97 - "The Hole: Part 4"
"This used to be such a nice city..." Lucian Barnes muttered as he made his way down the steps of Saturn Tech. "Before all the freaks started moving in."
Lei Zhu was right behind him, still clutching the arrow in his shoulder; they'd formed a volatile truce to save their own skin and promised to kill each other later. For now, both men and every belief they'd had quickly humbled, their war had been put on hold as they tried to put as much distance between themselves and the chaos on the top floor that could still be heard even as they hit the second.
But, as he approached the wide stairwell that opened into the first floor foyer, Barnes skidded to a stop when seeing the ornate silver gilding reflecting a familiar, intermittent light off the four walls. Everything below that first step was bathed in red and blue. "Shit."
Beyond the front windows, an army had gathered. Maria Chavez's entire squad had gotten back on the road and now had what looked like the entire area cordoned off.
"Cops. Goddamned fucking cops."
"Efficient." Lei said as he took the other side and glared; his features creased from dead center out, curling his upper lip. "Too efficient." it slid through his teeth.
They made the stairs on either side of the carved railing, using what little shadow remained between all the sources of illumination that would damn them if they didn't watch their step. Barnes was surprisingly light on his feet while his Chinese cohort, eerily, didn't make a sound at all, despite the pain of crouching. He reached a window and leaned in slightly to get a better look outside. It was a sea of black and white, extending far into the street and around the corners. "Damn..."
Lei sidled up on the opposite side of the main entrance doors, pressed a few fingers against the glass and thin eyes seemed set in gold when struck by the flashing light. "I suppose the entire building is surrounded."
Grabbing the butt-end of the shaft, Lei grunted and yanked; a ribbon of blood followed the tip as it pulled out and pooled to the floor where the arrow had clattered. "We need to get out of here." he growled.
Wiping the sheen from his forehead, Barnes turned towards his companion. "And just how the hell do you expect us to do that?"
"We'll need a distraction."
If a stare could set the air on ice, it would be the one between Juno and Titania.
It'd been a long time since these two women had seen each other. A war and the last decisive battle, kings and queens of their respective courts and Titania and Hera had gone tooth and nail.
Letting up on Brooklyn's throat just enough for him to breathe but not escape, an expression seemed to melt the guise of humanity from Juno's face in a sneer that was more animal-like than her current form would suggest. Not so invisibly the shock had been quickly waylaid by anger. "Titania." she hissed.
The fay queen didn't flinch, her stance regal and, at the same time, unconcerned. "Hera."
"What the hell are you doing here?!"
A few innocuous steps into the office elicited the attention of Force and Violence. "Tying up a few loose ends." Titania answered, watching as Juno's dogs took up position on either side. "Particularly you, Hera. I do not know how you managed to elude us, but the mistake of allowing you to live this long shall be swiftly rectified."
"Not in this lifetime."
"Is...that how you escaped us?" Her stone expression fluttered as the scientist inside couldn't resist, but Titania kept the pretense. The realization of just how Hera vanished from every conceivable time and dimension was almost embarrassing in its simplicity. She didn't. "Ah. Ingenious. All this time..."
"I was in the gutter. Too low for the mighty fay to ever imagine even looking."
"Of course." Titania nodded.
Juno hefted Brooklyn up and out of his pile of firewood, holding him a foot above the floor with a single outstretched hand. It was a show of sport towards the queen, before she threw him away and into a few of his own. "Well," she huffed, "I suppose the hunt is over. Come to finish what you started?"
Titania drew closer, only to have Force and Violence instinctively block her way. They were a nuisance in bland suits, but she allowed them the feeling of superiority if only for the moment. "It is justice, for all that you've done."
"Who the hell were you to pass judgment?!"
A hand went up, and the lights dimmed. "I will not have this argument again, Hera."
"No," Juno shook her head, "we won't."
There was a brief shudder and a portion of the floor pulled away in four perfectly quartered slices. A pillar rose up and at its peak, a small orb silver in color and ominous in the intent shifted and rippled along a surface that never seemed content with a single consistency.
It gave the air of something obviously dangerous, but no one could figure out just why.
All besides Titania, who'd recognized the substance that seemed to want to leap from the liquid-metal sphere. She blinked, and everything that happened next was a blur of motion between the ticks of one second to another. Hera and her penchant for viciousness were known all too well, and as the orb suddenly solidified and grew itself a barbed, porcupine surface, Titania rushed forward and put herself between it and the gargoyles. "Hold your breath."
It went off, iron of every conceivable size and shape filled the air and everything went white.
A rumble passed through the supports, and trickled its way to Barnes' fingertips. He took his hand from the wall as if he'd been burned and met Lei's equally curious gaze.
He'd felt it too.
Before the reaction went from hand to brain and back to hand again, the building's entire foundation shook, and the stairs behind were uprooted. The entire staircase was thrown through the front doorframe and into the police as a pillar of fire replaced it, racing up the staircase shaft.
Outside, cops scrambled for cover and the mobsters both wondered just what the hell was going on before a chunk of decorative mortar hit a squad car outside.
"Ah," Lei grinned, seeing a path clear as more debris rained down from the building shaking itself apart, "that will do."
"Jesus Christ, the fucking place is coming apart!" Barnes yelled out, the perfect antithesis to Lei's unsettling composure. "We've got to get out of here!"
"There." he pointed.
Barnes followed his hand into the middle of the chaos and towards a certain redhead that'd been a pain in his ass for the last seven months. "Starr." he growled.
The lobby started breaking up; drywall cracking and the fire creeping dangerously close. It wasn't until the entire roof collapsed that the two men decided to make a break for it while everyone else was running for their lives. They burst outside just as the entire foyer was swallowed by flame, and despite the fact they knew a few sharp-eyed cops had spotted them between the debris they kept the persistent stride. It was all or nothing now.
Maria and Iliana had taken shelter near their car and couldn't hear the warnings being drowned out by falling wreckage.
The redheaded detective had her Magnum half-drawn, and would've lined up a red dot on the forehead of the man charging towards her if she'd had the time. Instead, all she saw was a wall of chestnut skin. "Oh fuck!" was the last garbled yelp before two massive arms completely enveloped her, a hand clamped around her mouth and her tiny form was lifted from the ground. "Let go of mmmmpphff!!!"
Maria heard the muffle, and recognized it as Iliana's.
But before she could even turn around to see her attacker, she got a mouth full of fist that knocked her off her feet and nearly knocked her out. Her hands broke her fall before her skull bounced off the pavement, and she looked up to see Lei Zhu slipping into the driver's side of her car, favoring his right arm.
Barnes shoved Iliana into the backseat and jumped in after, barely able to get the door closed (and barely able to control a thrashing, five foot five Irish-Russian) as Lei nearly tore the tread off the rear tires and bulldozed his way through the police barriers.
Maria stood up and wiped the blood from her lip, then let loose a curdled scream that easily exceeded the commotion and got the attention of her officers, "FOLLOW THEM!!!"
The air was getting thinner, and the sky immeasurably darker as she sailed against the pull of gravity.
Ambrosine was half-conscious and the fact she was running out of oxygen didn't help the other fact Manhattan was getting farther away by the second. She put on the brakes and managed to slow her ascent into the mesosphere, but the pain of being pulled through seventeen floors had depleted her strength (not to mention Hudson's sword still skewered through her belly) and she stalled into a slow, languid spiral.
An easy target.
A green streak charged what little molecules were present, moving so fast it energized the electrons as it moved straights towards Ambrosine.
Turning into view, she gasped and expended the last precious traces of oxygen in her lungs. The little faerie boy was heading straight for her and, with deadly accuracy, collided. In the weak gravity, she was knocked at least three times as far and crossed the Atlantic, ending up somewhere over the British Isles before she regained most of her senses.
She found Alexander bearing down on her and threw up the last ditch effort of a shield, and the two scraped off one another like two trains on the same track. Still alive, she fell and used the downward momentum to get low enough to breathe and conceal herself in the low-hanging fog coming in eastward from the Irish Sea.
Blink, blink, blink; she jumped through reality to elapse thirty miles in thirty seconds, shot over Wales and ended up skimming the floating shingled roofs of Birmingham.
Alexander saw her slip into the gray-stained whorls and followed as fast as he could, wondering just how he could learn that trick. Too bad Puck had disappeared without so much as a note. He broke through just where the mist dissipated enough to see the road, gently touched down and found himself lost in a tangle of old world structural design choked by morning fog. Claustrophobic architecture caused by WWII bombing, more canals than Venice, endless ring roads, roundabouts and underpasses; the entire, aesthetically challenged city was a glaring opposite to Manhattan and provided too many places to hide.
All the while he'd worn a sort of cold determination on his face until it melted in the realization he was lost, and for a moment, it showed. Five hours ahead of Manhattan and nearing dawn, it was still early and the streets were empty (at least, what he could see of them before they vanished into the fog).
But, that was easy enough to deal with, especially with a wiggle of his fingers and a strongly westerly wind that suddenly rolled in, quickly freeing the city from under nature's foot. Alexander looked about the suddenly clear borough and got the impression of just how different it was compared to the relative precision of his hometown, seen from the cornices of Wyvern.
It might take hours to search and he had Ambrosine on the ropes. Allowing her the time to recover would prove costly. So he closed his eyes and allowed senses higher than that of the usual five distend outwards from where he stood, along the intricate patterns of the cobblestone roads, through crumbling mortar and canal-side cafes and into the salt-laced air until he'd spread throughout the entire city center up to Black Country and Sarehole Mill.
A peculiar energy pattern (like seeing red in a whole mess of blue) stood out halfway across the sleeping town as though someone had dropped an H-bomb. There, panting in the relative safety of an archway, was Ambrosine.
He smiled. "I found you."
With all the ferocity, volatility and breakneck speed of a lightning bolt, a white beam of light split the gauzy cloud cover, coming from absolutely nowhere, and shot down toward a building's rooftop. It deposited three forms and recoiled back into the sky as fast as it'd come, leaving a soft rumble to wither into the horizon as any evidence it had ever been.
Some would probably mistake it as an outlying thunderstorm, the first of the spring season.
Her hair slightly tussled, her mouth an irritated sneer, Juno broke from her goons and started pacing the rooftop, fuming. "Son of a bitch."
Force moved towards the edge, and looked several blocks away to where Saturn Tech used to stand. It was nothing but a hollow void and a spiral of smoke, most of the structure having vaporized before they were transported out. "Your building, mistress..."
"Desperate measures, Kratus, but when you're dealing with Titania it pays to be as cautious as–hmm–humanly possible." She'd lived among the mortal coil for so long, the minutiae of the New English tongue had infused a mastery of every spoken language with alterations both subtle and ironic. Escaping detection from the fay, living as a human, aging, dying, being reborn time and time again in every century, literally dissolving into the grand if not excruciatingly short cycle of humanity, Hera had always adapted her ways to the ruling authority to better blend in.
And now, it seems, she'd been uncovered.
But, she thought, moving tendrils from her face, the danger was always there. It'd followed her throughout her lives, eyes behind her, a face in every crowd in every human city since the fall of the Roman empire. Alone, she was safe. Yet eight years ago, an unexpected and retrospectively stupid tryst with her ex-husband, a bottle of French red and Metaxa brandy, a night between silk sheets and the sheer torturous marvel of a human pregnancy brought something into her life that would risk her exposure.
