Three of a Kind
Christine Morgan
christine@sabledrake.com / http://www.christine-morgan.org


Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of their creators
at Disney and used here without knowledge or consent. Chas Yale,
mentioned in passing, was created by Christi Hayden. This story contains
some violence, so readers be warned.

#43 in an ongoing saga.



The Archmage, voice over: "Previously, on Gargoyles ..."

From "Mother's Day" --
His three mates were nearly identical in their beauty. They differed
only in the colors of their hair, and it was that which had earned them their
names. Opal's tresses were silver blond, Citrine's as yellow as the sun they
never saw, and Onyx's as dark as the gem by that name.

From "Mother's Day" --
Luna dipped a finger in the still pool. It rippled and an image
appeared, of gargoyles lazing in a woodland glen. "Look and behold, as was
foretold."
Her sisters studied the scene in silence, and then Phoebe passed her
hand across the water and disrupted it.When the water cleared there was
naught to be seen save their nearly identical reflections.
"The curse did not die with his life's end," Luna said. "Beyond our
powers all, to mend."
"Gargoyles three, alike as we," Selene mused.
"Humans as well, I have seen when in the mortal world I've been,"
Phoebe said reluctantly.
They looked solemnly at each other for a long, long time.

From "The Wreck of the Margot" --
"Tiffy, Muffy and Babs?" Eric repeated, then laughed. "What are
they, cartoon rabbits?"
"No, serious!" Chas said. "They even look alike. Identical!
Except that Tiffy's blonde, Babs has black hair, and Muffy -- well, she says
it's platinum blond, but it looks white to me!"



