Shameless Plug

Christine Morgan (

Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and used here without their creators' knowledge or permission. The city of Thanis, its surroundings, and its people are the property of Christine Morgan, from her novel Curse of the Shadow Beasts.

        "I dinna know if this is such a good idea," Hudson grumbled.         "Aw, come on, Hudson!" Brooklyn laughed. "It's only Alex. What could go --"         Hudson's hand shot out and clamped around the end of the younger gargoyle's beak. "Dinna say that, lad. Ye'll be asking for it for certain."         "Bmm-hmm-ff," Brooklyn said, rolling his eyes.         The massive door to what Lex had termed the "Danger Room" began its slow swing open. Eighteen inches of durafoam padding over four inches of solid steel, on hinges as big as a strong man's arm, yet it moved silently and without any hint of the great weight.         Angela emerged first, wearing a scanty leotard that made Brooklyn's tail twitch. A towel was slung around her neck, and a fine sheen of sweat glistened on her lavender skin. Behind her came her rookery sisters, Aiden and Elektra, both in more modest exercise attire.         "I pulled something in my tail," Aiden complained.         "Want me to massage it for you?" Brooklyn leered, never missing an opportunity to tease the easy-to-blush former human.         Angela snapped her towel at him. To Aiden, she said, "I _told_ you not to swing from it. You're not a chimpanzee!"         "Chimps don't have tails anyway," Aiden pointed out.         A low groan drifted from behind the door, and Elektra solicitously held it open for Elisa. She was dressed in plain grey sweatpants and a dark blue T-shirt reading "Property of the 23rd Precinct."         "Oh, I think I'm going to die," she said, making a hobbling bee- line for the nearest thing to sit on -- in this case, an antique bench with a gilded grape-and-vine motif.         "Too much for ye, lass?" Hudson inquired. "Ye canna expect to be back to normal so soon after birthing yer bairn. Ye should be resting."         "I'm never going to get back in shape sitting around, though," Elisa said, throwing an envious look at the slim waists of the other females and poking despairingly at the pooch of flab around her own middle.         "We've had a lot more time, though," Angela said. "Remember how we looked right after laying the eggs?"         Aiden grimaced. "I looked like a big grey raisin."         Elektra, who had barely gained any weight at all during her pregnancy, wisely said nothing.         Fox bounded out of the Danger Room, a vision in skin-tight red and black spandex. "Well done, ladies! Same time tomorrow night?"         The gargoyles nodded eagerly; Elisa slumped lower on the bench and sighed.         "A swim, perchance?" Elektra's suggestion was greeted enthusiastically, and the females raced off for the pool.         "Alex and Puck are almost ready," Fox told Hudson and Brooklyn.         "Are ye sure this is best?" Hudson fretted.         "Puck says he needs the practice, and he's promised not to hurt you."         "It's not us getting hurt that worries me! He's such a wee lad ..."         "He's tougher than he looks," Fox said proudly. She pulled the ponytail from her golden-red hair and shook it free. "Have fun, boys, I'm off to the shower. Elisa?"         "In a minute."         Goliath appeared in the hall as Fox was leaving. A tiny figure was dwarfed even further by the huge cradle of the crook of his arm. Little tawny-tan fists waved in the air as Amber saw her mother.         Elisa smiled up at her mate and daughter. "Somebody hungry?"         "Isn't she always?" Goliath's voice held an indulgent pride that he thought he kept concealed, though nobody was fooled.         Although the doctor suspected Amber's eventual growth might turn out to be about 3/4 the human rate, she was growing fast to catch up to the size of a normal gargoyle hatchling. Only a few weeks old, she could already hold her head upright, and looked around alertly. As Goliath swept her through the air, she burbled and kicked her tiny clawed feet, extending her wings. She wore only a diaper, which hid the small rounded nub of a tail that poked from the base of her spine.         "Look at that," Goliath said in that same doting tone. "Look at those wings!"         "The lass is a born glider," Hudson agreed, beaming at Amber.         "Okay, kiddo," Elisa said, standing. "Let me grab a quick shower, and then dinner is served." She pressed a quick kiss on the top of Amber's sable-downed head, then another on Goliath's cheek.         Puck poked his head around the edge of the door. "Ready to rumble?"         "Ready to put your student through his paces," Brooklyn said, hooking his thumbs into his belt and swaggering into the Danger Room like a gunslinger. "Let's see what the kid can do!"         Hudson shook his head wryly and followed.         The large space was padded and soundproofed. And supposedly fireproof, magic-proof, and idiot-proof. Supposedly. Nothing that went on in here would affect the rest of the castle. So Xanatos was wont to claim, and thus far the claim hadn't been disproved.         The ceiling soared three stories high, with platforms suspended at differing heights, and pillars ranging from short and squat to tall and narrow rising like a strange synthetic forest among the more traditional fitness equipment. One of the platforms was outfitted with devices that put Hudson in mind of a torture chamber -- spiked balls swinging from chains, beds of nails, large metal hoops with retractable blades.         Amid all of that, Alexander Xanatos looked very small. And very cute, too, in his miniature karate suit. But that charming appearance didn't deceive; the boy's eyes were far older, far stranger, than any soon- to-be-kindergartner’s should be.         The door closed behind them and from deep within it came the triple-whunking sound of the bolts sealing them in.         Overhead, Puck wove a complicated pattern in and out of an aerial obstacle course, his hair flying around him like a snowy nimbus.         "Yeah, sure, let's see you try that with wings!" Brooklyn shouted up at him as Puck executed one particularly difficult maneuver.         Puck abandoned his game and floated down. "I'll try it with wings, if you'll try it without!" He waggled his fingers toward Brooklyn, who hastily backed off.         "Forget it, just forget I mentioned it," Brooklyn said.         "So, laddie, what have ye got for us?" Hudson asked Alex.         "Teleportation," Alex said, a twinkle in his eye. "I can do it myself --" he squeezed his whole face together in concentration, and disappeared.         Hudson's mouth fell open in alarm, but before he could speak, he heard Alex behind him.         "-- and I can teleport my toys, but I need to work on real people."         He turned and looked down at the impishly-grinning child. "Ye canna mean us?"         "I've teleported some people," Alex said. "Even Daddy. But that was when they were standing still, waiting. Not trying to get me."         "Let me see if I've got this straight," Brooklyn said. "We're supposed to attack you, and you're supposed to try to make us miss by ... popping us someplace else? Like where?"         "Only inside the room," Alex assured them. "It's warded."         "I dinna know if I like this," Hudson said, back to his initial argument. "Too dangerous."         "That's why we're doing it in here," Puck replied. "Alexander needs to get used to using his magic in a situation where he won't have the leisure time to think about it. An enemy isn't going to stand back and let him gather his concentration."         "Aye, I know," Hudson agreed heavily. "'Tis the same for a warrior. In battle, there's precious little time for thinking. Very well, then. If it'll help the lad learn ..."         As Alex levitated himself to one of the upper platforms and Puck retreated to the observation deck, Brooklyn and Hudson clambered up pillars until they could get some air under their wings. Hudson gave the younger gargoyle a nod, and Brooklyn veered to the left so they could come at the lad from both sides.         Alex turned in place, trying to keep an eye on both of them. Brooklyn struck first, zipping in fast to tap the boy on the shoulder.         