94 - "The Hole: Part 1"

"Wars and revolutions and battles are due simply and solely to the body and its desires. All wars are undertaken for the acquisition of wealth; and the reason why we have to acquire wealth is the body, because we are slaves in its service."

Socrates

May 6th, 2002
"But..."

Knuckles hit the marble tabletop.

Dark eyes stared into the expectant, and they'd never appeared so resolute reflecting his clan, mate, children, his jury and judges (and as he'd felt since day one, his executioners). "...right now, we have a more pressing matter to attend to. The Guild..."

The rustle of membrane passed through the ranks. Shifting eyes, a cleared throat, it was a topic both delicately danced around and fought tooth and nail the last month.

"They've denied us the skies, they've denied our very freedom." Brooklyn continued, standing, his voice rising in intensity. "No more!" it shot out, and echoed along the stones. "We've been stuck in this castle for too long, gliding only when we have to and always watching our backs."

Katana elevated her head. She'd noticed the raw edge to his tone, and the gaze that had thinned to indiscernible lines under a brow that seemed to be forcing it's way down his face. Whatever he'd just experienced, whatever had him unsettled to the point where, earlier, he'd poked about her features as if he hadn't seen her for twenty years, it had sparked something.

Perhaps it was the footage and the ubiquitous shadow of their former leader.

"We've seen the shit in which this city has descended into. Sobek released his creations into the city and they ripped a hole in the middle of Manhattan. Over a thousand dead, hundreds homeless, jobless, crime rate's up, the junior Mafioso's are all vying for Tony Dracon's empty throne and shooting each other on the way..."

"And just what," Shadow rasped, chin up and features ice, "do you propose?"

"We go hunting."

A fist hit the opposite palm. "About damned time."

Broadway walked around the table and joined Brooklyn's side; a subtle gesture, it proved if anything the schism between two sides was slowly mending. But it was in fact to reach for the computer control access embedded into the table and, with a few simple keystrokes, open up a large map of Manhattan on the nearby television screen. Several red dots were prominent on the black-and-white grid, most notably near the southern docks. "We've been in touch with Morgan at the twenty-third, he's been feeding us all the intel he has on several suspected gunrunning rings located within island limits. Some are buzzing with activity."

"Guild?" someone asked.

"Or mafia, or drug-runners–"

"Does it matter?" Brooklyn breathed rhetorically. "Someone's either out there amassing to kill us or kill more innocent humans, and we can't let that happen." He sighed, closing his eyes and rubbing both hands down his face. "I'm sick of death, I'm sick of being unable to protect. And I'm well aware of the risk of exposure but I think it's worth it."

"Because of your conscience?" Othello jumped in. "Are we to imperil ourselves just because you can't live with it?"

"Is there anyone here who can?" he shot back, arms outstretched and an aggressive stance to match the dare in his eyes. "Anyone? Anyone?!"

Glances were exchanged, yet no one spoke up. They knew he was right.

Brooklyn's gaze made a grand sweep of the room. "Then let's go make this city safe."

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May 21st
Rain fell.

No, not rain.

Glass. The shards were rain, each piece among a million glinting against the moonlight and falling to the ground. The largest window had exploded, the penthouse suite disgorging an object into the starry expanse of sky.

A body.

Nude, bloody and ultimately all too frail when tested against the metal of a car's roof; it caved in on impact.

Thirty floors up and nursing three distinct gashes across his chest, one of New York's newest kingpins knocked the tip of his cigar on the shards of glass still left in position in the windowsill. Lucian "Big Dawg" Barnes, built like a linebacker but slightly spoiled by all the rich foods great wealth and the power of the corrupt would bring. He indulged in great feasts and fast, expensive women without ever knowing their last names, and the toll had made itself only slightly apparent.

And the newest girl out of a long line had somehow made it past a thorough screening process, straddled his shirtless form, then nearly hacked out his heart with a bejeweled tanto hidden in a thigh-high boot. She got him once, he pushed her off, she tumbled, rolled and attacked half naked, striking twice more against his chest before he bounced her skull off his hand and nearly split it in half.

After a brief, evasive dance as she disjointedly swung her knife, he'd maneuvered her towards the window and with a size thirteen foot, kicked her through.

Engulfed in the silver haze of carcinogens and Cuban spice, his eyes listlessly gleamed for the husk lying below, the broken body of an Asian hooker turned assassin having completely caved in the roof of the unfortunate vehicle parked beneath his window.

The pulsing scream of the alarm would alert the owner soon.

Flooding his lungs with smoke, he lowered the cigar and crinkled the dark chestnut skin around his nose, laughing in a throaty tenor at the attempt against his life. "Nice try, Juno."

A war had just broken out in Manhattan.

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Down near the docks, anonymity and insignificance played to the advantage of anyone trying to stay out of sight. Warehouses on Manhattan's southern shoreline were sandwiched with a few feet of breathing room in between; a literal maze of buildings that, to save expenses, had all been constructed from pretty much the same blueprints.

Rain-soaked, sun-bleached, weather-beaten, there were fifty of varying sizes in a few blocks alone, and one in particular held a dim flicker of light along the sills, through dirt-smeared panes.

Inside five men went about their business of unpacking crates stuffed with straw and coffee grounds (an old trick, made famous in an 80's movie) and performing quality checks on a small army's worth of artillery. An old CD player in the corner crooned Elvis's Greatest Hits and the smell of fast food wafted through the salt-laden air.

As several pairs of eyes watched through the glass above, the men were eerily proficient in each assembly-line task. Cock, load, aim and pull the trigger, they'd already tested more than two hundred rifles from the time the clan had arrived until they decided to drop in.

There was a crack first, then an odd ripple of sound through thin walls, a rattle through the panes.

One of the men noticed before the windows suddenly imploded on either side, spraying everyone in range with the remnants of glass.

It was almost picturesque, like sun hitting rain, if not terrifying in the fact several streaks of inhuman color leapt in between the shards and landed, lightly, somehow betraying the great weight some of the larger ones seemed to carry.

"What the fuck...?!"

"It's a raid!! Move!!"

They scattered, screams erupted and quickly dissolved into guttural howls, and before anyone could catch a decent glimpse of their attackers the lights were suddenly cut off. They tripped over each other and the stacked crates, spilling the contents and stepping on their merchandise in order to avoid the claw-tipped hands grabbing from out of nowhere.

"I can't see!"

"Who are these freaks?!"

As Shadow reduced a few crates to splinters to reach two that had used them as cover, Katana hit another with her blade, sinking it deep into his thigh. Missing the major arteries, it was enough to drop him to the floor with a terrified grunt.

Othello slapped a couple of arrows on the lock mount, drew the string on his compound bow, pulled until the limbs trembled under the stress and sunk a few into a small one's shoulder, hitting between the bones.

He fell just short of the nearest door, hit the floorboards face first, lost a tooth and tried to scream before a foot came down on his neck and spine and pressed the air from his lungs.

"Please," the voice was feminine, husky and charmingly convincing, "don't move."

"O-Okay..." he stammered, tasting blood through the hole in his gum.

Desdemona smiled.

They were efficiently rounded up, thrown together in a heap and lashed together with several strips of iron pulled from the warehouse walls. The lights came back on to a few shocked gasps, as the gunrunners finally got a look of what had attacked them.

Rumors were made flesh and reality in an instant. One whimpered, and another dropped his jaw with an odd sound leaking out like air from a tire.

Wiping the blood from her sword against the hem of her kimono, Katana leaned in; her vocal cords shimmied with a visceral snarl. "Do you even care," she spit a hot breath, "about the innocents that could be hurt or killed by these weapons?"

Of all of them, only one dared to look her in the eye, but said nothing. He was studying her, trying to organize any kind of rational response in lieu of soiling himself.

"Do you even care?!"

"It's a free country!" he wailed on impulse, forcing the words, and as soon as his scream hit the air and the creature's expression changed (and lessened) slightly, he felt emboldened. "We can make a killing off these things with the city going down the shitter."

"You are vile human waste."

He got a little too bold. "Fucking freak bitch!"

CRACK!!

Bone hit bone. Brooklyn shut the loudmouth up with a fist; the human's head snapped back, hit the wall and slumped across his left shoulder. "Shut it."

The others huddled in their iron-wrought binds, assured in the demonstration.

Brooklyn looked over his shoulder towards a laptop that'd been thrown to the floor in the commotion. "Lex?"

His rookery brother was already on it, delicately scooping the thin computer from the ground and, clearing a makeshift desk of weaponry and White Castle wrappers, laid it down and flipped open the screen. "Looks trashed." he remarked, running his hands over a brushed stainless steel casing marred by several dents.

