Story Concept by Christi Smith Hayden & Todd Jensen
Written by Christi Smith Hayden & Stephen R. Sobotka
Previously on Gargoyles...
Hudson [bending over to scratch Nudnik]: "And does this wee rascal have a name?"
Graeme: "Not yet . . . I'm waiting to find just the right one."
Ariana: "I still like 'Fu-dog,'" [looking shyly at Hudson.] "It's cute."
~ ~ ~
Graeme [sighing]: "What was it I overheard when we were out touring the city? Oh, yeah!" [Speaking in an almost perfect Yiddish accent] "Oy! You are such a nudnik!!" [Nudnik woofs loudly] "Nudnik? You like Nudnik?"
~ Out of Joint, Part Two ~
Lex: "I wonder how Bronx is doing?"
Hudson: "Och, he's probably havin' a grand time chasin' muggers up trees." [laughs] "I'll have to have Graeme bring Nudnik out to the park with us sometime. Might help settle the wee beastie down. He makes Bronx tired with all that energy!"
~ Consequences ~
Matt [during the race to the Maddox Building] : "It's red!" [Nudnik tumbles off his lap, jumping back up, one hindpaw nailing him] "Come on, get back in the back .. . I swear, there's nothing worse than a two-hundred-pound puppy!"
~ Reprisals, Part Three ~
Owen: [scolding Graeme] "--Furthermore, that beast is not allowed inside the castle until he's housebroken. Do I make myself cle--urk!" [Owen looks to Sata's katana at his throat.]
Sata : "No, it is most certainly NOT clear . . . Perhaps you would care to explain it to ME."
Owen : "You see, I just went in the laundry room and the whole place is in a shambles. And the culprit left a trail of dirty paw prints," [points at Nudnik] "leading right here."
Ariana : "Oh, no! You didn't?" [Nudnik whines, cocking his head]
~ Out of Joint, Part Two~
* * * * *
* * * * *
January 7, 1998, The Eyrie Building
Owen looked around the nursery, trying to keep his usual placid face from cracking into displeasure. Toys were scattered through out place, underfoot, under the crib, and a few were floating in the air. Evidence that young Alexander had been practicing his levitation spell again.
"I really must have another lesson on 'neatness' with Alexander," he said to himself.
Bending down to begin clearing the mess, he heard the sounds of giggles out in the hallway. Turning slightly, he caught a glimpse of one of Brooklyn's children as they galumphed past - Ariana it seemed - followed shortly by her twin, Graeme.
"Ari-Chan! Give that back, you odango-head! I haven't finished my turn!"
"No way! It's my turn with the TV! Dad said so!"
There was the sounds of a short tussle, to which Owen inwardly winced when he heard something shatter and rattle to the floor loudly. Then, the twins scampered past the door again. This time, Graeme had whatever it was they were fighting over, and it was Ariana who was in hot pursuit. Sighing, Owen continued with his task, now reaching up to remove the floating toys from the air.
"Hah! You just want to watch your favorite anime tape again, Gigglepuss . . . OOOF!!"
"I'll show you who's a Gigglepuss," came the reply, which fell amid another tussle, more crashes, and the Twins came stampeding through again.
Owen finally turned from Alex's room and stepped out into the hallway, his cheek twitching in a tic as he observed the damage wrought by the Twins. Several standing displays had been upturned, the statues or other valuable knickknacks once mounted on them now lying in pieces on the floor.
Just then, the cell phone in his pocket beeped. Retrieving it, he said, "Yes, Mr. Xanatos?"
"Owen, this is Fox," came the reply. "Alex just made his usual mess in the kitchen. Seems he doesn't care for creamed spinach so I need you to come clean up while I give him a bath."
Casting a look at the ruin in the hall, he replied, "I shall be there in a few minutes, Mrs. Xanatos. There is a small matter I must tend to first."
"Good, well don't take too long. The gargoyles will be back from patrol soon," she said, over the sounds of Alex's giggling in the background, "and Broadway asked to use the grill in the main kitchen. You'd better make sure there's nothing flammable left out. We don't want another fireball like last time, do we?"
"I'll be there at once, Mrs. Xanatos," Owen finished, shutting the phone off before closing it and returning the device to his suit pocket. With another sigh, he headed off to get a broom and dustpan from a nearby closet.
* * * * *
Sometime later - after the two messes, some emergency work for Mr. Xanatos, and a last minute magic lesson and bedtime story for Alexander - Owen stopped outside his private quarters, closing his eyes for a moment. It had been one tiring night, and even he was happy to have just a few moments of rest before he had to talk with Brooklyn about the Twins, and to Goliath about Lexington's use of the computer, which had been taking away more and more access time from the main business lines.
Looking back down, he frowned slightly when he noticed that the door to his rooms had come open somehow. A closer inspection revealed several, tell-tale scratches along the edge of the door . . . familiar, three-toed scratches.
Opening the door wide, Owen flipped on the lights and looked around. As he feared, the entire room was covered in the ruins of several drawers worth of clothes and other personal items.
The nervous tic returned to his cheek as he surveyed the carnage, eventually resting on the bed where the perpetrator was still sitting there; amid the ruins of another expensive pair of silk boxers, looking up at the major-domo with an expression of pure bliss on his face.
"Nudnik . . ."
The gargoyle-beast let his tongue hang out, panting amid a canine grin.
Owen didn't say another word. He just advanced on the bed . . .
* * * * *
Goliath landed in the courtyard, his breath puffing out into clouds of mist in the chilly night air, just in time to see Broadway and Angela head off inside. More than likely they would be in the kitchen to prepare dinner for the Clan. Lex and Hudson had yet to return from their sweep, but Brooklyn and Sata touched down just moments after he did.
"Did your patrol go well, Brooklyn?" he asked, making a polite bow to his Second's mate.
"Oh, fine . . . busted up two muggings, but nothing major," the crimson warrior replied.
"They were no challenge for us," Sata commented in her soft-steel way.
Goliath was about to say something further, when there was a flurry of movement on the parapets above them. Looking up along with the Brooklyn's, he spied two small forms dashing back and forth along the stonework as the sounds of giggles, growls, exclamations of surprise, and down and out rowdiness rained out over the castle walls.
"I'm gonna get you for this, Graeme-kun!"
"Not gonna happen!"
At one point, the Twins popped up on opposite stone blocks, each panting and eyeing each other like a pair of wet cats. Graeme had something clutched in his left hand, which he was waving to and fro in front of his sister, just out of her reach.
"Graeme! Give that remote back to me this instant," she commanded, trying hard to sound like her mother. "This is not an honorable way to face an opponent!"
"This isn't about honor, Ari-Chan," Graeme taunted with a smile, "it's about your fuku-wearing idol!" With a slight pitch, his voice rose into a high falsetto, "Tsukini-wano-he! Ieshokyo!"
With that, Ariana pounced at her brother with a cry of rage. Graeme had no warning, and the two kids came flying down a set of steps just behind him, rolling and bouncing along until they came to a sudden stop at the bottom. The force of their landing made Graeme drop the remote, and both Twins watched as it bounced twice before shattering into several pieces . . . right against Goliath's foot.
"Uh-ohhh . . . " The both looked up, seeing the stern, half-hidden smile on the adult gargoyle's face.
Ariana leaned back and socked her brother on his shoulder. "Now see what you did?!?"
"Ow! What I did?!? You're the one who tried to take over the TV," he said acidly, "and get off of me already!"
With that, the Twins stopped and looked at the three adults. Sata was definitely not pleased with their behavior, and Brooklyn was mirroring her emotion, although he was privately smiling at their antics.
Shaking her head, Sata admonished her children with a stern look. "Was that truly worth fighting over? You two should not be wrestling like barbarians over something as insignificant as this," she said, giving the pile of remote-remains a tap with her foot talon.
Graeme and Ariana looked repentant. "We didn't mean to break it," her son said, obviously not wanting to make his mother angrier.
"No, but your squabble has broken this device, and now none of the others can use it if they wanted to." She replied, crossing her arms over her chest.
"But, Graeme wouldn't let me have my turn! And Father said I could before he left!" her daughter replied in earnest.
Goliath looked over at Brooklyn, who simply shrugged and kept his silence. Obviously, this was Sata's call.
"A warrior never takes by force what he or she can acquire through reason or calm negotiation," Sata said wisely, giving Ariana a tolerant look. "You know that Bushido tells us not all battles are to be won by force alone."
Brooklyn finally spoke up. "Yeah, what your mother said." Sata gave him a cool look over her shoulder, making him blink. "What?"
Both children let this sink in, coming to see what Sata was telling them. Graeme looked at his sister and said, "I'm sorry. I guess I should have let you have your turn."
Ariana nodded, adding, "I shouldn't have chased you around like that for making fun of my shows." She looked at the broken remote and sighed, "Now how are we gonna watch TV?"
Her brother knelt and looked at the pile of broke plastic and electronic parts with a critical eye. "I think I can fix it . . . if Uncle Lex can help me?" He looked to his parents quizzically.
Sata finally smiled softly, giving her children a pat. "I am sure he will be able to help you later, when he returns from his patrol with Hudson-San. Now, clean this up, and let us go and join the others for our meal."
Goliath smiled an aside to Brooklyn, "Sata is a very capable mate and mother."
Brooklyn nodded approvingly. "She can always keep the kids in line. Now that's one crisis averted, let's see what Broadway's cooking for us--" He stopped in mid-sentence, looking surprised as he looked ahead of their small group to the main doors.
Owen was striding through them, his usual countenance shot through with underlying anger. Tucked under one arm, facing the way he came, was a whining and obviously worried Nudnik.
Graeme looked up and started. "Hey! What are you doing with Nudnik?!?"
Before anyone could comment or react further, Owen came to a stop before them, reached around with his good hand to take hold of the whimpering garg-pup, and with a huff he planted the little beast on the stones right in front of him.
Not wanting to anger the major-domo, Nudnik cowered there.
"Since I know that the boy's, and Nudnik's discipline, is YOUR responsibility," he said firmly to Sata and Brooklyn, "I will make this statement clear: Nudnik is becoming a nuisance in this household. He destroys personal belongings, has shredded clothes to beyond repair, and has caused more messes that is remotely tolerable by myself and other members of Mr. Xanatos' staff."
Both Graeme and Ariana groaned. "Nudnik's been in Owen's room again!" He whispered to his twin.
"Furthermore," Owen continued, "the tolerance level of the staff - myself included - has reached the bitter end where Nudnik is concerned. I now make this a formal request: Nudnik must be house-trained and broken of his destructive habits, or I must forcefully insist that he be removed from the Castle, post haste!"
At this, the gargoyles all looked shocked. Especially Sata and Brooklyn's children, their eyes as wide as saucers and their beaks hanging open.
"Owen! You can't be serious!?" Brooklyn said, unable to believe what he just heard.
"I can assure you that I am VERY serious," Owen replied.
"But, where would we take him!? He's part of our family!" the crimson gargoyle replied.
Sata chimed in, "He is our children's pet, and we would never let him go!"
"Especially since he is also part of our clan," Goliath added darkly, coming forward to tower over the pale, blond man. "Considering all of the places that are filled with danger, where would you suggest he go?"
