The Guardians: The Nature of Evil

by Christine Morgan




Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and are used here without their creators' knowledge or permission. All other characters property of the author. PG-13 for violence. November, 2003. 22,000 words.


Lucy was going to die tomorrow.
That was what would happen when the doctors turned off the machines. It was only the machines keeping her alive. Making her breathe. Putting food and water into her. Forcing her blood to stay warm and pump through her limp body.
If not for the machines, she would be dead already. Actually, really, where it counted, she was. Her brain was dead. That was what the specialists all said. Her brain was just taking up space in the shell of her skull. Even if she could breathe on her own, she couldn't think, or talk.
Grampy Joe said that Lucy was already with the angels. That her body, so small under the thin hospital sheets, was only what she'd left behind. He had said they should never have put her on the machines. They should have let her go.
Finally, Mom and Dad had agreed he was right. Doctor after doctor told them there was no chance, no hope.
So, tomorrow.
The usual visiting hours ended at nine, but none of the nurses seemed to care how long Mom or Dad stayed in Lucy's room. They felt sorry for them. Eleven, midnight, three in the morning … and on this, the last night, it would be all night long.
A vigil. Nate had heard Grampy Joe use the word. Also, though nowhere that Mom could hear, a deathwatch.
He had school tomorrow, a spelling test, and he was going to miss it. He'd probably have flunked already, except that the teachers were like the nurses. Oh, poor little Nate, they'd say. Your poor little sister, your poor family. Don't worry about your homework. Don't worry about your reading assignments.
All he had to do was muster up a wobbly lip or a few tears, and they would fall all over themselves to be nice to him. His teachers, the neighbors, the people at the hospital, everyone in the family.
It was kind of neat, really.
The only bad part was when Mom cried. She wanted to hug him, cling to him so tight he could hardly breathe. My baby, she'd blubber. She'd hardly want to let him out of her sight, just in case he all of a sudden fell down and stopped breathing. Like Lucy had done.
Like Krissy had done, too.
But Krissy had been a baby. Not even a year old yet, so it wasn't like Mom and Dad had had time to get to know her or anything. Boy, though, the way they'd carried on you'd think the world was coming to an end. Okay, the little coffin had been pretty pathetic, but it wasn't like she'd been a real person yet.
Lucy would have turned five next week. Instead of a birthday party, she'd be down in the cold, dark earth.
And Nate would be alone. The only one left.
Mom was sure that he'd be next. Nate didn't know how to tell her not to worry. He felt fine. Nothing was going to happen to him. Everything was going to be okay.
Everything was going to be better than okay, even.
He'd wished and prayed that it would be so. That Mom and Dad would be happy again. That they'd have plenty of money and a nice big house and new clothes to wear so that the other kids quit making fun of his thrift-store pants that always got holes in the knees about the second time he wore them.
It would happen. He'd get his wish. He had to. It was only fair.
Hadn't he done everything he was supposed to?
The whole family was sitting the vigil, sitting the deathwatch. Mom and Dad were in hard plastic chairs by the bed, staring at Lucy's face like they were trying to memorize it. She looked so pale, not at all like somebody sleeping but like somebody who'd been dead for days.
Grampy Joe and Grammy Lulu were on a padded bench by the window. Grammy Lulu wasn't crying outright, but she was leaking and sniffling into a hankie. Grampy Joe sat straight and unbending, gazing off into space. Uncle Mike paced around between the door and the bathroom, looking like he wished he could strangle God or something for letting this happen.
Nate had a little stool by the desk, where he also had a brand-new colorbook and a package of crayons. The cheap crayons, not the good Crayolas, but they were all his own and he didn't have to share with anybody.
The room was dark except for the light that came in from the hall, and a single lamp over the hospital bed. Nurses passed by the window in the door, all dressed in white, their shoes squeaking faintly on the tile, their voices low. Nate could hear televisions and radios turned low. He could smell coffee and medicine and sick people.
In the bed, Lucy didn't move. Her eyes were closed. That was good. Sometimes they were open, and that gave Nate the creeps. Open, but empty. Like the glass eyes of the deer head hanging over Uncle Mike's fireplace.
Mom made a choking noise and covered her face with her hands. Dad put his arm around her.
A nurse came in, looking around at them all like her own heart was breaking. She looked longest at Nate, and when she was done checking to see that Lucy was still the same, came over to him and asked in a nurse-whisper if he'd like a donut, there were some at the desk, jelly or powdered sugar or the kind with sprinkles.
He was about to see if he could talk her into two, or maybe even three – it wouldn't be hard, now that he had that wobbly-lip thing down pat – when the door opened again and someone else came in.
The nurse forgot all about Nate. Her face did an amazing change, going from the sadly sympathetic mask they all wore to a look that Nate couldn't explain. She was like someone seeing the first snow of the season, a triple-chocolate cake, and a tornado all at once. Delight and hunger and a sort of frightened awe, all because of the guy in the doorway.
A tickling chill ran up the back of Nate's neck. He didn't know why.
The guy was ordinary enough. Maybe the nurse thought he was handsome, and maybe he was, in the kind of way that the kids at school would think was faggy. He didn't have big beefy arms and a thick neck and a crewcut like Uncle Mike, like Dad, like Grampy Joe. His hair was too long, his face almost pretty, like a girl.
He wasn't dressed like a doctor or a boy-nurse or anybody who worked at the hospital. And Nate knew that he couldn't be one of those big-city counselor types, because they were all women in suit-dresses who wanted to talk to him about how terrible he must be feeling. Besides, they only came during the day. Not at after-midnight.
The others all looked up at this stranger, who wore faded jeans and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows and fancy running shoes that probably cost more than Nate's Dad made in a month.
In return, the stranger looked around at them. He found Nate last, and that chill ran up his neck again. Huge eyes, light blue, with long thick lashes like a girl, but there was something hard in that gaze. Like he could see inside Nate, and didn't like what he saw.
Uncle Mike demanded to know who-the-hell-are-you. The nurse started to answer, but the guy shook his head at her and went right to Nate's Mom and called her by name.
She stopped crying. The guy held out something to her. The light was dim, but the soft white fur of the stuffed bear practically seemed to glow. Its little golden wings and little golden halo glinted.
Its eyes were like the stranger's eyes – large and wise and knowing.
"This is for Lucy," the guy said.
Mom took it, moving like a sleepwalker. The tear-tracks sparkled on her cheeks. She swallowed, and sucked in a deep, hiccuping breath.
"Just a friend," the guy said, before she or anyone else could ask.
Grampy Joe had joined Uncle Mike, the two of them all stuck-out chests and chins and clenched fists, between the stranger and the door wanting to know what he thought he was doing. But as the guy faced them, something amazing happened. All the bluster leaked out of them like air from a punctured tire. They shut up and stepped aside, and let him go out.
The nurse patted Nate's head and told him she'd get him that donut, and hurried after the guy. Nate felt a spreading sense of relief as soon as they were out of sight. He realized he was covered in goose bumps, for no good reason, no reason at all.
Meanwhile, Mom kissed the stuffed angel-bear on the nose and leaned forward to tuck it into the crook of Lucy's elbow. It nestled there, white and gold, its solemn gaze fixed on her face.
Nate felt an urge to dash over there, seize the bear, and chuck it out the window. Or maybe flush it down the toilet in the closet-sized bathroom. Or get Uncle Mike's Zippo and set the thing on fire. How it would burn! Fur crisping and charring, wings and halo going up in flames.
If he did, he'd probably get the tar beaten out of him. He turned away from the oddly hateful toy, turned back to his coloring book.
After a while, the nurse came back in with a jelly donut wrapped in a napkin, and a lunch-sized carton of milk. She offered coffee to the grownups, who took it and drank it in a daze.
The donut was good, and when he was full Nate started to feel sleepy. He said as much, but nobody listened. Finally, when he could hardly keep his drooping head from falling kerplunk into the pages of the colorbook, he curled up on the floor under the desk. He used his wadded-up sweater for a pillow, and fell asleep almost as soon as his eyelids came down.
He dreamed awful dreams of a place that was scorched black and ashy grey, split with cracks of blood-red lava beneath a thundercloud sky. In the middle of all this sat the bear. White and innocent. Its eyes reflecting savage flashes of lightning.
The upheaval of his stomach woke him to a bright and noisy confusion. He scrambled up. Too many people were between him and the bathroom. Whirling, he fell to his knees and threw up into the plastic-lined trash basket. A blurt of wet dough, curdled milk, and raspberry goo shot from his mouth and splattered over a pile of used tissues and gum wrappers.
Some of it went up his nose and dribbled out his nostrils. Gagging, Nate swiped at his face with his sleeve. He spat, and spat again, and cleared some of the disgusting taste.
Only then did the commotion in the room fully dawn on him. Doctors and nurses and family members all crowded around the bed in a crazy mob. He wondered if Lucy had died before they were ready to let her, and they were trying to get the machines working again so they could kill her on schedule.
Then someone moved, a broad back in a white coat, and he saw the bed. Saw Lucy, sitting up and hugging Mom with one arm and the white angel-bear with the other. Her cheeks were pink, her eyes alight, and she was asking what's-the-matter-Mumma-why-you-crying?
The nurse was there, and out of everybody in the room, she was the only one who didn't look at all surprised.