Sweet little Ambrosine; eight and a half pounds of quasi-deity wrapped in sheath of human flesh. But by the girl's second birthday, it was obvious she'd been infused with a fraction of her mother's power when the walls in their home started warping and small animals were constantly and mysteriously found dead in the backyard. Hera had done her best to conceal her daughter's energy while simultaneously honing it, and until tonight, under strict orders Ambrosine'd never gone to her limits.
Maybe it was subconscious, allowing her daughter off on her own, to light up the night like a beacon and draw any fay who happened to be in the area right to her office door. And now that the secret was out, there was only one foreseeable option.
"Mistress," it was Violence that dared to interrupt her reverie, but he spoke with the devotion of a proper slave, "we must get you to safety. With Titania here..."
"Titania." Juno parroted quietly, ruing the name. "Titania has discovered me. I've been singled out and with her flawless mnemonic recall, there's nowhere I can hide." She chuckled lightly, as if a weight had been lifted. "I suppose I could have been more careful, but being human can become boring, especially if you've repeated the process a few hundred times over."
"Running and hiding is not an option anymore." She turned to them. "I need to discard my mortal flesh, gentlemen, I need to die."
Being able to actually touch flame without being burned was an odd sensation; warm, restless and as gossamer as the sheerest silk, it was the last impression the conscious members of the clan got before they were teleported away from the exploding office building.
It was instantaneous if not a little rough on the stomach, being transported just as everything around them came apart at the seams and atomized. From plush carpet to the tar and gravel of an apartment building rooftop several streets up, they were rebuilt molecule by molecule into sweaty, stunned and bloody wholes.
A few blocks away Saturn Tech went up in a tantrum of light and fire while what was left crumbled to the ground.
Brooklyn fought the urge to vomit, swallowed and immediately started surveying his clan. Katana had recovered her sword and passed him a reassuring glance; Broadway was lightly patting Angela on the cheek to rouse her; Othello already had a slightly groggy Desdemona in his arms while Lexington was looking over Delilah's broken leg.
His eyes went a little further, and widened when reaching their rescuer.
His heart skipped a beat.
She looked like a pincushion.
From head to mid-thigh, there wasn't a square foot of her body that hadn't been pierced by Juno's security device that seemed better suited to the dark ages. Iron daggers, serrated fragments, microscopic particles, anything guaranteed to either pierce or completely penetrate the intended target no matter what shape or form they happened to be, they'd hit her faster than she was able to escape with the clan.
Titania raised her chin to scream at the sky, but could only force a strangled sound straight from the throat as her skin paled and started cracking.
Force and Violence shot a look towards each other, slightly confused.
"Kill me, gentlemen," Juno reiterated quickly, "and kill me now. I made myself mortal to escape discovery."
"We..." Violence stammered. "We cannot kill you, mistress."
She sighed in frustration. Despite the unwavering loyalty, her near-surgical skills with human sorcery had neutered them of any abstract thought besides protecting their master. "Ah yes, one of the provisos of the spell. Your willingness to die before any harm comes to me. Fine," Juno snapped her fingers, "you're released."
A wind crossed the rooftop, the result of an enchantment more a few centuries old suddenly breaking and Force and Violence came back under their own mental control. It was like a light switch flicking on.
"Hera." one hissed.
"Traitor!" the other bellowed.
She wouldn't scream.
It was beneath her station, beneath a queen to allow any show of weakness and she wouldn't give Hera the satisfaction of but a whimper.
Despite the fact her skin was desiccating and shriveling against the bones, Titania was disturbingly silent save for the occasional mewl that leaked through teeth clenched so hard they nearly drew blood from the gums. Her once mintcream coloring had drained away, and spider-web lines snaked outwards from each separate piece of iron shrapnel; she looked as if she'd physically aged about fifty years.
The surrounding clan didn't quite know what to do but stare. They were still a little numb from the shock of being torn from an explosion they all sworn they felt even as they were transported out, and any first aid training they were familiar with didn't include the fay.
Brooklyn took a hesitant step towards the crouching female, seeing her skin shrivel through the open sections of the form-fitting tunic only she could get away with. His hand was an arm's length away, holding the distance in fear of causing any harm.
It inched closer to fillo dough flesh before she sprung up and a wave of air knocked him back. It was the act that spared him the same fate as the iron scrap presently embedded in the fay queen was violently expelled. As Titania stood hunched and coughing, the iron rolled as if caught on the wind, compressed into a basketball-sized lump and dropped with a clank.
First eying the chunk of metal, Brooklyn slowly lifted his gaze.
The color returned quickly, and she jerked, exhaled, and straightened. "...the...iron..." she gasped over her shoulder.
He immediately got the gist and lined up the metal ball against the top of his foot, clearing the rooftop and disappearing over the edge with a well-placed punt.
"Much better." Titania whispered. "Even when human, Hera is exceedingly cunning."
"Titania..." Brooklyn breathed, not really knowing what to say. Her unexpected presence had rattled him, and even now it was hard to form the proper words when standing next to an actual queen. "What the hell...?" was all he could manage, and as the statuesque woman turned slightly and burned a gaze right through him, he'd regretted the less-than-refined response.
Her arctic eyes were a little less than infinite, allowing a glimpse into nothingness before they hardened. "I hail thee, Brooklyn, new leader of Wyvern." she greeted melodically. "I had come to see my daughter and my grandson, but was drawn by the expenditure of such power."
"So that was–"
"The being the humans once worshipped as Hera." Titania revealed, and there was a collective breath all around.
"She destroyed the entire building, only to save her own life." Katana observed mournfully, peering over the building's edge. "How many humans were inside?"
"A janitorial staff of twenty-eight." She looked at her hand, and the last of the cracks that once ran the length of her skin drew together and sealed, vanishing. "They will be found outside, unconscious, but fortunately unharmed."
Brooklyn fingered the hand-shaped bruises on his throat. "So...what do you suggest we do now? I don't have much experience fighting a god."
"She is not a god." Titania immediately reacted, her voice a few rare octaves higher.
"History says otherwise, if every legend is true."
"Most of them. Humans, despite their tendencies to violence and self-annihilation, keep superlative records."
"That just get a little twisted over time." Brooklyn finished, the cynical edge returning to his own tone. "Is she really what we think she is?"
Titania's face went blank, unable to read save the thin line of her mouth. "For the most part." she said quietly. "The lost race, as they have come to be known, were easily our equals."
"And the war she talked about?"
"A darker time. When our conceit nearly destroyed this world."
"And now," Brooklyn scanned the horizon, "round two's about to start..."
Juno didn't take any steps to save herself, even as her once-loyal henchmen circled her with the intent to tear her in half. She made no bid to escape or even move, only offer a few calm words, "Yes, traitor. I escaped as Zeus and Oberon battled, and vanished to save my own skin. Now," she held up her hands and goaded them on, "don't spare that all-powerful strength as you spill my brains."
Force swung first, and Juno had to suppress the instinct to flinch as the fist closed in on the left side of her face. It struck, bone broke and the frail human body was thrown fifteen feet before coming to a rest.
By the time Violence stomped towards her, her skull was fractured, her neck broken and the fact she was still alive was a testament to her willpower. But it was freeing to let it go, and let the cycle end as her half-lidded eyes saw a foot come down and fill her blood-stained vision.
Katherine Juno died with a smile on her face, albeit in a pretty gruesome manner.
And in that moment just between life and death, an ephemeral surge of power went off like a star being born and snuffed all in the same span of time. The building started to shake.
"I said, let...me...go!!"
"Do yourself a favor, Starr, and shut the fuck up!"
Iliana glared at her abductor from where she was restrained against the back seat of the cruiser, but if the three-hundred-pounder with the hand around her throat didn't make her particularly nervous, it was the .45 Magnum currently aimed in the general vicinity of her head.
Barnes was using her own gun to keep her from punching, kicking, biting, clawing or scratching her way out of the speeding car.
But with every mile they traveled, she was getting farther away from any kind of rescue. Thus, hoping to beat the reaction time of trigger to bullet, she was close to giving him a boot to the groin and rolling out the rear door. It was the best possible option, at least, until he felt her tensed muscles and the mischievous glint that must have passed unwittingly through her gaze.
"Don't." he warned, and nudged the barrel into her skin hard enough to make porcelain skin red. "Or the ironic might happen."
"Like killing a cop with her own gun?"
He nodded, "Yes," and, with the rare opportunity, gave her an appreciative once-over.
Iliana knew his reputation with women, and didn't like how his eyes hungrily traced every curve. "What the hell are you looking at?"
"You like big, black men, honey?" Barnes crooned.
The detective couldn't help but smirk at the sheer irony. "You have no idea."
Barnes laughed it off and eased up. Anything beyond the already twisted relationship they had wouldn't be worth it. She seemed high maintenance, and he didn't go for redheads. "You're a spitfire, Starr, the twenty-third's full of them."
"Are you two quite finished?" Lei spat from his place behind the wheel, narrow eyes staring at them through the rearview mirror.
"Quite." Barnes responded nonchalant. "Where are we headed?"
"A safehouse. We've arranged to meet there."
"And just how safe am I?" Barnes posed.
Lei took a sharp corner and settled into a side street before answering back, "Safe until Juno is dead. You have my word."
"And then we go back to killing each other."
"Yes," a grin snaked its way over pale lips, hidden from view, "I'll take great joy in eviscerating you."
Despite the fact he couldn't see it, Barnes knew the 'Little Thunder' was smiling. "Charming."
"Just what this city needs..." Iliana grumbled from beneath the massive hand. "Civil criminals."
"We're not criminals, detective, we're...entrepreneurs."
"You prey on the weak, kill anyone who gets in your way regardless of their innocence, and you try to destroy a city that's already tearing itself apart!! You fucking son of a–"
Lacking the earlier clemency, Barnes jammed the gun barrel deeper into her throat, enough to make her wince and grab the edges of the carseat.
"The only reason you're still alive is the fact we may need you as a hostage." he growled, grinding steel against flesh. "But if you become a liability, I will split the halves of your brain with a bullet."
She felt the warm trickle of blood curling around the camber of her neck, and by the abrupt change in demeanor Iliana knew he'd kill her if he had to. And if not Barnes, then Lei. He'd already voiced his opinion and the suggestion that they kill her, and ironically it was Lucian Barnes that had saved her life and left his cohort to grumble in a foreign language behind the steering wheel.
But his icy stare still lingered in the rearview, flicking every so often from the road to her.
The irony in all of this is that she felt safer with the lecherous womanizer built like a brick shithouse and holding a gun that could blow a hole in the side of the car, and decided to keep her mouth shut before she ended up on a slab in one of the city's morgues. She'd have to ride it out and, if she didn't think of a way out first, hope someone was coming to her rescue.
And with her abductors constantly scanning the streets for any pursuing vehicles, no one bothered to look above, where a black form followed just above the rooftops.
It'd been an early morning as usual, but she never expected to have something tear across the fields with such speed as to literally split the water and nearly knock her over. Before the young fieldworker got back to her feet (almost rolling down the terraced levels) and threw off the wide-brimmed, straw hat to search the sky, whatever it was had already passed.
Ambrosine was in the lead with Alexander right behind her.
They'd almost passed through all of China after he'd melted through the bricks and lit up the archway where she'd taken a breather and tried to recharge, chased her across Europe, skimmed the surface of the Black Sea and charged over Central Asia. The North Pacific loomed as a gleaming sapphire line on the horizon and as she approached (running on fumes without the chance to catch her breath), she knew the ocean wouldn't afford many hiding places compared to the crumbled ruins and ram-shackle huts of more than a few ancient cities along the way.
