Written by: Tony "Marlos" Teakles and Jonathan "Entity" Cotleur
Story concept by: Brian Dumlao, JEB, and Entity.
Illustrations by: Jennifer "CrzyDemona" Anderson
Previously on Gargoyles...
"I know you've been used poorly by humans in the past, but all that's about to change," Xanatos said, placing his hands on Goliath's. "Trust me."
Goliath shook off Xanatos's hands. "You broke the spell of sleep that imprisoned us, Xanatos, and for that we are grateful. But we will never trust humans again."
"I can tell this relationship is something we'll all have to work at."
Goliath grumbled softly in reply.
~ Awakenings, Pt 2 ~
* * * * *
"Ah, Judge Roblyn. Thank you for coming early." Xanatos, in his battlesuit, shook the judge's hand very firmly. "We have a video for both of you to view before the ceremony. The best man and maid of honor are... somewhat unusual. This way."
~ Vows ~
* * * * *
"Any risk is better than living as a monster," Maggie said, her voice hard.
"I'm a monster," Derek replied as he held her chin gently and turned her face to look up at him.
She spoke very softly in reply. "But you're strong. Stronger than me." She turned around sharply, her voice growing hard once more. "I can't live this way."
He placed his hand comfortingly on her shoulder. "I couldn't live this way, not without you." He turned her around to face him. "Maggie, we're not strong alone. We're strong together."
~ The Cage ~
* * * * *
"And that's why you created that horrible dream?" Goliath growled, pointing a talon harshly at Puck and leaving the fay teetering back on one foot.
Easily recovering from the exaggeratingly off-balance stance, Puck zipped around and behind Goliath to hover in the air. "Oh? But was it a dream or a prophesy?"
"I must know," Goliath said firmly.
~ Future Tense ~
* * * * *
"So you see, Beth, it's like this: if the first team doesn't come through..." Coyote said.
"It's up to people like me," she finished, astounded at the story that Coyote was telling.
"Exactly. It's up to people like you," Coyote confirmed.
~ A Call to Arms ~
* * * * *
* * * * *
"And how was the lecture, Beth?" Peter Maza asked his daughter as they walked along the abandoned subway tunnel with his wife. Diane followed close behind, treading carefully, ever watchful for spiders. She carried a pair of large tins of cookies, not quite trusting them in the care of the other two.
"It was ok, dad. Today's lecturer was pretty dry, but his findings were astounding. I should take you and Mom to see the exhibits tomorrow." A symposium on a new exhibit of Hopi artifacts at the George Gustav Heye Center had brought her back to Manhattan. Getting to see her family was an added bonus.
Peter had never been too interested in his heritage, but recent events had made him re-examine his beliefs. "Well, I don't know," he replied uncertainly. "Maybe."
"We'd love to go see them, dear," Diana Maza said as she keyed the entry code into the access panel.
The hidden door slid open to reveal the large living area beyond. The room had been redecorated somewhat for the Family Night to celebrate Beth's visit. Some of the furniture had been cleared away to make more standing room and there were snacks set out on the coffee table.
Derek and Maggie hugged the three of them as they came in. "Hi Mom, Dad, Beth. Nice to see you all again. The others should be arriving soon." Claw and the clones hung back, watching shyly, nodding or waving to them instead. The Maza parents headed over to one of the sofas, joining Dr. Goldblum.
Beth gave Derek a strong hug. "Great to see you, big bro. Nice of you to hold a party just for me," she teased.
"Anything for my little sister."
"Oh? Then what about returning those CDs I loaned to you back at Christmas?"
Just then, the entrance door opened again and Elisa's voice could be heard. "...may seem a little unusual, Judge Roblyn."
"But one should never judge on appearances," Goliath continued in a cautioned, diplomatic tone.
"It's quite all right," Judge Roblyn said. "I'm not one to let appearances influ..." he stopped short as he began to take a step inside, coming face-to-chest with the panther mutate.
Elisa moved up quickly beside them. "Judge Benjamin Roblyn, I'd like you to meet my brother Derek and my sister Beth."
Derek took his hand and shook it. "Hello, your honor. So nice to meet you. Welcome to our home."
The judge quickly regained his composure. "Nice to meet you both," he said, smiling politely.
Elisa gave Goliath's hand a light squeeze and smiled up at him before walking up. "Derek, can you and Maggie introduce Judge Roblyn around? I need to talk to Beth for a moment."
- - -
Elisa and Beth slipped to one corner of the large room. "Ok Elisa, what's on your mind?"
"I want to know what Coyote told you. What's the plan here, anyhow? When're the Fay going to get involved and clean up their mess?"
"Well sis," Beth said softly as she examined a nearby snack tray. "Coyote told me that I'm part of Plan B... me and the others like me." She picked up a few tidbits.
Elisa ignored the snacks and asked, "There's a Plan B? I didn't know there was a Plan A."
Beth looked up from the tray and glanced at Elisa, then over to Goliath and the others. "Elisa, you guys are Plan A." She sighed and popped a dipped mushroom into her mouth.
"Great! That's just peachy." She crossed her arms and sighed softly. "Did he happen to say just what we're supposed to do?"
Beth quietly shook her head as their mother walked up. "So, what're you two talking about?" Diane asked.
"Ummm... nothing, Mom," Elisa answered. "Just about how cold the weather's been."
"Cold? Is it ever!" Diane replied, wrapping her arms around herself as she shivered at the thought.
After a long pause. "Well, they said it was going to be cold," Beth said.
"They were right," Elisa added, nodding. The others nodded as well.
"That whole La Nina thing they keep talking about on the news," Diane continued...
- - -
About ten minutes later, the rest of the clan arrived, bringing the party into full swing. It was the first Family Night with everyone together since Thanksgiving and they were eager to enjoy it. They quickly began circulating around, talking and laughing with their friends.
Broadway headed over to Elisa. "Hi Elisa, where's Matt tonight?"
She pointed upwards, to the city above them. "He's busy with some Gargoyle Task Force business."
"He could've come here and said he was investigating another sighting." The aqua gargoyle chuckled softly.
"Yeah, I'd love to see him hand in a report about hobnobbin' with all of you. Captain Chavez would have kittens."
- - -
Hudson walked over to where the clones were clustered together quietly. "Hello to ye all. How have ye been?"
Brentwood smiled. "Hello, Hudson. We... are... good..." He paused for a moment, scratching his brow. "...well?" He glanced back to the others and Delilah nodded. "We are well?" he said uncertainly.
The old gargoyle smiled with surprise. "Och, very good, lad. 'We are well' is correct. Ye all are making fine progress." He was surprised they'd picked up on that, he'd only told them once in passing. He glanced over to an equally proud Delilah. The lass must have been coaching them again, he decided. "I'm very proud of all of ye."
- - -
Judge Roblyn glanced up and found himself between a golden robot and a cybernetic gargoyle. The cyborg trained a glowing red eye on him. "Greetings. You must be the guest Goliath and Elisa invited. I am called Coldstone. And this," he said, motioning to the robotic female, "is my love, Coldfire."
Coldfire performed a rather mechanical curtsey, as she'd seen done often by the ladies of Castle Wyvern. "A pleasure to meet you, m'lord." Goliath had emphasized to the whole clan that it was especially important to make this new human welcome.
He smiled and nodded. "Likewise," he said softly before draining his drink quickly and wishing it were something a little stronger. "Scratch that," he said to himself as the cybernetic eye whirred and focused in on him, "a lot stronger."
"Ben, how are you this evening?" Dr. Goldblum asked as he came up quickly to join them.
"Honestly, a little overwhelmed. How are you and the family, Daniel? It's been a few years."
"We're doing fine, Ben. Rivkie - did you know she was taking piano lessons? - is taking singing lessons now, too. She's got quite a musical gift, though I'm not sure where she gets it from in the family. Moshe's learning to skate this year and he's all excited to start playing hockey next year. Shaindy just turned seven a few days ago, back on the twelth."
"Just turned seven? Does the time ever fly. I'll have to come by and meet them all sometime."
The doctor nodded. "We'll definitely have to arrange that. Chaya will be delighted to see you again, too."
"I'd say that I'm a little surprised to see you here, but then you've always been on to tackle the tough cases."
"I go where I'm needed and they need me the most," the doctor said solemnly.
"Oh, I was going to ask you about a talk you gave. Do you remember giving a speech about four years back to the Bar Association? I never got to talk to you after that one."
Surprised by the sudden turn in the discussion, he thought back for a moment, then nodded. "The one on legal issues surrounding bio-engineering? I can't be sure of what I covered, but my opinions certainly haven't changed."
The judge moved towards a clear corner of the room, giving the unique pair of gargoyles a nervous nod. "Well, this would be a rather appropriate occasion to discuss the matter." They headed off together and were soon chattering away in a garbled mix of legal mumbo-jumbo and technobabble.
- - -
Hudson moved up to stand beside Diane and they exchanged a quiet whisper. Diane nodded and the pair drifted over towards Elisa, standing to pen her in at each side with the snack table at her back. With the way they exchanged glances, Elisa wondered what was up and asked them just that.
Diane began slowly, "Elisa... don't you even think you should at least say 'hello' to her? She needs to feel that you accept her."
"Aye, lass," Hudson continued, "your opinion of her matters a great deal to her."
"I just don't feel very comfortable around her." Elisa said, eyes down and shoulders slumped as she rubbed her arm nervously. "She's doing fine as it is and doesn't need me around."
Her mother crossed her arms over her chest and gave her a hard stare. "Elisa, hon, you're the closest thing to a mother she has."
"But I never asked to be!" she replied sharply, locking eyes with her mother but keeping her voice low.
"Lass, nobody's asking ye to be, but she needs ye to be her friend. Your acceptance would mean so much to her. Is she so horrible that ye cannae be a friend to her?"
Elisa shook her head. "You know it's not that. It's not her; it's just how Thailog had her made from a part of me that makes me upset. She can't help that."
"Och, and have ye tried telling her that yourself?"
Elisa turned to look towards Delilah, who was quietly herding the other clones over to take seats. She could see some of her features in the gargoyle, the shape of her cheekbones, a similar stance. No, she couldn't blame Delilah for how she was created. She moved quietly towards the human-gargoyle clone.
Diane Maza and Hudson smiled and nodded to one another, content that the two would spend at least a little time together. Diane patted the gargoyle's hand lightly and headed off to the kitchen to supervise the preparations.
