Dark Beauty Part Two: The Institute

by Christine Morgan


Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and are
used here without their creators' knowledge or consent. Inspired by various
works of King, Koontz, and Saul.

(Brooklyn, voice over) -- "Previously, on Gargoyles ..."         "You mean that this ... this clone wants to kill me and take my place?" Angela was aghast. "Why? She can't think she'd get away with it!"         "She thinks she is you," Brooklyn said. "But she's crazy. Full- blown psycho nuts. Worse than Demona. Maybe even worse than Jericho." -- From Dark Beauty Part One: Pursuit         The enclave in Virginia where the super children were kept, until their array of talents could be fully documented and the men behind it all could decide how best to use them. -- From Playing God
Manhattan August, 2000         A solemn silence fell once Gabriel finished telling them why he'd left Avalon.         Angela and Elektra weren't the only ones in tears at the news of the deaths of three of their rookery sisters, and Goliath's face was very grim as he no doubt remembered his confrontation with the Archmage that was supposed to have been the end of that old enemy.         "I believe he was sent to me," Ebon said, "because I knew something of what he was going through, and had been coming to terms with my own grief."         Brooklyn exhaled softly. He was lucky, so lucky. His mate was alive, in danger but alive. He could only imagine how Gabriel must feel, and to feel it in triplicate must have been unbearable.         The suite was very crowded. Goliath and Elisa shared one couch with Amber between them, the hatchling gnawing contentedly on a piece of beef jerky. Owen, T.J., and Birdie stood behind them. On the other couch, Gabriel sat flanked by Angela and Elektra. Brooklyn and Broadway leaned on the arms of that couch, near their respective mates. Aiden and Lex were on the floor beside Hudson's chair, and Bronx was at the old gargoyle's feet. Ebon had the chair opposite Hudson's.         "I probably wouldn't have survived without Ebon's help," Gabriel admitted. "I thought leaving Avalon would help, because I wouldn't be constantly faced with my clan and my memories. But I couldn't stop thinking about it. I should have done more. I should have stopped the Archmage, the Weird Sisters. I should have saved my mates. It got so that every dawn, I was tempted to overbalance, lean forward as the sun came up, so that I'd fall and smash apart and never have to think about it again."         Goliath, Ebon, and Hudson were all nodding in sympathy and understanding. Each of them had undergone the anguish of losing a mate.         "But Ebon showed me how to get past that. Not to forget it. I wouldn't want to forget it, or my mates. Just to get past it, and to accept that it was all right for me to have lived even though they didn't. That it would be better to live my life than to give up. It wasn't easy."         "It took the help of some friends of mine," Ebon said. "They are a clan unto themselves, who gather at a bar well off the beaten track. They steered me away from my obsession with revenge against Demona --"         "You mean you've forgiven Demona?" Aiden blurted in surprise.         "Oh, no." Ebon's voice darkened. "It will be long years before I can do that. But I've come to see that I cannot hurt her as she hurt me. I've channeled my efforts into other methods, to do what I can to make sure that she lacks the resources to reach her goal."         Awareness flickered in Owen's eyes. "The ongoing financial troubles of Nightstone Unlimited. Your doing?"         "And the various design flaws that have hampered their products," Ebon said. "Demona has done her best to cover it up. I doubt even her stockholders know that the company is deeply in debt and trembling on the edge of bankruptcy. She has tried many clever things, such as transferring ownership to Sevarius, but eventually, the bills will come due."         "To Sevarius?" Goliath rumbled, hoisting a brow ridge. "How is that possible?"         Ebon looked puzzled, then it cleared. "Ah, that's right. You've never had the pleasure of meeting Herr Doktor."         "We've met Sevarius. Plenty of times," Lex said, making a sour face.         "Anton Sevarius, yes," Ebon said. "But not his elder brother, the esteemed neuroscientist Gustav Sevarius. What Anton is to the body, Gustav is to the mind."         Amid the uproar and profanity that accompanied the clan's digestion of this news, Lex perked up. "I bet this Gustav Sevarius is involved with the Institute for the Human Mind."         "You know about that?" Ebon asked.         "A little," Lex said. "We know you sent Ventura there."         "At Anton's suggestion. Both of us knew that we couldn't risk keeping her at Anton's personal facility --"         "GENERAL," Owen supplied. "GENetic Engineering Research And Laboratories."         "Now destroyed," Goliath added in a growl, putting an arm around Elisa, both of them visibly recalling the fateful night that she'd nearly lost her life trying to save her newborn niece and nephew.         "The Institute was privately founded by Gustav Sevarius back in the 1950's," Ebon continued, "when he came to America after the war. Because of his links to some of the less savory incidents in the camps, he knew that having his own name openly associated with it would be more of a hinderance than a help. He is only peripherally associated with the Institute nowadays, and not involved with any of the active projects."         "What does he do?" Broadway asked. "He messes with people's minds? Like mind control?"         "He has a wide range of interests," Ebon said. "Memory manipulation, mental domination, and yes, mind control. He and Demona have put many of his innovations to use recently."         "Nightstone Unlimited," Owen observed. "Which has the lowest rate of employee turnover, the highest reported job satisfaction, and the least amount of grievances in the industry."         "They're using Sevarius' compounds on the staff," Ebon said. "Without their consent, I'm sure. And it's given Demona a loyal, productive work force, people who get their jobs done without complaining."         "What's been done to them?" Aiden asked, wide-eyed.         "Contentment."         "Excuse me?" She blinked at Ebon.         "One of Sevarius' pet theories is that humans spend half of their waking mental lives in a state of unhappiness about things they cannot attain, and the other half running in place to make ends meet. By removing that unhappiness, it releases the mind to focus on other things, such as their work. He envisions a world free of many of the problems that currently plague society."         Elisa whistled low. "That's creepy. Mind control for the masses. And you can bet that a lot of people would be quick to see the good in it. The crime rate would plummet, because most crimes come from discontent with something or another. People would still be poor, but they wouldn't care. Or care about whether or not they were treated equally. The elite would go for it."         "Sounds like the Illuminati to me," Broadway said. "A few people at the top get to decide what everyone else is suited for."         "A society of drones," Lex said. "Everybody doing just what they're supposed to, never wanting more because they're programmed not to."         "What about the artists, the dreamers?" Elektra asked. "If all are trained to be content with what they have, who will invent, who will create?"         "A select, exempt few," Ebon said. "Social reform on the widest possible scale. Complete control."         A shudder passed like a contagious chill throughout the room, everyone having their own black visions of Gustav Sevarius' new world order.         "Kinda makes a few clones and mutates sound paltry by comparison, doesn't it?" Broadway mumbled.         Ebon grinned, utterly without humor. "If you really want a scare, imagine what the Brothers Sevarius could accomplish together."         "Whoa," Lex moaned, holding his head. "Do I have to? Nothing but people not only programmed to fit their jobs, but genetically engineered to it too!"         "Ebon's told me more about this world than I ever wanted to know," Gabriel said with a wry half-smile. "Oberon may be an arrogant goat's penis --"         "Gabriel!" Elektra gasped.         Owen choked. T.J. went off into a braying fit of laughter.         "-- but at least he's direct," Gabriel finished. "If he means to have control of someone, he'll tell them so and then zap them with magic."         "I like this guy," Brooklyn said to Broadway.         "How does Ventura fit into all of this?" Angela asked, scowling.         "They did something to her," Lex explained, quickly filling everyone in on what he and T.J. had learned from the captive electronic mind of Anton Sevarius.         Ebon nodded as Lex finished, an odd expression in his eyes. "Yes, I remembered that." When he saw them all looking at him curiously, he elaborated. "Regaining my memory didn't happen all at once. The knowledge was there, but I had no conscious recollection of events until something brought them to my attention."         "Wait," Elisa said. "I'm not getting you, Ebon. What are you saying? That you'd know things, but not know them?"         "Not consciously. Not until I thought about them. Then all of the information would come to me. As if my own memory was a long hall of locked rooms. I wasn't even aware of what I didn't remember until I remembered it."         "So, like ..." Broadway thought ponderously. "Like if someone asked you what your favorite food was, all of a sudden you'd know?"         "Exactly. My memories of Ventura only returned when Gabriel asked me about her."         "But how did you know?" Angela turned to her rookery brother.         "I was asking him about you, and your clan, and his past. Once he started telling me about Demona and the clones, I wondered why they hadn't made one of you."         "Whereupon I remembered that we had," Ebon said. "Until that moment, I hadn't given any thought to Ventura."         "Tell me what happened," Angela said, making it not a request. "Tell me everything."         He sighed and rose from his chair. As his shadow fell across Amber, she left off chewing on the strip of jerky to watch him suspiciously. When the baby had first seen him, her eyes had darted back and forth between Ebon and Goliath almost frantically, and when she'd heard Ebon speak, she had hissed and bared her little nubs of fangs at him.         "What Lex said is true. Thailog ordered Sevarius to put Ventura into a cataleptic trance, and told Demona that she had died. Why?" He shrugged fitfully, troubled. "Thailog was completely selfish. No one else's needs or desires carried any weight except as possible means to turn them to his own end."         "The Xanatos influence," Elisa murmured to Goliath.         "He saw the vulnerability in Demona and was able to turn it to his own use. He wanted her to be dependent on him. To be in thrall to him, even. He let her think that their goals were the same, taking advantage of her loneliness. He did enjoy her company in a base sexual way --"         Brooklyn tried really hard not to cough, while Goliath looked uncomfortable and Aiden, predictably, blushed.         "-- but that, to him, was only a bonus compared to her real appeal. Which was her money, her daytime human alias for business purposes, and her use as a tool. So easy to fan the flames of her genocidal hatred. Use her as a living weapon. Let her do the dirty work. The only area in which she insisted on having her own way involved you, Angela."         "You said she knew even since Paris that she was my mother. How did she know?"         "Looking at you, it is rather obvious." He smiled at her, the smile of a fond uncle. "Once she had convinced herself, she didn't care where you had been or how you'd gotten to this time. Her daughter. Hers to mold in her image. But even then, she was already afraid that she had irrevocably lost you. She'd seen Goliath turn the rest of the clan against her --" he raised a hand as Goliath began to protest, "-- as she sees it, Goliath. As she sees it."         "And that's why she made Ventura?" Angela shook her head. "I still don't understand. She hadn't even really gotten to know me by the time you put that plan into motion. How did she know I wouldn't come around to seeing things her way?"         "Have any of you ever discovered something you never knew existed, but from that moment on knew you couldn't live without it?" Seeing a few nods, Ebon went on. "That was how it was for her. The thought of her daughter consumed her. She had to have a daughter, even if it wasn't the original. She held onto the hope that she could win you over, but in her heart, deep down where not even she dares look very often, she knew that your innocence and good heart would prevent it. She thought she might have better luck starting from scratch."         "Starting from scratch would have been to breed anew," Angela said bitterly. "Not ..." she trailed off and looked sheepishly at Ebon.         "'This thing is me,'" he said, glancing at Goliath. "'An abomination.' Wasn't that how it went?"         "I regret that," Goliath said, stroking Amber's folded wings to stop her from growling at Ebon.         Ebon shrugged it off as a matter of no consequence.         "So we know now why Demona made Ventura," Brooklyn said to change the subject. "Why'd you fake her death?"         "Because Thailog wanted Demona dependent on him," he repeated. "He was against her trying to recruit Angela, against her creating Ventura in the first place. She resisted him. He knew she would continue to resist and defy him when it came to her daughter. He would not tolerate that."         "Then why not kill her outright?" Lex asked.         "Thailog, like Xanatos, hated to waste any potential resources. He knew that in the future, he could use Ventura against Demona. Just the news that Ventura was still alive, especially after finding out once and for all that Angela would never be hers, would be enough to bring Demona running. And there was also the matter of scientific curiosity, and power. If gargoyles harbored and could be taught to use psionic abilities, that might give him and his army of clones a much-needed edge against the rest of you. Ventura was the perfect test subject."         "I'm really glad you're not him anymore," Broadway said, wrinkling his nose.         "So you had her sent to this ... Institute." Angela folded Gabriel's hand into both of hers. "I still don't see how she got out, or what Gabriel has to do with it."         Her rookery brother looked down, unwilling to meet her gaze. "I did it because of you, Angela. I missed you. When Ebon told me about Ventura --"         Her hands clenched down, claws poking his skin. "You weren't thinking about ... about ..."         "Yellow alert," Birdie stage-whispered.         "I knew you'd made your choice," Gabriel said, looking at her now with a stark misery. "That's why I chose my other mates. I would have waited for you, but even before Broadway and Elektra came to Avalon and told us that you and Brooklyn were together, I knew you weren't coming back. I loved you, but you'd left Avalon, left me, so I knew that I had to accept it and let go. If the fault was anyone's, it was mine for never letting you know how serious my feelings were."         His touching speech fell on deaf ears. Angela shot off of the couch as if she'd been burned. "You, too! You and my mother, both out to replace me with that ... that phony! If you can't have the real one --"         "Angela, babe, go easy on him," Brooklyn tried, but shut up when her glare nearly seared the skin from his beak.         "She's not me!" Angela shrieked. "That my mother would want to believe it, I can see that because she's been alone for so long and badly treated by the whole clan! But you, Gabriel! My own brother! Why not just have Xanatos' people build you a robotic sex-toy?"         "It wasn't like that!" Gabriel roared, going from beaten and downcast to enraged in a split second. He was on his feet, nose to nose with Angela. "Don't you think I felt alone? Don't you think I felt badly treated? I'd seen my mates die, their unborn eggs with them! I'd had half my clan ready to rebel against me! Oberon acted like I was a hatchling who was crying over a broken toy. And I never thought she was another you. I hoped she might be something like you, yes. I saw Ebon, who I only knew as good and decent and honorable, like Goliath. Was it so strange to think, to hope, that Ventura might have some things in common with you?"         "So you thought you'd go on your own little heroic journey!" Her voice dripped acid. "Rescue the sleeping beauty from the dungeon of evil wizards, and she would fall lovingly into your arms. And you could live happily ever after, all the while pretending she was me! It's disgusting, Gabriel! Disgusting, and unfair to me!"         "Hey, it'd be unfair to Ventura, too," Birdie pointed out. "How do you think she'd feel, always knowing she was a replacement for --"         "You keep out of this!" Angela shouted, her eyes flaring crimson.         Birdie planted her fists on her hips and tossed her head in that sassy way that they all had come to know and dread. But before she could open her mouth, Goliath stood and unfurled his wings with a leathery snap         "Enough!" Goliath commanded. "We'll solve nothing by arguing! Let Gabriel finish."         Brooklyn gently took Angela by the upper arms and drew her backward against his body. "Come on, let's sit down."         She grudgingly complied, sitting well away from Gabriel.         The one-time leader of Avalon's clan closed his eyes and sighed shakily, probably more hurt by the raw bite of Angela's anger than the wounds inflicted by Ventura.         "It also seemed wrong to me," he said, staring at the floor, "that any gargoyle should be held against their will. Wherever she came from, she was still as much a gargoyle as any of us, at least on the level of blood and bone. She deserved the same chance at freedom that the rest of us have. The chance to overcome her programming and live her own life."         "Also," Ebon put in, "once I remembered Ventura, I realized how dangerous it was to have her in the hands of the humans. I didn't know, and had no way of finding out, what sorts of experiments she might have been subjected to. But I knew the results could be devastating. For the safety of us all, we had to retrieve her and put an end to their project."         The rest of them saw the sense in that, but Brooklyn could tell by the quivering tension in Angela that she wasn't mollified. He tried to tell himself that she was just stressed out. And why not? The past two nights had been hell for her. But it was more than that. This whole thing with Ventura had hit a deep nerve. It put her insecurities and jealousies about Amber in the shade, that was for sure.         "And do it before Gustav Sevarius and Demona found out," Broadway said. "Even if he wasn't still involved with the Institute, sooner or later he'd be bound to hear about a gargoyle project."         "But wouldn't breaking her out be just the sort of thing to bring it to their attention?" Lex asked.         "A risk we had to take. I'd much rather have Demona furious at me," Ebon said. "It wouldn't be the first time. Letting her get Ventura into her clutches and complete her programming --"         "Yeah, speaking of which," Lex said, "no offense, but what the hell were you thinking to let her program in all that warrior stuff? And not the obedience code?"         Ebon rubbed fitfully at his brow ridges. "Anyone who has worked with Anton Sevarius can avow that the man is a backstabbing deceitful snake. He assured Thailog that he would run only a basic program, and then went behind his back to cooperate with Demona's wishes. By the time Thailog found out, all he could do was issue a threat that he hoped would be severe enough to convince the good doctor what side his bread was buttered on."         "After the amusement park," Goliath said, "when we all believed you to be dead, why didn't Sevarius tell Demona or his brother then?"         "Maybe he was interested in seeing just what the Institute would turn up. For that matter, for all I know, Gustav Sevarius does know and keeps his silence for his own reasons. Maybe, like Thailog, he understands that holding something back to use against Demona is a wise idea."         "I still do not understand what you mean by this Institute," Elektra said. "Just what did they do to her there? What manner of place is it?"         "One of the purest evils on the skin of the earth." Gabriel shuddered, his eyes haunted. Elektra put her arms around him and shot a brief, appealing- and-reproachful glance at Angela. Angela huffed and looked away.         "Maybe you should tell us about it," Elisa prompted Ebon.         "No," Gabriel said heavily. "I can do it. We flew to Virginia in a small plane, piloted by a very peculiar woman ..."                 *               * Flashback ...         Gabriel settled himself uneasily into the seat and goggled at the array of dials and controls. All this to fly? A wave of mixed pity, admiration, and fear went through him for the humans who would do so much to reach the sky.         "Never flown before?" the pilot asked.         "Only with these." He shifted his wings, trying to find a less awkward position in the cramped cockpit.         "So I see," she purred, and reached across to run her finger down the outer edge. He jumped and stared at her. She grinned. "Don't worry. You're in good hands."         He managed a weak smile. "I hope so."         "It actually does leave the ground," Ebon assured him as he climbed into the small compartment behind them. "Hard as that may be to believe."         "It's not the leaving of the ground that worries me," Gabriel said. "It's the getting back down in one piece."         "Well," said the pilot, "if anything goes wrong, you can bail out. Strap in, boys, we're ready to roll."         She began throwing switches and fiddling with instruments, and Gabriel didn't dare interrupt. He used the opportunity to surreptitiously study the pilot. Aside from Ebon's bar friends, he hadn't met any humans since leaving Avalon, though he had watched them on television.         This human in particular was a tall and finely formed female, with dark hair and a generous mouth. She wore blue jeans and a bright red T-shirt with the image of a dragon on the front over the words "Sky Dragons," and lettering on the back that read "The Wcky One."         