Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are
the property of Disney and are used here without their creators'
knowledge or permission. 20,000 words. October 2005. Language, violence and sexual content mature eyes only.
The pain. The heat. The cold.
A wrenching agony that seemed to be pulling him not merely limb from limb but cell from cell, molecule from molecule, rending his body apart into its tiniest components yet each still alive, each still aware and feeling.
And then, out of nowhere, a cool white glow suffusing him, washing away the black-red searing ice. A voice. A voice he knew, a gentle voice drifting not into his ears but into his mind somehow. Words that should have made sense to him. Following him down through a spinning confusion.
It was the wrong voice. Not her voice.
"Demona!" he called, or tried to call. The name was snatched from his lips, perhaps never even uttered except in the urgency of his thoughts.
There was no answer. Even the other voice, gentle but wrong all the same, had faded. He was alone.
When his senses returned, he heard a low groan and knew it came from his own dry throat. He opened his eyes to a vista of featureless misty grey. A strange light fell over him. Not daylight, not moonlight, not firelight, not the artificial glow of electricity. It seemed to have no source, emanating from nowhere and casting no shadow.
He stayed as he was for a moment, waiting for coherent meaning and memory to return. As best he could determine, he was sprawled flat on his back upon some hard, stony surface, with shards and pebbles jabbing mercilessly beneath him. Yet, aside from that discomfort, he seemed unhurt.
Which shouldn't be.
"I should be injured," he said to the blank greyness. "I should be dead."
Still, there was no answer.
Jericho slowly sat up, hearing the click and grind of rocks, feeling them grate against his skin. He extended his arms and examined them. Strong. Familiar. Azure-blue skin over sculpted muscles. Three claw-tipped fingers and a thumb on each powerful hand.
No blood on his hands. No bruises, no gouges, on his forearm.
He looked down at himself. His broad chest and long legs were unmarked. His tail made a smooth blue curve in the powdery, gravelly soil beside him. He flexed his wings, stretching them out to the sides in their full, majestic span. A coarse, gritty dust flew as he shook his head, the wild thickness of his scarlet hair spilling over his brow ridges.
"This isn't right. What's happened? Where am I?"
The terrain around him was an unbroken sheet as frictionless as ice, blurring into the misty grey. It looked like colorless polished marble. Only here, where he sat, was it strewn with debris.
Fragments of his stone skin? Had he slept?
Scooping up a handful of the crumbled stuff, he studied it, frowning. The texture was wrong, and there was far too much of it to be the remnants of a single day's shed skin. This was this was enough to be
Stifling a cry of horror, Jericho sprang to his feet. The abrupt movement stirred up a small cloud of the gritty powder, which settled in the complete absence of any wind.
Death-gravel. He had been lying in a mound of death-gravel.
Bits of other substances were mixed in with the porous dark-grey stone. He saw melted, rusted blobs of metal. He saw brittle ivory flecks that might have been crushed human bone. He saw the darkish dried-blood dust of pulverized brick and mortar.
He let the pitiful fragments trickle between his talons. "Ventura," he said.
In the core of his soul, he knew it to be true. Here were the remains of she who had been Angela's dark duplicate, though formed of human science rather than raised in Avalon's magic realm. Ebony-skinned, frost-haired Ventura, whom he had never truly known.
Gone now. Dead. Destroyed for all eternity.
Yes. He remembered. She had appeared in the middle of that fateful rooftop confrontation. But the building had given way in a shotgun blast of brickwork. Ventura, shrieking, had been swept over the side and into
Into the pit.
Jericho felt once more the sudden violent grasp closing on his tail, the spine-twisting jerk as Damien's weight dragged him over.
"Ah!" he cried now, bending double, clenching his fists. The image of what had come next battered him with terrible force.
He remembered scrabbling for a hold but finding only empty air, nothing to stop his plunge, and brimming with a furious indignation it could not end like this! And then a hand, seizing him, stopping his fall a large and strong hand
For an instant, the barest heartbeat of time, they had gripped each other. Their eyes had met. Father to son, the connection between them as undeniable as their very blood.
The fate of everything had hung in that precarious balance. Goliath, perhaps Goliath alone in all Manhattan, would have been able to pull them back up. But to do that would have meant saving Damien as well as Jericho, and damning the world to a premature Hell. And that, Goliath could not do.
Nor could Jericho have let him.
The thought, unspoken but clearly understood, burned between them from both of their minds. I must let go.
And they had. Simultaneously releasing their grasp. Damien and Jericho had plunged together into the seething, churning blizzard-furnace of the pit. His last image had been of his father's receding face, of the resolution and grim, determined sorrow in Goliath's somber gaze.
"Well, well, well," a dry, bemused voice said. The accent did not quite turn the w's into v's, but wanted to. "Look what we have here."
Jericho spun, heart thudding with shock. "Sevarius?"
The old man before him did not stand, but hovered a few inches above what passed for the ground. He was exactly as Jericho had seen him last, a tall and stiff-backed figure in crisply creased black slacks and a lab coat so clean it seemed to emit its own fluorescent radiance. His white hair was combed smartly back from his lined brow. Emerald-green eyes fixed Jericho with a familiar scalpel-sharp dissecting expression. Gustav Sevarius' gnarled hands were folded over the silver head of his ever-present cane.
"Where am I? What is this place?"
"Oh, come now. You must have some idea."
Sevarius always managed to make him feel like a sullen, stupid child. If there had been such a thing as reincarnation, as some humans tended to believe, Sevarius would have been perfectly at home as an old-time schoolmaster, beating his pupils with a switch and making them sit on high corner stools with dunce caps perched on their heads.
"It's Hell, isn't it?" Jericho said. "Not the part of it Damien brought to New York, but the real thing."
"So I'm dead."
Here, Gustav Sevarius slowly turned his head side to side and clucked his tongue. "Look down, Jericho. Do you see? That is dead. Do you look like that?"
"Are you telling me I'm alive?"
"I may be a psychiatrist rather than a geneticist like my brother, but I am still a doctor and a man of science. I like to think I can tell the difference between the living and the dead."
Tentative relief spread through Jericho, but was quickly chilled. "If I'm alive, what am I doing here?"
"Frankly, if anyone earned a place in Hell, it's you. Don't you agree?"
He irritably waved it off. "I know my sins. What's happened? Where is Demona?"
"Speaking of sins," Sevarius said, green eyes glittering with cold reptilian amusement.
"Where is she?!"
"There is no need to shout. I hear you perfectly well."
"Damn you, Sevarius --"
"Already been done, I'm afraid." He settled his folded hands more comfortably on the silver ball of his cane. "Would you like to converse rationally, or would you simply prefer to rant at me? We have time. We have an eternity, if that's how you choose to spend it."
"Please," Jericho said, like he was pulling a splinter.
"It's something of a long story, my boy. A good deal has gone on since you came here, and I doubt you'll like to hear it."
"She's not dead. She can't be dead."
"Unless the man Macbeth dies as well, yes, I know the story. Fascinating. By the way, did you notice the human bones mixed in with those pebbles?"
Breath halted dead in his lungs. He stiffened and went cold, and could almost have believed that he was dying, that this was the final transformation of his flesh before he, too, fell apart into gravel. Only the fevered pounding of his pulse, felt behind his eyes and all throughout his body as well as in his wrists, throat and chest, told him that he was still alive. Or as alive as he could be, in a place like this.
"You're lying," he whispered.
"Lying? I merely asked you a question."
"Those aren't Macbeth's bones."
"Dear boy, did I say that they were?"
Jericho squeezed his eyes shut and pressed the heels of his hands against the closed lids so hard he saw violent stars blossoming in the inner dark. "You "
"I asked if you'd noticed them. You really must stop leaping to conclusions, young Jericho. It will do you a disservice one of these days."
"Whose bones are they?" he asked, forcing out each word with an effort.
"I believe the fellow's name was Jason Canmore."
"The Hunter's brother?" Jericho recalled with savage delight the way it had felt to glove his hand in the hot, slippery entrails of Jon Canmore, before the horrified eyes of his audience.
"The very same. He fell into the pit while trying to put an end to your beloved mother once and for all."
His eyes snapped open. "He dared lay a hand on her?"
Sevarius gave him a wry look. "What are you going to do, kill him?"
"I " Jericho toed the heap of grit. "I suppose there's not much point, is there?"
"Ah, he sees wisdom."
"And this the rest of this Ventura and Damien?"
"You're half right."
"What do you mean?" He had been almost glad to see Sevarius initially, a familiar face in this eerie limbo, but of course had never been able to carry on more than the most basic of conversations with the man without wanting to punch him in the mouth.
"When Ventura fell through," Sevarius explained, "she, like Jason Canmore, was unprotected. They were obliterated, as was every other unfortunate person in the Nightstone building and its surrounding structures at the time."
He gestured around, and now that Jericho's eyes had become more accustomed to the strange light and the misty grey reality of this place, he could discern other drifts of bone dust, skirled in eddies like the cresting sand of dunes in the desert.
"Damien, of course," the old man went on, "was still under the power of the hell-forces that had taken him over. He was therefore protected from obliteration."
The nape of Jericho's neck crawled. He turned, and would not have been surprised to see Damien looming there. Damien, with his backswept horns and dark hair, and the baleful eyes of a devil. Damien in his glossy, spiked black armor. The long hornlike blades jutting from his elbows and knees, ready to rend and tear and skewer.
The space behind him was empty. Jericho looked back at Sevarius. "Wait," he said. "Then why am I ?"
"The best mill grinds slow but fine," Sevarius said. "I thought you'd get there eventually."
"Why aren't I " He indicated the gritty heap that was all that was left of Ventura. "I wasn't under any spell."
"But you were."
"No. Everything I did was of my own choosing." As Sevarius was about to speak, Jericho stuck a warning talon in his face. "And you had best not give me any twaddle about how my noble self-sacrifice granted me clemency! There was nothing noble in what I did!"
"I'm certainly aware of that," Sevarius said. "Save the world? Perish the thought. Your pride couldn't take being rescued by Goliath. You were ready to die rather than suffer that ultimate indignity."
"Right," Jericho said.
"Did you consider his noble sacrifice? Relinquishing you, his flesh and blood, his only begotten son, to the fires of Hell?"
Sick bile rose in Jericho's throat. He spat into the dust. "Horse bollocks. It would hardly have been a sacrifice for him. Had it been Angela, or his human mate, or their little daughter, then you could talk to me of sacrifice and nobility. As for this 'only begotten son' rubbish, I preferred you when you likened me to figures from Greek myth. Goliath despises me as much as I do him, so leave off."
"Well, then, it'll ease your mind to know it wasn't that." Sevarius rocked on his heels, leaning on his cane, looking like he was having the time of his afterlife. Jericho still wanted to punch him in the mouth.
"Then what was it, you reprehensible old lizard?"
"Your mother used to call me that," he said with what might have been genuine nostalgic fondness.
"Your sister saved you."
"What? My sister which sister? How? Angela?"
He had seen the thunderstruck horror in her eyes when he'd told Damien who his real parents were, had seen the sanity-breaking truth rip into her like claws as she beheld what had become of her stolen egg. Jericho had taken it from the rookery, not specifically to strike against Angela. He had done it for Demona just as everything had always been done for Demona. To give her the child that he could not, thanks to cruel fate and crueler magic. A child to bond them together as a family.
Demona's impatience had brought it all to ruin. She had lived too many long centuries alone and without hope. To have to wait ten years more to cradle a hatchling in her arms was a decade too long. She had made use of one of Anton Sevarius' devices, accelerating the aging process of the egg just as Sevarius had done with the cell samples he had grown into Thailog and the other clones.