Hearing someone clear their throat behind her, Delilah turned around to find Elisa standing there. "Ummm... hi..." Elisa said softly.
Delilah nodded nervously. "Hello," she replied meekly.
After a long pause, Elisa continued. "Hudson and Derek have been telling me how you've been a fine help with the other clones. I... I want to thank you for helping; it would've been too much for them to handle alone."
The gargoyle nodded again and mumbled a soft, "Thank you." She smiled a little.
Hesitating for but a moment, Elisa patted the clone's shoulder lightly. "You've done really well here. You should be proud of what you've accomplished... we all are... I'm proud of you."
- - -
Sharon walked out from the kitchen area where she, Broadway, Diane and some of their friends from the shelter were getting supper prepared. Seeing Claw leaning against the wall, silently nursing a cola, she headed over there. "Claw, you should join the others. It's not often all our friends can visit; you should enjoy it."
He smiled and shook his head, taking another sip of his drink, happy where he was.
Not so easily discouraged, she took his free paw and tugged him forward. "Come on and say hello to everyone."
He shook his head and pointed to himself, then back to the kitchen.
"No, you're not going to go hide in there. They've got everything under control." Resigned to his fate, he followed her into the crowd.
Soon, they drifted into Dr. Goldblum's field of view and he called them over. "Judge Benjamin Roblyn, these are the two assistants I mentioned. Sharon Nomura and Theodore West, better known as Claw." As they were addressed, Sharon bowed formally and Claw shuffled his feet, nodding nervously. "They've been invaluable to me on this project..." Dr. Goldblum continued.
- - -
Off in the crowd, Graeme chuckled and ran from his sister and her bo staff. Just then, Broadway popped out of the kitchen and caught the hatchling in one arm as he struggled to balance a casserole dish in the other. "Whoa there! Supper's ready, everyone."
Everyone moved eagerly into the dining hall and seated themselves around the long table. They began passing around the food, taking their share and passing the rest onto the next one. Dr. Goldblum spoke a brief prayer of thanks and everyone began to eat, enjoying the fine meal. Save for two of them, that is.
Coldfire leaned over to Coldstone. "My love, I... I feel very uncomfortable being here."
He glanced over at her and caught sight of her untouched plate of food. "I know how you feel, love. While I can at least eat it, this food holds no flavour for me. This body has no senses; just as it cannot feel, nor can it taste the meal before me. I can only close my eyes and try to remember what taste food once had."
She nodded. "Memories are all we have. But we cannot remember these things we've never eaten. What does this corn or this rice taste like? And all the spices Broadway so enjoys talking about when he cooks?" She tapped at the food with a metallic talon, sighing.
"From the way our clan members are eating, I'd like to know. But this..." he tapped at the crystal dessert dish and shuddered, "I think is best left a mystery."
She leaned down, watching the rippling red cubes. "It's still alive!" she hissed quietly as the cherry gelatin wiggled and jiggled in the dish.
Brooklyn, with his typical off-beat humour, leaned across the table and tuned, "There's always room for H-O-O-V-S."
- - -
Off a little further down the table, Dr. Goldblum and Judge Roblyn continued their discussion. "So Ben, how did you get involved in all this? The gargoyles are not ones to reveal themselves often."
"It was about three years ago. The large one there, Goliath, and another called Demona were at Mr. and Mrs. Xanatos's wedding. This has been the first time since then. Oh, they were pretty overwhelming, even with the video Xanatos showed me."
"Well, it takes a little getting used to, but they're good people."
The judge chuckled, "Oh, that's plain to see. It's just that there's been a few too many surprises tonight for me to handle all at once." He smiled knowingly, "I'll just have to get some excuse to see them more often so I can get used to them."
- - -
At one head of the table, Claw had stuck forks into a pair of baked potatoes and was dancing them like legs. Sharon, Ariana and Graeme laughed merrily at the show, but Angela, having grown up on Avalon, only watched with a slightly puzzled smile on her face.
"Oh Claw, that's classic!" Sharon laughed. "We need to get a photo of this." She hopped up and dashed to get the camera.
"Yeah! Take a picture," Graeme said. Then in a lower voice, he whispered to his sister, "That guy was really funny."
His sister nodded excitedly. "Yeah! And he was so nice to us, too... even after you ran into him."
- - -
At the other head of the table, Elisa leaned over to Derek and Maggie. "You two should really say something. Everybody's here now."
"But ev..." Maggie started, but Derek gave her hand a light squeeze and nodded. They stood up and he cleared his throat audibly, a sound not unlike a giant cat with a hairball. Maggie smiled shyly and held his paw tightly. "My friends, I want to thank you all for coming tonight. Now, because I knew everyone would be here, I finally did something I've been wanting to for a long time. Last night I asked Maggie to marry me..." he sniffed softly, choking back a tear of joy, "and she said yes."
They hugged each each other tight, sharing a loving kiss while the crowd sat speechless. Everyone save Elisa, Goliath and Judge Roblyn that is, who'd known all along. As the initial surprise passed, everyone began to offer congratulations and to cheer.
Diane waggled her finger at Elisa and Derek, "You should have told us about this sooner." She grabbed her son in a tight hug. "I was starting to wonder if you'd ever get around to doing it."
Maggie spoke softly, a little nervously to the crowd, "Everyone, we've decided to hold the ceremony two nights from now. Derek and I hope you'll all attend." Nods and agreements came from everyone.
Maggie and the three Maza women soon broke off from the rest of the group and began to quickly discuss the details of the wedding. Everyone who was here was invited, of course, as well as Matt and those few residents of the Labyrinth who'd become good friends with the mutates. "The only ones missing," Elisa noted, "are the Xanatoses." That was quite fine with her.
* * * * *
Afternoon, two days later:
Talon walked into the central living chamber, with an unconscious, rumbly purring of pleasure. The furniture was gone from their living area and had been replaced by sturdy fold-away chairs with open backs. The room was been decorated for the ceremony in the evening. White garland and flowers decorated the walls.
Claw was up on a ladder attaching a set white lacework bells. He nodded and waved down to Talon with a happy smile.
"Lookin' good, Claw. You sure you weren't an interior decorator in another life?"
Claw shook his head and mimed a scolding Diane Maza, telling him how to do it right. Talon chuckled and rapped lightly at the door.
Diane, Maggie and Sharon went into mild hysterics as he announced he was going to enter. They scrambled towards the door, calling out. "You can't see the bride before the wedding: it's bad luck," his mother said sharply. She rushed to the door and leaned her weight back against it.
He chuckled softly, "I know, Mom. Here, I've got my hand over my eyes so I won't see her." He slowly opened the door as she moved away. "Can I come in now?"
"You can't stay long, Derek, we've got lots to do," Maggie said softly. "Besides," she purred, "I can't trust you not to peek if you're here too long." She put her hand over his and gave him a kiss.
- - -
Sharon watched the couple for a moment and felt a pang of sadness. She'd been so busy trying to avoid marrying Takeo that'd she hadn't the time to think about her own happiness. When she'd taken the mutagenic formula, she'd only been concerned with stopping him, keeping him from hurting her friends and family anymore. Another of Dr. Goldblum's sacrifices, I suppose. She choked back some tears as she slipped out the door with feline silence and dashed to the shadows of the hallway.
Claw saw her exit and heard her crying. He crept quietly down the ladder. Hesitating for a moment, he walked up to her quietly. He reached out to touch her shoulder, but hesitated at the sight of his own large paw. Sighing sadly, he lowered it and moved around to give her an inquiring look. He bowed politely, as Sata'd shown him long ago.
Sharon wiped her tears and tried to compose herself. "Oh Claw, I'm just... I'm just so happy for Derek and Maggie." She smiled weakly and he did the same. She could see in his eyes that he knew she was not being truthful. But she could see as well that he'd not tell anyone, mute or not.
* * * * *
That evening, at the Eyrie building:
Goliath, Sata, and Lexington entered the main hall of the castle with exhausted sighs. Snow briefly fluttered in before the door was closed shut, and Lex's infuriated voice could be heard.
"How many more attacks are we going to take before we do something?" he exclaimed, his eyes slightly illuminating as he spoke.
He stomped down the hall, followed by a worn Goliath and an equally tired Sata. All of them showed signs of exhaustion.
Goliath replied placidly. "The Redcaps were defeated, and we have returned home safely. That is all that matters."
But that was hardly good enough for Lexington. "But what about next time?" he challenged in aggravation. "How many Redcaps will Madoc send after us tomorrow night? Will he send some wisps again instead? Oh, or how about another Halfling or two."
"Enough," Goliath said as he rubbed his brow. He had a headache already, and every one of Lex's words seemed to amplify it.
Sata moved a little closer to him. "The attacks do seem to be increasing," she said as gently as she could. Even she was beginning to let hints of frustration creep into her voice.
"Yes," Goliath agreed solemnly. "Yes, they are. But we can only take it one night at a time. It will not last forever."
"Who says?" Lexington countered. "Madoc can keep this up as long as he likes. If we don't do something he'll simply pick us off one by one."
"No," Sata spoke up with sudden certainty, "that is not what they're planning. It is more devious... they are like the Tengu from my own country."
"Tengu, yes... those clanless gargoyles of whom you have spoken. How are the two connected?"
"Their methods were the same. Countless battles, all without purpose... or so it would seem. Their attacks were made in order to gauge our strength, to keep us occupied and distracted. Ganryu, often from a safe distance and always in control, would have them fight battles to test us, and others to distract us from his true targets. And, in the case of the Tengu, they also attacked to take away the will to go on fighting."
"Well, it's working," Lex added bitterly, hunching down and crossing his arms over his chest.
"Goliath-sama," Sata implored gently, "I know you too see the meaning behind the attacks, if only unable to admit it to yourself."
Goliath sighed and nodded.
"So... what are we going to do about it?" Lex asked, his voice hopeful as he rose up again.
"Prove to Madoc that his tactics will not work," Goliath replied. "He thinks he can discourage us. He is wrong."
"That's it? We're just going to keep putting up with it?!" Lexington growled, eyes glowing brightly and throwing his hands in the air.
"And what would you suggest?" the gargoyle leader asked. "An attack of our own, no doubt."