He left off his inspection as the plane came to life with a mechanical snarl. He held tight to the armrests, not at all liking the loosey-goosey feeling of being out of control. They hurtled down the runway and struggled into the air, and he just knew they weren't going to make it, the clumsy metal thing was going to plow nose-first into the dirt and then roll in a fireball.         They rose steadily, smoothing out, and the land fell away beneath them in a black and grey quilt studded with twinkling lights.         "See? Easy as pie." She winked at Gabriel. "Want me to loop the loop?"         "No, thank you." He noticed a photo of a grinning sandy-haired human male taped amid the clutter of instruments and pointed to it. "Husband?"         "Someone's," she agreed with another wink, this one considerably ribald.         "Uh," he said.         In the back, Ebon chuckled. "Thank you for being able to take us on such short notice."         "Anytime," she said.         "It doesn't bother you that we're gargoyles?" Gabriel asked bluntly.         She shrugged. "Why should it? Paying customers are paying customers. Besides, it's not like you're the first ones I've ever seen." That generous mouth curved in a sly smile. "I've gotten to know a gargoyle or two."         Something in the way she said it made Gabriel's tail twitch and the skin between his wings tingle faintly. He stole another look at her, speculatively, and for the first time he could almost see why Ebon and Goliath had developed interests in human females.         They flew on, far faster than he could sustain a glide. Incredible to think of the distance they'd be covering in a single night! No wonder the humans had spread across the globe, and weren't linked to any one particular place. He'd grown up on stories of the long and arduous journey Princess Katherine had made with her burden of eggs; a human in a car could make the same trip in a fraction of the time. Travel was fast, comfortable, and apparently safe.         Yet all of these wonderful advances the humans had made carried their dark side, too. The same technology that could be used to convey passengers to far lands could also be used to deliver deadly weapons on unseen foes from a cowardly distance. The same technology that could mend wounds could also steal the wonder of creation.         He glanced back at Ebon, who had balanced a laptop computer on his knees and was going over their data about the Institute. He still felt an odd chill when he thought of how Ebon had come to be. Not hatched from an egg but grown in a tube. Programmed with sinister purpose.         But in the end, gargoyle instinct had won out. Gabriel clung to that, sure that when they found Ventura, her innate gargoyle self would overcome the whispers that had been embedded in her still-forming mind.         There were so few of them left! It had come as a nasty shock to him to learn that his clan was the largest one left in all the world. Angela had told him of the gargoyles in Japan, who totalled around two dozen, but the other clans averaged less than half that size. That made the loss of Opal, Onyx and Citrine an even greater blow. Three breeding females ... something the gargoyle population could ill afford to lose.         And then there were those who had lost sight of the gargoyle way. Ebon had told him about Demona and her stolen clan of clones, and about Jericho.         His rookery brother. His former second-in-command. Now an enemy of everything gargoyles were supposed to stand for. A murderer. Hateful and corrupt. Had those seeds been in him even back on Avalon, and just made to grow by the presence of Demona? Was Jericho's evil genetic?         Gabriel couldn't accept that. Demona's had grown over the course of a millennium. Its roots hadn't been formed at the time that she would have laid her eggs. There was no evil in Angela, not a smidgen, and she too was Demona's child.         At heart, all gargoyles were meant to be good. Some simply got turned away from that. Some, like Ebon, reclaimed what they were meant to be. Others, like Demona and Jericho, embraced the evil.         Ventura would be different. She just needed help, guidance. To be saved from the humans that toyed with her mind. To be shown what it was to be a gargoyle. He would find her, this secret sister of his, and rescue her. Bring her back into a clan, where she belonged.         Ebon, he knew, had doubts and hesitations. Mostly because he had yet to come to terms with the fact that biologically, Ventura would be as much his daughter as Angela was Goliath's.         Perhaps, too, it had something to do with his concern over leading a clan. Gabriel had stepped down from that status upon leaving Avalon, and had deferred to Ebon because this was Ebon's world, Ebon had the knowledge and experience to teach and guide him.         Right now, they were mentor and student, but the addition of Ventura would change that. They would be almost a proper clan. And Ebon still carried the deep hurts of what had happened to his clan of human minstrels, Clan Scarlet Angel. He would be none too eager to assume the responsibility and authority a leader had to bear.         From there, he let his thoughts wander into more pleasant and hopeful areas. That someday, if all went well, there might even be more members of their clan. It wasn't unreasonable to hope that a new generation might eventually be born.         He'd missed his chance with Angela. Lost his chance with his triplet- mates. But now, just maybe, he was being given another chance.                 *               * Flashback ...         Overlooking the cold, slate-grey Atlantic was the Institute for the Human Mind. Originally built as a colonial mansion, it had been converted to an insane asylum sometime in the late 1800s. It had been that phase in its development that had given it the high walls enclosing the carefully-tended yard, walls that obscured the view of the sea from all but the third-floor windows and the cupola.         Ebon had given Gabriel a quick overview of the building's history, including some details of the manners of horrifying treatments that used to be inflicted on the deranged. It didn't sound all that different from the tortures of the Inquisition, except in this case done in the name of mental health rather than religious fanaticism.         The asylum had been closed in the 1930's and stood vacant for two decades. Then, refurbished and remodeled, it began its new life as the Institute. Counseling and hypnotherapy, research into paranormal activity, and even a small center dedicated to helping autistic children.         Or so they claimed. The reality, Gabriel knew, was far less benign.         "What about security?" he asked Ebon as they perched on a rocky spur to the northeast of the estate. "Cameras, electrified fences, dogs, electronic locks?" He felt at once excited and foolish. This was like something straight out of one of those spy movies -- unknown to him, he and Jericho had followed a remarkably similar cultural-indoctrination program, one that Hudson and Broadway could well relate to.         Ebon shook his head and promptly disillusioned him. "That sort of thing would draw too much attention, more attention than they can afford. As long as the true nature of their work here is kept secret, they can't justify such excessive methods of security."         "Oh," Gabriel said, at once disappointed and relieved.         From the outside, it was a very respectable-looking building. Two wings stretched from the center section, giving it the shape of a wide 'V' with the back yard enclosed by the high wall. It had white trim and climbing ivy, a tastefully discreet brass plaque identifying it as the Institute for the Human Mind, est. 1952. Where there might once have been stables and carriage houses, there was now a parking lot.         They'd spent the day at the end of a deserted road not far from the Institute, shielded from view by a thick stand of brush. Then, in the cool dusk upon awakening, they'd approached for a better look.         A half-dozen young humans were in the backyard, playing under the supervision of a matronly-looking woman. But Gabriel noticed the other two adults waiting by the porch.         "Armed guards," he whispered to Ebon, "or I'm a fool."         "You're no fool. Though I imagine that they're called attendants, interns, or something similar."         "And those children ... I looked up 'autistic' in your dictionary, and it doesn't suit them. They seem like normal children to me."         "If they were, they wouldn't be here," Ebon said. "They're being studied."         "For what? Strange mental powers?"         Ebon nodded soberly. "That is, after all, the true purpose of this place."         Another adult human came out and called the rest in for dinner. Gabriel and Ebon stayed in place and watched as they all filed inside. Lights gleamed in many of the windows, but most were curtained. And some, Gabriel thought, weren't windows at all but only made to look like them.         "Where would she be?"         Ebon pointed. "The central section holds the kitchen, dining room, library, and so on. The west wing is where the offices, counseling rooms, and labs are. I'd guess the east wing, which is probably also where they house the children. They'd discourage their other clients from snooping in that area."         They waited as the hours slipped by. Some lights were doused, others came on. Some people departed, staff whose shift was done. Others arrived, some staff, some obviously clients. Ebon told him there were sleep studies and dream research going on in the west wing. A night watchman also appeared on the scene. Just one, for anything more might have led to the assumption that the Institute had something to hide.         "There's our way in." Gabriel indicated a trapdoor that gave onto the roof, set in the west wing.         "But carefully," Ebon cautioned. "The third floors are supposedly closed off, used for archives and storage."         "Supposedly."         "Yes."         When the night was at dead ebb, the tide of life slowest, the two gargoyles launched themselves from their perch and spiralled toward the Institute. They landed as gently as possible and Ebon curled his fist around the metal ring set in the trapdoor.         "Locked," he announced after a tug.         "We could break it." Gabriel reached as well, ready to add his strength to the cause.         Ebon placed a hand over his. "Too noisy. I have a better idea."         They crept to the edge of the roof, the shingles creaking faintly beneath their weight. Gabriel dislodged one and froze as it slid to the edge and fell off. It landed on the grass with no more sound than a falling feather.         Ebon swung down and braced his feet on a ledge, pressing his ear to the shutter over one of the attic windows. When all was quiet, he levered the shutters open and raised the pane. Mouse-colored curtains blew out in a flurry of dust, making them both battle against sneezes.         