**

April, 2028
Western Maine

"We could've flown," Amber Maza said, after a particularly hard jolt bounced her in her seat with such force that her jaws clacked together. "Alex offered."
Percy Bluestone, behind the wheel of the rattling and clanking old bus, scared Amber half to death by taking her eyes off this backwoods excuse for a road long enough to turn halfway around and grin. "Where's your sense of adventure?"
"If I didn't have a sense of adventure, I never would have gone along with this crazy idea."
"Hang on, everyone!" Percy called. "Big bump!"
Amber braced herself against the dashboard and dug her clawed toes into the nasty old corrugated rubber of the floor. The front end plunged into a muddy ditch, brown water sprayed up over the hood, gravel scraped the undercarriage, and the kids cheered as the bus jerked and shuddered.
"Bump? That's a bit of an understatement. Need I remind you that you're the only one on this runaway train with a seatbelt?"
"When did you become a sourpuss old lady?" Percy asked. "I thought you aged at ¾ speed. Since you're twenty-eight, that should make us about even. But you're acting like a fussy auntie."
Percy had her there. Amber subsided, disgruntled, and scowled at the back of her friend's head.
She had been eight when Persephone Bluestone was born, and hadn't had much interest in a weak and helpless human baby. Her best memory of those early years was the Hatching, when Percy as a toddler of two had crowed and shrieked with the cracking of each mottled-purple shell. She hadn't been old enough to fully understand what was going on, but the excitement in the room had been too palpable to avoid. And the hatchlings, tumbling into the hay or their waiting parents' hands, had been nearly Percy's size and development.
Funny how things worked. Percy had quickly left the hatchlings behind, growing twice as fast. Tragedy had further matured her with the loss of her parents when she was only in her early teens.
"Are we there yet?" four or five voices clamored from the seats behind Amber.
She twisted, automatically folding her wing out of the way, and did her best to make a smile that looked like a smile and not a grimace as the bus plowed heroically through another ditch. "Almost, I hope!"
"You're going to love it!" Percy shouted, wrestling the steering wheel with both hands. "It's high time you kids learned that there's more to the world than downtown Manhattan. That there are places where it's quiet at night, and dark the way you've never seen dark."
Kenneth looked up from an aviation trade magazine and cocked his bald, crested grey head. "We have. Finella and me, anyway."
"Yes, at the Sterling Academy," his twin piped up, shaking her masses of blond ringlets out of her wide, tilted eyes. A lock at the front was dyed burgundy in honor of Finella's favorite human in the whole world and all-time bad role model.
"And you make it sound like the rest of us have led dismal and underprivileged lives," Aramis said. He and his brothers spanned the rear seat, though in truth most of it was taken up by Porthos. Tan-skinned, with buff-colored hair, they had been identical and still bore a strong resemblance to one another, though there were differences now that hadn't been apparent even five years ago.
"Some of us did, once," Jake said.
That briefly silenced the others. Even Percy winced.
"Hey, come on, you guys!" protested the only human kid on the bus. "This is a vacation, come on, it's bad enough I have to sit next to the Queen of Darkness without the rest of you going all gloomy on me."
Kathe spared him a narrow, slitted-eyed look and turned aloofly toward the window. She wore all black, with what Amber thought was way too much silver jewelry. A braided black leather headband held a silver pentagram to her forehead, just below the brow ridge.
"Leave her alone, Indy," Malcolm said, his round-cheeked face with its aqua complexion and mop of light brown curls ill-suited to the task he now set it: that of looking ferocious.
Indy, aka Henry Vandermere, sighed and rolled his eyes. He muttered something in a foreign language. Possibly Egyptian, maybe Mayan; with Indy, who knew?
Malcolm might not have understood the words, but the tone was clear, and he endeavored more urgently to make his eyes blaze in warning.
Athos snorted in derision. The strong-but-silent of the triplets slouched with his thick arms crossed, while Porthos chewed on a strip of beef jerky and Aramis sat up alertly, ready to leap into the fray in the name of honor.
D'Artagna, the sister of the triplets and a tomboy vision of her mother Delilah in miniature, settled things by leaning forward and snatching off Indy's battered brown fedora.
"Hey!" He snatched at it.
"Jake, catch!" D'Artagna whipped the hat like a Frisbee. It sailed through Indy's grasping hands, over Finella's head, and Jake seized it out of the air.
"Give it back! That's my mom's hat!"
"Nya-nya!" D'Artagna said, running her tongue out and waggling it at him.
"You shouldn't say those things about Kathe," Malcolm said in a forbidding tone.
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry already."
Kathe smoothed her plait of snow-white hair over one bare, maroon shoulder. "Give him back his hat, who cares?"
"I'll do it," Finella said, dimpling her best smile at Jake.
He recoiled a little from the olive-green coquette, while at the same instant Aramis bristled and stood up. His hand actually went to his hip as if he expected to find a sword there, but of course it was locked in the back luggage compartment with their camping gear and food.
Athos followed Aramis' lead. Belatedly, gulping down a mouthful of half-chewed beef, Porthos rose and hooked his thumbs aggressively in the belt that drooped under his gut. Jake, wary, started to get up.
"Sit down back there!" Amber said. "All of you."
"My hat!" Indy insisted.
"Here." Jake tossed it to him.
Jake was the tallest of the hatchlings, older than the rest by a few years, and encroaching adolescence was beginning to show in his broadening shoulders and chest. He'd never be a giant, like Goliath, but it was clear that his prominent beak wasn't the only characteristic he shared with his father. He and Kathe shared the same style of thin, backswept horns and the same tri-taloned wings, though a wing-finger of one of Jake's had been broken off in a childhood injury.
He favored basketball jerseys – currently, he was wearing a gold one that contrasted nicely with his walnut-brown skin and inky-black hair. Beneath the ragged cuffs of black cargo pants, high-arched razor claws rose from the central toes of his feet. Raptor claws. Amber had seen him shred a heavy-duty punching bag with a few well-placed kicks.
Aramis was nonetheless undeterred. Finella gazed shiningly from one young male to the other, twirling a blond lock around her dainty forefinger. Beside her, Kenneth shook his head and buried his nose in the pages of his magazine.
D'Artagna looked like she might be considering another grab for Indy's hat, but settled for waiting until he settled it on his unruly hair before giving the back brim a flick that tipped the front down over his eyes.
"Hey, all right, settle down now," Percy called. "How about a game of 'My Father Works in the Grocery Store' or something? The road's about to get rough."
"About!?!" echoed Amber.
"I go first!" D'Artagna cried. "My father works in the grocery store, and he sells something that starts with … hmm … no … he sells something that starts with the letter …"
"Just pick something already," Porthos said.
"B!" she said.
"Is it beef jerky?"
"Darn you, Porthos! It's supposed to go around to the left!"
"My father works in the grocery store," Porthos said, ignoring her, "and he sells something that starts with the letter T."
"Is it a vegetable?" Aramis asked.
"Nope."
Athos shook his head and gestured for D'Artagna to go ahead. She gnawed her lip. "Is it a … tomato?"
"Nope."
Kathe raised long-suffering eyes toward the ceiling. "Does it come in a box?" she asked, with all the enthusiasm she might have shown a dentist appointment.
As the game continued, Amber leaned forward to Percy. "This is insane. I hope you realize this. You, me, and ten kids. On a campout in the woods. If they don't kill each other, I'm liable to drown them in the lake."
"Ooh, that wouldn't look good on your resume, Ms. Second-in-Command."
"I'm not second-in-command."
"You will be. And this is supposed to be good leadership experience. Isn't that what your father and Brooklyn told you?"
"Yeah," Amber said. "But Brooklyn just wanted to get them out from underfoot so he can wrap his head around the idea of really-and-for-true being leader of the clan."
"It's hard to imagine," Percy said. "Not that I don't think he's capable or anything. But it's … well, Goliath's been leader as long as any of us have been alive. It's going to be hard to get used to. Worst for you, though. When they go away."
Amber rubbed fitfully at the little nubs of bone that marked the outside corners of her eyebrows. Her token effort at brow ridges. "Yeah."
What else could she say? How would it look to go whining about her parents' retirement to Percy, of all people? Percy's mother and father had been murdered by the Hunter, in what was basically the final Hunter-vs.-Demona showdown … or, at least, there had been no more in the six years since.
Goliath and Elisa might be retiring, they might be planning to leave the castle on what Elisa called "a conventional world tour this time, none of that where-you-need-to-be crap," but they were both alive, both in good health.
Not that there hadn't been a few close calls over the years. Goliath had nearly died, would have died if Amber herself hadn't gone back in time to enlist the help of the grandmother she'd never otherwise have known. They were only going on a trip, albeit a long one.
Their goal was to visit gargoyle clans the globe over, from ones they knew about in Las Vegas, London, Guatemala and Japan to ones they'd only heard of in Russia, California, Alaska and Egypt. And perhaps to find some new ones along the way.
It wasn't like they were going to be in much danger. The trip would be funded by Alex, who habitually spared no expense, and done in full public view with the support of the government. It wasn't like they were going to be gone forever.
It wasn't, in other words, like what had happened to Alex's parents. So, therefore, she couldn't very well talk to him about it either. Or to her cousin Dee, whose mother had spent several years quite literally in Hell. Or Patricia and Sebastian, whose mother had died and whose father was away on Avalon.
What, really, did Amber have to complain about?
Being second-in-command, for one. She wasn't sure she was ready. And it didn't help that Brooklyn was, after thirty years of him being second-in-command, not sure that he was ready to step up to leader. She was afraid that between the two of them, both too hesitant to act or make decisions, they'd screw up somehow. Big time.
Nobody else thought so. Not even Hudson, who these days rarely did anything more strenuous than flip channels. They had the full support of the entire clan. Even the Illuminati were behind them, though in all honesty that only served to make Amber more nervous.
Behind her, most of the kids were happily engaged in their game, oblivious to the heaving and shaking as the bus gamely wallowed on. Porthos, who always had food on the brain anyway, did very well. So did Malcolm, and his choices were more often obscure ones gleaned from Broadway's extensive library of cookbooks.
Percy Bluestone handled the big vehicle like a pro, and soon they had come to something splendid and wondrous to Amber's eyes – a paved two-lane road winding its way through the dense trees.
"Five more miles to the lake," Percy said. "Then three more to Black Ridge Camp."
"Is it going to be crowded?" Jake, in the seat opposite Amber, asked.
"Not this time of year," Percy said. "There's six camps around the lake, and in the summer it's packed. We have inter-camp competitions. Boating, fishing, swimming, crafts, cooking, races, that sort of thing. Lots of healthy rivalry and a few pranks now and then. But we're way early for that."
"Aww," Aramis and Kenneth and Indy said.
"Please," Kathe said in her worldly way. "Use your heads. In the summer, the sun wouldn't be setting until almost ten, and dawn would be at four. All those races and contests would be taking place during daylight anyway."
"She's right," Percy said. "It wouldn't be much fun for you guys."
"I think it'll be fun, having the whole camp and the woods and the lake all to ourselves," Finella said.
"We won't be totally alone," Amber said. "Percy, didn't you say there was a year-round camp?"
"Miracle Springs, yeah. It's at the far end of the lake. They say the springs there have healing properties."
"It's magic?" Kenneth asked.
"It's psychosomatic," Kathe said.
"Are there springs at our campsite?" Aramis asked.
"Hot ones," Percy said. "Not that you'd mind the cold, am I right?"
"Right!" he said, flaring his wings as much as the confines of the back seat would allow.
"But the camp at Miracle Springs isn't like the others. The kids who go there are usually sick, recovering from accidents or long illnesses. It's a wellness center. They've come and watched a few of the competitions, but they've never taken part."
"Do the waters make them well?" Kenneth asked. Magic was one of the few things besides airplanes, Amber knew, that could hold his attention. Like his mother, he specialized in defensive spells.
"That's the story, anyway." Percy shrugged. "Never been there, myself."
The trees to one side of the road abruptly ended, and the darkly glittering expanse of the lake came into view. The kids hushed except for a few exclamations, their eyes drinking in the sight of the rippling water.
Angel Lake was roughly a teardrop in shape, dotted with small shaggy islands. It was fed by several streams, some gently flowing, others tumbling down in frothy cascades off rocky ledges. The gibbous moon tracked across the water in a reflected spill like a handful of silver coins. Other lights – most from a nestle of buildings at the far end – spangled the surface in gold.
"It's so pretty," breathed Finella.
That seemed to be the cue for the others, to break the enchantment of silence.
"When can we go swimming?" D'Artagna bounced in her seat and clapped. "I want to go swimming!"
"Can we catch our own fish?" Porthos asked.
"My dadda taught me a great way to cook fish," Malcolm said. "You wrap it whole in foil with sliced lemons and herbs –"
"Are there bears?" Indy asked.
"Bad luck for the bears if there are!" cried Aramis, and Athos chuckled low in his thick throat.
"So the lake water should be magic, too, though diluted if the only source is Miracle Springs," Kenneth said.
"Oh, pooh, Kenny," Finella said, swatting at him. "We're on vacation."
"Just because you don't pay attention to our lessons doesn't mean –"
"I do so pay attention! Just … not to everything. Only to the fun things."
"Magic is fun!"
"I don't need magic," she said. "I'm going to be an actress, like Aunt Birdie. Wait and see. I'll be the first gargoyle movie star."
"And you'll be famous, fair Finella," Aramis declared.
She dimpled again, and this time it was all for him. He shot Jake a triumphant look, but Jake wasn't paying attention.
Amber hid a grin. It was going to be a madhouse around the castle in a few more years, it really was. And her parents had thought they'd had a hard time when she, Alex, Patricia, Orph, Sebastian, Dee, and Tom had been teenagers! They would really be in for it …
Except that they wouldn't. They were retiring, going away, and it would be primarily Brooklyn, Angela, and herself who'd have to deal with the oncoming chaos.
Her grin turned rueful. What would be funny would be seeing how Alex coped. Or, worse, Patricia.
The road followed the lakeshore for a while, then curved back into the forest. Percy turned into a gravel driveway. Five minutes after that, she stopped the bus in a large packed-dirt parking lot bordered on two sides by a split-rail fence.
"Here we are," she announced. "Black Ridge Lodge."