It should have worked, and would have, had she not also been dabbling with dark magic for another project. She had called up a demoness, and in the process had released something else. Something that had gotten into the vulnerable egg, corrupted the hatchling.
"Why would Angela save me after what I did?" Jericho asked. "I was responsible for Damien. I stole her egg from the rookery. I let this happen."
"Not Angela, and not the unfortunate Ventura, either," Sevarius said. "Your sister Elektra is to thank for your current predicament. Or to blame. Personally, I'd tend toward the latter."
"Elektra? Tell me," Jericho said.
"As you were dangling over the vortex, your dear Elektra was preparing, with the help of a religious fanatic and a vial of holy water, to close it."
"Demona taught her the incantation, but it had to be cast by one of pure heart. Only Elektra qualified." He felt a stirring of hope. "She was successful, then?"
"Had she not been, there'd be quite a bit more bone-dust and death-gravel down here, wouldn't you agree?" Sevarius made a scoffing sound that was not quite a snort. "But when she saw you fall, as she stood there just wrapped all in righteous purity, Elektra spoke."
The words, the voice
Keep you well, brother, wherever you may be.
Jericho shivered. "And that that protected me."
"Her blessing saved you from ending up like them." Sevarius pointed the end of his cane at the heap of gravel and grit. "Lucky you."
The scenery around them had subtly altered during a long pause in which Sevarius gave Jericho ample time to digest what had been said. Jericho couldn't quite put a finger on just what had changed in their bleak surroundings. Perhaps it was something in the quality of the light. Perhaps the hushed tone of the flat, still air was different now.
"So the pit was sealed?" Jericho finally asked. "The city restored?"
"Yes. Good triumphed over evil." He rolled his eyes. "How very typical."
"And what about Demona?"
"Do you really want to know?"
"Don't toy with me, Sevarius."
"She lived. Of course she did. Doesn't she always?"
"I have to get out of here. I have to return to her."
"My dear boy," chuckled Sevarius. "You make that sound so simple."
"She needs me."
"Oh, I'm sure she can get by."
"You don't understand."
"Your devoted mother has a long history of landing on her feet," Sevarius said. "I grant you, it was a bad moment for her, seeing you fall ... here, look." He lifted his cane. The silver ball atop the handle glimmered, then began to glow. It turned into something akin to a crystal ball, in which a silent tableau took shape.
Jericho leaned closer. He saw the rooftop, saw himself dangling with Damien clinging to his tail. He saw and his lip curled back from his fangs in revolted recognition how very much he and Goliath resembled each other in that final moment. Then they released their hold.
As he and Damien dropped toward the fiery eye of the pit, Jericho saw Demona lunge for the edge of the building. Her lovely lips formed his name in a despairing cry. She never checked her stride and would have dove off after him, had Brooklyn not snared her by the belt and yanked her to a bone-jarring halt.
"You dare!" snarled Jericho as Brooklyn hauled Demona back against him, pinning her arms at her sides. That beak nuzzled obscenely into her hair, Brooklyn whispering low in her ear.
"In case you're wondering," Sevarius said, "he's telling her that he hopes she remembers this forever, losing her son the way he and Angela lost theirs."
Her face filled his vision. She was exquisite beauty and utter anguish. Losing him. Losing the only one who had ever truly adored and understood her. Losing her son, her lover, her mate. Her Jericho.
"No," he moaned, and reached for her, but his fingertips found only the cool smooth silver ball of the cane. Her visage dissolved. "She must think me dead."
"It will destroy her."
"You give her too little credit. Or yourself too much."
"She's everything to me."
"Oh, I know," Sevarius said. "But you flatter yourself in thinking that the reverse is true, dear boy. She'll mourn you and move on. In time, she'll forget you."
"You lie!" His eyes flared white-hot, but he was able to refrain from throwing himself at the old man. In some still-rational corner of his mind, he knew it would be futile. He would pass through Sevarius as if through a ghost. "She would never forget me!"
"Well, perhaps you're right about that," allowed Sevarius. "After all, she remembered your father for a thousand years. But she will move on, Jericho."
"She loves me."
"I believe that in her mad way, she does. What of it? Do you imagine she would keep herself chaste and grief-struck for the rest of her endless life? Dressed all in widow's weeds, perhaps?"
"What are you saying?" Jericho asked hoarsely.
"Only that she will find someone else to warm her bed soon enough. She'll make a new start, Jericho. A new life for herself. One without you."
"Why do you do this? Do you enjoy tormenting me?"
"This is Hell," Sevarius said. "What would Hell be without a little torment?"
Jericho turned from him and seized the sides of his head, claws sinking through his scarlet mane. He inhaled several harsh breaths, trying with each forceful exhalation to rid himself of the unwelcome ideas suggested by the old man's words. Demona with someone else? It could never be. She was his, and he was hers. They were one.
And yet in their final times together they had been at odds. They had quarreled. Disagreed over Damien. In the end, he had been proved right, but that did not matter. What mattered, all that mattered, was that there had been angry words between them.
Oh, by the Dragon, was that what she would have of him? Her final memories of him not as passionate and ardent lover but as bickering opponent?
No. She would remember the other, better times. Of course she would. Had she not leapt for him, trying to save him or follow him to his doom? She would have fallen with him into the pit, he knew that. Just as he, selflessly, would have done the same for her. He was nothing without her.
"You don't want to believe me," Sevarius said. "Yet it is true, my boy. It is all true."
"I suppose you can see the future, is that it?" sneered Jericho. "You've foreseen her with another?"
"Foresight has nothing to do with it. Time passes differently here. I would think someone hatched and raised on Avalon would be familiar with that concept. Many years have already gone by in the living world since you woke."
A coldness formed around Jericho's heart. "How many?"
"And so," Sevarius said as if he hadn't heard, "when I tell you these things, I am not predicting the future. I'm reciting the facts."
"This is a trick. I don't know what you're playing at, but I will have none of it!"
"Of course, she did not change on her own. They got to her. They meddled with her mind in a way that even I would never have presumed to do."
"I will not listen to you."
"Oh, but you will. You must. You can't help it."
A curse on him, but he was right. Jericho flexed his claws and wings. His jaw ached from clenching it. "Then tell me."
"Do you recall a man named Bluestone?"
"The Maza woman's police partner. What of him?"
Sevarius sat down. Jericho's mind reeled. The featureless plain around them, with its dull-bright grey dome of not-sky, had vanished. Had it ever been? They were in a setting he knew well, the good doctor's spotlessly clean office. In the Nightstone Building but the Nightstone Building had collapsed into the abyss, hadn't it?
"As you pointed out before, you're fond of Greek myth," Sevarius said. "So you know the story of Orpheus." He told Jericho how Matt Bluestone had won a spectral wife, and how in due time they'd had a son, and how that son was gifted with the powers of persuasion. "With nothing but his voice and an antique stringed instrument he got from the Illuminati, he could do what would have taken me several doses of my best drugs and hours of subliminal conditioning."
"What does this have to do with Demona?" Jericho asked, though a leaden sensation in his gut told him he was afraid he already knew.
"For a while, after your disappearance, she kept on with her old wicked ways," Sevarius said. "She even came very close to her ultimate goal of destroying humanity again, though I'm sure it's no surprise to hear that she was, once again, foiled by your father's clan. She did nearly kill him in the process, not that a 'nearly' is any consolation."
"How long?!?" demanded Jericho. "How many years has it been?"
"Now, as you recall, you had savaged Jon Canmore, but you hadn't finished him off. Sloppy work, by the way. You should be more thorough next time."
"Next time, it'll be you if you aren't straight with me!"
"Dear boy, what, honestly, do you think you can do to me here?"
"Get on with it!"
"Canmore had a son as well. They caught up with your mother one night. Bluestone's family had the misfortune to be in the vicinity. Bluestone and his wife died. As did Canmore, but his son and Demona pledged to carry on their feud. Bluestone's son, however, intervened and ultimately put an end to both Hunter and Hunted."
"What? He didn't he he couldn't have killed her."
"No. Orpheus Bluestone worked the magic of his silver tongue on your mother." Jericho's mouth fell open, and Sevarius, smiling, hastily raised a hand. "Not in that way, you filthy-minded wretch. He used all the power of compulsion in his voice to convince Bryce Canmore to lay aside the Hunter's mask. And beseeched your mother to give up her centuries-old vendetta against humanity."
"I don't believe you."
"Sadly, I lack the talents of young Bluestone," Sevarius said dryly. "But what reason would I have to lie?"
"You're a sadistic monster who loves nothing better in this life than toying with the minds of those around you by one means or another."
The white brows arched in an expression of mild surprise. "Astute, but not precisely correct."
"Oh? How've I got it wrong?"
"You said 'in this life.'" Sevarius smiled again, this time very thinly. "What makes you think that I am alive? Given where we are?"
Jericho inclined his head to indicate he acknowledged Sevarius' point. Inside, he was still roiling with a cold nauseous dread. Sevarius couldn't have been telling the truth about Demona.
He supposed that had theirs been the kind of encompassing, all-giving love he had heard of in the stories that Princess Katherine used to weave for them when they were hatchlings on Avalon, he would have wanted nothing more than for Demona to be safe and happy wherever she may be. Even if it meant being safe and happy without him. He shouldn't have wanted her to suffer and be miserable in her loneliness.
Yet as it was, as he was, he found the thought of her moving on, getting over him, to be an unbearable agony.
"Shall I go on?" Sevarius inquired with pleasant malice.
"Do your worst," Jericho said.
"My dear boy, you have no idea what you're inviting."
"You mean to tell me she's found a new love, don't you?" It was, of course, the absolute worst thing he could envision, and one that he knew Sevarius would delight in using, twisting it like a knife in his heart.
"As a matter of fact, I do."
"Let me guess," Jericho said. He had a taste in his mouth like copper pennies, and suspected it was either blood from him unknowingly biting the inside of his cheek or it was simply the very taste of his rage and dismay. "If so many years have gone by, why, then, the Maza woman must have aged and died, leaving Goliath bereft. And so, he and Demona reconciled."
"That would have been a good one," Sevarius said. "I'm almost sorry to disappoint you, but Elisa Maza is enjoying an exceedingly some might say uncanny long and healthy life. She and your father remain quite nauseatingly true to each other and happy together."
A titanic relief sagged Jericho where he stood. So long as it was not Goliath. Anyone else, he could stand. Except Brooklyn. Or Thailog, or Ebon, or whatever he wanted to call himself these days. Or
Well, in truth, no. There was no one he could stand to imagine replacing him in Demona's affections.
"It might interest you to know," Sevarius went on mildly, "that your little half-breed half-sister is all grown up and about to present her doting Daga and Zaza with their first grandchild."
"What of Demona?" Jericho demanded, caring not a whit.
"Look," Sevarius said, raising the silver ball of the cane again. "If you really wish to see, that is. I caution you, you may have second thoughts."
The ball flared alight, and as it did so, second thoughts aplenty bloomed like dark roses in his heart. He might have been able to bear being told, but to be shown
Yet, against all good sense, Jericho looked. How could he not?
He squinted against a dazzle of light, and beheld a sky so blue that he knew he was viewing the clear and blameless day. A woman strolled a meadow, her hair a lush riot of blazing red, her body lithe curves in a flowing skirt and figure-hugging blouse. Demona in her human form, breathtakingly lovely even so.
She rounded a wall and stopped, looking up. Her expression was pensive, but there was something in her eyes that Jericho had seen often, and knew well. The slow smolder of desire. Of hunger and wanting and lust.
A man entered the scene, and Jericho staggered back as if punched in the stomach. He shook his head in helpless, wordless denial.