"As a matter of fact, yes," the other replied. "Let's take the battle to him for a change. We've been staying on the defensive for too long anyway. What we need to do is attack."
Goliath shook his head. "You are letting your anger towards Madoc cloud your judgement. An attack on the Unseelie will not bring you any closer to him. What it will do is provoke a response."
He continued, "We pledged to defend our castle, this city, from its enemies, not to wage wars."
Sata tried to get a word in edgewise, to calm their growing tempers, but was cut off.
"Sometimes the best defense is a good offense, Goliath," Lex retorted, smacking his fist into his palm.
"Even so, where would you have us strike? We do not even know where their stronghold is."
Lex opened his mouth to argue the point further, but Goliath cut him off too soon. "Clan will not be the aggressors!" he bellowed sharply. "We will not provoke them, and we will not betray who we are by becoming them."
Lex threw his arms up in frustration and stormed off.
Someone was heard clearing their throat from across the hall. Xanatos leaned against the side of the opposite archway. "Rough night, I take it."
Goliath didn't answer. Instead, he turned around and walked back towards the door.
"Where are you going?" Sata asked in alarm. "It is almost time for the wedding. Talon and Maggie will be most saddened if you do not attend, as will Elisa."
Never having forgotten about it, Goliath replied, "I only want to make one final loop around the city in case the Redcaps threaten anyone else. And then I will return."
Before Sata could say more, he pulled open the door and slipped out. As it slammed shut after him, she sighed and turned back around. Xanatos was standing a few feet away.
"I need to get ready for the ceremony," she said off-handedly as she turned for one of the doorways. "Everybody else is already gathered in the Labyrinth."
Xanatos smiled. "Of course."
As soon as she was gone, a serious look overtook him. He turned and left through the door Lex had, following him back to his computer room.
- - -
With the mouse in hand, Lex clicked on the mail icon on the computer screen and waited for it to open. He was hoping for messages from anyone. Anything to get his mind off of tonight and calm himself down. But what he was particularly hoping for was one from Liz.
"We've got to do something," he grumbled to himself as he deleted a trio of spam messages, the only ones that night.
"I agree," Xanatos said, as Lexington saw his reflection appear on his monitor. "Honestly, I agree with you. They'll continue wasting our resources while their own plans move ahead."
"Then you think we should attack too?" Lex asked eagerly, turning around in the swivel chair.
Xanatos nodded. "I've been getting as frustrated over these recent attacks as you have. Over our whole lack of action, actually. And, though Goliath would never admit it, I know he too desperately wants to be able to strike a blow back - even just one blow."
Lexington sighed and leaned against the backrest. "But how? We don't even know where they're hiding."
He sat himself on a stool beside Lex as he continued. "Not until now. I've been using all the resources at my disposal to watch the movements of the Unseelie...the contacts Dracon gave us as well. I think I've located their base in New York. I was going to present the information to the clan. But then Talon's and Maggie's wedding came up - and now Goliath's obvious negative view on mounting an offensive - I was thinking of going to scout it out on my own tonight. If we find something, perhaps we'll be able to persuade Goliath."
Lex perked up for a moment, then hung his head. "I can't go against Goliath's orders... not again. Besides, I should have been at the Labyrinth a half-hour ago."
"I understand," Xanatos stood. "I'll present Goliath with everything I've told you first thing tomorrow night. Maybe then we can convince him to mount an assault. One clean stroke can wipe out any chance of a response, at least a local one, after all."
"I don't understand," Lex observed thoughtfully. "You have a whole legion of those Steel Clan robots. Iron-clad, and combined with what other resources you have...you could mount the entire attack yourself."
But Xanatos was already shaking his head. "I've made mistakes in the past, Lexington. I'm not going to go behind Goliath's back. Everything, from now on, is face value, status quo, no secrets, no agendas."
Lex arched an eye ridge and crossed his arms over his chest.
"...And I don't want to give him any ideas," Xanatos finished. "He's already so... wary ...of me."
"Well, I was supposed to be at the wedding already," Lex said.
"So you've mentioned," Xanatos replied, swiftly recovering his agile, business-esque inflection.
He stood back to let Lexington pass. As soon as he was gone, Xanatos left himself, going down to a sealed room in the lower bowels of the castle. There he came upon a red-plated magnetically-sealed door, the room beyond which was the armory - his special cache of weapons including his iron-clad exo-suit. "Surprisingly, my social calendar seems to be free," he remarked as he opened the door.
* * * * *
Goliath soared over the Manhattan skyline, the night's snowfall finally ended. He was on a usual patrol route, retraced so many times every night that he knew it unconsciously, which was just as good since his mind was on anything but the patrol. His thoughts were on the recent Redcap attack, repeating it through his mind. He analyzed it, his orders, the actions of himself and the others in comparison to those of the Redcaps, and the way the tide of the fight had indeed been turned only at the Redcaps' will. They'd let them win... if that's what you could really call it.
"An empty victory. Hollow. Pointless." He growled to himself. Sata had made it all clear to him. The Redcaps didn't attack them to kill or capture them, but to gauge their strengths and weaknesses, to try them, to wear them down... He growled louder at the thought of it. Every battle was under their control, he and his clan the manipulated, the controlled...
That brought back dark memories indeed. Memories of a day not too long ago when he and his clan were constantly at a loss for control. They'd been awakened four and a half years ago only because Xanatos had wanted them to. They'd been able to live in their home originally for only as long as Xanatos wished it. Xanatos. Always Xanatos. Control. And like Xanatos, Madoc seemed a master of control.
Goliath was so immersed in his angered thoughts that his eyes glowed whitely and both hands tightened into fists. He was filled with an almost overwhelming want, not for revenge, but for control. He had to be in control, the one knowing when and where an attack would take place. No more would he be able to idly allow himself, his clan, to be swept around according to others' agendas.
But, as he'd told Lexington, an attack was out of the question. Even if they could catch the Unseelie with their backs turned, and even if they could triumph against them... there would be a response. Retribution would fall on him, his clan and his city. That one unavoidable fact remained... gnawing at him. Because the reality of the situation was that the Unseelies knew precisely where their home was. They, on the other hand, lacked such an advantage. If Madoc so chose, a response could mean the total destruction of the Eyrie Building, the deaths of them all, destruction to his protectorate and all hope the world had of defeating the Unseelie Court.
At least, that's what he told himself. Weren't the Unseelie powerful enough? An assault of the necessary scale might be a trial for the Unseelies, but if his clan proved themselves to be more than a petty nuisance to Madoc, would he not go through the trouble of inconveniencing himself? Goliath had been telling himself that he would, and that their passiveness so far was the only thing keeping Madoc from wiping them out. Eventually, they could take the battle to him, but not until the time was right. But when would that be?
The appearance of a large skyscraper in his path derailed his train of thought. Lost in thought, it had gone unnoticed until the last moment. He swerved hard and, in the split second before he reached it, he caught sight of a woman skating in the air at the other side of the building. Now faced with the danger of being seen by the Unseelie Halfling, he banked hard again and grabbed hold of the wall. He pulling himself into the shadows of the stone windowsill and waited for her to pass around the far edge of the building.
He sighed and scolded himself for his lack of attention. He'd nearly struck the building and narrowly avoided being seen by the Halfling. Sinking his claws into the concrete wall, he rushed to the other side. Peering around the corner, he watched the Halfling skating off into the distance. He waited for a moment, letting her move to what he felt was a safe distance before beginning his pursuit.
- - -
Tanya Spencer whistled softly to herself as she skated through the night sky with a small smile on her face. With her usual red ballcap off, the wind furiously swept back her hair, showing the pointed ears exemplifying her recent transformation. A normal human probably wouldn't be able to keep their eyes open against such fierce wind shear. "But then, you're not your typical human anymore."
Tanya felt this nagging feeling that not everything was right, but she could not place it. "Things are great now, so that can't be it... can it?" She mused over that for a time, but it got her nowhere. She couldn't tell anyone, but who was there to tell anymore? "Besides, you can never tell when that nosey creep Garlon isn't lurking in the shadows."
She had to follow orders, but how was that different from any other job? "At least this one comes with great perks," she replied to herself as she skated along the ley line. She silently suspected that there'd come a day when she and the others would find out the catch. Everything good in life either had a catch or just went away when you weren't looking.
She shrugged. But for now, she was more than enjoying her new life. She looked over the city outstretched before her - the endless horizon. Her playground. "Let's have some fun," Tanya said with a wry smile.
- - -
Goliath panted heavily as he tried to follow the Halfling unseen, but it was proving to be exceedingly difficult, as this particular Halfling apparently enjoyed going back and forth in every which direction as she went. More than a couple times he'd barely avoided detection and barely managed to keep up as she made a sudden manoeuvre.
His mind was a jumble of thoughts. How the number of attacks continued to grow. How the Redcaps that night had been in control of the fight's progression. How Madoc, through his followers, was always in control and always dictating events.
As the Halfling banked suddenly to the left, a thought finally came crashing down on him. "What am I doing? Why am I following this Unseelie?" That critical question, he realized, hadn't been posed. He'd just followed her, instinctively, obsessively. What if he was able to follow her back to the Unseelie headquarters? The thought instantly grabbed him, and he suddenly felt excited - no, more like bloodthirsty. The thought of finding their home base was far too appealing to him.
The Halfling banked back to the right, resuming her previous course. He sighed deeply and turned to follow. "But how can I know if she's even headed there? She is taking so many twists, does she even know where she is going." He had to even consider the possibility that she was just on a joy ride; she seemed to be enjoying herself well enough.
But what if the Unseelie didn't even have a base in New York, or the Halflings didn't report to one? What if she just hung out in some shack? It seemed likely the Unseelie Court would hardly care about the living conditions of their cannon fodder, but would they run such a loose operation? "How much control does Madoc exert on them?" he asked aloud.
Goliath tried to clear his head, his mind a jumble. He didn't need to be thinking of all these things. He had to stay focused. The Halfling had just changed course, switching ley lines with a skip and a laugh. She was heading for the street. Goliath swooped down after her, gnashing his teeth as he realized he was getting too close... but trying to slow down by changing wind currents might make too much noise and give him away.
- - -
Tanya took hold of her ankles and did a quick sideways roll along the ley line she was riding as it dipped down sharply. She laughed and righted herself as it leveled off just as abruptly. "Better than a roller coaster on Coney Island. Hmmm... what else can I try?" she asked herself in a whimsical tone.