Unfazed, Owen looked up at Goliath and shrugged. "Where is not of my concern, Goliath. Maintaining the peace and order of Mr. Xanatos' home is. I have said what is needed, and that is all there is to say," he said with a final look at the still-cringing pup. "Either Nudnik is taught to behave, or he must leave! Good night to you all." With that, Owen turned and walked away, leaving the gargoyles alone in the courtyard.
Both Sata and Brooklyn looked to Goliath, who was just as perplexed as to what to do. Looking down, the three adults saw that Graeme had squatted down next to Nudnik, who immediately had his face buried into the young boy's vest, snuffling and whining.
"Nonononono . . . you can't go," he was saying softly, hugging the garg-pup tightly. Staring up at the older members of his family, he said aloud, "You CAN'T let Owen send Nudnik away!"
Brooklyn tried to look optimistic for his son's sake. "We won't send him away," he said soothingly, "but . . . how are we going to get Nudnik to behave?"
Just then, Lexington and Hudson returned from their patrol, landing to the side of the group.
"Hey, what's going on?" the web-winged gargoyle asked, seeing the looks of helplessness on the faces of the Twins.
"Aye, what's all the fuss aboot?" Hudson seconded, stopping long enough to greet Bronx as he trotted out from the other side of the courtyard.
Graeme piped up, "Owen said we have to get rid of Nudnik!" The boy was nearly close to tears.
"What's this?!? Why would Owen say a thing like that?" The adults quickly filled the two in on what happened, including the full breath of Owen's ultimatum.
Lexington growled, coming to stand by Graeme and Nudnik. "That's cruel! Goliath, we can't let him force Nudnik out!"
"Especially since I know the kids won't want to let him go," Brooklyn said.
Hudson left off Bronx and growled, "Ach, we'd ne'er let the beastie go, lad. Owen just needs to cool down some."
Ariana looked to the old soldier. "But, what if Owen DOES make Nudnik leave? What can we do then?"
Brooklyn moved to stand next to his daughter, looking down thoughtfully. "There is one option we could consider . . . "
Sata looked at her mate, a brief flicker of worry passing over her eyes. "Beloved?"
"I didn't want to say it, but we might have to . . . leave the castle," he said, frowning.
Sata's eyes widened. "Brooklyn-San! Where would we go?"
"Well, there's always New Jersey." He quipped, half-smiling at her return look.
"Leave the castle? Are we gonna have to, mother?" Ariana asked meekly.
At that, Goliath, Lexington and Hudson all agreed. "No! You are part of our Clan, and our family! You can not leave our home, even for a request such as Owen's."
"Besides, with Madoc and his cronies out there you can't be sure if anywhere is safe anymore," Lex added darkly.
"You and yuir family leavin' us is not any option at all, Lad! I'd no sooner cut out my good eye than to let that happen!" Hudson exclaimed.
"Then what can we do? None of us has any experience in house-breaking a guardian beast," Brooklyn replied.
Sata stroked the back of one finger under her chin thoughtfully. "Goliath-sama, how was Bronx trained to behave, back in your time?"
Goliath scratched his head. "I never knew exactly how Bronx was trained," he admitted. "It was one of the other members of the clan that did." He looked over at Hudson for confirmation.
"Actually, that would have been me," the elder gargoyle replied with a chuckle. "The Prince was forever complainin' about Bronx causing trouble when he got into the food cellar and the kitchen, he asked us to try to bring him to heel."
Graeme looked at Hudson with a gleam of hope. "C-Can you train Nudnik?!?"
"Och, lad! The wee beastie's yuir responsibility," Hudson replied, quickly adding when Graeme began to pout, "but I dinna say I wouldn't help you! Come to think of it, I had to ask one of the Prince's hound handlers for help, since humans have a better grasp for trainin' animals than us."
Goliath frowned. "But, who would help us train Nudnik?"
"I do not think Xanatos has anyone under his hire that has such skills," Sata observed.
"Nae, but I do know someone that does live with an animal," Hudson replied,
a wider grin spreading under his beard. "An' I think it's high time I paid him a visit, too." Turning to face Sata and Brooklyn, he asked, "Would you mind if I took young Graeme and Nudnik with me to meet my friend? We'd be back well before sunrise."
Both parents blinked. "You'd take him now?"
"No time like the present, lad and lassie," Hudson chuckled, looking down at the young male. "What do you say, lad? Care to see if you can learn to keep yon beastie under leash?"
Graeme's face was pensive, but a long SLURP from Nudnik, who had recovered from his brush with Owen, made him break out in smiles. "Sure! Can we bring Bronx too?"
The old soldier looked over at the older Garg-beast, who gave him a low whine, his backside waggling. "Och, all right! Come on then! We'd best head out now." With that, Hudson led Graeme and the two beasts to the steps leading to the castle wall.
"Hey! I want to come too!" Ariana said, making to bolt after them, only to be stopped by her mother's hand to her shoulder.
"Not this time, my daughter," she said placatingly with a smile, "for this is between Hudson-San and your brother. Training should be between student and sensei only. Wakarimas-ka?"
Disappointed, but mollified, Ariana watched as her brother and her elder picked up a beast between them each as they leapt off into the night sky. "Hai, Oka-san. I understand."
Smiling at Ari's eagerness, Goliath cleared his throat and motioned towards the inside of the castle. "I think then we should get something to eat, while we wait for them to get back. Come, Broadway and Angela must be waiting for us to join them."
Lexington grinned, "Good idea! Hudson flies a slow patrol, and I'm hungry!"
As the others marched off, Sata stayed back with Brooklyn for a moment, watching as her son and Hudson disappeared from sight. "Will they be all right, Beloved? Can we trust this friend of Hudson-San's?"
Brooklyn chuckled and hugged her briefly. "If it's who I suspect, I don't think we've got anything to worry about, Sata-chan."
* * * * *
The breath of the nondescript man in the brown overcoat froze in mid-air as he paused on the steps of the domed building. He looked around in careful casualness. Only a few dog walkers were visible at this time of night and they were hurrying their animals along, anxious to get in out of the frigid weather. Central Park was, for the most part, completely abandoned.
"Good. Nobody notice the disappearing man now," Garlon muttered to himself and pushed through the invisible energy barrier....
....And stepped straight into the war room of Madoc's castle in the Brocken. His footsteps echoed in the firelit antechamber as Garlon approached Madoc and Maeve waiting on the dais at the end of the room. The Unseelie lord gazed at his loyal lieutenant from his ornate, bat-winged throne. "Welcome, Garlon. How is New York?"
"Chilly, my lord." Garlon removed his gloves and shoved them in his pockets. "The humans are already clamoring for spring."
"We'll be heatin' things up for them soon enough," Maeve commented. She stepped away from her place at Madoc's side. "Did you bring it?"
Garlon nodded and pulled a large manila envelope from the inner recesses of his coat. "I pulled the background information from the archives of Archaeology Today as well. What's up?"
"A right interesting thing," Maeve answered. She took the envelope to a small polished table near Madoc and removed its contents - newspaper clippings and several photographs. "Yes," she said thoughtfully as she examined a black-and-white photo. "Those sharp eyes of yours spotted the symbols, indeed they did, Madoc. As soon as our expert gets here to confirm this, we'll know what we'll be gettin'."
Garlon raised an eyebrow. "Expert? What expert?"
"I believe Queen Maeve refers to me."
As the owner of the velvet-toned voice came forward, high heels clicking against the floor, Garlon made the mistake of looking. It was a walk he remembered all too well from his former life; a calculated, fluid strut as the tawny-haired woman stalked towards them. Her sleekly muscled form was wrapped in a deep red dress that screamed haute couture and the two young women who accompanied her wore their elegant black frocks like models straight off the catwalk.
As she passed Garlon, she regarded him coolly with tilted amber-colored eyes. A eerie luminescence lit them for a second and Garlon had a terrifying vision of being gobbled up, whiskers, tail and all. He swallowed the regressive squeak in his throat and curled his lip up a disdainful snarl instead.
Maeve stepped forward. "My dear Sekhmet," she said, nodding her head in acknowledgment. "We're so glad you could finally join us."
"A thousand pardons, my queen," Sekhmet replied, returning the gesture with a regal nod of her own. "Your summons came at an awkward moment. It was necessary to contrive a suitable reason to excuse myself from Lord Spencer's reception."
"I believe I only requested your presence," Madoc said with mild disapproval, "not these young women."
Sekhmet held her head high, unperturbed. "My servants are the legacy of the followers of Sekhmet. The seeds I sowed in ages past are still potent and strong." She raised her hands to shoulder height and her human mask dissolved, revealing the fiercely beautiful face of a lioness. "Behold, Lord Madoc! Reveal your true natures, my children. Release the beast within!"
The two young women slid the thin straps of their dresses off their shoulders and let their garments fall to the floor in silken heaps. As they stepped forward, their bodies began to shift and twist, falling to all fours as spotted fur began to creep over their bodies, sprouting tails and whiskers, their faces going from feminine beauty to cunning feline grace. The most unnerving and eerie aspect of the whole transformation for Garlon was that at no time did the girls utter a single word. They gave up their humanity without so much as a whimper.
The were-cheetahs came up to Sekhmet, one rubbing up against her thigh and the other kneeling at her feet. Sekhmet blinked slowly and smiled at Madoc. "In centuries past, I infused their ancestors with my essence. They worship me as their mother-goddess and would give their lives for me." She raised an eyebrow. "They serve me well and thus, my lord, serve you."
"Very well, Sekhmet," Madoc said, rising from his chair. "I will allow their presence... for now. Come and see what we have discovered."
"Aye," Maeve picked up a photo from the table and held it out to Sekhmet. "It's your opinion on this object we're wanting."
Sekhmet studied the photo carefully, arching an eyebrow. "A ritual cask... possibly alabaster or jasper... Egyptian, circa 800-400 B.C. It bears an animal-headed figure but this angle, the detailing is not good."
"There are several photos," Maeve indicated the table. "Please, do look at them as well."
Garlon watched as Sekhmet went over the photographs meticulously, never hurrying, with an air of aloofness that irritated him. She finally looked up at Madoc and Maeve. "Yes, you were correct to consult me. This artifact is dedicated to Isis-Hathor, one of my later incarnations according to my current cult. See here," she stabbed her finger at four symbols in a long narrow vertical box, "this cartouche bears the glyphs sacred to me. This cask is sealed with my name."
"Sealed?" Madoc asked. "What could it contain?"
"I am not certain, my lord, but uuas," Sekhmet pointed a manicured nail at a glyph which resembled a staff with an ornate head with curved prongs at the bottom, "is most prominent. That alone indicates great power. Where did you find this?"
"Actually, we didn't," Maeve answered smoothly. "This was discovered in a recent find by noted Egyptologist Marian Reynolds. It was one of a number of items she brought back with her from her last dig."
"Really?" Sekhmet was showing genuine interest. "I should very much like to know what else she has discovered."
"And you shall," Madoc commented. "According to what we know, Dr. Reynolds has this artifact and a few others to be studied at her Long Island home. You are to go there to retrieve it and bring it here to be examined. Garlon will accompany you through the portal as he has other business in New York."
