cowering slaves! I want you to watch all this, and know that your defiance of me was all in vain! I want you to see that in spite of all your efforts, I will fulfill my goal, will rule Avalon, will rule the world! And rule it I shall!" His eyes were almost blazing now. "That shall be an even greater punishment for you than destroying you."
Maeve appeared in a sudden flicker of green light. "The other two are nowhere in the Eyrie Building," she reported. "Fled for safety, it's likely."
"How goes the battle?" Madoc asked her.
She grinned fiercely. "Well enough. We've taken the ground level and two of the sub-basements, and nearly half the levels above ground. Garlon's taken a small force and gone after the Xanatos infant in hopes of forcing a surrender."
"That is well," Madoc approved. "It will make a fine distraction if nothing else."
"The Fenton devices are offline, but so is their big bell," Maeve continued, "and most of the mortals threw away their handheld bells after discovering they wouldn't work." She stretched both arms over her head. "No matter. If this one knows the spell to enter Avalon, we'll not be needing them until we've triumphed. And then -- we can pick them off at our leisure."
Madoc nodded, his face dark. Maeve glanced from him to Emrys. "Alive and unharmed, isn't it." She gave a light, merry sigh. "Poor little Merlin."
Emrys tossed his head, and spoke with cold dignity. "I've little enough time left to spend much of it on you, my lady Maeve. But I thank you for your cousin's betrayal. Record it among your brave and worthy deeds."
A moan broke the tension. "I do believe that he's waking up," said Maeve to Madoc, indicating Goliath.
Madoc nodded. "And about time, too," he said. He strode towards the lavender gargoyle, who was now trying to break loose from his chains.
"Release me, Unseelie!" Goliath bellowed. "Release me, I say!"
"You are in no position to give commands, monster," said Madoc coldly. "But I am. And I want you to give me the spell to reach Avalon. You know it, monster. You will tell me the words."
"Never!" cried Goliath. "I will tell you nothing, tyrant."
Maeve glanced off to the side, then turned her eyes back to Madoc. She nodded her head almost imperceptibly, and Madoc acknowledged her with a similar gesture. The Unseelie Queen grinned, her eyes flashing emerald as she moved away from where she stood near Emrys.
Madoc raised his eyebrows and spoke almost gently as he returned his attention to the big gargoyle. "You misunderstand me, creature. I was not making a request. I was stating a truth. You will tell me the words." He bent, reached one hand toward the chained gargoyle, and lightly brushed his fingers across Goliath's forehead. "One way or another," he murmured, as Goliath's eyes closed.
* * * * *
Goliath's eyes flew open and he tried to struggle to his feet. "Elisa?" he called out.
"I'm here," her voice came again, and there was a sound to it that made the back of his neck prickle. A sound as of fighting terror with all her strength. Something wrong-- "Goliath, listen to me. I'm all right. Understand? I'm all right. Don't let them --" Her voice was cut off sharply, with the sound of a blow.
"Elisa!" he called again, and struggled against the chains holding him.
"What she says is true enough." Queen Maeve's voice, and her image in front of his eyes, shimmering in and out of vision. Green-black hair curling and swaying like plants underwater. Glints of gold and silver in her armor. "She is all right. Whether she remains so depends on you, now."
"Don't tell them!" Elisa shouted from somewhere, and there was true panic in her voice now, barely held together by sheer will.
"Where is she?" Goliath squeezed his eyes shut, opened them again, trying to clear his vision. "If you hurt her--"
"If we hurt her it will be your doing," Maeve snapped. "Give us the spell and no harm will come to her."
"No!" Elisa's voice again. "No, Goliath, don't--" A sharp cracking sound, and her voice cried out in pain. Another crack, another cry. "D-don't tell them," and Goliath's heart seized and twisted inside him, because she was weeping.
"The spell." Maeve's face swam in front of him. Piercing green eyes. A smile like a curved sword-blade.
Tom's voice rang inside his head, the spell glittering bright on the surface of his memory, fluttering inside his throat, ready to be spoken: "Vocate venti…"
"No," he gasped.
White flames lashing across his vision, and a sound like kindling catching fire, and somewhere Elisa began to scream.
"Vocate venti fortunate…"
"No!" he roared, and wrenched at the chains holding him.
"The spell!" Maeve's voice cracked like lightning striking nearby. "Intractable beast, give us the spell and you can both go free!"
"Vocate venti fortunate, ex rege Oberonis…"
"Father! Father!" someone screamed, and Goliath's eyes flew open --
* * * * *
"…et hic navis fluctum regate, ad orae Avalonis!"
"Yes," said Madoc with a triumphant cry. "The spell! I have it!"
Something suddenly struck him from behind, screaming out in horror, "Father! Father!" Madoc turned around, his concentration broken, releasing Goliath from his hold without even making the decision to do so. Angela had hurled herself at him, and was now striking frantically at him, her eyes glowing red. Goliath's eyes flew open, white and blank, but aware.
Maeve turned towards them, releasing the spell on the gargoyle and rising to her feet, preparing a magical gesture. But before she could strike, an all-too-familiar shout rang out from behind her. "Hands up!"
Maeve turned around to see Elisa pointing her revolver at her. "I might have known," she said. "Whenever he's in danger, you're never far away."
"Don't try anything!" Elisa began. But at that moment, Angela gave a snarl of pain, as Madoc struck back at her, trying to force her off him. Elisa turned in the direction of her friend, long enough for Maeve to snap her fingers and disappear. She reappeared just behind the detective, and with a quick blow, knocked the gun out of her hand. Elisa turned around, just in time to receive a quick punch to the face.
"Ah, yes," said Maeve, satisfied. "It's amazing just how often a good swing can work better than even the most intricate of spells."
The two struggled hand-to-hand against each other for a few seconds, and then Elisa struck Maeve a quick blow in the stomach. "Tell me about it," she said grimly.
Goliath's eyes began sharpening, losing the white overlay; he closed them again, shook his head to clear it, and stared at the scene before him, fully awake.
Madoc seized Angela by the scruff of her neck, pulling her off of him, and hurled her against the garden wall. As she staggered up to her feet, still unfocused from the impact, he glowered at her with a vast withering contempt.
"Little stinging worm," he hissed at her. "Enough of this!"
An arrow tipped with elfshot appeared in one hand with a shimmer, and a bow in the other. Madoc set his arrow to the bow, and let fly. The shaft whistled through the air, straight for Angela's heart.
It never reached her. Spinning around, Elisa saw the shot, and broke from Maeve, rushing towards the young female gargoyle. She shoved Angela out of the way of the arrow, just in the nick of time.
The elfshot arrow struck Elisa in the side.
The momentum of her rush sent her staggering a few more steps, her eyes going wide with shock. She swayed on her feet and sank to her knees, her mouth open as if about to speak, her face a mask of surprise.
Elisa moved one hand to the place where she had been hit, touched the shaft protruding from her side. She looked down, still in that vast puzzlement, unable to comprehend what had happened to her. Closing her hand on the arrow shaft, she looked back over her shoulder at Goliath.
Her bewildered eyes met his, and then rolled back in her head as she sank to the ground, falling without a cry.
* * * * *
King Arthur stood outside the gates of the Tower of London, where he had been driven in the course of the battle. Only Cavall remained with him now; even Griff and Cuchulain had been swept away from his side amid the fighting. Uther's son held Excalibur ready in his hands, waiting for his enemy to approach.
Above them, the dark sky was beginning to pale into a sickly gray. Behind the swift-scudding clouds, the morning star glimmered fitfully, then faded and went out like a failing lantern in a bitter wind.
Troit came into view, snuffling. The monstrous wild boar lumbered forward towards the Once and Future King. And the last Unseelie knight rode by his side.
"The Tower of London," said Sir Maleger, lifting his visor and nodding approvingly. "How fitting that it end here. So much royal blood has been spilt here already - but yours will put that of even the Little Princes and Anne Boleyn to shame, Arthur Pendragon."
"And what makes you think that it will be my blood that will be spilt here?" Arthur asked him grimly.
"You made a grave error in digging up old King Bran's head here, Arthur," said Maleger, chuckling. "If you had left it where it was, Britain might never have fallen to the Saxons or to us. But we are scarcely ones to complain."
"Enough of this!" Troit bellowed, his voice sounding like a pig's squeal, distorted enough so as to form words. "Arthur, you are mine! My young shall be avenged at last!"
"Or their father may join them, as he should have done fifteen centuries ago," King Arthur answered. In an undertone, he muttered to Cavall, "I'd gladly trade Excalibur for a good boar-spear at this hour."
Troit charged at the king, snarling and slavering. Cavall leaped at him, but Maleger bore down upon the gargoyle beast first, separating it from its master. King Arthur raised Excalibur, then leaped out of the way as the boar rammed itself into the Tower wall, and brought his sword down upon it. The blade glanced off the thick, bristly hide, however, and Troit turned about, to face him again, squealing fiercely.
A streak of livid dawn began to stain the clouds in the eastern sky. Cavall raised his muzzle and howled, then bared his teeth at Maleger and leapt.
In mid-leap, the change came, and a heavy stone statue of a gargoyle beast knocked Maleger to the ground. Cavall had thrown his last waking moment into the fight...and it would not be quite enough.
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building
Coldstone regained his feet as Coldfire threw herself in front of Garlon.
"Why don't you go down?!" he hissed, feeling the sizzle from the iron in her claws burning into her arms.