Hudson began his own approach while Brooklyn distracted Alex with a series of aerobatic twists and dives. Then he saw Alex's turquoise eyes fix on him, squint, and --         He was tumbling crazily, at the other end of the room and so disoriented that he didn't know which way was up until his shoulder slammed into the thick mat that covered the floor. He instinctively tucked his wings close, rolling. His body stopped moving several seconds before his senses seesawed back to normal. He looked up to see Brooklyn gaping down at him, impressed.         "Wow, he really did it! He zapped you a good thirty yards!"         "Aye, and scrambled my brains, too," Hudson said, getting unsteadily to his feet and clinging to a pillar for balance.         "I'm sorry," Alex called. "I didn't warn you! It makes you dizzy!"         "That it does, lad, that it does." Hudson shook his head to clear it, then began the long climb back up. "All right, then, let's try again."         Next time it was Brooklyn who got unlucky. One moment, he was a streamlined bullet of dark red on a swift approach, the next moment he was a hodgepodge of limbs flailing for balance before belly-flopping onto the mat. "Oof!"         While Alex was watching Brooklyn try to recover, Hudson came at him from the rear and made to scoop him up. Startled, Alex blinked out and blinked back in the same spot after Hudson had passed through.         Brooklyn was up and moving with the resilience of the young. His next attack took Alex by surprise when he changed course at the last instant and swept under the platform, striking it with his tail hard enough to make it tilt and sway. While Alex was scrabbling for a handhold, Hudson dropped from above and touched the boy on the head.         They kept on in this vein for several minutes, until Alex began to tire. "One more time," Puck urged. "Then we'll call it a night."         "Okay," Alex called, running his hands through his hair and firming his jaw, and looking eerily like his father.         His next effort missed both gargoyles completely, and took out a length of the cable supporting the platform. The cable reappeared on the far side of the room even as the platform's corner dipped and Alex tumbled into space.         Brooklyn and Hudson both went for him, both reached him at the same time, arms outstretched to catch the falling child. Hudson's fingers found a wrist and closed around it. He saw Brooklyn grasp the boy's other arm, saw Alex's face scrunch up in effort, and realized too late to let go that the boy was trying to teleport.         A turbulent, unseen force seized them. Hudson braced himself for a hard landing.         The landing didn't come.         The spinning, maelstrom sensation went on and on. Hudson's lungs shrieked for breath. His old adage about protecting the castle clanged in his mind like a bell. He could not move, aware that his fingers were still clenched on the delicate bones of Alex's wrist but unable to feel that wrist. Unable to see, to hear.         Alone in a chaotic cyclone.         He snapped back to himself with an almost audible pop and felt open air, open sky around him. His brain was awhirl with dizziness, the disorientation of before now ten times worse.         Falling.         Wind rushed past him, cool and fragrant night wind. He saw a magnificent spray of stars across a heaven more indigo than indigo, saw an impossibly huge silver moon hanging over a bed of soft-fluffed clouds.         He realized that he had released his grip, even as he had reflexively spread his wings to check his own fall.         Brooklyn? He saw the dazed warrior spinning downward like an autumn leaf. Below him, plummeting, the limp form of Alexander.         Hudson dove, focused only on the small shape dwindling toward earth. His mind babbled of incredible sights that he would not let himself think on until he had either saved the lad, or failed.         His questing hand found one of Alex's legs. Claws snagged into the loose weave of his clothes, then ripped through. Hudson lunged and snared the back of his belt, then pulled the unconscious boy securely into his arms.         Only then, as an updraft sent him toward the recovered, dumbstruck Brooklyn, did Hudson let himself believe that he was in fact seeing what he thought he was seeing.         It wasn't his teleport-addled brain that had made the stars seem so bright, the moon seem so large. The stars lay in unfamiliar patterns, and the shadows on the moon's pale-cheeked face were not the shapes he had learned at the knees of the elders when he was a hatchling.         A second moon sailed the sky, a charcoal-grey orb dotted with darker patches that almost resembled the mottlings of a gargoyle egg.         Hudson and Brooklyn stared at each other, neither willing to be the first to speak. By silent agreement, they glided to a spur of rock jutting from a mountainside and landed. Hudson rested Alex in a mossy nook, then stood on the edge with Brooklyn to survey the surroundings.         Their perch was on one mountain of many, overlooking a long narrow valley. The sides of the valley sloped upward from a wide rippling river that had carved out its passage over countless years. Low trees, some in regular order that bespoke orchards, covered the hillsides that stretched along the meeting place of valley and mountain.         The world was rich with scents, none of them the scents of Manhattan. No smog dimmed the stunning clarity of the air. Hudson could smell freshly-turned earth, livestock, fish, the green aroma of farmlands and gardens. Spring smells. Planting and shearing time.         An oblong black form slipped along the shining river, toward an upstream curve that swept it around a bend and out of Hudson's sight. Oars dipped and pulled, and a barely-heard voice kept count for the rowers. Those were the only sounds besides the calls and cries of nocturnal creatures.         "Avalon, do ye think?" Hudson finally asked, although he knew it wasn't.         "No," Brooklyn said. "Angela's described it often enough, and it just doesn't _feel_ like it, if you know what I mean."         "Aye, I do. It reminds me of ... of home."         "Except for that." Brooklyn pointed at the dark moon, the alien constellations. "What do you think happened?"         "Our wee sorcerer had a mishap, and took us along for the ride."         "So what now?"         "We'd best have a look about." Hudson collected Alexander, who still showed no signs of coming around. Though, on the good side, he showed no signs of worsening, and seemed only to have worn his poor self out with the effort of bringing them here. Wherever _here_ was.         "Follow the boat?" Brooklyn wondered. "Maybe we'll find a town." He brightened. "Maybe we'll even find gargoyles!"         "Maybe we'll be finding trouble, too," Hudson said, patting his sword to assure himself that it, too, had come along on this strange journey. He'd considered setting it aside, not having any plans to use it in Alex's exercise, but as he would have felt more naked without his sword than without his loincloth, he'd left it belted securely to his stout waist.         They took to the air, finding the updrafts generous and smooth along the path of the river. Here and there, streams from the mountains cascaded in shimmering froth, and they saw several stone formations that seemed too regular to be natural. Upon closer inspection, they could find nothing to suggest they _weren't_ natural, but the feeling lingered.         "The farmhouses!" Brooklyn said after gliding low to affirm that the lands hugging the river were indeed farmland. "They're river rock, thatch roof ... no electricity ... it's like we've gone back in time!"         "Aye. This world, whatever else it might be, is ... how did they call it? Medieval." Hudson went around the river bend, stopped short, and motioned for Brooklyn to join him.         The city rose before them in a series of walled tiers, resembling a giant wedding cake. At its height, the functional bulk of a large castle stood beside a simple yet majestic tower that glowed with its own serene radiance. A bridge stretched from the fourth tier to a distant fortress atop a plateau.         As the tiers descended, so did the quality of the buildings, so that the finest manors were near the top and the peasant hovels toward the bottom. The boat they'd been following had pulled up to a wharf, which spread partway around the lowest wall of the city like the dirty skirt of a child weary from a long day's play in the mud.         Firelight shone in lines and squares and globes, through shutter slats and open windows and the smoked-glass globes atop lamp-posts. A somnolent drone lay over the city, the sound of many people and animals, most asleep, a few others going about the business of the night.         "Wow," Brooklyn said softly.         Hudson regarded the foreign city for long moments before speaking. "Do ye think we should have a closer look?"         Brooklyn ran a surprisingly tender hand over Alexander's brow, his face set in uncharacteristic worry. "If he can't get us out of here, this could be our new home."         "I'm in no hurry for that," Hudson said. "I've only just gotten used to Manhattan!"         "The castle first?" Brooklyn suggested. "If there are gargoyles here ... that's probably where they'd be."         A closer inspection revealed ordinary-enough guards pacing their nightwatch along the battlements, humans in ring-mail and carrying crossbows, swords, spears. But no gargoyles.         The walls of the city were masterworks of stone, the large blocks fitted so well they were nearly seamless. Sculptures and reliefs were carved into the walls, depicting men in heroic postures, ferocious beasts, tall slender figures uncannily similar to Oberon's folk, and squat but strong bearded men like dwarves out of legend.         "If nothing else, we can perch here unnoticed," Brooklyn said after an admiring study of a stone dragon crouching jealously over its hoard of treasures.         "Ye and I, mayhap, but the wee lad will need something more comfortable."         As if hearing himself mentioned, Alexander stirred. "Momma?"         "Nay, lad." As gently as possible, Hudson explained what he believed had happened.         "I'm sorry!" Alex's lip began to quiver.         "It was an accident," Brooklyn assured him warmly. "Just get us home, okay?"         "It's funny here," Alex observed as he closed his eyes and extended his hands. "There's magic everyplace."         He furrowed his face in concentration, and Hudson and Brooklyn braced themselves for the weird undoing vertigo of teleportation. But all that happened was a frustrated flood of tears from their young charge.         "I can't! I don't even know how we got here; how can I get us back?!"         "Ye're tired," Hudson soothed. "I'm sure ye'll be able to once ye've rested."         "Yeah," Brooklyn said, hiding his disappointment.         Hudson himself was almost glad they weren't returning just yet. Something about this new world spoke to him. He wouldn't mind more of a chance to explore. Still, he understood Brooklyn's feelings. Angela and their eggs were waiting on the far side of magic-space.         "I'm hungry, too," the young sorcerer sniffled, his tone the closest Alex had ever come to petulance.         "Can't just walk into a tavern or market," Brooklyn mused. He watched a wagon making the long, difficult climb from the waterfront into the tiers. It turned into what seemed to be a dead end, until the driver hollered to a man lounging in a gatehouse, and the man threw his weight against a lever, and the entire section of road began to rise.         "Clever," Hudson said, raising his brow ridges.         "I think that wagon's full of cheese," Brooklyn said, unimpressed by the elevator. "I can smell it from here. What do you say, Alex? You two wait here, and I'll go fetch us some chow." He took off, moving as if he'd never left the world of torchlight for the one of flat bland streetlight illumination. Neither the driver nor the lift-keeper noticed as he crept up alongside the wagon.         "I'd rather have peanut butter," Alex moped.         The horses tossed their heads, probably catching the unfamiliar scent, but by then, Brooklyn had snuck a large wheel of cheese out from under the tarp and was on his way back.         He landed on the narrow perch they'd found in the undercurve of the stone dragon's wing, shaking his head ruefully. "So much for Star Trek! You know how they travel halfway across the galaxy, meet a brand new alien race, and they all speak English? No such luck. I couldn't understand a word those guys were saying." He sliced his claws across the waxy coating that covered the cheese, then broke off crumbly chunks and passed them around.         Taste exploded across Hudson's tongue. The cheese was unbelievably rich and creamy. It filled the yearning hole in his belly with authority, though he would have liked some bread and meat to go with it.         Even Alex, who had wrinkled his nose at first, gobbled up his share eagerly. "That was _good_!"         Hudson motioned for silence, hearing voices and footsteps just below them. A man and a woman were walking arm in arm down the steep, curved street connecting one tier with the next. They were dressed in a style that brought Prince Malcolm’s court back to Hudson in a sudden pang of nostalgia. Dressed far too well to be walking alone and unguarded in a city at night.         From the way they leaned toward each other as they paused to admire the view of the river, it was obvious they were courting. Brooklyn smiled wistfully, then frowned as his gaze fixed on something Hudson couldn't see.         He spied it a moment later, a third person moving with stealthy purpose toward the pair. A cloak of dark grey and tunic of deep blue blended into the shadows, nearly invisible to all but gargoyle eyes. Black- gloved hands flexed in anticipation.         The man, unaware, bent to kiss his lady. As he did so, the cloaked figure glided behind them with the silence of a night breeze. Moonlight twinkled briefly as a tiny blade slipped through the strings of the man's purse.         The lady let herself be drawn into her swain's arms. The thief deftly, daringly, reached up and undid the clasp of the lady's extravagantly-jeweled necklace, drawing it free with such skill that neither lover noticed.         Brooklyn whistled low, admiringly. "You gotta admit, that's got more finesse than taking a wallet at gunpoint."         "Aye, but still a thief," Hudson said. "We should be doing something about it."         "But ..." Alex held up a piece of cheese. "Didn't we ...?"         "He's got us there, Hudson," Brooklyn chuckled.         "Hmph," he replied.         The rumble-rattle of wheels on cobblestone grew louder. Below, the lovers broke their embrace and turned expectantly toward the sound, while the thief slipped from view.         A coach rounded the bend and reined in to a halt. The driver said something to the young man, his tone fond but scolding.         Alexander squirmed in Hudson's grasp, bringing his little hands to touch both of the old gargoyle's ears, then his mouth. He moved the lad away and started to ask him what on earth he was doing, and then he realized that the words now made sense to him.         "... just a short walk," the young man laughed as he escorted his lady toward the waiting coach. "Or do you mean to tell me that the streets of Thanis are so perilous as to forbid it?"         Alex reached over to Brooklyn, repeating the gesture.         "You should have guards with you, you should," the driver replied. "Mayhap you can take care of yourself, my lord Marhan, but what of Lady Edwina?"         "With my beloved at my side, I am ever safe," the lady said, bowing her head demurely. "We've the night to ourselves, and saw no one about."         Brooklyn snorted.         The lovers climbed into the coach and the driver clicked his tongue at the horses, who proceeded onward toward a curve that climbed toward the upper reaches of the city.         "Ye can still cast spells, then," Hudson said.         Alex nodded. "That one's easy." Despite his words, though, even that simple spell seemed to have taken a lot out of him. His fair skin was wan, his eyes sunken.         "But can you get us home?" Brooklyn pressed.         "Dinna nag at the poor lad," Hudson chided.         "I wasn't nagging --"         A woman's drilling scream pierced the night. It was closely followed by a horse's pained squeal, a man's shout, and the sudden clatter of hooves galloping unburdened by harness or coach.         Hudson set Alex firmly in the shelter of the sculpture's crevice. "Wait right here!" he ordered.         Too worn out to argue, the boy crawled to the rear of the nook and curled up. A stifled sob turned almost immediately into a snore.         Brooklyn had already taken to wing, headed for the disturbance. Hudson glided after him, catching up.         "It's them," Brooklyn said. "Lady Edwina and what's-his-name, Marhan."         "Dinna do anything rash," Hudson cautioned. "This is not our world, not our business! Take a look before ye leap, at least!"         "Okay, okay!" Brooklyn dropped onto the roof of a brown-brick building, next to a wrought-iron weathervane in the shape of a sinuous wyvern.         