"You seem surprised," observed Sevarius. "I don't know why. Who did you expect?"
A strangled sound issued from Jericho's throat. In the silver ball, he watched unable to tear his gaze away even though the sight made him want to rip the eyes from his head as Demona opened her blouse and her brassiere, letting sunlight caress her glorious bare breasts as she revealed them to the silver-haired man standing before her. Moments later, Macbeth crushed her into his embrace.
"Him?" he managed in a choked voice. "She she went to him?"
"You know their history. You know of the spell that binds them together. Their shared pain, their shared pleasure."
Jericho flung his forearm over his eyes and turned away. "Enough!"
"By this point," Sevarius said, "she'd done her level best to put you entirely out of her mind. She always was a deft one at lying to herself, the dear lamb. Only in her deepest dreams does she let herself remember."
"No. No, she can't have forgotten."
"The thought of you caused her nothing but pain," Sevarius said. "What she'd done to you. How she'd corrupted you, driven you to madness, driven you to murder. How she had bent your soul into a mirror of her own, and then lost you."
"Stop," Jericho said. He risked a peek at the scene still unfolding within the silver ball of light and had to stifle a roar at what he saw. He lashed out. His claws passed harmlessly through Sevarius but struck the cane and sent it rattling away. "No more. Please. No more."
"She was your entire universe and she pushed your memory aside like it was nothing."
"But then, you always were just a plaything to her. It was a game, wasn't it? She wondered how far she could make you go. And she found out, didn't she? But by then, it was too late and she herself was caught up in the momentum, in the insanity."
"She loves me!"
"Then how could she put you out of her mind so readily?"
Jericho fell to his knees, head in his hands. "She didn't!"
"You saw how she was with Macbeth." Sevarius' rasping old voice dropped to a rouge's leer. "How she liked it even more than she ever did with you. And why not? You were an eager young buck, full of energy, but selfish in the way the young so often are. Greedy for your own pleasure. Needing to take, to have, to own, to possess."
"As if you know of love!" spat Jericho. "As if you know of our love!"
"Never giving. Only seeking to satisfy her because of the arrogant male's pride it gave you to know that you were making her writhe and cry out. Whereas he, well, he knew her body like he knew his own. He felt what pleased her and it was his own reward, enhancing what he felt as he --"
"I'll kill you!" He meant it to be a shout, but it came out a broken tremor very near a sob.
"There is nothing you can do to me, dear boy. Remember where we are."
"She loves me," Jericho said. "I did everything for her. Everything."
"Yes, yes," Sevarius said soothingly. "You did." He paused. "Except for one thing."
Jericho raised his head and looked through the tangled russet strands of his hair at Sevarius' smug, knowing green eyes. "What thing is that? What do you mean?"
"Nothing, really an insignificant little trifle. Still, it was something Goliath managed to do for her. And now Macbeth has, as well."
"What are you talking about?"
"And you did try. I must give you points for trying. It's hardly your fault that you failed."
He had retrieved the cane somehow, though Jericho had not been aware of him moving to pick it up from wherever it had fallen. He held it out. "Look."
"I don't want to see any more."
"Oh, my boy, this you simply must see."
Against his will, Jericho looked. He saw Demona again, Demona as her gargoyle self, as beautiful as the twilight. She sat curled on Macbeth's lap, wings folded, head leaning back against his shoulder and hair spilling down over his chest. His arms were around her. His hands rested with loving familiarity on on
"That can't be," Jericho whispered.
Demona beamed up at Macbeth, her eyes shining. She stroked his face, combing her fingers through the brushy silver of his beard. He kissed the top of her head, and continued rubbing his palm in slow circles over the taut, swollen bulge of her stomach.
Jericho had never seen her look that way. The habitual anger was for once gone, erasing the tension from her brow and jawline. She looked content. Beatific. Never, not even when she was cradling baby Damien on those first few nights before it became apparent that something had gone drastically wrong, had she looked quite so peaceful, quite so filled with joy.
"She finally has all she's ever truly wanted," Sevarius said, his voice dripping with schmaltzy sentimental honey. "A family."
"I'm her family!" Jericho felt a shaking begin deep in his bones and work its way outward through his flesh. "I am all the family she ever needs!"
"Now, dear boy, you know that isn't the case. If it were, she would have been fully happy with you. What you had was sweet, but poisoned."
Blood ran in trickles down his palms. His claws were digging into the meat of his hands. "He can't love her. Not the way I do."
"But look what he can give her that you cannot."
"It was the spell!" Jericho shouted. "The damned Weird Sisters and their spell! Our child could not withstand the transformations!"
"Only because Demona was unprepared," Sevarius said. "That pregnancy took her by surprise. With the proper magical precautions but, well, I imagine you don't want to hear about that. Water under the bridge now." He sighed. "A shame."
"Do you mean " Jericho swallowed hard. "Do you mean that we could have had children, she and I?"
"Come with me. There's something I'd like to show you."
"Haven't you shown me enough already?"
Sevarius got up, and as he did so, the room around him was suddenly not a room anymore. Strange pale eddies of smoke whirled past, and the next thing Jericho knew, he was standing on a rocky precipice looking out at a sea of shifting darkness. Spires rose from the shadows, each spire encapsulated in a substance like living, milky glass. He could make out dim scenes and figures within them.
"What is this place?" he asked.
"Its name would mean nothing to you," Sevarius said. "This is a place where cheated fate dwells, the place of what should have been but never came to be. Look there."
He extended his cane, pointing with it, at the nearest of the spires. It was filled with cool white moonlight, the full moon rising over a stone castle wall. Sitting on the wall was a slim young gargoyle, an adolescent female in a demure cream-colored tunic. Her skin was twilight-blue, and the long thick plait of hair hanging down her back was as red as heart's blood. She gazed into the distance with sorrowful, winsome eyes.
Hardly daring to speak, Jericho breathed, "Sevarius who is she?"
"Oh, I think you know her name. I used to joke about it."
As he said it, the young female glanced around as if hearing some distant call. Her wings half-lifted from her back, their tiny talons curling. But then the air of expectancy left her and she settled into her former pose, seeming to sigh, the whip-thin line of her tail coiling idly around one graceful ankle.
"Our daughter?" Jericho asked, though he had known the truth from the instant he laid eyes on her. "Demona's and mine?"
"The daughter that could have been yours," Sevarius corrected. "Had things gone as they should have. The daughter that, now, may never be."
"Oh, Sevarius. Do I hate you more for this vision, or thank you for it?"
The old man shrugged. "Both, if it suits you."
"She is she is beautiful. Our Antigone. Look at her."
"Yes, well, I'd remind you that she is your daughter, but you haven't exactly shown yourself to be discriminating in your lusts."
Jericho whirled, eyes a furious white blaze. His claws passed through the insubstantial throat of Gustav Sevarius in what would have been a throttling grip. "That is my child!" he roared. "How dare you imply that I would ever look on her with anything but a father's own reverence and affection?"
"I witnessed how well you carried out your filial duties," Sevarius said, unruffled.
"She is to be cherished, and protected!"
"You impress me, young Jericho. I've never seen this side of you before. This protective urge. Perhaps there is something of a true gargoyle in you after all. What a pity it's been wasted."
The anger ran from him. Jericho stepped back, letting his arms fall to his sides. "To think that I could have given Demona such a daughter," he murmured, looking again at Antigone. "I could have brought that light of joy to her smile."
"And instead, she finds her happiness in the arms of a human." Sevarius shook his head.
"Is there no way to set things right?"
"There is no way to change the past, as you surely know."
On her lonely wall, Antigone swung her dainty feet and toyed with the end of her hip-length plait. He saw something of Angela in her, Angela as she had been oh so long ago on Avalon, when they were all still young and fresh and innocent, untouched by the grief and ugliness of the world. There sat his hope, his legacy, his future. Never to become.
"I want to speak to her," he said.
Sevarius looked at him. "She is a phantom, you know. A dream that never had a chance to be made real."
"I don't care. I want to speak to her."
"I suppose it could be permitted, but you'll regret it."
Jericho laughed bitterly. "What is one more regret?"
Darkness surrounded him, then dispersed in soft moonlight. He felt the air moving past him, the wind in his hair and under his wings, as he glided through a star-shot night sky toward a parapet. His feet touched down on solid stone as he landed.
The girl turned and rose, a tentative smile of welcome showing fine pearly fangs. "Father?"
She blurred in his sight as hot tears stung his eyes. Jericho's legs faltered and he had to steady himself on the parapet. He felt a light, hesitant touch on his arm.
"Father, are you well?"
A tremulous breath shuddered into his lungs. He straightened. "Antigone?"
How trustingly she gazed up at him! How slight, and fragile, and precious she was! Jericho felt a great upwelling tenderness that he had never before even suspected. He reached out with one quivering hand and brushed his knuckles against her brow ridge.
"Daughter," he said softly.
The scent of her was the sweet freshness of an April night. He touched her hair, coarse ruby silk. Her eyes shone with mirrored moonlight. The palm of her hand stroked his cheek. She tipped her head to the size, her expression quizzical.
"Father, why do you weep?"
"For you " he said, and swallowed. "For you, Antigone. For what should have been."
"And for Mother?"
Her question pierced him like a dagger. "If she could but have seen you if she could but have known " He explored her features with the tips of his fingers, then settled his hands on her slight shoulders. "You would have been the true daughter she always sought. We would have been the family, the clan, she always wanted. The clan she deserved after her centuries alone. Devoted to her."
"Why can't it be so, Father?" Antigone asked. "Is it too late?"
"Too late?" A terrible, broken laugh tore from his throat. "How can it be too late when it never was? How can that which never had a chance be put right? You do not live, Antigone. You never did."
"Will I? Ever?"
Gingerly, as though she might burst like a soap-bubble, Jericho drew the girl to him. He folded his arms and his wings around her in an enveloping cocoon. So delicate he could have snapped her like a twig. Yet vibrant. He could feel the warmth and life in her, the flutter of her heart against his chest.
"I would give anything, do anything to make it so," he said to her, breathing the night-flower perfume of her hair. "If only I could."
"There must be some way," she said. "Father, I so want to live."
"I swear to you, Antigone, if there were a way, I would do it if it cost me the last blood in my veins, the last breath in my lungs. If it cost me my very soul."
The sound of a phlegmatic throat clearing made Jericho turn his head. He reluctantly released Antigone, who stepped back from him looking puzzled and wary.
"As fascinating as it is to witness this uncharacteristic sentimentality," Gustav Sevarius said, "we must be going, Jericho."
"No. I'll remain here, with my daughter."
"I'm afraid that cannot be allowed."
"Father, don't go," pleaded Antigone.
"I'm going nowhere," Jericho said. He faced Sevarius defiantly. "If I am condemned to this place, at least we shall be together."
"My dear boy," Sevarius said ruefully. "You still do not, as they say, get it. This is Hell. Did you think you would be permitted to stay here and be happy? I thought you knew better than that. Come away from her."
Jericho took Antigone's hand. Her fingers closed on his in a desperate grasp. He could feel the fine bones, frail as those of a hummingbird. She was trembling.
"You're frightening her," he snarled at Sevarius.
"Don't leave me, Father."
Sevarius exhaled with ill-concealed impatience. "A moving display, to be sure," he said, "but ultimately futile."
Her hand was no longer in his. She was no longer at his side. Jericho looked around frantically. He saw, once more from a distance, the encapsulated image of the castle wall, and of Antigone. But rather than sitting pensively on the parapet, she was on her feet, mouth open in a silent, imploring wail, arms outstretched toward him.
"Antigoneeeee!" Jericho roared.