"See what you can find."

Lexington fished a cable from his loincloth pouch, plugged one end into the laptop and the other into a small metallic receptacle on his neck; an input port, threaded behind the mandible muscles. He powered up the computer and twitched with a faint electrical charge running through his nervous system.

Watching his brother whisk through the information on the computer's hard drive was a disturbing sight. He'd jerk at the influx, his eyelids would flutter as streams of code traveled the synaptic bridge along his spine, swam through his mind and the separation between flesh and steel blurred ever slightly. "Lex?" Brooklyn prodded.

"Nothing." he reported, blinking back into reality. "At least nothing of any particular interest. Wherever they got the weapons, there's no trace here."

Brooklyn turned his head and realized they'd hit another dead end after three weeks of busting up one gun-smuggling operation after another. But at least it was half a warehouse full of weaponry that wouldn't make it past them and into the streets. "Damn." he sighed.

"But I do have a list of potential buyers," Lexington continued, "complete with e-mail addresses."

"Then it's safe to say these monkeys aren't Guild, just small time mercantile scum." He made a slow loop around the humans still left conscious, giving them a growl before speaking over his shoulder. "Download the files, Lex," he said, "leave the laptop for the cops and we'll also send the list to Chavez and Morgan."

Shadow suddenly perked up and aimed his eyes to the windows facing out front; he'd heard something. "We're not alone."

The police, despite being overworked in recent months, had arrived impressively quick.

"Okay, people," Brooklyn ordered, seeing the familiar intermittent, bi-colored pattern of light lick the sky outside, "vanish."

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No one caught the retreating forms slinking from the warehouse's side windows and climbing up the side of the neighboring building's wall. Creatures of stealth and camouflage they'd quickly melted into the locale and sky, save one.

Talons scuffed asphalt; something immense moved fluidly without sound or even stirring the dust.

Shadow had seen the shoulder-length shock of red from in between the uniforms, a certain detective catching his eye and mingling, infuriatingly, in plain sight. He zeroed in and edged towards the entrance to the alleyway.

A growl slipped into the night.

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Iliana, knowing were to look and just what to look for against the darkness, had noticed the clan's escape and started towards the alley in order to make sure they'd all made it out. The broken windows twenty feet up were large enough to allow even her ex easy access. She smirked, blithely stepped closer and, as her luck would have it, in range of taloned hands that darted out and caught her by the collar of her leather jacket and over her mouth to muffle the squeal of surprise.

Shadow pulled her into darkness and she skidded on her heels when released, turned, and scowled.

Something big, indistinct, and obviously, physically angry stared down at her. "You damned fool!" he snarled, his eyes quickly illuminating and extinguishing just as fast when he realized how much light was spilling out and hitting the bricks beside him.

Iliana was nonchalant. "You upset or something, ninjabutt?"

"Yes."

"About?"

"You," a vein throbbed, "flaunting yourself in plain view of anyone who may want to try and kill you again!"

She cocked her hips. "And notice how I'm still alive after two weeks." Iliana said smoothly, tugging on her jacket. "Notice how all my blood, guts, brains and beautiful porcelain skin are still where they should be."

He went stiff, ground his jaw and looked back at the police. "We don't know for how long. The Guild killed everyone with any remote connection to gargoyles and you were lucky to survive their attack the first time! I did not have half my flesh nearly burned off to save your life only to have it risked so brazenly!"

Iliana brushed away an errant lock. Anyone else witness to a creature seeming to expand beyond an already impressive size, amethyst skin ripple, lungs heave, would probably run screaming into the safety of the squad cars beyond, but she was unsurprisingly calm. After all, she'd slept with him. "My life to risk."

"I cannot believe you." he said. "You have no reason to do this..."

"I have every reason. Taking my life back from those who want to take it from me."

Something leaked from between clenched teeth, "Fool."

"What was that?"

"Fool." he reiterated. "You were safe."

"I was dead." Iliana argued.

"Protected–"

"Caged."

Shadow leaned back. Silence hung between them; even with the sirens and commotion in the background it was a conspicuous, awkward stillness that even the ninja didn't like. He bristled.

"You'd better go," she whispered, kicking a bottle with a steel-toed boot, "there'll be cops combing every inch of this building soon."

Wings unfurled with a snap and sent a rush of air past the human. His body instinctively flexed in readiness for flight. "I thought you had more sense than this."

"Apparently I don't."

He growled, "I believe I am beginning to feel fortunate being 'dumped' by you." and then added for good measure, "Good riddance!"

The expression low blow gained new meaning, and even the seven-foot killing machine was unnerved by the expression that skimmed her features and ended up a concentrated ball of reflected fire in her eyes. "If you'll excuse, Mr. Minamoto," she breezed past him, complete with an elbow into his gut, "I've got a job to do."

A crack of wind signaled his departure.

Iliana turned and caught a winged shape flip up into open space between the buildings and dissolve into the sky.

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May 10th
The hum of the elevator was almost soothing if not for the plummet which shoved their stomachs into their throats, and they swore their feet were at least an inch off the carpeting. From Wyvern castle to Central Park South, the minute-measured ride was the closest the earthbound ever had to weightlessness.

Shoulder to shoulder, each of them watched the descending numbers above the doors and every so often, when they thought the other wasn't watching, surreptitiously glanced to the side and then quickly turned back.

One hell of a conversation had lingered in silence and as several premeditated arguments they kept to themselves, wiling away on and honing each word and how it would come out. It was an explosion waiting on either of them to make a spark.

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

Hitting the seventy-sixth floor, Maria had volleyed first.

"Yup." Iliana answered, and as always, succinctly. Her eyes had stayed on the falling numbers, head slightly arced up, toe tapping in a slow, determined rhythm.

"I can't talk you out of this?"

"Nope."

"I can't order you to stay?"

"You're not my supervisor anymore. I'm dead, remember?"

"As soon as you're officially reinstated as detective at the twenty-third, I will be."

The line of Iliana's mouth curled. She was enjoying this. "And by that time, it'll be too late."

"The Guild think you're dead, and you'd be safer to keep up the pretense." Maria kept pushing. "I should have the clan chain you to that castle just as they do St. Nicks, it'd probably be safer than this–"

"I'm not going to be scared from living my life!"

She whirled on her, and the fact she had a few inches in height on Iliana even without her heels made the older woman appear more than a little intimidating. Maria Chavez hadn't made Captain without perfecting a little bit of bitch in the fight for the precinct's hierarchal top. "Damnit, you are stubborn! That castle is a refuge, probably the only one you've got!"

"Watching Matt suck air through a machine isn't helping me feel safe! And since my life doesn't involve a certain 'tall, dark and gruesome' anymore, it's best to get the hell out of there." Iliana's foot had stopped tapping, and she silently rued the elevator and how it seemed to slow at the most inopportune time. "I'd rather face a Guild contingent than have to look into his eyes again..."

"Speaking of Shadow," she continued, knowing why the rookie detective had chosen to leave during the day, "he's going to be angry. Especially in the fact you've neglected to tell him you're going back to work."

"Did you tell Hudson?"

"Yes."

A finely trimmed eyebrow arced upwards. "And what did he say?"

"He wanted to keep me safe, protected, under his roof, but he understood I had a job to do. I'm not dead, I was never meant to be dead. I lost a child, and I'm going to make sure I don't lose anyone else I care about. And though it's hidden under a facade of growls, scowls and generally reclusive, quasi-sadistic behavior, I'm sure Shadow feels the same way."

Iliana crossed her arms, burrowed into her leather jacket and sulked, complete with pouting bottom lip. "Boy's tough. He'll get over it. Besides we broke up."

"You broke up with him." Maria corrected.

She retaliated, "Don't you have your own relationship to worry about?" and about the time Maria's expression tightened around the eyes was when Iliana realized she was speaking to her direct superior. "Uh, ma'am."

Maria kept her poise. "I'm just concerned. Keeping a relationship with a gargoyle is not an easy thing to do."

"Tell me about it." Iliana sighed. "As for me, the city's going to hell in a handbasket, crime is up and gang wars are exploding all over the place. I'm needed out there more than..." she gestured upwards with her thumb, "up there."

"I've already lost two good cops, one to a bullet and the other to some magical talisman. I don't want to lose you."

Iliana fished into oversized leather and pulled out an unapologetically non-issue revolver that gleamed, growled and consistently forced a grin on the owner with the weight of ten pounds of steel in their hand. She aimed the Magnum at an invented target and the laser beam reflected from the elevator's titanium inner doors. Her eyes thinned into ice-blue slits, looking down the barrel. "Don't worry, you won't."

