Nor Iron Bars a Cage
Written by Gray
From an outline by Rahsaan Footman
Artwork by Noel Leas
* * * * *
...So he was the first to see their guest. "Maggie?!?" exclaimed the surprised Brooklyn. She started talking before he had the chance to voice his next question.
"Fang's taken over the Labyrinth!" Brooklyn jumped from the top of the stairs leading out. "He's got all sorts of weapons!" The red gargoyle landed right in front of her. "And Talon... I couldn't help him!!"
Maggie fell into his arms and for the first seconds Brooklyn was trying to comfort her everything felt so right! The reason for her being there intruded and it was a good thing Maggie's face was turned away against his shoulder so she couldn't see his expression. Brooklyn's eyes reflected the emotions that went with the curses running through his mind. He didn't want his Clan, never mind Maggie, knowing he was capable of such thoughts.
"What's all this commotion, then?" demanded Hudson from the top of the exit stairs; he was flanked by Lexington and Broadway.
Brooklyn got himself under control as he turned to answer. "Talon needs our help." Maggie followed behind him as he approached the stairs. "Let's go."
"I thought you didnae want to lead us, Lad."
"This has nothing to do with what I want," Brooklyn growled, only barely restraining himself from shouting. Anger gave him the strength to jump straight up from the floor to the top of the stairs.
He paused halfway to the clockface exit and looked at his elder. "You'd better come along, Hudson. We're going to need all the help we can get." He moved for the opening.
"Is that an order, then?" Brooklyn stopped in his tracks and turned back slowly.
"Yeah, I guess it is." From his posture and expression the others could tell that their kinsman had accepted the situation thrust upon him and would shoulder the burden of his position.
Brooklyn caped his wings momentarily as he went out onto the terrace with his brothers right behind him. Maggie, just reaching the top of the stairs, was the only one to see the small smile of satisfaction on Hudson's face. Without another word, the five of them glided for the Labyrinth.
* * * * *
"Brooklyn, I won't hurt you," Demona said softly.
"Oh, well that makes me feel so much safer," Brooklyn snarled. "As I recall, the last time you said that was just before you tried to turn me into a zombie slave."
"Things are different this time. Much different. Times have changed, perhaps more than you realize."
That last comment struck a chord in Brooklyn. While he still bore little trust for the female, it seemed apparent that Demona wasn't about to attack him, and it would be in his best interests to figure out exactly when he was. "Just what time is it, anyway?" he asked, eyes fading once more to their usual color.
Demona smiled slightly. "I assume you mean the date. It is May 20, and the year is 2255."
Brooklyn whistled. "You mean I'm in the future?" Demona nodded and Brooklyn sighed. "Well, that gets the 'when' out of the way. I'm the 'who', the Gate's the 'what', and I doubt I'll ever learn the 'why'..."
* * * * *
"I have been thinking. About fate... About what the Gods have in store for me." Pandora looked at Brooklyn and laid a slim hand on his arm.
"Did you know that we are all playthings for the Gods? Favored toys to be done with as they will?"
Brooklyn thought of the Phoenix Gate and the Sisters using Demona, MacBeth, and himself. "It is something that I have accepted. But what puzzles me is the why of it all."
* * *
"Prometheus, how can I ever thank you?"
A melancholy showed in the Titan's eyes. "Please, don't thank me. In fact, for what I must do, I beg your forgiveness." Prometheus reached into a pouch at his waist, pulling something out. "Your journey has just begun," he said as he tossed something to Brooklyn.
Brooklyn looked at it, seeing the blue and gold of the Phoenix Gate. "What..." he started to say as a ball of flame emanated from it, whisking him away.
"Brooklyn!" Pandora yelled, then collapsed on the ground where Brooklyn stood, sobbing.
"I'm sorry, my child," Prometheus said. "He was warned that this had to be. He has his tasks to complete." He paused and looked at the changeling.
"And so do we," he gestured and both vanished in a ball of flame.
* * *
"It is a shame that such a thing of beauty must be used for such an ill purpose."
"True," his friend agreed, his gaze falling on the transformed Pandora.
"But, who are we to judge what is good and what is ill? Only time may tell."
~~Not a Prison Make ~~
* * * * *
Over the centuries, she wondered what Brooklyn's mate looked like. She'd be lying if a part of her didn't envy Sata, mated to Brooklyn and so much in love with him. Even now, beneath her angry visage she could see much love for him. It made her wonder what life would have been if only...
"I've wondered for eight thousand years, all the 'if-only's and 'what-might-have-been's." Meryt shook her head. Their time together was over a long time ago, both the joy and the sorrow.
"I won't let it be for nothing," she said with savage conviction.
* * *
Sata reached down and cradled her mate. The bruises and lacerations looked terrible. Meryt watched on with a sad, resigned look. She looked at her metal hands. Sata could touch him because she was flesh. She could not because of who she was. Harthoth's words rang in her head; 'torturous mockery of life.'
"By the Dragon!" Sata said with wonder. Some of the smaller cuts were healing themselves and the deeper bruises were starting to fade. It was slow, but it looked like he was on the mend.
"Dawn is upon us," Meryt said hollowly. "Take care of Brooklyn… for both of us."
"What do you mean by that?" Sata looked up. The sun froze both gargoyles in stone.
As Brooklyn turned to stone, the cloud faded away. Meryt bent down at the petrified Brooklyn. "I wish with all of my being we could have been together." She kissed her fingers and touched them to Brooklyn's stone beak. She stood up again and clenched her fist. She headed out of the townhouse and began running eastward.
~~The Sun and the Serpent ~~
* * * * *
But if I can deliver you a quick warning, you may be able to arrange for the evacuation of your fellow humans, and their safe escape to other lands, without Oberon being the wiser. Besides," continued Prometheus, "I've always felt it wiser to give mortals the tools to help themselves, that they may be able to learn and grow. You cannot help people to mature and gain in wisdom if you always do everything for them. I have done my part; now it is up to you to do the rest."
~~The Downfall ~~
* * * * *
Nor Iron Bars a Cage
Written by Gray
From an outline by Rahsaan Footman
Artwork by Noel Leas
* * * * *
Not much longer, thought the gargoyle as she followed the tracks through the foot-deep snow. She'd been on the move for the two previous nights and almost all of this one. She knew she was close. She had to be.
A spark of light caught her attention a few hills distant, both from out of the corner of her eye and the familiar prickling in her mind. She turned just in time to see the ball of fiery energy dissipate. She looked bewilderedly for a moment, then abandoned her hunt and started off towards the location of the former energy.
She was almost there, when the snow erupted. A bear leapt out of nowhere to the side of the path she’d chosen. Its jaws snapped closed on the space her shoulder had occupied scant moments before. She had rolled out of the way. She continued to roll through the snow, the bear only inches behind her, before she countered the attack.
As her tumbling turned her to face the bear a second time, the female struck out with the short staff she carried with her. The arc created by her rolling brought the weapon's end up perfectly to catch the bear across the nose. There was a blue-white spark in the split second of contact. The bear reared up on its hind feet and roared its pain. It was only a few seconds respite, but that was all she needed.
* * * * *
"My god, it's cold!" exclaimed Payne as he and Brooklyn drifted down from where the Phoenix Gate had deposited them, in mid-air. His disposition didn't improve when Brooklyn set him down firmly in the snow.
The agitated scientist immediately started to circle, alternating between blowing on his hands and holding them under his arms. "Now where have you dumped me?"
"Hey, Payne, I don't suppose that if your teeth were to get to chattering, you might shut up for a minute!"
Payne was surprised to find himself flustered by Brooklyn's terse comment. He actually stopped his pacing for a second, then muttered to himself as he resumed tromping through the drifts.
Brooklyn shook his head, resigned, and looked around. Payne spit out a curse when a wind, so cold even the red-hued gargoyle shuddered, swept by them, throwing white powder in both their faces. Brooklyn extended one wing to use as a windbreaker, and surveyed the directions afforded him. Small hills, covered in snow and trees, were all there was to see.
"We have to find some cover before I freeze solid!" The quieted wind was a blessing and a problem at the same time. Now Brooklyn could see in all directions to finish his visual survey, but he could also now hear Payne's whining ever so clearly.
"There!" the gargoyle shouted, pointing. Dr. Payne saw the outcropping of rocks that had been obscured by the blowing snow.
"Let's go, Doc," said Brooklyn as he helped his companion up the hill. When they were almost to the rocks they saw that the stones were in fact the sides to a split in the earth. The top of the crevasse was covered with roots and branches, woven together to form a kind of overhead covering. There was a dull light shining out of the opening.
"Slowly, Payne," cautioned the crimson gargoyle. "We don't know who we might be barging in on."
"You think I'm going to just stand here and freeze when there's--" the wind took the rest of the scientist's words away as he shook off Brooklyn's hand and went right in. Just as Brooklyn was about to follow, he heard a distant, muted growl from beyond a nearby hill. There was a flicker of light from the same direction. Curiosity won over comfort.
"I'll be right back," he shouted at the cave before heading across the small vale.
* * * * *
Minutes later, Brooklyn crested the hill and saw what had attracted his attention. "It can't be," he breathed, upon recognizing one of the combatants.
The female was circling the bear, darting in and out as it tried to strike at her. Every time she used her staff to knock aside a claw or tap the bear elsewhere, there was a blue-white spark The longer they struggled, the slower the bear's responses became.
Brooklyn stood transfixed for several seconds, watching the fight, before starting down the hill to get involved.
Before he reached her, the female struck the bear square in the chest, this time maintaining the contact. There was a big flash of light and when Brooklyn's vision cleared, he saw a somewhat smaller bear start to ramble slowly away.
The female had jumped away from the beast at the same time as the last burst of light. She had been unaffected by the flaring of released energy and was watching the sleepy animal trundle off to its den.
"That was impressive." The female started in surprise and whirled, nearly moving to attack the source of the new voice. When she saw the gargoyle only a few meters away, she stared at him in near complete shock.
"I mean, it's not easy to take on a bear and beat it so easily," he continued glibly, thoroughly enjoying himself. "You must have picked up some good training since we parted company."
"Brooklyn?" whispered Pandora in a voice so quiet that the wind swept the sound away before it could reach his ears.
"Hey there, Pandora. Good to see you," he answered with a large, sincere smile.
She looked better than he remembered, even half covered in snow as she was. Colored a darker red than he, with wings almost black on both sides. Four thin horns jutted up through the dark tresses like the points on a crown. There was a small jewel in the center of her forehead, hanging on a thread-thin chain. Over her white, thigh-length toga was a shimmering breastplate made of fine silvery chain mail. The bands over her forearms and calves seemed to be made of the same material.
"Brooklyn!" shouted the changeling gargoyle as she finally gained her voice and threw herself at him.
Another wind blew powder in Brooklyn’s face, obscuring his vision as she neared. Not quite braced for her hug, they both fell back into the snow.
"It has been so long! I don't believe it is you! I missed you so much! I thought you were gone forever!" Pandora still somehow managed to rain kisses on Brooklyn's face between words. "How did you find me? Did Prometheus send you? Will you be able--"
"Hey, hey," he gripped her upper arms, noting the firmness of muscle, and pushed her back slightly, "easy. You're going to smother me if you keep this up."
"What are you trying to say?" She smiled and kissed him on the end of his beak.
"That I can't answer your questions if you're suffocating me." Pandora giggled and hugged him again, resting her head on his shoulder as she continued to hold him. Brooklyn returned the embrace, if a little uncomfortably. He had expected to be well-received, but not to this staggering degree.