MEADOWGROVE COUNTRY CLUB
JUNE 1999

The only problem with being an inseparable trio, Tiffy Vandermere
thought as she applied more coconut-scented suntan lotion to her legs, was
tennis.
On the court, Babs and Muffy swatted the ball back and forth, not
so much concerned about who was winning as how they looked playing the
game.
Judging by the appreciative glints in the eyes of clean-cut young
men (and not a few older ones, too) from many of Boston's finer families,
the answer to that was "just as devastating as planned."
All three of them wore flirty little pleated tennis skirts over
matching bikinis in fabric of a shiny vibrant shade of blue. Babs wore her
black hair in a French braid, while Muffy's silvery locks were loose. Tiffy's
own pale gold hair was pinned up under a floppy white sunhat adorned with
blue silk flowers.
A waiter approached and refreshed their iced tea. Tiffy deigned to
acknowledge him with a nod, thinking to herself that if only he were a guest
of the club instead of one of the staff, she might have considered going out
with him.
She smiled at the thought, wondering what Daddy-dear's reaction
would be. Clive Vandermere had very clear ideas on the status and breeding
of possible dates for his darling princess. Standards which evidently had not
been in place when he chose Miss Boston Tea Party 1994 for his second
wife.
Her smile faded, remembering the argument they'd had just last
night. Wasn't it just like that tramp to want Daddy to get Tiffy out of the
house? Normally, she would have jumped at the chance of her own
penthouse apartment in New York, but not if it was Ginny's idea!
"Oh, good, more tea. I was so parched!" Muffy said, taking a long
sip and then running the moisture-beaded glass against her glistening
forehead.
"Lemon wedges," Babs tsked. "Lazy. Remember when they used to
have slices cut on the spiral? Any idiot can hack a lemon into wedges."
"That's what they get for paying them barely twice minimum
wage," Tiffy shrugged.
Muffy arched her silvery eyebrows. "Don't tell me you're
concerned over the plight of the common man all of a sudden!"
Tiffy laughed. "Hardly! Who won?"
"Who cares?" Babs shrugged and flipped her braid over her
shoulder. "Nathan Brettcastle was checking me out; that's all that matters!"
"Oh, that is so not true!" Muffy protested. "He was looking at me!"
"The way you were tossing your skirt at every man who went by,
who could blame him?" Tiffy said.
"If they want a show, I'll give them one." Muffy hooked her thumbs
into the waistband of her skirt and peeled it off. Now only bikini-clad, she
stretched out on the lounge chair beside Tiffy and began rubbing suntan
lotion on herself in slow, dreamy gestures.
The three of them grinned slyly at each other, sensing nearly every
male gaze on the pool deck now questing hungrily in their direction.
Babs shucked her skirt as well, then knelt beside Muffy. "Shall I?"
Muffy handed her the bottle. "All right." She rolled onto her
stomach and Babs began massaging lotion into her back.
Tiffy watched, amused and, as always, wondering in the back of
her mind just what it was about men that made them find scenes such as this
so fascinating. She tried to imagine her reaction if she were watching two
gorgeous men in a similar setting, but just wrinkled her nose in distaste.
Eew.
"You didn't finish telling us about your brother," Babs said. "Do
you think they're really going to get a divorce?"
"God, I hope so!" Tiffy said fervently. "Margot is such a hag!
And I could do without having her trashy niece Birdie at family gatherings
from now on."
"Wouldn't you miss Chas, though?" Muffy asked sweetly, all three
of them knowing full well that Chas Yale had resisted Tiffy's every attempt
to get him in the sack.
"It's better this way," Tiffy replied, just as sweetly. "I think he feels
weird about it because we're almost related. Cousins-in-law, or something.
He'll come around once Margot and Brendan are splitsville."
"I can't believe that slut Birdie, though!" Babs was rubbing the
backs of Muffy's thighs now, much to the evident delight of their trying-to-
be-circumspect audience. "Pushing her own aunt through a window --"
"It wasn't a window, it was a glass dining-room table," Tiffy
corrected. "What really burned everyone up was how Brendan was the one
to bail her out of jail! I mean, how could he? First he vanishes off the
yacht after that horrible party --"
Muffy and Babs began humming 'Happy Birthday,' and Babs
slapped Muffy lightly on the rump to remind Tiffy how she'd been spanked
by Tomas Brode.
She gave them an indignant glare. "Vanishes off the yacht, and
everyone thinks he's dead, but then that awful, tacky Xanatos person starts
sending messages that he's alive, that he's traveling around with gargoyles
of all things --"
"I wouldn't call him awful or tacky," Muffy mused. "For new
money, he's really kind of cute."
"Traveling with gargoyles," Tiffy persisted. "He used to go on
about how he hated them and they should all be in a zoo, and now he's their
best friend!"
"Maybe he's an imposter," Babs suggested.
"I wish!" Tiffy said. "But Daddy thought of that first thing and
had him tested. Can you believe it? DNA tested, like a criminal or
something! So it's really Brendan."
"So you won't inherit everything," Muffy said.
"That's not the point," she said, though partly it was. "I mean, he's
gone for months, comes back with this nutball story about where he's
been, and when he finds out that his wife is in the hospital because her
psycho-bimbo niece tried to kill her, what does he do? Bails the bitch out!
Agrees to supervisory custody of her while she's on probation! I half-
expected him to bring her to stay at the house!"
"Oh, my God, that would have been the worst!" Babs exclaimed.
"Having her in your house?"
"Daddy never would have gone for it, though." Tiffy sneered
meanly. "But I bet Ginny would have liked it! They could have shared
beauty secrets!"
"Can he do all that, I mean, legally, if he and Margot get
divorced?" Muffy asked. "It's not like he's a relation."
Tiffy flopped back on her chair. "Her probation's only six months.
There's no way their divorce could be final by then, not with the lawyers
they'd be bringing in! Even with the prenuptial agreement Daddy made them
sign, I bet that Margot still tries to get her hands on the money."
"Do you think he's having it off with Birdie?" Babs said with a
vicious smile.
Tiffy popped back up again. "That is so gross! Even if he wasn't
her uncle, it'd still be gross!"
"They're no more related than you and Chas," Muffy pointed out.
"You are both sick," Tiffy declared grandly. "I'm going
swimming." She stalked toward the glimmering aquamarine rectangle, aware
that the men's eyes were now following her.
She dove gracefully, her body slicing the clear water, and the
pleasure she felt at its coolness against her skin was second only to the
pleasure she felt knowing she had the attention of half the club. No, all the
club if she counted the jealous glares from other women.
Surfacing, slicking her mass of blonde hair back like a seal, she
artfully ignored the admiring gazes and beckoned for Muffy and Babs to
join her.
There was something at the bottom of the pool, she saw through the
rippling blur of the water. Something twinkling like a jewel. A ring, maybe,
that some six-facelifts-and-a-boob-job crone must have lost while paddling
along.
Tiffy swam deep to investigate. Not that she needed jewelry,
mind you, but out of curiosity. Though, if it was a nice piece ...
She was aware of two more bodies diving into the pool, recognized
them without looking. Muffy and Babs sported like mermaids for a moment,
then must have been curious what she was doing because they both swam
down too.
Tiffy kicked harder, determined to reach the jewel first.
Deeper yet, and now the twinkle was bigger. Not a ring. A
necklace? Blue-purple-gold, like the twilight caught in crystal ...
She reached out --
Colors swirled out at her, colors with blackness at the center. Tiffy
screamed, a huge wavering bubble bursting from her lips. Her last crazy
thought was that it would rise to the surface, pop, and her scream would peal
forth.
The blackness engulfed her.