Short of running the length of Japan, she couldn't go anywhere else but somehow backtrack onto terra firma or take the risk of crossing the ocean and making it to the States before her pursuer could catch up.
Coiling through the tightly packed towers of Shanghai's city center, Ambrosine didn't realize she was close to an airport until darting out into open airspace and nearly eating the abdomen of a 747 taking off.
In the chaos of air currents thrown around by four massive engines, somehow a singular thought coalesced; her mother had always taught her to use every advantage. Having been too exhausted to pull her transportation trick since England, she fought back knowing the faerie was still on her tail, shored up and shot straight towards the exhaust plume. Pulling out of the superheated trail of gases, she sailed underneath the plane's right wing and turned around, visually disassembling every weld and rivet with a morbid fascination she wore plain as day, and that Alexander could see even from his vantage.
He couldn't believe what she was about to do. "NO!!!"
It was a scream that came too late, caught on the wind rushing past them at several hundred miles per hour. With the practiced skill of a surgeon, Ambrosine fired a beam that connected with the wing, shearing it a few meters from the passenger compartment. It immediately went into a spiral and lost altitude to the point of dropping like a stone with the severed wing in tow, eerily trying to stabilize itself with two sputtering engines.
Faced with letting Ambrosine go or letting a hundred and seventy three people plunge into the East China Sea, Alexander chose the latter in what he thought was a conscious decision. Instinct drove every action as he dropped and belly-flopped onto the fuselage.
As Ambrosine became a speck against the midday sun, he didn't have the time or inclination to notice as the water below grew steadily closer. Every stray thought of every passenger, a crew of six and three frantic pilots was an anarchic noise he tried to put out of his mind, despite the fact it was like someone screaming directly in his ear.
He let the wing go; it wouldn't do any harm in the water.
But the plane, at eight hundred thousand pounds, was a little harder to float than his own body or several objects from the room Owen would choose at random. Wind rushing, people inside panicking, shrieking, he used what training he thought would work best and yanked up, creating a spiral of wind underneath to slow the wounded plane's descent.
It decelerated, but the momentum was enough to give the new driver a strain as he was forced to dodge several more aircraft taking to the sky from a city that was getting dangerously closer. A shudder passed through the metal against his cheek; the landing gear. The pilots were obviously appreciative their one-winged machine was somehow staying upright and stable enough to get back to Pudong International.
He saw the black strip below, aimed the nose at the yellow line and closed his eyes as a few hundred feet became less than fifty, then twenty, ten, five and then, WHAM!!!
Wheels hit the tarmac and Alexander, hands entrenched in the sheet metal, rode his unbalanced bull the entire distance of the runway and finally, just before the asphalt ended and part of the city began, it skidded to a shaky stop. He pulled his hands from where he'd made two small, chubby impressions in the fuselage and turned over on his back. Releasing the breath he'd held, he laid sprawled on the warm surface for a while as emergency vehicles rushed out to the smoking remains and some sense of calm returned.
But, lazily searching the sky, he couldn't help but imagine just how far Ambrosine had gotten. "Stupid girl."
Somewhere, about five hundred miles out to sea, the spawn of Hera and a one-night stand flew as fast as she possibly could towards her only protection. "Mother..."
Juno's body melted and swirled and with a flash of light, it was born anew into a form better embodying the legend.
Fingers nimbly traced the shape of the thin crown just above her brows, curling around into layer upon layer of velvet brown hair, falling in loose strands and small braids and winding it's way to the small of her back; it'd been a long time since she'd felt the weight of the gold circlet. And having worn every color of every race (even a few that had long been extinct), she was pleased to see the dusky olive hue had returned, glowing in perfect contrast beneath the white robes that pooled at her heels.
Her eyes glittered as much as the sky did above, not blood but something a little more primal coursed through the approximation of arteries and veins and a hint of incisor gleamed alabaster as she smiled.
Hera had been reborn.
She breathed into an old set of lungs that hadn't tasted air for thousands of years, and the varying limitations of all her different human bodies seemed so far away. "Ah," it was simple, her first utterance, "much better. To finally, truly, live again."
As she reveled, her 'killers' had edged back realizing their mistake, but the rooftop didn't afford that much room. Anger had given way to a cracked skull and the most powerful creature aside from their master, and Force and Violence were forced to watch as body, blood and guts were replaced by a goddess that had never quite held them in the highest of esteem.
Hera flicked an eyelash their way, and didn't reveal much in the burning depths of her eyes. A single footstep towards them was treated like she'd thrown a grenade at their feet. "Kratus, Bia, faithful retainers." she purred. "How loyally you've served me."
"It was not by choice." Force shot back.
Somehow she'd moved closer without taking a step; there wasn't even a breeze. "Such...impudence." she observed dryly.
"You manipulated us!"
Suddenly, Hera was behind him, breathing an icy chill down his neck. Fear locked him in place. "Such disrespect."
But Force couldn't help the rage bubbling to the surface after having been used as a puppet for so long, despite the fact she could flay him before he blinked. "We would never serve you willingly!"
"Then your timing is impeccable, as your services are no longer required."
Five fingertips snatched him by the head, pierced the skull and above the horrid noise that he'd soon realize was his own lingering scream and his cranial plate buckling under the pressure, a low churning cackle swelled into what would be his death knell. His head was completely crushed by the time Hera released, his body hit the ground and she turned her attention to his partner.
Violence crept back.
Zeus's consort had been a creature of contradictions; beauty and malevolence, a predilection for cold-blooded reprisal and even when under her husband's strict watch she made those who wronged her suffer in the most imaginative and sinister of ways. And damned if he didn't find her unblinking stare crawling to the depths of his soul, enough to soil his suit. She could kill him with a thought so he went for broke.
He howled, valiantly, charging forwards until he found himself with her arm through his midsection. He'd barely moved a foot before he was impaled with a single swipe, and Hera ran the fingers that weren't presented skewered through his guts gently down his brow as, sadistically, a soothing gesture. "Zeus...will..." he gurgled.
She cocked her head. "Zeus will what? Last I heard my former husband was seeing how much the human liver could take by drinking himself to death."
He wanted to respond, but couldn't; fluid had filled his esophagus.
"Die well, Bia." she whispered, and set her arm ablaze.
The temperature shot up inside of his body until it was enough to completely incinerate even godlike flesh, and like roasting a marshmallow, she watched as Violence erupted into flame, melted on the end of her arm and turned to embers, fluttering away.
Whatever remained besides a few random particles of charred matter fell at the feet of Titania.
The faerie queen felt the warmth of the ash that settled around her, and the fading vestiges of a scream, of a life vanquished without the slightest of expended energy. "Terribly wasteful."
The newly reborn goddess swiveled on her heeled sandal, and burst into a smile on seeing who'd just happen to appear across the length of the rooftop. "Titania."
"Killing your minions, Hera?"
"They were never mine to begin with."
She conjured a small wind to clean her feet. "Yes, and like always, you play with mortals and demigods as if pieces on a chess board."
"Speaking of mortals, where are your pets?" Hera asked, noticing the lack of gargoyle. "The little winged, evolutionary marvels you were so intent to protect?"
Chin up, expression vacant, Titania simply responded, "Busy."
He'd a bad feeling ever since the clan had started back towards Barnes' building, but seeing the amount of light pouring into the sky above the street, Brooklyn felt a hand clench around his heart.
With a breath across an open palm of dust, Titania had healed their injuries and sent them reluctantly on their way, considering they were leaving her to deal with a god while they had the task of seeing whether Hudson was still alive. But there wasn't an argument any of them could make that would make any kind of strategic sense.
And, of course, one good look into her eyes would result in the strangest feeling (lead feet, numb extremities), and a murmur in the back of their minds. One didn't argue with a queen.
Landing first and flanked by the rest, Brooklyn crossed the rooftop quickly towards the ledge and stopped short. "Oh damn..." he sighed, peering down into a little bit of confined chaos.
The entire neighborhood was, as expected in a city that never slept, full of police, rescue workers and the inevitable crowd skulking at the edges of yellow ribbon trying to get a better look. Spotlights illuminated half the street and the damage done was extensive. Parts of the road had been torn out, cars upended and demolished, scattered white sheets filled out with the familiar human shape; it looked like a tornado had blown through.
But where their eyes were drawn to was what remained of Lucian Barnes' brownstone. It'd neatly imploded into the cement foundation, five floors becoming barely one and a pile of scrap.
Desdemona smothered the gasp with a hand, leaning back into the arms of her mate.
"Could he have survived this?" the slate gargoyle rumbled into the golden breadth of her hair.
His gaze was jet-black and unblinking, and so focused on the wreckage coal turned to diamond as his eyes lit up against the spotlights. "I don't know." Brooklyn answered honestly.
And while the rest of the clan had their gaze on the street below, Angela's was a little higher in altitude. She'd noticed Broadway's expression: pained, but skillfully hidden behind a veneer of professionalism. At least, to everyone else but the woman who loved him. "Perhaps he escaped." she offered.
"The homing beacon on his commlink says he's inside there somewhere." Brooklyn turned on Lexington. "Lex?"
The web-wing hopped up on the ledge, steepled his hands beneath his chin and started scanning. With an almost indiscernible mechanical whirr, his cybernetic irises near fully dilated and a special lens adjusted his sight to the range of ultraviolet. There were a few orange blurs among the blackness. "The building's full of hot spots. Broken gas lines, a few small fires..." He stopped with a jerk, and leaned in. "Wait, got something...vaguely gargoyle shaped. It could be him."
"Then that's where we'll start."
"It could also be a human survivor." Lexington called after his brother.
"First warm body, nearest to the source of the beacon." Brooklyn responded. "I'll take our chances, considering I didn't see anyone else alive last time we were here."
"And how do we even begin searching without being discovered?"
Sharp eyes explored the street. "We'll need a distraction."
"You're changing the subject."
"It is a very boring subject," Hera retorted, idly inspecting her nails, "that you enjoying droning on about ad infinitum."
"They mean nothing to you, do they?"
The goddess groaned and ran her hands down her face. "Please don't tell me we're going to repeat this particular argument. It was old thousands of years ago, and it's old now."
There was no fear in Titania's stride as she started forwards, only determination. "You coerced the humans to kill and conquer in your name."
"They were killing each other long before we ever took an interest in the little fleshy bipeds. We gave them purpose, we helped them build an empire that has yet to be rivaled even in their so-called modern times."
"You had no right."
"Don't you dare judge me, and don't you dare feign innocence!" Hera's voice rattled at a level just below the point of breaking glass. "The fay meddled with humanity, they posed as gods, they built entire religions around themselves just as we did."
"All before we realized the damage we were doing, and before the Lord Oberon decreed we shall not directly interfere in their affairs." Titania revealed, wondering if perhaps in Hera's travels as one human after another, she'd somehow kept tabs on the faire folk. "And of course, the fay do not have an entire island populated by the descendants of your bastard children."
Below, the entire building rocked on its foundation at Hera's anger kept restrained and the vibration shimmied up until they felt it under the soles of their feet. "Don't tempt me, Titania, it has been far too long since I have reveled in the kill."
A slow grin warmed Titania's aquamarine features; it didn't take much to set Hera off and that was the edge she'd exploited the last time they battled. Mere words would strike like iron to a full-blooded fay. "I will not risk anyone else to your mad tantrums and machinations, Hera. I stopped you once and I shall do so again."
