All TGS characters used in this story are copyright TGS staff, and are being used without permission.  They are not mine, nor do I ever claim so.  No disrespect is intended or implied.

87 - "One Hundred And Three"

"But he that hides a dark soul and foul thoughts Benighted walks under the mid-day sun; Himself is his own dungeon."

                                                                                                - John Milton

"Who are you?"

"A concerned citizen.  Someone who's been on the inside, and has seen the secrets he keeps.  Secrets that threaten all of us."

"How can I believe you, some nameless caller out of the blue?  Let me tell you, you're not the first nut to try and extort something from one of the richest men in the world with a wild story."

"Listen to me, agent Sykes, and listen well.  There are one hundred and three bodies in that impenetrable fortress of his.  I suggest you take a look for yourself, and help to topple the king from his perch."

****************************************

April 20th, 2002

The voice, however familiar it may have been, echoed in his thoughts for another reason altogether.

Despite the fact one of the most prestigious albeit shadowy philanthropists was being accused of murder of more than a hundred people, more importantly it presented a small crack in the armor of the citadel and tall eyesore entrenched in the middle of Manhattan.

One hundred and three bodies; anonymous callers never have such information unless they themselves were somehow involved.  A whistleblower maybe, from within the very heart of Xanatos Enterprises and fed up with low pay, feeble benefits or a billionaire's penchant for murder.

He was nonetheless intrigued by the 'in', the mousehole every law enforcement officer from the NYPD to the CIA had dreamed for to get inside his empire.  Most had been halted at the foyer by an impressive contingent of security officers and lack of evidence to get any further.

Xanatos had a knack for pushing every accusation neatly under the carpet.

A horn blared, skimming from one end of the car to the other and fading into the static and bedlam that was Manhattan near nine.  He repositioned.

Abel Sykes weathered the subtle and not so subtle variations in the road as his partner handled the cruiser through the cusp of the morning rush hour.  Staring out past the shops and high-rises through the car window, he nursed his Styrofoam cup and the sterile coffee from the outmoded headquarters machine he, for some reason, kept pumping quarters into every morning.

It was an ingrained routine he couldn't consciously break.  Back when his hair started near his eyebrows, and back when he was teamed with someone else who'd treat him as much the rookie as he did his partner now.

But those were old days he didn't care to look back on, as pain often accompanied the memory.

"We're here."

The driver's remark took focus over Sykes' train of thought, and derailed, he swathed his eyes through the traffic to where the monolith of Xanatos Enterprises had started it's ascent, exploding from the concrete and appropriating an entire block to hold two thousand feet of girth and ancient stone.

The driver looked up from his window, face pressed against the glass, and still, even in the brilliant light of morning streaming like white fire through the spires of middle Manhattan, couldn't see past the Eyrie's median.  Clouds, smog, or the fact the human eye couldn't reach that far up, nonetheless brick, cement and columns of steel faded into sky.  "This place is massive."

Dominic Ford, younger, thinner, with a few years in the bureau himself and often teased with the nickname 'slick', had never been this close to the Eyrie and his eyes were trained on every facet, on every exterior anchoring strut that flowed smoothly upwards into obscurity and imagination.

Old amber eyes looked at him from across the car.

They'd paired the fresh with the veteran, and hoped Sykes' own dedication and impressive record would rub off.  Training by experience, they hoped, would save them considerable money and make better agents.  "Biggest building in the world.  All the better to match the biggest ego."  He knocked back the rest of his coffee, grimaced at the bitter taste of the remaining grounds, and crushed the cup as a souvenir on the dash.  "C'mon," he muttered, "let's get this over with."

Partners for more than a year, Ford was still amazed at how nothing seemed to rattle the seasoned agent.  He'd seem more machine than man at times, either ignoring or flat out refusing to believe in something he couldn't see or touch or experience for himself.  "I don't see why you're not at the least bit anxious.  This is David Xanatos, Sykes, accused of goddamned manslaughter."

It'd been tried before thought the warhorse, and the rare cases that managed to make it to court were never closed in any sort of conviction.  "Yeah, I'm giddy." he scoffed, his voice rife with the emblematic cynicism that he often made his trademark.  "After trying to get permission for three days to come and harass the richest man in town about something we can't really prove, this is seeming more and more like a colossal waste of time."

"But Sykes..."

"Just park the car, Ford."

****************************************

The foyer, shimmering even from outside the wall of glass flanking the boulevard, was what one had seen all before and the other had barely imagined.

Dressed in roman gold, chrome, and black speckled marble, this was in true, tangible form the narcissism expected of David Xanatos and the entrance to his corporate empire.  And, married alongside the opulence of course, was the gorgeous receptionist behind a desk that dwarfed the agents' own back at the office.

She looked up as two dark-suited men strolled through the double glass doors, the noise from outside enough to get her attention.  She flashed a pearled and toothy smile; clearly, her benefits included a dental package.  "Welcome to Xanatos Enterprises." she greeted them.  "How may I help you?"

Sykes was determined in his path, even as his partner was obviously taken by the arched ceiling two stories above him, and the chandeliers twinkling along every crystal shard in the air-conditioned breeze.  Like stars under a falsetto sky.  "Wow..."  He lagged behind.

Approaching the marble-topped reception desk, the older agent pulled his wallet from his interior suit pocket and flashed his badge.  "Agent Sykes, ma'am, I'm with the FBI."

The receptionist did nothing but stare back and tilt her head, expecting something more.  By her indifference to the authority figures, it seemed she'd dealt with many an enforcement agent before these two tried their luck.

"We need to speak with Mr. Xanatos."

She flaunted the consummate smile again.  "I'm sorry, gentlemen, Mr. Xanatos is extremely busy and can't speak with you right now.  If you'd like to schedule an appointment..."

Sykes cleared his throat, cutting her off, "Do I have to show the badge again?  We're the FBI, miss, we don't need to schedule appointments."

She arched a finely manicured brow, somewhat impressed.  But like all XE employees, there was a collective tune of conceit among them being part of something so monstrous.  "I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do.  I can't just tear Mr. Xanatos from his meetings."

"Maybe you should try." Ford chimed in, his attention back to where it belonged.

The young woman behind the desk stifled what would be called an indiscretion against her explicit training for diplomacy.  "I'm sorry, gentlemen," the emphasis was evident, gritted between her teeth, "I can't pull the head of a global empire from a meeting that could mean billions of dollars between the largest companies in the world."

Sykes started past the desk, and beyond the imaginary, territorial line the XE employees had drawn.  "Then we'll go find him, thank you."

"Hey!"  She got up, emerging from her garrison of decorative marble.  "You just can't go wherever the hell you please!"

"Watch me." the agent threw back over his shoulder.

"Hey!  Security!"

"Sykes!"  Ford's warning was heaved into the chasm, echoing, bouncing, making many out of one worried voice.

He'd seen them before his partner did.  The uniformed gorillas.

Once content to stand guard in the unobserved distance to keep the impression of a warm and welcome place, they swarmed by her scream.  They appeared to melt from the walls, and efficiently surround the agents.  No guns, no weapons of any kind to instigate something that would inevitably sunder the fragile peace between XE and the law, just a burly human shield to block access to the elevators, and one in particular.

As Ford readied his hand near the holster under his arm, Sykes composedly flicked his eyes across the barrier of thick-necked flesh, and sighed.  "Must I really inform you boys the penalty for assaulting an FBI agent?"

One cracked his knuckles, another cricked his neck; Ford readied his Glock, Sykes crossed his arms.  Both sides were spoiling each thinking they were in the right, and that was a dangerous belief to start a brawl.

"I hope there's not a problem here." a voice rang out, silvery and Irish lilted, and sending a pause through the ranks ready to war.  "I'd hate to be the one to explain why Mr. Xanatos' foyer was the scene of mob rule."

The agents scanned through the inhuman throng, expecting an owner to the voice.  He came, lower than expected.

Jason Canmore wheeled himself through, and waved away the guards, a simple gesture that dispersed them back to their posts.

Incensed, the receptionist suddenly blurted out, "Mr. Canmore, I tried to stop them...!"

"I know, miss Albright, it's quite all right." he answered, and turned his courtesy towards the grimly dressed.  "The FBI has never been generally known for their discretion."

"And how is the private army you have defending the damned lobby discreet?!"

With a groan well muted, as Ford vented into Canmore with the small army still eying the stiff-creased prey, Sykes snaked his eyes up the walls and to the ceilings on an instinct that grew stronger as he climbed.  Canmore had observed their entrance, and knew exactly when to intrude to better play the gracious hero.

Odd, gold-plated humps swelled from the walls at strategic points, and without a second glance they would've seemed but simple décor, lost in the lavishness.  But in the fashion of uncertainty Xanatos played so well, and revealed by the nearly hidden optic, they were security cameras, afforded a full 180˚ view by the clever rotation mechanism.

"In this day and age, agent...?"

"Ford."

"In this day and age, agent Ford, one can never be too careful."

Sykes narrowed in on one camera in particular, the closest, as its cycloptic lens seemed to stare back at him with something more than stiff mechanical poise.  Cat's eyes, occult and luminescent, where ambiguity simmered behind Spartanism, it was studying them.  "Always watching..."  His piercing gaze lowered and met Jason's, and the aide-de-camp was struck by the intensity and liquid calm within a stare that seemed as gold as their surroundings.  "I was expecting the ever-wooden Mr. Burnett."

"Sabbatical.  I'm his replacement." Canmore explained casually.  "If you have any questions, you may address them to me.  And please, I hope they're worth my time."

"Well, you've got Burnett's lack of subtlety down perfectly."

Jason laced his fingers, and showed his teeth.  "Thank you.  Now, agents, why don't you enlighten me as to why you're here."

****************************************

Over a hundred and sixty floors up, the agents swore they could feel the building swaying.

They were following the back end of Canmore's wheelchair, the low-octave thrum of his hands over the wheels near hypnotic in the odd vacuum of sound.  The corridor they traveled lacked the charismatic flair of the foyer, and was completely vacant.  The hall, the entire floor they'd guessed, was accessible only to a select few; the private, unseen residence of the Xanatos family.  And by their own crude math, by the numbers of floors they'd watched in the elevator and the public knowledge of the Eyrie, the agents deduced they were just underneath the castle.

Ford was a little disappointed in that fact.

Sykes didn't really care where they'd ended up; he just wanted his chance with Xanatos, with either a conviction or his reputation intact.  Small threads of doubt had suddenly filtered through his mind as they neared, but he swallowed them.

Jason slowed at a pair of wooden double doors, unique from any other by the ancient, intricate grain etched and writhing within the varnished surface.  Towering, ten feet across, three brass hinges on either side with complementary handles, understated but majestic, they screamed magnificence and heralded the threshold to a king's private chambers.

"Last chance."  Jason looked over his shoulder, showing enough of his lantern jaw to employ that expressive smirk.  "You can walk away now and spare yourselves the embarrassment I know is going to come."

"We're already two thousand feet above Manhattan," Sykes breathed, a glimmer of defiance running through his stoic features, "might as well fall from grace from the tallest building in the world."

Jason returned the facetiousness with a laugh of his own; he genuinely liked this agent.  Too bad he was soon to be at the mercy of someone who's buried more people than even he could confirm.

His hand caressed the brass hilt of the door's handle styled and wreathed in the crest of an ocean wave, and pulled down.  It opened, followed by the inevitable, full-toned whine, and Jason wheeled himself in.

After a moment's hesitation, Sykes and Ford followed.

The room was massive, and if they'd made a sound even incomprehensible in the wake of their stupefaction, it surely would've echoed.  On a peripheral ring along the office's wall, there were antiques, jewels and plundered artifacts under ceiling spotlights, paintings, a massive television screen, leather couch and matching ottomans; everything seemed dressed for a particular level of comfort, but the agents only felt the cool draft of uncertainty and awe.

David Xanatos was at his desk, in front of the window with the preeminent view of Manhattan, and an inky, indistinct silhouette against the sun-drenched landscape.  In a ribbon of errant light from somewhere in the city beyond, and that just happened to swathe across his eyes, they were gleaming the color of raw steel, intense and unmoving.

"Ah, the cold, drab colors, the sallow expressions and skin tone, you must be FBI."  The apparitional voice vaguely led all the attention to a single point.  "What have I done this time?"

Jason wheeled forward, coming near the desk's side and leading the agents closer.  "Apparently, you've been accused of murdering one hundred and three people.  And all within one night."

As his majordomo came to rest and swiveled around, Xanatos looked for proof along the subtle camber of his brow.  It was sincere.  "Really?"  His thin smile, spreading as he spoke, was sheer bliss; this was a distraction worth indulging if only for his own enjoyment.  "I must admit, that's a new one."

"You've been charged with homicide, Mr. Xanatos." said Sykes, absorbing as much detail from the room as possible as he approached.  "I don't think this is something to be laughed off, unless, of course, you're completely insane and did actually do it."

The billionaire leaned forwards, the halo of sunlight illuminating the edges of adumbral features.  His beard molded sharply to his smile, devilish by coincidence.  "I assure you, if I had, I wouldn't left such a sloppy trail."

With a nod, he agreed, "True."  If anyone could have pulled off the perfect crime, it was the man who would burn money to stay warm, and willingly sell off pieces of his soul.  "You've been accused of killing one hundred and three people on the night of April first, as luck would have it, during the attacks on Manhattan.  You were here all night?"

"Yes.  As much as everyone else, I didn't quite feel safe when watching from the best vantage five Egyptian gods tearing apart the city."

Something about the quality of his voice told him the billionaire knew more than he was letting on, but he decided not to pursue it.

"So, who is the accuser?  Anyone I know?  A new corporation trying to make waves in the business world?"

"That's not important right now."

He skimmed his tongue along the top row of his teeth, as animals would when preparing for the kill.  "I believe my rights entail me to know just who is pressing the charges."

"Well, there in lies the catch, and perhaps your way out of this entire situation."  Sykes was loath to admit this, and Ford behind him mumbled under his breath.  They were losing ground with everything they were forced to reveal under the rights of the accused.  "We don't know him."

Xanatos and Canmore shared a look, briefly.  "Interesting."

"It was an anonymous caller.  Who weaved quite a tale, mind you."

Jason shook his head, ice eyes enrapt and glinting with continuing appraisal.  His mouth curved much like his employer.  "And the FBI has nothing better to do?  Where monsters run rampant and the city suffers with a wound that still bleeds to this day?"

"Slow morning."

"What do you know about monsters?" Ford suddenly jumped forward.

Sykes pinched the bridge of his nose.  This was not the time.  "Oh, Jesus, Ford..."

Xanatos turned to the younger and previously unspoken half, and regarded him under that heavy iron gaze.  Youth had its advantages at times, and it flaws; transparency being one of them, he could see the younger man was growing annoyed with their inability to make a collar.  "I've seen monsters, agent Ford, I've seen creatures dressed in human skin that engender evil like one of us would breathe the air."  Ford went to speak, but Xanatos was right on top of him, effectively shoving his unspoken defense down his throat.  "And if you were speaking of that old, disproved, and quite frankly inane rumor that I have monsters roosting in my castle, no, I don't, and haven't ever."

"Oh."  Even if he'd been kicked in the gut, it might have been a little less embarrassing.  "Well..."

"My partner's imagination notwithstanding," Sykes broke through, stepping closer to the desk, and daring to confront the industrialist eye to eye, "I take it you're pleading innocent to the charges?"

"I am innocent, and incidentally, very busy."

"You can't provide us any information?"

He shrugged.  "I have none to give.  I have no knowledge about these phantom corpses you claim I deprived of life."

"Would you care to allow us access to your building to dispute the allegations?"

"No." his tone was solemn.

"Xanatos, if one hundred people have died by your hand or even your order, I promise you, your obstruction will cost you..."

A chuckle made its way past his twined hands, nearing, and dare the billionaire for doing so, a triumphant laugh.  "Gentlemen, I am not a killer, nor have I ever entertained such thoughts.  And frankly, it sounds as if you've been led astray by nothing more than some doped-up teenager's prank."

Words have never rung so true.  As the ultimate realist, Abel Sykes was more than inclined to believe him.  That damned tingle at the base of his stomach said differently, and he knew it wasn't a simple prank.  He was asked for by name, and the voice and identity, still, evaded him.

But there was no evidence, not even a scrap to go on.  Whoever the caller, he'd left them high and dry and in a very awkward place.  But, it was Sykes' call, and he had made it with the same logical self-assurance he did everything else.  At least, he thought.

With the agents' revealing silence, Xanatos stood up from his desk and straightened his jacket collar, tugging the material into place.  "Gentlemen, I have much more pressing matters to attend to than stand here and listen to wild accusations with absolutely no proof of my supposed guilt, so if you please..."  His hand gestured towards the doors behind them, and consequently, the exit.

It wasn't too hard to interpret the meaning.

Ford made a side-glance to Sykes.  "Are we being thrown out?"

"Evidently."  Sykes turned his shoulders, and sulked off towards the doors basking in the shaft of sun stretching from one end of the office to another.  Ford was left between his quickly departing partner and the billionaire with the capricious smirk, until, without a choice, he trailed behind, having expected Sykes to put up a better fight.  "Thank you for your time.  We'll be in touch."

He pulled the handle and unexpectedly, found more of the gorillas waiting for them outside.  Ford instinctively went for his holster, but Sykes patted his shoulder.

