The Dissidents: From the Deep Sea Rising

by Christine Morgan




Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and are used here without their creators' knowledge or permission. All other characters property of the author. Mature readers only please, due to violence and some sexual content.
December, 2002. 23,000 words.


October, 2004


Arkham was always grey. Even on the brightest of days, the grounds were gloomy and the shadows were deep. The somber stone walls grew thick with ivy that, while lush, was still somehow sterile and lifeless.
The people, too, were grey. They shuffled here and there in the drab halls, most in bathrobes or sweatpants or pajamas. Even the best-kept of them had hair that hung lank and dispirited. Their faces were sallow, their eyes sunken.
The smell of stale cigarette smoke surrounded many of them in haloes that could nonetheless not quite mask an indifference to hygiene, breath made sour by pills, and the underlying but pervasive stink of madness itself.
And Arkham was, by asylum standards, a clean and well-run facility. It had come far from the days when its inhabitants – called "residents," or even "consumers" now, but once known as "inmates," or simply "lunatics" – were kept in straitjackets or restrained to heavy metal chairs bolted to concrete blocks.
The days of immersion therapy and lobotomies were long gone. Even electroconvulsive treatment was on the way out, as were behavior modification plans. Medication and counseling were the choices du jour. The staff, who might have a hundred years ago carried canvas-wrapped rubber batons, now conducted group sessions on anger management, anxiety, depression, and job skills.
Even the medications had undergone a sea change. The heavy hitters with their equally heavy side effects, like Thorazine, or Lithium, had been for the most part phased out in favor of Haldol, Zoloft, Clozaril.
What hadn't changed? The madness itself. A delusion was a delusion, voices were voices, command hallucinations were command hallucinations. The compulsives still washed their hands until their skin was red and chapped. The cutters still made ladder-tracks on their forearms with anything sharp. The catatonics still sat and stared, uncomplaining, left to decline in relative privacy while the needy borderlines and psychotics got most of the attention.
The building also hadn't changed much. It was still the forbidding grey pile, with its high, narrow windows covered in metal mesh to deter jumpers. It had the structure of a mansion, with long wings and many rooms, but any hint of grandeur had long ago been consumed.
Within, doors did stay sensibly shut, and often bolted on the outside to boot. But whatever walked in Arkham had plenty of company both real and imaginary.
A house of healing. A house of mental mending and emotional resurrection. Or was it? To those who dwelt there, it was only an outward reflection of the prison of their illnesses. The walls and locks were only symbols representing the symptoms that kept them forever distanced from the rest of the world.
Those who worked there, often freshly graduated with degrees in psychology or social work, gradually came to know Arkham as the place where ideals died, and youthful notions of helping people turned to a bitter, ashen despair. They came with hopes of changing lives for the better, of making a difference. The endless grind of coaxing their clients to shower, monitoring cigarettes and coffee, and patiently listening to claims that the CIA had replaced all of the nurses with robot clones soon wore the staff down, burned them out.
Few ever left Arkham. Something about the place, be it the environs or the people, sapped the lifespark out of staff and inmates alike.
Those who might have planned to work there a year or two while studying for a Master's degree, with an eye toward a private counseling practice, found themselves sucked down into a morass and plodded along for five years, ten, twenty.
Those whose fondest dream might have been to manage their psychoses and neuroses well enough to someday have an apartment of their very own would deteriorate and grow old, the walls of Arkham becoming their only true home. Even in death, they wouldn't escape, because most were forgotten by their families and buried in the cemetery on the asylum grounds.
Howard Mosswell had been at Arkham for five years and was, if not precisely a favorite, at least moderately well-regarded among the staff. He took his medications on schedule and uncomplainingly, he kept himself almost fastidiously neat, he attended groups as directed and did as he was told.
He was easy enough to overlook: quiet, tall, thin and stooped. Not a troublemaker. He had a lined face and fine hair that had gone entirely to white, although he was not an old man. His eyes were the eeriest part about him, but they went unnoticed because few people ever looked into them. They were bleak, ancient, the eyes of a man who had stared into the very heart of things unspeakable.
His manner was detached and bookish, scholarly almost. He liked to read, or at least he liked to spend his days sitting in the library with a book open on his lap, though sometimes the staff had noticed that he rarely turned the pages, and occasionally even held the book upside-down.
Mosswell often kept company with the Weird Sisters. They weren't actually sisters, only childhood friends who had fallen prey to some sort of shared psychosis, but they could have been. Except for the color of their hair – one platinum-blond, one golden-blond, one black – they looked very much alike.
No one knew just where the nickname had come from, whether it had been a staff member or an inmate to first apply it, but it had stuck despite being severely frowned upon by Arkham's director. The staff were careful not to refer to the young women by that collective moniker whenever Dr. Adamson was around, though they did use it among themselves.
Under other circumstances, the fate of three such lovely girls in a place like this would have been grim indeed. They would have been easy prey for unethical interns and their more aggressive fellow inmates, used and abused, no matter how strict the rules and punishments were for such offenses.
But the Weird Sisters had something about them, an air both eerie and unnerving, that quelled any thought of lust in even the most predatory of men. They all seemed to give off a sort of cold energy. They rarely spoke, and moved with a sort of slow, otherworldly grace. No one quite dared bother them. The most persistent cig-seekers and moochers gave the Sisters a wide berth. They only tolerated Mosswell's company.
He did not know why. Perhaps he and the blonde one, Tiffy Vandermere, shared a bond through her brother. It had been Brendan, Mosswell remembered during his more lucid moments, who'd found him raving at his family home. Brendan who had gotten him put here.
The events of that time were a confusion in his mind, mixed up somehow with nightmares of wet, fishy-smelling darkness and winged creatures like stone gargoyles come to life. But he remembered Brendan Vandermere well enough, oh, yes. Oh, yes.
Brendan did pay the ever-more-occasional visit to his sister. It was more than could be said for the families of most of the inmates at Arkham. Most of them were quite happy to turn their backs on their insane relations for good once the doors were closed.
The families of the other two Sisters were no different. Worse, really. To them, having their bright-futured debutante daughters reduced to hollow-eyed zombies walking the halls of an asylum was the worst possible shame and embarrassment. Mosswell wondered what those wealthy people told their society friends. That their daughters were away at some exclusive European boarding school, that seemed most likely.
But Vandermere, alone among Tiffy's kin, was wont to drop by now and again, and remembered her with letters and postcards when he was off on his travels. He went to many exotic places, did Vandermere. The latest one had come from Egypt.
What had a globe-trotting archaeologist been doing in Innsbrook, anyway? Mosswell would have liked to ask him that. For that matter, he wouldn't have minded recalling what he himself had been doing there. The ancestral home, shunned by his mother … what had possessed him to go there? It had been the end of him.
Innsbrook. The name alone sent a chill scattering like a spill of chipped ice down his spine. He gasped a breath, and for a moment thought he inhaled the smells of old leather, mildewy paper, mold and slime and a dank, marshy stink.
Twin spasms of pain shot across his back. There were old scars there, remnants of some long-ago injury. On damp days, the scars itched. Sometimes, especially when the wind was wrong and he could detect the scent of sea-brine on the air, they felt like they were burning.
He closed his eyes. In the darkness behind them, he saw a golden thing blazing like the sun, and inhuman shadows cast sharply onto dripping cavern walls. He saw a pale woman entwined in thick, somehow obscene vines that moved and crept over her slender shape. He heard a squishy, raspy slithering and a cracking sound, like an ice-rimed tree branch bending beneath its winter weight.
Mosswell opened his eyes at once, welcoming the ordinary sights of Arkham that banished those images.
Those things were not real. He knew that now, knew it to be true. Dr. Adamson and the various other professionals had shown him that the things he remembered were only debris cast up by his delusional mind. Not real. To think that there was a subterranean chamber beneath the house where his ancestors had lived, or a well opening onto a world of shambling horrors, that was madness.
He was in the library, or what the staff chose to call the library. It was hardly a proper one to his eyes, but it did contain a battered metal bookshelf full of paperbacks and a few hardback versions of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, an encyclopedia set missing five volumes, and stacks of magazines with all the address labels cut off because they had been donated by people from "outside."
The day was sunny, but the light lost its strength once it fell through the windows. It lay in coffin-shaped rectangles on the floor. Sunlight, already dead. If he moved into it, he knew he would squint and feel it stinging his eyes, but it would not warm his skin. It might only make him sleepy. Sunlight often made him sleepy.
Why bother to get up? He was comfortable where he was, the communal television a dull drone in the background. Its low noise was counterpointed by the steady thumps of someone rocking back and forth, head bumping into the wall.
His back ached, ached. And his hands felt dry. They got cheap soap here. It dried out his skin something dreadful. He took shower after shower, more in one week than some of his fellow inmates managed in a year, but his hands still felt like they might split if he closed his fists too hard.
Maybe it was a side effect. He had plenty of those, God knew, depending on what his med regime of the moment was. Some gave him the shakes, or dry mouth, or drooling, or dry mouth and drooling, which should have seemed impossible. And impotence. That was a joke … had Howard Mosswell been a less modest man, he would have laughed out loud when they told him it was a possible side effect. As if it mattered in his life anyway.
He rubbed his hands, palm of one over knuckles of the other. His knuckles felt dry as bones scoured up from the desert. He could hear the sandpapery noise they made against the skin of his palm.
So dry! They'd just started him on a new type of pill just this morning, as prescribed by his new doctor. Not Adamson, this one, but Clarke. He had met the man all of once. A ten-minute conversation two days ago, and that somehow gave Dr. Clarke the right to meddle with his brain chemistry.
Well, if nothing else, he knew the pill was working. It might not make any difference to his mental state, to the bleary fog in which he spent most of his waking hours – or the hellish dreams that made him crave insomnia – but at least the side effects were kicking in.
His hands itched like they were full of ants. His back throbbed. Tears rolled from his eyes whenever he glanced toward the weak, pallid light coming through the window. And he was tired, so bone-weary tired …
Howard Mosswell got up, moderately alarmed at how difficult he found it just to get out of his chair. He tucked his book under his arm and left the library.
It was the middle of the day, and no one spoke to him as he traversed the halls. His room was on the third floor, the wing where they kept the more "compensated" inmates.
He went to the window. It hurt his eyes, but he wanted to look out. Through the mesh, over the wall, to the wide world of freedom that he might never know again.
The sea. It was just barely visible, a denim-blue rolling away to meet the curve of the sky. The surface of it. No way to know, by looking at it, what might be underneath. Out of sight. Lurking.
There were things down there. Things in the deep.
Of course there were. Everyone knew that. The sea was a vast place full of mystery. In all the years of man's exploration of it, they'd only touched upon a fraction of the truth. They knew more with their telescopes about distant stars than they did the seven seas of their own humble world.
Things down there. Things in the deep.
Resting there. Waiting there.
Waiting for what?
Mosswell heard himself whine, and realized that he was gripping the windowsill so hard that his fingers hurt. He tore his gaze from the innocuous-seeming water and looked down.
His dry skin had split in three places. A thin liquid seeped out. It wasn't blood, though it had threads of blood mingled with the clear fluid.
He was getting better. They'd told him so. Making great strides. He hadn't gone on about his delusions in months. He no longer tried to convince them that something lurked in the asylum's basement, down amid the industrial washers and dryers, amid the storerooms and pantries. They saw this as a sign of improvement. He didn't talk about such things any more.
That was the key, that was the trick. They did not really know, or care, what you thought. It was only what you said or did. As long as he kept his dread inside, and never spoke of the fears, the awful nightmares, they thought he was getting better. They thought the medications had vanquished the monsters of his mind.
"Howard?"
The voice was Dr. Clarke's. He recognized it right away, though they had only shared that one brief conversation. It was a soothing voice, but there was an undercurrent running through it like a stream of dark water.
He turned, not spinning in startled reflex but mildly. Not wanting to show that Clarke had surprised him and come upon him thinking delusional thoughts. He slid his hands into the pockets of his robe to hide the splits in his hands, though by now they felt as if they'd been etched there with acid.
Victor Clarke was a fortyish man with a commanding presence that made up for his lack of physical stature. He was several inches shorter than Mosswell, slightly built, with greying hair and a prominent nose. His eyes, sharp and brown, surveyed Howard Mosswell through gold-rimmed spectacles and missed nothing.
The majority of the staff at Arkham were allowed to dress comfortably and casually, but Dr. Adamson liked the higher-ranking doctors to maintain a level of professional decorum. Thus, Clarke wore a white lab coat over iron-grey slacks and a blue shirt, his tie neatly knotted.
He had come highly recommended from a place called the Institute, in Virginia, and rumor had it that he'd studied both neurology and psychiatry under Dr. Gustav Sevarius in Vienna. Mosswell didn't care much about the man's credentials. What he cared about was the way Clarke looked at him, as if he could see into Mosswell's mind.
"Howard," Clarke said again, almost warmly. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine," Mosswell said. His hands were shaking, and he could feel fluid leaking from his split skin. He was afraid to look down, afraid it might be soaking through the fabric of his pockets.
"Adjusting to the new meds?" Clarke asked. "Any problems?"
"I only began taking them this morning."
Clarke's eyes turned sharper, which Mosswell wouldn't have thought possible. "So you aren't experiencing anything yet? No changes?"
"No," Mosswell said, and now a fine sweat was breaking out on his brow and under his arms.
There was something in that keen brown gaze that unsettled him. Dr. Adamson always had a thin veneer of what passed for concern in his eyes, even when it was only a veil over boredom or contempt. Clarke was looking for something specific, and with an avid, greedy expectation too.
Pain ripped across his back and brought a helpless moan to his lips. Mosswell bit it back with an effort. Clarke's eyes gleamed.
"Tell me about your family," he invited, a psychiatrist's question if ever there was one, a question better suited to reclining on a leather couch.
Mosswell was suddenly so tired he could barely stay on his feet. He unthinkingly brought a hand out of his pocket to rub his eyes, and froze with the hand suspended in mid-air inches from his face. A small sound, part interrogative and part alarm, escaped him.
The skin along the back of his hand now gaped in three long slits from his knuckles to his wrist. He could see another layer of skin beneath it, grey-green and nasty. More fluid leaked from the cracks as he watched.
It struck him that he was hallucinating. This couldn't be real.
But Clarke was staring at his hand, too.
The skin peeled back before their very eyes. And now his feet were hurting, feeling cramped and squashed inside his loafers. His back spasmed again and he bent double.
"Howard," Clarke said, nearly crooning. "Howard Mosswell, you come from a grand and glorious line. It's time, Howard. Time to heed the call of your blood."
"What … what's happening to me?" he choked out.
As he was bent down, his hands cradled to his chest, he saw his shoes rippled and bulge. The left upper parted from the sole. Something pushed its way out, like a blind worm birthing from the shoe. It was followed by another, and another. They were grey-green, supple, slick. Tentacles. Tentacles where his toes had been.
It rushed back to him then. The cellar. The well. Uncle Richard. The monstrosities with their beaklike mouths and rings of pulsing, questing filaments.
"Yes," breathed Clarke. "Yes, Howard, accept it. Don't fight it. The compound in the medication will awaken the dormant potential of your heritage."
More memories flooded him. His back … the pain in his back … his mother with a cleaver … the agony as she'd sliced the slippery, larval wings from his shoulderblades. How he had screamed!
Innsbrook. The house. The books in the secret room. The well, leading down. Down into the dark. Where they lived, where it lived.
"Embrace it," Clarke said. "We have waited long for this day, Howard. We've been searching for you."
"Who are you?" he asked, his voice broken and strained.
"A friend," came the reply. "A follower."
He wanted to ask more, wanted to beg for an end to the searing pain now tearing wildly through his body. He heard gristle popping, flesh parting with wet sucking sounds. Part of him cried out silently that this wasn't real, couldn't be happening. It was his madness returning full-force, that was all. Surely nothing so horrible could be true.
Howard Mosswell, or the thing that now bore very little resemblance to him, whirled away from Clarke, who stood between him and the door. The urge to flee, to escape, was paramount. He had to get away from his tormentor, had to get out.
The window! He did not shy away from it but lunged for it. Knowing it was futile, of course it was, the glass and the mesh to keep him inside, but he had no other way to go, no other chance.
He moved into the patch of sunlight and it no longer felt weak. It poured over him like molten metal. Howard screamed, or tried to. What emerged from his throat was a gurgling noise.
Exhaustion slammed into him. He stumbled to his knees, reaching up, clawing for the sill with fingers that had grown oddly webbed and clawed and misshapen. They were stiff, achy, arthritic. All of him was.
A heavy lethargy dragged him down, blotting out all sensation except for the solidifying weight of his flesh as he succumbed to the transformation into stone.