"Because I gave up–"
"You fled," she amended sharply, "abandoned your husband and left what remained of your kin to their fate."
There was a callous truth in her words, but Hera wasn't about to be lectured on the ethics of mistreating the mortal germ by someone she thought had no right. "It was a fate you delivered upon them in some supercilious sense of righteousness because we were a mirror to your own wanton lusts! You destroyed us because we reminded you of what you really are. How dare you."
"You had to be stopped. Your hedonism and destructive behavior could not continue."
"But even when you rid the world of our kind, the fay turned on each other as they've done so many times before."
"Until our court was stabilized over a millennium ago." Titania said calmly, proudly.
But Hera snorted, and waved off the faerie queen's triumph of uniting self-indulgent creatures under the banner of a priggish blowhard much like her own husband. "Not much of an achievement."
"We have faced civil wars, fought our own brethren, but even we as a species realized we could not act like children for eternity."
Nails popped from the plywood, and the entire roof looked ready to be torn up and apart. "You had no right!"
"There was no other way."
A scream of frustration struck the night air, shrill, and deafening to a human.
The building underneath erupted in flame and blew apart at the joists, collapsing and leaving nothing but a fireball and the thick, black billows of smoke. When it cleared, Titania and Hera still stared at each other, completely unscathed and hovering in the exact place they stood where a roof once supported them.
Clouds were gathering overhead, spitting veins of electricity. "This argument is old and redundant," Hera decided, "and I'm sick of talking."
"...Don't take the pumper, they've already got it attached to the hydrant. The ladder truck should do just fine..."
With Brooklyn guiding them through their commlinks, Desdemona and Delilah slinked towards the smaller of the two fire engines currently parked just outside the wreckage. As the brownstone had been drastically reduced in height, the ladder truck was almost completely ignored in the rescue efforts considering there was no one to rescue above the now non-existent second floor.
It sat off to the side, idling and unguarded under the assurance that no one would ever have the brass to steal a fire truck.
"...Okay...you're clear. Go!..."
From fire escape to alley to storefront to ambulance and finally to the fire truck, they slipped into the cab without being noticed.
Delilah's gaze lit up. The dashboard was a six-foot length of glowing gauges, handles, dials and switches and the only thing she recognized was the steering wheel, which she promptly settled herself in front of. "I've never driven a car before."
"...You'll do fine..."
Whereas her younger companion was a little entranced with a console that looked more in place on a rocket, Desdemona had her eyes underneath. "The large pedal is the accelerator," she said, "the smaller the brake."
"And this?" Delilah pointed towards the third pedal, off to the farthest left.
"The...ah, clutch. I believe."
She grabbed the stick shift, and tightened her claws around the black, polished knob. "I've seen Elisa do this. I believe it has to be in first gear."
"...Clutch and brake down, shift, then hit the gas..."
Using the small diagram adorned on the shifter, Delilah manhandled it in the approximate direction, making the transmission groan until it clicked in place, and the entire vehicle jerked forwards. "Now I have to release to brake–"
"And the clutch." Desdemona reminded anxiously.
"–and hit the gas." Two pedals went up and the other down, and the force of twenty tons taking off threw them both back into the seat. Delilah grabbed the oversized steering wheel and struggled to control the red-painted beast as much as possible, given the relatively small space and the amount of people just beneath the front end.
Everyone scattered when realizing the ladder truck had suddenly come alive.
Nearly sliding back out the door on a particularly sharp turn, Desdemona grabbed for the seatbelt. "P-Perhaps you should slow down..."
But Delilah was having too much fun. "I'm only going twenty miles per hour."
A group of EMTs near an ambulance pressed up against the side of their rig as the gold-flake letters of Ladder 25 raced past. Even sandwiched in between with only two feet to spare, they could've sworn they saw a flash of white hair at the wheel.
"–watch the humans!" Brooklyn held a hand to his brow, watching as the fire truck did circles back and forth on the street, causing an uproar and getting everyone's attention off the collapsed brownstone. Police and firemen alike scrambled to either get out of the way or grab a hold of the out of control vehicle.
So intent on Delilah's driving (or attempt at), he at first didn't notice when a corner of the block went dark.
A spotlight had gone out.
Then another. And a third. Then a streetlight followed.
If he didn't already know what was happening, he might not have been smiling; Othello and Katana had great aim. His mate in particular could turn anything into a weapon, including sharpened rebar pulled from the wreckage and hurled like daggers into the halogen bulbs.
Half the light had already been extinguished and that gave the rest of a clan a window of maybe ten to twenty minutes. But the rest of the clan was dangerously downsized to four. "Okay, people..." he barked into his commlink. "We've got maybe fifteen minutes to do this."
Shimmying down an exterior pipe, he landed alongside Broadway, Lexington and Angela. The small mountain of what used to be a building rose before them, and the intricacy of their own rescue effort was starting to set in.
"We could really use Shadow right about now..."
Contrary to what Lucian Barnes might've thought the safehouse was an actual house, almost a mansion, boasting two full floors and a lavishness to which he and Lei Zhu were often accustomed. The deed had been signed with Triad ink, but for perhaps the first time in fifty years of the manor's existence it housed two rival gangs.
Lucian had been impressed when walking in, leading a line of his own men and women that had been waiting outside for him to arrive since they'd gotten the word. They'd refused to go in until he'd assured them of their safety.
Even the story they'd told later of gargoyles and gods didn't seem to dispel the bad blood, if it was believed in the first place.
Each of their respective armies (whatever was left) were divided down the largest room with a line drawn in the metaphoric sand, and glaring mutely. Only with the promise of getting to shoot each other later were they placated enough to keep their fingers off the trigger. But with the mistrust came neglect and with so many eyes on everyone else, no one really watched the windows.
Even those stationed there would often break from the dark scenery and wander the room, hoping to thwart a bullet in the back.
One head turned and found one of Lei Zhu's mysterious, taciturn Elite in the corner, running a few fingers across an exotically shaped knife and, in his inspection of what looked like two slim crescent moons seamlessly fused together and wrought in chrome, missed the shadow that flitted past the windowpane.
It was a line of goosebumps along his neck that made him swivel back, only to find nothing. "...the hell?"
But the detective that'd been silently observing from where she was held at gunpoint on the sofa grinned, hid the gesture with another casual enough not to be noticed and crossed her legs. Maybe someone did follow her after all.
"...and what do you suppose we do, Lucian?"
Scraps of conversation were leaking from a huddle in the corner; Barnes, Lei, a few from each gang, mostly in English, a little in Mandarin, it was an argument trying not to spill into all out war and barely succeeding.
"This place will be crawling with police soon, and we are obviously no match for whatever Juno is."
"Surprising from the man who held a sword at my throat while the world around us was being torn apart."
"I like to think of myself as intelligent."
"What if the freaks haven't already taken care of Juno already?"
"We can't take that chance. As much as I want her dead, you saw what her henchmen did to those...those creatures. What if she has an entire army?"
Iliana saw his jawbone set into place, and she figured he could crack a walnut between his molars by the way his features compressed in deep thought. "Then we're dead if we don't all lay low for awhile." he said at length.
"The war will go on, and either way, one of us will end up on top."
"You know," Iliana suddenly blurted, loud enough for her captors to hear, "it's a nice place you've got here."
They did. Barnes and Lei both turned towards her while the others were left to stew.
"Too bad you're about to be stormed by a bunch of angry, exhausted, overworked cops who're sick of their town being busted up by overzealous punks." she finished.
The grip on Lei's semi-automatic tightened, while Barnes warmed into a genial yet vaguely sadistic smile. "It's not a problem," he rumbled, "we'll soon be going underground."
"It had better be quick." Lei said urgently. One of his Elite had whispered something a second ago and it visibly shook the man that had the demeanor of a block of ice. "The scanner's alive with activity. They're heading right for us."
"Uh oh," Iliana chuckled from her seat, tucking a loose strand behind her ear, "someone find your cushy rathole already?"
"Shut it, Starr." warned Barnes.
"Maybe it wasn't the smartest thing to steal a squad car, especially when they're fitted with a GPS locater."
"She's pushing..." Lei sneered.
With a furrowed brow, Barnes deepened his voice, "I said shut it."
Iliana stood up and leaned in, puckering, "Or you're gonna what?"
With a quick swipe, he met his knuckles to the detective's left dimple giving off a crack that, to the untrained ear, sounded like something snapping. She went down in a boneless heap bleeding from the side of her mouth.
And somewhere, outside, teeth gnashed against a lungful of growl. Talons brushed the glass. The specter that'd been watching wasn't content to watch any longer and slipped away.
"About damned time." Lei breathed derisively, running the small red dot of his gun's laser sight across her throat. "We should kill her."
Lucian stepped in and gently brushed the barrel of his associate's weapon away. "She might be useful." he intruded, before the woman lost her head. "Cops are less inclined to storm a place if one of their own's on the inside, and considering the fact we have a small squadron heading towards us..."
Using the end of his boot to nudge her head, Lei turned it over. Iliana was completely unconscious and still bleeding. "She's irritating, and still a danger."
"To forty-seven people with automatic weapons?"
"We're leaving anyways."
"Listen, if you still don't feel safe then get someone to tie her...up..."
He trailed off. A flicker passed through the overhead light and he couldn't help but raise his eyes; he wouldn't have given it much thought if his paranoia wasn't already running rampant (having almost been crushed by a young girl that ripped a hole in his roof, nearly disemboweled by gargoyles and watching gods actually coming to life was leading to an unhealthy suspicion of anything out of the ordinary). "What the hell was...?"
"Something's wrong." Lei whispered, hair on end. He too had been jumping at shadows all night, garnering odd looks from the remnants of his gang with every excessive precautionary gesture.
"We've got a breach at the back door." one of the cronies reported from his position in front of the security system's monitor. Over his shoulder a small red light started blinking on the schematic grid of the house.
"I thought it was guarded."
"It is." he answered. "At least it was."
Barnes whirled on a few of his men. "Go check it out–"
"Got another one. Window. South room."
At this point, everyone started getting jumpy, especially when their two respective leaders were darting their heads about as if they were seeing things. The sound reminiscent to someone working up a sweat on the keys of an old typewriter followed, as enough weaponry to equip a small country was pulled out of every holster and from behind every coat lapel, then proficiently cocked and loaded.
"Jesus," Barnes' voice actually trembled, "S.W.A.T.?"
"There's no way they could've gotten anywhere near this place without us knowing."
"And another. Skylight. Main suite."
The lights flickered again, dimmed and eventually went out.
"What the hell's going on?!"
Lei stepped on Iliana's neck, wanting the powdered spray of gunpowder to answer for him. "The war continues."
But before he could complete the line from barrel to head, their world was turned on its side as the east wall imploded and bathed the room in a wave of shrapnel preceding an inhuman scream and an even more inhuman shape. It was black and massive and before anyone got a shot off, it'd already killed five people.
Barnes and Lei stood in horror as it whirled around them and picked off those closest in a spatter of blood, then turned glowing eyes towards where they stood.
What they heard last over their own gunfire was a scream that chilled them to the bone, then, darkness.
It wasn't until she'd reached the familiar tangle of rising glass and steel throttling the lower end of the island did she feel any kind of safe.
Ambrosine had flown so fast, so steady, she never had the time to take a breather, but maybe she could find the respite she needed in her mother's arms. Out of all those ancient tomes, spell-books and the yellowed pages within, the rows of shelves that lined entire walls of their home, there must be something that could give her a boost.