It was nothing short of an escort of high caliber, and insidiously, pride welled deep at being such a threat to someone who'd thought him an insect or something lesser in the food chain.

"Oh, and Mr. Xanatos?"  He stopped, and flashed those potent, tawny eyes towards the billionaire.  "If you're in any way lying to us, I'm going to make sure you'll get corn-holed good and proper in the nastiest Georgian prison for twenty-five to life."

Xanatos raised a single brow.

At least he wasn't scoreless in a losing game.  Ford too, had a smile, and took the last, triumphant word as they walked out between the six guards.

The door clicked closed, and several minutes passed in silence between the two men as they mulled over their visitors and the bullet they'd dodged.  Or, more frighteningly, the wound it might have made and they'd yet to realize.

"He was testing you." Jason's remark caught more attention than the heavy, polished burr.

"Agent Abel Sykes," the name itself, as that was all that was needed, was spoken as an accolade, "did you see his eyes?  Five minutes in this office, watching me, listening to me, being inside my building, he knows exactly how I operate."

"He scouted you."

"Precisely."

Jason braced his elbow to his wheelchair armrest, and rested his chin.  "You do realize," he mentioned idly, "if they're truly persistent, they'll be back in less than forty-eight hours."

"I'd say twenty-four." Xanatos amended, turning to his window.  "The Guild play a skilled game, even using their dead as a weapon.  I'm impressed.  The competency of all these new everyday villains has gone up significantly."

"Should we dump the bodies?"

"No need," he shook his head, immersed in the sea of sterling, glass and chaos below, and distractedly searching the asphalt lines, "everything's been taken care of."

Jason narrowed his gaze, mildly surprised, though his glacial exterior didn't falter in the slightest.  He didn't hear of any change in the decision to leave the Guild bodies where they were, but, even as high a status as his post awarded him, even he wasn't privy to all of David Xanatos' dealings.  Left out of the loop was dangerous he knew, but pushing the limits and patience of his employer was even more so.  As his job demanded, he walked, ironically, a fine line between two worlds, his loyalty to Xanatos and his obligation to the clan.

He owed them, wanted to protect them through his own maverick sense of heroism, and wondered if working to pay off that self-imposed debt from the inside was worth the double-dealing.

"If you'll excuse me, Mr. Canmore," Xanatos starkly interrupted his thoughts, "I have some personal business to attend to."

Jason followed his path through the side door, watching his heavy stride and the way he carried himself with such a burden on his shoulders.  "Of course, send Fox my best."

****************************************

On Broadway between Duane and Worth, south of Canal Street and north of City Hall, wedged in the cosmopolitan tangle of 26 Federal Plaza, the Manhattan FBI branch was nearly lost between hotel and neon shop signs, and advertisements plastered on every building fitted inelegantly between windows, and the ceaseless bustle of sidewalk traffic.

If it weren't for the small, gold-shadowed decals against the glass, no one would've noticed the FBI was even there.

Inside, Sykes took the stairs one at a time to his twenty-third floor desk; the elevator on this particular day was only available up to the seventeenth due to maintenance.  From there they had to travel on foot.  As always, Ford was trailing behind him, one hand pawing the rail, the other in his pocket.

He was as quiet as he was in the car; the ride back from the Eyrie was a silent, discomfited one.

To the recruit, it'd all seemed a waste.  Of time, taxpayers' money, of the gas it took to travel; Ford could've and would've, as he ran several different scenarios through his mind, done some things differently.  But in the end he was, as his partner, defeated before they even stepped inside the elevator.

All this on probably another of Sykes' gut feelings.  But he'd given up so easily.

As soon as they turned into the squadroom, the noise level, so potent from the stairwell, lowered.  Conversations were abruptly ended, glances were made and swept away, smiles were hidden behind hands.  It seemed everyone had found out about the impossible quest; in such a small office, word traveled lightning fast before breath could even be drawn.

Sykes wandered through the darkly dressed rabble, trawling in the midst of expressions of amusement and some even of pity.  He wasn't bothered in the slightest, but it was still a sizable blow to his reputation.

He found his desk behind the others, butted up against Ford's, and if still far enough away, its location would've been considered lucky by the proximity to a window.

But, it was in a corner a little too eastern to award a view worth the time he'd put in, and true to his nature he never once complained in the fourteen years he'd occupied the little oak-laminate structure.  The Venetian-slatted notch opened into a brick wall of a neighboring building, the same muddy, weatherworn sienna, the same plain, filthy, wizened fascia he'd looked out on most of his career.

On a street infamous for its drowning, metropolitan vistas, his by all God's graces was an alley and part of a sign.

There was an inaudible, and after so long and so many, reflexive sigh as Sykes glanced at his home away from home.  Stale coffee, a brick wall, and a nine to five, Monday through Friday routine, he was reduced to counting down the years to his pension.

"Well, like I said, that was a complete waste of time."  He collapsed into his chair, elbows against the inviting arms, and leaned back just enough until he heard the customary squeak.  "We could have been out halting drug shipments or tapping phone lines.  Something very FBI-like."

Ford threw his jacket to his own chair, and with the force behind it, nearly sent it to the floor.  It spun full circle, and he caught the back as it made a full orbit.  One wasn't hard-pressed to see the frustration he wore like revelation along the faint lines in his face.  "You could've tried a little harder!" he snapped.

Sykes couldn't disagree, but he seemed far too cavalier.  "Yes, I could have, but the law we so faithfully serve was on his side."  He propped up his elbow on the surface of his desk, using it to lean on.  "Let's examine the logistics, shall we?  No evidence, no tangible witnesses, no warrant to search the premises.  We can't even determine a motive.  What does one of the world's wealthiest men, who actually does have everything, want badly enough to kill for?  Especially a hundred and three people all on the same night."

"Trophies," countered Ford, "he's either practically consumed or destroyed hundreds of corporations that we know about, and probably more we don't.  And you can't tell me it didn't include a little dirty work on the side for stubborn holdouts.  This could've been just another conquest.  Just another night's work."

"You're saying pride, greed."

"The world's tallest building wasn't erected just to clear the smog level.  He wants to be on top, of everything.  And the lack of a conscience seems the perfect advantage to get him there."

"Seems pretty conscientious to me." he played back, seeing the gears struggling to churn out another answer, another quick and reckless accusation without seeing the other facets.  "Donations to the city reconstruction, offering his work crews, the new homeless shelter..."

"Camouflage."

"Generosity."

"Prevarication."

"Consideration."

The younger man finally slumped behind his desk, and stared from across the computer monitors at Sykes' smile.  His jaw was sternly set, teeth grinding.  "I still say he's hiding something."

"Xanatos is always hiding something, just like every single person in Manhattan.  But it could be something as simple and inane as his wife's boob job."

His breath caught, and his eyes like a deer in the headlights wordlessly pleaded for the truth.  "Fox Xanatos had a boob job?"

Sykes shrugged his shoulders; he'd always wondered when leafing through the morning newspaper, and coming across another publicity shot of the Xanatoses making the town their own for the night.  Fox had always favored something low cut and sinful, and painfully red, something to burn into the collective male consciousness.  "Probably." he admitted.  "Someone doesn't look that good without having incredible genes."

Ford shook his head, ridding himself of the mental image.  "Damnit, Sykes, we finally have the perfect in.  We have an excuse to get in there and see for ourselves everything that man has done and is doing."

"All we have, youngblood, is an anonymous caller accusing the reformed, and repeatedly munificent David Xanatos of murdering a hundred people."  It was his turn to stare, and underneath his swept brow, topaz caught the fluorescent strips and smoldered, boring through him.  Ford shifted under it, and Sykes smiled.  "I bet you're one of the gullible millions that actually believed the rumors he housed dangerous creatures in his castle too."

"Uh uh."  Ford was quick to disparage his partner's belief, though, in some ways, it was all too true.  "I never said that."

"Yes, you did actually.  Right to his face."

Caught, Ford went to answer, then stopped, sighed, rethought, and tried again.  "It was just a question."

"But you believe in gargoyles." he pressed.  "I saw you last week, listening to the radio-show with that cop that claims he saw gargoyles fighting in the streets during the attack."

"Yeah...yeah I do believe."

"Why?"

Ford's jaw dropped.  How could this man have survived in the cave he'd apparently been living in for so long?  How could he be so blind or apathetic to everything around him?  "You never saw the footage from October ninety-six?"

"I saw it.  On Fox."  Brows furled together; there wasn't an ounce of respect in his tone or expression.  "Besides the shoddy camera work and blurred images of 'monsters' escaping the ruins of St. Damien's, any sort of credibility that story may have had was instantly and completely ruined by the same network that peddles mind-numbing refuse like Joe Millionaire.  Hell, I thought the Alien Autopsy was more believable."

"Well, thanks for your opinion, Scully."

"No problem, Mulder."

"What about the Gargoyles Task Force?"

"People got scared, the city brass responded."  He chuckled.  "For the most part, it was a damned clever idea to create a task force for something that was created from the collective fear of seven million people."

Dominic threw himself up, arcing a long leg over the back of his office chair.  "Out of all the rumors," his voice rose as he paced, throwing precariously over the background static of the bureau, "all the weird shit that's happened, especially in our own city, you don't believe something else beyond the human scope of understanding exists?  That something else could've evolved alongside of us unseen for millions of years?"

Sykes was flicking his eyes to each side, hoping the others weren't listening in to a conversation that had taken an odd turn; from homicide to urban legends, he wondered what the association was and just how they'd happened to arrive there.  "Christ," he groused, with a dead-set glare, "please don't tell me you're one of those P.I.T. morons."

"One thousand strong and growing."

"I bet they're keeping a low profile after what happened in Central Park."

How close he came to being part of that gathering; if it weren't for the little foibles of luck and fate, of swapping his shift with a friend because of a daughter's throat infection, he would have been one of more than two hundred and fifty kids turned demonstrators turned statistics.  "More than you know." he hissed.

The P.I.T. had gone underground, as members mourned the loss and feared for their lives against this invisible enemy.  But the ranks swelled with a new foe to fight, among the student bodies and young America, and anyone who'd imagined something just outside of a linear existence.  Simple beliefs in mythology and whispers among the alleyways had turned to adamant faith and a quasi-religion in a cleansing of fire and C4.

Sykes shook his head, and checked his e-mail.  "Well, while you're looking up at the sky for any creatures of the night, just try and keep your feet on the ground.  I hate getting shot."

Junk mail, pornography, solicit after solicit, Sykes nearly went trigger happy with his delete button, until one message, with a blank subject header and an obviously false address, caught his attention.  It was a cryptic yet intelligent blurb, stroked by the keyboard as a calligraphist would wield his ink, followed by a list.  A tingle hit his spine.  "Jesus Christ..."

His eyes went wide, reflecting the cold pattern of the screen.

He rolled his mouse button down.  Scrolling names, each of them was another nail in a coffin he'd love to dance on.  All one hundred and three.

"Sykes?"  Ford saw his attention abruptly wane and shift, focusing on the monitor.  By his experience, there wasn't much that could envelop his partner's attention so completely save a gunshot pointblank to the face.  "What is it?"

Sykes hit the print button.  "We're getting a warrant."

****************************************

The day was done, and there was darkness ready to blanket the city, the fire dousing along the horizon slowly, steadily, inevitably.  A metropolitan cloth lit like the sky and competing against it, one vestigial surface reflecting the other, Manhattan burned with electricity all the way to the top.

Brushing the quill of his beard along fine, porcelain lines, Xanatos held his wife's hand so delicately as if it would crumble to dust in his grasp.  She possessed no strength to squeeze back, but he held for both of them.  In front of a languid, lidded gaze, if she couldn't feel his flesh, then she would see it, see the devotion.

Leaning over her bedside, the room richly layered in slivers of dimday beryl and obsidian, he was an imprecise shape, and holding silent vigil.  There they had stayed, breaths mingling, gazes joined, saying things they couldn't find the words for.

Xanatoses never delved into such things as soft-heartedness.  It was more a synthesis of vision and dominion, a fever, a craving, a thirst; commitment to them was fire and Delamain cognac, volatile.

Fox was on her side, knees up near her stomach, and her husband was watching her, measuring the pause between every breath, hoping another would come.

"Suicide isn't your style."  His voice like wet gravel, he cleared his throat.  "Not the predator, not the warrior.  You've never been afraid of anything, not even your own death."

She blinked in response; in her deteriorating state, it was all she could do.  Mere days had bled her dry of strength, hours had turned a condition merely and unconcernedly life-threatening, to fatal.  She'd lost hair by the clump, leaving sections of her skull bare, and breathed with the aid of an oxygen tube.

Then, inexplicably, the cadaverous form of Fox Xanatos managed a smile.

Something glimmered, her argentite gaze as full by moonlight as it was sated by guile.  She licked her lips.

Xanatos saw in the fathoms his own realization mirrored.  "It was just another test, wasn't it?" he whispered, impressed.  "To see how far you can push your limits.  To see how far your own mortality will stretch before it snaps."  He leaned in, and her scent bloomed on his soul.  "You are a remarkable creature."

She tightened her fingers on his palm, and crooked her mouth into something genuinely lupine.

He swore he saw fang glinting against the moon.  "Did you know a gargoyle styled nick-of-time rescue was in your future?"

"...maybe..." she wheezed.

"Or were you expecting Alex?"

She shook her head on the pillow.  "...his reflexes...aren't fast enough yet..."  A strangled laugh, hollowed by the tube scotch-taped to her cheek, trembled through her mouth.  "Thank god...for Canadians..."

He nodded, inclined to agree.

"...I heard...you had company today..." she shifted the conversation, her speech gasping and broken.

His eyes went up, and distant, staring into the dark and what reflections lay beyond.  "Just another routine visit from another law enforcement agency."

"There's...nothing routine about those visits..."

He knew that tone.  Fox had a knack for seeing truth under fallacy, and getting under his skin.  "It was nothing."

"Really?"  Her eyes darkened.  "...enlighten me..."

"They were hunters, Fox," he smirked, "looking for things that don't exist."

"...Dr. Pierce would argue that..."

He looked down on his wife.  If only she knew, he'd already taken care of everything.  No loose ends, no errant threads for some intrusive FBI agent to pull and unravel all his secrets.  The proud curve to his mouth hadn't faded; in fact, if anything, it had grown stronger.  "There's nothing to worry about, I've seen to it."

Fox clenched her brows, deciphering what little he wore on his features.  The man was stone cold; steel or granite, it fit him all the same.  "David..."

"Rest, Fox," he interrupted, "conserve everything you have."

"To do what?  Prolong...the inevitable...for another few weeks at best?"

He got up, leaned over and kissed the side of her mouth.  "If need be.  I told you," his lips traveled down the length of her ear, intoxicating numb flesh and awakening nerves to the sensation, "you have to hold on."

Something grew in her throat, a growl, even as he stroked his hands along the sharp crescent wave of her hair.  A few strands went with his hand, and he couldn't help think of them as an hourglass, by Sobek's own gruesome but true analogy.

"The clan will be awake within minutes, I have to go, wildfire."

"I'm...not going anywhere..."  Fox waved him a lethargic goodbye, and followed his path out the door, settling on the two Steel Clan sentries.  They hadn't moved since posted, never letting up their twenty-four hour guard.  "...I don't have a choice..."

Xanatos slipped through the doorway and between the Goliath-styled automatons, and out around the corner, his eyes precariously narrowed to a single point at the end of the corridor.  And only the unruly shock of red, standing out from the dark hall, kept him from stepping on his son.

He peered down to see the small boy move back from underfoot, and glare at him.  His gaze, his wife's gaze, Titania's gaze, burned through him; it was as if it would tear through every lie and deceit like an x-ray.  His palms grew sweaty.  "Alex."

"Are you gonna yell at me again?"

"That's up to you.  You disobeyed my direct orders about using your abilities without proper guidance."

"I saved 'Lilah's baby."

"You were lucky!" he snapped, and the realization he was shouting didn't quite hit him.  He'd never raised his voice to his son.  "You could have turned Demona inside out with the reckless power you wield, and killed that child."

He mimicked his father's outward conceit.  "I didn't."

"You'll do nothing like this again, Alexander."

Under spear-tipped brows and wayward tendrils gilded in copper, there was Avalon in his eyes, and an arrogance unseen in mortal man.  "You can't stop me."

Men had muttered the same thing across that long, boardroom table far too often, and he'd buried them without a thought.  A few graves and a lot of broken conglomerates littered his past, and now his heir stepped up to take the challenge, and Xanatos met him with the same electric ferocity.  "Care to test that assumption?" he dared, and the boy didn't move, or even blink.  "Any more unsupervised magic, and I will get very angry.  Is that understood?"

Alexander didn't answer; either he couldn't, or chose not to.  Stubborn little thing, he bit his bottom lip.

"Is that understood?!"

"Yes." the response was dragged out of him, his father fuming.

"Good."  Xanatos gestured with his head towards the door.  "Go see your mother.  And behave yourself."

***************************************

Screams coalesced.

The clan awakened in their protective chamber, again denied the stars, and frustration crooned in their cries.  But each of them knew their safety was the principle concern, even if it meant suppressing millions of years of instinct to howl at the indigo night.

