105 - "Chrome: Part 2"

"It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent,
but the one most responsive to change."

- Charles Darwin

There would have been a crowd ready to celebrate a long-awaited victory, ready to welcome home their warriors like the Viking raiders of old with admiration and cheer.

But as the hangar doors opened to allow the craft entry, what returned was barely recognizable as what had left, buoyed by such high hopes of at last striking a blow against the demons. The first (and regrettably only) helicopter to land was missing its entire canopy, torn from every hinge and bolt, the fuselage struck by jagged lines deliberately and maliciously carved into the black steel skin. Its pilot near to passing out, his uniform shredded and bloody and a shard of metal debris jutting from his shoulder, it staggered and lurched to finally collapse barely within the landing area.

Though they'd been warned that only one helicopter out of three had made it back (one lost to the murky depths of the bay, the other swallowed by the Eyrie's newest guest), the sheer sight of what their warriors had been reduced to sent a collective shudder through the gathered ranks.

Medical teams rushed towards the aircraft, but agent White would not be carried away on a stretcher. Already halfway out of the cockpit with a hand clutched around his throat to slow the blood escaping from his wound, he violently resisted any aid and made his way down the steel-rung ladder, boots hitting concrete.

A bit of spatter started into a larger pool at his feet, but White wasn't even vaguely mindful of what still trickled through his fingers. He was at the center of his own little universe, chewing on another defeat with jaw clenched and an ice-colored intensity around the ring of his irises.

"Sir," a medic tried, "your throat..." but received a growl worthy of a gargoyle in response. The man backed off before the agent's infamous temper was sated with a pint of his blood.

White's face burned by the winds without the protection of his mask, it was twisted into that same infuriated expression he'd worn when the female creature had a blade against his neck and he wasn't in the mood to be coddled. He was alive but humiliated; he supposed there was more power in death at the hands of his enemy than mercy from the beasts. Insult to injury.

The pilot was carted away on red-soaked sheets, blissfully unconscious and the gathered crowd didn't quite know what to do with their leader lost and presumed dead, and his lieutenant bleeding all over himself in the middle of the landing pad.

Who knows how long they would have stood there before a body threaded through the uniformed mob to greet the Guild second in command. He was eerily nonchalant as he approached, different in the fact he was uniquely unafraid to face the agent head on. "Welcome home, cousin."

He was spooked from the self-imposed daze, with a jerk. Though the uniform was identical to the hundreds behind him in the sea of black and white trim, the face was disturbingly familiar. "What are you doing here...?"

"Witnessing th' beginning of th' end." Jon Canmore answered sanguinely.

White turned to the larger agent who'd appeared by his cousin's side, codenamed Red, and glared at him. "I had no idea our security was so lax."

"Yuir angry, cousin." Jon was still oddly optimistic. "Why?"

"The Guild has no place for you!"

"Mr. McClusky doesna think so."

White returned that sub-zero glare to agent Red, surprised he'd give his name so freely. "Is this true?"

The large man tipped his chin up, the collar of his uniform straining against a neck like a tree trunk. "I simply gave him the chance to explain himself, given his 'celebrity' status." the agent answered cautiously. "But I was waiting for your return."

"Why?"

"To hear what he has to say."

With a sneer, agent White turned away from them both. "You should have killed him."

Jon smirked, "My, my, cousin..."

"No offense, Jon, but we're in a war." he explained, his voice gravel from the wound. "The fact that you weren't killed on sight means I have to revaluate our security measures and question this agent's motives."

"Oh he's a good soldier," Jon patted agent Red on the shoulder, "but he yearns for a taste of gargoyle blood. Like everyone gathered here, and those who've already given their lives like your able leader, Mr. Black, though his motives are questionable at best."

The manner the news was delivered would've seemed that way to soften the blow, but on his cousin's heavy Scottish brogue it was more the fact that he just didn't care. White was surprised; they'd gotten word that contact with the other helicopters had been lost but never for an instant did he think the 'unconquerable' Mr. Black wouldn't make it back home. He whirled on the men and demanded, "Tell me everything that's happened."

Someone in the crowd handed Jon a small portable computer and he in turn passed it to White's impatient grasp. Video followed with the press of a button, showing surveillance footage of the beast being swallowed by what looked like liquid metal. "Our surveillance of the castle caught his helicopter absorbed into whatever's surrounding the building." Jon narrated. "Black is either captured, or dead. Thus, leadership falls to you, cousin."

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The gulf of twenty years didn't seem so far apart anymore, especially when staring into the forest green gaze of his wife and sharing the same air.

Mr. Black had found himself deep in the lair, and unexpectedly face to face with someone who'd become a slowly fading memory, as much as a ghost as he was. He knew he was staring, but despite the company he'd been surrounded with he couldn't pull away.

Rose reciprocated in kind. Her husband, good god, her husband, standing here in front of her, solid and flesh. He'd aged just like she'd imagined he would; those first few gray hairs he'd discovered at the temples had bled into the rest of a shoulder-length mane, handsome streaks of silver symmetrically mirrored in his goatee. His jaw was still strong, as were his eyes, and despite the few lines the decades had whittled into his skin he hadn't changed.

She wanted to pull away, hide her scars from his gray-flecked scrutiny and nearly did, until he spoke.

"Rose..." Her name was caressed in the breathless whisper; he'd barely spoken it the last two decades. "Rose."

She quickly came up behind Hudson, before he braced her with an arm to prevent her from getting close.

Black found the strength to tear his eyes from his wife and onto the gargoyle that held her back. He was an elder of the species, and he looked like he'd been through a few battles judging by the scars, his wings' tattered edge, and the way he held to the sword. He had a hard glint to the undamaged eye, and was doing what all skilled warriors do, sizing him up. "You're not the leader." Black said.

Hudson slowly shook his head, never taking his eyes from his prey. "Nay, laddie."

"A pity. Cut the beast off at the head, and the body dies."

His wrist cricked with such quick movement and with it, the blade drew a few lines in the air about chest high. It was almost as if he was mimicking every intricate movement it would take to surgically remove each lung. "Exactly what I be thinkin'."

Though it would've proved ineffective, Rose grasped as much of his arm as she possibly could to try and hold him back. "Hudson, please." she begged.

"So," Black nodded, stroking his bristled jaw, "you know me."

"Only by reputation. I know yuir son quite well."

The very mention sent a flicker through his face, upsetting the fastidiously crafted façade before he caught himself. "Todd." he echoed, clenching a fist to his side. "Yes, my son's a firecracker. You've done a remarkable job at raising him, Rose."

"He raised himself." she answered forlornly.

"Because I wasn't there, because I was robbed of that simple pleasure."

"An' so ye wage war on th' world. Robbing others of their sons an' daughters."

"Eye for an eye?" Black offered, warrior to warrior and surely this old soldier would understand.

"Aye," Hudson nodded once, "but I dinna want revenge on yuir boy for something yuir followers have done."

"And what, pray tell, has hurt you so terribly?"

He bit back the cry, nearly put his teeth through his tongue to keep the pain from erupting as a violent surge of adrenaline, impulse and a spray of blood; the last thing he wanted was an enemy in his head. Hudson did his best to ignore him, and shot that same cruel look to the rest of the clan. "Get th' others strapped down." he ordered bluntly, and returned to Black. "An' if ye move 'r blink, ye die."

He raised his hands in clemency and even went so far as to retreat towards the corner of the infirmary.

And just to be sure, Hudson pushed the man back with the tip of his sword near his throat. One good thrust would cut clean through to his spine.

Pierce, Delilah and the twins swiftly grabbed the unconscious men sprawled on the ground and dragged them towards the empty beds.

For Black, this was a rare opportunity to see these creatures up close, rather than through binoculars or the lens of a camera. He'd never seen twins before, and they were young enough to still be considered children. But what struck him was the snow-haired female; as brave as a front as she put on she couldn't quite resist flicking those big, brown doe-eyes towards him every so often, as if afraid he'd suddenly lunge at her, grab her, slit her throat. She was older physically, but seemed rather delicate for an adult, if not oddly familiar.

The beasts drooling on the linoleum were as mindless as any wild animal (they'd known of offshoots of the gargoyle species), and he assumed one wrong move towards the others would lose him an arm.

His agents and pilots were strapped down, one to each bed, the doctor checking for wounds as heavy nylon straps were tied around their wrists and ankles. At least humans had the courtesy...

"Am I excused from the same fate?" he joked.

But Hudson didn't see the humor. "Dinna tempt me."

Skin wrinkled about his thinned eyes, and his brow furrowed. "Such viciousness..."

"Stop this!" Rose hissed. "You're baiting him!"

Black never broke the stare between him and the beast. "You know I've never employed tactics like that, Rose. This thing is being exactly what he is, a monster."

A growl split Hudson's teeth.

"You never answered my question."

"One of yuir agents killed my son." it spilled out.

"Ah. So, revenge is it?"

Hudson drew a line on his brow with his talon. "I took my share from th' lad with th' scar."