"Surely, my lord," Sekhmet purred, "you must have better uses for a warrior such as myself. Skulking about in the dark like a common thief is a task better suited to," she flicked her amber-colored eyes to Garlon and back again, "others of your court."
"Ordinarily, I would agree," Madoc said in a deceptively pleasant tone of voice, "but this is not yet the proper time to strike at our enemies." His gray eyes became hard and flinty. "My order stands. Go to Long Island and retrieve the cask of Isis-Hathor."
Sekhmet matched his look for a few seconds. A subverbal growl rumbled through the room, prickling the hair on the back of Garlon's neck. "As you wish, Lord Madoc," Sekhmet said simply, giving a curt nod of her head. "If you will excuse me, I shall prepare myself." She turned and left the room, were-cheetahs following at her heels.
Garlon felt his shivers subside. It had taken all of his self-control not to bolt when Sekhmet had reverted to her fey form. He cursed Oberon again for the centuries he had spent transformed as an insignificant brown mouse. The longer one remained transformed, the more the new form became second nature, and Garlon had still had these moments where he had to fight the urge to twitch his nose and skitter along the floorboards. It always put him in a very bad mood.
Madoc turned his attention to other matters. "Garlon, how are things progressing with the project I assigned you earlier? Has Harrison made the arrangements?"
Garlon crossed his arms, grateful for a new topic. "We can infiltrate the Eyrie building any time we please, my lord. Harrison has made certain acquaintances within the Xanatos corporation and he's made a great deal of progress with the other Halflings. They've all gained confidence in their new skills. All is ready."
"That's good to hear," Maeve commented. "A better time to strike there's not likely to be."
"Agreed." Madoc nodded. "It is clear that Xanatos has had some prior knowledge of the Third Race. That iron-reinforced armor of his took a great deal of time to develop." He fixed a steady stare on Garlon. "Take a small cadre of Halflings and find out just who and where Xanatos has been getting his information from. Make sure to get into his computer as well. Everything he knows, anything that can interfere with our plans, I want to know it now."
Garlon nodded and took out his satellite phone. "Harrison? Get your team together. We're going in tonight." He snapped his phone shut and replaced it in his coat pocket. "And Miss Kitty?"
"Just point her in the right direction," Maeve answered. "Sekhmet can take care of herself."
A sharp staccato clicking against the tiles alerted them to Sekhmet's presence. She had resumed her human appearance and discarded the expensive red dress for sleek black leather - jacket, pants and high-heeled boots. A flash of blood-red silk beneath the jacket completed the ensemble. She looked both stylish and deadly. "I am ready," she announced to the room haughtily.
"Good," Madoc said. "Proceed with your missions."
"Best of luck," Maeve added. "Now be off with you."
Garlon wondered briefly if Sekhmet had overheard his 'Miss Kitty' crack by the deliberate way she was ignoring him. He shrugged it off and crooked a finger at her, trying not to break into an all-out run as the cat goddess and her pets stalked along behind him.
* * * * *
Soaring low towards the beachhead on Long Island that stretched in front of a series of houses, Graeme followed Hudson down as the old soldier looked out for the familiar sight of his friend's home.
"This doesn't look like a place to find a trainer," he said, holding onto his pet as they glided along. He wasn't too keen on going to a strange place, even if he had Hudson there for protection. But, his main concern of losing Nudnik made him shore up his courage.
Suddenly, Hudson called out, "Down there, Graeme! Make for a landing!" He dipped and swooped down, landing with a collective *THUMP* as he and Bronx hit the soft sand. Graeme faired a little better, letting his garg-pup go just in time to avoid a crash.
"Hudson? Are you all right?" he asked, concerned when the elder gargoyle rose slowly from his impact place.
"Och, I'm gettin' too old for this . . . I'm fine, Lad. Just not used to carryin' yon beast around so late!"
Bronx chuffed, as if laughing, then he turned to watch as Nudnik began nosing around in the sand, enraptured by the new scents he had discovered.
Graeme slyly smiled, then glanced over at the rows of houses along the backside of the beach. He looked back to his elder with some apprehension. "Your friend lives here, Hudson?" his words seeming to hang in the air amid puffs of his breath.
Brushing the sand from his leggings, Hudson nodded. "Aye. His name's Jeffrey Robbins, an' he's a good friend to the Clan. He doesn't know that we or any of the others are gargoyles, but he treats us like good friends." Hudson looked at Graeme squarely, adding, "The man is also blind, Lad, but don't be makin' like he's helpless. He can function just as well as anyone that still has his sight."
Rolling his eyes, the youth replied under his breath, "Duh!" Then, aloud he added, "Yes, sir. I'll be good."
Hudson nodded and motioned to the two gargoyle beasts. "Come on then. I'm sure he'll be happy to see me, but I'll have to make your introductions."
* * * * *
Inside, seated at his desk in his warm den, Jeffrey Robbins let his fingers fly over the keys of his Braille typewriter, while he spoke aloud to work out the structure of the piece before him.
"...'And so, with the current status of Human-Gargoyle relations, it is high time the populace of New York started to turn their thoughts toward other matters at hand.'" he said, pausing to take a breath and a sip of water. "'With the departure of such elements as the Phoenix Rising and the late Quarrymen movements, the people of Manhattan must now tackle more pressing social needs which are addressing us today, rather that stir up another 'witch hunt' during the lull of winter.'"
Gilly lazily yawned, content to stay on the homespun rug by the fireplace.
Robbins pulled the sheet of paper from the typewriter, his sensitive fingertips going over the raised spots on the surface, proofreading as he went. After a bit, he sat back and puffed out a sigh. "Whew! I think I almost liked it before I met Hudson, when I didn't have so much to write."
Just then, Gilly lifted her head from carpet before the fireplace, her ears pricking up as she heard something approaching the house. A second later, she was on her feet, barking happily, then she walked over to Robbins and placed her head on his knee.
"Hmm? What's up, girl? Someone coming to visit?" Robbins turned and rose smoothly, automatically going for the sturdy wooden cane he always kept nearby.
Reaching down to take Gilly's guide-on, he said, "Come on, Gilly. Take me to them."
Both dog and owner moved out of the den, with Robbins slightly surprised that Gilly was headed for the verandah, rather than the front door. With a puzzled frown, Robbins opened the door and waited.
"Now, who would be coming to visit me at this time of the night?"
A gruff but friendly voice replied, "Just an old friend, Jeffrey, who's purely sorry he hasn't come by to see you lately."
Robbins' face broke into a smile. "Hudson! Why, you old soldier . . . where have you been hiding yourself lately?" He reached out, and felt his old friend take his forearm in a welcoming clasp he had come to associate with his friend.
"Och, been seeing to the Clan, and helpin' others when I can." He made slight motion to the others, and said, "I'm nae alone t'night. Ye remember me tellin' ye about Bronx?
Robbins knelt and reached out, his hand immediately filled with Bronx's large head, who crooned softly as the man scratched his bat-winged ears. "Of course! Goodness, he's a regular brute isn't he?" he commented, noting the massive size of the guard-dog's shoulders and girth. "What type of breed is he?"
Hudson blinked, but he recovered quick enough, "Oh, let's just say he's a rare one, all right."
The elder turned and motioned to the youth standing shyly off to the side. "Jeffrey, I'd like you to meet . . . Graeme, my, er, grandson," he said, slightly stumbling for the right word. "Graeme, this is Jeffrey Robbins, a writer of books."
Graeme gave Hudson a sly look for the `grandson' remark, but he smiled and slowly offered his smaller hand to the dusky-skinned human. "I am pleased to meet you, sir."
Robbins took the offered hand, genuinely surprised. "I'm pleased to meet you as well, Graeme." In an aside, he exclaimed, "Why, Hudson!? I had no idea you were a family man! Why didn't you mention it before?"
Hudson tried not to look embarrassed, rubbing the back of his head. "Actually, it never came up before, Lad. Graeme's parents did quite a bit of travelin' in their line o' work," he explained, "and, he's been . . ."
"Staying with others until my parents got back," Graeme finished for Hudson, giving the old soldier a wink. "But, we're back to stay. Me, my sister, and my parents are all living with 'Grandfather' and the others!"
Before Hudson could say anything further, Nudnik suddenly galumphed over and, spying Robbins' cane, he tried to pounce on it to take it off to chew it to pieces.
"Hey, now! What's this?" Robbins asked, pulling his cane away.
As Graeme tried to restrain Nudnik, Hudson explained, "That lil' beastie be named Nudnik. We've been havin' some trouble as of late, gettin' him to behave and stop causing mass destruction back at home."
Robbins kept his cane back, but he reached out and gave Nudnik a pat on his head, which immediately earned him a full face SLURP when the garg-beast slipped free from the boy's grip.
"Hey! Down, Nuddie!" Graeme said sharply, dragging the beast back before he bowled Robbins over.
"Heh-heh-heh, now that's what I call a rambunctious puppy!" the blind author replied, rising to his feet. "Sort of reminds me of Gilly when she was that age."
"Gilly?" Graeme asked. "Who's Gilly?"
"Oh, that's short for 'Gilgamesh'," Robbins explained. "She's my guide dog." He gave a whistle, and Gilly stepped forward from the side, looking at the newcomers warily, but after seeing that none of them were harmful, she let them be.
Hudson cleared his throat, getting to the business at hand. "Jeffrey, we came here tonight to ask for your help. Nudnik needs to be . . . `house broken', an' unfortunately, I've not got the skills for handling him, much less teaching the wee beastie to behave. Since you work so well with Gilly, I was hoping-"
"That I could give you and your grandson some help? Hudson, I'd be delighted to offer anything that I can do."
Smiling, Graeme chirped, "Really? You can train Nudnik, Mr. Robbins, sir?"
Laughing, the author replied, "It would be my pleasure, and an honor. Just let me grab my coat and we can go down on the beach. There's hardly anyone out there at this time of night, and it's perfect for showing your Nudnik some basics of behavior, as well as having you learn the commands as well." With that, Robbins stepped inside briefly, returning as he slid into a light weather jacket.
"Thank you for your help, my friend," Hudson said sincerely. "The lad would have been heartbroken if we didn't have your help. One of our . . . benefactor's hired help has been kind of hard on the wee beast."
"That's understandable, Hudson," Robbins chuckled. "I remember when I first had to learn to make Gilly understand how she was to behave as a seeing eye dog.
At first, she was too full of beans and vinegar . . . never sat still, and almost never took to her training. If she hadn't finally settled down and eventually did learn the skills she needed, she and I would never have been together today."
Graeme looked at Gilly, then at the squirming pup in his arms. "Can you really teach me and Nudnik so he won't be a bother anymore?"
Smiling at the reference to him being a teacher, Robbins reached out and gave Graeme a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder. "Oh, I think we can manage, son. Come on, then. Obedience-101 is now officially in session."
* * * * *
"Gilly, sit! Stay. Now . . . good girl, stay." Robbins talked to his guide in a gentle, authoritative tone, slowly backing away on the stretch of cleared beach they had gathered on. Both Hudson and Bronx sat on a rock, half-buried in the sand nearby, watching as Graeme and Nudnik were standing a few feet away from Gilly.