Muscles straining at his hide, Brooklyn shook the stone shards from his mane and wings, and within a white blur of the thinning incandescence of his eyes, a dim shape grew well defined in front of him.

With a leer, Xanatos had observed their awakening; it seemed, after years of watching them release and take to the night as flesh and claw, he never got tired of the sight.  His eyes were as always methodically rounding every bone spur and wing tip, appraising his allies as they became something more than highly wrought granite carvings.

A satisfied customer, his purchase had paid off tenfold in ways he'd never imagined.

Arching her back in a graceful, leonine pose, wings taught, and distending knotted sinew from ten hours of stone sleep, Sata thrummed with a low purr, joining in song with the rest until it died away.  She straightened the floral-patterned silk of her yukata, and noticed like her mate their observer, and more importantly, his expectant posture.  "Something weighs on your mind, Xanatos-san."

With the invitation, Xanatos stepped forwards and into the circle of cautious gazes fused into one.  They were all watching him, both metaphorically and literally.  "We had a visit this morning from two FBI agents asking about one hundred and three dead bodies." he announced casually, and served to open sleep-heavy eyes.  "Oh, and Rain?  Ares called again.  He seemed...irritated."

The young shimmering Canadian in the midst of New Yorkers crushed her brows together, and sighed.  Even with the buffer of five hundred miles between her and her adoptive father, his voice, roaring through the digital connection of a cellphone, was a haunting thought.  "I don't know which is worse."

Broadway lumbered close, by Brooklyn's right shoulder, nearly dwarfing his leader by sheer bulk size.  "How the hell did the FBI find out?"

"The Guild."  Xanatos turned to him.  "They've decided to use their fallen as weapons."

"And what did you tell them?"  Like his composure, Brooklyn's voice was chilled.

"That I had no idea what they were talking about.  Of course, with your choice to have me keep these bodies on proverbial ice, I was forced to bend the truth.  With no leads to further pursue an investigation, they left."

"We cannot just callously dump the Guild bodies." said Desdemona, her voice steady, and sepulchral in its clarity.

"Why not?"

"They are-"

"Were."

"-human beings." she got off at the end of a growl.  "And if we assume ourselves as evolved and enlightened as the species we protect and some we love as our own, it would be a shame to fall into the preconceived notion we are monsters."

"Those men and women stopped being human as soon as they put on those masks, and become merely a small part of something decidedly inhuman." he argued, the billionaire making murmurs in the back with his valid point.  "And now, even after they're dead, they risk your exposure and your lives.  How long are you willing to cling to this sentiment for the deceased?"

Brooklyn crossed his arms.  "Depends how much a threat this poses to us."

As soon as the words rolled off the gargoyle's tongue, Xanatos curled his lips.  If anything, just the expression he wore weighed on their communal obstinacy.  "I have the suspicion this won't end here.  If the Guild truly wanted to use the bodies against us, they would surely provide some sort of substantial evidence."

"He's right."  Connoisseur of films in the Noir and cop drama, Broadway knew enough.  Creatures entrenched in a sort of vigilante hierarchy and outside of the law, he knew there were rules and subsequent loopholes for either side with a lack of proof.  "If the Guild wanted this to pan out, they would've sent the agents to do their dirty work with a more effective method of attack."

"Or," Lexington offered another point of view, "they're just making us sweat.  Making sure we know they're still out there."

A wrinkle and low growl traveled the crooked line of his beak.  His gaze still hadn't left the human's, and vice versa.  "They'll be back." Brooklyn growled.

Xanatos plucked the concern from the dark soup of his eyes, the flicker of Bohemian justice coming to light, and strained through the membranous skin of his unfurling wings.  Goliath's meditative approach was a little more suited to his tastes, but with Brooklyn, direct, forceful, it could ruin everything they were lucky to get away with.  This was subterfuge and deceptions and not unlike a grand game of chess.  "I'll handle this, Brooklyn."

A flicker of white; it told the billionaire to be on his toes.  "Handle it well."

Delicate talons needled on his arm, pressing deeply in succession from bottom to top in the flexure of his elbow to keep him from doing something stupid.  "Brooklyn," Sata minded quietly, and surreptitiously in front of the watchful crowd, "pay respect to our protector."

Old vermilion creased around his eyes, and beneath the lowering crag of bone.  A short, forceful grunt rushed out in place of a rebuttal, Brooklyn deciding to let his remark go for the time being.  There was a flash of Goliath's reproaching stare in his mind.

Lead as he would, the timedancer told himself.  "I guess we trust our existence held in the palms of your slippery hands."

Point to him; with Brooklyn's implied concession, the score had been adjusted for the competition enduring between the two respective leaders.  "I assure you," Xanatos backed out of the room, "there's no one better suited for the job of misdirection."

Brooklyn felt a sigh rush over his tongue, and his wings relax across his shoulders.  "You're all free for the evening." he dismissed the clan, though, cruelly, they were trapped within their own home.

They parted, Angela especially quick to leave the room.  Last night and the night before, she'd been more than prompt, almost impatient, in her departure as soon as she awakened, heading for something that had been thrown against her unwillingly and suddenly become her sole responsibility.

"Be careful Angela," Brooklyn called after her, as he did before, "the skies aren't friendly anymore."

It'd become a routine, between any clan members who even dared to leave the castle.  "I'm well aware." the lavender female shot back, between and behind the midnight wings that trailed rapidly through and from the doorway.

With their home exposed and presumably still under watch, she'd most likely take the elevator down to the private parking garage and out into the adjoining sewer system, an old path leading into more subterranean roads, one of which led directly to the mostly abandoned Labyrinth.  There, she'd surface in an alley or a deserted street, claw up the side of a building and make the short glide to Nightstone.

Brooklyn worried of course; being a leader he couldn't help that fact.  But this was the daughter of Goliath and Demona, she wasn't one to be coddled, or even altogether barred from going about her business.  Trying to stop an inferno with his hands would be a more worthwhile undertaking, and he didn't try to stop her.

He'd already suffered through the inevitable argument.

As the clan trickled from the room, he noticed his brother's despondent gaze, still left where Angela had once been.  "Off to Nightstone again?" he asked, knowing the answer, but spurring conversation.

"Third time since she got the news she's now a CEO." Broadway's voice was a mere whisper.

He shook his head, all the while training his eyes for any discernible change in his larger brother's stone expression.  "Why in god's name would Demona leave Angela in charge?"

"She doesn't trust anyone else."

The guy didn't even blink.  "It's going to be pretty hard to run a company without being seen."

"I have a feeling Demona would've prepared for that." he said, quietly.  "That woman prepares for everything."  Broadway harrumphed at his own words, a great snort.  No amount of preparation would've prevented Angela's death, save Demona's choice to end her own life by killing a younger counterpart, and consequently, the rest of this particular universe in a flash of unraveling time and space.  "Almost everything..."

He knew the crestfallen tone, he knew the self-pitying, mercenary behavior similar to his years trapped in time separated from a pregnant Sata.  Brooklyn knew exactly how he was suffering.  "Hey, I'm never one to offer marriage advice, considering I'm lucky Sata's still put up with me all these years but..."

Broadway was sick of the pandering.  "Then don't."

"Damnit, she's Angela."

"Angela's on a tray in the morgue."

He shook his head.  "Only you would discriminate between two identical people by a few tiny details."

"Those tiny details made Angela who she is, made her soul what it is today."  Large hands, capable of pulverizing steel, clenched at his sides.  "How do you expect me...how does anyone expect me to forget about that?!"

"We don't.  We..." he paused, "I expect you to remember just how lucky you are to have the woman you love come back from the dead.  I bet there's millions of people who'd wish the same-"

­

"What if it was Sata?" he tested his brother, with a taloned finger thrown towards him.  "Wouldn't you hesitate to accept her as exactly the woman you loved?  Would you be so damned quick to replace your mate with another and move on like nothing happened?!"

"Yes," he answered honestly, and without pause of thought, "or I'd suffer the rest of my life without her.  And I don't think I could live with that."  He stepped closer, braving the aquamarine ball of fury and brawn.  "But the real question is, can you live without Angela even as she stands right beside you?  As she lives, breathes and suffers besides you."

Broadway didn't have an answer.

****************************************

Like an errant breeze that had slipped in between the cracks of a door that didn't quite close fast enough, she was just as mercurial and cunning, and was without a sound as she quickly slithered up behind him.

Brooklyn could've sworn he felt something entangle through the strands across his back, and then, she appeared at his side, walking offhandedly as if she'd always been there.  "I hate it when you do that."

"I know."

He tried to force it down, like one would suppress a yawn, but he couldn't help but smile at a near-playful tone that seemed to buoy his spirits.  "Join me for a walk?"

Sata slipped an arm through his, and leaned against him as they strolled down the hall.  Tails lashed and smoothed against each other, with minds of their own but guided by impassioned instincts kept in check with the proximity to their twin children.  "Are you sure in your decision?" her voice was low, hoping to keep it from running down the hall before her.  "To make him second?  At the moment, he is not focused on the matter at hand...for obvious reasons."

He snorted, "If that big idiot can't grasp what's staring him in the face, then he deserves to lose her."

A delicate, catechistic flick of her brow in his direction preceded her response.  "He has already lost her once."

Red features darkened into sanguine, and he waffled on the line with thunder in his throat.  He sighed.  "Then maybe it's time he was forced to reevaluate their relationship, and find out just why he loves her before he loses her again."

"Perhaps..."

There was silence between them as they continued, more like the inevitable awkward pause that rarely surfaced after being mated for so long.  "But he's ready," the words escaped on a lower tone, "he's been ready since day one to take on a more active stance in the clan's leadership, and besides either you or Lex, I can't even fathom having anyone else at my side."

"He's been your strongest opponent," Sata warned, breaking away from him to stop at a window with a breathtaking view of the city below, "he's disputed your leadership, your decisions, everything."

"Good."

She turned and leaned against the jutting sill.  "Yes, but seconds are there to offer alternatives, not outright challenge and defy their leader."

"He's just pissy I'm not Goliath.  He'll get over it."

"You hope."

"I hope."  He ambled forwards and joined her, putting his entire weight on the window's protruding edge and staring into the night.  His eyes implored the freedom and serenity the sky offered, now a battleground in which they were no longer the dominant species.  "Damnit, Sata, we can't even fly anymore." he whispered.  "Anytime any of us leave the castle, if we even get up the nerve, we're looking over our shoulders, guarding our backs for that single bullet that might just rip from out of nowhere and knock us from the sky."

He turned his head, and Sata found that weary mug etched by age and scarred by experience a lavender canvas.  The sky diffused through the window had blended the dark mantle of nightfall with expressions of necessity and urgency and what she thought as apprehension to face the burden of his task alone.

He was afraid.

"I need him." he beseeched.  "I need him to help pull this clan together."

"Before he can help you, beloved, he must first help himself."

****************************************

April 21st, 8:59 am

Leading a small army, Sykes barged into the Eyrie foyer near to nine sharp.  A breaker of trench coats and drearily colored suits burst through the doors and overtook the entire lobby, like a tarnish that couldn't be polished out.

The receptionist again stood, again glared, her eyes immediately settling on the shepherd with the high hairline, and again tried to block his entrance.  But there was determination on the older man's face, and a contingent of agents and forensic teams behind him.  "I believe you were thrown out yesterday."

"We're back."

"You were warned, Mr. Sykes."  She was quick to make a glance towards the security guards, seemingly drunk on her own little army.

It was an odd, sequential rhythm that followed, of some seventy-five agents unholstering their firearms and then pointing them at every XE employee within sight.

Caught in the middle, the young receptionist bounced her wide eyes between the two sides.  She didn't expect guns.  "I-I hope...you have...some kind of..."

"Warrant?"  With a snap, Sykes shoved a piece of paper to her face.  She barely had time to read the jurisdictional seal before the agent bared his teeth.  "See this?  It is an official search warrant for Xanatos Enterprises.  If you try and block our access, I will arrest you for obstruction of justice.  Now move!" he barked, and she flinched.  "Or be moved.  And that includes your cronies."

A thin line begrudgingly parted between the guards, and the receptionist sidestepped, allowing them to pass.  Then, frantically, she grabbed over the marble slab for her phone.

****************************************

"I suppose someone in the attorney general's office was very pleased to approve that.  They've been absolutely itching to wheedle a few of their well-trained lackeys inside my building."

"Lackeys?" Ford parroted.

Xanatos saw the humor where the agents didn't.  "I did say well-trained."

At the billionaire's uncannily accurate prediction, it was almost exactly twenty-four hours later and the agents found themselves back in Xanatos' office.  This time around, some of the wonder had worn off.  Homicide had a way of doing that.

"Actually," Sykes answered, "when word hit the mayor, he seemed a little hesitant.  But pressure from the prosecutor's office, a few respected judges, the attorney general and a threat to go straight to the governor made him decide otherwise.  It seems he didn't want to upset a source of funding for reconstruction of the Hole."

"The aptly named Hole, agent Sykes, is practically my front yard.  Call it a beautification project, if only to improve the view."

"And a statue of the man who made it possible."

"A plaque, agent Ford, that's all."  Augustan features pulled back on his skull, the wide, leering smirk stretching from end to end.  "And I suppose cutting the mayor's cash flow would upset both him and his circle of marionettes and yes-men."

The older agent fished from his coat a thin stack of paper, and slapped it to the desk.  "I told you what would happen if you were lying to us."

"Becoming the girlfriend of a large, tattooed Georgian nicknamed Ol' Hoss, yes, the image was particularly compelling."

He gestured towards the pile on the sturdy slate finish.  "We've just received a list of all one hundred and three names of the people you've been charged with killing.  Some of them have been recently reported as missing."

Xanatos picked up the list and started leafing through it, running his gaze over the exact same names Pierce had identified weeks ago.  There was even an ex-FBI agent who'd suddenly and inexplicably retired three months ago; the campaign had a personal side to it.

Sykes didn't even see an eyebrow twitch on the billionaire's cold marble facade.  As an actor, he was first-class.  "Anyone you recognize?"

His eyes were level just above the top of the papers.  "No."

"If I had seen a few proprietors on that list whose lives you might have ruined once, I might be inclined to guess at a possible motive.  But as it stands, I believe that's still enough circumstantial evidence to warrant a search of your premises.  I have several forensic and field teams going through your building as we speak."

Something like anger and annoyance raced red across the billionaire's neck, just as something warm whispered across the back of Ford's right hand.

The office's holographic projector fired up, shooting a stream of voxels into the room.  Mother materialized suddenly, but to Xanatos' relief, she'd altered her appearance for the visitors.  Where the image of an elder gargoyle dowager should have been, a human stood with a few recognizable features from her old form.  Lavender suit jacket and skirt, fittingly, and thick-rimmed glasses, black and silver streaked hair tied loosely atop her head; smart and chic, the flared collar and three inch heels with just the right amount of panache, the computer consciousness had intermingled several empyrean images of today's woman into a new and successful camouflage.

Spooked, Ford jumped back as the apparition took form just beside him.  "Jesus!"

"They are correct, Mr. Xanatos," the newly-skinned entity reported, "FBI agents are infiltrating the building."

Instead of reacting to the woman appearing from thin air, Sykes took note of one word in particular, as if the bureau were an enemy invading a foreign country.  "Infiltrating?"

Ford continued to stare, dumbstruck.

Xanatos smiled.  "Ah yes, Mother."  He offered a hand towards the hologram.  "One of XE's most valuable and successful prototypes, a seventh level artificial intelligence able to reason, learn and almost feel as much as any human."

With the curiosity rivaling a ten-year-old, and in the action he was about to take, the etiquette, Ford tested his limits and her phantom consistency by swiping his hand through her.  The image was slightly warm, and barely interrupted.

If anyone else, they might've appeared slightly chagrined in having a hand rudely swum through them.  But Mother turned her head as a security camera would slowly scan a convenience store, mechanically enough to raise the hairs on the back of his neck, and flashed him a come-hither grin in the attempt.

Sykes didn't bat an eye, even as the ghost-woman sashayed across the room.  "Yes, impressive."

"Impressive?"  Mother took offense.  If anything, impressing simple flesh and blood beings was supposed to be a highlight of her existence.  "Gentlemen," the disembodied voice was lip-synched with precision, "I am perhaps the most advanced artificial intelligence on this planet."

"And I have a self-cleaning oven.  But I don't get excited enough to wet myself when it rids the heating elements of baked-on cheese."

"Sykes, she's a frigging computer program."

He held up his hand.  "Ford.  Murder investigation, remember?"

"Yes, do continue.  This is the most fun I've had in a very long time."

Sykes swung back to the billionaire on the end of his wisecrack, the expression under the heavy furrows enough to quiet him.  "We've been more than polite," he seethed, "more than we should have in this case.  I could have cuffed you, hauled you out in a hail of reporters and camera flashes and taken you down to the bureau to ask these questions in an interrogation room after a thorough strip search, but I thought the better part of diplomacy was in our mutual interests, you being the mayor's good friend."

"Can't have a lowly agent causing a scandal in city hall, can we?"

His silence spoke for him, and Xanatos waved a hand in apology.

"I'm truly grateful, agent Sykes."  His obsequious tone was further polished by the delivery.  "It's taken so long to fix my damaged reputation in the eyes of New York's law enforcement agencies."