He flung his body forward, but the wind that had sustained him before was gone, and his wings caught uselessly at the dry, alkaline, bitter emptiness of Hell. He fell, struck, plowed through rough and stony grey soil, and leaped up with his skin scraped and stinging.
It was gone. She was gone. He stood on a vast spreading plain beneath a murky, unearthly sky. The air was a thick stuffiness that tasted sour and had to be pulled forcefully into his lungs.
"You dog," he said to Sevarius. "You lowly, despicable dog."
"Is that any way to talk to someone who means to help you?"
"Help me? You call this helping? You tell me that Demona's forgotten me, that she's found another lover "
"A better one," Sevarius added with malicious cheer.
"a new mate who gives her the child she craves! You show me the daughter that could have been ours, tantalizing me with that one bright flash of hope, only to snatch it from me like a spiteful devil! And you dare to stand before me and speak of helping me? I know that this is Hell, but even "
"Do you wish to give Antigone that chance for life?" asked Sevarius.
"Hell must have its limits!" Jericho caught himself. "What did you say?"
"I inquired as to whether you truly meant what you told her. About finding a way to let her become, to make her a reality instead of a figment of probability."
"Cease toying with me, you misbegotten reptile," Jericho said. "Of all the cruelties you've done me, this one is the worst."
"On the contrary. Would you risk all, do all, to make it so that Antigone could live?"
"You know that I would."
"If it cost that last drop of blood, that last breath of air, your very soul?" parroted the old man. He adopted his normal tone again. "Very poetic, by the way. I wouldn't have expected it of you. Clearly, fatherhood brings out a new facet of your personality."
"I would do and give and pay anything and all that was required," Jericho said.
"For a mere girl-child?"
"She is different. Antigone you saw her. She is special."
"All parents think their children are special," Sevarius said dismissively.
"She truly is," Jericho said. "Her spirit is like a shining new star. She would lighten the world. Antigone has power, a gift."
"You may be right about that."
"And even were she not, even were she ordinary, of course I would risk all for her. She is my daughter. As if you need bother to ask!"
"There is a way."
Jericho studied him with cold eyes. "I want no more of your games, Sevarius."
"This is no game. Think of it more as an offer, or an opportunity."
"You must really think me a fool."
Sevarius scoffed. "And that is new since when? But hear me out, young Jericho. At this moment, you are in a purgatory within Purgatory, neither of one world nor the other. Damned but not dead. You are protected by Elektra's well-meaning blessing, but that protection will eventually wear off, and you will be vulnerable to all the agonies Hell has to offer. Believe me, they are considerable, and for you, a living being, they would be all the worse."
"In what way?"
"You don't want to know." Something in his cool smile convinced Jericho not to press the matter. "Now, as I was saying, you are an unusual case. As you are alive, you could, while that lingering protection remains, leave this realm. You could return to the world above, to the land of the living."
"What manner of trick is this, Sevarius?"
"No trick. Hard as that will be, no doubt, for you to believe. You could go back."
"As I am? Myself, in the flesh?" Jericho paused, then jerked his head in an angry gesture. "Why should I listen to you? Why should I think you mean this offer? You'll not lure me into another "
"Yes, yes, you don't trust me, you've made that point abundantly clear. But what, really, have you got to lose? Especially compared to what you would stand to gain, and regain."
Jericho bit his lip.
"Demona, yours again," Sevarius said. "And in the fullness of time, Antigone with you. Your family. Your clan. Isn't that worth listening to me?"
"You lie whenever it suits you."
"That's what you think, but it is only because my command of language and the psyche are so much greater than yours."
"Pot and kettle. Consider, young Jericho. In all the years I knew her, the one thing Demona forbade me ever to do was work any sort of mind-control or suggestion upon her. I broke that rule, yes, but let's not quibble over the little details at this late date. I only ever did have her best interests at heart. I never tried to remake her mind and bend the very core of her personality. How do you suppose she would feel to know that she was at the mercy of such a drastic change as the one wrought by Orpheus Bluestone? Do you imagine she'd welcome it?"
"She would loathe it," Jericho said, a helpless fury roiling in him. "He destroyed her."
"I should say so. A thousand years' worth of hatred for humanity, her driving purpose and life's goal, erased. Not just erased, but reversed! To the point where she would marry yes, you heard me a human."
Jericho sank to his knees. "She married him?"
"Well, married him again," Sevarius said in a musing sort of tone. "Did they ever annul the one they consummated in Paris?"
"I " Jericho gagged. "I don't know."
He flapped a hand. "No matter. Now she lives as a happy little homemaker. No more enmity with the humans. No more plots against Xanatos or Goliath's clan. She is as docile and biddable as, well, a lamb."
"No," Jericho said. "I won't believe it. No one could do all that with with his voice!"
"Anger and loneliness gave her purpose," Sevarius said. "Gave her passion. Made her into the Demona you knew and loved. So, now that I do stop to think about it, perhaps you wouldn't want to go back after all. You shouldn't see her like that. You should treasure your memories of the real Demona, now that the real Demona is gone."
"She isn't gone!"
"The part of her that matters might as well be." Sevarius took a deep breath through his nose and shook his head as he exhaled. "What a shame. She had such a flair for it, too."
"Can't it be undone? What Bluestone did to her?"
"Unlikely. It would take someone of incredible zeal and devotion."
"Look at me, old man, if you speak of devotion!" cried Jericho. "All that I am, I am for her!"
"Well, if anyone could do it "
"I could help her. She wouldn't want to be like that. You know she wouldn't."
"To rescue her from a fate like this would be an act of unparalleled loyalty. Once she was freed from that insidious spell, you two would be together again. Able to pick up where you left off, or start anew."
To be with her again Demona.
He had been adrift before he met her. Lost in a world that felt meaningless. His previous existence on Avalon had merely been what the humans called going through the motions. He'd had nothing to care about, nothing to live for. Night after night of hunts and mock-battles and loveplay that fulfilled no need, that could not touch the cavernous emptiness within him.
Then she had come. She had found him. She had been his fiery beacon in the darkness. Once he'd seen her, and understood who he was, he had been hers. Utterly and without remorse. The vestigial affection he'd felt for Princess Katherine, the Magus and Guardian Tom had gone. The bonds with his brothers and sisters, never strong to begin with, had faded.
There was only Demona. Demona and her need. She needed him the way no one ever had. Needed him to be her arrow, her sword, her strong hand against foes who might have an advantage of physical power over her but who could never match her cunning. Needed him to love her. To adore and worship her.
She needed him now, more than ever.
How could he fail to answer that call?
"If there is a way," he said, "if you are in earnest and not toying with me, Sevarius, you know I will do anything for her."
"Ever the good son."
"Tell me how I can save her," Jericho said, ignoring the remark.
"You'll have to go back," Sevarius said. "She has tried to forget you, but the sight of you will remind her, will reawaken the part of her that has slept for so long. Be warned, though there will assuredly be obstacles."
"Her husband, for one."
Jericho ground his teeth. "She won't have anything to do with him once she's recovered herself!"
"And let us never forget your father. Great Goliath, wasn't that what you awestruck hatchlings grew up calling him?"
"I never did," he growled.
"He may be getting on in years," Sevarius said, "but he is formidable. And, having finally made peace with his former mate, isn't likely to stand back and welcome your return."
"I can deal with Goliath. That's a score I've long wanted to settle. You'll not persuade me against this by mentioning him."
"Persuade you against it? Perish the thought, dear boy. I only want to be sure you know what you're getting yourself into by going back. It will be an uphill battle every step of the way. Are you sure you're up to it?"
"I am." Jericho drew himself tall and spread his wings. "I will free Demona from this unnatural fate, no matter who or what stands in my way! This I vow by my very soul!"
"So be it," Sevarius said.
"Will doubtless be along in due time, once nature takes its course." The old man's thin lips curved. "I recommend waiting the ten years for the egg to hatch normally, and not seeking to hurry things along with this one. I'm sure you are in no hurry to repeat the mistakes that landed you here."
"You needn't fear that," Jericho said, suppressing a shudder of revulsion at the very idea of science or sorcery tampering with his beloved child.
"So you will be reunited with your beloved Demona," Sevarius said. "For a while, anyway, but I'm sure you'll make the most of it."
"What does that mean?"
"Well, let us not forget that Demona is immortal. You are not."
A long pause spun out. "Oh," Jericho finally said. "But I am young."
"Yes," Sevarius nodded. "As was I once. You'll be amazed how fast it goes by, especially once you have children. Or so I'm told, anyway, not having any of my own. But I'm sure that Demona will find a few decades with you more than worth giving up the rest of eternity with Macbeth. I'm sure once you are old and infirm, and she is unchanged, she won't start looking elsewhere."
"She wouldn't, I know she wouldn't," Jericho said.
"It didn't take her long to replace you last time."
"Only because she thought I was lost forever!"
"What a pity you couldn't be immortal as well," Sevarius said. "Although "
"It's not impossible. You never had much to do with David Xanatos, did you?"
"As little as I could help it." A wild pounding excitement thrummed through him. He was barely listening to Sevarius' words. The idea of returning to Demona, rescuing Demona was enticing enough the idea of giving her the daughter she had always dreamed of was beyond his fondest wish to be with her forever was an idea so transcendent that it nearly blinded him with hope.
"The years and money he spent on that foolish crusade," Sevarius said, "when all he had to do was ask. Ah, well. Maybe it was the conditional nature of such deals that soured him. A man like that would never trust even the most iron-clad contract, sure that there'd be a loophole. For example, the enchantment that binds Demona and Macbeth, as you know, renders them unable to die by any hand except each other's."
"The madness of the Weird Sisters," Jericho said. "Whatever they hoped to achieve was nearly undone by a thousand years of enmity! It is only luck that Macbeth never caught up with Demona, for the suicidal coward would have taken them both to end his pathetic misery."
"Since you are so wise, then, tell me, Jericho, to whose fate would you tie your own? In whose hands would you put power over your life and death? Your gentle Elektra seems to have a good heart "
"How can there even be any question?" Jericho laughed. "Demona, of course. I would live forever unless she herself raised hand to end my life. Without her, I would have no reason for living anyway."
"That sounds eminently reasonable. So. You are resolved, then?"
"I swore, didn't I?"
"Yes," Sevarius said. He grinned. "By your very soul."
Jericho couldn't recall having ever seen Gustav Sevarius grin before. It chilled him to the marrow. But before he could ask what the old man meant, his body was seized in a crushing black fist of nothingness.
Again, there was pain, and cold, but no heat. Quite a bit of cold. A deep, damp, frigid cold that soaked him to the bone.
He gasped, and icy granules filled his mouth. They melted instantly on the heat of his tongue. Jericho coughed and sputtered. He thrashed his way upright, shedding snow in a great cloud. His breath was a billow of steam. Whirling snowflakes pelted his skin and frosted his hair. The sky was white-shot black, low and heavy with clouds.
Everything had changed. Gone was the strange sluggish texture to the air. Gone was the flat, bitter-metal tang. Gone was the abnormal light of Hell.
"I'm awake," Jericho said. Exultation filled him and his voice rose to a joyous roar. "I'm alive!"
He looked eagerly around for some sign of where he was. No cityscape welcomed him. Through the falling veil of white, he could barely see a row of ice-choked trees and an expanse of open space, a field or a meadow. The air was winter-pure, fresh, clean.
"This is the real world, the living world! I've returned!" He threw back his head and pealed laughter at the snowy sky.
Only a few lights, golden-twinkling and elusive, played hide and seek in the blizzard. He set out for them, trudging through snow that came most of the way to his knee-spurs. The cold was not severe enough to hamper him. Instead, it seemed to embrace him, and invigorate him.