And maybe get the sword out without gutting her.
But, comfortably over the Hudson, a little bit of ozone caught the back of her throat. A good sign of a particular talent she thought she'd mastered alone.
He'd blinked in front of her so unexpectedly they nearly collided. Alexander emerged head first from a tear in the (apparently) malleable fabric of reality, grinned as only a six year old could and let off a blast bigger than the fourth of July.
It was a scare tactic, never intended to actually make contact. But it worked. Ambrosine was adequately spooked and the straight line she'd flown became dangerously crooked as she momentarily lost her composure.
"I learned your trick." the boy crowed. By the ear-to-ear he wore, he was obviously proud.
Ambrosine hovered a few meters below, left sleeve singed and her eyes, they were more than a little feral compared to most girls her age.
"It was kinda easy..." Alexander continued. "All you gots t' do is change 'round your mol'clues and think of where you wanta go."
"You won't beat me, foul-blood." she hissed. "You are nothing but a mistake by an inferior species."
In response, his eyes glowed a cold jade. But he did nothing save wait out the inevitable tantrum he felt growing.
"Stupid faerie boy!!" In her exhaustion and the emerging futility of what this cross-continental brawl was becoming, she lashed out and bolted upwards only to feel the sting of a solid object across her cheek. A hard cast of energy hardened around his fist like amber was another new trick that caught her off guard, and instantly reversed her trajectory from up to the inevitable down.
Alexander unleashed again. One, two, and the third blow was the one that she wouldn't escape from until meeting hard ground somewhere south of Greenwich Village. She hit, and depressed a crater a foot deep in the asphalt.
Descending slowly, watchful of who may be watching him from the high-rises, Alexander found her struggling to sit up and gasping in short, wheezy quakes. Whatever strong energies he'd sensed from her were slowly waning. "Did I win?" he teased, and found she didn't like the tone when glaring at him with a full row of teeth.
"You'll...never win." she gasped.
But Alexander had already realized she could never defeat him no matter how hard she tried. He'd already 'died' twice in the last few months and walked away each time. "You can't kill me." he said, almost wistfully.
"Mother will." she spat, a dribble of blood on the pavement. "She'll find a way, little faerie."
"Nope." He was stubborn. "Can't."
Cracks radiated outwards, ripples broke the road in a five foot radius; Ambrosine was getting livid. But, looking around and weighing her dwindling list of options, she figured if she couldn't destroy him, she could delay him long enough to get to her mother.
And peering down the narrow lane, a sinister little thought popped into her head. Especially with the boy still floating above her, waiting out her next move.
His first mistake was getting close enough, and his second was dropping into a neighborhood full of parked cars. Ammunition. Just as he'd done to her in the parking garage, every vehicle on either side of the street trembled, rose up and flew at Alexander.
He'd barely a moment to curl up before being crushed in between several tons of steel, rubber and carbon composites.
Ambrosine closed her fists and the crudely shaped globe reciprocated by compressing further. Glass exploded and all she could hear was the horrible moan of compacting sheet metal; she was really hoping for a scream.
Lightning arced back and forth, staining the clouds a cobalt blue for split seconds at a time. They'd created their own thunderstorm above Manhattan and danced through the heavy swirls in a game of cat and mouse, throwing energy at the other that eventually would escape from their playground and strike a few points on the ground.
Titania floated into an open spot, electricity on the ends of her fingertips. Hera had made the first, decisive move and would've sent her flying into the city if it weren't for the fact she knew the goddess and her temper all too well. She dodged and took chase as her adversary flew away, ending up in the air and a shrewdly created cover. "Come out, Hera." she called to the gray haze before her. "Hiding does not suit you."
Thunder rumbled along the length of their battlefield, and she appeared under a flicker of lightning. "I am so going to enjoy deconstructing your molecular structure, atom by painful atom."
"Indeed." Titania humored.
Whatever actual physical forms the Lost Race had been granted through either genetics or fortune had been lost to time, considering they could change at their leisure and did so to suit every whim. But no matter how they transformed to attain the current ideal of beauty, the eyes always betrayed the exterior. And right now, Hera's were smoldering. "The mighty, righteous fay." she hissed. "Your conceit always preceded your limited foresight."
"We have changed."
"More than you could imagine. We have evolved beyond our arrogance, and I am remorseful but largely unsurprised to see that you have not."
"You attacked us!" Hera accused with a pointed finger. "Killed everyone I'd ever known and loved and now, you still dare to indict me."
"We were left with no recourse," Titania responded calmly, "considering you were recklessly endangering the very lifeblood of this world."
"What you call endangerment, we called progress."
She shook her head, and raised a hand.
Hera readied for anything out of the queen's bag of tricks, but, surprisingly, Titania simply snapped her fingers. A drop in the pond of existence, a ripple bleached the air of any color and ballooned outwards until it'd hit the far horizon, then everything returned to normal.
The first thing Hera noticed was the lack of sound; everything had gone completely quiet. "Where are we?"
"A pocket dimension." Titania explained. "The exact physical proportions as Earth, just devoid of any life."
"A tesseract?" Her eyebrows shot up. "How cute."
Below them, half of Manhattan suddenly ripped apart from mid Central Park to Washington Heights. It shattered, sending whole chunks of city blocks into the air around them in an explosion of steel and earth, and then crumbled, the bordering rivers rushing in to fill the void.
It was similar to the building, only on a much larger scale.
"You realize I would have done that even if there were eight million people down there."
Titania watched calmly as the water chewed through what little was left of the island's upper half. "I know. Which is why you must be stopped here, and now."
"Try it." Hera dared. "Please."
Her memory would skip a few seconds from the moment of impact to waking up at the end of a trench a few hundred feet long (she'd plowed through a few roads, the lobby of a hotel and ended up near the new shore in the park). By the throbbing ache in her skull, Hera figured she must have been on the receiving end of a very quick and incredibly unladylike haymaker thrown by the faerie queen.
Titania descended and touched down a meter away. "Must we?" she asked. "Must we degenerate into some primitive brawl–"
She never had the chance to finish when a hand snaked out and caught her by the chin. A restaurant somewhere in Central Park South, newly remodeled, was cleaved in two as Titania sailed through and hit the street behind.
"Yes." Hera hissed, breaking into a smile usually only seen on predators stalking prey. It'd been too long since she'd really let loose.
Straining to get to her feet, Titania barely had time to avoid the blow she felt stirring a small cyclone. Hera missed, but managed to collapse the asphalt into the subway tunnels with a single fist; the queen had to quickly backpedal as the entire road caved in along an eighth of a mile stretch.
"You have the power to end this now." Titania tried for reason, but found it wouldn't be forthcoming.
Especially when a low, sibilant growl would filter through Hera's throat, "You're right, I do." She shot up a hundred feet in less than a few seconds and didn't level off until she was more than a third of a mile tall and staring down the office floors of Xanatos Enterprises. The hangar bay and arboretum were just above, crowned by castle Wyvern awash in atmospheric floodlight.
One well-placed backhand was all it took to topple the Eyrie building and snap it near the twentieth floor. It flew off its foundation and loomed over a shocked Titania, considering the particular imagery hit a little to close to home. The severed stump caught the neighboring buildings and changed the pivot point; the entire structure rippled and, if anyone were to catch a glimpse from the side, would've sworn it rolled out as it smothered two thousand feet worth of Manhattan real estate.
The devastation was immeasurable. The ground shook as all the tonnage of steel came crashing down (the castle exploding into its component slabs), crushed every building in its shadow and a plume of dust, smoke and debris swallowed the entire island in a matter of seconds.
From her vantage, enjoying the damage as one would enjoy a fine wine, Hera flicked her eyes through the clouds of dust. There was no way the faerie would've been caught in such an amateur maneuver.
Titania easily matched size and wrestled Hera across the river and into New Jersey, kicking over bridges and libraries. By the sheen in her opponent's liquid gaze, Titania could tell she was relishing in the lack of moderation. "You are truly mad."
"I'm just venting a couple thousand years worth of inadequacy, humiliation and menstrual cramps."
"I would rather destroy you then see you hurt anyone else."
"Then do it," she roared, "and stop pandering!"
Hands transformed into claws and Hera nearly swallowed a fireball let off from an elongated snout. Teeth as long as steak knives snapped at her and she was forced to let go before she lost her face.
The transformed Titania took to the sky on a pair of wings that blanketed Jersey and set fire to the sky, turning everything a sunset orange. Singed but otherwise uninjured, Hera escaped the massive dragon by reverting to her normal size and falling back to Earth.
She stepped out from a crater with heel-prints at the bottom and watched as Titania descended, shot off a roar and reformed.
"Your reflexes are dull, Hera." the queen taunted, steam on her breath. "Too much time spent among the mortal coil."
"I had no choice."
"We offered you another."
Her anger was again translating into an actual physical response; a few windows shattered. "To live under your foot!"
"To exist as equals."
"Only if we kneeled at Oberon's feet, lived by your command and your carefully limited decree. You might as well have chained us."
Titania regarded her carefully. She could feel the wind increasing, the temperature, even the air pressure was becoming increasingly thick. "What alternative did we have? Your corruption was spreading like a disease throughout the human population, much like yourselves..."
"Oh, and how many humans have you bedded, hmm?" Hera rebutted. "I'm sure the great but considerably stolid Oberon wasn't able to quench your thirst. Is there a half-breed out there somewhere, wearing your face? Perhaps when I scatter you to the ends of existence, I'll find and hang your offspring by their entrails–"
She lashed out before she even knew what she was doing, until her knuckles hit something solid. Titania pulled back in pain, her hand pale and shriveled to the bone. Lifting her eyes up beneath a knitted brow, she discovered Hera had turned herself to iron.
A smile emerged in the liquid metal surface. "Fast enough for you?"
Before Titania could even react, Hera was on her with fists flying and the one that made contact (and would've done some considerable damage) went right through her. The fay's body liquefied and washed away in a pool of water, seeping through the grating of the New Jersey sewer system.
For a moment Hera considered collapsing the entire east coast to find where the fay had slithered off to, but with the first tremor realized Titania had the same idea; with none of the little fleshlings around to hurt, she could be as ruthless as her conscience would allow.
Main Street erupted beneath her and took half the city out in the equivalent of a nuke. Rippling up the shoreline, through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and even into part of New Brunswick, Titania ripped away the ground in a maelstrom of fire and energy, catching Hera directly in the path.
The goddess actually felt the blow, actually felt pain, and got herself as far away as possible.
With part of the coastline collapsing into the sea, Titania arced skyward.
Still a little groggy, Hera noticed she was over the central U.S. before Titania loomed in her double vision. "Aren't you going to preach?"
"No." She clenched her fist and swung. "It would be a waste of breath." Hera caught it on the chin and fell to the ground, wiping out a cornfield.
She got to her feet and spit out Kansas dirt. "Should have seen that coming..." Hera muttered, rubbing her jaw. Trading blows back and forth was becoming tiresome.
Sensing the impression of another pair of feet on the ground, Hera turned on her heel and guarded herself with splayed fingers. Just a few feet away Titania felt her innards clench, twist and turn inside out, and knew her opponent was trying to make good on an earlier boast.
She did. "...unghh..."
"I once disassembled a fay warrior piece by piece, a trickster, and do know what I found when all the color, feeling and insufferable laughter was stripped away?"