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Lucian Barnes was staring out the hole that'd once been his penthouse's largest window.

The gashes on his chest (strangely shaped like a single claw had been raked from one side to the other) had stopped bleeding under the gauze and medical tape, and the dull, shooting pangs would remind him not to trust smoky almond eyes and a Jell-O stride so easily.

In the safety of his parlor he was dressing from the waist up, replacing his shirt over shoulders that pulled at the patterned silk.

The double doors leading from the hall swung open and two men stepped into the sunken room two carpeted stairs beneath the main floor, one ragged and unremarkable, the other tall, lean and well, darkly, ambiguously dressed, fiddling with the cufflink on his left arm. Gaunt fingers looked like claws in the muted amber light.

The shorter one made the quick leap over the end of the couch and slid onto the leather cushion. "We got rid of the whore, Dawg." he announced casually.

Barnes turned slightly, shaking loose the thicket of dreads from his jacket's collar. "Loose ends, Mr. Charles?"

"None."

"Pity." he rumbled, rubbing a reminiscent hand over his wounds. "I liked her. She was limber."

As the lanky leviathan crossed his arms behind his back and stood behind the couch, Aitan Charles shot a long glance to see the Japanese styled knife had made its way into an impressive collection on the wall behind his employer's desk. Steel glowed gold against the Padouk-wood paneling except the tapered point, covered in a dark, flaked substance. The blade hadn't even been cleaned off; it was testament to one of a few people to ever spill the blood of Big Dawg Barnes. He chuckled. "Think it was Lei?"

Barnes shook his head. "Too obvious." he said, smiling. "Juno sent the slant-eye to rub it in my face that Zhu's been swiping some of my hard-earned territory."

"What do you want t' do?"

"Perhaps we should simply kill them all." the taller man proposed. His voice, like wet gravel, rode on an octave below normal speech. "One big bloodbath should wipe them out."

Barnes wasn't surprised in the suggestion, or the man who coldly offered it. After all, this was the same man who'd hollowed out his younger brother's frontal lobe with a bullet for botching a job.

An appreciative gaze flicked towards and over the impeccably dressed subordinate. On first glance the tattoos under each of his eyes would appear as black ink on equally black skin, but the longer Barnes stared the more defined they became. The skin was raised along the lines of a symmetrically tribal design leading cheekbones to a skeletal chin, almost as if they were purposely carved into his face and left to heal improperly. "The Triad's like cockroaches, Ice," he dismissed the massacre, at least for now, "there's hundreds of them in New York alone and a billion more in reserve. And Juno, she's got an army and some impressive firepower."

"And we don't?"

"Finesse, gentlemen, finesse." Lucian held out his hands. "The blower with a knife hidden in her boot was just a good joke between friends, but it means we've got to step up if we don't want to get squeezed out."

"Then what about all the recent raids?" the little thug piped up, feet up against the leather even under Barnes' withering glare. "We've lost some quality merchandise an' it's sure as hell not the cops tearing through the city."

"There's been mumblings of monsters hitting every cache on the island," Ice appended, "including our own."

His head swiveled fast enough to whip the dreadlocks from one shoulder to the other. "Let me guess," Lucian said quietly, sardonically, "gargoyles."

Charles rolled his eyes. "Ah, shit, don't bring that garbage up again..." he muttered, and apparently he was on good enough terms with his boss to shoot down a simple guess. "Some junkie's delusions about seeing freaks flying over the rooftops. I bet it was one of his buddies doped to shit and taking a leap off a building that started all of this."

"The rumors are gaining support from every one of our men brought in."

"Reports of monsters, Ice?" Charles turned to catch part of his partner's glacially unreceptive expression. "The only real monster we've seen is you."

Ice warned, "Don't–"

"What?"

"–start what you cannot finish."

A clenched hand struck the nearest piece of furniture, nearly cleaving the end table in half.

Charles nearly jumped a foot while Ice simply raised his head.

Six foot five inches of quiet fury had uncoiled and sent thunder through the room in the form of a fist that could've swallowed someone's head. Instead, the sheer power had sent the table into a shiver that traveled through four spindly legs. "I don't give a damn who's busting up my warehouses!!" Barnes growled, a rumble sent through his chest. He stomped towards the desk at the end of the room and underneath two prominent wall-mounted lamps, grabbed his coat and snapped it into place. "Make sure guards are posted in every operation, on every transport and if they see someone that shouldn't be there, please, kill them."

"What about finesse?"

"We'll kill them politely. I'm not going to let Juno or Zhu or even some goddamned imaginary monsters take everything I've gained in the last six months."

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"...A gang war has exploded in Manhattan..."

The newscaster threw out the hook and most likely reeled in several hundred thousand viewers too afraid to leave their homes, and too curious not to have the television on in the background to see what progress was being made in the section of city almost completely hollowed out.

"...The city's police forces are nearly overrun by the sharp increase in crime rate, and now they've been able to tie a lot of recent shooting deaths to an upsurge in mob activity..."

Ocean blue eyes thinned.

Annika, her patrol duties curtailed as soon as Brooklyn had learned of her pregnancy, held a talon-tip on the remote. Rain, curled up on the cushion beside her, wings limp, tail around her waist, watched open-mouthed. She too, by Ares' moderately livid warning and Brooklyn's promise to keep her safe (in which during the severely one-sided conversation he'd barely gotten a word in edgewise), had been ordered to stay in the castle.

"...With construction contracts for the Hole going to the highest bidders from all over the world and companies needing to replace a workforce killed during the attack, a few recent larger corporations have opened their doors to the unemployed. Most notably, fresh from a recent rise in stock, the moderately-sized, foreign technologies importer Saturn Tech has brought in an astounding five thousand new employees..."

"Five thousand...?" Rain echoed quietly.

Her claw's end began slowly spearing through the rubber button. "How convenient." Annika seethed.

"What," the web-wing turned her head, "hiring near destitute humans at below their original pay because the company knows they'll take the job no matter what?"

"And they come out looking like humanitarians, as everyone is so desperate to see any shred of benevolence they blind themselves to what's actually happening." Surprised, her horns darted up and she rotated towards her fellow cellmate. "I didn't think Canadians knew about this kind of thing."

"Hey, we perfected the art of war and treachery, only with shoulderpads and skates." she joked, "And don't even get me started on the House of Commons."

Annika shook her head, flipping through the channels and discovering the same story was on every single one. "I've never understood human politics."

"Neither do the humans. But why isn't anyone doing anything about this?"

"The authorities have bigger things to worry about. Besides, what's happening isn't illegal, just somewhat immoral. But I suppose right now, work is work."

"It still blows..." Rain muttered, and on the end of her statement she abruptly threw her head up, and sniffed. "You smell something?"

"Night air." Annika confirmed; charred steel had ridden piggyback on the breeze since two months ago, and the change was inimitable against the meticulously recycled, filtered castle air. "Someone's opened a door."

Rain brightened (her skin actually shimmered), hopped from the couch and loped towards the doorway leading into the hall. "They're back..." she said, words lost on the air she'd already left behind.

Lexington, first into the castle by sheer happenstance, felt the gust of wind roll along the floor. "What...?"

Who.

"Lex!" Rain screamed as she jumped into his field of view and snaked her arms around his neck. The added weight and momentum sent him stumbling into the wall. They fell, she sniggered, and he blushed out of sight of the clan quickly coming up from behind.

Annika let a smile slip and watched as the others followed the raucous couple single file.

Othello with his bow slung off one shoulder and Desdemona behind, then Shadow in his habitually noiseless, liquid glide.

Then, Katana.

And she thought Shadow's expression was severe.

There was red along the hem of the samurai's kimono and copper in the air with the evening wind that'd crept through the open door. The stain's pattern and size run through the folds of silk jarringly matched the sword sheathed and fastened under her sash. Despite it being rare for Katana to descend into such ruthless tactics, Annika knew it was a custom to sometimes wear the blood of her enemies on her garment to stoke the fires of the senses.

Blood inflamed blood; like the rest, Katana had needed to stay angry to ward off fatigue. But she wondered if the man who'd found himself at the other end of Japanese steel had made it out alive.

As the others disappeared into the bowels of the castle, Brooklyn came in last. He'd heard the television and stopped by the doorway, butted a shoulder to the stone arch and turned tired eyes towards the screen.

"Evening."

"Evening." His gaze went unchanged as images running the gamut of the destructive flashed in succession, from the Hole to the construction efforts to the lines at the unemployment offices and Manhattan shelters. One shot, particularly grim, of bodies being retrieved from the rubble, sent his tail into a hard jerk slapping against the wall.