A dark, towering mass bulked above the meadow. His keen eyes made it out to be a castle, and his pulse quickened. Could this be the place? The very place upon the wall of which he had beheld Antigone? Was this to be his new home, where he and Demona would raise their daughter?
The lights he had seen glowed in some of the narrow, deeply recessed castle windows. Jericho reached the stone wall and hauled himself up. He dusted snow from diamond-shaped panes of thick leaded glass, and peered into a warm, comfortable hall.
There, a fire blazed on the hearth, and a long table stood surrounded by throne-like wooden chairs. Coats of arms, bright-polished weapons and woven tapestries adorned the walls. Hints of modern conveniences were tucked discreetly among the medieval furnishings.
A massive grandfather clock in one corner told him that it was nearly four in the morning. But an approaching shadow on the floor said that someone in this house kept late hours. Jericho hardly dared breathe with anticipation of seeing that shadow resolve into a familiar shape, a lush and curved shape with wings and a tail.
It resolved, instead, into the shape of a man. Jericho recognized him at once. Their paths might have crossed rarely before, but those occasions had been memorable.
Macbeth was attired for a winter night in dark corduroy pants, slippers lined with sheepskin, and a quilted flannel shirt. The fire gleamed on his hair and beard, edging the silver with gold. He carried a steaming mug in one hand and a large leather-bound book in the other, with a finger held in it as a placemarker. Upon his left ring finger, a wedding band glinted.
Jericho's talons sank half an inch into the stone window-casement. He had to turn his head until he regained his composure, lest the white-hot hatred burning from his eyes cast its glow into the room and alert Macbeth.
He looked so at his ease! The lord of the bloody manor! Jericho wanted to kick in the window, dive through, and section the man's throat like an overripe orange. His mind seethed with unwanted images of this man, this human, plundering Demona's body.
Her back should arch for no male but Jericho. Her lips should, in passion, sigh no name but his. How dare Macbeth to touch her?
But what good would it do? Jericho knew that his fantasies of murder would have to remain just that, mere fantasies. He could not kill Macbeth. As satisfying as it would be to rend his flesh and unravel his entrails, the man still would refuse to die. Jericho could only afford him a temporary, if exquisite, agony of torture. Which would in itself be worthwhile had he not also known that to do so would also mean causing like pain to Demona.
And so, though it boiled his blood to pass by, Jericho moved away from the window. He glanced up, placed his feet, and dug in his claws to begin a careful, quiet ascent up the side of the castle.
The next window he came to was shuttered against the storm, but through the slats he could make out a dark chamber, and an elderly human couple asleep in a bed. Servants, no doubt. Not that he was overly concerned about witnesses. Servants, he could and would kill with impunity if they inconvenienced him.
He paused again as he climbed, hearing moans and the heavy, rhythmic creak of a bed enduring vigorous lovemaking. Though the sounds were muffled by stone walls, he would easily have recognized Demona's voice. These cries of mounting ecstasy were not hers. It seemed some of the servants were more lively than the sound-asleep old couple.
To his left was another lighted window, in a portion of the castle that rounded out into a turret-topped tower. Jericho braced his toes on a ledge and maneuvered over to it. He heard high, merry, girlish giggles and the squeals of a child. He looked in.
The circular room had a high, vaulted ceiling and a padded floor. It looked like a cross between a fast food restaurant's play area, a gymnast's obstacle course, and the carpet-covered structures people bought for their cats. Everything was tubes, platforms, and slides.
A young female gargoyle sat cross-legged on a mat. She was of an iridescent violet hue, with webbed wings and perky horns and a bristle of black hair. Hers were the merry giggles as she dexterously juggled three colorful plastic balls.
Jericho's brow ridge knit. She was a stranger to him, yet struck him as vaguely familiar, or vaguely reminiscent of someone he couldn't quite place. The feeling that he should know her danced tantalizing at the edges of his consciousness, then was dashed away as another figure appeared.
This one was a much younger hatchling. Very young. A toddler. Wobbling on unsteady legs, tail sticking out the back of denim overalls, wings extended for balance.
Time seemed briefly to cease. Jericho's mouth went dry. He had, somewhere in the bottom of his mind, not really believed it. But here, in the flesh, was proof undeniable.
Azure-blue skin. Tousled red hair, a shade or two darker than Jericho's own, rusty-brown rather than scarlet. Chubby cheeks, dimpled chin, upturned nose but the resemblance was clear. In a few years, sharper features would emerge from the baby fat. This boy-child would favor his mother and his father. Jericho could see it already.
So it was true.
He watched the boy clamber over the edge of a shallow pit filled with more of the plastic balls, and tumble headlong into them while the violet female laughed. The boy struggled to a sitting position, gabbling nonsense, and attempted a clumsy throw. The ball sailed wide, and the female swatted it out of the air with her tail. The baby clapped his tiny hands.
The rage he had felt when looking at Macbeth was gone. In its place was nothing. A stone gargoyle, perched in eternal sentinel pose on the side of a castle, might have felt more. Might have moved more. Jericho stayed frozen where he was as the hatchling waddled to a series of low, wide steps leading from the ball pit to a slanted tube ridged with handholds.
It was true. Demona's child. Demona's and Macbeth's.
She had had let him be replaced twice over. First with Macbeth, taking Jericho's rightful place as her mate. And now with this infant!
What had they done to her? When Jericho found this so-called Orpheus Bluestone, he would see to it that the man begged for death before the end.
Worst of all, the presence of that boy-child was a slap in the face of fate. He had not only taken Jericho's place, he had usurped the destiny that belonged to Antigone!
It would be the work of a few seconds to break into the playroom and set things right on that account. Macbeth, he might not have been able to kill. This helpless hatchling was another story altogether. His little skull would shatter like an eggshell. And when he lay so much gravel in a heap, the proper path of fate would be restored.
But he couldn't, not yet. He would have to kill the girl as well regrettable, for she seemed no part of this, just some innocent with the bad luck to be in the way. As quick as he was, such a thing was chancy, hard to do quietly. He did not want a commotion. He had to find Demona first, and undo the spell's terrible hold on her mind. Then, together, they would do what had to be done.
That smug little face, though! Gloating! Gloating because he was here and Antigone was trapped in the realm of may-never-be! Gloating because the son that Jericho had tried to give Demona had been wrenched from her womb and died a pitiful half-formed death, while he was fat and sassy with a playroom full of jungle gyms.
"Enjoy it while you can, boy," Jericho muttered in a low, deadly snarl. "Which won't be for long."
He forced himself to leave the window and climb ever higher. The wind had picked up, and the snowfall was heavier, but the cold encompassing him came from inside.
Above him was a balcony, with glass doors and hanging curtains parted to allow a thin line of light. Jericho pulled himself up, shaking snow from his hair, and put his eye to the gap. He saw a majestic master bedroom, the sheets turned expectantly down on an enormous four-poster mahogany bed.
A scatter of jewelry was atop a dresser, including a golden tiara. Jericho's heart clenched violently in his chest.
The light came through an open door, from many flickering candle flames that reflected in the mirrors and marble surfaces of a spacious bathroom. He could only see a narrow wedge of the bathtub, and part of a mound of bubbles. The faint strains of classical music reached him through the glass.
Demona. He knew it. Demona lounging in the bath, one of her favorite indulgences. Perhaps with a bit of wine, and sharp cheese or rich chocolate to savor as she soaked.
He thought of her buried in bubbles like a sweet dessert in whipped cream, and it was a good thing for him he was standing on a balcony and no longer precariously clinging to a ledge because his knees buckled. Demona with her twilight skin shiny-wet and slippery, her limbs languid and relaxed. How often had he seen her like that? Countless times, not the least of which being the time he had walked in on her and Godiva.
A blink of red caught his eye. He froze, identifying the presence if not the exact design and function of some sort of security system on the balcony doors. If he opened them and, thinking of Demona in the bath, his hand was already touching the handle an alarm would be triggered.
Then she came into view.
His entire body ached with wanting her. No, not wanting needing, craving, requiring to survive.
Oblivious to his presence, Demona crossed the bedroom. She wore a short, black, backless satin wrapper that showed flashes of leg to the hip. Her hair was pinned up. Beadlets of water still sparkled on her wings, and drops traced glistening trails from her collarbone down the swell of her breasts.
By his reckoning, it had only been a matter of hours since he'd last set eyes upon her. Yet seeing her now struck him with all the hunger he would have felt had it been a year. When they were apart, her idealized image lived in his mind, but then when he did see her again, he always discovered her to be even more beautiful, more sensual, more wild and dangerous and desirable than he had remembered.
She walked toward the balcony doors. Jericho could not move. He knew this habit, too, how she liked to take a long hot bath and then throw open the windows to the winter night, the rush of cold so shocking and invigorating, wreathing her body in steamy mist.
Demona parted the curtains and saw him looking in at her.
A startled cry burst from her. She stumbled backward and sprawled on the rug, her eyes huge. Even in the dim candlelight, he could see how she paled to cloudy-blue.
Her mouth trembled. "Juh "
He laid his palms flat on the glass and spoke her name, his voice quivering with heartfelt yearning. "Demona. Oh, Demona."
Like one hypnotized or, perhaps, like one waking from being hypnotized she got up and came to him. Her gaze was disbelieving, searching him. He could barely hear her breathless whisper.
Only the doors separated them. Only the doors and that confounded alarm prevented him from clasping her in his arms. It was going to be all right. He could feel it. The devastating wrong that had been done to them would be corrected.
"I've come back to you," he said. "I've come back."
Demona jabbed at a keypad with an unsteady hand and opened the doors. The wind rushed past Jericho as eagerly as if it, too, was her deprived lover. Black satin rippled around her thighs and formed puckered nubs against the sudden taut peaks of her nipples. Curls of steam rose from her skin, just as he'd known they would.
"Is this real?" she stammered. "Is it really you?"
"Yes." He stepped into the room and reached for her, but she backed away, clutching at the satin wrapper as if she thought it actually concealed anything.
"I saw you fall "
"Not even Hell itself could keep me away from you."
Her fright and unease grieved him, cut him to the quick, but they were understandable after what she had been through. His grudging respect for the power of this Orpheus Bluestone went up a notch. He had hoped, had been confidently sure, that seeing him would be enough to crumble the walls of lies that had been built in her mind.
"This can't be," Demona said. "Lylth told me "
"It doesn't matter what you've been told," he said. "They've toyed with you. What matters is that I'm here, that we're together again. As we were meant to be."
"It's been thirty years."
He winced. "So long?"
Thirty years? She had been without her devoted Jericho for three decades? No wonder she had been susceptible to Bluestone! She must have been devastated, bereft, more alone than she had ever been!
"I thought you were gone forever. I thought I'd lost you, the way I'd lost everyone, everything else."
"Never. Not me." He extended a patient hand, or at least a hand as patient as it could be when all it wanted to do was touch her, feel the smooth warmth of her flesh.
"But I've " she trailed off and her glance shifted to the large bed, and to the scatter of jewelry, where he now saw a wedding band to match the one on Macbeth's finger.
"I know," Jericho said, striving to sound as tolerant and accepting as he could. "You married him. He even " Here, he had to take a deep breath through gritted teeth. "He even gave you a son."
Stark terror flashed in her eyes. "Don't "
"But it isn't right, Demona. It's a lie, all of it. They tricked you. They manipulated you in ways that even Gustav Sevarius never dared. We have a chance to take back our lives, you and I, and set things right."
"Jericho you can't be here. And tonight of all nights, with "
"I am here. Demona. I love you. How could any force in the universe keep me away?"
"You're you're dead."
