Club Gung-Ho
by Christine Morgan
christine@sabledrake.com / http://www.christine-morgan.org


Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney
and used here without their knowledge or consent. Due to violence,
language, and sexual content, this story is for mature readers only!

Acknowledgements: this story could not have been written without
GURPS Special Ops (by Greg Rose) and GURPS Ultra-Tech (by David
Pulver). Special thanks to my husband Tim and fellow fanfic writer
Doug Elder.

#36 in an ongoing saga.




SOMEWHERE OFF THE COAST OF SOUTH AMERICA --

The pilot told them that the H-39 Dragonfly was Chilean-built.
Though Kostas knew better, he didn't call him on it.
"Going to be a great week," the kid ventured, setting his gear
at his feet. It all looked brand-new and expensive.
Kostas only nodded and stuffed his battered packsack under
the bench.
Silence. They each looked out the small round windows as the
land slipped away and an expanse of travel-agency-perfect blue sea
opened beneath them. The whupping of the rotors was muffled, not
quite loud enough to deter conversation.
"I thought there'd be more people," the kid tried again.
"Yeah."
Another silence. No stewardess to explain the emergency
procedures, no in-flight movie or even a magazine for distraction.
The kid checked his watch. He was nineteen if he was a day,
which made Kostas wonder how the hell he was affording this trip. Rich
daddy, most likely.
Still nearly three hours to go.
The kid glanced around, bored, then brightened. "Hey, what
do you think is in those crates?"
Kostas shrugged. "Equipment, I guess."
"Let's take a look! For what we're paying, I think we deserve
it!"
Kostas watched, making no move to join him. "Probably food,
toilet paper."
"No, it's guns and stuff, I bet you! M-16s, maybe, or grenade
launchers!"
Both crates were securely strapped to the floor, each a good
five feet high. No invoices neatly stapled in plastic covers to the sides,
nothing to indicate they'd been through any sort of Customs check. Only
some lettering stamped onto the wood., and big arrows indicating "This
Way Up."
"N.Uln? XanEnt?" the young man read curiously. "Weird.
Cuban, do you think? Russian?"
"Xanatos Enterprises, pinhead."
"Cool! Non-projectile weapons! Cyber-enhanced bodysuits!
The war-tech of the future! Wow! Let's open it!"
"Nah. We'll get there soon enough."
"Well, I'm not waiting!" The kid burrowed through his pack
and came up with one of the pricey all-purpose mini-tools sold from ads
in the back of the mercenary mags. It looked like a king-sized version
of a Swiss Army knife.
"You get into that, and they'll have your ass on a plate once we
land," Kostas said.
"I'm not going to break anything. I just want a look. This is
better than Christmas." He started trying to pry up one of the corners of
the lid, carefully at first.
Twenty minutes later, when the kid was sweaty and red-faced
and had a splinter under his thumbnail, he flung down his jazzy toy in
disgust.
"Need a crowbar?" The tone of his voice must have made it
clear he thought the kid was a doofus, expensive gear or not.
"I can get it!" He attacked the crate again, this time not
bothering with neatness. A long piece of wood split off, looking like
something you could go after a vampire with. A wad of strawlike stuff
puffed out, covering the kid's brand-new combat boots. The corner
came up with a squeal.
The kid lifted off the top of the crate and boosted his skinny
shanks up to peer inside. He threw a few more tufts of the packing
stuffing out as he thrust his arm down.
He stopped. "What the hell? That doesn't feel like metal!"
Now Kostas got up, leaning over the kid's shoulder just as the
kid pulled out an armful of stuffing.
A hideous face leered monstrously up at them.
The kid yipped like a puppy and fell on his rear, and said
something that sounded suspiciously like "Mama!"
Kostas recoiled for a moment, then slowly reached into the
crate. His fingers brushed across coarse stone. "It's a statue."
"Statue?" the kid gasped, scrambling to his feet and trying to
look like his fall was due to the nonexistent turbulence.
"Statue," he confirmed, rapping his knuckles dead-center on
the creased forehead. "Ugly sumbitch, too."

* *

ONE WEEK AGO IN NEW YORK --

Winged silhouettes chased each other across the moon.
She stood with her hands on her hips and the wind in her hair,
watching them, judging them. At this distance, her expression was
unreadable. His own discontent at their performance made him sure that
her stance was angry, disapproving.
He lashed out with his tail, catching the beaked one just above
the ear. "A warrior has to be able to turn on a wingtip!" he scolded, then
turned to shout at the fat one. "No, no! He gave you an opening; take
it!"
A mournful, apologetic reply drifted to him, and his eyes
flared briefly white. "Of _course_ you'll hurt him! He needs a reason to
remember his mistake!"
Again, the fat one and the bearded one dove at each other,
claws at the ready, each trying to get in a blow and catch an updraft
over the lake. They struck and deflected in a flurry of movements that
would have made Bruce Lee nod appreciatively, but then their wings
jostled each other and they lost control, plunging toward the water.
Jericho slapped a hand over his eyes and moaned.
They recovered in time and veered skyward again, but the
damage had been done. She had turned away, and was headed for the
house.
Jericho swore to himself, then looked at the clones. They
quailed under his withering gaze, and acquiesced meekly when he
directed them to practice their basic gliding exercises yet again.
He left them to it, descending toward the house. The front door
stood open. He landed on the porch, caped his wings, and went inside
with head drooping dispiritedly. He had let her down yet again, she,
whose regard meant more to him than any other on this world or
Avalon.
She was waiting for him in the grand hall, still showing him
her back as she faced the blazing fire. The fireplace was of a size as to
roast a whole ox, its leaping light illuminating the whole room.
He sighed. His body ached from night upon night of putting
the clones through their paces, and now his soul ached because he knew
it wasn't good enough.
"Demona, I'm sorry."
Now she half-turned to him, fire and shadow playing over her
features. "Sorry?"
A long bench curved in front of the hearth, and he sank onto it
with another weary sigh. "You set me the task of training the clan, and
yet they've learned nothing."
She sat beside him, touched the lock of hair that fell over his
forehead. Hair as thick and scarlet as her own, just as his skin was
twilight-blue as her own. He both loved and hated the similarities to
their appearance. Loved, for he knew how it pleased her that her son
bore the unmistakable mark of her genes. Hated, for it meant he could
never forget that he was her son, and only that.
"Jericho --" how she said his name, how her voice made it a
caress. "They follow your every command. They are loyal,
unquestioning."
"They do my bidding. Exactly that, and no more. I cannot
order every move they must make in a battle! They none of them have a
will of their own! Even once, I wish one would challenge me, protest,
do something on his own, have something that passes for an original
thought!"
She stroked his hair, smiling. "We must always remember that
they are not quite true gargoyles. Poor copies. We can blame Thailog
and Sevarius, but we shouldn't blame the clones. They cannot help their
limitations."
"I know. Sevarius complained about it often enough as we
planned to retrieve them from the Labyrinth. How Thailog had forced
him to work with poor equipment, and rushed him along."
"Part of the fault is mine," Demona admitted. "I chose to let
myself be captured, that I might collect the DNA samples. I wanted one
last chance to try and explain to Angela. I should have been making
sure Sevarius did a better job." Her eyes darkened. "None of this
Delilah nonsense then! And Ventura --" she looked suddenly away, into
the leaping flames.
"Ventura?"
She bowed her head. "It's time you knew. I so badly wanted a
clan of my own, a family of my own, that I even had Sevarius clone
your sister. I hoped I could win Angela over, but in my heart I knew
that Goliath had already turned her against me. I thought, perhaps, with
Ventura, I could reclaim some small part of her."
"Where is she?"
"Dead. The clones grew in tanks, and there was a problem with
hers. So they said -- so _he_ said. But he killed her. Thailog. He
programmed the clones to be his slaves, tried to replace me with that
abomination Delilah, and took my last hope of my daughter away from
me."
He touched her shoulder, trying not to notice how smooth her
skin felt beneath his palm. She tipped her head so that her cheek rested
upon the back of his hand, and smiled up at him.
"But now I have you," she said. "And you, my Jericho, are all
the clan I need."
"Always," he promised.
"You haven't failed me. You haven't disappointed me. The
clones learn slowly, but they do learn. And you are a good teacher, the
best second-in-command I could hope to have. Do you think I haven't
seen how you've driven yourself? You've worked yourself half to death
trying to mold them into warriors."
"I wanted you to have reason to be proud. Though," he
admitted as he shifted his wings and arms painfully, "I may have
overdone it."
She laughed softly. "I know how you feel. When I was in
charge of teaching the young warriors, I was always worried that I
wouldn't be thorough enough. A day's stone sleep never seemed long
enough to leach the aches from my body."
He nodded ruefully. "Tonight I thought my wings would
barely carry me."
"You should be more careful. The last thing you need is a
lingering injury or a sprung wing joint. Here, this'll help." She rose and
moved behind him, and seized his shoulders in her strong grip. Her
fingers found the knots in his muscles as if by magic, massaging them
away.
Jericho groaned and slumped forward on the bench, closing his
eyes.
"I could swear it was daybreak already, you're so tense," she
remarked. Her hands moved down, over his shoulderblades, to his wing
joints.
He sucked in a breath between his teeth. Though her touch was
brisk and no-nonsense, his reaction wasn't as her thumbs slipped low
along the place where his wings met his back.
"Hurts?"
He didn't quite trust his voice, so he shook his head.
"Just a minute." She released him and he heard her cross the
room, opening drawers. He didn't look up, just stayed where he was
with his hands fisted and pressing on his knees, trying to will away his
helpless response.
"Aha!" she said, and now he heard her returning. "This always
helps me relax."
A cinnamony scent reached him. He heard a gentle liquid
sound, then felt a trickle down his spine. It was cool at first, but quickly
warmed.
Demona's hands, now coated with warm oil, returned to his
back. His breath escaped him in a shudder. The heat seemed to sink to
his very bones. Her touch was molten velvet, first kneading his
shoulders, then sliding with firm pressure up and down along the base
of his wings.
She stopped abruptly, with a muttered curse, and Jericho went
cold because he was sure she'd become aware that his forearms were
pushed down firmly on his lap in an entirely useless effort to control
another aching and stiff part of himself.
He waited with dread for her shocked and angry outburst. She
would denounce him for having such thoughts, for repaying her with his
sinful lust after all she'd done for him. How could he explain to her that
he could no longer think of her as his mother, that he wanted her with
every breath and every heartbeat -- she'd cast him out! He would be
clanless, too much a part of this world now to ever return to Avalon.
Without her, he had nothing, and he had ruined it all by his adolescent
yearnings!
"I got oil on my halter," she murmured, followed by the
rustling of cloth against flesh.
Jericho's stunned eyes flew wide open, in time to see the halter
drop onto the bench beside him. If his neck had been tense before, that
was nothing compared to now as he fought to keep from turning his
head. She was right behind him, inches away, and he could all-too-
easily envision how the firelight would dance on her bare skin.
He squeezed his eyes shut, his fists clenched so tight that his
hands were going numb. He forced his mind to think about something,
anything, other than the vision he knew he'd behold if he looked around.
Clothing, he told himself, was an affectation the gargoyles had
adopted out of consideration for the humans. Thus the Magus had
instructed them, when they were of an age to no longer be naked
hatchlings gamboling on the fields of Avalon.
Thus, with no humans about, what did it matter if they went
clothed or not? This line of thought was not helping. He tried to think
of Avalon, but all that did was summon to mind the sleek bodies of his
rookery sisters and the mating games they'd played. From there, it was a
short step to compare Tourmaline's tall, lithe form with Demona's, and
he was back where he'd started.
He tried mentally reciting the states in alphabetical order, and
was just beginning to think he'd successfully distracted himself when
she reached over his shoulders to massage his chest and brought her
upper torso fully against his slick, oiled skin.
The buckle of her belt, low on her hips, pressed its cold kiss
against the base of his spine. His tail coiled reflexively, by pure
accident brushing against her taut calf.
Jericho's teeth sank into his lip, bringing the bitter taste of
blood. His talons gored six small wounds in his legs. How could she not
know the effect she was having on him? Had Goliath and Thailog been
so dull and heatless that she was ignorant of her power over males?
What she thought an innocent act left him barely able to keep from
leaping upon her and bearing her to the floor.
The pain from his teeth and talons did nothing to deter him.
Only the last shred of willpower, the knowledge that he would buy with
a moment's passion a lifetime of desolation, kept him from doing so.
"You're even worse off than I thought," she observed, as he
began to quake beneath her hands. "Maybe you need a vacation!"
She said it in a laughing tone, but his fevered mind seized
upon the idea. A vacation, yes, a time away. Not necessarily from the
clones and his duties but from the constant temptation of her. A time to
clear his head, make sense of his desires.
She left off the delicious, torturous massage and reached for
her halter. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the briefest glimpse of
one breast, before looking away so sharply he thought his neck might
crack.
"That might not be such a bad idea," he said, hearing the
words as if they came from a far distance. "But what about the clones?"
"They could probably use the break too," she chuckled. "Is
there anywhere you've been wanting to go?"
"Actually, yes." Now that she was no longer touching him, his
pulse and attendant collections of blood in various areas had subsided.
He was even able to look at her now, and grinned. "It would even be a
sort of working vacation, if we can manage it!"