"So long as we are able, no one shall have the child!" Coldfire snarled at him.
Garlon suddenly twisted, using leverage to toss the golden robot aside, watching as she skidded along the floor. Coldstone took advantage of his inattention and threw a punch. He connected with air as Garlon ducked, sending a punch and roundhouse kick of his own that launched the cyborg off his feet and sprawling on to the torn carpet.
Coldfire pulled herself to her feet and leapt at the determined Unseelie with a roar. He pivoted and fired a blast of energy. The bolt raked across her knees, severing them from her body. The golden robot fell, striking her head against the ruin of a small dresser and abruptly her systems went off-line.
Coldstone roared as his mate went down, drawing Garlon's renewed interest. Sensing victory, he lashed out again at the cyborg, connecting with the living stone that comprised his leg. The hip joint severed and Coldstone went down. Broken, but unbowed, he pulled himself along the floor trying to put himself between Garlon and the bed where Alexander stood, clutching his blanket in one hand and his stuffed toy in the other. "I... I will not ... let you... have the ... child."
One more vicious kick rendered the male cyborg offline, as well. Garlon gave the defeated creature a final, pitying look, then turned his attention to the child. "Now ... you ... will come with me, brat! Those beasts will think twice before endangering you, and we'll use that weakness to blast them to dust!"
Cringing, Alexander looked up at Garlon with a face etched with a ghosting of fear. He seemed to look at the fuzzy toy in his arms for a brief moment, then the boy looked over at the unmoving forms of the cyborgs.
Garlon gave the two inert forms a cold smile over his shoulder. "They can't help you now, boy." He stepped over the prone form of Coldstone and prepared to scoop the cowering child from his bed.
* * * * *
George was coughing, the exposure to the iron affecting his strength and his endurance, but he drove himself to keep climbing. Hand over hand, he made his way up the shaft until he was just beneath the mooring for the bell.
"And he ... dances, and ... he yells," he chanted with every breath, every rung he clung to with fingers that were bruised and burnt from close contact with the metal. "Keeping time, time ... time ... In a sort of Runic rhyme..."
Looking up at the huge bell that was above him, he tried to keep his head as he stared at it and the mechanism that was supposed to keep it ringing. He spied the large cam, and the crankshaft that was connected to the powered winch. He could see that it was paused at the height of another swing, one that would cause another ring if it followed through.
"To the ... paean of the bells," he gasped, trying to decide what to do. "Of the bells ... keeping time, time, time ... in a sort of ... Runic rhyme, to ... the throbbing of the bells."
It was then that he saw the slack in the pull rope that was wound to the winch. Somehow, one of the lines had slipped free. Grimly, he started climbing again, seeing that he would need to be higher if he was to pull off what he needed to do.
"Of the bells, bells, bells ... to the sobbing of the bells," and it was his own voice sobbing, gasping for breath. "Keeping time, time, time ..."
He made it to a small ledge at the top of the shaft. Leaning out, he latched on to the wood planking and hauled himself over onto it, resting a brief moment before rolling to his knees.
"As ... he ... knells, knells, knells, in a happy Runic rhyme! To the ... rolling of the bells!"
Coming to his unsteady feet, George gripped an overhead safety rail, by now ignoring the new pain over the constant sensation he felt. Looking down, he moved over along the ledge towards the rope, his vision blurring as he teetered on the edge of unconsciousness. It was only by sheer will that he was able to stand.
"Of the bells ... bells ... bells," he rasped, knowing that this very well would be his final living act. Letting his arms drop, he looked fixedly at the rope.
"To the ... tolling of ... the bells ... of the bells ... bells ... bells ... bells," he said, his voice going faint for a moment, then as if he found his next-to-last strength, it came back clear and strong. "Bells, bells, bells! To the moaning and the groaning of the BELLS!"
And he leapt outwards into the empty space of the shaft, his flayed hands reaching for the rope.
* * * * *
The Conservatory Gardens
"Elisa!" cried Angela in horror, staring at the barely breathing body of her friend, and struggling to get up.
"Elisa!" bellowed Goliath, torn between grief and rage, his eyes blazing white. With one supreme effort, he tore himself free from his chains, and leaped at Madoc, roaring.
Madoc turned at once, and held up one hand. "Halt!" he commanded. Goliath stopped in mid-leap, frozen in the air. The Unseelie Lord clenched his fist, and motioned with it. An invisible force hurled Goliath into the wall next to Angela, hard. He lay next to her, stunned.
Maeve stepped up beside the fallen human woman indifferently, the hard, cold glint in her eyes making Angela freeze. "You just had to make him angry," the Dark Queen chided wickedly, shaking her head. "Poor, foolish girl. I had such plans for you… and her, as well," she added, kicking Elisa lightly with the toe of her boot and eliciting a soft moan of pain from the prone, unmoving woman. Angela's eyes flared as Goliath began to stir again, but a harsh, low chuckle from Madoc drew her attention before she could act on the impulse to throw herself at the Unseelie Queen.
"The union of the two younger races will be my death, the Sisters said," said Madoc grimly as Maeve stepped aside. "Only as one shall they destroy me -- or be destroyed themselves." He raised his hand up high, and a ball of fire formed in it, ready to hurl at the two gargoyles.
A sudden bolt of blue lightning struck the fireball, dissipating it. Madoc turned around to see Emrys, free from his bonds, standing unsteadily before him, his pale hair tossing in a flare of blue fire.
"You will not touch them." His voice rang and shimmered with the raw power that blazed about him, the power that had made his name a legend and a word to conjure with down the dark centuries. The young-old wizard spread his hands over his head, blue light crackling and burning between his fingers. "There will be no more innocent blood on this ground!"
Madoc drew back momentarily, then clenched a fist and sent a barrage of energy at the slender form of his son. Green light splashed off blue as Merlin cast a shield into being with a single shouted word.
"Breakthrough," Madoc said like a curse. "Your vaunted powers at their full force again, little wizard." He slashed at the shield again, and again, and Merlin's shield began to waver. "Deluded child, do you think for a moment that your greatest strength was ever a match for mine?"
The aged eyes in the young face went narrow with effort, tight with desperation, and then all in a moment under the lashing green fire, wide with fear.
The shield did not break so much as dissolve into a cloud of glitter. Madoc gestured with one hand, grasping and lifting, and Emrys cried out as an invisible clamp tightened around him and hoisted him off the ground. The fay's power cracked like a whip, and threw the boy directly into Goliath and Angela, shoving them back down upon the ground with the force of his impact even as they struggled up to their feet. The two gargoyles and the halfling toppled into a confused heap.
"The three of you can die together now," said Madoc, the ball of fire taking renewed shape in his hand. "And when you are gone, there will be no one able to destroy me. I will soon be Emperor of this world. And an immortal ruler needs no heir." He raised the fireball, ready to throw it.
It never left his hand. With a shrill cry, Demona swooped down on him from the tree branch upon which she had been perched, her mace clutched in both hands. Madoc looked up at her in astonishment, Maeve's sharp cry of warning coming a split-second too late. The iron mace struck him square in the head.
* * * * *
Maleger struggled to his feet, knocking aside Cavall's statue with a backhanded blast of power, contemptuous as a slap. The stone gargoyle-beast fell heavily on its side in the snow.
Arthur was hurled upon his back, lying on the ground. Troit approached, preparing to gore him with his tusks.
* * * * *
George's hands slipped. He closed his eyes and tried to focus all of his strength into hanging on. Miraculously, his hands gripped and found a solid hold. There was a heart-stopping moment of stillness, then he felt his weight pulling the rope down.
Unable to resist gravity, the cam swung down with enough force to release the bell from its frozen position. The clapper met the same result, striking the side once more.
A shudder ran through his body as every nerve in his body screamed. George twisted the rope around his hands and wrists, afraid of letting go. The voices in his head were silenced at last, the proximity to so much cold iron too much for their telepathic surveillance. He felt the swing of the bell arcing him out. His shoulders popped.
White-hot knives of pain shot up through his arms and pierced his brain. It was like staring straight into the sun, like when he was a kid. Unbidden, images of his childhood came rushing into his mind and George clung to them like a lifesaver in a sea of chaos. The earliest memory was of his baby brother being put in his arms, so small, so trusting. Of Richard tagging along after him like a shadow. Of how George's initial irritation at his tagalong brother had changed into a profound love.
Memories of growing up, growing away from each other. George groaned, partly from pain, partly from the knowledge that he'd wasted so much time. Time he'd spent blaming other people for his own stupid mistakes. His arms began to go numb and George began to feel faint. He let his mind drift to the one thing he'd never allow himself to think about for fear of his Unseelie masters finding out -- that surreal moment when he looked into his daughter's eyes. As his vision began to grow dark, he wondered if she would ever know him.
* * * * *
Demona was hurled backwards from the sheer force of her attack on Madoc, colliding with Maeve as she ran forward, eyes blazing with cold green fury. The two tumbled apart into separate heaps, unconscious.
As Goliath, Angela, and Emrys helped each other to struggle back to their feet, one look from the blond-haired youth made them pause, staring in silent disbelief at the stricken lord of the Unseelie.
Madoc was staggering about with both hands clutched to his head in pain. He let them drop, revealing the mark where Demona's mace had smote him, his eyes blazing with agony as he looked at his hands. As the threesome watched, the flesh on both hands shrank against the bones until they resembled a pair of atrophied spiders, and the skin paled to a sickly gray. His long, white hair fell out, leaving only a few straggled strands clinging to his nearly bald pate, as his once handsome face filled with a multitude of wrinkles.