"Spare me the smoke, Xanatos, it's making me nauseous." Sykes ricocheted.  "Now, my agents and I are going to go through your building with a fine-toothed comb, and we want to see absolutely everything."

"Everything?"

"Everything."

"As you wish.  I'll inform my employees to prepare for your arrival and not to interfere with your search in any way."

****************************************

First stop, the agents decided, was Wyvern castle.  Might as well start from top to bottom, and make a clean sweep.  Moreover, Ford was literally bursting to get a look up close and personal.  He wanted to roam the endless corridors and transform the partial schematics he downloaded on the Internet into tactile sense, and hunt for something behind and beyond the stone.

He'd be the envy of every single P.I.T. member, getting into what they considered the Shangri-La of the myth on which an entire faith had been based.

The elevator doors slid open into the entrance hall, the large skylights allowing that white-hot brilliance of dawn to lap across the walls and floor.  Wyvern was the facade of hospitality, more so than at night, every corner and crook and stone lit and open and under the sun.  It was almost another place in the light, and the agents stepped over the threshold, testing each step.

Xanatos followed behind, enjoying the contrast between Ford's grossly unconcealed wonder and Sykes' distrusting gaze.  "Gentlemen," there was a slight echo, "welcome to castle Wyvern."

The investigation disappeared, the suspected homicide, his job, his rent, the involuntary bodily functions such as breathing; Ford was in enthusiast heaven.  By their own accord, his feet moved the rest of the immobile form forwards like a tourist in Times Square, his gaze eternally directed upwards.

And Sykes, watching over his teams, was stealing glances in between.

It was hard to believe this entire structure used to sit perched on an oceanfront precipice across the sea, battered by salt-laden winds whistling through the Inner Hebrides.  The sheer money and gall to scoop it up and move it; there were thousands of stones in this room alone.  "You transplanted the entire castle from Scotland?"

"Brick by brick.  Call it a souvenir."

He wandered into the middle of the room of what was once the great dining hall, near the sprawling fireplace and its flared, funnel-shaped mouth.  He could sense ambient heat from the pit, the faint smell of natural gas; it had been used recently.  Beneath him, a carpet with delicate threads held a pattern simple in its darkly mesmerizing shapes, and above, a pyramidal ceiling that ensnared and fused and scattered any background noise.  Intersecting halls trailed off into the distance; one only guessed where they led and how far the walk.

"This is one hell of a souvenir."  He peered over his shoulder at Xanatos' lordly smirk.  "You've could've just built your own from scratch.  Why import a thousand year old relic that could've crumbled under its own weight and fell off your building?"

"One look at this old relic, this decaying, vine-dressed palace on a cliff outlying the Atlantic, and I was taken.  It held beauty, and whispers of an old age that will never be again."  He moved towards an ornamental armory cache on the wall, eight steel-hilted swords struck through a shield circa tenth century, and ran his finger along the edge of one of the razor sharp rapier blades, removing a thin line of dust.  He rubbed the film of grime between his fingers, a reminder to step up the maintenance and cleaning schedule of the Cyber-Biotics droids.  "You and your fellow agents are very privileged to be allowed in here."

"Your clubhouse not open to the public, I suppose?"

"Rarely."  He eyed the other agents with a not-so-welcoming glare, as they photographed and catalogued and searched for fingerprints and any other physical shreds of evidence, no matter how small.  "Just to my family and a few friends, and even fewer party-goers."

"You host parties here?"

"I've had a few.  Including several weddings."

Sykes returned his attentions to his surroundings, eyes running along every line between the fitted stonework, the tapestries, the armaments hung polished and sharpened, as if expecting a war that might or might not come, all dependant on the company the industrialist kept.  "Quaint." he sputtered.  A palace and a fortress both, and the agent thought how appropriate, it fit the owner.

"...look how high the ceiling is..." Ford's voice was absolute veneration in the background, and his partner mumbled something under his breath.

Jason wheeled into the hall from an adjoining passage, having to excuse himself through several more intrusive agents having already begun their search with cameras flashing.

An enigmatic look passed between employer and employee; by a contractual obligation well-hidden within the presupposed 'fine print', Jason had prepared the castle for visitors, which, in layman's terms, meant he'd done away with every visible piece of evidence that something other than human made this place their home every night.

"You're free to search at your discretion."

****************************************

With a whine that trembled and sung with the towering door, the antithetic pair was allowed into perhaps Wyvern's grandest and most restricted room.

The splendor that bled from all the chambers was most flaunted here, the cornerstone, in the massive canopied bed and the carvings twined within its dark oak struts, matching antique dresser and wardrobe, private bath and sauna, fireplace, balcony, two bay windows that allowed a stunning view into where steel had met green in the breadth of Central Park West.

Palatial and striking in its color, in all still just a room, but if the agents only knew the significance; this was where Goliath and Elisa made their respite from the rest of the world.  If only they knew they'd loved here, cried here, made memories that seemed a part of this room more than the amenities Xanatos had bestowed upon the couple.

Still, to the men, it seemed untouchable like a museum exhibit; all it needed were the velvet ropes.  So they held at the door, afraid to even imprint the carpeting with their shoes.

"I assure you, gentlemen," Xanatos said from behind, "you're more than welcome to enter."

Chandeliers lit their way as, for the first time, they felt as if they were truly trespassing.

"Are all the rooms like this?" Ford wondered aloud.

"No.  This one is...special." he beamed with satisfaction, and nowhere else was that same pride echoed but in his eyes.  He was especially proud of the contributing factor that got even the stubborn detective Maza to move in.  "My and Fox's room, whenever we want to 'get away'.  Call it a summer cabin, without the bother of traffic."

His untruth, as Sykes was quick to test every explanation, was further backed up by a disconcerting lack of evidence to the contrary.

The little distinguishing traits that had made an aloof and patrician bedchamber a home were either missing altogether, or altered to suit the lies spun with such expertise.  Case in point, the wedding photo, that had always adorned the nighttable near Elisa's side of the bed, had been replaced by one of David and Fox.

Odd, to the billionaire standing in a room he was never allowed into, and almost unsettling to so casually replace the heart and soul of this place.

The corner where shelves, floor to ceiling, lined the alcove, and where photo albums and videos outlined Goliath and Elisa's entire life together through vows and childbirth and first steps, was nothing but a jutting bulwark on a forty-five degree angle.  A locked cabinet vanished by a hologram, the particles of light blended flawlessly with the surrounding stone.

Sykes walked right past, and slowly pulled back the Japanese-styled sliding door into Trinity's corner room.  A child's room, by the size of the bed and decorative touches.

Speaking of the bed, his eyes caught something.

A small ball of mottled gray fur, curled up against a stuffed toy and where the hump of blanket tucked underneath the pillows.  Sykes reached out, closer, until the lump sensed his presence, arched its back and unsheathed its claws with a resistive hiss.  Hairs stood up from neck to tail.

"Gah!"

Cagney tore from the bedspread and between his legs, into the room, out the door and presumably deep into the castle to hide.

Things were definitely alive in Wyvern.  But all the fuss and whispers of monsters could just be an owly stray.

"Sykes?"

"Cat..." he breathed his reply, with two pairs of eyes on him after his high-pitched shriek.  But, as his heart slowed the frantic pummel against his ribcage, he noticed the small toy where the cat had made itself comfortable.  Most stuffed dolls, at least, owned by most children, didn't have a pair of batlike wings.

He decided not to show Ford.

****************************************

Down at the other end of the hall, was another, smaller, less embellished room.

Xanatos slowly opened the door to allow Sykes to look inside, and they both stared headlong into an unorganized bedlam of clothes strewn wherever they may fall, a giant screen television, a drafting board and pottery wheel flanking each other, and a large canopied bed that groaned with movement under wrinkled, white linen.

"...zzzz..snnrrkkk...wha-wa?...yes, Annika...I would like some Belgian waffles..."

Todd was sleeping, or, more accurately, dreaming, and making fanciful fantasies come alive on the canvas that was his slightly twisted mind's eye.

"...whipped cream?...yes, love some...yeah, that's it...load it on...uh oh, you've spilled a bit...oh, and Demona is licking it from your breasts..."

Xanatos rolled his eyes.  The young man's dreams were imagination run wild with caffeine and years of television having damaged essential braincells.  It seemed he was coping with everything that had happened by playing out his wildest desires between his wife and would-be, could-be lover.

"Good god."  Sykes couldn't see most of his features by the pile of sheets, only the goatee, the jaw and familiar lines he couldn't quite place.  "Who the hell is that?"

"A local artist, he's been commissioned to do several murals in my son's room, and I've allowed him to stay here for the time being."

His forehead creased.  "In the castle?"

Xanatos shrugged.  "He's an artist, he's eccentric.  He claims creativity springs from his settings, and judging by the work he's done so far he's right."

Todd shifted and moaned, digging deeper into the tangle of sheets.  "You ladies are so dirty...what?...join you on that king-sized waterbed?...why I'd love to..."

"Do you wish to interview him?"

Judging by the room and the accompanying artist's tools, there were no lies here.  Just an oversexed, creative young man that seemed the perfect 'starving artist' type.  That voice still seemed familiar though.  "What would be the point?"

The young man had that way with people, Xanatos mused.  If only Todd Hawkins were awake and in form for the agents, he would've been a most effective obstacle, sending them screaming from the building after a detailed regaling of the latest kegger and just what color foods he happened to throw up in the parking lot of the 7-11.

But, in circumspection, he might do more damage than good.  Better to let him sleep.  "Then I suggest we leave before things get X-rated."

****************************************

The pessimist was in the western wing, near the exterior levels and the courtyard, whereas his optimist partner had taken off and disappeared somewhere near the east.

Sykes was wandering with no discernible direction; save to try and map the castle in his mind lest he run across another room he'd already visited.  Not to say he didn't have faith in the provided map and schematics on an electronic notepad, but he only trusted what he saw with his own eyes and what dragged along the genetic swirl of his fingertips.

Xanatos had held a reasonable distance as he followed, but close enough to keep in him in view and answer any questions.

As he traveled further, the ever-present gut feeling was like fire in his stomach and an icepack against the base of his spine.  Every room was neatly kept, as if they were waiting patiently for their occupants to return.  Almost every corner of the medieval palace was infused with technology like nothing he'd seen outside the government test labs, and functional, for every-day use.

Like the oddly christened Mother, for instance; she was life within a coded program, living in a black bank of machines and hard-drives.

Something here, everything here was driving his senses and suspicions nuts, in the air, along the walls, even the floor.

The floors, by his close inspection, were abraded near the center by tiny swirls that had made their way through every hall.  Talon marks, he'd never make the association, but he knew the castle was heavily traveled despite what Xanatos claimed.

Details.  To eyes so discerning everything was evidence, just not something he could use in a court of law.  And since his partner was walking with his head in the clouds and observing without actually seeing, it was up to him to perform their part of the investigation.

At the end of the hallway he just veered in to, a door stared him straight in the face.  "Where does that lead?" he tipped his chin towards the thick, wooden gate, strapped with black iron and by the looks of it, strong enough to withstand a gale-force wind.

"Outside, into the main courtyard."

As a faint smile cracked the thin, bloodless line, his pocket burst with a muffled but shrill ring.  His cellphone.  With a groan, he reached in and flipped open the little chrome device.  "Sykes."

"...You should see the rec room!..."

"Ford..."  He pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers.  "Meet me outside on the main courtyard, will you please?  I don't want you wandering around by yourself anymore."

****************************************

As fast as her stubby little legs would carry her, Nicole tore through the halls, led by the hope of escape.  Rumor carried fast, and yesterday's visit was foremost on her mind as low-carried voices trickled through clan members, and a reporter's trained ear caught them all.

She skidded around a corner and strained her eyes to the other end of the hall.  She saw the dark suit cross the mouth of the corridor, the unmistakable, pale crumple of features that screamed CIA or FBI, maybe even NSA, and one word rang through her mind: freedom.

Free of gargoyles and monsters, of imprisonment, free of the damned, electrified bracelet that weighed on her wrist like a workhorse's bridle.  And most importantly, free to rock the newsworld to its foundation and win herself accolades that would make most of primetime green with envy.

But before she could shout and announce herself and praise the agents for their good timing, something from the darkness, even in the daylight hours, swung a fist at her.

CRACK!

Something small and deceptively delicate threw against her jaw, and hit dead on.  Like a peal of thunder, her world went hazy and fluid and she staggered back and nearly fell off her feet.

"Gotcha." a female voice.

"There you are." a male voice, deep and dripping with the vestiges of an occasionally surfacing accent.

A hand clamped around her mouth like a vice, choking back the scream for help.  She was yanked off her feet and into Jason's lap by an arm that rivaled a gargoyle's in strength.  Being paralyzed from the waist down at least provided a strong upper body.

"Please, Nicole," he whispered into her ear as the reporter went wide-eyed, "your plea for attention might just make things worse than they already are."

Ignoring the pain in her mouth she struggled, kicking and writhing like a seizure victim.

"MMMMPPHHHH!!!" she tried to scream, but it came off more like a cougar's muffled growl.  Jason's hand, toughened by skimming across rubber the last six years, was strong enough to even keep her from biting a finger clean off.  It was like pliable, moisturized steel.  "MMMMMMPPPHHHFFFFFFFF!!!!"

Iliana rubbed her hand, the pain streaking through slightly reddening knuckles inconsequential to the chance to finally shut the reporter up.  "Just tying up a few loose ends."

"And you were the last one." Jason concluded her thought, breathing against Nicole's ear.

"What now?" the redhead asked, backing up against the wall lest the scuffle somehow rouse the agent's interest.

"Getting you both out of sight."  One-handed, he slowly rolled back into the darkness, taking the helpless and gagged reporter with him through a hidden passage not included in the castle's schematics.  "Let's move."

****************************************

Blue sky.  Fathomless, bottomless deep blue sky.  Like an ocean, it went on forever and seemed without end.

Sykes had never been too fond of having his feet this far off from terra firma, but the sight beyond the surrounding crenellation of a few floating clouds and nothing else was something he'd have to adjust to.  From his vantage, he couldn't see any buildings rivaling the Eyrie's height and as a consequence, it was like the castle was truly floating above Manhattan Island.  The sway was more prevalent on the very top to someone who wasn't used to it, and rhythmic, like being let loose on an ocean current.

He pulled his eyes away and scanned the sizable courtyard, anything to distract him from the cloud-licked void.

The damage from the Guild battle had been completely repaired, stone replaced, mortar fresh and between tight seams, the castle returned to its former beauty of greenery and granite.  With the trees and olive velvet undergrowth, the fountain and molded concrete benches, the table near the massive oak, he was reminded of a hidden glen somewhere deep in Central Park.

Untouched, unspoiled.

"Nice." he remarked.

"Fox and I often have breakfast out here," Xanatos came up beside the agent and nodded towards the small iron-wrought table and umbrella surrounded by the blanket of grass and terraced flowerbeds, "there's nothing like croissant and chilled Mimosa on top of the world."

"I'm sure."

From behind a knurled, winding branch exploding with spring foliage, Ford appeared with a whistle in admiration.

"There you are."  Sykes ambled close, out of earshot of the billionaire.  "Anything?"

"No.  Clean, immaculate, and extravagant, it's like a hotel.  An empty hotel."  His eyes hadn't left the horizon.  In fact, they were dutifully trained on something else entirely.  "Are those the statues...?"

Ford left his partner's side before anything else could be said, eagerly led towards the block-and-gap edge that Sykes had tried to avoid.

"They're just chiseled stone, Ford."

Not from close up.  They were transcendence haloed in the sun, and he'd forgot his camera.  The statues were lined up on the anterior wall, facing the Southern tip of Manhattan and below the main turret, each balanced precariously to a single merlon.  They were each a largely humanoid shape, except the pair of four-legged beasts as best the agent could determine, all attired in the cloth and cut of eras long dead.

Delilah in her feral state, hunched and vaunting fang against the sky, entranced him as he approached.

Like howling at the sky, the gargoyles were fearsome even in their most fragile state.

The gossip, easily dismissed by most of the senior members, was flying through the P.I.T. ranks as fast as new recruits were indoctrinated.  There were more fanciful rumors they slept in stone form, transforming themselves into elaborate statues and perching on the edge of buildings during the day.  Magic permeated a good number of the unsubstantiated particulars of the race they didn't know but revered nonetheless.

But even with such an open mind, Dominic Ford knew that was pushing the limits of their already borderline common sense.

His hand passing along petrified stems of hair, he went to caress stone warming in the morning sun, and, as his fingers grazed the pockmarked surface of the clone's left arm, he fell right through.  The image trembled around the edges as he stumbled to the parapet, his gaze shot right into the city two thousand feet below.  Ford clutched to the column of stone hard enough to make a dent.  "What the hell?!"

Sykes watched his partner slither off and down onto solid ground.  "Holograms?"

Holograms, to keep the appearance of statuary that just didn't happen to come to life, they were modeled precisely after the true clan, who were, now during the daylight, sleeping in a sealed chamber deep within the castle.

Even atop the highest tower, Goliath's thinking man pose was looking contemplatively down on the city.  It was a fitting touch a few others had demanded if they were going to be replaced by tricks of light, their former leader reinstated if only in appearance.

Brooklyn didn't mind the faithful act; at least, outwardly.  If only, as his invented response established, it served to match several exterior shots that were released to the general public.

