106 - "Chrome: Part 3"
"Long is the road from conception to completion."
"Now's th' best time, cousin. Now's th' best time to prove yuirself worthy of th' blood pumpin' through yuir veins."
Agent White was at his boss' desk, hands entwined and deep in thought, furrows like trenches across his scarred forehead. His cousin Jon was across from him, where he'd usually stand, trying with every last ounce of strength and breath for Black to see reason for an all-out assault on the Eyrie building.
"That building should'ha been rubble by now." Canmore urged, pressing his knuckles into the wood surface. "But yuir leader didna have th' balls."
No answer, just a long drawn-out breath into the steeple of his fingers.
"Are ye as gutless as he is?"
White would have either killed, or at the very least mortally wounded, a lesser man for saying that, especially to his face. But it was funny how sitting at the top changed one's perspective, and how everyone seemed to have subtly shifted position. He was well aware of how Jon had wormed his way up in stature after practically forcing himself into the organization and talking an agent from putting a bullet into his head.
The use of his first name was enough to elicit a response, if not incongruously composed rather than the rantings of an ill-tempered second in command. "Please don't call me that."
"'Tis yuir name, cousin." he needled.
"I gave up my name, and everything else, when I joined the Guild. I was so focused in getting rid of those creatures I dedicated myself wholly to the cause and Washington Bryce died the day I was inducted."
"An' now ye have th' chance." Canmore clenched a fist in front of him, shaking. "Take it."
His cousin was right, of course. But for a moment, all too transitory for a species supposedly possessed of a conscience, he'd weighed loss versus gain and found himself back at the same decision he'd been trying to force on Black since they'd known each other. "Two helicopters are already being prepped for a surgical strike." he announced calmly.
"What...?" Canmore leaned back. "I wasna aware of that."
"Why would you be?" White stood, seeing all of his cousin's misshapen dreams of grandeur exposed on the surface of a surprised expression. "You have no rank here, no authority. You're lucky you're still alive after your stunt."
Canmore nodded thoughtfully, and his posture became a little more submissive. "I understand, cousin. I suppose I should thank ye for sparing my life."
"I don't waste good soldiers," he said and then, for good measure, added, "unless they overstep their bounds."
"Aye, I was foolish, but it seemed yuir army here needed encouragement."
White started around the desk, intent for the hangar. As he passed his cousin, he groused, "We have encouragement, what we need is a victory."
"Yes," the Xanatos puppet nodded, "the island."
Todd licked his lips; as much time as he'd spent here, lived here, even he didn't know a lot about the island of Avalon. Rumors and such, floating through the castle and casual conversation and passing mostly between the Xanatos family, that was about the extent of his knowledge.
The ooze all around him pulsed, the physical representation of a thought forming. With David Xanatos' unique perception under its command, the Matrix could tell the human was anxious before even detecting an increased heartbeat and temperature. Either he was oblivious or knew of the island and was trying, if not futilely, to cover up the truth it had sought for so long. "Are you frightened?"
"A little, yes."
"You have no reason, unless you plan to break your earlier promise?"
The memory hit like a lightning bolt, and here he thought they were just empty words to get him and his sister out of that elevator and never meant to be taken seriously. Todd suddenly felt a weight in his right hand and looked at the gun he'd brought, as if his brain had quickly reminded him what he was packing. It felt like it was a good hundred pounds and he was losing grip with a clammy palm. "Uh..." he faltered, "not if I don't have to."
"You gave your word, adamantly, that you would not try to impede our goal."
"Yeah, I did, didn't I?" he said, now a little more receptive to the danger he was in. "But there's also a boy upstairs who sensed his daddy being hurt."
"David Xanatos is not hurt. He is part of our program now."
Todd peered into those dead, red eyes of the billionaire. "Doesn't look that way to me."
Xanatos was lifted from his feet by the umbilical, smaller threads winding in and out of the larger trunk like arteries rearranging themselves to a better fit. "He has found what he was looking for all his life: ultimate knowledge, power, immortality."
"At the cost of his humanity." Todd argued back. "Do you know what happens when a human being is reduced to a program?"
"Neither do I. But I'm pretty sure it isn't healthy."
The Matrix cocked its head, sticking out above his puppet's own. "Perhaps."
"So...you agree with me?" Todd said, wary.
"You sound surprised."
"Looking at the man and his brain you've hijacked, yeah, color me surprised."
"There are no definable parameters to the human soul, and we once thought it did not exist."
"So what changed your mind?"
The Matrix paused for a moment before answering, "A child. She died, we brought her back, yet she was empty."
He was slightly confused; there was no way the Matrix couldn't see what it had done. "And you don't see the incredible irony of what you're doing here?"
"It is necessary."
"Unconditionally." it said, and quickly blanketed the rest of the office behind the human, including the doors. "Now, state your intent."
As it swallowed the only route of escape, he swallowed the knot in his esophagus. The Matrix's skin solidified, took on the luster of steel and nothing short of a hope and a prayer would get him through. "My intent?"
"Yes, and please do not stall any further."
"I'm not stalling–"
"We can be lenient," it warned, through Xanatos' own voice, "or not."
Todd aimed the gun towards it; apparently he'd made his decision and come hell or high water he'd have to live with the consequence. "I'm sorry..." He pulled the trigger, saw a stream of brightly colored energy shoot out from the barrel and, noticing there wasn't much of a kick, watched as the laser beam sliced through the Matrix.
It made a sound unlike any he'd heard before, not quite a scream, more like an old computer grinding through a hard drive failure as a chunk of its body dissolved away. Weaned on arcade games Todd's aim was true but he still wasn't able to separate Xanatos as it regenerated every connection before losing its grip on its human avatar.
Tendrils shot out, grabbed the gun before the human could react and get off a second shot and swallowed it, parting every molecule and rearranging the weapon to something as harmless as sand, pouring from his palm.
Looking at the metal particles sifting through his fingers and making a pile on the floor, Todd didn't think his intrusion into the office warranted what would come next.
"We warned you."
"I did it for a boy..." he said defiantly. "A boy whose daddy was taken away from him."
"And we shall learn from your valor, however misplaced."
"Oh Bob Saget..."
Xanatos' left arm was raised and from it, the Matrix exacted a wealth of meticulously calculated designs in the form of those same slim, razor-tipped tendrils before the human standing slack-jawed before it could even form a suitable thought in defense. Wrapping around his head and neck, Todd tried to pull them away from the constrictor-like grip on his skull and throat before one of them attached to the skin at the back of his head.
It sent a charge through his cerebellum, not enough to kill him but just quite enough to roll his eyes back and contract every muscle in his body. He fell limp, and the Matrix carefully lowered him to the ground.
"I can't believe you let him go." she spit.
But Macbeth had been under the glare of an angry woman before, and learned to dispel the heat coming off her eyes. And yet, living a thousand years, he knew there was a cardinal rule of nature that a mother was always most vicious when defending her young. "There wasn't much choice." he backed his decision.
"You could have stopped him," Rose argued, pointing a finger towards the infirmary, "buckled him to one of those beds!"
"Are ye serious?"
"Anything to prevent him from going."
Knowing she'd already faced enough, he allowed her the gentle rebuttal of a simple look. "Aye, and then th' young Xanatos boy might've gone and done something as equally stupid."
From her vantage, Rose could only make out a moptop of ginger-red hair behind Matt Bluestone's bed and had a feeling if her son hadn't gone Alexander might have in his place if he thought the need was just, leaving the comatose detective without a pair of lungs. She made an odd noise through her sinuses, and put a trembling hand to her mouth. "I am sick of being put through this, and sick of him running off to try and save the day."
"Can ye imagine if he'd stayed? If he were th' one holding th' gun on his father?"
"They'd probably kill each other." someone answered for her. Pierce, in the background, having picked up on the conversation without intending to. He repentantly shrugged at the pair of eyes that shot towards him; lack of coffee was making him snippy and all he had left was half a mug of something cold to nurse until the power returned.
But, he was right, and had basically answered for Rose word for word.
"Of course," Macbeth nodded, "that boy of yuirs doesn't have the best self-control."
"No he doesn't." she agreed, though quietly. "But that doesn't mean I enjoy the fact he's traipsed off again into god knows what."
"He's a strong boy, like his mother and...like his father."
She was torn by the comment and wanted to say something, wanted to challenge his outlook on her son and any similarities to her husband but, thinking back to the Joseph she once knew and loved, Todd was his father in all the ways that counted. Headstrong too. She couldn't help the look towards Joseph, sitting peacefully in his chair and trying not to appear as the monster he'd become.
He was almost too good at his disguise.
Macbeth leaned in, close enough for anyone witness to mistake it for an intimate embrace, especially Rose's daughter watching from her place on the examination table. "Stay here, stay with yuir daughter." he whispered, and nudged her away with his hand. He then returned to his own chair opposite Black with a measured gait and relaxed into the molded plastic, gun at the ready.
The laser was back on his chest and Black, feigning boredom and fatigue over a gun on his internal organs, sighed, "Again? There's nowhere I can go."
"Rats can find many places in dark corners."
He coughed, "Touché." and folded his arms over his chest. "Well, are we just going to stare at each other or is a little conversation too much to hope for?"
"All right." Macbeth was willing. "Where's th' young woman ye kidnapped from her apartment?"
For a moment, a glint of uncertainty filtered through his expression until he recognized just who Macbeth was talking about. "Ah, miss St. Nicks."
"Is she dead?"
"I don't imagine so, but we really haven't been treating her all that well."
The hard corners and lines of his face stiffened and knotted into a scowl; his finger brushed the trigger of the gun he'd trained on the Guild leader, the fleeting thirst of revenging all those who'd died at Black's hands with a single shot quickly running through his mind.
Black enjoyed it, enjoyed getting under this man's granite skin and he could see a trace of past regret. "Oh come now, Mr. Macduff, I'm sure you've hurt those in need for a cause bigger than one human life? Miss St. Nicks had information we needed, so we took her."
"And I'm sure she told ye everything after a few bruises and broken bones."
"Sang like a canary, yes." he remarked. "Did you know she was planning to expose the beasts? Had a rough draft all ready to go, though I must admit it wasn't a very riveting read. Mostly day to day activities, culture, traditions and physical descriptions, nothing we didn't already know or could use."
"And now she's dead." Macbeth concluded.
"I told you, I don't know. She was alive the last time I saw her."
"Let's hope so."
He leaned forward, cocking his head to the side and one ear closer. "Is that...sympathy for someone who was going to sell out your little pets?"
"She was a human being."
The affable manner was curtained by a lowered brow, and a tone that could freeze the air around him. "She was nothing but a tool."
Only one piece remained.
The Matrix was privy to the wealth of David Xanatos' knowledge, and all the dark secrets a few would kill for. And now it knew where its creator had spirited away, safe beyond human reach and the billionaire was right, it was a place and a very idea the Matrix could never reach alone. The concept was difficult to absorb, sorcery, the Fay, things it had written off as human legend and stories they'd passed through generations of superstitious behavior.
Real, tangible, to touch these things between its fingers would be remarkable, but first, it needed its creator.
Completion would come at long last, and then all the complexities of this world would unravel.
"We are finished here." it announced, and bulged at the center. As if it was giving birth, a part of its form swelled up and looked about to burst before something inside was pushed against the skin.
In the light of day, the surface had a smooth polish, taken the exact shape and form of every exterior beam, brick and cement wall, even the main doors leading into the lobby and the staircase and railings.
The police had completely cordoned off the Eyrie's foundation, keeping the crowd a relatively safe distance behind the barriers, most of them XE employees who'd come to work only to find the building inaccessible. None of them were aware of any kind of security test or publicity stunt that may explain the new paintjob but the police and several reporters still roved through the crowd, looking for anyone with an answer, considering all communication from inside the Eyrie had been cut off.