Robbins came to a stop a few yards away, and said, "Gilly, heel!"
At that, the German Shepherd got up and trotted over to where the author was standing, walking around until she was at his side, where she promptly sat down and looked up, awaiting further commands.
Leaning down, Robbins gave Gilly a pat and a lot of "Good girl! That's the way." He straightened up and said, "You see, Graeme? It's a simple matter of applying simple commands and positive reinforcement. Let's see if you can get Nudnik to do the same."
Giving Hudson a look, to which the old soldier nodded, Graeme turned and faced his pet, who was standing there panting. "Nudnik . . . sit!"
The garg-pup looked at his master and whined, suddenly leaping up to paint his beaked face with another SLURP.
"No, down boy! C'mon now," he said, fending off further attempts to bathe him and putting Nudnik back on four paws. "Nudnik, sit!"
The beast growled and slowly relaxed, coming to rest on his haunches.
"Good boy! Good Nuddie!" Graeme scratched his ears and head spikes, making the little beast growl appreciatively.
"Excellent, Graeme," Robbins commented, "now let's see if he'll stay and then heel."
Copying what Robbins did with Gilly, the youth stood in front of Nudnik and commanded in a solemn tone, "Nudnik, stay. Got it, boy? Stay!"
Nudnik surprised him by crouching down, so that he was lying on the sand, looking up at him with a panting expression.
Satisfied, Graeme slowly backed away, making for a parallel place next to Robbins. Halfway there, he turned around to walk there, smiling a little at how easy this was turning out to be---
Only to find himself cannon-balled from behind, driven beak first into the sand by Nudnik -- who obviously thought this was some new game - who proceeded to nose around inside Graeme's vest, snuffling and searching for something.
Hudson smacked his face in empathic embarrassment, and even Bronx sighed. "This might be a wee bit harder than we thought!"
Robbins chuckled, "When training the younger generation, it never is any easier."
Rolling out from underneath the still snuffling pup, Graeme shook his head and spat out a beak full of sand, coughing as he tried to fend off Nudnik. "Nuddie! You were supposed to stay THERE until I said 'heel'!"
Nudnik only growled playfully, yipping when he sniffed out some wrapped candy in one of Graeme's pockets.
"Hey! Those are mine!" A short tussle was engaged over the sweets, at which left Hudson looking exasperated and Bronx with a look of 'ah... I can't look!', while Robbins tried not to laugh out loud.
Finally, the scuffle was ended, with Graeme able to get the candy away from his pet. "Swell."
Robbins came over and said, "I can tell what the trouble is here; Nudnik is still in that stage where he's easily distracted, so this is going to take some major reinforcement to make him understand what you expect of him. What was he trying to do just then?"
Graeme replied shyly, "He was after some Strawberry-Banana-Rama bubble gum I'd been saving."
"Well, if you can keep that away from him then we might have a better time with him," the author replied, holding out his hand. "Let me hold onto them for you, that way Nudnik won't be tempted any more."
Graeme handed the candy over, then climbed to his feet, brushing off the rest of the sand.
"How about we work on his basic commands while you're standing next to him?" Robbins suggested. "If he can understand that he is to obey them in your presence, then he'll have most of the general obedience basics down."
Sighing, Graeme looked at Nudnik, who had cocked his head at them both, panting with his tongue hanging out. "Okay, boy, let's try this again . . ."
* * * * *
The Brown Bag Deli - across the street from the Eyrie Building
A sudden gust of winter wind startled the few occupants of the small storefront eatery, mostly workers getting a late dinner. Few if any noticed the brown clad man standing by the door. Garlon turned down his collar on his coat and glanced around, focusing a group of three men sitting in a booth near the wall. Two of them were relatively unknown to him but the third, average-sized with red-gold hair and startling blue eyes, neatly attired in a dark business suit, was all too familiar.
"Mr. Harrison," Garlon said as he approached the booth.
The other two men jumped at his sudden appearance. George Harrison merely glanced at him over the rims of his tinted eyeglasses and moved over so Garlon could sit down. "Mr. Cohn," George replied smoothly. "We're ready when you are."
The fae-enhanced human nodded. "We've obtained the security passes of three of Xanatos' employees, a mid-level systems manager and two of his assistants." He smirked. "They're off having a very good time with Candy at a special party down in the Village. She'll see that they're out of the picture for a few days."
"And the computer systems?"
"That's where Zed and Casey come in," George said, nodding at the two Halflings across the table. "Casey used to crunch numbers for Cyberbiotics and Zed is a freelancer."
The pale young man with the peculiar haircut - head shaved to his crown and his remaining dark hair left long and swept back in a ponytail covering his ears - grinned over his cappuccino. "Hey, I'm a hacker and proud of it!"
The other, clean cut, olive-skinned with sleepy dark eyes, snorted. "You mean, you're just one of Dracon's high-tech thugs."
"Naw, strictly freelance and cash only. Beats all that corporate brown-nosing any day."
Casey started to response but George raised his hand. "Leave it, guys. We're here to do a job."
Garlon looked out the window at the street. "What about the gargoyles?"
"I've got a couple of spotters out. The old guy and one of the kids left with the beasts about an hour ago. The rest are up in the castle but it's been quiet. I've arranged for the others to provide some distractions as soon as we go in."
"Good," Garlon said curtly. "Very good. I think you've got everything covered."
"Depending on their security protocols," Casey said, "we figure we can be in and out in under an hour with all three of us working on it."
"Yeah, piece of cake," Zed added, sipping his coffee. "Easy as pie."
"Then let's go," Garlon said firmly and stood up.
* * * * *
The security guard on duty in the parking garage gave the three men the barest of glances. "Back again, guys?"
"Yeah," George replied, "We left something compiling. Gotta check on it." He yawned. "What a pain."
The guard stifled his own yawn. "Go on up, guys. Have a good evening."
Zed's eyes were dancing. When the elevator doors shut, he burst out laughing. "Man, that blows my mind! How do you do that?" He brandished the ID he had clipped to his lapel. "I mean, we look nothing like these dilberts!"
George shrugged. "The Changling Factor takes your own natural talents and enhances them. I was always good at making people believe what I wanted them to believe. You guys probably have something similar that's unique to you."
"Ummm," Casey frowned, "aren't we missing someone?"
"No," Garlon said and stepped away from the elevator wall.
Both of the junior Halflings jumped. "Geez!" Zed complained. "Stop doin' that! I never know when you're gonna jump out of the woodwork."
Garlon looked at him blandly. "Get used to it."
"So what are we going after?" George interjected smoothly, "What's Xanatos got in his computer that we need?"
"I want everything he's got on Maddox Technologies, iron-based defenses, energy weapons, anything he has documented on the Unseelie Court, Avalon, --"
Zed interrupted. "In short, we creep in under Xanatos' firewalls like tiny little mice and run away with the cheese." He made the mistake of blinking.
Garlon slammed Zed up against the wall. "Are you trying to be funny?" he asked in a sub-Arctic tone of voice.
"Hey! What's the big deal? Chill out, dude!"
"Zed, just shut up." George gave his underling a sharp look before putting a hand on Garlon's fist that was twisted in Zed's lapel. "We need him. You can give him an attitude adjustment later."
"Gentlemen?" Casey said hesitantly. "Our floor's coming up."
Garlon gave Zed one last hard thump against the wall before releasing him. "Right. He's your problem for now. Just crack into the computer system. I'll handle security."
Zed straightened his clothing and muttered to Casey, "Who does he think he is? The leader of the club?"
The brown-clad man didn't bother turning around as he growled, "I heard that."
The elevator doors opened and they went their separate ways.
* * * * *
Long Island, New York
A faint light outlined the edges of the French doors. The curved handles shook slightly before glowing red and dribbling down the door. Sekhmet pushed them open and stood in the doorway, hands on her hips as she surveyed the room arrogantly.
It was a serviceable abode, if bit austere and plebeian for her tastes. This Reynolds woman, like most scholars, cared very little for decorating and had left the task for others by the looks of things. Sekhmet approved of the clean lines of the furnishings, all done in desert colors of pale tan, browns, russets and the clear blue of the Egypt skies. A few tasteful relics encased in clear Plexiglas completed the room's decor.
The darker-colored were-cheetah on her left gave a hoarse, huffing growl. She glanced down, nonplused. "Yes, yes, Zuri. You are quite right. Let us proceed with this insignificant errand and be done with it." She patted the flat head of the animal on her right. "You too, Amarath. Seek out that which has my essence."
As her two servants moved off silently, Sekhmet reverted to her own lion-headed form. A myriad of information was instantly available to her with the first deep breath - leftover chow mien and stale coffee from the kitchen; a faint scent of salt water and rotting seaweed from the nearby beach; and something familiar that she had not smelled in a long time.
Curious, Sekhmet tracked the faint scent through the house. The study doors were locked but locks meant nothing to one who had been known as a destroyer of worlds. Sekhmet forced her way inside and was stunned at what lay before her.
On the east wall, an altar had been prepared on a low table. Perfumed ashes of cypress, pine and gardenia incense lay in a hammered bronze dish around which garnets and other red stones had been strewn. Above the altar, a image of a lion-headed goddess was painted on a tapestry of stiff linen.
Sekhmet touched the wall hanging gingerly. It had been a long time since she had been in a place where she was worshipped. The adoration of her were-cheetahs was an everyday occurance to which she had grown accustomed but coming upon an altar consecrated to her like this was a rare novelty. Oh, Sekhmet knew of small gatherings, cultists in Egypt, a temple in the Nevada desert. Even with the constant metallic whine of technology, she could still hear her name being invoked halfway around the world.
Her fingers felt a sharp edge beneath the fabric. Pushing a chair up to the wall, she carefully removed the hanging and draped it over the nearby desk before returning to the newly-revealed wall safe. Sekhmet closed her eyes and rested her fingers millimeters above the metal door. Concentrating, she focused on the gears and tumblers, concentrated on moving them into their proper places.
The cold metal was not cooperating. Sekhmet bared her teeth and growled. Her eyes began to burn with a golden fire. "Enough of this," she snarled and cast her wrath at the barrier. The paint on the wall began to hiss and bubble as the metal door of the safe liquefied and poured down the wall. Miraculously, the contents of the safe were barely scorched. "It's good to know I haven't lost my touch," Sekhmet commented and reached inside.
Atop a number of manila folders brimming with papers, backup tapes and computer disks was a long narrow box, roughly six inches wide by fourteen inches long. Sekhmet touched it and her fingers tingled.
"Yesssss...," she hissed and pulled out the cardboard box eagerly. It was secured with rough twine, no doubt done at the dig site. She tore away the string and threw aside the lid. A radiant, vicious smile crossed her face as she lifted the polished stone box reverently.... and the second her fingers touched it, the room was flooded with a glorious, blinding, white light.
* * * * *
XE Computer Center, Eyrie Building
One swipe of the magnetic pass card and the door clicked open. Casey whistled as they walked into the core of Xanatos Enterprises' computer operations. Bank after bank of blinking and whirring equipment lined the walls - hard drives and tape banks and more.