"By the Dragon," Goliath gasped, watching as convulsions gripped Madoc's limbs...
* * * * *
His hands locked on the rope in a death-grip, George's last sensation was that of blood trickling down from his ears. Burned and broken, his unconscious body refused to let go; its weight continued to swing the cam, ringing the bell over and over.
* * * * *
Brooklyn was thrown to the ground by the force of Loki's spell. The Norse trickster stood over him, smiling wickedly. A lethal-looking ball of fire formed in one hand.
"So long, Beak Freak," he said. "Oh, and don't worry about that pretty wife of yours. Or the little Beak Freaks." His form blurred, and changed into a perfect match for Brooklyn himself. "They'll never even know you were gone," he said in Brooklyn's own voice, just before changing back into his regular appearance. Then he raised his hand and prepared to hurl the fireball.
But just as he was about to do so, he paused, and turned to face away from the castle, a troubled expression on his face. "What the - " he began.
Brooklyn hurriedly clambered to his feet, and before his enemy could regain his concentration, quickly began to search through his pouch. "Yes!" he cried, pulling out the powder that the Phoenix Gate had crumbled into upon his return to the castle, over two years ago. He held it ready to throw.
Loki turned around, looking disconcerted. "I don't know what happened," he growled, "but you're not going to take advantage of -- "
Loki let out a cry, and doubled up in agony.
Brooklyn threw the powder at his opponent at once. It swirled around Loki, then began to close in upon him, enveloped in a fiery gleam. Loki wailed as the remains of the Phoenix Gate engulfed him, shrinking all the while.
And then, his voice trailed off into silence, as he vanished from sight. The powder fell to the ground in a small pyramid-like heap, from which a thin trail of red smoke rose. Loki Laufeyson was gone.
The sound of the bell continued to resonate through the castle, spreading havoc through the Unseelie forces, already demoralized at the mortal wounding of their ruler. Most of the fay turned to flee, although many of them were not swift enough; several wisps and Redcaps burst into flames as if by spontaneous combustion, and crumbled to ashes. The Unseelie Halflings were already incapacitated, dropping to the ground and moaning as they clutched their heads. Only the chief Unseelies seemed able to stand their ground, and even that just barely.
Herne, gripping his spear, rode slowly forward towards Xanatos. The billionaire calmly pointed his laser weapon at the Wild Huntsman. "The bell invites me," he quoted, a little smile on his face. "Hear it not, Herne, for it is a knell that summons thee to Heaven or to Hell." And with that, he pulled the trigger.
A powerful beam of light shot out into the antlered horseman, who silently bent over at its impact. There was a sudden flash of crimson flames, and when they had cleared, only a charred spot on the flagstones marked the place where Herne and his horse had stood. The yell-hounds turned at once, and fled into the night, their yelping fading into the distance, until it sounded like nothing more than a far-away flock of wild geese.
* * * * *
Garlon paused with a worried frown, watching as Alexander seemed to rise up from where he was huddled before, his features taking on a coldness that seemed eerily familiar to the Unseelie lackey. The boy's eyes flared with a greenish cast that made them look like a cat's eyes in the beam of a flashlight, while a nimbus of light surrounded the boy, making his hair swirl about his head as if it was caught in an unseen wind. Before Garlon could make another move, Alexander began to speak... not a string of unintelligible sounds, but fully formed words that slid into a rhyming verse:
"By this night, you put to shame
That alone made Garlon blanch pure white, but there was more:
"You shall not win, nor cause more pain
With those words, a flash of lightning smashed through the window of the nursery, forking around the bed and Garlon - who shrank back to avoid getting hit -before lancing into the stricken cyborgs. Both Coldstone and Coldfire went into spasms as the lightning permeated their bodies.
"Wh-What are you doing!?" Garlon gasped. Before he could turn to see what was being wrought, both sets of eyes on the cyborgs snapped open, each one drawing on the Unseelie foe.
"Protect-" Coldstone intoned.
"-the child!" Coldfire finished, as both of her arms snapped up towards Garlon's face, the muzzles of her flame-throwers spewed forth a twin-stream of condensed flame.
Garlon cried out in surprise, trying to ward off the flames reflexively. Coldstone gathered his only good leg underneath himself, his savaged right hand automatically closing on the nearest object in reach ... a shard from the remains of the iron door of the nursery. Before Garlon could turn away from his mate's distraction to counter the other crippled cyborg, Coldstone shoved himself erect, throwing all of his weight behind the iron as he aimed the jagged point at the villain's exposed back.
Garlon's last sensation was the hot spike of pain as the shard plunged into his shoulder, just as a tremendous BONG sounded throughout the Eyrie Building. Unlike before, when the deadly sound had been silenced by the Fenton device, the toll seemed to tear into the very fabric of him.
Reflexively, he issued a defensive blast that knocked Coldfire down again and blasted Coldstone off of his back, flinging the cyborg to the floor before Alexander's bed, where the gargoyle just barely kept himself from collapsing on top of the child entirely. Another BONG resounded, and this was enough to drive Garlon out of his conscious mind. He acted only on instinct as he teleported himself away from the cursed ironsound, leaving the room wrapped in an unearthly silence.
The glow in Alexander's eyes faded, as did the harshness in his face, leaving the child still sitting there, his stuffed fuzzy hugged tightly to his chest. Watching now as the sound from the large bell continued to ring, he looked on as the mangled body of Coldfire dragged itself across the room to where Coldstone had fallen.
In a supreme effort, the female levered herself to rest against the small bed frame, her one arm reaching for the mangled one of her mate. "My... love... we are.…" she said, her voice sounding strained; the damage she received had hurt more than was obvious.
"Don't ... speak, beloved," Coldstone said softly, his metal talons feeling for her hand, and finding it, gripping them in a steadfast hold. "Conserve... the fight... is... not... over."
* * * * *
Maleger raised one hand to smash the gargoyle beast's statue -- then cried out aloud, flinging up his arms as if to ward his eyes from too bright a light. "My Lord!"
Troit let out a squealing roar and staggered back in confusion, the attack upon the prone Arthur never coming. The Once and Future King climbed to his feet, and quickly hurled Excalibur at the boar.
The sword struck Troit in the head, plunging deep. The monstrous animal bellowed in pain and fury, and staggered about for a few moments. Then, it was enveloped in a scarlet glow, and vanished. Excalibur clattered to the ground.
Maleger lowered his hands and turned toward Arthur with a snarl, but even as he did so, a javelin with an iron-tipped head struck him in the chest, piercing his armor. The Unseelie knight fell to the ground, and let out one last moan. Then a cloud of smoke rose up from his visor, and dispersed. The armor crumbled away into powder, and his steed galloped off into the darkness and vanished.
Dulcinea dismounted from her horse, and approached King Arthur. "It's a good thing for you that I arrived in time," she said. "Although I had no idea that that attack would prove so effective."
"Neither did I, truth to tell, my lady," said Arthur. "But thank you."
"And are they both truly gone?" asked Dulcinea. "The knight and the boar, I mean?"
"Let us hope so, my lady," Arthur said to her. as they moved back towards where Rosinante stood patiently waiting. "Where are the others?"
"Most of us managed to regroup in the forest. I left them guarding the gargoyles," she told him. "And I don't mind telling you, I thought we were done for when the sun rose." She frowned. "But then the Unseelies all...stopped fighting for a moment. It was like...."
"I think I know what it was like," Arthur said quietly.
"Do you know what it was?" Dulcinea had reached up to pull herself into the saddle, and paused, waiting for his answer.
"I know what I hope it was," he answered, and would say no more.
* * * * *
The Unseelie forces were still hurtling about in the undirected confusion they had fallen into. The Stymphalian Birds milled around aimlessly, long enough for some quick shots at them from Helios's fireballs and the other New Olympians' weaponry to bring them down. Phobos and Deimos tried holding their forces together, but it was too much for them. They finally turned and fled.
"Oops," said Proteus, looking about and realizing that the fighting was clearly over, with his side the losers. "I suppose that I'll just be on my merry way now, and - "
He never finished the sentence. Taurus pointed a rod at him, and a force field shot out that enclosed the shape-shifter firmly within it. "Welcome home," the minotaur said grimly to Proteus. "You shall be reunited with your cell again soon enough."
* * * * *
The foundations of Madoc's castle shuddered. The gnomes looked up from their forgework, and saw the cracks forming in the walls and ceiling of their smithy. A look of wonder appeared in their eyes.
"Back to work, slaves!" barked a sidhe overseer, cracking his whip. "No shirking!" But he and his fellows also looked up at the cracks running through the castle walls now, and then began to stagger about as the ground shook beneath their feet.
The chains at the gnomes' feet suddenly fell away with metallic clangs, and the bearded little men cried out in joy. "Freedom!" they shouted. "Freedom!" They rushed for the smithy door, the Redcaps too confused by the shuddering of the castle to stop them now.
Bolts of lightning shot down from the heavens, blasting away the battlements, and turrets shot away from their places, bursting apart into flames and charred stones as they did so. The gnomes made it out into the open air, and then turned back to watch. Madoc's castle crumbled into a pile of rubble, which the ground then swallowed up. Once more, the summit of the Brocken was deserted, as if the Unseelie Court had never held residence there.