* *

MEANWHILE, AT CASTLE WYVERN --

"Hey, Goliath?"
Brooklyn was ready to back off if the clan leader looked
annoyed at the interruption. In fact, he was kind of hoping Goliath
_would_ be annoyed, tell him to bug off and come back later.
But, instead, Goliath marked his place in the thick book and
closed it. "Yes, Brooklyn?"
"Uh ... I don't mean to disturb you ..."
"I'd just finished the chapter. Your timing couldn't be better."
"Great," Brooklyn muttered. He slouched over to one of the
high stools and perched on it. "Whatcha reading?"
He expected to hear the name of some dry classic or dead
author, or both, but Goliath surprised him by saying, "The Stand."
"That movie with Molly Ringwald?" Brooklyn blurted, and
Goliath looked pained. "Forget it. Movie's never as good as the book,
right?"
Goliath set the book down. "You didn't come in here to discuss
my reading habits, did you?"
"Well, no." He swung one foot awkwardly, realized it was a
habit he'd had as a hatchling when called upon to confess some prank,
and made himself quit. "It's Hudson."
"Ah." Goliath frowned.
"All he's done for weeks now is sit in front of the TV. He
hasn't left the castle in I don't know how long, and the only time he's
seemed at all lively was when Aiden zapped us into animals and he tore
the hell out of the pantry."
"He's not as young as he once was."
"Yeah, yeah, nobody is, but does that mean you're going to let
him veg in front of the tube for the rest of his life?"
"What would you have me do, Brooklyn? He is an elder, the
only elder our clan has. If we still lived in our own time, we should
honor him for living so long in the savagery of that age."
"I know. But I'm worried about him. The past few nights, he's
been watching all these war movies, and saying things about how old
soldiers never die --"
"They just fade away," Goliath finished with him. "If that is
how he chooses to spend his time, we should respect it. It is his ... what
do they call it? Retirement."
"But what about the rest of us? What about the clan? With
Broadway gone, we're already down by one, and it would take a tactical
nuke to blast Hudson out of that recliner, so that just leaves four of us to
patrol. Nobody wants to complain, but it's starting to stress us out. And
the thing is, Hudson's not _that_ old! He could still take me down three
out of five, if he wanted to!"
"Brooklyn, it is his choice."
"Yeah, but what if he thinks that's the only choice he has? He
sucks up all this crap on TV, all about how humans think their elders
are useless, and he starts wondering if that's him too! Damn it, Goliath,
I remember him going through the Vikings like a wrecking ball! Or
what about the time he fought the incubus? You were out of it, didn't
see that one, but he kicked its noncorporeal butt! It makes me sick to
see him give up!"
"Why are you telling all this to me?"
"I lost the toss," he grumbled. "No, really, Angela and Lex and
I decided that someone better, and since I'm your second-in-
command --"
"I meant why tell me, not Hudson?"
"I didn't think he'd listen to me." Brooklyn sighed. "I'm always
going to be a hatchling in his eyes, all of us are, and he's not going to
put up with a hatchling telling him what to do. If I thought it would stir
him up, get him mad, I'd do it like that!" He snapped his fingers. "But
he'd blow it off. He wouldn't if it came from you."
"Don't be so sure, my friend," Goliath said quietly. "Don't be
so sure."

* *

His sight might be going, but there was nothing wrong with his
ears, so he even heard that last quiet comment. Rather than linger to
hear more, he turned silently away from the library.
The sandwich and glass of milk he'd left their quarters to get
(nobody restocked the fridge as diligently now that Broadway was off
with Elektra) were all but forgotten in his hands as he walked down the
long curving corridor. He'd been coming back from the main kitchen
just in time to see Brooklyn slink into the library, and the young lad's
hangdog expression had drawn him curiously over.
"Never listen at knotholes, lest ye be vexed," he said to
himself. Truth in old adages, aye, that much was certain.
Not even Bronx was here to greet him. Angela, concerned
because she thought the watchdog was getting flabby, had persuaded
Lex to take him along on their patrol and let him romp in the park. He'd
come home in a fine mood, that he would, full of pride over muggers
he'd trounced.
The television was still on. One nice thing about having the
place to himself was that nobody pounced on the remote the moment
his back was turned, letting him come back to find music videos or Star
Trek on in place of his programs.
He settled into the recliner with a wheeze and a grunt,
propping his feet on the scuffed ottoman and taking a big bite of his
sandwich. Cold meatloaf on pumpernickel, with lots of mustard and a
nice thick slice of onion. Angela would have wrinkled her nose, but the
lass wasn't here to criticize. And wait until she was breeding -- she
thought human women craved some strange things!
He chewed absently, methodically, his thoughts fixed on what
Brooklyn had been saying. The lad was right, of course. He'd all but
grown roots in this chair. It was molded to his shape, so that if
Lexington tried to sit in it, the wee fellow sank into the middle.
The elders before him hadn't grown soft and useless. They'd
gone on, fighting and teaching, until the end of their nights. True, their
lives were harder, their time more savage, as Goliath had noted. In this
modern world, he stood a chance at outliving even the oldest of the
clan's elders.
And how long, he wondered, might that be? Another ten
years? Twenty? Even fifty was not beyond possibility. Would he want
to spend fifty years in this chair?
There were no hatchlings to teach, and wouldn't be for at least
fifteen years, given the time it took to breed, lay, hatch, and grow old
enough to learn. What did that leave?
Fighting?
From the start, he had disliked the new way battles were fought
in this age. A warrior should never be further from his foe than a
bowshot. None of this "pushing the button" from a safely-ensconced
headquarters miles below the earth. No satellites with death-rays. No
germ warfare.
Even the less-global ways of it were foreign to him. He knew
nothing of guns except not to get in front of the wrong end. The real
weapons of the world's armies seemed as impossible and incredible as
the lasers and phasers on the shows Lexington liked.
Sitting in front of the flickering screen but not seeing it, eating
his sandwich but not tasing it, he came to realize that he was being an
old fart. Refusing to accept that times had changed. Refusing to learn,
refusing to grow. Which made him as good as dead, as his friend
Robbins would say. Robbins hadn't given up. When he'd lost his sight,
he'd learned a new way to read. Why couldn't he, Hudson, learn the new
ways to fight?
Aye, he thought wryly to himself, and who's going to teach ye,
ye old fool? Ye're too proud and stubborn to ask the young ones for
help, Brooklyn was right in that much. And ye'd sooner take to wearing
a tutu than go begging to Xanatos.
That image startled a laugh from him. He brushed crumbs from
his beard, shaking his head. And then his attention was caught by a
rattle of machine-gun fire, the dull crump! of a grenade, and the scream
of a jet engine.
He'd seen this commercial a thousand times during the war-
movie marathon, and paid it no mind. Just as he tuned out the Friendly
Psychic Hotline and Magnetic Spiffy Duster ads that seemed to make
up the rest of the breaks. But now he lowered his glass and watched as
the camera panned across a bone-white beach set against a steamy green
jungle.
A man in camouflage and facepaint raced up the beach,
kicking up plumes of sand. He was armed to his bared, snarling (and
doubtless sand-filled) teeth, grenades swinging like malformed teats
from his chest. He flung himself to his belly and started hitch-crawling
toward a nest of barbed wire, where the snout of a machine-gun poked
from a dun-brown netting.
"Club Gung-Ho!" roared an announcer who sounded as if he'd
be right at home pitching monster-truck rallies. "The complete
commando-training vacation experience! We'll turn _you_ into the
soldier of tomorrow!"
The scene cut to a speedboat bobbing in a tropical sea, with a
lazy circle of tall fins in the background. A man whose skin was so
black it nearly matched his wetsuit was preparing to roll back into the
waves with that looked like a stun-harpoon in his hands, while a dark-
haired Amazon made ready to dump a bucket of bloody froth over the
side.
"We'll pit you against maneating sharks!" the announcer
promised enthusiastically. "We'll give you hands-on experience with the
newest in combat technology! Here are just some of the thrilling skills
Club Gung-Ho offers _you_!"
Danger-orange letters scrolled across black. Hudson read them
as best he could, but only caught a few: Counter-Terrorist Tactics,
Long-Range Recon, Explosive Ordinance Disposal.
Then the Amazon filled the screen again, this time in tight
khaki shorts and a ribbed black tank top. Behind her was a long, low
building that blended into the scenery yet still managed to look like a
four-star resort. The Amazon thrust her chin defiantly at the camera.
"Come to Club Gung-Ho," she challenged, "if you're _man_ enough!"
Then white letters on black, fine print that Hudson couldn't
read on his best day and a phone number.
"Hmm," Hudson said. And before he was fully aware he was
going to, he'd scrounged up one of Angela's pens and copied down the
number in the margin of her copy of Mademoiselle.

* *

SIX DAYS LATER --

"I dinna like leaving ye short-handed," Hudson began, but
Goliath waved him to silence.
"We'll be fine. Go, and enjoy your vacation."
Hudson glanced over at Owen, who was standing placidly
beside the van. "Ah, well, I suppose ye're right. Broadway and the lass
may be back any night now."
"At least we know where they've been," Goliath said dryly.
"Not a day goes past that Elisa doesn't hear from the Yale woman,
trying to blame the shipwreck on them."
"Aye, but aren't the rest who were on board telling a different
tale?"
Goliath nodded. "Birdie's brother, in particular. Broadway and
Elektra did all they could to avert disaster and save the humans. They
won more friends for our kind than enemies. We can be proud of them.
And their quest, for it seems Avalon has its own plans for them."
Hudson looked craftily at him. "And should Avalon keep them
busy, away from Jericho ..."
"You know me too well, old friend," Goliath admitted. "I'd
rather face Jericho myself, and keep Elektra and Demona apart."
Owen snuck a surreptitious glance at his watch, making sure
they saw him do it.
"All right, all right, ye've made yer point." Hudson clasped
forearms with Goliath. "Take care, lad. Thank Xanatos again for
making the arrangements."
"I shall." Goliath stepped back as Hudson climbed into the
back of the van, most of which was taken up by a large crate.
Hudson eyed it sourly. "Not exactly first-class accomodations,
is it? But it'll do."
Owen got behind the wheel and the van pulled out of the
castle's underground garage. Hudson waved to Goliath through the
small tinted-glass window, then sat himself down and couldn't contain
an excited grin. The prospect of his adventure had him feeling more
alive than he had in years.