He had been advancing, slowly, and she had continued retreating from him, and now was cornered. He gently took her wrist. She hissed in a breath and flinched at his touch, because she must have expected him to be insubstantial, or clammy as the grave. Instead, he was warm and solid and real. He brought her hand to his chest, holding it there, letting her feel the strong, steady beating of his heart.
Demona made a low, desperate moaning sound in the back of her throat. "No."
"I'm alive," he said. "I'm here. I'm yours. As I always was. I know about Macbeth and it doesn't mean anything. I know it wasn't your choice. I still love you. I will never stop loving you."
"I want you to leave," she said. She tried to pull her hand away and he wouldn't allow it. "Jericho, you have to leave. Now. Before anyone finds out. It's all I can do."
"Fight it," he urged. "Don't let them do this to you. I know you remember, Demona. I know they can't truly have made you forget me." He stroked her cheek, and she tried to draw away, shuddering, as if his caress was abhorrent to her now.
"What we had was madness," she said. "Insane and twisted and evil. I was out of my mind with hate, with greed."
"No. No, Demona. You wanted someone to love you. To be yours. That's what I am. That's all I am."
"I warped you."
"I was glad for it."
"It was wrong."
"You're my son!"
"And your lover. Your true mate." He cupped her face in his hands, fingertips skimming the corners of her brow ridges, thumbs rubbing the high curves of her cheekbones. "You gave me everything. My life is lived for love of you, Demona. You cannot deny that. You cannot deny me, when I am a mirror of yourself."
"Let go of me." She pushed at him, but it was weak and ineffectual. He sensed the hold of the spell giving way. Soon she would be free, would be his own glorious, fierce Demona again. "You're obsessed!"
"I am what you made me."
"I am not who I was then! I have a new life now, Jericho! I have a husband, a child! I have put all my old hatreds and lust for revenge behind me. Don't you see that? There is no place for you here."
"My place is wherever you are."
"Get away!" She pushed again, this time with force enough to make him take a step back. "I loved you once. Oh, it's terrible, but I did. I loved you. It was an evil love. It was a sickness on us both, a sickness that I created. Nothing good could ever come of it."
"That isn't so," he said, and smiled. "I've seen what will come of it, Demona. I've seen her. She's beautiful. She waits for us to give her the chance to become. Our daughter. Our lovely Antigone."
"You will be so very proud of her. It will work this time. No miscarriages. No kidnappings. Just us, and our precious egg."
"We have no egg, Jericho. There never was an egg, never a chance."
"There could have been. Should have been! And will be! I have seen her."
Her claws sank into his shoulders as she gripped him, and he relished the sweet pain, thinking of the many times she had raked his back or punctured his upper arms, bucking beneath him, eyes flaring rubies in the throes of orgasm. Her fresh-washed scent was all around him. He could not smell Macbeth on her skin, and the winter wind had cleansed away any lingering traces of the man's scent from the bedroom.
"Listen to me," she said sharply, with the old tone of command in her voice. "Jericho. You cannot be here. You have to leave. If you're found here if if anyone knew about this you'd be hunted. You'd be killed."
"I won't be found."
Her face contorted with distress. "I shouldn't even be helping you. I should "
"Nothing can stop me from loving you. Nothing can stop me from being with you."
"I don't love you anymore," she said, but her gaze cut down and away.
He knew she was lying, and that was the only thing that made the hearing of such words bearable. Lying, or not in her right mind. "You do love me," he said. "You'll remember. They took it away from you, but it will come back."
"All I can do is give you a head start," she said. "A chance to go away. Far away. You have to, Jericho. You have to go far away."
"And you'll meet me?"
"Then I will go nowhere. Not without you."
"They'll kill you!"
"They're welcome to try," he growled. "Let them try to separate us again. I challenge the world!"
"You have to go!" she shouted into his face. He had never seen her look so torn, so frantic.
"The further the better. You can never come here again. Never see me again. You need to go someplace new, hide out, and not let anyone know you've returned. They would never understand."
"Never see you again?" He slowly shook his head. "Demona, do you hear what you are saying? What they've made you say? My angel, my love, I won't let them do this to you. To us! Go away without you? I'd sooner cut my own throat."
She let go of him. "Jericho this is not some spell or mind control talking. What was between us is over."
"If I believed that for an instant, or thought that you believed it, I would die on the spot," Jericho said. "I live for you. My love brought me back to you. Nothing will ever drive us apart now."
"I love Macbeth. I love our son. My life is here, with them."
"You are meant to be with me, just as I am meant to be with you," he said. "And with our daughter, our Antigone. The rest of this is all lies and mirages!"
"What have I done?" she moaned, and skimmed the tips of her fingers a hair's breadth from his cheek. "What have I done to you? Is this what I thought I wanted? Is this the kind of love I thought I had to have?"
"Come with me." Jericho took her hand and stepped toward the open balcony doors. "Right now. We can be far from here by dawn. Forget Macbeth and the boy. Leave them. We can go far away together, and hide, and make a new life for ourselves where no one will ever "
Demona wrenched her hand from his grasp. "No, Jericho."
He heard genuine steel in her voice. He saw grim resolve in her eyes and in the stern set of her mouth. Her spine was an adamantine bar, wings back, breasts outthrust. Defiant. Breathtaking. Magnificent.
"Oh, Demona," he rumbled from the depths of his chest. "How I want you!"
A single step, and his head exploded in a nova of light. Something solid thudded across his back and the base of his tail, nearly paralyzing him with sudden crushing pain. When his vision cleared, he realized that the solid thing had been the floor, which he had slammed down upon with bone-jarring impact.
The entire side of his face was a shrieking throb. He could see nothing from that eye. Could feel nothing but agony. For all he knew, a shotgun blast had just blown that half of his head away.
Squinting through his one good eye for the source of the attack, Jericho did not see what he expected Macbeth standing over him with a smoking weapon. He did not see anyone but Demona, cradling her hand between her breasts and rubbing the knuckles.
She had struck him? She had struck him?!?
Demona wore a look of mingled horror and fury and raw determination. Her hair had come unpinned, a blood-fire tumble around her brow ridges and over her shoulders. Blazing coals burned in her eyes.
Jericho probed gingerly at his face. It had not been vaporized into a pulpy mess of tissue and bone fragments, but the merest contact with the pounding mass that had replaced his jaw and cheekbone made him flinch and hiss. The eye on that side was intact but slitted and watering a copious flood.
"He'll have felt that," she said, massaging her hand. "So now you have to go!"
"You struck me."
"Get out, Jericho. Before I "
"Before you what, Demona?" he asked in a hoarse whisper.
She inhaled through clenched teeth. "Before I kill you myself."
"They've driven you mad," he said in a tone of sick desperation. He clambered to his feet. "Oh, Demona, what have they done to you?"
There had been no shouts or signs of alarm from elsewhere in the castle. Jericho wanted to think that this meant they still had time, but he knew better. A crafty old warrior like Macbeth wouldn't give away his position by calling out. No, he'd be coming fast but stealthy, and would burst in unannounced.
"I'm sane," she said evenly. "For the first time in centuries, I'm sane."
He rose, testing his jaw, surprised that she hadn't shattered it. That punch would have broken a lesser gargoyle's neck. "By the Dragon you really mean that. You'd fight me?"
"I don't want to," she said. "Whatever else, you are my son and I did love you. But I won't let you do this. I won't let you ruin what I have, and I won't let you drag me back down."
"You're rejecting me?"
"Yes." She said it with steadfast tenacity, meeting his gaze with such directness that it was impossible to deny.
Something inside of him felt like it gave way in a helpless crumbling collapse. Was this how it felt when she had lost their child? This irrevocable slow-motion crashing sensation?
Jericho couldn't breathe. The air in the room was too thin, too hot, like slivers of superheated metal wire. The pain in his head and jaw was nothing compared to what he saw in her eyes.
She did mean it.
No. She didn't. She couldn't. Not the real Demona. Not inside where her soul was still true. This was the influence of Orpheus Bluestone talking. For all the power of his love, he had not been able to break through that mind-raping compulsion.
"Very well," he said softly. "If that is what you wish, Demona. I'll go."
Her gaze narrowed with distrust. "You have to believe me, Jericho. It's done. It's over."
"So you said." He touched his aching jaw again. "You were very emphatic."
No sound alerted him, but he sensed that they had run out of time. Before Macbeth could fling the bedroom door open and charge in, Jericho shot Demona one last terrible look, a look that made him feel as if his very soul were being sadistically shredded. He wheeled and dove from the balcony. Snow whipped into his face, the cold soothing where he hurt.
She had rejected him. Demona had rejected him.
He knew she did not truly mean it. There was no way she could mean it. But the chains binding her will were so strong! What would it take to snap them?
In midair, cloaked by the blowing white storm, he turned and hovered on an icy updraft. He could just barely see into her tower room, where her silhouette and that of Macbeth met and merged in a hurried, worried embrace.
Would she tell him? She'd have to. He would have felt the violent cracking collision of knuckles with bone. And Macbeth was not the sort of man to believe that Demona had, in a fit of rage, punched a wall. Not with no damaged wall to show for it. She would tell him. What would Macbeth do?
Was he in on it? Had he been behind this somehow? In league with Bluestone? It was a nasty, deceptive way to get back into Demona's bed, but Jericho supposed that he could understand what would drive Macbeth to it. After all, Macbeth had been with Demona before, however briefly. It was only natural that she had spoiled him for all other females, let alone all human women. He had probably been in love with her for hundreds of years anyway. Who wouldn't have been? Even mighty Goliath, for all his protestations to the contrary, would have taken Demona back in a heartbeat. Macbeth would have done anything, gone along with any devious plan, to have Demona for his own.
The antique Scottish bastard! Mayhap Jericho could understand, but that did not for a moment mean he was going to tolerate it!
If drastic measures were required to get through to Demona, then so be it. He would break through Bluestone's manipulation no matter what the cost! He would set her free! She might resist, fight him at first, but when all was said and done, Demona would realize. She would forgive him for what he had been forced to do in the interest of releasing her from such sinister bondage. She would thank him for it. Not immediately, but eventually. She would love him all the more for it, in due time.
He had no time to waste. No dawdling. No falling back and thinking over his options. He had never been much of a one for planning and strategy anyway. He had to act, now, striking fast and decisively.
Jericho soared high through the blizzard, until the castle was a light-studded dark blot below. He went into a steep dive, arms straight out in front with fists leading the way, the wind streaking along the streamlined contours of his body.
His target grew in his sights, a pinprick to a dot to a shape to a field. At the penultimate moment Jericho shut his eyes and tucked his wings close, knowing that if he had misjudged his angle of descent by even a little, he would fracture his shoulder on the stones.
The window was high and narrow, with thick diamond-shaped panes of glass set into sturdy wooden frames. The hinges were rusted to the point of being immovable. The locks were reinforced. And Jericho, hitting dead-on, went through that window like it was one of those paper-and-balsa banners at a high school sporting event.
The alarm drilled and blared. Lasers tracked him as he did a forward roll through the splinters and shards. The eye on the injured side of his face was seeing through a hazy film, and the good one was half blinded by the abrupt immersion in bright light. He didn't let that stop him.
He landed poised in a crouch, lips skinned back.
A green ball hit him in the face. It was followed by another, this one yellow as daffodils. Her aim was wicked-sure, and had she been armed with something weightier than hollow plastic, she might have done him some damage.
The web-winged purple adolescent realized almost as quickly as Jericho did that she couldn't really hurt him, and whirled toward the toddler. "Moray!" she cried in a high, piping voice.
Jericho was faster. He snatched the boy up by the straps of his overalls. Moray dangled, kicking and squalling, at the end of his arm.