* *

AVALON -- FLOWER MEADE

It was a peaceful place, a happy place, a place all the clan
associated with joy and merriment.
Until tonight.
"You heard what I said," Tourmaline declared, drawing herself up
tall. "We are leaving. The four of us. Icarus, Ezekiel, Hippolyta, and I."
"You can't!" Jacob cried, flinging himself forward through his
larger brothers. "In case you've forgotten, that's my egg you're carrying!"
"It belongs to the entire clan," she replied scathingly. "Our clan."
Gabriel waved Jacob back and faced the dissidents sternly. "Yes,
sister, I heard what you said. I didn't believe it. And I want to know why you
would break from us."
"We want more from life than whiling it away here," Icarus
grumbled.
"Whiling it away!" Uriel echoed. "Lord Oberon's guard-of-
honor --"
"A token, meaningless post for our warriors and you know it,"
Hippolyta said, fingering the fletched ends of the arrows protruding from
her quiver.
As the argument continued, Gabriel's three mates looked on in
silence. Blonde Citrine's hands were full of Onyx's hair, carefully plaiting it,
while Opal sat beside them brushing her own silver-white tresses.
A flicker at the edge of the meade caught Opal's attention. A blue-
purple-gold swirl of light, peeking between the leaf-laden boughs.
"Our clan has been divided enough!" Gabriel was saying. "We've
lost Angela, Elektra, and Jericho already. No more!"
"If need be," Tourmaline said, "we will challenge for the right to
lead our own clan."
Ezekiel bared his teeth in anticipation, shifting his hands on his
quarterstaff. Although he was not the strongest of the rookery brothers, all
had learned to well-respect that length of seasoned ironwood.
Opal rose, setting aside her brush, and touched her sisters on the
shoulders. Sisters, yes, closer than rookery. Like one mind in three bodies.
Together, unnoticed by the rest of their siblings, they moved
toward that mysterious lightswirl. Something about it called to them on a
level too deep to question, too innate to discuss.
The swirl grew, wider now, vivid around an opening forming like
the petalled heart of some strange dark flower.
Gabriel happened to look around then, noting the change in the
quality of the night. He saw his mates standing as if spellbound before the
magical portal, and called out in alarm.
A voice issued from the opening. "Now, my pretties, my pets. Now
fulfill your destiny!"
As one, the three sisters nodded, and stepped through.
"NOOO!" Gabriel roared, lunging after them. His clutching hand
caught Onyx's tunic, then slipped free. The portal winked shut, leaving him
kneeling in the grass.
"They're gone!" Thisbe gasped.
"That voice ..." Laertes swallowed hard. "Did any of you know that
voice, or am I mad?"
Ophelia, so like him with her triceratops crown, shook her head.
"Not mad, brother. I knew that voice as well."
"As did I," Gabriel said, rising and clenching his fists. He turned,
stiffly, to regard the four rebels who stood apart from the rest of the clan.
"Until we've solved this, no one leaves!"
Tourmaline's emerald skin darkened in anger, but the others
nodded.
"What shall we do?" Ruth whispered, shrinking against her mate
Malachi. "He's come back! Back from the dead to have his revenge on us!"
Malachi put his arms around her and looked at Gabriel.
They all looked at Gabriel.
He realized it was for him to name their fear, their foe. "The
Archmage."