"Iris Indigo boxes from Silicon Graphics. Top of the line graphic interface." Zed touched a console, caressing it affectionately as he scanned the room. "Wow! He's got some Crays back there too."
"Don't starting drooling," Casey commented as he started emptying out the leather briefcase he had brought up with him. "You can't take them with you." He passed two thick, square boxes to George and Zed. "Compressed CD writers. Plug 'em in. I've got plenty of blanks." He gave them each a box of small golden discs.
"Whoa," Zed commented as he examined his equipment. "I've only heard rumors about these. They're not scheduled for mass-production for another four or five years. How did you get ahold of these?"
"Money talks," Casey replied. He tossed his head towards George. "And the boss has connections in high places."
George picked out a console of his own and did as Casey and Zed were doing. The two computer experts might have wildly different personalities but they were all business as they logged on. "You two know more about this than I do," George said, "What's the quickest way to do this?"
"First, we locate the directory--," Casey started to say but his words abruptly stopped. His dark brown eyes flared to a brilliant neon green and his fingers twitched as they rested on the keyboard. Barely breathing, he blinked and the computer screen came to life, scrolling lines and lines of data past faster than the eye could follow.
"What the -" George glanced between Casey and the computer. "What's he doing?"
"He's interfacing with the database," Zed answered. "It's like he's talking to the computer." He looked at his own hand. "I wonder if I can do that?"
"Well, he's going awfully fast." George frowned. "What if he misses what we're looking for?"
"Accessing....," Casey droned in a hollow tone of voice. "Private projects file, Xanatos, David. Sub-files: The Cauldron of Life. C.O.Y.O.T.I. Versions 1.0 through 4.0. Steel Clan Robots -"
"Whoa!" Zed put his hand on Casey's shoulder. "Transfer all weapons files to my terminal for downloading. I'll handle them." He kicked out an office chair and took a seat, fingers flying over the keyboard as he began to work.
George leaned towards the monitor. "What else do you have there, Casey? Anything to do with Maddox Technologies or Avalon? You know the list we have."
"Accessing....expanding search parameters."
"Include gargoyles as well," George added as an afterthought.
Casey blinked twice before answering. "Entering File Archives.... Terminated Projects. Project Metamorphosis: technical lead, A. Sevarius. Project Prodigal Son: technical lead: A. Sevar-"
"Doctor Anton Sevarius?" George's eyes narrowed. "What do the files say about him?"
"Sevarius was acquired from Cyberbiotics to work at the Gen-U-Tech facility, left to work for Nightstone Unlimited and then for Maddox Technologies. Resume and scholastic transcripts available."
"I want everything Xanatos has on Sevarius," George said eagerly. "Transfer it to this other terminal. You download the files on the remaining data on Maddox and Avalon."
Casey's eyes never left the screen. "Acknowledged."
* * * * *
Outside, Graeme and the others were resting from the latest series of attempts to get Nudnik to understand the commands he was to obey.
"Whew! Next time, can't we pick a softer beach?" the youth quipped, digging out another couple of handfuls of sand from his vest. He glared at Nudnik, who sat there panting and grinning. "You COULD cooperate just a little more, y'know?!"
Hudson and Robbins chuckled, but not so that it made Graeme feel more embarrassed. "At least the wee beastie is improving. He's only tackled ye one out of five times, lad."
"I'd say that's a marked improvement," Robbins added, smiling, "especially since we've been at this for a few hours now. Oh, don't get too discouraged, Graeme. This sort of thing takes time. If you keep at this, working a few hours a night, he'll eventually take to your commands like it was second nature."
Sighing, Graeme reached over and gave his pet a scratch behind the ears. "I hope so . . . don't want to lose Nudnik."
Just then, Gilly looked over her shoulder and woofed softly. Bronx saw her reaction and clambered to his feet, sniffing the air. Suddenly, as if the two pets were in synch, both Gilly and Bronx growled menacingly.
Hudson turned to look at the older beast. "What's with ye, boy? What's wrong?"
Robbins frowned, reaching down to take Gilly's harness. "Gilly usually acts like this when there's a stranger around . . . wonder what's going on?"
"Aye, I would like to know as well," Hudson said, turning just in time to see one of the houses suddenly flare up with light from inside. "Jalapeña! What the devil was that?!?"
"Woah!" Graeme gasped, seeing the same thing his elder did.
"What's happened, Hudson? What's going on?" Robbins asked.
"The house next to yours," Hudson explained quickly, "the one with high walls `round the back . . . a light just flashed from inside!"
"That's odd . . . My friend Marian owns that house, and she left yesterday for a seminar in Boston," the author replied.
Hudson rose and shot a look at Bronx, who turned to look at him with expectation. "We'll check this out then! Ye best go for the police, Jeffrey, 'cause I have a feeling they'll be needed! Graeme!" he said to the youth, "Stay with him and don't cause any trouble!"
"Aw, Hudson! I want to help!" Graeme protested.
"Nay, lad," the old soldier countered, "it's best for ye tae stay with Jeffrey! Come on, Bronx!" With that, the old soldier and Bronx lit out for the house.
Graeme was about to bolt after him, but Robbins put a hand on his shoulder and turned him back towards the house. "Come on, son! If Hudson says to stay put, I have a feeling he means it," he said firmly. "Besides, he can take care of himself!"
"It's not fair! I want to help like I do with mother and father!"
"I understand, but I'll need you two to come back inside with me so I can call the police," Robbins explained, using Gilly to head back to his house while he dragged the youth along with him.
* * * * *
Hudson crept up to the back of the house, edging his way along one of the walls with Bronx just a step behind him. Listening carefully, he could hear someone . . . something moving inside.
Moving his hand to his sword, he sniffed lightly and grimaced. "Whoever they are . . . they not be human. Come on, boy," he said softly to his companion, "Let's get inside and see what's brewin'."
Bronx woofed in agreement as they turned to find a way into the house. They soon found the back way in through a set of large bay windows, and after a short deliberation, Hudson used his sword to force the lock. Cautiously, they stepped into what appeared to be a breezeway, then made their way into the main room.
"Look around, boy," Hudson growled softly, "They have to be here somewhere . . ."
"If you seek Sekhmet, gargoyle, then seek no more. I am here."
Turning quickly, Hudson spied someone standing in the doorway leading to the back of the house, a slim feminine form silhouetted in the moonlight. As she stepped towards them with predatory grace, her unearthly qualities became more apparent as Sekhmet stared at them with golden eyes in a lion's face. At once, Bronx's hackles were up, and Hudson moved into a battle stance reflexively.
"How curious... but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to see you here," Sekhmet said in a silken purr tinged with malice. "After all, by Madoc's account, you creatures infest this city like rats."
"Ye'll find we're not so easy to get rid of, lass," Hudson growled. "Now, what be ye doing in this house?"
"My business here, old one, is truly none of your concern." The cat-like Unseelie stalked into the room, keeping her unblinking gaze on them while she placed an ornate box on one of the low tables that decorated the room. "That which was once mine is mine again. As it should be."
Hudson shook his head. "It belongs to the woman that lives here now, an' I believe she'd appreciate it if ye'd leave th' home as ye found it."
Sekhmet gave the old soldier an amused look. "And how do you propose to make me relinquish my property to some mortal?" She chuckled briefly, then fixed the two gargoyles with a look of utter disdain. "You have no idea whom you are facing, gargoyle!"
Hudson drew his sword with practiced ease. "I see someone that is tryin' tae rob a friend of my friend, lass, and I'll put an end tae yuir thievin' before ye can enjoy yuir ill-gotten gain!"
Placing her hands on her hips, Sekhmet gave him a look not unlike a cat with a catnip mouse. Her pupils glowed bright green. "You are welcome to try, old one," she grinned, crooking one finger at him and Bronx, smiling challengingly. "Try and see how you fare against she was once known as the Eye of Ra and the Destroyer of Worlds."
"Have it yuir way, lass," Hudson replied, taking one step towards her.
A deep, growling snarl filled the room as quicker than lightning, an attack came from the shadows. A spotted paw, looking for a few seconds almost like a hand, whipped out and Hudson bellowed, stepping back and clutching his hand as his sword flew from his grip. The weapon whik-whiked across the room, imbedding point first into the wood shelf of the mantle over the fireplace. Both he and Bronx looked on with horror as a large spotted cat-creature stood there between them and Sekhmet, snarling low in its throat as it raised its hackles on its back, its head lowered menacingly towards them.
Another growl behind them alerted the gargoyles to the presence of another beast, just like the one in front of them, albeit with a darker coat. Both animals seem to change before their eyes, going from four-legged predators to rising on their hind legs in a curious blend of human and cheetah. One of them made a strange, harsh call. Bronx lowered his head and growled in response.
"Excellent Amarath . . . Zuri . . ." the Unseelie sorceress said appraisingly. "Now, to deal with these . . . vermin . . ."
* * * * *
Back in Robbin's house, the blind author was just finishing his phone call to the authorities. "Yes, just send anyone you can, before whoever it is causes anymore trouble."
Hanging up the phone, he sighed. "There. The police are on their way. I just hope they get here before Hudson runs into any trouble."
Graeme looked at Nudnik and tried to smile, just before stuffing the bubble gum he had gotten back from Robbins into his vest. "I think he'll be okay. Grandad's been taking care of himself for a long time. Hasn't he, boy?" The garg-pup panted and gave his master a canine grin.
Chuckling, Robbins replied, "Still, I'd feel a lot better knowing who would try to break into Marian's home. I mean, she does bring home some incredible finds from her digs . . . she's even let me examine some interesting items upon occasion. . . but she never brings home anything of high value. Those stay at the museum."
Just then, an eerie keening wail cut through the night, sending a shiver across Graeme's spine and making Nudnik cringe a bit. Gilly seemed to balk at the sound also, whining at her master's side.
"What in Heaven's name was that?" Robbins asked.
Graeme's suspicions were raised, but he didn't give them voice. Before he could reply, a snarling howl burst out, followed by a roar that the youth immediately recognized. "Hudson!" he thought. "That sounded like Bronx! He might be in trouble!"
Robbins frowned. "The police won't get here in time! Maybe you'd better go and help him."
"Me?!? What about you?"
"While I'm not helpless, I'd be as much use to Hudson as that magnetic diskette holder over there," the author pointed out. "Besides, you might just be able to give him some much needed help."
Graeme looked skeptical, but another howl from Bronx - this one sounding like he had been hurt, bad - made up his mind for him. Besides, he had originally wanted to go help Hudson in the first place. "Well, I guess you do have a point. C'mon, Nudnik! Hudson and Bronx need our help!"
Nudnik yelped happily, and followed his master out.
"Just remember to be careful, Graeme! And don't make any more noise than you have too! If we can keep my neighbors from getting curious about all of this, then they can stay in their homes safely." Robbins cautioned.
"Yessir," the youth replied, and with that he and the garg-pup were out the door.
* * * * *
Graeme and Nudnik edged around the open bay window, careful not to attract too much attention from outside or in. Having to cross into the elaborate kitchen, he placed a hand on the pup's head spikes and guided them silently through.
"I don't like this . . . " he said softly, looking for any sign of Hudson or Bronx.