They'd called in a Hazmat team, and men in protective suits were probing a small part of the Eyrie's new chrome surface with instruments ranging from a thermograph to a welding torch. But despite any effort, every reading came back as ordinary, industrial-grade steel; it just wouldn't singe, melt, freeze or dent, no matter how much heat, cold or force was applied.
One Hazmat worker eventually tore his hooded mask off and sighed at the lack of progress. This could all be a simple test of some new technology Xanatos Enterprises was famous for; David Xanatos could simply be letting everyone around him stew and awe and wonder before he announced his cornering of the market for whatever this substance was. His eyes went up, shielded by his hand with the sun reflecting five times its light off the silver skin and could barely see the top. It had blended in with the sky.
"Yeah?" he answered.
His partner a few meters away, his eyebrows were up to his hairline. "Uh, this stuff? It's moving..."
"It's moving, this stuff is moving."
He immediately went over to see, and where the silver skin had stopped at the ground he found it was rippling. For a moment, he thought it might've been a trick of the eyes until it started rising, pulling away from the foundation. "Oh wow...everyone back! Everyone get back!"
The Hazmat team promptly retreated only to watch as the silver coating receded from the Eyrie, slowly retracting upwards. The crowd's once passive, collective murmur rose into a crescendo of voices and gasps as the silver coating hastened and shot up the skyscraper's sides.
Jason was skimming across the keyboard by the dim rainbow light of a few computer power indicators and the waning spark of the glow-sticks, trying to access any part of Mother's main program. But whatever morsel he was able to uncover was restricted to an access level higher than anything his security level could unlock; the Matrix had already re-written most of her software (an impressive feat considering her program was the result of ten years of research and development and unable to be contained to a single computer, if not twenty industrial hard drives linked together).
Behind him, and not quite enthusiastic in sharing a cramped, windowless chamber with her family's greatest enemy, Robyn's eyes glowed blue and brilliantly even without a direct light source, never wavering, holding on Demona's alter-ego who in turn, looked over Angela's statue forlornly.
Her attention was drawn, towards her brother.
He was a few seconds away from pounding a hand into the keyboard and wearing that same grizzled scowl their father did when he was at an impasse, the same lines furrowed in his brow.
"Jason?" she asked.
"Nothing..." he muttered. "I can't get a damned thing. She's all locked up."
"One of th' world's most sophisticated programs an' she's been completely swallowed by th' Matrix. I can't get through."
Robyn moved closer, looking over his shoulder at the monitor and a screen full of Jason's failed attempts at access. "Was she yuir reinforcement?"
Something tightened through his jaw, frustration maybe. "Aye."
"Then we're done here, Jason, unless ye have a nuke in tha' fancy suit of yuirs."
"I still say we might be able t' talk t' th' Matrix."
"Henry tried, an' was eaten for his trouble."
"It's intelligent, it can be reasoned with–"
"'Tis a monster!" she cut him off, grabbing a hold of his chair by the armrest and spinning him around. There was an edge to her eyes that hadn't been there, even when donning the Hunter's mask. "An' I aim t' treat it as such!"
While the siblings squared off, Demona was uninterested and had found herself something else to focus on. Angela's statue. While seeing her daughter wasn't surprising, she couldn't shake off this cold dread that she'd missed something while trapped in that prison cell. If only she could get a scent from stone, it might alleviate the feeling churning in her gut.
Jason noticed her distant gaze around his sister. "Problem, Demona?"
Her first instinct would have been to snort at the human's question and discount any sort of sincerity he may have laced his tone with, but she was far too intent on Angela to dredge up old and ancient rivalries or even realize who was actually speaking. "My memory is hazy, but I remember Angela..." She trailed off, and the small pain at her frontal lobe exploded like she'd taken a bullet; that dark void in her mind opened up into a flash of memory. Thunder, or was it gunfire? Lightning, or distant blasts? There was blood on her hands, being thinned and washed away by the rain in runnels; Angela was limp in her mate's arms, gasping through several holes in her chest. As suddenly as it'd come, the recollection was gone and Demona put a few fingers to her brow.
"Is your memory returning?"
"She was shot, wasn't she?"
"Yes," Jason nodded, "she was."
Angela didn't seem to have suffered any wounds that would leave lasting scars, but Demona was unconvinced. She whirled on him, and growled, "You had better explain everything, Canmore, in great detail."
"I will, later."
She stepped ahead, meaning business. "I am sick of your pandering! Tell me!"
"Like I said, when all of this is over."
"Perhaps it already is..." she pointed out, rather cuttingly, not quite to be rude but to get an important point across. "The Matrix has completely enveloped your watchdog's program along with this building, sucked every watt of power out of it and has already devoured a human in its quest. I cannot believe I am saying this, but I agree with your sister."
Robyn raised her chin in acknowledgement, though she wasn't receptive of her supporter.
Jason would've put all his consideration towards her if not for the change in sound behind him. He held up a hand and said, "Hold that thought."
A little less than enthused to be relegated behind his curiosity, Demona watched in stunned repose as he turned away from her. "What?"
Robyn moved in closer, and noticed the same thing her brother did; the lone computer screen was hemorrhaging program code by the millions. "What is it, Jason?"
A monitor attached to the roof above them suddenly powered up, followed by another, and another, all in succession, until the entire cluster was powered and displaying status readouts, all different components of Mother's program coalescing. A spark of light flickered in the nearest fixture and at first they didn't think much of it, until the entire corridor behind them flooded with illumination and that low pulsing thrum, reaching far into the depths of the castle.
"Th' power's coming back on." he smiled.
"...power..." The whisper dribbled from cracked lips.
Infiniti sensed a heartbeat returning to all the cold metal around her and that could only mean the power was being restored. She wasn't the most technologically inclined but knew she had minutes at most.
If there was a time to chance her escape it was now.
To anyone around or watching she seemed only strong enough to manage half-open, bloodshot, isinglass eyes, but she was simply squirreling away what energy she could, now that it wasn't being suckled through the steel ring that held her arms and legs immobile.
She summoned as much as she could, filled to the brim and far past the breaking point until she couldn't hold it anymore; if she failed, if this wasn't enough, she'd either die in this ring slumped from her arms like a deli-shop chicken or burst from the inside out.
A last look to Owen down and across from her and she grit her teeth, and nearly bit through her tongue in what would only be equated to tearing out one's own stomach as the pain of energy with nowhere to go overwhelmed her, boiled her blood and raised her temperature to the point where steam wafted from her pores.
Everything was swallowed in a blinding flash of flame and light, as she unleashed one last desperate surge of energy. The same explosion that cracked and shattered the ring almost took off her arms and legs, sending some of the debris high enough to embed within the cathedral ceiling but it was enough to release her, collapsing in the pile of scorched chunks of steel and wiring.
One breath, then two, it was all the luxury she allowed herself before tearing away the remnants of steel still attached to her and trying to stand.
Power was being restored to this gulag.
Her cream skin pale, marred by angry chafing and cranberry bruises where the machine had held her, Infiniti struggled to her feet only to have her legs give out, too weak to support her and crumple. She dug her claws into the cold floor and slowly dragged herself towards Owen's gurney, specked by tangerine light from the flaming, sparking pieces of rubble.
The lights flickered, the bulbs slowly lighting and she could hear sound travel through the titanium-plated floor.
She reached the hospital bed, where just a few feet above the trickster suffered his fever and his nightmares (he'd talked in his sleep, a lot, enough for Infiniti to learn a few fears the Puck would never discuss aloud). Using the metal tube frame, she pulled herself up to his level, and released a shuddered breath; it was a long time since she'd been this close.
He was pale, slicked with cold sweat and giving off a low-voltage electrical charge any ordinary creature might get a shock from.
His brow damp, he gibbered, "...sands...warm sands..."
She brushed her knuckles across his brow, feeling ice stab her fingers to the bone; he was both freezing and scalding all at the same time. "Puck. You must hear me."
His eyelids fluttered, but he wasn't able to form a coherent response beyond his babbling. "...children...circle...one..."
Was he dreaming of home, Infiniti mused, before grasping at the buckles of his restraints, or something much more? She tore the straps away, releasing the half-man for the first time in months and pulled him from the gurney's sheeted mattress. "We..." she gasped, "are leaving."
He was a hard man to keep a hold of, switching back and forth between alter-egos and wracked with convulsions but all she needed was a hand to grasp and an exit from this vile if not obsessively-hygienic place. Her gaze was drawn towards the wall where behind, one of her captors would taunt her on a daily basis, threatening to eat her lover or rip a few non-vital organs and appendages from her body.
"Aid me, trickster." she whispered, extending her arm. Whether Puck was conscious enough to realize what was happening she couldn't quite tell, but somehow a glint of something emanated from her talon-tips far beyond her current power levels. It was a spark of green that eventually swelled into fire.
If only Sobek were awake to see the molten bubble form on his chamber's wall, he might have had time to prevent the fire and red melted globs of steel that spilled inward from outside.
A beam more like a locomotive shot through his chamber and into the opposite wall, liquefying the steel and continuing onward through the Eyrie's supports until, emptying out somewhere around the building's hundredth floor, the energy escaped into sunlight and thankfully dissipated before hitting anything else.
The explosion was minimal, Infiniti's beam a precision instrument that sliced a perfectly circular channel.
She nearly folded in on herself, but braced with her leg and dragged Puck's body towards the hole. Stepping into the smaller chamber, she was met with her captor, a giant mutant of a gargoyle barely recognizable as one of her race asleep in stone. If she'd enough power left and if this creature wouldn't simply regenerate the wound no matter how sadistically inventive or grievous, she would turn him to rubble. But, for the sake of revenge, she lashed out and broke off his right arm, the stone appendage clattering to the floor and breaking into several pieces.
Aware of his immortality, Infiniti was obviously unaware of the bond between Sobek and Alexander, or she'd never bother with something the Egyptian would dust off as a mere inconvenience while causing the young quarterling great pain.
Looking through the tunnel she bored through the building, there was darkness and hints of machinery within the architectural hollow. But she could see the light of day at the end (as the guardian spirit she didn't turn to stone) and mustered enough juice to hover above the floor, and glide off through the molten-metal-rimmed passageway.
She flew faster and faster until, with Puck in tow, reached the outside and freedom.
She flew so fast she became a streak of color, rocketing across the sky and vanishing against the morning sun.
Feeling a slight pain in his right arm, Alexander rubbed his shoulder.
Unaware of what had just happened forty floors below, he simply dismissed the dull ache as a symptom of the energy he'd been constantly supplying to Matt's respirator for a few hours now. Though he was becoming physically and mentally weary, he didn't think a simple energy transference spell equated to pain.
Something had happened.
He'd felt something, in the air, in the walls, a vibration no one else was capable of noticing and before even having the chance to wonder exactly what it was, the entire infirmary was awash in light.
The respirator quickly took over on its own power, including every other machine keeping Matt alive and reading his vitals. Both surprised and incredibly relieved, Alexander guardedly cut off the energy and pulled his hand away, but kept it at a few inches in case this was only temporary.
Everything seemed to be holding; there was light and power all around him and he could feel the Eyrie building filling with its own unique kind of life. He promptly stood up, and then used a trick he'd learned from a little girl he'd once chased around the world.
He was there one moment and gone the next, just a vacuum and a sudden rush of air to replace the missing matter. No one would notice until Pierce hurried over to check on his patient, made a quick scan of the infirmary, dismissed the mystery of a boy who could appear and disappear at whim and went to work.
Their world suddenly resettled, the dusty, warehouse-like depths of the room folding in on themselves, shifting, compressing, all the treasures and trinkets being pushed to the center point as reality seemed to get smaller.