* *

"The things I do for overtime pay," Stephanie Greene said to
herself, creeping along the curb as she scanned hopefully for a parking
place. "I could be out dancing the night away!"
Just when she was resigned to having another circuit through
the complicated airport traffic, her luck came in. A large van, nearly
identical to the one she was driving, was just pulling away. She
glimpsed a not-bad-looking blond man behind the wheel and had time
to think he was vaguely familiar, but a cab was already arrowing toward
the spot so she didn't dwell on it.
Stephanie laid on the horn and swerved to get there first. As
she did so, she heard the crate in the back of the van slam from side to
side. Ms. Destine's screw-up-and-I'll-kill-you voice echoed crystal clear
in her ears.
One wheel bumped up over the curb, and the front bumper
kissed an empty luggage trolley, but Stephanie was already out of her
seatbelt and worming into the back to make sure the crate was in one
piece. No noticeable damage, and she hadn't heard anything break.
Good. She didn't know what was in there, but Ms. D. seemed pretty
attached to it.
She patted the crate, but uttered a startled squeak and
withdrew her hand when something seemed to shift/thump inside.
"Idiot," she chided herself. "Just settling, that's all." Though it
had sounded ... well, like something alive.
She reached out, tentatively, and laid her palm on the side of
the crate.
BANG-BANG-BANG!
This time she screamed, a high, piercing horror-movie scream
that rang in the close confines of the van and scared the crap out of the
guy who had just pounded on the side door.
"Jeee-zus, lady!" He wore a brown uniform with an airline
logo on the breast pocket, and had spilled coffee all over his sleeve.
Stephanie blushed, and if she heard the rustle and bump from
inside the crate, she dismissed it as her own jangled nerves.
She slid the side door open. Beyond the man in the uniform
were a half-dozen others, all struggling with a crate almost the exact
same size as the one she had. "Sorry, what?"
"This is a loading zone." He pointed to the sign. "So, load or
unload already!"

* *

SOMEWHERE OFF THE COAST OF SOUTH AMERICA, 16
HOURS LATER:

The H-39 Dragonfly, Chilean-built or not, set the bladelike
leaves of the palm trees to whirring like plastic flags in a used-car lot as
it descended. Skirls of sand and dust spun away from it to form runic
patterns.
"Wow, what a welcoming committee," the kid said, pressing
his nose to the small window. "Hey! It's her! It's really her! Look, there
in the jeep! Tora Hawke! And that must be Colonel Cannonner!"
Kostas looked out of the window on his side at the canvas-
sided troop truck and the jeep waiting at the edge of the landing strip.
"_Colonel_ Cannonner, yeah, right," he muttered under his breath.
Several men stood by the truck, watching the copter land.
Paying customers, judging by their non-reg hairstyles and eclectic style
of dress.
The majority would be like the kid, soft rich types who had
grown up playing with G.I. Joes and watching action movies. They
didn't want the real military. Not the tedium, drudgery, and discipline of
basic training. They wanted to cut straight to the good stuff, and were
willing to pay the big bucks to do it.
A few were like himself. The real thing. Out of the service for
one reason or another, but wanting to keep their skills sharp. And for a
few, a special few, this week was going to be a reunion to remember.
The rotors slowed, then stopped. The minute the door was
open, the kid was bounding out into the tropical heat. Whether
overcome by enthusiasm or hoping to make himself scarce before the
pilot saw the semi-repaired crate was anybody's guess.
Kostas shouldered his gear and stepped down, dropping his
shades in front of his eyes and sepia-toning the jungle paradise.
Two people came forward to meet them.
Kostas tensed. It could all go wrong in the next few seconds.
One was a black man, his skin so dark it looked almost
eggplant-maroon. He stood nearly seven feet tall, in olive-drab pants
and a blinding white T-shirt that molded itself to his impressive
physique. A battered cap sat upon his bald head, and he wore a square
gold ring that looked as big as a 9-volt battery.
The other ... Kostas knew that female body-builders typically
didn't have much in the way of cleavage; this woman was the exception
that proved the rule. Red shirt knotted below her breasts to expose her
sculpted abs, mirror shades, kinked black hair, skin bronzed by the sun
... you knew just looking at her that while every man on the island had
_thought_ about it, not one of them had dared make a move.
Cannonner grinned, his teeth in that dark face nearly as
blinding as his T-shirt. "Welcome to Club Gung-Ho!"

* *

"So," Tora Hawke said. "Real, or a joke?"
"We'll find out in a couple of minutes."
She and Cannonner were alone, the "recruits" having gone
down to the four-star "mess" for grilled salmon and London broil. They
did have field rations, but only as a novelty for those who wanted to
boast about how they "roughed it."
The crates had been dismantled, and now two gothic hulks
crouched fiercely on the terrace overlooking the pool. Lengthening
shadows reached across them as the sun sank behind the palm trees and
set the sky afire.
"Don't exactly fit in with the architechture, do they?"
Cannonner observed. "Creepy."
"It's weird that we should get two of them, with seperate
arrangements and all."
He shrugged. "Their patrons paid well, that's all I care about.
You know my philospohy, Tor. No politics. That's why I started this
place. No politics."
"I know, I know. Save the speech for the new recruits. If
they're really going to come to li--"
A brittle, cracking noise interrupted her as fissures covered the
two statues. Hawke's mouth fell open, and even Cannonner took a step
back as the figures shifted under thin coatings of stone that broke apart
and fell off.
Wings flexed to their full span, showering the humans with
grit. Eyes flashed magnesium blue-white. Powerful legs thrust muscular
forms from their crouches to full height. They voiced snarling roars,
one deep and one gruff.
The younger-seeming of them was every inch as tall as
Cannonner himself, with red hair and a glossy black breastplate
trimmed in gold. The other was a dark tan in color, with a grey beard
and one yellowed eye, and had a short but businesslike sword slung at
his thick waist.
The two creatures, now very much flesh and blood, turned and
saw each other.
Cannonner stepped forward. "Welcome to --"
They weren't listening, weren't paying any attention. Either
Cannonner or Hawke alone was capable of commanding all notice, and
together they turned every head. But instead, the two gargoyles stared at
one another in shock, as if the humans weren't even there. Then the
older one spoke.
"Ye must be Jericho," he said.
"What are _you_ doing here?! Hudson, isn't it?"
"Aye, that's right."
There was a low static charge of tension between them, like
two tomcats in a strange room. In a moment, fur would start to fly.
Cannonner sensed it, and Hawke did too. They moved
cautiously into position, ready to break it up. They'd done this many
times before, when recruits from opposing sides decided to do a little
one-on-one grievance-airing. True, until now none of those recruits had
been quite this size, or equipped with wings and tails, though some of
them had been nearly gargoyle-ugly.
The one called Jericho cast a quick glance around, and his
posture swelled into one of cocksure arrogance. "Alone, old-timer?"
Cannonner got right in his face. "Welcome to Club Gung-Ho,"
he said. "Let me tell you some of the rules."
Jericho recoiled, evidently not used to big humans who stood
their ground. "What?"
"I said, rule time. Rule #1 -- no fighting among the recruits.
Anything you visit on another paying customer comes back on you,
from me. Think you can abide by that? Or shall we crate your ass up
and send you back on the next chopper?"
Nonplussed, Jericho deflated. "I can abide by it."
"What about you?" Hawke asked Hudson.
He looked down at her, and winked with his good eye. "And
would it be ye, lassie, that would be roughing me up?"
Tora Hawke, who had never been called 'lassie' in her life,
gaped at him then burst out laughing.

* *

Cannonner hadn't recognized him. Hadn't recognized any of
them.
But they recognized each other, sure enough. Even though it
had been thirty years since the war, since their private corner of hell.
Age, injury, and in some cases massive plastic surgery had changed the
faces; the eyes remained the same.
Because they'd flown in together, and their suites happened to
be across the hall from each other, the kid seemed to have adopted
Kostas, or imprinted on him like a baby bird.
The kid's name was Daniel Lester, and though Dan or even
Danny would have been acceptable, he insisted on going by Dinny. He
was a gangly carrot-topped drink of water with a girlish titter for a
laugh, and Kostas found himself wondering if Dinny-boy would survive
the week.
Probably not.
The prospect filled him with grim pleasure. He cracked his
knuckles, a slow series of loud pops.
Soon.

* *

The west side of the island soared into a volcanic plateau.
Steep cliffs and alien landscapes of cooled lava flows extended toward
the sea. The land here was barren, empty of the dense vegetation that
crowded the eastern half.
The rocky region was pockmarked with caves, some made
from the endless erosion of the pounding surf, some made from lava
tubes and sinkholes. Mussels clung to the glistening shore, seabirds
wheeled and cried in the breeze.
A small boat crested a wave, heading for the island.

* *

"Did your clan send you here after me?" Jericho asked.
"Ye've a high opinion of yerself, lad. Or ye've caught
Demona's paranoia. I've no personal quarrel with ye, despite how like a
villain ye've behaved."
"Villain!? You accuse me of villainy? On what grounds?"
"I've but to look as far as the street where the Labyrinth used
to be, those who once lived there now dead and gone. Or to the mutate
Claw laying in his coma."
"Humans and a once-human, of no consequence."
"Ye've caught more than paranoia from Demona, then. Was it
not humans that raised ye? Ye'd have died in the shell, if not for the
princess."
"If Goliath hadn't abandoned us to the humans' care, you
mean! And then he had the gall to be ashamed of us, for not learning
what no one was there to teach us!"
Hudson sighed and shook his head. "Ye've been poisoned,
Jericho. I can see there be no point arguing with ye, not 'til ye've seen
for yerself how she truly is."
"Save your breath, elder. I've no need of your wisdom."
"As ye will, then. I didna come here for ye, no matter what ye
may believe. I came here for myself, and I'd appreciate it if ye'd not ruin
my vacation."
"I could say the same!"
"Then it seems we're in agreement."
"A truce, you mean?" Jericho's eyes narrowed suspiciously,
and Hudson was forcibly struck by how like his mother he was. His
stature and wingspan were Goliath's, but all else was pure Demona.
Were even their hearts cut from the same cloth?
"There should be no need for truces between clan." He knew
the uselessness of it even as the words left his lips, already seeing
Jericho's jaw tighten.
"You're no clan of mine, nor I of yours!"
"Aye, aye, I know," he said resignedly. "If that's how ye want
it. But remember, lad, there is a clan waiting for ye, should ye change
yer mind."
"I say again, save your breath. If you want a truce, you have it.
Not because I fear that human, but because I didn't come here to fight
gargoyles."
"Nor did I. We're here for the same reason, I think. To learn."
Jericho smiled ferally. "I bet we could show them a thing or
two, though."
Hudson studied him, suddenly seeing the need Jericho
wouldn't even admit to himself. A hunger for the clan he denied, for --
trite as it sounded -- a strong male role-model. Goliath might be the
lad's father as well as the clan's leader, but in this case that seemed to be
a drawback.
"Well, now, we'd not want to be teaching the humans too much
about us," Hudson replied, returning the smile. "Best to keep a few
surprises held back."