Annika knew the look, the exhaustion on his breath. He'd probably already seen every shot the newscast provided, all from the vertical perspective when skimming skyscraper windows, flying low to escape detection and fast enough to burn the wind. "It's getting worse out there." she mentioned idly, watching for his reaction.

There was none; at least, nothing that betrayed the outward appearance.

"I know." Brooklyn sighed. "You can hear gunshots on the air, smell charred wood and steel, see this dark abyss in the middle of Manhattan."

"Channel three had an aerial shot." she said. "It's eerie. There's no light..."

They met eyes, and somewhere in between the moment of silence they both knew the topic needed change.

"How's your husband?" Brooklyn asked.

Annika shifted. "He's...well," she'd started out quickly, and then, stammered in the end, "let's just say he hasn't been himself lately."

He flicked to her abdomen, and the flesh that'd pushed away from each defined, individual swell and slightly rounded out the last two months. Brooklyn could tell her scent had changed with what grew underneath. "Is this because of the impending bundle of joy," he smirked, but it quickly died, "or his mother?"

"Both I suppose, but...after he came home from meeting with that FBI agent..."

"It's like someone sucked the life out of him." he finished. "What did happen?"

Annika jabbed the power button, the television snapped off and she let something roll through her throat. "He said he was treated to lunch, heard some old war stories..."

"And you think that's bullshit."

The sea ran the spectrum from dark to light; a diaphanous glow had delicately kissed her gaze, the same sunset color associated with her husband and every time he'd pissed her off. "Yes. Complete and utter. He was home at midnight, dirty, bloody and none too talkative."

Brooklyn flicked a talon across the tip of his beak. "Then might I suggest a more persuasive approach."

"Like...?"

"Punching him in the head until whatever he's holding inside of him leaks out."

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May 18th

There was a point on the wall in between the lines of stone where his eyes had focused the last hour or so. Lines were drawn, shapes emerged but Todd had let any artistic imagining fade back into simple dull rock.

Resting his head on folded arms, he'd slumped to the kitchen's table, a marble tabletop on 4x6 supports with enough room on either side to seat over twenty gargoyles. He'd avoided contact as best he could, save that of his wife, and conversation, save that of the plans to convert his and Annika's room into a nursery (and trying to wedge a cradle and changing station in between a drafting table, pottery wheel and a sixty-one inch television).

Dwelling on the fact he was going to be a father in, perhaps, on Dr. Pierce's best guesses, anywhere from six months to four years, the thought still scared the living hell out of him. Two decades of television hadn't quite prepared him for the inevitable squalling, hungry, crying thing wearing dirty diapers and designer genes.

He suddenly wanted a beer. Numb the terror of impending, ill-equipped fatherhood and he might feel better. "Shit..."

"Language, Todd Matthew."

He'd heard the scuff on stone before the voice, turned and opened his mouth.

Rose had appeared at the doorway.

He couldn't believe it. Less than two months ago she'd been made a human shish kabob on the end of Sobek's sword, slicing cleanly through her guts; her stomach was a roadmap of stitches and scar-lines and now she'd made the trip from infirmary to castle alone on unsteady legs. "Jesus, what the hell are you doing out of bed?"

Making her way towards him, Rose gripped the edge of the marble slab and gently lowered herself into an opposite seat. Todd stood and, with a hand readied to snatch her in case she leaned too far to one side, watched as she grimaced at her skin pulling at sutures beneath her robe. "I wanted to...take a walk." she answered at length.

He slumped back down, stared, eyes turning flinty, and then turned away. "You shouldn't be up."

"We need to talk."

"I don't want to talk."

Her breathing, the only sound in the stone-layered room, had slowed. "When will you stop running?"

"What?!" Todd choked, eyebrows hitting his hairline. "You're one to fucking talk!"

"I had no choice." Rose said calmly. "You do. But still you insist on running and hiding like that scared little boy."

He damned near bit his lip. A sound bubbled up from his throat and he went to attack, but that little suppressed ball of rage had evaporated into resentful acceptance as soon as it hit the air. "Fuck." was all Todd managed.

Something shook the table: his foot.

Rose felt the tremor through her rested hands, and without even swiping a glance at her son's knotted brow she could've, literally, sensed how charged the air was on the ends of her fingertips. "You can't hide from this. You can't hide from the fact your father is not only alive, but willing to do anything to kill the woman you've married and those you call your family."

"I was there, remember?!" he snapped. "I nearly had my balls handed to me by the same guy who shot me from his gun-barrel!"

"That's disgusting."

Todd was quickly, heatedly contrite. "I'm sorry! It's just..." Nothing; he drew a blank. "Fuck!" Another pause, another scowl and he shook his hands in the air. "It's just...still a little hard to wrap my mind around it..."

"You seen things a select few have and ever will."

"Doesn't mean I expected my parents to come back from the dead."

"No," the tone waned, "no I suppose not."

Todd sighed, angled outwards and sat parallel to the table. "Is there any possibility the men who attacked the car were...gargoyles?" he asked, and Rose stiffened.

Something overlapped reality as a cold wind went down her back; images were superimposing themselves over her field of vision. Fire climbed stone and Todd was three years old again.

Screams, claws, panels being torn from their car, eyes glowing in the bedlam of adrenaline, hurtling sleet and children's cries, Rose barely scraped the quickly surfacing memory before it overwhelmed her. Her next breath fluttered. "Perhaps..."

"Then he's hell-bent on some kind of revenge."

"Thus, the Guild." she said low into the collar of her gown. "But why continue the grudge if we...if we're still alive?"

Sarah, Rose immediately thought. She'd spent days in the fever of vacant hope, in between her sobs and frustrated screams into the darkness of the infirmary that somehow, if her husband had managed to disentangle himself from the twisted wreck of the family camper, he'd found her baby girl. But, if dead, a grieving father could and would still walk through Hell to find those responsible.

Joseph was a capable man, and chillingly resourceful when pushed.

"You know as well as I do it's hard to stop when you've spent twenty years hating," Todd whispered, and it wasn't hard to see where he'd aimed his gaze, "or hiding–"

"Or running away." She was broken from her reverie, the room cleared and all that was left was her son. Rose met his vicious, pain-filled glare, echoing his father's. "Have you told the others?"

"That my dad's their leader? That he led the charge one rainy night in order to slaughter every single one of them?!" His voice had hit its peak, and then, plummeted into a muted admission, "No." he breathed. "The last thing they need is a reason not to take those mask-wearing bastards down."

"He's your father."

"My father's dead!" he roared, kicking his chair away and leaning into the table so hard to near upend the bolted oak and iron-capped ends. "Your husband's dead!"

Rose lowered her head.

"We've seen him, seen him try to kill this entire clan, my clan, my family! Nothing will bring him back!"

Her gaze went back up, backlit by resolve. "Are you sure?"

"If you could've been there...seen him, talked to him...you'd know exactly what he's become."

Fire-seared flesh didn't quite emote well enough to translate the subtlest of expressions, but the skin around potent green eyes clenched even on Rose's scarred left side, and gave Todd reason to pause. "I have lived the last twenty years thinking my husband had burned to death." she said adamantly. "If there's any way to bring him back, I will try."

The chair was placed back on its feet, and Todd slid into place. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop, cast a few glances towards her and eventually, deciding that yelling at his mother was becoming a little weird, a little heartless and a little exhaustive, cautiously posed, "What are you going to tell Macbeth?"

----------------------------------------

Brooklyn felt the heated air push past him as the pressure between the two rooms equalized. Stepping into the computer room, he slowly came up behind his newly appointed second and rested on the back of the leather chair usually frequented by Goliath before his disappearance.

The scent still lingered.

"Busy night?"

He frowned, "If you can call it that."

Broadway slowly turned in the chair to better face him. "Any connection?"

"No, we can probably write the Guild off as being in the buying business. They've most likely recruited everyone they can and stocked up on weaponry a long time ago."

The highback groaned, feeling the brunt of the gargoyle leaning back into the hollow of stitching and textured leather. There was a question on his mind that'd been on everyone else's the last two months. "Then why wait?" Broadway voiced it. "Why attack us and then disappear?"

"They are still attacking us." Brooklyn answered. "They're just being smarter than a full-frontal assault."

"I think a full-frontal assault would work pretty damned good. Hell, it almost did, and one good shot would snap this building in half with the shield still on the fritz."

