By Kimberly T.
Author's note: Those characters that aren't owned by The Almighty Mouse belong to Christine Morgan. This vignette takes place in her fic-verse's timeline, and is the third of a triptych that covers the Cold Clan's travels.February 2005
"Helicopters don't fly; they just beat the air into submission."
Angus gave a laughing snort of amusement at Fox's quip, as she piloted the CH-47D Chinook helicopter the Cold Clan was riding in over the Canadian landscape. Standing several feet away from the cockpit where Angus was sitting next to Fox, Coldfire's electronic aural sensors barely picked up both Fox's joke and Angus's response over the noise of the rotors.
Helicopters are abominably noisy, particularly to sensitive gargoyle ears, and the walls' meager insulation didn't do much to muffle the sound of the two giant rotors that were keeping the massive cargo helicopter in the air. Angus didn't seem to mind it all that much, though that might be because he'd been raised by a human, with all their noise-making contraptions. Gabriel, sitting in a seat in the main cargo area of the helicopter, had a set of oversized earmuffs over his ears while he quietly read a book, and Coldfire was seriously considering rigging a pair of earmuffs for herself, in an effort to muffle the rotor noise.
And if said earmuffs happened to muffle another noise in the process, well, Coldfire wouldn't object to that either. Coldstone had been grumbling almost nonstop ever since leaving Manhattan that he'd much prefer to travel to the Yukon territory under his own power. Never mind that traveling as their little clan normally traveled would take several weeks of determined effort, with daily stops to accommodate their sons' stone sleep, instead of traveling over two thousand miles in just two nights using human transports such as cargo jets and helicopters. And never mind that there was nothing 'natural' about the way Coldstone and Coldfire flew anyway, using their human-made jet packs to stay aloft. Coldfire loved her mate dearly, but there were times when she wished he would release his general grudge against all things human-made, or at least just shut up.
A moment later she silently scolded herself for her lack of patience. It was just worry that was making her short-tempered; worry for Gabriel. It had been three weeks since the funeral, and he still hadn't shown any signs of coming out of the depression he'd sunk back into ever since his friend's death.
During their year-long sojourn in New York, Gabriel had become friends with a woman named Sapphire Johnson, who was completely paralyzed from the waist down. Seeing her coping with her disability and life in a wheelchair, and still managing to find happiness in life, had helped Gabriel to put aside the last lingering shreds of his depression and self-esteem problems caused by his crippled hand, and fully enjoy life again.
The two of them had become great friends, very close indeed… so close that Coldfire had become worried. Not that she'd ever admitted to her worry, especially not within Gabriel or Sapphire's hearing. The human woman had had many admirable qualities; friendly, loyal, compassionate, and appropriately fierce when provoked. But the auto accident that had crippled her had taken away her ability to breed offspring with even another human, and…
Well, Coldfire's reservations had become pointless after all. Because Sapphire was dead now; three weeks ago she'd been in another auto accident, her handicapped van hit broadside while going through an intersection, by an out-of-control garbage truck. She'd died in the hospital, just minutes before sundown.
Gabriel hadn't spoken to anyone at all in the three nights between hearing of her death and attending her funeral. And he'd said precious little in the three weeks since then… and on patrol with the members of the Manhattan Clan, he'd become more prone to reckless moves again, even to the point of taking on nearly a dozen armed gang members at once all by himself instead of calling for backup.
After years of combat tutelage under both Coldstone and Goliath (not to mention learning karate and judo from David and Fox Xanatos; whether Coldstone wanted to admit it or not, they were capable of teaching even a gargoyle warrior a thing or two) Gabriel had not only survived the encounter but bested most of his foes before the rest broke and ran. But with numerous injuries, including bullet holes in his wings, he'd had to call the castle for a lift home. He'd kept the doctors busy carefully treating his wounds and stitching all the holes closed before sunrise so they could heal without leaving his wings even more ragged than Hudson's.
Less than 48 hours after that incident, a news bulletin had been brought to their attention by the 'spider' program that Lexington kept running at all hours, searching the web for new reports of gargoyle activity elsewhere in the world. A Royal Canadian Air Force jet had developed engine trouble and gone down in the Yukon Territory, and when the sole survivor had been found the next day, he had babbled about having spent the night running and fighting for his life against a clan of wild gargoyles.
Coldfire had metaphorically pounced on that report as an excuse for herself, Coldstone and their sons to leave Manhattan. She'd declared that after years of living in the wild, they were far better suited than the Manhattan Clan for tracking down this new clan, if one indeed existed in the Yukon, and making introductions.
Coldstone had been more than happy to agree with her, and leave the city as soon as possible. Even though the Xanatos family had done everything they could to make the sojourn pleasant, even offering to upgrade their systems so Coldstone's cybernetic half would more closely resemble his old form and Coldfire could have more sensory capabilities and a face that smiled, Coldstone hadn't trusted them enough to agree to anything. And that lack of trust, and a lack of understanding on the parts of those who just could not grasp what it was like to be trapped in robotic and cyborg shells, had led to numerous instances of friction between the two clans. For Coldstone, it had been way past time that they packed their few belongings and moved on.
Gabriel had made little comment about leaving Manhattan; he hadn't seemed to care one way or another, about much of anything. Angus, on the other hand, had been at first quite voluble in his complaints about the prospect of leaving. In Coldstone's opinion, Angus had grown 'soft' in the last year, too used to luxuries such as pizza and television. But when Coldstone had told him bluntly that he, Coldfire and Gabriel were going, and Angus could come along or stay behind… and when Brittany of the psi-children had started hinting broadly that she wanted a date for Valentine's Day, and she had just the gargoyle in mind… Angus had shut up and packed up. They had boarded an aircraft and begun heading northwest less than twenty-four hours later.
Coldfire dearly hoped that the human from the jet hadn't been lying about encountering a gargoyle clan. She told herself that she didn't dare hope that it was a clan with unmated females, but she hoped anyway. She was sure that some female companionship from a gargoyle female, a pretty one who could give Gabriel what he hadn't had since his trio of mates died, would be just the thing to lift Gabriel out of his depression and put a smile on his face again. And very soon Angus would find himself actually being interested in females instead of running from them; it would be better if by then he was already well acquainted with some female gargoyles near his own age. And if Coldfire happened to get some grandchildren bursting out of their shells later on, that was all to the better…
"Listen to this!" Gabriel said suddenly, looking up from his book. His voice was so unexpected, having been the first time he'd spoken since sunset, that even Coldstone stopped his grumblings as the two of them hurried over to where Gabriel was sitting.
The book Gabriel was reading had been a last-minute going-away present from Samson and Delilah. It was a recounting of various Northwest Native American Indian and Eskimo myths and legends, and had belonged to a library once, but been discarded and eventually ended up in the Labyrinth. Since the Sasquatch was one of the "mythical" creatures listed in the book, Samson had thought that there might be other living legends that the clan could stumble across in their search, and it would be best to be as prepared as possible.
Coldfire beckoned Angus over from the cockpit, and they all bent close to Gabriel so he could read aloud to them without raising his voice to be heard over the rotor noise. He read to them from the chapter devoted to the Wendigo; a monster that comes out only at night to feast on human flesh, usually of travelers or hunters that find themselves alone after dark. "The physical description of the Wendigo varies from tribe to tribe. It is usually described as a giant with a heart of ice. Its body is often described as skeletal and deformed, missing lips or a few fingers and toes. Other tribes describe the Wendigo as something like a werewolf, walking upright but with a long tail. Still others describe it as a winged demon with fiery eyes but ice-cold breath."
Gabriel closed the book, holding his place with a talon, then held his free hand up and waggled his four talons as he said meaningfully, "Missing a few fingers and toes…"
"By human standards, I suppose we are," Coldstone mused.
"And coming out only at night… walking upright, but with a long tail… wings, and glowing eyes… Could this 'Wendigo' actually be a breed of gargoyle?" Coldfire asked with growing excitement.
"Possibly," Gabriel said with a shrug, seemingly indifferent to the possibility… but beginning to smile.
But Angus was frowning. "But… gargoyles that are cannibals?! I mean, you just said that they eat people!" he finished with a shudder.
"Feh. Humans make everything more horrible than it really is," Coldstone said with a dismissive gesture. "They let their fear feed on itself until they can make themselves believe that even a stray dog with a limp is a slavering werewolf. I saw that very thing happen when I was a hatchling. The village near the castle turned out in arms to hunt a werewolf that had supposedly almost snatched a child out of its crib… and succeeded in killing a starving stray mongrel that had growled and snapped at a boy who'd been throwing stones at it."
"He's right, no gargoyle would ever eat another sentient being," Gabriel said firmly. "Doubtless some hunter got killed when tangling with a bear in the autumn, when they'll eat almost anything to lay on fat for their winter hibernation, and it was blamed on a Wendigo. …That's assuming there's some kernel of truth to the legend, of course. Humans are very good at making up things and storytelling, and I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the entire legend is based on a scary story that some father told his children to keep them from wandering out alone at night."
But the hopeful light in Gabriel's eyes belied the pessimism in his voice. And Coldfire welcomed that light and the growing interest it signified, almost as much as she welcomed the idea of another gargoyle clan in hiding. It was the first hint that finally, Gabriel was beginning to pull out of that awful depression. And if they really did find a gargoyle clan in the Yukon…!
Fox finally set the helicopter down in a clearing, near the site where the RCAF crewman had been picked up five days ago. She wished them well and reminded them to keep in touch using the specially-adapted cell phone packed in with their belongings, one sized for gargoyle talons; Goliath had requested nightly reports of their progress. After the helicopter lifted off again, Coldstone assigned Gabriel and Angus to the business of backtracking the human who had been picked up near there a few days ago. "We'll have to stay behind and set up camp. If there are truly wild gargoyles in the area, they likely would not recognize Coldfire and myself as kin, and flee rather than welcome us," he told them with some regret before shooing them up a tall tree, so they could catch a breeze and launch from the highest branches. "You're to return here no later than an hour before dawn. That gives you over half the night to search in; use the time wisely!"
"We will," Gabriel promised, before veering off to the northeast, to the small clearing that the crewman had reportedly been found in. The clearing had been just a little too small for the Chinook to land in without concerns for the rotors hitting tree branches, but they had seen it from the air earlier and knew they could find it again with ease.
It was easy to determine which clearing the RCAF crewman had been rescued from. The helicopter that had picked him up the day after the crash, had scattered debris in a circular pattern with the wind from its rotors. Gabriel and Angus landed in the center of the clearing, and began searching for tracks leading to the clearing, the tracks the human would have left while traveling from the crash site to there. "Why are we starting here, instead of at the crash site itself?" Angus wanted to know.
"Because that site is currently crawling with men and machines; the investigative team that's come to determine why and how that jet malfunctioned and crashed," Gabriel said patiently. "Besides, that report said the crew members ejected before the jet crashed; it could have flown on for several miles past that point, before finally crashing. Even if he said he saw a gargoyle within minutes of landing, it's better to backtrack from where we know he ended up, than to waste time trying to find and go directly to the spot where he first touched down."
"Are we going to look for the pilot too?" Angus asked, while looking at indents in the snow on the western side of the clearing. Snow had fallen in the last few days, but not enough to completely obscure the tracks that had been made there. "Fox said the latest report they'd received was that the pilot's parachute and survival vest had been found with the GPS beacon still operating, but still no sign of the pilot himself."
"Our first priority will be finding the local clan if there is one, but we'll certainly be looking for the pilot as well," Gabriel said with a glance at Angus that said he was surprised the question had even needed asking. "And if there really are gargoyles in the area, we'll ask them if they know what happened to him. It could be that he was injured somehow, and they found him and took him to their home to nurse him back to health. Hmm… here, these tracks. Here is where he entered the clearing; the ones you're looking at were probably left by his rescuers. Come on," as he began loping into the woods, following the trail back.