They were situated above the lake, in the shadow of a spine of dark rocky spires that no doubt gave the place its name. Electric lights made to look like torches flickered atop sturdy poles, marking a trail that branched off toward several small buildings and campsites, while its main path led toward a long, low structure of wooden beams, river rock, shingles, and chimneys. This building was well-lit, and the door opened as someone came out to meet them.
Percy was first out of the bus, followed by Amber. It was a relief to stand up, to stretch. Amber felt slightly seasick from the ride, but a few deep breaths of the fragrant night-forest air cleared away the nausea. She opened her wings gratefully to the breeze.
The hatchlings piled out, Jake in the lead and Porthos bringing up the rear. They milled around, gawking at this and that, most of them talking at once. Only Athos, who never said much, and Kathe, who stood apart from the others with her wings caped around her slim frame, did not.
Wooden signs with letters burnt into them marked the way to various points of interest. Archery Range, Horseshoe Pitch, Handicrafts Cabins, Warm Beach Trail, Aching Feet Trail, Barbecue Pit, Tennis Court, Flying Bird Meadow, others.
The man who had emerged from the lodge proper reached the edge of the parking lot, and Amber had her first good look at him. He was Percy's age or thereabouts, and had a short, heavyset body topped with a carroty-red crewcut.
Like Percy, he wore brown shorts, a yellow polo shirt with 'Black Ridge Lodge' embroidered on the chest, a whistle around his neck on a hank of cord, hiking boots, and white socks. He was tanned and weathered from a lot of time outdoors, and what she'd mistaken for pudginess at first sight resolved itself into a general sturdiness as he got closer.
He goggled at the kids. He must have had some idea; Percy had arranged this trip through her school and was getting credits for it, and had recruited a fellow recreational studies major to help out. To help supervise the boys, mostly.
His focus was mainly on Kathe. Amber looked at her, really looked, and stifled a groan. Of course.
Amber had taken Percy's suggestions for appropriate clothing, and wore denim cutoffs with a white halter top. Indy was dressed in junior imitation of his parents, all khakis and lots of pockets. Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and Kenneth all wore the traditional loincloth, Aramis with the addition of a vest. Finella had a cleverly-designed outfit that resembled a tennis dress, with flirty skirt and belt threaded through the pierced slits in her webbed wings. Jake wore his basketball jersey. Malcolm, self-conscious about his chubbiness, wore baggy knee-length shorts and a tee shirt with the 'Cooking Big' logo on the front.
But Kathe had on a long, straight skirt like a sheath of black velvet, supported by a black leather belt studded with large chrome pyramid-shapes. A black satin bandeau wrapped her chest, with tatters of fringe hanging from its lower edge. Of all the gargoyles, she alone wore shoes, and they were hugely clunky black monstrosities of layered platform heel and shining buckles. Armbands, bracelets, and rings crowded her arms and hands. In addition to the pentagram headband, she wore fine silver hoops in her ears, rings on her horns, and delicate silver chains looped around the wrists of the tiny tri-taloned graspers at the tops of her wings.
No wonder the guy was looking askance at her. She was attired more suitably to a rave in a graveyard than to a week of camping in the woods. And everything about her posture said that she'd rather be anywhere but here.
"Hey, Nate," Percy said. "Guys, this is Nate." She rattled off the introductions, then asked if he'd been here long.
"Since seven," he said, checking the mellow blue glow of his watch. "The caretaker was here. He let me in, showed me around, and gave me the keys, then split. What's the plan?"
"Unpack, settle in, eat," Percy said. "Sound good, guys?"
"Yeah!" they chorused.
Their gear was all stowed in the back. As they unloaded, Percy and Nate joked about what a difference it made on a camp-out, not having to bring sleeping bags and tents for everybody. Only Indy, and Percy herself, bothered with those. The rest of them, Amber included, planned to sleep the days away in solid stone rest.
Because there were so few of them – Black Ridge Lodge normally held upwards of two hundred kids in the summer months, Percy said – they just decided to leave their belongings in the lodge proper. There were dorm rooms set aside for the use of the cooks and counselors, so one was designated for the boys and one for the girls.
The interior of the lodge was primarily divided into three huge rooms. Kitchen at one end, dining room in the middle, living room at the other end. A few bathrooms, storerooms, offices, and closets made up the rest. The dining room was set up to accommodate all two hundred of those summer campers, with long tables and benches and a roll-up window that would enable meals to be served cafeteria-style from the kitchen.
The living room was enormous, with a fieldstone fireplace big enough to charbroil a moose, but the furniture was all durable and comfortable, upholstered in dark red, blue, and plaid. A fire was already burning, and while the rest unpacked, Nate and Percy brought out a folding table and set up a buffet of hot dogs, buns, garnishes, condiments, three flavors of potato chips, pretzels, a veggie tray, a fruit tray, and the makings of s'mores.
"Paper plates right here, napkins, cups – there's sodas, bottled water, milk, and juice in that cooler – and toasting forks enough for everyone," Percy said, handing around the long, lethal-looking pronged skewers.
Porthos seized one, jabbed the tines into a hot dog, and stuck the hot dog into the flames. It crackled and sizzled, spitting grease, its casing blistering and turning black. The others were more careful, but ate with good appetite.
"I've never done a night-camp before," Nate said.
He seemed okay with the gargoyles – in this day and age, in the brave year of 2028, most people were familiar with them from thirty years of news and documentaries but comparatively few had ever met any in real life – and didn't ogle Amber the way so many men did. She wondered if he was sweet on Percy, and if the feeling was mutual. Percy must have chosen Nate to join this little adventure for some reason.
"We'll do all the same stuff as a regular camp," Percy said. "Just on the opposite schedule. Every evening, we'll get up and have breakfast, do a few chores –"
The hatchlings and Indy groaned.
"—and go for a swim," she continued.
The hatchlings and Indy brightened.
"Swimming, diving, water-skiing if we can get the boat to run. Then some sort of craft before lunch. After lunch, either archery or horseshoes, then a hike, then another craft, then a free period until dinner. After dinner, we'll gather around the fire and tell stories and sing songs until the sun comes up."
"Ghost stories?" Aramis asked with a gleam in his eye. "Some local legend, the haunting of the lake?"
Nate's smile was overly, purposefully mysterious. "Well, they do say that a girl drowned out there not too many years ago, and that on certain nights you can hear her crying for help."
"Cool!" Kenneth said.
"Was she murdered?" Kathe asked, licking gooey melted marshmallow from her fingertips in small, precise movements.
"You'll have to wait to hear the rest," he said.
"Will we see anyone else?" Jake asked. "What about the kids from the other camp, Miracle Springs?"
Percy shook her head. "Told you, Jake, they're mostly sick, or recovering. In wheelchairs, on crutches. They wouldn't be up for any competitions."
Amber noticed that the instant Jake mentioned Miracle Springs, Nate's eyes had gone flinty and the previous openness of his manner evaporated. He poked a marshmallow onto his fork so fiercely that the tines drove all the way through and narrowly missed impaling his thumb.
When they had finished and cleaned up, Percy offered to take them on a tour of the grounds. She changed into jeans and a sweatshirt first, and Indy donned his battered and scuffed leather jacket, but the rest of them were set to go as they were. The April night was chilly, but not so cold as to bother even a half-gargoyle like Amber.
Nate stayed behind while the rest of them hiked down to the hot springs. They could smell the springs long before they reached them, the wafting odors of sulfur and mud and minerals impossible to miss.
Two of the pools were fenced off. One was of thick yellow mud that bubbled in slow, flatulent bursts. This made the boys laugh uproariously, and imitate the sounds by blowing wet raspberries against their palms and forearms. The other fenced-off pool held water at a full boil, steam rising in sheets from its seething surface.
The other seven pools, ranging in size from that of a foot-massager to a hot tub that would seat twelve, were not fenced. Wooden benches stood around them, anchored to the rocky ground. The water welled up and overflowed from the pools, mingling into a stream that coursed away downhill toward the lake.
"Can we go in?" D'Artagna was already about to dip her toes, quivering with anticipation as she looked back at Amber and Percy.
"Sure, but we didn't bring any towels," Percy said.
Hearing the sure, D'Artagna didn't wait for the but and jumped with both feet into one of the shallower pools. Hot water sprayed up around her. She laughed, and slapped the surface with her tail to splash Finella and Kenneth.
Finella squealed, pawing droplets from her face. "Quit it, Tanny!"
"Yeah, quit it!" echoed Kenneth, whirling to lash the pool with his own tail. A shower went up and came down all over D'Artagna, haloing her white hair in a mist of steam and water.
"Fiend, attacking a girl!" Aramis sprang at Kenneth, but the smaller grey gargoyle dodged with uncanny ease and Aramis tottered on the brink between one spring and another, deeper one.
Indy whipped him in the tail region with a supple branch he'd picked up along the way. Aramis yelled and toppled, face-first into the deeper pool with an immense splash. Athos roared his indignation and charged, ramming Indy amidships with his shoulder. The human boy and the gargoyle rolled into a third spring, sending a wave of steaming water over Kathe's shoes.
She cast her gaze heavenward in disgust. Athos and Indy surfaced, sputtering and laughing, and then Porthos leaped onto them both and all three vanished in a geyser of spray. Kathe screeched, flinging her wings in front of herself to ward off the water.
"Gotcha!" D'Artagna cried, having sneaked up behind the distracted Finella. She gave the web-winged girl a push, just as Jake had the misfortune to step into Finella's path.
He spared her a plunge into the water, but only by landing flat on his back on the wet, slick rocks with Finella sitting pertly on his stomach. She giggled, and started twirling her hair and batting her eyes at him.
Malcolm approached Kathe as she emerged from the cocoon of her wings. He offered a handkerchief, and when she accepted it with a gracious dip of the head and began blotting the water spots from her velvet skirt, Malcolm blushed so hard he looked like someone had lit votive candles inside each round, pinchable cheek.
Aramis surged out of the pool, flinging his sopping hair out of his face. He saw Finella sitting on Jake, and his eyes burned white. In that instant, Amber could see Hudson in him, not the grandfatherly Hudson she'd known all her life but the young, vital, virile Hudson she'd met on her trip to the past.
Kenneth was waiting, his entire arm sunk in the hot spring. As Aramis strode past with murder in his glare, Kenneth heaved his arm up. The webbing of his wing scooped up a great wall of water that doused Aramis anew. Aramis had been inhaling to holler, but sucked in a lungful of water and went into a choking fit.
D'Artagna, outraged, tackled Kenneth and they fell into the pool. She held the bony crest that swept up from the crown of his head and used it like the handle of a butter churn to dunk his face into the water, haul it out, dunk it in again.
Finella leaned down and smacked a quick little fairy-kiss on the end of Jake's beak. Jake's walnut-brown skin went positively brick-red. He scrambled out from under her, dumping Finella on her fanny.
"Thank you, Malcolm," Kathe said, returning the handkerchief. "It's nice to know that at least one of my rookery brothers has manners."
Malcolm's head looked ready to burst into flames. Amber suspected that if Kathe bent over and kissed the tip of his nose, he'd spontaneously combust.
A silver-white bubble of light engulfed D'Artagna. It rolled like a hamster ball, with her inside dancing to keep upright footing, away from the spring where Kenneth, spitting water, was struggling to stand. She hammered her fists on the inner wall, violently mouthing words that were probably far worse than "Jalapena."
Jake stood by Amber and Percy, not quite taking refuge behind them but edging in that direction as Finella hopped up and adjusted her little skirt.
Porthos reared out of deep water like a bull hippopotamus, Athos crouched on his shoulders. At the height of the lunge, Athos jumped and beat his wings, showering scalding water on everybody.
Indy crawled to the edge and flopped on his back, chest heaving. Through it all, somehow, he had managed to keep his hat on his head. "Uncle," he gasped. "I call uncle. You win. Okay?"
"Do you guys want to look around or not?" Percy asked, hands on her hips. "I thought you wanted to see the lake."
One by one, they got out of the water and shook themselves dry. Kenneth snickered as the others wrung water from their hair, and ran a palm over his own smooth pate. "Sure, make fun of the bald kid," he said. "He who laughts last."
They continued hiking downhill, Kathe having some trouble with those damned shoes but flat-out refusing to take them off. The stream, gurgling along, led them to the shore of the lake. This was Warm Beach, according to the sign, a stretch of dark sand bisected by the stream. This far from the hot springs, the water was still hot to the touch, and where it met Angel lake it made an eddy as the different-temperature liquid swirled and mixed.
The beach was wide and flat and smooth, with a few wind-sculpted chunks of driftwood poking up. One of the trails came down to a gravely area near a large wooden shed. A dock stuck out into the water. The boat tied to it had a canvas cover and an outboard motor.
"Water skis, canoes, paddles, live preservers, other swimming stuff is in the shed," Percy said, swinging her flashlight toward the door. It was padlocked, and she patted her belt. Keys jingled.
From here, they would have had a better view of the camp at Miracle Springs, if it hadn't been so late that all the lights over there were already off. Only a few still burned, and Amber's sharp night vision could just make out the shape of a figure walking on the shore. It looked like a grown man, not a kid, but beyond that she could not determine any details.
The boys and D'Artagna rushed to the water's edge, scouring the ground for good skipping stones. Finella skipped between the trees, picking flowers. Kathe minced across the sand to the dock. She walked out along it and stood at its very end.
"What's up with her?" Percy asked. "When did Goth make a comeback?"
"You know how it goes," Amber said. "Every twenty or thirty years, fashions recycle."
"So is she really all that moody and depressed, or is it all an act?"
"Who knows? She never really talks about it."
Percy nodded. "Is it because of Jake, do you think?"
Amber sighed. "Again, who knows?"
Ten years ago, when her mother had led an expedition to rescue Amber from an enchanted entombment on Avalon, their group had had to cross into a parallel universe. There, they'd discovered that Goliath had never been put under the same thousand-year spell as the other survivors of his clan. Thus, Amber herself had never been born, David Xanatos had never been given his own opportunity to go back in time and become a billionaire, and the whole world was different.
While there, they had run into Jake. He'd been the only one left of his clan, the son of that dimension's clan leader Brooklyn by a female named Feather. Orphaned, alone, and afraid, he would have been doomed if they left him behind.