Brooklyn drew in a breath and noticed, as always, how warm the air was; even well-ventilated, the sheer number, size and power of the computer banks kept the room at least ten degrees higher than the entire castle at any given time. "Something's stopping them." he mused aloud, his eyes having calcified to a deeper, near-fathomless black. "Something about this clan, this castle, this building, is stopping them from killing the lot of us in a massive ball of fire and stone."

"Well, their previous targets were specific, only those guilty of collaboration or association. Every employee under Xanatos could be our buffer against getting a missile in the face."

"Maybe."

"They've fired once..."

"Desperation." he shrugged. "Panic. They wouldn't have risked three hundred of their men if all it took was the push of a button."

Broadway sighed, realized his brother was keeping a little bit more of his answer to himself the way his brow had introspectively furrowed and turned back to the computer screen. "Well, at least we got those weapons off the street."

"Barely." Brooklyn chuffed. He knew enough illegal artillery to equip an army had been smuggled into the island with the authorities being so busy, and thirty confiscated crates had barely scratched the surface. "I think all we've done is gotten ourselves into the middle of a war. There's a hole where Dracon used to be, and everyone's fighting for pieces of what little empire he had. Morgan's got it figured there's at least three new kingpins all at each other's throats, using the chaos the city's in with the damage, deaths and unemployment."

"Any idea of who they are?" Broadway asked.

"First suspect is Lucian Barnes, a small-time thug trying to be something he isn't. He was never a threat until Dracon got the sharp end of about a hundred bullets, then he started employing and devouring as much turf as possible."

"I take it the cops can't get a shred of evidence on the guy."

"Squeaky clean from where the law's concerned."

"Who's the second?"

"Alleged to be Triad."

He sucked air through his sinuses. "Great." Broadway groaned. "And the third?"

Brooklyn pinched the bridge of his nose, massaging with two talons the skin under his eyes. "No idea. Newcomer they guess..."

----------------------------------------

May 23rd
"Of course he survived, Madame Woo. I didn't expect anything else."

An angry voice could be heard through the speaker, but the figure on the other end of the phone remained eerily, Novocain-level serene.

"I'm well aware she's dead. Yes," the woman nodded, "yes."

The voice went shrill.

"Yes, I'm well aware the considerable cost and time it took to train your assassin, but she apparently wasn't well-trained enough. And I paid the entire fee upfront, more than enough to satisfy our agreement." She knew the reaction she'd get before the words slipped out. "Think of it as a lesson to your other girls."

A delicate hand placed the phone back onto its cradle before the argument could persist, then found its way into the cleft of her chin. The woman smiled, and couldn't help but laugh.

A spitfire at five feet and sixty-nine years old, Madame Woo was the caretaker of a harem of hired guns and one of her best hadn't come home that night. She'd collapsed a car roof somewhere downtown outside of Lucian Barnes' disgustingly opulent plaza home, obviously unsuccessful in her task. The body had probably been dumped unceremoniously; no grave, no flowers, just a life passing into nothingness like a breeze snuffing a candle.

But such was the life of an assassin.

And such was the contract signed with the angry little Japanese Madame. Good money had been paid but, even with his penchant for the female form, she'd always known Lucian would somehow weasel himself out from underneath (or on top of) the killer.

It was, after all, a good joke between friends and rivals and if, just if he hadn't been paying attention, Barnes' might have blamed Zhu. The war would've become a little personal and escalated between the two.

But the game wouldn't be as much fun if the other players weren't as skilled.

She turned in her chair, and found the city from fifty-two stories up against an amethyst gaze; it was glowing, radiating into her office. Manhattan was so different than the crumbling rock and columns of Greece, but chaos was a timeless dynamic, and sewing the seeds of anarchy was the same as it was thousands of years ago.

And now, as she glanced at the brass portico about to strike eleven, her all too mortal underlings were, at the moment, spilling more blood and provoking the contenders to the throne she knew she deserved. "Well," she whispered, drawing a manicured talon into the striations of her desk, "let's see what throwing a rock at the hornets' nest will do."

----------------------------------------

Kaleidoscopic, seizure-inducing light shimmered off wisps of smoke rising into a ceiling laced with open girders and that seemed to fade into nothingness the higher it went up. Under pounding bass and the frenetic footfalls of some five hundred twenty-somethings writhing in their own sweat, obliviousness and whatever semi-legal substances rummaged through their bloodstreams, the ground and walls trembled.

A club in Manhattan at the dead hour, near the edge of the Hole it was alive on a precipice of ruin.

It'd offered sanctuary from the world outside and didn't ask questions of its clientele, no matter how loud, drunk or high, or how red their eyes and slurred their speech. It had been a gentlemen's club once, back in the heyday of the twenties when prohibition and mob wars raged, and like the decades in between then and now it too had transformed and kept its place as a haven for the antisocial.

In the back, behind sound-dampening material and an Eastern motif complete with paper lanterns and sliding walls, a young Geisha tried to keep her eyes on the narrow passageway bordered by blue-lit aquariums full of exotic fish.

A Japanese fighting fish shot into the glass as she passed and she nearly spilled the tray balanced on her hand. As the fierce little creature disappeared into the recesses of the miniature seascape, she stopped, grabbed the delicate porcelain cups and steadied herself before continuing.

Reaching the door, she marveled at the dragon staring back at her with ruby eyes; gold inlay formed the body of the mythical beast and coiled across the surface. For a moment, her breath caught. She pushed against the door and entered into the dark-lit room. There were men in the shadows, garbed in traditional kimono, and a conversation that'd stopped upon her intrusion.

An older man motioned with a flick of his head towards a solitary figure at the end of the room.

She followed his line, and approached, the clack of her sandals chillingly loud and slowing as she met the back of a lean, crouched form. Long hair obscured his features, and an exposed back drew a tale through permanent ink of villagers slaying a dragon escaping along the ridge of his spine.

A hand reached out, took the closest hand-painted teacup and slim, febrile eyes flashed at the young girl through the tendrils.

She tightened behind the heavy white face-paint, relieved she'd pleased (or at the very least placated) the man who'd quickly gained the reputation as being cruel to the point of lethal to the hired help.

He tested the warm drink and, satisfied, waved her away and she shuffled off on her geta. Lei Zhu had enjoyed his tea much to the relief of the waitress running back to the kitchen.

The old man at the opposite end, hair like tarnished silver, features touched by age and war, had seen the terror in a young child's eyes and the seemingly myopic non-reaction of the man he would faithfully serve as honor dictated. He lowered his head.

"You seem," a voice, cold, sibilant, "disturbed, old friend."

Furrowed hands steepled beneath his chin. "Are you even aware of the fear you engender?"

"Yes." he chuckled. "Fear brings respect. I cannot have disloyal underlings now can I?"

"Respect is earned, child."

His head went up, and the dragon rippled in its death throes as Zhu flexed his wiry body. "I don't like that term."

There was dry laughter hidden within the wheezy tone. "You never did. You have always tried to grow up too fast."

Zhu would've protested the retainer's presumption if the door hadn't burst open, bathing the room in the neon-supple glow of the aquariums beyond. A man staggered in, frayed, heavy-breathed and a thin trail of blood running from his hairline to the sharp bony plate of his cheek. "Zhu!" he yelled. "We've been hit."

The shadow reacted sharply, and the messenger flinched. "Who?"

"Looked like Barnes' men."

Murmurs traveled through the gathered, some feared, some fierce.

A wicked thought creased Zhu's face, and then, a calm breath, "Then we hit back."

The old man'd reacted just as brusquely, though where his young employer's expression had barely cracked his had melted into wordless shock. "You cannot."

"Why?"

"We're going to start a war."

"I want a war!!" it exploded, and the sveltely-physiqued Asian shot to his feet. "I want the blood and brains of my enemies lying splattered on the pavement!! Juno and Barnes won't squeeze the Triad from our rightful place!"

"Your father would not approve of such reckless abandon." he argued. Lei advanced and into the room's sparse illumination; a man-child with a wolf's grin and eyes so black they sucked in any ambient light. "My father is dead." He bared teeth, fangs from underneath a thin and curled lip. "Buried, dust, like the fossil he'd become in his later years, and because he was not ruthless enough he was killed, shot in the back of the head."

There was a dull pain in the old man's shoulder; his wound was acting up again. He'd taken a bullet for Lei's father once and it'd never healed quite right. But the ache would only come when the fools of the clan he'd served since the second Great War would risk both themselves and the empire built on their blood and ashes. Like now. Dracon's death had made him aggressive, rash and ballsy. "Think of your family," he counseled, "think of your place, think of everything you hold in your hands as the heir to your clan."

"I am. Blood will run the streets." He snapped his fingers several times in succession, and all the men who'd kneeled obediently jumped up. "Gather the elite. Tell them I have a job for them."