"The real Scottish statues are safely stored away." Xanatos answered, trying extremely hard to keep from smiling at the younger agent's hyperventilating breaths.  "I wouldn't want a thousand year old carving to fall from its perch and shatter."

"Or kill someone."

He nodded.  "Yes, that too."

"Plus, pigeon dung is extremely hard to clean off."

His heart in his stomach, Ford stumbled towards them, breathing out the fear of heights he just suddenly developed.  "I want to see them."

Iron eyes took on a hard glint.  "My apologies, agent Ford, but they are not for public viewing..."

"He said," Sykes reiterated, matching his gaze to Xanatos', "he wants to see them."

"They are private, and have nothing to do with this investigation."

"We'll be the judges of that."

"I have been more than lenient at the intrusion and violation of the last untouched bastion of my privacy, but this, gentlemen, is going too far."  He settled on the doe-eyed twenty-something.  "I'm not going to let an agent with an infantile imagination abuse what little power he has..."

Ford went to answer, a physical shudder running through one shoulder to the next like he was readying to take a swing at their suspect, but Sykes intervened, playing himself expertly between them.

Xanatos stood as still as the sculptures he intended to protect, hands behind his back, a stern arch between his temples.

He didn't think the rookie was dumb enough to strike a man more powerful than governors and gods put together, but what threatened to fly from his mouth would've been just as bad.  Remaining as a subtle barrier, Sykes propounded, "Afraid of us looking through your dirty laundry?"

"Clever."

"Wasn't meant to be.  Every single aspect of your life is evidence whether you like it or not, including art collections."

"I assure you, this is not a simple art collection." he affirmed with more a poison in his voice than if he were dealing with Oberon or any of his reprobate children.  "They are masterpieces."

"Then we'll promise not to touch."

****************************************

It was deep into the castle, somewhere near the central rooms and well protected.  Xanatos had led the agents into a corridor thought already searched, yet unremarkable in any distinguishing features to somehow set it apart.

The preeminent security feature of Wyvern was an ingenious one.  All the corridors were the same crescent-roofed curlicue; even if traveling in a straight line, it was easy enough to feel like walking in an infinite loop.  Sykes had sworn he'd taken this path before, but the small white panel, which seemed to have emerged between the seams of stone under the mere presence and warmth of Xanatos' hand, must have eluded him.

No, it wasn't there before, or, he hadn't yet gone this way.

The billionaire pressed a flattened palm against the plate, and it gleamed at his touch, addressing a thin line from top to bottom along the five-fingered splay of his hand.

It was an electronic dead bolt, reading every line in his flesh.  Sykes clicked his eyes up, first picking out the faint outline of a door against the wall, and then to Xanatos.  "I thought you assured us we were free to search.  Any more locked doors?"

He kept his hand, and his gaze, firmly applied to the panel.  "Just this and the supplemental power generators in the southern wing.  For safety reasons I assure you, but Mother will allow your agents access on their request."

"We're assured of that?"

"You were provided a diagram of the blueprints." he reminded.  "Every room is accounted for except this one, is it not?"

An answer borne from his silence was well muted under a non-committal grunt.

"That Mother person, hologram, or whatever," Ford cut in pensively, tripping over the best term to describe the ghostly entity wearing a stunning woman's face, "A.I. I guess..."

A smile played the churn of Xanatos' thoughts; he'd truly never considered it before, Mother's definition as a life form.  To him she was a program that just happened to speak and perform more than a few menial tasks, not unlike a loyal pet that cost fifty million dollars.  "I suppose that would be the most politically correct term."

"She's sentient?"

"Sentience is a hard state of existence to classify, agent Ford.  My R and D personnel would attest to that in the initial stages of Mother's development."  The verification process finished, the panel went dark and Xanatos watched as the entire section of wall trembled and slid inward.  "But she's conscious, aware, she can experience emotion to a certain degree.  And she's still growing, and learning."

"Learning to what?"

Xanatos nodded across his left shoulder.  "Ask her yourself."

Ford turned to see Mother staring at him, or at least, her holographic form.  They were nearly nose-to-nose, and if she were flesh and blood, her breath on his cheek would have given her away.  "Jeez...!" he stumbled back to a comfortable distance.  "Are you always watching?!"

"Yes." she answered plainly.  "It is my obligation.  My purpose."

Ford didn't like the blank, submissive tone.  "Under the heel of your master?" he enlightened one half of a plain and simple truth.  "Does he own you?"

Mother's image underwent an odd twitch through computer-generated visage.  Her unreflecting eyes glistened in a natal spark, as features rippled subtly in a demure moment of cold programmed responses.

"Are you property?"

Intending to avoid the messy complications of the question, Xanatos decided on a distraction.  "Agent Ford?"  His hand gestured to an opened entrance, and the gloomy-complexioned figures inside.

It worked.

Ford's eyes dilated in a disturbing sense of lust at the statues contained inside the unembellished chamber, and he slipped in between the billionaire and his partner to be the first inside.  They were arranged in a semi-circle, with enough clearance between them to allow room when they awakened, and Ford wandered through, drinking in such simple, hewed elegance and nearly breaking his neck as he strained to look at each one.

"Please, don't touch." Xanatos warned, seeing covetous fingers inching closer.  "They are absolutely irreplaceable."

On his words, Ford sharply pulled away.  There was something about the genuineness that made him a little squeamish at accidentally breaking off a horn or wing.  So he let his eyes satisfy his curiosity.

He'd watched the footage from '94, read the newspaper reports of an eccentric billionaire importing an entire Scottish castle and the adorning statues to his hometown, but a few seemed out of place with the dark ages motif.  There was an elegant, proud-chinned female dressed in a kimono, with two different sized scabbards tucked through the obi sash, and then, turning slightly, and then up seven and a half feet worth, he came across the largest of them all.  The snarling sight took him back a few steps, but what struck him most were the brush-stroke symbols and weaponry tucked into every available holster, revealing an Asian origin.  "Some of these are Japanese."

True enough, the clan had grown, and the Highland majority had diminished into several cultures.  "I've since added to my collection."

"Incredible..." he expressed aloud, forgetting his audience.  "Sykes, aren't these amazing?"

An amber gaze stroked the enclosure, peering from one to the next, and seeing not the statues, but the odd, almost haphazard way they were arranged.  But something was missing.  "Where's the big one?  That was on the highest turret."

"In for cleaning." he explained.

Sykes choked down a cynical laugh.  Everything had a plausible explanation here, and anyone else that hadn't lived the latter half of their lives so distrustfully would have been readily inclined to accept his answers.

Xanatos calmly strode behind Brooklyn's flared wings, his eyes thin and almost phosphorescent, mouth angled sharply, a predator stalking through thick slate brush.  "Well, now you see why those rumors started.  Even as intricate as these statues are, I didn't think the populace would explode with fear at their mere presence on the castle parapets."  He smiled, and the fitted suit that hung off of him like a sculpture itself bobbed on his shoulders.  "But, most New Yorkers are superstitious, jittery, and often afraid of their own shadows."

"Look...!"  Ford ran over eagerly, led by his pointed finger.  "Here's the one I fell through."  He leaned closer, seeing the small teeth of a zipper and a designer's tag sewn into a seam.  "I knew it, she's wearing a leather jacket."

Always quick to justify the smallest tear in his fabricated public image, Xanatos jumped in, "Another recent addition, from a sculptor in SoHo.  One more in modern tastes."

Sykes turned around.  "You take commissions from off the street?"

"Only if I'm properly intrigued." he smiled.  "It seems my collection has started a revolution, much like those damnable cows on every street.  Life-sized gargoyles, each from a different time and place, and a lot of struggling artists have come in contact with me to try and sell their creations.  Most are poorly made, but some, like Delilah there, have that 'spark'."

"Delilah?"

"Her...creator named her.  A modern take on an old fable."  He took a quick breath, his chest jumping then falling back into place.  "Well, are you thoroughly satisfied?"

Ford looked to Sykes, and his partner gave a quick gesture with his head towards the door, indicating, albeit sternly, that he wanted out of here to continue the investigation.  "Fine..."  With a parting glance, he committed the statues to memory, hoping what images he was later able to pull from his head would serve to regale and enthrall his fellow P.I.T. members.  "Where to now?"

"Downstairs.  We've seen enough of this castle."

****************************************

"Jesus Christ."

This wasn't the best turn in a tour supposed to prove his innocence and salve his reputation repeatedly taking blows.

Metal men as massive and thick as Wyvern's former leader lined up against the side walls like a militia, small insectile drones hanging on assembly line brackets embedded in the ceilings, a massive supersonic craft shaped to divide the wind; there wasn't anything in the bay that didn't run the gamut of the American defensive armament and far beyond.

The quintessence of a conquering army kept in Xanatos' version of a toolshed, the agents were awestruck, and a little more than concerned.

"Jesus goddamned Christ."

"I know what you're thinking, agent Sykes, agent Ford," Xanatos' voice rang loud and cyclic in the vast expanse of the Eyrie's hangar bay, "but I assure you, these are not weapons used for offense."

They were nearly back-to-back, staring at the rows of automatons placid and humming along the layers of steel permeating this massive cavern carved into the Eyrie's side.  Ford was open-mouthed, and Sykes was solemn-eyed, that liquid gold gaze melting along the machines and discerning them with nothing but a little apprehension in the power they embraced.

"All these robotic sentries...are merely part of a test program?"

Scanning the breadth of his wealth and chimera transformed, Xanatos held a gleam of pride.  "They were built to assess numerous new technologies and, of course, to sell to the U.S. government.  But now they mostly serve as guards, and construction and cleaning personnel."

His reflection warped in the breastplate of a quiescent Steel Clan guardsman, recharging on its stalk, a dual-armed, wire-wrapped limb holding the automaton in place against the wall, he found his expression bordering on the line between reverence and fear.  Though safely dormant, leaning in Sykes expected those black abyssal eyes to spark with something like life and more to his impression like cold, subservient existence at any moment.  "And just what do they guard?"

"My interests."

"Why are they shaped like Gargoyles?" asked Ford.

Xanatos was starting to see a theme.  He wouldn't be surprised if the young agent was wearing a bootleg P.I.T. button under an off-the-rack jacket and itchy holster.  "In most European mythic depictions as early as the fifth century, the gargoyle was illustrated as having a majestic, and at the same time, terrifying shape." he explained, with a casual air, that, by the design teams' assurances and matching specs, held a certain amount of truth.  "It also happens to enhance the maneuverability and dexterity by twenty-eight percent with a humanoid form.  Anything else is simply," his gaze chased the sharp lines, "decorative flair."

"Flair." Sykes echoed thoughtfully.  "Are these..." his index finger preceded the appropriate title, "these things allowed outside the confines of your building?"

He knew the pessimist when he saw one, and knew by Ford's quick reaction to the question, and quicker concealment of said reaction, Sykes was casting doubt on his partner's belief in gargoyles and trying to replace the dangerous fantasy with cruel fact.  He couldn't pass up the chance to make the smokescreen a little thicker.  "They've been allowed out a few times for test flights, to gauge their abilities and speed."

"At night."

"I didn't want to scare the populace.  But, it seems," he lingered on the last syllable, luring Ford's eyes towards him, "I might have unwittingly built myself an urban legend."

The young agent ruffled underneath his suit.  Insult his family, his mother, he had thick skin, but attack his faith, the thought of something wondrous beyond the decay of human civilization he saw day in and day out, it served to annoy him.

"In any event, they rarely leave the confines of the building, if only under the most controlled of circumstances.  They pose no threat whatsoever, unless my security is breached.  Then they can be quite lethal."

A quiver snaked its way through him.  "Why does your use of that word make my skin crawl?"

"Because it frightens you." he answered flatly.  "All this," his hands raised to the walls and roof, and the instruments draped from end to end, "it is the embodiment of what the FBI and all similar agencies fear.  A threat to their nation and people."

"You're damned right."

There was a sibilant laughter in response, heady and thick under his breath.  "I have rarely deployed these machines, save for simple repairs and janitorial purposes.  And who knows, these things just might save the world one day."

"The government wouldn't trust lives to unauthorized weaponry..."

"The government already knows of every machine in this hangar, agent Sykes, everything's been well documented in any and all financial prospects which your teams have been given access to."

"Then we're finished here." Abel fumed, and started out towards the exit, every footfall a resonance that scuttled up the walls.  "I want to speak with some of your employees."

****************************************

"We'd like to speak to your security director, a Mr...Liath Maza."

Every time he heard that pseudonym he had to stifle the reflex to smile.  Elisa's reason for moving into a building with two known felons was a husband whose entire life and history was created on paper, and proved to her employers and to the public she was just as normal as the rest of them.  And, most importantly, gave credence to her new address at the Eyrie.  "He and his wife are on extended leave."

Gold went sore, Sykes' eyes taking on a livid patina.  Already uneasy by the ordinance just on the other side of the building, he was getting tired of the runaround, and it showed through the heavy scrutiny he fixed on the billionaire.  "How convenient."

Xanatos didn't feel the need to do much more than shrug.  "Yes, I'm sure it seems that way." he said, rising the agents' ire more with his humid tone than the actual words.  "Actually, they're expecting their second child, and have taken maternity leave.  Jason Canmore has assumed his duties for the time being."

"He's also replaced Mr. Burnett.  I never thought you'd ever be without your beloved personal assistant."

"Neither did he.  Imagine his surprise when a simple special operatives agent was promoted to majordomo."  With a fluent motion, he waved the agents from the door with Goliath's human persona on a small silver plaque to another, down and across the hall.  "He's waiting for you."

Sykes and Ford butted past, and towards the office.  There were only a few in this corridor, and the doors like the rest of the small few were unremarkable, with the same plaque as the others denoting the owner.

Sykes turned the handle and opened the door, seeing a shape at a desk across from them.  Tones of déjà vu flooded through him.

Jason's office was large, not by a penchant for luxury but by necessity.  For the newly chosen majordomo to maneuver in his wheelchair, everything was amply spaced and arranged accordingly.  And for safety's sake, at his height, every typical corner was rounded off.  His own desk was oval-shaped, a heavy slab on carved pillars with an insert of blue jade.  Vaporous tendrils of turquoise and white snaked through the polished surface like ocean currents, much like having a Lilliputian sea underneath his hands.

Jason flashed his teeth from across the distance.  "Is it my turn now?"

"You're everywhere," Ford observed, "wherever Xanatos needs you, you appear."

"That's my job.  To be forever at his side."

Sykes stepped into the more humbly dressed chamber, suited to more his predilection in furnishings.  "And just what does that entail, Mr. Canmore?"

"In addition to the basic services of a personal assistant, I oversee areas of this company that Mr. Xanatos is often too busy to be concerned about.  More importantly, I am the intermediary, between him and the rest of the world.  While he's the soul of XE, I am customarily the voice."

"Does that include cleaning up his lies?"

This investigation was becoming an inquisition.  "I've never known him to lie.  At least not to me."

"You're well aware of the charges.  Are they true?"

"Not in the slightest."  He shook his head in concert with a wave of his hand.

Sykes took to one of the leather side chairs, deeply conditioned claret leather buttoned by brass and, to his surprise, the feel of velvet.  "Where was Mr. Xanatos on the night of April 1st?  And I want your answer, not the one you were paid to give."

On the fringe of a laugh, he responded, "I don't actually know, I wasn't here."

"In the building?"

"In New York."

Ford slumped down into the other chair opposite the desk, throwing an arm casually over the tufted support.  "Doesn't sound like you were by his side when he needed you the most."

"My promotion to his assistant didn't take place until after the attacks.  I was recalled to the states after Owen took leave."

"Where...?"

"Guatemala, tying up a long negotiation between the labor forces of one of our manufacturing plants."

Sykes shifted with a squeal of leather.  "In what aspect did you serve?"

"I was a special operations agent-"

"Yeah, we heard." interrupted Ford.  Having wandered the circle of the office, he now busied himself by overturning baubles on the edge of the desk.  "What does that mean, specifically?"

"In relative terms a problem-solver." Jason clarified.  "Dousing brushfires and whatever small calamities that happen to arise in any of XE's global subsidiaries.  Wherever I was needed I went."

"So where was he?  Xanatos."

"Here, all night, in his office and with his family." he replied, coating over what truly happened without a twitch in impeccably calm features.  In fact, he didn't really know what had happened the night of the Guild attack, left to the mercy of Xanatos' assurances and personal accounts he'd pieced together into an irregular, choppy timeline.  "In fact, seeing the devastation, he was already organizing his repair crews to aid in the search and rescue."

"So he says."

"So he says." came the agreement, and a bare hint of cynicism.  "But the repair crews showed up less than an hour after the attack."

"Talk about a smokescreen." Ford mumbled, looking away.

"So, there're no witnesses to confirm Xanatos was alone?"

"No one but his family."  As soon as he finished, he saw the answer ready itself on Sykes' tongue.  He thought he'd strike first.  "And," it hit just before the agent was about to inquire, "before you ask, Fox Xanatos is...indisposed for any kind of interview."

"How so?"

Jason paused, and leaned back in his chair.  In his line of work, full disclosure was a dangerous term that often snowballed into an even more dangerous circumstance.  "She's very sick."

An introspective eyebrow rose, and studious eyes looked over square-jawed features.  "She's not even well enough to answer a few questions...?"