So, they'd taken Jake with them. It hadn't been easy for anyone involved, least of all for Jake and Brooklyn. It was hard for Jake to accept the fact that, while his father appeared to have been restored to him, this Brooklyn wasn't the same one, and had no memories of Jake's mother, or of their life together. Every shared experience that Jake reasonably thought his father should remember had happened to that other Brooklyn.
And, of course, it had been no picnic for Angela and Kathe, either.
Amber only had the dimmest of personal memories of Devil's Night. She hadn't been much more than a hatchling herself at the time. But she knew the stories, knew what Demona and Jericho had done to Angela's stolen egg. Angela had been years recovering from the grief and despair. She'd become viciously protective of the eggs in the rookery, and of Kathe especially once they had hatched.
Then, along had come Brooklyn, back from another dimension with his son by some other female. Angela hadn't loathed Jake on sight or gone the wicked stepmother route or anything like that, but the rest of the clan had known it was difficult for her. On the one claw, he was her mate's son … her daughter's half-brother … a gargoyle and a member of their clan. On the other, he was a stranger.
It was, Amber thought, as if Angela was afraid that by letting herself become too fond of Jake, she'd be betraying the memory of the other child she had never known. So, while she'd been kind to him, she had always maintained that cool distance, that reserve.
Kathe had picked up on it, and transferred it to the rest of the hatchlings as well. The rest of the whole clan, actually. She was not one given to shows of affection or emotion to anyone, even her own parents.
"I'll go talk to her," Amber said.
She felt trepidation even as she volunteered. In addition to the other maternal baggage Kathe had picked up, being a sensitive hatchling right from the shell, she'd also been aware of the underlying tension that had never quite been articulated between Amber and Angela.
Amber hadn't been aware of it until she was nearly a teenager, and it had still taken an unhappy confession from Aiden and Lexington to confirm her suspicions. She'd gone to them asking why "Aunt Angela" – she'd called everyone in the clan but her own parents 'aunt' or 'uncle,' just as this batch did – wasn't ever very friendly to her. The revelation had utterly astounded her.
Now she approached Kathe, feeling eerily as if she were approaching a young Angela. The resemblance, except for the horns and a single long white braid instead of a doubled sable ponytail, was striking. The cool night lent Kathe's maroon skin a duskier, more purple hue.
"Someone's over there," Kathe said before Amber could speak.
"Yes, a man, I saw him."
"It's the strangest thing, though." She tilted her head, brow furrowing. "I was watching him, and …"
"And what?"
"Nothing."
"You can tell me."
Soulful young eyes upturned to hers. "Never mind."
"Kathe, are you all right?"
"Fine," she said, gazing back out over the dark water.
"Do you … um … want to come and play with the others?"
"I don't like skipping stones."
"Okay." Amber stood there for a few seconds, waiting for Kathe to say something, feeling like the world's biggest bump-on-a-log.
But the girl was quiet, and soon the silence grew too heavy, too intense for Amber to bear.
"I'm … uh … going to go see what the boys are wrecking now," she said, almost relieved at the spate of shouts and scuffles from the beach.
"Mmm-hmm," Kathe said.
Amber turned to leave. As she did, she detected out of the corner of her eye Kathe suddenly stiffening, going alert. Her attention was fixed on the far side of the lake. When Amber looked, she saw the same shape she'd noticed before. A man, a tall man, a black silhouette against the pale sands as he waded out into the water. Ripples fanned out around his feet as he went. It must be shallow over there, the slope of the lakebed very gentle.
"Kathe?"
"What?" Exasperated.
"Never mind." Amber knew she was giving up, retreating, but she didn't know what else to do.
She went back to the beach, where the boys and D'Artagna had found sticks of driftwood and were busy belaboring each other about the head and shoulders with them. Finella was plaiting a floral wreath, which she informed Amber, with a dimpled blush, was for Jake.
Percy raised an inquisitive eyebrow and Amber flapped her hand, comme ci, comme ca.
When Athos cracked Porthos in the lower lip with a stick and drew blood, Amber called an end to the game. Kathe rejoined them, drifting along in their wake as the rest of them followed Percy up a different trail. This one led past the tennis courts to an open, grassy area with wooden cabins on all four sides. Each cabin had a sign above its door – Leatherwork, Woodwork, Pottery, Studio.
"These are the Handicraft Cabins," Percy said. "You guys are welcome to try them out tomorrow night if you want. Make a leather wallet, do some wood carving, try the potter's wheel, maybe do a little painting."
Malcolm and Finella looked interested. Kathe looked moderately less bored than usual. The rest scoffed, and asked where the archery range was.
"Right this way," Percy said, and on they went.
The eastern sky had turned from pure black to dark charcoal. The sun would be coming, the line of light most of the way across the Atlantic by now. An owl hooted its mournful cry, maybe returning to its nest in some hollow tree after a night of hunting shrews and field mice.
They returned to the lodge. Nate was nowhere to be seen. Amber told the kids to go change into dry clothes, as many of them were still soggy from their water fight at the hot springs. They trooped off to the rooms amiably enough while she and Percy got the kettle going for cocoa.
Nate turned up as they were settling down in front of the fire. He joined them, accepting a cup of cocoa and listening to D'Artagna and Aramis relate their evening's adventures.
"Do we get to hear the ghost story now?" Kenneth asked. He had stuffed so many marshmallows into his mug that there was barely room for chocolate.
"You want to?" Nate glanced around, and got eager nods on all sides. "Okay. I guess I don't have to worry about any of you waking up screaming in the middle of the day with bad dreams, do I?"
"Just Indy," Porthos said, elbowing the boy so hard that Indy fell over and slopped cocoa on the braided rag rug.
"Hey! I don't have nightmares. I'm not a baby." He shoved Porthos, but it was like an ant trying to budge a bullfrog.
"Tell us the story!" D'Artagna had coiled her tail under her bottom, and bounced on it like she was Tigger. "Make it really scary, too!"
"All right. Anybody know why this is called Angel Lake?"
Percy raised her hand, and Nate made a sour face at her.
"Of course you know, I wasn't asking you," he said. "Anybody else?"
Head shakes.
"Well, it didn't used to. The lake used to be called Black Ridge Lake, like the lodge here. But, about fifty years ago –"
"I thought it was closer to thirty," Percy cut in.
"Who's telling this, you or me?"
"Go ahead, forgive me, good golly."
The kids laughed.
"Fifty years ago," Nate went on, eyeing Percy as if daring her to contradict him, "the people who lived around here started hearing singing whenever they went walking along the shores of the lake. It was the most beautiful voice they had ever heard. So beautiful, they said, that it was like an angel's must be. Sometimes, they'd even see the angel, gliding across the water, or flying over the lake on wonderful white wings."
"It's my mom," Malcolm said.
"Is not!" D'Artagna said. "Don't be a dumbbell."
"The angel would fly over the lake, singing, and anybody who saw or heard forgot all their pains and troubles. Eventually, they started calling it Angel Lake."
"That's not much of a ghost story," Kenneth said skeptically. "I thought you told us somebody drowned."
A shadow crossed Nate's face. "That was later. That was only about ten years ago. You see, once upon a time –"
"That's how fairy stories start," Finella said. "That means it can't be true."
"Forget I said that part, then. There was a little girl named Lucy, a very special little girl. She'd been sick, you see. Sick for a long time. She nearly died. But just when her family was sure that she'd be gone forever, she got better. The doctors couldn't believe it. They said it was impossible. They said it was a miracle."
"Miracle Springs?" Aramis asked.
"Not right then. The little girl – Lucy, her name was Lucy – was still weak and tired, and her family was worried that she might get sick again. She was invited to stay at Miracle Springs for a while, to get her strength back. But Lucy didn't want to go alone. She wanted her big brother to go with her. Now, her family was very poor. Lucy's stay at Miracle Spring was free, a gift, donated by the people who run the place. But her brother wasn't sick at all. For him to go, his family would have to pay a lot of money."
The idea of poverty was one with which the hatchlings weren't terribly familiar. Oh, they knew, as Amber had known growing up, that there were homeless people in the city, and people who had to work long hours at hard jobs, but it hadn't ever really connected with their lives. She saw perplexity on most of their faces. Only Jake, who'd lived on the streets for a while, and Indy, who had seen the abject misery of third world countries, really looked like they understood.
"But Lucy said she didn't want to go without him, and she cried so hard that she almost made herself sick again. Her family sold their car to pay for him to go to camp with her."
Here, Nate leaned into the circle and dropped his voice to an ominous rasp.
"What they didn't know was that Lucy's big brother was …. eeevil!"
Finella and Malcolm gasped. Athos snorted. Aramis said, "Bosh!" Kenneth hugged his knees and watched Nate with serious intent.
"Bosh?" Nate repeated. "Were you there? Did you know him?"
"How could a kid be evil?" Aramis asked.
"Why couldn't a kid be evil? You didn't know this kid. You didn't know that he was the one who made Lucy sick in the first place. They'd had another sister, a baby sister, who'd died. When she did, the other kids got so many presents and so much attention, everyone feeling sorry for them, that the little boy decided he liked it. He didn't want it to stop. So he poisoned his other sister and made her sick. Made her almost die. He wanted her to die, really, so that he'd be the only child in the family. All the presents and all the attention would be his."
"That's awful!" Finella said.
Nate twisted his mouth in a grin. "Some people are just born bad, I guess. Otherwise, why would bad things happen?"
"They aren't all born bad!" Kathe blurted, with such an edge to her voice that the rest of them gaped at her. "Not all of them! Some of them can't help it, and have things done to them!"
"Kathe, shh, it's okay," Amber said, her stomach fluttering. "Nate's just telling a story."
"Should I stop?" he asked.
Kathe's gaze moved around the circle, and her shoulders sagged under the weight of the combined wistful expressions of her rookery brothers and sisters. "No … go ahead."
"Where was I? Anyway, when Lucy got better, the brother was mad. Instead of fussing over him, everyone was paying attention to Lucy. She was getting all the presents, and was allowed to do whatever she wanted. All because she hadn't died, like she was supposed to."
"Didn't anybody know he was bad?" Kenneth asked.
"Nobody. They sent him to Miracle Springs with Lucy, and he hated it. He hated being around all the sick kids, the crippled kids. He wished they'd all die. And what made it worst was knowing that his parents had sold the car. They were already so poor, and now they wouldn't even have a car. The boy decided that he was tired of being poor, tired of being laughed at and picked on by the other children in school, tired of everything. But he knew how to make it all better."
"How?" Malcolm whispered.
"He prayed to dark powers," Nate said in a spooky voice.
Amber bit her lip and looked at Kathe, but the girl might have been on another planet for all the reaction she showed.
"He prayed, and he got an answer. The dark powers told him to kill his sister, and kill his family. There was insurance, and it would all be his. The dark powers even told him how to do it so that he'd never get caught, never get in trouble."
The kids stirred; Amber remembered from her own youth how the idea of 'getting caught, getting in trouble' was the worst thing they could imagine. Doing right or wrong didn't matter a fraction so much as the consequences, the punishments.
"The boy asked Lucy if she wanted to go swimming. They swam far out in the lake, to where it was deepest and darkest and coldest. Then the boy drowned her. He told everyone that she'd swum out too far and gotten tired, and that he'd tried to help her but she kept slipping out of his grip. They all hugged him and told him that it had been an accident, a terrible accident, not his fault."
"How come the angel of the lake didn't save her?" Porthos asked.
"The dark forces, sheesh," D'Artagna said. "Dark forces stopped the angel."
"That's right," Nate said. "And they say that Lucy's ghost haunts the lake still. On dark and quiet nights, people who've gone out swimming or boating say that they can see her under the water, all pale and cold, reaching up, wanting to drag someone down with her so that she'll never be lonely again."
"What happened to her brother?" Kenneth asked. "Did he get caught?"
"No, because he did what the dark forces told him to do. He killed his parents, and he got their insurance money so he wasn't poor anymore. He grew up, he went to college, and then …" Nate hunched over, concentrating just on Kenneth, the pupils of his eyes dilated and strange in the firelight.
"What?"
"He … got a job as a camp counselor!" Nate shouted the last few words, grabbing Kenneth's wrist in one hand and D'Artagna's in the other. "Mua-ha-ha!"
The kids jumped, screamed, and broke out laughing. Amber and Percy did, too. Only Kathe abstained, sitting with her chin resting on her knees and gazing thoughtfully into the flames.
"Okay, that's enough for our first night," Percy said. "Sun will be up soon."
"Get yourselves ready to roost," Amber said. "Don't forget the teeth."
"We shouldn't have to brush our teeth," D'Artagna said. "We're on vacation."
"Cavities never take vacation," Malcolm said, already rummaging in his pack for his toothbrush.
"Neither does bad breath," Indy said, fanning the air in front of his face with a theatrical gesture. "P.U."
D'Artagna opened her jaws wide and exhaled at him like a dragon. Indy choked, gagged, clutched his throat, and rolled in spasms on the rug.
One by one, they got their things and headed to the lodge's two large bathrooms. Water ran, voices bickered, toilets flushed, and soon the bunch of them had lined up in front of Amber for inspection. She examined freshly-scrubbed faces, mouths with bits of toothpaste foam still clinging in the corners, wetted and combed hair.
"Looking good," she said. "Take your places. It's almost dawn."
The hatchlings lined up on both sides of the living room and struck their favorite poses. Indy, changed into pajamas but still wearing the fedora, watched as the first faint rays peeped through the lodge windows and the gargoyles stiffened into grey stone with a harsh crackling noise.
"Wow," Nate said.
"Wait until they wake up," Percy said. "That's even neater."
Amber, though tired, resisted the pull of the sun long enough to get Indy tucked into his sleeping bag on the floor by the fireplace, and to say goodnight to Percy and Nate. She performed her own bathroom ritual, brushing her fall of sable hair and changing into drawstring flannel pants and a tank top.
She chose a spot by one of the windows, so that the first thing she'd see upon wakening would be sunset over the lake. As she relaxed, and felt the heavy lethargy of stone creep over her limbs, her eye was caught by a form, a pale and radiant figure, out on the water. She saw arms uplifted toward the rising sun, and glorious wings spreading out, and then nothing as she succumbed to sleep.