They slipped through, their keen vision affording them a good view of their surroundings. It was a typical attic in most respects, used for storage of old furniture draped in dropcloths. Except that this attic obviously hearkened back to the days of the asylum. Here were six wooden lids with notches at one end, suitable for holding patients into tubs of icy water. There were wheeled chairs with wrist and ankle clamps. And there, a crate overflowing with rat- chewed canvas straitjackets.         "Man's inhumanity to man," Ebon murmured, catching Gabriel's appalled expression.         Further in the depths of the shadows, even older furnishings stood silent shrouded sentinel. Two hundred years of history, forgotten and gathering cobwebs.         Gabriel nudged Ebon and pointed up, at the underside of the trap door. Locked, yes, with a thick padlock that would have challenged the grip of the strongest gargoyle. A folding ladder leaned against a post nearby. Very old tracks led from there to a door.         It was held only with a simple spring lock, that Ebon forced without even trying. A narrow flight of stairs led down to the third floor.         "This'll prove a squeeze," Gabriel said. Tucking his wings close, he proceeded down as quietly as the circumstances allowed.         He needn't have bothered. Even before he reached the bottom, his steps were drowned out by a strange yip-meow-splash-ooo-ooo-aah-aah-squeak noise.         Exchanging a perplexed look with Ebon, who was as close behind him as possible without treading on his tail, Gabriel opened the next door. He found himself looking down a hallway, the decor of which did not in the least match the outward appearance of the building. This was function over style, stark white walls and florescent fixtures and ghastly linoleum -- who in their right mind would purposefully choose that shade of salmon-flecked-with- green? He thought of the graceful architecture of Avalon and could have thrown up.         To his right was a door whose frosted glass inset had the words "Animal Lab" painted on it, and that was the source of the noise. Yet another door was to his left, this one with a brass plaque announcing it to be the office of a Doctor Little.         "Archives and storage, indeed," Ebon muttered.         "Why animals?" Gabriel asked. "Surely they don't expect to uncover psychic powers in animals!"         Ebon pushed the door open. Cage after cage of dogs, cats, white rats, and chimpanzees filled the long room. There was even a large tank where sleek dolphins swam, popping their heads up to squeal and chitter at the gargoyles.         "On the contrary, many people report that their house pets demonstrate sensitivity to paranormal phenomena," Ebon explained. "Or seem able to sense disasters, like earthquakes. As for the chimps, they are the closest genetic relations humans have, so they make excellent test subjects. And dolphins are believed to be among the most intelligent of nature's creatures."         Gabriel frowned. Hunting animals was one thing. Even domesticating them. But keeping them in zoos for the amusement of human gawkers, or locking them up like this for nefarious purpose ... it removed any last doubts he might have had about how humans at large would view his kind. Zoos or labs, that would be their fate if gargoyles became widely known to exist.         They continued on, leaving the west wing and moving into the central section of the Institute. Here, they found a small but well-equipped medical setup, leaning heavily toward the monitoring of the brain. Ebon identified ECG machines, an MRI scanner, and even a computerized surgical robot for performing delicate operations within the very cerebral tissue itself.         East wing. Only every third florescent was aglow, and soft lights shone through some of the wired-glass windows set into each door.         "Close now, probably," Ebon whispered.         They moved more stealthily than ever. The possibility of his first real battle since the Archmage's assault on Avalon sent adrenaline speeding warmly in Gabriel's blood.         He peered through each lit window. The first was an office, where a man in a white coat was talking into a small tape recorder. A metal band covered with intricate circuitry rested like a headpiece across his forehead, held in place by a soft band that circled the back of his head.         Next was a lounge of some sort. A man was stretched out on the couch reading a novel, and a woman was hunched over a computer keyboard. They also wore the headpieces.         Gabriel looked at Ebon and tapped his own brow in an inquisitive gesture. Ebon shrugged, but it was clear that he liked it no better than did Gabriel himself.         They passed more offices, these unlit, and then the hall widened into a space reminiscent of a waiting room, with a half-wall separating a nurse's desk from the open area. Except that there were none of the usual waiting-room trappings. No chairs, no fishtanks for soothing atmosphere, no fans of outdated magazines and medical journals. Just a bench with a peeling vinyl seat, two vending machines, a drinking fountain, and a half-open door to a restroom.         The nurse's office was unoccupied, but the presence of an open book and a steaming half-cup of coffee indicated that it hadn't been for long, and in all likelihood wouldn't remain so. A door, this one with a push-bar and a buzzer, blocked their way down the rest of the hall. Gabriel understood that the usual protocol would call for the nurse to buzz visitors through, and he felt it very unlikely that he and Ebon would be allowed to do so.         He jerked his head at the half-wall, and Ebon nodded in agreement. Gabriel vaulted over, his feet thumping onto the plastic mat that protected the dull green carpet from the rollers on the chair. He heard voices in a back room and motioned for Ebon to wait.         Two voices, both male, one commiserating while the other griped about the cost of replacing his transmission.         Gabriel motioned, and Ebon joined him. From the office, it was an easy matter to access the hall again.  Ahead of them, the wall was made of thick glass, giving them a view of the room on the other side. Dismayed shock trickled through Gabriel's stunned mind.         It was a long room, divided like a hospital ward. But instead of beds, there were large steel cribs lined up in ranks, most surrounded by monitors and I.V. tubes and other equipment.         Each held a child. Some were infants, but others looked to be approaching adolescence, their gangly bodies curled into fetal positions in the close confines of their cribs. One and all, they were thin and pale. Electrodes were taped to their heads and chests. Some had their heads held in clamps like stocks, with wires apparently piercing flesh and bone. They were hooked up to I.V.'s, feeding tubes, catheters. All were naked except for diaper-like wrappings.         He had never seen anything half so terrible in his entire life. The children, the human children, alone in the dark. Caged. In pain.         Gabriel backed away from the door, shaking his head in mute denial. Ebon tried to intercept him, but he backed all the way across the hall and bumped into another door, then froze at the soft rattle the handle made as his wings struck it.         "So I told him -- did you hear something?"         Ebon pushed past Gabriel and tried the door into which the younger male had bumped. It opened easily and he hustled them both into the darkness beyond, easing it shut behind them. This one only had a small pane of wired glass, so when they pressed themselves flush to the wall on either side of the door, they knew they would be invisible unless the humans actually came in.         Gabriel's breath caught in his throat as he realized they weren't alone. A hospital bed with high rails on both sides stood in the center of the floor. A child was asleep in it, and even from here Gabriel could see that the shape of the child was wrong. Not normal. The head was overlarge, sunken into the pillow as if it was of great weight. Overlarge and hairless, bulging veins tracing a map on pallid skin. But the body was small, a tiny shriveled shape beneath the blankets.         The fear that he'd been grimly trying to suppress now welled up in him, turning his skin clammy and bringing a desert dryness to his mouth.         It was one thing for Ebon to tell him that he suspected the Institute was involved in unethical experiments, quite another to be down here faced with the undiluted horror of it.         How could they do it? On their own children! Their own precious children!         Could it be that humans had so many that a few more or less didn't matter? Were their offspring a commodity to be used as they saw fit instead of treasured?         Or was he jumping to the wrong conclusion? Maybe the work here was aimed at _helping_ the children. Maybe the unfortunate inhabitant of that bed had been the victim of some terrible accident, and was here seeking health and restoration.         A shadow passed by the window, a human taking a lackadaisical look around before returning to his partner and his tale of automotive woe.         Gabriel moved to the edge of the bed and looked down at the child. He couldn't even tell if it was male or female, or what age it might be. Ebon, drawn despite himself, joined him at the bedside.         Born deformed? he wondered. Born deformed, and brought here so that the scientists could try to find a cure? Or brought here normal, and then ... and then subjected to some soulless, changing invasion?         He touched the small, wasted hand that lay atop the blankets.         The child's eyes flew open. They were dark blue and slightly protrubant, and filled with such misery that Gabriel nearly cried out.         Their eyes met and held. Gabriel felt a swirling, drowning sensation. A vast silent scream echoed down the chambers of his mind, carrying with it a short lifetime of memories that encompassed nothing but isolation and suffering.         Left alone, wrapped in a newspaper. Not knowing why. Only understanding pain and cold and hunger. Crying for the mother to come back. Reaching out for her with tiny infant arms as well as a sudden surge of power. Contacting her fleeing thoughts and reading the shame and fear and loathing that had led her to abandon her freakish child. Unwanted. Unloved. Reaching out again, this time in a mental plea for someone, anyone. Come. Please come and make it stop. Make it better. Make it warm again. And no one coming, no one coming. Then, in the moment before all thought ceased, reprieve. Hands lifting a small body. The warmth of a wrapping, of a bottle. Hopes of love and security. All dashed. Examinations, tests, demands.         Ebon seized his arm and pulled, breaking his contact with the child. Gabriel clapped his hand over his eyes, cutting off their locked gazes. Uncontrollable shudders wracked him from horns to tail. He felt a pushing at his mind, begging for help, yearning for freedom. To walk, to play, to see the sky ... to live!         It was unbearable. He shoved past Ebon and ran to the door, tore it open, not caring if he collided headlong with the humans. He had to get out. Had to get away.         Out here, he didn't hear/feel that awfulness anymore. He staggered several paces with his eyes shut and his palms pressed to the sides of his head, feeling like an intruder in his own being.         When he regained some sense of himself, he cringed at his own cowardice and dereliction of duty. Gargoyles protect, and in there was a child in the most dire need. How could he run?         