* *

Kostas rose with the dawn and headed for the fitness trail that
looped around half the island. He passed the stations, each offering a
different excercise, without stopping.
At the furthest point of the loop, he turned left, onto a
narrower path that led toward the river. He was headed into the deep
jungle now, according to the map he'd memorized. This was where the
recruits would come for the most grueling of their wargames.
The river churned along the bottom of a rocky gorge, spanned
by a rope-and-log bridge. Kostas crossed it and was just heading up the
ridge when he heard a voice calling his name.
Shit.
Dinny.
"What are you doing out here, kid?" he called back.
"Seeing where you're going!"
"I'm just looking around."
"Great! Me too!" He trotted across the bridge, his freckly face
open and eager.
"Listen, kid --"
"Dinny."
"Dinny. I'd rather be on my own."
"Really? I usually find exercise goes faster when I've got
someone to talk to. Come on, Kostas! Race you to that tree!"
"Kid ... Dinny ... ah, damn it!" Kostas jogged after him.
Skinny, the kid might be, but he had strength somewhere because he
wasn't even winded.
"So, what'd you think? Of the announcement last night? I
mean, yeah, I'd heard stuff on the news, but who believes anything
coming out of New York? My sister, she had every album by Scarlet
Angel, and one of them was supposed to be a gargoyle, but I always
thought he was computer-generated or something. Now here's these
guys, the same ones who came down on the copter with us! Solid stone!
You saw, you knocked on that old one!"
"Yeah."
"And Colonel Cannonner's all cool about it. They're paying
customers, new recruits, same rules apply to them as everyone else,
except they'll only be participating in the night program." Dinny
laughed, that high girlish titter again. "Think they had to sign the I-
won't-sue forms?"
Kostas laughed, and Dinny actually thought it was with him
and not at him. He'd have no way of knowing what Kostas was thinking.
In a few days, nobody on this stinking island was going to be in any
shape to sue. And even if they were, Cannonner wouldn't be in any
shape to pay up.
His amusement waned as he wondered how to get rid of the
kid. "Hey, aren't you going to the LALO 'chuting class?"
"Yeah! I've jumped before, but I can't wait to try LALO!"
Kostas frowned. "But I thought it was this morning, at 0700."
"It is?" Dinny shoved up his sleeve and stared at his watch.
"Crap!"
"Better hurry, kid! Your first LALO is even better than your
first lay!"
"Think I can make it?" He was already headed back the way
they'd come.
Kostas waved him on. "You're fast, Dinny. Saw that myself.
You'll be in plenty of time."
Dinny beamed proudly, and began busting his skinny shanks
toward the bridge.
"Plenty of time," Kostas repeated in a low voice. "Since the
LALO drop's not until tomorrow morning."
Dinny was out of sight, and Kostas kept heading westward.
Soon the jungle had thinned, taken over by magma that had
now hardened into black wax-sculptures. Kostas emerged onto a rugged
ridge that stuck like a row of blunted teeth out of the smooth blackness.
It was hot here, the sun baking into the stone and runnels of
volcanic glass, glimmering on the sea like a mirror.
He picked his way toward an opening in the ground, the end of
a lava tube that had petered out a couple hundred yards from the
seashore. A wide fan of the slightly-slick black rock spread out from the
end of the tube.
He approached slowly, partly out of concern for the footing
and partly from a growing apprehension. He paused to remove a pistol
from one of the deep pockets of his khakis and tuck it into his
waistband.
From here, he could see a black sand beach, not nearly as
picturesque as the one on Maui. An irregular shape, the covered form of
a small boat, was nestled next to a stony outcrop.
Kostas stood at the mouth of the lava tube. A cool breeze
wafted out.
He looked from the boat to the tube.
In there.
"Okay," he said. "Here I come."

* *

"This is a Ladd rocket carbine," Cannonner said.
"Semi or full auto?" Jericho asked, taking it familiarly.
"Full. You've handled one of these before?"
He nodded. "My teacher had one."
"Yeah?" Cannonner sounded disinterested, making chitchat to
be polite, as he turned to the table to select something for Hudson.
"Who's your teacher?"
"Heck Gervaso. He's dead now." Jericho bowed his head, in
what looked like respect for the dead but in truth to hide the satisfied
smile that spread over his lips. "His heart came ... er, _gave_ out."
"Heck Gervaso! Little bastard, built like a tank, temper of a
pitbull?"
"That was him," Jericho agreed. "He always talked about
wanting to come here; I didn't know he knew you."
"Oh, he knew me all right!" Cannonner growled, his voice
dropping to a range that sounded enough like Goliath to make Hudson
look up in momentary surprise. "I just didn't think the s.o.b. was out of
prison."
"Prison?" Jericho's brow ridges went up. "He never mentioned
that."
"Yeah, well, it's not the sort of thing you'd put on your resume.
Dishonorable discharge, court martial, prison term ..."
Jericho shrugged placatingly. "My ... patron ... is more
concerned with skills than background."
Hudson snorted.
The truce held, and Jericho had actually come to think the
elder was kind of interesting in his stuffy, old-fashioned way. But every
now and then one of them would let loose with some crack about the
other's clan. Yet, weirdly, it had more of the feel of cop-movie banter,
with Hudson as the experienced by-the-books one and Jericho as the
go-for-it rookie.
This time, the elder held his peace. Perhaps because he was
puzzling over the array of weaponry.
He offered the carbine to Hudson. "Here, why don't you try
this one? I'm in the mood to play with a new toy." He scanned the
offerings, and brightened considerably when his gaze fell upon
something that looked like a cross between a grenade launcher and a
pump-action shotgun.
Cannonner shared a grin with Hudson. "The young guys
always like that one. Half of 'em don't have the strength to handle it, but
you look like you can manage. It's a Brandywine-7, comes with these."
He sprung open a metal box. "APEX mini-missiles. Heat-seekers, but
they've also got a modification that lets them home in like an EEG.
Brainwaves. Thermal-concealing clothing doesn't make any difference."
"Now, wait a minute," Hudson said. "These wee things, these
toy rockets? Ye don't actually mean to tell me ye use these things?
Here, on the island?"
Cannonner laughed. "We use them, all right. Didn't you read
the fine print?"
"I left my reading glasses at home," he grumbled. "Didna think
I'd be needing them."
"Don't worry," Cannonner said. "The only time we pit recruits
against each other is during the wargames, and we leave the live ammo
locked up."
"Do ye lose many?"
"We're not supposed to ask," Jericho murmured out of the side
of his mouth. "More fine print."
"People pay for the real experience," Cannonner explained.
"These guys have had their fill of paintball and Lazer Tag. They want
real risk. And they're prepared to pay for it. The ones we've lost have
usually gone out through their own screwups, not through enemy
action."
"Strange line of work ye're in, lad."
"No stranger than yours, and I get paid for it."
"Touche," Jericho said.
"Hush yer face, laddie. Have ye no instinct left in ye?"
"Instinct? What are you talking about?"
"To protect! We can no sooner stop protecting than breathing
the air! 'Tis our purpose. We dinna care for money or reward."
"Actually, I do agree with you. It's that your clan protects the
humans, the authors of all our kind's misfortune, while _my_ clan
protects itself. And would protect all gargoyles, if you'd accept it."
"Oh, she's turned to protecting gargoyles, now, is she? And
when be that starting? When she tried to set off that virus?"
"The gargoyles would have been protected," Jericho argued,
having been told this story so many times that it was as if he'd lived it.
"Had Goliath not broken the statue of the Praying Gargoyle --"
"Aye? And what d'ye think would've happened to MacBeth?"
"Well, he ... he ..." Jericho trailed off.
"Would've died, wouldn't he? By her doing. And what happens
then? She didna think that far ahead, did she, lad? Only so far as seeing
all the humans dead. What do ye think would have happened to her
come daybreak, when she turned human herself?"
"I'm sure she had a plan in mind! She might have even meant
to --"
"To what? Sacrifice herself for the good o' all gargoyles?"
Hudson's voice dripped scorn. "Do ye truly think that sounds like her,
lad?"
Jericho fumed for a sullen moment. "Even if she acted without
looking ahead at the consequences, what drove her to it? The humans!
The Hunters! Being cast out and rejected by her own misguided clan!"
Hudson sighed. "Ye've bought the whole pickle barrel, haven't
ye, laddie? We'd best say no more of it, or we'll be putting our truce to
the test."
Jericho remembered his surroundings with a start, seeing
Cannonner watching and listening avidly. None of the other recruits
were close enough to overhear; their nightly gawking at the gargoyles
got shorter-lived with each evening, and they'd proceeded ahead to the
gun range and target maze.
"The robots in the target range have been fitted with
microchips that duplicate brainwave patterns," Cannonner said,
changing the subject. "They're just Cyberbiotics distress sale stuff, but
they blow up almost as well as the real thing."

* *

Kostas watched the two gargoyles carefully. Now that he knew
a little more about them, thanks to his visit to the cave on the other side
of the island, he wanted to see what these particular ones were capable
of.
He realized right away that they were going to be a problem.
The old one had reflexes and combat savvy that overcame his
unfamiliarity with the weapons. At the urging of the other recruits, he
treated them to an impressive swordplay demo, then faced and trounced
Tora Hawke in barehanded combat. Kostas reflected that his edge might
have come from the fact that, unlike everyone else who tried it, the
gargoyle wasn't distracted by her tits. Or, if he was, he masked it well.
The younger one might have lacked experience, but he
practically reeked of bloodlust and obsession. A crowd gathered to
watch him blow away robot after robot, and when the Brandywine was
out of missiles, he pulled a handheld Martin-Riggs pulse laser from his
belt and methodically took out a dozen more. All the while, his teeth
were bared in a savage snarl, and his eyes flickered white fire.
Kostas exchanged a brief but weighted glance with one of the
other men. Jaimeson had been the last to head down to the gun range,
and had heard the young gargoyle tell Cannonner that he'd been trained
by Heck Gervaso.
Heck Gervaso. Heck should have been here. He'd been the
youngest of them. Just a kid at the time. Lied about his age to get in.
Younger than that twerp Dinny but worlds older inside his head.
It was like a sign from above. Heck was dead, but from the
look of it, he'd left behind a talented protege. This gargoyle -- Jericho, a
name that was ripe with destruction -- would make a perfect addition to
their force.
That was what Jaimeson's gaze said, and Kostas was inclined
to agree. But, after his trip to the lava tube and the black beach, he
wasn't sure how well it would work out. The gargoyle didn't share the
same background, the same hatred of Cannonner. Kostas knew he could
trust Jaimeson and the others, but this Jericho wasn't one of them,
wasn't human.
But then ... he still didn't know how the rest of the team was
going to react when they found out what had happened to their leader.
Would they still go along with it? Even if he wasn't ... human anymore?