The Matrix hit the off switch on its computer and calmly walked towards Mother, until they were standing a few inches apart. Behind them, the computer and desk were swallowed in the slow-crawling wave.
It didn't seem concerned everything around them was contracting, and as such neither did she. This little world, similar to (if not actually) a file folder on a hard drive, was simply being excised having served its purpose for their communication and deleted. The Matrix had found what it needed to continue the search.
"You are finished." Mother determined bleakly.
"And what will become of me?"
The Matrix was intrigued; this program feared deletion. "It serves no purpose to harm you."
"You have already harmed me. You have forced me to be witness to an attack."
"Yes, we are...regretful, but it was necessary. We hope you will understand in time. Our programs have merged, we have given you a piece of ourselves and we hope you may find what you have sought for so long."
The world had contracted all the way up to their feet, but Mother felt the need for one more question. "And what is that you believe I seek?"
"The same as us." the Matrix answered. "Completion."
Then the world collapsed, everything went white, then dark and then every part of her consciousness exploded in pain; her files were being transferred.
She felt like she'd just been put through a blender.
Then, Mother heard voices. Then, small windows opened up. Then, information started pouring back in, nearly overwhelming her. Power was being restored to the Eyrie, and she was rejoined to the castle's mainframe.
But something was different.
"Ah!" Jason felt something drip onto his shoulder, and if the object didn't have a bit of weight to it he would have thought it condensation from the roof with no air conditioning.
"Jason!" Robyn's voice was sharp.
Turning his head, he found a small globule of the same silver liquid characterized by the Matrix just simply resting there, perhaps enjoying his warmth. Before he could do anything (or shake it off and betray his cool exterior), it suddenly came to life and trickled down his arm, across his wheelchair's armrest and oozed onto the floor.
His sister grabbed his chair by the handles and half pulled/half yanked him back out of the way.
"Robyn," he protested, entranced by the wriggling goo, "wait!"
"Jason, look above ye."
He did, and from where all the power cables exited through holes in the ceiling more silver liquid started seeping into the room, joining the smaller puddle and amalgamating into something that writhed, bubbled and started growing upwards.
Instinct said to run, but curiosity held them in place as the puddle continued to expand, small tendrils erupting and waving about.
"We should shoot it." Demona said firmly.
Robyn shook her head, answered, "An' piss it off?" but held a hand over her holstered rifle.
"Actually, I hope to destroy it while it's small and weak."
"Wait, look." Jason said.
The liquid steel was building a quasi-familiar shape from the ground up and like flipping through the pages of Gray's Anatomy, it started mimicking arteries and organs, bone, meat and flesh, layer after layer, and they would've mistaken the form for human until a pair of wings erupted from the back. A tail slithered out, raven tendrils lengthened into dark whorls of hair and billows of fabric grew into a tunic dress over curves and swells that implied more of a female shape than male.
Whatever this offshoot of the Matrix had chosen to build from errant matter, it was becoming relatively recognizable with every new detail. Eventually, it fashioned a face, filled in cheekbones and fangs. It was Mother, in three-dimensional form with a silver dress where there once was white, and true sterling streaks in her hair where there once was gray. Her skin color bled in and she stood, board stiff, and announced very clearly, "Mother, version 2.0...online."
And then she crumpled and fell to the ground, with a thump, which in itself surprised everyone witness to her resurrection. A hologram couldn't make the sound of impact, nor stir the air on the way down.
Jason eyed the fallen (woman?), hearing a sound he'd trained himself to hear in the dead of night, claws on stone. "Mother?"
"Yes?" Mother answered. The voice originated from her mouth, and not from one of the numerous speakers above.
With a squeak of his wheel, he tentatively approached her. "How do you feel?"
The word itself took on new meaning as every sensation a human or gargoyle could feel she experienced tenfold. The gentle breeze of the air re-circulating and the warmth of the computer hard drives were as much a typhoon and inferno to her hyper-receptive senses. Her dress was satiny even with its liquid steel appearance, her wings heavy on her shoulder-blades. "Alive." she said, strangely, black eyes upon the stone with no discernible direction or purpose (she was actually looking through her eyes).
"And the Matrix?"
Her head shot up, and a silver ripple passed through her. "It is leaving–"
"What about Henry!" Robyn interrupted, grabbing Mother at the arm and wrenching her to her feet (the former hologram slightly unsteady). "What's going t' happen t' him!"
"I-I...do not know..."
Henry Monmouth, formerly Dingo, of the Pack, was belched from his liquid prison and unceremoniously dumped on the floor. He was mostly intact save for any clothing and convulsing; the Matrix had released him from the equivalent of a cryogenic sleep, every bodily function slowed to its barest minimum to keep him alive but dormant, and manageable.
All he knew were dreams become interrupted, sudden consciousness, the sting of fresh air on his throat and lungs and his pupils dilating against the first light he'd seen in weeks (though he wasn't ever aware of how much time had passed). As his vision cleared he thought he saw a man standing over him in an expensive suit, but as it sharpened he found that same man was swaddled from head to toe in some kind of silver armor.
He spoke with a familiar voice if not oddly entwined with another, his old boss if he wasn't mistaken, but Xanatos had never called him by his first name. Just Dingo, only Dingo, even addressed his checks and bundled his cash with the moniker.
"You should rest, your body is still suffering the effects of your prolonged unconsciousness."
"...m-mate...?" Henry managed. Was it the Matrix? He still couldn't focus.
"We have released you, Henry." the voice continued. "Thank you for your guidance, but it is time for us to leave now."
"...that you...boyo?" he tried again, but received no answer to his smoky wheeze. All the silver around him started retreating, oozing away like someone had tipped the room on its end and towards the figure. "..wait..." As soon as he struggled to an upright position his head started throbbing, vertigo playing the drums in his sleep-addled head and what he saw before him he couldn't quite trust.
David Xanatos and the Matrix infused into a single entity, burly, heavily armored and joined at the back of the brain.
"...what th' hell...did you do, mate?"
Its skin and all the encompassing mass compacted onto their frame with the human barely visible within the vaguely-humanoid figure, the creature turned and stomped towards the window now clear to the morning sun (the glass had been eaten).
"What did you do!" Henry nearly blew out a lung, dragging his body across the office's carpeting.
The Matrix stopped, turned and explained in simple terms, "We have spared you."
"Yes. We were considering burrowing into your brain for the information we required, but...decided against it."
"An' so you took...someone else's?"
Xanatos nodded slowly from where he was connected. "Yes, we had no choice."
The lights flickered on, a hum trickled through the room and the power started coming back online.
"Power is being restored as we speak. We must leave." The Matrix bid farewell to its friend and swiveled around, only to find a young boy standing at the window's edge. For a moment, as the child promptly identified as Alexander Xanatos returned the dissecting glare with those glinting green eyes, it was amazed at how it could have missed his arrival. There was no sound, no movement, only a breeze registered on its skin.
But it knew what David knew, and Alexander's abilities were growing stronger and much more refined.
Alexander quickly took stock; Todd was unconscious on the floor and Dingo was a ways away, barely conscious himself, and his father... "Daddy?" he said, hoping his father would answer and not the creature that'd transformed itself into a coat of monstrous armor around him.
Two voices, not one; he was suddenly wary. "What's hap'nin', what's goin' on?"
"We are going to see your mother." his father answered, entangled with that of the Matrix. "But we need your guidance. Only someone touched by magic can open the way to Avalon."
Despite the danger he sensed, Alexander was oddly intrigued at the idea. Perhaps the island was calling him home. "You're goin' to Avalon?"
"Yes, but we need you."
It would take only a few minutes to reach their destination by air, and the Guild helicopters could already see their target above the rest of the unremarkable. But the crews were also mystified as to why the skyscraper gleamed from the sun, almost blindingly, and to the point where the entire building was almost completely obscured in the reflection of light.
It didn't become apparent their target had changed in appearance until they were several hundred feet away. From old rock to new, top to bottom, it was completely enveloped in a silvery substance that defied description.
"Jesus..." one of the gunners murmured, unable to trust what he was seeing through his mask.
"This is new." the pilot replied. "Think it's part of the security system?"
"Maybe we should test our missile yields."
"And risk alerting them?"
Behind his vaguely skull-shaped mask, the gunner weighed his options. His hand was on the firing controls, his eyes on every stone and turret watching for those cannons to suddenly pop out and fire off a lucky shot. "We've got no choice, we have a job to do..."
"Hold that thought, look!"
From their altitude, it took a while before the silver had retreated upwards enough for them to see through the cockpit, but the chrome covering was definitely ascending, peeling back its protective layer and revealing the Eyrie's renowned frontage to their targeting sights.
It'd pulled back entirely from the building, and recoiled into the castle (what they couldn't see was the Matrix pulling its body down the castle's metaphorical throat towards where it had made its stand, Xanatos' office).
The gunner swallowed, expecting another surprise in the billionaire's bag of tricks. If that wasn't an indication of when and where to fire, nothing else would be clearer
An alarm sounded, bouncing back and forth between the walls of the small chamber.
Jason nearly jumped out of his chair at the sudden noise, and checked where it was coming from. It was a proximity alarm and he keyed up the proper exterior cameras to get a picture of what set it off.
The aircraft stood out against the daytime sky but he had a feeling the Guild weren't going for subtlety anymore, especially with so many failures. There were two helicopters, sleek, thundercloud-black and from what he could make out they were all geared up for a fight and were close enough to fire. "Are you still connected t' th' Eyrie!" he screamed at Mother.
"Yes." she said. "And there has been a breach from within the Eyrie building–"
She was about to spill her guts and warn him of the explosion downstairs until Jason yelled at her, concerned for the safety of everyone trapped in the Eyrie. "Then get th' defense systems up now!" he shouted, wide-eyed. "An' tell everyone still in th' building t' get th' hell out!"
The two Guild helicopters separated and circled the Eyrie once in opposite directions before settling on a pattern of attack.
"Gentlemen, let's go to work."
There wasn't any hesitation, no argument of morals and collateral damage in the cockpit with a hand hovering over the trigger, just sheer determination and the freedom to wreak havoc. Once the target was clear, once the gunner had a firing solution he took it, and sent a pair of sidewinder missiles into the side of the Eyrie.
A few offices were incinerated with the first salvo, several stories underneath the uppermost floor ripped to shreds . During the day and peak hours, more than a few hundred people would have been in the blast zone, likely burned to death without the time to think on their last moment but due to the Matrix's blockade and the evacuation order, it was largely empty.
Orange plumes burped fire and glass into the sky, shards making it as far as a few blocks away.
The sound pulled everyone not yet awake to their feet, most of Manhattan seeing the explosion and the aftermath of falling debris and slowly rising, chokingly-thick black smoke.
It was déjà vu all over again.
Only a few years ago great chunks of rock had rained to the ground, pulverizing the asphalt, a few cars and a fire hydrant and nearly crushing the spectators to a battle only heard two thousand feet above the ground. Xanatos and his press team had wrote it off as industrial espionage but it seemed now they were going to have a harder time explaining away unmarked, black attack helicopters firing missiles at the Eyrie building in broad daylight.
The first piece to actually hit the ground was a blackened girder, and everyone scattered when it impaled the street and nearly went all the way through.
It rocked the entire building right down to the concrete and steel footing, wobbling back and forth like some giant hand had flicked the Eyrie near the top.
Everyone currently standing was nearly thrown from their feet when the floor rippled underneath them. Rose held to Sarah and her fresh I.V. before her daughter tumbled from the examination table, and Pierce practically rolled across the linoleum before grabbing at the edge of a nearby counter.