"Oh, I have missed you," she breathed. Brooklyn felt an urge to run his hand through her hair, which he resisted. He saw the strands of silver-white among the braids, held in place by a clasp at the back of her head.
"I--it's been a long time, Pandora. We have a lot to catch up on, but I'd prefer to do it someplace more comfortable."
She looked up into his eyes. "I have never been as comfortable as I am right here in your arms."
"Well... I can't quite say the same since my tail is turning into a popsicle. How about we go someplace warmer?"
Pandora nodded and stood, offering her hand. When he clasped it, she pulled him easily to his feet. She smiled again at his look of surprise.
"Come. I think the grotto I prepared to spend the day in is that way, not far from here." She pointed up the hill Brooklyn had just climbed over. "The meat I left on the spit for dinner should be nearly finished."
Uh, oh, Brooklyn thought. "Uhm, I think we may have found your cave already."
"Yeah. Come on and let's hope I'm wrong."
The two-minute jog back shook most of the snow off the two gargoyles. Sure enough, when they entered the crevasse, they saw that Payne had already
consumed almost half of one of the pieces of meat that had been set over the fire.
"You are so aptly named," growled Brooklyn.
"What?" he murmured around the food in his mouth. "It was just sitting there. After twelve days of denial in Calcutta, you expect me to just pass up a gratis piece of good roasted meat?"
The surprising sincerity in Payne’s voice shocked Brooklyn. He’d forgotten how much frailer the human body could be.
Payne continued, "The fact that I’m willing to eat this unsanitized substance should be evidence enough of my desperation." He spit a piece of marrow out of his mouth and chewed on, working his jaw around the meat like a cow with a mouthful of grass.
"Didn't the thought occur to you that somebody else was planning to eat it?" Pandora was standing at Brooklyn's side and looking from one male to another. "Nobody said we could just barge in and take somebody else's dinner. It's a good thing the lady here," he indicated Pandora, "isn't completely furious at your bad manners." The scientist bristled at the put down, but Pandora put a hand out to get their attention.
"Peace, my friends, please." She turned to Brooklyn. "There is more meat to be had. You are both more than welcome to appease your hunger. I am joyous to have company. More often than not, my meals are solitary things."
"She's such a pleasant little thing, Timedancer," Payne commented in response; Even as a gargoyle, Pandora was a full head shorter than Brooklyn. "You could learn a few things." Brooklyn only sneered at the slight, but Pandora growled. "My hospitality is not for you to insult."
Payne decided to shut up. He was warm and he was fed. It wasn’t the time to risk this good fortune, as ironic as it was to be found where they were.
"Why don't you introduce me to your friend."
Brooklyn nodded slowly. "Payne, this is Pandora. She," he paused, looking at her, "is of my blood. Pandora, this is--" The balding scientist had stood.
"I’m Dr. Isaac Payne, Alumni of R.P.I., M.I.T., and Caltech, among others. I was the head of Project Chronos before I was torn from my home by this... vagabond."
"Nobody forced you to make that initial jump, Payne, and you know it. You can stop blaming me anytime you want," Brooklyn replied tiredly, for Pandora’s benefit more than anything else.
But she wasn’t listening. A perplexed look had moved over her face. "Brooklyn, I am of your blood?"
A silence fell. "Huh? Yeah. Didn't Prometheus tell--oh, you're joking! He didn't tell you?!"
"And what did Prometheus fail to reveal to me this time?" Pandora's tone was one of barely veiled exasperation.
"He didn't explain how we made you into a gargoyle?"
"No," she sighed and released her exasperation, "because I did not ask. I did not want to know. I... have not wanted to remember that time; how I lost my sisters, then you, so quickly."
Brooklyn nodded. "I can sympathize. I didn't like it either. I felt terrible for a long time."
She smiled at him as they all sat down; the two gargoyles on the opposite side of the fire. Pandora settled down close enough to Brooklyn for their shoulders to almost touch.
"She's the real thing, Timedancer?" They both looked at the sitting Payne, now finished with his food. "You know, "the" Pandora? The one with the box and the evils of the world?"
"Yes," replied both gargoyles. Pandora removed a box about the size of her fist from the sack hanging on her shoulder so Payne could see.
"You still have it?" Brooklyn asked in surprise. "I would have thought you’d dumped it."
"I almost did, but I found that it was not quite empty. There was a jewel on the bottom, left behind after all the chaos spirits fled it. I... I used scraps from the dresses my sisters were wearing when they... died, to make a cushion that keeps the jewel safe."
"A jewel? What kind of jewel?"
"I cannot say for sure. I have not seen anything else like it in all my travels. Prometheus calls it Spera." She opened the box to show Brooklyn a small, almost square gem; the corners were cut off to make it an octagon. The surface was curved, almost hemispherical. Light seemed to dance across it, independent of what the fire was providing. Brooklyn reached for it as Payne leaned to the side to look.
"Have a care, Brooklyn. Touching Spera will give you a vision that may be... overwhelming." Payne had scuttled around the fire to look at the gem.
"Go ahead, Timedancer." The crimson gargoyle threw his companion a dirty look, then looked back at Spera. He prodded it with one talon.
Without warning, his eyes flared and his body went rigid, his wings snapping open. Payne was knocked back to the other side of the fire. Pandora snapped the box closed, then clasped her friend on the shoulders.
"Brooklyn!" she called, trying to make eye contact. "Be calm, be calm. Listen to me: it was only a vision, it is not real. Do not let it distress you." It took a few more seconds for Brooklyn's eyes to return to normal and focus on the female before him.
"What did you see?" she asked.
"It's tough to say," he responded in a quiet voice, "It was a huge jumble of images. People and places, some that I've known; at least as many that I haven't yet. At the end I saw... I think I saw two young gargoyles, maybe six or seven years old. Beaked, dark hair. Male and female, I think." His response made Pandora's whole face light up but he was preoccupied with the possibility shown him by the jewel.
Brooklyn shook his head to clear it of the image stuck in his mind and its implications. Movement to the side caught his eye and he turned to see Payne taking another piece of meat.
"Blast it, Payne. Leave some for us, already." He gestured for Pandora to settle herself. She instead stood and grabbed the spit out of Payne's hand.
The scientist stared in wide-eyed, indignant silence. She ignored him as she tore a third of the meat off the spit, then put it on the stick Payne had already cleaned off. She gave Payne the smaller piece, keeping the rest for herself. With a smile, she took the last, largest piece off the fire and held it out to Brooklyn. After he accepted, she sank down between him and the fire.
He looked at Payne with a wry grin. "Every rose has thorns," he quipped. Payne harrumphed -- mumbling something about poetic license being too cheap these days.
"Brooklyn, what are roses, and thorns?"
"Do you remember the meadow where we saw the centaurs dancing?" She nodded, smiling at the reminiscence. "Remember the red flowers that were growing out of the bushes near the water? Those were wild roses. Thorns are the sharp growths on the stems of the roses." He found himself amazed by his own recollection.
"Did you say ‘centaurs’, Timedancer?" interjected Payne.
"We're back more than ten thousand years before you were born, Payne. Believe me, centaurs are the least of things to see in this age." Brooklyn's brows drew together for a moment in seriousness, before turning back to their host.
"Just how long has it been, Pandora? I've been wandering from time to time for more than twenty years since I was sent on my way from Medusa's cave. How much time has gone by for you since then? Somebody's obviously shown you how to take care of yourself."
"Medusa's cave?" Payne jumped in again, a curious look on his face. "Stop. Hold on. Why don't you start at the beginning."
"What happened after I left?" Brooklyn asked, waylaying Payne’s demand.
Pandora leaned forward so her eyes reflected the fire, then wrapped her arms around her knees and closed them. Payne tossed some discontented pieces of rock at the fire.
"There is some you need to know that happened before you left. What you did not have a chance to know before disappearing." Brooklyn awaited welcomingly.
"I insisted on going alone to meet with Medusa, only to find she had played me false," she began. "After I gave her the box she wanted for her Master, she showed me the shattered remains of my sisters. She then turned her power on me, and I knew a relief that I would soon join my sisters in the Elysium Fields." She raised her eyes to look at Brooklyn. "I was never told why it was that I did not die."
Brooklyn’s breathing increased. He never knew what Pandora had gone through before he followed her into Medusa's cave. He never imagined... It reminded him too much of what had happened to his Clan back in Scotland.
Brooklyn felt obligated to pick up. "Well..." he began, trying to get past his jumbled emotions. "I let you go in alone. I heard you scream maybe a minute later and ran in to see that I was too late. Medusa had the box and had turned you into a statue. She tried to do the same to me, but it didn't work for some reason. I took her head off with a discarded sword. The box fell from her hand and smashed open, but I didn't care about that; all that mattered was that I had failed you." His eyes were closed as he spun his tale, so he didn't see the tender look on Pandora's face. Payne missed it too; he was focused on the story.
"I thought you were dead, but Prometheus came into the cave and told me that you weren't; that you were sleeping. He used a mix of my blood and his magic to wake you. As a gargoyle."
"I was ecstatic," he laughed, uneasily. "I'd been on my own for so long; I thought that my loneliness had ended, but Prometheus gave me back the Phoenix Gate and I was tossed back into the timestream." He looked up at Pandora and saw the sympathy in her eyes. "What happened to you after that?"
"The Titans were furious with Prometheus for allowing the box to be opened, for letting me take it from him in the first place. I watched for many moons as he argued with his Lord Zeus and his council, before they agreed to let him make
amends for his lapse. He swore to recapture all of the ills that had been set free. I shouted 'NO!' when he made his oath, speaking for the first time. Zeus was poised to destroy me for speaking out of place, but his Lady stayed his hand."
Payne listened mesmerized, slowly chewing his food.
"She asked me why I had spoken out. I told her, I told the whole council, that I was to blame, not Prometheus. I should be the one to make amends by binding again all of the wraiths that were now free. Prometheus supported me, saying it would be a way to prove the worth of the younger races. Zeus' Lady agreed with Prometheus' idea, and that swayed several of the council members who were undecided. Zeus decreed that I would find and cage again all the evil spirits I had released."
"Before he left the council chamber, Zeus swore that if I failed, and did not die in my failure, Prometheus would share in my long, painful... ‘disciplining’."
Brooklyn grumbled something angrily about the manipulative, uncaring fairfolk. Pandora caught it and looked at him sharply.
"Manipulative, perhaps, Brooklyn, but not uncaring. I truly would have died on my quest if Prometheus and some of the other Titans had not given me gifts of learning, in both body and spirit." She put her hand on the carrying bag lying on the ground next to her. It was a little bigger than her head. "This was given to me by Prometheus before I left the Titan's home. It is enchanted to hold much more than appears, and so what I need will be readily at hand when I reach into it."
As a demonstration, she reached in without looking and immediately drew out the short staff Brooklyn had seen her wielding earlier. The staff itself was four feet long, formed from some kind of crystal, with all but the six inches at either end sheathed in wood. Lines of runes, burned into the wood, ran from one end of the covering to the other.
"This is my primary weapon," she said, handing it to Brooklyn. "It drains the magic and strength from whatever enchanted creature it touches." He nodded in sober understanding.
"That's what happened to that bear. You stole its power from it."
"In truth, no. I did not take magic that belonged to the bear. The bear had been empowered by another, then set in place as a trap for me. There are likely more such creatures in the area, waiting for my to pass by unwarily." Brooklyn handed the staff back to Pandora.