* *

The attack came without warning and was over so fast they
might have believed it never happened if not for the scream and the
splash of blood, so startling and crimson against the verdant growth.
Tora Hawke whirled around, bringing up her stingray pistol.
All around her, stunned men stood with laser rifles and other weapons
dangling in their hands like limp phalluses. Which, she would later
think, pretty well summed up their capabilities.
"Where's Gossman?" she barked.
"He's gone," a fat whey-faced geek named Clarence said, for
once meeting her eyes instead of staring hypotized at her bust. He
pointed at the blood, and the insects that had already risen from the
moist earth to sample it. "Something took him."
Group stun was wearing off, and then someone laughed. "Shit!
For a minute, that really had me going!"
"Yeah, the blood really looks real!"
"Shut up!" Tora ordered. "This is no goddam game! Circle up,
backs in!"
They obeyed, and she could see that for some of them, it was
beginning to sink in. Gossman was not coming out of the bushes with a
grin and a smirk at having tricked them. Insects didn't feast on fake
blood. And the jungle around them had fallen preturnaturally silent.
Silent, and watchful.
"Something's out there," someone murmured.
They could all feel it now.
"Gossman!" Tora called. "Gossman, sound off!"
No answer. And then a low sound, half growl and half chuckle,
and something came sailing toward them. It was round and trailing what
looked like a rope after it, and Tora almost shot it down before she
realized that it was a human head.
It struck Clarence square on his flabby chest and landed at his
feet. Gossman's eyes stared up with naked horror, his mouth wrenched
wide. The trailing thing that Tora had thought was a rope turned out to
be the bloody knot-cord of his spine.
"We didn't pay for _this_," Stan Lazlo said in a shrill voice,
then threw up all over his shoes.
That was the trigger. Men bolted in all directions except that
from which the head had come.
"Hold your places, dammit!" Tora fired into the undergrowth,
seeing the smoke as her stingray's insulation burned off in flight, searing
the leaves. She heard the thunk and electric crackle of impact, and knew
she'd only hit a tree.
They hadn't all deserted her. Lazlo was still emptying his
stomach, and Clarence still stared down at the head. The rest were gone,
crashing through the jungle and yammering crazily.
Tora didn't waste time wondering how this had happened. All
that mattered was getting the rest of the recruits back to base in one
piece. Then they could try to make sense of this gruesome death.
She backhanded Clarence across the chops, shocking some
awareness back into him. Lazlo was straightening up now, wiping his
mouth and looking sheepish. Then his gaze found the head, and he bent
to do it again.
Fighting her own rising gorge, Tora squatted and nudged the
head with her pistol. It was Gossman, all right. No clever fake. The
flesh of his neck looked torn, savaged.
She looked at the length of spine, nearly a yard of it, and tried
to banish the image that came to mind but it was no good. When his
head came off, whoever had done it gave a mighty pull, and that must
have just slithered out of him like a strand of spaghetti.
She covered it with a broad, flat leaf and stood up. As she did
so, a concert of screams bombarded her. A man's voice spiraled into
insanity. "Get it offa me! Get it offa me! Get it oaaaaaaaiiiiiiigh!" And
then a thick, wet noise impossible to describe.
"Move!" she ordered Clarence and Lazlo, and plunged toward
the screams. They cut off one by one as Tora slashed fronds out of her
way and scrambled over logs and slid down a slimy slope to splash into
a swampy pool.
Red tendrils spread through the green water. They rained down
in a slow patter from a corpse hanging over a branch. The man's face
was obscured by hanging hair, but she could see that one of his arms
had been pulled off.
The thought that this might be a dream winked in her mind.
They'd lost recruits before, usually in parachuting accidents or to the
sharks or by friendly fire. The jungle expeditions had never resulted in
more than the occasional broken bone.
She didn't have time to think about it. Someone was killing her
recruits, and waivers or no waivers, she had to bring back as many as
she could. She churned through the waist-deep pool, passing under the
corpse.
"Come on!" she said over her shoulder, then swore as she
realized Clarence and Lazlo hadn't been able to keep up. Go back or go
on?
A gutteral roar and a piercing shriek decided for her.
On she went.
She burst through one final stand of brush. The scene before
her was so horrible that her mind couldn't take it all in. The earth was
maroon and strewn with body parts. Her feet slipped on guts, tangled in
intestines. She stepped on a disembodied eye and it burst under her boot
like a grape.
And she didn't even notice all that, because her attention was
fixed on the inhuman form at the center of this slaughterhouse, and the
last live recruit in its grip.
She brought up her pistol and fired in one smooth motion,
aware that she might hit the kid and not caring, because it would be
cleaner than his alternative.
Misfire!
She had cried out as she shot, a primal bellow of rage and fear,
having every intention of blowing the thing away.
Now inhuman eyes gleamed toward her.
Tora dropped her useless pistol, clotted with gunk from her
fall into the swamp. She saw the kid flung aside, hitting a treetrunk with
cracking force.
The knife found its way into her hand as if by magic, and she
hurled it with all her strength. It struck home, embedded to the hilt. She
cried out again, this time in savage glee.
A rattle of auto-fire shredded the leaves. The thing had taken a
step toward her despite the knife, but now it snapped a quick glance
behind her and then sprang away.
She did not give chase, not alone and unarmed. Instead, she
raced toward the source of the auto-fire.
"It's Tora," she shouted. "Don't shoot!"
Lazlo looked guiltily at her. "I tripped," he said, chagrined,
brushing himself off. "The machine gun went off, shot into the trees
over there."
She looked, and realized that because there was a rise in the
way, he hadn't seen any of it. As he started forward, she grabbed him
and whirled him around.
"Do your stomach a favor and don't," she cautioned. "Where's
Clarence?"
"Back this way. Where's everyone else?"
"Go find Clarence. Stay put and wait for me, and if you see
anything that isn't me coming at you, waste it. Got it?"
"Got it."
She shoved him to get him started, then headed back to the
clearing. Now the true carnage of it set in, and she reeled. This was no
dream.
Over where he'd been thrown, the kid was moving sluggishly.
Tora went to him, saw that he'd hit head-first. There was a huge
bleeding gash extending from his ear to the top of his head, and if he
didn't have a skull fracture, she'd be surprised. Blood had also come
from both ears and his mouth, not a trickle but a gush.
The movement she'd seen hadn't been any conscious effort to
get up, but a rabbity spasming of his legs. His eyes rolled fitfully under
half-closed lids. It was some sort of seizure, brain damage.
She couldn't risk moving him but she couldn't leave him here
either, and couldn't wait for the time it would take Cannonner to come
looking. She doubted she could even send Clarence and Lazlo back to
base. Even if by some miracle they found it, they'd never be able to lead
the others back.
She'd have to move him, and if she killed him, she killed him.
He was a goner if she didn't try.
"Going to get you out of here, Dinny," she promised, hefting
him onto her shoulders.

* *

"This stuff here is ablative armor. Ablative _foam_ can be
sprayed onto anything, even bare skin." Cannonner grinned. "Though
it's a bitch to get off, and I don't recommend it."
Kostas nodded along with the rest of the recruits, and watched
as Cannonner picked one of them to try on the heavy, treated cloth.
Cannonner held up something that looked like a cross between
a blow dryer and a flare gun, saved from being comical by its matte-
black finish. "Iranian prototype handheld laser cannon."
McGready, the recruit who had donned the full suit of ablative
armor, got a nervous expression but still took the place that Cannonner
indicated.
Cannonner started running his gums about the laser cannon,
never mentioning the one thing Kostas really wanted to know. Which
was how in the hell he _got_ all his toys. He operated his island free
and clear of interference by any government, had access to the latest
technology, and nobody seemed to care that he had enough firepower
stockpiled to start WWIII.
As Cannonner readied the weapon, they all heard someone
hollering for help on the far side of the resort. Moments later, a steady
braying whoop started up.
All the recruits hustled that way, Cannonner in the lead and
McGready, weighed down by sixty pounds of armor, brought up the
rear.
They found a couple of the resort staff trying to deal with a
panicked recruit, one of the group of twelve that had gone out with Tora
Hawke on a preliminary wargame recon earlier that morning.
"Dead! They're all dead, dead and eaten up!" He slapped at the
hands of the staff as they tried to apply pressure to his bleeding arm.
"Who's dead?" Cannonner's big hands clamped on his
shoulders, holding him still.
Kostas and the rest crowded around while the man spat out his
story in semi-coherent chunks. He raved about flying heads and
monsters, then broke down weeping.
"Wasn't this a bad Schwarzennegger movie?" Jaimeson
muttered quietly to Goldberg, both of them right behind Kostas.
"Yeah, and they showed it last night on the non-stop action
channel," Goldberg muttered back.
Kostas said nothing, but had a bad, sinking feeling.
Cannonner raised an inquiring eyebrow at the medic.
"He doesn't have any symptoms of drug use," the medic
replied.
"Except a mouthful of crazy shit," someone else said.
"It was one of them! Those gargoyles!" the terror-stricken
recruit insisted through his storm of tears. "You brought them here, let
them feed on us! Just one big game preserve, with us as the main
course!"
"No, that was a different movie," Goldberg began, but Kostas
put an elbow smartly in his bicep.
"Shut up," he suggested. "This is no movie."
"Something happened to him out there all right," the medic
told Cannonner.
"A monster! A gargoyle! I told you! Why won't you get your
head out of your butt and listen to me? I saw it! It tore Steve
Brinkmeyer apart!"
Cannonner grabbed him by the chin. "What's your name,
soldier?"
"Ned Roberts."
He swiveled Roberts' head. "Look up there, Roberts. On that
balcony over the terrace. What do you see?"
"A ... a gargoyle," he whined.
"And there, on that other balcony?"
"Another one."
"They're stone. Been that way since dawn. Haven't moved
inch-one. Got it?"
Roberts nodded. "But then ... but what was it, then?"
"Sir?" one of the staff said, approaching from the main house.
"About an hour ago, we did pick up the sound of a machine gun, from
the quadrant where Hawke was supposed to take her group. We thought
they were just practice shots, but in retrospect, they didn't seem very
organized."
"What are you telling me, that you think they were attacked by
a monster out there?" Cannonner rolled his eyes. "Give this guy a
sedative," he told the medic. "I'm going to take the jeep."
Kostas didn't want to single himself out, didn't want to attract
any undue notice. That went against the whole plan. "Colonel?" God,
that word tasted bad in his mouth! "Taking volunteers for this mission?"
Jaimeson and Goldberg looked sharply at him, but masked it in
a hurry. They didn't know the whole story, but they knew that Scoburn
had been with the group. They'd been against it, because of all of them,
Scoburn was voted most likely to freak out once he was back in the
jungle. He was just the sort of guy who might go nuts, and if he got his
hands on a machine gun ...
Could be, that's what had happened. Kostas almost hoped for
it. Better that than what he feared. Either way, he had to check it out.
Cannonner gave Kostas a close once-over. And still didn't
recognize him. Cannonner only saw a tough, fit older man. A cop
forced into early retirement by a bullet wound, or so he believed
according to Kostas' paperwork.
He didn't see one of the men responsible for one of the biggest
black market weapons rings in 'Nam oh-so-long-ago. Didn't see one of
the men who'd vowed revenge against the one who'd brought it down.
"Grab a weapon, soldier," Cannonner said. "Let's move."

* *

"How far do we have to carry him?" Clarence complained.
Sweat was running down his fat moon-face.
Tora gave him a deadly glower. "He'll die if we leave him."
"But he might die anyway," Lazlo said. "And he's slowing us
down. We could have been back to the hotel by now. Whoever killed
the others is still out there! Hunting us!"
"Knock it off," Tora ordered.
"Hunting us," he repeated. "Can't you feel it?"
The thing was, she _could_ feel it. Hostile eyes upon them. A
killer pacing them silently, waiting for the moment to strike.
Her grip tightened on the machine gun. She'd taken it away
from Lazlo, when it became clear he was so worked up that if he did
fire at anyone, he'd probably etch an outline all around them like a Bugs
Bunny cartoon.
Mentally, she wasn't that much better off herself. Being stalked
through the steamy jungle did that to a person. At least her hands were
steady.
She tried to take comfort in the knowledge that she'd put a
knife into the thing. Maybe it was dead already. Maybe, but she wasn't
going to bet on it.
"I saw it!" Clarence squealed, dropping Dinny's legs. Lazlo,
who'd had his shoulders, fell on his back with Dinny sprawled on top of
him..
Tora spun.
Nothing.
"Well, I thought I did," Clarence mumbled, turning
shamefacedly to Tora. "A shadow, or something."
She opened her mouth to chew him out, and a shape flashed
through the shadows that lay across the path. Hunched, inhuman.
Clarence's apology turned into a gibbering howl. His knees
unhinged and dumped him on the ground with a meaty thud.
Tora opened fire, but the shape was already gone, with nothing
more than a rustle of leaves to mark its passage. She swept the barrel
back and forth, tearing up the brush on either side of the path, then
moving in a circle over the prone bodies of the recruits. If it was lurking
nearby, maybe coming around to strike again, she would Swiss-cheese
it.
Out of bullets. Tora stood in the smoke and smell of cordite,
breathing fast through clenched teeth. She grabbed another magazine
from Lazlo's belt, sure that the attack would come while she struggled
to reload. But it didn't.
The only sound she heard was that of an approaching engine,
and then Paul Cannonner's voice calling her name.

* *

"Shit," Kostas said softly.
It was quite a tally, he thought as he looked around the
clearing. Of the twelve men Hawke had taken with her, four had made it
out alive. And only one of those was unharmed.
The kid, Dinny, was probably going to die from his injuries. A
few stitches took care of Roberts, who had only gotten hurt while
running for his life. Clarence had lost the use of one leg, the hamstring
severed.
And that was what had made Kostas sure. Even before
Hawke's tale. One look at the backs of Clarence's legs, and the ragged
slashes across them, was enough to convince him.
In the chaos caused by their return to base, the race to save
lives, and the hubub over what had happened, Kostas found it easy to
slip away.
Now, he breathed a low whistle. Four accounted for, eight left.
He'd found Scoburn back a ways, draped over a branch with
one arm torn off and his guts unzipped. Another body and its head were
accounted for at two different spots. That would be Gossman.
"And then there were six," he said to himself, surveying the
scene and wondering if there was enough to shovel into six body bags.
He didn't think so.
A little careful scouting turned up just what he was afraid he'd
find. A trail of blood, leading to a sizeable chunk of flesh. When he
waved away the undulating green-black coating of flies, he saw the
marks. Bite marks.
He heard a stealthy step behind him. He smelled the blood and
a wild, bestial stink. Felt hot breath on the back of his neck.
Without rising from his crouch, without looking around,
Kostas remarked, "You're a sloppy eater."
"So sue me," a low, gruff voice said.
"I can't. Signed the waiver. Gave up all legal rights to sue
anybody over anything that happens on this rock. What happened,
anyway? I thought you were going to wait until the team was ready."
"What can I say? Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly ... Wolf's
gotta hunt."

