A Thought of the Heart
Outline by Anna Hansen
Written by Rahsaan Footman, Jonathan Cotleur, Beth Mashburn, and Don A. Martinez
* * * * *
A Thought of the Heart
The Himalayas, 8th century
The half moon hung in the afternoon sky above the snowy mountain slope. Melchior stopped and looked up. From his angle, the snowy peak sloped upward, like a stairway of white reaching up to the moon. Melchior paused to enjoy the moment before returning to his task.
Though most of his life had been spent enclosed in a menagerie, he felt a sense of peace here that he had never known there. Melchior guessed it was his yeti birthright, a calling his race felt for open spaces. If he ever found more of his kind, that would be one of the first things heíd ask.
His broad feet crunched the newly fallen snow. He walked with certainty down the mountain. At intervals, he removed a stake tied with brightly colored silk and drove it into the snow. This way he marked a path down below.
Melchiorís trailblazing took him to a broad expanse of white. In warmer months it was a meadow filled with flowers. Now, it was an immaculate white tableau. The brilliant snow made the break in its perfection glaring. Halfway across the snowy meadow stood a grey stone figure. Curiosity drew Melchior. As he approached, the yeti gasped in surprise.
Half buried in the snow like someone drowning in a sea of white was the stone form of a gargoyle. Melchior ran to peer at the face. The beak, the body shape, it was unmistakable.
"Brooklyn," he sighed.
Melchior wasted no time digging up the gargoyle. In a few minutes, the yeti excavated the sleeping Brooklyn, lifting him up and out of the hip deep snow.
"My friend, you need to lose some weight," the yeti quipped in between breaths. "Now, letís see to your mate."
Melchior first dug around the hole where he found Brooklyn. Sata and her mate were rarely far apart. He dug until he reached frozen earth, becoming a little annoyed as he failed to find any sign of another gargoyle. The yeti shrugged it off and dug farther away. He didnít dig as deep, reasoning that if Brooklyn was chest deep, Sata would be close to the surface as well.
After some time, Melchior tried something new. He dug a trench around his earlier attempts. When he completed the circle and still found nothing, he looked at Brooklyn.
"Donít tell me you two were playing a game of hide and seek." But Melchiorís voice carried a nervous chuckle.
Now, he dug holes haphazardly, hoping to get lucky. Panic that had been easy to dismiss earlier was starting to creep up further with each new failure.
"Please, let me find stone," Melchior pleaded as he dug a tenth hole. When his hands met unyielding frozen earth, he gave a howl of frustration that echoed through the silent mountains. Hearing the haunting echo and the following silence, Melchior calmed down.
"Sunset will soon be here. Iíll need more help if Iím to find Sata."
Melchior grabbed the rest of the marker sticks and planted them in a ring around where he had first found Brooklyn, then lifted the sleeping gargoyle. With a grunt, he carried him away.
* * * * *
Brooklyn lounged under a cherry blossom tree. A small creek flowed over his feet and Mt. Zao rose up in the distance. Soft green talons stroked the sides of his face. Brooklyn gave an extremely contented sigh as he looked up into Sataís face. He lifted up his hand and traced each delicate feature on her face before slipping them into her sable black hair. Gently, he pulled her down for a kiss.
A strange cry seized both gargoylesí attention. Brooklyn looked past his mate to see a strange bird perched in the cherry tree. It was bright gold with crimson highlights and a long, twisted neck. The bird cried out again.
"Ignore it, love," Sata said in a throaty voice. Brooklyn nodded and continued pulling her in for a kiss. The bird cried out yet again, this time more agitated. The phoenix opened its wings, each feather ablaze with fire. Brooklyn ignored the bird, attention focused on his mate: how supple she felt in his arms, the spicy smell of her scent, the silky feel of her hair on his face.
The firebird gave one last defiant fluting whistle, before it ignited in a ball of flame. Sata gave a painful cry before everything disappeared in white.
* * * * *
Brooklyn awoke with a roar of raw emotion. He looked to his side. Sata wasnít with him. It took a moment for everything to sink in, then he wished it hadnít. It was just a dream. Sata wasnít with him, she was in the future. Now the pain followed as he remembered everything.
Brooklyn gave a small groan as he tried to think of something else. His shoulders tensed. He clenched his fists and gritted his teeth, then looked around at his surroundings; anything else to help smother the pain.
He noticed he wasnít outside anymore. Except during heavy storms, the evening sky carried some tint of the departing day. He was inside a dark room. Behind him, there was a ruddy glow in the outline of a door. He felt warmth in that direction and the peppery smell of wood smoke. The door opened, letting in more light.
"Be at ease, you are with friends," a warm and vaguely familiar voice said from the light.
Brooklyn peered at the light until his eyes adjusted.
"Where am I? Do I know you?"
A woman stepped into the room. Tall, leggy, dark-skinned. She wore the slim outfit of a dancer, cut to leave the arms and legs free to move. Her black hair was braided in cornrows with brass beads jangling from their ends.
"Five years and youíve forgotten already? I am Darice."
Brooklyn stood up.
"Yes, we knew your mate for a time in the Caliphís menagerie."
"Yes... youíre the werecheetah!" Brooklyn exclaimed as the memories came back.
Darice nodded. "Melchior found you this afternoon. He and the others have gone back to search for Sata. Do you know where she is?"
Brooklynís head dropped into his chest. His face fell, going from recognition to unbearable sadness. Darice didnít know what was going on, but she suddenly felt great sympathy for the gargoyle.
"Where is Sata?" Brooklyn repeated to himself.
* * * * *
"Where is Sata?" Melchior wondered to himself. Aloud, he shouted to the others, "Any sign of her?"
Li gave her area a strong sweep of her tail. The golden dragon examined it, looked up to Melchior, and shook her head. "If I was older," she said hesitantly, "I could melt the snow with my power." She hung her head and looked as if she was about to cry.
"Itís all right, Li." Melchior hurried to reassure the young dragon before she could burst into tears. "You are doing a wonderful job." A tall and rangy young man in his late teens ran through the snow to the yeti. Melchior waited a moment for the fur-muffled human to catch his breath.
"Weíve found nothing on the far side either," the young man, Haroun, reported.
"We must keep searching, then," Melchior ordered. "The sun has set. She could suffocate or freeze if we donít find her soon."
"That wonít happen. We will find her," Haroun reassured the yeti.
Haroun jogged back to the others, clearing the meadow. Li shuffled to another spot and swept her tail, raking the snow away. A spotted cat jumped over the dragonís tail and the snow piling up by it. The cheetah bolted towards Melchior and came to a halt.
"You can stop your search," the cheetah ordered. "Sata isnít here. She isnít with Brooklyn."
* * * * *
Melchior burst into the common room with such force that the wooden doors nearly came off their hinges. Brooklyn, who was warming himself by the fire, whirled around.
"Where is she? Why isnít she with you? What happened?" Melchior demanded. Brooklyn gave the yeti one look, then returned to warming his hands by the fire.
Melchior gave a small growl before reaching over to Brooklyn and spinning the gargoyle around to face him.
"Where. Is. Sata?"
Brooklyn shoved the yeti back.
"Sheís gone, okay!" Brooklyn shouted at the white snowman. "She is in the future."
"Is she safe?" Melchior asked a little less hotly.
"Yeah, sheís safe." Brooklyn turned around to the fire. In a whisper, he added, "I hope."
The yeti looked to the others confusedly, then back at Brooklyn.
* * * * *
The common room was filled with the crackling of the hearth fire and the clattering of pottery. Brooklynís gaze remained fixed on the fire in the center of the room. He barely noticed the new inhabitants of the Sanctuary. Some were human, but the rest were creatures he had heard of or seen from legends. He didnít care. The newcomers viewed Brooklyn with mild curiosity, but the gargoyleís gloom hung around him like a shroud, so everyone gave him a wide berth.
Darice and Melchior dished out dinner - a spicy stew with chunks of meat - to the others. Haroun was last, with two plates. He set one of the steaming plates before Brooklyn.
"Eat!" Haroun urged.
Brooklyn just stared at the plate for several long moments before mumbling, "Iím not hungry."
"I find that hard to believe," Haroun replied gently. "You were out in the cold for who knows how long. If you were human, you would be dead."
"Well, Iím not human," Brooklyn snapped back. Darice and Melchior both looked up.
Haroun remained undaunted. "Please eat. It will restore your health."
Brooklyn let out a puff of air in annoyance. He ate a talonful of stew, but did not taste it. An answering growl from his stomach told Brooklyn that he was indeed very hungry. Brooklyn scooped out another talonful and another, wolfing down the food to spite his hunger. When he was finished, he tossed the plate at Haroun and resumed staring at the fire.
"So tell me, Brooklyn," Melchior sat down next to Haroun and Brooklyn, "why isnít Sata with you?"
Darice gave a jangling shake of her head. Haroun put his hand on the yetiís arm, signaling him to stop. Melchior ignored them both.
"Sheís in the future," Brooklyn repeated.
"Yes, but why. Why there and not by your side?"
When Brooklyn didnít answer, Melchior pressed. "Did you two have a falling out?"
Darice came up to the yeti. "Melchior, can you carry dinner out to Li?"
"In a moment," Melchior waved off the werecheetah. "Tell me Brooklyn, why did she leave you?"
"Li is very hungry," Haroun said in a warning tone. Melchior ignored him and Brooklyn ignored Melchior. The gargoyle just stared at the fire and the firefly embers dancing upward through a chimney crack in the ceiling.
"Tell me Brooklyn. I deserve to know." Melchior grabbed Brooklynís shoulder.
Brooklyn sprung on the yeti, his eyes glowing bright. "You deserve nothing! I donít have to answer to you."
Melchior pushed Brooklyn off. The brick red gargoyle gave a low growl and a vicious thrash of his tail. The yeti dropped into a lower fighting stance, fists clutched.
"Enough, both of you!" Darice shouted. She and Haroun got in between the two.
"Melchior, see to Li," Darice ordered. Melchior didnít move. Darice turned around with her green, catlike eyes flashing in the firelight. "Now!"
The yeti paused before whirling around. He lifted the hot pot and stomped out to the large chamber the dragon inhabited. Haroun followed Melchior. Darice turned to Brooklyn. Her cat eyes returned to human pupils.
"I apologize for Melchior."
Brooklyn didnít say anything. He just turned around and stomped down the opposite hallway.
* * *
Brooklyn didnít know where he was going and didnít care. He stormed through the cavernous passages of the Sanctuary. Finally, the angry haze abated, leaving a cold feeling in its place. Brooklyn leaned against the cold stone walls. He just felt empty, so empty.
Brooklyn didnít know how long he just stood there, willing the aching emptiness to go away. He didnít know how much longer it took before he found the will to move again. In a reluctant gait, the red gargoyle navigated through the passages.
"Did the future version of the Sanctuary have this many tunnels?" Brooklyn wondered to himself. It didnít take long for Brooklyn to realize he was lost. All the passages looked the same and some of the intersections turned back in on themselves.
The red gargoyle gave a sigh of relief when he found a door. He didnít remember going through a door, but he reasoned a door meant someone came by regularly. He opened it and felt a gust of cold air hit his face.