"Who set you up? Who's trying to kill you?"
"I am not sure how many turns of the seasons have passed since I lost you. My journeys to the southlands did not allow me to note when the leaves turned with the coming of autumnus." Pandora returned the staff to her bag and took out a small tablet. "Each time I used all six fingers to count the turnings, I made a mark here." She handed the small slate to Brooklyn.
Brooklyn counted carefully. "Eighteen years?"
"Next year would be the time for me to put another mark on my slate."
"You've been wandering alone for this long?" he asked in astonishment, even some indignation. "Why?"
"I told you: I am tasked with the recapturing of all the dark spirits. The Titan Hephaestus has made a variety of new prisons to place the wraiths in as I catch them. My quest has gone on for so very long, longer perhaps then I will ever know... but it is nearly over."
" 'Longer than you will ever know', Pandora?"
"It was odd seeing you when the dawn bade you sleep as stone; it was odder still to live through it myself. For as long as we traveled together, you always woke when Apollo took his chariot over the sky. I do not think it is the same for me. More than once I have woken from my stone slumber to see that more has changed around me than could happen in a day. I have seen trees that were saplings become majestic green beauties by the time I awake."
"The only time I've heard of a gargoyle spending time as stone during the night was in case of serious injury." Brooklyn frowned in consternation. "Were you hurt when this happened?"
"No, I was not."
"That is strange," he contemplated. "You've been in pursuit of these dark spirits all this time?" he went on, broaching a new topic.
"Yes, but I am all but finished. The last time I spoke with Prometheus, he told me that there is only one more spirit that I must return to captivity. But it knows I am pursuing it, and it is trying hard to keep me from catching it. This last one is the one who has made traps out of the poor animals that should be slumbering this cold winter away."
"So, the Pandora of legend... actually a primeval bounty hunter," Payne said lowly. The stress on the last two words was caustic.
"If you don’t like it, Payne, you can go," Brooklyn replied rigidly. "Anytime."
Payne’s expression buckled. "If it wasn’t for your inexplicable draw to danger, to-to dangerous woman!" he ranted.
Brooklyn rolled his eyes. But he felt more embarrassed than annoyed by the doctor in Pandora’s presence.
"You and that ‘bad boy’ facade, Timedancer. Really, why couldn’t we have met back up with your former flame, the quiet suburban homebody? No, it has to be Greek legend with a hard-edged twist!"
"Shut up, Payne." He turned to Pandora. "Ignore him."
Pandora considered the two. The question of how they came to be traveling together was obvious on her lips, but it went unspoken.
"I see your travels are a trial still for you, Brooklyn. I cannot see any other reason why the titans would have one such as he be your companion."
"The fay had very little to do with it."
"You do not like him overmuch, that is plain."
"As well as mutual..." they heard Payne mumble incoherently.
Pandora moved so she was kneeling next to Brooklyn. There was something else, something more troubling him. "I do not like to see such a weight on your heart."
Brooklyn looked away from her, into the fire. "That’s better left untouched," the gargoyle responded quickly, sensing her encroachment.
Pandora frowned. "We are friends; should we not want to ease each other's troubles?" She reached out and stroked Brooklyn's upper arm. "You were so much of a help to me once, I would like to be a balm to you now." At the same time, her tail had snaked forward. The tip rubbed across the back of his hand, resting by his side on the stone floor.
Brooklyn's head snapped up, seeing for the first time the yearning in her eyes. He shot to his feet.
"I can't," he stated bluntly. "All right? I just... can't." The last word told plainly of the weariness in the red male's spirit.
Gargoyle and scientist watched Brooklyn get up. Payne turned back to Pandora. Her wide, confused eyes never wavered from Brooklyn's back as he moved out of the cave.
Pandora got up to go after him. The weather could feasibly obscure his trail. She found him standing ten meters from the opening into the hillside. He turned to look at her with such pain in his eyes that she nearly wept.
The jewel in the middle of Pandora's forehead suddenly glowed a vivid blue-white, and her eyes flared. Before Brooklyn had the time to ask, Pandora jumped forward and grabbed him by the arm.
She backpedaled, "Quickly!" pulling the white-maned male with her. As they were nearly to the crevasse, balls of molten rock dotted into view from over the far ice hills. In mere instants they were raining down on them like Hell spew.
"Contego!" shouted Pandora, waving one arm in front of the cave as she pushed Brooklyn in with the other. Two near misses shattered in mid-air like they'd hit a solid wall. Pandora faced outward for a moment, ignoring the continuing barrage, with hands inches apart in front of her. She concentrated. A sphere of energy appeared between her palms. The sphere grew some as it rose, seemingly of its own volition, and moved away from Pandora as she swung her hands out and apart.
The sphere broke up into a shimmering mass that spread itself out in the air before the grotto, until it joined and strengthened the wards Pandora had already placed before her sanctuary. The fireballs were still coming, three or four at a time. The ones that didn't hit the shield made the ground shake.
After thirty seconds, perhaps less, the attack stopped. The sudden silence made Pandora's pulse sound like thunder in her ears. Only the now dead wilderness stared back at her. She waited until it came, the mocking chuckle carried on the wind. The changeling snarled quietly in response, before going back into the grotto.
* * * * *
"What was that?" Brooklyn and Payne asked simultaneously.
"That," Pandora said as she moved past them to sit by the fire, "was my quarry." She was facing the opening of the cave, her hands resting on her knees, her legs crossed.
Payne was speechless. He could only look dumbfounded at Pandora, so whirled on Brooklyn. "What have you gotten me into, Timedancer?!"
"Keep on deluding yourself for as long as you want, Payne. It won't change the fact that you set yourself up for all of this." Brooklyn ignored the confusion that came over the scientist's face and joined Pandora.
Pandora looked at him. "Are you all right, Brooklyn?"
"Me? I'm not the one who stood out there confronting flaming cannonballs as they fell down on me." He put his hand over hers. "Thanks for the save."
"There is no need to thank me, Brooklyn. I think I have to save you one more time before I have repaid my debt to you for the times you helped me during our journey to Medusa's cave."
"What? Oh, come on Pandora, that's ancient history. It wouldn't be right to dredge up what happened back then." Pandora's small smile fell off her face and she looked at Payne. He was still pacing the three short steps between walls at the mouth of the opening, ranting about his misfortunes to no one in particular.
"I don't think the animus will attack again tonight, but I will go out and strengthen the wards before dawn so we can sleep with security."
Brooklyn nodded. "You scared me, just standing out there while those fireballs rained down on you."
"I was never in any true peril, Brooklyn." Pandora's eyes flicked to him before going back to look at Payne, who was still carrying on. "My lorica," she absently indicated the chain mail covering her torso, "was made to protect me from magical attacks."
"Ah. We gargoyles don't usually wear clothing for protection. But when you explained how you'd been spending your time, I figured that was what it was for."
Pandora nodded, still diverted by Payne. "Your friend seems too unquiet. I think he looks like he may be falling ill." Brooklyn looked at him. The man was continuing to stalk across the entrance to the grotto. They could see him trembling even from where they sat.
"He’s just unused to not being in control," Brooklyn gathered. "Let him get it out of his system now. We won’t need to deal with it later..."
He returned his eyes to Pandora. "Just how much training have you had in magic, anyway?"
"I'm not sure, truly. For nearly a score of turns of the moon, every time I spent the day as stone, one of the Titans would come to me in my dreams and teach me their arts. Most often it was Prometheus, sometimes it was a lady of exquisite beauty who told me her name was Mater Matris Terra. There were others, but those two were the most diligent of my teachers. I am glad for their aid."
"What kinds of arts?" Brooklyn inquired deeper, intrigued in a sort of suspicious way.
"Prometheus told me of fire, the element of change, showed me how to shape it and defend against it. Domina Terra taught me about the earth, source of all life. She was a patient teacher until I truly understood what she spoke of." Pandora indicated the latticework of roots at the top of the crevasse she had formed. "The most important lesson they taught me was that the forces of the earth must be handled with care, lest I create a greater danger than what I am striving against."
Brooklyn nodded. "I've met my share of sorcerers; both fay and human. Even a few gargoyles. All of them who weren't out to hurt others made sure to be careful with their magics."
They both looked beyond the fire, when Payne finally gave up his pacing and sat down again on the opposite side. He was still trembling and rubbing his arms.
Pandora reached into her satchel. "This should help you stay a little warmer, Doctor Payne." She threw some green-gold powder into the fire. "Fulcio!" The fire grew bigger and warmer, much to the relief of the chilled scientist. "That should keep the fire strong through the day so you won't have to venture outside."
Payne looked at her indiscernibly for a few seconds. "Thank you," he said finally.
"You are welcome. Here, this will help you also if you need it." She removed a hide hanging from an outcropping at the back of the cave and gave it to Payne.
He nodded, slowly... drowsily... and finally fell into a fitful doze. Pandora smiled. "That should help him if he is indeed sickly. The ground herbs, spread into the air by the fire, will help him become stronger so the cold will be less of a worry. It also makes him more tired at first."
"A pleasant side-effect," Brooklyn remarked.
Pandora grinned. "In some cases."
Brooklyn analyzed the doctor for another minute and spoke. "We came from a warmer area in our last dance, closer to the ocean. Maybe he’s having trouble adjusting to the climate here." He added, "Humans are generally more susceptible to that type of thing than gargoyles. We’re more adaptable."
"The 'climate', Brooklyn?"
"The weather conditions outside."
"The weather," they heard Payne say drowsily. He was speaking in his sleep.
The pair went back to their conversing. Brooklyn pointed with his eyes to the stone on her forehead. "Does that allow you to sense your quarry?" he asked, borrowing her word.
"Close," she answered. "It was given to me by an elderly Titan some nights after I left their home. She did not share her name with me. She told me it would show me when the magic was being formed nearby."
"A handy little trinket."
"It has been most useful on a number of occasions." Pandora eyed Brooklyn. "I see you have also gathered your share of 'handy little trinkets'," she noted, indicating the filled pouch he now wore on his belt, "and you have grown, too. I'm sorry, but you look much more the capable warrior now than you did when we were traveling together before."
Brooklyn chuckled. It was that much more humorous because of the way he saw her in the same light. "I've been to so many different places that I can barely remember them all anymore. I wear some of the things I've picked up here and there. Hopefully it won’t all have been in vain."
"Hope... Such a beautiful word."
"Yeah," he agreed, "You know, I've not really had to work on my language skills since the Phoenix Gate started throwing me around. But if I remember my hatchlinghood Latin right, I think Spera means hope."
"Hatchlinghood; an interesting word. I so easily forget we are not human. How old are you, Brooklyn?"
He rubbed under his beak. "Well, that's kinda tough to say. I was an even forty when I became the Timedancer, so I'm somewhere in my late sixties now."
She shook her head. "I do not know those words, Brooklyn."
"You have four fingers in total on each hand. When you count all the fingers on both hands five times, that is forty. Each mark on your slate is for six years, six turns of the seasons. When there are ten of those marks, you would have lived sixty years."
Understanding blossomed on Pandora's face. "I've not heard of anyone so old before."
Brooklyn laughed quietly.
"For a gargoyle, I'm still relatively young. So are you. You aren't yet fifty years old."
"I do not think so." She looked away from him. "We are older than any mortals that I have ever heard of."
"I guess so," he answered solemnly. "Gargoyles usually live longer than humans."
Abruptly, Pandora stood. "Dawn is soon upon us." She started around the fire. "I will go place another set of wards over the entrance."