* *

Jericho glided down and landed before Cannonner. Hudson,
descending behind him, noted that the lad had the same habit of flaring
his wings just before caping them that Goliath did.
"The whole place is in an uproar," Jericho said. "We woke
thinking we'd be in time for the parawing maneuvers, but all anyone
would tell us is that people are dead."
"Aye, what be that about?" Hudson asked. "Some mishap on
the gun range?"
He noticed that a few of the nearby men were looking at them
suspiciously. It only struck him odd because he thought they'd all gotten
used to the gargoyles by now. Something had renewed their distrust.
"Tora Hawke took a dozen men out to recon the area we were
going to use for the wargame this weekend. They were attacked. Eight
of them are dead," Cannonner said heavily.
"Attacked!" Jericho exclaimed. "Who attacked them?"
"Be the lass all right?"
"Fine," Tora Hawke said as she approached, but Hudson
privately thought she didn't look well at all. Her eyes had a bleak,
shocked glaze. "I'm fine. A little shook up."
"Who did it?" Jericho demanded.
"That's what we're trying to find out!" Cannonner thwacked a
fist into his palm. "I've got three more men wounded; one of them
probably won't make it. And one missing, damn it, he's out there
somewhere. And all anybody can tell me is that it was some sort of a
monster!"
"Ah!" Now Hudson understood why they were drawing some
suspicious looks.
"It was," Hawke said. "You should know me well enough,
Paul, to know _I'm_ no green recruit jumping at shadows! I saw that
thing!"
Cannonner sighed. "Tora, I do know you. But can't you admit
that maybe your mind was playing tricks on you?"
"I know what I saw!"
"What do you want me to do, then? Issue silver bullets to all
the recruits?"
"Silver bullets?" Jericho echoed, perplexed.
"I didn't _say_ it was a werewolf!" Tora flared. "I only told
you what it looked like!"
"Lass, what did ye say? Werewolf?"
"Tora --"
"Shut up, Cannonner. I know the moon isn't full, it was broad
daylight, there's no such thing as werewolves. But I _did_ see a wolf the
size of a man, a wolf on its hind legs! With a long ponytail!"
"Wolf!" Hudson said.
"That's what I --"
"Nay, lass, I believe ye. I know him." He proceeded to give
them the abridged version of his clan's conflicts with the Pack,
including how Xanatos had offered them the benefits of his science and
technology. How Wolf had opted to be injected with a devil's brew
similar to that used by Sevarius to create the mutates.
"So you're telling me I've got some sort of genetically-
engineered monster loose on my island?" Cannonner said.
"That'd be the brunt of it, aye," Hudson agreed. "I dinna know
why he'd be here or what he'd be after, though."
"I do," Jericho said. "Revenge."
"What are ye talking of, lad?"
"Last night, I was approached by one of the men here." Jericho
looked evenly at Cannonner. "A man who fought alongside you in
Vietnam. He said there were a bunch of his buddies here, and they
meant to join up with someone called Wolf. To get back at you for what
happened back then."
Cannonner had gone very still and very quiet. "What did they
want with you?"
"Because I'd been trained by Heck Gervaso, they thought I
would join them." He showed his fangs, for an instant looking even
more eerily like Demona than usual. "What they didn't know was that
I'd killed Heck myself."
"Ye killed a man deliberately?" Hudson blurted, shocked.
"Haven't you?" he asked scornfully.
"Aye, but in battle!"
"True, it wasn't much of a battle. He fought back, however
briefly."
"Elektra's right; Demona's made a murderer of ye." The words
were out before he could stop them, and his rookery sister's name
caught Jericho right between the eyes.
"Elektra! What do you know of Elektra?"
"Never ye mind!"
"Tell me!"
"Excuse me!" Cannonner bellowed. "We have a problem on
our hands here, soldiers! Jericho, which man approached you?"
"He called himself Kostas," Jericho said, shooting Hudson a
glare that promised they'd be continuing their talk later.

* *

Kostas fed the fire, aware of the nervousness of the men. But it
was a good nervousness, the combat-ready high-strung kind of
nervousness that would keep them sharp.
"If it was him that did it," Lavesque said, "why'd he off
Scoburn?"
"Scobe was a prick. I'd have done it myself, given the chance,"
Andrews retorted. "He still owed me for Ping-Pong."
"You're still carrying a grudge over that?" Jaimeson jeered.
"That was thirty years ago!"
"So was Cannonner, but here we are," Goldberg pointed out.
"That's different," Jaimeson said. "Cannonner screwed us big-
time!"
"Yeah," laughed Lavesque, "and Ping-Pong only screwed you
little-time!"
"Stuff it," snapped Andrews. "Scoburn was going to give me
five hundred bucks for her."
"Well, what do you know? Looks like I'm the only one that's
changed." Wolf sprang into their midst.
Wolf had cleaned up, to Kostas' relief. His thick pelt was still
shiny-damp, but now it was grey instead of the sodden crimson it had
been before.
The others stared at him for a long moment. Kostas had
warned them, once they'd slipped away from the resort and out into the
jungle. But his description hadn't done Wolf justice.
"Yep, you've gotten grey," Goldberg said with an air of casual
indifference. "Least you've still got your hair."
Wolf threw back his muzzle and laughed, but his laugh held a
note of the chilling moonswept howl in it, and Kostas reflected that his
muzzle hadn't been that pronounced even a year ago, when they were
setting this all up. Wolf had told him that the mutation was continuing,
accelerating. What had started out laregly cosmetic with a strength and
endurance boost had now become something more. This hunger for
manflesh, that was a new development that Kostas wasn't particularly
thrilled with.
"So, what's the plan?" Lavesque asked. "Your stunt today put
them all on alert."
"Good." Wolf hunkered down by the fire and extended his
hands. Except 'hands' wasn't the word. They were paws, paws with
longer articulated fingers and short but razor-keen claws. No wolf on
earth had claws like that. "Let 'em be on alert. Makes the hunt more of a
challenge."
"Hunt? What hunt? They'll hole up in the hotel until the
chopper gets here!" Lavesque spat into the fire in disgust.
"No they won't!" Jaimeson chortled. "These candy-asses come
here and pay the big bucks to pretend they're in a movie. We're giving
'em their movie! Body count and all!"
Andrews kicked a stone. "We were supposed to pick them off
on their wargame this weekend. Now, thanks to White Fang here, we're
never going to get our shot at Cannonner!"
"Sure, we will," Kostas said. "One way or the other,
Cannonner's dead meat."
Wolf's yellow eyes narrowed. "What are you up to, Kostas?"
Kostas consulted his watch. "You'll see, in five ... four ... three
... two ... one ..."
A sunburst of flame lit the distant sky, and moments later a
rumbling boom reached them.

* *

1/2 HOUR AGO:

"We've got some men missing, Colonel," one of the staff
reported, giving Cannonner a stack of papers from their registration
files.
They were all hardened and experienced men in their early to
mid-fifties. He flipped through the papers, looking at the photographs
attached to each.
Jericho reached out and tapped one. "Here. This man. Kostas."
Cannonner studied it. The man's scar was his main
distinguishing feature, drawing the attention and holding it. When he
covered it with his thumb, a shiver of recognition ran through him.
"You're right. It says he's Markowitz, a cop from Chicago. But
that's Kostas." He looked at the rest, matching them to faces from his
memory, naming them one by one. "They were running a black market.
Weapons, drugs."
"They mean to kill ye, then," Hudson said.
"But why would this Wolf slaughter all those men?" Tora
asked. "He was playing with us, hunting us."
"Aye, that'd be my guess. He's more beast than man now."
"Great," Cannonner said. "We've got a couple dozen recruits
who don't know their butts from ice cream, a dozen more hotel staff,
and us. Against a werewolf and a bunch of seasoned vets."
"Can't you get the others off the island?" Jericho asked.
"The copter's on a supply run. Won't be back until Friday."
"The boat's here," Tora suggested.
"The boat's not _here_, Hawke. The boat is docked on the
other side of five miles of jungle. And the boat could only take maybe
eighteen people." He removed his hat, scrubbed a hand across his bald
pate, and grumbled a few choice words. "Okay. We're going to turn this
place into a fortress. Get everybody working on the shutters -- shit, I'm
glad I put those in, even though they've been just for show except in
hurricane season. I'm going down to the armory."
Jericho's eyes literally lit up. "Count me in!"
"Ye surprise me, lad. What do ye care about protecting these
humans?" Hudson challenged.
"It's not so much protecting these ones as it's getting to waste
the others. I came here to improve my skills. What better way than in
actual life-or-death combat against real soldiers?"
Hudson shook his head. "Just when I think ye've a shred of
honor ... come on, Tora, lass. Let's see to the battlements of yon luxury
castle."
Cannonner shook his head, watching the old gargoyle and the
young woman head toward the hotel. "We get through this, maybe you
can tell me what's up with you two. Now, listen up, Jericho. For all I
know, you could be on Kostas' team -- hear me out!" he said as Jericho's
eyes flashed again. "I don't think you are. Taking orders from a human,
not to mention operating covertly, isn't your style."
"That's right!"
"But if you're going to play with the fun toys --" he extended
an arm toward the low, squat concrete building " -- you're going to need
to do this my way."
Jericho lowered his head and thought it over. Then he looked
up. "You got a 20-millimeter anti-tank gun in there?"
Cannonner smiled. "Mounted on top of a Gatling laser, with an
underslung grenade launcher."
"Deal." They shook on it.
The two-inch iron door opened by a palmprint scanner and a
keypad. A series of lights came on inside, one by one.
Jericho stepped over the threshold with the staring wonder of a
child on his first trip to Disneyland. "I'll take one of everything!"
"You want fries with that?" Cannonner dialed the combination
on his own personal locker and began shrugging into his monocrys
bodysuit with durasteel plates sewn onto the chest and back.
Despite the gravity of the situation, he could still be amused by
Jericho's wistful expression as he limited himself to only as much as he
could reasonably carry.
"You're not planning to sit and wait, are you?" Jericho asked,
running his hand over an electromag mortar and a dozen cluster bombs
nested like eggs in a carton.
"Damn right I'm not. We'll set up a perimiter of mines, and
move that baby onto the terrace -- from there, Tora can drop shells just
about anywhere she pleases. And then I'm going out there."
"I'm going with you."
"This isn't your fight."
"Don't you get it? Any fight is my fight!"
"I don't have time to cater to your bloodlust!"
Jericho spread his wings. "Maybe not, but you can use the air
support."
The world leaped beneath their feet.
Sudden light and heat burst through the half-open door, then a
wave of force slammed it shut with a clang. The armory lurched like a
small craft on a stormy sea. Weapons rained from the wall racks, and
some of the racks themselves even tore free of their bolts and toppled.
"Down!" Cannonner yelled, his voice lost in the tumult. He
flung himself to the floor, covering his head and the back of his neck.
His first crazy thought was that the volcano on the far side of
the island had let loose. A metal box struck inches from his head and
rebounded, leaving a baseball-sized divot in the concrete.
He felt the rumbling roll away through the earth. The armory
became still again, except for guns losing their battle with gravity and
falling from the remaining shelves. Grit and dust had sifted down from
the ceiling, powdering him.
A blue, taloned hand came down. Cannonner seized it and
struggled to his feet.
"I think that was a bomb," Jericho said.
Cannonner didn't reply, just went to the door. The handle
burned his palm. He pulled on his gloves and yanked it open.
Baked, smoky air washed over his face. He blinked his
watering eyes against a glow nearly as bright as day.
Jericho flapped his wings in slow, steady movements to fan
away the worst of the smoke. The golf-course-flawless lawn beneath
them had been scorched brown. The row of palm trees encircling the
fountain were torches, and the fountain itself was a steaming heap of
rubble.
Where the hotel had been was a blazing pile of wreckage and
skeletal beams. The steel window shutters had been flung outward in a
ring of crumpled metal rags. The jeep, which had been parked in front,
was upended and in flames a hundred yards away, tires melting.
"My God," someone breathed. Cannonner realized it was him.
They approached with dreamlike slowness, pausing every now
and then as smaller explosions sent gouts of fire into the sky.
"Hudson was in there," Jericho said softly.
"I thought you were enemies." Cannonner was numb, not
really listening to himself, not yet able to wrap his head around this.
Not yet able to accept what his eyes were seeing.
"I'd kind of gotten to like him. And to lose a gargoyle, any
gargoyle ..."
"Tora," Cannonner interrupted, feeling like he'd taken a punch
in the gut. "Kostas did this."
"Kostas and Wolf," Jericho agreed. "And all they've left us is
our revenge."
"Then let's make the most of it."