He entered a natural atrium. The mountain walls sloped up and out, revealing a circle of dark night sky. The stars glittered brightly above and the floor was lightly dusted with snow. For a moment, Brooklyn felt a sense of peace, then he looked around and saw statues. For a panic-stricken moment, Brooklyn had a flashback to the massacre of Wyvern. A second look revealed that these were really statues, not gargoyles.
"Whoever carved these certainly has talent," Brooklyn commented, inspecting a model of a unicorn. In the center of the atrium was a large block of stone. Brooklyn looked it over, but it hadnít been carved yet. He left it to see the other carvings. He was marveling at a smaller statue of Li when Darice found him.
"Thank Bastet, I found you," Darice came up to him. "I feared you might have left us."
"Nope, the Phoenix Gate will do that soon enough," Brooklyn answered sarcastically.
Darice ignored the comment. "Dawn will be here shortly. Haroun has made a room for you. Will you come with me?"
Brooklyn nodded and followed Darice.
* * *
Haroun searched for Melchior that day. He found the yeti in his workshop, chipping away at stone. The young man sat on a bench while Melchior chiseled away, flakes of grey stone getting caught in his white fur.
"What do you suppose happened? Why isnít Sata with him?"
"I don't know," Melchior said at last. He set down his great tools, taking a brief rest to look upon his current project and re-evaluate it carefully. "Whatever it is, he's very reluctant to speak of it."
"He keeps saying she's in the future." Haroun stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Really, we don't know very much about Brooklyn's culture ... maybe that's his people's way of saying she's..."
Melchior's gaze intensified. "No. I won't accept that. She was a born warrior, she wouldn't have fallen." He picked up his tools once more, tapping once again into his current work, the only sound in the space now the rhythmic tapping of hammer to chisel.
Haroun took that as his cue to leave the workshop. Once he had left, though, he found himself face to face with Darice. She gave a hopeful look to him, one that he couldn't return.
"I don't think we should disturb him today. He's not willing to talk about it."
Darice sighed. "That makes two of them, then. Brooklyn's not giving us much more."
Haroun shook his head sadly. "I doubt sundown will give us anything more hopeful."
* * * * *
Sunset came once more to the Sanctuary, bringing Brooklyn once more from his stone slumber, roaring his discontent into the night air. Giving himself a half-hearted self inspection to check his condition, he looked up to see the others looking at him.
Haroun approached him. "How are you feeling, Brooklyn?"
A throaty grumble came from the gargoyle. "Better. Considering." He went into a semi-crouch, almost trying to shut out the other occupants from his mind.
Darice and Li took that as their cue to leave him alone. Haroun, however, approached Brooklyn even closer. "Hmm... you don't seem to be injured any further. Good."
Abruptly, Brooklyn stood up, taking slow strides around the room of the Sanctuary he had been left in to sleep. He glanced over at Haroun. The gangling child of twelve that he remembered had grown into a tall, lean young man, although his thick black hair appeared to have become more unruly than ever. The young man was dressed in a heavy woolen shirt and trousers, his feet shod in heavily wrapped leather boots. "It appears you've found a fine place, Haroun. Everyone is safe here."
Haroun nodded. "To an extent. Please, feel free to look around."
Melchior emerged from the corridor at that moment, seeing Brooklyn up and around. "Certainly, Brooklyn. See what we've all made this safe haven into ... we all work together to make the Sanctuary what you see before you. And your help would be more than welcome."
Melchior's words didn't strike Brooklyn as being very friendly, but he let them go by the wayside, passing by the yeti and making his way into the labyrinthine passages.
Melchior came into the room fully, coming over to Haroun's side. "You do realize, of course, that with him here we're going to have to make a supply run earlier than we wanted to. What we've got is not going to hold up."
Brooklyn's eyes glowed, hearing Melchior's last comment, and his speed down the corridor picked up in his attempt to put as much distance between himself and everyone else as possible.
* * * * *
After an hour of wandering, Brooklyn came upon a larger room, branching off of the corridor and marked with some small, very ornate carvings. At his feet, he saw stone residue and dust, and giant footprints going through the mess.
"Must be the workshop." Cautiously, he made his way through the door. After tripping over a few pieces of stone in the doorway, Brooklyn finally found a lantern, quickly lighting it and bringing the room's contents fully into focus.
And around him he found a stone wonderland. Carvings as cold as they were beautiful lined the room from ceiling to floor, all meticulously hand-carved. The gargoyle found himself, mouth agape, admiring the work.
"Melchior... these are magnificent." His soft whisper met no ears but his own. Enthralled by the craftsmanship of the pieces, he carefully walked around the room, letting the light of the lantern fall upon them at new and fascinating angles. Some of them even seemed to change their expressions as the angle of the lighting changed.
So enthralled was he, that he didn't notice the giant presence of Melchior in the doorway, watching him. His last discovery also came as that much more of a shock when he found it.
As suddenly as he had started admiring the works, Brooklyn was stopped short by a familiar face, cast in stone.
The workmanship was even more intricate than the other works in the room. It was almost as if the stone visage were real. She radiated with life, so much so that Brooklyn could have almost taken the stone figure in his arms had she not been part of a larger sculpture. Once over the stunning effect of the visage of his mate, Brooklyn finally noticed that the sculpture was part of what appeared to be...
Overcome with emotion, Brooklyn dropped the lantern on the floor, turning around and seeing Melchior there in the room with him. The gargoyle's eyes glowed, his face took an expression of outrage with the yeti.
No words were spoken. None were needed. Brooklyn angrily pushed his way past the massive stonecarver and back into the passage, overcome in his grief and anger.
* * * * *
Several Hours Later
The young man followed in the wake of the huge yeti as he forged a path through the snow towards the village, drawing their pack sledge easily across the frozen surface. He looked up at the back of Melchior and saw the tension in his huge shoulders. Something was wrong between the yeti and gargoyle, but Haroun couldnít quite get his hands around it, and wasnít quite sure how to broach the subject with his friend. He sighed and decided to let things be for now.
As they approached the village, Haroun noticed a small ragged encampment at the village edge that hadnít been there on their last trip down. The poorly tanned hides of the tents spoke of troubled times for their owners. A skinny, sickly male child with huge dark eyes stared solemnly at the two of them for a moment, then disappeared into the main tent.
Haroun shook his head. There were always poor folk in the lower reaches but they seldom came up this high in the mountains, since the village was well off the main trails. He shook his head again and followed Melchior into the village. They headed for the grain merchantís stall. The yeti tramped solidly along, focused on his own thoughts.
At length, they came to merchant Ranulís trading stall in the market. Ranul came out to greet them himself. He was a small wiry man with intense black eyes and a narrow foxy chin. His arms were corded with muscle from the many years spent hoisting sacks of goods in the warehouses. "Welcome, my friends! It is always good to see you and the goods you bring. Come in! Come in!"
The merchant had been one of the first ones willing to trade with them, and by now, he knew well the value that Melchiorís work and Harounís beautifully tanned furs would bring from a trading caravan. Ranul could always be counted on to give them a fair deal for their goods.
Melchior looked at Haroun inquiringly as they put down the packs. The young man shook his head slightly. "I think that Iíll wander around and see if there is anything else in the market to interest us. Darice asked me to see if I could find anymore of the red beads. We also need more flatbread, andÖ.no offense, good merchantÖ." he said as he gave Ranul a respectful bow, "but you do appear to have those among your stock."
"True. True." Ranul said with his eyes twinkling. "One cannot blame a merchant for wanting all the business for himself, but even I must admit that I cannot sell everything. Ah well, I must console myself with the thought of the poor pittance of profit I will make trading with your friend Melchior today."
Melchior snorted loudly and said with a glint in his eye, "Your Ďpoor pittanceí of profit appears to have made your business grow mightily every time we see you again."
"Ah, truly it may appear so, but I have my large family to feed. And though I have many goods to trade, my profits are eaten up as quickly as I make them. NowÖ"
Haroun shook his head as he wandered out of earshot. The yeti and the merchant would be at it for a while. Melchior had discovered a true gift for haggling and loved to pit his wits against the little merchant. Ranul, in turn, loved nothing better than to deal, and enjoyed his sessions with the yeti.. Haroun could bargain well as a result of being with the caravans, but he did not have the love for it that his friends did.
He headed for the baking stalls to look for the flatbreads that Darice loved. She claimed they reminded her of her homeland. Certainly, she made some delicious meals using such breads as a base. Her baking skills were good enough for the sanctuary folk, but she preferred the village breads if she could get them.
As Haroun turned the corner returning from the bakerís area, he noticed a scuffle going on off to his left. Three of the villageís rowdier young men were harassing what looked to be an old beggar lady and a child, both muffled in the long robes of the desert. The harassers had backed the two against a wall and knocked the old lady down. Haroun was too far away to hear what was being said, but he didnít like the look. His wrath at such bullying of the weak came bubbling up to the forefront.
He strode to the corner and grabbed one young toughís arm as he was about to strike. The youth, a husky young bravo named Rashim, looked back at him, startled. "Leave them alone!" Haroun said forcefully.
"Get out! Itís none of your business!" one of the others snarled.
Haroun slung Rashim face-first into the nearby wall, dropped his supplies, and drew his dagger, falling into a defensive crouch. "I said to leave them alone and I meant it!"
The other two circled for a moment, but ultimately decided that it wasnít worth it. They grabbed the groggy Rashim and hustled quickly away.
Haroun turned to the two beggars. The child, a girl of about eight, looked at him warily with wide eyes. "I wonít harm you," Haroun said carefully. "And Iíll make sure that those others wonít come back." The childís gaze stayed on him for a moment, then flicked down to her companion and back.
He knelt down by the old woman to see if she was all right. A fragile face with a painfully thin beauty framed by dark, blue-black hair looked up at him. "Youíre not old!" were the first shocked words out of his mouth.
She blinked at him. A startled Ďohí of surprise on her lips was quickly replaced by a closed, contemplative look. "Arenít you going to help me up?"
"Oh. UmÖ here, let me help you." Haroun carefully brought her to her feet.
"Sandili!" the younger girl cried as she rushed past Haroun. "Areyouallright? Ithoughtthebadmenweregoingtokillus! Iímsogladyouírenothurt!"
"Shush, Arissa. Itís all right now," Sandili soothed. "The bad men are gone." She glanced at Haroun out of the corner of her eye, waiting to see what he was going to do.
"My thanks to you, sir, and that of myÖ sister."
"Youíre welcome. Do you and your sister have a place to stay that I can see you to? I donít think that Rashim and his friends will be back, but one never knows."
Sandili ducked her head shyly. "We are poor travelers, sir. We will be all right now and wonít trouble you any further." She and her sister quickly scurried around the corner and into the crowd before he could question them further.
Haroun shook his head and went to pick up his bag of supplies. The bag was gone.
He frowned momentarily, then realized that neither Rashim nor his cronies had taken the bag. That leftÖ the girls! As he looked around, they were already out of sight, lost in the crowd. Haroun thought fast and then remembered the tents. He quickly cut left and headed around to the edge of the village.
Melchior was coming out of Ranulís stall as Haroun whipped by. "Haroun? Whatís going on? Are you in trouble?"
"No time. Follow me!"