**

The mists lifted on a scene of destruction.
Smoke from burning oil filled the air with a black taste. Chunks of wood, still smoldering in places, floated on the swells of the ocean. The embers glowed in the night like wary animal eyes.
A charred and gutted hulk, barely identifiable as a ship, was wallowing amid a bobbing cluster of flotsam. Upon a closer look, it became evident that much of the flotsam consisted of corpses.
Tourmaline hissed in breath between her teeth. "By the Dragon," she said.
The bodies were human, and from what she could see of them, they were badly mangled. Hewn to bits. And not long ago, for the scent of fresh blood mingled with the oilsmoke, and the scavengers of the sea had not yet appeared.
"It must have exploded," Corwin said, joining her at the rail of the Mists' Passage.
"No," she said. "They were attacked."
She pointed to the nearest body, or half of one. A male human, he had been cut nearly in two by a single clean blow. Only the knobby rope of his spine kept his upper and lower portions from being drawn apart by the current. A murky mess of entrails churned from his ragged abdomen.
"I see," said Corwin. "No explosion would have done that. It was a blade."
"And a fearsomely strong blow," Tourmaline added.
"There may be survivors."
She rolled her eyes. "Corwin –"
"Hear me, sister," he said, raising a hand to forestall her. "Avalon sent us here for some purpose, as it ever has. We have arrived nearly atop this poor scene, and thus there must be some reason for it."
"Yes, yes," she said, and sighed. "You'll not rest until we've taken aboard some other stray, shall you?"
He tried to grin, but even merry Corwin was daunted by the presence of so much violent death. "It has been rather lonesome with but the two of us."
"You need not remind me." She scowled at the bodies.
Lonesome? Perhaps, but they were better off without the others. Icarus had gotten so that he was nigh unbearable to be near, glum and moping and dour. And Ezekiel, who should have been her faithful warrior, had taken to challenging her authority when he was most ill-suited to do so.
The two of them had taken their leave, choosing to remain behind with the sorry leftovers of another clan. Let them have their keep, and their elders, and their rustic protectorate. Let Ezekiel and his little savage raise up a brood of lackwitted hatchlings. Let Icarus make a fool of himself over a female as crippled in the mind as he was in the body, neither of them fit to glide.
She had been glad to be rid of them, and yet it rankled. They had hardly been able to wait for a chance to desert her, all of them. Hippolyta, presumed dead but actually alive and well and preferring to leave them ignorant of her fate. Cassius, with his day-waking Egyptian mate. Then the others.
Of the party that had set out under her leadership, only Corwin was left. And Corwin had defied her more than once.
"We shall investigate," she said grudgingly. "Perhaps you are correct in that we were meant to find this."
"Excellent," Corwin said. He stepped up on the rail, muscular legs flexing, and opened his double golden wings. His white hair streamed back from his brow ridges, and his expression was both noble and alert as he scanned the sea for signs of life.
Handsome Corwin. Not even proud Tourmaline was immune to his allure, for all the good that it did. She would not have coupled with him even were he interested in females. He lacked ambition, and was content to glide through life sure that his fine features and pleasant manner would see him through.
She cinched her swordbelt tight. What a relief to be able to gird her waist again! She was finally free of the burden of her egg. It grieved her a bit to know that it was left behind, but for all their other faults she knew that Ezekiel and his new clan would see to it that the egg was cared for. It had a proper rookery to rest in, safe from the elements and the dangers of her voyage. In ten years, it would be ready to hatch and she would return to claim her daughter.
For now, though, she was overjoyed to be done with the bloated belly and other attendant discomforts of being gravid with egg. She had her strong and shapely figure back, better than ever thanks to a diligent regime of exercise, and was more than ready for battle.
What a shame that whatever had taken place here had been finished before they arrived! She would have relished a good fight, a chance to finally put Sir Bodwyn's sword to the use for which all swords were intended.
Their craft moved closer to the wreck. A few flurries in the water were beginning to appear, fish hungry for the unexpected bounty spilled into the gentle waves.
"Shall we go aboard?" Corwin inquired, as politely as if he were escorting her to one of Oberon's grand fetes back on Avalon. He even went so far as to offer her his arm.
She gave him an unamused look and stepped up on the rail beside him. Her own wings spread and she felt the lift at once. How much easier to take to the air when she was no longer weighed down! She kicked off, launching herself easily, and relishing the way the cool air slipped against her skin.
They landed on the most secure and stable-looking portion of the ship. Corwin grimaced as he found a man's corpse sprawled on the deck. Like the others, this one had been slashed to ribbons. Yet he was also oddly seared, as if he had also been burned, or as if some well-meaning but clumsy attempt had been made to cauterize the wounds.
A gun, a particularly nasty and insectile thing all of gleaming black, was wedged in a corner near the man's severed hand. Spent casings glittered in the moonlight, dozens of them.
"Odd," Tourmaline said.
"And odder," Corwin said, bending to pick up a parcel that had fallen near the gun. It was wrapped in plastic and brown paper and layers of strapping tape, but had been partly torn open to reveal a brick of some dense brownish substance. "Drugs, unless I miss my guess. Smugglers, then. Perhaps attacked by rivals."
"Rivals who use blades, rather than bullets?" She gestured around at the dead men. "Not a one of them has been shot. Are not guns the weapon of choice for criminals of this modern world?"
Corwin frowned pensively, then pointed. "I daresay someone was shot."
She followed his gesture. True enough, there was an outside cabin wall riddled with holes, and spattered liberally with blood.
"Then where is the body?" she wondered aloud, proceeding that way on the tilting deck. Her senses flared as she caught a scent, evocative and familiar. She touched a sticky smear, rubbing the blood between thumb and forefinger, and brought it to her nose.
"It seems this one survived," Corwin said. He had moved further on, and was examining marks on the deck and wall. "Injured. Mortally, perhaps, but lived long enough to stagger off a few paces. He could have fallen into the sea. Alas, I'm no Malachi or Ezekiel to read the nuances of each track and print."
"How fitting," Tourmaline said. "A time finally arises when Ezekiel would have been useful, and he's no longer with us. He could read those tracks, aye, and he could also tell me if I'm imagining things. Here, Corwin."
She thrust the bloodied pad of her thumb under his nose.
"What?" he asked.
"Tell me."
He sniffed at the blood, and his brow ridge rose. "It isn't human, is it?"
"I thought not!"
"But it isn't quite gargoyle, either," he went on. "I've smelled enough spilled blood of our clan since leaving Avalon, my own not excepted, and there's something not right about it."
"Yes," she said. "I thought that, too. But might it be simply a difference among clans? We and all our siblings are kin. Some unrelated clan might have a distinct scent to their blood. And see here!"
The last burst from her in excitement as she caught sight of something else glued to the wood by congealing blood. She plucked it free and held it up. It was a feather as long as her forearm, the tawny brown of an eagle's feather but with a hint of iridescent red to it. The way its subtle shimmer caught the available light made her think of her own skin, which could look green or violet or blue, always with that faint opalescence.
"Gargoyles with feathers?" Corwin looked askance.
"And why not?" she countered. "We have much variety in wing design even among our own clan. Did not Broadway speak of Englanders, with feathered wings?"
"He may have, at that," Corwin said. "But sister, do you truly think that gargoyles attacked this ship?"
"Why not? Look at those marks. I am not the tracker that some of our brothers and sisters are, but even to me it seems those aren't tracks made by human hands and feet. And mightn't our own kind be more likely to use traditional weapons?"
"Then one of them was hurt, perhaps killed," he said.
"Oh." Her budding excitement was suddenly nipped. She held tighter to the feather. It seemed to hold some residual warmth, like body heat. "I see no death-gravel," she added hopefully.
"With the boat aslant like this, a dying gargoyle turning to stone might well have slid down the deck and sunk to the bottom," Corwin said.
"We do not know the injuries were fatal," she said. "Our kind is much more durable, and can withstand wounds that would easily slay a human."
"Let us continue our search," he suggested. "There may yet be more clues as to what happened here."
She nodded. Moving carefully as the wreck continued to take on water, wallowing deeper and occasionally giving off a great gurgling gasp as some interior compartment was flooded, they picked their way along. Everywhere, they found more carnage. And signs, too, that the ship had been ransacked. The galley in particular was stripped bare of its meager store of food and utensils. The cabin was half-submerged but they could still see how the drawers had been wrenched open. A few missed or discarded items of clothing floated in wet rag-twists against the walls.
In the small cargo compartment, they discovered more wrapped packages ranging in size from brick to bale. These had not been looted, but had been liberally hacked at, so that their contents were strewn about and the air was acrid with their various odors.
"Drugs, again," Corwin said. "And not taken."
"What use would our kind have for them?" Tourmaline crossed to a tiny door set into the downhill wall of the sloping room. Water lapped under it, so she knew that the space beyond was likely filling or full, but she opened it all the same.
Crates crowded the small, low-ceilinged chamber. One was open, and she had time to register that a few more guns could have fit among the straw packing when movement to her left seized her attention.
She turned and stepped back in a swift and agile motion that surely saved her life. The chattering thunder of gunfire was deafening in the enclosed space. The stink of spent powder quickly masked the sour tang of a human's fear-sweat.
Her eyes dazzled by the flashes, Tourmaline went on instinct alone. She did not have room to draw her sword, so she fell to her knees in water that reached her chin. The nearest crate was no more buoyant than an anchor, but she worked her hands under it and heaved with all her strength.
The tilt of the room aided her. The crate flipped and slid, and crushed the man against the wall. He screamed and dropped the gun – she heard it hiss as hot metal hit the water – and then she was on him with the taste of seawater in her mouth like a premonition of blood.
"Monster!" he howled at her.
"Flattery shall avail thee naught," she said.
His throat was in her hands. His very life, beating in rapid pulse against her palms.
"Sister," Corwin said mildly from the door, "we may want to ask him a thing or two."
The man, a scrawny dark-skinned creature with a thin straggle of hair on his upper lip, had gone absolutely still but for his eyes. They were black pits ringed with white, and ticked from her to Corwin to her again with a rabbity panic that matched his heartbeat.
A flex of her claws would be all that was needed, and he would bubble his last breath through the flow from his severed arteries.
"Oh, very well," she said. She thrust the crate aside and hauled the man toward the door.
"And the ship is sinking," Corwin added.
Once she had him into the open, no longer collarbone-deep in water, Tourmaline saw that her captive might have escaped the death that claimed his crewmates, but he had not gotten away entirely unscathed. His right forearm was slashed to the bone in three hashmarks. The lower leg of his pants was shredded, and puncture wounds that could only be some sort of animal bite made an angry mess of his calf.
She and Corwin dragged him above. He was paralyzed with terror, and she thought he might have voided himself, though wet as he was it was hard to be certain. When he saw how the others on board had fared, he moaned.
"Who did this?" Corwin asked.
"Pirates," the man said. "Monsters."
Then he began to laugh hysterically, and cry, and shriek all at the same time.