He looked around, his sight finally clear, and saw Ebon standing somberly beside him. At Ebon's feet were two human males. Soft, pudgy human males who smelled of pastries and coffee. They were unconscious.         Gabriel clutched at his head. Blinded by that imploring assault, he hadn't even noticed the humans. Somehow, Ebon had dealt with them, dispatched them with ease while he was still reeling and adrift. They must not have even had time to sound an alarm, for no other approaching steps or voices heralded reinforcements.         "By the powers," he said shakily.         "Are you all right?"         "I am now. I think," Gabriel said. "What ... what was that?"         "You didn't believe before." Ebon clasped his forearm firmly. "Now do you see? Do you see what they're doing in this place?"         He shuddered. No medieval dungeon, no torture chamber, could be a place of such vile cruelty. They'd taken an infant, a tiny helpless infant already mistreated and cursed with freakish abilities, and turned that young life into a living hell.         "She's not up here," Ebon said. "We'll need to backtrack to the stairs and check the second floor."         Gabriel took a deep breath and exhaled it tremulously. "All right. I'm ready." He glanced at the metal headpieces that these humans, like the others he'd seen, wore clamped across their brows. "What are those?"         "I think they are mind shields. Wards, to protect them from what just happened to you."         "I don't suppose they would fit us," he said without much hope.         Ebon examined the devices, then thunked his knuckles against his own wide forehead. "They wouldn't, and even if they did, we don't know what it would do to us. They're probably calibrated for human brainwaves, not ours."         Returning to the end of the wing, looking for stairs, they saw that the white-coated human had stopped dictating and was now scribbling in a chart, while in the break room the man had fallen asleep with his book open on his chest, and the woman was still tapping industriously at the computer. They passed by unnoticed, and found the way down.         The second floor was quite different. Homey. A dark green rug with a subdued gold pattern of fleur-de-lis covered the floor, the walls were done in a rich cream-colored paper with a subtle green design, and rather than stark florescents, light was provided by brass and clouded-glass lamps. Only every third was lit, cloaking the hall in shadows that seemed almost warm.         A few yards to their left was a landing, at the top of another flight of stairs. These ones made a curving sweep of oak, leading down into the foyer of the central section of the house. From below, Gabriel could hear the murmur of voices. He counted three, all with a hard edge that immediately put him even more on alert. Those were the voices of warriors.         Ebon motioned, and they moved in the opposite direction. The first few rooms they investigated were nothing special, linen closets and storage and unused bedrooms. At the end of the hall was a spacious room that managed to look airy despite its lack of windows. The walls were covered with murals from fairy tales and nursery rhymes, the ceiling done in sky blue dotted with clouds and birds. There was a television, a rack of animated videotapes, a shelf of board games, child-sized furniture.         Another of the half-walled offices looked into this room. A television with the volume turned low babbled on, and a thin woman dozed in a chair in front of it. She had a worn, dour face pinched in a perpetual frown, even in sleep. Like the others, she wore one of the metal devices.         The setup was the same as before. A locked door and a buzzer.         Ebon communicated his intent with a series of gestures, and Gabriel nodded, although there seemed something unfair and not quite honorable about striking a woman just as she roused from a nap. He readied himself anyway, while Ebon leaned carefully over the counter and groped along until he found the button.         The door emitted a faint burr, not much of a buzz at all, and clicked open. The woman stirred once, but only to shift into a more comfortable position. Gabriel pushed the door open.         There was a window at the end of the short hall, and standing in front of the window looking out at the moon was the small form of a child. One of the six doors that lined the hall was open, the rest were all closed.         The child, a boy no older than four, turned and regarded them with an absolute lack of fear. He waved and smiled shyly, then retreated into his room.         Ebon and Gabriel glanced at each other, then pressed on, looking through the small panes set into the doors as they passed. They saw bedrooms like those any child might have, with posters on the walls, bookshelves, toyboxes. Regular beds, not the hospital ones.         Everything seemed perfectly ordinary.         Except for the little girl with the bubble of hazy light floating above her face ... and the boy who slept in restraints to prevent him from levitating out of his bed ... and a child unseen except for a tuft of yellow hair visible above the blankets in a room that featured six fire extinguishers and an equal number of smoke detectors ...         From the outer room came the distant bark of an irate male voice, followed by the groggy, contrite apologies of a woman.         Another glance passed between the two gargoyles, and they each took refuge in one of the bedrooms just as the door buzzed open.         Gabriel risked a peek through the glass and saw the thin-faced woman trying to explain why she'd fallen asleep at her post to two other humans.         Both wore dark blue jumpsuits with black trim, black belts, and an array of gadgets and weapons. And headpieces, larger than the ones he'd seen thus far. These covered them from eyebrows to the crowns of their skulls.         The man had the toughened, scarred look of the longtime soldier, his brown hair going grey. One of his hands was missing, replaced by a gleaming silver robotic one. The woman had the merciless cheekbones and ice-blue eyes of a Valkyrie, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail.         Gabriel slipped farther into the room, his talons quiet on soft dawn- pink carpeting. The little girl had a fondness for dolls. It was all he could to do move without knocking over whole crowds with his tail as he found a more concealed spot.         Routine rounds, he most sincerely hoped. He listened intently. They didn't sound unduly tense or alarmed.         "--still being well-behaved," the attendant was saying, more businesslike now. "M-29 is another story. He was a bad boy. I had to shock him twice, then medicate."         "He's too dangerous," the blond woman said. She had a faint German accent. "He should be destroyed."         "That's not for us to decide," the man with the mechanical hand said as he looked casually through each window.         Routine rounds, then. He'd been right. He crouched low, finding partial cover behind a hatrack draped with costumes and hats like strange fruit. Someone had a fondness for playing at dress-up.         "If anyone's dangerous, it's that ... thing!" The attendant laughed weakly. "She looks like a demon."         Gabriel's ears flicked attentively.         "That's why she's on ice," the man replied. "Every time they thaw her to try and work with her, she goes for the throat. I've got a bad feeling about her."         The blond woman laughed, but it was oddly without humor. "Remember, you must report all symptoms."         "It's a hunch, not a premonition," the man scoffed. "I don't need any parapsychogenics to know that gargoyles are trouble."         "Still," she needled, "if you've been exposed to something from the lab ..."         "Drop it, Runolf. The containment measures are foolproof."         "Famous last words," she replied as they returned to the office.         In the bed, the little girl murmured and rolled onto her side. The hazy bubble above her wavered, then re-formed more solidly. Drawn despite himself, he leaned closer to try and see what it was.         The girl was about six, with rich chocolate skin and frizzy hair clipped by plastic barrettes. When she smiled in her sleep, he saw that she was missing her two front teeth and that startled him until he recalled that humans did that. Her eyes moved behind closed lids.         An image formed in the bubble. It was like viewing a film shot with a fish-eye lens. It gradually took shape, showing Gabriel a park on a sunny summer's day. A park seen from the girl's perspective. Here was a cheerful woman and an older boy setting out sandwiches, there was a man and another boy laughing as they threw a ball for a half-grown pup.         He was seeing her dream, he realized with a rush of wonder.         "Neesha! Come and eat!" The voice was distant and faint, as if from a radio receiving a station at the limit of its range.         Not just seeing it but hearing it! His wonder deepened to awe. In a flash, he understood. The misshapen wretch upstairs, that pathetic malformed creature, had been one of the project's failures. Neesha here, with her ability to project her thoughts as images, was one of the successes.         And yet ... this was somehow worse than his encounter with that first child. These children might have abilities that their families and clans couldn't understand, but to all other appearances seemed able to live normal lives. He recalled seeing them play in the backyard. They were fit, whole, healthy. Only something in their minds was different. Did that mean they should be shut away from the world forever? Studied? Used?         A wild and rather appealing urge seized him -- to rescue them all! He knew it was ridiculous. Even if they would cooperate with being snatched from their beds by a gargoyle, even if he was able to lead them back outside, what then? Returning them to their homes was out of the question, for those were the first places their captors would look, and he had no way of knowing if their parents had willingly allowed this or if the children had been stolen away.         The attendant's use of the word "medicate" hadn't been lost on him. Some, if not all, of the children were bound to be on some sort of medication. He didn't dare take their health and brain chemistry into his own hands. So, reluctantly but with a certain slinking relief (at not having to face the issue of whether to take the first child along), he dismissed the idea.         They had come for Ventura, after all. The rest of this, hideous as it was, wasn't for them to alter. Not yet. It was something that would have to be handled with great planning and care, not done on the spur of the moment.         Ventura. They were running out of time, and had to find her soon if they were to find her at all.         He and Ebon reunited in the hall, both having overheard the same thing. The words of the guards had confirmed that Ventura was indeed still here, here and "on ice." Still sleeping. And still with a fighting spirit, it seemed. Not about to submit willingly to their tests. A rather foolish pride filled him at that bit of news. Just like a true gargoyle.         