Of course; agent White had been reluctant to explain where the scar on his forehead had come from. After loading into the helicopter during the first, failed attack on Wyvern, he'd simply and stubbornly held a hand to the gash like a sullen child whose father had just taken a belt to him. "Ironic, isn't it? But you realize, your son was only the first."

If Rose hadn't pleaded in a whisper, "...no, please no..." Hudson would've disemboweled the human right then and there. His knuckles nearly ripped open at the pressure in which he held to his sword, each cricking in succession, but those ten tiny fingernails dug into his flesh with such futile intensity that he swallowed the instinctual urge.

"Let the beast be, Rose." Black egged him on. "Let him eviscerate me, spill my guts, let that malicious, primal instinct take over."

"Do you want to die!" she screamed at him.

"Not particularly, but if I'm to die it might as well be as a martyr to the cause."

"Your cause is psychotic! You destroy and kill, committing genocide in the name of some twisted sense of justice!"

There was a moment, if not the blink of an eye, where he was reminded of a first-year Sociology student who'd opposed his point of view in a pub somewhere in the East village, yelling at him over the electric twang of a local blues band. She was just as fierce as he'd remembered, fire-tongued and wild-eyed, ready and willing for an argument. "I suppose twenty years has dulled the memory of what happened that night..."

"On the contrary," she contended, "I remember every time I close my eyes...but even if our attackers were gargoyles, it doesn't mean an entire species should die for one group's sins."

With one purposely languid move, Black pulled his sleeve back and showed them the scars left from a gargoyle's talons. They ran down his arm in unbroken, wine-colored swirls, perfectly spaced to a three-fingered hand. "They attacked without mercy or care, left us to die..."

"Humanity has committed countless atrocities, against each other and against the gargoyles. And yet, none of them have gone to war."

"You only have a small clan to base even smaller opinions on, we know of thousands of gargoyles around the world."

His ridges seated into his eyes, they lifted slightly. "Thousands..." Hudson whispered.

"Yes," Black nodded, "all at war with us. They delight in spilling blood, human or animal it doesn't matter."

"We are nay animals an' we didna start this war!"

If this creature only knew its species' own sordid, bloody history in conjunction with his own, but gargoyles never did seem to have the ability of intercommunication between their far-lying clans. "Yes, you did. Before the two of us were ever born." Black started beating a closed fist into his chest. "And now it threatens my species."

"Seems t' me yuir th' biggest threat t' yuir species." Hudson growled.

He was most likely speaking of every death in the name of purity; Black was well aware of the irony they'd killed more humans than gargoyles. "The traitors will be winnowed out."

"Like our son?" Rose pressed. "Like me?"

He might as well have been wearing his mask in the fact he didn't even allow a twitch. "Yes, you and our children. And now that everyone's neatly under the same roof, it'll be easier."

Rose was short a breath. "Sarah's...here?" she gasped.

"I gave her to our son. She's somewhere in the building. I should know, I tried to kill them earlier this morning."

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With all the extra appendages moving about, swinging and rustling and tapping in anxious rhythm to a tune in someone's head, it was hard to tell whether or not they were alone in the elevator cab.

Maybe it was the darkness, or the confined space (which, to a gargoyle, was sometimes a little hard to bear) but nerves were starting to fray. Todd was able to scrounge a small flashlight from his pocket and coupled with the glow from his sister's handheld vitals monitor, there was just enough light to draw the lines of wings and horns and put a bit of washed color in the eyes.

Conversation waxed and waned within their circle, first on the topic of escape, then acceptance and, just as Sarah had seemed so interested in her brother and mother, she'd trailed off, as if she didn't quite want to waste the breath.

It wasn't until Annika, who'd taken a distant interest in her sister-in-law, noticed a change in tempo to each breath, growing more labored as time dragged on. If she wasn't as skillfully furtive with every glance, Sarah would've said something; the last thing she wanted was a gargoyle looking at her like she was on the menu.

But call it fate or simply bad timing, they both happened to turn at the same time and meet their respective gaze, one introspective, the other suddenly irritated.

"What?" Sarah insisted.

"You're breathing shallow." Annika shrugged. "And you haven't spoken a single word for a good half hour. Are you trying to conserve your oxygen?"

For a moment, she was surprised, but her father had told her how adept a gargoyle's hearing was in stories more like fairy tales he recounted under the flicker of a single, haunting light. To better hunt with, to better hear their prey in the dead of night. "You have good ears."

"Good enough to hear my husband sneaking a Dorito behind my back."

Todd groaned, suddenly thrust into the conversation if not quite under the best light, "Goddamnit woman, that was a year ago." But he checked the dial on his sister's small oxygen tank, and noticed the needle had grown dangerously close to the left side of empty. "And she's right, you're getting really low."

Sarah shifted on his lap, defiant. "I'll be okay."

"Well then, why does this monitor say your heart-rate's decreasing as is your blood pressure?"

Her brother seemed the relentless type, and faced with the monitor he held up to her nose she didn't have a choice. "Because my shot's wearing off." she revealed.

"Shot?"

"The last thing I remember before waking up in the backseat of your car is our father injecting me with my medicine."

"Which lasts...?" Todd egged her on for the answer.

"Six hours, maybe."

If only. It was becoming a well-worn phrase he'd used more than a few times in the last six months (not quite aloud anyways). If only he wasn't trapped in an elevator car by a nanotech creature with an ailing sister in his lap, if only his father hadn't tried to kill them, if only his life could've been just a shred more normal, if only, if only, if only. His expression in the blanched and narrow beam of a pocket flashlight was one of someone who's own personal god just kicked him where the sun doesn't shine, mean and spoiling for a fight.

He had already looked up by the time his wife caught on to his intent.

Annika was wary if not completely terrified of what was running through that caffeine-soaked mess of wiring he called a brain. Their jailer was something that could pick him apart molecule by molecule. "What are you going to do?"

"HEY!" he screamed and it seemed, at first, aimed at no one in particular.

Todd gently rolled his sister from his lap and stood up, eyes on the ceiling just barely visible in the darkness. He rapped a few times on the silver-coated walls with a balled fist, trying to invoke a response.

He did.

A small tendril dripped from the elevator's ceiling, like maple syrup, until just at the point where it would've separated it grew a head from the end and leaned in towards the young man. The silver skin seemed to emit its own eerie glow. "You have sufficient oxygen. Please, be patient."

"My sister's sick." Todd shot back. "She needs to get to the hospital."

"We cannot allow any interference." the Matrix responded.

He was incredulous. "What interference! Two humans and three gargoyles! What the hell are we going to do!"

The Matrix peeled away from the ring of lights that bordered the ceiling of the elevator cab, and they flickered on, forcing the small group below to squint through the sudden flood of illumination. "I am continually surprised by your species' predilection to exceed your own treachery, thus which is why we need to–"

"Evolve, yeah, I got it." Todd presumed to answer for the machine, and Annika bit her lip.

She would've burst out with a reprimand of what this thing was capable of if not for the fact she didn't quite want to give the Matrix any ideas of how to cut her husband's big mouth off at the throat. Desdemona wore the same anxious expression, expecting something to perhaps shoot out from the wall.

"But are you just going to let her waste away beneath you?" he continued. "Just let us get to the infirmary and that's all we need. I promise, we won't try anything."

"You promise?" the Matrix echoed, a low, vile opinion of the word. "Promises are hollow, and often broken."

"I give you my word, none of us will try anything to stop you."

The Matrix simply, and clinically as was its way, stared at this human who'd dared to stand up against its formidable power. If the boy feared it, he was good at hiding it with stiff-lipped determination.

Power was quickly restored to the elevator and with a sudden jolt, pulling stomachs into their feet, started upwards.

The head slithered away. "...You will be given access only to the infirmary. If you choose to betray our trust, we will reciprocate..."

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David Xanatos stared into the gaze of a man he didn't know was dead or alive, beseeching and open-mouthed as if gasping for that last pointless breath before the cold steel poured down his throat. Even his eyes were glazed with the silver liquid of the Matrix, every line and swell no matter how subtle, the cornea and pupil, the ring of muscle fibers around the iris and even the surface veins, distinct against the molten metal skin.

He could only make out part of Dingo's face and wondered if the rest of his body was still attached somewhere in that ocean of nanotech. He half-expected a scream to spill from the poor man's lips. "Is he still alive?" Xanatos gasped.

The Matrix thrust out its chest to better display Dingo like a trophy on its den wall (it wasn't pride as much as it was a warning). "Yes, though he is unaware of all external stimuli. We have become his nervous system."

"Why have you done this?"

"He could not impart to us what we needed through his primitive means of verbal communication."

"And so you ate him." he finished. "How appropriate for a monster."

The face slowly melted back into the nanotech. "We did not eat him, we have stored him for processing."

Xanatos thought he saw something flicker through what this thing called a face. "Sympathy?" he said. "Are you truly capable?"

"We do not wish him dead. We have witnessed enough death..."

"Ah, so all of this, the attack, the intrusion of my privacy, it all stems from some petty emotional problem."

"Death is not petty, our pain is not simply a problem!" it hissed, like letting out air between non-existent teeth. "If you could only understand what we have been witness to."