The girl sprang at him, a little amethyst-colored ball of fury. Her talons skidded across his wrist, trying to make him drop Moray. Jericho's other hand closed on a fistful of inky-silky obsidian hair. She punted him in the groin, another bulls-eye, and had she been full grown, he would have doubled over.
He lifted, meaning to hurl her into the wall, and then was galvanized as he caught her scent. The hint of familiarity he'd had before came back to him now in a rush. He didn't know how it could be, but he knew. He recognized her parents in her.
"You're Tourmaline's daughter?" he asked. "And Jacob's?"
Moray's little tail cracked like a whip against Jericho's thigh. The boy was caterwauling at the top of his lungs, adding to the ear-splitting din of the alarms.
She twisted like a viper, wrapping her arms and legs and wings and tail around the arm that had a grip on her hair, and sunk her sharp teeth into his forearm. They pierced to the gumline, and Jericho laughed and howled at once.
"Tourmaline's, verily," he said. He swung his arm, flinging her free, but did so gently enough that instead of flying into the wall, she bounced onto the padded mats. She tumbled head over heels and came to rest looking like a crashed kite, winded but unharmed.
The playroom door did not so much slam open as it burst apart, split down the middle by a tremendous blow. A huge hulking shape filled the space.
"YOU?!?!" Jericho and Goliath bellowed in unison.
Thirty years, Demona had said but she and Macbeth had been unchanged. Now, Jericho could believe that much time had passed. He was almost as stunned by what the years had wrought as he was by Goliath's appearance in the first place. Though still large, and blocky with muscle, Goliath had aged. His sable hair had begun to go to grey, and his chiseled face was lined and careworn.
But his eyes were as white-fire as ever, and his roar shook the room with all of its thunderous resonance, as he stalked toward Jericho. His loincloth was hastily buckled into place. He reeked of musk and exertion.
The reason why became apparent as Elisa Maza, in a nightgown that had been pulled on inside out, sprang through the doorway and leveled a gun. She, too, showed the years, her dark hair mostly the color of smoke and iron. When she saw Jericho, her eyes flew wide and she staggered, gasping in shock.
Moray screamed and thrashed. Tourmaline's daughter rocked woozily into an upright position. "Help, Goliath, Elisa, help! He's got Moray!"
"Vee, stay there!" Elisa called. Her aim had wavered but now she steadied it, though was clearly reluctant to squeeze off a shot with the flailing bundle of boy in her way.
"Put him down, Jericho," Goliath said.
Jericho remembered the sounds of lovemaking he'd heard during his climb up the outside of the keep, and his nose wrinkled. "You may not be too decrepit to fuck your human, Goliath, but you're far too old to tangle with me."
A crimson beam lanced past him, scoring a burnt path that melted several plastic balls into sizzling puddles. It had come from the window. Jericho snapped a glance over his shoulder and saw Demona there, outside in the storm, holding Macbeth in her arms.
Macbeth held a laser rifle, source of that warning shot. Other weapons and gadgets hung from a black belt, which he had donned over his ordinary relaxing-at-home clothes. He did not look quite the same without his familiar billow of coat. Then again, Jericho had once battled him when Macbeth had been fresh from the shower.
They both went ashen as they realized he had hold of their son. The rife was lowered. At the same instant, the alarms cut out, and the silence would have been deafening if not for the wailing of the child. He held out his chubby arms toward his parents, blubbering.
"Moray," Macbeth said.
"Jericho, no!" Demona cried. "Leave him alone! I'll do anything!"
"It's the only way," Jericho said. "You know I hate to hurt you, Demona. I never wanted to hurt you."
Several voices were raised in pleas and denial. Goliath was hunkered down, tense, waiting for just the right moment to spring. Elisa was ready to take the first clear shot she could get. The adolescent, Vee, had a rebellious jut to her chin that Jericho remembered all too well from her mother. Stay there, like Elisa had ordered? Not very likely. She would go for him as soon as an opportunity presented. He was well and truly surrounded.
"Please," Demona said. "Let him go. He's done nothing. He's innocent."
"Done nothing? I won't even dignify that with an argument." Jericho gazed at her with love and sadness. "I will break whatever charm Bluestone put upon you. Then you'll see. Then it will be all right."
"Don't do this, Jericho," Elisa said. "You know it won't work."
He was waiting for Goliath to play the righteous "he is your brother" card, but Goliath disappointed him. Perhaps he'd finally come to understand the futility of appealing to Jericho's sense of clan, nobility and blood after all. Instead, Goliath edged closer, and Jericho knew that, old or not, Goliath really did mean to attack.
So did Macbeth. Jericho briefly pondered the odds of leaping aside at just the right moment to let Macbeth's shot take down Goliath, but the positioning was all wrong for such a convenient happenstance. No, if he wanted out of this room in one piece, he would have to make a move of his own.
They expected him to bolt for the window. He could tell by the way Goliath and Elisa were inching apart, fanning out. Elisa also seemed to be trying to cover Vee. But in so doing, they had left him a relatively clear shot at the door.
Curling Moray under his arm, Jericho bounded toward the doorway. Goliath, with keen reflexes undimmed by the decades, had anticipated him in the split second before he moved, and lunged to catch him. Jericho felt Goliath's talons rip through the meat of his calf, snag on the bony spur of his foot, and then lose purchase.
Outside, Demona and Macbeth yelled. Elisa swore. She fired.
The gunshot was flat and undramatic, and Jericho had time to think that if she was putting a round in the ceiling to scare him, she needed something that made a more impressive noise. A cannon, maybe.
Then the bullet punched into his back. It exited his chest in a gory spray. He even saw it go into the opposite wall. The sensation was like being skewered on a gigantic hot needle.
He staggered into the hall, coughing blood, the boy still clamped under his arm. Heavy thudding footfalls charged after him Goliath. Elisa, in cop-voice, barked, "Drop the kid, Jericho! Drop him now!"
She was close. In a red mist of pain and outrage the bitch, the human whore, had shot him! Jericho spun and lashed out with all his strength.
His forearm slammed into her temple. Elisa pitched sideways. Her neck broke with a sharp cracking sound and the change was instantaneous. She flopped to the floor, a boneless rag doll, with an expression of surprise not even having time to more than begin to register.
No one moved. Even Moray choked off his howls.
"Elisa?" Goliath said. He looked down at her. She was nearly at his feet, dark eyes blank and empty.
Breath seared in and out of Jericho's lungs, both through his throat and through a bubbling hole in his chest. The world was crowding in muzzy and fogged around the edges. His body felt sluggish and stiff, as if impending dawn was about to turn him to stone.
He was dumbstruck with disbelief. Had he killed her? Had he really? And not even entirely on purpose. In a way, he had respected and even admired that woman. Had owed her. Because if not for Elisa Maza, Demona never would have been his.
"No," Goliath said. "Elisa!" Her name became a cataclysmic roar, trembling the stone walls of the castle.
And then it became a thick, harsh, glottal groan. Goliath's left arm went rigid. His right hand clutched-hammered at his chest. He dropped to his knees and slumped forward, grey-streaked hair hanging around his face. The floor shuddered as he fell onto his side. His skin had gone a bruised slate color.
"Elisa," he gasped. His faltering hand crept over to hers, clasped it. Then went limp.
Goliath's skin crackled and hardened into stone. Hairline cracks formed, widened, turned into spreading jagged fissures. With a dusty sound like a sigh, his body fell apart into rubble and gravel.
Jericho stood riveted in place. He could not believe what he had seen. A numb, curiously empty feeling stole over him.
It was done Goliath dead one of his life's driving goals finally realized and where was the exultant satisfaction?
The fact that he, himself, was busy dying might have had something to do with it. The fact that his blood was pouring out of him by the pint and his lungs proved incapable of holding air would account for that feeling of emptiness.
"Oh," Demona breathed. She looked up at Jericho. Disbelief and incredulity filled her expression. Her emotions seemed nearly to mirror his own. Here was something she had long wanted, finally here, and she did not know what to make of it.
Dead. Goliath and his detective. Both dead.
He could feel his heart chugging and squishing in an irregular rhythm that spurted the blood from him in uneven gouts. His flesh was growing cold and leaden. Elisa Maza's final shot had been a fatal one. He supposed that as last acts went, it was one that she probably would have been proud of.
But he was not yet finished.
Jericho turned to complete his escape. As he did so, Macbeth's laser rifle fired. He was a fraction of a second too late. The beam passed through the spot where Jericho's head had been, blowing a platter-sized smoking crater out of the wall. Jericho smelled the crisp stench of burnt hair the laser had scorched his wild scarlet mane.
Moray recommenced his struggles and shrieks. His little claws caught a doorjamb and dug in, yanking Jericho off his stride. With a brutal tug, he tore the boy free, slung him over his shoulder and barreled down the hall.
Macbeth and Demona gave chase. Jericho ducked through a dark opening and the floor vanished beneath his feet. He had time to realize he had just charged blindly into a spiral stairwell, and then he was falling. He tumbled down and around, down and around, battering himself on the stone walls and wooden edges. The boy's cries rang and echoed in the confined space.
They were ejected from the bottom of the stairs and Jericho skidded across an entry hall, plowing up a rug in folds ahead of him. Chest heaving, he lurched upright and got his bearings. It amazed him that he had not yet dropped dead. Raw adrenaline must have been keeping him alive. Moray rolled past him, a squawking bundle of denim and flapping wings.
"Jericho!" He could hear Demona's frantic calls. "Jericho, stop!"
How he hated to disobey her! How he hated to hurt her! But it was the only way. She would understand. She would forgive. Once she was free, she would know why he'd been forced to do it.
The boy had been jostled but unhurt. His small face was screwed up and nearly purple with indignation, pain, fear and outrage. He had reached a volume and pitch that could have shattered diamonds.
Human faces servants gaped around corners in astonishment. Jericho ignored them. None were armed. None were in his way.
"Harm my son and you're dead!" came Macbeth's promise. The man leaped out of the stairwell, having descended with considerably more control and grace than had Jericho. He saw the gargoyle and the boy, saw the distance between them, and fired off a shot.
Jericho sprang sideways. The rug ignited in a fiery line and the tip of his tail was sudden blistering agony. He scooped Moray up and ran for a set of double doors that led to the outside. They were solid. Locked. Barred. They opened inward.
He kicked them anyway. The lock burst. The bar splintered. The hinges snapped. One door fell askew and the other crashed outward to land like a big wooden ramp down a flight of broad stone steps.
Again, cold wind and snow bathed Jericho's skin. His hot breath steamed around his head. Exterior floodlights turned the courtyard into a harsh white glacial stage. Multiple copies of his shadow paced and raced with him.
At the wall, he once again slung the boy over his shoulder and scaled it, gouging deep with claw and talon. The top was a forbidding barricade of spear-tipped iron points, but Jericho grabbed them and flipped himself over with ease.
Not far away, he could see woods. Sheltering trees. He made for them, expecting at any moment to have blackness swamp him and hear the crackle-crumble of his body disintegrating into death-gravel.
It didn't happen. He realized, too, that he was breathing fine. That the torrents of blood from his chest and back had stopped. That the charbroiled end of his tail only felt like a mild burn. That his cheekbone and jaw no longer hurt.
He prodded at his chest. He was coated with blood that had begun to cool and go sticky in the bitter cold. But he found no bullet hole. He found only a tender spot like a new bruise.
What the ?
At the edge of the woods, beneath the densely-interwoven canopy of boughs, the earth was bare in places. The wind had heaped the snow in erratic drifts, some waist-high. Icicles dripped from the branches.