----------------------------------------

May 24th, 11:54pm
Rubber shredded, and ripped away from the steel. The truck hit the rims, sparks danced on asphalt and the entire vehicle flipped over and rolled into the middle of the street.

The driver was dead on impact, his passengers crawled from the cab bloody and broken and one poor guy rolled out from the back, trying to suck air through a collapsed lung.

As he hit the ground, he noticed the spike strip that'd taken out the truck's tires.

That was the last thing he saw before everything went red, cloudy and then dark. A bullet had hit him in the temple, sent shards of skull into his brain and before his neurons stopped firing a foot stepped into his rapidly diminishing field of vision.

A voice was on the gasoline-fragrant wind, "Kill them all. Take whatever survived the crash."

Near midnight, the street the truck had been traveling was fortunately almost completely uninhabited and whatever stragglers had seen the massive vehicle somersault down the road, shedding parts, flames and human bodies, had fled. And either unplanned or planned as it was, no one would be witness to several black Lexuses following behind and stopping just behind the wreck.

Men unloaded from each vehicle, shot whatever still moved and started unloading the cargo from the rear. They were Chinese, methodical, deadly; they were Zhu's elite guard and had left five bodies in their wake in a blur of piracy and deceptively passive movement.

A gurgle around the front of the overturned, top-heavy hauler caught the attention of the ringleader; he signaled the others to finish unloading and walked calmly towards the shapeless heap. It was slowly moving.

One of Barnes' goons was trying to drag himself to safety, leaving a smear on the pavement as his belly bled out.

The Elite approached, straddled the thug and heard the distant wail of a siren somewhere in the turmoil of urban sound. They had minutes at the most. "For the Triad." he breathed, raised his gun and fired into the back of the man's head.

----------------------------------------

Lost in traffic somewhere in any of Manhattan's boroughs, the Lexuses were already gone before forms as streamlined as a 747 sheared the calm air and clutched to the side of a building.

By the smell they were greeted with, the bodies had been lying dead in the streets for at least several minutes.

And even from the outcrop thirty floors up the blood on the currents nearly knocked them from their perch. It was getting a little hazardous to fly lately with the air nearly overridden with the stench of destruction and death.

Delilah braced herself against the tinny wind, recoiling and fending off the offensive odor with an arm across her face. "They're dead."

Othello somehow deepened the inveterate grimace. "We're too late." he rumbled, and clawed his way to a better take-off point, dislodging tiny chunks of brick as he went. "Come, there's nothing more we can do."

Shadow narrowed his eyes. He growled, and rippled from top to bottom.

"Shadow," Othello called again, "we cannot stay in the open for long."

The ninja wasn't in too much of a hurry to leave. The scent was running strong into the city center; it'd been so long since his days hunting prey in the forests of eastern Japan, he missed it.

A hand slid into his shoulder, between the spurs. Only a few people knew where to touch, where to kindle. "We have to go." Delilah whispered.

Eyes fired white-hot, settled into the familial sapphire and he reluctantly followed.

----------------------------------------

May 25th, morning...

Lucian Barnes' wore a sneer that could melt steel, and shear the wheels from passing cars on the tree-lined boulevard just beginning to feel the brunt of traffic. Three hundred pounds of frustration hit each step of his brownstone with the intent to stamp an Italian shoeprint into the concrete. "How much?"

"Seven crates worth." Charles answered, trying to follow alongside his boss as Lucian made the line between the stairs and his car waiting at the curb.

"And six of our best men. Zhu works quickly."

"He calls them his Elite. These fuckers are stone cold. Reminds me of Ice."

"You know," he mused, "I'm beginning to like his entire massacre idea more and more."

Charles couldn't help but smile at the thought. "Finesse?"

"Out the window." Barnes hissed, wrenching the rim of his fedora deeper along his brow.

"Well, well, well."

Lucian stopped dead in his tracks just before reaching the car. The voice had come from behind and ran goosebump through a starched collar and down his spine. Leather jacket and a fire mane, he'd cast a hostile eye over his shoulder to see the little policewoman standing several paces off. "Detective Starr."

Iliana sauntered up towards him, deliberately swinging her hips and playing precariously coy even though, with the size difference between them, her chin would hit his tiepin. "Hello, Mr. Barnes." she greeted melodically. "I hear you lost some quality merchandise last night."

He turned fully, leisurely and tugged on the lapels of his pinstriped suit. "I'm afraid I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Of course you don't."

Another voice, rich like the cognac he favored, and with that same bite.

Barnes lifted his eyes to Starr's escort. It was like seeing an old friend after years apart; Lucian and the twenty-third's resident veteran had a history much like Elisa had with Dracon. "Ah, officer Morgan." he extended a hand that, though stared at, went unclaimed. "How are your kids?"

Morgan didn't appreciate the jackal grin, or the subtle connotations in the tone that walked the line of a simple, albeit disturbingly realistic joke. He shored up beneath the moustache. "Is that a threat?"

"No."

"You sure?"

Barnes put on the show of misinterpretation, relaxing stern features. "Why is everything I say misconstrued as some kind of intimidation?"

"Because you're a petty thug."

"Ah," the larger man scoffed, "cop humor."

"So," Iliana made the loop around him, the tip of her tongue on her left incisor, "what'd you lose last night? Guns, drugs, a couple of new prostitutes fresh out of high school?"

"I don't need to pay for women, detective."

She snatched a rumpled piece of paper from her pocket, unfolded it and started reading the lines of text. "The license plate was registered to your company, wasn't it?"

"I reported that truck stolen from our property the day before." he explained coolly.

"Really? Convenient."

"No," Barnes held up a finger, "common sense."

"You have an alibi for everything, Mr. Barnes." she snapped back. "You must be one of the new and improved smarter crooks we've been hearing about."

"I'm a simple businessman, detective Starr, nothing more."

"Bullshit."

He tilted his head, drinking in the sight of the spitfire in the loose-fitting coat and pursed his lips. He didn't have time to waste on one cop out of many he'd been indirectly responsible for killing. "If you'll excuse me, detective."

Charles had already opened the rear door, and Lucian squeezed himself through, settling into and taking up most of the rear bench.

But before it could seamlessly glide into the street Iliana got a running start, pushed off from the sidewalk and onto the hood of Barnes' Lincoln. The car lurched to a stop. She could see the faces of Lucian and the rest of his hooligans in the back seat, and decided to test the shocks and their resolve by bouncing up and down on the triple-appliqué paint job as if the hood was a trampoline.

"Jesus Christ!" Charles nearly spit out his fillings, grabbing for the handle above the window. "What the hell is she on?!"

Lucian's features seemed to fold in on themselves. He'd clenched hard enough to snap steel in his bare hands at the gall of this tiny cop scuffing his paint.

Iliana dropped to her knees, pressed her hands to the windshield and leaned in, breath a pulsing patch on the glass. "Keep your nose clean, 'Big Dawg'," she warned in a muffled voice, "we'll be watching you."

Barnes stared intently as she slid from the hood, adjusted her coat and ambled off. "And I'll be watching you, young lady."

----------------------------------------

"She did what?!"

Though unseen, Morgan had winced behind the digital connection. "...Danced on their hood..."

Shadow nearly burst from his skin, and that little vein throbbed at the tattooed, ridged temple. "That stupid little idiot!"

Brooklyn held up a hand to the gargoyle with at least a foot on him in height and almost grazing the ceiling as Goliath once did when at his zenith. It was like standing up to a tornado, one that growled, spit fire and could tear his head off on a whim. "All right, calm down, it's not that bad."

"Not that bad?!" he echoed. "First she's walking around in plain sight where any Guild mole could see her, and she now she taunts suspected criminals!" His fists clenched, knuckles turned a lighter shade under his leather gauntlets and Brooklyn cautiously edged back. If he exploded, there wasn't a lot of room in the computer room (a small, sealed chamber full to the brim with computer banks and communication equipment) to dodge the inevitable rampage. "How in the Dragon did she become a protector of this city?! She can't even protect herself!"

He shrugged. "Fortune favors the bold."

"Or the foolish!"

"...Well, her scheme–" Morgan continued, before being interrupted.

"Or inherent insanity!"

"–might just work if she succeeds in getting under Barnes' skin, making him sloppy enough to screw up..."

"Or angry enough to kill her."

"All right." Brooklyn snapped, and quieted the other gargoyle, albeit with a slightly irritable and somewhat lethal expression.

The ambient temperature rose a few degrees, and Shadow breathed the fury off, shaking it through the ebon sails that stretched to the breaking point before finally relaxing.