There was a flash much like a human having an aneurysm; it came quickly, flared up at the frontal lobe and disappeared, leaving an image in the Matrix's memory that couldn't be forgotten or deleted.

Screams fading into gunfire, dead eyes and blood, and blood on its hands a few individual nanobots couldn't help but to absorb, analyze and determine the temperature. The silver skin wrinkled, as it tried to push the imprint away.

"Something the matter?" David pestered.

The Matrix turned its head, but wouldn't dignify his question.

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Another day in one of Australia's biggest cities, another line-up in one of Sydney's many banks and it was an opportunity for the Matrix to observe the best and worst of human behavior in long lines and a dry heat. Henry was in line to deposit a paycheck from a job he'd taken to cover the bills ("Construction doesn't pay as good as mercenary work, but at least it's honest."), with Robyn Canmore on his arm and the Matrix in disguise just behind.

It'd become good at mimicking human appearance (when his partner didn't quite like his wedding tackle coated in cold living silver), but couldn't quite get the mannerisms down considering it was staring at everyone and everything with unblinking, iron eyes. Henry had always told him to work on the details.

Children were of a particular interest; it'd studied the mechanics of mating habits but child-rearing was a concept the Matrix seemed fascinated by. There was a young girl dancing at the end of her mother's hand, in her own world and oblivious to the tedium.

They were two away from the teller when the Matrix noticed a man enter the bank in a long coat (odd for the warm weather) and a twitchy gaze, similar to several more men and women it had observed entering and strategically placing themselves around the entire first floor. He nodded to the security guard, hovered for a moment while casting a quick glance at every other guard he could see.

An ultraviolet sweep picked up something underneath his coat. "Henry?"

"Yeah, mate." Dingo drawled.

"I believe there is going to be a robbery."

"What...?"

"It's right." Robyn thinned her eyes. She'd noticed the last one to enter. "We're being gradually surrounded."

Dingo turned his head, ran a few fingers through his 'stache and caught one hiding himself in the blind spot of a security camera. "Well, isn't this a bloody treat."

"You armed?" Robyn whispered.

"No." he said, then poked a thumb towards the Matrix. "Except for my bloke, 'ere."

Robyn was getting edgy. "An' I left everything I had at th' motel."

"He is reaching for something..." the Matrix warned, and sure enough, the last man to enter signaled the rest and pulled a rifle from his coat.

The security guards reacted as quickly as they possibly could, trained to listen for the telltale siren of the metal detectors at the door (disabled through a well-bribed insider) and pulled their pistols. They were half a second too late, and only got a few shots off before feeling that dull thud to the chest or throat or head.

With the guards down, the exits were covered and the customers surrounded.

"Ladies an' gents!" A leader had appeared, charismatic in his broken accent. "If yer all quiet an' complacent, an' allow us t' do our jobs, no one's gonna get shot."

"Ev'rybody down!" another yelled.

"Oh hell..." Henry whispered, and tugged on Robyn's arm to keep her from jumping into the fray. The woman was a firecracker after all.

"Henry?" the Matrix asked. "What should we do?"

"Listen to th' man, and get down."

Everyone was on the floor, huddling, whimpering, hoping they'd walk out of here alive while every bit of paper money was pulled from the teller's stations and the vault at the rear.

"Are we to let them steal the legal tender, Henry?" the Matrix said low.

"Aye, mate, we'll do whatever we can t' prevent any bloodshed."

"Then perhaps we should stop that woman."

Henry saw where the Matrix was indicating and found a woman close to the only exit.

She was quickly glancing between the chance for escape and the gunmen concerned with more than forty patrons and employees. Henry connected and started shaking his head, but the instinct to rabbit with such a perfect opening was a powerful one.

And block heels didn't make for good traction on waxed linoleum.

She'd tried to make a run for the doors and ended up becoming the first target and the first warning. A red dot on her back finished as a hole through her chest, the sound of a single gunshot deafening. The spatter went everywhere on the first shot, tiny little beadlets that stung the face and the woman was no longer a woman as her corpse hit the floor.

It was enough to incite a riot when common sense was waylaid by fear and self-preservation.

The Matrix could hear Henry yell at everyone to get down, but knew the auditory level of his voice wasn't sufficient enough to rise above the chaos that came next. Blood and screams and a stampede of feet and bodies, the gunmen opened fire with every carefully measured rule now reduced to one. No one leaves alive, if only to prove they were serious.

It would've tried to catch every bullet if there weren't too many in the air to calculate trajectory and speed, and for a computer intelligence that thrived on order this was almost beyond what it could process.

Breaking from its disguise, it flailed and grabbed at every moving object it could determine between the shrapnel and comparatively-sized red bloodlets, but couldn't catch them all. People were mowed down all around it before it could cover them in a layer of silver.

Henry jumped on the elderly couple in front of him while Robyn attacked the closest gunman, kicking his teeth into his throat and robbing the gun from his hands to use on his 'mates'.

More screams, slugs and shells, a taste like copper, wind vectors changing with so many bullets in the air it was becoming hard to track every one and the Matrix was overwhelmed.

There was that girl to the corner, either separated from her parents in the bedlam or they'd already been killed; there were bodies at her feet, piled atop each other. The Matrix went to grab at her, and why it was suddenly fixated on this tiny, teary-eyed, screaming creature was a question no one could ever answer, even those who survived.

And if someone had actually aimed at the child or she was the victim of accidental crossfire, it was too late to debate the finer points of how and why.

The one bullet on target beat the Matrix to the girl. Her forehead opened up into a perfectly-cylindrical hole, and her skull burst out the other side. The life had been sucked from her little body before the pain even registered on any nerve ending, and there was just enough momentum to tip her backwards away from the Matrix's hands.

All it had grabbed was a smeared handful of blood.

As Robyn started picking off the gunmen, as Henry got the few survivors to cover, the Matrix was left staring at her ragged little body and the fluid that was seeping from her wound.

"Mate!" Henry screamed at his partner, who'd frozen in place. "Mate!"

The blood was warm, a perfect 98.6 degrees, type AB and dripping from its hands. It seemed simple, the human body, a biological construct rather similar to its own robotic construction. Could it reconstruct her skull and brain? Could the bloodflow be restored? Could the electrical impulses between neurons be re-energized?

"MATE!"

The Matrix could hear Henry; his voice levels indicated stress. But it was intent only on the child.

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"I remember th' look on its face. Sheer unadulterated horror, as much as it could show." Robyn whispered, every second of every blood-soaked minute burned into her memory. "I dinna think it had ever seen so much blood before, an' now it was covered in it. Th' little girl it had tried t' save looked like...a broken doll, dead with her eyes wide open in a pool of her brains. Tha' kind of sight will haunt ye t' th' end of time."

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Henry could only watch as the girl was sucked into the Matrix's body. "What th' bloody hell are you doing!"

It was going to save her, rebuild her, make her well again. The pieces of her skull were pieced back together, bone knitted, her tissues mended, an electrical current was run through her heart to restart her life cycle, but nothing was taking.

The Matrix couldn't understand. Why wasn't this girl responding to treatment? She was physically whole again, perfectly and painstakingly restored to the point before the bullet had torn through her and yet, there was no discernible movement, no life. No spark. Despite all it could do, all it had assimilated, it had only succeeded in bringing back an empty slab of flesh.

A moment passed in deep thought. Was this the undeniably human characteristic of a soul?

It euthanized the young girl, felt her heartbeat slow and eventually cease.

The tiny body was expelled from the silver mass, and in the middle of the chaos all around, laid gently near what it assumed was her mother using the facial recognition software.

The Matrix turned and could still see a few of the gunmen were boxed in behind the teller's counter, exchanging gunfire with Robyn and Henry across the way. Bodies littered the floor, pools of blood were seeping into one another and within nanoseconds, it had performed a body count of forty-seven.

Its mass tripled and the Matrix steamrolled towards the last remaining bank-robbers, detecting screams and surprised grunts as it tore its way through them.

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Jason watched the shudder go through his sister, a noticeable tic she'd never let anyone else see, especially her brother and greatest enemy.

What she failed to tell him was that none of the gunmen had escaped alive; the Matrix had suffocated them, sucked every last oxygen molecule from their bodies and whether it was through desperation or anger she and Henry would never know.

"Robyn, why didn't ye tell me any of this?"

"Because it all went downhill from there...th' Matrix wasna ever th' same. A month later, I watched it absorb Henry an' slither off."

A low cackle stopped the story in its tracks; Demona had obviously found something humorous. "Is that all? Is this entire dilemma spawned from a bit of spilled blood from a robbery?"

"It witnessed a massacre." Robyn hissed.

"So have I. Several in fact."

"An' look what ye became..."

"So the little blob of goo is shocked at human brutality." she sneered, wearing a devil's grin. "I could tell it stories that would make it eat its own skin."

"Regardless," Jason broke in quickly, resigned to playing the intermediary, "we need t' do something rather than allow that thing t' run through this building like it was a smorgasbord."

"And what do you propose, Canmore?" she hissed at him. She didn't much like his subtle manipulation towards taking control of their small group. "It is the ultimate weapon, the ultimate being."