She caught sight of a couple walking down the street and grinned. She cupped her hands into a large open sphere and an azure light grew between them. As she passed overhead, she spread her hands apart.
Margot shrieked as as the watermelon-sized snowball fell onto her head, knocking her down. She yelped and reflexively put up her arms in defense. Brendan, expecting another snowball attack, mirrored his wife's actions, accidentally slipping on the remnants of the snowball and falling square on his back. Margot wiped the snow from her eyes and saw the shadowy form of a winged figure flapping overhead as it pulled out of a dive. "'Just a quiet stroll', you said. 'They only seem to show up when we're in the car', you said."
Laughing, Tanya executed another roll as the ley line swung down to a few yards over parking lot. "Oh, I'll definitely have to remember that one! There are so many great things I can do with these powers." Thinking of her fellow Halflings, she snorted. "Not like they're willing to find out. Figured out how to blast stuff and that was enough for them. I had 'em all beat in just a couple of weeks."
* * * * *
Xanatos rocketed through the air in his gargoyle exo-suit. His visual display showed that he was only about another two minutes from closing in on the Unseelie base.
Suddenly, his sensors beeped and his targeting systems automatically homed in on something approaching from the rear, then another beep as a second one was located behind the first. Xanatos banked to the left, coming in front of a large building and letting down easy on a ledge. He disengaged his thrusters and hid in the shadows, waiting for whatever, or whomever, they were to pass. Chances were, this close to the base, if there was someone flying through the sky besides him, they were Unseelie.
His suspicions were confirmed when he saw the carefree Halfling skate by his perch. Not far behind her came a gargoyle - Goliath. Xanatos waited patiently for the Halfling to pass, taking note of Goliath's strenuous attempted to slow himself. He smirked to himself as he continued to watch. Soon, Goliath was far enough behind her to flap himself to a halt. He saw the large gargoyle exhale as he continued to follow her, much more slowly now.
Xanatos engaged his thrusters.
- - -
Goliath breathed a sigh of relief as he slowed to a much more comfortable distance behind the Halfling. It had been an especially close call back there with the couple on the street. He could not take such a risk again; too much was at stake.
Then he heard something. It sounded like a jet engine, but very familiar in pitch. He quickly realized it was the sound of one of Xanatos' Steel Clan robots, and turned his head to see that it was indeed Xanatos himself, clad in his iron exo-suit. His presence was definitely a surprise, but Goliath decided he'd let Xanatos speak first. Soon enough, he found his metallic likeness flying right beside him.
"Hello, Goliath," the suit's external speaker announced. "What brings you to this neck of the woods?"
"I could ask you the same thing," Goliath replied.
"I was on my way to investigate a lead," he answered. "Actually, more than that. I think I may have been able to ascertain the location where the Manhattan Unseelies are based." He looked forward, gesturing toward the Halfling. "It would seem likely you've stumbled onto a similar lead."
"So she is heading for the Unseelie headquarters."
"Isn't that why you were following her?"
"I suspected... I'd hoped it was where she'd lead me."
"So," Xanatos said hesitantly, "it seems we're both on the same mission." When there was no response from Goliath, he added, "Would you mind my company the rest of the way?"
Goliath considered it. They were both here. It was unlikely he was lying to him. There was no sense in continuing on their own, when they had a better chance together.
"Very well," he nodded. Pointing ahead, he added, "We'd best hurry, she's pulling away again."
A few minutes later, Goliath and Xanatos arrived at the condemned Maddox Technologies building and observed the Unseelie Halfling sneaking in a side door. Knowing then that they'd hit the jackpot, they flew to the doorway and listened, waiting for the footfalls to grow quiet.
Xanatos opened the door a crack and peeked inside. Satisfied, he opened it wide and made a sweeping gesture. "After you." Goliath arched a large brow, but entered.
The hallway beyond was dimly lit, the only light from a source slowly receding down a corridor to the left at the far end of the hall. Looking down at the floor, Goliath pointed out that there was a path through the settled dust. "It seems you were right, Xanatos. Several people have passed through this way recently." They headed toward the light, glancing cautiously into each side passage and adjoining rooms as they went.
- - -
Tanya walked down the hallway, twirling her finger to a tune in her head. The witchlamp she'd cast to light her way bobbed with the motion. "Witchlamp?" the recently-made Halfling said to herself, rolling the word around in her mind. "Wonder where that came from?" She scratched at her temple in confusion. "It's strange how I know what it's called. Like all that Latin I've..."
The sound of the heavy door closing again made her start. A moment of worry flashed across her face, but then she grinned playfully. "Perfect chance to try that idea I had. I'll scare the pants off those poor mundanes who've snuck in."
She'd begun using the term 'mundanes' to describe normal human beings: any and all of the billions of people out there without magic and completely ignorant to it all. Unconsciously, the term was a defensive mechanism for her as well, letting her cope with the fact that she was no longer human: using it helped increase her feelings of superiority.
- - -
Goliath and Xanatos continued down the hallway, watching the light around the corner grow dimmer as it moved down the next hallway. They paused for a few seconds to let it fade sharply, announcing it had just turned a corner. Glancing around the corner, they saw the light now in a corridor at the far end, moving away at the same, leisurely pace. They followed after the light down the wide hallway, this one with room for them to stand side by side.
Once they reached the middle of the hallway, they were bathed in a bright flash of light. The sudden change blinded them, Xanatos more so from the enhanced night-vision his helmet was providing. Through the spots in his eyes, Goliath made out the wall ahead rippling as the magically concealed Halfling revealed herself.
Tanya hadn't expected to find this unlikely pair sneaking up on her when she'd sent the witchlamp to continue ahead. "All the better," she thought. "This will impress all those smug Halflings." She pressed her fists together, letting the power in her palms build. Ever since she'd joined the Quarrymen, she'd dreamed of smashing some gargoyles. Now she'd finally have her chance. Thrusting them forward, she flung her fists open, releasing a cone of golden streaks at the pair.
The spray of magical bolts struck them and the walls, leaving light scorching on the white paint. Goliath stumbled back a few feet, mostly from surprise and the remnants of his disorientation. Xanatos held his ground, protected by his iron armour. He moved to his left, using his armour and its large wings to shield Goliath from most of the streaks.
Spots still swimming in front of his eyes, Xanatos fired into the mist of light streaks, but missed Tanya by a wide margin. Her attention drawn to the armoured suit, she noticed that her attack hadn't affected him. She gritted her teeth and thrust her hands forward, releasing a burst of magical energy at him. When the blast seemed to splash off his armour, she eeped softly and took a step back.
The stinging rain gone, Goliath growled loudly and tore a nearby door off its hinges. He sunk the claws of his left hand into the center of the door and raised it like a crude shield against her next blast.
With his vision nearly restored, Xanatos raised his arm and fired again. Tanya crossed her arms over her face quickly and the beam struck a shimmering wall. The barrier she'd erected on the fly barely stopped the blast and she was flung back down the hall, sliding nearly to the stairwell at the back of the hall.
Seeing the pair advancing at her quickly, she stumbled to her feet and fired a shockwave into the ceiling. Light rubble fell on them and a cloud of plaster dust filled the hallway. She turned and hurried up the stairs, her foes quick to pursue.
* * * * *
Dr. Anton Sevarius snorted to himself as he read an article from the latest edition of "Genetics" scientific journal, which covered the newest "breakthrough" in the field of cloning and gave speculation on what the near future held. "So proud of their little sheep and monkeys," he murmured to himself. "And it took them how many tries?"
His thoughts were interrupted by some noise coming from outside. He sat up in his stool and set down the magazine on his desk. He slowly stood. The sound was followed by a distant roar, and Sevarius smiled. "I'd know that bellow anywhere...well, fifty-fifty chance anyhow."
Removing a small radio set from a drawer in his desk and placing it to his mouth, he said, "We've got unwanted visitors. Get over here right away."
He put the radio back into the drawer and closed it. With a deep breath, he tried to think of a course of action. The sounds of the closing battle could be heard beyond the laboratory doors not twenty feet in front of him. Without warning, he ripped open a series of drawers, pulling out folders full of papers and CD's, stuffed them all into a light briefcase laying on the floor beside his desk and turned toward the opposite door, but then stopped. He turned back towards the computer monitor atop the desk, hesitant about leaving the computer, on, with programs still running. What if they tampered with it?
Suddenly, the doors flung open and one of the Unseelie Halflings was thrown in, followed by two large shapes who marched in. One, the tall muscled form of Goliath, eyes lit; the other, the equally-intimidating, gray-clad form of Xanatos within his exo-suit, laser extended.
"Sevarius!" Goliath growled upon seeing the doctor.
Xanatos's appearance with Goliath left him briefly surprised, but Anton looked from left to right lamely, seeking in vain for a way to escape them. The Halfling was unconscious and would be no help to him.
Goliath was about to advance, when Xanatos placed a hand on his shoulder. Goliath's eyes returned to normal and he followed Xanatos' nod to each side... and froze.
Along both side walls there ran rows of large tanks housing humans submerged in translucent liquid, each side at least three rows deep. What they saw could only be one thing...
"Soon-to-be Unseelie Halflings," Xanatos declared through his speakers.
"There have to be two... three dozen of them," Goliath added in awe.
Xanatos turned to face Sevarius. "Anton," he sighed, "I see you've been keeping yourself busy. Still up to your old tricks."
All Sevarius could think about was one thing - Madoc. What would he do if he lost months worth of progress, thirty some Halflings, tonight? "Where are those blasted reinforcements?" he whispered to himself, quickly losing his calm. He had to stall them.
"No!" Sevarius yelped, running in front of Xanatos, as if to block him. "You cannot destroy my work!" he pleaded desperately. "Madoc will have my head!"
Xanatos casually rose his left arm and extended a metal finger to his head. "Anton... shut up." TAP! With one flick of a finger, Xanatos silenced the doctor, knocking him out cold.
"Well," Xanatos announced in satisfaction, "not quite enemy HQ, but a fine consolation prize. So much for the survey mission."
Goliath looked unsettled, and it had more to do with the tanks of pale-skinned humans with mildly pointed ears floating before him. "This," he replied, "was too easy."