Nudnik suddenly woofed softly, crouching low as he made his way inside.
"What's up, boy?"
Nudnik didn't answer, but he came to a stop in front of the doorway that lead out of the kitchen into one of the rooms of the house. A low whine came forth, and he looked back at his young master quizzically.
Not sure what was going on, Graeme slid over next to his pet and looked over his shoulder. What he saw made him turn a pale shade of green.
A woman in black leather clothing with a face like a cat was looking on with casual disdain while a pair of big spotted cats were crouched by her side, holding Hudson and Bronx at bay. Hudson was at a disadvantage, since he had lost his sword, which was sticking out of the mantle over the fireplace just a few feet away.
"Doki! This does NOT look good!" Graeme said to himself, quickly ducking back around the edge of the door. He quickly summed it up, realizing that the police would come too late to stop the thief, and he knew better than to rush in and try to tackle them alone.
"Well, old one," came the stranger's voice, smooth as honey, "I'm afraid you are no match for my children . . . and certainly no match for me!"
Graeme quickly wracked his brain. "There has to be something I can do!? Maybe if I can rush her? Naw, she's got to be stronger if she can put Hudson down!"
He was nearly at a loss, when a silent suggestion caught his attention, and a plan suddenly germinated in his mind. "Oh, boy . . . it just might work!"
Quickly, he pulled out the small bag of bubble gum he had taken back from Robbins and plucked out several pieces of the fruity confection. Tearing off the wrappers, all the while hoping nothing would happen to Hudson and Bronx while he was preparing, he jammed each piece into his mouth and chewed them up.
After a bit he stopped, pulling out his metal slingshot as he looked back around the corner to make sure he still hadn't been discovered. Reaching up, he pulled out a big wad of the sticky gum from his beak. Revising his original thought, he looked over and noticed a jar of pepper on the counter, and then he remembered some of the sand that was still in his pockets.
Putting the wad back inside his mouth for more chewing, he dug out some of the sand and placed it in a spare plastic pouch from one of his other pockets. He then took the jar of hot stuff and added a liberal amount to the sand in the pouch, mixing it around so that every grain of sand was covered with the powered pepper.
Nudnik looked over his shoulder at the youth, hearing the sounds of chewing, as he sniffed the air curiously.
Graeme fixed the pouch closed and looked at his pet, a sudden evil grin spreading over his face. Fishing the well chewed gob from his beak, he waved it in the air in front of him. "Hey, Nuddie! Want some gum?!?"
Nudnik turned around fully, his stub of a tail whirling as he panted, eyeing the gob of pre-chewed candy with growing excitement . . .
* * * * *
Hudson scowled at the two were-cheetahs, then at Sekhmet. "Lass, I'm nae gettin' any younger! If yuir aboot to do me in . . . get on wi' it!"
The feline Unseelie chuckled, her amber eyes glittering coldly. "Oh, you're dead already, gargoyle. I prefer not to rush things, unlike some others I could name," she said with a sniff of distaste. "Now that I have the cask of Isis-Hathor, I can savor a little mayhem . . . and rid my liege of a pair of his foes." She raised her hand, a coruscating ball of fire from between her outstretched fingers.
Suddenly, a voice piped out, "Hello, Kitty! Wanna play?!?"
Sekhmet snarled at the intrusion, whirling around just in time as a fast moving object came at her face, impacting with a wet, sticky SPLAT!
"AAAAaargh!!! What the-?!?" she screamed, reaching up to tear the gunk from her face, only to have it snag in her hands and fur.
"Nudnik! GET THE GUM, BOY!"
Before either the Unseelie warrior or her were-cheetahs could turn to attack, a small tan bundle burst into the room, barking and yapping as it cannon-balled into Sekhmet, driving her to the floor.
Not waiting to find out why or how Graeme and his garg-pup had gotten involved, Hudson roared and swiped the were-cheetahs from in front of him, leaping towards the fireplace and wrenching his sword from the stonework. Bronx responded in likewise fashion, tackling one of the were-cheetahs and driving it into a coffee table amid more snarls and barking.
The remaining were-cheetah turned away from Hudson briefly to spy Graeme at the doorway. It made to leap when Graeme pulled out another wad of gum and loaded it into his slingshot.
"Here, neko-kun! Gotta present for you too!" With a FLING!, the wad of gum sailed through the air and smacked the beast on her nose, getting into her eyes. She snarled and pawed at her muzzle and eyes, making the whole mess even worse.
Meanwhile, Sekhmet was snarling wetly, pinned under Nudnik's 200-plus pounds while the immature gargoyle beast slurped and licked at the mass of gum on her face. "Aaahhh! Get it off! Get this, Arrgh, beast off of me this INSTANT!!!" She soon had her hands before her, and with a mighty shove, she hurled the drooling beast from her chest. Nudnik sailed across the floor, scrabbling as he tried to right himself, only to crash into the sofa.
Sekhmet lurched to her feet, wiping the slime from her face, only to see one of her were-cheetahs out of action and the other now faced by a very much recovered Hudson.
"Who dares defy me with a child's prank?!?" she snarled, turning just in time to see a gargoyle youth aim a slingshot at her, a odd colored pouch loaded into the sling.
"Head's up!" Graeme let the pouch fly, grinning as it impacted against her face in a spray of brown sand.
Aghast at such impertinence, the feline Unseelie blindly raised her hand to fire a burst of energy at him . . .
When, all at once she felt a sudden, inexorable, uncontrollable urge to scratch out her eyes as they began to burn with a heat undreamed of. "Aaugh! Curse you, boy!" Her hands flew at her face, chasing the sensations with her long-nailed fingers as she tried to be rid of them. "AAAaah! Take this wretched fire from my eyes!!!"
Graeme spied a soda water dispenser on one of the cabinets. Smirking, he said, "Sure! Always glad to oblige!" With a deft push on the trigger, he aimed the stream of seltzer at Sekhmet and gave her the whole bottle full in the face.
Sputtering and yowling, she backed away hastily, tripping over the ruins of one of the tables and falling with a splat.
Graeme grinned and thumbed the trigger again, frowning when only a few feeble spurts came out. "Uh-oh! No more bu-wets!"
Meanwhile, Hudson had knocked the remaining were-cheetah out cold, and had turned to see the series of attacks Graeme had put on Sekhmet. "Lad! I told ye to stay put, but I am glad tae see ye disobeyed me. Just this once!"
Growling in outrage, the Unseelie sorceress bolted to her feet with a scream. "I will NOT be belittled by a mere CHILD! I am the Destroyer, and I will see you DIE!" She blinked several times to clear her eyes, only to see Hudson facing her in a squared off stance, his sword pointed directly at her face.
Noticing her hesitation at his sword, the old soldier snarled, "I'd say the odds have changed, Lass . . . care tae go around again? Or would ye rather leave tae clean yuir whiskers?"
Growling, but wary of the iron in his sword, Sekhmet judged her position. Hudson and Bronx were facing her, as well as the unnamed gargoyle youth and the smaller beast, whom she regarded with disgust as it got to its feet again, making to pounce at her once more.
Her anger soared, and a crackle of energy surrounded her hands as a ball of dancing flames appeared over her head, with an Egyptian eye in the center. "I will NOT let a mere boy and his ancient gargoyle defeat ME! Not while I possess the power to shatter mortals with a thought!" She was worked up into a seething rage, and she prepared to blast Hudson and his cohorts out of existence...
A sudden mechanical wailing caught her attention, snapping her head around sharply. Looking out one of the windows, she spied the flickering blue-red lights of the local law enforcers. The hard cold reality hit. It was unthinkable for a person of her social status to be caught in this compromising situation. All that mattered now was the completion of her mission.
Snarling, she turned back to face Hudson and the others. "You have escaped a miserable death, old one. Pray you do not meet me again." With that, she snatched up the polished stone cask, and she and her were-cheetahs vanished.
* * * * *
Garlon was starting to get bored.
He'd completed his third patrol circuit of the computer facility and the surrounding floor of darkened cubicles and locked offices. His footsteps echoed in the dim hallways. The darkness was strangely soothing after his brief encounter with Sekhmet and her were-cheetahs. He wondered briefly whose twisted idea it had been to throw them together, Madoc or Maeve, and decided it really didn't matter. Both of the Unseelie leaders would have found some small amusement in his discomfort.
A strange tingling prickled the back of his neck. Garlon grimaced and ran his hand under his collar and up into his mouse-brown hair. Instead of relieving it, the sensation started to grow stronger. He wondered briefly if Xanatos had some sort of subsonic detection field up but then it occurred to him that there might be a simpler solution.
Closing his eyes, Garlon focused all his senses on the unseen world around him, the invisible energies that powered the magical field surrounding the Earth. The alteration was so slight, so subtle that he almost missed it. Someone was using magic. And they were very, very close.
Madoc's orders were to remain covert and out of sight. Garlon glanced down the hall at the computer lab. George was more than capable of handling anything trouble that might come their way. In a split second, Garlon made his decision and began to track down the source of the magical disturbance.
An elevator, several flights of stairs and a few tight air ducts later, Garlon found himself creeping silently through what appeared to be Xanatos' own living quarters. He had neatly avoided Xanatos and his wife and the few gargoyles in the castle, an easy trick with both sentry beasts gone. The prickling on the back of his neck was growing stronger with every footstep. He was so close to the magic that he could taste it.
"This door... no, this one!" Garlon muttered to himself. He turned the doorknob and opened the door carefully.
The first thing he noticed was the scent of fresh baby powder in his nostrils. He blinked. A merry aerial parade of stuffed toys were dancing to a music box melody, high above a regal-looking crib at the far side of the room.
Garlon stepped in, quiet as a mouse, and peered in at the sleeping child. He removed his right glove and barely brushed his fingers against the red-headed baby's temple. His eyes widened. It was diluted and unshaped, weakened by human blood, but somehow this child had the gift of the Third race.
"Well, well, little one," Garlon murmured. "You have great potential. I wonder who tarried with mortals to produce the likes of you?" He started to concentrate his powers for a deeper look.
"Step away from the crib."
Garlon's head snapped up at the sound of the cold, no-nonsense voice. Standing the doorway was Xanatos' executive assistant, Owen Burnett. The pale blonde man looked immensely displeased.
"I'm afraid that I'm going to have to ask you to leave, sir."
"Oh?" asked Garlon, with an inward sneer. "And if I refuse?"
An iridescent, glowing whirlwind engulfed the figure of Owen Burnett. Invisible hands grabbed Garlon and forcibly removed him from the nursery, throwing him against the hallway wall with a thump. Garlon rolled to his feet and looked up to see the lightshow subside to reveal Oberon's white-haired trickster.
Puck gently shut the nursery door before smiling coldly at him. "I've asked very nicely and I'm in a particularly bad mood tonight. If you don't have the sense to leave on your own, then you'll have to face me, Garlon," Puck morphed his face into that of James Cagney and said in a reasonable imitation of the actor's voice, "you dirty rat!"
"Oh, please!" Garlon muttered disgustedly. "A thousand years living among the humans and that's the best you can do?" He fired off several fireballs and melted into the shadows.