**

Her life was a funhouse mirror, shattered on the floor. Some of the shards were upside-down, showing only black backing. Others were jagged slices of memory, the glass bowed and distorted.
Tiffy Vandermere was only sure of three things.
One, that she and Muffy and Babs weren't supposed to be here. They were supposed to lead better lives, lives of fashion and leisure, shopping, handsome young men who played tennis or polo.
Two, that some cold and insidious presence was sharing her body with her, like a parasite. She could feel it in her. Pale, bloated, tumorous. It ranted and fumed at her. It wanted to oust her from her own body and take over like an evil spirit in a fairy tale. They told her it was only her illness talking, but she knew. She knew.
Three, that what she was seeing right now was no trick of her mind. It was real. They were taking Howard away. Except he wasn't really Howard any more. They had done something to him. The new doctor, Dr. Clarke, had done something to Howard and now they were taking him away.
Howard was her only friend, not counting Muffy and Babs. They were more like sisters, anyway. Triplets. There had been a time when they could, with the help of a few wigs or bottles of hair dye, swap places.
Yes. Yes, they had.
A shard of mirror turned over and she remembered dyeing her hair black, and wearing a sequined gold gown. Going to a dance with Martin Deveraux. He had been so urbane and polite, the perfect gentleman, until they were driving home in his new champagne-colored Porsche. He'd turned off onto Lakeshore Drive, parked overlooking the marina, and they'd made out like minks.
Had she told Muffy and Babs that part? No, never … just as they'd never told her what had gone on during their respective mixed-up dates. Of course, they'd all known. They hadn't needed to talk about it.
The shard broke into a thousand spinning fragments. Martin was gone.
They were taking Howard away.
She stood at her window, where the presence in her had made her come. The moon, it was the moon it wanted. Tiffy yearned toward it and was scared to death of it.
She wanted to run back to her narrow bed and pull the thin blankets over her head, blotting out the soft white light that was cut into diamond-shapes by the mesh over the glass. She wanted to burst through the window and be free in the moonlight. Such powers would be hers if only she would do it!
And Tiffy would be gone forever. Just like Martin Deveraux, who had once pledged devotion to her by another girl's name, as his fingers were frantic on the clasp of her bra.
The moonlight had drawn her to the window, overpowering her fear. It had happened before on countless nights. She'd stand there until the moon was gone from the sky, all night sometimes, until her legs were locked from standing and she couldn't even bend them. The attendants would find her like that and move her stiff, uncomplaining form to her bed. Posturing, they called it. Catatonia, they called it.
When it was only the siren call of the moon.
Tonight, though, tonight was different.
Were Muffy and Babs at their windows, too? It was the same for them. She knew that, like she'd known that Muffy had gone all the way with David Haverford, like she'd known that Babs gave Lance Van Horne a "well, just this one time" blowjob. Whatever presence was in her, its sisters were in them.
If they had been unable to resist the lure of the moon, were they seeing what she was seeing? The views from their neighboring rooms were slightly different, and they might not have the precise angle between the dormers that she did.
They might not be able to see the truck, idling with its lights off, and the hideous forms that slouched around it.
Another fragment of mirror … and she was seeing her own face. Except that her complexion was of an inhuman tone … and delicately curved bony ridges rose where her eyebrows should have been … and a hint of leathery wings rose up behind that reflection …
She saw a dusty orange-grey plain. Her features on a demonic visage. Her features, also, on an ethereally slim elfin woman garbed all in blue and white.
A man with a long white beard and a jewel gleaming in his forehead. A three-headed dragon. Smoke and choking fumes. Another man, or not a man, with fanlike ears, horns, grey-green skin, long reddish-blond hair.
Tiffy covered her eyes and whimpered. She did not want to see that. It was, they told her, the very core of her illness. They wanted her to see it, confront it, explain it. Then, they said, she'd be taking the first steps toward recovery.
But she had died there. She had seen herself … or a mirror image of herself … die there.
A powerful push in the depths of her mind made her reel. The presence riding inside of her – psychic tapeworm, tumor, leech – was battering at her. Trying to break free. Trying to take over. And then, if it did, she knew with a superstitious surety, the doctors would think she'd made a great improvement. They would adjust her medications, eventually release her, and someone calling herself Tiffany Vandermere would go back to that half-remembered life. But it would be a lie. All a lie.
"No!" she cried, not meaning to.
The word rang in the sleeping stillness of Arkham. She cringed from it.
Down in the yard, at the side of the truck, Dr. Clarke looked around in alarm. His gaze fixed on her, where she stood in her moonlit window. Tiffy's skin turned to a sheen of ice. She caught her breath.
Clarke's eyes caught the light and threw it in marshy green radiance. He leveled a finger at her. The shapes near him, slouched and horrible, began to move.
Tiffy struggled against a scream. If she did, the attendants would come and she'd be safe from the things advancing on the building. But they would press medication on her, coax her to take a pill or go right to jabbing her with a needle, and then she would sink helplessly into a stupor. They'd put her in the restraint room, where nobody would hear if she called for help.
The moonlight, so compelling when it touched her, fell like dead mist on shiny-wet skin. It glistened on flexing, writhing tentacles. It cast eerie shadows as damp, creased wings unfolded.
Now she couldn't scream. The horror was too great.
The squid-frog-man-bat monsters scaled the walls, leaving mucusy snail-trails behind them. Tiffy knew, sharply and instantly, that the windows to either side of hers were occupied as well. Muffy and Babs were there, as rooted in place as she was, as unable to scream as she was.
She listened desperately for the muted thump of an attendant's steps. Now she would welcome the pill, the needle, the soft-walled room. It might be more prison than haven but if the monsters found her there, at least she would be so doped up that she wouldn't care.
All she could hear was the unspeakably repulsive sound of the creatures squelching their way up the walls. Closer. Closer.
A tentacle, green-black on top but shading to a fishbelly white below, snaked over the bottom of the window and curled itself through the mesh. Tiffy could see suckers on it, a vile pinkish in color, obscenely sucking and slurping.
It pulled itself up. She was face to face with it, staring at a chitinous beak ringed with beady eyes and wavering filaments. It splayed its hands – or maybe they were fins, fins with long, boneless fingers – against the mesh. The suckers opened and oozed a yellow stuff like pus. When it touched the mesh, the metal bubbled and fizzed and drooped away in long runny clots.
Tiffy could not move. She was seeing this, she knew it to be true. They had taken Howard away, wrapped in a canvas but she knew it was him. Even with his shape all wrong, she knew it was him.
Now it was her turn. Hers, and Muffy's, and Babs'.
Something inside of her raged and thrashed. She felt impotent fury seething through her. If she had her powers … if she had her magic …
But that thought made no sense.
The mesh dribbled away and the creature put its tentacles on the glass. Though thick, though supposedly unbreakable, it melted like a clear sheet of sugar.
The stench of the creature surrounded Tiffy. Rotting kelp and sardines and brackish low tide. It squeezed into the room and reached for her with those seeping tentacles that had dissolved metal and glass with their acidic slime.

**

In the silence of the cave, wood cracked and splintered. A nesting gull took to the evening air with a raucous protest. Sawdust sifted down, heaping around the bases of five short pillars.
Brand woke to the usual unbearable constriction. He tensed and then thrust with his limbs, exploding out of the thin wooden shell that had grown around him with the coming of the dawn. His wings burned briefly with all the colors of fire as they flexed, stretched, and folded neatly against his back.
He rotated his shoulder and probed the skin there. Healed, but still tender. Not his sword arm, luckily. His shirt had not mended so well as his flesh, bloodstained rips marking where the bullets had torn into him.
Around him, the other members of his clan were rousing from their own slumber. Brand spared a moment to surreptitiously admire the wavelike swell and recede of Melusine's bare bosom as she inhaled and exhaled deeply. Her hands went automatically to the long greenish-blond tresses of her hair, smoothing them, tugging locks to hang artfully over the creamy splendor of her breasts.
Beside her, Reaper shook off the last flecks of wood and stepped down from his perch. Brand was quick to avert his eyes from the leader's mate. To ogle Melusine was agony enough – the agony of that which was forever beyond him – but to be caught at it would be agony of another sort. The agony, perhaps, of having Reaper's scythe shear off one of his limbs.
Reaper wouldn't, of course. He needed Brand. Admit it or not, he needed Brand. Someone had to take charge of the clan. Someone had to stir them from their cave and get them out sailing, prowling the seas and coasts and islands and inlets for ships to take. Otherwise, they would starve here in their cave. Starve in poverty. If that was to be the case, they would have been better off staying locked in the enchanted wood sleep that had held them for three hundred years.
But, better or worse, they were free now. Free to resume the life that was theirs. More than free, really, for now they were their own masters. No longer did they owe anything to a human captain. The ship was theirs, the cave was theirs, and the collection of prizes they had amassed these past five years was also theirs.
Not that Reaper cared a whit for any of the booty stored in the lower cave. What use was it to them, he sometimes growled when his brooding was at its darkest. What use were stacks of paper with human visages and numbers inked on them, unless they lacked for driftwood to warm their cave?
Only their scant trove of jewelry gave Reaper any pleasure. He might spend entire nights hunched over the chest like an impatient hen, scooping up rings and necklaces and the baubles called 'wristwatches,' but even that eventually failed to hold his interest. Gold and silver had deteriorated since their time. Jewels, too, were more often fakes than not. The coins, which had initially pleased Reaper, were measly disks of lowly metals barely even worth the name of money.
Where, Reaper grumbled when he was in those dark moods, were the doubloons? The pieces of eight? Where was the fine Spanish silver, worked into chalices and crucifixes and serving platters? Where were the ropes of pearls, and strung beads of jade? Where, in other words, was the thrice-damned bloody buggering treasure?
Brand had heard this tirade so often that it was woodburned into his mind. It was so that he wanted to seize Reaper and give him a good shake, and shout some truths of their new-wakened life into that ivory skull of a face. When had treasure, even gold, been much good to them? Could they sail into Port Royal or Tortuga and spend it? They took it, that was true, but out of habit. They were better served by the raiding of ship's stores. Foodstuffs. Cloth. Items to make their existence here in the cave more livable.
He suspected Melusine would have agreed with him, for all that she did enjoy it whenever a new piece of jewelry did find its way into their trove. When she was not preening, she was practical. She knew that Imp needed to eat, growing hatchling that he was, and Chimera's voracious appetite could not be sated on silver.
And Melusine would never speak out against Reaper even so. She let him have his moods, let him glower or sulk as it suited him. For the nonce, she was content to live like this.
They did not see it as Brand did. For him, it was not the treasure. Oh, a good haul was nice as a token, a reminder, of a battle well-fought. But so was the sight of a sacked ship foundering as it burned to the waterline. So were the pleas and cries of the enemy. And most of all, the thrill that came from planning and properly executing an attack.
Those were the things that Brand lived for.
He stepped down from his perch, fingering the holes in his shirt. His vest and breeches were undamaged, though stained with his blood and that of his foes.
Their lair was on a ledge above the tide line of the sea cave. Passages led off through the stone to the other chambers, where they kept their various treasures and supplies. Below them, anchored in the gentle rise and fall of the water, was their ship. A curtain of vines screened the Lady Macbeth from the outside.
Imp bounded around his mother, clamoring for food. The hatchling, more spoiled than ever now that he was the sole focus of his parents' lives, would have grown fat from overindulgence had he not brimmed with an energy that was nearly maddening. From dusk until dawn, Imp was constantly active. Climbing this, jumping from that, swinging on the other, and usually while squealing and carrying on so shrilly that Brand feared his very ears might rupture from it.
As if that was not enough, Chimera often joined Imp in these reckless escapades around the caves. The two of them could leave such devastation in their wake that they might be likened unto a hurricane.
Perhaps, had Brand been the sire of hatchlings of his own, he would be more tolerant of Imp's antics. As it was, he hungered for the moment when Reaper or Melusine would clout some discipline into the brat. Alas, he feared it would be long in coming, that moment. And he dared not do it himself.
Ah, but were he leader of this clan … there'd be no room for laggards and disobedience then! He would run a tight ship. He would take captives and force them to sign the Articles, and then, rather than the gargoyles serving the humans, it would be the other way 'round. The proper way 'round! Their treasure would not be so useless to them then, not when they could put their human crew ashore to spend it. Under pain of a flogging, or worse punishment, of course, should they attempt to double-cross their masters.
That was how it should be. If only Reaper had the will to do it, or the sense to step down and let Brand lead the clan.
The one time he had dared advance such a notion, though …
Brand shook his head and snorted in chagrin. He had been so startled by Reaper's vehemence that he had not defended himself adequately, and while his hurt flesh had mended by the next night, his pride still stung from it.
Their most recent battle had not gone so well. Not only had Brand been wounded – nearly killed, though he was not willing to admit that to the others – but the cargo of the ship had been less than rewarding. Drugs and guns. Reaper, disgusted, had ordered it scuttled and sunk.
Had it been up to Brand, he might have commandeered the swag and sold it, or traded it for other goods. The humans had defended it as though it was of great value. He tried to argue the point with Reaper, likening these shipments of cocaine and heroin to spices. Had not black pepper been ounce for ounce as valuable as gold, in their time? Might not these guns be as profitable, in their own way, as a cargo of fine swords or pistols?
His argument had fallen on deaf ears. By now, the entire ship and its contents would be at the bottom of the sea.
Such a waste.
"Brand! Brand!"
It was his name, barely recognizable though it was through a mouthful of bread and jam. He turned to see Imp bounding toward him, Chimera close on the hatchling's heels in hopes of a dropped crust.
How long had he been standing here, looking down at the trim and well-kept Lady Macbeth, thinking his vaguely mutinous thoughts? Long enough for Reaper to have vanished, no doubt off to the trove to scowl over their meager haul of the previous night. Long enough for Melusine to have appeased her greedy son with bread and jam … and where was she now? Out at her favored rock, combing out her glorious long hair?
Imp chewed, his cheeks bulging grotesquely, swallowed, belched far louder than necessary, and grinned. Proud of himself, the ill-mannered little fiend.
"Brand!" he said, clearer now. "Come and see, Brand, come and see, and tell me what it is!"
"What?" Brand asked gruffly.
"Something in the sky!" Imp said, and reached out with one jam-covered hand.
He twitched away from it, although his clothes were dark with bloodstains already. "Show me, then."
Imp stuffed the rest of the bread into his mouth and scrambled up the ledge that wound around the interior of the cave's roof before emerging onto a tree-shielded outcrop. It served as their lookout point, one of them always making sure the sea was clear before they sailed the ship out from its hiding place.
The sky above was a black crystal bowl flecked with diamonds. Brand breathed of the night air, the salt spray. His eyes instinctively turned to the horizon in search of ships. A spyglass, in oiled leather case, was kept in a niche here. He reached for it.
"No," Imp said. "Up there!" He was pointing up into the heavens, and off toward the east. "It's a star, isn't it, Brand? A star? But not like any star I've ever seen."
"It's a comet," Brand said, staring at the faint, fuzzy smear of light.
He could only barely make it out, for all the night was clear and his vision was keen as a hawk's. He knew something of the stars, since that was how any good sailor found his way, and judged that this new addition to the panorama must have only become visible in the past few nights.
The spyglass did not reveal it in much greater detail. A fuzzy smear. But coming closer, falling toward the sun.
"A comet," Imp said, awestruck. "Aren't they harmickers?"
"Harbingers," Brand corrected. Just saying the word sent a prickle along the hairs at the back of his neck. He did not hold with many of the sailors' superstitions, but some held true. Red sky at night, for instance. Rings around the moon, for instance.
But comets? As harbingers of doom? Omens? Signs in the heavens warning of apocalypse?
Unless the bloody thing actually struck them, he couldn't imagine what sort of bad luck a streak of light in the sky might herald.