Suddenly, the tanks began to vibrate, the liquid inside rippled, and the multiple glass beakers and tubes lying on the surrounding counters shook, tipped over, and shattered across the floor. The overhead lights began to swing back and forth.
Xanatos and Goliath began to slowly back up to the center of the room. "Goliath," Xanatos said as he raised his laser cannon, "you're never, ever supposed to say something like that."
Maniacal laughter echoed in through the walls, just before they burst inward...
* * * * *
Lex punched the access code into the panel and entered the mutate's main living area, where most of the guests were gathered. It had been redecorated to act as the reception hall tonight. Red and white garlands were intertwined and hung with a pair of white lace bells at every crest. Red and white helium balloons bobbed near the ceiling, rustled around slowly by the ventilation. Everyone was clustered into groups as they talked. He made his way through the mass, maneuvering around the long, white-clothed tables set up for the reception. He nodded and smiled politely to everyone who greeted him as he went.
"Lexington, there you are," Sata said from behind, excusing herself from a conversation with Brooklyn and Lara, one of the Labyrinth's residents.
Elisa approached from the side. "So, you two have finally made it."
"Yes," Sata answered. "I apologize for our tardiness, Elisa. Had I known that so much work had been done to prepare for this, I would have endeavoured to arrive earlier."
Elisa smiled as she overlooked the room again. "Yup, that's my mother's enthusiasm showing through. I think Derek and Maggie would have been just as happy with something less elaborate, but then my mom always had her own unique interpretation of simple."
"So," she continued, her voice growing slightly more concerned, "do you know what's keeping Goliath?"
"He said he wanted to make one last loop around the city before coming," Sata answered hesitantly.
Elisa frowned. "You ran into another Unseelie ambush," she stated dryly.
They both nodded.
"He shouldn't be long now," Lex offered optimistically.
As they opened, everyone turned to face the large, metal double-doors leading into the dining hall - which had been similarly redecorated for the ceremony which would take place in there. Slowly, everyone began to file into the room and take their seats.
After everyone found a seat inside and the group began to settle down, the Justice of the Peace walked in. His entrance was followed by the start of the wedding music, and the crowd grew silent, everyone's attention toward the front, where Judge Roblyn took his place behind the stand.
Claw and Sharon entered to the front and assumed their respective places as best man and maid of honor near the podium. Claw wore a slightly modified tuxedo with a rich orange cummerbund. Sharon wore her red dress and her hair in an elaborate, oriental fashion, held with ribbons and pins. From the opposite end of the room, Talon walked up to the altar, he too dressed handsomely in his black tuxedo, his cummerbund jet black.
Finally, Peter Maza appeared with Maggie. He began to walk her up to the altar. He was dressed in a more casual suit, and Maggie in a plush, white gown of tradition. Talon stood with captivated eyes as he watched them approach. Peter couldn't hide the warm smile on his face as he let himself get drawn into the music and the affectionate gazes of his son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law.
Elisa smiled too, although no matter how much she tried to convince herself to enjoy the moment and not worry, she couldn't get Goliath out of her mind. Without him here with her the ceremony felt as a void only half-filled. She hoped he was all right. On this day of all days, she thought, please let him return safely.
* * * * *
Goliath ducked in mid-run as one of the dozen miniature missiles pursuing him exploded in a fiery ball behind him. The others broke through the misty fire that soon evaporated into the air.
Ten feet in front of him, Xanatos lowered his left arm, the laser cannon trailing a stream of smoke, and took cover behind a bend in the hallway. He reached out his hand for Goliath, who grunted as he grabbed it, the iron clasping into his skin in turn, and threw himself around the corner the instant before the other missiles sped by.
A moment later, they impacted on the wall at the end of the hall, sending a fiery inferno raging past the two. Goliath caped his wings over his head, feeling the scorching heat singe their tips.
As soon as it passed, metal fingers snapped, and Hyena's coarse voice rang out, "I thought I had them that time!"
"Don't worry, sis," they could hear Jackal reply sympathetically, "you'll get them the next try." The voice, they realized too late, wasn't coming from the same spot.
Out of nowhere, three metal blades impacted on the wall beside them, one after the other. Jackal stood at the opposing end of the corridor and grinned.
"Better hurry," Jackal called, "if you wanna get dibs on either one of them."
"Funny," Xanatos said from under his helmet, "I was going to say the same thing to you, Goliath."
His right wing lifted, blocking the following wave of blades Jackal shot at them, and consequently revealing the laser cannon aimed right at him. Each blade dinged off the unscathed metal and clattered to the floor.
"Those things may be able to drive into drywall, but bullet-proof, solid-cast iron is another matter," Xanatos remarked as he fired his laser cannon.
The blast sent Jackal into the far wall, giving Xanatos the moment he needed to shoot out the ceiling overhead. He then launched a small grenade in both directions, just as Hyena appeared around the corner. The grenade bounced off her chest and began releasing thick smoke, but Goliath followed it up with a heavy chunk of the ceiling, knocking her onto the floor. The second cannister at the other end was releasing smoke as well and soon a smokescreen engulfed the corridor to the point where nobody could see one foot in front of themselves.
"Hey!" Hyena could hear the sound of talons, both flesh and iron, digging into the concrete as Xanatos and Goliath escaped to the next floor. In frustration, she sat up and began to shoot wildly into the smoke cloud, hoping to hit someone.
"Would you cut that out!" her brother screamed, as two laser blasts dinged off his metal body. After a moment he managed, "If you're going to shoot wildly into the air, shoot... up!"
Above, Goliath and Xanatos got to their feet. Xanatos was about to say something, when lasers suddenly began to pierce the floor.
"They're no longer together," Goliath observed in a hurry, as they tried to run away from the laser blasts. "They've split up, probably trying to corner us from all sides."
"Very good," came Lobo's voice from behind them. They spun around to face the leader of the Ultra-Pack. Before him, Bull, and behind him, the overwhelming sight of Coyote 6.0 - who was crouched over due to the low ceiling.
From what was now behind them, Jackal and Hyena emerged from the level below, remnants of smoke drifting up with them. Jackal coughed as he tried waving some away. Already there, and snarling at them as the pair climbed up, was Wolf.
Goliath sighed. "Might you have any other tricks up your sleeve?"
Xanatos looked at the Ultra-Pack, each with an arm extended and a laser of some sort trained on them. Slightly bemused by Goliath's words, he replied, "As a matter of fact..." His eyes narrowed on a boarded-up window not ten feet from them.
Wolf bared his teeth and flexed his fingers, the claws at each end visibly extending at least an inch.
"Well," Jackal remarked, "these are familiar circumstances. What do you think...rich man? Third time's the charm, even if it is a little late."
Suddenly, Xanatos pulled both wings inward, creating a shield on either side of he and Goliath. As anticipated, every member of the Ultra-Pack, save Wolf, fired their weapons in response, but the shots left only light scorchmarks across the wings.
"Modified for the upcoming millenium: laser-resistant," Xanatos remarked as he grabbed Goliath and leaped through the window. As soon as they were airborne, having leapt from a third floor window, Xanatos engaged his exo-suit's engines and they rocketed away to freedom.
Behind them, a pair explosions ripped through opposite walls of the building as several of the Ultra-Pack were taken by surprise and continued firing, unable to react in time to the sudden loss of their targets. Several of those shots had found new ones.
Xanatos and Goliath landed on a rooftop after a few minutes to get their bearings, and Xanatos removed his helmet, a gust of steam blowing out as he lifted it off his head and took a breath of fresh air.
After a minute or two of silence as they both caught their breath, Goliath stood up straight and faced Xanatos. "You rely too much on gadgets and laser-resistant armor," he said flatly. Then, he added grudgingly, "Although... it did get us out of a very... sticky situation."
Goliath expected a cocked eyebrow and a sly remark, but instead Xanatos remained silent for a moment, his head down, as he let the wind rustle his hair. Finally, he replied, "Well, Goliath, it seems I've finally managed to impress you."
Goliath, shocked beyond words by what he'd heard, was too dumbfounded to react as Xanatos extended his hand.
Goliath reached past his hand and grabbed his arm, in a traditional warrior's handshake. Neither of them said a word thereafter, but it was clear to them both that, as of then, the distrust that had existed between them, ...their feud, was over.
- - -
Lobo brushed some plaster off his shoulder, when he heard someone speaking over his radio transmitter. Hyena and Jackal were coughing, waving their hands at the dust, while Wolf simply snarled and took a lick of the laser burn on his arm.
Jackal choked back another cough and commented, "Oh look, fluffy is licking his wounds."
"Enough!" Lobo snapped before Wolf could react. "I'm trying to listen."
"Well?" Hyena barked. "Do we go after them or what?"
Lobo looked up at her and narrowed his eyes. "Just what do you think I'm trying to listen to? The Yankees score?"
Hyena wrinkled her nose as Bull began to bark in response to the commotion.
Lobo mentally raised the volume on the speaker in his arm-mounted radio and they could dimly make out what was said over the crackling of the static. "...at once," Sevarius' voice ordered.
"Say again," Lobo replied.
Sevarius' frustrated voice returned, slightly disorientated, as he repeated, "Return to the lab at once!"
"Sir, we can catch back up with them in a matter of minutes. They couldn't have gotten far..."
"It doesn't matter," Sevarius snapped. "We've got to ship out of here, move our operations elsewhere. We've been discovered." His voice sounded worried now.
Lobo spoke again, "Beg your pardon, sir," he said mockingly, "but if we finish them now there won't be anyone left to spread the word, now will there?"
"Don't talk back to me!" Sevarius yelled in snotty outrage. "I'm your employer, you will do what I tell you to, or you don't get paid. In these cases, you don't take foolish chances." He added under his breath, "Madoc is very stingy when it comes to forgiveness for incompetence."
They all exchanged shocked looks at the revelation of who their ultimate employer still was.
Unnerved, Lobo responded bitterly, "Very well. Moving to Beta site."
* * * * *
Judge Roblyn spoke louder, with growing confidence as the ceremony progressed. They were all - human, gargoyle and mutate - caught up in the moment, many sniffling back tears. The differences truly were only skin deep. "If any among you should have reason..."
The judge didn't have a chance to finish his sentence as the doors to the room swung open. An out-of-breath Goliath and Xanatos stumbled in. Everyone turned around in an array of shocked expressions and gasps. Judge Roblyn rubbed his brow and mumbled something about clichés. Low discussion ensued, as the pair proceeded up the aisle toward Talon and Maggie.