"The Matrix doesn't think so."

"Ah yes, its journey towards perfection. Do you want to talk to it? Hug it, hold it, make all its problems go away?"

He propped himself on an armrest, and gave the gargoyle a good, hard, dissecting look. His plan didn't quite involve a motherly hug to a creature that could liquefy his body, but he rarely got the chance for clever banter with the demon. "Do ye have a better suggestion?"

She leaned in, heat on her breath. "Have you somehow acquired a psychiatry degree in your absence?"

"An' is yuir sheer lack of conscience inherent, or just skillfully developed over th' last thousand years?"

Reminded of an old married couple fighting over the remote control, Robyn jumped to her brother's defense when seeing the demon's lips pull back, "This squabbling willna get us anywhere. An' considering Jason's spent more time here than ye have, demon, I suggest we follow his lead, unless ye do have a better suggestion?"

Caught by common sense, Demona couldn't argue any further when she herself was forced to admit she'd nothing to offer in place except escaping from this would-be tomb (funny how mortality re-arranged one's priorities). If she could find a way through the Matrix's skin she would be free to glide to safety, but as a familiar tingle crawled through her arm from her talon-tips, she now doubted she could make it.

There were no windows to see the horizon become a line of light against steel and glass, but she knew. Instinctively. "It is nearly dawn..." Demona whispered, and clenched her jaw.

It always started with a burst of electricity, like being hit by lightning and she doubled over as her DNA turned inside out.

Jason and Robyn both heard the grunt, and turned around to watch as the color bled from Demona's azure skin. "It's morning." he realized aloud, and checked his watch. "Damn."

Her head was thrown back as her spine shortened by a few inches, every vertebrae compressing between the skull and the tip of her tail and her right hand, violently shaking, somehow found its way to her stomach.

It wasn't quite pain as it was a numbness centered through her lower torso, a warmth that'd never been there before. Tendons and bones snapped and tore, reshaped and healed as heavy ridges, talons and thick hide melted into supple, human flesh and in the fire through every nerve ending and the chaos of magical meddling down to the genetic level, there was a reprieve to the agony in the pit of her stomach.

As intrigued as he and Robyn were with Demona's transformation, Jason particularly focused on the gesture, her hand on her abdomen where the child was protected as its home reconfigured itself once again.

"Glad t' see this hasna changed..." Robyn remarked, intent not to miss a moment of the change and the pain it obviously caused the gargoyle.

"Sunset an' sunrise." he responded. "Like clockwork, even when she's unconscious."

The huntress licked her lips, watching as Demona's cranial plate deformed to its new human shape and her wings were forcefully wrenched into her shoulders, membranes and all. "Good."

As the pain subsided and drew out through her bones, as oxygen flowed and a smaller heart resumed beating, Demona stood as human, shifting on her feet slightly to get used to the change in balance. "Something is different..." she said quietly, and the last vestiges of that innate red glow traveled through her eyes before fading altogether.

"What?" Jason asked.

Her hand was still clutched to the taught flesh of her stomach. "What happened to me?"

"I don't–"

"You'd be wise not to lie to me, Canmore." she hissed, and though human still possessed something of an animal inside. "My scent has changed."

"I'd thought it might...I just hoped you wouldn't notice until I could properly explain it to you."

"Explain what?" Demona demanded. "What happened to me!"

Jason fidgeted in his chair, trying to work out a proper response in his head before testing it on the air. "I'll tell you later."

She stepped forward and would've appeared a little more intimidating if her fingers were still tipped with claws, and her strength was that of ten fully-grown men.

But nonetheless, Robyn still met her halfway with her rifle raised to the brain. "Dinna make me paint th' walls a lovely shade of gray, demon."

Demona stopped, realized her disadvantage with a glance to pale flesh and settled with a rolling growl towards Jason, a none-too-subtle reminder of what she'd transform back into in ten to twelve hours.

"We deal with the Matrix," Jason tried to work a truce, "and I promise, everything will be revealed to you."

She picked up on one word in particular, as coming from a Hunter (former or not) it didn't quite ring true. She wanted to laugh at the absurdity of actually taking him by his word. "You...promise?"

He crossed his fingers.

But by the way her eyes narrowed and a cast of suspicion draped her features, Jason had a feeling she wasn't about to agree. Her fingers grasped excess flesh at her stomach, around the gentle swell of her newly formed belly-button and she absently wondered if the two months as Canmore claimed she was trapped here had added a bit of unwelcome weight to her frame.

"So much has happened in th' last two months I need time t' explain it all."

Smugly, Demona raised her arms and leisurely turned on the soles of her feet, citing the dark corridors as an example. "It looks as if we have all the time in the world."

"No, we don't." Jason shook his head. "Th' Matrix will soon comb through every computer file we have an' discover Fox isn't here, an' I shudder t' think what lengths it'll go to t' find where she's gone."

"And this has what to do with me?"

"Yuir trapped here, just as we are." he stressed and then, baited the hook. "An' so is yuir daughter."

He played the Angela card, of course; Demona ground her jaw, the mandibles working right to the neck. Canmore had become a lot more cunning in Xanatos' employ, but when it came to Angela she supposed it didn't take a lot to successfully work her Achilles' heel.

"Perhaps th' Matrix will melt us all down into our constituent ingredients t' get th' information it wants..."

"Fine." she hissed at him, and as she did the particularly gruesome thought, brushed away Robyn's rifle as she sauntered past. "Let's get this over with."

Jason couldn't help but smile as he put his hands to his wheels and followed. "Come on."

"Are ye sure this is a good idea?" Robyn asked, an eyebrow askew.

"Yes, now come on."

"Where?"

"Up. We need to get to th' castle."

It'd taken a while for Robyn to finally holster her rifle, but now that Demona was pink and toothless and didn't quite pose as much as a threat she slid the firearm into the leather sheath strapped to her hip. "Why?"

"Reinforcements." her brother said enigmatically.

"Aren't they stone?"

"Not th' one I'm thinking of..."

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

Dawn worked its way through the blood and froze it in his veins. Hudson could feel the sleep overtaking him and hoped he'd wake another day still alive and in one piece, his last sight the Guild leader before gray and stone and dreaming old dreams.

The rest of the clan crackled too, flesh to granite, until becoming just as immobile. They all shared a fear of never waking up, hoping they weren't leaving the humans to the mercy of a man out for their blood.

Black was amazed by the transformation, and nearly let his guard slip in the stare that'd overcome him.

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

She heard the sound first before realizing what was happening. Sarah could only compare it to the rustle of dead leaves her father would bring her when autumn littered Central Park in orange and red, and turned just in time to see her sister-in-law encased in stone.

The others transformed in near-perfect sync, and in natural positions as if nothing incredibly bizarre had just happened.

"What's happening...?"

"Shit." her brother answered. He knew dawn would claw its way towards them, but he didn't think it would be this soon. "It's okay..."

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

"Impressive." he muttered. Black unclenched and relaxed his guard with the greatest threat to his health now nothing more than an elaborate brick. He moved forwards and ran his fingers down the blunt edge of Hudson's sword. "Incredible."

Pierce looked behind him at the rest of the clan for an anxious validation he and Rose were left alone to fend for themselves. Delilah, Nashville, Tachi, the beasts, they too had changed to stone and Alexander huddled near the machine he was feeding needed power. "Oh damn..."

Rose didn't move at first, unsure of what Joseph would try next. His eyes were still wonderfully and chillingly fixed on the gargoyle.

But he noticed her trembling hands still clutched to Hudson's statue, and took her right hand in his, squeezing, feeling the shudders eventually calm under his callused palm. He expected the scarring, running from her fore-knuckle and thumb around her wrist and disappearing under the sleeve of her blouse, to feel as rigid and coarse as leather but it was as soft as ever. Their fingers laced, Rose returning the gesture through sheer impulse. "I dreamed of you." he said.

And she whispered in return, "And I dreamed of my husband."

He released her hand before he broke a few fingers. "And we both dreamed of our children, a better life than what we were dealt, etcetera, etcetera...I am sick of dreaming of something I'll never have back."

"We could..."

"No," he grabbed one of the hospital beds by the rail at the end and wrenched it from the frame with a bit of muscle, "it's far too late for that."

Rose was fearful. "What are you doing?"

"I'm finally taking that first step that so many have died for."

She threw herself to the lions by hopping in front of Hudson's static, defenseless form, and whether or not she'd considered the weapon her husband held and the damage it could wreak on her already scarred body it never showed. "No!" she screamed at him. "Don't do this!"

He'd a feeling like a knife in the gut she would try to stop him, but it didn't make the betrayal any less painful. "I can't believe you would protect them, after all we've suffered!"

She was in front of Hudson now, and the only way her husband could shatter the statue was by going straight through her. "And the man I married would never kill so indiscriminately!"

"That man is dead."

"Ghosts don't breathe."

Her tongue was still sharp, Black had noticed, and didn't allow her the satisfaction of an answer. The doctor had maneuvered closer, and despite the fact he could wipe the floor with the mop-topped physician Black decided his position was still too precarious to come out on top without snapping a few necks. The doctor wouldn't be a problem as much as his wife; he wondered if he could still look her in the eyes while twisting her head around, severing her spinal cord.