"Home!" cried one of the gnomes, and rushed down the mountain's slope towards the forest below. And the others followed him, still cheering and revelling in their new-found freedom.
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building
Garlon painfully crawled to the battlements, gritting his teeth at the ongoing clanging of the bell. "This - this is impossible," he gasped. "The bell! It's not supposed to do this to us! And what happened to - "
He looked up just then and saw four winged shapes approaching, shapes that looked too feline for his liking. Without saying another word, he crouched into the shadow of the corner of the battlements, and was gone.
* * * * *
The Conservatory Gardens
Madoc collapsed to the ground and twisted, his body jerking convulsively. His back arched and a cry ripped itself from his throat, a cry that filled the world.
A column of multicolored light speared upward from his chest and struck the dome that protected the Conservatory Gardens. It splintered into shards of pale green light, which melted in the air as they fell and never struck the ground. Freezing rain began to fall around them, and soon the trees and grass and those who stood watching were flecked with ice, clear as crystal and very cold.
The rising pillar of light continued upwards until it touched the clouds, filling them with a strange radiance that spread rapidly, moving faster as it approached the horizon.
And then the rain that was falling around them was no longer frozen, but a warm drizzle. And outside in the city, in the world, from everywhere came the sound of running water.
The snow was melting.
* * * * *
Rangda's strike nearly took off Kai's hand as he barely parried it, having to step over the smoking remains of the last of her crones. "Give up, gargoyle," the witch sneered. "You only prolong the struggle, and in the end we will have you!"
"While any gargoyle stands," the gray-skinned leader panted, "your victory will not be easy!" But his words seemed hollow, since the horde of oni surged against the Ishimura defenders -- now much fewer than before, thanks to Atsuma's dragon attacks -- the battle seemed sure to fall to the Unseelie.
"I'll hang your clan from the walls with their own guts, gargoyle," Rangda hissed, "and the oni will feed your foul blood to their young!"
Kai's teeth clenched, and he choked off the growl rising in his throat to focus on the fight.
* * *
Riko stood huddled on one of the far walls of the courtyard, still holding her longbow as she tried to find a target for her last arrow.
Gargoyle... listen to me...
Riko nearly though she was going mad from despair. "Ancestors! Now I am hearing things!"
The voice spoke again, and in a moment she recognized the Kitsune's speech. Listen, gargoyle! I sense there is iron near you... seek it out!
"Iron?" Riko looked about, then noticed that one of her fellow archers - dead from a spear thrown by an oni - had left one last arrow in his quiver. She reached over and hefted it, seeing that the slightly larger arrowhead was crafted from iron instead of bronze.
Yes... listen to me... Only iron can kill your foes! You must shoot Atsuma! His death will equal the odds for your clan, until Rangda is slain as well!
Riko slowly shook her head. "Perhaps it is you who have gone mad, not I. One arrow against that monster's armored hide?"
Against iron, no matter how thick their armor may be, none of the Unseelie can stand...
Riko gripped the arrow in her hand, closing her eyes for a moment as she breathed a prayer. "Ancestors... guide me, and make my aim true!" With that, she rose and unslung her longbow. In one motion, she nocked her string, and fitted the iron arrow between her first two fingers. She then faced the battle, where Atsuma was circling to attack the defenders once more.
Raising her arms, she took slow aim at the beast, drawing back until the feathers on the shaft touched her cheek. She waited for the right moment...
Suddenly, Atsuma reared back as if struck, looking about himself in shock. "The Master!" he roared, unaware that by pulling back he was exposing the softer underside of his neck and shoulders.
It was there that Riko felt the one moment of clarity that all archers look for. She released her shot in one fluid motion, the twang of her bowstring sounding as loud as a fireworks explosion in her ears.
The arrow sailed through the air, never wavering as it found its mark just to the side of Atsuma's neck, in the joint where it and the shoulder met. There was a sudden movement, as Atsuma felt the bite of the barbed arrowhead. Then, it was as if he was a snake impaled on a gig, as he started roaring and thrashing in agony. His tail smashed several dozen oni as it flailed about, even knocking several off of the parapets.
* * *
Below, just before Riko's shot was released, Kai's limbs could barely keep up against Rangda's attacks as she pressed him back. Her next attack smashed against his no-dachi, breaking off a good six inches of the blade.
Grinning, the witch pulled back for a final strike. "And now who has won?" she mocked.
Kai looked at her, his head raised in defiance. "If I am to die," he started to say...
"Spare me your Bushido-sayings, gargoyle!" She raised her naginata, the curved blade glinting... just as the psychic shockwave of her Master's death-throes reached her. She gasped, distracted momentarily. "My Lord?!"
Kai quickly summoned his last vestiges of strength, gripping the handle of his sword as he stabbed upward, catching the Unseelie Lady under the ribcage with his thrust. His eyes glowed as his eyes locked with Rangda's for the last time. There was a brief moment of stillness - as Rangda looked aghast at the Ishimura leader - before she let out a blood-curdling scream. She then vanished in a flash of crimson smoke and fire, her warding field vanishing with her.
"It... is... karma!"
Without Rangda's presence, the oni suddenly felt the loss of will to remain in the daytime. Daylight was their anathema, and by scores and clusters, the horde that had been so close to winning turned from the defenders and ran from Ishimura. With their rout, the battle for Ishimura was over.
Kai knelt slowly to the stones of the castle, his hands loosely gripping his sword as he closes his eyes wearily. "Thank our ancestors... it is over."
Just then, Riko landed by his side, tossing her longbow aside as she gripped his shoulder in concern. "Kai-sama! Are you all right??"
He drew in a deep, steadying breath before answering. "I shall live, Riko-chan." He opened his eyes and looked at her with a sad smile. "I shall live."
Riko nodded, looking about at the carnage. "There are others that will not be so lucky..." she said, trailing off as she remembered Sora. She, like so many others, would be joining their ancestors this day. Many of the clan that still stood were trying to get help for fallen comrades. Others sought to stop the fires set by the dragon that were burning on the walls and towers.
It was then that a gargoyle on the wall shouted to Kai, "Kai-sama! The dragon... it is still alive!"
Kai rose slowly, his face set into a grim mask as he brandished his broken sword. "Not for much longer!" He stalked slowly towards the wall, Riko and several others joining him. They moved to the main gate, which - for all the damage to the castle - had remained intact. Opening the gate, Kai and the others looked outside.
There they found Atsuma, not looking so powerful anymore. He was a more withered and frail form of a dragon, his limbs twitching feebly, with the shaft of Riko's arrow still stuck in his neck.
"He is no longer a threat," Kai said after a moment's silence. "He should be set free of his pain." The Ishimura leader raised his iron blade and walked to Atsuma's side. The changed Unseelie tried to hiss and snarl at Kai, but there was no bite to his posturing. The gargoyle leveled his aim, and slowly drew back...
"Hold your hand, gargoyle!"
Kai stopped, startled as he looked for the source of the shout. "Who-?"
His gaze fell back to the wall, upon which stood a quartet of figures. One, a man, stood dressed in the full ceremonial armor of a samurai - which was black and gold, with a sash of red - his hand on the hilt of a large katana. Next to him was a beautiful, pale Japanese woman in a silver-and-gold kimono, who bore a harp in her hands. She was kneeling on the broad head of a white-scaled dragon, looking at the withered form of Atsuma with a deep pity. Next to them was Akaru, his tails entwined with those of another kitsune, this one an orange and red furred female in a brown robe.
The samurai bowed low, replying, "I am Bishimon, retainer to Lord Oberon, the rightful ruler of Avalon. My lady, Benzaiten, and I have come at the behest of our servant." He said the last part with a flicker of annoyance at the kitsune. "You have fought a long battle against your enemies, one of which is our august cousin."
Kai returned the bow, motioning for the other Ishimura gargoyles to follow as well. "If you are referring to Rangda, then know that she is no more."
"Ie! No, I speak of Atsuma," Bishimon replied curtly. "We must return him to Avalon, where he will be dealt with properly."
Kai wanted to say something, but decided on the better part of discretion. Bowing again, he stepped away from Atsuma. "You are welcome to him. There has been enough death on this day."
Bishimon turned and motioned to his lady, who stepped down from the dragon she was riding, floating gently to the ground next to Atsuma. The wounded Unseelie's eyes grew wide with fear.
Benzaiten waved a pale hand in front of him. "You must rest now, cousin," she said softly, her voice like a breeze through willow branches. "Sleep." At that, Atsuma's eyes grew heavy, and closed. With another motion, she sent a mist over his dragon's body, changing it back to his humanoid form in a span of heartbeats. Even transformed, Atsuma was still sickly-looking and frail. The Seelie woman lifted him into her arms, and floated them back to the wall, placing Atsuma before her on her dragon.
Bishimon grunted, nodding to Benzaiten, before he turned and bowed once more to Kai. "We must leave now, please forgive us, for our time here is short." He made a motion to his lady, and the two kitsune. Akarui-me started to say something, but a whisper from the other one made him be silent.
Kai bowed once more. "Farewell, Lord Bishimon. Safe journey to you and your Lady."
The Japanese Seelie turned from the Ishimura clan and vanished in a burst of green light.
* * * * *
Things were not going well. The Matrix had not been damaged, exactly, but Dingo felt every bruise inside the suit, and his partner was spending more time repairing the blows given by the Whowie than helping Dingo figure out how to defeat it.