The yeti shrugged and lumbered after his friend. He easily caught up with the young man. "Whatís going on?"
"Two girls that I saved from a beating stole my bag of supplies. I think that they are with that tent group we saw when we were coming into town."
"Ah," said the yeti. "Hold up a bit and letís not get ourselves killed here."
Haroun slowed a moment. Melchiorís words rang true. His first impulse had been to go running in and seize his supplies back. He realized that he might be rushing into more than he could handle.
"Do you have an idea?" he asked the huge yeti.
"Yes. You go politely up to the tents and politely ask for your supplies back."
"What!" yelped Haroun. "Do you think that theyíre just going to give them back?!"
"No," said Melchior with a grin. "But when they donít give them to you, I am going to ask for my supplies back." He looked down from his full eight foot height. "I donít think that theyíll argue with me."
Haroun grinned. Melchior dropped back and hid within earshot as they came in sight of the tents. The young man strode up to the larger of the two tents and cleared his throat loudly at the entrance.
"Yes, can I helpÖ" Sandili broke off as she realized who was at the door, and whirled to retreat inward.
Haroun quickly grabbed her hand and pulled her fully outside. "I want my bag of supplies back."
Nearby, Melchior smacked one hand to his forehead in exasperation. "I can see that his social skills still need a bit of polishing." The yeti rolled his eyes on focused back on the confrontation.
Three other children emerged from the tents: the young girl he had seen earlier, plus two boys about eight or nine years old, and alike as peas in a pod. They were armed with daggers and clubs of wood, but appeared to be more scared themselves than capable of threatening anyone else.
"Hey, leave our sister alone! She didnít do anything."
"Please, sir," the younger girl begged, "let her go. We didnít hurt you. We were just hungry."
The yeti decided it was time to intervene and appeared out of the shadows behind Haroun. Sandili gasped and the children shrank back. "Well," the yeti said softly, "it appears that we have some lost ones who need help."
"Help!" snarled Haroun. "You want to help them after they stole from us?!" He still had not let go of Sandiliís arm.
"Haroun," Melchior rumbled, "take a good look at these folk. They are no threat. These children need help. People such as these are the reason that we founded the sanctuary. Little ones," he continued softly, "do you have anyone else to look after you?"
Sandili shook herself free from Haroun and stood as tall as she could before the yeti. "I am their guardian. We have no one else. Raiders burned our familyís tents and killed everyone else. The young ones and I survived because we were out picking berries and grasses. The villagers drive us away because we are different. No one has helped us. No one will!"
She turned back to Haroun. "Iím sorry that we took your bag. We have nothing and the children were starving. Every village that Iíve been to, weíve been treated like trash." She ducked into the tent for a moment and came out with his bag.
"Here. Take it." She turned away, but not before Haroun noticed the tears at the edge of her dark brown eyes. "Weíll manage."
Melchior looked over at her. "If you wish, you and your Ďfamilyí may come and stay in our sanctuary. You will have to contribute. Everyone does in one way or another. But we will guarantee that no one will treat you horribly, and you will have enough to eat."
"Melchior, you canít!" said Haroun desperately. He was thrashing about internally. He knew the sanctuaryís open door policy to those who were persecuted or in need, butÖ When he looked at Sandili, he got an unsettled kind of feeling inside, and worried about what it might mean.
"I can and I will," said the yeti obstinately.
Haroun sighed. He knew that there was no arguing with his friend when he got into this kind of mood. "All right. But Iím going to keep a careful eye on them," he muttered under his breath.
Sandili blinked and looked sidewise at both Haroun and the yeti. "You mean that you arenít going to turn us in for stealing your bag? Why?"
"All of us at the sanctuary know what it is to be poor, persecuted, or hunted. We started the sanctuary for outcasts, and those who were hunted for no reason other than their differences. I can see that you are both." He took in the fact that the youngest girl was missing half of one hand, and both the boys had peculiar red stains marking half their faces.
"All right." Sandili nodded guardedly. "Give us a little while to get what we have packed up."
* * * * *
After the outcasts had packed their things and Melchior had retrieved his full sledge from Ranulís stall, the little group headed back to the sanctuary. Haroun and Melchior led the way, breaking the trail for the others.
Haroun looked back at the little band. "I still donít like it," he grumbled.
Melchior looked at him mildly. "Would you rather I had turned them over to the village authorities? Do you really want to think about what might have happened?"
"But theyíre thieves!"
Melchior sighed. "Thieves by necessity, yes. But if they live with us and donít have to steal, they have a good chance at a better life. Donít tell me you believe anyone would give those two little boys an even chance with their faces looking as they do?"
"Well," he sighed, "I just canít bring myself to trust that Sandili. I mean sheís pretty, but sheís a very sly one. I worry about what she might be planning to run off with next."
"Sheís Ďprettyí? Hmmm..." The yeti looked sidelong at his friend, grinned slightly, then focused on moving forward.
Haroun blushed for a moment, flustered. His mouth opened and closed. He couldnít quite think of why he had said that-- except that it was true. He glanced back at her, only to see her looking at him. She quickly dodged eye contact, turning to help the little ones up the path.
Haroun refocused on the yeti. "Did Ranul or the other merchants have any news?"
"NewsÖ Yes, as a matter of fact, they did." Haroun could tell by the tone that this was no routine news. Melchior was being deliberate. This was something that had never left his mind.
"Soul sent us a message with the last caravan that came through," the yeti continued. Harounís attention became peeked. "The caliph has started his menagerie again. Soul said he heard from a reliable friend that there are some more creatures being held captive."
Haroun took it in. "We will indeed need to let the others know about this when we get back. We canít let more creatures suffer as you, Darice and Li did." Melchior gave a faint nod, but said no more. Haroun fell into silence for the remainder of the journey, thinking hard about this new development.
* * *
When they reached the sanctuary, Sandili and the little ones were impressed with the huge cavern complex.
Darice was rather startled by the influx of newcomers at first, then shook her head and pragmatically began dishing up more stew. The children were clearly awed by the exotic woman with the piercing green eyes. Their eyes went round as saucers, though, when they saw Li.
The golden dragon peered shyly back at them. There werenít many children in the complex, but Li loved the chance to play with any child. She lowered her huge head to make herself appear smaller. "I wonít hurt you," she called softly.
The children looked at her apprehensively, then up at Sandili for reassurance.
"Itís all right," said Darice, coming up behind them. "Li is still very much a child and she will not hurt anyone."
"All right." Sandili nodded to the younger ones and they cautiously approached the golden dragon. Before long, she was lifting her head up and down with a child happily clinging between her horns. The game continued a short while, until Darice called everyone for supper.
At the supper table, Sandili peered carefully around at the assortment of beings. There was an elderly man who was missing both legs, sitting beside a woman with a long horsy face and a black mane of hair. They both talked quietly with each other and didnít pay much attention to the others. She didnít know quite what to make of Brooklyn as he sat at the end of the table. He was rather scary looking, but didnít seem any more threatening in manner than the others there.
* * *
After supper, everyone moved back into the main cave so that Li could be included in the discussion. Melchior cleared his throat for attention. Everyone looked at the huge yeti expectantly. He glanced over at Darice and Li, then over at Brooklyn, focusing sharply on the gargoyle. Brooklyn returned his gaze levelly, but didnít otherwise acknowledge the yetiís regard. "The caliph has started a new menagerie."
Cries of "What!" and "Who?" filled the air in a confused babble of voices. Melchior watched Brooklyn set his jaw, but the red gargoyle didnít say a word. He only continued to stare at the yeti.
Melchior rose his voice slightly to be heard over the din. "We need to decide what we are going to do about this. What do you all say?"
The babble arose again as everyone started shouting their opinion. "Hold on. One at a time," the yeti regulated.
In the silence that followed, Li spoke up clearly. "Itís wrong for anyone to be a captive." She snaked her long neck over until her head was directly in front of Melchior. "You have always said that." She glanced back over at Brooklyn. "That was why SataÖ and Brooklyn, rescued us."
Darice spoke up. "The last time we barely escaped with our lives. What makes you think that we can get back in and get out again with others?"
Li looked over at her and blinked. "Because we did it before," she said simply.
The black-haired woman with the horsy face snorted. "A childís logic. Yeíll need more that that to be convinciní me I should be goiní anywhere near the chance of captivity again."
Haroun crossed his arms and stood straight. "You neednít go, Morag. Any of you who are newcomers need not; however, I think the rest of us should. As Li says, it is wrong for others like us to be captive. I remember that I was frightened, but I helped because it was right. Now I have the chance to help again. I will not fail those who need me."
"Darice has a good point," Melchior mused. "We did have a lot of luck in our escape last time, maybe we should wait until we can find more to help us and acquire some better information."
Brooklyn stood up abruptly. "Sure," he said, looking directly at the yeti, "youíre going to let others sit there in that fat little manís cages because youíre too afraid of ending up back inside them yourself. You may not want to take the chance, but I sure will." He grimaced at the pouch holding the Phoenix Gate. "I might as well do something with my life."
Melchior ground his teeth together at Brooklynís words as he stared at the gargoyle. The Timedancerís words hit home. Brooklyn stared defiantly back at him. "Well?"
"All right, we will go. I will go."
"Now," said Brooklyn, "who else is going with us?"
Li smiled. "I have to go. You need me to fly you to the city. Otherwise it would take months!"
"Iíll go," said Darice. "You may need my skills." Melchior blinked in surprise, but did not comment.
"Iíll go," Haroun said almost as quickly. "You need someone who knows the city." He shot a sidelong glance at Darice. "No offense, but you donít know your way around outside of the palace grounds."
"Well, yeíll not be gettiní me anywhere near any city again," Morag muttered. "Not unless thereís a chance of me gettiní back to the land oí the green again. Besides, someone needs to watch the bairns." She turned and headed towards the kitchens without a backwards glance.
"Then it is settled," Melchior rumbled. "We will gather our things andÖ"
They all turned to see Sandili standing. She raised her chin and looked up at the yeti. "You must let me go with you. I have skills you can use."
"Ha!" barked Haroun. "Like robbing us blind along the way."
Her face flushed and her lips tightened. "No. But my skills can open doors, windows, and locks that you cannot."
"No," the young man said flatly.
"I think she should come with us."
Haroun looked back at Brooklyn. "Youíve got to be joking."
"No," said the white-maned gargoyle. "If she can do what she says, weíll likely need her skills -- at least to open the cells of the prisoners."
"All right." Haroun set his jaw and looked over at Sandili. "But Iím going to keep an eye on you." He turned and left to begin his packing.
She just blinked and stared after him. There was a sad wistfulness in the look that Haroun didnít see, but Brooklyn did. He knew that look. It reminded him ofÖ He clenched one fist and strode out of the chamber.
Once he was safely down the corridor, he leaned up against one wall and tilted his head back. "Sata," he murmured. "What has my big mouth gotten me into again?"
* * * * *
On the Road
The first night the travelers set down at an oasis shortly before dawn to set up camp for the day. Brooklyn soared in ahead of the others and quickly made sure that the area was deserted, before circling back to give Li the okay to land her passengers. It had been decided that it would be far easier if they kept their travels to the night so as not to be spotted easily and to make sure that the young dragon wouldnít be overburdened with the stone weight of Brooklyn.