Titania dropped to a single knee, her molecular cohesion becoming a little strained. She was being torn apart.
"Purest energy." Hera lauded. "It was beautiful. How such exquisiteness could come from such an inferior being. But I suppose, beneath the masks and deep down within, we are both just clusters of living energy, able to command and even surmount the very laws of physics."
Pain drilled through every heightened approximation of a nerve ending, but the queen never made a sound.
"This planet will relearn its humility, the fleshlings their gods. They will bow once again, and I will return Olympus to the glory we had made it before Oberon lead his army to its gates."
"I won't...let you..."
"Oh?" Hera's interest was piqued, but her response was to further wrack Titania's body and continue to pull it apart.
She whimpered, but held. "I...will not...succumb..."
"I've killed a lot of little faeries that said the same thing."
"I am not a simple faerie..." Her eyes went up, and they burned a vivid jade. "I am...queen. I am Avalon. And I am becoming tired of your incessant, mindless prattle."
Hera backed up a step, realizing her attack was being slowly repelled by sheer will.
There was a wind, then a deep rumble that resonated along the loose alluvial surface and through the swaying cornhusks. Titania struggled to her feet and floated a few feet from the soil. "You wish to tear me apart?" she dared. "Fine, then do so."
Hera did. And her enemy's body came apart at the seams, then everything went hot, white and North America was almost completely wiped out.
Brooklyn was taken by the tone of his brother's voice, but had a plan already in mind. "Lex should go. He's the smallest and most agile–"
"I'm going." he said, brooking no argument.
And Broadway remembered hearing Angela's voice in the background as he started in. "He's the strongest of all of us. If Hudson is trapped under any wreckage..."
"Yeah," Brooklyn gave a stone-faced nod, "but it's not that..."
The conversation was still lingering in the back of his mind as he gingerly pushed a piece of wall from his way.
They'd lifted up a section to allow him entrance while Lexington steered him through, and it seemed as if he'd already crawled through a mile worth of debris.
The structure was swaying back and forth like a house of cards, moaning and creaking, and for a while he thought his brother was right. He wasn't quite built for slinking through slim gaps between broken rafters, considering he was a little thick around the midsection. But determination, and Lexington's guiding voice in his ear, kept him going, creeping through the remains.
"...You're getting close to the heat signature..." Lexington reported. "...You should be able to see him soon..."
"How much time do I have?" Broadway grunted, exerting himself against one of the rafters.
"...I'd say no more than five minutes..." it was Brooklyn on the channel this time. "...The others are keeping the cops, rescue workers and the public busy for the moment, but..."
He nodded, "I got it." and continued in. A support beam sloped across his path was moved slightly to allow him through, only to bring a few more planks down and something heavy that fell at his feet.
"Damn...!" he yelped.
"...What is it?..."
Dead eyes stared back at him. "A body." Broadway sighed, crawling over one of the Triad casualties.
"It's not Hudson."
"...Well, according to Lex, the heat source should be right beside you..."
He took a better look around, hoping he hadn't moved right past the person he was looking for; Hudson's skin color would blend right in with the amount of wood construction and décor, and judging by the fact he'd just climbed over a pool table and a few more bodies, he should have been dead center in Lucian Barnes' fifth floor suite.
He started peeling back pieces of floorboard, roof and wall, carefully deconstructing the place while listening for any telltale crack. Pulling a few planks away, he'd opened up a hole into a fissure that hadn't yet been swallowed by the weight of the ruined brownstone.
And there, covered in a blanket of debris, a body lay all too comfortably.
Ambrosine had crushed seven cars into the size of one, compressing them beyond the point of their own individual mass to where nothing could escape. Satisfied, and embracing the limitations of mass versus density and all the heat and energy created, she opened her hand and unwrapped the chunk of steel layer by layer until she got to what she hoped would be a chewy center.
But as the last vehicle unfurled, maybe the fact there wasn't any of the blood or entrails she'd expected wasn't so unexpected after all. He was gone. "Where'd you go, foul-blood?"
"Here." a voice said.
Alexander suddenly appeared beside her, smiled and whispered, "Blink."
She took an anemic swing at him, but ended up swiping empty air.
He reappeared again, on the opposite side. "Blink."
Before Ambrosine could even turn around, he was gone again. Just papers caught in the breeze at the end of the street.
All of a sudden, the sword presently impaled through her shuddered, and quickly slipped out the way it came with a wet scrape. A cold breeze replaced the steel that had warmed against her insides, and she covered the hole with a hand even as blood spurted through her fingers. Shooting a glance behind her she found the faerie standing with the sword over his shoulder; an odd sight, considering it was longer than he was tall.
"Got the sword."
She tried for a response but nothing came. Ambrosine wasn't even able to feel him as she did before; it was like having a hand cut off as her best defensive sense went dead. She was too weak to do anything of any consequence.
"Don't you wanta play anymore? I thought you were gonna try t' kill me?"
But what did remain was his insufferable innocence, whether it was by design or genuine. Her lips turned down into a sneer. "I hate you..."
Alexander's smile dimmed. "That's not nice."
"I hate you!!"
"Because your kind killed almost all of ours!" she snapped back. "Stupid fay!"
Ambrosine's eyes brightened at his oblivious tone; the faerie obviously wasn't aware of his bloodstained heritage. "Am I? They fay hunted down my race, killed them, slaughtered almost every single one."
"You're lying." Alexander persisted.
"The fay are murderers, destroyers, and you're just like them!"
If there was any fuse that would set off the boy-shaped bomb, it'd just gone off. An explosion of green bathed the street, removing any kind of shadow or definition with the intensity of light. "You're lying!!" He started pounding on her, lacking any of the cunning he'd before, fists to any unprotected part of her body again, and again, and again, sinking her helpless little form into the pavement as chunks of road flew past him. "YOU'RE LYING!!!"
"I've found him."
"...Is he all right?..."
Broadway couldn't tell. "I don't know. Yet."
He tried to get closer, but every time he brushed his body against a plank or board or wooden beam, everything shifted. Hudson was lying less than couple of feet away, and luckily, in a hollow that had formed when the building collapsed. "Hudson." he called, but didn't get a response.
He was still, eerily peaceful and whether sleeping or dead Broadway couldn't tell. The low, sustained groan of the wreckage drowned out any heartbeat or breath.
"Hudson?" he tried again. "Hudson!"
His eyes opened, squinted and blinked, then focused on the source of color above. "...'ello laddie..."
"Can you move?" Broadway asked, relieved. "Can you reach me?"
"Leave...leave me be."
"What? Come on! Grab my hand."
But the old soldier was recalcitrant, and starting to drift off. "...nay...I think I be...wantin' to sleep fer a while..."
"...Broadway, I think our diversion's wearing off. You've got to get out of there, now!..."
"Damn it, Hudson!" Broadway pleaded. If he lost consciousness now... "Please! We don't have much time left!"
A few small chunks of brick and floorboard rattled through the wreckage and fell through the hollow, upsetting the delicate balance. Every tiny movement was bringing the ceiling down inch by inch.
"Hudson!" he tried again. "Damnit, I'm not leaving my father down here to die!"
The echo ran along broken beams and was eventually swallowed into the rubble, leaving a cold silence in its wake. But it worked in getting his attention; Hudson simply opened his eyes and gave him a long, hard, albeit exhausted look.
Everyone listening in to the channel pulled back in surprise, which included the entire clan.
"His...father?" Angela gasped.
Brooklyn and Lexington shared a knowing glance.
Broadway kept his hand out. "You think I didn't know?" he broke into a wry half-grin. "It wasn't hard to guess, considering we've got the same build."
Every line of the younger gargoyle's features held a memory that was bittersweet, that of someone who'd long turned to dust. "I didna think...it was proper..." Hudson whispered.
"You're real old school, Hudson, you know that?" he ribbed, and reached as far as he could without knocking down one of the few supports still holding the tiny cavity open. "Now come on, grab my hand."
"Yuir...yuir mother...she was beautiful...I miss her..."
If he was rambling, it was hard to tell. Either he was losing conscious, or surrendering to his fate and willing to die down here, either of which scared Broadway to death. "So do I." he said, hoping to keep him talking. "And Maria would miss you just as much, and how you think she'd feel when I have to tell her you simply gave up and decided to die under a bunch of wreckage."
Eyelids fluttered. "Maria...?" he mumbled.
"Yeah, Maria. I can't think of a better reason to live for. Well, besides Trinity that is."
His voice was a little stronger in answering, "Trinity?"
"She'll come back one day, and she'll wonder where her 'grampa' Hudson has gone."
Light danced on Hudson's good cornea, a sure sign he was mulling over the decision. He was hesitant for a moment, and then eventually, with a last look at his would-be tomb, he reached up and grabbed Broadway's hand. "...not if I can help it..."
There wasn't a better feeling than the calloused flesh against his palm, but the reality of the situation quickly returned when the ceiling dropped a foot and whimpered. Broadway blinked away the dust. "We've only got one chance. I'm going to yank you out of here before everything collapses around us."
"Okay. One," muscles tensed, "two," the grip strengthened, "three!"
Nearly pulling his arm from the socket, Broadway wrenched the older gargoyle from where he was pinned down and in doing so, set off a chain reaction that promptly devoured the hollow in one fell swoop, dropping a beam where Hudson's head would've been. And the rest of the debris followed like dominoes.
"The entire place is coming down! Let's move!"
Subtlety be damned, Broadway grabbed Hudson and started plowing his way through the wreckage like a freight train, aiming the way he'd originally come. A beam came down and he let it crack off his forearm, an inch from caving in his skull. "Move!" he growled, and Hudson limped his way over part of the third floor. Giving the older gargoyle some leeway, he threw the beam away and dodged several more in following.
But Hudson had stopped, clutching his chest.
Broadway didn't notice the blood until now. Among other places, it was pouring from a gash in his leg.
"I...canna..." he was out of breath.
"Yes you can." Scooping him from his feet, Broadway carried him the rest of the way as debris rained down on him, and he was forced a few times to his knees. But he didn't stop, running on slightly even ground or climbing up over furniture and pieces of the roof, until the firebrick coloring of his brother (acting like a flare) came into view.
Brooklyn was waiting for them near the makeshift entrance, hand out. "Come on! You're almost there."
"Move!" Broadway yelled.
He barely had time to jump from his brother's path as he came bursting out with his left shoulder taking the brunt. Broadway hit the cement and nearly collapsed before Angela caught and steadied him. He was even more torn up than Hudson, with numerous cuts and scrapes in his hide, but he offered a pained smile as they butted ridges.
"We've got him!" Brooklyn nearly screamed into the commlink. "I suggest everyone get the hell out of here and back to the castle."
Half the continents had been obliterated.
Magma spewed from holes dug through the mantle and into the molten layers. Storms wracked this tiny Earth pocketed into a ball of dimensional energy no bigger than a basketball.
Hera had stayed true to her word and broke Titania into each individual atom. But what she didn't realize was the amount of energy she would release in doing so. Much like a nuclear reactor, splitting the fay queen had resulted in an eruption of power that wiped one of the most populated continents clean of any building, road or modern human structure that had been duplicated down to the last brick in their personal dimension.
Even a few famous mountain ridges were reduced to rubble.
It didn't take much for Titania to rebuild herself and Hera, battered by the initial explosion, watched as she was restored.
Their battle resumed without a word. They ran the gamut of creatures and elemental properties to transform into (Hera favoring iron over all), they used skyscrapers and historic monuments as ammo, boiled the oceans and sunk entire islands.