He'd tried iron. He'd tried silver. The coin purveyor's shop had been of great help in the latter, even if it had been mostly trashed because of the attempt. Blasts didn't stop it, only slowed it down and made it madder. At least the streets had been cleared by the cops, who had also thought to break the windshield of the Beetle and free the trapped family. The perimeter was secured. It was just Dingo and Matrix against the Whowie.
Dingo wished he had some idea of what to do next.
The Whowie grumbled and shook its terrible head. One of its eyes was red and swollen, the other angry and clear. One of its six legs came up and stamped the ground. Dingo prepared for a charge.
* * *
The silvery creature danced in front of its eyes, taunting it, stinging it, and zipping away before the Whowie could strike and feed.
The scream echoed through the Whowie's mind like a curse, like an iron spear in its head. Its Master was dying, thousands of miles away, and it could do nothing to prevent it, nothing but bellow its pain and its grief.
There was no response.
The silvery creature stood its ground. The Whowie raised its head, glared at the awful pest through clouded, sticky vision. It had tasted the creature, found it to be flat, metallic, not food, but still human.
The Whowie was hungry, and tired, and its Master was gone from its mind like the faded howl of a wild dog over the desert, never to return. In anguish, the Whowie offered its own howl in honor of its sweet Master, who had given it life and offered it the only kindness it had ever known during its existence. Blood from a dozen small wounds dripped to the blacktop, smoking oddly in the noonday sun. In the smoke, it smelled its own death.
The Whowie stamped, and it charged, sorting all six legs into one lumbering purpose. It would kill, or it would die.
The silvery creature slid into another form, with a long, sharp staff that tore into the Whowie's breast like a scream in a tomb. It ripped, and ripped, and the Whowie lived only long enough to feel a dumb gratitude before its consciousness winked out like the last star before daybreak.
"Good job, mate!" shouted a cop. Others burst into applause as Dingo bent to inspect the carcass. It still trembled, but only with the aftershocks of death.
"Yeah," he said. The large eyes had gone closed, and its tongue lolled to one side. However the unfortunate thing had come into being, it was dead, and maybe happier for it. "Great."
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building
The bell fell silent, and Brooklyn turned around as Lexington emerged into the courtyard, looking about him bewilderedly. The last of the Unseelies had disappeared, either destroyed or fled, and all that remained of their presence were the marks of the late battle, in the form of shattered Steel Clan robots, singed stonework, and charred trees.
"Good work, Lex!" Brooklyn hailed his rookery brother. "You drove them off!"
"What do you mean?" asked Lexington bewilderedly. "The bells didn't work. The generator was dead."
"But if you didn't do it," began Brooklyn, staring at the little web-winged gargoyle, "then how did that bell start ringing?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," said Lexington. Then he suddenly stared at the battlements over Brooklyn's shoulder, his eyes widening. "Who's that?"
Brooklyn turned around, to see an old white-bearded man, dressed in a black hooded robe with starlike glints all over it, mounted on an eight-legged horse with the same coloring as its rider's robe. The old man bent down over the powder, and waved his hand over it. Particle by particle, it rose up and settled in his hand. The horseman turned to look Brooklyn straight in the eye.
"You have done well, Timedancer," he said. "And now your mission is fulfilled. This evil one will trouble the outside world no more." He tucked the powder away somewhere that Brooklyn and Lexington could not quite see, then spoke to his horse. "Home, Sleipnir!"
Sleipnir turned about, and bore his master Odin away from the battlements of Castle Wyvern, as the two awed gargoyles watched.
Seconds later, Talon, Maggie, Sharon and Claw appeared, landing on the wall nearby. "Brooklyn! Lex! Are you two okay?"
The two gargoyles shook themselves, turning around. "Yeah, just fine! What are you three doing here? Did the Unseelie attack the Labyrinth too?"
"Some came back, but they didn't stick around," Talon replied. "Is everyone else okay?"
"Can't say for sure," the crimson warrior replied, "but, they might be!" Silently, he hoped they were.
Lex suddenly started. "The bell! Someone managed to ring it! We have to see what's going on down there!" He started to scamper off, leaving the others to look on after his departing backside.
"Sharon, take Claw and go with him! Maggie and I will help Brooklyn find the others," the Mutate leader said, motioning after their friend.
"You two be careful," Maggie said before they left. "There may be more Unseelie around!" Sharon nodded, turning with the tiger-striped Mutate to follow after Lex.
"Come on," Brooklyn said worriedly, "I thought I saw Hudson over on the other side of the battlements!"
* * * * *
One of the Fire Giants, still shaken by the effects of the bell's ringing, staggered down the hallway of the castle in search of his other brethren. What he found, though, was the business end of a piece of rebar as it swung from around a corner. It smashed into his nose, sending him crumpling to the floor with a last gasp of pain.
Fox resettled the rebar in her hands, looking at the fallen warrior with a grim look. "You need to work on your cornering!"
She was haggard from having to fight her way this far, long before someone got the bell working again, and several Unseelie were still wreaking havoc inside the castle. Pausing to catch her breath, she muttered, "Oh, Maintenance is going to have a field day with this."
The interior walls were blasted, scorched in some places, and nothing that was once standing in the halls escaped even a small portion of damage. Doors were shot out from their frames, and holes - marking where some of the castle's interior defenses had once been - glared out like black spots from the ceilings and floors.
Fox continued on her way, occasionally encountering several more fallen Unseelie as she turned into the hallway that lead to the nursery. She looked at the path of destruction that clawed up the walls and shook her head. "Alexander..." Stepping over two Unseelie, she dashed down the hall with her club at the ready, not knowing what to expect.
It wasn't until she spied the remains of the shielded doors that her worst fears began to really bubble up to the surface. Taking her club in a tighter grip, she slipped through the jagged hole...
"Alex!" Fox surveyed the shambles that was once her son's nursery: clear signs of a struggle, shattered furniture and decorations. But, the surprising thing was the sight of Alexander's little bed - whole and untouched - standing behind the savaged forms of Coldstone and Coldfire, who were hovering protectively over the child.
Fox dropped her weapon and dashed over to the bed, gathering her son up into her embrace before sinking to her knees, unable to stop the tears that sprang to her eyes.
"Alex," she whispered, just this close to sobbing outright. "Thank goodness, you're all right!"
The child, still holding onto his fuzzy toy, turned to look at the two battered cyborgs. "Dey help, momma," he said. "Stop bad 'uns."
His mother looked at the two protectors, their dim-glowing eyes being the only indication that they were still alive. From what she could see up close, whoever the Unseelie were that had come for Alexander, both Coldstone and Coldfire had taken as good as they had given.
"Thank you... thank you..." she whispered, a pair of tears slipping down her cheeks. There was a slight movement from Coldstone, as if he had heard her voice, but then the light in his eyes grew dimmer. Fox quickly reached for her phone, and punched the key to contact the remaining security forces that she knew were still holed up in the residential wing on the lower floors of the building. "Security! Send someone to the nursery... I have to get two wounded to the Cybernetics Lab! Hurry!"
* * * * *
Lexington crawled through a blasted part of the interior hall. He paused to home in again on the droning of the bell to find the access hatch of the belfry, buried deep inside the reinforced shaft behind the wall.
"Aww, nuts! One of those Unseelie must've gone trigger-happy!" he snarled, staring at the fused metal door in disgust.
Sharon and Claw caught up with him a few seconds later. "What is wrong?" she asked.
"This is the access tunnel to get to the bell," he explained sourly, "but something melted the hatch closed! And I have to see what was making it ring!"
Sharon looked at Claw, who only nodded and tapped the small warrior on the shoulder, motioning him to move aside.
When Lex stepped clear, both Sharon's and Claw's fur began to bristle with a static charge, seconds before they pointed their hands at the hatch and let fly with a double blast of mutate-made lightning. Sparks flew from the contact of energy, the metal glowing a dull red, then shifting through to yellow-white as the heat stress began to warp it.
"Can you two keep that up for much longer?" Lex asked Sharon, shying back from the discharge.
"I... don't... know," she gasped, trying to concentrate on generating energy.
With a loud explosion, the hatch finally blew itself to bits, showering the trio with tiny, hot fragments.
Lexington shrugged the pain aside and picked his way through the hatch, clinging to a set of handholds on the inside of the shaft.
"Can you see what is causing the bell to ring?" Sharon asked, trying to recover her strength.
"Yeah, but I don't believe it! Come give me a hand," came the reply. Sharon gave Claw a puzzled look, then climbed through the hatch herself. She found Lex hanging on to the side of the shaft, staring at the rope that was attached to the large counter-weight that had made the bell ring.
Unconscious, but still clinging to the rope with both hands locked in what might be a death-grip, hung the body of George Harrison.
"Who is he, Lexington?"
Shaking his head, Lex replied, "Someone we thought was an enemy.... Come on! Let's get him to the infirmary and Xanatos can deal with him when he wakes up." Quickly, the web-winged gargoyle scrambled up the shaft wall to swing the Halfling's body to the waiting hands of the two mutates.
Sharon was already examining George as Claw was laying him on the floor. "Both shoulders are dislocated, and his hands-" She winced. "Such terrible burns. I don't know how he could keep his grip on the rope."
Claw snapped his fingers and pointed to George's head. Blood was beginning to trickle from his pointed ears. Sharon drew in her breath sharply.
"What is it?"
"It's not a good sign, Lexington. He probably has internal injuries. We shouldn't move him, not without proper equipment." She glanced up at Claw, who nodded and started for the open hatchway.