Angus scrambled after his brother, but as they followed the trail deeper in the woods, he couldn't help feeling worried. He'd read over the reports three times while flying here, and each time made him just a little more scared about what they might find out here. Not that he'd ever say that aloud! After all, he was a whole twenty-six years old now, twenty-seven in another month; even if his parents still thought of him as a child, he was almost an adult! And a full-grown gargoyle wasn't afraid of anything. But still…
The reading material had consisted of the official news release that was all of two paragraphs long and barely mentioned any difficulties; the tabloid interview with the sole survivor found so far that had gone into lurid detail about an attack by wild gargoyles; and the classified documents that Lexington had hacked out of the RCAF's communications system, and transmitted to Fox via the portable fax. Angus admitted to himself that when they were all put together, they made a pretty scary picture.
The RCAF fighter jet, with a pilot and copilot aboard, had lost its portside engine and crashed at 7:19 p.m. local time, hours after sunset. Before it had crashed, both crew members had ejected safely, and parachuted down to land within a few hundred yards of each other. Following procedure, they had used their survival vests' radios to briefly establish contact with each other and confirm that both had landed without significant injuries. They confirmed the coordinates given on their individual GPS units, and agreed that when morning came they would travel and meet at a rendezvous point that was midway between them, where they would wait together for rescue.
Twenty minutes after that initial contact, while gathering fallen wood to build a crude lean-to shelter against a tree trunk, the copilot had glanced off to one side and seen a pair of glowing eyes looking at him from a good twelve feet off the ground. He'd turned his powerful flashlight in that direction, and had been shocked to see a winged, apelike creature with demonic features perched in a tree, snarling as it covered its face with a wing. Moments later the beast had retreated, presumably blinded by the bright light… just as a growl came from another direction. The copilot had whipped the flashlight around to track the noise, and flushed another creature out of the undergrowth; it fled before he could get a decent look at it. On instinct, he'd spun around twice, rotating while aiming his flashlight both low and high, and heard a third creature crashing away from him somewhere in the dark.
That had been the start of "a night-long nightmare", or so the tabloid article had said. The creatures had returned an hour later, and with friends; there were several pairs of glowing eyes in the dark, and growls coming from many different directions. The copilot had remembered how the first trio had feared the light at first, but with as many as were surrounding him now… one flashlight wouldn't be enough to fend them off. So he fired off the flare gun from his survival kit, and saw in the momentary muzzle-flash nearly a dozen gargoyle-like creatures surrounding his makeshift camp. Then the flare had burst, flooding the landscape with hellish red light, and with roars and unintelligible screams, the creatures had fled again.
The copilot had looked at his improvised scrap of shelter, decided he really needed something stronger at his back, and set off to find something that would provide cover from attacks, both from behind and from on high. He'd improvised a torch with his scarf wrapped around a branch, and stumbled southwards into the night. He had no idea how long he trudged alone through the snow and darkness, but eventually he'd heard noise from the woods around him that indicated that the winged beasts were back, following him… hunting him, he'd been sure.
Not long after he'd heard the first indications that they were back, one member of the pack pursuing him had thrown a crude spear made of wood that hit the copilot in the arm, going straight through his bicep and forcing him to drop the torch into the snow. The torch had sputtered and went out while he'd cursed and struggled to pull the spear out of his arm, and he'd thought he was done for. But despite his agony, he'd managed to pull out the flare gun he'd reloaded, and he'd fired it straight into the midst of the pack. The burst of intense light upon impact had blinded him too, but he'd heard a high-pitched howl of agony as well as shouts and snarls from many throats, and the pack stopped pursuing him long enough for him to find a boulder a few minutes later; a huge rock that had been deposited there by a retreating glacier millennia ago. One side of the boulder formed an overhang big enough for him to crawl under, and he'd stayed there, shivering and armed with his flashlight and an empty flare gun, until dawn.
Shortly before dawn, the pack of creatures had retreated, finally leaving the copilot in peace. "That's why I'm so sure they were gargoyles; everyone knows those monsters only come out at night!" the copilot had told his interviewer after his rescue.
There were plenty of scoffers at the copilot's tale, and not only from gargoyles-supporters who were offended by the thought of Manhattan's protectors and saviors being labeled as monsters. The rescue team that picked up the pilot in a clearing some distance away from his shelter had made a few low passes over the countryside, but hadn't seen any 'monster tracks' or other signs of anything but regular native wildlife, though it was true that a light snowfall had come down in the wee hours before dawn. The copilot's arm had been wounded, pierced by a sharp wooden object, but that could have been done by a sharp tree branch that he'd hit while descending from the doomed aircraft, or even one that he'd stumbled and fallen into, wandering around in the cold and dark. The tabloid article had included artists' renditions of what the attacking gargoyles had supposedly looked like, but Elisa had taken one look at pictures and said, "They just Photoshopped old pics of Goliath and Brooklyn again. Look, Big Guy; they didn't even bother to change your belt buckle…"
The RCAF was far more concerned with finding their missing pilot, and discovering why their jet had crashed, than hunting down monsters that only one man had seen and not all that clearly. But the Manhattan Clan was definitely interested in finding another clan, even interested enough to follow up on the copilot's wild story, on the off chance that there was a kernel of truth behind the descriptions of "monstrous figures," "demonic snarls" and "eyes that burned with savage hunger."
Remembering those descriptions, Angus told himself again that those tabloid articles always exaggerated even when they didn't outright lie. He remembered that he himself had actually scared a mugger once, that one time in January that he'd been allowed to accompany Gabriel, Lexington and Broadway on a patrol. Some humans just thought gargoyles were scary evil monsters, and always would; prejudice was a fact of life. So even if there really were gargoyles here, which they still didn't know for sure, they probably weren't really horrible savage monsters. Probably…
"There; that's surely the boulder he took shelter under!" Gabriel said as he pointed to a 20-foot-tall boulder, in a small clearing surrounded by evergreen trees. And sure enough, a cursory investigation showed signs of temporary human habitation in the overhang on the side facing east. "Now we start checking the nearby trees for talon-marks… and don't forget to use your nose, too. There might be a trace of scent left on the bark, even after six nights of exposure."
They split up and began checking out the surrounding foliage, and shortly afterwards, Gabriel called Angus over to a particular tall spruce. "Look at this!"
Angus hurried over to Gabriel and looked at what he was pointing at while wearing a wraparound grin. "Talon-marks!" There was no mistaking the distinctive trio of gouges in the bark, on the trunk and a couple of stout branches about ten feet off the ground. A gargoyle had perched there, probably for at least a few hours, while observing the copilot in his shelter.
"So there really is a gargoyle clan here!" Gabriel said excitedly. "Coldfire will be overjoyed when we tell her."
"So, should we head back and tell her now?" Angus asked hopefully.
"No, not yet; let's follow the trail back further, and see if we can find some tracks made by our cousins. Maybe we'll get an idea of what direction to go to look for their perches and rookery," as Gabriel leaped lightly out of the tree to land in the snow.
Angus was about to voice a vague protest, when his stomach gave voice to an even louder one; an audible rumbling gurgle.
Gabriel rolled his eyes. "Yes, we'll go hunting for dinner along the way. And let's hope you haven't forgotten everything I taught you about hunting in the past year of living in the castle…"
After a few minutes of backtracking on the copilot's trail, they came to a small area that had seen some activity recently. The snow had been greatly disturbed, big lumps and deep depressions scattered everywhere, and--"Oh Powers, no!" Gabriel hissed as he pulled up short, his face filled with dismay.
"What is it? What's wrong?" Angus asked.
In answer, Gabriel pointed at a mound of gravel on one side of the clearing, that had been dusted with a light covering of snow. "That report of the human firing a flare straight at his pursuers…"
"Yeah?" Angus scratched his horns for a moment in puzzled thought… then stopped as he abruptly figured out what that mound of gravel was. Or rather, what it had been… "Sweet Jaysus!"
Gabriel slowly shook his head. "It must have hit one of them directly. We can only hope that this gargoyle didn't suffer long before he died."
Angus hunched away from the mound of death-gravel, then reluctantly asked, "Should we bury it… him? Or do that Wind Ceremony that we did for the dead gargoyle we found in Quebec?"
"We'll have to ask the local clan, when we find them, what their funeral traditions are," Gabriel said as he stood up again. "But that's assuming that they actually have some sort of ceremony… and now I'm wondering if they do. Because it's been six nights since this happened; there's been plenty of time to come back and collect the remains for a ceremony. Why haven't they done so? …Could the fact that this warrior was killed with such a terrible weapon, one unknown to them, make this entire area taboo and off-limits? I read once about some primitive human tribes behaving like that…"
Angus could only shrug in answer, before they set to backtracking the trail again.
Angus had thought that the sight of a dead gargoyle's remains had made him lose his appetite for the rest of the night, but just a few minutes later, his stomach began rumbling again. His brother glanced wryly at him, but admitted that he was hungry too. "All right, next animal track we find, we'll follow that instead and hunt for a while," Gabriel declared. "There are supposed to be plenty of moose, caribou and mountain sheep in the Yukon Territory, and I'm sure there's plenty for small game for us to find too."
And just a few minutes later, they spotted some large cloven-hooved tracks in the snow. They left off following the copilot's trail to track the game instead, and within half an hour, they encountered their first moose. Its size was impressive, but fortunately for them, pouncing on it and killing it wasn't too much more difficult than it had been for the brothers to bring down deer and elk in their old territory.
Gliding back to their parents' camp with their kill, skinning and dressing it and cooking moose steaks on the fire took up the rest of the night. While Coldfire and Angus were still skinning the moose, Gabriel used the cell phone to call the Manhattan Clan and tell them the good news, that there were indeed gargoyles in the Yukon.
"Ex…ent!" he heard Goliath rumble. "It is a tragedy that… …killed by the copilot, but hopefully you… …self-defense, and they'll agree to… …Let us… -oon as you find…"
"Goliath? Your signal's so weak, I can't hear everything you're saying. If you can hear me, ask Lexington to check the tabloids for previous encounters in this region with the Wendigo or other supernatural creatures. Now that we know that gargoyles exist here, perhaps they've had other encounters with humans recently; encounters that were attributed to the Wendigo instead of gargoyles," Gabriel suggested.
But static was all Gabriel got in return, before the signal faded entirely. He shook and gently tapped the phone a couple of times, redialed twice, then shut it with disgust. "Great; it's not working at all now. I hope it's just a case of the batteries needing recharging, and not a real malfunction."
"I hope the TV works okay!" Angus said anxiously. And as soon as they'd finished skinning and dressing out the moose he excused himself, to go check out his most prized possession; the miniature TV that the Xanatos family had given him just before he'd left Manhattan. It was an experimental prototype, combining an 8-inch flat screen television with a satellite receiver and rechargeable batteries. The batteries for both the cell phone and the television could be recharged by the fold-out solar power collector that they had also brought with them. Coldstone hadn't approved of the devices, and had wanted to 'lose' them at the first opportunity, but Angus had guarded them so zealously he hadn't had an opportunity to do so yet.
The television worked fine, and Angus happily spent the next hour watching early-morning programs, while Gabriel helped Coldfire with setting up the smoking tent and preparing the moose meat they hadn't eaten for smoking and preservation He clicked past the infomercials and most of the talk shows, which he found boring when they weren't bewildering. What he liked best were cartoons and British comedy shows, but none of the shows he'd seen while growing up with Mother Eibhlin were on at that hour. Fortunately, there were a few channels showing cartoons and other kid fare 24 hours a day, and he finally settled on the Noggin channel.
Noggin had recently switched its "Like preschool on TV!" programming from just 12 hours a day during the daylight hours to 24 hours a day, courtesy of an arrangement and hefty donation from Xanatos Enterprises, after Elisa Maza had mentioned offhandedly that it was too bad that little Amber never got to watch Sesame Street like her mother had while growing up. All the children in the castle enjoyed it on the TV in the playroom that had been set and locked to that channel, and after Alexander and the mutate twins had gone off to bed, someone would turn it on again so Amber would have entertainment even if none of the adults were available to play with her. And when he hadn't been reading books or playing video games or receiving combat lessons from his elders, Angus had often gravitated to the playroom to watch Franklin and other shows with her. For being cartoons meant for little kids, some of the shows on Noggin were actually pretty good!