**

Mom and Dad in their bed, the stuffy trailer bedroom air smelling of stale beer and corn chips and Mom's hair spray.
The can in his hand, pink with a white plastic lid. The ridges on the push-button imprinting themselves on the fleshy pad of his finger.
Uncle Mike's Zippo in the other hand.
He would take it with him when he ran. Throw it away somewhere far from here, safe, where nobody would find it.
His thumb spun the striker wheel. A tongue of fire popped up. In its dim, dancing light, he looked at his parents. They had a sheet over them, but no blankets. It was too hot for blankets.
And about to get a lot hotter.
When he pressed the hair-spray button, a misting jet of it shot out. Into the little fire. And whoosh, flamethrower, a billowing orange-blue. The heat, immediate and intense, made him squint his streaming eyes.
The sheet caught, flared. Parts of it floated up on the hot air. Flakes of burnt black cloth fell on Mom's face, Dad's chest.
They didn't move. Grammy Lulu's sleeping pills had done their job. Ground up and stirred into the government-donated commodities beef stew they'd had for dinner, the taste of the stew so bad on its own that the bitterness of the pills went unnoticed. He knew they were bitter, because he'd tested by licking his finger and dipping it into the powder. If it had been too nasty-tasting, they might have realized something was wrong no matter how many cheap beers they'd polished off while watching TV during dinner.
The fire leaped up, forcing him to back out into the narrow hall. He stuffed the Zippo deep in his pocket and threw the hair-spray can onto the bed. It exploded with a KA-BANG! and a bright blue fireball swallowed up the room.
The smoke, fumes, and heat nearly drove Nate to his knees. He hadn't known it would catch so fast or burn so hot.
He struck the closed door into the tiny room that had been Krissy's and Lucy's, then just Lucy's, and now was nobody's. Mom had said something about turning it into a den, but she couldn't stand to get rid of Lucy's things, not yet, her poor darling, what a cruel world it was that Lucy should have escaped death once only to die a few weeks later.
Nate wished the bear was in there. He wished he could see it burn, like he'd imagined from the first minute he'd laid eyes on it. White fur charring, halo turning black, wings on fire.
But the bear had been put in the coffin with Lucy. It was down in the dark with her, maybe gross with mold, maybe crawling with the maggots that squirmed out of Lucy's eyes.
That was good, too.
He ran down the hall and into the kitchen, the fire chasing at his heels like a pack of hungry dogs. It was drawn to the fresh air coming in through the back door, which he'd left open so he could find his way out in a hurry.
Jumping down the ramshackle wooden steps, he tripped and fell sprawling in the dirt. He crawled, scrambled up, and stumbled a few more steps with his knees stinging from scrapes. He took Uncle Mike's lighter from his pocket and dropped it into one of the coffee-cans on stumps that Mom used for planting flowers. The leafy green marigold would hide it until he retrieved it later.
The trailer's windows were full of orange light, like a jack-o-lantern. Nate could hear crashes and bangs as things fell over, or burst in the furnace heat. He heard shouting – not Mom and Dad, but neighbors – and ran toward them. He started crying, and saying how he'd been sleeping in the tree house, how something woke him up and the trailer was on fire, and he'd tried to go in but it was hot, so hot, he couldn't see, he couldn't breathe, and where were his Mommy and Daddy? Did anyone know? They weren't inside, were they? He'd called for them but they hadn't answered.
The neighbors held him back when he made to try and go into the trailer again. Someone called the fire department, and in a few minutes a keening siren woke up anyone who'd still been trying to sleep.
Wind carried burning scraps through the air, landing them on the roofs of other people's homes. A panic swept through the neighbors and everyone was racing around with garden hoses, and buckets. The fire truck screamed in, a big red beast with firemen like ticks in canvas coats.
An unlucky family, the neighbors said. First their baby, then their little girl, and now this … it was too bad, poor Nate left a sisterless orphan with nothing in the whole world but the clothes on his back and the few toys he had taken into the treehouse.
A few toys, yes … all his favorite ones. And the ruby brooch that Mom said had belonged to her great-grandma, the one she only wore for Christmas dinner. And Dad's small collection of baseball cards, the ones he said would be worth a bundle if he ever chose to sell them. Which he hadn't, and wouldn't, not even when they had to get food from the food bank and clothes from the Goodwill and ride the bus everywhere because they had no car.
He cried real tears when the firemen finally braved the smoldering wreck and went in long enough to confirm that his parents were dead. He would miss them, that was the truth. Maybe he hated them, but he'd loved them too. All he'd ever wanted was for them to love him back, to love him as much as they had loved Lucy, and Krissy. Love him, and give him all the things he needed.
But they hadn't, wouldn't, couldn't. And unless he planned to end up just like them, scraping through high school and working at a gas station and eating government-donated beef stew the rest of his life, he'd known he had no other choice.
The low, whispering voice in his heart told him that he'd done the right thing. The only thing. It would all be better from now on.
It was. Not right away; it took a while for the details to be sorted out. But he had the life insurance money, in a trust fund for him until he turned eighteen. And because Grampy Joe and Grammy Lulu were too old to take him in, and Uncle Mike was in the Army, he got to go live with foster parents. In a real house instead of a trailer. He went to a new school, wearing new clothes. He had plenty to eat, good stuff too.
This was the way to go. His parents and grandparents had always said to pray to God, but what good did that ever do? Hadn't he prayed to God every night? God didn't answer. God didn't come through.
The owner of the voice, though …
It liked him. It was pleased with how he'd tried to kill Lucy the first time, and had told him what to do the second time to make sure she drowned. It had told him how to get rid of his parents without anyone knowing – and no one ever had; the investigators decided that Dad must have fallen asleep with a cigarette.
All it wanted in return was a promise from him. That someday, and it would tell him when, it would ask him to do something.
Nate had agreed.