"You really care about her, don't you?" Brooklyn observed, enjoying the sight of the warrior rattled and, deliciously, over a woman.

He spun on his talons. "I never did stop caring about her." Shadow confessed. "I was dumped, remember? You didn't catch the rumor? It was spread throughout the entire castle within a half hour!"

"Yes, I heard." he nodded, and halfway hid the smile he felt curling his mouth. "Hawkins told me. Couldn't keep a straight face."

Shadow's growl went hollow, curled around arched stone and eventually faded into the mechanical hum of computer hard drives. "I hate him."

"Listen, there's absolutely no way we can control Iliana so don't strain yourself trying. She's smart, she can take care of herself."

He snorted incredulously through his fangs; it was incredible this clan had survived so long considering how naive they all seemed to be. Iliana had not just lived but thrived on putting herself in harm's way. "All it will take is another bomb." Shadow ground out. "And this time I may not be there to save her."

"Maybe not. We can't protect everyone every second of every day."

"No, just the few we care about."

Smoothing his mane and working out a kink in his shoulder, Brooklyn offered up a blank stare to Shadow's accusing, iridescent glower. His mouth went flat. "Morgan," he suddenly said, "do us a favor and lay off Barnes for a while. We're taking up the case."

There was a hesitant pause, and then, "...And what should I do about Iliana?..."

Brooklyn deepened his gaze and said without so many words (or none at all) that he'd just found a volunteer to relay the news.

Shadow saw something in dusty charcoal he didn't like, and reared back.

"Don't worry. We've got someone that should be able to convince her to stay out of the way for awhile."

----------------------------------------

It wasn't hard.

Slinking past the uniformed officers, using the empty rooms of the precinct to hide himself until they passed and the hall was clear and safe for him to travel, he prowled the twenty-third precinct long past midnight and thought after the Guild had infiltrated security would be tighter.

It was, but most of the available detectives and police officers were presently spread throughout the island, trying to maintain some sort of order.

In the myriad of human scent, he was able to distinguish one from what he guessed were several hundred that'd overlapped each other through the forty-year history of the building.

Second floor, central hall, he waited out two detectives and made the dash over the linoleum, hit the door (ignoring the homemade sign taped to the paint) and slipped inside. The knob clacked its latch plate with a skilled hand, and Shadow looked around him.

She'd set up a small home here, using the comfort of the twenty-third's constantly revolving compliment of armed policemen and the fact it never closed. He almost smirked at the vulnerability of it all, and how she managed the pretense so effortlessly. She was sleeping in a twin on the far side of the windowless room, one sheet, undershirt, quick breaths, and an arm over her head. He approached, watched for a moment, then, a disembodied voice would run through the small room like a breeze had somehow found its way in. "So," it was soft, casual but ironic, "you'd prefer this over the castle."

She woke.

And it wasn't so much the corner of her room casually speaking to her that creeped her out as it was the fact he had found her so easily. Iliana wriggled from underneath the sheets and caught the chain on her lamp (the other hand dangerously close to slipping underneath the pillow for her Magnum); just outside the pale edge of sixty watts the darkness had coalesced into something at first only defined by memory. Then, as her eyes adjusted, each conspicuous piece of him cleared up, the brow ridges, tattoos, the ivory braid of hair and scowl. "Jesus–"

"Good evening."

"–frigging Christ. How the hell did you find me?!"

Shadow stepped forward and tapped the side of his nose. "We've mated. I know your scent...intimately."

"Eww."

He growled at her, baring teeth and a bit of his upper gum, "What do you mean eww?!"

Iliana leaned back into her pillows and raked fingers through her sleep-tousled hair. "I don't know if I like the fact of having an ex being able to track me by just my scent." She could hear the rush of air delivered in an acerbic snort. "How did you get in here anyway?"

"I am ninja."

Her eyes rolled at the hopelessly nebulous explanation. "I hate when you say that. That was the same answer you gave me when I asked how you did that thing with your tail–"

"I've come to deliver a message," he abruptly turned the conversation, stalking soundlessly through her new home and picking panties off the lampshade, "though I'm sure you won't listen."

"What?"

"Leave Lucian Barnes alone." he warned, his tone like sandpaper on skin.

Iliana was just about to argue back in her justification but held her tongue when she noticed that, during the entire conversation, he'd caped his wings. He rarely caped his wings. It was one of the unassuming gestures she'd learned to read throughout their brief relationship, considering he didn't give her much of anything else resembling that precious window into his soul. It meant he'd sucked up the pride of coming back. "That's my job." she said at length.

"And it's becoming a deathwish."

"Listen," she hissed, "the only reason Barnes is getting away with everything is because no one else has the balls to confront him."

"Because they usually end up dead."

"Someone's got to push the line, fight back."

Eyes snapped with color and azure fire, and it hauntingly traced every contour of every spur of bone. Flesh was contracting under the weak light. "Then leave that to us."

She shook her head. "I can't afford to."

"You must."

"Why?"

There was a smile somewhere under the ebony skin. "Because I'm not giving you a choice."

And even if voiced, Iliana's rebuttal would have fallen on deaf ears considering Shadow had already somehow vanished from the room without her even noticing. The fluttering calendar pages marked his passing.

She slumped back, and harrumphed, "I don't want you dead either, ninjabutt."

----------------------------------------

"You sure?"

"...License plates match..."

His ridges lowered. A wisp of white light along each lid held the only illumination in the lane, enough to run along the viridian skin of his companion. "How long?"

"...A few minutes..." Lexington's voice fed through the commlink. "...They just turned the corner and are coming your way..."

Katana unsheathed her sword; it caught the faint starlight from above.

"Ready?"

She ran two talons along the edge, and the blade sung. She smiled, "Of course."

"Then cover me." he said, moments before throwing himself into the street and between the headlights of the oncoming car.

"What the fuck...?!!"

The driver hit the brakes, tires squealed, and Broadway anchored himself into the asphalt. Hands took the hood at seventy miles per hour and the gargoyle dug into the road with his feet, eventually bringing the car to a stop after leaving a fifty-foot gash.

Despite the pain in his feet, he lifted his eyes and connected with the four human, slack-jawed passengers over the hood. For a moment, they were too stunned to capably react until instinct kicked in. They moved for their guns and started firing through the windshield at whatever had crumpled the front half of their vehicle.

Broadway ducked below the bumper and crawled off, letting Katana slither in from outside the focus of their attention and run her blade through the door hinges. A few flashes of steel and jade and when finished firing at a target that had vanished, those on the left half noticed their doors were a little loose.

"What the fuck was that?" one asked, cradling his gun as if it was itself holding back the darkness on this atypically dim-lit street.

"It had horns..." another retorted, scanning the other side of the car. "And glowing eyes. You don't think...?"

A blade suddenly worked its way in between the front and rear doors on the passenger side, angled for leverage and pulled the rear door completely off.

"Shit!" More bullets, fired at empty air.

Then, the opposite doors were pulled off and by this time, the four men were more than a little freaked at their invisible opponent carefully deconstructing their expensive sedan. They all decided, on what was probably a simple wish to go out barrels blazing, to abandon their vehicle.

"Should have stayed in the car."

The gargoyles paired off and struck from behind before the men could get off another shot; Katana with her sword, and an upswing with the dull edge relieved her two of their weapons. They pulled their hands away, and each felt the blunt end of an object skid across their temples.

Lacking the lissome movements of his partner (whenever the time traveler entered into battle, it was if she was dancing), Broadway simply unleashed with his fists, sending one over the hood of the car as the other backed away in terror, forgetting the gun in his hand in the face of the loinclothed creature nearly twice as big.

He advanced and slapped away the gun, then stopped, hearing something in the wind.

"Shit." He urgently waved away the samurai. "Katana, back off!"

"Why?"

Head up, neck craned, Broadway caught the outline of something up above, in between the stars and spires and descending at breakneck speed. "Someone's coming..."

Katana followed his gaze and in seeing the hurtling shape, immediately understood. "Ah."

He dropped from the sky like a missile, whistling in and leaving a superheated trail of air behind. Claw-tipped wings closed in and narrowed from double spiked tip to membrane and formed the makeshift contour of a bullet for the last few hundred feet.

Until, they opened, Shadow flipped and impacted feet first. The car nearly broke in half and blew out the tempered glass before the thundercrack of sound would follow and drown everything else out.

The street seemed to buckle under the collision and swallow the Benz (until, later when the smoke cleared and the fire died from lack of fuel, it would be determined the car was actually flattened like being nailed to the pavement).