**

The Hastur was anchored and waiting. An expectant hush blanketed the deck. The sailors, all bell-bottomed in the style of 19th-century tars, went about their rudimentary duties in slow routine.
They looked remarkably alike, these sailors. As if they had all been recruited from the same inbred family. Their faces were pale, with greenish undertones that spoke of incipient seasickness, though not a man among them showed any other signs of nausea. Indeed, they appeared quite at home on the waves.
Their eyes were protuberant, the flesh of their necks loose and jowly. They had long and supple fingers that worked the knots with dexterous ease, and many went barefoot on wide, splay-toed feet that almost seemed to stick to the planking like they were fitted with suckers.
Howard Mosswell felt oddly at home among them, and hated it. He resisted that feeling just as he had resisted any sort of camaraderie with the inmates back at Arkham. He did not want to be one of them. Did not want to be akin to them. Especially not these pallid, strange men with their vaguely batrachian features.
He did not know how he had ended up here. His memory was a blur of impossible images and sensations. Even now, viewing the deceptive waters of the Bermuda Triangle stretching out on all sides, he was not fully certain that this was real. He could be, and hopefully was, locked in a cell of the asylum, raving but harmless.
Had he really imagined that he was transforming into some grotesque monster? He studied his reflection in the polished sheet of metal and saw only the same hollow face, the same haunted eyes.
His body was unchanged, white and gaunt, the scars on his back faded to ropy lines. His hands were long, yes, with fingers like a pianists, but they had always been that way. They bent at the joints like anyone else's. They did not writhe and coil like boneless tendrils.
The presence of Dr. Victor Clarke both reassured and distressed him. He did not know what to make of it. If he was in fact confined to a soft-walled cell, it was possible his crazed mind merely incorporated the doctor into its flights of madness whenever Clarke came to check on him. But it could also be that this was indeed happening, that what little he remembered was fact. Could Clarke have drugged him and spirited him out of Arkham?
As if thinking the name had summoned him, Dr. Clarke appeared. Mosswell was not kept under lock and key, or even under guard, but given the run of the ship. Where would he go? The only way off was over the side, into the dark waters. And he was not much of a swimmer.
Or was he?
Howard Mosswell had, as a boy, frequently begged his mother to take him to the beach, to the pool, or to sign him up for swimming lessons. She had invariably refused, often with an ire that seemed out of proportion to such a simple request. Consequently, he had little experience with bodies of water larger than that which would fit in a bathtub.
Yet something inside him whispered that he could swim if he wanted to. Could swim, as a matter of fact, like no other man on earth.
"Howard," Dr. Clarke said heartily. "How are you liking the voyage?"
"Not at all, thank you," he said.
The response came automatically. He was far more concerned by what the doctor was carrying.
It was a thick book, and the very sight of it perturbed him in a deep inner level. This was no mundane copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the Bible of the psychiatric field. The publishers of such dense and jargon-filled texts of academia would never bind their books in what looked like pebbled reptilian skin, or fit them with jawbones. The pages were not evenly cut or gilded on the edges but rough, and of some nasty yellowed parchment.
"Tonight is a grand night, Howard," Dr. Clarke said.
"How so?" he asked guardedly.
Books … yes, there had been books down in the cellar of the Innsbrook house, hadn't there? Books like this one, with ominous bindings and fittings of human bone, and unspeakable contents.
"Do you see that light, over there?" Clarke pointed to a smudge of light near the horizon. "The comet Kronos, once called the Key of the Deep. It returns to us every ninety-some years, marking a time when the boundaries between worlds are thin. Its last appearance was in 1910, the year that the first steamship, the USS Nina, vanished in the Triangle. Now it shines upon us again."
"What does that have to do with me?" Mosswell knew that he did not want to hear the answer, but it was better to get it over with. "At times such as these," Clarke said, "those who have power can summon the denizens of the Otherworld, the Risers from the Deep –"
"No!" Mosswell cried. He made a grab for the book, but Clarke evaded him with uncanny deftness.
"You have that power, Howard Mosswell. It is in your blood. And tonight, you will use it."
"I will not do what you want," he said.
Clarke clucked his tongue sympathetically. "I'm afraid you have no choice."
"Not if I want to live?" Howard asked in a mocking tone. "Kill me, then. My life has never been worth living. I have no home, no family. What would I be missing? A return to Arkham?"
"I am not going to kill you, Howard. I would never harm you. My family has dedicated itself to this night for generations. We are Followers. We know of the incredible benefits that can be gained from an alliance with the Risers from the Deep. All they ask is a conduit into our world."
"And you call yourself a psychiatrist," Mosswell said. "You're the one who should be on the locked ward if you believe all that."
"I am a psychiatrist, that much is true," Clarke said, unruffled. "However, I did not go into that field for the usual reasons. I never cared about helping people, or unraveling the riddles of the mind. Quite simply, I knew that those whose lives had brushed up against the Otherworld would most likely be found in the insane asylums. I became a psychiatrist to find these people."
"You are crazy," Mosswell said.
"There is more truth to be found in the ravings of one lunatic than in all the sermons of all the preachers in all the world. Words to live by, Howard. Food for the soul."
"I didn't think you believed in souls."
Clarke laughed, a disconcertingly jolly sound amid the somber, wary silence of the sailors. "I differed from my mentor, Dr. Sevarius, in one key way. He never believed in the human soul, since there was no one spot in the brain where he could point with his scalpel and say ' there it is.' I, on the other hand, have always considered myself a student of that which is beyond science."
Howard turned away, looking over the rail to the sea-foam that churned against the sides of the ship. Not far enough of a fall to kill him, and it suddenly came to him like the touch of an icy finger that diving into the sea would be the worst thing he could do. Drown? Oh, far from it … he would find that he swam like a fish. He wouldn't even need to worry about holding his breath.
He took a huge gasp of air, to reassure himself that his lungs still functioned properly. He didn't quite have the courage to touch the sides of his neck, which felt funny. He was too afraid of finding gill-slits in his skin.
"I won't help you," he said. "I won't do what you want. Summon some monster, is that it? What's in it for you? Money? Political influence? An end to offshore oil drilling? What?"
"That does not matter."
"It matters to me," Mosswell said. "And in exchange, it gains access to our world. You think you'll be able to control it. Maybe there's some incantation in that damned book of yours that you expect will bind it to your will. You're a fool if you believe that. It'll get loose, can't you see? It'll get loose, and it'll hunt, it will rule the seas."
"You judge them too harshly, Howard," Clarke said. "They only want what every thinking being wants. Freedom. By bringing them here, we are setting them free. They're only too happy to reward us for that one small service."
"How can you think that? Have you ever seen one of these creatures?"
"You disappoint me, Howard."
"Rot in Hell," Mosswell told him, and crossed his arms resolutely on his chest.
Clarke shrugged, but his eyes glinted with displeasure. "Suit yourself. I hoped you might be willing to embrace your destiny. You have ties to the Risers from the Deep, Howard. Blood ties."
He beckoned, and Howard went stiff with fear as he heard a sound that had haunted his nightmares for years. A squishy, slithery sound, like someone shuffling along in boots filled with thick mud. Then he smelled them. That dank, briny stink.
"Don't you want to look at your cousins?" Clarke asked, wearing a cruel little smile. "I do so love a family reunion."
Against his will, Howard looked. There they were, a loose grouping of them. Dripping and slumped. Horrible. The wet folds of their wings drooping like things about to melt. Clusters of ceaselessly-undulating tentacles where their lower legs and feet and hands should have been. More tentacles around their octopus-like beaks. Little shiny eyes, like droplets of oil, fixed on him with cold, crustacean intelligence.
"No," Mosswell whispered. "No, get them away, don't let them near me."
"They understand what I'm trying to do here," Clarke said. "I had to awaken the potential in your DNA in order to bring you here. It wore off, but a substantially larger dosage might well render the effect permanent. You said that you had no home, no family, nothing to lose. Isn't that right, Howard? But here is your family. I'm sure that you would be welcome among them."
He knew then what Clarke meant. Fail to cooperate, and there was what awaited him. There was his fate. Changed forever into one of those awful creatures. Living in eternal night, shunning the light.
"Please, not that," he was ashamed to hear himself say.
"Will you do as I ask?" Clarke held out the book.
"I can't!" Howard cried wretchedly. "You don't know what you're doing! Letting one of those … those things … into our world … it would destroy everything! They're evil, Clarke! Or maybe just so alien, so unlike us, that we can't comprehend them. For the love of God, think about what could happen!"
"You might not understand them, but I do," Clarke said. "And if it's the fate of the world you're so worried about, well, you haven't been reading the papers lately. We're well on the way to destroying ourselves. The Risers may be our only chance to turn back from the brink. They could save us, Howard."
He put his hands to his face, they pulled them away with a scream of horror when he thought he felt them curl and writhe. They looked unchanged. He was not consoled. The change was there, even if it didn't show. It was there, it was in him. In his very blood.
"I can't do this," he said brokenly. "I don't want to be like them, I don't, but I can't help you bring about the end of the world."
Clarke set the book aside. "That's all right, Howard," he said, with a comforting pat on the shoulder. "That's all right. You don't have to."
The needle plunged into his arm like the drilling sting of a wasp. His head flew up as he gasped, as much from the pain as his own stupidity in allowing Clarke to get close to him.
The doctor turned his head, smiling, as three more of the squid-gargoyle-creatures appeared. Each carried a limp figure clad in the institutional-grey of Arkham's drab robes. Their faces were obscured by their hanging hair, but that didn't matter. Howard knew that their faces would all look alike. His insides twisted into a knot as he recognized the blonde, brunette, and silvery-pale hair of Tiffy, Babs, and Muffy.
"You don't have to," Clarke said again, smugly. "It seems you weren't the only person of power in those hallowed asylum halls."