Brooklyn nodded, calling after her, "Were you just easing tensions before? Can we expect another attack?"
Pandora stopped to answer with confidence. "No, the animus stopped attacking because it did not want to exhaust itself. It has used much of its strength setting traps for me. Attacking like it did was a rash choice - and it was fruitless. It won’t be able to do us harm here anyway, in a moment."
As soon as she was away, Brooklyn caught ear of a stirring and turned to see Payne was awake. He looked pale, but apparently wasn’t cold anymore. "I must admit," he whispered, "she's an intriguing young thing, Timedancer. Trained in magic and skilled enough to fight off a bear, not to mention that she's much easier on the eyes than Sata. All kinds--"
The growling stopped him in mid-sentence. Payne wrinkled his face. "Fine, be stubborn and irritable." He turned over.
It was only the work of seconds for Pandora to strengthen her shield over the cave. She then sank to her knees, looked up at the stars, and said a prayer of thanks.
* * * * *
Morning rays drifted into the cave through the entrance and through the overhanging thatch-work. Payne rolled in his sleep, soft moans emanating from him.
"Timedancer..." he mumbled.
Brooklyn stared back at the doctor with vacant eyes encased in stone.
"Where have... where have you taken me now..."
The doctor’s breathing increased, grew sporadic, as he tumbled and turned. His eyes were tightly shut, quenched against whatever dreams he was enduring.
"In danger... dangerous to be here..."
Pandora’s face responded just as vacantly.
Suddenly, a rustling traveled through the cave, and something like a low roar of the wind swept over Payne.
Payne snapped into consciousness, sitting upright in a quick, mechanical motion. "Enough already! Can’t you let--"
His voice trailed off as he saw the pair of gargoyles at the other side of the cave, frozen in stone. Brooklyn was down on one knee, a wing draped over the other, with his arm resting on it. Pandora was facing the other gargoyle, sitting with legs underneath her and wings around her. She was demurely bowing -- face downcast.
His confusion was compounded by the realization that he was severely out of breath, gasping for air, beads of sweat running down his face. He felt his hair, felt how matted it was with the sweat.
Somewhat nervously, he surveyed the cave, his fingers shaking slightly. He saw that the fire was out.
Muttering to himself about overconfident gargoyles, he went to look at the daylight view from the entrance. He smiled at the trees only about fifty or so meters off. Pulling the hide around himself, the scientist started off to gather wood...
* * * * *
"Must be coming down with a fever," he muttered, "a blasted fever. Great." He trekked haphazardly over the uneven ground, high drifts of snow, unseen roots and protruding rocks.
"And isn’t it the most splendid time period in which to come down with something," he continued to ramble. "Without medicines, or doctors or hospitals of any kind - but, oh, plenty of extinct strands of virus to infiltrate my weakened condition. And magic, oh yes, and magic! Magic a-plenty!"
He reached the treeline and calmed himself enough to begin gathering fallen branches.
As he was about to pick up another piece of deadwood, he heard something strange. He straightened and looked around. There was nothing in sight, but the sound was still in his ears... a whispering...
He shuddered, tightening the hide around his shoulders.
Moving slowly, cautiously, Payne reached down and snagged the piece of wood. The whispering was louder now, he could almost make out words. He started back for the trail he'd made.
The noise was all around him, as loud as if he was in the middle of a huge crowd of chattering people. He moved clumsily towards the path, looking around for the source of the noise. His breathing echoed in his ears.
"Leave me alone!" he screamed at the trees and snow, "Leave me alone!" His feet carried him across the tundra towards the cave. He heard himself begin to whimper, felt pangs of humiliation, but couldn’t stop. Finally, he reached the entrance, and the whispering ceased.
A pair of dark eyes watched him disappear back into the sanctuary, the malevolence in them coupled with unexpected curiosity.
* * * * *
The resounding crackles and roars of Brooklyn’s and Pandora’s awakenings jolted Payne to his feet.
"Must you do that?" he asked in exasperation, reseating himself before the rekindled fire.
Brooklyn ignored him as he stretched, reaching for the skies. The stars shined down through the thatch-work. The sound of a second, female yawn prompted a reflexive response. "Ohayo gozaimasu, Aisai."
"What did you say, Brooklyn?"
His head snapped down to his side as he brought his arms down. Pandora had stopped in the middle of shaking the stone bits out of her hair and was looking at him with a big smile. The memory of a similar pose brought a lump to his throat.
"I said good morning, Pandora," he replied after a moment. "Hey, your clothes are intact." Pandora looked down at herself, then back up with raised eyebrows.
"Intact, Brooklyn?" she asked, not understanding. Payne snickered quietly on his side of the cave.
"You're still wearing your clothes," elaborated Brooklyn, ignoring the noises Payne was making.
"Yes, I am. Would you rather I was unclothed?" Her straight face made Brooklyn buckle. He could feel Payne's eyes boring into him from the other side of the crevasse
"No," he gulped. "No, I didn't mean it like that. The other times I've met gargoyles in ancient times, they've needed new clothes every night. What they were wearing before didn't change to stone with them. " He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "Sorry if it came out sounding... improper."
Pandora's expression grew confused. "What was improper about it?"
As Brooklyn’s brain reeled, she explained, "During the first moons I was a gargoyle, I did have the problem you spoke of. I had to make sure I removed my toga each dawn or it would be ruined. That stopped after I started wearing my lorica. I believe it protects my garments from damage."
Brooklyn nodded and offered his hand. She smiled once more as she took it, standing. Once up, Pandora swayed a bit. He instantly had his hand under her elbow.
"Oh!" gasped the female in the surprise of discomfort. She backed away from Brooklyn. "That hurt."
"It did?" He was genuinely puzzled. "Didn't mean to grip you so hard."
She rubbed her elbow slowly. "It is all right, Brooklyn."
"I'm hungry, are you hungry? We shouldn't have too much trouble finding something to cook up."
"I do not want to eat right now, Brooklyn. I have work to finish." Her face had a harder look to it than Brooklyn had ever seen before. It told him that she was not going to waver from her resolution, but Brooklyn pressed anyway.
"You really should eat fir--"
"I said I am not hungry." She closed on him until they were almost nose to beak. Firmly, but softly, "And I meant it."
"Okay, okay," he put his hands up placatingly. "We can have a victory feast when we get back instead."
They turned to Payne with neutral expressions. "You can't just go tromping around out there. What happens to me if something happens to you?"
Brooklyn turned to Pandora. "For a moment there, I almost thought he was going to show concern for us."
"Well," Pandora's eyes flashed, ignoring Brooklyn’s remark to address Payne, "I guess you either trek south, or freeze."
Brooklyn turned a stunned eye on the female gargoyle.
"Why can't she go herself?" Payne continued. "She doesn't need you to take care of that thing."
"She's been putting her life on the line for more than twenty years because of something I did," Brooklyn explained. "I was the one who knocked the box open, not her. She gets all the help she needs from me, for as long as she needs it. If you don't want to wait here, then you can come with us."
That suggestion visibly took the wind out of Payne's sails. "Uh, well, I, no. No, I'll stay here. We know I'd just be a hindrance if I accompanied you. I don't suppose you could stir up the fire again before you go, Pandora? Most of the wood I gathered earlier is gone."
"You had to gather wood for the fire?" She frowned, puzzled. "That is odd." . The first vulnerability showed itself against her rock confidence. "The fire should have stayed burning strong for a whole day."
"You have wood to last a while longer, Payne," said Brooklyn. "Pandora shouldn't use up energy she may need later. We'll bring back more firewood when we return."
The two gargoyles left the cave.
* * * * *
To Brooklyn's surprise, Pandora kept going on foot, even though the top of the split she'd made in the earth would have been a great place to launch from.
"Don't you want to glide? It would let us cover more area faster."
"I don't think we will be going very far. It is easier to see the path the animus has walked from the ground. Also," it looked to Brooklyn like her face reddened, "I am not a very good glider."
She turned away before he had the chance to get an explanation out of her, leading him back to the path she had been following when he and Payne arrived the night before.
As they went, Brooklyn became more careful about their surroundings. He didn't want to get jumped by another bear... or something worse.
"Twenty-five years," he mused, his eyes alert. "Your quest must have taken you all over the old world."
Pandora looked back at him over her shoulder, the gem on her forehead twinkling with power.
"You said you missed some falls," the male gargoyle amended at her blank look, "when the leaves turn and drop from the trees before the snows come."
"You must have visited the Middle East."
Again the questions in her eyes.
Pandora slowed so they were moving side by side. "I do not know these names you use, Brooklyn. They must be names that will be chosen sometime in the future."
"Yeah, I suppose so. Look here." He stopped and traced an outline in the snow. "This will be rough, but kind of accurate. In this time, most of the human civilization is concentrated on these continents: Africa, Europe, and Asia. From
what I heard about it, I think the continent of Atlantis was in this area." He pointed to the left side of the outline. "I imagine we're up here someplace right now." His talon moved to the top of the outline. "Down this way is Persia, to the east of the biggest of the seven seas."
"I think I see. You may be right. This Persia is a dry land, with seas made of sand, not water?"
"Yeah, that's right."
"I have been there. Some of the phasmatis went that way, hoping to lose themselves in the sands. I found them all and bound them to their prisons. It is odd that many of the vessels Hephaestus gave me could be opened so that the animus within could be allowed a measure of freedom."
Brooklyn furrowed his brow. "That doesn’t make sense. Why would he do that?"
Pandora shrugged. "The Efreet was one such animus. I cannot speculate as to Hephaestus’ motives."
Brooklyn laughed in sudden understanding. Pandora looked at him bewilderedly.
"The animus," he explained, "was bound to the vessel until it fulfilled a task or tasks for the one who opened the prison?"
"Yes, I think that's right. How did you know?"
"In the time I was hatched, they were called Djinn by the people of the Middle East. The stories about them spread across the world, eventually becoming known as Genies and other aliases. You find their vessel - their lamp or their rug - you get three wishes. That was usually the deal."
He laughed again, nostalgically.
"That the Titans would allow such creatures to roam free, even in such limited fashions, is... unsettling."
"From my experience, such a position would definitely teach a lesson of humility to a fay. Maybe that was the goal. It would be the kind of thing right up Oberon’s alley."
"Perhaps." Pandora looked distracted now. She was looking all around.
"What is it?" asked Brooklyn as he also looked.
"He is crafty, this last one. He has blurred his trail and circled around over it often enough that I am having trouble following it now."
"But you still think he's in the area?"
"Yes. I am almost certain of that."
"Then I have an idea of how you may be able to track him more easily."
She paused and faced him, obviously surprised. "Truly? What is it?"
"I'm not sure you'll like it, but it should work."
* * * * *
Brooklyn glided above Pandora with both hands on her waist so as to not interfere with her wings. Pandora could easily make out the cave she had formed two nights before, and they were using that as a center-point, spiraling out from it.
"Just relax, you're fine. There's nothing to be afraid of." Brooklyn could feel an occasional shake through his hands that had nothing to do with the winds that buffeted them. "You're doing great," he repeated.
"I wonder what Hephaestus had in mind when he made these vessels," Brooklyn said loudly to be heard over the wind rushing by. "Maybe the ones that can be opened are for the phasmatis that have a... chaotic bent, but aren't really into hurting others. There is an animus trapped in the Phoenix Gate. I'm not sure how it got there but I know it really wants to get out. Good thing for me there's-- Pandora, what is it?"