Now they faced the problem of the attendant, who was wide awake and grumbling to herself over her bad luck at having been caught napping. But then an unexpected stroke of luck came their way, when she let herself into the small bathroom attached to the office. Quickly, Ebon and Gabriel climbed over the counter so as not to risk alerting her by the noise of the door.         "Where now?" Gabriel whispered.         "Downstairs again," Ebon replied. "Past the guards, somehow. I've seen those two before. Mercenaries. They've worked for Sevarius and Demona on several occasions. And they have no great love for gargoyles. Our biggest advantage against most humans, that of their shock and fear at the sight of us, won't help us in this case."         Their trip to the first floor proved uneventful, for the stairs didn't so much as creak under them and the guards were stationed in a lounge around the corner. But their trip through the first floor also proved uneventful. That part of the east wing was given entirely over to offices, a classroom, a gym and pool -- "To keep the children fit and well," Ebon remarked, "the equivalent of an exercise wheel for a lab rat." -- and a number of small rooms whose purpose seemed to be the testing of the childrens' abilities.         "Back to the west wing?" Gabriel suggested.         "There may be a basement," Ebon said. "According to Sevarius, Ventura isn't the only clone in residence."         Gabriel's brow ridges rose. "More gargoyles?"         "No, human clones. Some made from the tissue of humans who had demonstrated exceptional paranormal talents, others created solely for the purpose of dissection or transplant."         Skirting the guards as widely as possible, they proceeded to quickly but diligently search the central section. Their efforts were rewarded when Ebon found the cellar door.         A single caged bulb illuminated the stairwell. The bare walls were painted a drab grey. The metal stairs were also painted grey and worn away in places along the banisters and in the middle of each riser.         Humans wouldn't want to venture down here for long without coats. Even with their innate resistance to low temperatures, Gabriel and Ebon both felt the chill. Their breath puffed in clouds as they descended. It got even colder as they reached the bottom, where tendrils of white fog eddied along the concrete floor.         Two cavernous chambers opened off of a central hall. One was a morgue, where very small sheet-draped forms lay atop stainless steel tables. The other was filled with the sleep-tubes, clear but frosted cylinders leaning at angles like a row of weary sentries against a castle wall.         Gabriel approached the first and wiped away a dusting of ice. There was a child within, a brown-haired adolescent male.         "I've found her," Ebon said.         Ventura rested in a pose familiar to aficionados of vampire films, her wings caped about her shoulders and her hands crossed on the rise of her breasts. In a spotless-white hospital gown tied at the back of her neck and small of her back, with her snowy fall of hair unbound, she looked every inch the angel in repose. Her dark beauty took Gabriel's breath away. She could have been carved from the living substance of the night, but her features were Angela's own loveliness echoed in an obsidian mirror.         A metal headpiece extended from one temple to the other. Unlike the others, which were marked with finely-etched computer circuitry, this one was covered with intricate black and gold traceries.         "Did Demona give her that?" Gabriel asked.         "No," said Ebon. "I've never seen it before." He pressed a button and turned a dial, and a blast of even colder air blew out as the sides of the tube separated. The top rose above a swirling mass of fog that obscured Ventura from view.         Then, rising above the mist, a single pleading hand. Gabriel, his heart in his throat, grasped it. Black ice, warming beneath his touch. He helped her to sit up, her red-tinted eyes searching his face expectantly.         "I am Gabriel," he said, enunciating slowly and carefully because Ebon had told him that her initial intellectual programming and development would leave her untutored as a hatchling.         "Do ... do I know you?" She brought her other hand to her lips as if amazed to hear such a dulcet voice emerging from them -- Angela's voice, too, bringing back a host of images to Gabriel. "I don't. I don't know you. I don't know me! Who am I? What's happened to me?"         Past her, Gabriel noticed Ebon's brow ridges lower in consternation. This was not what he'd led Gabriel to expect, not what he'd expected himself.         Gabriel didn't bother worrying about that. His concern was with the achingly lovely and vulnerable female in front of him. "It's all right. You're safe now. Let me help you out of there."         "Why can't I remember? Why is it all a blank?"         "Ventura --"         Her grip on him clenched into a vise. He saw the reason leaving her, saw panic brighten her eyes into a glow. Before he could do more than begin to free himself, she sprang out of her sleep-tube and slammed him against the wall hard enough to drive the air from his lungs.         "What's happened to me?" she demanded.         "Ventura, stop," Ebon said. "We've come to help you!"         Still holding Gabriel pinned, she looked at Ebon. Then at her own arms, at the skin that matched his. No intellect of a hatchling, not here. Instead, a sharp intelligence and the wariness of a warrior.         "Who are you?"         "Ebon," he said, with a heavy tone that told of his reluctant admission and acceptance of responsibility. "And in a way, I am your father."         "Explain," she hissed.         "We might not have time to do it now," Gabriel said. "Once we've left this place --"         Her claws dug into his upper arms. "I'm not going anywhere until I know what this is about!"         Speaking calmly, Ebon told her of their unusual and convoluted genetic relationship. Of Demona, and the circumstances of Ventura's birth. Of his own status at the time as Demona's more-or-less mate. He left out his involvement in her supposed death and transfer here, a move Gabriel considered wise.         Instead of reassuring her, all the while he spoke, Ventura grew more tense. Her eyes flickered, her upper lip drew back in a feral snarl.         "Liar!" she shrieked, and bodily flung Gabriel at Ebon.         They flew half the length of the room and slammed into another sleep- tube with bruising force. Even as they shook their heads to clear them, she was advancing.         "You lie," she said, flexing her claws. "I don't know why, but I know you do. I won't be made to live a lie. Not for you, not for this ... Demona- mother, not for anyone!"         "The guards," Gabriel warned as he and Ebon untangled themselves and got to their feet. "You'll alert them!"         "It's no use," Ebon said. "She's unstable."         "Are you calling me crazy?" Ventura's tail swished, stirring up the mist.         Rapid footsteps clanged on the metal stairs.         "Come on!" Gabriel grabbed at Ventura, meaning to get out of here and sort everything else out when they didn't have armed humans to worry about.         Three sizzling lines of fire raked across his chest and then he was airborne again. He got one arm up in time to save himself from smashing headfirst into the wall, but he felt and heard his arm break in a loud crack! that reverberated throughout his body. He sank, groaning, to the floor.         "Never!" Ventura raged. "I will find out who I really am, regain my rightful place. It's been taken from me, and I mean to have it back!"         Ebon swung at her, and had he connected the power of his blow would have taken her down. She never gave him the chance, springing out of the way as if she had all the time in the world. She raced for the doorway.         Gabriel forced himself to rise and tried to block her way. She executed a move that would have left him stunned even if he'd only been watching, flipping herself to whip her tail around his neck and then spinning from the hips so that both taloned feet in quick succession slammed into the side of his head, using her tail to pull him into the kicks. She landed lightly as a gymnast, while he tottered on numb legs, clinging to consciousness by a thread.         Humans appeared, the blond woman and the man with the mechanical hand in the lead, a trio of white-coated men behind. All were armed, the white-coats carrying ordinary pistols while the two guards held more elaborate weapons.         Seeing them, Ventura screeched and launched herself. She twisted in midair to avoid their fire and then plunged into their midst in a demonic frenzy.         Gabriel risked a look down at himself and saw blood streaming from half a dozen gashes. Then he realized that he was seeing double, that there were really only three, but they had scored deep.         Ebon lifted him, supported him. "Thailog was deceived. She's had detailed programming, and I don't know what loyalties have been ingrained into her. We cannot reason with her; that much is obvious."         "We have to stop her," Gabriel said, pressing his non-injured forearm into the worst of the wounds in an effort to slow the bleeding.         "Can we?" Ebon wondered, as Ventura went through the humans like a living scythe.         In a matter of seconds, the blonde woman was the only one left standing. Her counterpart with the mechanical hand slumped against a wall. Two of the white-coats were either unconscious or dead, and the third had fled.         "Come on, then," the blonde said, baring her teeth and brandishing a rifle-shaped gun. Several glancing blasts had rendered Ventura's flimsy garment into tatters and scored burns on her skin, but the pain didn't hinder her.         She feinted a lunge to the right, the blonde recognized it for a feint and shot left, but Ventura went right after all and tackled her. They rolled across the hall and into the morgue, colliding with one of the autopsy tables so hard that a sheet-shrouded body fell from it and landed atop them.         Moving with a catlike swiftness that would have been impressive against any other foe, the blonde woman snatched up the sheet, leaving naked and exposed the body of a child. The back of the small skull had been surgically removed, the dull grey tissue of the brain bulging out and bristling with wires.         Ventura lost a moment in shock, staring at that pitiful sight, and the blonde threw the sheet over her. Netted, entangled, Ventura flailed in her confinement as the blonde bashed at her head with the stock of the gun.         "Leave me, help her," Gabriel gasped. He wasn't completely sure which 'her' he meant, the human or the gargoyle. He pulled free of Ebon and sank down near the man with the mechanical hand, wincing as he jarred his broken arm.         Ventura tore through the sheet as the blonde reversed her laser rifle and leveled it. In the instant before she fired, Ebon was there, knocking the barrel up so that it seared along the ceiling and cut a smoke detector in half. Sprinklers came on all over the basement.         The man roused when the water hit him, came instantly alert, and raised his own gun. Gabriel was just close enough to kick it from his grasp. Fog rose all around them as the water hit the cold floor, made colder by the gas still seeping from Ventura's open sleep-tube.         "Gargoyles," the man spat. "Nothing but trouble!" He drew a hunting knife and slashed at Gabriel.         He fell back, landing squarely on his arm. The world went grey, or perhaps it was the low-laying cloud of mist that he fell into. He struck the man with his tail. Both of them battered by Ventura, they fought with pained, hampered slowness.         In the morgue, the three-way battle ranged back and forth, dislodging more corpses from their resting places. Above them in the main building, the fire alarms brayed endlessly.         Grinding, clicking metallic fingers found Gabriel's throat and closed with inexorable strength. He could not pry them open. The man loomed over him, face contorted in grim satisfaction. He squeezed harder, steel bands clamping tight over Gabriel's windpipe.         Something gouged his hip. The knife! Dropped in their struggles, he was now half-laying atop it. He grabbed it and drove it point-first into the man's wrist, just above the collar of steel where hand met sleeve. The tip grudgingly pierced the protective fabric of his jumpsuit and then plunged into living flesh. Blood rained down on Gabriel, washed away by the continuing water from the sprinklers.         He seated the blade as deep as he could and then twisted and wrenched it to the side. It struck something neither flesh nor bone, something that gave way with a crackle of ozone and a stink of burnt wires. The mechanical hand locked up, still closed chokingly tight on Gabriel's neck.         A limp body crashed into the wall over them and rebounded, landing on the man. It was the blonde woman. Gabriel heard Ventura's screech of challenge and Ebon's answering roar.         Desperate to help, paying no mind to the curses of his opponent, Gabriel sawed and ripped with the knife until the man's hand was connected to his arm only by a few strings of tendon and silvery fiber. He drove both feet into the man's gut, hearing the gristly crackle as the last strands gave way. Still with the robotic hand holding fast to his throat, unable to dislodge it, he stumbled in the direction of the combat.         Ebon had backed Ventura to the stairs and they were now at a pause, her holding the high ground and snarling down at him as if daring him to take a single step up.         She had lost what little remained of her garment, and the water made her skin shine. Deadly and beautiful as some exotic serpent or vengeful goddess out of legend, she fixed them with her baleful scarlet gaze.         One last time for diplomacy. Ebon spread his hands peaceably. "Ventura, we came here to find you. Let us help you."         "Join our clan," Gabriel rasped weakly. "Be my sister. Join us."         "Please," Ebon said. "Trust us. We are of the same blood, Ventura."         "Trust you? With all that's been done to me? With all that you let be done to me? You let them take my mind, take my soul! And now you come to me with this web of lies? I'll have back what's mine, and I'll get it myself! I don't need you, or anyone!"         She whirled and dashed up the stairs. The sudden screams of humans reached them, audible even over the constant wail of the alarms.         "After her!" Gabriel followed, his breath sucked like hot spikes into his lungs, dizzy and faltering as he reached the top. Ebon supported him, and they emerged into the central section together.         A group of people, most of them in pajamas and sweat suits, a few in white coats (including he-who-had-fled-the-basement) were huddled in one corner as Ventura menaced them. Among them were several children and the narrow-faced attendant from the second floor.         "Stay away!" Ventura shouted as they came in. "Unless you want to wade through a sea of dead humans to get to me!"         Gabriel clung to Ebon. He was losing strength fast. "Can't ..." Talking was too much effort.         Seeing that he was in no condition to follow, Ventura uttered a short, vicious laugh and ran for the front door.         Ebon pushed Gabriel toward a couch as gently but quickly as he could, and went after. But panic had flashed over the humans and they scattered in all directions, getting in his way.         Gabriel closed his eyes, because it was just too hard to hold them open. All he wanted to do was rest until the pain went away. When was dawn? Still a couple of hours, at least. He had to hang on that long. Just until dawn. If he could last until then, stone sleep would claim him and mend all his wounds.         He felt a soft touch on his knee, but even that sent waves of new pain rolling through him. He gingerly opened one eye and found the children gathered before him. The toddler, the tiny boy that had waved at them in the hall, was the one touching his knee and looking up at him with huge solemn eyes.         There was a feather-light brushing at the edges of his senses, and a petite Asian girl said, "He's not mean," around a mouthful of thumb.         The others relaxed. One, the boy who had slept in restraints, leaned close to look at the robotic hand.         "It's Halverson's," he said, and though he couldn't have been more than ten years old, there was an unmistakably adult satisfaction in his voice. "I'll get it."         Gabriel started to protest, since he couldn't remove it himself and the boy was far smaller, far weaker. But the boy just squinted, and the fingers pried themselves open. The hand fell to the floor and lay there like a dead steel spider. The boy kicked it and stomped on it, then focused on it and it crumpled in on itself until it was only a crushed ball of metal.         "I help," the toddler said, crawling into Gabriel's lap.         He was suddenly, vividly aware of each and every wound. The side of his head felt as if it had swelled out in a great balloon-shape, tender and throbbing. His throat was swollen and as raw as if he'd tried to drink acid. The gashes on his chest felt aflame. By far the worst was his arm, a dangling slab of useless meat with a splintered end of bone tenting the skin. It was a wonder that the bone hadn't come through.         The boy ran his hands gently over Gabriel's face, the way he might comfort a crying friend. Then, to Gabriel's amazement, he felt a familiar lassitude slip over him. The tingle that marked the coming of dawn. His limbs grew heavy, his skin became stiff. Yet he never fell fully under, never went all the way into stone sleep. He watched as if from a remote distance as his injuries healed beneath the touch of the child.         He drew in a deep breath and stretched, casting off the lethargy that had briefly overtaken him. No shards of stone skin, but he felt as refreshed and revitalized as if he'd just spent an entire long summer's day basking in the sunlight.         "All better," the toddler announced.         "Children!" the attendant called from across the room, nearly frantic. "Get away from that thing!"         They turned toward her in a group and the woman stopped short. She touched the metal device on her brow as if to assure herself that it was still there and moved forward.         "I wouldn't," the oldest girl, a stick-thin redhead of perhaps eleven, said quietly.         "F-17 ..." the woman began.         "Don't. Ever. Call. Me. That. Again." With each clipped word, the redhead took a step toward her.         The attendant halted again, then backed slowly away. Fear was written on her face in large letters. She spun and hurried from the room, brushing off the confused clients who clutched at her arms and begged for help or explanations.         "You did it!" Neesha crowed. "You showed her!"           Gabriel stood, holding the boy in his arms.         "Do you want to be here?" Gabriel asked.         A chorus of negation answered him.         "I miss my mommy!" Neesha announced. "They stole me from the park and I never saw her ever again!"         "I want to go home!" the oldest boy declared.         "Here, now!" a doctor said, coming closer. "You ... you can't ..."         "No, you can't! You can't take them from their parents, from their homes. You can't keep them here against their will. Any who want may come with me."         "But --"         "Unless you want to stop me!" Gabriel stood to his full height and spread his wings. The children clustered behind and beside him, some fearfully, others with defiant grins.         "We'll stop you."         He turned and saw the two guards, the furious-eyed blonde and the man who now had a scrap of sheet wrapped around the stump where his hand had been.         "Like to see you try!" a freckled, blond-haired boy yelled, extending both hands in a violent shoving gesture.         The carpet between him and the guards erupted in flame, a backwash of heated air bathing Gabriel and the rest of the children. The alarms, which had been silenced at some point in the confusion, shrieked to life again.         "This way!" Gabriel ran for the back door and shouldered it open.         "The fence!" Neesha said as they all ran with him. "There's no gate!"         "We're going over!"         Into the backyard, the cool balm of a summer's night. The older kids helped the small ones, and Gabriel himself carried the boy who had healed him and the girl who had known he wasn't mean.         "How about through?" The oldest boy frowned piercingly at the wall and a large section of it came apart in chunks.         "How come you never did that before?" the oldest girl, never to be called F-17 again, accused.         "And get shot with a med-dart? Get real!"         They scrambled over the fallen wall and looked to Gabriel for further directions. Now that they were out, he paused to ask himself what in the world he was doing. A clan of six, younglings all, with strange powers? Where would he take them? What would they do?         Movement caught his eye. Looking up, Gabriel saw Ventura wheel in flight, hair streaming around her in a white veil. Of Ebon, there was no sign. She voiced a battle-cry and caught an updraft, soaring beyond his sight and losing herself in the clouds that had come in off the sea.         "What about our toys?" one of the kids asked plaintively.         "Do you want to go back in there?" The oldest girl pointed at the Institute, which was all fire and water and steam as the sprinklers fought the fierce blaze.         "But --" he began, then hushed as the two guards, smoldering and highly annoyed, came charging out.         The doctor was hot on their heels, screaming orders at them to bring those kids back, bring them back unharmed and most of all, bring them back now! They represented not only a financial investment far in excess of the guards' salaries but also untold hours of research!         "There can always be other toys," Gabriel said. "Treasure your lives and your freedom first."         They fled along the bluff, a few wind-twisted trees offering scant cover.         A large shadow swept over them and landed. White over black, with twin sparks of red.         "The bad one!" Neesha shrieked.         "No!" Gabriel stopped the blond kid, who was keyed up and ready to burn something. "He's my friend. His name is --"         "Ebon!" the oldest girl gasped. "From Scarlet Angel! I have all your records!" She clasped both hands to her prepubescent bosom and made a little squeal.         