Lex and Sharon stared at each other and then down at George. His eyes were barely open, the pupils flickering up under the sunken eyelids. Sharon lowered her head to his.
"It's all right," she said softly. "We're here to help you. Lie still now."
Lex frowned. "Madoc lost, if that's what you mean."
"...good." A corner of his mouth attempted to turn up. His breath left his body in one long, rattling sigh and the Halfling that was George Harrison was no more.
* * * * *
The Conservatory Gardens
Madoc lay on his back, groaning. He appeared unbelievably ancient now, almost mummified. His withered, claw-like hands thrashed at the air frantically, clutching nothing.
Two pillars of light suddenly formed at his feet, and three more a few feet away, grouped around the semi-conscious Maeve and Demona. Goliath, Angela, and Emrys stared as the shimmering shapes resolved themselves into Oberon, Titania, and the Weird Sisters. Oberon and Titania gazed down at the now ancient Madoc, while the Weird Sisters directed their attention at the red-haired gargoyle whose life they had so often involved themselves with.
With a supreme effort, Madoc lifted up his head to gaze at Titania, with an expression on his face that could not be identified. Then his eyes flicked to Oberon and he spoke, in a croaking voice, with the death rattle in it. "Oberon," he whispered urgently. "Father said...."
"What?" Oberon leaned forward. "What did our father say?"
The withered features twisted. "This."
Madoc Morfryn spat in his brother's face, and died.
Oberon and Titania both stared down at the remains of what had once been the Lord of the Unseelie Court. And upon Oberon's face, there passed a look of shock and disbelief. For a long while he was silent, and when he spoke at last, there was a quaver in his voice that had never been there before.
"We must take him back to Avalon for burial, fair Titania," he said. "We cannot leave my brother here, to rest among mortals."
She nodded in silence, but what thoughts might be passing through her head as she gazed down at Madoc's body, nobody could say. However, just as she and her husband were about to raise their hands, there was an interruption. Goliath had picked up Elisa and now approached the King and Queen of the Third Race, holding the detective tightly in his arms. Angela and Emrys stood behind him.
"Wait!" cried Goliath, almost frantically.
"Wait?" asked Oberon, turning on him. The familiar arrogant expression had returned to his features, as he stared at the gargoyle in disapproval. "You dare much, Goliath, to interrupt us."
"But Elisa is dying!" cried Goliath. "You must save her!"
"We sympathize with your grief, Goliath," said Titania. "But we cannot act. The Law forbids us to interfere directly in the destiny of mortals."
"That's never stopped you before, has it, Aunt Titania?" asked Emrys sharply. "Haven't I heard something more than a few times about 'The law that cannot be broken can be bent'?"
"Things are different now," said Titania gravely. "You can only bend something so many times before you break it altogether."
"But she will die if you do not help her!" cried Goliath.
"That is her concern, not ours," said Oberon. "We have our own matters to attend to." And with that, he turned back to face Titania and his brother's corpse. He raised one hand up high, and in a flash of light and swirling of winds, the three of them were gone. Goliath and Angela stared at the place where they had stood, silent in their grief.
"And there's no use even considering asking them," muttered Emrys to the two gargoyles, as he glanced at the Weird Sisters, who were now grouped around the still semi-conscious pile of Demona and Maeve on the ground. "Those three harpies never bother helping anyone unless there's something in it for them."
Ignoring his words, dark-haired Selene spoke. "And so it ends, after a hundred and ten centuries."
"The prophecy has been fulfilled," said golden-tressed Phoebe. "The Unseelie Lord has been destroyed by a union of the two younger races."
"He never knew that unions can take many forms, and mean many things," said silver-locked Luna. "Or that a union can be bound within the body of a single person, with two shapes."
Emrys lifted an eyebrow at that. "So that's it," he said. "Demona, gargoyle by night, human by day. Maybe Cousin Puck really did know what he was doing when he gave her that little 'gift'." He sighed. "It's a pity that he'll never know."
Maeve clambered to her feet, groaning. The Weird Sisters looked at each other, nodded, and turned as though about to leave. Then, just as Maeve stood upright, they turned back, and extended their hands towards her. Rays of green light shot forth from their fingertips and encircled Maeve, coalescing instantly into chains that bound her. Maeve let out an incoherent cry of cold fury, but the Sisters grasped the chains tightly, and began to drag her away.
"How dare you!" raged Maeve, her eyes wild as she was forced to follow. "Release me this instant, harridans! You dare lay hands on me? I am your queen! I command you! Release me!"
The Sisters showed no sign of having heard her. They merely raised their hands in a gesture, and then, in a flash of light, they and their still-raving prisoner were gone.
Demona remained there, sprawled on the ground, her eyes closed and her breathing shallow. Angela crouched down at her side, lifting one of the limp blue hands in her own. "Mother...?"
Elisa moaned slightly. Angela gasped, whirled away from Demona and fell to her knees at Elisa's side. The dark-haired woman turned her head and moaned again, but did not open her eyes or show any sign of regaining consciousness. Goliath stared sadly down at her, tears forming and tricking down his face. Angela buried her face in her hands and wept. Emrys turned his head away as if unable to watch, silent.
There was a brief flicker of movement behind them, and Demona was gone.
"Elisa," said Goliath, weeping as he spoke. Then he turned his face upwards towards the night sky. "NOOOOOO!!!!!!!"
* * * * *
Broadway heaved the stone slab aside, clearing the path for Sata, who was holding one arm that was wrapped in a makeshift sling.
"Domo-arigato, Broadway-san," she said, stepping gingerly through the gap cleared by the larger gargoyle.
"S'okay, Sata. Wonder where everyone else is?"
"If this is but a pause in Madoc's attack, they might have found cover," she reasoned, looking grimly around.
Just then, a yapping sound heralded the appearance of Nudnik, followed by his young master and his sister. "Mother, Mother! Are you all right?!?" Graeme and Ariana picked their way through the rubble, reaching their mother at the same time as the young garg-pup did.
Using her one good arm, the jade-green female embraced her children with a sudden, tear-filled smile. "I am well, my children ... thanks to your uncle's timely aid."
Broadway smiled sheepishly. "Awww," he got out, just before both twins threw their arms around him in a fierce hug.
Xanatos, appearing with Matt and Sara in tow, emerged from behind one of the towers. Seeing the gargoyles, they quickly - as was possible - crossed to their location. Both Matt and Sara looked worse for wear, and Xanatos' armor was scarred and pitted from the hits he had taken from the Unseelie he had faced, but they were all pleased to see that the others survived.
"Well, I don't know if the attack is over, but I've got to say I'm pleased with the showing we gave Madoc's minions," he said, brushing a stray lock of hair out of his eyes.
"But is it really over?" Broadway queried, looking over the heads of the others as he saw Lex emerging from the inside the castle, a puzzled look on his face. "Lex! What's wrong?"
Joining the small gathering, the olive-green gargoyle replied, "Well, I managed to find out what was ringing the bell ... or I should say who!"
"I thought all the generators were destroyed?" Xanatos asked skeptically.
"They were, but I found one of those Unseelie halflings hanging on the rope. It turned out to be George Harrison himself," Lex explained. He took in the disbelief on their faces. "I know. I found him myself and I still don't believe it."
"Richard's brother?" Broadway said wonderingly. "But George hated us! He was the original Quarryman poster boy, for crying out loud!" He shook his head. "Why would he do that?"
"We'll never know," Lex said, throwing up his hands in a helpless gesture. "He was dying when we found him. Sharon and Claw took his body to the infirmary."
"Poor Richard," Ariana murmured. She went over and slipped her hand into Broadway's massive one. "We should tell him."
"And we will, sweetheart," Broadway said gently, "but later. Angela's been his friend the longest. She should be the one to tell Richard."
"Wait a moment -- Sharon and Claw?" Xanatos asked. "Are the Mutates here?"
"Broadway! Sata!" The call from overhead answered the question, as Talon and Maggie glided down from overhead, carrying the body of Hudson between them. Behind him followed Brooklyn, who was holding onto Bronx. The trio landed as gently as possible, where the waiting arms of Xanatos and Broadway helped to bring the old soldier to rest next to one of the towers.
"Is Hudson all right?" Lex asked.
The old gargoyle moaned, and Talon grinned. "He's got a thick skull, so I think he'll live. We found him and Bronx on that building over there."
"Aye ... I remember now," Hudson said softly, struggling to sit up.
As Bronx was seen to by the twins and Nudnik, Brooklyn knelt by Hudson's side. "What happened to Goliath, Hudson? Last I saw, you and he were charging after Madoc!"
Taking a deep breath, Hudson replied, "We were, until that infernal faerie ... knocked the sense out of me.... Not that there was much sense to be had ... in a fool-headed charge such as that!" He fixed Brooklyn with a stare from his one eye. "Where is ... Goliath now?
Brooklyn looked over the wall cautiously, his gaze sweeping the area below for any signs of movement. "They've gone ... all of them!"
"Sure looks like it," Broadway seconded from the old soldier's right side. "I don't see any signs of them this way!"
Talon and Maggie looked at the upper part of the battlements on the far side. "There's no sign of any of those Unseelie on this side either!"
Brooklyn, Lex and Xanatos took this in. The iron-clad billionaire opened an access panel on his suit's forearm. "Security: shut down all defense systems and re-call all functioning Steel Clan. Authorization; David-Zeta-Three."