"No."  The refusal came off a little heavier than it should have.  "And please, don't try.  Under the New York Patient's Bill of Rights, she is protected under the law, and is entitled to full privacy while in the hospital and confidentiality of all information and records regarding her care."

Sykes' features loosened slightly.  The Xanatos family had become just a little more human at the revelation of Fox's sickness, when those who passed themselves off as untouchable were stricken as easily as mere mortals.  "That serious?"

"Very.  But it's not my place to spread word of a very private situation, and I hope you'll do the same for her sake, and her son's."

The back and forth lulled into silence, Sykes digesting the information and Ford fuming mutely.  "Well," he began conclusively, "for a former convict, you've done pretty well for yourself."

A jab, well played, well placed, and well intentioned to get a rise out of him, failed.  He'd already made peace with a troubled past, and if he could come to terms with not being able to feel anything below his waist, an expunged criminal record was virtually nothing.  And with this agent's implication that convicts gather together, think alike and, in this case, protect each other, he was wrong.  Up to a certain point of course.  "Mr. Xanatos believes in redemption."

"And what do you think of all this..."  In lieu of a clarification his eyes traveled the extravagance, his finger pointing out the expensive, telling markers of aristocratic décor.  "This..."

"Eccentricity?  Lavishness?  Ego?" he provided several answers.  "Mr. Xanatos' tastes are a little too decadent for my own, but I do like my new office."

"And you believe his alibi."

"Every word."

A snort came from Ford's direction.  "Come on, Mr. Canmore, the castle, the statues, the technology, the empire, a billionaire with this many quirks must be missing a screw.  You don't think with his superiority complex, murder wouldn't even register?  Like stepping on ants?"

Though only a few years younger than himself, this kid had an equal amount of attitude and imagination rivaling that of some of his favorite authors, their tomes arranged on the single shelving unit in the far corner.  "On the contrary, Mr. Xanatos has great respect for all life and cares a hell of a lot more than people give him credit for."

The young man lunged forwards so much so he landed on the jade sea.  "What about every small company he bought out, every business he crushed, every life he destroyed?"

"If you'd check the public records, you'd see he offered every company a substantial amount, a lot more than they were actually worth.  Owners who were smart enough to take him up on the bids retired to tropical paradises, former employees were offered new, better-paying positions within the XE framework, and every single aspect between the two respective companies was improved."

Sykes leaned back into his chair, with an insightful smirk.  "Why make more enemies?"

Jason opened his arms in an unsaid agreement.  "Good business practices.  You don't set to crush the world you try to conquer, you respect it, treat it well, and kismet won't turn around and bite you in the ass.  Multiple homicide is something that would completely tear asunder everything he'd worked for since a teenager, and he wouldn't risk that.  Murder is the option of un-evolved thugs and psychotics, David Xanatos is a little more intelligent to resort to something so...brutish."

The agents eyed one another.  Something so incredibly absurd rang incredibly true.

"He didn't murder one hundred people, he didn't release monsters into the city, and, for the record, he doesn't have creatures living in his castle."

Ford had had enough, with one prevarication after another, and he got up in a huff and started towards the door.

Apparently, this particular interview was over.  "Thank you for your time, Mr. Canmore."

****************************************

"Who's next?"

"Xanatos' private physician."

"What's his name?"

"Pierce, Alan Jefferson, one of Manhattan General's best surgeons and diagnostic physicians.  Backgrounds in biology and...zoology.  Back a few years ago, he was practically stolen from their staff when he was offered new employment."

"With Xanatos Enterprises." Ford finished.

Sykes agreed with a nod.  "Wonder just what incentive he was offered."

"Paycheck," he spit, "gotta be.  Xanatos has these people on leashes with a lot of cash."

Sykes allowed himself an unbelievable thing outside of the mounting aggravation, laughter.  If anything, lessons here were being learned, and teaching his partner equal amounts of humility and reality.  "You're just angry your entire gargoyles fantasy is being slowly blown with a little reality, albeit frightening."

His brow fell flat, and divided.  "They're not robots flying around the city."

"You saw them."

"I also saw the rocket boosters on the back." he argued.  "The footage shows no flame trail."

"Teenagers, hang-gliding."

He did a double take.  "What?"

"Just saying.  It could have been anything."

He stopped, soles skidding along the pristine linoleum floor.  Sykes walked a few more steps until his partner's abrupt halt had registered with the squeal and huff, and turned to face him in the long stretch of Eyrie corridor.  "Fuck, we've been over this." his voice bordered on a growl, becoming thicker as it conceded into its own echo.  "I'm sure as hell not going to try and change your stubborn mind, again.  I believe what I believe, and no one can take that away from me, especially some pompous bastard who thinks he owns the entire city."

He nodded, his features a strange abstract of clemency.  "Fair enough.  Just don't let it interfere with this investigation." he said, and continued on, leaving Ford to open his mouth and attempt a word in edgewise, give up, and then, thwarted, eventually follow behind.

On Sykes' coattails, they bridged the gap between where they once stood and the hospital's entrance until Sykes' caught something and stopped.  A gleam of steel in the distance wouldn't have ensnared his eyes so readily if said gleam wasn't in the vague form of a humanoid.

"Would you look at that?" he nodded his chin towards the end of the hall, where a single door was nearly swallowed between the aggregate steel of two of the same automatons they'd seen hung up and inert in the hangar bay.  Two massive machines, their eyes a dull, weak glimmer and illuminating their forms in blood red, signifying their online status.  "One guess to what's behind the guards."

"Damn." Ford sniffed, brushing the edge of his thumb across his upper lips.  "Wish we could get in there.  If there's anyone who could shed some light on what happened, it'd be Xanatos' wife."

The closest sentinel moved its head towards the pair, as if their already subdued voices were disturbing the patient behind that inaccessible door.  It turned its entire body with a couple of loud stomps on the linoleum and a purr of hydraulic buried beneath the thick titanium casing, and no further warning was needed.  "You want to go a round with one of those things?"

"No.  And it'd be a waste of time too, wouldn't it?"

"Probably."

They entered into the infirmary and immediately slowed their pace, mindful of the loud clack of their steps more here than anywhere else, especially seeing the first patient to come into view.

A body, the first sign of anything remotely resembling a murder investigation, was submerged into the dark tarn of bedding alight in ghostly tones.  A meridian of machines provided the haunting glow that had deceived them.  But dead bodies didn't happen to breathe, and with such a spastic, mechanical pace.

It was a patient, and Sykes took in the gruesome sight.

Underneath the tubes and bandages, the sunken, aquiline features and dull ruby hair, there was a human being he recognized.  A lot of young agents had passed through the halls of the bureau, much like Ford, but with age and the ever-revolving wheel of promotions, transfers and new fresh-faced rookies, it would sometimes become a blur.  "Damn," he breathed sympathetically, "I know him..."

Ford was snapping his fingers towards the bed, trying to spark something in his mind.  "He used to be head of the old Gargoyles Task Force."

He just wouldn't give up.  "Ford..."

"Just saying.  It's a neat little coincidence.  There's a subtle theme strung through this entire building if you already didn't notice."

Sykes heaved with a sigh out of aggravation, and Ford's persistence.  "Well, we can rule out murder with this one."

****************************************

Of all the places, of all the damned places for him to show up, it would be the infirmary of her estranged son's adopted home.

From between the disguising layers of dark silk, Rose couldn't believe the chance of fate that brought them into the same room.  She remembered being introduced to Abel Sykes by her husband twenty years ago, shortly after they'd been partnered together at the bureau.  His hairline started a little lower in those days, and there weren't as many lines whittled into his face.

But his eyes were still the same strident gold.

She turned over, pulled the sheets closer and, as useless an endeavor as it might prove to be with Abel's unceasing glare, hoped to hide herself.

She'd done pretty well to avoid him for the last two decades, even with Manhattan's reputation of being so massive and yet so irritatingly small.  And later, when the fire caught her and scarred her, changing her looks so dramatically, she'd lived in the safety of insignificance.  Blending into crowds, melting in to where no one ever looked, wearing abbess robes was like wrapping oneself into a shadow.

Her eyes betrayed her fear to anyone who happened to glance on the bundle of covers and long flowing hair in the far, unlit corner; she was jittery and holding her breath for fear of exploding.

She then crossed eyes with her roommate, the captain with who she often entertained and swapped stories of rich and painful lives, trying to conceal herself in Pierce's adjoining lab.  Maria was mobile and could easily slip away, but Rose still had months ahead of her in healing and physical therapy; she might as well have been chained to the bed.

They made eye contact, the nun not so blatantly imploring as Sykes' gaze started to roam.

Sacrificing the anonymity that kept her alive and sewn, Maria stepped into view with a click and scuff of her leather heel.  "Matt Bluestone is the name I believe you're searching for."

The agents turned to the noise, and followed a long, striking leg up to the hem of a skirt, a two-button blazer and a thin upper lip tucked behind the fuller bottom, both fluted.  "Bluestone, yes, he was in the FBI for a time." Sykes recalled.  "I thought he was dead, killed in the attack on the twenty-third."


Maria drew close, dangling their attention and easily moving it from Rose.  "Only to the rest of the world.  Here, away from whoever wanted him dead, he's given the chance to fight for his life."

"Doesn't look like he's winning..." Ford muttered, staring at the tubes down Matt's throat, the IVs in his arm, the electrodes and heart monitors, the dead expression, his eyes taped shut.

"He's breathing, with an injury like his, that's more than he should be doing.  Mr. Xanatos has been very generous," then, the emphasis, "to both of us."

"Speaking of which," Sykes ran through his memory, here and there, refreshing a lifetime of faces, and at last, came across the name to match, "aren't you supposed to be dead as well, captain Chavez?"

"Well, as you can see," she moved a woodland tendril that had fallen, released from the five-minute French pleat that pulled and wrapped her hair up in an intricate twist, the agents' eyes following the simple, suggestive motion, "I'm very much alive."

And perhaps, her thoughts ran on unsaid, I should stay this way.

Suspicion ran down from brow to lip, this being, obviously, the last place Sykes expected to find this particular woman.  "And what reason would you have to be in the infirmary of the man you yourself spearheaded to have taken down several years ago?"

"In his attempt to mend the relationship between him and the police, he offered his care after we were shot."

Ford looked her up and down, comparing her to the comatose shell that was Bluestone.  Either she was lying, or she'd healed up nicely.  "You were shot?"

A hand washed across the material of her jacket, and the vaguely Y-shaped prong of scars underneath running from above her pelvis to beneath her chest.  "Yes, through the stomach.  Unfortunately, I was pregnant at the time.  I lost my baby."

Instead of a thinly veiled jab, he could have just slapped her; either one would have been just as insulting.  "I-I'm terribly sorry." Ford stammered out, his brown-hued gaze widened to full.

"So am I..." her tone was a little more than condemning, and she'd trailed off, the reality hitting home as it often did when thinking of her son that never had the chance to live.  "But David Xanatos' care got me through a difficult time, as did a friend of his.  So I am inclined to rethink my opinion of him.  You would do well to try the same."

"It's hard when he's already done time, and has been accused of murder on such a high scale."

Maria turned otherwise tranquil eyes towards the elder half of a partnered duo not unlike a certain thorn in her side at the 23rd.  "We've both been in this business for a long time, agent Sykes, we've seen extortion attempts with a lot more imagination than this one."

"That's what scares me, captain," he replied, "among a few suspicions, there's a certain lack of creativity."

"A simple, straightforward accusation.  A shot from the dark, always the most deadly kind."

"The more time I spend here, in this place," a thumb jerked upwards, "that castle, talking with Xanatos, I get a gut feeling that grows stronger with every stone I turn over.  Pardon the pun."

"Of course." she dismissed.

"I don't like gut feelings, captain, they always mean trouble."

The way it was coming off, Maria was sure these instincts were more than the simple dictionary description; it was the same with Maza and her evasive tales before she found out the truth of her gargoyle lover and the resulting child.  "Five years ago, I'd have grabbed myself a torch and joined the angry mob to hang that man.  But I've seen what could only be called a miraculous change."  With her hands tugging on the material of her skirt to keep the hem where it should be, she settled to Bluestone's bedside.  "Whether it's his family, or the fact he could lose everything he's built, or maybe it's because he finally grew a conscience, I truly doubt he's capable of such an act."

"You're defending him?"

It seemed incredible, yet, "Yes."

"Seems odd."

"What he's done for us," her gaze was heavy on the detective, "has spoken volumes."

The agents both took a second glance at Bluestone, this time with a more unbiased opinion of who was paying for the hospital bills, even though he did own the hospital.

"Gentlemen." a voice struck out against the calm, bringing their attention towards the speaker and away from throated, fretful breaths in the dark and distant corners.  Dr. Pierce stood at the door of his office.  "I don't see any injuries, so thus begs the question of why are you here."

"Dr. Pierce I presume?"

"You presume correctly."  The doctor kicked the door open with his foot, an invitation.  "Come inside, unless you want to continue harassing my patients."

****************************************

"This looks like Frankenstein's lab."

Pierce shrugged his shoulders, looking around at the near functional mess of his office slash laboratory slash home away from home.  He was seeing the disarray a little differently than the agents.  This was organization in its most primitive, but ask the doctor to find something, besides his telephone, and he'd instantly start to one of many of the piles reaching towards the ceiling.  "Sorry," he didn't seem penitent in the least, "haven't had time to clean."

Seeing the older agent looking for a place to sit, he leaned forward and brushed a few medical bobbles and files from the extra seat alongside his desk, uncovering the chair to Sykes' wary gaze.

A glass beaker fell to the floor with a dull chink and rolled away, spilling a line of liquid in a near perfect, dribbled circle.

Sykes stared at the chair, and then, after a little deliberation, especially with the oddly colored stain, sat down.  "Thanks."

"So, I'm sure you've been asked this question before, but, what can I do for you?"

"Answer our questions."

"Sounds simple enough."

"First, I want a little background information."  Sykes relaxed into the wooden high-backed chair, swinging a leg over the other.  "You walked away from a very distinguished medical career at Manhattan General to be his personal physician."

"New challenges, or maybe it could be chalked up as the beginnings of the ever-dreaded midlife crisis."  He brushed aside a few hanging strands, and hoped they wouldn't confuse a habitual gesture with trying to bury the salted strands within the hairs that'd yet to gray.  "Plus, with his money and resources, I'm on the cutting edge of research and technology.  Not a lot of overworked, indentured doctors get such a chance."

"Manhattan General's one of the best equipped hospitals in the eastern seaboard.  Is this little infirmary really up to par?"

"Yes."

"And is that the only reason?  I did notice the Porsche downstairs with the medical plates, is that yours?"

Pierce had hoped this wouldn't come up.

It was a lone Porsche Turbo S, glistening bone cream in the middle of the dealer's lot.  Less than a thousand original miles in its seven-year lifespan, the previous owner had babied it to the point of neglecting such an animal's need to eat the Manhattan asphalt.  The doctor couldn't resist.  There was something to the feel of having your spleen crushed against your spinal cord at two hundred miles per hour even the intellectual couldn't deny.

He shifted his gaze.  "Well, the pay is certainly better."

Sykes thought he'd saw something ephemerally flicker across the doctor's face.  "Is that your only reason for taking his job offer?  Money?"

Pierce leaned back into his chair, and if it hadn't seemed a little uncouth, and threatened a pile of papers near the corner of his desk, would have put his feet up.  "To lead medicine far beyond the twenty-first century with technology and remarkable innovations is something I couldn't pass up."

"And can you tell me about these incredible medical advances?"

"When the world is ready, you'll know."  His pivoted his eyes, towards the younger suited man groping his way through the lab by a disturbing tendency, overturning texts and beakers, and glazing over the empty cloning tube as something inane as a storage locker.  If he didn't keep every relevant piece of information concerning the gargoyles or the fay or any hybrid blend in between locked up and hidden, he just might be worried.  "You can read my book," Pierce continued, "thirty seven chapters and growing."

"You're writing a book."

"For fame." he said forthright.  "It's the outlet for us little unknown doctors that haven't cured a terminal disease or some other such heroic."

"It seems being the private physician to one of the richest men in the world would provide enough peripheral fame."

"You'd think."  Pierce shrugged, and then replaced his hands back behind his head.  "But I mostly spend my time in this little dungeon, mending this, curing that."

"And," he continued, "did you happen too notice between your busy schedule your employer committing murder?"

Stone-faced, Pierce reacted with a raised brow.  "He's certainly been busy." he needled, with enough deadpan along the sneering tones for the agents to easily realize he was playing with them.

Sykes was unappreciative.  He didn't like doctors, especially those in the private sector and possessed of a sense of humor that actually served to grate on non-existent nerves.  "Were you here?  On April first?"

"Right here, in my office."

"And you didn't see or hear anything out of the ordinary?"

"No.  It wasn't until I was actually physically informed of the attacks that I knew they were happening."  He guided their eyes with a few nods to each wall, plastered from floor to ceiling with charts and dry erase boards scrawled with lines and scribbles and foreign symbols that somehow resulted in medical techno-jargon.  "Remember, a hundred and sixty floors above the ground, steel enforced walls.  And of course, no windows."

A sudden clatter in the background announced Ford's heavy step behind them.  "We're wasting our time here, Sykes," he growled over his partner's shoulder, "he's just another puppet with Xanatos' hand up his ass.  He's here to cater to his master's needs and gets paid a couple hundred grand per year in the process."