The dark-red female was staring at him palely, pain in her eyes. With a small cry, she turned away from him and tucked her wings in.
Brooklyn dove and rolled, sweeping back to get on a course to intercept her. His heart raced as he eyed her plummeting form. If they'd been any lower he wouldn't have gotten to her in time. They were less than a hundred feet above ground when Brooklyn scooped Pandora out of the air and snapped his wings open to avoid a sudden, fatal stop.
"Let me go!" she sobbed, beating against his chest with both hands as they landed. He did as she asked, but she didn't quite get her feet under her in time and tumbled into the snow.
"Pandora, it's all right. It is." Brooklyn knelt by her side and looked her, uncomprehending. "We're down and safe." She was turned away from him, crouched down, almost curled up in a fetal position. He blundered on: "I told you you should have eaten before we left."
"No, you're not. What you are is still a growing--"
"I said I'm fine, Brooklyn!" She growled as she stood, and turned, glaring at him. "Leave me alone and go back to the cave."
"Uh, uh, no way." He was also now upright.
"Leave me! NOW!"
"No. I won't leave you alone out here to face dragon knows what. I'm not going anywhere."
"No, Pandora." He stepped up to her. "You need me and I'll be da--" The surprise left cross nearly took Brooklyn's beak off. He staggered back a step as Pandora turned and ran. He shook his head. She wasn't going too fast, stumbling away through the snow.
Brooklyn took off after her on all fours, overtaking her so quickly that she didn't even have time to be surprised when he tackled her. They tumbled briefly.
"Enough already!" he snapped as she continued to struggle. "This is pointless. Talk to me!"
Pandora pushed him to arms length. "You have to leave me!"
"Tell me why, blast it!"
One hand dug into her satchel and Pandora pulled out an object not much bigger than her palm. "If you stay you are doomed!"
Brooklyn stared at the object, the Phoenix Gate. The brand new Phoenix Gate.
* * * * *
Payne was dozing again as he stared at the fire. He didn't have anything better to do.
He peered into the fire, the flames seeming to warm his mind. As he slipped in and out of sleep, he began to hear a strange sound again. This time it modulated into just a single voice that murmured to him in a sing-song manner. It was the complete opposite of the jarring frenzy of sound that the scientist had heard earlier that afternoon. Not fearful this time for some reason, Payne walked off towards the woods.
After putting most of a mile behind himself, Payne came to a small clearing in the dark heart of the woods. As he stood there, trance-like, a figure moved out of the shadows of the trees. The dark shape stepped forward, silvery hair and big,
bright eyes flashing in the faint moonlight.
"You are a curiosity, mortal," murmured the animus to itself. "Magic brought you here, that much is plain, but it was the power of the Seelie that did so. How is it that I feel some kind of kinship with you?"
It looked at Payne for a long moment with delving senses. "You have a wisp of my power in you, mortal. I would think I would remember giving up some of my power to another, but I do not." He touched three fingers to the middle of Payne's forehead. "You will tell me how this came to be."
The rush of images was expected, that they would be almost overwhelming was not. A cold anger and raging bitterness flowed along with the wave of sensation that moved from Payne to the animus. It didn’t emanate from the doctor, but from something else... some other source of emotion, deep within him.
The strength of the emotions were enough to cause the animus to step back.
"By the shattered chains of the freed horde, who are you?" The thin human didn't hear to answer. He was shaking the wool out of his head. He looked around.
"Where the heck am I now? How did I get out here?"
"I brought you." First Payne's eyes, then the rest of his head, turned to focus on the source of the unusual voice.
"Hey, there," he greeted, numb. He started to back away. "Uh, how you doing?"
The other didn’t move except to cock its head in regard to Payne, quizzically. "Nice to meet you, but I have to be going..."
The doctor turned, took three steps, and struck the magical barrier placed in his way.
He fell onto his back. Groaning, he sat up, hand on his head, his eyes squinted. When he reopened them, he stared into the dark, wiry face of a wolf.
He kicked away, fumbling onto his hands and knees in a pathetic excuse for a defensive posture, too afraid to stand...
"Hold mortal, and I will not harm you," came the animus’ voice, but from the wolf's unmoving mouth. "We have things to discuss, you and I."
* * * * *
"Well, now, isn't that just great," growled Brooklyn as he stared at the talisman in Pandora's hand. "How did you get your hands on that?"
"Hephaestus made the Phoenix Gate some ten... falls after Prometheus sent you on your way. I was there when he finished shaping it, having been brought back to the home of the Titans by Prometheus. It was one of several vessels I was given to use as prisons for the phasmatis. I have again and again pushed it aside instead of using it as it was meant to be used, but now I have no choice!" Her voice had grown rougher as she finished her explanation.
With tears in her eyes, she turned away from him. "I'm sorry, Brooklyn! I didn't want to be the one to bring such ruin to your life. I thought I could find a way to prevent it. I, I--" She collapsed into the snow again.
"Hush, hush now, it's all right." He knelt next to her and drew her into his arms, ignoring the trembling. "Shh. I understand how you feel and what you tried to do, and I appreciate it. Some things are inevitable. Time and again I've lost the Gate or had it taken from me. I've always found a way to recover it or it found its way back to me. I don't know if I'm its or if it’s mine, but I do know that we belong together."
Brooklyn stood, bringing Pandora up with him and turning her so they faced each other. "Look at me. Look at me, Pandora." She complied the second time. Her glistening eyes almost made his resolution waver. "I want you to think
about something. What would happen if you did find a way to prevent the Gate from being used the way it was meant to? Do you have any idea how many lives that would affect?"
"I told you, I've been to more places than I can remember. In every place I went, I affected the lives of people, I'd like to think for the better. If you disable the Gate here, now, how will my younger self be able to meet the younger you on your journey to save your sisters?"
Her pain twisted Pandora's face, and she began to sob again. "Oh, Brooklyn..." He pulled her against his chest.
"It's all right, Pandora. I know things will work themselves out. We all have our own roads to walk." He stroked her hair as he held her, until she calmed.
"Okay?" he asked.
She nodded as she wiped away the tears from her eyes. "I have a job to finish." Her face was set again, even stronger than before. Brooklyn smiled and nodded.
"Then let's get it done."
* * * * *
"Le-leave me alone," Payne begged. "I'm harmless!" The wolf was very close now, pacing back and forth but not taking its eyes off Payne.
"Fools often think themselves harmless, but that only makes them more of a hazard. I told you I will not harm you, now calm yourself!" The wolf's quick snarl shut Payne up.
"Who are you?" he ventured, his voice a quiver.
"Names have power, mortal. I will not so casually share mine with one such as you." That rankled Payne, and his fright soon turned toward resentment, but he kept his cool.
"Now then," the wolf went on, "I want to know who you are, how you got here, and how you managed to steal some of my power from me without my knowledge."
Payne's eyebrows drew together as he digested that last bit of information. "Well, I'm Doctor Isaac Payne, head of Project Chronos," he rambled, trying to think about what the wolf had told him. "My... traveling companion, Brooklyn, and I, are here from the distant future. We were sent here through the power of the Phoenix Gate."
"The Phoenix Gate?" The wolf managed to look puzzled. "I have not heard of such a thing."
Even so, the name was enough to catch his attention, Payne noticed.
"What is it?"
"The Gate? It's a small, disk-like object, about this big," Payne held his hands together in elaboration, "made out of some kind of blue, metallic substance with a gold edge and the figure of a bird, made of gold, on its surface."
"It brought you from the future?"
"Yes. That's what it does. It allows the holder to travel through time." There was a twinge of resentment there, too.
"Show it to me."
"I don't have it. Brooklyn does."
"If you are not the wielder of the Gate, how is it that you have come to this land?"
"The study of temporal mechanics is my life's work. It led me to try duplicating the power of the Phoenix Gate, but through scientific, rather than magical, means." Talking about his studies calmed Payne further.
"That was not an answer to my question," said the wolf with a small growl. "How did you get here?"
"I almost succeeded; I had made a portal that was nearly stable," Payne went on, "but Brooklyn and his female attacked me and ruined my work. I used the portal to escape them, only to have the Timedancer follow me. He's been dragging me around ever since."
"This is not to your liking?"
"No. I should be the one deciding where to go, not that gargoyle."
"This Brooklyn, this... Timedancer, he is a gargoyle?"
"Yes. Big, red fellow with wings and a beak. Tends to stick out in a crowd."
The wolf turned away, but its voice still rang clearly in Payne's mind. "You have given me much to consider, human." A few slabs of meat appeared from nowhere to fall at Payne's feet. "Take these as tokens of thanks and go. We will speak further, later." The wolf took less than a dozen steps before it faded from view. Payne gathered the meat it left behind and beat a hasty retreat.
* * * * *
Brooklyn was not a happy camper when he and Pandora returned to the cave not long before dawn. They'd spent a few more hours in fruitless searching. He'd wanted to find and capture their quarry before the Phoenix Gate got restless again. He was tensed and growling under his breath when they landed at the grotto.
"It is well, Brooklyn. We know he is aware of me, and has no desire to run." Pandora put her hand on his arm. "It will end soon enough." Brooklyn's head snapped around. He looked at Pandora's hand, her face. "What is it, Brooklyn?"
"Your hand is warm. How do you feel?"
"Hungry. I hope there is time enough to prepare something to eat before the dawn." He bowed for her to proceed him. Pandora smiled over her shoulder as she obliged.
They were surprised in two ways. The crevasse was empty, and there was more than enough meat sitting over the fire to feed a squad of infantrymen. They looked at each other blankly.
"So much for that problem," Brooklyn stated.
"Yes, but where is Doctor Payne?" Pandora sat down by the fire. "Oh!" She gasped at the dizziness that overwhelmed her. Her vision whirling, she fell on her side, nearly into the fire.
Brooklyn was with her instantly. "What's wrong?" He helped her back up to a sitting position, but she was limp, leaning against his chest. He noted that she felt warmer than normal all over. "Just relax. I'm with you. You'll be fine."
"My head swims, Brooklyn," she murmured softly. "Oh, this is odd. The world reels around me."
"Easy, relax, I've got you. It'll pass." Dizzy, warm skin...? Forty years old...?! Oh, no!
"Yes. Thank you." She moved her arms around him, holding him gently, her cheek rubbing against his chest.
Of course, that was when Isaac Payne would find himself sauntering back in with his load of firewood. He said nothing as he stepped around the fire, but his smirk promised blackmail at the very least.
"Eating will help me feel better," said Pandora quietly. "It did the last time."
"‘The last time’? When was that?" demanded Brooklyn.
"A few years after we were parted. It lasted a few days, then faded. It did not come on so suddenly then, though."
Brooklyn looked at her, confused. She should have been too young then. "Let's get some food in you, then." He looked across the fire. "Thanks for setting this up, Doc."
"No problem, Timedancer," answered Payne with a modest smile. "Always glad to help a lady in distress." Brooklyn didn't like the glib answer or that smile, but he set it aside for more pressing concerns.
He turned Pandora around, acting as a backstop, then snagged a piece of meat off the fire and held it in front of her mouth. "Eat," he ordered. As she obeyed, Brooklyn peered in Payne’s direction.
"Where'd you get the meat, Payne?"
"I was lucky enough to run across a young stag when I went out for firewood the first time. It didn't get out of the way of a falling tree in time. Good thing I still had that knife I borrowed in India." Brooklyn grunted in acknowledgment.