Angus didn't shut the TV off until Coldstone told him bluntly that he expected Angus to help with clan functions, instead of sitting on his tail all night getting his mind rotted by human product advertising. Angus protested that the whole point about the Noggin channel was that it never showed commercials, but shut the TV off in a hurry when Coldstone growled and started to pop his forearm laser out in the TV's direction.
Dawn came eventually, and Angus made sure to have both the TV's batteries and the cell phone's batteries hooked up to the solar recharger before he and Gabriel went to sleep in stone. Coldstone glared down at the devices, then wondered aloud, "How damaged do you suppose they would become if a tree branch fell on them, from that tree over there?"
"They would likely be broken for good… and I sincerely hope that does not happen, beloved," Coldfire said with slow emphasis, crossing her arms as she stared at Coldstone with her isinglass eyes.
Coldstone harrumphed and looked away, and muttered that he'd just been wondering, not actually planning anything…
After sunset, Gabriel tried to use the phone again, but even after its batteries had recharged for the full day it was completely nonfunctional. "No more contact with Manhattan, unless we glide to a human town and borrow someone's phone," he concluded regretfully.
"Which can wait until we have more positive news, such as actual contact with the clan," Coldfire said as she looked to the south. "According to the map, the nearest town is over a hundred miles from here."
After a light meal, Gabriel and Angus left to search for the native clan again. Now that they knew there were gargoyles in the area, their first step was to glide up high, several hundred feet in the air, and see if they could spot from that great height any of their native kin gliding about their business. But though they went higher than eagles, riding the last of the thermals that had arisen during the day, they didn't spot anyone.
"A really large clan would probably need a lot of hunting grounds to support themselves, spreading far beyond the sight of their perches. We may be just on the very edge of their territory," Gabriel speculated. "The question is, which way to their center? We could waste who knows how many nights if we start looking in the wrong direction."
"Well, if they were following the copilot because he was an intruder, then he must have landed somewhere inside their territory, right?" Angus said. "So if we backtrack him all the way to where he came down, then we'll be closer to the clan, and maybe we can see someone gliding from there."
"Good thinking," Gabriel said approvingly, and they went back to the copilot's trail. They picked up from where they'd left off to go track down the moose, and followed the trail as best as they could. Which wasn't easy; the few traces that were left after seven nights were hardly in a straight line, and veered every which way. Running in the dark, the copilot had evidently lost all sense of direction.
After an hour or two of following the traces, Angus spotted a rabbit's tracks skipping across the snow; if the size of the tracks were any indication, that rabbit was nearly twice as big as the ones he used to catch in the old territory. Gabriel looked at the tracks closely and estimated they were just a few minutes old. "It must have heard us and run just before we could catch sight of it. Thinking of adding more variety to our menu?" Gabriel asked with a grin that showed his fangs.
"You bet!" Angus said cheerfully, and they turned from following the human's trail to track the rabbit instead. Most rabbits didn't stray far from their burrows, and the brothers figured that it would take them only a few minutes to track down this one. And since the rabbit was small game, they could simply tie it to Gabriel's belt and bring it along with them on their search for the gargoyle clan.
But this rabbit was not only huge, but fast and wily, and farther-ranging than most rabbits they'd encountered before. Rather than finding its burrow within a few minutes, they tracked it for over half an hour and well over a hundred meters. Gabriel was ready to just give up on it and go back to backtracking the copilot; they had enough moose meat left from last night's hunt to last them several nights, and adding variety to their diet was nice but not a high priority. But Angus stubbornly insisted that they find the rabbit, to prove he hadn't lost his tracking skills during their year in Manhattan… and they finally caught sight of the rabbit, as it ran across a small clearing.
Angus growled eagerly and prepared to dash after it in a final chase. But just as he left the shadow of the trees, and just as the rabbit reached the other side of the clearing, a pine tree on the far side of the clearing rustled, and something jumped out of concealment amidst the branches to land right on top of the rabbit.
The rabbit gave a shrill scream and died, as the predator bit through its spine. And both Gabriel and Angus gasped at sight of the predator: "It's a gargoyle! A girl gargoyle! A naked girl gargoyle!" Angus shouted, his voice rising higher with each sentence.
A small female, still juvenile, looking to be no more than 20 years old; dark green with dactyl wings and stubby horns poking out of a dirty yellow mane. She froze and looked up at the sound of Angus' voice, staring wide-eyed at Angus and Gabriel. Then she hissed at them, snatched up the rabbit and dashed back into the shelter of the trees.
"Wait!" "Wait, we're friendly!" "We want to talk to you!" Angus and Gabriel shouted as they went after her. But in the time it took for them to run across the clearing, she had already climbed a tree, preparing to launch and glide away.
The clearest glide path for her would be right back across the clearing. Gabriel skidded to a halt in the snow and shouted, "Angus, alley-up!"
It was the phrase they'd coined some time ago, to describe their way of getting Angus into the air when there was no sturdy tree or wall to climb nearby. Without hesitation, Angus pivoted 90 degrees while running and charged straight at Gabriel, who crouched down and braced his arms out and together. Angus leaped mid-stride, landing with one foot on Gabriel's cupped hands, and in the next moment Gabriel surged to his full height and gave one tremendous heave with both hands, tossing Angus into the air.
Angus snapped out his wings at the apogee of the toss, almost right in front of the native female as she glided out and away from her launch point. She yelped as she shied away, banking violently to the right to avoid him. "Wait!" Angus scrambled desperately after her in flight, and managed to catch the tip of her tail in one outstretched hand. Then he just folded his wings and dropped back down, heading straight for the snow-covered clearing. The young female shrieked as she abruptly found herself yanked back and down by her tail, her arms and wings flailing wildly until she hit the snow with a fwummph!
"Oh, for…" Gabriel groaned and covered his face with his hand for a moment, then went over to the site of impact with a scolding, "Angus, you were supposed to just stay with her in flight until we could convince her we're friendly, not bring her down! Is this any way to make a first impression?"
"You didn't say to just stay with her!" Angus complained as he got to his hands and knees and shook snow off himself, while still keeping a grip on the young female's tail… until he got a dead rabbit smack in the face.
The female had twisted around and swung the rabbit's corpse like an improvised club, and as soon as Angus let go of her tail she yanked it away, preparing to dash away again. But Angus made another desperate lunge, and this time he caught her left wingtip, with two talons almost piercing the membrane. She stopped dead in her tracks before her wing tore, and turned to him with her eyes glowing red, hissing unintelligible words that still clearly conveyed her fear and anger.
Gabriel wanted to curse Angus for acting so impulsively—this female was not a deer or rabbit to be brought down!—but he didn't waste the time or breath, as he yanked open his belt pouch and pulled out one of the pills that they'd been given before leaving Manhattan. Pills devised by Alexander and Aiden, under Owen's tutelage; each one contained a one-shot spell of language acquisition, like the spell granted to travelers by Avalon that had given him command of the English language when he'd first come to America. Whoever ate one of the pills would be granted the ability to speak and understand whatever language was being actively spoken in their immediate vicinity.
He popped a spell-pill in his mouth and bit down quickly, while the youngster was still snarling at Angus. And just a second or two after he felt the pill crunch, her speech suddenly resolved itself into, "((…bite your hand off! Bad strangers!))"
"((Please, no biting us,))" Gabriel said mildly. "((We not want harm. We let you go now,))" as he administered a swat upside Angus's head.
"Ow!" Angus let go of her wingtip and glared at Gabriel while rubbing his head, but wisely didn't say anything more. Instead, he held his hand out for one of the spell-pills, so he could understand what was being said.
Since the young female hadn't bolted away as soon as Angus let go and was staring at him warily, Gabriel held off giving Angus a spell-pill for a moment as he said to her soothingly, "((My… younger clan-kin,))" for Coldstone had previously warned him to not call Angus his 'little brother', which would only confuse gargoyles raised in the manner of rookery brothers and sisters being all the same age, "((he stupid sometimes, but not bad or cruel. He not mean to treat you like prey, but he so excited to see new gargoyles he not think, and grab like hatchling!))" Only then did he hand over the pill, saying, "Angus, the first words out of your mouth had better be an apology she can understand!"
Gabriel continued speaking in the native tongue, asking the young female if she'd been badly hurt, while Angus bit down on his spell-pill. She replied with a reproachful look that her wing now had two small holes in it, but she'd be fine by tomorrow. And Angus said in her language, looking appropriately chastened, "((I sorry I hurt you. Very sorry!))"
"((He Angus. I Gabriel,))", Gabriel said by way of introduction. "((What your…))" He paused. Aiden had assured him that the spell-pill would teach them words in the native tongue that hadn't been spoken yet, so long as those words were known by the speaker. Aiden had tested it on herself with the aid of a Xanatos Enterprises employee who spoke Arabic, and after just a few seconds of exposure to the language she'd been able to converse as well as him on any subject. So why couldn't he think of the native word for name?
While Gabriel paused and wondered, Angus tried. "((I Angus. Who you?))"
The female stared at them. "((What Angus mean?))"
"((It my…))" Angus sputtered, then shook his head and complained to Gabriel, "I can't think of their word for a name!"
"Nor I," Gabriel said slowly. "And I think it's because… they don't use names, in their culture. Like our ancestors in the Old Wyvern Clan didn't have names, or so I've been told…"
"But that's… how the heck did they tell each other apart?"
"Don't ask me; I never figured it out either. Ask Coldstone, when we get back later." Gabriel scratched thoughtfully between his chin spurs as he wondered aloud, "But maybe we can explain the concept to her…"
It took a while, but they finally made it more or less clear to the young female that, when there were a lot of gargoyles in a clan and some wanted to refer to one gargoyle specifically, rather than referring to young-male-with-blue-skin-and-white-mane-and-split-wings-and-horns-and-tail-with-a-club-tip, it was much easier to simply say Angus. And rather than referring to adult-male-with-green-skin-and-orange-mane-and-chin-spurs-and-etc., it was easier to simply say Gabriel.
"((How many in your clan?))" Angus asked curiously. He and Gabriel had already quietly wondered if the clan didn't use names because they were so small in number, they hadn't needed names to tell each other apart.
"((Many… many gargoyles,))" the young female said with a shrug.
Angus held up both hands, all talons out. "((This many?))"
Now the female gave them a look of sheer scorn. "((Much more than that!))"
"I just tried to silently count in her tongue," Gabriel murmured to Angus, "And I couldn't count past thirty-two, four times eight. Beyond thirty-two or greft is just 'many'. Either she herself hasn't learned to count any higher than that, or no one in her clan can. But they have at least thirty-two gargoyles; that's a decent size for a clan."
"Yeah, but that big, and they still don't use names? All right, it's their custom, but… I can't just say 'hey, you' when I want to talk to her!" Angus complained. "Can we give her a name?"
"I don't see why not, even if we're the only ones who'll be using it," Gabriel shrugged. "And as for the name itself…" A faraway look appeared in his eyes for a moment and a wry, sad smile tugged at one corner of his mouth for a moment before he said, "Since we're in the Yukon, she's Yukoned Bea… but we can just call her Bea."
Angus gave him an inquiring look. "Yukoned Bea? Is that from a TV show?"
"It's from a story that Ebon once told… I can tell you later, if you're really curious, but now's not the time." Gabriel switched back to the young female's language to tell her, "((Instead of say young-female-with-dark-green-skin-and-yellow-mane-and-wings-with-three-wing-fingers, we want say: Bea. You Bea.))"
The young female shrugged, but said readily enough, "((You Gabriel, he Angus, I Bea.))" She perked up a bit as she added, "((Like a game!))"
"((Like a game, yes,))" Angus agreed, then switched back to English to say to Gabriel with a grin, "The name game!"