Darice and Sandili quickly started a small fire and settled down to cooking some early breakfast for the others. Brooklyn, Haroun, Melchior had gone off to scour the area for anything edible to supplement their rations. Li curled up and dropped quickly into a deep sleep.
Darice watched Sandili closely out of the corners of her eyes. She knew that the younger woman wanted to talk, but had decided to wait and let her make the opening move. Sandili looked shyly across the fire at the exotic older woman and came to a decision.
"Darice, have you ever been in love?"
Darice nearly choked on the water she was drinking. That wasn't the question that she'd been anticipating!
After a moment of recovery, she replied, "Yes." In her years of captivity and time at the sanctuary, she had rarely talked of her past life, but something in the younger womanís tone drew her out. She turned her green gaze out into the night, remembering. "Tamar," she whispered, then refocused on Sandili and drew in a deep, if somewhat shaky, breath.
"He was a merchant who came to my village. A dashing young man with black hair and flashing green eyes. I was dazzled by the rich cut of his robes and the easy authority with which he commanded his caravan. He saw me dancing at the village fire that night and fell in love with me. IÖI wanted something different than the village. Over the next few days, I talked with the caravan folk often. And when Tamar approached me, I asked him if I could leave with the caravan."
"Did he know what you were?" interrupted Sandili. She had been startled the first time she saw the woman transform; but by then, she was already expecting Haroun and Melchior's friends to be different.
"No," whispered the werecheetah, "and that became the root of our later troubles."
She resumed her narrative. "I knew that the elders would not let me go from the village and that Tamar would not stay, so I arranged to sneak away and meet with the caravan when it was two days travel from the village. I hid my scent and tracks so that the others would not know which way I had traveled, and raced to catch up with Tamar. He was surprised at the speed with which I caught up to the caravan, even though he had been slowing its pace; but I gave him a story about a fast desert horse that had died bringing me to him and he did not question it too closely. He accepted me and we married in the fashion of his people." Her eyes grew dark with unshed tears as she stared off into the black night.
Sandili waited politely for her to continue.
"We traveled far together, and eventually came to the lands of the Caliph. It was there that I made my mistake. I had been very careful not to let my husband know what I was, but I would slip out occasionally when he was gone and take my cheetah form." Her voice went flat. "He caught me when I was returning. Evidently someone had seen me leave and told him, thinking that I might be sneaking out to see another. He waited to confront me when I came back. He didn't even give me a chance to explain when he saw me change, just sprang at me with his sword drawn and this wild ugly look on his face. 'Monster!' he shouted. I was shocked and tried to dodge, rather than fighting back. He whipped the blade at me in a killing stroke and I stumbled backwards, my head hitting a brass urn, and I knew no more."
Sandili nodded, but said nothing.
Darice's expression grew hard. "I didn't expect to wake up. I thought that he would kill me. In truth, I would rather that I had died that day, than to have dealt with what followed." She snorted. "Tamar, being a merchant, was always looking for more ways to make money." Her jaw tightened, she turned her head, and spat into the sand. "I awoke in the Caliph's menagerie, and was informed of my new status by the Grand Vizier. I never saw Tamar again, but I've vowed to this day that if I ever find him, I will have my vengeance," she hissed.
Sandili backed up slightly from the intense glare of those hunter's eyes. Darice blinked, and came back to herself when she saw the sudden fright in the girl's eyes. "Feh! Love! Tamar swore to love me no matter what! I threw everything away for him." She stared across the fire at the younger girl, as she bitterly dug her knife into the root she was holding. "You'd do well to remember that before you go making any choices."
The werecheetah turned back to paring the vegetables for soup. Sandili let her hands continue at her own tasks while she peered thoughtfully at Darice. Unspoken on her lips were the words that if Darice had trusted in the first place, then things might have been different. But she thought back to the bag of supplies. Maybe if she had been honest with HarounÖ
When the hunters returned, they gave their meager catch to the women to supplement the stew already boiling in the pot, and went to set up their bedrolls. Brooklyn made a point of avoiding Melchior. He crouched on a pile of nearby rocks, waiting for the coming dawn.
The yeti busied himself with setting up blankets and a tent. He glared at Brooklyn when the gargoyle made no motion to help, but didn't say anything. Haroun looked at both of them, shrugged, and noticed Sandili glancing shyly at him. He looked at her fine, high cheekbones and long, dark hair for a moment, then turned away, set his jaw, and busied himself with helping Melchior set up the tent.
* * * * *
Two nights later
The travelling had not eased the tension between the yeti and the gargoyle. Whenever they wound up walking together, Melchior and Brooklyn would pitch glares at each other, with so much animosity it was almost palpable.
At an oasis, the band stopped again. Melchior looked haggard. Journeying through the hot desert always had a wearing effect on him. Darice and Haroun exchanged concerned looks, but stayed decidedly quiet.
Brooklyn stood next to a well with his arms submerged, filling a skin. It was nearly full, when Melchior came to the same well, three more skins in hand.
"Fill these as well, please. We're running low."
Brooklyn looked at the skins. "But these are already full!"
"They haven't been emptied in four days, the water is no good. It's stagnant." Melchior's voice was rising. "As long as you're there, fill them as well."
Brooklyn's eyes started glowing again. Looking down, he saw that the skin he was filling was already full. He put the cork into the opening of it, a low growl forming in his throat as he held it threateningly, watching the yeti move back toward where the caravan had parked for the day.
The growl finally erupted into a war screech, as Brooklyn rushed for Melchior, the skin held aloft. With only that much warning, the gargoyle leaped for the yeti, swinging the skin and slamming Melchior square in the back of his head with it.
The seams of the waterskin immediately burst on impact. The blow had not done much damage to Melchior's head, but the soggy result was enough to enrage him. Grimacing with all the anger he had been holding back, the yeti turned and reached for Brooklyn, catching the gargoyle about the throat.
Struggling for breath, Brooklyn kicked at the yeti, but found that his feet didn't reach, as he was being held at arm's length. In a panic, he swung one wing around and caught Melchior along the side of his head with the fingerlets. The yeti finally let go, grasping his temple, as Brooklyn collapsed to the ground, gasping for air.
Once he had caught his breath, Brooklyn let out another war screech and ran full-bore into Melchior. Now Brooklyn's own talons were around the yeti's throat, albeit not as completely as Melchior's had been around his. Eyes glowing, his voice took on an unholy tense.
"...I'm gonna kill you..."
The yeti swung his fist into Brooklyn's head, sending the gargoyle flying into a tree. The hard impact served enough to leave him defenseless for a brief moment. All that Melchior needed... Growling, he cocked back one fist to finish off the gargoyle.
"Melchior, NO!" Haroun grasped Melchior's elbow, desperately trying to hold the yeti back. Melchior looked back at the human, rumbling growls still emanating from deep within his chest..
At the same moment, Brooklyn recovered his senses, returning to a combat stance. But Darice held him back by his elbows.
"Let go of me, Darice! Let me go!"
"No. We aren't fighting each other here. Remember the reason for this trip in the first place!" She gave a threatening growl of her own at the gargoyle, which shocked Brooklyn enough to finally calm the angry gargoyle down.
Haroun looked back at Darice, having done his own work to calm down the yeti. "See to Brooklyn's injuries, Darice. I believe I need to have a word with Melchior."
Sandili stood by Li, keeping out of the way. The dragon looked somberly down at her. "They shouldn't be fighting. It's bad when friends fight."
"Yes," Sandili agreed, her eyes following Haroun's back as he walked off with the yeti.
* * *
Haroun drew his friend aside and seated him on a large rock. "What were you thinking?" he queried. "You have always told me that fighting among friends is wrong. Yet, here I've watched you push Brooklyn until..." He waved his hands vaguely in the direction of the erstwhile fight.
"He started it," the yeti rumbled. "I was just trying to make sure that everyone is doing their fair share."
Haroun shook his head. "This has gone far beyond 'fair'. It is something about Sata?" He looked thoughtfully at the yeti.
Melchior sighed. "I guess it is. He won't tell me anything about herÖ" His look was plaintive, despairing. "I just want to know."
Haroun glanced over at the area where Darice and Brooklyn had gone and then back at the forlorn look on Melchior's face. The yeti had talked to him for hours on end after Sata and Brooklyn left, quizzing Haroun on every detail he could remember. From this, Haroun had quickly picked up on Melchior's obsession, but it had never seemed to matter before now.
He cleared his throat. "Why don't you just give it up? You're hurt, Brooklyn's hurt. He'll talk when he wants to and pushing him isn't going to help. Finding out about Sata isn't worth ripping our group apart."
The yeti sighed and looked to where Darice and Brooklyn had disappeared. "I need to know. He's hiding something and I... we... need to know what it is."
Haroun gave up trying to mend that fence. He respected Melchior and knew that when the yeti became stubborn over something, there was going to be no reasoning with him. He smiled slightly as he thought back on how many times he had been out-stubborned by his friend. Frowning, he just hoped it wouldn't cause worse problems down the road. Then, privately, Haroun made a promise to himself never to fall in love. It obviously ended up hurting too much.
Melchior looked down at his friend, following his train of thoughts from the conflicting expressions crossing his face. The yeti glanced back at the silent figures of Li and Sandili standing by the fire. He hadn't missed her glances at Haroun, nor his at her. Melchior heaved himself to his feet and put a huge hand on Haroun's shoulder. He peered into the young man's face and quietly said, "Just promise me that you won't make any final decisions about life until you've experienced more of it."
Surprised out of his thoughts, Haroun nodded and managed a strangled, "Yes." He glanced after Melchior as the yeti made his way back to finish filling the waterskins. It never failed to amaze him how Melchior was able to see right to the heart of the matter, yet be so blind to his own heart. Haroun sat down on the rock and shook his head in wonderment. He'd thought he was helping Melchior out, yet with only a few words the yeti had once again turned the tables.
* * *
Darice manhandled Brooklyn off to the other side of the rocky pool. He resisted a bit at first, then followed her tiredly. He sat down and moodily started flicking stones into the water.
"Brooklyn, why won't you talk to us? You're only hurting Melchior and yourself."
"Fine!" he snapped. "He can go on hurting. My hurt isn't going to stop anytime soon, so I don't see why I have to bare all and let everyone help me." His hand closed convulsively on the pouch containing the Phoenix Gate. "You don't understand," he half-whispered, tears coming to the edge of his eyes. "None of you can understandÖ"
Darice had had enough. "You think that you have the monopoly on grief, Mr. I'm-So-Hurt?"
"Yeah," he snarled back, "and I'm sure that you've lost everything that you've ever loved. What's your story, Miss Hard-Nose? I remember how you tried to convince Sata that she shouldn't try to escape!" He was shouting now in his anger. "You're a fine one to talk! I'll bet you don't even know what love is, you cast-iron-"
Angered and growling, Darice cut him off sharply. "You," she hissed, "don't know a thing about it!"
Brooklyn recoiled. He saw something in those eyes that made him second-guess his assertion.
"You should think about someone other than yourself for a change! Grow up, get over it, and get on with your life! Sata's not here and we are. You got us into some of this, and by all that I hold holy, you're going to help us see it through."