"I hope they have good insurance..." Broadway muttered, shielding himself from the debris.

The smoking hulk vomited flame, chunks of luxury car and a cobalt-eyed creature that landed, roared and leapt towards the nearest human. A whirlwind of dark leather later and a hail of poorly-and-desperately-aimed bullets mostly loosed into the sky, all but one of the gang had been rendered either unconscious or in serious need of medical attention.

With Shadow breathing heavily over one shoulder and Katana brandishing her sword over the other, Broadway grabbed that last man and wrenched him close. "Tell your boss to stop waging his war on our streets," he snarled, "or he's going to find himself a couple of testicles short."

The hand on the man's collar tightened until, feeling the bead of perspiration hit the index talon dangerously close to his jugular, released.

The back of his head hit the cement; the thug was so numb he didn't even know he'd fallen, and he remained staring upwards where the skyscrapers all tapered to a single point. He'd heard heavy footfalls and the tremors through the asphalt lessening until the ground was dead still, and an odd rustling in between the sound of his own heart trying to burst through his ribcage that eventually faded away.

Silence followed, time lapsed. It'd been a few minutes.

They, the freaks, were gone. Probably, hopefully he thought. Fire flickered in the corner of his eye, groaning on either side, one guy yelling something about a broken wrist, and all he managed was a single breath.

Until, finally, something snapped and he started screaming bloody murder.

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"...I heard screaming and an explosion. I take it everything went okay?..."

"Couldn't have gone better, Lex."

"...Then what exploded?..."

"Shadow...uh, broke their car."

"...Oh..."

"Yeah. Anyway, hit the wind, we're going home."

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Trembling hands couldn't keep hold of the glass; water trickled down his chin.

He'd burst through Barnes' doors, dripping blood on the carpet and babbling in choked yelps about monsters making short work of their car. The others had been arrested (Broadway had called the police and hoped the possession of unlicensed weapons would least keep them off the streets for a few months), but he'd escaped, stumbling into the first subway station he could find.

Nothing could attack him at forty mph underground.

And now, Lucian Barnes towered over the shivering man, expression lost in the heather plume of cigar smoke. His hands were clenched at his sides. "How many?"

"T-Three...I-I think..." he stuttered out. "There c-could have been more I don't know..." His eyes were wild, riveted on some distant light outside and he knew if he closed them he'd see the creatures in his mind. "H-He told me, that thing told you to s-stop your war on their streets..."

"Their streets?"

"That's...that's what he said..."

Lucian was predictably irate and unsure whether or not to believe the story, but the frequency of these accounts were giving rise to his own belief in Manhattan's old urban legend. Plus, the four prominent wounds in his neck, laid out as if a hand had grabbed him, didn't go unnoticed. "Get him cleaned up," he barked to a couple of his subordinates, "and get my lawyer down to whatever police station those idiots got themselves dragged to. I don't want them telling the cops anything!"

They grabbed their cohort and dragged him out, leaving the massive man alone with no outlet for his anger besides a wealth of imported treasures.

But, standing in the corner and studying every minute reaction of his employer, Ice had remained behind. He thought another piece of furniture would suffer by the way Barnes was pacing. "I told you," he said, "monsters. I don't have to tell you the myths of creatures like this in Africa."

Lucian had almost forgotten his upper echelon; he'd blended so well with the shadows it was eerie. "I'm well aware of the myths," he growled, "my grandmother told me the same stories over a fire."

"I had someone check out the car. It was completely destroyed."

"I could do the same with a goddamned bazooka."

"What about your bare hands?"

Barnes looked a little nonplussed but, privately intrigued, allowed Ice to continue and eased the expression of curiosity from his face. Men gave too much away even through their eyes and he'd learned, in this particular career, to reveal only what he wanted.

"No explosives were used." Ice continued, walking forwards. "There were two distinct handprints in the hood, and the car was hit with a blunt object from above."

He took the news as well as anyone, well enough in fact the lines in his brow scarcely deepened and Lucian sucked on his cigar. As aptly as his underling was named, he too could've been mistaken for a statue at his non-reaction. "So," he calmly ruminated, "we have a new player in our little game, hmm?"

"Apparently."

"Then it's time to escalate things. I don't need a war on three fronts."

A brow rose; as much as Ice was partial to the idea, there was a lurking possibility of his employer biting off more than he could chew. "Are you sure? I distinctly remember something along the lines of cockroaches."

"Positive. We need to reduce the number of parasites in this city."

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"Ready?"

Ice stroked the clean, gunmetal surface. "Always."

Picking his boot up off the neck of one of the downed bouncers, Charles gave another vicious kick to the man's head before stepping over him and through the doors to the nightclub. Ice and seven others followed, making their way through the narrow, wood-paneled hall that trembled against the bass and staring down a few customers that saw either the weaponry stashed under long coats or the vicious expressions and quickly eased past them towards the entrance.

The corridor quickly opened up into a frenzy of light and bodies, crowded tables surrounding the dance floor and a gauzy layer of smoke. Eyes darted; Charles looked for anyone who would've noticed them, but the guards seemed to have been lured in by the decadent atmosphere and the protective belief that no one would be crazy enough to attack here.

He thought he should say something grandiose, but didn't want to give away the advantage of the surprise. All he could manage was a quiet, "Hit 'em."

His cohorts opened up their coats to reveal their weapons, quickly aimed and fired in a sweeping pattern; Ice actually cracked his sub-zero veneer with a smile a little too enjoyable to be normal.

Charles unlatched the safety, pulled the trigger and felt the gratifying kick in his ribs. He started riddling the back wall with holes and whoever just happened to be in the way; customers, staff, anyone Asian (country of origin didn't seem to matter) and anyone even remotely moving was mowed down in a hail of automatic gunfire.

If the Triad were present, in the time it would take to actually react and reach for their guns they'd already be dead.

Screams rose into the ceiling above the music (until the DJ was shot), people scattered, stepping over each other to get to safety between the flying shards of broken bottles and fine crystal. Pricey liqueur sprayed and nearly caught fire in the heat of every bullet passing through the glittery mist.

It was bedlam with a hint of copper in the air.

A young Geisha waitress threw her tray up for protection and dropped to the floor. Under the table, she noticed something wet had stained her kimono and thought she'd been hit. Frantically, she started batting her hands against the loose material looking for a hole until, with a sense of relief and a wave of nausea turning her stomach, she discovered it was merely a spilled Caesar for the customer who'd taken a bullet to the head.

His body had slumped to the floorboards beside her.

She noticed, screamed and buried her head in her arms when someone else fell dead on the other side of her tattered refuge.

----------------------------------------

"Damn..." Maria muttered, staring at her phone.

Just less than an hour ago she'd let Hudson have it. As soon as the old soldier had wisped his first breath against the receiver she'd tore into him like one of her detectives so much so as to aggravate the old wound in her stomach.

Hudson never flinched, though admittedly he was surprised his lover had heard of what had happened with the clan, a few of Barnes' cronies and a brand new Mercedes recycled into scrap. He'd defended the decision, she argued her side (procedure, proper channels, something about a hornet's nest, etc) and it all ended in Maria slamming the phone down and effectively hanging up on him.

Now, as she sat fuming, ruing her decision and hoping vainly the phone would ring, she knew she was walking the fine line Elisa had once before between duty and loyalty to a peculiar group of creatures.

But she couldn't afford to have the clan's particular brand of justice on the streets right now.

"Captain!"

Maria jerked from her desk as a young detective burst through her office door. He looked like hell. "Cole?" she demanded quickly, standing.

In a breathless gasp, he quickly explained, "We've got reports of a shooting downtown."

"Damn..."

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She could hear the gunfire on the air. Her audible range was far superior to a human's after all.

More blood, draining through Manhattan gutters, carnage, anarchy; she was nearly, discreetly giddy.

But it was halfway through her euphoria when she noticed the electricity in the air; hairs on the nape of her neck were standing on end. The entire room, every molecule and the bonds between, had electrified, and that meant someone else had felt what she did. "Ambrosine." she whispered, sensing the unique pattern of energy she'd spawned in a drunken mistake grow closer.

Little testing steps brought the girl into the room, but the stride was deliberate and the pace unnaturally languid. "Mother?" she called out.

"I'm here, child."

The girl walked forward until she reached the edge of her mother's desk and as small fingers rubbed over the varnished surface, the wood darkened along the grain, started rotting and festering, distorting. "Mother, I wish to play."

Juno smiled, and caressed the black hair of her daughter that seemed like the surface of a woodland pond, pure, depthless. "You'll get your chance soon, dear." she promised. "I think it's time I got a little more involved."