"Beloved, do you happen to have one of those language-spell pills with you?" Coldfire asked.
"No," Coldstone rumbled. "Angus and Gabriel are carrying all of them."
"A pity; one of them would come in handy right now," Coldfire sighed, without looking at her beloved. She did not look because, by unspoken agreement, they were standing back-to-back in the clearing. It's always wise to have someone trusted guarding one's back, when facing an unfamiliar foe.
After their sons had left to hunt for the local clan, they had gone for a walk together, as they often did. Back when they'd been fully flesh and blood, they had often gone gliding together, when they needed to talk about an issue that was bothering one of them or just wanted to enjoy each other's company. But now, in these forms, their jets were noisy enough to inhibit easy conversation in the air. And when they were walking, looking at the scenery around them instead of directly at each other, it was easier to pretend that they were still as flesh and blood as when they'd first fallen in love.
But some time after leaving sight of their camp, Coldstone had heard a rustling coming from one of the trees nearby. He'd been just about to point out that noise to Coldfire, whose hearing was not as acute due to her wholly robotic form, when six roaring figures had burst out of the trees to attack them. While their sons were out looking for the native clan, the clan had found them… and these gargoyles weren't at all in a welcoming mood.
Coldstone had received three gouges to his cyborg arm, fending off a talons-out attack aimed at his head, and Coldfire's right wing had been dented by a primitive club. But they'd managed to fend off the first attack long enough to reach the small clearing, and make a stand in the center.
They could have simply ignited their jets and flown off at that point, leaving the flesh-and-blood gargoyles far behind. If they kicked in the afterburners, they could be far away before one of the natives could climb a tree up to a launching point for gliding after them. Flight was still an option, but not their first choice; blindly running from a battle didn't sit well with either of them. And these gargoyles were their distant kin, the ones they had journeyed so far and hoped for so long to find. Surely they could make the natives understand that they came in peace!
So they stood back-to-back in the clearing, but with their hands down at their sides, and their heads slightly lowered. If they'd been able to, they would have lowered and cloaked their wings around themselves; that was their species' primary gesture of friendly intentions. But their metal wings weren't remotely flexible enough for cloaking, thanks to a lack of forethought and/or knowledge of gargoyle culture on the part of Xanatos' engineers And the snarls, growls and rumbled, unintelligible words from the gargoyle surrounding them indicated that their attempts to appear harmless weren't working at all.
Within moments of Coldfire's lament, one of the native gargoyles, a huge crimson male with dactyl wings, lunged for her with a roar. At the same time, a brown bat-winged gargoyle facing Coldstone threw a spear at him, aimed straight for where his heart would have been if he'd been fully flesh.
There were limits to have much damage either of them could take, or be willing to risk. Coldfire sighed again as she brought her hands up, palms angled upwards, and gave two short bursts of fire out of the flame-jets built into her palms. At the same time, Coldstone snapped his cyborg arm up and around to swat the spear away before it reached his chest, batting it away as easily as if it had been a twig blown by a breeze instead of a thick wooden spear.
The gargoyle lunging for Coldfire gave a high-pitched yelp as he aborted his attack, backpedaling frantically away from the fireballs that had appeared in front of her. Coldfire held her arms up high and made an arc of fire between her palms, a lethal rainbow burning brightly in the night. Coldstone popped his forearm laser out, took aim at the spear where it had landed, and with a TZOW! the stream of ruby-colored energy shot out and disintegrated the first six inches of the spear's length.
With yells of terror and horror, all six of the gargoyles surrounding them turned and fled into the trees. They heard much crashing about and breaking of branches for a few moments before the last of the natives had scrambled high enough to take flight and glide swiftly away from them.
Neither Coldstone nor Coldfire made any attempt to go after the natives, knowing that they'd only scare them even more. "First contact… has not gone well," Coldstone rumbled.
"Not well at all," Coldfire sighed. "Let's hope our sons have better luck."
Nearly two miles away, just after they began trying to explain to the newly-christened Bea where they had come from and why they were in her clan's territory, Gabriel turned and cocked an ear. He'd heard something, something faint that sounded like one or more gargoyles roaring battle-cries. And, very faintly, the tzow! sound that Coldstone's laser made when firing…
Angus and Bea had heard it too. "Was that… are Mum and Da in trouble?" Angus asked hesitantly, in English.
"Possibly… Angus, you stay here with Bea while I go investigate. She's not ready to face our parents yet," Gabriel said while he climbed a tree up to a good gliding level. Once in the air, he circled for a moment to orient himself and find landmarks that would help guide him back to that spot later, then headed back to camp.
He reached the campsite just as Coldstone and Coldfire returned to it, definitely worse for wear than they had been a few hours ago. "What happened?! Who attacked you?" Gabriel blurted out, then wanted to slap himself for not catching on sooner. "Oh, blast… the native clan?"
"Yes… and in our case, the natives are definitely unfriendly," Coldstone rumbled.
"How badly are you hurt? And were any of them hurt?"
"Just minor damage to us, and I believe we managed to avoid hurting any of the six we encountered," Coldfire said. "But it still made for a poor first impression."
"Fortunately, we've had better luck; Angus and I found a young female, a hatchling out on a solo hunt! We've taken spell-pills to learn her language, and now that she can understand us she seems friendly enough. I left her and Angus together, but if we bring her back here and show her that you're friendly, she can reassure--"
"No! You'll do no such thing," Coldstone interrupted. "In fact, if you haven't already made mention of us to her, you'll claim that you came here alone."
Coldfire added, "He and I already discussed this, on our way back here. It would be better for now if no one made any association between you and Angus, and two 'monsters' who are terrifying enough to scare off a small war party. Gaining this clan's trust and acceptance for yourselves is far more important than our feelings."
Coldstone continued, "Only after you're well and truly accepted into the native clan will we attempt to introduce ourselves to them, with plenty of gifts of meat and whatever else would be accepted. And only after we've been provisionally accepted, can you reveal any connection between us. Once you understand their culture, you'll have to let us know what gifts would be acceptable to the clan."
"But… how are we supposed to tell you anything, if we can't come near you?" Gabriel asked.
"We'll use written messages," as Coldstone fished a notebook and some pencils out of their supplies. "Here, take these with you… and this GPS beacon," as he stashed all the items into a leather satchel. "Once you're taken to the clan's perches, activate this beacon just before sunrise. We'll find you and the clan while you sleep during the day, and we can read any messages you leave in the notebook for us. If we have anything to tell you, we'll leave messages for you in the same way."
"Tell us everything you learn about the clan's culture, and about your progress in gaining acceptance… particularly with the females!" Coldfire added.
Gabriel couldn't help rolling his eyes at the last phrase, but told her with a smile, "Well, Angus seems quite interested in the young female we already found, and vice versa. She looks to be about twenty years old, only a few years shy of his own age. She didn't have a name—she didn't really understand the concept of a personal name until we explained it to her—so we named her Bea."
"They see no need for human-style names for themselves? I like this clan already," Coldstone rumbled with a smile, as Gabriel accepted the satchel, slung it over one shoulder and took to the sky again.
It didn't take long for Gabriel to find Angus and Bea again. "Are Mum and Da okay?" Angus asked anxiously as Gabriel spiraled down for a landing.
"They're fine… but what have you told her about them? Anything at all? What have you been talking about while I was gone?" Gabriel asked.
"I hadn't said much of anything about them yet; I wanted to wait until we found out whether these gargoyles believe in having mothers and fathers, or just in rookery keepers like Da says they did in the old Wyvern clan. Mostly, I've been trying to explain to Bea that the rabbit would really taste better if it was cooked, but she thinks I'm crazy. Would you believe, these gargoyles don't cook their food at all? They eat everything raw!" Angus exclaimed.
"Yes, I can believe it. Angus, here's the situation with Coldstone and Coldfire," and Gabriel explained how he'd found them at the campsite, and what decisions had been made. Their conversation was in English, and Bea was silent as she listened to them speaking to each other, her expression ranging from bewilderment to boredom to annoyance and increasing suspicion.
Only after he'd explained everything to Angus did Gabriel switch back to the local tongue, to say smoothly to Bea, "((That noise, was your clan fighting two shiny monsters! Same monsters that chase us, after we leave our clan to find you. We two alone could not defeat them, had to run, but your clan beat the monsters. I not saw fight, but I saw monsters running away, very fast. Your clan brave warriors! I try meet them after battle, but they too far away and glide too fast for me to follow, so I come back here.))"
Angus muttered in English, "It's not right, lying about them like this…"
"I'm not happy about it either, but this is how they wanted it, and they've pinned such hopes on making an alliance with this clan... as have the people back in Manhattan," Gabriel reminded him. "And technically, I didn't lie just now, just stretched the truth a bit. Our parents left the site of the battle very fast, when compared to a snail's pace. And as for chasing us, they had to chase you down at our stopover in Washington State, when you left the airport to go visit that bakery…"
"They were Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and it was my last chance to have any for who knows how long! And when we came back I shared some with you, didn't I?"
That wasn't the only lie they told, either. When Bea inevitably asked them where they had come from and why they were in her clan's territory, they knew they couldn't tell the full truth, because that would involve explaining their parents, which they had just been forbidden to do. And Angus said flat-out that he didn't even want to try to explain internet search engines and helicopters and etc., to someone who didn't even know what names are or how to count past 32. So they hurriedly improvised a story on the spot:
That they were two young gargoyles from a clan far to the south and east, one that had split off from the Yukon clan many, many generations ago. The southern clan had recently suffered from a strange and lethal disease, one which killed far more females than males, and after it had run its course there had been a serious imbalance in the genders; roughly two males for every female in the clan. The clan leader had driven some of the excess males off, before the sheer number of fights sure to result from so many males competing for female attention, could rip the clan apart. Having heard rookery stories about an ancestral clan far to the north and west, the two young males had decided to travel together in hopes of finding them… and now they had.
The story had mainly been Angus' idea, based on some TV show he'd seen once and on Coldfire's oft-repeated desire to find mates for her sons. Gabriel muttered to Angus that he personally thought the story had holes big enough to glide through blindfolded; why wouldn't the females of the decimated clan simply agree to take on more than one mate, and the males agree to share affections? His hatching clan on Avalon hadn't had problems with gargoyles taking multiple mates.
Angus muttered back that the Avalon Clan was the exception, not the rule, and jealousy was a fact of life for most gargoyles as well as humans. This story was better than saying they'd been wandering clanless just because their parents couldn't get along with anyone else.
Gabriel almost reproved him for that remark, then sighed and agreed that the complete lie would be more acceptable; particularly since those parents now couldn't be acknowledged in any way.
After settling that issue, the three spent more time talking, asking questions of each other and of their clans' ways. One of the questions Bea asked Gabriel and Angus was if they had recently been ill; she could not think of any other reason for them to be wearing "extra skins." More questioning revealed that in Bea's clan, though some gargoyles wore decorations around their necks or limbs (usually made of the fangs and talons of predators they'd killed), no one wore clothing that completely covered parts of their body. Only hatchlings who had just emerged from their shells and gargoyles who had fallen seriously ill, were wrapped in animal furs and hides for added warmth.
After getting a few more questions about Bea's clan answered, Angus and Gabriel together hunted down a yearling moose. The moose would be their gift to the clan, a bribe for their acceptance. Bea tagged along for the hunt, but watched from above instead of participating in the kill. She explained that in her clan, she and the other hatchlings her age were forbidden to take on the larger prey until they'd proven themselves skilled in tracking down and efficiently killing small game.
And once they'd hunted down and slain the moose, they followed Bea back to where she'd stashed the other two rabbits she'd killed before encountering them. Then Gabriel took off his tunic and stowed it in the satchel with the notebook, and insisted that Angus do the same.
"B-but I can't get naked with a girl present!" Angus protested, blushing and cringing at the very thought.
"Yes you can, and you'd better do it now, before someone does it for you. The clan will be more apt to accept us if we not only talk like them, but dress like them… or rather, dress like they don't. And Bea's been seeing naked males all her life, Angus; I doubt what you've got will impress her at all."