The coach's harness had been cut, the horses set loose to flee down the street. The driver had been hauled from his perch and was struggling in the grip of two rough-clad men, while more tore open the door and pulled the luckless couple into the moonlight.         "We'll have your coin now, milord," one of them demanded.         "Yes, of course!" Marhan said, reaching for his belt and gasping in shock as his fingers found only the dangling strings where his purse had been. "I've been robbed!"         "Don't get ahead of yourself," the apparent leader of the ruffians snarled. He was a tall, angular man with features that just barely missed handsome, perhaps because his small eyes and longish, pointed nose gave him a vaguely rodentlike appearance.         "No, my purse!" Marhan protested. "It's been cut!"         "A likely story!" another of the ruffians said. "He's done it himself, to save his coin."         "And what of you, Lady?" the leader inquired. "Where have you hidden your necklace?"         Her hand went instinctively to her neck, and found only smooth, unadorned skin. "It is gone!"         "Yes, where have you hidden it?" the leader persisted.         "It's been stolen!" she wailed.         "They're wasting our time," a third ruffian said. "The guard will be upon us in a heartbeat!"         The leader drew a long-bladed knife. "Don't toy with me, Lady Edwina."         "I swear to you by all the gods, I do not have it! I know not where it is!"         "Leave her be!" Marhan started forward, only to be pushed back against the door of the coach.         "Rashel!" the leader commanded. A small, wiry youth stepped forward, casting nervous looks at the victims.         "Yes, Fedar?"         "Find those jewels, and be quick about it!"         The youth nodded, facing the coach and spreading his hands into an uncomfortable position. He intoned some words that Hudson couldn't understand, some other language that Alex's spell hadn't counted on, but he didn't need to understand to know what was happening.         "Sorcery," he whispered to Brooklyn.         The younger warrior didn't reply, watching intently the scene unfolding below. Any moment now, Hudson knew, Brooklyn would have to intervene. As would he himself, even though his head counseled against it. Neither of them wanted to draw unnecessary attention, but they were gargoyles, and could not stand by while innocents were hurt.         Rashel's shoulders slumped. "Nothing, Fedar. If it is in the coach, they've concealed it from my magic somehow."         "Is that what you've done, Lady Edwina?" Fedar asked.         "I know no magic!" she said, leaning away from him, turning pleading eyes upon her lover.         "Leave us!" he said. "We've nothing you want!"         "Or so you'd like us to believe. Those jewels shall be mine, if I have to cut you to pieces to get the lovely lady here to confess." He brought the knife to the tip of the Marhan's nose.         "Fedar!"         The new voice, clear as an autumn night, made all heads turn.         It was the thief from before, now standing on a low wall with legs braced in a confident stance, hood thrown back, dark hair and cloak rippling in the breeze.         "A girl!" Brooklyn gasped.         She was only Aiden's height, but there all resemblance ended. While slightly built, there was a lithe strength to her that told of physical prowess beyond her size.         "Is this what you're looking for?" She thrust one gloved hand skyward, rainbow sparks leaping from the jewels.         "You're in Ferret territory, little girl," Fedar said. "You've been warned of that before. Give over what you took, and we'll let you go this time."         "You'll not chase a Nightsider from any part of Thanis," she said, challenging, unafraid.         The lovers and their driver, forgotten now, huddled together against the side of the coach while the ruffians backed their leader. Lady Edwina seemed about to say something at the sight of her necklace, but good sense closed her mouth.         "Great, a medieval gang war," Brooklyn muttered. "Some things never change."         "Toss it here," Fedar said, striding closer. "If you do, I won't have my boys throw you over the wall. Not even a cat like you would survive that fall."         She stuffed the necklace into her tunic and drew a slim sword. "A Nightsider surrender fair-gotten goods? To a Ferret? Never! You'll have none of Thanis! We'll run you out, you'll see!"         Brooklyn looked appealingly at Hudson, who sighed resolutely. "All right, lad, all right. I never was one for resisting a damsel in distress. Even one on the wrong side of the law."         Fedar spat into the gutter, swapped his knife for a shortsword, and advanced. "I see only you. Where are your Nightsiders now?"         FWHOOSH!         Brooklyn landed beside the girl, wings widespread, eyes lambent white. "Well, there's me."         The only sound was the rustle of fabric as Lady Edwina fainted.         Fedar was unimpressed. "Illusion doesn't frighten me."         "Hey!" Brooklyn cried, insulted.         "Fedar ..." Rashel began.         "Illusion!" he insisted, and took a dismissive swipe at Brooklyn with his sword.         Brooklyn caught the blade, wincing as the edge bit into the heel of his hand. He wrenched it from Fedar's grip and flung it over the wall. Long moments later, it clattered in an alley far below.         "Illusion?" Brooklyn asked, baring his fangs.         Now they were convinced, but as was the way with such types, they didn't do the sensible thing and run for it.         "She's conjured a monster!" Rashel yelled, and close on the heels of that came Fedar's command.         "Get him!"         "'Get him!'" Brooklyn echoed in disgust. "Any time, any world, it's always the same. 'Get him!'"         Through all this exchange, the girl had been staring at Brooklyn, not fearfully but as if she had absolutely no idea what to make of this unexpected turn of events. But as Fedar's men started forward, she moved to meet them with sword at the ready.         Rashel hung back, and Hudson had time to wonder if the skinny lad was going to show good sense. Instead, Rashel's fingers began to glow, to smoke, and a ball of fire grew between his palms.         "Sorcery!" Hudson said again, this time almost with glee. Finally, sorcery! After years of mistakenly thinking guns and lasers were magic, at last, a chance to go up against the real thing!         He drew his sword and roared a battle-cry, and leaped down directly toward the mage.         Rashel saw him coming. He loosed the fireball.         Hudson twisted his body mid-air, feeling the backwash of heated air as the blazing sphere whizzed past him and spread itself in a gout of flame on the wall of the brown-brick house. The spot he landed on was the spot Rashel had just vacated in a graceless panicked scramble.         While the girl's sword matched Fedar's knife, Brooklyn seized up the two nearest ruffians and propelled them headfirst into the side of the coach. Marhan and his driver fell upon them, battering them with kicks and punches.         A lamp flared in the brown-brick house, and a babble of voices awakened by the ruckus could be heard above the sounds of steel and combat.         Rashel cringed on the cobblestones in front of Hudson, clearly expecting the end.         "Get ye gone, lad," Hudson advised. "Ye're wasting yer talents working with this lot."         He was up and running nearly before Hudson finished speaking.         Brooklyn was in the process of dispatching another foe, this one a barrel-chested brute whose smell was nearly as strong as his tree-like arms. The brute got Brooklyn in a headlock, but had reckoned without tail and talons. The former snaked around the man's ankle and pulled him off-balance, and then a talon slammed down very high on his thigh, missing a vital area by inches. The close call was enough to remove all the fight from the man.         "This isn't over!" Fedar yelled, backing off with one hand pressed to his bleeding cheek. He pointed at the girl. "We'll meet again!"         "I'll be looking forward to it!" she called, then ducked as an irate citizen flung the contents of a chamber pot from an upper window.         "We've roused the whole neighborhood," Hudson said. "Best be going, before the town guard arrives."         "I couldn't have said it better my...self..." the girl said, trailing off as she was reminded of the nature of her allies. She set her back against the wall, keeping hold of both her weapon and her wits, but if her eyes got any larger, they'd swallow her entire face.         "Time for that later," Brooklyn said, with what was probably meant to be a disarming smile but resembled quite a bit the way he'd bared his fangs at Fedar. "Let's get out of here!"         The girl nodded, turned one way, frowned at the distinct armored creak-and-jangle of approaching soldiers, turned the other way, shrugged, and made for the wall. She swung one leg over and prepared to climb.         Hudson looked down, judged it to be a good fifty feet of sheer stone. "Ye'll never make it, lass."         "Let us help," Brooklyn said.         "I've done this before," she said, eyeing his offered hand apprehensively.         Brooklyn pulled it back, looked at it himself, chuckled abashedly as he realized it was the one oozing blood, and wiped it on his loincloth.         "Wait!" Marhan leapt up from where he'd been trying to rouse his ladylove. "You! Girl!"         Her breath hissed in between her teeth. "Curse it, he remembered."         "Thief!"         She made to go over the wall, and Brooklyn plucked her up like a child. She uttered a brief muffled cry of alarm as he jumped, and then her face came alive with delight as the wind whipped through her hair.         Hudson followed. "Where to, lad?"         "We'd better get Alex before he decides to come looking for us."         Suffering a brief vision of the boy lost in the city, Hudson shuddered. "I'll fetch him! But what of yer passenger?"         "Well, she _is_ a thief. Maybe we should drop her down the chimney of the nearest guard-house."         For an instant, Hudson feared the lass might twist free and take her chances with the fall, but she recognized the teasing tone in Brooklyn's voice and grinned up at him.         Alex was still dozing, but roused when Hudson retrieved him. The brief rest had restored some of the boy's energy, though he was still far from the sparkle and vigor he usually exhibited.         The rooftop of a large church-like building promised many a hiding place amid its spires and turrets and statues of stern-faced armored men. Brooklyn landed and released the girl.         "That was splendid!" she said. "Flying!"         "Gliding," Hudson corrected, setting Alex down. "We only glide, on currents of air."         Now that they weren't in the middle of a battle, she took the time to give them both a thorough once-over. They did the same, especially Alex, who stared fascinated at her large eyes and the exotic cast to her features. There was something about her that put Hudson in mind of the elfin figures they'd seen cast in stone on the walls. Something not unlike Puck.         "Thank you for the help," she said. "I often have trouble admitting when I'm outnumbered."         "Why'd you do it?" Brooklyn asked. "You had the necklace; you could have gotten away."         "When I heard the attack, I knew what they were after. The Nightsiders have had trouble with the Ferrets before, them and other bands trying to carve out their own piece of the city. I also knew that if Fedar didn't find that which he sought, he'd butcher those people, believing them to be withholding from him. And it would be my fault."         "Then why did ye rob them in the first place?" Hudson tried not to sound disapproving, but wasn't entirely successful.         She tipped her eyes up to him, their color a vivid deep sapphire, their expression at once apologetic and defiant. "Why, I'm a thief, aren't I?"         "We saw," Brooklyn said. "You swiped that necklace right off of her, and she didn't even notice."         She nodded in unspoken acknowledgment of his reluctant admiration. "But then, if we're asking why, why did you come to my aid?"         Brooklyn scratched the side of his beak. "Well, that's a good question ... you know, damsel in distress, all that stuff. Hey, do you have a name?"         "Cat."         "Why am I not surprised?"         "I'm called Hudson. He is Brooklyn, and this wee lad here is Alexander."         "I know this might seem rude ... but what _are_ you? Dragonkin?"         Hudson raised his brow ridges. "We're gargoyles, lass. What's this dragonkin ye speak of?"         "I do not know if there are such things as dragonkin," she said. "But if there were, they might look as you do. A cross of dragon and human, just as an elfkin is part human and part elf. As I am." She briefly pushed back her dark curls, revealing ears that tapered to a shapely point.         "Like Unca Puck," Alex said, perking up a little.         "We're no kin to dragons," Hudson told her.         "Or humans," Brooklyn added. "So, you don't have gargoyles here?"         "In Thanis?"         "In this world," Hudson said. "We're not of this world, lass. We come here by magic."         She drew back and regarded them both with new speculation. "How can you not be of the world? _Are_ you conjured?"         "After a fashion." Hudson indicated Alex. "He brought us here, by accident."         Cat whistled softly. "Another world than this? I never thought ... but it must be so, for my father taught me about all the races, Elder and Younger, and the monsters besides, and never mentioned gargoyles." She stumbled a bit over the unfamiliar word.         "So Thanis is the name of this city," Brooklyn said, moving to the edge of the roof for a better view. "Whose castle is that?"         "The Highlord, Duncan Farleigh," Cat said. "And the Tower of the Archmage --"         "Archmage!" Brooklyn and Hudson chorused.         "--Talus Yor," Cat finished, glancing curiously at them. "Do you know him?"         "Nay, lass," Hudson said. "We knew another by that title, long ago."         When he didn't elaborate, she went on, pointing out one building after another. "That's the High Temple of Galatine, and there the Great Library ... and over there, the Temple of Talopea, where my friend Sybil lives."         "Temples? You mean, to ... gods?" Brooklyn asked.         "Of course! We're standing upon the Temple of the Knights of Blackmoon even now! And that fortress, there, is the Temple of Steel. The warrior-god."         "What's that one?" Alex pointed at a sprawling manor surrounded by walled gardens, many lanterns and lighted windows giving the impression of much activity even so late.         "The Lord's Retreat," Cat said. "In all the Northlands, you'll find no finer place, or so I've heard. The ballrooms, the dining rooms, the theater and gambling hall ... someday, I should like to go there. But I never shall. The elvenfolk who visit from the Emerin --" here she thrust her finger to the east, "are often to be found there. And where there are elvenfolk, I dare not tread."         "Why's that, lass?" Hudson asked, then thought of Elektra. "Do they shun ye?"         "That's one way of putting it. To their minds, I should never have been allowed to be born, never allowed to live." She kicked at a loose stone.         "Believe me, we know what it's like to be outcasts!" Brooklyn said. "Half the humans don't think we're real, and the other half think we're monsters!"         "Yet ye're not afraid of us," Hudson said.         She smiled ruefully. "Some of my best friends are monsters. I'm more used to oddness than most you'd find. I imagine, should you put it to the test, the reactions of Lady Edwina and Fedar's men would be more typical."         "Yeah, that's nothing new," Brooklyn said sourly. "'Get him.' Story of my life."         Below them, a solemn chant began within the temple, and Cat checked the sky. The dark moon was just touching the horizon in the west.         "How long until dawn? And will it affect us?" Brooklyn wondered.         "Daybreak's still hours away," Cat said. She pointed out another building, this one a light and open ring of spires tipped with gold. "The Knights chant now; when dawn comes, the priestesses of Helia will sing to greet the sun. But what mean you; will what affect you?"         "We'll need an ally," Brooklyn said to Hudson when he hesitated. "In case Alex isn't able to get us home tonight. We'll need a safe place to roost, and Alex can't be on his own all day."         "We turn to stone with the rising of the sun," Hudson explained. "That is how we sleep, how we heal. We'll be like that until dusk."         "_If_ it works that way here," Brooklyn amended. "We'll have to wait and see."         "I can try again," Alex offered listlessly.         "Do ye know much of magic?" Hudson asked Cat.         She shook her head. "It's common among the elves, rare in humans. But if it's a safe place to stay that you need, that much I can provide. If you don't mind rooming with thieves, that is!"         "These Nightsiders ye've mentioned?" Hudson exchanged a concerned look with Brooklyn.         "We're not like Fedar and the Ferrets. One-Eye is fond of saying that he lives to disprove the notion that there's scant honor among thieves. We have a tavern in one of the lower Rings, and Lehana, the barkeep's wife, loves children. She did a lot of the raising of me nights my father was out working."         "And look how you turned out," Brooklyn teased, then did a double-take. "Hey, hold up -- your _father_? Your father's a thief?"         "Tahm Sabledrake," Cat said proudly. "Aside from One-Eye himself, quite probably the best in all the Northlands." Her eyes darkened, saddened. "He's been away these past few years, but he'll be back soon. I know he shall."         "A tavern," Hudson murmured, thinking of his earlier wish for bread and meat to go with the wonderful cheese. "Ale, proper ale!"         "I'm tired," Alex announced, punctuating it with a yawn that nearly turned his face inside-out. "And I have to go potty."         "Sounds like we're taking you up on it." Brooklyn clasped forearms with her to seal the deal, and Hudson was amused to see that the custom didn't take her by surprise. Some things were the same here after all.         Moments later, they were descending the Rings of Thanis toward a large ramshackle tavern. There was a sign, but Hudson couldn't read the words -- Alex's spell apparently didn't include the written language. It didn't matter, anyhow, for there was also a drawing of an upended tankard. In this culture, literacy was more the minority than the norm. Just one more thing that appealed to him.         They landed on the roof, carefully as it seemed not beyond the realms of possibility that their weight might send them crashing straight through. Next to the tavern was a small narrow oddly-shaped shop made by someone walling in the alley space left between the neighboring buildings.         An old man was in the process of locking up the shop. Just at the glimpse of him, Hudson felt a strange, immediate kinship. Though the other man was lean while he was stout, they both carried themselves with the bearing of a seasoned campaigner. Retired soldier, Hudson thought. Veteran of many battles.         Cat motioned for them to wait, and caught onto a drainpipe at the corner of the tavern. She slid/clambered down it, making it look easy, and thumped gently to the ground not far from the old man. He turned with keen reflexes, revealing a seamed and weathered but not unhandsome face, partly concealed by an eyepatch.         Their conversation was quick, and too low to be heard, and at the end of it, One-Eye slowly turned his gaze toward the roof.         Brooklyn waved.         Cat beckoned.         Hudson, still cradling the sleepy Alexander, landed on the dingy, garbage-strewn cobblestones. A long-bodied rat, fully the size of a puppy, scooted into the shadows with its naked grimy tail dragging along after.         "Oh, nice," Brooklyn grimaced, shaking loose a rotted rind of something that had gotten stuck to his foot.         "Ye've been spoiled by living in the lap of luxury," Hudson chided. "Our own time was not so different, or have ye forgotten?"         "I'd been trying, but this is bringing back all the memories."         "So, kitten, these are your new friends?" One-Eye asked.         Cat nodded. "Hudson, and Brooklyn. They had Fedar's band running like frightened hens. And the boy is Alexander."         Hudson shifted Alex to one arm and offered a hand. "And glad we were to help."         One-Eye clasped it without a qualm. "Since you hauled my over- zealous apprentice's bacon from the flames, the least I can do is buy you a drink."         "Apprentice?" Cat pretended offense.         "Uh ... are you sure about that drink?" Brooklyn jerked his head toward the tavern's door, from behind which came rough laughter, off-key bawdy singing, and a woman's mock-indignant squeal. "Sounds crowded. We wouldn't want to scare off your customers."         "Mayhap you might, but 'tis _my_ place." One-Eye opened the door. The sounds increased, along with dim lamplight and a riot of scents that drowned out the fragrance of the street.         They followed him in, not without a good deal of apprehension.         Brooklyn consulted an imaginary script and whispered, "Psst, Hudson, your line is: you'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy; we must be cautious."         Everyone was looking.         The men wore leathers and dark clothes, the few women were mostly of the blowzy-wench variety. Cards and coins were strewn over many of the tables, amid mugs of ale. Two dogs prowled amid the forest of stools seeking dropped scraps; a scarred tomcat sprawled on the bar.         After what felt like an eternity, that sea of staring humanity gave a collective indifferent shrug and everybody in the room went back to what they'd been doing. Except for one man, a broad-shouldered, good- looking fellow in dark brown. He made his way through the crowd to warmly greet One-Eye and Cat.         "Is Lehana about, Stryker?" One-Eye asked. "This little chap needs a bowl of soup. Come to think of it, we all could. Is the back room open?"         "Calidar was in there a short time ago, but he's gone out," Stryker replied. He inclined his head toward Hudson and Brooklyn politely. "This way."         The back room was low-ceilinged and windowless, with one other door opening onto a small bedchamber. The furnishings were considerably nicer than those in the main room, but still showed the marks of having seen better days.         A plump woman with a sweet face came bustling in, paused to goggle very briefly at the winged newcomers, and began setting the table. A girl of about thirteen and a gangly simpleton brought in a spread of food: thick soup consisting primarily of fish and onions, dense dark bread, a different cheese than they'd tried before, and a haunch of meat that had been cooked on a spit.         The simpleton poked curiously at Hudson's wing, but Cat caught his hand before he could make contact and steered him away. The girl eyed Brooklyn with a maturity far beyond her years, fixing particularly on his chest and loincloth, then hurried out giggling.         "Your people must see some weird stuff, if they're taking all this in stride," Brooklyn remarked.         "Ah, well, we've had our share of the unusual," One-Eye said. "Cat here, she's responsible for most of it. Only elfkin in Thanis, you know. You're not the first strange friends she's brought around. Why, I remember a few years back, when she first found that young orckin. We thought she'd just about lost her senses. Five of her wouldn't have made up one of him, and his face would've stopped the sun in its path."         "Alphonse is my friend," Cat protested. "You liked him well enough after he saved your skin when Dorik of Montennor tried to cleave you in twain with his battleaxe!"         "I like him too, kitten, I do. I'm saying, is all, that next to Alphonse, these ... gargoyles, was it? ... don't seem all that fierce!"         "Oh, we can be fierce," Brooklyn assured him.         "I'd not wager to the contrary!" Stryker said. For such a large man, whose face looked made for scowling, he was very much relaxed and at ease.         One-Eye watched with interest as Hudson carved off slices of meat and cheese to make himself a large sandwich. "Now, why've I never thought of that?"         "So much for the Prime Directive," Brooklyn chuckled.         Lehana coaxed Alex onto her lap, and before long he had fallen asleep with his head on her shoulder and his thumb in his mouth. She carefully carried him into the side room and settled him on the bed, pulling a wool blanket over his small form.         "A sorcerer, he may be," Hudson said, "but still only five years old, and he's had a hard day. We're hoping that once he's rested and gotten his bearings, he'll be able to take us home."         Full of good food and strong ale, temporarily relieved of his task of caring for Alex, Hudson was able to sit back with a contented rumble and prop his talons up as Cat and Stryker and Brooklyn regaled each other with stories of adventures in the night.         "We've never known such quick acceptance," he said to One- Eye, who was pouring the last of the ale. "Ye've a good lot here. I wouldn't have expected it, given yer ... occupation."         "We do well," One-Eye agreed. "They're all like children to me. They squabble a bit, but in the end, we're somewhat of a family."         "A clan," Hudson said, nodding. "Aye, I know it."         