She shifted into her cheetah form and took off, kicking sand into the stunned gargoyle's face, but not before Brooklyn saw the glint of tears in her eyes.
He started to go after her, when the darkness started changing to the rosy pink of dawn. The sunlight caught him as he stood, beak gaping and one hand outstretched towards the fast disappearing werecheetah.
* * * * *
The fourth night
Brooklyn roared as he shook flakes of stone skin from his hide. He turned and trudged back to camp, thinking hard about Darice's words from the night before. The werecheetah, human once again, spotted him, glared at him for a moment, then turned away and continued a previous conversation with Li and Sandili.
Brooklyn spotted Haroun talking earnestly with Melchior on the far side of the camp and decided he might as well help the girls pack. He quietly set about rolling up the tent material. He couldn't help but overhear parts of the nearby conversation.
Sandili sighed, "I wish that he didn't hate me."
"He doesn't hate you," Li promptly replied.
"He does! He avoids me all the time. He keeps saying I'm a thief. Yes, I stole. But only to keep myself and the children fed! Surely he can understand that!" She tugged hard on the straps that she was tightening, not noticing how the leather dug into her hands.
Darice looked over at the tall yeti and the slim young man working together. "He has had a hard life and does not let many people get close to him." Her eyes narrowed. "Sata was the one who really changed him. From what he has told me, he was very timid before she came along."
Brooklyn's thoughts ran back to his missing mate. He nodded to himself. She had been the means of the boy's change. He shook his head. It was apparent that half Haroun's problem was that he had not had a good set of role models: Darice was bitter about her past relationship; Li was too young to have anything except an idealized opinion; and Melchior... The gargoyle's grip tightened and he unconsciously crushed the pot he was gripping. The yeti was stuck with his obsession over Sata.
The gargoyle's eyes glowed slightly as he growled under his breath. Why couldn't Melchior just leave it alone! It was bad enough that Brooklyn didn't know what was happening Ė had happened? Ė in the future or whether he would ever get back. But Melchior had to go keep poking hot tongs into the wound.
He glared at the back of the yeti, then turned quickly away. When he did, he saw what he had done to the pot - now dented inwards, and sheepishly packed it with the rest.
Sandili added the bundle with the other gear without comment. Everyone prepared to leave. Melchior said nothing to Brooklyn, Haroun carefully watching the two. Brooklyn turned away, also without comment, and began to climb the rocky cliff that backed up to one side of the spring. The others climbed onto Li's back again. With a short running start, she soared up into the sky
Brooklyn reached the top of the cliff and launched himself into the warm night air. He caught up with the others and pulled ahead to scout and be alone with his thoughts. Did Sata, too, glide somewhere under a warm night sky? Did she have two beautiful gargoyle hatchlings, or had the Timedancing caused enough stress to kill her and the eggs? He wept and gnashed his teeth as he thought back to that last glimpse of her reaching out towards him.
"Curse you, you rotten thing," he muttered. "All the happiness in the world Ė in time Ė you gave it to me and then you snatched it back." He looked back at the others behind him. "Well, Love, if you were here, you'd help them. I can't do any less for your memory." And he soared on into the unknown night.
* * * * *
The Fifth Night
Haroun kept a watchful eye on the gargoyle and the snow yeti. Since they were almost upon the city now, all of them had taken to the ground.
Darice walked off to the side, by herself. Haroun inferred that she wanted no more to do with Brooklynís and Melchiorís feud.
Li was quite the opposite. The unfriendly air seemed to agitate her. She couldnít accept it like Haroun, or ignore it like Darice.
A noisy wind caught the attention of both rivals, whose gazes crossed as they each turned to satisfy their curiosity, neither willing to be the one who purposely didnít look. That would, after all, signify weakness. They exchanged extremely dirty looks.
Li became self-conscious of her pace. Darice just sighed irritably and shook her head, apparently aware even though she was still off to the side. Haroun just frowned.
Sandili was remaining decidedly uninvolved, but couldnít afford the blatantness of Darice, as she more or less still felt like a guest. So she kept pace in the center of the tension zone.
"Weíre almost there," Li pointed out hopefully. Everyoneís gazes lifted to see the grandiose city gates looming into view not far ahead.
Sandili sunk upon the sight. Samarkand had not taught her to feel invited.
"So," Haroun spoke up, "how do we get to the Caliphís palace once weíre there?"
Melchior paused, before replying that he didnít know. They would have to analyze the situation once theyíre there.
Brooklyn scoffed. "You drag us all the way out here after this menagerie and you donít even have a plan?"
Melchior grated his teeth.
"How many nights have we been uneventfully trekking through the desert and you couldnít put an ounce of thought to what weíd-"
"I wouldnít say wholly uneventful," Sandili commented under her breath. She caught herself, but too late. Fear took her over. What had she just said?
Nobody paid her any mind. Melchior responded, instead, "Plans are fruitless. They only become improvised, so itís just as well we start with a clean slate."
"Yeah, make it come off philosophical, thatís the ticket," Brooklyn snarled in a sarcastic tone..
Melchior strained to ignore him. The city gates were now before them.
"How do we get in?" Brooklyn asked rhetorically.
Everyone was quiet as they considered the debacle. Nerves were shot from the in-fighting, so it was difficult to think. But not before long, Sandili perked up.
"I have an idea," she announced. She glanced to Haroun. "Haroun and I enter as outcastes. The people train themselves not to look at the pariahs. We should be able to make our way to wherever we need to with little confrontation. Then, we can find a way for the rest of you to get in."
Melchiorís embittered countenance melted upon Sandiliís words. The girl had done it.
Haroun marveled at how clever the suggestion was, and she for thinking of it. He caught himself before anyone, especially Sandili, noticed his admiring stare.
Sandili smiled meekly at the silence.
"Itís perfect," Melchior finally assured her.
* * * * *
In the City
The two adolescents wended their way through the mud-padded streets. There werenít too many people out at this time of night, and those who were, avoided them by measurable distances. Haroun grinned from under his brown cloak.
Their apparel had been adapted from the covering that bound their provisions. It served its purpose in concealing their features, and added to the effect: passersby were allowed to draw their own weathered, flea-bitten conception of the faces that lay beneath the cloth.
They stayed close together. It was easy to get lost.
Finally, they arrived at an aqueduct. Haroun pulled his makeshift cowl back, to see that Sandili had already done so. She was eyeing the waterworks contemplatively.
Haroun glanced from the canal structure to Sandili, quickly to their rear to ensure no one was watching, and then back to her. "What are you thinking?" he asked levelly.
Sandili pointed down the length of the duct. Haroun followed it until it blended in with the darkness, beyond which he could only hear the water.
"It goes past the cityís outer walls," Sandili explained. She pointed the opposite way, up the length of the duct. "And it heads straight to-"
"The Caliphís palace," Haroun cut in, a smile forming. "Youíre amazing."
Sandili froze at his words. Haroun felt his heart stop in synch. Hurriedly, he added, "Letís get going and bring the others in."
Sandili nodded, her eyes twinkling.
Melchior, Darice and Brooklyn came up though the aqueduct. It was by no means a tight mode, but a wet one. Melchior was left with his lower half soaked through.
Brooklyn smirked. "The Caliph will get to have yeti water tomorrow."
Melchior was prepared to be offended, but surprised himself by grinning, as he continued wringing the water free from his fur in large splashes.
Darice was busy inspecting the aqueduct the rest of the way to the palace. "Donít overdo it, Melchior," she commented as she heard the continued sounds of splashing water, "weíre going to go right back in."
Brooklyn took out the Phoenix Gate. It felt heavier in his pouch now that it was wet. He felt as if it might sag through the fabric. The glint caught Dariceís eye as he brought it up and wiped some stray streams of water off the surface.
Darice recalled the glow and sparks the talisman put out when she had seen it once and frowned. "Unfortunately, I think magic saves it from such a mundane frailty."
The others turned to look.
Brooklyn clutched it hard. "A shame, indeed."
"So," Haroun interrupted, "should we be off?"
Sandili climbed to the roof of the building in front of them and surveyed the city interior. She focused specifically on the site where the aqueduct touched the palace. Afterwards, she crawled back down, with the help of Melchior.
"Itís pretty clear," she related.
Melchior nodded confidently.
* * * * *
The Palace Grounds
"What do you know about it?" the guard asked incredulously.
His companion sneered. "I have seen it," he replied hotly.
The first guard regarded his companion for a moment, itching his stubby beard. "You say the Caliph had you guard it?"
"I and two other men," the companion answered. "It was cloaked in a silk shroud so that we could not see what it was. But we lifted it."
"As large as a small dog, you claim?"
"At least!" the companion insisted.
"I donít know..." The guard shook his head doubtfully. "What manner of creature lays such a thing?"
"Well, if it were normal, the Caliph would surely not have it."
A creak caught both menís attention. They turned around, cautiously gripping their swords.
"It sounds like it came from the waterway," the first guard said. A second creak followed by a wet slosh reassured him of his theory. "Itís just the stilts."
"It might be an animal," the second guard suggested.
The first one sighed. "We might as well see for ourselves, then. The Caliph mustnít drink of the same ocean as a common pack horse, after all," he scoffed.
* * *
Melchior helped hoist Brooklyn out of the water. The gargoyle was the last one. The yeti didnít hold onto him a moment longer than necessary.
"Where to?" Haroun asked.
"This way." Darice pointed towards the left wing.
Melchiorís eyes flicked towards the right. "Are you certain?"
"You may have been here longer than I, Melchior, but I was allowed out significantly more often," the werecheetah assured.
Melchior nodded, remembering. The group headed left, to the Caliphís inner sanctum. Sandili trailed in the rear, right behind Haroun.
Suddenly, Haroun felt a rush behind him, followed by a gasp from Sandili. He turned as a voice shouted, "Halt!"
Two guards stood with their swords drawn. The one on the left had Sandili, his sword to her side. She winced as the tip threatened to push into her.
"In the name of the Caliph, w-we... we..." The first guard trailed off as the giant, shaggy form of Melchior turned around to face them.
"H-heís a bit bigger than a pack horse," the guard breathed. "What is it?!"
"I know who it is," the guard with Sandili replied. "Heís the Caliphís old pet!" The guardís eyes lit up with greed. "Thereís a reward out for his captureÖor his hide."
Melchior narrowed his eyes on the guard. "I recognize you," he said plainly.
"I was one of the Caliphís men assigned to guard you as a child," the guard explained. As Sandili attempted to squirm free, he increased the pressure of his sword and she yelped.
Suddenly, the Phoenix Gate struck the guard squarely in the forehead. He fell backwards onto the ground, allowing Sandili to escape.
Darice took down the other guard before he could react, by quickly morphing into her cheetah form and pouncing on him. The werecheetah stood over him with her fangs barred and the guard threw his sword aside without a second thought. He then fainted.
Brooklyn approached the guard heíd taken out. The man was unconscious with what would be a big red lump in the morning. Brooklyn simply picked the Gate back up and dropped it into his pouch.
"Might as well pull its weight," Brooklyn explained, as Melchior looked on. The yeti raised one shaggy eyebrow, but said nothing.
Haroun came up to Sandili worriedly. "Are you all right?" he asked. "Did he hurt you?"