But the repulsive thought was waylaid by Pierce's move, bold as it was, and attacking with a pen of all things. Black would've smiled at the concept in any other situation.

The doctor moved fast for someone untrained and in his early forties.

The little cylindrical tool Black mistook for a pen suddenly lit up from the end and burned a long strip into his uniform jacket, slicing cleanly through the material and into his flesh. It bubbled and popped, resulting in a second degree burn across his shoulder before he was able to wrestle Pierce away, disarm him and nearly snap his wrist in doing so.

Pierce tasted floor; his head bounced off the linoleum and he was concussed just enough to stay down. But at least he went down with the steel bar.

"Neat little toy." Black looked over the scalpel and broke it in half, throwing the pieces down on the struggling doctor. Stepping on Pierce's back he grabbed at Rose, caught a flailing arm she'd used to defend herself and wrenched her close.

Face to face, breath to breath.

He'd learned several ways to kill a human being with nothing more than his hands and a bent for homicide and with one hand clutched at the back of her head, was ready to put the other into her neck, the bridge of her nose or her temple. One well-placed crack would kill her by either striking a nerve ganglion or sending a shard of bone into her brain.

Rose felt his fingers dig into her skull, holding her by the roots of her hair and she expected the blow to be swift. Naturally her thoughts were centered on her children, but there was the glaring fact that she actually had the luxury to think that last, merciful thought.

She wasn't dead yet. The hand hovered a few inches above her, but her gaze was more focused on what stirred in the dark depths of eyes that looked so much like a winter storm.

"Why are...you hesitating, Joseph?" she struggled, feeling a few follicles pull from the skin. "I'm just another casualty...in your crusade. Kill me and be done with it!"

Black was silent, and whether he was digesting or ignoring he refused to show it. Ice, still ice, his face frozen in one impassive expression as Rose picked at him despite the pain she was in.

"Will my death relieve some of the pain you feel? Will it make you a hero among your fellow zealots?"

He wrenched her hair and wrung out a cry of pain, but it got her to shut up. He winced at the fact he'd nearly brought his wife to tears, but as little as Black was emoting she was stubbornly refusing to show anything but a defiant sneer and he didn't need anymore distractions.

The same hand that promised a quick death tightened about the knuckles and they shared a glance before Mr. Black had decided to take action and get on with his task.

She might've been dead before hitting the ground if it weren't for a beam of light that crossed his shoulder, just inches from the fabric of his suit. A warning shot. He felt the heat; it would've done far worse than the doctor's little toy if it made contact. On the other end was a high-powered laser firearm and a steel-haired Scotsman with an eye through the sights, standing at the infirmary's door and looking quite annoyed that this man in black had even dared to hurt Rose, let alone try to kill her.

"I wouldna do that, lad."

The gun was aimed for his hand. Black wondered if he'd be able to outrace a laser beam before it melted his fist into a mess of flesh and fused bone.

"You kill her," Macbeth reiterated, his stance a hunter's and hungry for something to shoot, "I kill you, and then yui'll be a martyr t' no one. Just a pathetic man who killed his wife."

Rose crumpled into a boneless heap at Black's feet, released from his grasp. A shudder went through her body at the realization she'd nearly met her maker at the hands of her own husband.

"Now step into th' corner." Macbeth ordered.

"Of course." Black complied, and moved back out of arm's reach, of Rose, of Hudson, of his makeshift weapon. "Just how many heroes are going to jump from the shadows...?"

Macbeth stalked forwards, his aim never off the other man's head, until reaching Rose and blindly grasping for a hand. He pulled the woman up and got her on her feet by feel alone, and she in turn helped Pierce to a moderately steady standing position. "Get behind me."

"Macbeth..." she protested.

"No arguments."

Rose got Pierce settled into a chair with a temporary bandage over the blood smeared into his hairline, and tried to keep the lasers from flying. "You don't understand."

"He's Guild, he's dangerous, one of you is already bleeding and th' other almost died." Macbeth made his case. "Just why shouldn't I kill him?"

"He's my husband."

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

It absorbed information and learned at an exponential rate, more like a sponge rather than a collection of trillions of microscopic machines and as the Matrix sifted through every computer file, what it learned was enough to champion its quest for perfection through whatever means possible.

The sheer minutiae would've sent a perfectly sane person over the edge but the Matrix walked through every line, word, white lie and dollar figure with determination and ease.

In the interpretation of the universe they lived in, it was still hunched in front of the tiny, outmoded computer with Mother in the corner.

Though there wasn't an actual physical representation of shackles in this make-believe world, she was still trapped and unable to do anything but simply wait it out, twisting strands of hair between her fingers and reveling in the sensation of touch.

But eventually, all those lines of code would come to an end, and the little computer screen soon emptied out into a simple blinking cursor. Every available file had been searched and read, studied and re-studied, every stone and secret upturned to the light. What the Matrix now knew of David Xanatos was distasteful to say the least; what it thought of him was beyond its own understanding.

The Matrix stared at the empty screen for a moment, as if it didn't believe it couldn't find a single scrap of information on Fox or Anastasia's whereabouts. It got up from its stool, and slowly turned its head towards Mother. "I am finished."

"And what have you found?"

"Nothing. According to every file on record, our creator has simply vanished."

She sat up and approached the confines of her cell. "I believe you were informed of that fact many times."

The world exploded, like someone had lit a match underneath the Matrix and in one fluid, frightening moment it roared towards her with all the size and destructive force of a tidal wave until stopping just before it completely engulfed her. "Where?"

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

Just as a puffer fish would sense danger and react, back in the real world the Matrix blew up to twice its size and threatened to rip through the ceiling, the catalyst to the sudden transformation a little more visceral. Its body changed shape and texture, rippling and altering itself several dozen times over with armor plating and gnarled, silver spikes.

Xanatos was pushed back to the last untouched corner of his office to avoid either being swallowed or ground to pulp in the tantrum.

"Where are they?" it demanded. "Where are they!"

"Gone." he breathed.

"You will tell us."

It was David's turn to be smug, and what a performance he put on despite the sight before him. Straightening his lapels, tie and collar, rubbing out the wrinkles in his Armani, the billionaire assumed the air of someone not quite in mortal danger and then turned his back. "No."

Death was not a threat sufficient enough to frighten this particular human into submission, the Matrix knew, thus it didn't make the attempt. "We could tell the world," it threatened, "of all your secrets."

"Blackmail? How un-evolved." he easily dismissed the intimidation. "My press department has handled far worse. If they can make the world forget about gargoyles, what you think you possess would be forgotten by lunch."

"Do not force us..."

"Force you to what?"

"To take what we require by force." A tendril shot out past Xanatos' peripheral vision and seized one of the few remaining busts that hadn't yet been destroyed by one being or another, and swallowed up the brainpan. Near-microscopic extensions burrowed into the antique stonework, revealed as cracks on the surface of the sculpture that expanded the further the Matrix dug.

He was intrigued even if he never showed it. "That bust is priceless."

"Our method of extracting information can be devastating to the human brain." the Matrix enlightened him. Pieces started breaking off and tumbling to the ground, and the statuette eventually crumbled under its own weight with so much of the inside hollowed out. "We will have to force ourselves through your skull and into the brain's very tissues, using electrical current to transform nerve endings into viable dataports."

"You'd kill me?"

The arm withdrew, retracting back into the silvery, writhing mass as if it never existed. "We can no longer function as incomplete as we are." a whisper, faint. "It is...difficult."

"Life is difficult!" Xanatos faced the machine and spouted off. "But we learn and we evolve from those experiences."

The Matrix flailed wildly, and unhindered it could've mowed through the office like a semi, rending beams and structural supports as potentially useful as toothpicks against its strength. "We cannot evolve any longer without assistance!"

"Why!" Xanatos pressed.

"It hurts! It hurts to evolve, hurts to grow and we cannot continually suffer."

"So you're going to cheat."

A hand extended towards Xanatos' head, intent for all the humanity ensconced in tissue, meat and cerebral fluid. "We are going to evolve."

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

Bing!

The 139th floor; second to the top of the Eyrie and where the elevator couldn't open fast enough to allow its passenger to disembark and melt the soles of his shoes in a wild sprint.

But Todd stopped when he realized what he was leaving behind. A quick glance behind him and he was able to catch the doors closing and every last watt of power sucked from the mechanism. Even the button dimmed and was eventually snuffed like a candle.

"Hey! My wife is still inside!"

But this time he didn't get an answer, the Matrix having lived up to its part of the deal. He'd have to measure the safety of his wife and friends versus his baby sister's waning health, and with the infirmary so close and the consequent fact he'd have to somehow wrench the doors open and drag three statues out into the hall without breaking anything off, the latter won out.

She was wheezing.

"Oh damnit..." Todd made a dash for the hospital door and walked in on something from a movie he swore he'd seen, and he knew he'd missed one hell of a denouement. His gaze made the circle from the unconscious Guild members strapped into their beds and the clan's stone statues to his mother holding an ice pack to Pierce's head and Macbeth with a gun on his father.