**

"They must be near," Tourmaline said. "We cannot give up."
"Have you any idea, sister dear, how many islands there are dotting this part of the sea?" Corwin asked, looking up from a chart. "Not to mention that we seem to be in an area marked with red borders. Personally, I find that just a touch daunting. Red as in danger, and all."
"Danger is nothing new to us," she said. "I am far keener on finding others of our kind."
They had spent the day moored in an inlet of a tropical island, following a night spent searching for other signs of gargoyles. Their captive, the man from the derelict drug smuggling ship, had gone mad shortly after they had discovered him. His wild laughter and sudden bursts of weeping and screaming had ended when he, with no warning, raced to the rail and hurled himself into the waves. They had last seen him paddling toward the dark outline of an island, and heard his crazed howls long after he had vanished from sight.
Good riddance, as far as Tourmaline was concerned. The last thing they needed was another stray human hanging about.
It spared her the trouble of having to slay him herself, too. To that, Corwin surely would have objected despite the evidence that said the man had been a foe of gargoyles. Given that he was unarmed, wounded, helpless, and his wits had abandoned him, it would not have been anything approximating a fair fight. It would have been slaughter, pure and simple.
He had circumvented those arguments for them by his leap, though Corwin had opined that they should rescue him. She had overruled that, and they had gone from island to island in hopes of locating this new, seagoing clan.
It puzzled her that they hadn't yet found the object of their search. Always before, Avalon had delivered them to their destination with reasonable accuracy. She could not believe they'd been sent solely to find that burned hulk of a ship, and the man on board. Ludicrous.
Corwin had been the one to point out the dim smudge of the comet. It would be him to notice, for the last time there had been a sign in the heavens, the poor lad had ended up plunging into a volcano to save the undeserving and unappreciative Children of Oberon.
Had he been duly rewarded? Pff! A goodly lesson to them all, that had been. Never expect thanks from the Third Race. They had no conception of what it meant to risk life and limb, being immortal.
Still, whatever this new comet might mean had to take a secondary place in her thoughts. She was intent on finding more gargoyles. Finding, perhaps, the owner of this fire-opal feather.
She set the telescope to her eye and swept it in a slow arc. Islands, a plethora of them, but most were brilliantly alight with human settlements. Vacation resorts, she believed they were called. The sort of place where wealthy humans might travel, claiming to want to experience life in a foreign land, but spending their time in luxurious hotels instead.
No self-respecting gargoyle would be found stone in a place such as that. She and Corwin avoided those islands. They sought out the smaller ones, the ones where the only signs of habitation might be hovels and villages.
"How far have we come from the wreck?" she asked. "Could we have glided that distance?"
"Not there and back again in a single night, leaving time for a battle and looting a ship," Corwin said. "I shouldn't think so, at any rate."
"One of these nearer islands then, it must be," she said. "Unless they've some other way of getting about."
"Well, we sail," he said. "Perhaps they do, too." He paused, a contemplative look lighting his eyes. "Do you think they might be from Avalon?"
"Oh, Corwin, don't be ridiculous," she said. "Our rookery brothers and sisters wouldn't have any reason to leave. They're all nesting, remember?"
"Not all. We left a few mateless siblings behind."
"What, Zachary, Elswyth, and Carnelian?" She scoffed. "Those deaths were not their handiwork, brother. Zachary's the only half-decent warrior among the three, and he fights with claw, not blade."
"It was only a hope," Corwin said. "I miss them."
"That's one of us, then." She raised the telescope. "Aha, what's this? Another ship, a large one."
"Gargoyles aboard?"
"I cannot tell. They seem to be anchored there, unmoving. There is some sort of gathering on the deck …" She trailed off, brow ridge knitting in a frown. "How very strange. Look, Corwin, and tell me if I've taken leave of my senses."
He opened his mouth, perhaps about to make some smart remark, and wisely reconsidered. He took the telescope instead and aimed it at the distant ship.
"My word," he said.
"You see them?"
"I see them, but it can't be."
Tourmaline snatched back the telescope. "It is them, I'd swear to it. Oberon's handmaids. They've gone pudgy, by the look, and their hair is a disgrace, but it must be them. What in the world are they doing here, and why?"
She sucked in a breath as she focused on the other shapes around the trio of women. An instinctive shudder twisted through her.
"What is it?" Corwin wrested the telescope from her again and set it to his eye. He made a low noise of disgust in his throat. "Are they gargoyles?"
"They cannot be," she said firmly. "No. They cannot."
"Hideous fellows, aren't they? Like squids, almost. But never judge a book by its cover and all that, so they say. Might they be the ones we're –"
"No!" Tourmaline said. She tempered her voice. "No, Corwin, they couldn't be. They lack feathers, for one, and blades for another. How could they even grip a sword?"
He looked a while longer, the tip of his tail twitching. After some time, he spoke again. "Well, sister, I say you this. I may not know who they are or what they are, but I know that they're up to no good."
"Why?" she asked.
"Because I know a spell being cast when I see it."

**

"Tiffy, I'm scared," Babs said.
Muffy seconded it with a nod, arms hugging herself, eyes darting around at the squid-monsters surrounding them.
For the first time in ages, Tiffy Vandermere's mind felt clear. Shocked, too, because she was really seeing her friends, and in them, herself.
How had they come to this? What had happened to them? It was awful!
They were supposed to be slim and trim and sexy! She could barely recognize her best friends. They must have put on thirty pounds each and their faces were speckled with zits and blackheads.
Cheap hospital-cafeteria food had done this: corned beef hash that came in giant tin cans, instant mashed potatoes, government commodities margarine and cheese, greasy hamburger, all of it limp-cooked, tasteless, but plentiful. Oh, yes, they slopped it on with big ladles in the Arkham cafeteria, and look what it did to them!
She blamed the soda pop and candy, too. None of them smoked, so their only allowable vice – or bribe from the attendants trying to ensure good behavior – was sugar. Sugary, caffeine-free cola. Candy bars. Snack cakes, not even Hostess but some chintzy knock-off bargain brand.
Babs and Muffy were looking at her, too, and she saw her reaction in their eyes. Her fingertips tentatively touched her cheeks, chin, nose.
"Oh, gross!" she wailed.
When had her last facial been? Then, catching sight of her bitten nails with their peeling cuticles, she added manicure to the list, and makeover, and pedicure, and shopping trip, and the dozens of other fine details she had once thought she couldn't live without.
"We're ugly," Muffy sobbed. "We're hags, we're fat pimply losers!"
"But you can be beautiful again," Dr. Clarke said in a smoothly oily voice, smiling at each of them in turn. "Read the incantation. Do this one little favor, use the power that burns in you, and be beautiful again."
Tiffy was instantly suspicious. The power in her? The presence, did he mean? Yes, he must, because she could feel it surging up like a column of puke. It wanted out. It wanted to take the creepy witch-book he held, open it, read from it. She saw Muffy and Babs struggling similarly.
"Will we?" Babs asked. "Will we really?"
"Even more than before," Clarke told them.
"No, Tiffy, don't do it," Howard Mosswell pleaded.
Or at least, she was pretty sure it was Howard Mosswell. Something was happening to him. He was altering before her eyes, his back hunching and splitting, his fingers lengthening. It looked like it hurt, hurt a lot, but he was still trying to talk to her.
His eyes, brown and wracked with pain, were still Howard's eyes. Other little pock marks were opening in a ring around his nose, which was growing and turning hard and greenish, like a beetle's carapace. He was going to end up with a circle of eyes and that beak of a mouth that the squid-monsters had.
Tiffy looked down at herself. She had on a pair of durable cotton pajamas that had probably come from Wal-Mart or someplace even worse, faded plaid, horrible. Over that was a bathrobe, one-size-fits-most, coarse and grey. On her feet were plain white athletic socks and canvas sneakers.
The whole outfit would probably go for under three bucks at a thrift store, when she had been in the habit of routinely spending two hundred dollars on a cashmere sweater, eighty dollars each on silk blouses, a hundred and twenty on shoes.
How could this be her? And how could Howard Mosswell be looking at her without gagging? Okay, so the man had problems of his own; she had zits but he was growing tentacles. But still!
The presence inside of her made a new bid for dominance. Tiffy saw her hands rise, reaching for the book again. She could do this. She wanted to do this. It had been so long, and she needed it like she needed the very air she breathed.
"Please, Tiffy," Howard said.
"Look at us," Muffy said. "Look at us, we're so ugly!"
"What would the Harvard men say?" Babs was almost in tears.
"What would my stepmother say?" Tiffy groaned, knowing the answer to that one even as the words left her lips. Ginny Vandermere, the ex beauty queen who was only a couple of years older than Tiffy herself, would slather a thick layer of pity over a core of gloating scorn.
And her father … she couldn't let him see her like this. No wonder he never visited. If she turned up on his doorstep like this, he'd have her whisked away to Arkham or some other private institution before she could finish saying "hi, Daddy."
Chas Yale would never look at her now. Not that he ever had before, but she knew that was only because his bitchy aunt, her former sister-in-law Margot, had turned Chas against her. Margot, and Chas' bitch-cow of a sister, Birdie.
"I can't be like this," she said.
"You don't have to be," Dr. Clarke replied. "None of you do. It can all be better, like it was before. Wouldn't that be nice?"
"Tiffy –"
"I'm sorry, Howard," she said. "You don't understand. We can't stay this way."
She took the book from Clarke, and Muffy and Babs crowded around her as she opened it to the page marked with a braided ribbon of what looked like human hair.
An illustration covered half of the left-hand page. It showed a seascape with a comet blazing in the night sky, and the waters exploding in enormous waves as something with a long, scaled body and a mass of serpentine tentacles rose from the depths.
The lettering was spidery and thin, and Latin. She felt a moment of panic, since she had only taken French in school, but it dwindled almost at once when she realized she could read the words just fine.
The book cradled in one arm, she raised the other to point skyward. Her friends mimicked the gesture, laying the palms of their free hands flat on the yellowed page and the bloodred letters.
They called to Kronos, and felt the power of the spell course through them in a turbulent current.
Around the Hastur, the placid ocean heaved. A wind blew up from nowhere, whipping strands of hair into the faces of the three women. The comet seemed to stand out more brightly against the black.
And then the ship began to move, pulled in a slow circle by the displacement of something massive rising through the water. The anchor chain creaked. The deck shuddered.
Clarke rushed to the side, his face ecstatic and wild. Howard Mosswell slumped down, pressing his forearms over his eyes. The squid-monsters jumped from the rails, their misshapen wings catching the air. They glided in clumsy formation above the place where the surface bulged up.
Tiffy noticed not one but two other boats converging on the spot. But her mouth was acting independently of the rest of her, chanting the words, so she could not make any mention of the new arrivals.
The bulge of water burst apart as the spiny back of Kronos broke through. Rivulets coursed down the beast's brown, scaly sides. A muscular tail lashed the sea into a frenzy. Long jaws big enough to have bitten the Hastur in half opened and closed, showing rows of curved teeth. A bristling tangle of tentacles like the many arms of an octopus extended from the sides of Kronos' flat, wedge-shaped head.
"Kronos is risen!" Clarke cried, shaking his fists triumphantly in the air. "The time that was foretold is come!"

**

Brand gaped as the gigantic creature emerged from the sea in a spray of foam.
It lunged upward, exposing short, stubby legs – short and stubby only compared to its size; each leg alone was still more than twice his height and ten times his girth. More tentacles sprouted from its greenish-yellow underbelly, hanging down like the stinging limbs of a jellyfish.
"Leviathan!" Melusine gasped, the word recalling many an old salt's tales of sea serpents, ship-swallowing whales, and 'here thar be monsters' inscribed at the blank edges of maps in the days when some still held to superstitions that the earth was flat.
Imp had spotted the Hastur from the crow's nest, and they had all taken note with special interest of the gargoyle-shaped figures moving about on her deck. That sight had prompted them to set their course for a closer look, running without lanterns or engines. The Lady Macbeth had rocked with the waves stirred up by the rising, but they had not been drawn closer.
A commotion broke out on the Hastur. Brand saw a manlike form struggling with three human-seeming females for possession of some object that might have been a book.
Another human, this one a man of middle years, was standing at the Hastur's rail, his attention fixed on the lambent yellow eyes of the leviathan. He looked as though he was attempting to communicate. The brisk wind carried tatters of his words, but they were made meaningless in the flap of the Lady Macbeth's sails.
"What is he saying?" Reaper asked. His hands were curled around the haft of his scythe, his expression more grim than ever as he regarded the scene.
"Whatever it is, I doubt it's working," Brand said, as the leviathan reared back, jaws gaping.
It was very like a crocodile in shape, a crocodile somehow bred with a squid and a jellyfish, and it had a crocodile's deceptive speed. One might not expect something that lounged sluggish in the mud at a riverbank to move with any sort of swiftness, but a single convulsion propelled it forward.
Frothy whitecaps exploded away from its bulk. The jaws clamped down on the hull of the ship. Even from here, undiluted by the wind, Brand could hear metal shearing under the pressure of those teeth.
The gargoyles above wheeled in surprise and consternation, as a flock of gulls might have done had a cannonball been suddenly shot through their midst. Aboard the stricken ship, two of the women went tumbling along the pitched deck. The manlike thing that had been struggling with them lashed out with impossibly long fingers, snaring the rail with one hand and the ankle of the third woman – she holding the book – in the other.
The man who had been attempting to speak to the creature was thrown high into the air as the planking he'd been standing upon snapped in half. For a moment, he seemed to have been launched by a spring. He poised at the top of his arc, one of the gargoyles making a futile grab for him, then dropped into the raging ocean.
The leviathan, gripping the ship in its jaws, savagely wrenched its head and neck from side to side. More metal squealed, more wood burst into splinters. A series of small bangs sounded, explosions of some sort. The Hastur's running lights and the lights in the portholes flickered. Blue sparks rained from the mangled ship.
"Reaper, what shall we do?" asked Melusine. She was very pale. Her webbed fingers on the railing of the Lady Macbeth were clutching so hard that her talons dug deep into the wood.
"It is not our battle," Reaper said.
"Not yet," Brand retorted, "but once that beast is done with them, how do you know it won't come looking for more?"
"And they are gargoyles," Melusine said. "Perhaps not entirely like us, but cast your eye to them, they are gargoyles."
"Would you have me risk our ship, our clan, our son, to help these strangers? In a fight we could not possibly win? A single blow from the tail of that monster and we would be so much kindling-wood."
"I will go, then," Brand said.
"You?" Reaper rounded on him. "Why? What would you gain?"
"Perhaps friends, allies," Brand said. And then, unable to help himself, he added, "Or perhaps I would gain nothing, but at the very least keep my courage!"
Furious light flashed in Reaper's dark sockets. "Do you call me a coward?"
Melusine hastened to get between them, precariously balanced on her fishtail. "We should not bicker now," she said. "But whatever else we are to do, we must be quick about it!"
"I say we retreat," Reaper said. "This battle is not ours."
"And I say we attack," Brand said, thrusting his chin defiantly out. "If we do not deal with the leviathan now, we'll have to some other night. How well do you think the pirating will be in these parts with that ruling the sea? Sooner or later, it would be our lot to fight it. I vote for sooner."
"I am leader and captain," Reaper said. "I have spoken."
"Run, then," Brand said, drawing his sword. "Run and hide. Strike your colors and fly yellow instead! I will fight."
"You dare defy me? You dare mutiny?" Reaper roared. His great black wings unfurled, and the moonlight sparkled on the death-arc of his scythe.
A red glow began at the hilt of Brand's sword. Flames fanned out, like flames tasting a thin coating of oil afloat on the water. They began delicate blue edged in orange, but when the reached the end, there was a whooshing noise and a blast of heat, and the blade was wreathed in red and yellow fire.
"Brand, Reaper, no," Melusine said, her face tight with dismay.
"Save your ire for the beast," Brand advised. "That is what I mean to do. And then, if we survive, we'll settle our own accounts."
He dove over the rail, opening his wings and feeling them ignite. He headed for the foundering Hastur, the confusion of gargoyles circling over it, and the monstrous shape of the leviathan flailing about in the tempestuous sea.