**

April, 2028
Western Maine

On the third night, she finally managed to slip away.
What a relief!
Finella, Malcolm, and Porthos were in the Handicrafts Cabin with Percy, making ornaments out of clay that they could bake, then decorate, then string on ribbons. Aramis, Athos, Jake and Indy were at the archery range with Amber, taking practice shots at cardboard targets stuck to bales of hay. Kenneth was off in the meadow, flying his radio-controlled planes and engaging in his usual aerobatics.
And she, Kathe, was alone.
No sing-alongs. No hikes. No activities.
Just Kathe, and her thoughts.
She went down to the lake, noting that the moon was closer to full though partly hidden by veils of cloud. At the dock, after glancing around to be sure no one was watching, she stepped out of her shoes, unzipped the hidden zipper in the side of her velvet sheath-skirt, and broke into a long-legged graceful run down the wooden planking.
When she reached the end, she leaped and opened her wings. Night air like silk whispered against the leathery membranes and through the strands of frosty hair that had escaped her braid. Her silver rings and bracelets sparkled in the diffuse moonlight.
It was so quiet … Percy had been right about that. Not the city at all. There were no horns, no sirens, no gunshots, no shouts. She could hear the cries of a few birds, owls mostly, and …
Music?
Yes, music. Singing, too.
Nate's story of the singing angel recurred to her, and she looked around, not sure what she would do if she did happen to spy some glowing white form.
She saw nothing. The voice, though … it curled into her mind, and made unexpected and unwelcome tears come to her eyes. So beautiful … sad but beautiful … and yet strangely familiar, too.
Kathe could have sworn she'd heard that voice before. Somewhere. Long ago. Not the song; she couldn't make out the words and didn't recognize the melody. But the voice. That haunting, unearthly voice.
As she flew lower toward the shore, searching for its source, she spotted a bobbing beam of light in the woods. A flashlight. Hooded, down to a thin pencil-beam, so that possibly no one but a sharp-eyed gargoyle might have seen it.
Angels didn't use flashlights.
People did. And it was a person sneaking through the woods. She heard steps and movements that were purposefully as quiet as could be, and smelled the keyed-up sweat of someone high on adrenaline.
Kathe landed lightly on the beach, the soft sand making no noise beneath her talons. Humans had nothing on gargoyles when it came to stealth. Though she'd never been in the woods before this trip, though she was used to orderly streets and alleys and the artificial wilderness of Central Park, she tapped into some deep instinct and eased through the trees silent as a shadow.
The person might be trying to move quietly, but made things worse by carrying on a one-sided conversation in a peevish, whining voice.
"But now? Tonight? Why does it have to be tonight?"
A pause.
"I'm not ungrateful, I'm not, and I will do what you want. I promised, didn't I? I'll do it. I just think it might be better to come back another time."
Another pause.
"Well, why is it so important?"
It was Nate. Sounding childish and pouting, but Nate all the same.
"He is? It's him? Why didn't you say so? Of course I will!"
The sudden eager greed in his tone sent a shiver through Kathe. She watched the thin beam bob onward, Nate pushing branches out of his way. She didn't speak, didn't want to attract his attention. There was something weird about his solitary night hike, and she decided that she'd rather not know what it was.
He froze. He turned.
The light touched her, moved up to illuminate her face. Kathe brought up a hand to shield her eyes.
"Kathe, what are you doing here?"
Nate's voice, back to normal … almost. Strained and guilty.
How had he known she was here? She hadn't made a sound.
"Nothing," she said. "I … I saw the light."
He came closer. She saw that he was wearing dark clothes, and that he had a large hunting knife strapped to his belt.
That stupid story he'd told came back with a vengeance. It was ridiculous, of course it was. All of them had laughed. Nate as the evil, sister-drowning parent-killing camp counselor. It was like a tall tale, or something from a horror movie. Terror at Black Ridge Lodge, or something. Nobody who knew Nate could believe him capable of anything like that.
Until, maybe, they ran into him in the woods in the dark with a gigantic knife at his belt.
"I've been meaning to talk to you," he said. "To apologize for my story the other night. I think it upset you."
"No," she said. "It didn't."
"I think it did." He cocked his head, as if listening to something only he could hear, and then smiled. "I shouldn't joke about evil to someone like you."
"What do you mean?" she asked, eyes narrowing.
"It's personal, isn't it? Hits a little too close to home?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, but you do, Kathe. Your … brother? Yes, your brother."
"I'm going back now," she said.
"Wait." He held out a hand.
If he tried to grab her, Kathe was going to bend his fingers backward until they snapped, kick him in the groin, and run like the wind.
But he didn't.
"Your brother was taken away from you," he said.
"My brother is dead."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
She glared at him. "That isn't funny."
Nate got that listening-to-another-voice look again. "Taken away from you, possessed by devils the second he was out of the egg, isn't that right? Nearly destroyed New York … and it did destroy your parents, didn't it? Your mother might as well have died that night. Her soul was torn out and crushed like a paper cup."
"Stop it!"
"What if I told you, Kathe, that there was a way to fix it? To make things better?"
Kathe swallowed. Her mouth felt sandpaper-dry.
"Wouldn't you like to help your parents?"
"What would I have to do?" she asked, wary but too curious not to ask.
He smiled. It wasn't a pleasant smile.
Several minutes later, Kathe glided out over the lake again. She could still hear the singing, but it was the furthest thing from her mind. Her gaze scanned the water, scanned the beach near Miracle Springs. Just as she was about to give up, she saw what she'd been sent to look for.
A figure was walking down from the cabins, a man in faded jeans and a white shirt that caught the misty moonlight. He stopped at the lake edge to take off his shoes and roll his pants halfway up his shins, then waded out. Overlapping concentric circles of ripples disturbed the smooth water.
She didn't want to do this. It was wrong, it was bad. The man down there had never done anything to her, and she was sure that whatever Nate had in mind for him was nothing good.
"Boo!" Hands seized the end of Kathe's tail and gave it a hard yank.
"Ow!" She whirled in mid-air and saw D'Artagna, grinning like an imp.
"Gotcha!"
"Quit it!"
"I saw you out here. What are you doing?" D'Artagna did a somersault, hovered on an updraft, and peered down. "Who's that?"
"Nobody. Go away."
"I'm gonna dive-bomb him!"
"Tanny, no!"
"I won't hurt him. Just scare him!" She eluded Kathe – no one but Kenneth could outfly D'Artagna – and went into a steep dive.
Kathe clenched her fists and shot an alarmed look back toward the shore, toward the woods, where Nate was waiting. She had been supposed to lead this man over there, away from Miracle Springs, but now D'Artagna was going to ruin everything.
Below them, the man in the faded jeans and white shirt waded on, unawares. He was very far out, the water shallow for a long way. She could see his dark hair, and his fair skin, and the serene, meditative expression that was about to be shattered.
D'Artagna backwinged and dropped, feet-first, toward the lake. She would land right next to the man and kick up a splash that would drench him from head to foot –
Except that, when she hit the water, she plunged straight into it and vanished. A minor fountain splashed up, soaking the man and surprising him.
He kept his footing, though. Standing not on the shallow lake bed, as Kathe had thought, but on the surface of the water itself.
The man looked down in astonishment, then up. Kathe had a brief impression of large, light blue eyes. Then he was looking down again, where a flailing D'Artagna had thrashed her way to the surface. He leaned down, took hold of the collar of her tunic, and hauled her out of the lake so that she dangled, soaking wet, at the end of his arm.
Her reaction was predictable D'Artagna. She uttered a wildcat screech and raked his arm with her claws. The white sleeve of his shirt turned dark with blood. He let go. D'Artagna writhed in mid-air and only succeeded in belly-flopping into the water again.
He fished her out a second time, and Kathe swooped down.
"Tanny, stop! Don't!" she cried.
D'Artagna's eyes were red flares, but Kathe wrestled her away from the man and they performed a crazy, veering glide to shore.
"Let me at him, let me at him, I'll pull his nose off and stick it in his ear," D'Artagna spat.
"Stop it, he didn't do anything to you."
"He tricked me! He made me fall in the lake! You saw him."
"I did. Tanny, he was standing on the water."
"A ledge or a dropoff or something –"
"Look."
Kathe pointed. The man was walking toward them, and now it was unmistakable. His feet didn't sink below the surface. He stepped from lake to beach as if moving from a carpeted floor to a tiled one, and stood a prudent distance from them.
"Hello," he said, evenly enough all things considered.
The others must have gone down to the dock when they finished their archery lesson, because now Kathe could see Amber, Aramis, Athos and Jake all headed this way. D'Artagna's war-cry had split the night like a lightning bolt, silencing the singing voice and every bird in a half-mile radius. Now her brothers were hyped for battle, their eyes white embers.
This wasn't what was supposed to have happened! Nate was probably over there in his hiding place, watching these developments and thinking that Kathe had either screwed up, or wrecked his plans on purpose. But it wasn't her fault! It was D'Artagna's, barging in like that!
"Tanny? Kathe?" Amber called, frantic. "Are you okay?"
"Fine!" Kathe shouted. "We're fine!"
"You there!" Aramis' voice rang out in challenge. "What have you done to our sister?"
The man seemed perfectly calm, far more so than the situation warranted. He had a flock of gargoyles bearing down on him, his blood was dripping in the sand, but his face showed only genuine interest.
Athos thumped down next to D'Artagna. Aramis and Jake landed between them and the man as if holding him at bay. Amber rushed to the two girls, her hands flying over them.
"We're all right," Kathe said. "He's not. Tanny shredded his arm."
"Did he hurt you?" Aramis asked.
"No," D'Artagna admitted sulkily. "I fell in the lake."
Amber, satisfied that they were unharmed, turned to the stranger. She tucked her hair behind her ears and said, "Let me just –"
"Amber?" the man asked.
His smile lit his face and made it into something radiant and wonderful. His light blue eyes were the dreamiest! Kathe caught her breath. Even D'Artagna's jaw hung agape.
"Amber Maza. It is you."
Her mouth worked, and Amber finally said, "Huh?"
"You don't remember me."
She gave her head a small shake, more to clear it than in negation, and studied him with a perplexed frown. "Should I?"
"It's been a while," he said. "More than twenty-five years."
"Doesn't that hurt?" Aramis asked, indicating the man's bloody sleeve.
"Oh, this?" He slid the cloth up, revealing unmarked and undamaged skin beneath. "Not any more."
The strength seemed to go out of Amber. She swayed on her feet. "Julian?"
He flashed that brilliant smile again. "You do remember."
The hatchlings shared a confused glance. Kathe knew that the name was familiar somehow, but for the life of her she couldn't place it in any sort of context.
"Hey," Nate said, emerging from the forest. "What's going on? I heard a commotion."
"Julian. I don't believe it," Amber said. "We all thought … didn't you … you were with Ebon, weren't you?"
Kathe's heart stuttered in the grip of an icy dread. She knew what was going to come next, knew it, but couldn't force herself into action.
Nate strolled up, and no one else seemed to see how he had one hand behind his back. Jake and Athos were eyeing Amber and Julian speculatively. Aramis and D'Artagna were waving to the oncoming gliding forms of Kenneth, Porthos, and Finella.
"Ebon and Julianna," Julian said, and Amber's toffee skin paled to cream.
"So, it was true? You really did …?"
"I didn't –"
The hunting knife came out from behind Nate's back. It swept a silvery streak in the air, and seated itself between Julian's shoulder blades. His spine arched. A glottal cry burst from his throat.
"That's for the bear," Nate snarled. "That's for healing her, so I had to kill her all over again!" And he spat at Julian as the stabbed man crumpled to his knees.
"No!" screamed Amber, absolute shock and disbelief in every line of her face.
Nate wrenched the knife out. It came free on an awful glut of blood. His ordinary features were a monstrous mask.
The hatchlings stood stunned. Aramis moved first, Jake a split second later. Aramis lunged toward Nate, but Jake held him back.
"He'll kill you!" Jake said.
Julian fell to his side, curled in the sand. He was ashen, and quivering. Amber touched his shoulder, then looked up at Nate with murder in her eyes.
"Don't be like that," Nate said. "I've got nothing against you gargoyles. Actually, you helped me. Thank you, Kathe."
"No … I didn't do anything," she whispered.
"You did just what I asked," Nate said, as the others shifted numb, horrified gazes to her. "If not quite the way we'd planned. You distracted him so I could get close enough. That was your part of the bargain."
"Kathe?" Amber asked. And though they'd never been terribly close, oh, how it ripped at Kathe to hear the doubtful tone in her voice!
"It wasn't like that," she said, perilously near tears. "I never meant … I didn't want to … I was only …"
"You only made a deal with the devil," Nate said. "Like I did, all those years ago. Good news, Kathe! Here's where you get what you wished for."
Far out in the middle of the lake, the water began to heave and bubble. A dull crimson glow swelled beneath the surface.
"Kathe, what did you do?" Amber breathed.
"I didn't mean to hurt anyone!" she cried. "I just wished … I just wanted …"
"Your brother back," Nate finished for her.
A bloody geyser boiled up from the center of the lake. A dark form bulleted up its core, and shot from the top like a cannonball. As the column of red water collapsed back, sending a wave rushing out toward the shore, the shape unfurled its wings and opened baleful black eyes.
Kathe didn't know when Finella, Kenneth, and Porthos had reached this side of the lake. She just became aware that they were there, all of the hatchlings rooted to the spot and gaping, aghast, at the gargoyle with the shining black armor, the long bony blades extending from his elbows and knees, and the dark red complexion that nearly matched Kathe's own.
No one had ever sat right down and told them about Devil's Night, maybe because it was too hard to talk about, too painful. But they all had ears, they all loved to listen in on their elders, and over the years they'd picked up enough bits and pieces of the story to know what they were seeing.
"Not like this," Kathe said shakily. "I didn't want this!"
"You asked for your brother, and here he is," Nate said. His grin was the most hideously smug sneer of satisfaction she had ever seen.
Amber looked like she might faint. She had been there, Kathe knew. She had seen, and remembered. "Damien," Amber said, in a weak and hollow voice.
He descended toward them, not gliding as a true gargoyle would but floating through space with his wings halfway open and his sable hair streaming back in the wind.
"We have to get out of here," Malcolm said.
"We have to fight!" Aramis countered.
"Fight him? Are you nuts?" Finella squeaked, so high that she sounded like she'd inhaled helium.
Heat-shimmers surrounded Damien as he touched down on the beach. The sand beneath his talons seared into puddles of glass. He surveyed them with a grim, merciless dispassion. In that moment, Kathe knew that he would kill them all without a second thought, and it would mean nothing to him. But it would be all her fault.
She pulled away from Athos and D'Artagna.
"Damien … we are your clan," she said, endeavoring to sound strong, and sure. "We are your rookery brothers and sisters. I am your sister. Don't you know us?"
Nate cackled. "Nice try, but you –"
Porthos head-butted Nate in the gut. Nate doubled over with a pained grunt. The knife flew from his hand, and Jake plucked it out of the air neat as could be. By the way he wrapped his hand familiarly around it, he was no stranger to knife-fighting.
Damien swept his hand at them. A sheet of hell-fire issued from his fingertips. It was all over, just like that, a red flash and then extinction, he would annihilate them without a single care …
But a dome of silvery light appeared over them. The hell-fire parted and seethed around it. Kenneth trembled from the effort, but his spell held firm until the red glow was gone. He let the warding dome fall, and sagged gasping to all fours. Finella dashed to him.
Everything was happening at once. Kathe couldn't keep track, not with a storm of guilt raging in her soul. She had done this … somehow, this was all because of her, and now the brother she'd never known was poised to go on a killing spree and slaughter half the people who mattered in her life.
Nate recovered enough to backhand Porthos. The rotund hatchling was barely budged by the blow, but for all his warrior training he had never really been hurt on purpose, and began to cry. Athos, seeing this, bellowed in fury and leaped on Nate.
"Damien, no!" Kathe called, extending her hands to him.
Those black eyes passed over her without a flicker. He sent another blast, a churning jet of red-black-silver. Kenneth feebly lifted his head, but it was Finella, yelling at the top of her lungs, who barely managed to deflect the attack. She was sent head-over-tail for her effort, tumbling in a pinwheel.
Aramis and Malcolm were running one way. Jake and D'Artagna were running the other. Amber was standing over Julian, and the look in her eyes was agonizing.
Kathe dashed forward. "Damien!"
This time, he looked at her, and his lips peeled away from wickedly sharp fangs. He towered over her, full-grown and menacing, and as his elbow-blade whickered toward her like a scythe, she shut her eyes and thought of her mother.
Something hit her and knocked her flat. She was sure she'd been sliced in two, must have been, like in that awful old movie about the haunted ship, when a steel cable zipped through the air and then people were writhing on the deck, groping for their severed lower halves as if they thought they could somehow smoosh their pieces back together –
But she could still feel her legs, tail, toes. She could feel arms wrapped around her waist, a body on hers. She opened her eyes and saw Malcolm.
Saw Malcolm, just before Damien picked him up by the head and held him at arm's length. The way a kid might hold a baby doll. One squeeze, and that black-gauntleted fist could pop Malcolm's skull like a balloon. One flick of the wrist and his neck would snap. Malcolm kicked and fluttered uselessly, his wings beating like a moth's on a windowpane.
Then Aramis, out of nowhere, dived onto Damien's arm and drove it down. Malcolm fell free, and reacted with a ferocity Kathe never would have expected of Broadway and Elektra's gentle son.
He threw himself on Damien's leg. There was a part of the knee unprotected by armor, a part where the deadly knee-blade attached, and Malcolm bit that vulnerable strip of skin.
Kathe leaped up, shedding sand. This was crazy! They were all going to die … their elders hadn't been able to beat Damien and what hope did a bunch of hatchlings have?
A triumphant howl made her snatch a swift look. Nate was unmoving, D'Artagna perched on his back and holding his head by the hair. She raised it, and hammered it down. It was the way she'd been dunking Kenneth in the hot springs, but Nate's face met the damp, hard-packed sand with a thud. His nose was squashed and running with blood.
Damien flung Aramis and Malcolm aside, their small forms spinning away to crash heavily to earth. His demonic features were twisted in disgust. They were annoyances, nuisances, irritations that he would grind beneath his talons –
He slashed out at Kathe again. She ducked, dropping so fast that her braid flipped up, and the shearing edge of his elbow-blade cut neatly through the end of it. A tuft of hair still secured with an elastic band plopped at her feet and the rest of the braid began unraveling into kinked white Medusa-coils around her head.
"Kathe, look out!" Amber barreled into Damien.
She was nearly as tall, but he outweighed her by a hundred pounds; he didn't so much as rock in place. Then Amber, who had learned practical dirty-fighting as well as honorable combat, rammed her knee into Damien's groin.
Her kneecap fractured like an eggshell on the armored codpiece. The color drained from Amber's complexion. Damien took her in both hands, hefted, and threw. She sailed over Kathe and collided into Kenneth, Finella, Aramis, and Porthos.
A boat was speeding across the lake, sending up a wake of white plumes. Percy and Indy, no doubt, more people who were going to get themselves killed!
Jake charged and jumped. His wings were raked back, his tail straight out, and his arched raptor-claws pierced Damien's breastplate with an ear-splitting squeal of rent metal. The muscles in Jake's legs flexed. Ripping down. Ripping six-inch gashes in the armor.
Damien struck, the blunt-curved back of his elbow-blade catching Jake in the stomach. Jake's claws tore free, trailing ribbons of Damien's blood.
A dazzling silver spray appeared in the air, clouding Damien's eyes. Kathe saw Kenneth, still half-pinned under Amber, waving his fingers and wearing a look of grim concentration.
Aramis rallied the others with a battle-cry, and Athos, Porthos, D'Artagna, Malcolm, and Finella rushed at Damien. Kathe cast off her stupor and joined them.
Dazed by Kenneth's spell, Damien initially did not try to defend himself. But the first blow from Aramis, a haymaker that dislocated his jaw, jarred him out of the enchantment and he went simply berserk.
They had swarmed him, the seven of them, jabbing and gouging and punching whatever exposed flesh they could reach. But he roared like nothing they had ever heard, and surged up with his arms and wings and whole body, and hatchlings went whirling like bits of dandelion fluff.
Kathe hit a tree, rebounded with stars dancing in her eyes, and lay still for a moment but for the heaving of her chest as she tried to draw a breath into her lungs. Sharp stabs greeted her when she did this, broken ribs. She peered around for her brothers and sisters. She marked the positions of wings and limbs poking out of the sand, the bushes, or the lake.
Damien, without a second glance at the scattered hatchlings, advanced on Amber.
She had gotten to her feet, favoring the leg that had the knee already swollen to the size of a softball. One of her wings hung at a crooked angle, too, the joint sprained or popped out of the socket.
As he closed with her, the night was shattered by a sound so loud that it seemed to strip the leaves from the trees. It was a roar of thunderous proportions, so filled with rage and loss and torment that the whole world shook in sympathy.
They knew that voice! Kathe saw Malcolm's head dart up, and Finella's. They had never heard it quite like this, but it was unmistakable, it was a miracle, it was Goliath …
But it wasn't.
The huge male gargoyle sweeping toward them out of the moon's pale eye was as black as obsidian, with hair that streamed white and silver.
"Ebon!" Amber blurted.
He dove with the momentum of full speed and solid mass. His powerful arms were battering rams, and his fists connected squarely with Damien's breastplate.
The armor indented like a sheet of steel hit with a sledgehammer, and then the straps and rivets of it simply burst apart. Pieces of black-enameled metal rained down all over the beach as Damien flew ten yards backward and dug a trench in the sand with his body.
"Kenneth, quick, ward him!" Amber shouted, gimping toward Damien.
Energy like mercury spun out of Kenneth's fingertips and wove into a quicksilver net. It anchored itself to the ground, entirely covering Damien.
The black gargoyle wheeled and came about. He descended to the shore as the battered and bruised hatchlings converged warily on Amber and the motionless captive.
"I can't hold him," Kenneth said somberly. "Not if he decides he really wants to be free."
"What do we do?" Porthos asked. "We … do we …?" He faltered, and settled for drawing a finger over his throat and adding, "gllcccch?"
Finella started to cry. Malcolm gulped. Even Aramis looked up at Amber uncertainly.
"I'll do it," Jake offered in a low, unhappy voice. "If it has to be done."
"Julian!" The black gargoyle knelt and pressed his knuckles to Julian's temple. A paroxysm of anguish wracked him.
"Ebon," Amber said again. "Oh, Ebon, I'm so sorry."
He looked at her – his eyes were red as rubies, and he was Goliath's twin in face and body as well as voice – and said, "Amber? And these … these are your clan's children?"
She nodded and drew them close, her arms around Kathe and Aramis.
"He's waking up," Kenneth whimpered. "I can't hold him."
"I'll help," said Finella, sniffling. She linked hands with her brother, and the strands of magic thickened around Damien.
"Jake …" Amber said. Her chest hitched. "I'd do it, but …"
"That's okay," he said. His middle toes tensed, the claws arching.
In Ebon's arms, Julian groaned and opened his eyes. For an instant, they shined with a strange and radiant light. He took a deep breath and let it out in a cough.
"Julian!" Ebon's cry was joyful this time. "My son!"
Kathe remembered how there hadn't been a mark left on him from D'Artagna's claws. But those had been scratches, and Nate's knife had gone in to the hilt, surely a mortal wound. Yet Julian sat up, grimacing as he pulled the blood-tacky fabric of his shirt away from his back, and gazed around at them with clear, coherent eyes.
Damien brought his arms up and across in a fast and violent motion. His elbow-blades scissored, shearing through the net of silver light as if it had been made of crepe paper. He struggled to his knees in the dissolving magical strands.
Jake took a step.
"Wait," Julian said, rising far quicker than he had any business doing. "Let me take care of this."
"But he's –" Kathe said, and choked on the words.
He smiled at her, and it was both beatific and kind. "I know what he is."
When Damien saw him, a peculiar expression of frightened awareness overtook his face. He fought the last few silvery strings and reared up to his full height, wings flared wide, just as Julian reached him.
Kathe saw it in her mind, a dark precognition. Damien would make that violent gesture again, the elbow-blades would scissor again, and Julian would be so many dismembered chunks here on the shores of Angel Lake. A few claw-marks, sure. A lethal stab wound, okay. But being cut to pieces?
Julian's hands closed over Damien's wrists.
Scarlet biceps bunched and bulged. Tendons sprang out in Damien's arms, chest, and neck. His jaw clenched, his teeth ground together like millstones.
And Julian, seemingly without exertion, held steady.
Kenneth wheezed like he'd been punched, and swayed against Finella. "Can you see it? Can you see the magic?"
The rest of them strained to look. Kathe only saw the silent, intense conflict of wills as Julian and Damien stared each other down. They were both trembling, looking like they had hold of a high-voltage wire.
"Let him go," murmured Julian. "You can't win. Let him go."
"Never!" growled a hideous, strangled voice. It did not seem to come from Damien, but from the very air around them.
"He isn't yours. It's done. It's over. Let him go."
"Nnnnrrrrraaaaaarrrgh!" Smoking spittle flew from Damien's lips.
"You are cast out," Julian said. "Go back, and leave him as he was."
"I … will … not!"
"You are cast out!" Julian spoke with sudden power, sudden strength.
Damien flinched, and a cloud of swirling black motes came up from the sand in a whirlwind. It engulfed him, engulfed Julian's hands that were gripping his wrists, and obscured him from view. The hideous voice shrieked, snarled obscenities, raved curses, shrieked some more, and stopped as abruptly as if someone had thrown a switch.
The black motes spun higher and higher, shrinking in upon themselves and glowing briefly golden like sparks from a campfire. The broken bits of armor sparkled and disintegrated.
A harsh, needful wail arose.
Julian turned toward them.
Cradled in his hands was a hatchling. Dark red, with wisps of sable hair and thin, backswept horns. The hatchling's little face was screwed up in noisy complaint. As his arms and legs waved in protest, Kathe saw that the blades protruding from his elbows and knees were covered in a downy velvet, like those on a young deer's antlers.
No one seemed able to breathe, let alone speak.
"I think he's cold, and hungry," Julian said.
Kathe found herself moving forward on legs that felt wooden. Her arms went out of their own volition. "I'll take him;" she heard herself say. "He's … my brother."