Xanatos didn't have his helmet on him, and the disheveled appearance of the man was shock enough. "Please," he began, drawing in a breath, "excuse the interruption."
He hung back as Goliath approached Talon and Maggie, Elisa making her way up to the front to meet him.
His face conveyed genuine sorrow. "I am sorry for interrupting your wedding, but something urgent has come up."
Neither Talon nor Maggie would hear of his apologies. "What is it?" Talon asked, his voice rising in concern. Goliath was not one to barge in on someone's wedding ceremony without good reason, and considering he'd never returned from that last 'loop around the city' everyone was more than a little concerned.
Maggie echoed her fiancé's worry. "Did something happen?" she asked in alarm. "Were you attacked?"
Behind the growing congregation of people, Xanatos folded his arms behind his back, sighed, and waited patiently.
Goliath finally answered, "We've discovered where the Unseelie are creating the Halflings here in Manhattan ...and infiltrated it."
Lex's eyes widened as he heard the revelation.
Coldstone stepped into view. "Then this nest has been destroyed?"
"No," Xanatos announced from behind. He took a few steps forward as he continued. "We managed to infiltrate the lab, but that was the extent of it. All that we've managed to do is let Sevarius know that we know where he's working. By now he's probably been able to inform his Unseelie masters. As we speak, he and the Ultra-Pack are packing things up as quickly as they can and preparing to move out. If we don't get to them first, and finish what we've started, in a few hours we won't have anything but a hollow building."
"Sevarius?" Talon asked.
"The Ultra-Pack!" Lex exclaimed.
The responses practically tripped over one another.
"Yes," Goliath chimed in. "It is the facility Sevarius has, and still is, as it turns out, using to create Unseelie Halflings. And...the Ultra-Pack are apparently still on the doctor's payroll. Or, at least, Madoc is paying them through him." His voice grew softer, reluctant. "Talon, Maggie...I-"
"You don't have to apologize, Goliath," Maggie interrupted him.
"Maggie's right, Goliath," Talon agreed firmly. "We have a real situation here." He looked into Maggie's eyes and she nodded back to him. "The wedding can wait, this can't. We have to get there before they clear out."
Goliath nodded. "And we must protect those humans who are being transformed, willing or not, from becoming Unseelie pawns. But we must hurry."
"You can count me in. So," Talon spoke up, "who's with us?"
Maggie squeezed Talon's paw tightly, "If you're going, so am I." She took Diane and Lara by the wrist and pulled them towards a side room. "Help me get this dress off quickly."
The room burst into commotion. Goliath raised his hand, gesturing as best he could for them to quiet down. He explained, "We cannot risk to go into this full force. I'm not prepared to... put all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. If the other Halflings are nearby, not even the whole clan could stand against them all."
Broadway and Angela were the first to speak up over the silence. "You can count me in," Broadway declared as he pointed a thumb to his chest. "And me as well, father," Angela added as she took his other hand in hers. Goliath nodded his consent for them to go.
Brooklyn stepped forward. "I'm second-in-command, I should go instead of you, Goliath, in case they're waiting for us."
Goliath shook his head. "No, you must stay behind with your clan in case we fail."
Lexington chimed in. "I'm coming too!"
But Goliath shook his head. "You are still too angry," he explained. "I know that's not what you want to hear..."
Visibly disappointed, Lex grumbled something inaudible and stomped away from the group.
Hudson, who'd drifted to Goliath's side, spoke softly to him. "He only wishes to help. Ye cannot expect him to wait forever."
Coldstone and Coldfire stepped forward next. Coldfire announced, "We too will accompany you, my brother."
Goliath nodded content with the strength of their numbers. But when the other six assembled before him and Xanatos, his expression soon fell. Something disturbingly familiar about the chosen candidates caused his heart to skip a beat.
He turned to Brooklyn, but he'd changed in subtle ways. "...Broadway, Maggie, Talon and Coldstone... Broadway was the lucky one..." the Brooklyn from Puck's dream said softly.
Goliath shook his head in denial and the haunting image wavered. He swallowed, and nervously added, "Are there any more volunteers?" His eyes fell on Lexington. "Lexington," he announced, "you'd best come along. Any others?"
Surprised, all Lex could do was nod.
Claw glanced around the room, seeming a bit uncertain. His eyes traveled from each of his mutate friends, from Maggie and Talon, then to Sharon for a time, and finally down to his large paws. Balling them into fists, he took a step forward and mimicked a heroic pose, fists at his side, neck and back sharp and straight.
Talon nodded, "Very well, Claw, you can come as well."
Xanatos cleared his throat, and Goliath turned toward Brooklyn. "You stay here with the others until we return. He turned and headed out quickly, adding to himself "...if we return." The others followed swiftly behind him.
Once they reached the surface, Xanatos came up to his side. "I'm going to call in some ringers." But before Goliath could ask for an explanation, Xanatos blasted off, heading towards the Unseelie lab. The others took flight after him, following behind.
As the group neared their destination, Goliath could hear a sound growing nearer. Identical to the rumble of Xanatos's thruster jet, he looked around and soon spotted the source. Three sources, to be more accurate. He pointed off to the distance, where three large figures could be seen fast approaching. "Your... ringers?"
Xanatos nodded. "They were too far away to reach us in time earlier, so I told them to await instructions nearby." The trio of Iron Clan robots joined the group as the motley crew banked left, swooping down towards the courtyard.
- - -
In the courtyard, the Ultra-Pack was busy loading equipment and the transformation tanks into trucks. "My sensors indicate we have company." Coyote carefully set down his load, then pointed to the approaching flyers.
"Finally," Wolf growled, "now we can stop being pack mules and have some fun." He put the tank he was carrying down with a heavy thud. The liquid sloshed around and the semi-altered Halfling swayed lightly in the tank.
"Well, you've got enough fur to be a mule, and certainly smell like one when you're wet," Jackal replied.
Lobo's cybernetic eye focused on the incoming gargoyles and robots. "They outnumber us. Spread out and take them down one at a time. Don't let them gang up on you." As the Ultra-Pack scattered, he unslung a heavy blaster and took aim at one of the Iron Clan robots as it streaked past. An aquamarine figure slammed into his side and pulled the gun away, making the shot go wide. Broadway snapped the blaster rifle in two, causing a brief shower of sparks. He and Angela approached the fallen Lobo as Bull charged at them, growling.
- - -
Maggie caught sight of a familiar figure hovering a few meters off the pavement. She growled softly and dived towards her, sparks flickering across her furred paws. Tanya quickly recognized the mutate and smiled. "I was hoping to even the score with you, Pussycat." The Halfling fired off a quick volley of fiery bolts, but the mutate rolled to the right, out of their path. An angry growl to her left caused Tanya to turn, catching sight of an ebon black mutate diving towards her. Against the night sky, it was only the electric glow from his paws that allowed her to see the dark form at all. Seconds later, she was zipping about, dodging the lightning bolts.
- - -
Claw banked away as he saw Maggie and then Talon confront the Halfling. They'd be able to look after each other, he told himself. He swooped down the ground, walking quickly in the shadows of the moving trucks. He glanced from side to side and darted over to one of the transformation cannisters, pressing his back against it. Looking around it, he caught sight of Broadway getting slammed back as Bull leapt onto him, snarling. Claw sighed softly and darted to the next cannister, moving away from them.
- - -
Hyena got down on all fours and stretched her limbs out like spidery legs. With a loud cackle, she leapt onto the shoulders of one of the hovering robots. Her fingers released long blades which she dug into its neck. Spinning her torso quickly at the waist, the Iron Clan robot was decapitated in a shower of sparks and metal bits.
Jackal, meanwhile, shot another freezing blast at the golden robot in front of him, into the flaming shield she was spraying from her palms. There was a burst of grayish vapour as the supercooled liquid boiled away and the flames sputtered. He rolled to the side nimbly and fired at her hip, but Coldfire dodged and sent a tiny fireball at him. With an acrobatic leap, he flipped over it and shot again.
Coldfire dodged another blast from the cyborg and sent a wide fan of flame against his chest, knocking him aside in the middle of another leap. With a cackling laugh, Hyena landed a leaping kick onto her back, slamming her down. "You can't pick on my brother that way... only I'm allowed to treat him like that." Her wrists arched unnaturally back. Large, curved spikes popped out from them, vaguely resembling meathooks or crowbars. "I'm going to rip you apart and use you for spare parts." She raised an arm high to tear into Coldfire's metallic back.
Moments before the spike would make contact, Hyena's arm was struck by the precision shot of a blaster and it flew back, showering sparks. Coldstone swooped in and kicked her firmly away. "Dare to touch my mate again and you'll need them, you mismatched freak."
"Well, isn't that just the pot calling the kettle black," Jackal laughed as he shot another stream of freezing liquid, this time at the cybernetic gargoyle.
- - -
Goliath and Xanatos landed on one of the wings of the large building where it joined with the central one, quickly looking over the fighting. "You help Talon and Maggie with the Halfling," Goliath said authoritatively, "and I'll help my rookery brother and sister with Jackal and Hyena." Xanatos nodded and fired up his thrusters to head into the fray.
A familiar voice, identical to Xanatos's spoke up behind them. "But then who'll I play with?" Coyote clamped a robotic paw around Xanatos's ankle and slammed him back to the ground. "Hi, Dad," it said with almost too real smirk in its voice and on its display. "Look at me... I'm all grown up." The huge robot swung its arm, slamming the armoured Xanatos around like a rag doll onto the concrete roof and the wall of the main building repeatedly. It then turned and slammed its unconscious creator into Goliath's side like a club, nearly knocking the gargoyle off the building.
- - -
Wolf growled deep in his throat and padded across the pavement. He watched his packmates attacking their prey. Lost in a wash of animalistic instincts, that was how he perceived his allies and enemies. One of them landed ahead of him, facing away. He howled and charged at it, knocking it down before it'd completely turned around.
He wrestled with the iron robot, his powerful arms pulling its shoulder back, twisting the hydraulics inside until the joint became useless. The Iron Clan robot launched itself up quickly, twirling to toss Wolf away. He gave a small yelp of pain as he fell to the ground, but quickly rolled back onto all fours, growling at his foe. He howled and grabbed a nearby generator they'd been loading onto the truck. He hurled it at the robot, slamming it into its chest. The weight of it knocked it down some and he leapt swiftly onto it, bringing the robot crashing down.