"Besides," Gabriel continued with a grin, "If you're not displaying your equipment, they may assume you just don't have any to show. Do you want the males of this clan to think you're a female?"
Angus glowered at him, but took off his tank top and shorts and stowed them in the satchel. But he kept his wings wrapped across his nethers for every second he was on the ground, until they were ready to glide again and follow Bea to her clan's perches, with the moose they'd killed tied onto a long branch and slung between them.
Gabriel's guess had been correct; the Yukon clan's territory was huge, and they had to glide quite a ways before the hill with the cliff face that served as the clan's primary perch came into view. As they came closer to the clan's perches and rookery, they saw a lot of activity going on, including a group of at least twenty gargoyles all coming back from one direction, carrying spears and clubs.
"That must be a war party they sent out after the first group of six were scared off by our parents," Gabriel said to Angus. "But since none of them appear wounded and they're not carrying… any scraps of metal, I'm fairly sure they didn't engage in battle. Coldstone must have successfully concealed the camp from view."
"I sure hope you're right," Angus said anxiously, just before a clan sentry spotted them, shouting and pointing in their direction. The entire war party looked, turned and headed their way.
As they'd previously agreed to do, as soon as they were spotted Angus and Gabriel dropped down to land, with the moose still slung between them, and Bea followed them down to land in front of them with her rabbits. "Head down, wings down, and say nothing until after Bea and I have talked to them," Gabriel hissed to Angus before the first of the war party arrived.
Angus obediently kept his wings cloaked and his head down, staring at his toe-talons, while the other gargoyles landed and demanded to know what they were doing in the clan's territory. Bea meekly offered her rabbits to the leader of the war party, who was apparently also the clan leader, then introduced Gabriel and Angus with the story they'd given her.
Angus heard the clan leader growlingly tell Gabriel to talk… and heard Gabriel give a gasp, sucking in air through his fangs, instead of answering. But a second later he said (was his voice shaking a little?) that the young female had said truth, and that he and the young male with him hoped to join their clan. That they were good hunters, and the moose was proof of that as well as their gift of friendship. And that he and his companion knew they had little chance of ever mating and breeding even in this new clan, but they were lonely and tired of wandering and just wanted to be part of a clan once more.
The clan leader asked Gabriel what he knew of "two shiny monsters", and Gabriel repeated the same string of half-truths and lies he'd told Bea earlier. He took care to emphasize that he'd glimpsed the shiny monsters leaving the territory, going very fast, and was very grateful to the clan for having driven off such terrible creatures.
The leader gave a skeptical-sounding grunt, but said nothing for a few long minutes. Then he announced that the young males and their gift of meat could follow the clan back to the perches, but they would not be allowed inside the rookery or even perch with the rest of the clan until they had proven themselves worthy to be members.
With that, the war party members surrounded them and escorted them to the clan's home. Angus didn't look up until they'd started walking, but once they had murmured to Gabriel in English, "Since we're such strangers here… how can we ask them about the missing pilot?"
"We don't. He's dead. Shut up," Gabriel said tersely, as some of the clan members turned and glared at them for speaking words they couldn't understand. When one of them demanded to know what had just been said, Gabriel told him that his younger companion had expressed worries that the shiny monsters would come back, but had been reassured that no monster was so stupid as to attack a full clan of strong warriors.
Angus wanted to protest—they shouldn't just assume the pilot was dead, when they hadn't seen a body!—but thought better of it and shut up for a while longer. He basically kept silent until they arrived at the clan's home, where the leader directed them over to one side of the perches and informed them that they would perch there come the morning.
Then the leader demanded a haunch from the moose they had killed for his own meal, before graciously letting them carry the rest over to a clearing several yards in front of the cave that served as the clan's rookery. That was as close as they were allowed to get to the tiny hatchlings that were curiously peering out from inside the cave; the rookery keepers would come out to collect the kill for eating and sharing with the hatchlings after they had backed off to a safe distance.
Angus's belly rumbled audibly as he and Gabriel carried the moose to the clearing, but Gabriel wearily advised him that he'd just have to go hungry. The moose had been designated for feeding the hatchlings, and taking any for themselves now would be seen as terribly selfish.
"I don't think I'm ready to eat raw meat yet, anyway," Angus said miserably, just before he glanced up. And stopped dead in his tracks, screaming, "Sweet Jaysus have mercy!"
"Shut up and keep moving, Angus," Gabriel growled at him. "We don't dare blow this, not now…"
"But… but…" as Angus pointed with a trembling hand.
"I know! And I don't like it any more than you do, but we don't know the whole story, and we never will unless you shut up and act like a warrior! Keep your calm, keep your wits sharp, and make Coldstone proud of you…"
So Angus shut up and followed his brother's lead, as together they delivered the moose to where they'd been told. And he kept his mouth shut when a sentry outside the rookery asked what he'd been so upset about, and Gabriel improvised another lie for him.
He even managed to keep his mouth shut when they returned to where the clan leader was standing, tearing into the bloody moose haunch with his fangs, and Angus got his first good look at the leader, face to face.
He kept his mouth shut right up until the moment the dry heaves struck.
Two hours later, Coldstone and Coldfire heard a quiet beeping sound coming from one of their bags, and Coldstone pulled out the GPS tracker with a little red light flashing on it. "That's the signal; they're with the clan and preparing to sleep on their perches," Coldstone said with a rare smile.
Coldfire couldn't smile, but she expressed her happiness in other ways. "Accepted by the natives! But of course they would be; who wouldn't want to have our sons, such fine and strong males, in their clan?"
It was suddenly hard to be patient, but they prudently waited until a full ten minutes after the sun peeked over the horizon before setting out to track down the beacon, and find their sons with the native clan.
"There they are!" Coldfire said excitedly as the pointed to the cliff face they were approaching. Several stone-sleeping gargoyles could be seen scattered all atop the cliff, with a few more on ledges that emerged here and there from the cliff face.
"Thirty-two… thirty-six… I count nearly forty gargoyles visible, and doubtless there are more in the rookery and at hidden sentry posts," Coldstone said, now openly grinning. "Not as large as our old clan had been once, but still a very good size!"
"And there, off to one side: our sons! But look at that cave; that's got to be their rookery!" as Coldfire pointed to a cave entrance cut low in the side of the cliff, roughly fifteen feet off the ground. "And they wouldn't have sentries posted outside it if there weren't either eggs or hatchlings inside to protect… Let's find out which!"
Coldstone was quite willing to acquiesce to her curiosity, so instead of immediately landing next to their sleeping sons, they changed course slightly to head for the cave. There were two statues of gargoyles on the ledge, blocking the south-facing cave entrance to prevent large animals from entering even in the daytime, but they still allowed narrow shafts of sunlight to shine in between their spread wings; it would be easy to peek in past them and see whether they had eggs or hatchlings inside.
They landed on the ledge, and Coldfire peered into the dim recesses of the cave. "Hatchlings! At least a dozen of them, and they can't be more than two winters old; so precious!" Coldfire cooed. "Once we're accepted here, I may volunteer to become a rookery keeper… Would you like a peek, beloved? …Beloved?" as she turned to see why he hadn't answered her.
Coldstone was staring at a dead snag of a tree that stood to one side of the clearing in front of the rookery. More specifically, he was staring at what had been hung from the stub of an old tree branch, roughly ten feet off the ground:
A human head.
It had obviously been there at least a few days, and scavenger birds had been pecking at it. The soft flesh of the lips and most of the cheeks were gone, as were the eyes… though, since the leather thong that hung it from the branch stub ran through one of the eye sockets, the eyeballs had not been removed by birds.
Nor had any bird made the gaping hole in the back of the skull, where the brains had once been. The thong ran back out through that hole to complete the loop that hung the skull from the tree.
The features were obliterated, but enough facial skin was left to tell them that this person had been Caucasian rather than one of the darker-skinned native tribes… and the hair on what was left of the scalp was closely cropped, in what was commonly referred to as a 'crew-cut'.
"I believe… we have found… the missing pilot," Coldstone finally said.
Coldfire did not, could not, say anything. Nothing for several long minutes, as they left the rookery entrance behind and ascended to the top of the cliff, to look over the native clan members.
None of the natives wore clothes, but several wore necklaces and armbands to which were fastened bear claws and fangs, dinner-plate-sized moose hooves, and other hunting trophies. On a prominent rock outcropping stood a large male gargoyle, holding a spear; the way his perch was high than the rest and the manner in which the others faced him told Coldstone and Coldfire that this was the clan leader.
Armbands adorned the leader's arms just above the elbow spurs, leather strips decorated with bear claws. And alone out of all the clan members, he wore a necklace made of metal; tiny beads all connected together, from which a pair of metal identification tags still hung suspended… along with ten slightly shriveled human fingers.
"Oh, dear…" Coldfire finally found her voice, though reduced to a bare whisper. "This is…"
"Not good," Coldstone said with grim finality. (And realized that he'd definitely been in Manhattan too long, after the voice of Xanatos echoed inside his head, saying understatement of the year.) "Let's go see what Gabriel and Angus have written for us."
They made their way over to where their sons were perched, off to one side and several yards from any members of the native clan. Gabriel had taken a standard aggressive pose to greet the dawn, but Angus was just standing there, slumping slightly, with the most miserable expression they'd ever seen etched into his stone features.
The leather satchel was at Gabriel's feet, sheltered somewhat from the elements. They pulled out the notebook, expecting to see Gabriel's handwriting, since of the two youngsters he had the neater penmanship. But instead they saw that Angus had written to them, four simple sentences scrawled across the page:
We found them.
They found the pilot.
And they killed and ate him.
CAN WE LEAVE NOW?
For several long moments Coldstone and Coldfire just stared at each other over the page. Then Coldstone rumbled roughly, "Give me that," as he grabbed the notebook and fumbled n the satchel for a pencil. He found a flat surface to write on, then laboriously wrote in block letters:
NO LEEVING YET.
FIND OUT WHY THEY KILD THE PILUT.
IF THEY WER ALONE IN WILDS UNTIL NOW, MAYBY THEY DID NOT KNOW WAT HE WAS.
IF THEY DO NOT KNOW WAT HUMANS ARE, WE MUST TEECH THEM.
"This is a very isolated area," he told Coldfire as he put the notebook back in the satchel and stowed it at Gabriel's feet again. "It's possible that they'd never actually encountered humans before, and saw the pilot as some sort of furless bear."
"I hope you're right, beloved," Coldfire said, giving their sons and the natives one last look before they left for their camp. "I sincerely hope you're right…"
The next day they returned soon after dawn, to find writing in the notebook again, this time in Gabriel's hand:
These gargoyles know what humans are… but they hate them almost as much as Demona did. When I asked about the origins of that skull, I heard such…I'd swear that even the Princess and Magus didn't hate the Viking raiders that massacred Wyvern as much as this clan hates all humans.
They have all sorts of euphemisms for humans, including one that translates to 'false-skin-wearer'; I'm glad now that I told Angus to disrobe before we met the clan, or they would likely have feared and hated us as much as Bea did when we first met her. Angus discreetly asked her, and she confirmed that the reason she tried to run from us at first is that we were wearing clothes like humans do; even though she instantly recognized us as gargoyles, just the sight of 'false skins' on a person spooked her. Anyway, their most common word for humans doesn't quite translate into English; Angus says it means 'demons' but I think it means 'monsters'.
"Now there's irony," Coldstone muttered as he and Coldfire read those words.
"Indeed," Coldfire agreed. "Considering all the times that we gargoyles have been called demons and monsters by the humans…"
Gabriel's notes went on for another few paragraphs; saying that, under the circumstances, he and Angus hadn't even tried to correct the clan's views on humans. He was sure that if they did, the clan would instantly turn on them and drive them out, or worse. And while Gabriel understood well the need for the gargoyle clans of the world to unite in alliance, to share precious genetic material and keep their bloodlines healthy and everything else Goliath had been saying back in Manhattan… both he and Angus would rather leave as soon as possible.