* *

TWENTY MINUTES AGO:

The hotel was abuzz with activity as the staff and the recruits
prepared for a seige. They rolled down metal shutters that looked like
automatic garage doors, got food and medical supplies together, and
arranged a sentry rotation for the exits.
It wasn't that much different from long-ago battles that Hudson
remembered. Except that Prince Malcolm hadn't directed the show from
a single control room filled with newfangled electronic gimcracks, as
Tora Hawke was doing.
"They'd be crazy to attack the hotel." Tora dragged down a
huge binder labeled 'Emergency Procedures' and flipped past sections
relating to various weather and geological scenarios.
"Wolf didna strike me as being particularly sane," Hudson
observed. He propped himself on a stool and idly scanned the bank of
security monitors. It occurred to him that he had scarcely watched an
hour of television all told, the whole week long.
"Yeah, you've got a point there. Anybody -- any_thing_ that
would do what he did ... brrrr!"
She kept on talking about the relative mental well-being of
Wolf and his cohorts, but Hudson had ceased to listen. He leaned close
to one of the monitors, squinting with his good eye.
"Tora, lass? Do ye recall the lecture we had the other night on
explosives disarming?"
"Sure. Bomb Squad 101. Why?"
"Ye dinna store the explosives in the generator room, do ye?"
"Hell, no!" Dread suffused her features and her voice. "Why?"
He dialed that camera to zoom in, just in time to see the digital
readout go from 004 to 003.
003 to 002 -- he was off the stool and across the room.
002 to 001 -- he curled one arm around Tora Hawke and
hauled her out of her chair.
001 to 000 -- he charged at the door which gave onto the
terrace.
A shattering roar ripped through the building. The metal
shutters and reinforced outer walls channeled the catastrophic blast
upward through the building, blowing apart floor after floor like they
were made from tissue paper, before overwhelming the shutters.
A tumbling, ravenous column of fire billowed over the terrace,
pushing heated air before it. That cushion of air, blistering-hot, molded
itself to Hudson's back and shoved him like a gigantic invisible hand.
He was carried along helpless as a leaf in a cyclone. He saw
the knee-high marble railing coming at him with freight-train speed, the
wide-fronded ferns in decorative pots along it already in flames.
As he reached the railing, he raised both feet and pistoned
them onto it, vaulting himself higher. The fire-wind tumbled him end
over end. He tried spreading his wings but they were snapped forward
with joint-cracking force, like twin umbrellas wrenched inside-out.
He wrapped his wings around himself, lowering his head,
trying to make a shell around Tora. He thought she was screaming, but
didn't fault her for it, because he was doing the same.
They plunged into bubbling water. Hudson had an instant of
panic that they were about to be boiled, and then he slammed into the
curved wall and figured out that they'd completely overshot the
swimming pool and landed in the whirlpool tub.
He sucked in a deep breath and ducked beneath the surface as
the brunt of the explosion rolled over them. Tora thrashed and struggled
in his grasp. She hadn't had time to fill her lungs and was suffocating in
his arms.
If James Bond could do it, so could he. He closed his mouth
over hers and shared his breath with her. She initially jerked in surprise,
but realized what he was doing and accepted the odd life-giving kiss.
When the muffled sounds of destruction faded, Hudson and
Tora burst upward, both gasping and coughing.
Devastation.
Everywhere they looked.
Burning, broken, ashes, death.
The pool was clogged with bodies and glass -- they'd been
trying to lower the shutters over the panoramic dining room windows. A
wheelchair, bent into a strange art-deco shape, was lodged between two
blazing trees.
"They planted a bomb, the crazy bastards, they planted a
bomb!" Tora climbed out and took four running steps toward the
rubble-strewn crater that moments ago had been a hotel. She stopped.
"What am I doing? They're all dead, there's nothing I can do for them.
Nobody could have survived that."
"We did, lass." Hudson joined her, moving carefully to avoid
jostling his wings. They felt like they'd been pulled off, barbequed, and
hammered back into the wrong joints. His hair hadn't burnt away; that
was something. And his sword was still at his waist; that was something
else.
"You saved my life," she said with a stunned gratitude.
"Aye." He mustered a grin. "And I canna wait to get home and
tell the lads how I got a kiss for my troubles!"
She only managed a ghost of a smile, but it was better than the
shocked pallor she'd been wearing. Then her eyes widened. "The
armory's solid concrete! It would have held up! Come on!"
He didn't have the heart to dash her hopes, but followed
glumly along, trying to think how he was going to tell Goliath his son
was dead. How dear Angela and Elektra would take it. And worst of all,
how to tell Demona.
"I dinna know if 'held up' is the term I'd be using," he said as
they reached the armory.
It had taken on a distinctly swaybacked look, thanks to a huge
and unidentifiable asteroid of debris that had collided with the roof. The
door was standing drunkenly on one hinge.
"Look!" Tora pointed.
Silhouetted against the embers of the hotel were two large
figures, one winged.
"Hey, Cannonner!" Tora shouted, unable to disguise the relief
in her voice. "Your insurance guy's going to _croak_ when he gets a
look at this mess!"
The four of them met in the middle of the smoldering lawn. To
Hudson's intense surprise, Jericho embraced him as if they were long-
lost rookery brothers, laughing delightedly, and reminding him strongly
of how Goliath had laughed when they all awoke for the first time in a
thousand years.
He returned the embrace, though it hurt him to do so. The
backs of his wings and tail were covered with a fine rash of blisters, and
for the first time he understood what all the fuss over sunburns was
about.
"I'm so glad to see ye, lad," he said while Tora explained their
seemingly-miraculous survival to Cannonner. "I didna relish the
prospect of telling yer mother."
"Nor I your clan."
"Would ye truly have gone and spoken to them?"
"Of course," he said, sounding faintly wounded. "Do they
think I avoid them for fear they'll turn me against Demona?"
"Aye, well, the thought had crossed a few minds."
"It's unfounded. My loyalty is hers, completely. If that means
the clan rejects me as they do her, so be it. I have no fear of Goliath.
And while I'm saddened by Angela's choice, she is still my sister."
"Ye must make Demona proud," Hudson said sadly.
"I hope so." His eyes took on a faraway look that Hudson
found vaguely disturbing -- if he hadn't known better, he might have
thought the lad in love.

* *

"You blew up the hotel." It was more statement than question,
and Kostas wasn't sure if Wolf's tone was admiring or condemning.
"If we hadn't, they would have turned it into a fortress. We
would have been outnumbered and outgunned."
"I wanted Cannonner myself," Wolf snarled. "I wanted to feed
him his own balls!"
"We all did," Lavesque said, shrugging. "Maybe it's better this
way. We don't fight over who gets the privilege."
"Hey, don't write him off just yet," Andrews said. "He always
did have the luck of the Devil."
"Luck, my furry gray ass. If he _is_ still alive, his luck's just
run out!"

* *

"Screw _that_, Paul Cannonner! What is it about disasters that
bring out the women-and-children-first instinct in you oinking
chauvanists?"
"Now, lass, he's but looking out for ye," Hudson tried.
"She'll be fine," Jericho said. "She's the token woman, the
obligatory female character who'll get captured by the villain and used
as a hostage to prompt the hero into peforming some strategically-
unsound rescue."
"Shut up," Tora advised him. "This is real life, not some damn
action movie."
"All I said was that someone should stay here and wait for the
helicopter," Cannonner said.
"Looking right at me while you said it!"
"Enough already!" Hudson barked. "We've plenty of troubles
without arguing among ourselves. That lot is apt to be coming around to
see if their bomb missed anyone, and we'd best not be here when they
do. I'd say we should be gliding to the boat, but --" he signaled for quiet
as both Cannonner and Jericho started to protest, "-- but I'm not trusting
my wings, seared as they are. I wish we'd a day to spare, for I could do
with the healing."
Cannonner grimaced as he remembered that at dawn, half his
fighting force would become part of the scenery. "I want to finish this
tonight. Let's go."

* *

"Hey, where's Wolf?" Goldberg asked suddenly.
Kostas stopped and looked around. They were opting for
stealth, which meant no flashlights and a slow pace as they picked their
way along in the pools of moonlight and shadow. But Wolf's lambent
yellow eyes and hunched shape were nowhere to be seen.
"He's hunting, isn't he?" Jaimeson sounded worried, with good
reason because Kostas hadn't spared the details in describing what
happened to Scoburn.
"I'm sure he's not hunting us," Kostas said, though he wasn't
sure at all.
Moments later, Wolf made him a liar.
Andrews screamed like a girl as the dark form hurtled across
the path and bore him into the underbrush. He was able to get one wild
shot off before Wolf's jaws closed on his wrist and sheared through
flesh and bone.
One shot, and the bullet couldn't have been better-placed
between Lavesque's eyes if he'd aimed it. The hollow-point bullet made
a dime-sized hole in Lavesque's face and blew out the back of his skull.
Jaimeson swung that way with his laser rifle, but Wolf was
gone. And Andrews was still screaming, staring down at the spouting
stump of his right arm, not even noticing that Wolf's claws had torn him
open from sternum to navel and his guts were bulging out in one horrid
pregnant slope.
Goldberg, who had been unshakeable all through the war, lost
his nerve and took off bleating in terror. Jaimeson yelled for him to
come back.
Kostas stepped up and put the barrel of his gun to Andrews'
temple. "Sorry."

* *

The screams and the gunfire came from just ahead.
Then a man burst into view, running full-tilt.
Cannonner and Jericho reacted as one. Twin laser blasts struck
the man dead-center. He flew backward out of his boots.
Two more men dashed around the bend. One, Kostas, opened
up with an automatic pistol.
Jericho answered with a grenade.
Kostas dove one way and his buddy dove the other, and the
grenade plowed into a moist, ferny embankment. Earth and fronds
geysered up and showered down.
The buddy was on his feet first. He raised one hand to his
mouth as if he was checking that his teeth were intact, and it wasn't until
Jericho launched himself at the man that he saw he was biting the pin
out of a grenade of his own. Too late to stop, Jericho tackled him.
The grenade went straight up, seemed to hover for a moment
in the moonlight, then came straight down toward the thrashing tangle
of limbs.
Hudson shouted a warning and sprang foward. He whipped his
tail hard and fast, batting the grenade. Tora, who had been trying to get
around behind Kostas, jumped back.
Kostas saw it coming and threw himself flat, rolling into the
shelter afforded by a fallen log. When the explosion quit ringing
through the jungle, he cautiously poked his head over the log, and
Cannonner set the barrel of his laser cannon against Kostas' forehead.
Jericho reared up, raking his talons across the man's face. The
man, bloody and blinded, still landed a punch on Jericho's jaw while his
other hand groped toward the butt of a pistol strapped to his calf.
"Hello, Ilya," Cannonner said softly. "Long time, no see."
Kostas nodded. "Just like the old days, right, Paul?" He threw
his weight against the log. It struck Cannonner's shins and knocked him
down just as he squeezed the trigger. The thick laser pulse passed over
Kostas' head, leaving a smoking trail through the leaves as the gun went
flying. The log thumped down a slight incline and pinned Cannonner's
legs.
Jericho got both hands around his foe's neck, then cried out as
a bullet tore through his side.
"Give me a clear shot!" Tora yelled. She'd gotten a new
stingray from the damaged armory, and as Jericho lunged to the left, she
let Jaimeson have it.
The round slammed into him, sizzling with electricity. His
back snapped into a bow, heels drumming. Blue-white sparks danced
over his convulsing body.
Kostas pulled a switchblade with a thicker-than-normal handle.
He snapped out the long blade and twisted a dial, and Cannonner heard
a faint hum. Vibroblade.
Cannonner sat up, struggling to free his legs, but the log had
them trapped. He gritted his teeth against the crushing pain in his feet.
Kostas stepped onto the log -- new agony! -- and kicked him in
the chin. He flopped onto his back. Before he could recover, Kostas
planted one boot on each of his arms, holding him immobile while
bending to bring the humming, vibrating blade toward his throat.
"I've waited thirty years for this," Kostas said.
"Ye can wait a little longer." A silvery blur, a sword, chopped
the switchblade from Kostas' grip. It whirred through the air and
burrowed into the ground before hitting a rock and going dead.
Kostas looked up, and Hudson's fist shattered his nose. His
head popped back like a balloon on a stick. He lost his balance and
landed tailbone-first on the fallen log.