Pandora squeezed Brooklyn's hand for a moment before taking the spit from him and proceeding to tear into the venison. He unconsciously ran a hand down her back between her wings. She gasped and nearly gagged on the food in her mouth. After hurriedly swallowing, she looked at Brooklyn.
Brooklyn seemed just as surprised by himself as she. "I... I forgot myself. Between the wing joints is an especially sensitive spot for gargoyles. I just meant to make you feel better." He failed to convince himself.
"It was just a surprise." She threw him a dazzling smile and slid back a little, to snuggle her back into his chest. "Thank you." Brooklyn's face darkened to match Pandora's skin. He only made it worse by glancing at Payne as the scientist methodically stared and ate his meat.
"Did you two have any luck?" asked Payne.
"No," Brooklyn answered. "All that happened was I got tangled up in a falling tree, too. If I didn't know better I'd think the blasted thing was trying to eat me. We'll find and capture the animus tomorrow night."
"Good, good. Will you be well enough for your hunt then, Pandora?"
"Yeah, probably," answered Brooklyn, looking at her again. "She's not sick in the regular sense of the word." Pandora paused in her eating and looked at Brooklyn.
"No, you're not. You're in the process of quickening, Pandora."
Payne almost choked.
"It's almost time for you to breed."
Before the meat she'd dropped hit the ground, the stunned expression was frozen onto her face.
* * * * *
"Doctor Payne, I would like to speak with you."
Payne ignored the request, again. The creature was beginning to grow incessant. He couldn’t go waltzing out to meet with him again. Though their last encounter had adjourned advantageously, who was to say what the creature had in store for him this time round?
"Besides," Payne mumbled, his teeth clattering, "I have more pressing concerns." The clattering was not from the temperature. Nor was the shivering of his fingers, or the enormous balloon that seemed to be inflating inside his skull.
He rocked back and forth in front of the fire, the two stone presences of Brooklyn and Pandora behind him. "I wouldn’t be surprised i-if this was radiation poi-soi-soning," he seethed, glancing back at Brooklyn. "That-t’s right, Timedancer, you sleep nice and sound, don't you? Don’t you?"
He turned away again. "But not all of us can just "sleep off" radiat-tion exposure, now, can we?"
Deep down, Payne knew that radiation couldn’t be the cause of his symptoms. But he also knew that it couldn’t be a plain fever. He was grasping at straws. Whatever the case, it was easier to vent this way.
"Why don't you come out so we can talk?"
Payne ignored the voice again, though it boomed in his mind this time. Was he, that creature out there, causing his symptoms?
Finally, he gave up. "The heck with it," he spat, making his way to the exit.
Ten minutes later, he found the fay in the same clearing. It received him as one who does not know whether to thank or chastise. Payne held out for the former.
"Is that what you really look like?" he asked.
"My people are shape-changers, we sometimes end up forgetting what our natural bodies look like. This is the form I am most comfortable with."
"All right. You don't want to tell me your name, so what should I call you?"
"How about calling me friend?"
"Are you my friend? I'm not sure about that. I get the impression you may be too much of a trickster for that."
"A trickster? Was that an insult, human?"
"Not at all." He managed to keep up a decent front of self-confidence. "It's a way of describing a person who revels in fooling around with others. You know, playing tricks on them and such."
The fay mused over the doctor’s explanation. "Perhaps you are correct. Have you met many tricksters like me?"
"No, but I read of a few when I was a student and interested in mythology. Coyote, Loki, Puck, some others." He spoke dismissively.
The fay's eyes started glowing upon the mention of the first name. "Coyote? Do you mean Coyotyl?"
"I can't say. Those are names of some of the tricksters popular in the mythology of my time. I don't know if they’re accurate names or not."
"Loki, Loki. I like the way that sounds. You can call me Loki."
"Well, all right, but I had nothing to do with it when the true Loki shows up angry about you using his name."
"So be it."
"So, what so important that you dragged me away from my warm fire?" He was bluffing. In point of fact, he felt inexplicably better in the fay’s presence. "What do you want?"
"You mistake me, Doctor. I'm here to see what I can do for you."
"You have my attention, Loki."
"The female you and the ‘Timedancer’ have met; she hunts me. I don't want to end up caged, bound by a Seelie geas, but the huntress is very skilled, and relentless. If she were to fail in her efforts to trap me in the Phoenix Gate, you would never end up here. You would live your life in the right time and place, instead of finding yourself on a jaunt through the ages."
"You really have my attention, Loki."
Payne rubbed his hand over his beard. "You just may be on to something here." Possibilities began to roll through Payne's mind.
* * * * *
The questions were pouring out of Pandora's mouth almost before all of her stone shell had hit the ground.
"Quickening? This is a new word for me, too, Brooklyn. What does it mean?"
Brooklyn struggled. "In most Clans, a breeding flight."
Pandora paled. "Will it matter that I am so lacking as a glider?" They had both stood. She was gripping his arms and looking anxiously up at him.
"Whoa, hold on." Brooklyn was visibly fazed. "Haven't you come across other gargoyles in your travels? There should be hundreds of Clans out there in this era. Hasn't there been anybody to tell you about these things?" Pandora looked away from him, shaking her head.
"I told you I most often eat alone."
Brooklyn encouraged her on with his eyes. She sighed, "I thought nothing about visiting human villages when I first started my quest, but the people there were always frightened of my form; just as I was once frightened of yours. They did not have the courage see I was truly not different from them."
"The only ones who have been willing to look beyond these horns and wings have been mages. The last time I saw one of them was four, no, five, years ago. They are rare. None of them who I spoke with had ever heard of a gargoyle before."
She put one finger to the tip of his beak. "Shush, Brooklyn. I chose this life. My tasks have kept me journeying and busy enough that it has not been so bad. I have never had the chance to meet any who could teach me what it is to be a gargoyle. Not even the Titans could do that."
Brooklyn gave out a soft cry of frustration as he pulled the unresisting female into a winged embrace. "Pandora..." He didn't know what to say, didn't have the words. She snuggled against him and he held her tightly. His eyes were blazing as he looked up and again cursed the fay for their careless meddling.
Brooklyn didn't move when Payne came back into the grotto, though he heard the man. The scientist looked at them for almost a minute, without saying anything. He had to admit, they did look good together. She seemed to fit perfectly with him, in more ways than one.
He cleared his throat politely. "Sorry to break this up, you two," he said, "but I saw something I think you may find interesting." The two gargoyles moved apart enough so they could both look at him, though Pandora didn't move out of Brooklyn's arms.
"What is it?" they asked simultaneously.
"There are weird lights flashing at the base of that cliff over that way," he pointed, "I'm not sure if I saw things moving there too or not. The wind made it difficult to judge."
"Let us go!" Pandora was already moving for the entrance, pulling her staff out of her satchel.
"No!" exclaimed Brooklyn, and jumped forward. The only part of Pandora in reach was her tail. He was about to make a grab for it, when she rounded on him, pinning him against the cave wall with her staff.
Her eyes burned; burned with passion and duty. "Brooklyn, do not try to stop me like that again." Her voice was as pleading as it was intent.
"Sorry," he admitted.
She let him go and attended to her staff, pulling the Phoenix Gate out of her satchel. "Pariter," she said, holding the end of the staff to the bottom of the talisman. When she let the Phoenix Gate go, it stayed in place at the end of the staff.
"Now we can trap the animus in the Phoenix Gate. All one of us has to do is touch the other end of the staff to the quarry for a long enough moment."
Pandora nodded solemnly. "I... would have you accompany me. Even though it is dangerous."
Brooklyn nodded. "I won’t forget this is your show. You get the first shot."
"All that matters is that the task is completed."
Payne watched them go. He had opted to stay behind again, though both gargoyles had noted that he appeared to be in better health.
* * * * *
Pandora insisted they travel by ground again, to better keep their approach a surprise. Brooklyn went along with the idea reluctantly.
"What else can you tell me about my quickening?" asked Pandora quietly as they went along. He didn't want to get back to that subject now, but he had to tell her what he could. She needed to know, just in case.
"A normal gargoyle female quickens every twenty years, starting when she's around forty."
"I was much younger than that when I quickened the first time."
"Yeah, I've been thinking about that. You spent most of your first twenty years as a human. You were around sixteen or seventeen when I met you, right?"
"Yes. Well, perhaps. I believe that is right."
"A gargoyle female first comes into season when she's about the physical equivalent of a twenty-year-old human woman. Since you were human for those first years, I think you quickened earlier because your body had matured enough at that time."
"So it was right that I quickened when I did the first time."
"If the quickened female doesn't have a mate when her time comes for her breeding flight, then all the unmated males will pursue her," he continued, rambling. "The one that catches her will be her mate and together they will bring forth new life for their Clan."
Brooklyn couldn't help the faraway look in his eyes. He turned away before Pandora had the chance to see it.
"You spoke of your Clan in the city where you lived before. ...Manhattan was its name?"
"Yeah. We were a small Clan at that time."
"A Clan is like a family, yes? My sisters were my Clan?"
"Exactly. Most gargoyle Clans are large though, with more than fifty warriors of different Rookeries."
"The Rookery is where the Clan's eggs are kept during the years before a hatching. It's also what the Clan sometimes calls each group of eggs that hatched together. Each Rookery is taught by the warriors and elders of the Clan, so that they can take their place as warriors over the Clan’s territory; its protectorate."
"There," Pandora said, pointing at a few trees by the base of a cliff. Brooklyn looked but didn't see anything out of the ordinary. He looked at Pandora and saw that her gem was flickering again.
"Yes, I sense the magic," she answered, seeing the question in his eyes. "I think the animus has gathered the animals it has entranced to this place."
"Upping the odds," murmured Brooklyn, nodding. "We'll just have to be more careful."
They neared the treeline.
"So, once we have captured the animus," Pandora smiled hopefully at Brooklyn, "I will have my breeding flight and you will catch me. Together we shall make an egg to make the Manhattan Clan grow."
Brooklyn nearly lost balance and side-wound. When he regained himself, he exclaimed, "No!"
Confused hurt sprang up in Pandora’s eyes, displacing the love and hope that had been there. She looked at him silently for several seconds as he stammered in his efforts to recover, the disbelief on her face turning to a mask of misery. Tears started to drip as she whirled away from him and dashed into the woods.
Brooklyn slapped a hand over his eyes. "Oh, doesn't that just make the situation perfect," he muttered to himself, before chasing after her. He caught up with her on the ground.
"Pandora, listen for a minute."
She was standing perfectly still, poised, near a thick tree, looking at the cliff a hundred feet away.
What would he tell her? What could he tell her? That he was mated? That he’d been mated for the past twenty years while she’s been trekking across the world amending his wrong, her only solace that he would someday return to her?
He looked up at her. She was still standing quietly, ignoring his presence.
"Be quiet," she said without looking.
"Blast it, Pandora..."
She whirled and clamped a hand around the end of his beak.
"I said be quiet, fool," she hissed into his ear, "before you let the animus know how close we are."
She pointed toward the cliff. "Over there. It is near." Brooklyn nodded and, with hand signals, suggested they move in from two directions. Pandora nodded assent and they separated.
They arrived at the pile of animal corpses at almost the same time. There were three elks, two wolves and another bear. The two gargoyles traded a look of confusion as they stood near the bodies.
"We're missing something," said Brooklyn. "The trail leads here?"
"Yes. I do not understand it either." She reached forward slowly. "Much of its power is here. What good would it do to throw it away?"