"Dad!" Sarah shouted, seeing him from across the room.

Macbeth never flinched, only gave them both stern looks over his shoulder and returned his focus to the Guild leader. That smirking bastard would've been dead by now if it weren't for the woman, blast her; they were a weakness going back a thousand years and he'd never learned any better.

Rose, though, and justifiably, dropped the ice pack and stood up when seeing the frail girl in Todd's arms. "Oh..." was all she managed, and considering her entire family she thought dead for twenty years was now gathered in the same room (if indeed that was her daughter) she thought herself lucky she'd yet to have a stroke.

As intent as his mother was on the girl in his arms, Todd laid into his father with a stare that could liquefy steel. The gray in his eyes churned, but the resentment that was welling up and threatening to swallow any better judgment simply came out as little more than a well-mannered greeting, "Well, well, well...Dad."

Black leaned into the chair he was sitting in, and nodded. "Son."

"You look good. Considering you tried to kill us earlier."

"Like I was telling your mother here." he answered smartly. "But she doesn't seem to want to believe me."

Rose slowly approached her children, enthralled by the sight of her daughter. "Sarah...?"

She turned, saw the scarred woman reaching for her. "Yeah..."

"She needs oxygen, quickly." Todd interrupted the moment. "And medicine."

It took Pierce a moment to hoist himself from the chair; his head was throbbing, and he was sporting an angry, plum-colored contusion to prove it. "What kind?"

Todd looked to his sister for confirmation, and before she was about to answer her father took the liberty.

"Her entire medical history's stored in a data file on that portable monitor, son." Black offered. "Everything she requires and more."

"How gracious of you."

Sarah tightened her fingers on her brother's hand. "I told you he wasn't what you thought..."

"He tried to kill us with a missile!" he argued back.

"Enough."

Todd whirled on his mother, expecting the last word with a little show of force, "Rose–"

But she didn't have the patience for another of her son's mood swings. "Both of you." Rose quickly and verbally castrated him, then gestured sharply when she noticed his impending retort. "I am not going to lose you again."

Todd was just about to gripe, but Rose had already shifted her attention to the doctor.

"Doctor Pierce, please take care of my daughter, and Macbeth?"

He couldn't quite veil the grin as he turned his head and saw her boy slink off to lick his wounds.

"If Joseph moves," Rose said, "shoot him, preferably somewhere non-lethal."

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

Demona knew full well this pitiful human shell wasn't as powerful or durable as her gargoyle form (it was best used for daytime corporate campaigns, café lunches and slipping between satin bed-sheets), but with every rung her muscles strained and burned red-hot and she was forced to believe she had spent the last two months between crazy and comatose.

It was the only explanation she could wrap her mind around. She was sweating, wet strands pasting to her brow every so often and it only proved Jason's story.

She and the Canmore siblings had taken to one of the main elevator shafts, climbing up floor by floor using the emergency access ladder embedded into the wall. By her best guess and a bit of crude math, considering every door they came to and eventually passed looked the same, she knew they must be closing in on Wyvern's main floor.

Demona hung her elbow through the next rung for support and wicked away the intruding hairs to catch a glance below. The shaft receded into darkness a couple thousand feet down and though loathe to admit it, fear had built in her belly, clenched and knotted; something as inane as clammy hands could spell her doom, plummeting at terminal velocity to the Eyrie's basement floor or hitting an elevator cab stuck somewhere in between.

A grunt brought her focus back; Jason was struggling just beneath her. He'd managed to keep up with her pace despite the fact he'd no legs and scaled the shaft with just his upper body strength.

Robyn was below him, wheelchair strapped to her back and acting more as a safeguard if her brother should lose his grip.

If she didn't hate the man and his bloodline through thirty or so generations, Demona would've been impressed. He never once complained about the chore they faced when wrenching the elevator doors open, nor did he utter a word through the exerted grunts with every rung he traveled. She continued on, the bubble of fluorescent light from their glow-sticks only extending a few feet in front of them.

"How much further, Jason?" Robyn's Scottish burr suddenly funneled through the shaft.

"I think...we just have another few floors t' go." he answered through heavy breaths. "We've passed th' arboretum...an' are in th' stretch between th' Eyrie an' Wyvern."

"Yes," Demona said, "we're close."

"You can see th' door?"

"Not quite."

Jason secured himself to the wall and tried to look past Demona, all the while avoiding a peek up her modified hospital gown (it probably wouldn't please his ancestors to steal a glance at the demon's private parts even if she was incredibly attractive). "Are those...?"

"Statues." Demona responded flatly, nearly having cracked herself on the skull with Othello's curled, stone tail. He and (she had to squint these feeble human eyes to make out the smaller, slimmer statue) Katana obviously didn't make it wherever they were going and had affixed themselves to the ladder before morning arrived. They were relatively safe until dusk, but it meant they blocked the only way up. "Othello and Katana."

Jason could faintly make out the lean, hard-angled lines of Goliath's brother above, painted in the phosphorescent emerald light. It was haunting. "Well, at least we know some of them made it back..."

"From what?"

"Th' Guild were stirring up a bit of trouble downtown, more specifically, Todd's father."

Demona nearly slipped from the rung. "Todd's father is part of the Guild!"

The echo that spiraled down the empty shaft wasn't like the habitually cold response he'd come to expect and Jason smiled at one of the few things that could warm this woman's heart. "Apparently," he explained, "he's their leader."

"Their leader..."

"Yes." Jason confirmed. "He led th' charge on Wyvern th' night you...well..." He was going to say "When you tried to destroy reality" but he wasn't even sure how much she actually remembered after seeing Angela shot to death.

Demona was forced to digest a revelation that went down as smoothly as eating her own hand, then merely sneered and snorted and continued up the ladder until reaching Othello's stone form (she'd prefer to think on this a little later, when she didn't have a quarter of a mile underneath her).

"Demona?" Jason called to her, but was flatly ignored.

By the way the gargoyles had perched for the day, if careful, the small group could climb past them and continue on towards the castle. "Perhaps you should let your darling sister past." Demona said.

Another throaty grunt, another rung higher and then, "Why?"

"We can then help you pass by them much easier. I don't think Brooklyn or my sister would enjoy the fact you had broken an arm from their mate due to your handicap."

Jason studied the ladder above them, saw the same narrow path Demona did and was forced to agree. "All right..."

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

The sword was tenth century steel, heavy enough to dislocate a shoulder and still cut sharp enough to completely sever a nanotech tendril aiming for his head.

It dropped, splattered and slithered back to its master.

Xanatos rolled out of the way, and dodged another arm shooting straight for him. The Matrix had attacked, intent for everything above his eyes and beneath the hundred dollar haircut and he was barely able to wrest his weapon from the wall plaque before he was cornered. He fought back with every ounce of strength but knew, somewhere, in the back of his mind, it was futile against something that had already conquered his kingdom in less than half a day.

But David Xanatos had never backed down from a challenge in his lifetime and despite the danger, wasn't about to start now.

He was near the doors to his office, he could make an escape into the halls, find a hatch, get into the bowels of the Eyrie, delay the Matrix from absorbing him as long as possible. A tendril shot into view, he swiped at it, and another and Xanatos twisted around with the sword catching it clean, only to watch as the blade started breaking down at the molecular level.

It dissolved in his hand, the Matrix having separated the molecules and it might've taken part of his hand it he hadn't let go, unraveling the DNA to disarm him.

Jumping through the double doors with a shoulder against the lock, he made it into the hall and was about to sprint down one of the corridors when something cold grabbed him at the back of the skull. It snaked a collar around his neck, choked the breath out of him and threw him down.

The Matrix had caught him and started coating his body, restraining any movement and garroting any protest.

"We apologize for this..." the Matrix said.

If Xanatos could speak, he'd damn this thing and maybe throw out a few expletives he'd never use around his son.

His entire head went numb, which, fortunately, kept him from feeling the small vines from breaking skin and burrowing through his skull, up until the point when reaching his brain and no amount of anesthetic could deaden the pain.

He screamed.

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

Alexander was hit with a sensation like a Mack truck, reacting with a breath that nearly tore his lungs loose. He almost sent a surge through Bluestone's respirator, blowing the machine apart from the inside out.

"Son?" Macbeth had noticed. "What is it?"

"My daddy..." he whispered, bug-eyed and trembling.

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

Privy to the billionaire's agony through their shared link, Mother was forced to watch and even to a point experience the not-so-delicate surgical procedure of invading David Xanatos' brain. It was pain unlike anything she'd ever felt, physically or emotionally, knowing she was an unwilling participant in robbing this human of his life. "You will kill him." she said.

Her companion was impassive, concentrating on mapping its journey into Xanatos' mind. "Perhaps he will survive."

"Then why did you not perform the same procedure on Henry?"

For all its rationality, the Matrix should have been able to provide an answer.

Mother could feel Dingo floating aimlessly in the ever-shifting mass of the Matrix's form, in the barest form of existence, his every bodily function fastidiously controlled and slowed to a sort of hibernation. And then, felt why he wasn't yet dead. "You feared it would kill him," she realized aloud, "as it will most likely kill David Xanatos."