A jovial gaze that had seen two species interbreed and produce something magical in the form of a child took on a mean spangle.  And Pierce, through the understated use of body language, lines in his brow, a clench running through his shoulders and rippling towards his hands, caught them both.  "Gentlemen, in my tenure, I have already pulled a dead fetus from a screaming, blood-soaked woman, and pumped the chest of a dead police officer until my nurse had to stop me-"

"Your nurse." Sykes interrupted.

"Trishia Weathers, she's a resident at Manhattan General, 4th floor." Pierce sidetracked nonchalantly, then, as the agent made himself a mental note on another possible witness, the doctor returned to his near-frothing attack.  "As I was saying, through every tragedy David Xanatos has been there, his resources, and his commitment to try and keep them alive.  Mass-murderers don't do that."  His chair whined as he tipped forwards.  "And I certainly don't get paid in the hundreds of thousands."

The agents fell silent.  Sykes moved a hand across his cheek while Ford swathed his gaze in no apparent direction.  The agent was feigning interest in the clutter surrounding him, having swallowed and, by the looks of it, completely digested the room.

The doctor sighed and clasped his hands.  "I don't know who the hell has accused Xanatos, but I can't give you any information because I don't have any to give.  I've been to his office once for my interview, and rarely go above this floor.  I'm mostly confined to the infirmary, the lab, the surgical bay, the morgue..."

"The morgue?" Ford echoed, intrigued by a lead having popped up from nowhere.

Sykes cracked a rare smile.  "Would you care to show us?"

"The...morgue?"

"Did I stutter?"

"No, no, it's just..."

"What?"

"Why would you want to see such a morbid place?"

Sykes' smile impossibly widened.

****************************************

"Damnit, Xanatos, they want to see the morgue."

"Of course.  I told them they were free to search at their discretion."

Pierce peered as clandestine as possible over his shoulder towards Sykes and Ford, waiting by the elevator.  "But it's the morgue, remember?" he pointed out as quietly as his voice could go without rising into a frustrated yell.

"Everything's been taken care of, doctor." Xanatos evaded, and with the manner in which he was carrying himself, so aggravatingly unflappable, the doctor was pressed to remind him.

"Hey, I'm trying to best to save your ass here, unless you want to be sodomized by a large man named Merl."

He sighed, and wondered if the plethora of themed films and television shows were ruining society's ability to discern their own reality from a well-fabricated fantasy.  "I don't know where everyone gets these misconceptions about prison, but I've been there, and that doesn't happen.  I've actually met a man named Merl during my sentence, and he was a short, timid, balding man who committed insurance fraud."

Pierce struck a hand to the billionaire's chest just as Xanatos started forwards, intent on continuing the conversation whether he liked it or not.  It was a gesture that risked both his employ and health.  "You are the gargoyle's last defense.  Without you, they're basically at the mercy of the entire government and every other monster that crawls itself from under the bed, and now you want to lead these two dark-suited gentlemen right towards the evidence that will convict you."

His focus, if it should have been on so many other things, hadn't left the hand propped against his tie.  Mettle, he thought, this simple man had balls of chrome; it must have been why he chose him out of hundreds of possible applicants.  Slowly, his eyes rose, eventually meeting his physician's and something sparked in the abyss of unassuming brown and fire.  "Everything," he reassured grimly, "is under control."

Pierce dropped his hand, warning heeded well.

"Is there a problem, Xanatos?" Sykes called out, having watched the exchange between employer and employee, none of which looked too amicable.

The plastic smile reemerged as quickly as it has disappeared, and he stepped towards them, with a very worried Pierce trailing behind.  "Not at all, agent Sykes.  Please," he allowed them first access into the elevator, "I'll escort you down.  The morgue is just a floor below us."

Standing helplessly outside the closing elevator doors, Pierce opted to take the next cab as Xanatos stared him down right until they sealed.  The doctor knew that look, the one that said in not so many words, or in actuality no words at all, not to follow.

He turned to see Jason wheeling out towards him, and they shared their own gaze on equal terms; looking into Xanatos' eyes meant always being lowered to a level he didn't think existed.  "I hope your 'cleaning' schedule included the morgue?"

"I was ordered to leave it as it was."

He ran a hand through unkempt hair that had never befitted a doctor of his stature.  But impressions were made if not always then often with his talent and a certain adaptable charm.  "So what the hell does that mean?" he asked on a breath.

"Presuming I got the same answer you did, 'everything's been taken care of', I hope it means exactly that."

"Should we go down there and become accessories to murder as we watch our rent check get hauled off in handcuffs, or should we make the run for the Canadian border?"

Jason joined his hands, sharing a mirthless laugh.  "David Xanatos never does anything without plans B, C, D and if needed, E.  I say we trust him in this."

"Do we have a choice?  Does the clan?"

"At this point, no."

****************************************

"Your employees are loyal." Sykes observed, walking in tandem with Xanatos and keeping pace with his long, eminent stride.

"Most of them are only loyal because of their paychecks." he assured the agent.  "But the senior employees, my inner circle if the idiom is appropriate, have chosen their paths willingly, and their words."

He decided to test him, and see what answer he'd get.  "Does enough money truly buy silence?"

"Pay a man enough, and he'll walk barefoot through hell." he recited his father's bucolic proverb, Petros Xanatos' deeply accented brogue trickling into his mind.  "Eight years ago, the Scottish work crews familiar with Wyvern refused to even go near the cliffs on which it sat, for they thought it was haunted.  But I doubled the bid, and they readily agreed."

"Clever." Sykes remarked, intrigued by the saying.  "It's frightening how well it applies to humanity."

He chuckled.  "My father first coined that phrase back when I was nine, about how most of the independent fishers had eventually gone to work for larger conglomerates, the very same corporations they thought were ruining Bar Harbor's entire contained industry."

"The fishermen sold their souls." Ford mused from behind.

"Or saved their livelihoods by choosing the only path available to them." he answered over his shoulder.  "Depends on which angle you view it from."

Why the story, why the reasons to distrust him any more than he already did?  This was Xanatos' version of telling the truth, but Sykes had learned from experience to read between the lines.  "Have you coerced your employees?  Or threatened them?"

"No.  Like I just said, their words are their own."  He turned to Sykes and they locked their gaze, Xanatos daring his counterpart to try and find treachery in the swimming brown.  "Tell me if you think they're lying."

"I wish I could say yes."

"Well, you can trust your instincts all you want," reaching that dull steel door at the end of the corridor, he grabbed the handle and heaved the heavy gate into an open position, "but I'd rather give you indisputable testimony to my innocence."

Sykes and Ford reacted with turned expressions.  Something hit them both with the slight pressure equalization between room and hall, disinfectant, and the same pungent smell found in hospitals.

They'd reached the morgue.

A few trenchcoated agents had already beaten them here, and were busy combing through the drawers with flashbulbs and dusting kits.  A room more like a chamber, more like a tomb, was rectangular in shape and architecturally sterile, leaving room for the compartments built into the walls and an examination table.  The steel doors were all ajar, giving full view into each coffin-like slot and the accompanying trays.

The empty trays.

Even compartment 54, where Angela's body was held, was as vacant as the others.

"As you can see," Xanatos' voice was cavernous, "this morgue is completely empty."

Ford continued to stare in morbid fascination, as Sykes brushed a hand through the silver-flecked bristle of walnut and ran soothing circles across his temples.

Pierce and Canmore, freshly arrived and staying near the entrance, tried to conceal their amazement of the emptied morgue.  The doctor especially, left with the gruesome task of stitching body parts back together and closing gargoyle claw marks, and identifying the dead.  Hours among cold corpses and the eye-watering sting of formaldehyde, it was almost as if all the work was for nothing.

"Fortunately, in all the time it has existed, I've only had one body through here, that of detective Sara Jasper, who died a month ago in my infirmary.  Dr. Pierce can confirm this."

"Then why is it here?"

"The same reason I have my own hospital, in case of an emergency.  I employ over three thousand people in this building alone."

"There's what," Ford was doing the math in his head as his eyes skimmed the rows, "a hundred and fifty compartments here?  Why so big?"

"I do everything big." he shrugged.  "And I like to be prepared for any eventuality.  Industrial accidents are not uncommon even with the most stringent safety procedures."

Sykes trekked off to the side, towards an agent swabbing the inside of a compartment.  After watching the progress for a few minutes, he announced himself.  "The trays?" he demanded.

The nameless agent looked up, replaced the swab and vial to his briefcase and hesitated, as if refining his answer.  "We've done a complete sweep for any tissue residue, but there's nothing here."

"It was sterilized." Sykes conjectured.

"There are traces of phenol-based cleansers, but it's not an uncommon practice to regularly keep them clean." he confirmed.  "But the interesting thing is, we took a swab from those machines in the hangar bay and found the same thing."

Shoving the question of why Xanatos would disinfect his robot militia to the far back of his mind, Sykes looked to another agent who, with most of the hand-picked, had gone from bottom to top and met them in the middle.  "You've had seven hours.  Did you find anything?  Anywhere?"

He shrugged his shoulders helplessly.  The crusade was slowly dying before it ever hit a roaring applause from an adoring public.  "No, sir.  All teams have reported in."

"Computer records.  You had complete access to his mainframe."

"Nothing.  Everything's completely legitimate, down to the personnel records.  But we've downloaded copies to take back to the bureau and further analyze."

Records could be hidden, and he didn't expect any further analyses to uncover a damned thing.  "Fingerprints."

The agent paused, winced, and regrettably shook his head.

Something flashed in his memory; Xanatos' penchant for cleanliness.  The place had sparkled from the minute they stepped off the elevator, even the stone.

Much to the chagrin of those who occupied the castle rooms during the day and trying to get some well-deserved sleep, the small Cyber-Biotics machines were on a schedule every week at the very least, flying through the halls when daylight enriched the dull hazel stone and cleaning every surface, providentially wiping away crucial evidence, including fingerprints.

Their last programmed run, through the castle and upper Eyrie floors, was yesterday.

"This place is squeaky clean.  In addition to employees' prints, we were able to find a few partial smears in the castle and on the courtyard, but they're too badly distorted to even try a match to our records."

Frustrated was a word Sykes was becoming more and more intimate with.  "Why am I not surprised?"

"I'm sorry, sir, I've seen more illegal practices in a McDonald's.  Every cross-examination we conducted with XE employees ended with the same statement, they don't know a thing.  More than seventy percent of the staff working in this building rarely even sees him.  I doubt anyone but his senior staff knows what he's up to, if that's anything."

Sykes scanned the room, seeing possibilities fall through his fingers as he settled on empty drawers, agents with barren expressions, and a billionaire with a self-righteous smile.  "Pull the others out, Wyndham."

The agent swung his headset's microphone arm down to his lips and started calling the other teams.

But, as if his partner had pulled out his Glock and fired it in the air, ricocheting bullets and screaming crazed obscenities, Ford reacted appropriately and rushed forwards, looking ready to do battle with the skin of his knuckles if need be.  "Uh uh, no way.  We're this far, we've got to do something more." he snapped.  "More interviews, polygraphs, get more agents in here..."

"It's over."

The younger agent was forced to plead, "Sykes..."

"It's clean, it's tidy, and there's nothing more to necessitate stepping over our boundaries."  An extended tray, sparkling and distortedly reflective, was more a metaphor in his mind than a lack of evidence.  "Our leeway's run out here, Dominic, the law's been satisfied.  We searched, and couldn't find anything.  Put him in jail on weak charges, he'd post bail within the hour and spread bad press that would spread to the mayor and only hurt our chances.  And even if we could get him to court, Xanatos would tie us up in the chaos that is our legal system for years, and think how easy it would be to convince a jury without any tangible proof or witnesses."

He really thought they'd have him this time.  There were here, they were in, they were walking hallowed halls that kept secrets in the steel and beam, and they were defeated in less than a day.  "I hate this."

Sykes crossed his arms.  "I know, I do too.  He's slick, he's a pro, he's evaded more cases with better evidence before, but he's also legally presumed innocent until convicted.  And we can't do that right now."

"Damnit, we're so close."

"What were my first words when we met?" he set to recall a memory more than a year distant.  "When you went running after that gangbanger and ran into the rest of his buddies?  Nearly got your head blown off?"

Ford grumbled, continually having that particular memory shoved in his face as a reminder.  "Patience."

"Is a virtue."  He clapped a hand to the other man's shoulder where the bullet grazed and bled flesh, a scar resulting from one out of the hundreds that had managed to make a hit as Ford scurried from sight.  "Think smart, think long-term.  But," he held up a finger, giving hope where it was dying, "we still have a few more avenues we haven't yet exhausted."

Ford gawked as his partner wheeled around and walked away, jaw hung in confusion.  "What?"

Sykes approached the billionaire, and a hand not so gently pressed against his shoulder to herd him in a direction away from anyone in earshot.  Xanatos complied out of interest.  In the corner, his hand still sharply and adroitly restraining the other man's shoulder between his fingers and thumb, started a smooth rhythm of a few friendly pats as if they were old buddies meeting in a bar.  Sykes tightened his features on the end of a harder slap.  "You must be coated in butter, Xanatos," the hostility was tangible, and hot on his breath, "to squirm your way out of this one."

Chin up, and a bare curve to the outline of his goatee, Xanatos shook his head.  "You still aren't convinced.  You've been through my building, mercilessly picked through my private life and home, and still, even after a complete lack of any proof, I'm accused."

"Because it's too perfect.  Too clean, too bright, too flawless."

"The brighter the light, the darker the shadow, how tired a colloquialism.  And how fictitious."

He raised his hand in the residual of a glib remark.  "I'm bound by the oath I took and the badge I carry in my right front pocket to uphold the law that works too well for both of us.  I know what you're thinking-"

"Do you?"

"This isn't over." it came to a head.  "We've got an open file, Xanatos, an open case, and with every little shred and scrap we find, whether it's in your computer records or security camera footage, it'll eventually build a noose.  My warrant includes the right to search all extensions of Xanatos Enterprises.  I'm going to order full searches of all your subsidiaries, in New York and abroad.  Factories, warehouses, port-a-potties, you name it.  If there's anything even remotely over the line, if I find a goddamned unpaid parking ticket, you're mine."

He leaned in close; Xanatos was half a head taller than the agent, but Sykes made up for his lack of height by sheer intensity made more potent in the fact he rarely showed any such emotion.  "I know you've broken the law, I know you've done things up here that would guarantee six months or a life sentence, and whatever it is I'll nail you for it."  His voice went as low as his eyes seemed to burn behind the retina.  "I'll be watching."

Xanatos smiled.  "I'll be here."

Sykes whipped his hand in the air, made an odd circular gesture that the others seemed to instantly understand, and, immediately react to as they closed cases, collected tools and followed him out.  Like smoke sucked out a window, they were gone just as quick.

Through the floors of the Eyrie building, the agents got their orders and passed them along to the closest team, a procession going down all the way to the foyer and sub-basements.

****************************************

Mother's image flickered.  The lavender ensemble melted into flesh, horn and membranes, the hollow reflection of a woman transforming into a creature was disturbing if her human disguise wasn't already unsettling in itself.  "The agents are withdrawing." she announced, and then vanished, her duties fulfilled.

David Xanatos looked out that same office window, and Jason, behind him, wondered just what he saw in the afternoon sun, surveying the landscape.  Was it pride to know he was above all of them, or was it veneration of lives that seemed so uncomplicated?  Simple pleasures for the man that owned the world.

"You cleaned the castle to within an inch of its moorings." his voice was a whisper.  "You've performed admirably, far better than I ever expected."

"My job.  But I'm more interested in where that metal Goliath of yours took Demona, and just where all one hundred and four bodies have disappeared to."

"Demona was drugged and hidden," he explained, hitting the automatic shutters, and the room was instantly bathed in darkness, "and the bodies have been taken care of."

He was sick of hearing that; every answer was nebulous and an ill-defined evasion that threw indecision between them.  "How?"

Xanatos turned slightly, one half of his face hauntingly lit, the other completely dark, but his eyes burned against what little illumination the room provided.  It was 'the look' that said to back off.

Jason was starting to get a little apprehensive around this man.

He'd watched his father plummet to his death and his brother succumb to insanity under the gratified laughter of a demon, read through a thousand years of previous hunter's diaries and how the successor would explain in graphic detail how the former died, he faced down Goliath at his most fierce, with the believed death of Elisa grounds for vengeance by tearing out his spine, but one look from David Xanatos put all of those into a new category: insignificant.

Thus, he decided to tread lightly and change the subject.  "Are you all right?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Your hand," he'd noticed to the side, "it's shaking."

Xanatos quickly pulled his hand from sight, and clasped them together hoping to curb the relentless tremble running through his flesh.

Jason took the hint, and centered each of his wheels in the palm of his hands, readying to leave.  "Any further orders?"

"Add an extra twenty-five million to the Hole reconstruction donation.  I want the mayor firmly in my pocket."

****************************************

Late afternoon sun had never felt so cold.  Or maybe it was the discontentment that made Ford nearly tear the car door off its hinges in the Eyrie carpark.