"Get away from them!" barked Brooklyn, almost in time. Energy flared around the corpses, then spread out as lines of power in all directions. Most strands went into the woods but a few went up the face of the cliff. In the woods, bursts of energy started to shatter trees, hurling branches and big pieces of trunk into the air.
The strands of the energy web on the cliff spread out and penetrated the rock. As the remains of the trees started to fall, the cliff shattered, exploding outward.
Brooklyn moved immediately, instinctively. If he had taken the time to think about it, it would have been too late. Pandora was just starting to react when Brooklyn grabbed her around the waist and carried the surprised female to the one possibility of safety available.
Loki watched the stones and trees fall from the top of the cliff. It was thirty seconds before things stopped falling, more than another thirty before the sounds started to die away. It was minutes before the dust settled.
There was a new sound from below. The smile of satisfaction on Loki's face faltered. "It cannot be..."
Brooklyn strained upward and pushed away the few small boulders and big rocks that had fallen onto them as he covered Pandora. The comparatively small number of stones that had dropped straight down on them, rather than blown or bounced away from the cliff, was the only reason they hadn't been crushed.
"That was too close," said Brooklyn, looking around for signs of any more trouble and ignoring the aches and pains coming from his wings, ribs and arm.
Brooklyn offered his good hand to Pandora. The shock of coming so near to death so quickly did not help her emotional state any. She slapped it aside, moved out of the hole herself without a word, and started to haltingly make her way back towards her cave.
"Ohhhkay, fine. You're welcome!" grumbled Brooklyn to himself as he followed her retreating form.
* * * * *
"Payne!" Loki was as close to the cave's entrance as he could come. "They yet live. Our plan has failed!"
"I thought it would," responded Payne snidely as he came out of the cave. The fay's arm moved like lightning; before Payne knew what was happening, he was being held in the air.
"I hope you do not play me for a fool, mortal."
"No more than you play me for one," Payne managed to choke out. After a few seconds, Loki set Payne back on his feet.
"Look, trying to stop Pandora from catching you isn't going to work. The fact that you are caught in the Phoenix Gate is already an established part of the Timedancer's past. He's whined often enough about the immutability of the timestream to me. You will be trapped in the Phoenix Gate because you are trapped in it. Time travel is funny that way."
"So you are of no real use to me, after all." Power flared up in Loki's eyes and his hair began to move like it was windblown.
"Don't waste the only chance to be free that you may ever have."
"What do you mean?"
"If I heard right, these vessels Pandora's been throwing your fellow phasmatis into are supposed to last forever. What happens if she doesn't put all of you into the Gate. If a piece of you is left free outside the Gate, would that help the rest of you escape at some point?"
"An intriguing thought."
"Give me a part of your power and I'll help you get your freedom back. That's the only possibility left."
Loki looked away from Payne and cursed. "I must think on what you propose and I must away. The Huntress and her companion are returning. We will speak on the morrow." Loki vanished.
About a minute later, Pandora came into view. She stalked up the hill and past Payne without a word, not stopping until she was sitting by the fire with her arms wrapped around her knees.
"What happened to you?" asked Payne when Brooklyn arrived. He had a skinned arm and there was a tear near one wingtip.
"Got in the way of an avalanche," answered Brooklyn in a completely deadpan voice. The red gargoyle looked in at Pandora, then thought better of it and stayed outside by the entrance to the cave.
"Really, or did you two have a lover's spat?"
Brooklyn glared at him.
"You aren't funny, Payne. Drop it."
"You'd better make up with her, Timedancer," continued Payne blithely. "If I remember right, she has more to do than catch the phasmatis."
" 'If you remember right'?"
"I was fond of mythology before I chose to study temporal mechanics. In the legends I remember, Pandora was known as the first woman on Earth."
"That can't be right," countered Brooklyn unconsciously, without taking his eyes off the landscape. "There are already colonies of humans spreading out from Africa to the shores of the Mediterranean."
"But what If the story got garbled, and she should have been known as the first gargoyle female on the planet...?"
Brooklyn slowly turned to look at him. "...Oh, no."
"Why are we here, Timedancer? Does she truly need your help to capture Loki and put him in the Phoenix Gate? She did beat all the others on her own."
Brooklyn looked into the cave again. "Avalon's magic is known for sending people where they need to be," he whispered.
"We arrived just before she came into season; just before she will need a male to help her perpetuate the gargoyle race."
Those were three big thoughts. The whirlwind of runaway speculation they created in Brooklyn's mind was only complicated more by the uncertainty of his return to his wife. He slammed the fist of his undamaged arm against the side of the cave entrance before going in to sit on the other side of the fire.
Pandora glared at him, growling low in her throat. He did not react, instead looking over the damage to his wings. Slowly the anger faded from her face, but the confusion remained.
Brooklyn stayed there, mutely staring into the flames and pondering his fate, their fates. Pandora was sufficiently bewildered by his actions that she also quietly sat, watching Brooklyn, until the sun caught them both.
* * * * *
That afternoon, Loki called Payne to the clearing once again.
"You know, this 'dashing through the snow' isn't anywhere near as fun as they purport it to be," he said without preamble when he arrived. "Couldn't we have talked by my nice warm cave again?"
Loki ignored the whining. "I have decided to go along with your idea and let you have my strength. You will agree to use it towards the goal of freeing me from the Phoenix Gate."
"All right. I agree. Once that is accomplished, we'll go ahead and do a few more things together."
"Yes. We'll drink a toast to freedom, and to gargoyle hunting." Loki looked startled for a second, then laughed. It was the most chilling noise Payne had ever heard.
"Yes, we will. A grand idea. Now listen, this is important. You have said you agree to this, but you must accept my power completely or things will go very wrong for you."
"Okay," Payne huffed impatiently, "I understand. Let's get to it."
"So be it."
The two of them stood there for another second, before Payne insisted, "Well?"
Loki narrowed his eyes on the impudent scientist. "It is coming."
At almost that instant, Payne felt something rise in him, a surge. It was a geyser going off in his chest, spreading to all his limbs -- then the feeling of the balloon inflating in his head again, only this time, it wasn’t constrained.
Payne clenched his teeth. "Wh-what’s happening?"
"There is a part of me already inside you. It is seizing control. Let it or it will kill you."
Payne managed a nod, only to regret it as his neck tightened and convulsed. His mind began to splinter, to crack, and something seeped through: a memory. But not from his point of view...
...Project Chronos was successful. Yes, that brilliant, incandescent sphere of blue crackling energy. That marvelous, endless vortex. The culmination of his work. It had worked.
...He wasn’t the only one to notice. From within the Phoenix Gate, something had been stirred to life. The machine had drawn from the Gate, and in so doing, had drawn its occupant out. But not all the way. It had a second, no more. A second in which...
...To leap from its prison into Dr. Isaac Payne. Payne, its passage to freedom. But only a fraction of itself made it before its prison was unplugged, before it was re-sentenced to eternal dormancy by its escorts.
...And dizzying plunge into the depths of time, the depths of the human consciousness, into a nook in a corner recess of his new vessel’s mind... forced there for it had no means of surfacing without being bidden... it could not take possession without permission...
At last, Payne snapped out of his delirium.
Loki clutched one hand to his chest, then slowly moved it away. Between chest and fingers there stretched a strobing energy field. Loki pressed his fingers together into a fist and the power not in his hand retreated back to his body. The fay opened his hand to display a globe of shimmering green-black energy that pulsed in his palm.
Payne eyed the ball with mixed wariness and anticipation. His body was still being ‘seized’, his muscles were all frozen, and he felt like his heart might explode and his mind melt down.
"Come on," said the man, "I'm ready."
Loki released the ball, which spread across his body. The energy sheath snapped tight around him and entered. It hurt. Considerably. But Payne was anticipating it and accepted it. For a few seconds it felt like he was two persons in one body, but then Loki's essence faded into his subconscious, almost as if it had never been there. Payne could just barely detect the presence if he focused on it. With dissipation of Loki's power came relief from the pain of the transference and Payne swooned, dropping back into the snow.
Loki looked at him for a long time before turning away. "I have begun it, and now I will end it."
* * * * *
The shaking ground didn't help the disorientation Brooklyn felt upon waking at sundown.
"Man, I hate being in the middle of a dream when the sun sets." Wisps of memory faded as the Timedancer was forced to focus on the immediate problem. Lightning and more fireballs were hitting the wards covering the grotto, chewing up the surrounding terrain in the process.
"Looks like somebody's gotten tired of being subtle." He looked at Pandora. "The animus has been kind enough to come to us. You ready for some fun?"
Pandora’s face didn’t crack. "I'm ready to finish it."
Brooklyn reached up and tore down a root from the ceiling lattice. He held the old Phoenix Gate by the end of it. "What was that word? Pariter?"
"Yes, but you are not a mage." Pandora reached around the talisman and chanted under her breath. The end of the root split and moved around the Phoenix Gate so it was set securely in it. "What are you scheming, Brooklyn?"
"Can you give me another way to get out of the cave?" he asked next.
"So I can act as a diversion and give you a better chance at taking Loki out."
"That doesn't sound like a sound plan, Brooklyn."
"We're out of time to do anything but fly by the seat of our loincloths, Pandora. Your wards are holding okay?"
"Let's hope they stay strong for a little bit longer. Hopefully," he brandished the root, "this will make him think I'm the one trying to trap him in this Phoenix Gate and he'll pay more attention to me. When you hear me roar in attack, drop the shields and come out. With any luck, you'll be able to trap him before he knows what's happening."
"This is too much of a chance for you to take, Brooklyn. If something should go wrong..."
"I'm in no hurry to get my ticket punched, Pandora. I'll be fine."
"I am a better target, I should be the one to act as a diversion."
"No. You shouldn't risk yourself."
"Neither should you."
"Pandora, you've spent all these years alone. My solitude has been relieved by those I've known in my travels who I've loved and who've loved me in return," he caressed the side of her face, "even if I never got around to saying it."
She put her hand over his, rubbed her cheek against his palm. "I've not been alone. The memory of you and the hope that you would return to me has been the reason I've toiled on. I will be alone if you go out there and get yourself killed. We go together, or we wait for him to bring the rest of the hill down on our heads."
She matched his smile.
"I'll go out the top and get airborne. You go out the front right after that and we should act as diversions for each other. One way or the other, I know we'll get the job done."
"Yes." Pandora raised her hands above her head and concentrated. A space in the wooden lattice above opened and widened.
"See you on the other side, Pandora." Brooklyn jumped up and pulled himself into the opening.
"I love you, Brooklyn." She immediately dashed for the entrance to the grotto, pulling her short staff out as she did so. The recently forged Phoenix Gate was still attached to it. As she brought down the wards protecting the cave, gathering much of the energy to herself, Pandora noticed that the attack on the cave had stopped. She looked up to see Brooklyn and Loki darting around each other in a deadly aerial ballet.
"Brooklyn! NO!" She launched herself after them to help.
* * * * *
So much for my brilliant plan, thought Brooklyn as he dodged another blast from the fay. It had been a surprise when Loki immediately turned away from attacking the warded crevasse. The crimson gargoyle dove for the trees and dropped towards what he hoped would be decent cover. A war cry behind him made him change course at the last second.
Loki also looked up at Pandora's screech. He was just in time to avoid the ball of energy the female threw at him, but not her follow-up attack. Pandora stayed as close as possible to the hurled weapon. She was right on top of Loki when he looked back at her.
He had barely enough time to strike before she did. Loki's lightning bolts flew at Pandora at point-blank range. She was already in the middle of her swing and her momentum carried her up to him. The butt of Pandora's staff connected solidly with Loki's head.