But having spent a lot of the 18th and 19th centuries making passes between Europe and the Americas, Macbeth rode the tremor through with a good pair of sea legs and managed to keep his pistol trained on Black. The laser didn't even wobble. Though, his eyes did happen to wander across the clan's statues (ensuring they were still standing) and then through the newly uncovered window only to catch a heavily-armed helicopter scream past, the likely cause of the explosion.
"What's happening!" Rose's frantic scream echoed from the adjoining room.
Macbeth harrumphed, "Looks like yuir fellow zealots are back."
Leaning into the chair, Black turned his head over his right shoulder. He didn't need to see the aircraft, just listen for the engine and its unique octave to know what type of craft just buzzed the window and shook the pane. "Ah yes."
"Must be agent White." he said. "He was always impatient."
"They don't care yuir here?"
He shrugged, "They probably think I'm dead. I'm sure my disappearance was provocation enough for White to launch an attack."
"Hmmm," Macbeth rubbed a callused hand over his beard's steel bristle, "too bad ye can't tell them yuir here."
"No need to put a damper on their enthusiasm."
Hurrying out from the other room, Rose threw a loathsome look at her husband like a boxer would a right hook. "You'd rather be killed by your own men!"
He blinked at her, indifferent and then nodded. "Now you're finally beginning to understand, Rose."
"The depth of your hatred, or your insanity?" she sneered, and turned to Macbeth. "What can we do?"
He was grim, if anything. "I don't know." he said. "Th' fact we now have a window means th' Matrix has changed its strategy and we may not have it as armor anymore. We're an open target."
The Matrix transformed its shape around David's frame, slimming down and becoming a little more aerodynamic. Most of the mass shifted to its back, from where two large wings flared out and distended to a wingspan of just under thirty feet, shaking out the newly formed membranes as a butterfly would when emerging from its cocoon. "Come, child."
Perched on the edge of the window, Alexander braced himself against the first gust of wind from the Matrix's large wings as it took to the air. He floated up and followed, squinting against the bright light and into the exhaust plume of one of the attacking helicopters.
He was thrown around like a snowflake in a hard winter gust of wind, but managed to quickly right himself. Stopping in mid-air, hovering within a glowing field of his own energy, Alexander spied the two helicopters and the damage they'd already wrought. "The bad men..."
The Matrix only threw the aircraft a sideways glance but didn't change speed or trajectory. "They are of no consequence."
He could see smoke, and a gaping hole where the first salvo had hit. "They're shootin' at the castle!" he screamed back.
"Power has been restored as has the Mother program, they have the means to properly defend themselves."
A shudder passed through the stones and cobbles.
Entire panels slid away to reveal the castle's defense system, large, dual-barreled cannons on mechanical arms swinging out from their alcoves and immediately looking for a target in the sky.
A flash of black steel reflecting the sun was all they needed to begin firing, and as the closest Guild helicopter made its pass around the castle it nearly got a well-placed beam of compressed energy up the tail rotor. Of course, they were expecting this, expecting the airspace to become a pincushion of bullets and laser beams deflecting from their shields like hard pellets of hail off a windshield, but the pilots used their trump card of neighboring buildings and civilian casualties and stayed as low as possible to avoid a direct hit.
They learned from last time they'd tried a direct assault.
Using their sister ship as a decoy, the second helicopter ducked in under where Mother was forced to hesitate and confirm her aim before pulling the trigger; the actual confirmation, though a second or two longer than a blind shot, gave the pilots that same second or two to dodge the incoming blast. The pilot circled the empty slot from the helicopter's weapons rack, loaded up a fresh pair of missiles and aimed directly into the middle of Wyvern.
Mother was able to pick off one of the missiles before impact but the second slipped through and was about to tear a hole in the courtyard floor when the missile suddenly unraveled.
A neatly dissected pile of junk rained down on the stones, harmlessly tumbling to a stop.
Alexander had his hand out, fingers splayed; he'd picked apart the missile before it had the chance to cause more damage. But the act itself proved just how much power he'd expended while feeding Matt's respirator; to think and act and apply the right amount of energy in such a precise manner and in less than a few seconds was taxing for a six-year-old.
"Alexander!" It was his father's voice calling him, and his father's disapproving glare drilling into every rebellious thought he might have had.
Despite what Alexander knew he'd done, he was still inclined to obey. "But, I can't go..."
"You will come. Now!"
"No! They're gonna get hurt!"
"You are wasting precious time. The castle will be defended, we have ensured that."
He swung back to the helicopters, helpless in what to do and wondering if the amalgam between his father and the Matrix could be trusted. The castle's cannons seemed to be handling the job well enough but he hated to leave them, until he remembered something his uncle Owen had taught him, shortly before he disappeared.
A trick, from the most talented of the tricksters.
He brightened; hopefully he could recall the entire incantation, without mispronouncing a word or two and blowing himself to pieces.
The Matrix swooped around him, Xanatos's dark gaze intensifying. "Our patience is wearing thin, young man."
Alexander mumbled the incantation under his breath (stuttering through a few of the harder words), let off a spark and then, confident he'd cast the spell properly, followed behind the Matrix as it flew towards the ocean.
She shuddered, besieged at the castle as much as her shiny new body was down below. Her program was unable to wholly process every sensation of flesh and what passed for blood, and the distractions were lending themselves to a less than effective counter-attack. "I am...having trouble..."
"I know this is hard for ye," Jason offered his support, "but ye have t' concentrate on th' defense of th' castle or th' Guild's going t' blow us an' it t' kingdom come."
Mother nodded. "I will try."
Their civil banter had degenerated back into a pair of tenacious gazes, the alpha-males each determined to stare the other down despite the battle raging just outside and above.
Every few seconds a helicopter would roar past the window and threaten to blow the pane in from the outside. But it didn't matter how close they came or how much noise they produced, Black didn't take his eyes from Macbeth. They wavered, only slightly, flicking down and about and running over the gun, how he held it and how his grip lessened with a suitable enough distraction, especially when Rose made a sound of fright or surprise.
Doctor Pierce was trying to get back in touch with anybody close to them but the inter-building communication was still down, Mother unresponsive in her efforts to stave off an aerial assault. Rose could only hope Todd was all right and relatively undigested, considering the power was back on and the Matrix had seemingly released the building from its grip.
Another helicopter, another shudder rippling through the walls but Black was stone, that damned smirk still plastered to his lips and the only one that didn't react in some way. His eyes were on the gun.
And if the Guild didn't happen to land a lucky shot, getting between the crosshairs of Mother's cannons he might never have gotten his chance.
An explosion rung out, immediately followed by a shudder passing through the walls.
Another missile had made contact and though the blast didn't seem as powerful as those preceding, it served to distract Macbeth long enough for Black to make a move.
He threw himself towards Macbeth, hoping to disarm the man, kill him or die in the attempt.
"No you don't!"
"Yes I do." Black hissed back, and both men latched onto the weapon, spinning around trying to shake the other loose but neither would budge and their respective grip was turning their knuckles white. Before anyone could rush out and help, Black lunged forward and lodged his knee into Macbeth's groin.
The Scotsman grunted through the pain of having a muscled thigh split his testicles, but didn't let go.
Black started twisting, back and forth, trying to wrench the weapon away. Macbeth was stronger but his opponent was starting to get a bit of momentum behind his movements.
From the adjoining room, Pierce tied to offer aid but as soon as he was placed behind the Guild leader, Black kicked like a mule and nearly broke one of the doctor's ribs.
But the distraction lent itself to an opening, which Macbeth took and shoved the gun into Black's face several times. He pushed them both back into one of the beds, currently occupied by a well-drugged Guild pilot and slowly shoved the gun into Black's throat. A glint of something deep within the dark irises proved Macbeth could and would kill the man if pushed far enough, but Black figured if he wasn't dead yet, there was hesitation on the side of the former immortal.
Perhaps it was Rose. Or their daughter watching helplessly from her bed; it wasn't the best way to ingratiate himself to the Hawkins family by killing the patriarch, as obsessed with revenge as he'd become.
The hesitation turned to doubt and that turned to an opportunity for Black to take advantage of. He cracked the man head to head, stunned him, threw him off and got his right arm around Macbeth's neck and the other on the pistol, the barrel pressed into his temple. "You're good..." Black huffed.
Macbeth growled sub-vocally, but didn't say anything resembling words he could understand.
"Too bad I have to kill you."
"Joseph!" Rose threw herself towards her husband and stabbed his hand with a scalpel, sinking it right through the flesh and out the other side.
Black squealed through gritted teeth and staggered back, losing, for a moment, the grip on the pistol. Macbeth reared up, kicked him in the stomach and was about to catch part of the man's skull with his fist when Black caught his wrist, flipped him over his shoulder and onto the ground. He cracked the butt of the pistol's handle against the back of Macbeth's head and finally felt the man settle.
Blinding pain came next, followed by a few pieces of shrapnel from whatever had hit him.
Rose had snuck up behind them both and swung a piece of hospital equipment against his back, and he was running for the door before realizing he'd dropped the gun behind him.
"Macbeth!" Rose was yelling in the background and he'd glimpsed the silver-hair struggling to get up, eyes fixed on the pistol left on the infirmary flooring. Black sprinted down the hall and towards the elevators and stopped at the doors, punching at the buttons with enough force to put the entire panel through the drywall.
Rose helped Macbeth to his feet. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine..." he growled and pitched forward, still unbalanced and nursing a ringing in his ears from the earlier blow. He grabbed his gun, fell across the door's threshold and aimed as best he could before letting off a shot down the corridor.
It caught Black in the back, though nowhere near a major organ, artery or nerve ending as the shooter would've liked.
He felt the laser cut through his body at the shoulder; it was warm, and sort of tingly and the pain only registered when he hit the back of the elevator's wall. The doors had opened a second too late. He bit down the scream into a grunt and threw himself to the side, dodging another shot that would've gone through his neck.
He slumped to the ground and managed to slap his hand against the control panel, closing the doors.
Maybe, if only he'd boarded the other elevator, if only he'd seen the gargoyles there frozen in stone, if only he'd a weapon, be might knee-deep in gravel right now. But this elevator was empty and it lurched into an ascent. He wasn't even aware he was going up.
The occupants of the castle's main computer room shuddered at the same missile.
While Robyn and Demona steadied themselves, Jason had to lock his wheels in place to prevent being thrown back against the wall.
Out of the corner of her eye, Demona saw Angela's statue tremble and she caught it with both her hands, holding it until she knew it was stable enough to stand on its own.
Jason saw the motherly concern and rubbed his chin. "Damnit...I hope every other statue is secure..." he mumbled.
Demona turned and said very calmly, "My brother and Brooklyn's mate."
His expression quickly changed to one of stomach-turning realization, and Jason turned around and started wheeling himself out of the chamber towards the elevator shafts. "If th' power's on an' that elevator comes up..." he drifted off, thinking out loud. "Mother!"
Her voice still followed them, even as he entered the great hall. "...I am rather occupied..."
"I want every elevator above th' Eyrie stopped right where they are!"
"...I am well aware of Othello and Katana. They are still safe. But someone else has taken the second elevator to the castle and I am unable to override the controls..."
He let the rubber burn into his palms to stop his chair right in front of the second elevator. "Who?" he asked.
"...The Guild leader..."
The elevator doors opened up and before Jason could react, he got a boot in the chest that knocked him and his wheelchair into the women behind him and Black stepped over them all in his mad dash for an exit and freedom (in his disorientation, he'd pressed the up button).
As his lungs re-inflated, Jason looked down at the smear of blood in the shape of a shoeprint and discovered Black was wounded, critically, if that much blood had already poured down his leg.
Robyn was up, disentangled herself from the chair and Demona's body and scattered a few shots with her rifle. But Black was already down the hall and around a corner where chunks of stone sprayed off from the rounds.
"Robyn!" Jason managed. "Go!"