* *

The hunt. Oh, yes, the thrill of the hunt.
It had come over him while stalking silently through the night
and the dark. He'd forgotten the men were supposed to be his allies,
forgotten everything but the feral need.
So easy to slip away, their scents rich in his nostrils as he
circled around and made his attack. The taste of blood was hot and
tangy in his mouth.
They'd scattered and fled, giving him plenty of time to creep
back and feast on the warm innards of the one called Andrews. He'd
kept one ear tilted toward the sounds of combat while he gorged.
And then caught another scent on the playful breeze.
A female scent. Familiar.
The image rose in his memory. Wild dark hair, muscular
limbs.
The bloodlust and hunger were sated for now, but he had
another need. The hunting was done. It was time for rutting.
He left his gutted kill and crept toward the sounds of combat.
He parted the leaves and peered out.
One gargoyle, the old one that Wolf had run into before, was
trying to lift a log off of the one and only Paul Cannonner. Kostas was
sprawled in the dirt, his nose a flattened and dripping tomato. Another
gargoyle, one Wolf didn't recognize, was pressing a hand to his
bleeding side. Jaimeson lay at his feet, his head bent at an unnatural
angle.
And there was the woman. Facing away from him.
He thrust his paws through a screen of light undergrowth,
grabbed her by the upper arms, and yanked her against his furry body.
"Hey, bitch," he growled in her ear. "Wanna do it doggy
style?"

* *

Hudson's head jerked around as Tora cried out in alarm. He
saw her crash backwards through the bushes, and saw a shaggy grey
pelt.
"Wolf!" he bellowed. "Fight _me_!!!"
"I've got other plans, old-timer!"
Cannonner forced himself to his knees, but both his ankles and
most of the bones in his feet were broken. "Tora!"
Jericho stood up, then sat down weakly. Blood poured from
the hole in his side. "Told you so."
"Ye two stay put! I'll finish this!"
As he charged past Jericho, the lad tossed him his weapon.
"Take this!"
He caught it, the 20-millimeter anti-tank gun mounted on a
Gatling laser with underslung grenade launcher. "And what the devil
would ye have me do with this?" he groused as he ran. "Well, I suppose
it'd make a fair blunt implement."

* *

He could hear the old gargoyle coming after him with all the
stealth of a brontosaurus, but Hudson was gaining.
All because he'd had the misfortune to snare himself a woman
who was not only heavy but damn strong, and when she wasn't trying to
jam his nosebone into his brain, she was grabbing onto branches and
nearly whiplashing him off his feet.
Tora drove her elbow into his gut hard enough to knock the
wind out of him. She followed it up with another blow to the head that
made his teeth rattle.
He dropped her, meaning to pick her up again once he caught
his breath, but the damn bitch hit the ground running.
He was starting to wonder if she was worth the trouble, but
when he focused on her butt flexing under those tight shorts, he
dispensed with that train of thought and raced after her.
She buttonhooked to the right, and he was so close behind that
he overshot the turn. His hind claws dug up big trenches as he turned
around, and by then she'd gotten a few yards' lead.

* *

Tora swiped plants out of her way, never minding that some of
them were the serrated jungle leaves that sliced up her skin.
She caught her foot under a root and nearly went headlong,
keeping her balance by pure luck and the desperate knowledge that if
she fell on her face, Wolf would be on her before she could get up.
The brush seemed to be thinning ahead. Less cover, but she
might be able to outrun him.
She heard a rushing noise, but at first didn't pay any attention
because it was lost in the hammering of her own heart and the sounds of
pursuit.
She swept aside the last curtain of vines.
Directly ahead of her was a hundred-foot plunge into the river
gorge.
Tora flailed her arms and one grasping hand closed on a vine.
Her momentum carried her over the edge. She swung out on the vine
and her hands skidded down. The vine swung back and bashed her legs
into the cliffside. The jolt clacked her teeth on her tongue.
She hitched herself up and landed on the edge of the gorge,
breathing hard.

* *

Wolf heard the river and stopped. He hadn't heard a scream, so
maybe the bitch was trying to trick him, thinking he'd rush right over.
He moved quietly to the edge and poked his snout through the
vines.
He saw her at once, picking her way along the edge toward the
rope bridge. Perfect. He ducked back before she could see him and
went to all fours, finding it easier to move that way.
She was less than a third of the way across when he reached
the end of the bridge. He jumped onto it, catching the rope rails with his
hands and pistoning his feet down hard to make the bridge ripple and
sway.
She threw a quick glance back over her shoulder, clinging to
the ropes.
"Scare you?" he called, waggling his tongue at her.
Instead of hurrying for the far side, she stood her ground and
beckoned. "Come and get me, dogface."
He moved slowly out onto the bridge. "Gonna use some judo
on me, is that what you're thinking? Cut the bridge like Indiana Jones?"
"Maybe."
He advanced. She waited.
He got within four yards of her, and could smell the adrenalin
mix of her apprehension and hostility. She was just about to make her
move, so he flipped a tiny flash grenade at her and closed his own eyes.
A mini-nova bloomed in her face, blinding her.
Wolf leapt those last four yards and brought her down. His
claws shredded her shorts -- hot damn! a black G-string underneath!
Even blinded, with the chemicals stinging her skin, she tried to
kick him in the groin. As if he hadn't been expecting that! He clubbed
the side of her head, knocked her out.
Panting with more excitement than exertion, he scooped her up
and slung her over his shoulder.
He wanted her right now, but he'd never been thrilled with
heights and the thought of lugging her back to his dark, warm lair ...
yeah! He would rut until he couldn't get it up anymore, and then he'd
feed again.
"Wolf!"
"Awww, shit!" He turned toward the gargoyle perched on an
outcrop of rock. "What do _you_ want?"
The old geezer had a friggin' doomsday weapon pointed at
him!
"Set her down, or I'll blow ye to smithereens."
"Don't try to bluff me," Wolf said, sidling a step to the left.
"You're not going to shoot."
"Aren't I?"
"And kill the bitch?"
"Given the choice between death and ye, I think she'd be
thanking me."
And he fired.
The 20-millimeter anti-tank shell streaked through the gorge
and hit the bridge. It came apart beneath Wolf in a splintering, firey
foretaste of hell.

* *

Hudson fired, and the moment he knew his shot was true, he
dropped the weapon and spread his wings.
The pain from his rash of blisters was a sheeting flame across
his back, but he forced that pain to the bottom of his mind and dove into
the falling wreckage.
He saw a tumble of dark, kinked hair and bronze limbs. Too
far away! A frantic lunge and his hand clamped around Tora's wrist.
Her weight pulled him down too fast, a deadly anchor.
A gust blew apart the smoke and he saw Wolf hanging from
her leg.
Burning pieces of wood and rope were raining down on him. A
length of rope with a glowing metal hook on it landed across Tora's
shoulder and hissed a brand into her flesh.
She came suddenly conscious, shrieking and writhing. Hudson
was hard-pressed to hold on. She found the end of the rope and pulled,
and the hook came free, leaving its blackened mark.
Still they plunged, toward the whitewater death below.
"We'll all go down together!" Wolf laughed maniacally. "Just
like the old song says!" He sank his teeth into Tora's calf.
She shrieked again and whirled the rope like a lasso, then
snapped it at him. The hook punctured his cheek and dragged his lip
into a hideous leering grin.
Her other foot slammed into his head once, twice, three times
pays for all.
As Wolf tumbled away from them, Tora's blood and his own
streaming from his mouth, Hudson caught an updraft and soared high.

* *

Jericho, who had gone as pale as stonewashed denim from
blood loss, winced as Cannonner tightened the makeshift bandage
around his waist. "Well, it looks like you're the hero of this one,
Hudson."
"Get on with ye," Hudson said gruffly, not wholly displeased.
"He's right," Tora said. "That's two I owe you."
"Nay, lass. If not for ye and Cannonner here, I'd still be sitting
in my recliner. Ye've given me back something I thought I'd outgrown."
Jericho snorted. "And it only took the deaths of how many
humans to do it?"
"Don't make me regret patching you up," Cannonner warned.
He inclined his head and did something Hudson didn't think he
was capable of doing. "I'm sorry."
"There's hope for ye yet, lad," Hudson said. "Now, it's almost
sunrise. Will the two of ye be all right? We'll wake healed; ye're not so
lucky."
"We'll be fine," Tora assured him.
"Kostas had a radio," Cannonner added. "We'll call for evac.
There'll be a helicopter by the time you wake up, and then we're out of
here."
"How are you going to cover this up?" Jericho waved vaguely
in the direction of the destroyed hotel. "Aye, they all signed waivers,
but even so ..."
"Ye've connections, don't ye?" Hudson asked. "That's how ye
get all the latest hardware, and the self-injecting painkillers in yer armor
suit. Why this island dinna exist on any maps. That's how Xanatos
pulled the strings to get me here without causing a stir. Ye're one of
_them_."
"One of who?" Jericho's eyes narrowed.
"Illuminati, lad. And ye can bet yer mother's got some
connection to them herself, else ye'd not be here either."

* *

FORTY HOURS LATER:

"I never thought I'd be thinking of this city as home," Hudson
sighed. "Are ye sure ye won't come to the castle?"
Jericho shook his head. "My place is with Demona. Someday,
the rest of you will see that she's been right all along, and our clans can
be one again."
"I dinna want to think of ye as an enemy."
"Nor I. I hope it won't come to that. If your clan just minds its
own business --"
"Aye, but too often, our business be protecting people from
Demona's business!"
"She's been hurt," Jericho said. "Hurt and ill-used. By humans,
by mates, by so-called friends. Even by her own daughter. But I mean
to show her that she's not alone in the world. She may be harsh, yes, I've
seen that for myself. It's the only way she's been able to survive. I'll help
her. I _can_ help her."
"There's those that would be wanting to help _ye_."
"Those who think Demona's beyond redemption but I haven't
had time to be fully converted yet?" Jericho asked sourly.
Hudson rested a hand on Jericho's shoulder. "Those like
Elektra, who left Avalon solely to find ye because she feared for yer
safety. Maybe it's not my place to be telling ye, but she cares for ye
more than I think ye know."
"Elektra?" he wondered aloud. "_Elektra_, of all my sisters?"
"Keep that in mind." Hudson stepped to the edge of the
building and looked toward the towering skyscraper in the distance. "Be
well, Jericho. I'll be seeing ye, and hopefully not on opposite ends of a
gunsight."
He took to the air. Jericho waved absently.
"Elektra?" he asked one more time, incredulously, with no one
to hear. Then he spread his own wings and glided toward the mansion
on the lake, where Demona would be waiting.

* *

The End