"Don't you think that's premature? What if they're just waiting to regroup?" Lex asked.
"If they are, we'll raise the defense systems again," Brooklyn countered. "But I don't think they're coming back."
In moments, a few Steel Clan robots soared back to castle, lining up in the courtyard like battered toy soldiers. Some were missing limbs, others had smashed or shattered armor plating.
"How many were lost?" Lex asked.
"Too many." Xanatos looked at his constructs grimly. He took in the others, seeing that Sata and the twins hadn't gone through the battle unscathed. Fortunately, Matt and Sara were both upright and breathing.
"You all right?" Talon asked.
"I'll live. Which comes as a bit of a shock, actually," Matt told him, leaning on Sara for support.
Brooklyn got up to go to his mate and children, being careful of Sata's arm as he swept her into his embrace. "It's over," he whispered into her hair.
Sata sighed, returning his hug with an emphatic "Hai!"
Fox emerged from inside, Alexander bundled along with his fuzzy toy in her arms. "David!"
Xanatos turned around quickly. Upon seeing his wife and son he dashed over to their side. For a moment, everything seemed to slow to a halt for the family as they were reunited.
"What happened to Anastasia?" he asked, looking at Fox as he continued to hold her in his armored arms.
"Mother left after we got free from the elevator," she told him. "David, the Unseelie tried to get our son, but Coldstone and Coldfire stopped them!"
"I knew those two were going to be useful," David half-joked, looking about for the two cyborgs. "Where are they?"
Fox looked down. "They ... were heavily damaged by the Unseelie. I had them taken to the cybernetics lab just a while ago."
Nodding, her husband replied, "I'll see to it that they get the best treatment possible. I ... we owe them that much."
"Hey! Take a look at that!" Broadway said, pointing at the snow and ice that was melting away from the battlements. "The snow's disappearing!"
Lex looked up at the skies overhead. "Broadway's right! The whole storm's fizzing out!"
"Then ... can this really be over?" Hudson asked.
Xanatos looked at the others and said, "I'd say it is, Hudson. In fact ... I'd almost swear we came out of this as winners. All of us survived, at least."
"All of us who were here." Brooklyn was scanning the sky, and his expression was sober. "But I'd hold off on saying all."
Everyone turned to see what the former Timedancer was talking about, just in time to see the dark shape that he spied emerge into view...
"Oh no!" Broadway exclaimed softly.
Goliath was gliding as fast as he dared without jarring the unconsious form of Elisa that he carried. A gash in the side of her jacket bore mute testimony to her wound. Behind the Manhattan leader, Angela carried Emrys. All three had looks of worry and grief on their faces.
"No ... not Elisa," Hudson whispered.
"Elisa! Goliath, what happened!?" Talon asked in anguish, watching as the big gargoyle touched down amid the others.
Goliath said nothing. His face lifted, seeking out Xanatos with a silent plea.
David needed no further request. "Trauma Team-1 to the Castle! Code Blue! We've got a wounded woman up here!"
* * * * *
Beth's vision came back to her slowly, and her arms shook as she finally pulled the flute from her lips. The Dancers ran to the center of the circle, then as one, they sat down. She could easily see to the other side of the Hall now, saw only normal human faces looking back at her.
The void of sound was quickly filled by new noise, like thunder and rain. She looked around, fearing the demons had returned with reinforcements, but it was only applause from the people watching the dance.
Henry sat beside her on the bench, covered in sweat. "Did we do it?" he asked, fear in his voice.
"I don't know," she said. "I think so." Then she threw her arms around him and hugged him because they were still alive.
"We did well," said the woman she did not know, the other drummer who had been with them in the mist-place.
"Yes, we ... Coyote?" She turned towards the dancers, who were removing their masks and basking in the applause, but the familiar face, her father's but younger, was nowhere to be seen. She did know, now, the faces of the Scorpion, and the Snake, and Crow, and Spider, and she read upon them happy exhaustion, and a quiet amusement that so few in the room knew how close they had all come to annihilation.
Beth started to stand, then grew dizzy. Henry's hand was at her arm, steadying her. "Slow down, Hoss. You're going to have to drink plenty of fluids for the next few days, and no strenuous exercise the rest of the night, got it?" She realized he was joking, and smiled.
"I'm not really up for refreshments, are you?"
"No," he said. "Walk you home?"
They waited a few more minutes, then ducked out while the rest of the performers were getting congratulated. According to the locals, it was the most moving dance any of them had ever seen, but otherwise, it had not been out of the ordinary.
Outside, the air was cold, but not as cold as it had been. The stars glittered like ice chips, and it promised to be a beautiful night.
"What happened in there?" asked Henry. "It didn't happen for everyone. They didn't see ... I saw ... " He swallowed.
"I know." She watched the stars. "I think they just couldn't see it, or wouldn't. Or maybe they did and thought it was a dream. People can forget anything when they try."
"I don't want to forget. That was ... Wow."
"Glad you liked," said Coyote. Beth jumped.
"You have got to stop sneaking up on me like that."
"Sorry," he said, then lifted her up. "We did it!" She laughed and hugged him. Now that she knew for sure, she could let out her terror, and she did, laughing until she cried.
When Coyote put her down, she saw that Henry had his eyes away from her again. "Well, I'll just get home, then."
"Home," mouthed Coyote, and his jubilant attitude stopped with a rush. "Beth, you need to get home. Now. It's urgent. I got word. Don't ask how."
"It's your sister."
* * * * *
The Eyrie Building - Medical Wing
Xanatos, Fox, Matt and Sara waited outside the trauma room for what seemed like an eternity. The clan and the Mutates had quickly left with Emrys and hid themselves before the medics arrived to take Elisa to the Emergency Medical Wing - although it was plain to see that Goliath did not want to leave the detective's side.
David and Fox could both see that the other two detectives were nearly dead on their feet. "Detectives, I know it's going to seem out of character for me, but considering what we've all been through, I'd like to offer you two a room for the night. It's the least I can do."
Matt nodded wearily. "Normally, I'd be inclined to refuse ... but I think we probably should stay here."
"Good," said Xanatos.
"...Just this once."
"We'd better let the mutates know they can stay here as well," Fox added. "Everyone is exhausted from what's happened." She looked down at her son, fast asleep in her arms. "I know everyone else is."
"We'll have extra rooms made up in the guest wing," Xanatos agreed.
The doors to the trauma room opened, and a figure decked in scrubs, paper overshoes, cap and facemask came out.
"Doctor," Xanatos started to say, pausing only for a second when he saw the way the man was standing; like a man who knows when a cause is lost. "How is Detective Maza doing?"
"Is she going to be all right?" Sara asked.
Holding up one hand wearily, Doctor Howard replied, "Folks, I have just two things to report, and ... as trite as it sounds, there's good news and there's bad news." The others held their silence, and he went on. "We closed the wound in Detective Maza's side. The projectile didn't penetrate deep enough to cause any major damage to the liver, or any main organs on that side. Stroke of sheer luck that it struck only fatty tissue and muscle."
"Then...Elisa will be okay?" Matt asked.
Doctor Howard turned to face the red-haired cop, sorrow in his eyes. "That's ... not so certain."
"What do you mean? I though you said the wound wasn't serious?" Sara asked.
"It wasn't," Doctor Howard said, pulling his cap off to run his fingers through his steel-gray hair. "But, for some reason, Maza's vital signs are slowly decaying. At first we thought it was due to a coating of some kind on the arrowhead -- some poison or a neural agent -- but nothing shows up as toxic in her initial blood screens. She should have been out of the danger zone a while back, but ..."
"Just tell us, Doctor! Is Detective Maza going to make it?"
Dr. Howard shook his head slowly. "The best we can do for her now is to make her comfortable. At the rate her vitals are deteriorating, she has four, maybe eight hours at best." He looked directly at his employer, spoke as gently as he could. "I'm sorry, sir. But we've only seen symptoms like this once before ... and that was with Mr. Burnett."
Xanatos opened his mouth, closed it, and sat down hard.
Matt reached over and grabbed the doctor by his sleeve. "Isn't there something - anything - that you can do to save her?"
Dr. Howard looked at Matt, his own pain all too clear. "I'm truly sorry. We've done everything we can ... it's out of our hands now." He looked over his shoulder and motioned for everyone to step aside as the doors behind them opened, allowing a nurse and two technicians to wheel a gurney out from the OR.
On it, looking as close to death as any of them could remember, was Elisa.
"Does Detective Maza have ... any family? Or next of kin?" Dr. Howard was saying. "They should be notified."
"I'll get right on it," Matt answered.
"Doctor, the family is likely to want some privacy when they arrive. I want Detective Maza put in a private room," Xanatos said, and lowered his voice slightly. "A room with a large window. And I'll want the staff to give them some time alone."
Dr. Howard paused, then nodded. "Understood," he said slowly.
* * * * *
A short while later, the clan slowly made their way into the private room on the Medical Wing that had been given to Elisa. Thanks to Dr. Howard running interference, none of the nurses or orderlies knew they were even there.
Matt and Sara were waiting at Elisa's bedside, whispering words of sympathy as the gargoyles shuffled in. At once, Goliath knelt on the floor beside Elisa, who looked so much smaller and weaker than he or the others could normally picture her.
The big leader reached out gingerly, taking one of her hands into his. Goliath had not taken the news of his love's impending demise well, but his daughter and his clan were with him.