Ebon gave Gabriel an incredulous look. "Gabriel, what are you doing?"         "Escaping. I know, I know ... but I can't leave them." He thrust the little girl at his mentor. "They're light. Three for you and three for me, and we can get away from this hell-on-earth."         Without waiting for Ebon's response, Gabriel hunkered down and motioned for two of the other children to hop aboard, bringing back memories of Guardian Tom giving him and his rookery siblings horsey-rides over the meadows of Avalon.         Ebon thrashed his tail in exasperation, but bundled children into his arms and followed as Gabriel dove from the bluff.                 *               *        Manhattan August, 2000         "So Ventura got away, but you saved the kids," Brooklyn said.         Gabriel nodded.         "What did you do with them?" Owen asked with studied casualness.         Ebon glowered at him. "Don't even think for a moment that they will be brought here. While your employer may have changed for the better, I am not going to put those six children back in a situation where they will be studied and exploited."         "It's a good question, though," Elisa said. "Six kids, at least one of them abducted. What about their families? Their homes?"         "They canna be sent back to their homes, lass," Hudson said. "Sure as that's the first place the Institute would send people to find and retrieve them."         Elisa slid forward on the couch. "Ebon, Gabriel ... I know you mean well, but how can the two of you take care of them? You spend the whole day in stone sleep. Who's looking after them then?"         Ebon's sigh was so reminiscent of Goliath's that Amber snapped her teeth at him anew. "Brittany -- she chose her own name rather than continue to go by her Institute code designation -- and Gilberto, the two oldest, have been taking care of the younger ones so far. But you're right, Elisa. They need better supervision. I hadn't given it much thought, because I was more worried about finding Ventura."         "Especially once Ebon learned about some raids on Nightstone warehouses. Body armor, weapons ..." Gabriel shrugged. "You saw her. You know. We were able to follow her movements and realized she was headed for New York. We wanted to catch up with her before she met your clan, and warn you. We were too late. It was like something was leading her here."         "Like me," Angela said with grudging acceptance. "She ... homed in on me somehow."         "While Gabriel was finding a place to hide the children," Ebon said, "I went back to the Institute in hopes of finding out more about what had been done to her."         He grinned coldly, for a moment all-Thailog, prone to laughing maniacally in the dark. "I was fortunate enough to encounter one of the doctors leaving in the aftermath of our busy night, and persuaded him to indulge my curiosity. From him, I learned that Ventura had come to them with her current programming -- proof of Sevarius' betrayal -- and they had attempted on several occasions to produce psionic powers in her. They were ready to give up, having decided that gargoyles did not possess such abilities --"         "Not to mention that they were getting tired of having to subdue and sedate her every time they performed a new test," Gabriel added, "and were running short of guards willing to attempt it."         "When they had more of a breakthrough than they'd counted on," Ebon went on. "They injected her with a parapsychogenic called S-MD-10, the tenth generation of a sevaritin drug. Yes, 'sevaritin,' a chemical neurotransmitter devised by and named for Gustav Sevarius. It is able to ferry a variety of tagalong molecules to nearly any part of the brain, to produce many diverse effects. In this case, mental domination."         "The fools gave Ventura the ability to take over minds," Gabriel explained. "Just seize absolute control of someone else's body, to the point where she could kill them by thought alone. They lost two doctors and a guard before they were able to tranquilize her."         "And then they compounded their foolishness," Ebon said. "Rather than attempt to counter or eliminate that power, they surgically implanted damping mechanisms, so that they could turn that power off or on at will. Then, to make matters worse, they gave her another dose of the sevaritin, this time one designed to heighten her sixth sense. In effect, they were hoping to create an assassin that could be shown a picture of an individual, find him or her by telepathy, and then kill without leaving a mark."         "When she'd already proven herself to be a loose cannon," Birdie said, shaking her head. "Bright. Real bright. You'd think, if they were going to do something like that, they'd pick a subject that was loyal to them in the first place, not one who hated their guts."         "You'd think," Ebon agreed gravely. "But they didn't. And as it turned out, it didn't matter, because that dose seemed to have no effect."         "But that's what forged the link between her and Angela," Lex said. "She didn't need a picture, either."         "Tell me more about this 'kill with a thought' power," Brooklyn said, very ill at ease. "If she can do that, why bother with laser rifles?"         "She can't," Ebon said. "Not with the damper on. And thankfully, those who implanted it had the foresight to make it impossible to remove. If she ever tries to take off the headpiece she wears, she'll find it won't come off without killing her."         "But ..." Aiden said timidly, "what if they turn it off?"         "Fergs, would you if you were in their shoes?"         "No, but like you pointed out, Birdie, they've already shown that they're not too smart."         "I asked that very thing," Ebon told her. "The doctor, under such duress that I have no reason to doubt his sincerity, confessed to me that Ventura's unauthorized departure from the Institute triggered an automatic lock in the damper. It cannot be turned off unless they bring her bodily back there. We don't need to worry about that."         "Great," said Brooklyn. "All we have to worry about is that she can still take down half the clan with one wing tied behind her back."         "Can she be redeemed?" Goliath wondered aloud.         "Aye, with her skills, she'd be a great benefit to this clan," Hudson said. "It sounds more as though the lass is lost and afraid."         "Lost and afraid?" Angela pulled away from Brooklyn and stormed to the center of the room. "She's insane! How can you even suggest such a thing?"         "The clan comes first," Hudson said. "We'd do better to try to win friends --"         "Oh, shut up!"         "Angela!" Goliath barked warningly. "You will not speak to an elder in that fashion!"         "The hell I won't! He'd take that creature into this clan! Why her? Why not Burbank?" she flung at Hudson. "What about Malibu, and Brentwood? Oh, let's all accept Delilah because she's pretty and female, and what about Ventura? Her too, oh, but we'll say it's because she's such a skilled warrior! You're all a bunch of oinking male pigs!"         "Angela!" This time, he roared it, but Goliath's daughter didn't back down.         "Hear me out, father! If Ventura joins this clan, I'm leaving! Replace me with her, then, go ahead. Because I'll be gone."         "Lass --" Hudson tried. "Where would ye --"         "Avalon is my home, and if not there, I'm sure I would find a welcome with my mother!"         "You don't mean that! Surely, sister, you don't!" Elektra cried out.         "Better there than having to welcome Ventura!" Angela spat. "Have you all forgotten that she wants to murder me and take my place? Oh, I'm sure she's just saying that because she's 'lost and afraid.' I'm sure she's really very sweet. My tail she is! But if that's what you want for this clan, if that's what you want, fine. Say the word, father, and I'm gone."         "No one wants you to leave, Angela! Think of your mate --"         "Yes, that'd be a problem, Brooklyn and Gabriel would have to fight over Ventura!"         "I've had it!" Brooklyn grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a fast, firm shake. "Damn it, Angela, get ahold of yourself! We're mates! You and me. We're one. Remember? Why are you doing this?"         "I'm tired of not being good enough for this clan," she said, her eyes flashing.         "Who said you weren't? Have I ever made you feel that way? Have any of us?"         "How can you not be good enough?" Aiden said. "I'm the one who can't fight."         "Yeah, Fergs has got the market cornered on low self-worth," Birdie quipped, getting elbows in the ribs from T.J. on one side and Owen on the other.         "Ventura is not your responsibility, Angela," Ebon said. "If anyone's, she's mine. You are Goliath's daughter. You are a part of this clan. You needn't envy her. If anything, pity her, because no matter what she does, she will never have the love that you do."         Her wrath subsided. "I ... I ..."         "Those should have been my words," Goliath said. "Angela, all that Ebon says is true. You opened my eyes and my heart to what it means to be a father. Not because you are my biological daughter, but because of who you are. Ventura will never replace you." He looked at her with great love and sadness. "And neither will Amber."         Angela gasped, her expression both wounded and fearful. "I never ..."         "Just believe me." He rubbed his knuckles against her brow ridge. "And believe that I would never want to do anything to drive you from this clan. I don't want to lose you, my daughter."                 *               *         First rejection. Then trickery. Then attack.         And now this.         Her temporary home was hers no longer. The trap triggered, her cache of spare weapons taken, her privacy invaded.         Ventura hissed in displeasure as she left the clocktower. They were all against her. All of them corrupted by the Other's malice. All of them fooled. She was the only one who saw clearly. The rest had been taken in by the deception ...         Or had they?         What was the Other? How had it gained such power? How had it taken her memories, taken her life, convinced her mate and clan and family of its great lie?         What if the same thing that had happened to her had also happened to the others? What if they'd all been robbed of their souls, and cast out of their rightful place?         She couldn't trust any of them, that much was clear. Not even her supposed mate. He would have been the first to be taken over.         No. Couldn't trust any of them.         Even if she did succeed in eliminating the Other, the rest would know.         Her former life, the life she couldn't remember, was lost to her forever. No point in trying to regain it, when it was all becoming a lie. What use would it be to win back her mate, only to find out that he was another Other?         She could already feel the memories she'd tried to retake growing misty and indistinct. Her sense of Angela-ness fading away.         So confused. So alone.         Lost and afraid.         There was only one thing left to do, then.         They would all have to die.         Somehow, she would find a way to destroy them all.         It was the only way.                 *               * The End.