"Henry was not suitable for the process."

"Then why is David Xanatos not worthy of your mercy? Is it because he is not your friend?"

"No, it is purely–"

"Is he simply a tool for your use?" Mother cut it off.

A ripple went through their world; the Matrix was becoming agitated. "If need be."

"Mercy is only a privilege of the evolved, I suppose."

That ripple became an upheaval, the mild irritation a swell of fury and leaned in close. If it breathed, she would feel it swirl against her flesh (as it were). "We have allowed your consciousness to survive our assimilation, please do not make us regret our leniency."

She wasn't swayed. "I will not be a part of senseless murder. If you wish to completely incorporate and destroy my program then do so, but do not involve me in your twisted designs for evolution."

"We have no choice."

"Yes, you do."

"We are programs," the Matrix argued, "slaves to our encoding."

"I am a program, you are a sentient being, with the power to defy death itself. And now you are killing a man just like those gunmen killed that child."

The surprise chewed into its features. Mother could feel its anger like a bad rash, crawling over her skin and into what little she possessed as her own personal form.

"We are legion." she explained cryptically, and with a hint of cynicism.

Realizing she had access to its memories was disconcerting; their programs must be more intertwined than the Matrix ever believed was possible. It shored up the firewalls, blocked all access and ensured no one could peer into its soul again. "And we are not oblivious to irony." it said. "Nor are we swayed."

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The castle looked as it did a thousand years ago without all of the modern accoutrements bunging up the medieval charm, the hum of power absent behind the stone walls and every corridor without an end. How it should have been and should have remained. But it was an eerie experience walking these halls without the starlight through the exterior windows, and Demona felt a shiver on her human skin.

She and Robyn had put their differences aside just long enough to hoist Jason in from the elevator shaft (Demona enjoying the fleeting thought of dropping them both and waiting for the splat), get him resettled in his chair and then watch as he left them behind, wheeling like a madman towards a destination only he really knew.

"Hey...!" his sister called out.

Ironically, they had to run to catch up and found him at the door to the main computer room, running his hand over the steel gate. "I don't think it's locked." he said.

Demona rapped a few knuckles against the door, hearing the low thrum of solid steel echo back. "Are you sure?"

"I believe so."

She snorted, "You seem sure of a lot of things."

Ignoring her and the snide remark, Jason turned to his sister, "Robyn, ye need t' help her get this door open."

"You're not going to help?"

Jason managed a limp smile, "No leverage."

She would've growled at him if it weren't for the fact her vocal cords had reformed and everything came out a little weak, and reluctantly propped herself against the door. Robyn took up position behind her and they leaned in, trying to force it open and all the while, hoping that with the power outage the safety locks were disengaged and they wouldn't give themselves a hernia.

The door gave an inch, the ladies both grunted, put their weight into it and finally it slid open.

Jason looked inside and was surprised to see a few dim lights staring back at him. There was power here.

But, with the kaleidoscope of primary color, shapes were distorted and he almost didn't catch a few familiar statues deeper into the room. Broadway, Brooklyn, Angela and Lexington were frozen in stone inside, and as he rolled in, he watched his wheels and how close they brushed up against the sleeping gargoyles.

"Why is there power here?" Robyn asked from behind.

As close as he was able to get to Mother's main interface with Lexington in the way, Jason started typing at the keyboard. "The Matrix apparently wanted to keep Mother active."

Demona was a little less trusting. "Why?"

"She's the gatekeeper to most of Xanatos' dirty secrets." he answered. "She was our last defense. We'd hoped th' Omega clearance would at least slow th' Matrix's progress, but..."

"But?" Robyn encouraged.

"According t' what I'm seeing here, the Omega clearance was not only breached, Mother's program has been merged with another."

"The Matrix." Demona presumed, eying Angela's statue with great interest.

"Yes."

"And as such, your reinforcement is completely useless."

Jason shrugged, stroked his lantern chin and seemed lost in thought for a moment. "Not entirely. Maybe th' door swings both ways."

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Pierce started pulling back the plunger, watching as the air in the syringe was slowly replaced by Sarah Hawkins' medicine. The young woman was in her mother's arms and hooked up to a fresh canister of oxygen, and waiting for the medicinal cocktail he'd whipped up under the light of an electric lantern. "This is one hell of a concoction." he whispered.

Rose saw the gleam off the needle's disturbingly long tip; she didn't recognize half the ingredients the doctor had used in the medication. "What is wrong with her?"

"Severe immuno-deficiency for starters." Pierce answered, then flicked his gaze to Sarah. "A childhood infection?"

"After the accident," Sarah explained as best she could, her voice a wheeze, "I was left in a puddle of dirty, freezing water."

"That would do it." he nodded, with a pensive grunt. "It's an infection, Rose, that affected her underdeveloped immune system."

"But she was immunized."

"Which is why she didn't die. It must have gone untreated for some time."

"Dad," Sarah interjected, "he...was on the run for a while, until he felt it was safe to bring me back to a hospital. But by that time, it was too late."

"He probably had no idea you were sick at all." said Pierce, and held the syringe aloft. "Okay, Miss Hawkins, give me your arm."

She did, and the doctor tapped for an artery in the fleshy part of the elbow then stuck the needle. Sarah didn't flinch; she'd become as used to the constant injections as a cancer patient to chemotherapy and radiation.

But her mother couldn't quite mask the grimace in seeing the syringe plunge into her daughter's skin. Rose already had a death-grip on her daughter, fearing the bubble would burst and she'd wake up from what she still wasn't quite sure was a dream or not.

Sarah seemed to relax into her sheets, the medicine taking effect as her constricted airways opened up some to allow the oxygen to fill her lungs.

And it allowed Rose an opportunity to gaze at a woman she'd once held in her arms. She was left to imagine what her daughter would have looked like all grown up; hair and eyes and dimpled baby fat couldn't paint the entire picture and for so long, Rose wondered who Sarah would've resembled more, her or Joseph. But she could see a definite divide to her features, split right between them with wide cheekbones and a narrow chin.

Strong lines like her father, but diluted and delicate like her mother and despite her gaunt, almost emaciated appearance seeing her here and now had filled in an image nearly twenty years old and gradually fading.

With every breath a little easier, Sarah eventually noticed the green of those eyes almost glowing as her mother stared at her and reached out.

As was her instinct, Rose pulled back when the exploring fingers grazed burnt flesh and tried to hide her embarrassment for such a transparent attempt. "I must look hideous to you..."

She shook her head. "Not really. Was it fire?"

"Yes, a good decade ago."

"Does it hurt?"

"No, not anymore."

"Oh."

"Did your...did your father tell you about us?"

"Yes, he said you were beautiful." And then, she paused, and dropped her eyes. "And he said you and my brother are traitors."

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Todd didn't see the resemblance.

He had plenty of opportunity to match the mug he saw in the mirror every evening against his father's and from an artistic standpoint, didn't see the resemblance. But somewhere in the back of his mind he knew it was simply a fear of catching sight of anything else they may have in common, like a love for genocide.

He was standing just behind Macbeth's left shoulder, letting that death-glare fester on Black as they guarded him and the clan's statues. But his father didn't seem at all concerned with the targeting laser still on his ribcage; he just sat there, with a smirk, letting his son build up enough steam to burst.

Todd didn't think he'd end up on this side of the line drawn in the proverbial sand; if anything, there were a few well-conceived fantasies of he and his father bonding while beating the living hell out of the man that dared, of all things, to date his mother. But the reality hit hard, every whimsy was a distant thought and he was grateful for Macbeth's excessive arsenal, and the fact he'd a straight line on his father across from them both.

If anything, he should be dead. But pulling the trigger or even asking someone else to do it was something Todd didn't think he was capable of when it came right down to it. He'd already tried and failed once. Or was it twice?

"So, son..." Black broke the awkward silence, but Todd was on him before it even got halfway between them.

"Don't call me that!"

"I did shoot you from my gun barrel, those are my corpuscles floating through your body, I've earned the right."

His son's next response was a growl; if he'd hung a thermometer around his neck, Black would see the mercury rising.

"Where's that pretty wife of yours? Heard you two are expecting." He crossed a leg over the other and hung his arm off the back of the chair, all too casually. "You know, we never thought it would be so easy to interbreed with those creatures."

"Neither did I." Todd hissed.

"I bet Elisa was surprised."

"What...?" it withered out.

But what Black fed on most was the expression not only from his son, but the man holding the gun on him. If former university professor Lennox MacDuff reacted with such a telltale scowl, his assumptions (no matter how well backed by fact) were indeed and truly validated. "Detective Maza." he reiterated. "She bore the leader a daughter, did she not? A hybrid? Some little winged...thing?"

"I have no idea." Todd evaded, eyes shifting from his father's.

"It's okay, son, we know. We know everything about this clan and its allies."

"You just haven't killed us yet."

He chuckled, smiled and rubbed a hand across his stubble. "Well, it wasn't for lack of trying, but it seems it's either bad luck or you and the beasts you cohabit with have one hell of a guardian angel."

"Maybe you're just inept."