"She ... doesn't look so ... so hot, huh?" Lex asked, trying to put on a brave face.
"The doctor said she'll live past sunrise," Sara said, leaning against Matt for support, "but not much longer afterwards."
Sata and Brooklyn were both looking on, the twins before them looking equally sad as they grieved.
"Of all o' us ... I ne'er thought she'd be one tae leave us," Hudson said softly, closing his eyes as he bowed his head.
Angela was beside Goliath, her hands on his shoulders, offering her sympathy and love. "Oh, Elisa..."
"Did someone tell Elisa's parents ... um, what happened?" Broadway asked from where he was standing by Emrys.
"I tried to reach Peter and Diane in Chicago," Matt reported, "but the lines in the city were down. I'll try again in a while." He frowned. "Her sister in Arizona tried to call me, asking what was wrong and if Elisa was all right. We got disconnected before I could tell her anything, and couldn't get through again."
Ariana looked up and faced the auburn-haired detective. "What's wrong with Elisa?"
"She... she took an arrow that Madoc meant for me," Angela replied, her eyes near to overflowing with tears. Turning to Emrys, she asked, "Can't you do something for her?"
The fair-haired youth shook his head; he looked shockingly tired, and his voice was hoarse. "I burned myself out trying to match magics with my father, trying to stop him. Like the useless fool I am," he added bitterly. "It's just like my father to do something like this. He couldn't even depart this life without leaving even more sorrow and misery behind him."
"Aunt Angela, you know some magic! You could help Elisa get better!" Graeme said hopefully.
Shaking her head, Angela replied, "I can't! When I broke through the force field around Madoc's holding here in Manhattan, I exhausted all of my magic!" Sadly, she closed her eyes and turned to Goliath, the tears now rolling down her cheeks. "Why? Why did Titania and Oberon refuse to help us?"
A low growl sounded, making everyone look towards the bed where Goliath was kneeling. He was looking at Elisa, but his eyes were blazing like beacons. "They refuse ... because of their Law. We risk our home, our friends, our lives, even the ones we love ... and they refuse what would be for them but a gesture, on the basis of non-interference," he said, resentment towards the Lord and Lady of the Seelie Court coloring every syllable.
"Isn't there anything we can do for her?" Broadway was near tears.
"Nothing," Sara replied. "We just ... we just have to be here ... for her."
* * * * *
This is what I wanted.
Demona crouched on the ledge, hunching her wings over her head against the gentle rain. The gutter behind her was a tiny river in flood; chunks of ice that had encrusted the ledge broke off and swirled away, shrank and melted into nothing.
On the other side of the window, Elisa Maza lay dying.
This is what I wanted. Why don't I feel better?
Near the head of her bed sat Talon, his strong hands dangling helpless between his knees. Maggie stood behind his chair, her arms tight around his shoulders in an effort to comfort by her presence. Brooklyn and Sata stood nearby, the unnaturally quiet twins huddling close to them and watching the sickbed with wide eyes. Beside them Lexington sat hunched over, his face in his hands.
At the foot of the bed sat Matt Bluestone and Sara Jasper, side by side but not touching. Sara was looking down at her clasped hands in her lap; Matt pulled a hand across his mouth and closed it into a fist, rested his chin on it.
On the other side of them stood Broadway, awkward and miserable. His round face was a study in anguish as he looked from Elisa, pale and fragile-seeming against the whiteness of hospital sheets, to Angela. Angela, seated on the edge of the bed, watching her father with eyes still streaming tears.
Goliath knelt beside the bed, one of Elisa's limp hands held between his own, his great head bowed in grief. No one spoke to him or touched him; at one point Angela reached out a hand to his shoulder, then hesitated and let her hand fall to her lap. Goliath did not stir; for all the notice he took, he might have been in the room alone with the dying woman.
Demona turned from the window and stared out into the falling rain. "This is what I wanted," she said aloud.
"Isn't it?" Her own voice spoke from behind her, and she turned with no particular surprise to see herself perched on the ledge some distance away. The other figure was palely translucent, and the rain fell past her without touching her skin.
"Go away," Demona said to the otherself.
"Why? This is what you wanted." The other Demona tilted her head towards the window. "The Maza woman is dying. And you had nothing to do with it."
"There was nothing for me to do." Demona glanced in through the window again. "Elfshot cannot be cured."
"Not by any normal means, to be sure," agreed the other lightly, and paused. "They'll be wondering where you are in a moment. Shouldn't you be with them?"
"No!" Demona straightened with a jerk. "I...I can come back when she's dead. When it's over. Say I was...searching for a cure."
"Wonderful," replied the other mockingly. "Run away and come back when it's all over. Why not? It worked so well the last time."
"Go away," Demona hissed at her.
"You know what you could do to heal her." The other spoke softly, ignoring her last words. "But let the human die now and you will be blameless. Let her die, and let Goliath withdraw into mourning her, and you will be the only one left for Angela to love. Isn't that what you want?"
Demona reached out a tentative hand and touched the window glass, ran her fingers silently down it. On the other side of the glass, Elisa Maza lay dying.
She closed her eyes. "I don't know," she whispered.
The other's hand (or was it a leaf on the wind?) brushed her shoulder. "You told me so long ago that I was not what you wished to be." The voice was quiet, compassionate. "When did you forget that?"
The rain danced in the air about her, fell upon the clinging ice that had lain frozen far too long, and wore it away. Tiny fragments of ice bobbed in the stream through the rain gutter, miniature icebergs floating with the current, melting, dissolving, returning to the water at last.
Demona looked up. She was alone, there on the ledge. She had always been alone.
There was a scatter of raindrops, a rush of wings in the warming air, and the ledge was vacant again.
* * * * *
No one was in the hospital room when she returned. Demona let herself in through the window, silently set down the components she'd brought with her: a small leather pouch, a brass bowl, a long knife with a wavy curved blade, and a slender gold chain from which hung a small white stone.
Demona approached the bed, where the human's breathing made a sound like a knife going in and out of a sheath. She set the bowl on the bed beside her, placed the stone in the center of the bowl, draped the chain carefully over the rim. The leather pouch next, and enough of the reddish dried herb inside it to just cover the palm of her hand. She breathed on the herb, held the handful under the woman's nose and mouth until she breathed out, crushed the handful and sprinkled the powdered stuff over the stone in the bowl. The ritual she had used before would not be enough, this time. When elfshot struck, the cost was a mortal's life....
She reached out and took the human's hand, took the knife and drew the blade carefully across the fat pad of the thumb, pinched the thumb between her own fingers until the blood came. Three drops, four, five, fell onto the stone and the herbs. Demona reversed the blade and drew the knife across her own thumb, squeezed five drops of her own blood into the bowl. The full Bloodstone ritual required less blood than the simpler version she had taught to Angela. The price for this spell was paid in a far more intimate coin.
The stone was already beginning to shine a deep red, and the blood and herbs had vanished. Demona leaned forward, took a deep breath, and spoke the spell aloud:
"Spiritorum miscei, cruorum miscei, mors illo meus sum!"
She lifted the chain, careful not to touch the stone, and fastened it around the human's -- around Elisa's neck.
The stone began to glow, and Demona closed her eyes. Let it come quickly.
* * * * *
Demona opened her eyes. She was on the floor, curled into a fetal ball with her wings wrapped around herself. For a moment she remembered -- the searing, shattering pain in her gut, the violent shaking as her body tried to fight the death it felt coming -- but then she shoved the memory aside and pulled herself to her feet.
Around the sleeping woman's neck, the stone was white again. The spell had succeeded.
The price had been a mortal's death...and a mortal had died. But I've died uncounted hundreds of times, Demona said silently, and what's one more?
The woman's eyelids fluttered, blinked, then opened fully. Her gaze fixed on Demona; her eyes widened and she pushed herself upright in the hospital bed, drawing in breath.
Demona hurriedly raised one talon before her lips in a silencing gesture. "Not a sound," she hissed. "And don't try to get out of the bed; you're still weak."
"What do you want, Demona?" Elisa Maza's voice was lowered, but edged with iron. Out of sheer willpower, Demona could tell; exhaustion and pain had traced deep lines in the woman's face, and the elfshot had wreaked havoc in her system that could not be so quickly cured, even by the Bloodstone's power.
"Not your death, human," she answered scornfully. "If I'd wanted harm to you, I'd have stayed away and let the Unseelie Lord do the work for me. His elfshot was burning away the blood in your veins when I came. I saved your life."
Elisa tried several responses before voicing one. "All right," she finally said. "Why? I thought you hated me."
"I do," Demona shot back. "Never think that's changed, human."
The gargoyle looked away. "For Angela." She stepped onto the windowsill again and paused, the next words coming from her as if dragged up her throat by a string. "Take care of my clan, detective. Take care of them. They need you."
And she was gone, the sound of her wings loud in the near-silence of the night's last hours, in the darkness before the dawn that must surely rise.
In a low voice that no one else would hear, Elisa murmured: "They need you too, Demona. They need you too."
* * * * *
As the woman's eyes closed, a tiny gleam of light subtracted itself from the reflections off the chrome bedstead and bobbed towards the door, going through it without apparent notice. It flittered down the hospital corridor outside, passed an oblivious orderly humming tunelessly as he swept the floor, slid through a closet door and curved into a waiting, graceful hand.
Titania closed her fingers around the witchlight, and smiled to herself.
* * * * *