This time Coldfire wrote back, in a much neater hand than her mate's. She sympathized with Gabriel's reservations about staying with the clan, but recommended that they not leave yet; not when they hadn't found out why this clan hated humans so much. While humans themselves were often prone to hating without reason, gargoyles on the whole were more sensible creatures (with Demona being the exception, of course) and there must have been some event in the clan's past that had triggered their war on humanity. Understanding why they hated would be the necessary first step in turning that hatred into tolerance. And doing so would be for the clan's own good, as well as good for any humans in the area; further confrontation between the clan and humans was inevitable, as their own experience in their former territory had taught them.
She managed to refrain from adding that Goliath wasn't the only one interested in maintaining bloodlines, and asking if they'd noticed any unmated females yet.
Days and nights passed, and more notes were left in the journal. Coldfire and Coldstone read through the books they'd brought with them on the Yukon Territory, including its history, while Gabriel and Angus sought to gain acceptance with the native clan. They were set to hunting every night to prove their worth, but whenever they weren't hunting they were learning about the clan's culture and way of life, and discreetly and very carefully asking questions about why humans were hated so much. And together, the four of them managed to piece together the clan's history:
This clan had been in the Yukon Territory for thousands of years; their oldest rookery stories told of great walls of ice that had once completely covered the land, but receded and left fertile ground in their wake, territory into which the clan moved and settled. But up until the end of the nineteenth century (by the human calendar), the clan had experienced only sporadic and very limited contact with humans.
Occasionally, a human or small party of humans would wander into their territory, wearing not just decorations but whole skins from their kills, and competing for the same prey that the gargoyles were hunting. If their paths had crossed while hunting or if the humans came too near the rookery for peace of mind, the gargoyles had generally just frightened them away; gliding overhead and roaring a few times had usually sufficed. But if one of those humans threw a spear or other weapon at a gargoyle… well, that was a challenge to be met, and met it was, with the end result generally being a dead human. And since the hunter's creed was 'waste not, want not', any salvageable meat from the kill was brought back to the clan. It was likely from this practice that the legend of the Wendigo had come about.
The clan had split several times in its history, when its members had grown too numerous for the territory to support them all (which happened about every eight to ten generations, or once every 400 to 500 years, was the impression Gabriel had been given), and it was likely that the splinter clans had perpetuated and spread the legend of the Wendigo across the continent. (Coldstone supposed that the clan that had once held their territory in Quebec had descended from this clan, and wondered again if humans had figured into their mysterious demise.) But while those splinter clans might have encountered humans more often, for this original clan humans were a rarely seen oddity, and generally of no more concern to them than bears or wolves.
Then had come the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896. Greed for gold drove white men into territories where no native would go, and suddenly the Wendigo Clan (as Angus had dubbed them; they had no clan-name for themselves) had truly dangerous creatures in their hunting grounds. Humans with hard, shiny sticks that made thunder-flashes, and spat death from several wingspans away! They were driven away from some of their best hunting grounds near the rivers, their great territory cut nearly in half. Then came the worst blow of all: an aged hunter mentoring some hatchlings on their first rabbit hunt, had run across a far-ranging party of humans with their thunder-sticks. Only one of the four hatchlings on that hunt had survived to limp, weeping with terror and grief, back to the rookery; the rest had all been slaughtered.
That night, while the entire clan mourned for the lost hatchlings, the clan leader declared: No more. "We will lose no more hunting grounds or hatchlings to these demons/monsters! Kill any and all you see within these lands; let none escape!"
And as the history books noted, parties of Stampeders (as the newcomers struck by Gold Fever were called) that explored the inner territory started dying in droves, and not just from being ill-prepared for the extreme northern climate and starving or freezing to death. Campsites were found wrecked, but the gold-panners who had staked their claims there were either missing or found in pieces.
The natives tried to tell the white men that they had angered the forest spirits, but since these 'spirits' left no dead bodies behind (although one book noted that sometimes there were unexplained piles of gravel here and there at the destroyed camps), the already prejudiced white men blamed either the 'bloodthirsty Injuns' or 'vicious wolves' instead. Back then the white men still thought gargoyles were only a legend; a hundred years would pass before Goliath and his clan would be forced into the limelight in Manhattan, and by then those unexplained deaths in the Yukon had been long forgotten by all but the mustiest history books.
When the worst of the Gold Rush was over and most of the white men who had come to the Yukon (and managed to survive the experience) returned home with disappointment and empty pockets, the gargoyles found themselves alone and largely at peace again. But after losing the hatchlings as well as several of their best hunters and warriors to the war with the white false-skin-wearers, they had become xenophobic to the extreme, and still maintained the practice of killing any human who ventured into their territory at night.
The pilot and copilot that had parachuted into their territory had been the first humans seen in over twenty years, but as soon as they'd been identified as more of those monsters/demons by the hunting parties that were in that area, the war parties had been sent out. The pilot had been attacked first; the clan leader himself had pounced on and killed the human, ripping him literally limb from limb. But when the war party had gone after the copilot…
The Wendigo clan knew well what fire was; forest fires that were started by lightning hitting dead and dried trees happened at least once a generation. They had seen humans sitting around campfires before they'd killed them, but had never bothered to learn how to make and control fire for themselves. They generally needed no help in staying warm, and they liked raw meat just fine, so what would they need fire for? To the gargoyles, a lit torch was just another weapon, to be knocked out of the enemy's hands as soon as possible.
Only in the last dozen years had a particularly clever gargoyle in the clan started experimenting with making fire; reasoning that if the clan used spears and clubs like their enemies did, it would benefit them to learn how to use the enemies' other weapons, like torches, bows and arrows. Using a bare rock far, far away from the clan's perches for his 'laboratory', he'd gotten to the point of discovering that striking bits of flint and steel together (acquired from digging through the remains of decades-old kills) made sparks that would catch piles of old pine needles on fire. But he hadn't yet discovered how to make a torch that could sustain a flame for long periods, without burning right down to the hand of the torch-holder. (He was trying to make bows and arrows, too, but so far having even worse luck in making an arrow that flew correctly.)
So the gargoyles knew what fire was, and they didn't like it. And they really didn't like a weapon that sent fire high up into the sky, fire so terribly bright that it blinded everyone for hours! The first encounter had sent the entire war party reeling with shock and gliding blindly into trees, trying to shake the afterimages out of their eyes. It had taken a long time for them to recover enough to track down the human intruder again, and try once more to kill him. And that time… that terrible, terrible weapon had not only blinded them all again, it had killed the clan's second-in-command!
That human had gotten completely away from them, having vanished during the day. And since then the clan leader had gone to the particularly clever gargoyle and told him to put more effort into making bows and arrows that worked. Even if it was more honorable combat to fight with one's bare hands or close-range weapons, the next human that came within their territory would be riddled with arrows before he ever had a chance to see a gargoyle.
"This does not bode well for future relations with humans," Coldfire sighed as she looked at the latest note Gabriel had left, about the leader's decision to use arrows and strike from a distance. As she and Coldstone knew well from their youth in medieval Scotland, a rain of arrows from on high could be devastating to an enemy force that wasn't expecting it and shielded from it.
"No, it does not," Coldstone agreed. "Nor does it bode well for those who do not consider humans as enemies… Perhaps it would be best if Gabriel and Angus continued to not speak at all of humans being allies and even members of the Manhattan Clan."
Coldfire reluctantly agreed. "Perhaps after they've been completely accepted into the clan, even to the point of being allowed to see the hatchlings, they can begin to talk about how not all humans are hatchling-killers. Their acceptance is more important, at the moment. And hopefully, that acceptance will come soon."
Days and nights slowly turned into weeks, with more entries being left in the journal. Gabriel did most of the writing, though Angus added his own words occasionally. The two of them were gaining more acceptance in the clan, becoming respected hunters, but they were still regarded with suspicion on many occasions… most of those occasions preceded by Angus opening his mouth.
The clan's enmity with humans grated on Angus even more than it did on Gabriel; both had been raised by humans, but while Gabriel had grown up with plenty of gargoyle companionship as well, Mother Eibhlinn had been Angus' whole world. And so despite Gabriel continually hissing when they were alone that the clan just was not ready to hear any good things about humans, Angus kept mentioning things that their old clan had seen humans doing, in the village that supposedly had dwelled at the edge of their territory. That humans had cared for their young as tenderly as gargoyles cared for their hatchlings, and sometimes gargoyles and humans had met each other in the forest and, amazingly, managed to keep from trying to kill each other.
Angus also spoke of human devices, marvels such as boxes that made food warm again even days after it had been killed, and other boxes that kept cold inside them without ice and snow, and kept food from spoiling for a very long time. Other devices that made music, sounds as sweet as birds singing, or pretty pictures that could even move like they were real animals. And of course, every time a clan member decried Angus as a liar who'd obviously had his brains burned out by a bad fever, Gabriel had to speak up in his defense and say that he'd seen such things too, and humans that acted with kindness instead of savagery. Which earned Gabriel the same looks of disbelief and suspicion as they were giving Angus; only Bea and a few other youngsters of her generation seemed actually intrigued by what they were saying, and interested in hearing more.
So there were numerous setbacks in their acceptance… but none could deny that the two strangers were good hunters, particularly the older male with the gray-green hide and orange mane. Despite his left hand being crippled by some old injury, he never failed to bring home food for the clan. And he treated the females of the tribe with respect; more respect than the males usually gave them, because they were on the whole smaller and weaker than the males.
The clan males looked at the gray-green male in incredulity flavored with scorn whenever he showed deference to a female, asked them if they would like more nutrient-rich organ meat, or offered to help with this task or that. But needless to say, the females discovered they rather liked being treated with respect.
One night roughly two weeks after they had first met the clan, Gabriel went out on a hunt with three other clan members close to his own age, while Angus stayed behind to talk and play with Bea and others of her generation (he had managed to teach them tic-tac-toe, and that game was now all the rage.) They returned in success, the four hunters having taken down six full-sized caribou; so laden with game that they'd had trouble gliding back to the perches with it. And the leader of that hunting party had willingly conceded that the gray-green male had been the best hunter of the party, having skillfully herded one caribou into crashing right into another one running past, and bringing them both down for the kill.
After the meat from the hunt had been distributed, Gabriel suddenly found himself the center of attention for no less than three of the clan's females, one particularly bold female with a crimson hide and black mane, and two others that were shyer but still expressing interest. Angus glanced up just before beginning another game of tic-tac-toe with Bea and grinned at the sight across the clearing, thinking that Coldfire would be especially pleased to learn about that.
After finishing the tic-tac-toe tournament (two wins for Angus, one win for Bea and five complete draws; Bea was becoming an adept player), Angus wandered over to that side of the clearing, hoping to overhear some really juicy stuff that he could either write to Coldfire about, or blackmail Gabriel with later. But by that time, the gathering had been joined by a male of the clan, an orange warrior; one who seemed jealous of all the female attention that Gabriel was getting, and had decided to put him in his place with insults.
"((So what if you good hunter? You hand crippled, you unfit warrior! And you like humans; you stink of humans! You maybe even mated with one!))" The females all drew back from Gabriel slightly as the warrior made his accusation, some of them shuddering at the very thought of such a perversion. Gabriel's face became utterly expressionless, but his eyes began to burn white. Seeing that at least one of his barbs had struck home, the orange warrior sneered right in his face,"((A cripple like you, human females maybe only kind you can mate with! Pervert!))"
Gabriel's eyes blazed like twin suns, but he turned away from the orange warrior and began walking slowly away. The orange warrior shouted triumphantly, "Hah! ((He backs down from challenge! He coward and pervert! Go back to humans, coward!))"
Angus eyed his brother in disbelief as he came closer. "Gabriel, are you gonna let that guy get away with what he's saying about you?!"