**

It hurt, dying.
He hadn't expected it would hurt.
Lucy hadn't looked like she'd been in pain either of the times he'd killed her. Not when he'd poisoned her, because then she had just gone to sleep … her brain shutting down … no pain at all. And the second time, after that bastard with the angel-bear had brought her back, when he'd drowned her …
Well, he'd read that drowning was a peaceful death. Pleasant, almost. Once your body quit struggling to get air, once the initial throbbing burn in your lungs went away, why, it was like floating away into a nice dream.
That was what he'd read, anyway.
Being killed, though …
The first little brat had head-butted him, and for a minute Nate was sure he was going to puke. He didn't want to do that. They might think it was because of stabbing Julian, that he had a weak stomach or something.
But that, really, had just been a matter of being winded. It hadn't hurt.
When the other little brat, the one with the claws like something out of goddamn Jurassic Park, did some sort of fancy high-kick karate move and flayed his thigh open to the bone, that had hurt.
He'd felt every exquisite nuance of it, the muscle giving way like a tender roast of beef before an electric carving knife, the grate of claw on bone, the immense flood of his femoral artery letting go.
Nate had fallen, holding onto his leg, and that was when one of the she-brats had leaped on his back and started beating his head into the ground. His nose had crunched, he'd gotten grit in his mouth when he tried to scream, and all the while the sand under him was growing dark and sodden with his blood.
It had hurt, oh, yes, pain upon pain, and he had been glad when the world winked out. His last living thought, apart from a mindless howl of agony, was of victory. He'd succeeded. He'd done what they wanted. Killed Julian, and unleashed the demon.
So, even though his departure from life wasn't the most graceful, Nate knew he could look forward to what he'd been promised.
Funny … it was like the tabloid reports. The long dark tunnel, and him speeding along toward a welcoming beacon of light.
Why shouldn't it be welcoming? For him, anyway, because he had embraced this, invited it. Ever since the moment when he first decided that he'd be better off without Lucy, even before he'd formally made his pact with the dark forces, he'd been working toward this final reward.
But as he neared it, the light turned terrible. It turned all the colors of hate, and fear, and misery. Dull reds, flat and somehow seething blacks, poison yellows, murky greens.
A heat assailed him, a heat that wasn't like fire or sunlight but what he imagined radiation must be like. It invaded him, made him feel sickly and frail, like his flesh was softening and sloughing off his bones as his skin bubbled and melted away.
He found himself on a cracked grey plain that stretched to an infinite horizon of jagged peaks. Fumes breathed up from the fissures, and when he looked closely he saw that the substance beneath his feet was not rock, or earth, but the crumbled and powdered remains of bone. Here and there, a piece was still distinct as a rib, or a jawbone, or the crown of a skull.
"You failed, Nate," someone said.
There hadn't been anyone behind him a second ago, he was sure of it. Yet now there was. A creature … immense serpentine undulations of green-black scales, ivory talons, leathery wings, and a long-muzzled snout of a face that split to reveal a grin of countless sharp teeth.
The voice, oddly, was human enough. Friendly, almost. That gave Nate the courage to speak up.
"No, I didn't! I killed him."
The creature – it was a dragon, Nate realized, a dragon with a capital D – chuffed smoke-billows of amusement from its nostrils.
"No such luck, I'm afraid. He lives. You only slowed him down for a few minutes."
"But … but …"
"You failed."
"The demon! I talked to the sister, like I was told, and –"
"Nate, Nate, Nate. You don't understand, do you?"
He understood enough. He understood he was in serious trouble, though damned if he knew why.
"Damned?" inquired the Dragon, as if it had read his thoughts. "You could say that. It's an eternity of damnation for you, Nate. I don't like it when people fail me. Though, honestly, you'd think that I'd be used to it by now. Your kind are nothing if not disappointments. Either they fail me, as you did, or they backslide at the last instant and go groveling for forgiveness."
"Please! Give me another chance!"
"Nope." The Dragon's lambent yellow eyes gleamed with merriment. "Too late for that. Much too late. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have something else to attend to. I'll just leave you to your punishment, shall I?"
"Wait! Please!"
But the Dragon was already disappearing into a foggy and insubstantial haze. A crevice near Nate's feet elongated and widened. Sifting dunes of bone powder fell through. He saw a small skull, a child's, go tumbling along in the avalanche and drop into darkness.
Nate scampered back, but the expanding crack chased him as if it were alive and sentient and enjoying the game. He whirled and broke into a flat-out run, aware of it zigging and zagging at his heels.
A pleading, blubbery string of words spilled from his lips. Tears gushed from his eyes, only to be dried instantly to salty scum by a hot and bitter wind.
His foot came down on nothing. His lower leg plunged into the gap, his shin hit the edge, he fell forward and his tibia and fibula snapped like matchsticks.
Nate scrabbled at the loose slew of crushed bones, feeling himself slide backward and down, feeling the edge of the crack scrape its way up his thigh – when it hit the spot where the clawed brat had cut him, a nuclear blast went off in his leg.
He scraped, slid, scraped, slid, and the ends of his fingers rubbed away like pencil erasers as he tried to hold on. Flapping things, carrion birds or bats, surrounded him and he could hear their mocking laughter and smell their sour scent on the acrid tang of the wind.
Something touched his ankle.
Sobbing, Nate craned his neck to look.
There, below him in the darkness, was a blue and bloated face with lake-water still streaming from its slack, open mouth.
Lucy caught him by the legs and pulled him down. Other hands, these ones charred and black, helped her.
"No!" Nate screamed as his bleeding fingers lost their purchase. "Mom! Dad! Lucy! No!"
They had him, had him in their dead but eager grasp.
The crack slammed shut, sealing Nate in with them forever.