It was in the crater that used to be Russia where the battle had eventually come to a stalemate after several hours (about twenty minutes in the passage of time in the real world).
Titania was nursing an awful scar that ran the length of her forearm (Hera had leeched the iron from the earth itself and chased the fay with a fifty foot tidal wave of iron ore) while the goddess was, especially for the magnificence she deemed herself, a little less than properly dressed. Robes torn, black scars on Mediterranean skin that seeped a strange glowing liquid, she was staring at the queen who mirrored the steady glare.
"This didn't seem at all fun." Hera said at length.
Hands behind her back, Titania calmly replied, "Devastation never is."
"Are we to finish this? Or engage in pointless conversation?"
"All right. So," she cracked her knuckles, "your turn or mine."
"I believe it is yours."
"As you wish." Hera reached in front of her and dug her fingernails into the very structure of the false reality in which she'd been trapped. She slowly opened a gap, and tore it in two, throwing the halves to either side that peeled back past the horizon and revealed the changed landscape (one that hadn't been partially annihilated). They were right back where they'd started, the hum of Manhattan past midnight rising to fill the absence of sound.
Despite the fact they were back in a world with a population that could be used as fodder, Titania didn't seem at all concerned.
But ensconced in the organic machine of humanity, Hera couldn't be more pleased. The clatter, the smell, the light, it filled her senses. "Ah, hear that?" she beamed. "Six and a half billion heartbeats. Now, I am truly going to enjoy laying waste to this place. Destruction isn't destruction without blood, screams and a substantial body count, isn't that right?"
"I wouldn't know." Titania was glacial.
"Oh come now. You were there, at Oberon's side as you attacked our very home. You were quite vicious in your youth."
"I have grown beyond that callow child."
Her laugh was a sort of nails-on-chalkboard cackle; Hera obviously enjoyed what she thought was an absolute untruth, considering she'd seen the fay at her most vindictive. "You wiped away a few of the lesser demigods with barely a change in expression." she smirked. "Their screams didn't seem to affect you, the fact some were splayed open and torn between dimensional folds didn't even make you blink. It was business mixed with a little bit of pleasure."
Titania gave a wave of her hand. "It was inevitable, and unfortunate."
"Bullshit." came the heated response. "It seems that, you and I, aren't so different after all."
She was being baited, but Titania wouldn't give her the satisfaction. Besides, they were both now exactly where she wanted them. "Do you think we are the same, Hera?"
"Ah, but there is one undeniable difference." Her eyes reflected the lights of Manhattan when they went up towards the sky, finding depths never seen before. "I am not alone."
A wind smoothed Manhattan's towers; there was a disruption in the natural flow, as though someone more powerful than Mother Nature was forcing the air-stream in another direction.
Hera felt it, heard the song it played through the spires like a giant pipe organ, and rued breaking from that small prison.
Anansi and Nought, Odin riding Sleipnir, Grandmother in her Thunderbird form and Banshee as the Crom-Cruach, the cavalry had arrived in grand form. They carved a path in the clouds as they descended towards their queen.
All she could manage in her battle-weary form was a sneer; Titania's loyalists had been waiting. "It's the storming of Olympus all over again."
Odin struck first with storms and thunder and a few well-placed lightning bolts that would've burned any lesser being to a crisp. Hera took it through the stomach and shrugged it off, only to get an axe embedded into her chest.
Grandmother and Banshee attacked next, batting her between their claws and teeth and when they pulled away, Anansi shot enough webbing to completely encase her and knocked her to the ground. She didn't even land; halfway through her descent she burst from her cocoon and sent a fist into his vulnerable underbelly. Whirling on the last member of Titania's little brigade, Nought, she'd noticed he'd done nothing but hover there, watching.
He tipped his fedora, opened his cloak and the entire night sky was swallowed by darkness as a horde of snake-like creatures screamed from the inside of his cape towards her. They swirled around, biting, snapping, piercing through her, inflicting damage on physical, mental and even metaphysical levels so much as to actually elicit a response of fear.
Her mind reeling, Hera screamed and reacted on instinct. A ball of fire and light expanded outwards so quickly it caught Nought and the rest by surprise and emptied the air around her, allowing the chance to recover.
When the sky cleared, she shot a dirty look towards Titania, who'd taken up position above. "Do you truly think your minions stand on our level?!" she hollered.
The queen didn't flinch. "They are powerful in their own right, but serve a distinct purpose that has nothing to do with brute strength."
The Thunderbird again, swift enough to rake its claws across her back, then the Banshee, in her true form. She opened her mouth and shrieked; the pitch of her voice went so high it would've shattered a human's eardrums. A wave of compressed air nearly tore Hera's skin off.
She reciprocated with a blast of her own, nearly creating a sonic boom and the Banshee was sent so far into a higher altitude she nearly disappeared.
Lightning, fire, claws and sound, they kept beating on her for a full five minutes until she became sick of the irritants and summoned a strong wind to relieve herself of their bite. But what she didn't know Titania did; the queen had chosen a select few from the Seelie court that could sustain a short but intensive attack to wear Hera down.
"They are merely here to help me further dull your reflexes, so you cannot escape."
Titania vanished, then, a moment later, reappeared directly in front of her and slapped her hands on either side of her upper chest. "The most primal release of energy ever recorded."
The last thing Hera saw was Titania's half-smile, and then, nothing.
There was a void, a nothingness containing no space, time, matter, light or sound. Yet the laws of nature were in place and this curious vacuum (drawing into a single point near her) held the potential for fifteen billion years worth of history.
Hera turned, only to see her friend floating aimlessly in the abyss; he'd just arrived from a few thousand years in the past. He seemed to mouth something, and ended with sad eyes on his queen.
One primeval atom started the chain reaction, a singularity, and all the matter and energy contained into that single point exploded. In less than a fraction of a millisecond, Hera and her faithful demigod were horribly dismantled and thrown to the distant corners.
And the universe began.
It was done; she could feel it.
And the moment she knew the battle was won, Titania dropped from the sky, coming to ground in the fields of Central Park. No one seemed to notice the aqua-skinned woman break through the canopy of the trees, and kneel in the grass. Her hands were still steaming from the effects of the spell; sending someone as powerful as Hera back in time to the exact point of the beginning of the cosmos was a grueling, complex task.
The thunderbird descended and lacking the expected rush of wind or heavy thump of claws, it was a simple whisper of two small feet. Grandmother resumed her usual form and moved invisibly through a group of people towards Titania. "My queen."
Fingers tore at the roots and soil of the village green. "I had come so far." Titania condemned her actions. "Learned from a past I regret."
"Do not be disheartened. You did what you must."
"Yes, I destroyed. And I must do so again."
Grandmother gave a look of bewilderment that somehow Titania caught, despite the fact she was facing away from the diminutive woman.
"Can you not you feel it?" Titania insisted.
Her raised hand explored the lines of energy converging at a point near the park. "Yes." Grandmother nodded. "It is a familiar power. It is an angry, undisciplined power."
"Go back with the others to Avalon, before your king notices your absence." She stood to her full height. A wind had gathered inexplicably to unravel the lengths of her hair, and she seemed distracted, staring into the city's lower half. "I shall be along...shortly."
It wasn't until she'd been reduced to a trembling mass of bruises and blood when he'd stopped.
Alexander had thrown her around for a while before the red haze over his vision had slightly cleared (leaving ruined cars, broken trees and a chewed up street in the aftermath), and despite the fact she was pretty much exhausted and unable to fight back, he was still angry. And she was the only focal point in sight for everything that had gone wrong recently.
The light he gave off dying to a faint, ethereal shimmer, he remembered the sword he'd dropped just before he attacked. Alexander opened his hand and it flew towards him, plunking into his palm and the weight to the curved blade was substantial. If he'd been normal, he wouldn't have been able to wield it as easily as its original owner.
Nearly coughing up an organ, Ambrosine struggled to sit up only to have a sword flash into view; the tip caught just under her chin, forced her head up and her gaze to his.
And that's where she found him. Her six-year old grandson, about to take a life as casually as she had thousands of years ago.
The residents had already turned on their lights, peered through their windows and a brave few stood on their stoops at the commotion Alexander had caused. But with a simple charm, they saw only what the queen wanted them to see: an empty street, and decided to go back inside.
With an almost fluidic grace, Titania approached the boy from behind.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and knew instantly who it was. There was no surprise on his features, and perhaps he'd always known she would come for him.
"No." Titania said firmly. "You will not do this." She gently pulled him back and, surprised he offered no resistance, let him simmer a ways away clutching to Hudson's sword.
Ambrosine had thought it was her mother, her vision impaired by drying blood and a shiner on her left eye that was already starting to heal. But the skin, clothes, the very pattern of energy was off. "Who're you?"
Titania reached towards the awestruck girl, and hesitated (there was myth held by many of her race that told of skin that burned like iron). But she slighted the belief, chalked it up to her own ancient and groundless preconceptions and brushed a few knuckles across Ambrosine's brow. Her hair was tussled; she straightened it.
"I am sorry, child." Titania said softly. "But your kind has no place here any longer."
The movement was a blur, from calming gesture to a lethal attack, and Titania grabbed Ambrosine by the forehead. She didn't even have the time to scream when a bright light emanated from the queen's palm; in an instant, Ambrosine was atomized.
Blinking the bright spots away, when Alexander was able to refocus he found a scorch mark where the little girl had been. Looking up towards his grandmother, he noticed her hand was trembling. "Gramma...?"
She quickly pulled it into the embrace of the other, wringing both together to calm the shakes. An expression he'd never seen before fluttered ever so briefly before it was gone. "I did not want you to kill, princeling." she whispered. "I never want you to walk that path, even as powerful as you are now," their gazes met, "and are destined to become."
"She was...bad." he tried to rationalize the death, but wasn't succeeding.
"Yes, very." Titania drifted close.
"Did you...?" he started, unsure of how to ask the question. "Did you kill a lot of people?"
Titania breathed with slitted eyes. "Alexander," she offered her hand, "you and I need to talk."
Making a few sparks with the sword dragging behind him, Alexander walked towards her and grabbed for it. They stood silently for a while before vanishing, leaving behind a dark, empty street that appeared as if nothing had ever been out of place.
"Still nothing?" she asked.
Morgan shook his head. "Nada. No movement, no light."
"All right, ladies and gentlemen," Maria Chavez turned and addressed the troops, "we've got a detective inside surrounded by what could be anywhere from fifty to a hundred gang members. There's been absolutely no noticeable activity since this place was put under surveillance, but that doesn't mean there not all inside waiting for us."
To a few of the inexperienced, the manor loomed before them, lifeless and ominously dark. The stolen police car had been tracked here just outside of an hour ago, the house watched, and an entire army of armored policemen and women had been assembled just outside.
"By the book, people." Maria continued, recapturing their attention. "I don't want heroes, I want live and healthy cops, including the one we've got trapped inside."
Leading with their flashlights, Morgan took the front steps first flanked by two other officers with Maria and the rest of the squad behind. They'd confirmed by radio with the other three teams on each side of the house that there wasn't any movement, just closed doors, closed windows and a hell of a lot of eerie silence.
Morgan motioned to the younger officer with the battering ram and he got into position quickly. One quick strike nearly ripped the door from its hinges and he sidestepped to let the others in.