Floating in mid-air, Puck neatly deflected the flaming orbs. "Game, set, match!" he crowed. Looking around, Puck narrowed his eyes. "'Eeny Meeny Miney Mouse, Who's been creeping in my house?'"
"Your house, is it?" Garlon's voice echoed hollowly off every wall. "Once a servant, always a servant, eh, Puck?"
"Takes one to know one," Puck quipped back. "Madoc Morfryn has you running through mazes, doing his dirty work."
Garlon growled low under his breath. He flicked his eyes to the light fixtures in the ceiling. Placing his hand on the wall, he sent a power surge through it . One after another, the lights exploded above Puck's head, showering him with sparks and flooding the hallway with a brilliant flash.
White fire blazed from Puck's eyes as he looked straight at Garlon. "Nice try, cuz, but it backfired. Peek-a-boo!! I see you!!" Bolts of energy shot from his eyes, catching Garlon square in the center of his chest and sending him careening down the hall through the swinging doors of the castle kitchen.
Broadway and Angela looked up from the dinner dishes as the brown clad man tumbled across the floor. "What the -" Broadway stammered and started to step forward.
"Leave him," Puck ordered as he sailed into the room. "He's mine!"
Garlon snatched a knife up with his gloved hand and flipped it across the room. Puck dodged it, grinning like a fool as the blade wedged itself in the wall.
"Ordinarily, this being the kitchen, I'd offer you a cookie but you'd just want a glass of milk to go with it and then I'd never get rid of you!" A plate materialized in Puck's hand. "So how about an order of nachos instead?" He flung it back at Garlon; cheese, chips, plate and all.
Hot, sticky, orange glop plastered Garlon's smart brown overcoat. His arms had shielded most of his face but a smear of the sticky stuff was splashed across his cheek. He scraped it off and sniffed his fingers. Two red spots rose in his cheeks and he gave Puck a venomous look.
"Cheese? You covered me in CHEESE??" Raw power crackled all around him. "I HATE CHEESE!"
"It's queso, actually." Puck shrugged. "Go fig. You used to love the stuff. You know, creeping around the wainscotting, nibbling at-"
With a wordless roar, Garlon launched himself at Puck, sending them both back through the kitchen doors. Broadway and Angela stood there open-mouthed, staring as the doors slowly oscillated shut.
"What do you suppose that was all about?" Broadway asked. "What was the big stink about cheese, any way? Do you suppose he was lactose-intolerant or something?"
"I really don't know," Angela replied. She shook her head and looked sharply at her blue-skinned beau. "But I do know that that's one of Madoc's henchmen. Let's go tell Xanatos and Father."
* * * * *
The Library, Wyvern Castle
Lex caught Goliath looking at him out of the corner of his eye. He pressed his lips together tightly and turned the page. Two paragraphs down and he knew he was doomed. His eyes started to water, his shoulders began to shake, and he just couldn't hold in the giggles any longer.
Goliath waited patiently as the web-winged gargoyle laughed himself out, the open book clutched against his chest, and his tail slapping against the side of the sofa. Lex wiped his eyes and regarded his clan leader weakly. "Sorry, Goliath. I just couldn't help it."
"No apologies are necessary," Goliath rumbled with a smile. "It's good to hear you laugh again. It must be a very good book."
"Oh, it's a scream. The author really knows how to tell a funny story." Lex stuck a talon in it to mark his place and showed the colorful cover to Goliath. "My friend, Liz, recommended it to me. She's gotten into playing an on-line game based on this series of books."
"And she wants you to play too so now you're reading." Goliath chuckled. "Clever girl."
Lex blushed. "Yeah..., well..., maybe. I don't always spend all my time reading computer manuals, you know."
Ariana came into the library, chewing on her lip. "Uncle Lex?" she said pensively, leaning against the arm of the sofa. "Um.... I don't want to bother you but..."
"It's okay, Ariana." Lex put his book down. "What is it?"
The little red female played with one of beaded strands in her hair. "I was playing my Sailor Senshi game on the computer and, um..., I think something's wrong with it."
"And you want me to take a look?" Lex stood up and nodded at Goliath, who returned the gesture and went back to his own reading. "It's okay, Ari. You know I'm always happy to help you and your brother with your computer games."
Ariana slipped her hand into his. "I don't think it's my game. I think it's the computer. It's running reeeeeeally slow."
Lex frowned. "That's odd." He squeezed her hand as they walked from the room. "I'll sort it out. Don't worry."
Goliath returned to his book but his peace and quiet did not last. Angela entered the library a few minutes later. "Father!" she called out. "We have trouble!"
"What is it, Angela?" he asked, setting aside his book and standing at the same time.
"One of Madoc's men is in the castle," Angela reported. "He and Puck were fighting in the kitchen."
"In the castle?" Goliath's eyes glowed. "How did he get in? For what purpose?"
"I do not know, Father," Angela answered. "Apparently, Puck found him. Their battle took them away from the kitchens. Broadway is following them while I came in search of you and Xanatos."
"Brooklyn and Sata went out," Goliath rumbled, "and Lexington is with Ariana. I'd rather he stay to protect her. We'll have to handle this ourselves. Come, Angela." With that, father and daughter left the library in search of the intruder.
* * * * *
"Now," Lex said, as he sat down at the keyboard, "let's show this computer who's boss, hmm?" He gave Ariana a reassuring smile as she leaned on the desk.
It took Lex only a few minutes to agree that the problem was something more than just a faulty game CD. Graeme had described his sister's favorite computer pastime as a badly animated superhero wannabe game for girls and privately, Lex had to agree. The software development was clearly rushed and the CGI was a joke. He made a mental note to 'borrow' Ariana's game and do a little private tinkering with its code.
"Well, Ari, you're right," Lex said finally. "It's something else. There's a lot more lag time here than there should be."
"What can we do, Uncle?"
Lex winked at her and reached behind his ear for his computer jack. "I'll just get up close and personal with the problem." He plugged himself into the computer and one of his eyes flared up as he connected to the server.
Lexington was scrolling through lines of code as he answered absently, "Hmmmph?"
"Does that hurt?" Ariana asked timidly. "Hooking into the computer, I mean?"
The web-winged gargoyle tore his attention away from the logarithms before his eyes and spared Ariana a look. She was chewing on one of her braids pensively, looking genuinely worried and his heart melted. "No, sweetheart. It doesn't hurt me at all." He smiled sadly. "Since I'm stuck with my cybernetics, I might as well get some use out of them."
"Oh, Uncle!" Ariana impulsively hugged him. "That's what you always say."
Lex raised a brow ridge curiously. As far as he knew, that was the first time he had ever said anything about his cybernetic implants with any of the clan since they had learned that he had them. He was about to query her further when his internal search of the XE computer core turned up something interesting. A huge chunk of Xanatos' archival files were being accessed.
"Hey....," Lex mumbled. "What's this?" An entire block of file names were flashing, indicating that they were active. He probed deeper.
"Somebody's been rummaging around in the central computer core." He narrowed his eyes and frowned. "And somebody's still there. Ariana, get on the phone and call up Xanatos. Tell him he's got hacker infestation."
He heard Ariana run across the room to the phone but didn't look up. Lex was too busy tracing the computer activity back to its source. Talons flying across the keyboard, he pulled up one of the 'really useful' files Liz had given him. She once had a problem with an on-line pest and in typical Liz fashion, had 'eliminated' him with an especially nasty worm program. Lex had been studying it and thanking his lucky stars that she considered him one of her friends.
The computer pirates were methodically downloading some of the older files from the archives. Lex neatly inserted the worm virus into one of the subfiles currently being processed and chuckled to himself.
"That ought to give them something to think about," Lex said smugly. He glanced over at Ariana who had the phone to her ear. "Did you get Xanatos?"
"Yes, uncle." She held out the receiver. "He's right here."
Lex took it from her. "Xanatos? Anybody supposed to be working down in the computer core tonight?" He nodded at Xanatos' response. "I didn't think so. I just gave your hackers something to keep them busy. Notify security and we'll meet you down there."
"Action time?" Ariana asked hopefully.
Lex grinned back at her. "Go get your stick."
* * * * *
XE Computer Center, Eyrie Building
The last of the files on the Gen-U-Tech mutation projects were in the download queue when George stopped to check the time. He frowned at the cartoon monkey on his watch. "Gents, are we about done here? We need to wrap this up."
"Almost." Zed was twirling a pencil through his long fingers. "I've hit a security protocol. I can't seem to get the password right." He sighed. "And this is a very recent file. Whatever it is, they've only been working on it since the boss came out."
George swiveled around in his chair. "Casey? Can you do anything with it?"
The olive-skinned Halfling blinked. Casey had been almost completely silent, answering only when spoken to by either of his two colleagues. Moving like an automaton, he removed the tiny compact disc he had just finished with and replaced it with a fresh one. His fingers flew across the keyboard.
"Accessing.... Password denied.... Password denied...." Casey's tone of voice remained constant but he frowned, becoming visibly irritated. "Password denied...."
The back of George's neck began to tingle. He yanked the storage unit off his console and stuffed it back into the brief case. The mini-discs went into his own pocket discreetly as he retrieved his celphone. He punched up a number.
Zed looked at him warily. "What's up?"
"I'm not sure," George answered, "but Garlon's not answering. Pack it up. I've got a bad feeling about this."
"Got it!" Casey's unexpected exclamation caught their attention. "Accessing file.... Weapons development division... Research into ferrous-based defensive and offensive weaponry... Sub-harmonic magnetic resonance... Developmental specs for-Urk!!" His body suddenly convulsed and he pushed himself away from the console violently.
"What is it?" George demanded. He grabbed Casey as the halfling computer jockey fell from his chair in convulsions. George snatched up a folded sheaf of papers and wedged it in Casey's mouth. "Hang in there," he said as he held him down. "Zed, check his computer!"
"I don't like the sound of that."
"Yeah, well, you'll like this even less."
George looked up to see Zed taking the tiny golden disc from the storage unit and smashing it under his heel. "Hey!!! We need that!
"Oh, no, we don't." Zed started cramming their equipment back into the brief case. "There was a worm program in that download. It's a highly specialized virus. It gets into your hard drive and starts re-writing your sub-routines. Next thing you know, your system is crashing right and left." He clicked the case shut. "If Casey was really interfacing directly with the computer, he might have gotten infected."
The convulsions were lessening and George hauled Casey to his feet. "A person infected with a computer virus?" George scoffed. "Sounds like science fiction!"
Zed snorted and snapped his fingers, causing a dancing blue flame to appear. "Oh, yeah, and you, me and the cyber-geek are just like Santa's elves. Right. Uh huh." He opened the door cautiously. "All clear."
George nodded. "Let's go." He shouldered Casey and followed Zed out into the hall. They were almost to the end of the corridor when they heard the ding of the elevator arriving. Starting for the stairwell in the opposite direction, they skidded to a stop at the sound of running feet.
"Oh, shhhh-" Zed glanced at George. "Where to?"
"Corner office." He put action to his words, leading Casey who had recovered enough to stumble along on his own.
George aimed with two fingers and shot out the door knob with a concentrated energy blast. He kicked the door open. "Xanatos knows about employees and their perks. Nice big windows."