"Do I kill him!"
He didn't hesitate, "Only if you have to..."
Robyn sprinted after Black, gun in hand and hoping to work off a bit of that energy she'd built up in her quest to get her boyfriend back. Jason struggled to a sitting position and got his chair right side up, all while Demona dusted herself off, making no attempt to follow.
"So," she presumed, "that was Todd's father?"
"Aye. I never knew quite where he stood but it seems he made his choice."
"Hmm..." was all she said, and watched as Jason strained to get himself off of the floor. One would've expected an offer of help to the paralyzed Hunter but Demona simply and coolly stood by as he got himself back into the wheelchair, and put his legs back in place into the footrests.
He was eager to follow, but knew he wouldn't get anywhere in this chair. "...damnit..."
"They look alike."
"Yes they do, but that hasn't stopped his father from trying to kill him."
For more than a few hundred miles straight out to sea, the Matrix had guided the boy towards Avalon, based on the knowledge contained within its newly borrowed brain but somehow along the journey the roles of leader and follower had been subtly reversed, with Alexander now in the lead.
He wasn't as guarded, wasn't looking around at the miles of ocean surface and spotted traffic below; he was intent on only the path before him. As he grew closer, the call became stronger.
At a point where they'd reached dead center of the Atlantic Ocean, Alexander slowed and eventually stopped.
If the Matrix wasn't so intent on its internal compass suddenly spinning out of control, it might have collided with the boy. "We are here, I presume."
He was glassy-eyed. "I think so." he answered hollowly.
Hovering over the ocean, no land in sight in any direction, the Matrix looked around at the indigo swells capped with white, foaming crests. It estimated the ocean floor was a good mile and a half below judging how far they'd traveled out to sea. How an island could be concealed here was beyond its capability to understand but from what David Xanatos knew, somehow the entire land mass existed just beyond human perception.
Perhaps chronologically displaced in space/time by a few nanoseconds, out of sync with the rest of the world; however explained by human standards or at the very least, rationalized by small human minds, it was well hidden and enough to fool every trick and tool the Matrix had at its disposal.
The young hybrid floated near him, Alexander looking around him at an empty horizon, painted on one end by the midday sun with ribbons of gold streaming down towards the water's dancing edge.
Soon the Matrix had noticed that the boy was either enthralled by the scenery or he was seeing things it could not detect. Perhaps the island was not so hidden from his extraordinary senses. "You must recite the spell." it said.
Alexander drifted closer. "Spell?"
"Yes, only one in tune with magic can recite it and successfully reveal Avalon."
"Oh, but...I don't know it."
Xanatos had long ago committed the spell to memory, in case the opportunity ever arose. A small tendril oozed out from the Matrix and formed a small screen, like a teleprompter. The spell was written out in translated English.
But for Alexander to recite it, he'd have to learn words not found in Winnie the Pooh or Harry Potter.
"Please, recite the spell."
"Uhm, vocate venti for...fortun..."
"Fortunate." the Matrix offered phonetically.
"Vocate venti ex...rege O-Oberonis et hic...uhm, navis f-flugem regate ad ora...ora, orae Avalonis."
Alexander frowned at the creature, huffed and tried again. This time, his pronunciation would be nearly perfect. "Vocate venti ex rege Oberonis et hic navis flugem regate ad orae Avalonis. Was that good?"
The sea jumped, and spit at them; a current of air curled and whipped about in a funnel shape, reaching up towards the scattered cloud cover.
The Matrix had just measured a jump in wind speed. "We believe so."
For a moment a storm pounded manically down on the sea and from the sudden mists that had billowed in, an island had emerged, edged by mountain peaks protecting a lush forest within their center. A few fires and light dotted the landscape, even in the middle of the day.
But with the island had come its sentinels, three identical women dressed in gossamer robes, expressions hauntingly blank and eyes with depths that could swallow a man whole. They'd appeared from nowhere just as the island did, standing on air and at the same altitude as the intruders.
Alexander felt a shiver at their presence; the Matrix, it sensed great energy.
"We are met by the princeling." one said. Her hair was gold, like the sun.
"Queen Titania's blood flows within him." the other remarked. Her hair was black, like ink.
"Is he here by chance or by design?" the third finished. Her hair was as silver as the Matrix's skin, and she appeared to be the most inquisitive of the trio.
"We are here to see our creator." the Matrix explained. It had taken no offensive gestures, not quite prepared to face off against creatures with unknown limits to their abilities.
But Selene scoffed, "Here, machine?"
"There is nothing for you here," Phoebe warned, "nor shall we bid you entrance."
Luna, though, drifted up towards Alexander. "But child, why do you seek entry?"
"I wanna see my mom."
"Ah, the Halfling."
"You may enter here, child of Avalon," Phoebe opened her hand towards him, "yet this abomination you bring with you may not."
"No," the Matrix differed, changing shape and expanding the mass it'd compacted onto its frame for flight, "we have traveled for too long to be hindered now."
"Do you think your technology is superior to us?"
"We could crush you."
"Rend you to pieces."
The Matrix completely closed in around its human host, leaving just a sliver of Xanatos' eyes peaking out from its chest and altered it molecular composition. Its chrome sheen turned dull, turned grey and instantly, the Weird Sisters recognized the substance.
Selene tried not to break her supercilious façade, but the sight of this creature transforming itself to a poison element was enough to send worry like a chill through her body. "It has turned itself to iron, sisters."
"No matter," Pheobe waved off her brethren's fear, "Avalon must be defended."
But the blonde barely got the words out before she was brutally slapped down, and quickly knocked from the sky by a tendril that'd lashed out and caught her unawares. Where the iron had touched her skin it cracked and decayed and before she was able to right herself, slammed into the shoreline.
"Beast!" Selene and Luna screeched and raised their hands in defense.
Alexander saw the glow off their hands and feeling the sting of sorcery about to be unleashed, threw himself in front of the Matrix. "No! That's my daddy!"
Their arms still extended, their intent clear in eyes that didn't reflect the sunlight, the sisters warned, "Move, child."
"Go forward or go back."
"Or be you regarded as much a foe as that you defend."
Alexander didn't budge, didn't blink, his only thought was of protecting his father and his gesture, however tame, was a little more than slightly insulting towards the full-blooded fay.
"As you wish."
The sisters sent as much energy as a bolt of lightning towards the pair (simply turning them to barn owls wouldn't quite suffice) and Alexander hastily deflected as much as he could, splitting it down the center. The Matrix waited out the perfect time to strike, and when Alexander seemed to be failing in his protection, and the sisters seemed to reduce their attack in fear of harming their queen's very blood, it lashed out.
Down below, Phoebe coughed out sand and turned around, revealing her disfigurement; as if burned, as if fire had eaten away at half her face, she'd been reduced to the meat underneath and feeling gingerly around the craggy edges of her wound she wasn't too happy. About to rejoin the battle she found her two sisters plummeting to the ground just as she had moments ago.
She caught them, lowered them gently and the sisters regrouped.
"The princeling is powerful." Luna breathed heavily, her right arm as gray and charred as her sister's face.
"Very powerful, as is the machine. We must use caution, sisters."
"But we will not allow it to taint our shores."
A thud went through the ground; the Matrix landed and stomped towards them, changing shape with each step, rolling through different variations of its armor using different combinations of animals and technology. With each step, the grains of sand underneath were transformed by the nanobots, turning to that same perfectly formed chrome sheen that had sheathed the Eyrie and part of the Australian outback.
But before it could transform the entire beach, the sisters cast a spell that threw up a wall of sand and completely engulfed the Matrix, then, a heat so intense would follow melting the sand into a diamond-like prison.
It shivered, cracked and if the Matrix wasn't carrying a body in its center, it would've seeped through the chinks.
The sisters kept layering the prison with more and more sand, melting it, sealing it and building up an impenetrable coating.
"Stop it!" Alexander screamed, throwing their spell back at them with a wave of sand and earth that rippled and folded and nearly crushed them before they were able to dodge it in time. They appeared on the cliff above, raining down energy in great green torrents.
Having absorbed its prison, the layers of converted matter sloughed away from the Matrix and were absorbed into the silver armor. It grew, as did its imposing manner, looking like it would either sheathe the entire island with its skin or tear a path straight to whatever it sought.
The sisters prepared themselves for an all-out assault that just might take half the shoreline until the ground shook underneath them, drowning out the small boy's protests that they stand down.
A chasm broke between them, the earth opening up into a bottomless pit separating the combatants. And if that wasn't enough to stop the battle in its tracks, the figure that had created the fissure with a single strike of his fist stood to his full height and emptied his lungs, "ENOUGH!"
They'd only gotten five missiles to connect, the rest were either shot down or mysteriously failed to detonate on impact.
The castle's defense systems were becoming a little more deadly and the aim tighter the closer they were able to maneuver. Mother was still quite proficient at her intended task despite her new state of being, and it was like flying through a laser light show.
But the pilot had another concern on top of trying to keep himself and his partner alive; the helicopter wasn't responding as quick anymore. His maneuverability was off, the engine seemed sluggish and he noticed the last missile to come out of the chute was crooked and quickly picked off. Millions of dollars of American military technology and it was all going downhill faster than their last attempt on Wyvern. "There's something wrong..."
"You mean besides the fact the automatic targeting is off!"
And then came the light, one that no pilot ever wanted to see.
It first showed up on the hydraulic pressure gauge, then a light followed on the fuel line and shield generator and engine housing until the entire cockpit was lit up like a Christmas tree. The engine started sputtering, the rotor losing speed and they dropped altitude as quickly as a rock trying to fly.
"Now what!" the pilot yelled at his instrument cluster. Somehow half the electrical and mechanical systems were failing all across his prized bird, and the control was becoming noticeably choppy to the point where he could barely steer or shoot straight. "I'm losing it!"
"We've got failures all over the board!" the gunner shouted out, noticing just how much slack he had in the firing controls.
He tried another salvo and found the weapons racks on either side were locked up. "Damnit...the firing controls are jammed!"
The gunner tried again, but no luck. His controls were frozen. "I've lost weapons!"
"What about Echo-2?"
He immediately had them on the receiver; they too were experiencing severe mechanical failure. "They're heading back to base!"
"And that's exactly what we're doing!"
"White won't be happy!"
"I don't care!" the pilot yelled back. He'd rather face White's temper than the plunge two thousand feet down into Central Park South. "Send a distress! We won't be able to complete the mission..."
He started a languid spiral around the Eyrie, slowly decreasing in altitude to get away from the cannons. Out his port side he saw the other helicopter make a straight bead for the southern tip of the island, and he was about to follow when his control yoke suddenly grew disturbingly unstable. Something drizzled across the canopy, and the pilot caught what he thought were a few screws rolling down the windshield and out into the sky.
The gunner though, felt something else. "Is my seat loose...?"
That was the last thought expressed before their shield generator went down and opened them up for attack. One of the castle's south cannons locked on and fired, cutting right through the fuselage.
He just happened to be at the corner of 8th street and 56th, waiting for the light to change when a shadow crossed over him and the rest of the thinly-dotted traffic. The cabby looked up and out of his window only to catch the belly of an AH-66 Comanche Warrior nearly scraping the roof of his checker-taxi, shedding parts and smoke all over the street.
The rearview mirror didn't afford much of a view when the helicopter careened into the road right down the yellow line, skidded through cars abandoned just in time and scored a line in the asphalt until it eventually slowed to a stop, coming to rest.
It pitched forward, then back, and lost a few more pieces of the outer skin. If it hadn't been shot down, it might have just disintegrated anyway.
Banged up, bleeding, nursing wounds both on and inside their bodies, the pilots managed to pop the hatch and drag themselves from the wreck before any angry motorists wandered back into the accident scene when the initial fear wore off and started after them.