**

"There!" Tourmaline shouted, heart leaping at what she had just seen. A gargoyle with wings of living fire gliding to the attack, brandishing a blazing sword.
This was what she had been waiting for! She had been so ready on Vassily's island, ready to combat and vanquish some terrible and legendary foe, and she had been denied. The island had been empty and bare, exquisitely disappointing.
But this! Oh, yes!
"You cannot be in earnest," Corwin said. He was with her nonetheless, wings angled into the wind, hair blowing in a white storm about his head.
She only cast him a glance, and he sighed.
"What would you have me do?" he asked. "Shall I fight at your side, save the humans, retrieve the spellbook?"
"Do as you will," she said. "I would not hold much condolence for the humans, who did bring this upon themselves, but there may be innocents among them. As for the book, there may be a counterspell."
It was grudgingly that she admitted this last. A counterspell would take all of the thrill from this. Just a few words and poof! the danger would be banished back to whatever pocket of the universe that had spawned it. Where was the challenge and glory in that?
As they got closer, and had far too educating a look at the creature, Corwin uttered a dubious chuckle. "I doubt that my claws could pierce even the thinnest patch of its hide. Your keen blade might do better."
"Yes, yes," she muttered distractedly.
Her eye and mind and hand were as one, and concentrating solely on the massive enemy. She barely heard Corwin as he said something about seeing to the humans and the book after all. Her blood was pounding in her veins. Ruby light gleamed from her eyes and gave the night a red-filmed hue.
She and the other gargoyle intersected above their foe. He was male, with tan-colored skin and features that were nearly human but for the hornlike brow ridges. His legs, what she could see of them beneath the brown robe he wore, were russet-furred and ended in cloven hooves.
Archangel, she thought. Demon, she thought.
And she thought quite a bit more as well, fast-flicker through her consciousness that he was a fine and handsome specimen and that he was looking at her with similar conclusion. But first things first.
Tourmaline pointed the tip of her sword downward, at the leviathan. The fire-gargoyle nodded. They swooped down together, focused on their target. Its back was broad as a highway, rough beneath her feet.
The rest of what was going on around them barely mattered. Tourmaline was peripherally conscious of a man splashing and screaming in the water for a few moments before the crocodilian maw opened wide and he was sucked in on a tide, then silenced by the crushing of teeth.
The air was filled with other gargoyles, some with faces like nests of slimy worms, others startlingly different. One seemed to be a mermaid with wings, another a very vision of Death.
The worm-faced ones were converging on her and her companion. No, attacking them! Not helping them fight the monster but seeking to defend it. They emitted hideous gurgling war-cries as they descended, not gracefully but with their own slick speed.
Before they could reach her, Tourmaline raised Sir Bodwyn's sword high overhead in both hands, and brought it down with all her might. The steel pierced the leviathan's scaly back with a feeling like punching through a leather saddle. Her shoulders were jolted by the impact. The blade barely penetrated half its length.
Minor though the wound might have been, it made the beast thrash so violently that Tourmaline was bucked skyward. She collided with a squid-gargoyle, aware of the smell of it an instant before she felt its slime on her skin.
Its tentacles wrapped around her, clammy and coldly pulsating. She heard its beak click as if in satisfaction, and then its wings were beating as it struggled for altitude.
No, not 'it,' but 'he.' Something that was not a tentacle, though still slimy and pulsating, rubbed against her back. Revolted beyond measure, she drove her sword over her head. She felt rubbery resistance followed by a dousing of fish-stinking fluid.
The squid-gargoyle squealed and released her. Tourmaline spun free, raking her claws through her soggy black hair, making involuntary retching noises as her gorge hitched.
Her would-be molester reached for her again, despite having a portion of his face maimed by her sword-stroke. Half his facial tentacles had been sheared away, half his eyes blinded.
She pirouetted mid-air and finished him off by slicing Bodwyn's sword cleanly through his flapped, gill-slit neck. His head and body fell on divergent angles into the sea.
Around her, other one-on-one conflicts were now raging. She caught sight of Corwin, ever the hero when there were damsels in distress, with two of the women who from a distance had looked so uncannily like Oberon's handmaidens. They were huddled against the rail of the sinking ship, the water making their grey robes float around them like lilies, and clung to each other in terror as Corwin offered his hands to pull them to safety.
The third of the women had wrested the book away from the squid-man who had tried to take it from her. She was running up the steeply-sloped deck while he pursued her on sucker-pad tentacles that got much better traction than her thin-soled shoes.
The Death-visaged male bellowed, his scythe hewing the air. It cut one squid-gargoyle cleanly in half and opened the belly of a second. The fire-winged one was exhibiting a dazzling display of swordsmanship, his flaming blade leaving bubbly black char marks as it cauterized the deadly wounds.
If she had needed confirmation as to who had scuttled the drug ship, she had it now.
The mermaid female had a trident, which she jabbed at the ones crowding around her. They were apparently as excited by her sleek fish tail and her nude upper torso as Tourmaline's captor had been by having her in his arms, for their arousal was plainly evident. It would not do for the females to lose this fight, oh, no, not at all.
But Tourmaline had no intention of losing. She rejoined the fray, hacking at grey-green skin and wavering tentacles.
A grisly hail of body parts fell from the sky, mingled with the transforming flesh of the dead. They did not crumble to fine dry gravel, she saw, but came apart in gritty clots like wet concrete.
Tracking one such blob, she was astonished to see that the leviathan was gone. She screeched a cheated cry, furious that it had been counterspelled and banished before she'd done more than give it one little pin-prick.
But then she saw the way the Hastur was spinning in a vortex, as if something enormous had rapidly submerged, and understood. Understood even before she glimpsed the baleful yellow eyes rising rapidly from beneath the waves.
"Higher!" she shouted, soaring over a squid-gargoyle and chopping at its wing.
The fiery male looked around. "What?"
"It's –"
With a colossal splashing thunder, the leviathan erupted from the sea like a breaching whale. Its body revolved in a majestic turn as it rose higher and higher into the sky. Its full length – eighty feet or more – and still it came. Its gnashing jaws caught the one Tourmaline had just chopped, and she saw with unforgettable clarity the way it popped like a festering boil between the rows of teeth.
Gargoyles were buffeted every which-way. Tourmaline felt a hard bump and the sky was spinning, swapping places crazily with the sea. She clung to her sword, dimly understanding that the monster's snout had hit her almost hard enough to break her back.
Something coiled around her legs and tail. It was a tentacle, this one as thick through the middle as a tree trunk. One of the ones that waved from the leviathan's jaws like a forest of sea-grass.
As the creature began its inevitable fall back toward the sea, it carried her with it. She had the barest moment to see her fire-winged ally similarly entangled. They would be pulled under and drowned, or perhaps taken so deep that the very weight of the water might crush them into jelly.
Or it might stuff them into its cavernous mouth and eat them before either of those preferable fates might be attained …
She swung her sword, aiming at the tentacle just below where it looped around her legs. The angle was bad, and she only carved a shallow score that wept ichor. The sea rushed up at them. It hit them like a tidal wave, an unrelenting wall.
Disoriented, eyes stinging from the salt water, Tourmaline fought against the tentacle. She felt it loosen, and would have cried out victoriously had she not, almost immediately after, felt the drawing suction.
The monster had released them as it opened its mouth. Thousands of gallons of sea water were being sucked in, along with Tourmaline and the male. She had a quick impression of the toothy jaws blurring past, and then absolute darkness.

**

Corwin saw the massive body lunge up from the water, and knew that what went up must out of gravitational necessity come down. He decided that now was the time to dispense with the niceties, and forewent trying to coax the two girls to let him rescue them.
"Pardon my familiarity, ladies," he said, and tackled them in a glide-by that bore them over the rail and off of the sinking Hastur.
It was a near thing. Neither of them was as slim as the willowy elfin maids he remembered from Avalon. They were fully, solidly human, and the sodden weight of their clothes did not help.
Nor did the way they shrieked and kicked and battered at him. He suffered a few painful blows to the shins, a few cuffs about the ears that he could have done without, and one bite to the shoulder that he certainly disagreed with.
The monstrous thing from the deep came down full on the broken halves of the ship, instantly smashing them to matchsticks. The resulting wave flipped Corwin and his passengers end over end and nearly sent them plowing headfirst into the brine. He recovered, his talons skimming the surface, and caught a most welcome updraft.
The Mists' Passage was not far, but the other ship was closer. He was surprised by the design of it, which was more like their Avalonian craft than the doomed Hastur, or any of the other vessels they had thus far encountered in their travels.
He touched down, knowing glumly that it would not withstand the jaws of the beast any better than a cardboard box might.
A gargoyle-beast sprang on him just as he set down his pulchritudinous cargo. Corwin was knocked sprawling on his back, instinctively raising his arms to protect his face. A leonine head and a goat's head thrust at him, sniffing, and a tail with a snake's head on the end wagged enthusiastically as the first two completed their inspection and began slobbering a greeting.
"Easy, boy, settle down," Corwin said, trying to avoid being licked.
He grasped the gargoyle-beast by the chest and forepaws, and set it from him. He'd never seen the like of it, a chimera, three heads but apparently all sharing the same vacuous doglike intelligence he remembered from Boudicca.
One of his charges, the one with silvery-white hair, had fainted. The brunette, the one who had bitten him, was sitting with her knees pulled up and arms around them, making herself small, and staring at him with wide, rather glassy eyes.
"Are you –" Corwin began, and coughed as he was pounced on from behind.
"Avast, you landlubber!" a youthful voice cried. "Strike your colors!"
"I surrender," Corwin said, hoping that was what he was being told to do.
When he was allowed to sit up straight, he found himself looking at a gangly hatchling with bat's wings and a forked tail. He wore a black vest and loose red trousers, with a wide leather belt.
The youngster poked a curved sword at him. Corwin noticed that the edge and point were blunted, but politely elected not to say so. It would still serve as a fair blunt implement if the hatchling decided to clout him.
The rushing of wings heralded the arrival of others. Then came a female voice that might have been dulcet and melodious had it not been tense with worry.
"Imp! Stand down, son, leave him be."
Corwin stood as the other two gargoyles landed. Any of his rookery brothers might have had their eyes spring out of their heads at the bare-breasted beauty who was posed before him on a shimmering green tail, but he managed to keep his manners about him.
No less so in the light of her company, a male every inch the stature of great Goliath himself, with raven's wings and ivory markings on coal-black skin. This male carried a scythe, but he also kept one hand to his face, and blood trickled through his fingers.
"Where is Tourmaline?" Corwin asked. Looking past them, he saw the roiling sea and a few of the squid-gargoyles attempting to regroup, but no sign of his sister.
"She is the black-haired female with skin like a jewel?" the buxom winged mermaid asked.
"Yes, my rookery sister."
"It took her. She and Brand. I saw them caught in the leviathan's coils, and pulled with it into the deep."
"Oh, sweet Titania, no," Corwin said, and rushed to the rail. He scanned the scene of the battle desperately, but saw only pieces of the Hastur bobbing amid the foam.
Then, movement! But he saw right away that it was not an answer to his fervent hopes. It was the half-man, half-reptilian creature, and the third of the women. They were crawling onto a large section of wood, where they collapsed weakly. The book was still between them.
He was not the only one to become aware of their presence. The remaining squid-gargoyles massed and appeared to consult one another, then dove toward the bedraggled refugees on their makeshift raft.
"We may need that book," Corwin said. "Can you fight?"
The winged mermaid turned to the dark male. He lowered the hand that had been obscuring his face.
Corwin, whose main self-professed fault was a touch of vanity, could not suppress a shocked outcry. The male's face was a maimed ruin, a mask of blood and pulped flesh. If either of his eyes remained, Corwin could not tell.