With great care, Gabriel unslung and handed over the satchel containing their journal, their clothes and the spell-pills they had yet to use. "Angus, please hold onto this for me. I don't want to risk any damage to it. Understand?" And when Angus accepted the satchel and nodded his understanding, Gabriel turned around again… and charged.
The orange warrior stopped his triumphant crowing in a hurry when he saw Gabriel coming for him with the speed of an express train, with spiked tail lashing and a roar of challenge bellowing out of his throat. He almost started to dodge away, but he didn't dare with so many females from his clan present. Instead, he roared back and stood braced to meet him with one hand clenched into an enormous fist, and the talons of the other out and ready to rend.
The orange warrior was the same size as Gabriel, possibly a little larger, with a weighted club at the end of his tail that could and had caved in the skulls of humans before. He was also the veteran of battles aplenty with his brothers while they were growing up, choosing their mates and competing for status in the clan. At first glance, it might have appeared to be an even fight, perhaps even weighted in his favor since Gabriel's left hand was weak and not fully functional.
Appearances can be deceiving. Gabriel had spent the last four years learning to compensate for his crippled hand, both in everyday tasks and in combat. And he had been trained not only by Coldstone, Coldfire, Hudson and Goliath, but by Elisa Maza and David and Fox Xanatos; all three humans were experts at unarmed combat, both with humans and with gargoyles. Angus, still watching, smirked as he thought: Hometown bully, meet Bruce Lee.
At the very last split-second Gabriel pulled up from his charge on all fours, seeming to do a backflip in midair, that sent him at the orange warrior in a flying kick. Not expecting such a maneuver, the orange warrior got Gabriel's taloned foot square in the upper chest, the impact knocking him backwards into the snow while the toe-talons gouged bloody holes in him. Lying there dazed and bleeding, the orange warrior's chest hitched as he tried to suck air back into his lungs, while Gabriel snarled into his face, "((You have two choices, you pile of gravel: you either say 'I like humans, very much', or you get up… and be slaughtered like deer. Which you do?))"
"((Dungheap!))" the orange warrior snarled as he caught his breath, as he tried to slash at the face hanging over him. Gabriel dodged most of the slash, but the tip of one talon just barely nicked under his chin-spur, right in the sensitive spot. Snarling at the blast of pain it sent through him, he backed away just long enough for the orange warrior to flip over, scrambling to all fours.
That was the only blow the orange warrior was able to land. He did his best, but he was no match for a gargoyle trained in judo and karate as well as the battle tactics the gargoyle warriors of Castle Wyvern had used for centuries. Less than a minute after he'd scrambled to his feet again, the orange warrior was flat on his face in the blood-spattered snow, one arm broken at the elbow, one wing wrenched out of joint and bleeding from several other places on his abused body, and Gabriel had one knee firmly planted on his spine to prevent him from getting up again. The gray-green gargoyle snarled to his downed opponent as he held the main strut of his left wing in both hands, "(('Humans our friends. I never hurt any human again.' Say it, or lose wing))"
"((H-h-humans our friends, I never hurt any human again!))" the orange warrior sobbed in pain. Gabriel let go of his wing and got up, leaving him in the bloody snow, and contemptuously kicked a little snow back over him with his toe-talons as he walked away, just as Cagney used to do when exiting her litterbox.
Their fight had drawn attention from the several other members of the Wendigo Clan, including their leader, who landed in the clearing just as Gabriel was leaving his opponent lying in the snow. The three females who had been interested in Gabriel before the challenge came flocking up to him again after the fight was over, delighted to find that the handsome stranger was such an able warrior after all, but the clan leader and elders scowled. The leader demanded, nearly roaring in outrage,"((Why this fight?!))"
Angus grinned, sure that Gabriel would simply tell the leader that the orange warrior had challenged him in front of the females, and he had answered the challenge as any male would. He had no doubt at all that the females would back him up, considering the way they were flocking around him. And since the males of this clan actually thought it was okay to fight like a bunch of gorillas for the right to breed, Gabriel's fight was not only allowed, but another step towards his full acceptance in this clan. He wouldn't be at all surprised if Gabriel ended up with all three of those ladies as mates, just like the trio of mates he'd had in Avalon; maybe that would put a smile on his face again!
Unfortunately, it seemed Gabriel wasn't reading from the same script Angus had in mind. "((Warrior needed lesson to be nice to strangers,))" Gabriel snarled back at the clan leader as he brushed off the females as if they were annoying insects, and got into a combat-ready stance again. "((Do you need lesson too?))" And he snapped out his wings, lifted his face to the Northern Lights overhead and roared; the full-throated bellow of a gargoyle male in his prime that was ready and eager for a fight.
Everyone assembled gasped, including Angus, though his gasp was from horror instead of outrage. Had Gabriel gone nuts?! He'd just challenged anyone and everyone in the entire clan to combat, including their leader! Angus had figured out already, from what they'd learned of the Wendigo Clan's primitive culture, that the leader of the clan was not necessarily the wisest or best at leading, but the strongest and best at combat. If Gabriel won this challenge, he could end up leading this clan, just as he'd led the clan on Avalon! But if he lost… he could end up being banished, or killed outright!
"((Leader, I teach stranger to speak with respect!))" one huge and burly dark green warrior that rivaled Goliath in size snarled as he stepped forward, fists clenched and eyes glowing white as he saw not only an opportunity to beat the arrogant stranger, but to win more battle-status for himself and the leader's good graces.
"((No, I teach him!))" "((And me!))" "((We kill human-loving stranger!))" Several others stepped forward.
"Angus, get out of here NOW!" Gabriel bellowed in English, without looking at his younger brother. Instead, he pointed directly at the first warrior who'd spoken, and switched to the Wendigo tongue as he made an insolent beckoning gesture at him. "((You! You brave enough to fight me alone?))"
Angus understood, as he turned and dashed out of the clearing at top speed, scrambling swiftly up the nearest tree until he had clearance enough to snap his wings out and glide away. Gabriel's only chance for survival was to goad them into fighting him only one at a time; if Angus had tried to join him in combat, that would give the Wendigo clan all the excuse they needed to pile up on them both, overwhelming them by sheer weight of numbers. But if he kept them to fighting only one at a time, with all the skills he'd been taught, he stood a fighting chance. Unless one of them got in a lucky blow… or until they tired him down…
As Angus took to the air, he could hear behind him the snarl of the dark green warrior as he accepted the challenge, and the first resounding clash of blows as the two met in combat.
Seven foes later, Gabriel knew he was in deep trouble. He'd been facing the biggest, fastest, strongest and best warriors this clan had to offer, and no sooner would he defeat one opponent than another one would leap in, sometimes in the very second after the last one hit the snow. After all his combat training in the last four years he'd developed plenty of stamina for fighting, but this nonstop unrelenting combat was tiring him out.
He'd also been the recipient of a few unlucky blows, that had him bleeding from a slash in his left wing, a gash on his left arm and another one on his right leg, bruised in a few more places, and he was pretty sure that one of his fingers had been broken; but it was on the crippled hand, which he was used to compensating for already, so it didn't bother him as much. But still, the pain, fatigue and blood loss were beginning to tell on him.
He'd just barely managed to finish off his last opponent by dodging a right hook and using the male's own shoulder as a brace to vault clean over him, and twist as he landed to slam a double-fisted haymaker punch on that sensitive spot right between the wings. It was the gargoyle equivalent to kicking a guy right in the balls, and the warrior had screamed in agony as he'd collapsed. And even in this apparently no-holds-barred combat, it was bound to be considered 'dirty fighting'…
"((FOUL!))" The clan leader shouted, right on cue. He jammed his spear upright in the snow and took off his necklace of human fingers, and stepped into the clearing as he growled, "((Stranger, you fight foul, and I no tolerate that! You bad to stay here, you and your foreign human-loving ways; now you face me! And you die!))"
Sure, wait until nearly a full eight of your warriors have tired me out, then fight me, Gabriel thought with a sneer, but dared not waste the breath to say it, not with his lungs heaving for precious air after half an hour of nonstop action. Instead, he and the clan leader began circling each other in the field of snow that had been trampled to bloody slush, while two more clan members darted in to grab the heels of the last warrior and drag him away with the others.
This was it, the most crucial battle. If he lost this fight, he was guaranteed to die; the clan leader had proclaimed it, and would probably rip his throat out once he'd been brought down. If he won, he could end up becoming the clan's new leader… Unless another young bravo decided to challenge him for the title before he had a chance to recover, publicly proclaiming that the stranger was unfit to lead them and privately thinking to win the mantle of leadership for himself…
His vision blurred momentarily, and he blinked to clear the blood out of his eyes—which opponent had caused the gash in his forehead?--then moved just in time to dodge the first strike from the clan leader, who had seen the blinking as an opportunity to attack. He used a judo move and most of his remaining energy to throw the leader over his shoulder and upend him into the snow.
But the leader either had observed how his other warriors had fared against this trick or actually knew something about falling correctly, because he bounced back up from it before Gabriel could catch his breath enough to follow through. They began to circle each other again, while Gabriel's blood roared in his ears like jet engines…
No, those were real jets. And just as he realized that, a shaft of brilliant red light sliced between them with a TZOW! as it burned through the bloody slush and blew chunks of dirt and debris into the air.
The clan leader cried out in shock and fear of the unknown and staggered back as the laser beam made a strafing run between them, carving a line in the slush that no Wendigo clan member would dare cross. Gabriel looked up, to see Coldstone turning in midair to descend into the clearing, with Coldfire and Angus right behind him. Angus had his wings tightly furled as their mother came in with him clasped to her robotic form in a full-bodied hug, the better to make a streamlined shape for flying. The two metallic gargoyles must have kicked in the afterburners and flown here at full speed, which was at least five times faster than Angus could have glided back on his own, even assuming he hadn't tired himself out in his wild flight to summon the cavalry.
Coldstone kept his forearm laser cocked and ready as he landed in the clearing, but no one was willing to face the 'shiny monsters' again; all the Wendigo Clan turned tail and ran, dragging or carrying their fallen warriors with them. Coldstone said curtly as he shut off his jets, "We got here as fast as we could. How are you holding up?"
"J-just barely," Gabriel admitted, leaning over to brace himself on his shaking thighs as he gulped in great heaving lungfuls of precious air.
"Gabriel! Angus told us what happened!" Coldfire called out to him as she began her descent. Angus unfurled his wings, swung free and caught the air in his membranes as she descended so he could spiral down on his own, carrying the first aid kit that they'd held clamped between them on their flight across the countryside. "How badly are you hurt?"
"I'll live… but I'm really looking forward to sunrise," Gabriel admitted, as mother and son came in for a landing.
Gabriel surveyed the ruined clearing and the gargoyles being carried or dragged by their rapidly retreating comrades, and asked bluntly but with a trace of admiration in his voice, "How many did you beat all together?"
"Seven… No, eight, counting the one who first challenged me. The leader would have been number nine."
Coldstone raised his brow ridges. "I'm impressed." Then he added, "By both your battle prowess, and your sheer stupidity. What were you thinking?"
Angus wasted no time, but broke out the first aid kit supplies and began using the limited medical training he'd learned during their stay in Manhattan. "If I wasn't a good brother who loves you, I wouldn't even be giving you anything to numb the pain," he scolded as he applied a topical analgesic to Gabriel's wing before stitching the gash closed. "You didn't have to challenge everybody like that; if you'd just said that the first one had challenged you as a male and you'd answered in return, that would have been the end of it! You might have even ended up with one or more of those ladies as girlfriends! Now that Mum and Da had to come to your rescue--and don't tell me that you could have taken them all on and won, not even Goliath is that good!--now that they've had to come in, the others will probably have nothing to do with you!"
"I know, I know," Gabriel groaned, as he held his left wing out awkwardly so Angus could stitch it. "I just… I was stupid, all right? I overreached myself."
The wing was trembling with fatigue, and Coldstone shook his head as he gently took hold of it to steady it as Angus stitched. "Let me guess… You saw an opportunity to become the leader of a large clan again, and grabbed for it without thinking it through."