Sandili shook her head. "Iím fine." Then she smiled. "But thanks for asking." Haroun nodded, somewhat uneasily, and turned to tying up and concealing the guards. They left the guards securely bound and well hidden behind some bushes, then left. Sandili sighed and followed.
Melchior gave one final glance to the unconscious guards, then joined the rest of the group.
* * * * *
Sandili marveled at the fine ornamental designs inscribed on the walls, floors and ceiling as they went. Haroun tried to avoid looking at them because Darice and Melchior didnít seem to care; they both strode forward with eyes locked dead-center, unattracted by the beautiful craftsmanship of their surroundings. For Melchior, particularly, Haroun found this surprising, but the great yeti had his reasons, he knew. It was more than mere disinterest, it was pride.
For Brooklyn, it was disinterest all the way. The time-bouncing gargoyle had seen far greater, Haroun wagered.
"Careful," Darice whispered to Sandili, who turned her head sharply, in fear she had made some grave trespass. "Donít linger," the elder woman merely instructed, "and keep your attention at your ready."
Sandili nodded soberly.
Ahead, Melchior stopped. Without looking back, he said, "Brooklyn, you are making too much noise."
The gargoyle stared back indignantly. "Iíve sneaked through my share of corridors, Melchior."
"Yes," the yeti replied tight-lipped, "but perhaps none were laden with marble before. Your talons are clinking."
Brooklyn furrowed his brow. "No they arenít."
"It certainly isnít me."
"No, youíre the heavy thudding."
"Weíre likely making more noise now, in any case," Darice muttered sharply to the two. "Letís keep-"
The clinking traveled past them through the corridor. Everyone turned toward the source: the bend at the end of the hall.
Everyone ducked into the shadows on either side of the corridor. It wasnít lighted, but for the lamps at either end. Brooklyn beckoned Haroun and Sandili, caping them both under his wings. Darice found her own corner, but Melchior was too big for the shadows to conceal him.
The clinking culminated as the brass-sandaled guard rounded the corner. A golden sheath hanged at his belt. The guard strutted confidently. Darice narrowed her eyes on the man: he was one of the Caliphís grand guards, his class of personal attendants.
She looked for Melchior, and found him: in open view. He stood to the side of the walkway, frozen in lace, with his arms raised up in a fearsome gesture and his mouth parted. Darice bit her lip as she observed him struggling to regulate his breath.
The guard came upon the great snow creature and inspected him, toe to ear. He wrinkled his nose at a peculiar smell, and leaned in for a closer sniff. The effort caused him to throw his head back in disgust.
"If this is meant as a surprise for the Caliph," the man muttered, "whoever it was should have properly gutted and mounted him, with incense."
With that, the guard continued on his way, leaving the hall clear again. Melchior breathed deeply as he relaxed his body, as Brooklyn opened his wings for the two teenagers. Haroun and Sandili got up awkwardly.
"Clever thinking, Melchior," Darice commended levelly.
Melchior only responded, "He was an idiot. I was still damp, and my body would have been warm had he but touched me."
No one disputed as they went on, finally arriving at a pair of impressive, jeweled doors. "The Caliphís bedroom," Darice declared.
"It looks more like the treasury," Brooklyn quipped.
"The Caliph enjoyed... enjoys... luxuriousness at all times."
Sandili approached the doors and examined them. "Theyíre locked," she revealed.
"He also enjoys his sense of security," Darice added.
"Can you pick it?" Haroun inquired.
Sandili nodded, as she got to work. Meanwhile, the others kept watch. They were at a three-point junction, and everyone felt very exposed.
Suddenly, the sound of more clinking echoed down one of the corridors. Sandili increased her speed.
Before anyone else could act, Haroun announced, "Donít worry, stay here. Iíll lead him away."
Melchior reached out for the youth, but Haroun was already on his way. He jogged nimbly down the corridor and turned the bend.
Everyone bit their lips.
"Stupid," Melchior whispered. "Stupid, stupid."
"Not if it works," Brooklyn interjected.
It wasnít long before the clinking faded, and a metallic clap sounded in its place. Everyone jumped, as Sandili presented the undone lock.
"You two go after Haroun," Melchior directed to Darice and Brooklyn. "Iíll handle the Caliph."
The gargoyle and werecheetah looked at each other warily, but shrugged their consent. They darted down the hall in Harounís direction.
Sandili suddenly felt vulnerable in the towering, white yetiís presence by herself, about to invade the Caliphís inner chamber, but reminded herself to be brave.
Melchior pushed open the doors and strode in. Sandili crept behind him.
Inside, it was a giant treasure chest with a bed in the middle. The floor was marble, but the ceiling was gold, and reflected everything in the room. The walls were painted with the same exquisite art as the outside halls.
The bed was just as impressive. Fine wood posts held aloft purple silk curtains, over virginal white sheets. Under those sheets, Sandili saw a slumbering, stout little man. She started as Melchior walked straight up to him.
Melchior didnít have to introduce himself. As Melchior approached, the Caliphís nostrils twitched. The noise they had made upon entering had brought him to a lighter sleep, and this was enough to snap him out of it completely.
Sandili only heard the congested cry, as Melchior obstructed her view, but she did see the shuffling of sheets as he presumably attempted to get away.
"Iíll call my guards!" he threatened, as Melchior pinned him down with one, hairy arm.
Melchior merely constricted his grip, and the Caliph made frantic gestures of acquiescence. The yeti relaxed his hand, and the Caliph breathed.
"Now then," Melchior began, "where are the keys?"
"Yes, to the new menagerie you are starting."
"How did you... Ha! You escaped from me, Melchior. You had your freedom, you and all the others, but now youíve come right back into my grip."
The Caliph smiled. "Another menagerie! Is that what my Vizier circulated? You are so gullible, Melchior!"
"Are you saying there isnít another menagerie?"
The Caliph giggled, throwing his head back into his pillow. "Oh, Melchior, Melchior... there is nothing grander here... than a trap." He grinned widely as the words filtered into Melchiorís brain.
Then the yeti tightened his grip on the Caliphís chest again, causing him to writhe on his bed, kicking off the remaining sheets and swaying the curtains. "You are too stupid to think of something like that."
"All right!" the Caliph yelped. "Itís true! Itís true!"
Melchior relaxed, and the Caliph once again resupplied himself with air. As he continued to gasp, Melchiorís eyes found the keys hung behind the curtains. When the Caliph heard the golden jingling, he stopped gasping.
Melchior turned to Sandili with the keys and tossed them to her. "Go find the others," he instructed somberly. Sandili nodded, somewhat apprehensively, but left.
Melchior then turned back to the Caliph. "We are going to have a little Ďchatí..."
* * * * *
Haroun held his breath as he squeezed his eyes shut. His arms were beginning to ache, as he held onto the under-railings. Below him was the ground, with about twenty feet of air between. The walkway was just above him.
After catching the guardís attention with some rapping, heíd fled down another hall until he came to this outside walkway. He had since heard the guard walk on, but was fearful that he might still be within eyeshot.
"Haroun!" came a strained whisper. Haroun immediately pulled himself up. He expected Darice, but found Sandili. She jumped at seeing him emerge from underneath with a small shout. Haroun climbed over the railing and faced her.
"What are you doing here?"
Sandili held up the keys. "Melchior gave them to me and told me to find you - the others..."
Haroun glowed. "Come on!"
The pair jogged down the walkway.
* * * * *
Melchior loomed over the Caliph ominously, his features unreadable.
"M-Melchior... so what, exactly... do you plan on- um... doing... to me?"
Melchior stared down at the frightened man as he struggled to gather himself, getting up from the bed and straightening his robe, locating his slippers, eyeing the room for something...
"I thought maybe Iíd kill you."
The Caliph stopped, suddenly short of breath. "N-now, Melchior... you, you arenít the killing type. You-"
"Iíve had a lot of time to become one... living out in the wilderness... in the harsh winds, the bitter snows, the callous colds..." He stalked toward the Caliph as he spoke, his eyes going from vacant to intense.
"I have nowhere to go, no others like me, no place of refuge... only my memories of you and this place." He paused to look around.
The Caliph looked about to speak again, but Melchior beat him to it by resuming. "When I am alone, cold, hungry, tired... I think of my time here. But it canít console me. It was imprisonment. Yet, it is all I have. And for this I have hated you, so much more than you could ever possibly fathom...
"Night after night, day after day, I have longed for revenge. I need to kill you, to snuff you out..."
The Caliphís knees trembled as he backed up, begging Melchior with his eyes.
"I think that after I have disposed of you, Iíll stay here a while... relax in your bed, revel in your riches, and dine on your fine foods and drinks... over your body."
"Melchior... no! Heel! Obey!"
Melchior grinned, the first real expression heíd let slip so far, as he shook his head. "Goodnight, Caliph." With no hesitation, he raised his great arm, with his claws bared, those great, spike-like claws...
* * * * *
Brooklyn and Darice stared into the locked room. It was darkened, but they were both convinced of what lay within. They were at the old cells where Darice and Melchior had been kept.
"Are you sure we should go ahead without getting Haroun first?" Brooklyn asked.
"Haroun is capable. Heíll find us."
The pair turned to see none other than Haroun, with Sandili at his side. The four rejoiced at meeting with each other, but Brooklyn soon grew worried. "Whereís Melchior?"
"He stayed in the Caliphís room," Sandili explained, "but he gave me these." She held out the keys, instantly catching Dariceís attention.
She spoke brusquely. "Give them to me."
Sandili obediently handed over the keys, and Darice began trying them. The second fit, and she twisted. The lock came undone and she eased the door open. Everyone filed in.
Darice felt a strange tingle come over her. She looked around, but to her discomfort, it didnít look as if the cells were or had been occupied at all recently.
"This doesnít feel right," Brooklyn stated.
"What if this is a trap?" Haroun proposed vacantly. The others turned to him anxiously. His voice fluttered as he went on. "How reliable is Soul, anyway? He might have been paid by the Caliph himself to pass those stories on to get us here, or he might have been forced to again.."
Brooklyn wanted to dispute Harounís logic, but couldnít, remembering his own history with the trader. "All right, letís get Melchior and leave. Now."
The others turned back to Brooklyn, who was standing still. "Did you hear that?"
"No," Darice replied, "but sounds have a tendency not to be mice in these types of situations, so I suggest we go."
"No, I donít think so." He turned himself in a circle, looking for something. "Haroun, can you open that door?" Haroun approached with the keys. Dariceís attention was riveted now. She waited patiently, curiously, as the door was opened and what little light there was filtered in to illuminate an oval-shaped form.
Brooklyn and Haroun entered. A thin veil covered the object, which sat on a pedestal, waist high. Haroun pulled the veil off and Brooklynís eyes slowly grew wide.
* * * * *
Melchior heard a scuffling sound. He paused, his arm tensed above the Caliphís head. The Caliph peeked through his arms, which were up in a defensive posture.
Melchior paused. The sound came again, and he located it. He turned away from the little ruler and moved towards the sound. The Caliph grew anxious. "It - that - itís nothing. Where are you going?"