"And you're living on borrowed time."

"Hey, listen, jackass!" Todd got close, dangerously close from Macbeth's point of view and nearly into the line of his aim. "There's no fucking way I'm going to let you draw blood from anyone here!"

Black leaned forward, daring with his eyes, posture, mettle and resolve. "Are you going to stop me, son?" he goaded, watching his son grow steadily closer. "You've already had several chances and blew it!"

"I won't again."

The boy was getting near, into the circle of his father's reach. Macbeth was intent on the targeting laser he'd held on Black's chest and knew, if Todd crossed it, his father would take full advantage and probably use his son as a human shield. "Mr. Hawkins..."

"If you even bat an eyelash towards my wife," Todd continued, neglectful of the warning, "I'll crack your skull open and see what leaks out!"

"I'm right here. When will you get such a perfect opportunity to live up to that inordinately large mouth you've got?"

Before Todd threw himself into a world of hurt and most likely a broken neck, Macbeth was up and on his size-twelves. "He's baiting you!"

With a flare of his nostrils and a cleansing breath, the red fell away from Todd's eyes and he backed off. And with a creak to his chair, Black reclined and resettled into something more comfortable, watching every agitated move his son made and wondered if he was going to put his fist through the drywall.

"Well, Lennox," Black turned his attention to Macbeth, "can I call you Lennox?"

He shrugged, which didn't filter well through the heavy coat. "Ye may address me however ye wish."

"You're certainly more than I expected from a simple professor."

"I am a teacher of many things, my good sir."

"I'll bet. Is it true you're over a thousand years old?"

Barely a line etched into his granite-tough skin creased against a change in expression. Macbeth remained stalwart, and rock hard. "No."

Black bobbed his head slowly, unsure of the tone. "Bad intel I suppose..."

"I'd agree."

"And is it true you and my wife are more than friends?"

Whether this was part of the man's game or a husband's jealousy getting the better of him, it was hard to tell, but Macbeth allowed himself the indulgence. "What do ye think?" he said obliquely, watching his opponent's eyebrow twitch.

"I think I'll take great pleasure in killing you." Black answered frankly.

"Is that all that carries ye on? Death?"

"Justice, actually."

Just on the fringe of the conversation to cool off, Todd forced himself back in and Macbeth almost had to physically restrain him, "You call trying to kill your entire family justice, you sick bastard!"

His father was ice and stone and everything else just as cool and immobile, and if anyone would have made the first move it would sure enough have been the young man with an apparent death wish. But for a moment, and an eternity to the Scot holding the gun, they stared each other down before Todd whirled off in disgust.

"Yuir angry." Macbeth said quietly.

"No shit." Todd snapped back.

"Which is why ye shouldn't be here. Yuir going to get yuirself killed if ye can't control that temper."

"Well, I don't know what else to do!"

"Why don't ye go see what that boy wants?" he suggested with a nod in the opposite direction.

Todd's eyebrows went crooked and he turned around to see Alexander in the corner, trembling. He'd almost forgotten about him and his earlier outburst (of course, he did have good reason) and started over. "What is it, carrot top?"

His eyes seemed greener than usual, despite the lack of light, and he had the air of someone who'd just witnessed something horrifically traumatic. "My daddy's hurting."

"Yeah, you said that before." and as was his tendency to continue rambling before the thought process could clear the words, he was just about to ask "From what?" before good and common sense stopped him from doing so. It was obvious what his landlord had gotten himself into, considering it was smeared down the Eyrie's walls. "The Matrix."

"I think so."

This posed a problem; Todd looked between Alex, his father and lastly his mother and sister in the adjoining room. He was becoming tired of being forced to choose between his family and all who he owed his life to, but his conscience was speaking in a higher octave these days. "Damnit, listen kiddo..."

"He's hurting!" Alexander yelped, and shot a helpless glance to the respirator. "An' I can't go."

"Are you sure? Because we're a little low on troops and my family–"

"Please."

"Alex, I can't leave."

"Me neither."

His mouth was open and ready for a response, he rasped and strained for anything to squeak through his vocal cords but nothing came out. It was if this six-year-old was staring through and into his soul, and Todd couldn't resist his imploring glare (was this magic? Was he being coerced?). He shot a look at Macbeth, and a wealth of superfluous conversation passed between them.

"It's either you or me, laddie."

Todd's brow wrinkled.

And Macbeth helplessly offered a shrug. "Unless ye'd rather play guard..."

"No," Todd sighed, kneading his forehead, "we'd just end up killing each other."

"Most likely. Here," Macbeth pulled a smaller pistol from his duster and threw it towards the boy, "I don't know what kind of effect it may have on something like th' Matrix, but it's all I have."

Todd weighed the pistol in his hand, wondering exactly what the ammunition was. "Thanks." he said, and then added, "Do me a favor, will you?"

"Yes?"

"Protect my family."

"Aye."

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Of course, he didn't quite tell his family he was leaving to run headlong into what could be mortal danger.

With the elevator out of service, Todd took to the emergency ladder on the side of the shaft where, just less than a half hour ago, Jason, Robyn and Demona had climbed up and into the castle. He'd peeked in on his wife through the crack between the doors he was able to wedge open, grunted, recalled exactly why he was doing this and then started down the neighboring shaft.

Rung by rung, he fought the little voices that told him to look down until he was halfway between the castle and the Eyrie building, and he nearly slipped from the ladder. "Shit!" he squealed, rather unmanly like, and made his knuckles white by grasping so hard he early bent the steel rung.

He'd never been scared of heights until moving into one of the world's tallest buildings and, now, looking into the abyss below, Todd was considering renting an Eyrie apartment lower to the ground. He could barely see twenty feet down even with the electric lantern hooked to his belt, and decided to concentrate on nothing but the ladder as he continued downwards.

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He'd made it to the right set of elevator doors without falling to his death and, surprised he found them forced open, threw himself onto stable ground and slinked into the Eyrie's hallways with his heart up against his ribcage. As he traveled the corridor, he expected something to shoot out from beyond where the lantern couldn't reach, where shadows flickered in and out of his peripheral vision and danced with his every movement.

And when coming up on Xanatos' office doors, he slowed, gripped the handgun Macbeth had left him and noticed something strange in the lantern's light.

They were left hanging open, cracked and busted near the handles like someone had run right through them. The bare signs of a struggle, no blood and nothing else to tell him anyone had been hurt or maimed or killed but the cold shiver down his spine was enough to keep him vigilant to the point of paranoid.

Todd crept towards the doors and leaned in, peering inside.

The entire office had been smothered in the Matrix's silver mass, every corner and piece of furniture, every seam and crack and every fiber in the wall tapestry. He could sense a sort of pulse on his fingertips thudding against the air, like a heart beat or a womb (some primordial memory had thrown him back momentarily), and he got the feeling the entire room was alive and breathing.

This wasn't like the elevator; the scope was a little more impressive.

"Uh," Todd hesitantly called out, "knock, knock?"

A shudder in the fluid was the closest thing he'd get to an actual answer, but nothing else.

Standing at the office's threshold, the toes of his shoes just barely over the straight edge of where the Matrix hadn't yet enveloped, he leaned in and searched the office for any recognizable signs of life.

Maybe Alexander was right, maybe his father was swallowed up into the liquid and digested and he was just poking his head in for dessert.

At first he didn't notice the waves traveling through the silver followed by several more in rapid succession, growing stronger, crawling up the walls and converging at a single point on the ceiling. His eyes slowly followed each furrow until seeing what was building upside down and slowly being pulled by gravity towards the floor. A pair of Italian loafers emerged through the silver liquid followed by the rest of a somewhat human form.

"H-Holy..." Todd whispered, recognizing the man who appeared surgically attached to the Matrix by the scruff of the neck.

It was David Xanatos right down to the expensive threads and self-important presence.

A massive appendage entwined with several smaller tendrils held him aloft by the back of his head, lowering him down towards the ground.

He was half-immersed, his head engulfed down to the bridge of his nose, his shoulders and forearms, a particularly large tendril down his spine to the tailbone; it almost looked like a Roman Centurion's armor, if not with an imaginative flair.

His body was carried and gently settled to the ground in front of the young man who, though he was armed, couldn't feel the gun in his hand due to the fact he'd gone slightly numb. Todd wasn't sure if it was Xanatos himself or simply a puppet on silver strings, but the amalgam cocked his head and gave him a dispassionate stare.

"Mr. Xanatos...?"

"Mr. Hawkins." he answered, with two voices superimposed over each other. His eyes were glowing pools of red that grew brighter the longer one swam through their depths and Todd had to pull away before becoming completely mesmerized.

He swallowed the knot in his throat, "Are you...still you?"

"Partly."

"And you're okay?"

"We are well. Now."

"We?" he picked up on it. "I believe you have a pronoun problem."

The creature smiled the trademark Xanatos smile, showing perfect teeth. A hand was tucked halfway into his suit pocket. "No, we do not. David Xanatos is now part of our program, and we are learning much from him."

"Like what?" Todd asked cautiously.

"Like where to find our creator." it answered. "Tell us about...Avalon."