With the skyscraper looming just behind them and casting its midday shadow across half of the city block, it was a palpable, bitter reminder of just how indomitable its owner seemed.  The reflection didn't help either.  That unending, soaring reflection was staring him in the face on the car's roof, and he leaned an elbow to the warm metal, drawing a finger along the connecting lines of the urban obelisk all the way to where the top fifty floors faded into the smoky glare of sunlight.

"Shit!"  He was near enough to make a dent in the side, if he wouldn't have had to pay for it.

"I know." Sykes nodded, on the driver's side, watching the other cars flood into the infancy of rush hour and head back towards the bureau's headquarters.  "It's maddening, isn't it?"

"Every single person there was so damned quick to defend him!" he yelled across the car's roof, his voice more than carrying over the caterwaul of traffic.  "You remember what I said about subtle themes?  Common threads?  Are you finally seeing one now?!"

"A cooperative lie?"

"Told with precision."

Sykes tapped his nails on the dull black steel, looking deep into the layered finish.  Eyes blazed against the descending sun.  "I'm pretty good with lies, Ford," he said, "Chavez, Pierce, even Canmore to a certain point were telling the truth.  They were genuine in their defense, and whether it's true or just a disguise Xanatos wields to blind them to his own purposes, it was as near to sincerity as one can get."

"Really."

His last words before lowering into the driver's seat were almost disjointed in the city's piping snarl, "Call it a gut feeling."

Ford bent his head low and looked through the car's window, hands in his pockets and mouth, as near as anyone could tell, cursing a red streak.  His lips moved, but the words weren't getting through, obviously as Sykes turned the key and pumped the older cruiser to get the fuel running through the lines.  The lock knob popped up along the tan velvet interior, and he opened the door, sliding into place alongside his partner.

The car shuddered and rocked with the door slamming into place, but bestowed an eerie calm over the enclosed cab of the four-door sedan.  "I'm getting mixed signals on these feelings of yours, Sykes." he growled.

The older man straightened his rear view, and let the rookie stew until something, whether it was the silence, the indifference, the uneasiness, the frustration under a starched collar noosed by his tie or Sykes wandering swiftly through the radio stations, cracked.

"Damnit, Abel!"

"What do you want, Dom?"

Thrown off by the suddenness of the question, he was a little taken aback.  "Justice." he abridged every reason into a sole answer.

"Do you believe Xanatos is guilty?"

"Yes."

"Of what?"

He breathed through his nostrils, his mouth a flat line.  He would've roamed his eyes around the car's interior, if early nineties, utilitarian décor had provided much of a distraction to collect his thoughts.

"Of murder?  Terrorism?  Possessing illegal weapons?"

Frustrated, he snapped, "I don't know!"

"But it's there, isn't it?"  Along the dulcet tones of the Jersey Jazz station, Sykes made his play.  He tapped two fingers against his temple.  "A needle in your head, a slow burn in your stomach, something crawling up your spine.  Something is telling you there's more to the slick glaze XE is coated with.  You want to be a real FBI agent, Dominic?  Then we do what our government pays us to do, investigate."

"What about Xanatos' guardian?  Won't his majesty the mayor get a little angry if we overstep what shreds of flexibility he's awarded us?"

"Subtlety becomes an art form over time."  The car lurched into reverse with Sykes behind the wheel, looking for an opening in the four lanes of traffic beyond the enclosed parking lot fence.  "Get a few lines in that babyface of yours and you'll find that out the hard way."

"Where do we start?"

Sykes was trained on the blur of cars rushing past, until, by a red light somewhere down the block, it eased and he slipped into the presented opening.  "With the first piece of a puzzle.  What we have to find out, Ford, is, if," he stressed the word, "he's guilty of murder, than what the hell happened on the night of April first?"

Ford passed along an incredulous look, made so by an earlier enthusiasm practically crushed.  "And just how the hell do we do that?"

"By doing some digging."

****************************************

Nearly a quarter of a mile between ground and where he stood, inside metal and insulation, piping and wires and welds and rivets, footsteps echoed in the foyer between elevator and entrance, then ceased as he came to a dead stop.

His little hole in the wall had only one barrier to disallow him access.  Two massive doors.

But, as always, walls would shift and reform to his will by the genetic swirl of his fingerprints alone, and these were no different.  After confirming his identity, they shuddered, opened and then stopped to leave a mere meter between them, as if stepping through would trigger a cruel, programmed sense of humor and they would close and crush the unsuspecting traveler.

But he knew there were greater things down here to be afraid of.

Through the slender crack, he entered into his private sanctum reserved for him alone.  Even Fox had never graced this room with her scent and viridian-eyed esteem, had never loosed a cool breath in admiration of his playroom and accompanying toys, had never seen his secrets laid bare and stark and there to hang him if this chamber was ever victoriously breached.

The Vault, cunningly hidden within what was labeled on the blueprints as a structural hollow directly in the middle of the Eyrie, was rendered practically invisible to the FBI.  Access by a single concealed elevator shaft along the framework, one single line for power, heat and air, it was a world within a world, totally contained and sovereign.

And home to treasures, prisoners, and a puppeteer with his strings through the ductwork and up into the highest levels.

As he walked, Xanatos slowed by a moan directed towards him and raised his eyes.

The self-professed divinity of the gargoyle race, or, as she would declare to skeptical clans that had flared their wings and readied claws in reaction to her sudden materialization, a guardian, was haggard and limp in the steel ring that sapped her energies and redirected them into the castle's power systems.  Cream skin going alabaster white, her ribs scantly showing from underneath her tunic, Infiniti sent what little power she had left through her hate-filled gaze.

It was either a growl or a gurgle that would be her only voice to him, and somewhere within the garbled utterance loathing fumed like she spit fire.

Owen remained deathly still on his stretcher.  And the crucified gargoyle watched the billionaire monitor his pulse and heartbeat, as if he somehow cared about the man he kept continually poisoning with iron machines in his blood.  Nanobots, clenching to the bloodcells, keeping the trickster docile.

Xanatos looked up from under his brow, and saw the creature whose powers he coveted.  She was staring, saying things in the darkly luminous glare she couldn't voice due to her infirmity.  "I know exactly what you want to say," he started preemptively, "I'm a monster, a fiend for doing this to perhaps my best friend, and betraying the clan."

Clouded eyes narrowed.

"If that were true, Owen would be dead."

The ring trembled, and shook on its moorings, surging with energy.  Her displays, though a fraction of her true faculties, raised the ambient temperature in the room by some thirty degrees.

Xanatos felt a wave of heat and electricity crawl over his flesh, and, satisfied with Owen's controlled and intended coma, simply walked away.

"...alexander..."

There was only one word that could have stopped him in his tracks.

"...is...evolving..."

He looked over his shoulder, and between the ebon strands, saw her attempt a smile.  He knew just why the Puck was so smitten with this immortal.  "I'm well aware."

"...I see threads...connected from yourself to Sobek..." she wheezed.  "I'd...hate to see...what Alex would think...when he finds out..."  A charge polarized the steel walls all around them, safely passing across the rubber soles of his shoes.  But he nonetheless felt the hairs on his arms and neck rise against the power extruding from between the halo's seams.  "...watch yourself..."

How cryptic, and how needless a warning; he'd been watching his son since the first time he held the wet, squirming, squalling body that teemed with power he could feel through the surgical gloves.  His evolution, to whatever form Alexander would decide to take, was going to be glorious, and his deliverance from mortal woes.

In a display of sheer, unmitigated gall, he turned his back on the demigod.

He continued on, hearing the rattle of steel plates rescind into the background as Infiniti struggled further; past the cryogenic tube that held Angela's corpse, soon to be returned to the morgue; past the unconscious, pregnant and heavily sedated form of Demona chained to the wall and gagged, soon to be returned to the detention center; and towards that small, unassuming door at the far end.

The slim line underneath that allowed a warm, sunset flicker from inside also happened to allow the fetor of decay, of death and dry sands to seep through, a fusion that he'd yet to get used to.

It opened and he entered and as always, it was warm, humid, and he could barely see his own hand in front of his face.

He could hear a snuffling, ravenous sound, then a final tear, and a juicy swig.

Something hit the ground with a hollow clunk, skittered from the rim of outermost shadow and came to rest at his feet.  A femur, chewed clean.

Xanatos suddenly pulled the toe of his shoe away, as an umbilical of saliva bridged the gap between the oddly shaped object his guest was gnawing on.  Xanatos looked down and laid his eyes on the plundered body part, covered in bite marks.  Something cold traveled down his spine.  "You're a disgusting savage."

"And a thoroughly sated one at that." a voice answered.  "The Guild truly sent their best."

The billionaire visibly bristled.  If it wasn't the stench, it was the very idea that seemed to burrow under his skin like nothing else.

"But I will hunger soon, Xanatos, I hope you'll provide me with more."  As the hulking shape leaned into the soft light, a crown of bone and facial features of the same gleamed a sickly ocher against the exposed musculature.  Underneath the plates that barely resembled a face, the billionaire could see the sinew and every red, wet tendon in between flex as the creature smiled.  "And this time, I do hope it's fresh."

Flesh, hair, and even the skeletal remains, this creature's mutated form was an efficient killing machine, digesting even human bone; Sobek's appetite and metabolism had efficiently carved through the Guild ranks in less than three weeks.

As nauseating as it was, he was the imperfect solution to two imperfect problems.  Any remnants of the Quarrymen's successors had been, for the most part, completely dissolved by stomach acids and enzymes, and Sobek was gorged and content not to make waves for the time being.

"Well, I suppose your appetite for human flesh, as sickening as it is, saved us another headache."

It was all too businesslike, the man's voice, and the Egyptian thought him quite indifferent to over a hundred of his species being consumed one by one.  "You...have no sympathy?"

"Sympathy is an archaic sentiment for rotting flesh." he countered icily, refusing to play further into this thing's hands.  He needed to be just as merciless.  "The clan may have thought them people, but to me, they were simply dead bodies of my enemies.  Trophies of victory, nothing else."

The sealed chamber like a tuning fork resounded with a subvocal chortle, that grew and swelled as it crawled the steel panes of armor.  "You are truly a machine, Xanatos, a being without pity, remorse or feeling.  One wonders what makes your soul so resilient."

"My pride." he said.  "The knowledge that everything will eventually turn to my favor, and I'll find a way to cure my wife, and cut your umbilical to my son."

Sobek was nodding, the muscles in his face straining to encompass the full rows of teeth that somehow seemed to glisten.  "Arrogance, conceit, yes, a creature of old and unbreakable habits.  How ironic, that we are more alike than you'll ever know."

Stiff as a board, Xanatos pivoted on his soles and charged out.

"Oh, and David?" Sobek caught him, his belittling, yellow eyes focused on the billionaire's trembling hands.  "You may want to get that checked."

"Don't test me, creature, don't test me!!" Xanatos screamed back, giving in to the slow burn in the pit of his stomach.  "I won't be demeaned by a some malformation without a face!!"

"Remember your place, human." Sobek counseled with that guttural voice, rising to his full eight-foot height, not including the wild spurs capping his brow.

"We're entwined, creature.  You need me, and you won't risk my life, or your imperative search."

A long tongue slithered across the plate on his chin.  "You are cattle, no more important than the infection that spreads across this planet.  And if you wish to save your mate, and spare your child any pain..."  A clawed hand took to his face, and pierced the flesh with numbed, psychotic ease, gouging slow lines from temple to his jaw line.

****************************************

Alone in his bedroom, Alexander grabbed the side of his face, pitched over and screamed as something invisible tore at the meat beneath his skin.

Everything in his immediate vicinity shook, crinkled and imploded, the pressure of a thousand pounds per square inch compressing metals and plastic to half their original size.  His windows trembled in their frames, until, unable to take the strain, shattered into a spiderweb motif and then burst outwards in a volley of shards.

He tumbled from his bed, mewling in agony but floated away from the ground before he hit.  Caught in a spherical hammock of energy, and tumbling weightless he tried to close himself off from any outside stimuli, but the burn was red hot and unrelenting.

****************************************

Xanatos stared in what only could be called unadulterated shock.  Alexander was only a few floors up from them, and the pain flowing through that magical link must be excruciating.  "Sobek, stop!!  Damnit, STOP!!!"

The gargoyle pulled his talons out on the human's uncharacteristic plea, and held out the bloodied hand as a forewarning, a mental image destined to linger and proved to validate a point.

Xanatos steadied his breathing, having irreparably damaged his pretense, and with Sobek's eyes dissecting him, it was a dangerous position to be in.  Like prey having exposed a fatal weakness.  "Don't do that again."

The bony hand closed into a fist.  "Then keep your place."

****************************************

The doors clicked, and sealed him in, and almost immediately his eyes wandered the stark-lit scenery.  Scents were floating that weren't his own.

Something was different.  Perhaps it was the antiques on the lighted pedestals lining his office; if anything, off maybe a millimeter from a position he'd spent hours getting just right.  Only someone as anal-retentive as Xanatos would notice.

Or maybe it was the intrusion into his home.

His skin crawled, thinking of how the agents scuttled through here, reading through his computer files and pawing at his property like unaccompanied children.  He had dealt with enough.

His wife dying, his son growing beyond simple mortal flesh, the clan rescinding their trust he'd worked so damned hard to get, the FBI breathing down his neck, a skinless cannibal living in his basement with his life's work of an entire empire at the ready.

Sobek.  He cursed the name, the creature, the conceit!

If only he could find a way to kill that thing without the body parts slowly rejoining back into a vague humanoid form.  Decapitation, dismemberment, disintegration, a thousand scenarios shot through his mind but the pain suffered by Alexander would be like slow torture inflicted on his son; the agony of muscle, tissue and organs knitting back together over a long period of time wouldn't accomplish anything anyways save to torment his only child, and risk the cure for Fox.

If there was a cure.

"You are truly a machine, Xanatos, a being without pity, remorse or feeling."

Words echoed, and disrupted scheming reveries.  Still, even from the elevator ride and the long, silent walk down the corridor to his office.  And even as he took to his high-backed, cowhide throne, they were there, nibbling at the back of his skull.

His hands were shaking, and his heart rate was increasing all day; he'd held the facade for far too long.  Those agents had seized him in their grasp for over seven hours, and he was forced to watch as they examined and pried through his affairs, his corporation, his very life.  Only with great effort did he hold himself in that thick-skinned veneer he made his trademark.

"DAMN!!!"

Senses suddenly triggered on the onset of a clearing fog.  Something warm and fluid leached from his palm, and before it dripped on Egyptian silk he pulled it away.  His right clenched hand had dug his fingernails into the flesh, splitting it.  He released, and saw the results of such an effort.

Pulling a hand-sewn handkerchief from his breast pocket to wrap around his palm and stop the bleeding, he reached under the hollow of his desk and searched with his fingers, guiding by feel.  Deep within a hollow where frame met desktop he felt for the familiar velvet fabric, grasped against the object of his search and pulled it out.

He flipped open the black case and pulled out a medical syringe with a sterling, dual-gripped handle, then a full vial among several.  Mechanically he fed the needle through the vial's rubber stopper and filled the syringe to the hundred-milliliter mark.

"One wonders what makes your soul so resilient."

With his ring and pinkie finger, he rolled back his sleeve and flexed his arm several times to bulge the surface arteries and then readied the syringe.

The tip of the needle trembled before the skin.  Hesitation, odd, contradictory even to an always decisive thought process, but his hand trembling before his eyes was evidence enough of a failing strength.

He plunged the hypodermic into the brachial artery, and gritted his teeth.

A sudden calm spread over him, the world slowing its pace as the plunger emptied out the contents of the syringe into his bloodstream.  The highly processed stew of benzodiazepines oozed into his body like liquid nitrogen through his arteries, and a cold, clawed hand scraping across his mind.

The chemical makeup of his body was slowly being altered, slowing processes to a standstill as if in a deepfreeze, and returning his control.  His research personnel had performed admirably, picking apart the atom at its base and creating one potent drug from several common pharmaceuticals in their raw form.

If only he hadn't been so dispossessed as to fall prey to an external means, a simple drug nonetheless, but desperate measures said the old adage, required odd and desperate measures.  Every conqueror, victorious or not, had their hidden ace; Napoleon his armies on leashes led by a dictatorship, Hannibal his elephants that struck a harsh path across the Alps, Alexander the Great his teacher in Aristotle, and the Oracle of Delphi who had screamed in fear "my son, you are invincible!", reinforced by the fact he'd just razed the city of Thebes and sold eight thousand into slavery.

And David Xanatos, he had all the world and its resources at his fingertips.  Science and sorcery, the conventional and fantastic, were merely tools.  His mind and body were a sword and shield against the legion of the world that had taken arms against him, and here he was, risking all of it to regain some modicum of control through wealth and extensive research.

Pulling out the syringe, he leaned back in his chair, his skin so supercharged and receptive he could feel the grain of the leather.

Betraying the clan was one thing, his son, wife and companion, but, betraying himself to an earthly need, it was enough to make him sick.  Karma was something he'd never considered, thinking himself such above spiritual, judicial repercussions, but perhaps his recent failure to keep his composure was something more a punishment for making a deal with the proverbial devil.

Or maybe it was his conscience, so wracked with guilt it was eating away at his body.

All his promises were hollow, his word valueless.  He wasn't even a man anymore, he was just a tool.

He closed his eyes, and allowed the sedative to take full effect.

"How ironic, that we are more alike than you'll ever know."

He wanted to scream.