Brooklyn, gliding at them as quickly as possible, couldn't tell what happened in the flaring of the two bursts of energy. He gasped at seeing both of them drop.
She was so close to the ground when Brooklyn caught up to her that all he could do was serve as a buffer, while she landed in the protective circle of his arms. Loki just fell straight down, leaving a nice depression where he impacted.
Pandora was singed here and there and her lorica was shredded, but she was breathing steady. Brooklyn took solace in that as he got unsteadily to his feet. He looked around for Loki, then back at Pandora. He was surprised to see her awake.
"Brooklyn," she whispered, as she tried to lift the hand that was still holding her staff, "take this and finish it."
"In a minute. You have to--"
"No!" she shot back, her eyes blazing. "It cannot wait! I will be fine. Please!" Brooklyn reluctantly put Pandora down and took her staff from her. He started across the snow.
Loki was conscious but unmoving. "Look on me, Timedancer," he wheezed, "and know the face of he who will make you beg for death."
"I'll worry about that when the time comes, Loki," answered Brooklyn with a tight smile, as he drove the end of the staff into the fay's chest. It felt like gripping high voltage, but Brooklyn didn't waver. In seconds, it was over.
"I'll see you in New Orleans, chump."
Miles away, a scream of anguish echoing through his mind roused Doctor Payne from his stupor. He lifted his head and looked around. "What happened? What was that?"
Brooklyn made his way back to Pandora and dropped to his knees beside her. He gently lifted her up into a sitting position. She opened her eyes and looked at him.
"Done," they said in unison as he displayed the Phoenix Gate on the end of her staff, energy crackling around it. Pandora was caught between laughter and sobbing as she embraced Brooklyn and rested her head against his shoulder. He draped his wings around her.
Brooklyn growled at the sight of four fay. Pandora looked up, gasped, and immediately tried to stand so she could greet Prometheus, but Brooklyn held her in place.
"Brooklyn..." she pleaded.
"No. Not after what you've been through. Not to these three." Luna, Phoebe and Selene looked back at him with just as frosty a demeanor.
"Hello, little one. Hello, Brooklyn," Prometheus greeted.
"My lord," Pandora bowed.
Brooklyn crossed his arms amiably. "Been a while since Atlantis. How did Deucalion and Pyrrha make out?"
"Quite well, actually. They were two of the most popular leaders for the first generations of the New Olympians."
Prometheus turned to his companions. "Cousins, please allow me to introduce my daughter Pandora and her companion, Brooklyn of Wyvern, the Timedancer." The three females looked at Brooklyn without any hints of recognition.
"He is not very impressive."
"In form or manners to his betters."
"You favor these mortals, Prometheus?"
Brooklyn cut his outburst back to a short laugh.
"Yes, I do, cousins," the fire god answered encouragingly. "I am but one of those who do. The younger races have great potential. The fashion in which Pandora has completed her task is proof of that."
"It was not she who vanquished the miscreant Unseelie to its prison. It was he," the sister with the silvery hair pointed at Brooklyn.
"True, but he did so at the behest of Pandora, who has been dedicated these many years to the capturing of the Unseelie's minions. He was willing to risk the last of the phasmatis remaining unchained so he could aid his friend, but she insisted that the task of binding be finished first."
"We do not agree with your assessment, Prometheus," said the dark-haired woman. "These mortals seem to have too little sense for much of a future."
Brooklyn laughed again. "Want to bet?" They did not respond.
"This is a matter to be discussed in a more leisurely setting," said the third of the sisters, the one with golden hair, "Let us finished what we have come for and be on our way."
"Brooklyn, would you please give me the Phoenix Gate?" asked Prometheus as he stepped forward. This time Brooklyn let Pandora draw him up onto his feet.
"You would beseech such from a mortal? Perhaps the telltales speak the truth about you, Prometheus."
The big Titan shook his head, still looking at the gargoyles. "Yes, Brooklyn, I agree; they can be tiring. You know the Phoenix Gate must be given from holder to holder lest it become useless, or worse, dangerous."
Before Brooklyn could give the talisman away, Pandora put her hand onto his arm, halting him. Both he and Prometheus looked at her.
"My lord, together Brooklyn and I have finished the task of once more binding the phasmatis." Pandora stood up straight, looking very dignified despite the state of her appearance. "In reparation for our deeds, I would ask a boon."
"You would? What would your boon be, pray tell?"
"My friend is far, far from home. Would it be in your power to send him back to where he belongs?"
"Nay, it would not," Selene broke in. All three sisters were glaring at her. "Even if it were within our power we would not reward such impertinence as yours."
Selene continued. "You toiled to right a wrong of your own making. That you were given skill enough to survive is more than compensation enough." She looked at her sisters. "Let us away from this place, sisters. I am liking the surroundings here less and less."
"No!" shouted Pandora. She took two running steps. "Wait!" The carrier nimbus unfolded around the sisters like a flower as Pandora jumped at them. They vanished just before she reached them. The winged female landed in the snow on her hands and knees, her head overhung. Slowly, she looked over her shoulder, and saw in Brooklyn’s eyes a weary resignation that only made the pain in her heart that much worse. She let loose a wail of despair and sorrow and curled up where she fell.
Brooklyn instantly felt a flood of guilt and shame. He’d had chances to escape his duty before, to find his way back home, and he’d managed to brave his way past them. Why now...? He supposed the officiality of it, the possibility of being relieved by those who had cast him, made the prospect more real.
He tossed Pandora's staff to Prometheus and hurried to Pandora's side. He knelt to pull her up against him.
She couldn't bring herself to look at him. "Oh, Brooklyn, I'm sorry," she whimpered hoarsely, hugging him.
He squeezed her briefly, "Shh, shh, it's all right, Pandora," then used both hands to stroke her. After a moment, she looked up at him and was anointed with his tears. He wrapped his wings around them both.
Prometheus watched them comforting each other for a few seconds. "Rest, children," he said as he turned away, "and grow." He smiled as he, too, disappeared.
* * * * *
When Payne returned an hour later, he spied the gargoyles, apparently sleeping, in what could only be called a crater. It hadn't been there at sundown. Brooklyn was lying half on, half against, Pandora's side, his wing covering them both.
"Well now, isn't this a pretty picture?" Brooklyn woke and glared at Payne. "I thought that--"
"Where the blazes have you been?" demanded Brooklyn, cutting him off. His outburst roused Pandora. "Why weren't you here when Loki attacked us while we were sleeping?"
"I, I got lost earlier," stammered Payne, "I was probably lucky to find my way back here at all."
"I'm sure," growled Brooklyn. "Shoushin boke!" He stood, helped Pandora up. Both of them swayed a bit.
"I really, really hate waking up in the middle of a dream," he mused to himself, "especially when I can't remember the details." Pandora nodded and smiled, but said nothing.
Brooklyn had both of Pandora's hands in his. "Listen, I--" A familiar, faint stirring changed the direction of his thoughts. "Oh, no." He looked at Payne. "Get ready to go." He squeezed her hands. "I'd like you to come with us."
She shook her head. "No. I want to stay here, Brooklyn." She caressed his cheek. "I have had my fill of trials. I am looking forward to singing and dancing for the sheer joy of it again."
He was saddened by Pandora's decision, but managed a smile anyway. "Going to go play with the centaurs?"
"That is possible." She grinned at the thought. "Perhaps even likely."
"I don't like leaving you alone. We might find a place for you to settle. A Clan somewhere..."
"I am of your blood; a part of you will be with me always. How could I think myself alone? I am satisfied in knowing that we have both survived, and will continue to do so." Her eyes grew misty. "Brooklyn, I cannot say how badly I feel about what I had to make you do--"
"Then don't, Pandora. I told you: we all have our own roads to walk." He pulled her close and kissed her thoroughly. Her body flowed up against his and she returned the kiss with earnest.
She looked deep into his eyes, when they drew apart slightly. "You spoke of the others who have given you solace during your long journey. One of them was mate to you, yes?"
"Yes," he said at once, glad to have it out in the open. "I had to leave her in the distant future or the dance would have killed her, and our children."
"You were to be parents?"
"Yep." He managed a shaky exhalation. Pandora dug into her satchel and took out the box. She opened it and removed the gem Spera.
"You have said that I am of your blood. Prometheus has called me his child. I am very pleased to find that I again have a family."
"Two families, really, I guess," Brooklyn said.
"Take this, please, so that hope will always travel with you on your journey." She put the small jewel in Brooklyn's hand. "With fortune, one day you will present it to your lucky mate." The Phoenix Gate opened at that time and Pandora had to jump back to avoid being whisked along.
She frowned. There had been something most peculiar about Dr. Payne’s appearance... After a few seconds of contemplation, she turned and was not surprised to see she had company. The surprise was to see that Prometheus was not alone.
Pandora immediately knelt and bowed, sweeping her wing in front of her like a cloak. "My Lady."
"You need not grovel before me, child. Your accomplishments merit more courtesy than that."
"Thank you, milady, but your dark handmaiden spoke truly. As I said before, I was at fault. It was my mistake to atone for, my burden to bear."
"And you did fulfill your vows. You have done well, Pandora." Titania glanced at the talisman in her hand.
"Well, indeed, my child," agreed Prometheus as he held out her staff to the changeling.
Pandora frowned slightly. "I was hoping I would not need to carry that again, milord."
He pulled his hand back a bit, looked at the weapon in it. "It was made for you, Pandora. You need not reclaim it if that is truly your desire, but no one knows exactly what the future holds."
She nodded after a moment and slowly reached to take it back. "Let this be a poor substitute for the boon you asked of me that I could not grant."
"That was not for me, that was for he that I love. I think I have been more than suitably rewarded. I remember the dream." Pandora took back her weapon. "Thank you."
Prometheus glanced at Titania before speaking again. "The Timedancer has tasks and trials yet to see to, Pandora, but I will tell you the same thing I said to him the first time he spoke with me. He will in time return to his home safely."
Pandora's smile made her face radiate. "Oh, that is the most welcomed of news, milord. Thank you."
"You have served with strength and honor, Pandora. Now you are free to choose your own path with the whole world at your feet. Have you any thoughts about where you would like to go?"
Pandora looked from Titania to Prometheus. "I began as a human, but was reborn as a gargoyle. How will I end?"
"You were flesh and blood and bone. Now you are fire and stone and magic. Which do you prefer?"
She looked at her her claws and tail, her wings. "Being a female of the night skies is a much freer way than being a woman bound to the day's earth. I would remain as I am."
Prometheus nodded. "You must remember, sweet child, that the taper that burns twice as hot cannot help to burn twice as quickly." Pandora was comforted by the sadness on Prometheus' face when he made that admission.
"If that is so, then I must find one of the Clans of gargoyles that Brooklyn spoke of before it is too late."
Prometheus turned partially away and pointed. "If you follow the setting sun you will travel towards one of the great oceans. If you keep your head about you as you journey, you may find things that will surprise you."
Pandora looked at Titania, who nodded encouragingly. Pandora bowed to her again, and made her way off.
After she had smoothly glided away over the treetops, Prometheus mused aloud: "I wonder how long it will be before she notes the silver is gone from her hair?"
The fay queen's only response was a small smile and mischievous look in her eyes that would have done any of the tricksters proud.
A few hours later Pandora, settled herself in a stand of trees, still facing towards the Atlantic. The light of the coming day froze a hopeful smile on her face.
The Gargoyle Race would be out there.