* *

MEADOWGROVE COUNTRY CLUB
JUNE 1977


"This is what the world will come to? Why have you brought me
here?"
"You'll figure it out." His older self looked scornfully at him.
"Perhaps."
"If what you say is true, you are me, so if I don't figure it out,
you'll never know it either," he retorted.
"You are catching on," his older self chuckled. "Let's go."
He gestured at his ratty robes and general unkempt appearance.
There hadn't been all that much time for grooming since Goliath threw him
down a shaft. "I hardly think I'd fit in."
The scene before them was one of perfectly-maintained pastoral
bliss. White metal tables with colorful umbrellas stood on a long, sweeping
terrace. Green stonelike fields marked with white lines and bisected by nets
were occupied by people in crisp white clothes, playing some sort of game
not altogether unlike badminton. Still more people swam in an unnaturally
clean, rectangular lake. Behind it all stretched a long building with many
windows, and beyond that was another field filled with shiny metal enclosed
carts.
"Just watch, and learn," his older self said. He waved a hand and
spoke a few words, rendering the younger version invisible while altering
his own appearance. Now, instead of his majestic gold-trimmed splendor, he
looked no more than twenty-five, wearing an outfit identical to the
circulating people bearing trays of food and drink to those seated at the
tables or lounging on couches around the false lake.
"A servant?" the younger one said, knowing that his sneer could be
heard if not seen.
"Hush." The older one snapped his fingers, and a tray with three
bowls of chopped fruit appeared in his hand. He approached a table where
three women were seated.
The younger one looked them over, thinking to himself that they
might carry themselves as if they were nobles, but dressed barely better than
tarts in their low-cut, clinging summery dresses.
"Nadine, that Brendan of yours is certainly growing up! Why, if I
was twenty years younger ..." the dark-haired woman winked at the blonde
called Nadine.
The third at their table, whose platinum hair looked almost white in
the sunlight, turned to survey a youth playing the game not altogether unlike
badminton. "He is handsome. Looks just like pictures I've seen of Clive
when he was that age!"
Something about the three women struck the invisible man as
familiar. It took him a moment, but then came to him. Although there was
no other resemblance, their hair colors put him in mind of his new allies.
"Are they connected to the Sisters?" he asked, forgetting himself.
The women looked around at his older, now-disguised self.
"Excuse me?" the one called Nadine inquired.
"Ladies," his older self replied with a slight bow. "Would you care
to sample the fruit cocktail?"
"I don't believe I've seen you around here before," the brunette
said, eyeing him with lechery shameful in a woman her age -- and a married
one, too, judging by the ring on her third left.
"It's only temporary." His older self adopted just the right tone of
polite flattery to make the brunette smile. He lowered his tray, showing them
the bowls of chopped fruit. Every piece looked plump, succulent, juicy.
"My diet ..." she of the platinum hair said.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Cecily," Nadine laughed. "You're thin as a
rail, and it's only fruit! It's not as if he brought the dessert cart!" She took
one of the bowls and beamed a thank-you at his older self.
When all three of them had tasted the fruit and proclaimed it
delicious, his older self begged off with an excuse and a promise to come
back in a moment and see how they were doing. As they all glanced up to
bid him farewell, the younger version saw something flicker in the bowls. A
brief swirl of blue-purple-gold, and then gone.
Once they had made their way back to their former hiding place,
his older self dropped the spells and stood there with an infuriatingly smug
look. "Well?"
"You cast a spell on them. Why?"
"Within one month, each of those women will conceive. In due
time, each will bear a daughter. By the time we face Goliath, those
daughters will be of age."
"Of age for what?" he demanded.
His older self only smiled.

* *

CASTLE WYVERN
990 A.D.

"Ah! Now, this is more like it!" he exclaimed as the Phoenix Gate's
fiery bubble popped and they found themselves in a deep belowground
chamber. "We'll destroy them now, and then they'll be no trouble to us in the
future!"
"Dolt!" his older self said. "The past cannot be changed! Haven't
you learned that yet?"
"But you changed the past by saving my life," he protested.
His older self rolled his eyes. "Why is this so hard for you to
understand? You never died! I saved you! Get it through that muttonchop
skull of yours! Now, pay attention."
"What? If we're not here to destroy the gargoyles, why are we
here?"
"Observe!" His older self, whom he was liking less and less if truth
be told, stepped carefully around and over the eggs in the gargoyle rookery.
The shells were still fairly soft, newly laid, most of them lavender with
darker mottlings.
"What's wrong with that one?" he asked, pointing to a smaller one
with a shell as pink as a newborn babe.
"How should I know? It doesn't matter. These are the ones I'm
after." He paused beside three piled together in the heap of damp straw,
squatted down, and pressed his palm against each in turn. When he pulled
away, a handprint outlined in blue-purple-gold lingered, then faded as if it
was sinking through the shell. Each of the three eggs changed color briefly
as if lit from within, one silvery, one gold, one dark.
"Let me guess," the younger one said. "In due time, those eggs will
hatch into three gargoyle females. Now I see what you're doing! You're
creating counterparts to the Weird Sisters! Humans and gargoyles!"
"Very good! There's hope for you yet!" He chortled, and his
younger self stared, appalled. Chortled? Was that his future? "These three,
and those others we just visited, will be my safeguard." He chortled again.
"My daughters, almost! And the time may come when I will collect them,
put them to good use. Just in case."
"Just in case of what?" the younger asked, failing to see how mere
girls, be they human or gargoyle, could be of much use to anybody.
"In case of failure," his older self muttered darkly. "I'll be sure to
leave my elfin allies a little something to remember me by."