**

April, 2028
Western Maine

Most of Miracle Springs had been awakened by the ruckus. Amber wouldn't have been surprised if half of New England had been awakened by the ruckus.
She kept pinching herself to be sure that she was really awake.
The night had the crazy quality of a nightmare, but none of it was fading away.
The dead body of Camp Counselor Nate was still on the beach. Percy had gotten a canvas tarp from the boat – she and Indy had arrived in time to ask the rest of them what the heck had happened – and covered the corpse. Amber supposed that, eventually, Jake and D'Artagna would have to deal with what they'd done. In a good cause and all, but still … the first kill was never easy. No kill was ever easy.
They made a sorry, bedraggled group, limping their way up the path to the neat cluster of cottages that marked Miracle Springs. Amber went gingerly on her smashed knee, supported by Ebon's strong arm around her waist. He carried Malcolm in the crook of his other arm.
A few steps ahead of them, Kathe walked with little Damien perched on her shoulders. His crying had ceased, and the hatchling now peered around at everything with goggle-eyed wonder.
Miracle Springs was full of children, ranging in age from toddlers to teens. Many were in wheelchairs, or on walkers, or had their lower bodies encased in the cruel metal braces hallmark to crippling disease. Yet for all their evident infirmities, they shared a general look of health and wellness.
The adults, counselors like Percy, did their best to hustle the kids back to bed. But the sight of several gargoyles, most of whom were kids themselves, was a phenomenon that could not be ignored.
Everyone seemed to know Julian, and pieces were falling into place for Amber now. Of course they were. It all made sense.
He led the way. His white shirt shined in the moonlight, and the long teardrop of drying blood down the back looked starkly black by comparison. His jeans were rolled up, he was barefoot, but he walked as casually as if he were strolling in a city park. As if he'd never been run through with a knife the size of a bayonet.
Snippets of overheard conversations came back to her. She'd been very young then, too young to really understand. But there had been something about Anton Sevarius, hadn't there? And one of his early experiments? A … a cloning experiment …
Julian directed the campers back to their cabins, promising to explain everything in the morning. He passed through the collection of buildings and ascended a winding stairway made of half-logs set into the sloped earth of a wooded hill. At the top, a bower laden with fragrant blossoms opened into a well-tended garden.
A woman waited there, pacing. Though her dark hair was heavily streaked with grey, she was incredibly beautiful in her billowing white gown. When she saw them, she rushed to them, and embraced first Julian and then Ebon.
"Thank God you're all right!" she said, giving Julian a motherly kiss and Ebon one much more like the ones Amber's mother gave her father.
"I know now," Kathe said, hugging Damien to her. "That's the voice I heard. The voice of the angel of the lake. I thought I'd heard it before, and I had. On those old CDs. She was a singer."
"Yes," Amber said, lowering herself onto a bench and gritting her teeth as she dragged her leg out straight. Her knee was a puffy purple dome. She was glad she couldn't crane her neck around to see the shape her wingjoint must be in. "She sang for Scarlet Angel. A long time ago."
And, she thought with a chill, she'd died. Demona had killed her, wasn't that how the story went? Demona had killed her, and Julian had brought her back.
Julian. Who'd healed Claw. Amber remembered that. They had gone to a sleepover in the Labyrinth, or something, and Claw had been in a coma. And Julian, not much bigger than she had been, touched him. Healed him. Woke him up. Fox's father, too ... hadn't Julian touched Renard, and brought him out of his wheelchair?
"Amber?"
He was in front of her, and she looked up with a gasp. The moon had tracked on in the sky by almost an hour. She had greyed out. Not fallen unconscious because she was still sitting upright, but she could not account for the past forty minutes.
The hatchlings were gamboling around the garden, under the benign care of Julianna and Ebon. They all appeared fine, unhurt. A pitcher of milk and a platter of cookies sat on a picnic table in a gazebo. Porthos was industrially stuffing his face. Kathe sat cross-legged, playing with Damien with a small white stuffed bear that had golden wings and a halo. Indy, Jake, and Aramis had a Frisbee going, the kind that lit up like a spaceship when it spun. Kenneth and D'Artagna were engaged in some complicated game of tag. Malcolm and Finella crouched at Julianna's feet, enrapt as she read to them from a storybook.
"Where's Percy?" Amber asked.
"She went down to the beach to wait for the sheriff. I don't know what we can tell them, but we'll think of something. How are you?"
"I've been better," she said. "How about you? I mean, hey, what do I have to complain about? You're the one who got stabbed … right? You did get stabbed?"
Julian turned his back to her. He'd changed out of the torn and bloodstained shirt, in favor of a very faded old concert tee-shirt that listed Scarlet Angel tour dates from the year 2000. He raised it, crumpling "Madison Square Garden December 6th." Where there should have been a wound or a bandage or at least a scar, there was only smooth and unmarked skin.
He had, Amber couldn't help noticing, a very nice back. A very nice everything, really. Tall, well-built but not overly muscular, good shoulders, slim hips. And those eyes! By the Dragon, those eyes!
When he turned back, she ducked her head because she was sure she was blushing a little. He paid no mind, just extended his arm so that she could see the absence of scars where D'Artagna had slashed him.
"No harm done," he said. "At least, nothing permanent. You're the one in pain."
"It's not so bad."
"Liar."
"Okay, it hurts like a bastard, is that what you wanted to hear? But I can hold out until dawn. How are the hatchlings? Are they all right?"
"A few scrapes and bruises. Nothing I couldn't take care of with a handshake."
"You healed them?"
"Should I not have?"
"I mean …" Amber laughed. "I mean, thank you, that was kind of you."
"Let me help you, too, Amber. I hate to see you suffer."
"Really, I can make it. If it was too bad, I'd be in stone sleep already. A day of rest will fix me right up."
"The wing, maybe," he said. "It's the knee that worries me."
"It'll mend."
"The bone is crushed. It might fuse together poorly, and you'd be left with a limp. A lack of mobility would be bad enough, but …" He smiled, and it was like his eyes lit up from within, not in a gargoyle's rage but a warm and gentle gleam, "it'd be a shame to see anything happen to such pretty legs."
"Um …" Amber said, the vestiges of her wit deserting her.
"May I help?"
"Well … sure."
He went to one knee before her on the bench, and Amber's blood rushed to her head. She thought she might embarrass herself further – as if the short-shorts weren't enough, jeez, she owned panties that were skimpier! – by just fainting dead away into the grass. She held onto reality with a heroic effort of will and told herself to not think about how he looked, kneeling like that … to not think about the way the moonlight gave his dark hair a silvery sheen or the way that thin tee-shirt clung to his chest.
His hands, settling lightly on either side of her ugly and swollen kneecap, sent tingles racing along the pathways of her nervous system. They were warm, those hands, and soft, and strong, and tender.
She felt a pinprick of heat in her knee. It blossomed into a painless white flame. Amber jerked on the bench and held onto its seat. The white fire burned inside her, burned, consumed her until she could neither see nor hear the garden or the hatchlings, or be aware of anything but the touch of his hands.
Then it subsided, dwindled, and was gone. Taking her injury with it.
The swelling around her knee was gone. She bent her leg and found that it moved easily, that it no longer hurt in the slightest. Too, the sprain had been taken away from her wingjoint as if it had never been.
A marvelous, clean energy filled her as well, refreshing her. While it did not undo the horrors of the night, she no longer felt guilty or angry at herself for bringing the hatchlings into a situation like this. She had been blameless anyway; who could have known? But now she believed it. She felt absolved.
"Thank you," she said, moving her wing back and forth. "That's so much better, thank you, Julian."
He smiled. "Only doing my job."
"You do, don't you? Those children down in the camp. You heal them."
His smile faded slightly. He sat beside her on the bench. "As much as I can. Not as quickly or completely as I just healed you. Too much of that, and there would be questions. It couldn't be attributed just to the power of the mineral springs. I have to be careful. It eats me up inside, knowing that I could do so much more for them, but I have to be careful."
"That must be awful," she said, but of course, she understood. "Having a gift like that, and not being able to use it the way you could. Because some people would want to stop you, or control you."
"Don't I know it," he sighed. "The American Medical Association and the big pharmaceutical companies most of all."
"What?" Amber blinked. She'd been thinking about the Illuminati or the Coalition or some shady branch of the government.
"Think of the damage I'd do," he said, with a sort of bitterly philosophical shrug. "If I just went around healing people, they wouldn't need to spend billions of dollars a year on medications, or expensive procedures."
She could only stare at him. Okay, maybe she shouldn't have been so shocked; she'd grown up with Alexander Xanatos for pete's sake, but the idea that corporations would put profits before health – before human lives! – was horrible in ways she couldn't begin to express.
"I still do what I can," Julian said. He grinned, a bit ruefully, and nodded toward Kathe and Damien. "Julianna makes those bears. I read the papers and watch the news, and sometimes when I see a story about a child who'll otherwise die … the ones waiting for transplants, the ones hit by cars and clinging to life against all odds … I go see them. I give them one of those bears, after I've … infused it, I guess is the word."
"I saw a television show about that!" Amber said. "The Angel-Bears! It was on one of those hoax-mystery shows, Can You Believe This? or something. They said that a stranger showed up at hospitals all over the country, and gave stuffed animals to sick and dying children, and that in every case, the children got better!"
"It's better with children," he said. He had taken her hand, and it was amazing, really, how right his felt holding hers. "For one thing, it's harder to worry about whether I'm doing right or wrong when it's a child. They all seem deserving. With adults, it's harder to know. And with children, they're so resilient … their bodies can manage incredible feats of healing and overcoming injuries that would kill a grown-up … the doctors are less likely to question it when a child recovers from something that should have been fatal."
"Is that why …" She couldn't bring herself to say it. "Never mind."
"Why I didn't save that man on the beach?"
"Well … yeah. Because he wasn't deserving."
"Do you think he was?"
"No! If even half of what he told us was true, he deserved exactly what he got. I only hope Jake and Tanny don't hate themselves for it."
"I couldn't have saved him right then even if I'd wanted to," Julian said. "After healing myself and helping Damien, I was tapped out. And once he was gone, he was out of my reach."
She was afraid to ask for an elaboration on that one.
"As for Jake and D'Artagna," he added, "you don't need to worry about them. They know that what they did, they did in defense of themselves and their clan."
"That's good." Amber noticed that, speaking of Jake, he and Finella kept casting smug glances at her and Julian. So, for that matter, did Julianna. Her blush returned. "How did you end up here, anyway? Why did Ebon take you away from the rest of us?"
"To protect us, I suppose. To keep from having to answer too many difficult questions. You know what I did, right? For Julianna?"
"Yes," she said, and shivered. More from awe than from cold or fear, but she certainly didn't object when Julian took it as a cue to put his arm around her.
"After that, Ebon brought us out here. Not directly here to Miracle Springs, but to a small town nearby. Well, it's not really a town; it doesn't even have a name. One general store, one diner, one automotive shop slash gas station, less than a hundred people all told. Ebon wanted to give us time. Time for Julianna to get used to life again, time for the two of them to be together and in love, time for me to grow into my gifts a little more."
"They look very happy," Amber said. "From here, they almost remind me of my parents. Besides the eerie Ebon resemblance, I mean. In a way, he's my uncle, isn't he?"
"They are happy," he said. "We made a strange family, but I couldn't ask for a better mother and father. When I got older, they agreed that I shouldn't waste my gift by hiding out in the middle of nowhere. I started small, helping our neighbors. That's one thing about people in this part of the world – not one of them ever once thought about going to the tabloids."
"Then the bears?"
"The thing with the bears began when I was in high school. Instead of college, I went around the country giving out bears, and intervening at the scenes of accidents … sometimes, I'd just see someone on the street and know."
"You were the earthquake guy, weren't you? In Los Angeles, 2025, the Big One, all those kids trapped in the collapsed stadium, that was you."
He nodded. She had the sudden but vivid impression that she was on the verge of blowing it with him. That she was doing exactly what he didn't want, gushing like a starstruck giddy girl.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I should know better. When did you open Miracle Springs?"
"About twelve years ago. We send invitations to kids from all over. They never have to pay. Ebon still gets Scarlet Angel royalties, though I've never been sure how he managed that fancy paperwork shuffle."
"But why didn't he get in touch with the clan?" Amber asked. "They were worried sick, Gabriel most of all."
"He said that it was the best way, just to break clean from the old life and get on with the new. I think he always meant to contact your clan. We've kept up, though. We watch 'Cooking Big' every week, and I saw Elektra speak once at a hospital benefit. I wanted to say hello, but it didn't seem like the right time with all those politicians and reporters around."
"Your old friends from the Institute missed you."
"How are they, do you know?"
"Fine. They lived with my grandparents, and then went to the Sterling Academy. Last I heard, most of them were happily working for various Illuminati departments."
His brows drew together skeptically. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"
"I guess it's good. Alex's wife Patricia is one of their head honchos. Though, now that I think about it, I don't know if having Patricia St. John-Burnett-Xanatos running the world is a smart idea or not."
"And what about you, Amber Maza?"
"Uh-oh," she said. "Is this the you're-twenty-eight-what-have-you-done-with-your-life speech?"
"If you like."
"What have I done with my life? Besides time travel, and spending a thousand years entombed on Avalon, and graduating from the Sterling Academy with a degree I'll never use, and getting dumped by my only real boyfriend, and being trained as the clan's second-in-command? Not much, really."
"What happened with the boyfriend?"
His arm was still around her, and Amber felt a funny little flutter behind her sternum. "Percy's brother. Orpheus. I think we ended up dating by default. Alex and Patricia were a couple since kindergarten, Sebastian's not all that interested in girls, Tom's my cousin, and I was out of step with all the gargoyle generations. That didn't leave me many options."
"But it didn't work out?"
"For a lot of reasons. Orph … he's kind of like you."
"Oh?"
"He's got a gift, a really powerful one. He can tell you anything, and you'll believe it. He can make a suggestion, and you'll do it. So he never knows if anybody around him likes him for who he is, or because he's made them like him. It built a wall around him, and the only ones he ever really let in were Alex, Patricia, and Sebastian, because thanks to their magic, they weren't affected."
"And he didn't trust your feelings for him?"
"It wasn't only that. Part of it was my fault, too." She looked down at her hands, which were folded in her lap. Five-fingered human hands, with the nails thicker and stronger, if not quite strong enough to leave claw marks in solid stone. It was hard to believe she was sitting here, spilling her innermost to a man who was a veritable stranger. "Elektra grew up thinking she was a gargoyle, and never doubting her place in that world. I've always known I was both human and gargoyle, and until Gabriel's son Lysander was born six years ago, I've been the only one."
"And you need someone of your own kind?" he asked, and she was sure she didn't imagine the disappointment she heard in his voice.
"I don't know," she said. "I like both worlds. I like being able to stay up during the day and do all the things that humans do, and if I was with a gargoyle, he'd never be able to share that with me. But I like the night, too, and the open sky, and even though Xanatos Enterprises is now marketing personal jet-gliders for consumer use, it's not the same as having wings."
"Wings are sexy," Julian remarked.
She laughed. "That, too!"
"I guess it's a shame that Ebon and Julianna never had a child of their own," he said. "I offered, once, to help them. I think it would have worked."
"Thanks, but … the son of my father's clone would probably count as my brother," she said. "That'd be too weird."
"You'll just have to marry me, then, Amber Maza."
"Excuse me?" She had misheard that, she knew she had misheard that.
"I've been thinking about you for twenty-five years. Since I was a little boy who didn't know anything about love, except that he was fascinated by the little girl with the long dark hair and the pretty purple wings. And if it's wings that you need …"
Julian stood up and pulled off his tee shirt. Amber thought her eyes were going to jump out of her head. He tilted his head back, moonlight running over him like water, and as the hatchlings and Ebon and Julianna looked on, his body tensed and twin bulges birthed themselves from his shoulder blades.
They grew and grew, fleshy cocoons that suddenly split to release feathery wings of glorious white and gold plumage. Swan wings, eagle wings, a few stray pinfeathers fluttering down as he shook them out to their majestic nine-foot span.
"You're the angel of the lake," Amber said without realizing she intended to speak. "It was Julianna they heard singing, but it was you they saw."
"The police are –" Percy Bluestone skidded to a halt as she ran through the garden gate. "High Olympus!"
"Right, the police," Julian said. He touched Amber's cheek. "I was going to ask you to come fly with me, but that will have to wait."
She thought that his fingerprints, whorls of white and gold, might just stay imprinted on her cheek forever, like a tattoo. "Okay," she said strengthlessly.
Kathe came to her as Julian retracted his wings and picked up his shirt. She was holding a cooing Damien in her arms. Her eyes were darker than usual with worry.
"They won't take my brother away, will they?" she asked.
"No," Amber said. She stroked Damien's head, that fine sable hair. He seized her finger and gnawed on it, mumbling baby-talk. "No, he's ours, he'll go home with us to the clan."
"I'm very sorry," Kathe said. "Not that Damien's back, but that I … the bad man told me to … I …"
"It's all right," Amber said. Her gaze was drawn back to Julian, crossing the yard to greet the arriving officers in their brown county uniforms. "I don't know exactly how we're going to explain it to your parents, Kathe, but … I think everything's going to be all right."

**

The End



copyright 2003 / Christine Morgan / christine@sabledrake.com