Melchior ignored the Caliph as he approached the source of the sound: the roomís right wall. He pushed aside a delicate glass vase table, and it crumpled to the floor. The outline of a door revealed itself. Melchior pushed in.
The Caliph stood - tentative, uncertain. The exit was within running distance, or was it? He eyed freedom longingly, but he watched, like a mouse eyeing a snake, as Melchior opened the door.
"Thereís nothing in there," he insisted to the unhearing yeti.
The light of the bedroom flooded the new one and Melchior took a step in. It was a small room, previously a walk-in closet or some other form of vanity parlor. It had been converted. A medium-sized cage sat against the back wall. Wood lay in scraps across the cageís floor, gnawed delicately and over great length of time by infant teeth. Half-chewed berries were strewn with the wood. Some of each lay scattered around the cage, having fallen out.
In the corner, huddled in a ball, was a small creature with white fur. It hid from the light. Melchior stepped forward, awe-struck. The creature was perhaps the size of a bear cub, new onto the world. Melchiorís heart pounded as he stared at it... at him.
He whirled on the Caliph. "YOU!" he growled. "You were going to let me kill you, without yielding this... without giving this up."
Melchior felt a rage build inside him, battling with despair and longing. He looked back at the little yeti, still curled up but now looking back at him. His deep, ebon eyes searched the light for something sensed but not seen.
"His eyes..." Melchior breathed, "he canít see with them." He turned to the Caliph again. "He is an infant and you have kept him locked up in here! Have his eyes ever had a chance to adapt to natural light?! Has he ever breathed fresh air?!"
Melchior lost all ability to assess. He no longer cared about putting on a show. Making the Caliph believe he was going to kill him for the sake of revenge ceased to appeal to him. Melchior was a good performer. He admired his own abilities. But in this he lost himself, and as if the Caliph had known that before it was only a farce, he seemed to understand this.
"I only meant to give him a better life than you had," the Caliph defended weakly. "He wouldnít have ever known what he didnít have. Ignorance is bliss."
Melchiorís giant foot slammed down onto the marble, causing it to reverberate.
"He would have been raised with love, Melchior," the Caliph continued, now on his knees from the preceding tremor.
The thought of the infant growing to love the Caliph, as the only father he would know, caused Melchior to shudder so violently it culminated in a fury he had to tense himself to control. His white fur stood up.
A whimper broke him out of it. He looked at the baby. The little one scratched against the rear of the cage to escape the sound of Melchiorís rage. The giant melted. Compassion overcame him. He forgot about the Caliph and strode forward to free the infant.
* * * * *
Brooklyn gaped at the egg. The size and dotted pattern were unmistakable.
Haroun looked from the egg to Brooklyn. "Is it...?"
Brooklyn nodded. There was no doubt.
"So this is the Caliphís new menagerie... to be," Darice observed.
Sandili reached out her hand for the egg. No one stopped her. Brooklyn only watched carefully as she gently stroked the outer shell. Then she drew back.
"It could still be a trap," Darice reminded. "We should take it and leave. Can you carry it, Brooklyn?"
The gargoyle shook his head. "I donít know - Iíve never carried one before." Sensing that more confidence was needed, he added, "Gargoyle eggs are tough. And I should be able to lift it."
"We can come back for Melchior." Darice led the way out of the room, as Brooklyn gingerly wrapped his arms around the unhatched gargoyle. He felt the unevenly-distributed weight within.
* * * * *
Melchior lumbered down the hall with his arms wrapped securely around the baby yeti, veiled in the Caliphís curtains. His mind was racing now. Where were the others? What had happened in his absence? Where should he go?
He rounded a corner and came upon the open walkway Haroun had hidden beneath. A pair of guards looked back at him. The men were taken just as much by surprise as the yeti, but he reacted faster, knocking one to the ground with one massive fist. The other desperately went for his sword as he caught sight of the bundle of curtains.
"The yeti steals the Caliphís bed trimmings!" he shouted. Melchior slammed him with an elbow to the chest, and he went tumbling over the side of the balcony.
He didnít bother looking back before darting off - a mistake. A piercing pain shot across his abdomen. The downed guard had drawn his sword and managed a single cut. Melchior angrily kicked the man away and plucked the blade from his side.
He kept going, rounding another corridor, coming to a new hall... was it familiar? No. Where was the one theyíd entered through? His breathing grew sporadic. Nothing seemed familiar anymore. Alien tunnels stared back at him.
His ears caught the sound of muffled voices. These were familiar. He hurried towards them, and emerged right in front of Brooklyn, Darice and the others.
"Melchior!" Haroun exclaimed. The out-of-breath yeti merely nodded in reply. "We must-" He stopped upon the sight of the gargoyle egg.
"We found the Caliphís menagerie," Haroun explained.
"So did I." Melchior revealed the baby yeti.
Dariceís gaze traveled from the babyís eyes to Melchiorís. Both stared back at her with a heart-wrenching similarity. "Oh, Melchior..."
"Come," Melchior said as he covered the infant back up, "we must flee."
"Is our presence revealed?" Haroun asked quickly.
"No, a general alarm has been given, but weíve run into our fair share of guards. Our luck isnít going to last for much longer."
Just then, the sounds of rushing footfalls filled the air. Troupes of guards barged in on them, swords drawn. In the center was the Caliphís Vizier.
Brooklynís and Melchiorís eyes took in the number of men: over twenty.
"You fools," the Vizier patronized, "to return here with no arms, in order to free two ungrown creatures into a world that will, in all likelihood, eat them alive."
"Heís talking metaphorically, right?"
"Shut up, Brooklyn!" Melchior snapped, rage and emotion rising in him.
"Hand over the Caliphís possessions, and you will walk free."
"Sandili, Haroun - to me!" Darice shouted. The youths obeyed without question, as Melchior turned his back on the guards to shield the infant.
"Get them!" the Vizier commanded regally.
The guards rushed them. Melchior took the brunt in his thick backside. But he whirled on them in mid-charge, knocking half off their feet. Nothing went deeper than a flesh wound.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn agonized over his egg. Reluctantly, he set it down in the corner where the outside walkway met the inner hall, and lunged into combat.
Darice intercepted the blow of the first guard that came to her, disarming him and punching him in the face. She snarled as her transformation began. In under five seconds, she was a cheetah. The guards surrounded her with their swords as they would any wild animal. Darice did all she could to keep their attention on her.
Haroun and Sandili felt backed into a corner amidst the fighting, when Sandili noticed the gargoyle egg lying by itself. A guard was nearing it curiously. Without a word, Sandili leapt at it. Brooklyn saw the scene, but was unable to give aid, as he was drowned beneath an onslaught of guards. His voice wailed over the noise of battle. "Noooo!"
Haroun noticed Sandiliís departure a moment too late. Before he could get to her, another guard grabbed him. Seeing he was a youth, the guard attempted to bind his hands behind him. Haroun struggled with all his strength, but the guard knew how to keep a hold, and he watched as Sandili rushed to protect the egg.
And the guard raised his sword...
"Out of the way!"
The command filtered through Harounís mind, like a far-away echo.
Sandili stood defiant.
The sword came down... and Sandili with it.
Haroun finally broke free, twisting the guardís arm against its joint. The guard cried out, but Haroun didnít hear. He ran for Sandili. Her attacker stood over her body as he looked up at the egg.
Haroun tackled him to the ground, and the sword slid out of handís reach. Haroun punched the older man repeatedly, but was making little progress. Finally the guard regained his feet and lifted the young man.
Haroun disentangled himself and, finding a foothold, pushed into him. The guard didnít expect the move, and lost his balance as Haroun slammed him into the wall. The older manís head struck the stone and he lost consciousness.
Haroun rushed to Sandiliís side. The girl lay still on the stone floor. Haroun felt his heart race as he searched for sign of life - pulse, breathing, anything. He found the wound: a concise blow to the side. Not as bad as he feared, but the mere sight of it troubled him more.
"Sandili," he breathed as he hung over her. "Sandili... can you hear me? Sandili? " He shook her gently, then with more force. Finally, she opened her eyes and drew in a breath.
"Iím okay," she assured, assessing herself.
"You hit the ground hard... you must have been knocked out for a second," Haroun explained, as much to himself as to her. Without further talk, Haroun lifted her to her feet and helped her away from the fighting.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn yelled to Melchior, "Get to the egg!" The yeti met his gaze with indignation. "Please!" the gargoyle pleaded, as he fought against his opponents.
"Give me your infant," Brooklyn further implored. "You canít protect him and yourself at the same time, but you can carry the egg much easier than I. And I can hold the infant." He flexed his wings to illustrate.
With a heavy swing, Melchior toppled two of the men pitted against Brooklyn, and handed off the baby yeti. Brooklyn accepted him quickly, wrapping his wings around the newborn, and ducking his way out of the ambush he was enduring.
Melchior, meanwhile, discovered a new freedom as he made his way to the egg. He picked it up with little effort.
Darice yelped as a sword grazed her. The guards were closing in. Melchior shouted for her to flee to her left. Darice obeyed, leaping at the two guards that blocked her, and knocking them to the ground. She joined Haroun, who held Sandili up.
The Vizier looked on from his safe vantage point. Seeing how the others rallied around Melchior as they fought, he ordered, "Take down the yeti! Heís the leader!"
"Haroun, take him!" Brooklyn called. He leapt through the air, his wings giving him temporary lift, and landed beside Haroun and Sandili. The young man took the baby yeti, and Brooklyn turned back to help Melchior.
He stopped in his tracks as he glimpsed the great yeti drop the egg over the edge of the walkway. "Melchior, what are you doing?!"
Melchior didnít reply as the bulk of the guards closed in on him. Brooklyn dove into the enemy without forethought. Haroun and Sandili, meanwhile, looked over the edge of the walkway. A small stream flowed under the palace.
While Brooklyn and Melchior kept the bulk of the guards busy, Darice crept inconspicuously toward the Vizier. Before he saw her, she pounced on him.
With a clawed paw on his throat, she growled. "Let them go!" the Vizier called. Nobody heard, and Darice pressed harder. The Vizier squealed, "Let them go, now!"
The guards reacted, inching away from the two non-human fighters. Melchior didnít waste a moment. He turned to the walkway.
Brooklyn vacillated, looking to the edge of the walkway and back to his friends. "Go!" shouted Melchior. "Trust me," he yelled, looking straight at the agonized gargoyle.
"Climb up!" he ordered. "We have to make it to the roof to signal Li!"
Brooklyn nodded and grabbed Haroun, who took hold on his back. Darice let go of the vizier and leapt onto the walkway. Sandili grabbed onto her at once, still holding the baby yeti, and they jumped up onto the outer wall.
Melchior was the only one who didnít carry somebody. As soon as the others were on their way up, he jumped over the edge. The guards reached the railing a second too late.
Below, Melchior landed in the stream. He clenched his teeth as he reached in for the egg, and pulled it up. He looked it over for cracks, but found none. With it firmly in his grasp, he began to climb.
Brooklyn glanced down at the yeti as he made his way up. Beside Brooklyn, Darice struggled to find purchase on the vertical surface with her claws. Sandili winced with her eyes closed, the baby yeti mimicking her.
When they finally reached the roof, Brooklyn quickly set Haroun down and dived back for Melchior. The yeti was half-way up and faltering. Brooklyn let himself fall half-way, then dug in his claws.