Its back scraped across the ground until they slid into one of the transformation cannisters. The tank beeped indignantly and wobbled, but did not fall over. The robot's blaster popped out of its forearm and aimed it the opponent on its chest. Wolf howled and lifted the generator, slamming it onto the robot's head, crushing it with the grind of metal on metal.
Wolf huffed at his kill and panted for breath. His humanity reasserted as the bloodlust was momentarily satisfied. "Well, that's one of the tinkertoys down. Now to find me the real thing." He stood near-upright and looked towards the large aquamarine gargoyle as he watched him backing away from Bull, the dog's muzzle curled back and slobbering drool.
But Wolf growled and dropped to all fours as he caught a scent in the air and the beast inside him took control again. The beast sniffed around, studying the scent he'd not noticed in the heat of battle. There was another predator in his territory, stalking his hunting grounds. He howled angrily and followed the scent, following the intruder's trail. Control of territory was paramount in the success and survival of large predators; the millenia of evolution locked in his lupine genes demanded he take control.
- - -
Tanya swerved to her right and fired quick sprays of flame from her hands, one towards Maggie and the other towards Talon. As they each dodged, they drifted closer together. Tanya smirked as she played her game of cat and mouse. "Though this mouse is going to win," she said to herself.
Talon growled in frustration and the two mutates' paws glowed as they channeled their dwindling electricity reserves. The Halfling took a quick glance behind her shoulder and hung relatively still in the air, drifting slowly. "Come on, you hairballs, lets see what you've got." She smiled and made a 'gimme' motion with her hands.
The mutates growled in unison at the taunting, long past frustrated by the teasing, elusive Halfling. Just as they released their blasts of lightning, their target zipped aside gracefully. The electricity streaked past her, barreling into an iron clan robot that'd been approaching from behind her. It shuddered with convulsions and burst into a streak of sparks and flame as he crashed to the ground. "Stick and move, baybee!" Tanya teased.
Struck by a sudden idea, Tanya twirled her fingers quickly in a pattern in front of her, guided by the knowledge her transformation had given her. Her fingertips left ribbons of glowing light as she traced them out in the air with surprising ease. She then pushed her hands forward, palms out, and the glowing green web flew forward quickly, expanding as it moved.
Talon and Maggie dove apart, but Tanya had aimed for Maggie, not both, and caught her in the glowing webbing. Unable to flap her wings or manoeuvre, she fell to the ground, tumbling down near Coldstone and Broadway. Coldstone had gotten his leg encased in ice and frozen to the ground before Jackal's supply of freezing fluid had run dry. There were multiple cracks at the top of the ice where he'd worked at breaking free with limited success. Broadway's arms had some light bitemarks from the large dog's fangs, but luckily nothing worse.
- - -
Coyote swung the unconscious Xanatos at Goliath, but the gargoyle sank his clawed feet into the roof and caught the battlesuit. Goliath's eyes glowed a bright white as he skidded back, leaving deep scrapes in the concrete as he grabbed hold of the battlesuit. "Playtime's over, robot," he growled he tried to pull his ally from its grip.
"I agree," Coyote replied, opening two small panels in its chest and shooting out a pair of cannisters from each. The cannisters rolled around the garoyle's feet and a thick cloud of bluish gas sprayed out from them. Goliath groaned and stumbled as sudden weakness filled him. Xanatos's armour suddenly felt ten times heavier and he collapsed beneath it. The gas, created by Dr. Sevarius, robbed him of his strength, leaving him weak and helpless.
Coyote leveled its upper-left arm at Goliath, pointing the array laser at him. The gargoyle tried to lift the heavy armour aside, but couldn't find the strength. "End game, Goliath." The triplet of rapid-fire lasers began to glow a dull red as they powered up.
- - -
In the lab, Sevarius tossed a vital file he had nearly missed into his briefcase, laying it over the CD-ROMs, the other files and a rack of sealed vials. "Well Anton, I think you've overstayed your welcome. He who fights and runs away and all that." He snapped the latches on the briefcase and smiled as the computer beeped softly when the purging program had completed its duties. He'd ftp'd all his encrypted files to a secure site and let the program format the hard drive, then copy it over with random data. He tossed a lit match into his aluminum trashcan and turned to leave. But halfway through the motion, he caught sight of the large, orange furred figure in a black tuxedo.
Claw growled deep in his throat and glared at Sevarius. For a moment they remained like that, gazes locked. The mutate's hips began to twitch and he lowered his body, almost crouching. Sevarius lowered an arm to his side, slowly taking a step back.
Suddenly, the tiger leapt like an uncoiled spring, clearing a third of the gap between them in a single bound. Sevarius took another step back, drew a pistol from the pocket of his lab coat and fired. In a swift motion, Claw raised his wing as a guard as he saw the doctor drawing the dart gun. The needle hit the leathery membrane and began to numb the wing, but the charge continued, unslowed.
Sevarius turned to run, but Claw grabbed him roughly. The doctor tried to bring the pistol around, but the tigermorph slapped it away with the back of his paw. With a slight quiver in his voice, the doctor asked, "Wh-what do you want?" Claw growled, raising the paw up high, unsheathing his inch long, amber claws. Sevarius's eyes went wide with fear.
Claw growled again and grabbed at the briefcase, sinking his claws deep into the fake leather. He tugged at it, trying to pull it away from the doctor's grip. "No, I won't let you take it. I won't let you destroy my work, West."
- - -
With Goliath trapped, Coyote paused for a moment to survey the battlefield, watchful for any who could prevent it from finishing off its two favorite enemies. Keeping the laser array pointed at Goliath, it focused its sensors on the interesting events in the parking lot.
Fenced in by Jackal, Bull and that female Halfling, Coldstone and Broadway stood back-to-back while Talon tried to free Maggie from some strange webbing. It quickly made a note in its memory to find out more about the Halfling. A need to learn as much as possible about the players had been something Xanatos had originally programmed into its personality.
But that could wait. At the moment, it simply represented an opportunity. Two plates slid back from its shoulders and two mini-missile racks rose up. As its targeting computer rapidly went through the calculations, the robot signaled Jackal via radio to keep them penned in together.
The laser array never having moved from Goliath, it turned towards him slightly. "Look at them, Goliath. So busy worrying about each other, they're not even looking out for themselves."
"No," he tried to scream to warn them, but his voice was only as loud as if he were speaking. No, he couldn't let it happen, not like the dream predicted. He'd not fail them again by not being there to help. He pushed his hands, trying to lift the unconscious Xanatos. He groaned and pushed with all his might, but his arms felt like rubber and the heavy suit barely moved.
"A valiant effort, but too little too late." Coyote turned back towards the parking lot. The protective casing over the missile packs popped open and the exhaust vents at the rear of the launcher flashed red and smoked as the first of the thrusters ignited. The mini-missiles began to launch.
But then a tan streak slammed into the robot's back and began to claw at its paneling. Lexington tore at the giant robot, his large eyes shining brightly. As Coyote stumbled forward, the small missiles continue to launch from the packs, streaking off-target. It twisted its arms around, trying to grab hold of the tiny gargoyle on its back.
- - -
While the rest of their companions flew far off target, hitting the trucks or open spots in the parking lot, the first pair of mini-missiles remained largely on target. They only fell a dozen meters from the two gargoyles and mutates trapped in the ring of enemies. They blasted into the wreckage of the Iron Clan robot downed by the mutates, leaving a small crater.
Coldstone had seen the missiles just moments before they struck and had shifted himself to stand between their blast and his three friends, shielding them with his metal wings from the robot fragments. He tumbled forward, his robotic knee dislocated as the ice around it kept his leg rooted in place. Otherwise, they'd survived unscathed.
Tanya and Jackal were not so fortunate. Their backs turned away, they had only heard the blast as it stuck them. Several pieces of Jackal's cyberware went offline from the damage. Tanya was thrown aside, scorched along her back and sides by the iron. Her skin was red and puffy, but the wound looked far better than it felt. She gritted her teeth against the pain and staggered towards the building, leaving Bull, a semi-functional Jackal and a rapidly approaching Hyena to deal with their enemies.
- - -
Coyote stumbled and tried to regain its footing as the nimble gargoyle dodged the robot's hands and clawed at it. Goliath grabbed its ankle, holding it with his limited strength. The robot almost kicked free, but a groggy Xanatos placed an armoured hand on its ankle as well and pulled. Together, the three of them sent the robot off-balance, tumbling off the three story building. Its jets sputtered and flashed, but fail to ignite fully in time, damaged by Lex's attack. It struck the ground with a heavy crunch and the twisting of metal.
- - -
A loud howl put the tug-o-war between Dr. Sevarius and Claw to an end. Looking back, Claw caught a glimpse of a gray, lupine form lunging at him only a moment before it crashed into him. It slammed into his side and they tumbled to the ground together. The briefcase, momentarily forgotten by all, was flung aside and slid over beside the desk. It knocked into the smoldering trashcan and tipped it over, releasing a cloud of red embers which quickly turned to white ash, the fire dead.
Wolf growled again as he tore at the tiger, intent to kill this intruder to his territory. He snapped his sharp fangs at Claw's forearm, but he only grasped a muzzleful of sleeve as the mutate shoved him back. The tigermorph pressed a strong paw under the lupine muzzle, holding it up from his face. Wolf's claws scraped at his opponent's chest, tearing furrows into cloth as they roll from side to side on the hard floor.
Sevarius staggered back from the growling pair of mutates and began looking around quickly for his best means of escape. Tanya staggered into the room through a side door, her left side and arm red with iron burn. He ran over to her quickly. "You, get me out of here now," he demanded.
Tanya, her confidence shattered by the painful scorching from the iron, needed no encouragement. She nodded, put her arms under his shoulders and held him tightly. "Everything has a price," she whispered as she stepped onto the ley line crossing the room and began to skate off with none of her earlier zeal. Touching the ley line had soothed the burning immediately, relieving some of the pain, but not her wounded pride.
Suddenly, the doors flew open again and Lobo was thrown in, followed by Angela, who marched in. Lobo rubbed his aching head and caught sight of Tanya flying off with Dr. Sevarius. "Bailing out on us, too," he grumbled, remembering the time when Madoc and his ilk abandoned the Ultra-Pack here over a year ago. "Well, we're not getting thrown to the dogs again." He struggled to his feet.