**

Howard Mosswell, if he could still call himself by that name, looked about frantically for anything that might serve as a weapon.
The Deep Clan – this was how they thought of themselves, he knew without knowing how he knew – were making passes, each swoop lower than the one before. It was as if they were mustering the courage to actually strike. As if they still feared or respected him somehow, and could not quite bear to hurt him. But they were building themselves up to it.
They wanted the book. If he hurled it away, and made them fetch it from the sea, it might gain him a reprieve. Not that he'd know what to do with it if it came. He was still on a flimsy, floating chunk of the obliterated ship, and somewhere beneath the surface was Kronos. At any moment, the Riser might surface again to complete what had been begun.
Tiffy Vandermere, her hair laying across her face in soaked strands, clung to the raft with her eyes tightly closed. She was not unconscious, her body too stiff and tense for that.
He wanted to comfort her, but speech had abandoned him. His re-formed mouth lacked the ability to make the proper sounds. And she would not be glad of a reassuring touch from the obscenity that had replaced his hand.
The book, heavy with its vile content, seemed to mock him. He was sure that Clarke had learned the secret of the drug that had transformed him from those yellowed pages. It was a thing of evil, only evil.
A book should not be good or evil. Knowledge should not. Only the application thereof should be judged by those standards. Yet how else could a book such as this be judged? When its purpose was to summon up terrible monsters bent on death and devastation? No good for mankind could possibly be found within its loathsome cover.
Unless … perhaps it held an antidote for his condition.
He was struck with a sudden urge to open it, leaf through it. The immersion in the sea had done it no harm. Its pages did not even seem to be wet. The ink would not have run, obscuring the words and diagrams. It probably wouldn't even burn. No book such as this could so readily be destroyed.
In the right hands, surely, the spells and incantations within could be put to a good use. Wrongs could be righted. He could be human again, or even better than human. The return to prettiness that Clarke had promised Tiffy and her friends could be theirs.
Lives could be saved, and made better. There was much in the world that could stand some improvement. The strength of a thing such as Kronos, once harnessed, could –
Howard jerked himself from what was nearly a trance. He regarded the book with fresh horror. It had been working on him, prying at him, cajoling him.
He held it at arm's length, thinking to pitch it into the depths. But that would not do the job. It might sink, it might be lost, but it would not be gone forever. It would be found. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in a hundred years, but someday. There would be others like Clarke.
One of the squid-gargoyles passed over his head and attempted to seize the book. Howard only felt it coming by an expectant buzz, like a warning, in his head. He threw himself low again, the corners of the book pressing into his malformed torso.
Their voices. He could hear them. Not clearly, and not in any sort of understandable language, but he was perceiving them. Their thoughts. They communicated in some primitive hive-mind way. Not telepathy, not precisely empathy. Yet he could grasp the thrust of their thoughts and intentions.
They did not want to kill him, for he was of their own kind. His blood and theirs were the same. His was diluted by generations of humanity, the family secret the Mosswells had tried so hard to keep, but in the end, the tidal pull of blood was strong.
No, they did not want to kill him. They wanted him to accept what he was, and join them. Their urgings added to those of the book, merged with it, became a droning, needful chorus.
Join them. Be one with the clan. Freely bring the book.
He looked at Tiffy. For a moment, he saw several of her, a faceted kaleidoscope of Tiffys, and then they resolved into a dizzying 3-D. It was as if he was seeing her from many different perspectives at once. As if …
The tapered tips of his former fingers brushed his face.
His eyes were open. The new eyes. The ring of them. Soulless black fish eyes.
The hum in his head became louder. Now he was being bombarded with other impulses and permissions.
Take the woman. Keep her. Breed a new generation of Mosswells on her. Here and now on this very raft, why not? Peel away her clothes – they were cheap and flimsy fabrics that were already falling apart and hanging from her pale skin. Part her legs. She couldn't stop him.
And, terribly, he was tempted. Not just to fall upon Tiffy. Tempted by all of it. No more struggling. No more resisting. He could give in. He could embrace his new life. What was there for him in the old one? A return to the asylum. More medications. Unable to trust anyone, never knowing when the next Follower might turn up. Loneliness. Despair.
Agonized, Howard looked at Tiffy again. Her blue eyes were open and staring directly at him, and he saw dark awareness in them. She knew. It was all as clear in her mind as his. The brutal coupling, the cold rush of his seed, the swelling of her body, the clenching laborious cramps as a flood of half-developed embryos gushed from her womb, tadpoles with human faces and clasping fingers like cilia.
The clan waited. Some hovered on updrafts, others stood upon more pieces of wreckage, and some had settled into the water. In the buzzing tone of their thoughts, Howard felt a crawling, terrible lust and knew that if he did not do it himself, one of the others would. Or more than one. All of them, perhaps.
His tentacles closed around the book. It thrummed under his palms like the idling engine of some machine of great power.
He hated it, and wished for its destruction with every fiber of his being. How could he fight something like this? Something indestructible and ancient and evil? It couldn't be drowned, couldn't be burnt, couldn't be torn to pieces and cast to the four winds. In the end, the book would win. The book would have him.
"No," Howard Mosswell said, or tried to. What came out was a pitiful burbling groan of denial.
At first he thought the book had turned hot in his grasp. It was stinging, searing. But when the clan of squid-gargoyles burst out in shrieking fits of rage and disbelief, when Howard saw clear liquid welling up between his tentacles and strings of acrid steam rising from the book's cover, he realized what was happening. Droplets of the acid seeping from his skin fell onto the planks and left blackened, smoking dots.
It was eroding the cover. He shifted his hands and saw long marks where his tentacles had been. The marks were seething with blisters, and in places the leathery hide of the cover was being eaten away to expose the pages.
The nearest of the Deep Clan flung itself at Howard, screeching madly. The buzz in his head became a discordant drilling whine. He feared his skull might shatter from it, and while he was looking forward to death, he was suddenly seized by the imperative to hold onto his life a few seconds longer, just a few, enough to see the deadly book reduced to a steaming mound of wet paper and ink.
An explosive coughing boom momentarily blotted out all other sounds. A rounded black projectile whizzed through the air and struck one of the Deep Clan squarely. The squid-gargoyle was dismembered, raining into the sea with a series of sickly plops and splatters.
More of the booms shook the air. Cannons. Insanely, cannons.
Howard saw a tall-masted pirate ship, proudly flying a bloodred flag. It had swung about broadside to them before the cannons spat their lethal volley. He saw a gargoyle no bigger than a child, riding a two-headed snake-tailed beast the size of a large dog, racing down the row of cannons and pausing at each long enough to set a lit torch to the fuses.
The volley had taken out several of the Deep Clan. The others were still milling about in shock when two adult gargoyles, a golden-skinned male and a bat-winged mermaid, attacked.
Despite all of this, he clung to the book. Acid was flowing freely from his hands, dripping onto the raft, eating into the wood, causing large smoke-edged holes that gave off a bitter smoke. The book was tougher, perhaps protected to some extent by its magic, and Howard realized that the raft would give way long before he had completed his task.
"No, not the book!"
He thought it must be one of the Deep Clan, that he had finally transformed enough to fully understand them. But it was the golden male, his skin whitened here and there by acid-burns. He landed on the raft, causing it to dip and pitch alarmingly.
"I must destroy it," Howard said, forcing every word through his changed throat and mouth, praying that they would be recognizable. "It is evil."
"No!" Tiffy screamed. "I need it! I need it to make me pretty again!"
Howard turned from her, holding the book away over the side so that the acid streams ran into the water. "He lied, Tiffy, he lied!" It was a wretched croak, but he hoped she understood. "Clarke lied. Didn't you see? He summoned Kronos, thinking he could control it, and look how it ended for him. Kronos ate him."
"There may be counterspells –" the gargoyle began.
"No!" Howard cried. "Even if there are, they'll have a catch. You'll start by saying you only want to do good, but it will get you. It will get into you, and own you!"
"I could be beautiful again," Tiffy said.
She came at him fast, but stepped on a spot where the wood had been pitted and thinned by the acid. Her foot plunged through. As her body struck the planks, the raft cracked in two. The piece with the gargoyle on it spun in one direction. Howard's half went the other. Tiffy belly-flopped into the ocean and thrashed to the surface, spitting salt water.
"You always were, Tiffy," Howard said. "You always were."
The object he held was turning into a spongy, bilious mass. It no longer looked like a book. It looked like a wad of newspapers left in a shallow bin of stagnant water.
A high, piercing call, a siren song if ever there was one, suddenly split the night. All eyes were instantly drawn to the mermaid-gargoyle. She was aloft, injured, and pointing with her blood-stained trident to the sea.
"Leviathan rises!"
The sea was bulging again, water pushed up by the immense body of Kronos rising from the deeps. The pirate ship, a black-cowled figure glimpsed briefly at the helm, was swept sideways and nearly swamped. The remaining members of the Deep Clan rallied.
Howard's chunk of raft was caught in an eddy and twirled. He nearly lost his balance and tumbled off, would have had he not instinctively fastened the suckers of his lower tentacles to the planks. The gargoyle was not so equipped, and jumped as a wave flipped his perch.
"The girl," Howard croaked. "Tiffy. Save Tiffy."
She went under, only her white arms waving. The gargoyle wore a curiously resigned, rueful expression, but he skimmed low over the heaving water and caught her wrists. Tiffy reappeared, dangling beneath him.
Parts of the book were slipping through his tentacles. He dared not lose any of it, superstitiously sure that any substantial part of it might regenerate until it was complete. Howard fell onto his back, cradling the book on his chest the way a sea otter might hold a mussel that it meant to pry open for supper.
The pain was immediate and enormous. He was not impervious to his own acid, and the drenched mass of the book sank into his skin the moment it touched. He couldn't keep from screaming. It was the worst pain he had ever known or imagined. It made the wrenching agony of his transformation look like a charley horse.
But he held it. He held it ever so steady. His body was shaking like a man being electrocuted, but his hands never moved.
He held the book, secreting acid like tears. He felt it first pool and then erode his flesh. The book was sinking into him, all of its substance now a soupy porridge. It ate through his breastbone and opened holes in his lungs. He sucked in a breath, air slipping down his throat and into his gills as well as bubbling into his ventilated chest.
Howard Mosswell tightened his hold on the thing that had once been a book, pushing it deeper. He closed his eyes, and smiled.
And then the acid reached his heart.