"Brace yourself, Melchior, Iím going to lift you up."
Melchior let out as much of a laugh as he could afford in response. "Iím too heavy. Here, take the egg up."
Brooklyn shook his head. "Youíre too exhausted. You wonít make it up with or without the egg." The gargoyle didnít give the yeti a chance to argue. He braced himself around the yeti, and put his arms under Melchiorís.
Melchior held his breath and did as he was told. They fell a single level, but Brooklyn held his wings rigidly open against the ascending wind. Brooklyn winced as he struggled to keep his hold on Melchior and successfully grasp an air current. But he finally did, lifting them both up to the roof.
Li was already on her way when they made it. Everyone including Brooklyn, whose wings were aching almost unbearably from the strain, climbed onto her back, and they took off.
* * * * *
The Next Morning
A throng of people gathered outside the palace. From out of the Caliphís bedroom window, suspended by bedsheets tied off to his bed posts, hung a cage.
Inside, the Caliph writhed, still dressed in his night gown. He barked at the people as they pointed and laughed, threatening them and imploring them at the same time.
* * * * *
"Brooklyn!" Sata sighed.
The gargoyle turned around. All he saw was darkness.
"Brooklyn!" Sata sighed again, this time with a wistful quality.
Brooklyn moved toward the voice. At least, he thought he did. All he could see was the darkness.
This time the sigh had a passionate tone. The red gargoyle spun around, but couldnít see anything.
Frustration tinged her voice.
"Iím coming," Brooklyn tried to yell, but he had no voice.
He could hear fear in her voice. Brooklyn wanted to find her and hold her, protect her.
This was said in a plaintive whisper filled with sorrow. It rang in Brooklynís ears. Suddenly the darkness was ablaze. Sata screamed.
* * * * *
Along the Way Home
Brooklyn snapped awake, bursting out of his stone shell with an agonizing cry. He fell to his knees, panting heavily. Another dream. But it had been so realÖ.
He looked around for something, anything to distract his thoughts. Haroun was looking longingly at Sandili, but couldnít seem to bring himself to approach her. As Brooklyn watched, he started towards her, then stopped and clenched his fists and turned away.
Brooklyn approached the young man at last. "Okay, what was that, Haroun?"
"What?" Haroun seemed confused.
"That," Brooklyn intoned, motioning toward Sandili. "I mean, it's pretty obvious how you two feel. What's holding you back?"
Haroun sighed resignedly. "I have no idea what you mean, Brooklyn."
"Sure you do. She's been hanging around you for one reason and one reason only. Don't you think you should at least give it a shot?"
Haroun sighed again, letting his gaze wander between Sandili, sleeping nearby, and Melchior, sitting by the fire feeling sorry for himself. Brooklyn watched the young man carefully.
"Melchior? Is he the reason why?"
Haroun sighed yet again. "He loved her, you know."
Brooklyn gave a surprised look. "What?"
"He loved Sata. Then you and she were reunited, and soon after you left. It broke his heart."
Brooklyn was starting to see the picture. "You don't want to give your heart only to lose it, is that right?"
Haroun nodded sadly. In a moment of clarity, Brooklyn came to a decision... a difficult one.
"I'll be right back, Haroun." The gargoyle stood up, walking over to the fire.
He hesitated as he neared. Melchior was finally beginning to trust him. He breathed deeply, flexing his wings to relieve tension, as he went on. This was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do...
* * *
The yeti sat dejectedly by the fire, occasionally pushing a fresh stick to let it flare a bit higher. So deep in his own self-pity, he nearly didn't notice Brooklynís approach.
"Mind if I join you, friend?"
The yeti looked up. "Certainly."
The gargoyle took a seat next to Melchior, watching the fire flare up more. Brooklyn sighed deeply, for his next words would be the hardest he'd ever tried to say.
"Melchior... I just wanted to tell you... that I'm sorry I wasn't completely open with you when I first came back. And I didn't mean to cause any unrest."
Melchior sighed. "It's as much my fault as yours, Brooklyn. I guess... maybe I was just anxious to see Sata again, but when she wasn't with you, I overreacted."
Brooklyn sighed again, deeper. "Yeah. Which is why I was afraid to be completely honest with you."
The yeti looked at the gargoyle with more concern, as Brooklyn continued.
"See, I told you that she was in the future. That much is true." Brooklyn took a shaky breath. "What I didn't tell you... was..."
Melchior put a hand on Brooklyn's shoulder. "What? What is it?"
The gargoyle looked up at his yeti companion, tears forming in his eyes. "Sataís died, Melchior. I just... I couldnít bring myself to tell you..."
Brooklyn stood and walked away from the fire. His back to Melchior, he squeezed his eyes to quench the flow of tears heíd uncorked. They ran down his cheeks and beak, which shook slightly.
A shellshocked Melchior remained at the fire. He sat alone for the rest of the night, motionless, staring into the flames until dawn broke. A tear trailed down his cheek. "Sata... "
* * * * *
The weary group finally arrived back at the Sanctuary, increased by the newly-rescued residents. Many were happy to have arrived back at their safe haven... Li especially, as she returned to her space of the labyrinth.
For Melchior, however, the homecoming was not as happy. Once the party had returned home, he made a beeline straight for his workshop. The lantern lit in the doorway, and remained lit for a very long time.
Brooklyn, for his part, kept his distance from the yeti. He focused more on settling the gargoyle egg into one of the warmer corridors close to a steaming underground spring, so that it would be healthy enough to hatch when it was ready. Even as he did so, he received accusing looks from Darice.
He looked at her. "What?"
She kept silent. Her eyes did all of her talking as she carried the infant yeti on her hip. Her dark gaze roared with unspoken accusation.
* * * * *
After what seemed like an eternity, Melchior emerged from the darkness of his
workshop, pulling what appeared to be a new sculpture behind him. Pulling it into the main area of the Sanctuary, he looked at all of his friends, his face showing sadness still, but just a shade of hope. He gave a warm look to Brooklyn.
"It is finished." Turning around, he stood up the large piece of stone he had been pulling out of the workshop, standing it up against a wall.
Everyone gasped as the sculpture came into the light, for it was the most stunning thing they had ever seen come from the talented sculptor. Brooklyn, especially... he came right up to the work admiringly, fresh tears forming.
The visage on the tomb looked even more realistic than it had when Brooklyn had seen it last. Every small detail, every curve of her face, the form of her body, right down to the warmth of her eyes... everything was perfect. Tentatively, the gargoyle lifted a hand to stroke the stone cheek of the work, closing his eyes when his emotions began to overwhelm him.
The best voice he could muster was a shaky whisper. "I love you, Sata..."
Melchior looked upon the work with a sense of sad pride, for it certainly was his great masterpiece, but at the same time the beauty of it had come from the grief he had felt so deeply in his heart.
Brooklyn continued to gaze at the serene features carved in stone. When he had spoken to Melchior, he had at first merely meant to give the yeti some closure. Now he wasnít so sure himself. The dreamsÖ
Could she truly be gone? No. She might be dead to those here, but she had to be alive somewhere. "Somehow, somewayÖ" he muttered under his breath.
After a long silence, Brooklyn stood upright, looking at the assemblage with a worried look on his face. "Uh oh... I'm sorry... I'm going to leave again soon..."
Haroun wasted no time. "Take the egg with you, Brooklyn. I'll get it." The human was down the corridor before anyone could stop him, rushing to retrieve the egg. Brooklyn looked at the retreating man's form, suddenly half-remembering what he had been told when he had to leave Sata behind...
"In a normal pregnancy, mild exposure to magic is a problem... I cannot guarantee the hatchlings' survival. I can't even guarantee Sata's survival. The magic is so strong here, it may kill all three of them."
"I have it! Here!" Haroun ran back with the egg firmly in his grip. Brooklyn held his hands up.
"I can't, Haroun. I'm sorry."
"My journeys are what killed Sata. I can't risk another life like that." He sighed mightily. "I'm sorry, Haroun, but the egg must stay here."
Haroun sighed resignedly, setting the egg down by his side and extending his hand to the gargoyle. "Then I wish you a safe journey, Brooklyn. And may you and Sata be reunited in the afterlife."
Brooklyn smiled, taking the man's hand in his own. After saying regretful goodbyes to Darice and Sandili, he came to Melchior.
"Take care of them, friend."
The yeti, overcome with his emotions, pulled the gargoyle into a bear hug. "Good journey, friend."
Brooklyn returned the hug, his tears flowing again. "Thank you, Melchior." The gargoyle stepped away from everyone, to keep them clear of the Phoenix flame when it fired. "Take care of those children, Melchior, they're counting on you. Even the little one in the egg there."
Melchior smiled. "I will." As he did, the Phoenix fire lit, engulfing Brooklyn once more and taking him to the next stop on his endless journey.
* * * * *
Three Months Later
Hesitantly, Haroun walked out of the mouth of the Sanctuary, testing the air. They were unsure of the season since the trip to Samarkand to rescue their recent arrivals, so the young man had been recruited as their human thermometer.
Early evening breezes met him, but not the bitter cold he had been expecting ... these breezes were tolerably chill. Spring had arrived.
"It's warm out here, you can come out!"
Darice was the first out of the cave, a book and a pen in hand, looking into the night sky. "Oh, good, not a cloud around. Perfect." She went to a nearby clearing to sit and stargaze. Sandili was next out of the cave, immediately coming over to Haroun's side.
"The children are all ready. I don't think you could have picked a better night to let them out of the cave."
Haroun smiled. "I know. My timing seems to be good, doesn't it?"
Sandili took the man's hand in hers, smiling slyly. "I'll say." She smiled even wider when Haroun showed no signs of resisting her affection.
Melchior came out of the cave then. Seeing Haroun and Sandili hand-in-hand, he couldn't help but smile. He motioned behind him. "Come, children, it's a lovely night!"
Li was the first out, the young dragon stretching her full length out on another nearby clearing, enjoying the mild spring air. Next came the yeti cub... while no name had been made for him, he had taken a liking to Darice, and immediately went over to her side to help with her stargazing.
Finally, a small green gargoyle hatchling made her way to the mouth of the cave. She was a bit slower than the other children, being much younger than the rest... her egg had only hatched six weeks before. She cooed her contentment with the mild temperature, crawling out to Melchior's side. The yeti looked down at the hatchling, picking her up in one great arm and cuddling her to his chest.
"Yes, it's a lovely night." He looked down into the shining onyx eyes of the hatchling in his arms, who smiled up at him. She had a smile that always served to warm the cockles of Melchior's heart... one that always seemed so familiar, which led to the name he had given her.
Haroun looked behind him and saw Melchior and his bundle. "Melchior! Bring little Sata and enjoy the evening with us!"
The yeti smiled, cuddling the hatchling in his arms as he came up to the young man. He looked up in the sky. "The stars are brilliant tonight."
Haroun nodded in agreement. Sandili said nothing, only stayed close to Haroun's side.
Melchior looked down at little Sata, who seemed to be looking up at the stars herself. The yeti smiled, sitting down on the ground and rocking the hatchling in his arms. "Now then, little one... let me tell you a story. A story about two gargoyles..."