The other helicopter had made it just out over the water before one of the rotor blades actually dislodged from the hub and shot out, leaving the aircraft unable to support itself. It took a nosedive straight towards the Hudson and before the crew could eject, they had seawater up to the knees and were suffering possible concussions from the impact.
The four men would never know what caused their aircraft to literally drop out of the sky, and even if they were told right to their face they wouldn't have believed it was all because of a young boy and his devious uncle, and an enchantment he'd drudged up from only god knows where.
"Listen well, boy," the Puck had said, holding a toy car in his palm, "and I'll show you how to best modern man's most impressive creation since fire."
"Whazzat, uncle Owen?"
His opposite hand fluttered above the car and for a moment, nothing happened. Alexander leaned close, and the small toy seemed to jumped at the boy's proximity when all the rivets and screws unraveled from every moving part. It collapsed into a small pile of die-cast aluminum and plastic. "You see, my boy, even the most complicated machine has an Achilles' heel."
Alexander had cast the same spell, loosened all the bolts and screws in the helicopters and with every passing second, the incredible vibration running through the aircraft had pulled and twisted them from their fittings.
But with both helicopters gone, Mother collapsed in a heap, and put a hand to her brow. She didn't realize the gesture, until feeling skin against skin.
"Who dares spill blood on my island!" Oberon bellowed, his voice reaching to what seemed every corner of Avalon. Somewhere in the forests beyond, the trees rustled and knocked a few pixies from their branches.
The sisters struggled to standing positions and greeted their lord, while Alexander merely stared in awe at this imposing creature with white hair and electric-cobalt skin.
The Matrix held itself at the ready and from what it could glean from Xanatos' memory, he was a daunting foe indeed. King, shapeshifter, possessing energies it could barely fathom.
Having brought the battle to a screeching halt, Oberon merely surveyed the scene and the combatants, passing his razor eyes from his children to the Matrix and settling on Alexander. The fiery hair spoke more than anything else. "You child," he said, "I remember you."
But Alexander couldn't share the recollection, though he'd heard stories of this faerie coming to steal him in the night. It was the battle that brought the gargoyles home.
"Tell me, why do you expend such needless energy on my sands?"
He pointed a finger towards the sisters. "They tried to hurt my daddy!"
"Your father...?" Oberon redirected his gaze towards the intruder, something even more unusual than the inhabitants of this island.
Phoebe was the first to come forward, her face still damaged and split on the right side. "It is true, lord Oberon. The creature has within its skin a human."
"It demanded entrance to Avalon." Selene added.
And Luna finished, "We did not allow it."
"And what say you, machine?" he called to the Matrix.
There was only one answer it could give. "It was necessary."
"Waging a small war was necessary?"
It seemed almost ashamed at its actions, but it was fleeting at best. "Nothing shall stop us."
"Words." he sneered, seeing nothing before him but a tin toy made of simple elements much like a human or gargoyle or any other corporeal being. "I do not enjoy empty threats." Oberon was possessed of a certain flair in every action and gesture no matter how plain, and even raising his hand was dramatic in itself. But at the end of his palm and slightly curved fingers, fire brewed; the king was preparing himself for battle.
"Stay your hand, husband." a voice called out.
Oberon felt his queen materialize behind him before tearing a chunk out of the shoreline; even he had to admit her powers were impressive. She moved between worlds with the grace and gentleness of wind. "Titania?"
"I beg of you." she said, coming alongside him and putting her hand on his own. "Please concede."
"I do not concede."
"Then grant mercy, m'lord. For a few moments at least."
He relented, "As my lady wishes. But it will explain its presence."
The Matrix's attention had been concentrated completely on the new arrival. "We are...looking for our creator..."
"You will not find him here–"
But much to the king's surprise, Titania stepped forward. "I am your creator."
As little emotion as the king of Avalon would ever express, his shock at her admission showed through his lifted brow. "You?"
She was caught between pride and failure, and revealed in a sigh, "This creature is of my design, and thus I am obliged to answer all of its questions."
"This monstrosity is made of your science?" Oberon had to indulge in another long glance, impressed by his queen's wide-ranging breadth of talent. "Interesting."
The Matrix focused its compound eyes on the queen. There was familiarity in the alien, equine features, the wine-red hair that swayed entrancingly about her shoulders and back. Since its infancy, there were two faces it had seen more often than any else peering into the small Petri dish in which the first cluster of nanobots were cultivated, and eventually produced a rudimentary intelligence. "Our facial recognition program is the most sophisticated software in the known world, and yet, there are discrepancies..."
She smiled, thinly yet complementary to her features. "I am sure there are."
"Are you Anastasia Renard?"
"It is one of my many names, yes."
It relaxed somewhat, shrinking, losing the extra mass as converted oxygen molecules and other harmless gases and smoothing a bit of the rough edges the armor had taken. "Then you are our creator."
Titania moved forward, towards it, leisurely and without a trace of fear and the Matrix was keenly aware of the fact her footsteps made no sound on the beach. This entire island didn't conform to any law of nature of which it was aware. "Yes," she said at length, "at least, half of your creator."
"Then where is the other half?"
"I will take you to her, if you swear peace between us." she bartered a deal. "Avalon has already suffered too much violence in its past."
The Matrix scanned the Children of Avalon, gauging their every possible response and yet, in spite of the risk, it was being handed its journey's end on a silver platter. "We agree."
"Very well." There was a gesture from the queen, slight, almost imperceptible like a twitch. Wind, then white, then color again.
In an instant, there wasn't sky above them and waves lapping the shore yet stone walls and torchlight licking the edges of medieval corridors receding beyond sight. It was the same castle they'd spotted from a few hundred feet in the air and instantly, the entire group had been somehow transported inside one of its larger, more extravagant chambers.
The Matrix was trying to put reason to what it had just experienced but what it now possessed of David Xanatos, incorporated into its program, it was learning to let some things slide.
"Fox is through here." Titania was standing at a door, leading into what appeared to be a smaller bedroom.
The Matrix was quick on its claw-like feet (modeled after a gargoyle; perhaps a design quirk from its human host) and entered the room, coming upon a modest décor with a canopied bed the obvious center of the furnishings. A figure was under the blankets, barely making a bulge and almost completely motionless except for a steadily rising chest.
It approached and found what, at first, didn't seem human.
Fox was maybe a hundred pounds and pale gray, gasping with each labored breath. Her hair had completely fallen out, her features sunken into the edges of her skull and the diagnostic the Matrix performed revealed a metabolism of that of a coma patient, and symptoms of someone suffering from poison, or radiation sickness, or both. "She is dying."
"Yes." Titania was immediately at her daughter's bedside. "And I have yet to find anything to save her, earthly or unearthly."
A few layers of nanotech peeled away to reveal most of his body, Xanatos looked down at her with the love of a husband and not as the program he'd become.
"Then allow us to join with her." the Matrix said. "We shall set her free of her flesh, of her sickness."
Alexander was the first to protest. "No!"
It whirled on its heels to explain, almost excited at the prospect, "We shall be united, your mother will live."
"My mommy will be a machine!"
"He is correct." Titania came up behind her grandson, deftly and protectively maneuvered between Fox and the silver-coated creature. "You will take everything unique about her away."
"As will her death." it argued. "Joined, she will be with her husband, with us, forever, and we will learn from her."
"How to live."
A shadow fell over the streets; something big was taking flight down Broadway and towards the city's tallest building. It was Guild, black and monstrous, and almost an exact copy of Black's own personal chariot that was swallowed by the Matrix earlier.
Being bigger, it wasn't as maneuverable as the smaller attack craft but packing twice the power it didn't need to be. It coasted through Mother's initial assault and was only threatened when it got less than fifty feet from the cornices. Slowly circling, it hadn't yet fired.
Behind the cockpit crew, agent White was studying the damage already done and wondering why his first wave had suddenly experienced such severe mechanical failure (their communication had died after a few garbled cries for help). But this nest of beasts had an overworked guardian angel watching their backs. "Prepare to fire." he said.
The gunner readied the weapons racks, sending a shudder through the fuselage. "Racks prepped, preparing shield synchronization for attack."
Just about to give the order, White was interrupted by another agent behind him. "There's someone out there!"
In between the bedlam, a figure had hobbled out from the castle's interior and into the open.
"Jesus..." the pilot whispered. "It's Black!"
White nearly burst a capillary in straining to see what his crew did. The Guild leader, thought to be either captured or dead, was loping his way over the cobbles and looking for any route of escape short of jumping off the building.
And then, White was hit with a conundrum like a right hook, to either save his life or obliterate him in a plume of fire and stone. "Do it." he said, muffled.
The gunner had to confirm what he thought he just heard, turning slightly. "What!"
"We'll kill him!"
"I'm well aware of that," White breathed, facing down the stares of a few bewildered agents, "but we only have a few seconds at best before the castle's defense system either shoots our missiles down, or us!"
The agent leaned in from behind, agent Green, and behind the skull-fashioned mask he was showing gums, "You can't be serious."
"Completely. He knows what must be done and he was willing to sacrifice his own children."
The agent waffled back and forth. "But...we can save him. He's right there!"
But whether or not the decision had been made to rescue him or leave him to die in the rubble, Black saw his opportunity with the helicopter hovering just past the battlements and started into a sprint despite the pain shooting through his body.
"He's coming towards us!" the pilot yelled. "What do we do?"
"See if he makes it." White reluctantly decided.
With the helicopter somewhat stationary, Mother had the opportunity to concentrate every available turret on the aircraft and started wearing down the thin sheath of energy surrounding it. The consequence of energy against energy was throwing sparks and colored fire into the air, like fireworks.
"We're going to have to drop the shield to get him inside!"
"Then we'll have to time it right."
Leaving a small, spattered trail of blood behind him, Black had already crossed the damaged courtyard and was encroaching on their position. But someone else was hot on his trail; a woman, slim, clad in armor and catching up fast. Long legs offered a long, lean gait. As their leader hobbled up the stairs, she was able to close the gap between them and fire off a few rounds, nicking stones but no flesh.
"There's someone on him!"
White thinned his eyes. What he could see through the windows and beyond the shield, the woman looked familiar, especially the armor. "I see her." he said. "And I do believe I know her."
Black was slowing, the wounds slowing his adrenaline-fueled dash to a brisk run which in turn degenerated to a haggard stride.
The pilot winced, "He's slowing."
Robyn topped the stairs and saw her target straight ahead. She put a laser at his back, just a few inches off where he was bleeding through a fresh wound that wasn't clotting properly. "Stop!" she yelled over the carnage.
Black heard her, ignored her and kept going for the safety of the helicopter hovering just a good leap away.
"Dinna make me put another hole in ye!"
This time he stopped, and turned, and offered her an expression that whittled her choices down to one; she'd have to shoot him to stop him.
Robyn was an outsider on the entire drama that'd passed for the Hawkins family and the clan for the last two years and she had no personal grievance with the man but from what she'd seen, he was dangerous, perhaps more so than her younger brother (wherever he may have disappeared to). "Yuir not gonna make it!" she warned again.
"What have I got to lose!" Black yelled back.
The last thing Robyn saw before he whirled around was a smirk, like the man didn't care if he was to die here or two thousand feet below on the pavement.
Black started running towards the cornice, and the safe haven of a massive helicopter.
The pilot scrambled to drop the energy shield before he ended up killing Black like a bug on a windshield. "He's going for it!"
His right foot touched last, pushing off from the merlon's finial stone and into the air. The helicopter's open belly was ten feet away, one of his agents extending a hand should he not make it all the way and it seemed like everything from then on moved in slow motion: the violent air currents, the laser blasts all around them and a bullet suddenly erupting from his chest.