Angela turned sharply towards the snarling mutates to help Claw, but he'd regained control of the situation. Wolf was over him, nearly pinned, but he pressed a foot into the lupine's chest, kicking him back in a flash of sparks. Wolf yelped softly as the blast gave him added thrust, tossing him a few meters away.
The shock had knocked temporarily knocked Wolf out of his feral state, enough to recognize Lobo as he gave him a hand up. "Come on, we're getting out of here. I'm not letting my team get left behind again." Lobo then spoke into his arm radio. "Ultra-Pack, we're pulling out."
The command to leave was not met with any bickering or demands for explanation. Hyena gave Broadway a kick back out, took her brother by the wrist and lifted off. Coyote staggered forward, joints creaking and the left leg leaking hydraulic fluid, managed to get its thrusters working and flew off after them. Bull growled and extended its metallic wings, flying to join up with Lobo and Wolf as they left though a side exit.
- - -
Goliath and Xanatos helped each other to their feet and they watched the Ultra-Pack retreat. "They're leaving. We've succeeded in driving them away," the gargoyle leader said. He looked across the parking lot to where Broadway and Coldstone were helping Talon free Maggie. "And prophecy has been averted," he said, then turning to Lexington, added "...thanks to you."
Xanatos removed his armoured helmet and peered inside, examining the broken radio system. He shrugged and said "Plan B" to no one in particular. Tapping a section at his hip, the hidden compartment opened. He removed the celphone and flicked it open. "Owen, I need immediate manpower here. Send a moving team and a clean up crew to the Maddox Tech Building. Send in a half-dozen more Iron Clan robots to assist them.
With a snap of his wrist, he flicked the celphone closed and noticed Goliath and Lexington staring at him. "So I'll get brain cancer... who wants to live forever?"
- - -
Claw's tuxedo hung in tattered rags around him, pieces slipping away as he walked over to the desk. He knelt down and picked up the briefcase that'd fallen there. But as he lifted it, the side it had rested on sagged, then spilt open, pouring onto the floor in a black sludge. The vials inside had shattered and the liquid inside had reacted with the open air. The contents of the briefcase, and now even sections of the briefcase itself, had melted into a corrosive paste.
Angela read the name engraved on the case, A. Sevarius, as she watched it start to collapse in the mutate's paws. The sickly smell of decay and death rose up from the lumpy mess on the floor.
Claw tossed the collapsing remains of the briefcase across the room with a growl and buried his face in his large paws, weeping in silence.
* * * * *
The next evening, Labyrinth:
The next night, everyone was gathered in the Labyrinth again in the second attempt at a wedding for Talon and Maggie. The garlands, lace bells and other decorations still hung on the walls and even seemed to have been joined by many more. As with the night before, everyone traveled around the room, socializing amongst themselves while they awaited the beginning of the ceremony. But this time, not only Goliath, but Xanatos and Fox as well, were there.
With Goliath by his side, it didn't take long for Xanatos to be accepted amongst the others, and very soon he was exchanging greetings with everyone and holding conversations.
"So," Elisa ventured, "all of the half-transformed Halflings have been taken care of."
Xanatos nodded. "I had Owen arrange it all. My people came in last night after we left. They successfully retrieved all the unconscious Halflings and moved them to a safe house, where they can stay until..."
"Until we decide what to do with them," Goliath finished solemnly.
"Well," Xanatos assured, "until that decision's made, the Halflings are in stable condition. The transformation tanks they were in serve nicely as stasis tubes under the right power settings. The chemicals preserve them perfectly, and we have them all hooked up to monitoring equipment. They can be awakened whenever we choose, and in the meantime their state is comparable to cryogenic suspension. The transformation process is fortunately also halted while the tanks are in stasis mode."
"And I'll bet there isn't a trace of anything left at that warehouse," Elisa added.
Xanatos smiled. "My people do their jobs well. If you went by there tonight, you would have no evidence to suggest there was anything in there since the building was last abandoned."
"Unfortunately, Sevarius and the Ultra-Pack have vanished just as completely," Lex reminded. "And we still don't know what happened to the Redcaps, wisps, and other full-grown Halflings. Was that their base as well as Sevarius' lab or is there still another Unseelie stronghold out there?"
Xanatos nodded, "My crew found no signs of them having stayed there, unfortunately."
Goliath nodded in agreement. "But regardless of those short-comings, tonight we triumphed. I consider it a victory," he looked to Xanatos, "on many levels."
"Madoc has thirty-four less Halflings now, and in the time it takes to rebuild a lab and get back on track who knows how many more he may lose....if he is ever able to recover."
Lex let out a satisfied sigh.
"And," Goliath concluded, "if tonight's patrol was any indication, the Tengu-style attacks have finally ceased."
"Madoc's probably called for a full withdrawal with the loss of the Halfling center," Xanatos observed.
- - -
Talon nodded to Broadway and Coldstone as he walked up to join them. He clapped Coldstone's metal shoulder and smiled. "You're looking good. Did they fix your leg up all right?"
Coldstone nodded, "The man Xanatos ordered to fix it said that the joint must have popped loose in the blast. No permanent damage." He flexed his knee easily as a demonstration.
"Good to hear. Good to hear," Talon said. Broadway nodded in agreement.
"I'm glad to see you are both well, also."
"We'd not be if it weren't for you," Broadway said.
"Definitely," Talon added. "We all owe you one, Coldstone."
"I was the one best able to withstand the blast. You would have done the same in my place."
"But you did stand in the way of it," the mutate said firmly, "and that means that we owe you one. Maggie and I want you to know that if you ever need our help, we'll be there for you."
"That goes double for me," Broadway said, nodding. "And if Jackal and the rest of the Ultra-Pack ever give you trouble again, we'll stand there at your side to face them again."
- - -
But while the others talked of their victory the past night, Sharon worried for their sole loser. She stepped up quietly to join Claw. Ever since he'd returned the night before, he seemed sadder, more distant, more isolated. Off in a corner alone, he was leaning against a wall, quietly nursing his cola.
"Claw..." she said softly, "Angela told me what you did last night." With the air of solitude he'd built up, it felt like she was confronting him to even speak to him. Perhaps she even was confronting him. "Talon, Maggie and the others were counting on you to help them. They'd needed your help."
He turned aside, his shoulders slumping. Even without words, the meaning was clear. He was deeply ashamed of his actions, but he did not want to talk about them.
She moved to his side and touched his shoulder lightly. For Talon and Maggie, this was a happy occasion, and she could not trouble them with this. But her clan needed to know where he stood. "Why did you want Sevarius's notes? Did you hope to find a way to change yourself back?"
He nodded, then shook his head softly. He paused and then nodded again slowly.
She rubbed her tongue against one of her sharp teeth. When he responded like this, it was always difficult to know what he meant. He'd wanted to be human again, that was obvious. But that was not everything, but he was refusing to offer any clues as to what his other motives were.
"Did you want to seek revenge against Sevarius for deceiving you? For turning you into a mutate?"
He shook his head firmly, still hanging it low.
She smiled a little. Revenge had not motivated him. Nor had she expected that of him. But for the clan, she needed to know... "Is becoming human again so important to you that you'd risk your friends for it? Would you sacrifice our lives to be Theodore West again?"
He turned slowly to face her and shook his head firmly. Never.
"Claw, it's only together that we, the four of us, can be strong. We're all friends, family even, and our forms don't matter for that. We are who we are and that won't matter as long as we face it together." As she spoke the words to him, her voice came with a growing conviction, the weight she'd felt the day before lifting, secure in knowing she'd always have her friends here.
He smiled a little and nodded, patting her hand lightly in thanks.
Now filled with a rush of happiness, she giggled and pulled something from a pocket. "Your tux got very torn last night, but I managed to recover this." She wrapped the white collar and black tie around his neck. "There you go. A little more formal." In his tie and tight shorts, he looked like a tiger dancer for a nightclub, but somehow it worked.
She giggled softly and took his hand as he reached up to paw at it. "Trust me, you look great. Come on. We'd best get to our places. They're about to start." They moved eagerly to either side of the podium before Judge Roblyn.
- - -
While everyone filed into the dining hall for the ceremony, Elisa nodded to Goliath and hung back a moment. She watched the others move to take seats, waiting. Once Delilah had settled the rest of the clones into their seats, Elisa moved over beside her. She motioned to the two empty seats Goliath had saved for them. The clone glanced from Elisa to the seats, then back. Elisa smiled nervously, almost shyly, and nodded. Delilah smiled brightly and the two went to take the seats, Goliath on Elisa's right, Delilah on her left.
- - -
The ceremony progressed just as it had the night before, but with a noticeably more upbeat feel to it, with both the presence of Goliath, of Xanatos, and of the two of them together to boot, combined with last night's victory. An even greater sense of hope for the future filled the air.
As the final moments of the ceremony drew near, the atmosphere seemed to tense, as if everybody was in suspense, waiting, almost holding their breath, partly in hope that this time round they would get to the end and partially in uneclipsed joy.
"Do you, Derek Maza, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, through good times and bad, 'til death do you part?"
Derek hesitated for naught a moment as he gazed into Maggie's eyes. "I do."
"And do you, Margaret Reed, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, through good times and bad, 'til death do you part?"
"I do," she repeated more softly, returning his gaze, as her eyes began to well up.
"The rings, please."
Matt gave Derek the first ring, Beth gave Maggie the other, and the pair were exchanged.
"By the power vested in me by the state of New York," the Judge finished enthusiastically, "I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride."
Talon and Maggie, seemingly oblivious to everything else, slowly drew near. The Judge's last sentence seemed to echo in the back of their minds. Everything was like a dream. And then they were suddenly awake, the sound of a gentle, warm applause, previously muffled, now resounding in their ears as they kissed, gradually increasing as more were drawn into it.
The Judge stepped back as the crowd continued to clap, somewhat taken back by the unexpected response. "Most uncustomary," he said to himself, "yet what here is?" He chuckled, "And most fitting, if I don't say."
Soon the room stood. Even the Cold Duo were clapping. And Talon and Maggie continued to kiss.
* * * * *
Special note: The George Gustav Heye Center is a branch of the of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian located in Manhattan.