"And in the process," Coldstone finished, as she worked on the other side of her son, cleaning and bandaging the gash in Gabriel's leg, "You sabotaged not only your own work on finding a mate again… but Angus' as well. That little green female you told us about, the one you named Bea, will probably avoid him now as well. Gabriel, how could you be so selfish?!"
"I'm sorry… I really am sorry," Gabriel groaned miserably. "Angus, I had no right or reason to ruin your chances like that…"
"Just shut up and hold still," Angus said grimly as he stitched. He had a sinking feeling Mum was right about Bea, and his spirits sunk in despair at the mere thought of never seeing her again. Even if he wasn't so sure about them ever becoming mates, he'd liked her, and it had been so nice to have somebody his own age to talk to…
Standing guard as the others worked on their wounded member, Coldstone kept an eye out for returning warriors, wondering if this time they'd resort to bringing torches of their much-dreaded fire against the 'shiny monsters'. An image from his memory banks flickered through his mind, from a film he'd either seen or had programmed into his memory by Xanatos' techs; one of a mob of frightened humans wielding such torches, against Frankenstein's monster. He almost smiled in bitter irony at the comparison.
They'd finished cleaning and bandaging Gabriel's wounds and were repacking the first aid kit, preparing to go back to Coldstone and Coldfire's base camp, when Angus perked his ears. Had he just heard… Heart beating faster in hope, he said without looking up, "Mum, Da, hold really still for a few minutes, okay?" Coldfire and Coldstone obediently froze in place, and Gabriel, who had been about to get to his feet again, sank back down and looked at Angus questioningly. Angus gestured for him to stay put, while he stood up and walked away a few feet towards the north. Then he stood still, and said softly, "Bea? ((Is all good, you can come out now… You safe now. Truth! I know they look scary-bad, but they only save my brother, they no actually hurt anyone…))"
The faintest whisper of movement, from one of the trees nearby, and a slight motion that might have been a wing twitching nervously, or might have been just a branch swaying under the weight of snow. Angus took another deep breath, and said, "((I prove to you that all is good-safe. Watch this!))" And he turned back to his family, saying with a wry grin, "Mum, Da, I'm saying in advance that I'm really really sorry, and I need you to hold really still and not say anything for a while longer…" Then he gave a whoop like an excited hatchling and ran straight for Coldfire. As she was still holding perfectly still, he used her shoulder for a vault, tossing himself high into the air, and landed perfectly on one foot and with his wings outspread for balance… right on Coldstone's head.
"Oof!" Coldstone grunted softly—even if his cyborg frame was tougher and stronger than an ordinary gargoyle's, Angus was no lightweight anymore—but otherwise made no sound, and did his best to hold still as his youngest son used him for a private playground. Angus first danced from foot to foot on his head, then walked out onto the one outstretched arm and back, then did a headstand on his sire's head while his legs and tail waved in the air. And their efforts were rewarded, with a faint giggle wafting in from the trees. It was very faint, and quickly muffled… but there was definitely somebody there.
Encouraged, Angus vaulted from there onto Coldfire's back as she crouched, still frozen in the process of repacking the first aid kit, and gave her the same treatment. "((See? They no move, unless I tell them to!))" Angus called out to the shadows, while subjecting his parents to abuse that no ordinary rookery keeper would have tolerated on his or her personal being. He vaulted back to Coldstone and perched in between his sire's metallic wings as he pointed to Coldfire and said, "((Want to come look-touch that one? Aw, I know you curious; come and poke!))"
Gabriel just shook his head from where he was lying on the ground watching the whole affair, having no doubt at all that his sire and dam were not happy at their treatment. He knew how much they loathed it when people treated them like machines instead of people, and if their unseen watcher didn't come out to play, Angus was going to be in really deep gravel before the night was over.
But then the shadows moved, and the deep green of a young gargoyle's hide separated from the deep green of the pine. Bea dropped the pine bough she'd been holding over her head to disguise her bright yellow mane and came timidly out of the stand of trees, inching closer and closer… Gabriel laid his head back and pretended to flesh-sleep from his injuries, but watched through slitted eyes as Bea slowly came up to hesitantly prod at Coldfire with a talon.
She touched the golden metal of Coldfire's wings just once, then leaped a good ten feet away, but Coldfire remained utterly motionless. Soon she came back and began exploring in earnest, feeling along Coldfire's wings, jet pack and legs, and counting her talons. It was when she was thoughtfully tracing Coldfire's facial features, her talon scraping lightly with a sound like fingernails on a chalkboard, that Coldfire decided enough was enough and turned her electronic eyes back on, shining white against the gold. "Boo!"
Bea drew in a sharp breath for screaming as she bolted backwards, but Gabriel had been slowly getting to his feet while she explored, and now he grabbed her with both hands and tail before she could get away, and slapped a hand over her mouth before more than a squeak could emerge. She struggled in his grip, while Coldstone surged to life and shrugged Angus off into the surrounding slush with a growl of "Off! That's more than enough foolishness!"
"Sshhh… Ssshhh… ((We no harm you, we no harm you…))" Gabriel said soothingly while holding onto the struggling youngster, and wincing when she hit one of his freshly-bandaged wounds. "((Please, no run, no scream. We no harm you, you safe…))"
Angus scrambled back to his feet after landing in the slush, and hurriedly brushed it off of him and out of his hair as he sat down beside her. "((We sorry, Bea, no want to trick you, but otherwise you not come near to see! Truly, they no harm, we no harm. You safe…))"
Eventually, Bea stopped struggling and trying to bite through his hand so she could scream. Gabriel slowly loosened his grip a little, and took his hand from over her mouth. Bea eyed the metallic gargoyles warily, and asked Angus, "((What are they?))"
"((They gargoyles, like us! Only they have different skin; not just different color, but different kind.))" Angus knew there was no way he could explain the concept of a cyborg, let alone of a robotic shell that magically housed a gargoyle's soul, to one who had no real concept of machinery to begin with.
Bea finally decided not to run away, though she flinched whenever Coldfire and Coldstone got too near her. So the elders remained crouched and several paces away from her, while Angus explained, "((Gabriel and I must go now; leave your clan. If we try stay…))"
"((If you stay, leader kill Gabriel,))" Bea said bluntly.
"((…Yes. So, we go. We go far south, to... to see human things. Things like I tell you about, and many more; many good things!))" Angus smiled hopefully. "((You come with us?))"
Bea's eyes grew wide, and they could see her visibly considering it for several long seconds… but finally, she shook her head. "((No.))"
Angus and Gabriel both tried to persuade her, but ultimately to no avail. The gargoyle territorial instinct, combined with her wariness of Coldstone and Coldfire, were stronger than Bea's curiosity about the world outside her territory.
Gabriel recognized that truth before Angus did, and while Angus was still trying to persuade Bea to come with them, he muttered to Coldfire, "Would you please get the television and the solar recharger from the camp? I have an idea, that may help the clan in the long term."
Coldfire nodded, and went rocketing back to the camp. She returned with the dufflebag that contained the TV and solar recharger, just as Angus finally gave up, slumping his shoulders as he muttered to Bea, "((I sad to leave you…))"
"((We all sad to leave you,))" Gabriel said as he dug into his belt pouch, and pulled out one of the language spell-pills. "((And so you remember us… we give you things. First, a special food,))" as he handed Bea the pill and gestured for her to eat it.
Bea sniffed at the pill, then popped it into her mouth as Gabriel continued in English, "In a few seconds you'll be able to understand us in our own language, and as soon as you can do that, we have another gift—""I understand!" Bea interrupted, pop-eyed with amazement. "I—I talk like you now! Is magic!"
"Yes, a good magic," Gabriel said with a smile as he opened the dufflebag and handed the TV unit over to Angus. "And here is more magic, the kind that we call technology. Angus, tune this to the Noggin channel, and then find a way to lock it on that channel only…"
Angus did as requested, and soon Bea was watching with eyes wide as saucers as the characters of Play With Me Sesame sang and cavorted on the screen. While she was entranced, Gabriel explained to the others, "We'll show her how to turn the TV on and off, and how to recharge the batteries; if she takes good care of it, the setup should last at least a few years. Long enough for her to learn via the children's shows that humans aren't all evil creatures, and hopefully long enough for her to teach that attitude, as well as English, to the other hatchlings of her generation. At least it'll be a step in changing this clan's—"
"Waitaminnit; we're going to leave the TV here?" Angus interrupted in dismay.
"An excellent idea," Coldstone said emphatically, with a humorous glint in his natural eye. "Angus, you yourself said that Noggin is a positive influence for children, and it doesn't show any commercials…"
It took another half-hour to be sure Bea understood how to turn the TV on and off, and how to maintain the batteries and the solar recharger. She assured them she knew of a good hiding place for the entire setup, and they gave her their three remaining spell-pills. After the furor over recent events had died down, she could use the pills to teach English to three other hatchlings of her generation, once she was sure they could be entrusted with the secret of the television.
And after a final round of goodbyes, the little clan of four went back to their base camp, Coldstone carrying Gabriel since he was still in no shape to glide any distance. After due consideration as to what they needed and what could be left behind, the robotic and cyborg gargoyles loaded themselves down with the essentials, then picked up their sons and fired their jets again. They wanted to get as much distance between themselves and the Wendigo Clan as possible before sunrise, just in case their leader decided to 'save face' for the cowardly way he'd run from Coldstone, by having the entire clan attack them.
By dawn, they were over a hundred miles past the territory claimed by the Wendigo Clan. They came to rest for the day in a clearing on the side of a foothill, facing southwest towards the village of Dawson, just visible on the horizon.
After the sun had risen, Coldstone eyed Gabriel's sleeping form and shook his head in disgust once more. Now that Gabriel could no longer hear it, he grumbled again, "I still can't believe how Gabriel ruined all chances for acceptance in that clan. From what they'd written in the journal about this clan's mating practices, and from what they told us tonight about the first fight, he was nearly within arm's reach of having a mate again! And he throws it all away, on a foolish gamble to become a clan leader once more. How could he think that he could take on not just the clan leader, but the entire clan in combat, and win?!" Then he noticed how Coldfire was looking off to the southern horizon, and shaking her head slightly. "What is it?"
"…Nothing important, my love."
Coldstone eyed her knowingly. "After all these decades—centuries!--I know you better than that. What did you notice that I have not?"
Coldfire looked back at him. "I may be wrong about this… but I believe Gabriel knew very well that he would not win. That's why he challenged them all."
Coldstone blinked his living eye. "You mean… he set himself up to be killed? Dragon take it all, I thought he was past those suicidal urges! I know he's been depressed after the death of his friend in Manhattan, but not nearly as bad as he was when we first met…"
Coldfire shook her head again. "I don't think he had his own death in mind. But I do think that, even if only subconsciously, he set himself up to be banished for certain, either as punishment for his challenge or as a result of our intervention to save him."
Coldstone considered, then nodded slowly. "Because it had become obvious that clan would never accept either of us as gargoyles and clan members; we would eventually have had to leave them be and go elsewhere, once they were properly settled in. I know that was bothering Angus, but I'd thought Gabriel had resigned himself to our parting."
Coldfire tilted her head as she admitted, "We may well be part of the reason why he did that… but not all of it. I feel sure that in his heart, our son wanted no part of a clan that could not accept not only ourselves, but humans as friends instead of enemies. If he'd stayed with that clan, knowing that he could not single-handedly erase all the distrust and hatred that had built up over the centuries… It would have seemed a betrayal of those humans he holds dear to his own heart. The ones who raised him, and the ones he'd once raised… and the one he loved."
Coldstone harrumphed again, then admitted, "You may well be right."
Coldfire's face could not change expression, but she conveyed a great deal with her posture and her voice as she said sweetly, "Aren't I always?"
This time, Coldstone refused to rise to the bait. Instead, he turned to face the rising sun as he said, "Well, in any case, this land was just too cold for my liking. Once sunset comes, we're heading further south; I want to find someplace warm."THE END