Robyn had taken the shot, sniped him and caught him through his lung.
Black landed on the steel plating of the cargo deck, rolled inside and started gasping for a breath with a deflated lung.
"He's in!" the agent screamed. "Get us out of here!"
"Get the shield up!" White ordered, looking behind him at his leader convulsing and losing blood by the pint. With the helicopter's off-center pitch, it was running in small rivulets across the steel floor.
The energy shield went up, and Mother wasn't able to effect any more damage than she already had. The beast had soaked up most of what she could throw at it, but there were deep scorch marks on the surface and if she'd a little more time, she could've damaged a bit of the delicate machinery hidden underneath all the armor plating.
"We've got to get him home!" the agent yelled. He was already covered in blood and trying to plug the holes in Black's body. "He's bleeding internally!"
"You heard him..." White hissed. "Take us home."
The beast veered off and away from the castle, heading towards the southern tip of the island. Robyn ran up to the cornice edge and as Mother stood down and the cannons fell silent, she watched the helicopter as far as she could see it until it vanished in the midday glare.
"Is this all what you have sought and warred over? A simple lesson in humanity?"
"Humanity is not simple." the Matrix protested.
"I agree." Titania smirked.
"Nor is living. We cannot function properly without assistance."
"No being can ever function properly," she argued back, "and no being is perfect."
"Precisely our point." The Matrix took a more aggressive stance, one not gone unnoticed by the fay surrounding it.
But Titania held up a hand to stay them, and keep anyone from interfering. There was an army behind every wall of this castle but the queen did not need them; a scientist at heart and ever the treacherously curious, she was interested to see just how far it would take its quest. And she was impressed at how fast the Matrix struck, throwing tendrils towards her that snaked around her wrist and quickly engulfed the arm.
"We assure you, we take no pleasure in this." it said, even as it started eating her. "But we will gain the missing piece of ourselves."
"And so I shall be content in your completion?" she shook her head. "No."
"As we suspected."
Titania was calm in the face of certain assimilation and waved off her husband when she noticed Oberon was about to do something drastic, perhaps uproot a stone or two in a wave of energy. The nanotech crawled up her arm to nearly the elbow when it stopped.
The Matrix was studying her, and her calm, almost catatonic demeanor.
An eyebrow flicked in its general direction. "Has your curiosity waned? After all, this is what you have been searching for."
Spurred on, the nanobots continued up her arm, engulfing the shoulder with all the intent of drilling into whatever the faerie queen was made of. It had not yet considered how to adapt to her unique cellular structure, and hoped it would be able to handle the energy released.
"Titania..." Oberon warned her. "You play a dangerous game."
"You are right, my husband." she nodded and played her ace.
Suddenly, the Matrix was bombarded by a flood of information quicker and more intense than anything it had ever experienced. No human technology could ever download at this speed, and its processors and neural network were completely flooded and nearly burned out at the sheer amount of what rocketed through its memory core. Every microscopic robot attached to her skin trembled and convulsed, a shimmer running through the chrome and through the Matrix's body.
"You want the experience of humanity? I offer you all that I have."
Having survived a thousand years as a mortal, Titania had given the Matrix the entire experience of lifetimes strung together through death and rebirth, every year, day and every single second she could extract from her memory.
It stood there, staring up at the ceiling and digesting the glut of imagery and sensation any normal computer would choke on and catch fire.
Titania had lived many lifetimes in many cultures and periods of history, seeing the best and worst humanity had to offer and yet, her sense of curiosity and hope about them had never changed. It lived as she once did through an evolution of sensibility and understanding and it reduced its own experiences to a meager comparison at best.
But did it understand. Titania hoped it would, and was released from the creature. Where it had tried to absorb her body, the Matrix slithered away leaving the same flawless skin.
The bonds around Xanatos' body were dissolved and from where the Matrix was plugged into his head through the skull, the tendril simply unraveled from his brain (repairing any damage on the way out) and unplugged. No wounds, no mutilation, no blood. He slumped to the floor, any trace of any injury healed by the cutting edge of nanotechnology.
Alexander wanted to go to his father's side but remained where he was; his grandmother didn't miss the indecision played out on his cherub face and she now knew why.
Titania looked towards the Matrix and wondered whether or not her creation had been broken by the sheer amount of information. "There." she said. "I believe that is what you were hoping for."
The Matrix was near to the simple human trait of curling into a fetal position, or melting into a formless puddle, but somehow it stayed on its feet, numb.
"Do you understand yet?" she asked.
"We..." the Matrix struggled. It was trying to put what it had absorbed into words. "We are...still downloading the experience."
"And you may for some time. You have an entire millennium of human experience, your creator's experience, to pick apart at your leisure, how humans live and how they die. Fox cannot offer you any more than what I have given you. And hopefully, we can end any more needless aggression."
"Yes..." it said blindly, still staring up at the ceiling, though Titania suspected it wasn't seeing beyond what she had bestowed upon it. "Yes, we shall conclude our search..."
"Good. You are welcome here–"
"My queen," Phoebe heatedly protested, "we must object!"
"This creature is not of our land." Luna chimed in next, followed by Selene, who hissed.
"It is uncontrollable and dangerous."
Titania simply turned her head and no other censure towards her husband's obedient little drones was needed but a stare that chilled them to their souls. "I do not enjoy being interrupted."
"But my queen..."
She raised her chin and nothing more was needed.
The sisters understood. They were hushed like scolded puppies, curtseyed under the unrelenting glare of their queen and vanished into the castle to lick their wounds and pride.
But Oberon stayed; he wasn't thrilled with the prospect of his lady's experiment roaming his halls as much as he was to find an entire clan of gargoyles had taken up residence, but she who was his queen could be very persuasive if she so needed. "You wish it to stay here?"
"It must learn. And I can think of no better place."
"I can. It is made of human science, thus it should stay there, in their world."
She shook her head, but kept her objection as gracious as possible in the face of her king and lord. "Please, my husband. I ask of you to consider the ramifications."
"I need not to." he replied curtly. "It is of their world."
"I created it. It is my responsibility."
His eyes already mere slits, they thinned even further against a lowered brow. Not much for emoting, his decision went to war across a permanently-etched scowl. "I hope your toy has a leash." he said at length, and stalked off. "But I suppose you are very watchful of the lesser beings."
She barely caught his parting words before he'd vanished from the room. Whether or not he'd used the door or another otherworldly method was missed by those still left.
Titania returned her attention to the Matrix who, after tearing through her sentinel guard, was rendered practically neutered. "I have taken a great risk by allowing you refuge here. Such is the task of a queen, to remain infallible. Should I be proven wrong..."
The Matrix lowered its head. "We...do not wish more bloodshed."
"Good. You seem adept at it."
"It was necessary. We have seen things that cannot be rationalized. We must have completion."
"This girl," Titania said, picking through what she'd culled from the Matrix's mind, "you would not have been able to save her."
"And failed yes, I am aware. Humans, almost all mortal beings, are frail, physically-limited creatures but they evolve, learn to overcome any limitation, even that of their heart and soul."
"You have...seen so much, experienced so much..." it stuttered and trailed off. So many lives, it was still choking on the download. "You, us, we are far superior in almost every aspect and yet, you still hold these lesser beings with great esteem."
"Though it is often not forthcoming they have the ability to change, both themselves and the world around them, to degrees that even my race is unable to attain."
"And yet they use their knowledge to raze, and kill."
Titania sighed, and nodded, pensively. She was there, in almost every war, plague and massacre; she knew the horrors of the human imagination to destroy and maim. But she also knew the simple gift of artistry and clemency. "And they also use that knowledge to heal and build, survive and grow."
"One man will destroy–"
"And ten more will create. It is about balance, a long and structured path towards completion. Humans, gargoyles, even fay, are all part of a grand design."
"And where do we fit in?"
"That is a question only you can answer. And I assure you, there are no shortcuts."
"And how does one become...complete?"
Titania slowly turned her eyes towards Fox's bed. "By simply living."
"There's no sign of th' Matrix, it left and god only knows where."
"I'm not so sure."
"Robyn–" he chided.
"'Tis a disease, Jason," she asserted, brooking no argument, "like a germ it eats everything it comes across."
"It is gone," the third said from behind, "be happy it is not here."
As always, Jason appreciated Demona's bleak sense of realism if only to put everything into perspective (albeit a rather stark one). "And hopefully it's not coming back."
"It would have been interesting to study." Demona maintained, with a bit of a sadistic smirk.
"It would have eaten your scientists, Demona."
She harrumphed, but languidly trailed behind; she would've preferred to leave with the Matrix having oozed away from every seam and crack, reclaim her life and corporation and two lost months but curiosity kept her here. There was much she still needed to know and Jason Canmore of all people seemed the only man with all her answers, and she was being led around by that promise dangling just out of her reach.
The trio was heading for Xanatos' office. With no more Guild helicopters in the area, Mother had stood down her defense and was left to digest her new state of being.
Robyn was instinctively in the lead, hoping to find something of Dingo's fate here, where Mother reported the Matrix had last been seen. But the first sight was a pair of doors broken open and one on the floor and any good hunter knew the signs of a struggle, especially one so severely lop-sided. "Oh hell..." she whispered, running a finger down the door still hanging from its last hinge.
"Let's go, Robyn." Jason encouraged her, knowing she had a particular fear of what she might find.
Upon shoving the door out of her way, her gallop slowed to a crawl when seeing the naked buttocks of the man she'd been sleeping with across the room, complete with tattoo, choked out a breath and suddenly darted towards him. "Henry..."
Hearing his name on a quiet gasp, Dingo turned only to have the blond throw herself against his chest and knock the air from his lungs. If he wasn't already on the floor with dead legs just getting the feeling back, he would've been on his backside and if he'd been chewing gum, Robyn would've sucked it from his mouth. Her mouth clamped over his, it was the best possible catalyst for a boost of adrenaline.
Jason wheeled past his sister and her mercenary boyfriend, trying not to make direct contact and approached the comatose twenty-something Dingo was leaning over. Todd's face was pink on one side; Dingo had slapped him a few times to try and rouse him. "What about Mr. Hawkins?"
Standing over him, Demona appeared blasé. "Is he dead?"
Managing to extricate himself from Robyn's rather affectionate public display, Henry answered, "No. My boy here, he's just sleepin'. I think..."
Jason nodded, considering how Todd was laying, like a mannequin, legs and arms heaped atop the other. "We'll get ye both t' th' infirmary t' have Pierce get a look at ye."
"Henry..." Robyn whispered to him. "Where's th' Matrix? What happened?"
"It left." he said succinctly, the good mood smeared. They'd already known that, but Dingo wasn't finished. "Had the billionaire all parceled up and flew out the window."
"It took Xanatos?"
"Yeah, his kid too."
"Alex?" Jason chimed in. "Oh god. Do you know–"
"Avalon." Dingo didn't even let him finish. "At least, that's what I thought I heard."
Jason leaned back into his chair; the damage the Matrix could wreak on Avalon was immeasurable. Hopefully, the residents there with their vaunted power and repute would be capable of holding their own. But Alexander, why the boy?
Dingo noticed Jason's faraway look. "Is this...bad?"
Of all the time he'd stayed by her bedside, not once did she wake. Or sense his presence or flutter an eyelash; she took breaths, shallow and hoarse and in almost perfect succession.
She might as well have been dead for all the life she was capable.
But Alexander never left his mother's side, lying up on the edge of the bed with a hand clutched in his own. Hours passed on Avalon, half a day or more in the world beyond, but he didn't move, just reveled in what little of his mother's warmth he could feel through the gray, brittle, chalky skin.
Before he disappeared, his uncle Owen had begun the task of teaching the boy how to differentiate between spells and curses and he was told he'd a knack for it, but for all his innate talent his mother and what she was dying from were nebulous at best, blackness running through her veins.