**

In the darkness, a spark. A flame.
Dangerous, but if he could not see, he could never escape. And if the flame ignited the gut-gas of the beast in a giant fireball, would that not be a quicker and preferable death to slowly dissolving in its digestion?
Brand held one eye squinted shut, braced for the blast. None came. There was stink, all right, an abundance of that, but it was not methane. It was blood and fish and bile and rot, all churning in a tepid stew.
He looked around the vast chamber of the leviathan's stomach. He stood on an uneasy, shifting mound of what might have been hull plating and other metal junk, which had settled to the bottom. What floated was shredded wood, and partially masticated meat of dubious origin.
And, there, an arm's length away, a female shape. Brand sloshed over to her, his sword raised, nose wrinkled against the stench of the air.
It was the same one he'd so briefly seen before. Above. A stranger, with a classically-sculpted face and curtain of inky hair, and skin that held all the colors of the evening sea and sky.
She had glided in with silver blade flashing, a fierce beauty that would have knocked him breathless had he not been more urgently occupied with the problem of a scaly behemoth from the deeps. She had fought like a tigress.
Now, she was floating on her back, wings half-submerged, head lolling. He reached her and nearly impaled himself on the sword she still clasped in an iron grip. Sliding one arm carefully under her, he lifted her onto an island of crushed and mangled materials that had once been part of a ship.
He climbed up beside her and tore off his robe to wipe the digestive juices from their skin as best he could. It had not yet begun to make noticeable progress, but he felt a vague irritation.
The female revived with a start, eyes flying open. Brand was glad he'd had the foresight to hold her wrist pinned down, for she tried to raise her sword and he felt the warrior's strength in her flexing arm.
"At your ease," he said. "I am not your enemy."
"Where are –" She did not finish the question, its answer being unfortunately self-evident. "It swallowed us."
"Whole."
"Good!"
"Well, if you prefer a slow demise."
She looked around with dawning dismay. "We're going to die here, then."
"It will be all right," he said, and moved to touch her shoulder.
The female shrugged crossly away. "Do not offer me false comfort, stranger. I was not bemoaning cruel fate, merely stating a fact."
"You are a stern one," he said, surprised into a laugh by her rancor. "Have you a name?"
"Tourmaline," she said. "Like the –"
"The jewel, yes, I see how you came by it. I similarly earned my name. I'm called Brand."
"A fiery torch."
In the slight curve of her lips, he saw what a glory her full smile would be, and wished that this meeting had taken place under more hospitable circumstances.
"You fight like an avenging goddess," he said.
Tourmaline did grace him with a full smile then. "You pick a peculiar opportunity for flattery."
"I may never have another chance. But if die I must, I could not ask for a lovelier last sight to grace my eyes."
"So," she said, tossing her head briskly. "Do we while away our last moments in loveplay in this fetid swamp, or do we seek a way out of here?"
"Such a choice!" Brand cried.
"My rookery brother must have seen what happened," she said. "Yet alone, I doubt even Corwin, heroic as he is, could effect much of a rescue."
Unaccountably jealous, for there was nothing but a cool affection in her tone as she spoke of this Corwin, Brand said, "My clan, too, would have been nearby. We only numbered five, and Imp is but a child. I fear we're on our own."
"If they live," she added.
"If they do, yes." He stirred the mucky liquid, and fragments of wood. "I do not think any of these are them."
"What? Wood!"
"And I suppose your clan turns to night flowers and stardust when you die?"
"We crumble away to stone and then gravel, and finally dust," she said. "Do you truly mean to tell me that your clan turns to wood?"
"Yes, for we do, and always have."
"What manner of gargoyles are you?"
"I should ask the same of you," he said. " Stone?"
"Of course, stone, from high castle parapets and granite cliffs," she said.
"Aha! Now I remember hearing tales of such gargoyles," Brand said. "My kind have been sea-going for hundreds of years, roosting in poses as figureheads of ships."
"Wait," Tourmaline said. "As fascinating as this is, we haven't time for it now. Not if we ever wish to see the moon again."
"What would you propose? I don't relish the idea of following nature's course."
She made a face. "Nor I. Even assuming we survived, we'd likely … emerge at the bottom of the sea."
"There's no way of knowing we're not there now," he said.
A portion of a corpse drifted by, its torso torn away at an angle across the ribcage. The head was still largely intact, and the man's expression was one of indignant shock.
"One of the fools who summoned this beast," Tourmaline said, and extended one long leg to kick at the head. Her effort overturned the body so that it bobbed on face-down. "We must assume the worst, and that no one can save us. We'll have to fight our way out."
"Cut free, you mean?" Brand asked. "We both have swords. Through the stomach lining?"
"Its hide was the very devil to get through," she said. "On top, at least. With luck, the scales of its underside would be thinner."
"A messy prospect."
"So's digestion."
"Good point." He raised his sword and risked a little more light. "Pick a spot."
Tourmaline slid from their island of debris and waded to the reddish, curved wall. She raked it with a talon, and the stomach lining gave like quivering suet. For the briefest of instants, she grimaced and shuddered, then steeled herself and drove her sword point-first into the wall. It sank to the hilt with an awful sound.
She threw her weight against it, forcing the blade down, opening a long slit in the stomach wall. Some of the contents leaked out through this gap.
"I wanted to slay a monster," she grunted through clenched teeth. "Somehow, I never envisioned it quite like this."
"Look on the bright side," Brand said as he took a position to her left and hacked at the living barrier. "Perhaps we'll irk it so that it sicks us up, and then we can kill the bastard from the outside."
It wasn't long before it became apparent that his jesting remark might have been premonition. With each widening of the hole they were slicing into its stomach, the body of the leviathan contorted. It rolled a few times, spilling them around like peas in a tin, and it was hard going to avoid being struck and borne under by the inanimate contents, or stick themselves on their own swords.
They clawed their way back to the wall, ripping at the tougher straps of muscle and ligament behind the softer lining. Blood was pouring in, mixing with the bile.
The hole was nearly big enough for Tourmaline to crawl through when the leviathan gave a violent lurch, and its stomach squeezed.
"Quickly!" Brand sheathed his weapon, casting them into blackness. He heard the singing of metal and leather as Tourmaline followed his lead.
"This shan't be fun," she said.
He wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly to him. She responded in kind. To make themselves as small and narrow an obstacle as possible, they folded their wings in an overlapping cocoon, and she pressed her head into the cradle of his shoulder.
The leviathan belched, a torrent of foul-smelling gas blowing past them like a hurricane. Its stomach seethed and then locked in a vicious spasm. Everything boiled up.
Brand snatched a breath in the moment before they were awash. His next sensation was of being thrown head over tail, buffeted from side to side. They were spewed out into the open sky, having enough time to realize this but not enough to do anything about it before they met the water.
It was salty and none too clean from the oil spill of the Hastur and various other pollutants, but Brand could not have welcomed it more had it been the purest artesian spring. He and Tourmaline released each other and stroked for the surface, bursting up yards apart. Cannons were booming. Melusine's battle song filled the night with killing melody. Brand saw the Lady Macbeth firing on the leviathan, and the beast itself indifferent as it hacked and gagged and vomited up more of its own blood. Cannonballs smacked into its scaly armor. One lucky shot blinded a yellow, bulbous eye.
Maddened, the beast plunged ahead in an attempt to get away from the attacks from without as well as the pain splitting it from the inside. This course brought it straight at Brand and Tourmaline, and stirred up a wake that nearly swamped the Lady Macbeth.
"Swim!" he shouted to Tourmaline.
The leviathan's snout passed within ten feet of them. Its trailing tentacles had no interest in snaring prey, else they would have surely been entangled. Carried up and aside by the swell of the water, they reached for each other's hands.
"If it dives, it'll take us down with it," she said.
But the beast did not dive. It rolled again, and in so doing created a wave that surged up and out with the gargoyles caught in it. The top of the wave, frothing white, curled over and began to collapse.
"Follow me!" Brand swam hard just to keep in place as the water fell away from them. It left them in unobstructed air. "Glide!"
Below them, the distressed monster flailed over and over, first its brown back and then its paler underside exposed. It slowed in its frantic revolutions and tried to paw at its tormented stomach, but its legs were too short.
"Now!" She pulled free of him and dove, drawing her sword.
He was right behind her as she landed on the leviathan's upturned shelf of jaw. Before it could react, they struck together with all their strength. Both blades tore through the softer underhide of its throat, loosing a tremendous gout of blood from severed arteries.
Its dying convulsion hurtled them skyward again, and at the apex of their arc she flung her arms around Brand. Her laughter was wild and triumphant, her sword ran cold blood all down his back, and without even pausing for thought, he kissed her.
The kiss turned into a fury of passion. Somehow, they fumbled their weapons into their respective scabbards while their hands and her tail were all over each other. It occurred to Brand that he had left his robe somewhere in the monster's stomach but that was fine; it was just one less thing in the way.
They glided heedless of where they were or what else might be going on, glided together while she yanked her tunic to her waist and groped and found and guided him deep, and she snarled with red light in her eyes, her legs locked around his hips.
Brand's wings blazed with the intensity of his fiery emotions. They were at the center of a corona of fire, a comet of their own that far outshone the pitiful smudge at the horizon.
It was quick, a hard and fast thrusting that brought them both to powerful quaking climaxes in a matter of seconds. Yet they were by no means finished, for he stayed stiff within her and thought that she might have savaged him had he not been.

**

Standing below, dumbstruck, on the deck of the Lady Macbeth, Corwin and the winged mermaid stared up at the aerial display taking place over the massive corpse. The three women, including the one Corwin had fished from the water, likewise gaped at the sky, but in their eyes was a sort of misted catatonia.
"What are they doing, Mama?" the hatchling asked, with the loud curiosity of a child.
At the helm, swabbing blood from his face, the blinded male echoed the question. "Yes, what are they doing?"
No one replied, but the impassioned roars and shrieks coming from above were probably answer enough, for the male at least.
The airborne coupling went on and on, until even Corwin felt himself blushing. He cleared his throat and turned to the mermaid. "Ah, well, this is awkward. Will a handshake suffice?"
She laughed, a hint of the music that had been in her song making a lovely underlying threnody. "I am Melusine."
"Corwin of Avalon." He took the proffered hand, noting its delicate structure, the fine webs between the pearly-tipped fingers. "We are well-met in battle."
After a quick round of introductions – the women did not, or could not respond, and the blonde one was quaking with eerily silent sobs that were presumably over the death of the tortured creature who had destroyed the book – they set about putting the ship to rights.
There was little to salvage from the disturbed waters, for the thrashings of the leviathan had rendered what was left of the Hastur to pieces that would have required a net to skim them from the surface. Of the squid-gargoyles, no sign remained. If any had lived, they had fled.
Eventually, and none too steadily, Tourmaline and her fiery lover descended to the deck. Corwin could not suppress a grin at the sight of his sister. She was rumpled and flushed and had a sort of satiated glow, and made only token gestures at pulling together a tunic that had been made ready for the rag-bag. Modesty, in the light of a hostess who wore nothing at all, did seem a secondary consideration.
Brand, as Melusine had told Corwin he was called, had fared little better in the wardrobe department. He had nothing to his name but a leather swordbelt and a smile.
The monstrous body at last began to sink, but the pirate ship had put a goodly distance behind it, not wanting to be pulled down by the suction. Corwin glided over to retrieve the Mists' Passage , following a close course, and was not at all surprised when Tourmaline opted to ride along with Brand.
They came to an island, and a sea-cave shielded by a long curtain of vines. The vines gave Corwin a shiver – too much like tentacles for his taste, and they had all had enough of tentacles to last them a lifetime. Within, though, was a lair of decent comforts.
Here, they saw to Reaper's injuries. The dawn, and wood sleep – Corwin took this news with a slight raise of the old brow ridge – would heal him, but Melusine feared that his eyes had both been irreparably damaged.
Their human charges proved to be no difficulty, except in that they only crowded close together like frightened baby chicks, and had to be led to and fro, and needed help to eat. Whatever spark that had given them brief animation had since fled. They could have been pliable, lifelike dolls.
It worried Corwin to leave them to fend for themselves when the day came, but what else was there to do? He only hoped that they would be so tired from the night's events that they, too, would sleep solid as a stone.
When he awoke that evening, feeling refreshed and healed of the various minor hurts he'd sustained, he saw that the women seemed to have passed the day safe and well, and were still asleep, curled together in a pile like puppies.
Reaper had not fared well. His eyes were gored sockets, adding to the chilling demeanor of his skull-like facial markings. He was blind.

**

"I wouldn't have thought it should end like this," Corwin said. "Are you resolved, sister?"
"I am," Tourmaline said. She placed her hands on his shoulders and went a-tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek.
He was astounded. Not one for spontaneous displays of affection, such was Tourmaline. Then again, much had changed these past several nights. Now she was of a much cheerier state of mind, an easy-going Tourmaline that none of their rookery siblings would have credited had they not seen it for themselves.
She was resplendent in clothes made for her by Melusine, black breeches and a full-sleeved white blouse, and dark vest embroidered with the rich greens, blues, and purples that could be seen in her skin. It cinched her waist and uplifted her bust admirably, and her belt rode low on her hips with Sir Bodwyn's sword hanging the length of her thigh. Her hair was drawn back, and her neck, wrists, earlobes, and fingers were adorned in the jewelry that Brand had gifted her.
"What of you, brother?" she asked. "Are you resolved? You could stay, and be welcome. I have always valued your sage advice."
Corwin scoffed. "You despised me sticking my oar in, and well do you know it."
"True," she said. "But even as I did, a part of me saw the sense in your wisdom."
"Why, thankee, sister." He returned the kiss, a light buss on her cheek and another on her brow. "But someone must see the ladies home, and you know what a weakness I have for damsels in distress."
"A weakness indeed, you collect them like burrs."
"But you may not be shut of me yet," he said. "I may return. It's Avalon's whim, after all. Or, well, why should I not hope that my ideal mate is waiting for me at some other as-yet-unseen port of call?"
"I hope that he is," she said. "I wish you good luck and happiness, Corwin."
"And I wish you the same. You and Brand will make fine leaders for this clan. It was wise of Reaper to step down, though that cannot have been a pleasant thing to do. Tell me, though, sister. Will you still be pirates?"
"Why not? You know me better than any by now. Do you doubt I'd do well at it?"
"I am certain you'd excel at it," he said. "After all, you've no great love of the humans, and it is not a long stretch from that to preying upon them."
"I hear condemnation in your tone, brother dear. Be of good heart. We'll not slaughter indiscriminately. There are more than enough villains sailing these seas. We can profit and protect, both."
Corwin smothered a sigh. "And it is not for me to judge."
"Even so." She slapped him companionably on the arm.
"I will look forward to seeing you again," he said. "If nothing else, we have a date to meet for the hatching. And who knows, perhaps someday that little she-hatchling shall have brothers and sisters."
"Perhaps," Tourmaline said. "How that might go, whether they'd be wood or stone, I would not care to guess."
Brand came up to them, resplendent in a frock coat sewn all with a pattern of leaping flames. "Your ship is fit, and the tide is with you, Corwin. I fear it is time to bid you farewell."
They clasped forearms. Corwin made his goodbyes to Reaper and Melusine, and little Imp, and joined the three women aboard the Mists' Passage. It felt odd to be the only one left of the six who'd set out from Avalon, when he had been the one to join them more or less as an afterthought.
He took the tiller, and the vessel moved smoothly over satiny water toward the curtain of vines. If Avalon was kind, it would first send him where he might deposit his charges safely home.
And then? He could only hope, and wait, and wonder.

**

The End



copyright 2002 / Christine Morgan / christine@sabledrake.com