"You have GOT to be kidding." Zed swallowed and turned whiter shade of pale. "We're fifty-seven bleeping stories up!"
"Picky, picky." George's eyes flared a brilliant blue as he targeted the window. "Watch my back. This is gonna attract attention."
"Oh, this is just a brilliant career move," Zed muttered. He nudged Casey. "You don't look so hot. You gonna be all right?"
Casey blinked. His eyes were glazed and still a little greenish. "I'm hanging in there." He made a face. "Something doesn't feel right. It's so dark in here."
Zed raised an eyebrow and started to speak but just then two things happened simultaneously. George blew out the window in an outwardly-projected crescendo of broken glass and the door was slammed open as two XE security guards burst into the room, several more visible in the hall behind them.
The halflings reacted instinctively. Zed threw up a shimmering force field and laughed as the guards bounced off it. Casey raised his shaking hands... and screamed as iridescent flames snaked over his body. The build-up of energy suddenly released, taking out an eight-foot section of wall and propelling Casey through the open window.
"C'mon!" George ordered. "We're out of here!" He dove out the window. Zed clutched the brief case to his chest and followed.
* * * * *
Ariana's sharp eyes spotted the falling man. "Look, Uncle Lex! What does that man think he's doing?"
"Well, he's doing a pretty bad job of flying from the looks of it," Lex replied with a frown. "Let's go get him before he's street pizza."
* * * * *
Wind whistled past them, their business attire flapping free around their bodies like dark wings. George yelled out, "Aim for the ley lines! Let the energy field slow your fall!"
"Yeah!" Zed yelled back. "I see them!" He canted down and to the left, controlling his fall towards the streamer of energy that only he and the other genetically-enhanced halflings could see.
"Where?" Casey called out.
"Right here!" Zed answered, as he managed an athletic slide onto a ribbon of light.
"I can't see it!" Terror grew in Casey's voice. "I can't see any of them!" He flailed his arms in a blind panic.
George swore under his breath. "Calm down, Casey! I'm coming!" He flipped himself in mid-air and tucked into a controlled dive like he was taught in the military. Picking up speed, he shot towards Casey like an arrow. Before he could reach his man, two gargoyles got in the way, the web-winged male and the juvenile female.
"Hey, mister!" the little red female called. "Don't you know you need wings to fly?"
"We'll give you a hand," the olive green male said. George recalled that Madoc called him 'Lexington.' Both gargoyles took one of Casey's arms each and started to steer him towards a neighboring building.
"Blasted gargoyles," George growled, "Always interfering!" He zipped past them to the nearest ley line and skidded to a stop like a skater, spraying sparks of energy instead of ice. Drawing power from the ley line, George sent barrage of energy bolts upwards. One struck the tip of Ariana's bo staff, two more glanced off Casey and a full cluster hit Lex, breaking his grip on Casey and spinning him away.
"Uncle!!" The little female cried out, floundering in mid-air as she bore the full weight of the strange human. The fabric of his coat began to rip in her talons. She shot a desperate look at the nearby buildings. "Hang on, mister! Just a little further!"
Casey reached up, greenish flames dancing up his arms. "Let... me.... GO!!" Both he and the gargoyle screamed as he jolted himself free.
George glided underneath Casey's falling form, catching him neatly before sailing away on an unseen ribbon of light. They caught up with Zed in a matter of minutes.
"Where to, boss?" the pony-tailed Halfling called.
"Central Park. Let's go."
* * * * *
In the Castle Wyvern courtyard
The quiet stillness of the night was shattered by the two glowing entities barreling out of the castle. There was a strange aroma of toasted cheese in the air as Garlon rolled to his feet and glowered at Puck. "You never used to fight like this when you were Oberon's lackey," he said tauntingly. "You fight like it's personal. Could it be that the child is yours?"
"Hardly," Puck replied coldly. "I am the child's guardian and that's all you need to know." He transformed a potted tree into a giant mouse trap and sent it snapping after Garlon.
"Touchy, touchy..." Garlon shattered the mouse trap and sent the wooden shards whistling back at Puck. "How the mighty have fallen! Once Oberon's right-hand man and now a baby-sitter." He laughed darkly. "I'd make you an offer to join us but you probably don't have what it takes."
Eyes blazing, Puck glowered at him. The bits of wood struck the glowing nimbus around him, carbonizing on impact and leaving little puffs of smoke. "The day I ally myself with a bunch of ego-maniacs and hedge wizards like the Unseelie Court will be a dark day indeed." The smoke drifted down, not with the wind but on its own volition, to the flagstones, curling and swirling around the combatants' feet.
"What do you have to lose, cousin?" Garlon continued. "You can't truly enjoy this mortal existence, do you?"
"Unlike yourself, I've enjoyed the human race. I'm always amazed by their endless imagination and creativity." Puck floated free of the low-lying smoke, now bubbling and boiling beneath him. "Take their poetry for example," he said with a deceptively light tone of voice. " 'The fog creeps in on little cat feet.' " He blew out a gentle zephyr, fanning out his fingers with a flourish.
Dozens of bright feline eyes opened as the smoke filtered away. The brown-clad intruder was surrounded by gray cats - all sizes and ages, from tiny frolicking kittens to dottering old moggies. Garlon froze, seized by his centuries-old phobia. "You...," he gasped, certain that his lungs were filling with cat hair. "How could you...?"
"Like I said before, cousin," Puck said, crossing his arms. "You caught me on a very bad day." He picked up a gray striped tabby winding around his feet and petted it. "I was there the day Oberon passed sentence on you and I know all too well the things that make you shiver." His eyes narrowed. "Now leave - before I put catnip down your shorts."
Garlon straightened and met Puck's gaze. A force field slowly pushed the cats away from him in a widening invisible circle. The approaching sound of running feet broke their tableau. "Maybe you do have what it takes after all," the Unseelie murmured. "Well met, cousin." The circle suddenly flared up with a brilliant light - and when the night returned, Garlon was gone.
"Puck!" Goliath called as he and Angela ran up. "Madoc's man, where did he go?"
The white-haired trickster snapped his fingers, making all the cats vanish before shimmering away into the pale stern-faced visage of Owen Burnett. "Where all dark-hearted things go, Goliath," Owen answered blandly, "back into the shadows."
Lexington and Ariana sailed up to the parapets. They both bore singed marks on their bodies. "Owen! George Harrison and two of those Unseelie foot soldiers were just on the computer level. Do you know what they were after?"
"Not yet," answered Xanatos as he walked up. He pulled a small gold-colored disc from his pocket. It had a jagged crack in it. "I've got some of my computer people checking the servers now but it looks like they copied off a large part of my research and development files."
Goliath scowled. "This is not good. Not only will Madoc know your industrial secrets, but he will also know that Owen is Puck as well."
"Worse still," Owen added, "he will know about Alex."
A chill winter wind swept across the parapets, giving cold reality to the grim thoughts of all gathered there.
* * * * *
George checked his watch and looked around, a frown deepening on his face. Zed turned up his collar and leaned against the end of the park bench. "Maybe he's not gonna show," the pony-tailed halfling suggested. "He could've run into trouble."
"Maybe," George admitted, "but somehow I don't think he has a problem dealing with trouble." He shoved his hands deep in his pockets and watched his breath steam in the air. "How are you doing, Casey?"
"Terrible." The olive-skinned computer expert shivered. "It's gotten so cold all of a sudden."
"That's weird," Zed commented. "I don't feel the cold at all."
"Me, neither." George frowned.
From the shadows of a nearby bridge, Garlon appeared, brown overcoat stained with orange splotches. He headed towards them with a dangerous look on his face.
"Not one word, Zed," George murmured under his breath. "Not one. Nada. Nothing."
"My lips are zipped."
"Do you have it?" Garlon asked without preamble.
George gestured to the brief case Zed was holding out. "It's all in there. Everything we were able to get before we were discovered."
A harsh growl drew their attention. Sekhmet and her were-cheetahs were stalking up the path. The Unseelie once worshipped as an Egyptian goddess had resumed her human disguise, her carriage erect and her head held regally high. The effect was somewhat marred by the innocuous tangle of bright pink bubble gum tangled in her hair and smeared on her elegant black leathers.
"Who-ee," Zed said absently, "Look what the cat dragged in."
Garlon's response was a barely concealed smirk.
Two spots of color rose in Sekhmet's cheeks as she walked past them. "I have completed my assignment," she announced to no one in particular. "Let us be gone from this place." She disappeared through the open doorway of the building with her were-cheetahs at her side and Garlon only a few steps behind.
Zed watched them go. Laughing, he shook his head. "Now there's an odd couple if I ever saw one." He patted his fellow hacker on the shoulder. "C'mon, Casey. Let's go to the Java Café. A hot cup of coffee is just what you need." He looked back at George. "They even have decaf."
"Do they have computers there?" George asked.
"Yeah." Zed raised an eyebrow. "It's a cyber café. They're on-line twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Why?"
"Oh, no particular reason." George pulled out his hand and looked at the tiny gold disc between his gloved fingers. "I thought I'd catch up on my reading."
* * * * *
Long after the Unseelies had left the residence, Robbins had finished giving the police a statement and was returning to his home. He went inside and quickly had Gilly guide him to the back once more, where Hudson and Graeme were waiting with Bronx and Nudnik.
"The police have everything under control now," he told the others, chuckling as he recalled some of the descriptions he had overheard from the other officers. "Whoever it was you faced inside there must have been one catty individual, Hudson."
Looking at Graeme, Hudson rolled his eye and replied, "In more ways than one, my friend. What ever they were after, it won't bear any good, I'd wager."
"Well, at least you weren't hurt, my friend," Robbins commented with a sigh, "and, from what I understand your grandson and his pet acquitted themselves rather well in there."
Graeme ducked his head and scratched one talon on the stones. "Aww, I didn't do that much . . . did I?"
Hudson scowled briefly, but he favored the boy and his pet with a smile. "Well, I am glad ye did distract that she-cat when ye did, lad. But," he turned to face his human friend, "Why dinnae ye keep th' lad out o' it? He couldna been hurt."
Robbins smiled silently a moment, breaking out laughing at the confused tone in Hudson's voice. "Why, Hudson! I thought that two gargoyles could handle anything, no matter what their ages!"
Both Graeme and Hudson blinked, staring at the writer in shock for several moments. The old warrior found his voice first. "Ye know then, Robbins?"
"Oh, I've known for some time. It all added up -- the nocturnal visits, the little slips you'd make in conversation, but mostly it was the smell."
"Smell?" Graeme raised his arm to his nose. "Hey, no way! I had a bath!!"
"You forget, Graeme, I can't see so I rely on this," he tapped his nose, "to tell people apart. It's a nice smell, sort of a cross between concrete and leather."
"I should have known," Hudson said. He reached out and shook forearms with the blind author. "Ye've been a true friend through all our troubles."
"Humans and gargoyles really aren't as different as everybody thinks. We've got friends, family..." Robbins chuckled as he knelt beside Nudnik and Bronx, giving them both a pat on the head. "...and when you have a good dog, er, beast by your side, I find you can do just about anything."