Holding the boy in front of him like a small, lively shield, Jericho faced Macbeth and Demona. He stood tall and saw the uncertainty flicker across their faces. They knew the same thing he did he should have been dead already. Unless all of them had severely underestimated the lethality of the shot. Which, given that he had seen his chest erupt, did not seem likely.
They were both armed now, Macbeth with the laser rifle and Demona with a deadly-looking energy pistol. Moray babbled and reached imploringly. He was a disgusting thing, covered with half-frozen tears and snot, the front of his overalls a clammy wet patch. How she ever could have cared for this miserable whelp over him over Antigone
"Let him go," Demona said.
"I must do this," Jericho said. "For you. For us. For Antigone. It's the only way, Demona. Don't you see? You have to see."
Behind them, he saw movement, a quick blur of deep violet. The girl. Vee, Elisa Maza had called her. Spunky. As any proper daughter of Tourmaline should be. She was too young yet, perhaps too unskilled in woodslore, to make a proper huntress and stalker. But she had a warrior's heart and spirit.
"He's gone mad," Macbeth said.
"He always was." Demona's voice was husky, but her aim was unwavering, the energy pistol pointed at Jericho's head. "And I made him worse."
"You're letting them win," Jericho said. "They took everything from you, Demona. Everything you cared about, and everything you worked so hard to build. Your carefully-nurtured hatred and vengeance they robbed you of what gave your life meaning and purpose for ten centuries! Fight their control!"
"Let Moray go, and I'll come with you," she said. She lowered the pistol. "Please, Jericho. We can go away together. Far away."
"Oh, Demona," he said, his voice breaking. "I know what you're doing. You want me to put the boy down so he's out of the line of fire, but you haven't come back to yourself yet. It's a trick, a trap. I know you."
"He's not the one you want," she said. "It's me."
"Yes. Yes, Demona. I want you and I am yours. Nothing can change that. Look at me. Hell couldn't keep me from you. Death couldn't take me away. I will never stop loving you."
She held out her hand. The snow dusted her with white, softened her features, powdered the blowing crimson curtain of her hair. "We can be together again, Jericho."
"And now you seek to seduce me into letting down my guard," he said. "But would you kill me, Demona? Would you really? Could you?"
"I could," Macbeth said, and fired.
Ruby laser-light turned the snow to a bloodstorm. The beam struck Jericho in the base of the throat, inches above the top of Moray's head. He felt his flesh boil and melt. He pitched backward, once again unable to draw breath.
Demona screeched in horror. Lying on icy, muddy earth beneath a barren tree, Jericho wanted to think that the horror was for him. He knew better. She was still caught up in the enthrallment of Orpheus Bluestone, and was unable to believe Macbeth had risked going for it with Moray in the line of fire.
He still had the boy, clamped tight in his arms, against his chest. He could still feel the rotten brat wriggling and hear him bleating.
That calcifying, weighty lassitude slipped over him again. This was it. This time, the wound was mortal. He didn't know how he had survived as long as he had after Elisa shot him, but Macbeth had well and truly done him in.
Jericho sat up.
Demona and Macbeth, who had been rushing forward, halted with identical gape-mouthed looks.
"You filthy human," Jericho said, his voice dragging and clotted and strange. He cleared his throat with an agonizing spasm and ejected a wad of cauterized tissue into the dirt. It looked black and leathery.
"Impossible," Macbeth said. "He he's like us?"
"Sevarius!" Jericho tried to laugh and spat up crusty, baked scabs of blood. "The wily old goat!"
"Sevarius?" Some teasing verge of epiphany glimmered in Demona's eyes. "Gustav Sevarius?"
"I spoke to him in Hell. He told me. He told me everything, Demona." Jericho rose again. He could feel his body mending, healing. His voice regained its normal tone and timbre. "He made me an offer, though canny lizard that he is, I did not comprehend it at the time. My life is bound to you, now. As it should be. As was meant."
"What?" she whispered, so terribly pale.
Macbeth, evidently seeing that even his laser rifle was of no use and quite reasonably grasping the futility of going up against an invincible foe, lowered the weapon. His fingers danced over the array of gadgets at his belt, and Jericho thought that he must be cataloging them by feel. Electrically-charged net, smoke bomb, explosive grenade all useless.
He seemed to be paying no further attention to the conversation between Demona and Jericho. His silver-steel gaze was fixed on Moray. Under that firm paternal stare, the boy had quieted and was holding still. Jericho didn't like that. A flailing, struggling Moray, all waving limbs, made a much better shield.
"I never thought about it much before," Jericho said. He laughed, this time a hearty, normal-sounding laugh. "But of course, I should have. Given that you would live on unchanged, and I would age and die."
Wait what was he thinking? He no longer needed a shield. Moray had just outlived his usefulness as a hostage.
"Now, though we are both immortal," he went on. "We have all eternity. Together. Once you are free. Once you are yourself again."
"All right," Demona said, easing toward him with her hand outstretched, her posture non-threatening. "Together. You and I."
Anyone else might have been fooled. He smiled, though it was not without a touch of sorrow. "Demona Demona as well as I love you, I know you better. The spell is not yet broken. You continue to cling to these mirages, these delusions. I have to break their hold on you. Eventually, you will forgive me."
His talons sliced deep. Flesh parted like soft dough. Hot, wet blood gloved his hand.
Demona's scream split the night. Macbeth's roar could have rivaled that of any gargoyle.
The child was even more fragile than Jericho had thought. His little body went rigid, back arching, wings standing out stiff as boards. His neck was flayed open clear to the spine, his head nearly torn off.
Jericho dropped him. Moray smacked the ground, pitiful on the mud and hard winter earth. He groped feebly at the air, his skin fading from azure toward pink and the nub of what Jericho realized was a fifth finger beginning to sprout a transformation like Demona's, but not ruled by dawn and dusk.
And far too late to make any difference. Human child or gargoyle hatchling it didn't matter. The boy was dead.
A fleeting brush of remorse touched Jericho. After all, in a way, that had been his brother.
But he had his daughter to think of.
"I am sorry to cause you pain, Demona," he said to her. "It was necessary. You'll see that. Without the false comfort of these lies, you'll see."
She and Macbeth only stood staring at their son's corpse. Rather than turn to stone, Moray had reverted entirely to human in his final moments. He looked very small and very innocent.
Muffled sobs reached Jericho's ears. The girl, watching this drama unfold from her place of hiding.
He paid her no mind. He looked at Demona. Beautiful Demona even wracked by grief, she was beyond compare. How he loved her!
At any moment, the deception would unravel, the blinders fall from her sight. She would remember who and what she truly was. She would raise her head and see him, him, her own and only Jericho. She would come to him.
The hand she had been holding out toward him now rose, faltering and shaking, to cover her mouth. She collapsed against Macbeth. His arms circled her, crushed her close. Macbeth's face was a hideous rictus of grief. It was as if something irreparable had broken within them. They sagged into each other, their strength gone.
"Get away from her," Jericho said, bitterly offended at the persistent, aggravating presumption of the man. "How dare you touch her again!"
Yet Macbeth ignored him, had the gall to ignore him and speak only to Demona.
"It will never be over," Macbeth said, caressing Demona's cheek, curling a lock of her hair around his forefinger. "He won't give up."
"I know," she said softly. Her voice was a hollow husk of itself, spiritless and desolate. She leaned her brow against Macbeth's chin. "And with his life tied to mine "
"I said get away from her!" Jericho stepped over Moray's body. He would pull them apart forcibly if he had to. The persistence of Bluestone's mind control astounded him.
There was a metallic click, and a beep.
"You and I are one," murmured Macbeth.
"Now and forever," Demona said. She kissed him, a tender and sweet kiss the likes of which she had never once bestowed on Jericho.
"What no!" Jericho threw himself at them, understanding a heartbeat too late.
The grenade Macbeth had surreptitiously fished from his belt went off in a thunderclap.
The concussion sent Jericho hurtling back into a tree. He sheared through its trunk and slammed into the next one, bones crunching, sharp splinters shredding his wing membranes. A bough smashed down across his legs, pinning him.
He was deafened, stunned, injured, blinded. He didn't let any of that stop him. Flinging shattered branches aside like toothpicks, he fought his way out and froze at what he beheld as his vision cleared.
The grenade had been held between their bodies, and their embrace had been so tight and unbreakable that even the blast hadn't been able to push them apart. The contained, channeled explosion had as a result nearly vaporized them both.
"Demona?" he asked in a breathless whisper.
It couldn't be. He refused to believe it.
His addled senses slowly returned to normal, the pain of his injuries likewise fading, but the scene before him remained the same.
No miraculous regeneration. No movement at all.
"Demona!" he cried.
The wind picked up, swirling loose snow into eddies and miniature tornadoes. Three of these funnels grew, grew, and then coalesced into three tall, stately female forms. Their gowns of blue and white and their fair skin blended into the blizzard. So did the moonsilver and midnight hair of two of them. The hair of the third, muted gold, was the brightest thing about them. Except for their eyes, which were like jewels.
"The Weird Sisters," Jericho said.
He knew them well from the brief, ludicrous battles against the Archmage on Avalon. The battles which had convinced Guardian Tom that only Goliath, only Great Bloody Buggering Goliath, was the clan's only hope.
None of them looked his way. They positioned themselves around what little was left of the bodies. An unseen force gently cradled Moray and floated him over to rest with his parents.
"They're not they can't be " Jericho said. He could not even bring himself to say it aloud.
The dark-haired Sister gave him a silent look of withering scorn.
"No!" he said. "No, it cannot be! Not Demona!"
The trio joined hands, forming a ring.
"She cannot be dead!" Jericho insisted. He beat his fist against his chest. "If she is, how come I am alive? My life was linked to hers! If she was dead, I would be, too!"
It was the silver-haired sister's turn to glance at him, which she did with aloof disdain. As if he, Jericho, were a thousand times the fool, but it was really no more than to be expected.
"I tell you, it is so!" he shouted, though she had not accused him aloud. "I said "
He trailed off. A slow, creeping realization came over his mind.
The golden-haired one shook her head, not without sympathy.
Like the memory of a dream, Jericho heard his own words, echoing back to him. I would live forever unless she herself raised hand to end my life.
Yes. He had said that. He had said those very words to Gustav Sevarius.
Or to whomever whatever had been speaking through Gustav Sevarius.
"Only Demona can end my life?" he asked.
The dark-haired one rolled her eyes and scoffed.
"But she's she isn't she can't be "
The silver-haired one seemed to sniff haughtily.
"No," Jericho said. It was very nearly a whimper. "No, not like that, it cannot be like that, she cannot be dead and I'm left here! No!"
He ripped his claws lengthwise up the inside of his forearm, parting azure skin in long, raw, ragged furrows. Blood welled up and pattered the snow, but almost at once the flow dwindled, then ceased, and he could see his flesh knitting itself together again.
The golden-haired one turned a pitying gaze upon him.
"Without her to kill me, I cannot die," he said. "Is that what you're telling me? Is that it?"
Still, none of the three spoke. Their eyes scornful, haughty and pitying were as cool and unearthly as moonlight.
"But I live for her! I am nothing be it not for Demona! How can I be expected to to go on to face an eternity without "
He did not realize he was slumping to his hands and knees until he saw his fingers splayed in the bloodstained white. His falling tears were like scalding drops, melting holes where they struck.
The Weird Sisters began to circle. They stepped lightly as ballerinas, their feet not sinking into the snow, their hair tossed by the wind.
What else had he rashly blurted?
This I vow by my very soul.
A fey, rainbow-hued light twinkled into existence around the trio. It strengthened, dazzled, sparkled, and then winked out.
They were gone. So were the remains of Demona, Macbeth and Moray. Jericho was left alone in the winter night.
To be continued