They clinked mugs, and drank.         "If ye don't mine me asking --" Hudson began.         "How'd you come to --" One-Eye said.         They broke off at the same time, each realizing he was indicating the other's wounded eye, and laughed. Then spoke again.         "Battling an Archmage," they said together.         Hudson's talons came down, his mug slammed on the table and sloshed foam over the side. "An Archmage?" he repeated loudly.         One-Eye shushed him. "But I'd just as soon keep it to myself."         "I understand." Hudson downed his ale in an attempt to ward off the memories.         "Dunagar's got two spots open at his table," Stryker said, approaching. "I thought I'd teach Brooklyn here how to play Trollbones."         "Ah, so long as Cat makes sure you tell him _all_ the rules!" One-Eye said, shaking a finger at the younger man. "And no getting him to play Spike! That's how I lost my eye, you know!"         "What's Spike?" Brooklyn asked.         Cat laughed. "Fear not, we don't play it here! In truth, I've never seen it played at all. I think it's made-up, no matter what some would have you believe. Who would wager on how close they can get their eye to a sharpened metal spike sticking up from a tabletop? While drinking, no less!"         "Much as I hate to say it, Cat," Stryker cut in, "I _have_ seen it played, down at the Blind Dragon. In between knife fights and brawls."         "And here I thought the mercenaries earned their scars honestly!" She turned to Brooklyn. "Have you any coin?"         "Haven't you picked my pocket yet?" he countered.         "I don't steal from friends," she said earnestly.         "Well, I don't know if our money's any good here anyway." He pulled a roll of crumpled bills from the pouch on his belt.         "I've heard they use parchment instead of coins in the Emerin," Stryker observed.         Brooklyn dug deeper and produced a bunch of change and arcade tokens.         Cat plucked up a quarter. "It _looks_ to be silver ... but the weight and the feel of it are wrong ... why, see how alike they all are! How perfect in their minting!" She compared it to one of her own coins, an irregularly-struck disk with the image of a crowned man's profile on one side and a rearing horse on the other.         "Here," said One-Eye. "I'll give you fifteen marks for it as a curiosity, and that'll be enough to get you started at Trollbones."         "Sounds good to me." Brooklyn traded his quarter for a handful of small silver and copper coins, then went with Cat and Stryker into the main room.         They left the door ajar, so while he and One-Eye chatted with easy camaraderie about old battles, comparing the merits of Viking invasions versus orc attacks, they watched Brooklyn get into the spirit of gambling.         "Papa needs a new pair of _shoes_!" he shouted, flinging five oddly-shaped bone dice the length of the wooden box and making those near him glance perplexedly at his feet. "Yahtzee!"         "Hah! Five trolls!" Cat, perched on the bar with one knee drawn up, called triumphantly to Stryker. "Let's see you best that!"         "Five flames would beat five trolls," someone said. "But the odds of five flames in a single throw ..."         "Never tell me the odds!" Stryker fisted the dice, shook them.         The outer door banged open and a boy fell into the tavern.         Steel flashed as everyone present drew knives so fast they might have appeared by magic.         Not a boy, Hudson saw. A man, small and wiry. He rose on one arm, his other hand curled around the shaft of a crossbow bolt protruding from his side.         "Calidar!" Cat sprang from the bar-top. "Lehana, the elixirs!"         Without being ordered, the room swung into action. Some raced for the upper floors to survey the street and see if Calidar's attacker had followed him, others threw a series of heavy latches, still more swung tables and stools out of the way to clear a spot.         Stryker knelt beside the man. "Guards?"         "Ferrets," Calidar said through gritted teeth. "They surprised me outside of Lord Taron's house. I evaded the dogs with nary so much as a nip, and now this!"         "Taron," One-Eye mused angrily while Lehana hurried over with a leather case she had retrieved from behind the bar. "And what's he up to now, I wonder?"         Cat clenched Calidar's hands in hers while Stryker took hold of the shaft. "Ready?" she asked.         "Do it," Calidar said.         Stryker pulled, one smooth movement. Calidar threw his head back, cords standing out in his neck, jaw quivering against a scream.         Working swiftly, Lehana sliced through his leather jerkin and the shirt beneath, using a rag to sop up the blood that poured freely from the hole. She upended a small bottle. A bruise-colored fluid spilled into the wound.         Calidar gasped, shuddered, and then let out his breath in a shaky sigh. The bleeding ceased, leaving a puff of gouged-looking flesh in the center of a maroon and purple swelling. Lehana studied it, then nodded in satisfaction.         "He'll live."         "Of course I'll live, woman, give me something for the pain!" Calidar demanded testily.         "A poultice of whitewillow and Dana's fern ..." she rummaged in her bag.         "I think he means something stronger," Cat said, amused. She signaled the young wench, who brought a brown glass bottle. "Montennor brandy?"         "Only a finger's worth," One-Eye said over Calidar's protest. "We need him to have his wits about him, or we'll never know what happened."         "What is that stuff?" Brooklyn asked, awed.         "Montennor brandy? Only one of the finest spirits ever brewed," One-Eye said, intercepting the bottle as Calidar tried to snatch it from Cat.         "I think he meant the other bottle," Hudson said.         "Elixir of healing. We always keep a few on hand for times like this, but they're costly." He set the brandy well out of reach and hunkered down between Stryker and Cat. "Now, then, Calidar, what were you about at Taron's place? As if I couldn't guess. Eavesdropping?"         "What else?" Calidar made a face but submitted as Lehana applied the soggy, fragrant poultice. "And I got an earful, before his dogs found me. Do you ken the slave-mines of Leaper's Bluff?"         "I ken it," One-Eye said. When others looked blank, he explained. "The Highlord ordered the mines closed, on account of how the slaves were being treated. Captive orcs, mostly, but Duncan Farleigh's always had a blind eye for race when it comes to justice. Three barons and Count Casteban have put in petitions to claim the land and the mine. But what has that to do with Lord Taron?"         "Who is this Taron fellow?" Hudson asked.         "A nobleman," Cat said, "though more through what he's managed to make for himself by greed and ambition than by any ties of blood."         "We know the type," Brooklyn said dryly.         "The mine's yet operating," Calidar continued. "In secret, and under the command of one of Taron's underlings. They've been bringing gems into the city in small numbers, emeralds, sneaking them past the tax officers."         One-Eye glowered. "And they've not been selling them through us, have they?"         "Nay. Through the Ferrets."         "Curse and blast them!" One-Eye swore. "Fedar's gotten too big for his breeches now! This must come to an end, and quick. He's giving every dungpile cutpurse and gang of thugs in this city the notion that they can do as they please, and I'll not have it! Not while I draw breath!"         "Not while any of us draw breath," Stryker said, and a murmur of assent rippled around the room.         "What are the Ferrets doing with the emeralds?" someone asked.         Cat picked up the discarded crossbow bolt that had recently been lodged in Calidar. She held it aloft. "Buying Montennor weapons. This is dwarf-crafted, I'll warrant, and so's Fedar's sword." She threw an impish grin Brooklyn's way. "If he can find it in the Lower Rings, that is!"         One-Eye massaged his brow. "So Taron gets a pile of coin -- the better to buy his wife's lotus oil with -- the dwarves get the emeralds, and the Ferrets arm themselves against us."         "Why would the dwarves want orc-mined gems?" Dunagar, the gambler, asked. "That's lackwit; I've seen the fruit of the mines of Montennor!"         "Even among the thane's people, there are those who are disreputable," Stryker said. "Think of some dwarven tradesman, passing off these gems in Hachland as genuine Montennor craft, and no one the wiser!"         "What was most interesting, though," Calidar interrupted, "was the last thing I heard."         "Whoosh-thunk-ouch?" someone jested, before One-Eye silenced him with a look.         "And what was that, Calidar? Finish, and you can have another finger of brandy."         "It seems Lord Taron has run up some debts, and borrowed rather heavily from the Ferrets, on the promise of more emeralds yet to come. Taron expects the stones soon, within the week." Calidar smiled ferally. "Now, what I'm thinking ..."         "Is what each of us are thinking," Cat finished, eyes dancing.         "Ye don't mean to steal these gems right out from under those ruffians?" Hudson asked incredulously.         "Of course!" she replied. "The Ferrets shan't get them, and Lord Taron will be forced to repay his debt. He's a proud man; he'll hate it!"         "That'll teach him to do his dealings with others," One-Eye said in satisfaction.         "How?" Stryker shook his head. "The Nightsiders have tried Taron's house before. Eavesdropping is the best we've yet been able to do. The walls, the dogs, the guards, the tripwires ... not to mention the locks! His is the best locksmith in the Northlands, if you'll recall."         "Sounds a challenge," Cat said.         "Sounds a folly," Stryker shot back.         "I can handle it," Calidar said.         "Not in this condition, you can't," Lehana pointed out. "You'll not be climbing any walls before the end of the week at the soonest! And not outrunning dogs for longer than that!"         He sank back, grumbling in the manner of one who knew as much but felt he had to make the token effort.         "As it happens," Cat admitted, "I'd been planning a visit to Taron's place myself. I knew he'd been dealing in gems lately, though not the details."         "Cat, you're mad," Stryker said.         "She's her father's knack for sniffing out treasure, though," One- Eye said. "Tell us, kitten, how'd you think to manage it?"         "My friend Sybil knows one of Taron's men --"         "Does she, now?" One-Eye and Stryker shared a grin.         Cat, oblivious, went on. "And I've already asked her to ask him much about the house. She says he'll tell her anything she wishes to know."         "What red-blooded man wouldn't?" Stryker elbowed One-Eye.         "So all I need do is find out from Sybil when they're expecting these gems to arrive, and they're as good as ours!"         "What's the deal with this Sybil?" Brooklyn whispered to Stryker.         "She's a priestess of Talopea," Stryker whispered back, with a lewd wink. "Goddess of a Thousand Pleasures. How she and our innocent little Cat became friends is beyond me!"         "Goddess of what?!"         "What are you two going on about?" Cat broke off her explanation to One-Eye of how she proposed to get into, and, more importantly, out of Lord Taron's estate.         "Nothing, Cat," Stryker said smoothly. "Go on. You were saying something about the locks?"         Into the wee small hours, the thieves did their plotting. Hudson gave up trying to discourage Brooklyn from offering suggestions, but drew the line as he suspected the younger warrior was about to offer to participate. One meaningful step on his tail made the message clear.         Far down in the Rings, inside the shuttered and lamplit Empty Mug, the couldn't hear the singing of the Helia priestesses, but Hudson felt the encroaching dawn in his old bones. He and Brooklyn elected not to perch on the roof, but crowded into the small room where Alexander lay sleeping. That way, when the lad awoke, he'd see them straightaway and remember where they were. Lehana would look after him until dusk.         "You mean you truly do turn to --" was the last thing Hudson heard from Cat as his skin stiffened.         "Aye, lass, we do," he said several hours later, after a good stretch and a mild roar.         A full day had passed, that much he could see. Cat wore a different tunic in a shade of cobalt blue that nearly matched her eyes, and her hair was damply curling around her elfin ears.         "And I thought I'd seen everything!" Lehana said. "It heals you, too, you say?"         Brooklyn extended his hand. The cut inflicted by Fedar's blade was completely gone.         "Where's the lad? Where's Alexander?" Hudson looked worriedly around.         "Here I am!" he chirped, dashing in and throwing his little arms around Hudson's leg. "Look at what Lehana gave me! Aren't these clothes neat? Itchy, though. And she took me to the marketplace! I had sugared almonds, and the best milk in the whole world, and lizard-on-a- stick!"         "Not to eat, ye didn't!" Hudson said, aghast.         "Yes! A whole lizard, except for its head, and I ate it all up!"         Brooklyn ruffled Alex's hair. "This is the kid who turns up his nose at anchovies?"         Alex squirmed away. "That's different!"         "Such a polite little lordling, too," Lehana said, as proudly as if he was her own. "A joy to have him about!"         "Ye're looking much better," Hudson said. "Feeling well, and rested?"         He bobbed his head. "Yes, lots!"         "Does this mean you'll be going?" Cat asked, crestfallen. "I was hoping you might stay ..."         "Stay, so ye could convince Brooklyn here to glide ye over Lord Taron's wall and his dogs?"         She flushed slightly. "Well ..."         "Aw, come on, Hudson!"         "Now, lad, ye know better than that. It's all well and good to make new friends, and these folk have taken us in and shown more kindness than we've known in a long while, but ye must remember that first and foremost we're gargoyles. We protect --"         "Like we breathe. I know. It's one thing to help Elisa bust up Tony Dracon's crime ring, but this isn't the same. Yeah, okay. Sorry, Cat."         "I'd not want you to do anything against your nature," she said. "I understand. And thank you, in turn, for not trying to stop me. For doing this is in _my_ nature."         "I wish we didn't have to go," Alex sighed. "I like it here, but I miss my Mommy and Daddy, and Unca Puck."         "And they're probably worried half to death about you." Lehana embraced Alex fondly. "I know I would be, if my son was so far from home."         "You realize," Brooklyn said to Hudson, "that we'll never know how it turns out with Lord Taron and the emeralds."         "And ye realize that yer mate will skin ye alive if she had reason to believe ye'd dawdled when ye could have been heading straight home to her."         "Good point. Ready when you are, junior!"         After a swift round of farewells, and parting gifts of a clay jug of ale from One-Eye, a set of Trollbones from Stryker, and Fedar's sword, which Cat had tracked down during the day and insisted that Brooklyn take with him, the gargoyles joined hands with Alexander.         The boy took a deep breath, closed his eyes tight.         "Gods go with you," One-Eye said.         "Good journey," Cat added.         Alex, following Puck's long-ago advice to Aiden than any magic words with meaning to him would have meaning to the magic, stood on tiptoe and bumped his heels together. "There's no place like home!"         The world dissolved in a shower of black specks, a photo- negative of a snowstorm. Hudson felt himself pulled a dozen different ways at once. Then reality crashed back in, and before he could even begin to get his bearings, a solid mass slammed him in the chest and face.         Even without looking, he recognized the ancient, weathered texture of the stones. And the volley of deep welcoming barks and the thunder of Bronx's tread shaking the courtyard.         "They're back!" Angela, hysterical.         Hudson rolled onto his back and looked up at the lone moon, the faint glint of stars. That view was immediately blotted out by the silhouette of a head, and a wet tongue slobbered its way up his cheek.         Fox shouldered Broadway out of her path and swept her son into her arms. Alex, exhausted all over again, burst into tears. Puck appeared out of nowhere, did an exultant backflip as the sight of his student alive and unharmed erased lines that had turned him haggard.         "Agh!" Hudson shoved Bronx's head away. "Aye, I'm glad to see ye, too!"         A large lavender arm reached down, and Hudson grasped it to let Goliath haul him upright, then engulf him in a hearty hug.         As the clan surrounded them, babbling questions and exclamations of relief, Hudson shook Alex's small hand.         "Ye did well, lad. Ye brought us home."                 *               * The End

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Page copyright 1998 by Christine Morgan,