The foyer was empty under the thin beams of several flashlights and, content with the fact bullets didn't fly through the open door, they moved in.
Before any light could be thrown down the darkened halls, it was the smell that hit them first. That tinny, metallic reek that every cop, cadet and civilian alike knew was a lot of spilled blood.
A few indistinguishable smears lined the walls (handprints maybe, of someone either trying to escape or fend off an attacker) and spatters that went from floor to ceiling.
But the sight that met them as they entered into the next, larger room was enough to make a few of the rookies taking up the rear nauseous to the point of running outside. Maria's eyes widened as the crowd parted. Bodies were piled one atop the other and spread out across the entire room; at least anywhere from forty to fifty at the first estimate, a mixture of races, expensive clothing and some heavy-duty hardware scattered in between.
They were butchered, and everywhere, a few opened up like some sick science experiment.
Maria was about to gulp back her dinner when the other teams started reporting in.
"...Rear entrance, clear. We've got bodies..."
"...West window, clear. Another body..."
"...East side, clear. Same here. Two of the poor bastards..."
"Spread out," she ordered, "teams of three. Search every single room and...try to find any survivors."
As the squad split up, Morgan started walking through the corpses, stepping lightly as to not slip on the wooden floors made slick by the blood. A few of the faces looked familiar, even twisted with the expression of fear and desperation they'd died with. "I recognize some of these guys, captain." he said.
"Let me guess," Maria cut in from behind, "a few of Barnes' gang here, a few Triads there..."
"Looks like they killed each other."
"No." she argued, shaking her head. It didn't add up, especially after seeing Barnes and Lei working together quite comfortably to take her car. They were smart enough to realize the benefits of an alliance.
"These men weren't shot," one of the officers remarked, "they were slaughtered. No bullet wounds."
Claw marks, Maria thought, seeing a familiar pattern of three distinct gashes across a lot of the bodies. As she scanned the room with her flashlight, a discerning eye picked out the bullet holes in the wall and, incredibly, even laced across the ceiling; they'd been shooting at something else that apparently didn't get hit. She holstered her gun, assured there wasn't any sort of threat here.
At least, not anymore, someone had taken care of that.
"Captain." Morgan called from across the room, the back of his hand across his mouth to allay some of the smell. "I think we've found Mr. Barnes. At least what's left of him..."
Maria stepped over a few warm corpses to get to where Morgan was crouching and stopped at the edge of the biggest pool of blood so far. She peered over his shoulder and gasped. Whatever did this wasn't human. "Good god..."
Once over the exterior wall and the peak of altitude for tired wings, their descent nearly turned into a plunge as they aimed for the courtyard and a few waiting figures. Broadway hit the stones a little harder with the extra weight he was carrying in his arms. Hudson stirred slightly with the jostle.
The twins rushed to greet their mother, and Katana willingly took them into each arm.
"Get Hudson to the infirmary." Brooklyn ordered. "Lex, try to get a fix on Shadow's location."
"I don't think we need to." Lexington answered, pointing past his brother's shoulder.
Brooklyn swiveled on his heel, only to find a murky shape hunched near the courtyard entry.
It was Shadow, and it looked as if he'd been through a war of his own. More than a dozen deep wounds had been caked over with dried spatters, but what looked like a hundred small scratches from brow to talon gleamed red in the castle's light. Brooklyn didn't see the commlink, which would answer his question of why they couldn't locate him using the GPS homing beacon.
His hands, reflexively clenching and unclenching at his sides, were soaked in blood to halfway up his forearms. It was fresh, and still trickled from his talon-tips.
"He got here about ten minutes ago." Tachi said, moving near her father's arm.
"And hasn't moved since." Nashville chimed in where his sister left off. "It's kind of creepy."
"He wouldn't let us help her."
"Her?" Brooklyn echoed.
He approached tactfully and when close enough, found Iliana still unconscious at the ninja's feet, but he couldn't quite ignore the stains and smears on dark, rippling skin. Shadow's eyes were burning holes through the stones. "What the hell happened?"
It was getting closer to dawn as Brooklyn stood in the door to the Eyrie infirmary, watching as Iliana snarled at doctor Pierce from her hospital bed and tried to tear the I.V. from her arm. From the other side of the hospital, a drugged and slightly comatose Hudson broke into a smile at the commotion.
"...How is he?..."
If the speaker on the other end of the phone line could only see his smile, she'd know instantly. "Sleeping." Brooklyn answered. "Pierce checked him out. Hera's daughter forced a mild heart attack on him, and he had a building fall on him, but he's tough. Give him a few nights and he'll be back up and on his feet."
What passed through the line next was what sounded like a sigh of relief. As much emotion as Maria wanted to hide, her concern for Hudson was palpable.
"...Thank god..." she said. "...And Iliana?..."
The rookie detective was fighting against Pierce with a bedpan stuck in the middle. "Pissed to be back in that bed, but she's all right. They were lucky tonight."
"...We all were. Except for those in the Triad safehouse..."
"Morning news." he revealed. "They're saying Barnes and Lei's gangs killed each other."
"...No, they didn't..." Maria just happened to confirm the gut feeling he'd already come to realize. "...They were actually working together until someone else killed them all. They were slaughtered, Brooklyn, by what looked like an animal..."
He wasn't surprised to learn she'd come to the same conclusion he did. "Are you implying a gargoyle did it?"
"...Please tell me that whatever did this wasn't one of you..." her tone implied a plea. "...Please..."
After an uncomfortably long pause, Brooklyn had to disappoint her, "I can't." His eyes were light in a sea of darkness. "Because I think I know exactly who did it."
Maria replaced the receiver and shook her hair free of the clip. As it unfurled along the nape of her neck, she wrung the strands through a few fingers and stifled a yawn. She was exhausted, still smelled of blood and needed a shower, but it all seemed so far away knowing Hudson was all right. Her first impulse at hearing he had a building dropped on him (not to mention the mild heart attack) was to rush to the Eyrie building and be by his side, but, something had held her back.
She'd purposely distanced herself from the clan to focus on what needed to be done. And now that distance had grown to the point of being uncomfortable.
Especially with the fact one of them might have murdered almost fifty people in cold blood.
An odd feeling of someone watching her caused her to snap her head up and confirm the fact. He was standing at her open door, Chinese, and by the look of it, somewhere in his seventies. At first she was unable to form the response she knew a university education could easily provide.
"Yes." Maria was shaken from her stupor. "Can I help you?"
The old man shuffled further into her office and wordlessly dropped a package onto her desk. He tipped up one end of the large manila folder, and emptied the contents. "I believe you can."
She wasn't hesitant in examining the pile. "This is..."
"All the information on Triad activity in North America."
It was a goddamned goldmine to the captain, who was sifting through the CD jewelcases, documents and photographs like it was Christmas morning. Just flipping through a few pages she'd already had grounds for fifteen arrests in Manhattan alone. Suspected Triad allies, weapons caches with loyal customers and potential buyers, drug smuggling routes, it was the biggest break the NYPD, not to mention the country, had ever gotten. "Why?"
Those deep lines peeled back into a smile that seemed both ageless, and pained. He was definitely carrying around an extra bit of emotional baggage, but, Maria thought, aren't we all.
"Perhaps I wish to die with a clean conscience." he revealed. "Or somehow, fill the hole this way of life has left in all of us."
It was as if someone had asked him to cut off his own arm, considering the expression. But the subject was obviously a sore one, more so in a police station, or as he'd referred to it when standing and pontificating on the stoop of the twenty-third, a den of wolves. "I was only fifteen when I joined. I protected the Zhu family, and killed willingly for them. It has been my life, but it has also been a cancer, slowly eating away at my honor and my soul." His hands knotted, bone showing through the weary skin. "I want to keep what little I have left."
Maria offered a delicate smile. "I can understand."
"Then you too have asked the same questions of yourself."
He nodded with a coincident huff of breath, turned and started towards the door. But reaching the threshold and the corridor beyond, he'd noticed the lack of concern in his leaving from the captain; he didn't think she was just about to let him walk out. "I have just admitted to murder." he tested. "You can arrest me."
Maria looked up from the pile she was fastidiously searching through. "I could, but I won't."
"What I have done hasn't wiped the slate clean."
"I agree." she said. "But what you've done is perhaps saved hundreds if not thousands of lives by–"
"By betraying the very people I had sworn my loyalty to." the old man cut in.
There was a point where the pile of evidence became a lesser concern to her sense of morality. A sense she'd been struggling with for some time. "I recently told someone that I didn't want their help, that I didn't want to ride that line between order and chaos. But it's hard to live your life in strict terms of black and white, especially here and especially now."
The old man kept his gaze as intense as it was before.
"I'm also not going to tie up an already over-burdened judicial system with an old man who may or may not have killed one or more people who were probably members of another rival gang." Maria continued, giving him what he was waiting for. "Besides, if I look through all of this evidence, I'm probably not going to find anything on you, am I?"
There was that smile again. It was freeing for him. "Think of me as a ghost, captain."
"One who'll disappear?"
"Correct." He left and made sure to close the door behind him.
As Maria watched the shadow vanish from behind the little pane of frosted glass, she knew she'd never see him again. Focusing back on the evidence, she nearly licked her lips in the anticipation of examining it all and hit the button on her intercom. It rang a desk in the bullpen outside.
"...Yes?..." a voice answered.
"Scolleri." she was quick and to the point. "Brew a fresh pot and get me the D.A. And I don't give a damn what time it is..."
The sun was half an hour from rising and he wanted to do this quick. Brooklyn stormed across the courtyard and towards the small, isolated tower on Wyvern's stern, following the scent trail like a bloodhound until he'd climbed the steps and was face to face with the thick wood-slat gate.
He knew the ninja was fanatical about his privacy but at the moment he didn't much care, and showed it by kicking in the door and charging inside. Darkness met his eyes; the firepit had been left unlit and the two small windows were shuttered and sealed. The only light was pouring through the open door and leaking from Brooklyn's own phosphorescent glare.
Across from him, the steady lungfuls he could barely make out and the dark, dragon-like contour proved tenancy.
At least he had the decency to wash the blood off his hands and leather gauntlets.
If the massive creature had sensed his leader's entrance (which he probably did), it didn't show. He merely turned his head halfway to hold a sharp eye to the light. It narrowed, there was a breath and then, a gravel voice. "Brooklyn."
"You sick son of a bitch."
Sometime after two am, and somewhere in a pub in what could've been any city in the country, only a few people were left, either in the sense of actually being physically present or still conscious.
Through the gossamer layers of cigarette smoke, the dim haze of intentionally poor lighting, a dozen or so were intent to wait out the horrors of the outside world until closing time.
One in particular had his favorite spot at the bar, leaning on the wood surface amidst a dozen empty glasses and several more bottles he was intent to drown in sorrows in. Long gray hair and beard on the verge of being white, his stone-cut features nearly hid his eyes in crooks and hard-angled corners.
He was a regular. Had been for some time. No one knew his name or where he'd come from, but they knew he'd eventually become bored and move on.
"I sunk Atlantis..." he muttered, to no one in particular but his own lingering hallucinations.
And of course, no one corporeal and breathing seemed to care.
"I sunk Atlantis!!" he howled, wide eyes wild. But eventually, like always, he calmed and returned to his drink. "Oberon...damned faerie, destroyed Olympus...destroyed...me...I will, I will revenge..."
The bartender merely shook his head at one of his more raucous regulars, used to the harmless ranting, and went back to his work. "Yeah...sure pal."