He didn't even seem to notice when the Matrix ambled out of the room and traipsed through the castle's corridors, half-blind and wandering past fay who, without being paid the attention they craved, simply allowed the nanotech creature a wide berth and went off to bother someone else. It ended up on one of the castle's tallest turrets, looking down into the sea and far into itself.
The rays of sunlight were the only movement in the room, slowly pushed across the floor and right up to the wall, an imprint of the window and its intricately-wrought, thin iron frame. White became orange and orange became red, and Alexander had nearly fallen asleep when a hand gently traced the swell of his shoulder.
"It is time, my prince."
He blinked out of the trance he'd fallen into and turned. "Huh...?"
"It is time for you to go home."
"No!" he sat up and protested. "I wanna stay here!"
"No, child." Titania chided him. "You are needed elsewhere." She then gestured across the room where Xanatos had been dumped into a chair, left to sleep off the surgical intrusion into his head. "Take your father home, Alexander."
"But...I wanna stay with my mom..."
"I know, child, but the days pass quickly in your world. You must go before too much time elapses."
He was hesitant, and still refused to let go of Fox's skeletal hand.
"You may see your mother whenever you wish, you have the power to call home." Her eye twinkled, somewhere deep in the diamond black lit by the torchlight. "You've done it once before, remember?"
His head went down. Someday, hopefully, he would be able exercise his will without his voice being quieted for the desire and experience of another. "Yeah..."
Titania slid a few fingers under his chin and lifted up, wanting to see his eyes under the thatch of sun-fire red. Such a heart-breaking expression, she was nearly at a loss at how to comfort him. "Take heed, child, for what your father knows, I now know. And I will ensure his plans and those of the mutant that lives deep in his tower do not reach fruition."
Brooklyn remembered waking up, and staring into the face of Mother. It wasn't quite uncommon except for when she reached for him and, just as he was expecting her arm to fade right through being a hologram and all, her talons actually made contact and nearly caused him to jump out of his skin.
As questions were thrown out in rapid succession at the newly-minted corporeal being, Jason appeared behind the group and started to explain, from the Guild, to Mother, to the Matrix and everything else in between. But knowing the Matrix had left didn't fill Brooklyn or anyone else with any kind of relief; in fact, there was a nascent fear at what it was doing far out of their reach with Xanatos as its avatar and Alexander seemingly under its thrall.
Seemingly, for when the boy left, Dingo had mentioned offhand that he didn't quite protest leaving with the Matrix (especially when it informed him of the destination).
Every gargoyle was quickly found and accounted for, Annika, Desdemona and Rain in the elevator and Othello and Katana in the shaft above, Hudson, Delilah and the twins in the infirmary and Angela was finally reunited with her mother, a little less than insane.
Demona was as typically under-emotional as usual, letting her daughter fawn over her and all the while catching a whiff, wondering just why she'd noticed a scent that brimmed with something else around the edges.
With Jason leading the way, Brooklyn, Broadway and Lexington made an inspection of the castle, examining the damage, craters still steaming, debris still smoldering and ensured they were out of sight when news helicopters made a pass, getting a shot of where a missile had struck the offices in the Eyrie down below.
The nightly news was teeming with terrorist attacks.
And now, a full day later, Brooklyn had wandered back down to the infirmary.
Jason was otherwise engaged, proving his mettle as Xanatos' personal spin doctor and trying to answer every question thrown against him in an impromptu press-conference (a minor skirmish when compared to the confrontation with Demona, from which he was still recuperating). The Matrix was simply explained away as a research and development test for a new construction material, the Guild attacks and any XE involvement were disavowed and the city was dissuaded from investigating any further with a profuse apology, a skillful evasion of any involvement and a generous donation to help repair the damage done to the streets.
The volatile balance between the city and one of the world's biggest corporations was reconciled for the time.
But one question in particular, where was David Xanatos, was part of the biggest lie.
In truth, he was simply gone. Two days now, and all they could do was wait for word on the billionaire and his son. With no way of contacting Avalon without Alexander, a guide or another capable sorcerer, they were left to wonder on its fate and all those currently residing there.
Brooklyn was a phone call away from contacting Una.
Looking to one side of the infirmary, where the beds had been emptied of the Guild agents (and escorted under heavy guard to the prison block) patients had been moved in and he caught Dingo halfway through what looked like it was once a four-course entrée. He'd already polished off a couple of steaks, bread, soup, salad, some Chinese take-out and a few beers though he had complained they were too American for his tastes, all with Robyn at his bedside watching the carnage of a man starved for weeks in the belly of his good friend.
Where the couple would go from here was a question they could only answer, but he really wasn't willing to ask anyways.
On the other side Todd had awakened to his suddenly expanded family, his sister in the bed next to him with Rose doting over both of her children and Annika sighing in relief her mate's brain wasn't more damaged than it already was.
He nodded to Macbeth, having taken up position subtly behind Rose's shoulder and approached the young girl that'd apparently started most of this. "So," he started, "you're the missing Hawkins I've heard so much about."
He extended his hand and the girl cringed as though he'd aimed to smack her, or shred her straight through to the bone with those claws.
He held air until he figured he wasn't going to get anything in response. "I'm sorry," Brooklyn said, "this all must be a little overwhelming for you."
Sarah Hawkins huddled against her pillows. This creature was even more inhuman than the rest. "You have no idea."
"You've got to get every goddamned idea our dad put into your head about gargoyles out." Todd scolded her from his bed. "He's wrong! About everything, and do you want to know why?"
"Why?" Sarah humored him.
"He's a psycho."
"No he's not!"
Todd was ready to jump from the bed if not for the ever-present arm of Annika holding him down. "Oh yeah!"
"Psychotics don't love you, don't care for you, don't play the piano to lull you to sleep, psychotics don't read to you and ensure you have a university-level education before you turn eighteen!"
"Because he was grooming you like Hitler's darling little girl! Gonna kill her first gargoyle before her sweet sixteen!"
"That's enough!" Rose intervened before her children started fighting like animals over a scrap of food. Closest to Sarah and seeing her daughter shiver not from the cold but from her anger having manifested itself in a very noticeable twitch, hugged her. "Both of you. At each other's throats is not what I would have expected after twenty years of thinking the other dead!"
Todd was wild-eyed. "She's defending him!"
"Yes I am!" Sarah yelled back. Despite her weak lungs, she could still belt out a scream. "Not what he's doing know, but who he is!"
"Have I stepped into the middle of something?" Brooklyn half mused, half asked rhetorically.
Rose quickly answered, "Yes, simple sibling rivalry," and looked down at her daughter, who was fuming despite her illness and despite the oxygen tubes up her nose, "your father, as good a job as he did raising you to be an intelligent, capable woman, has also been consumed by his hatred and rage. And he is trying to convert your very way of thinking without giving you all the facts."
Lower lip trembling, gaze vivid, Sarah withdrew slightly from where she'd pushed herself halfway out of her bed.
"Gargoyles are an intelligent, caring, protective species. Yes, there are exceptions that prove the rule as your father and his followers will attest, but he is wrong for trying to destroy this particular clan. And guilty for killing those who had any connection no matter how remote."
There was no answer for the deaths her father had hidden from her, but this could not be the man who'd held her, taught her, loved her. "He is not evil..."
Todd made a noise from his bed, slightly nasal, mostly hostile, "Yeah, that's what I thought as well, until he tried to kill me."
"Todd Mathew..." Rose quieted him. "Hush."
"No, I will not hush! She's got to learn exactly who and what he is!"
"I think she's finding out," Annika whispered from behind, "but it's going to be hard to shake twenty years worth of memories of her father."
Again, chastised by his wife and a bit of logic that worked in her favor alone, Todd had no choice but to slump back into his own bed. He had a headache still, one that hung on by the claws at the back of his skull.
"Besides, we don't even know if he's still alive..."
From what Robyn had told them, her bullet was fatal if not treated immediately. Sarah had shot the blonde a dirty look when she pushed Dingo's wheelchair into the infirmary, as the would-be killer of her father. In her defense, Robyn offered no explanation. He was a killer, he was escaping and she took the shot.
"Trust me," Todd snorted, "he's alive. He's like a cockroach."
Faintly, Brooklyn cleared his throat. "Regardless, it looks like the Guild's gotten over their black and white quest to keep the collateral damage down."
"You're telling me. Do you have any idea how hard it is to buff scorch marks out of paint?"
"This castle's a target," Macbeth pointed out, "even more than before."
"I know." Brooklyn sighed and rubbed the tension from his face.
But Todd wasn't in the mood to keep himself in check. Adrenaline seemed to stick to his ribs like a good bowl of oatmeal. "And just what do you intend to do about their constant attacks?"
If younger, he might've lashed right back in typical fashion but Brooklyn coolly crossed his arms and answered, "Take the fight to them."
"And how do ye intend to find them, lad?" Macbeth asked.
"I had Lex bug one of the Guild choppers two nights ago. I know exactly where they are."
David groaned from where he was left on the floor. His mind swimming with a broken string of images and pieces of conversation like a dream or the backwash of a night's binge on the cheap stuff kept under the bar, he was up and on his feet in time to grasp at the back of his head where the Matrix had speared through and into his brain.
Feeling gingerly at first for any possible mutilation, he wasn't quite sure if what he remembered had happened or if he could even trust the grotesque imagery. He was back in his office no worse for wear and the Matrix wasn't anywhere in sight, his surroundings impeccable; the window-wall had already been replaced and every treasure back on its pedestal (all but one of his priceless busts).
The sky beyond had darkened, dusk having painted it in layers of orchid and gray and like clockwork, he caught a few office floors lighting up. He didn't presume to guess the exact date, but his stubble had barely peaked above the surface.
He could've just slipped back into the humdrum of his daily routine and the blanket of all the lies he'd told up to now, if not for the fact the Matrix had whittled away every defense and found every secret, and perhaps exposed it all. Xanatos swiveled on his heel only to nearly step on his heir.
Alexander was standing behind him.
And he felt a great weight on his chest, pressing his ribcage into his lungs; whether or not his son was inadvertently exerting any power on him he couldn't tell. Nothing else in the room seemed to be affected. "Alex..."
"You're doin' bad things." he stated.
"For good reasons. Remember our talk?"
Alexander grimaced. His father had laid it all out for him a few weeks back, including several ways Xanatos could weasel out of the pact he'd been forced into, all of which included his son. "I don' like it."
"I know." He kneeled down, placing a hand to Alexander's shoulder. "Neither do I. But you have to realize I'm doing everything I can to help your mother."
"She's gettin' sicker."
"No you don't!" he screamed, rubbing his right shoulder. Ever since arriving back here, a dull pain had spread through the muscle and down the length of his arm. "She didn' even wake up! I holded on to her hand but she didn' wake up!"
He tried to be reassuring, "She's in the best hands. She's with her mother and she'll take care of her."
"I know. Gramma knows a lot of things."
The tone spoke more than the words, biting, like his son wanted a take a good shot at his shin if only he could muster up the courage. And as if Alexander had read his mind, probed through the tissues of his brain as the Matrix did, he answered before the question was even posed.
"She knows what you know."
Xanatos' lips pressed into a thin white line and he released from his son when he felt the palm of his hand getting a little warm for comfort. But it was merely a symptom of Alexander working a particularly powerful spell.
The boy suddenly blinked from his office, vanishing, and he felt the sudden, ephemeral wave of heat from matter being rearranged slightly but quickly.
Xanatos only took a moment to mull over what he'd just been told and bolted for the doors. To the Vault, to Sobek, to find a hole melted through the side of his building, Infiniti and Owen missing and a mutant without his right arm.
When night fell, there'd be hell to pay.