* *

MEADOWGROVE COUNTRY CLUB
JUNE 1999

"Good afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Vandermere. How pleasant to see
you again."
"Thank you, Stanley," Clive Vandermere said. "Is my daughter
about?"
"Miss Tiffany and her friends are poolside, sir. Will you be dining
here tonight?"
Clive nodded, took his wife's arm and patted it fondly. "Yes, and
my son will be joining us. We have some splendid news to share, so have a
bottle of the Ile de Avignon waiting, won't you?"
Stanley inclined his head. "Very good choice, sir."
As he left them to make their way out to the terrace, Ginny
Vandermere laughed softly and shook her head. "Clive, you know you mean
the world to me --"
"Likewise, darling."
"--but I've been thinking about it all day, and I can't imagine Tiffy
taking this well at all. Are you sure you want to tell her here? In public, as it
were?"
"Family tradition," he explained. "We save all our best
announcements for here. This is where we told them we were planning to get
married, remember?"
"How could I forget?" Ginny murmured.
"Now, if I know my Tiffy," Clive said, shading his eyes as they
emerged into the bright sunshine, "she'll be the center of attention ..."
True enough, there was a crowd gathered around the pool. But not
the admiring sort Tiffy was wont to draw. No, this was a crowd whose faces
wore mingled disbelief and worry.
"I tell you, they just disappeared!" Nathan Brettcastle, son of one
of Clive's oldest and dearest friends, was saying loudly. "I was watching!
There was a flash under the water, and all three of them were gone!"


* *

AVALON -- OBERON'S PALACE

"This is your island, isn't it?" Gabriel challenged belligerently.
"Can't you control what magic happens here?"
Oberon's posture grew, if possible, more stiff and regal. "We do
not care for your tone of voice, Clan Leader. Take care to temper it before
you speak to us again."
"The Archmage is here without your permission, and you're
worried about my tone of voice?" Gabriel barked a bitter laugh.
"I find it highly unlikely that the Archmage is here," Oberon said
with remarkable tolerance. "His mortal flame was snuffed out. My
handmaidens can attest to that."
All attention turned to Luna, Phoebe, and Selene, and found the
three of them waxy-pale, staring at each other in horror.
"Can they not?" Oberon prompted.
"It begins," Selene whispered, aghast. "The Archmage's curse!"
Oberon sighed and massaged his temple. "And what fresh nonsense
is this? Of what curse do you speak?"
"In his dying," Luna reluctantly explained, "as the Grimorum
destroyed him from within, for he could not contain its powers once the Eye
of Odin had been wrested from him --"
"Yes, yes," Oberon waved her on.
"He reached out to us with his magic," Phoebe finished. "Seeking
our help, which we denied. And then, enraged, he tore from each of us a part
of our own magic ... no more than the plucking of a single hair," she
hastened to assure her glowering lord. "But enough to forestall him from
complete oblivion."
"Prior to that," Selene said, "he told us that should he fail in his
efforts against Goliath and his clan, he would see to it that we would not go
unpunished --"
"The cheek!" Oberon put in angrily. "To presume to discipline
my servants? My appointed guardians of Avalon?" His gaze narrowed
and pinned the Sisters. "That task, and neglected, it seems, is mine!"
"No, merciful Oberon!" Luna begged. "He said that would be a
part of it! He said you would grow angry with us! Do not be fooled into
fulfilling his words!"
"I forgave you for letting yourself be bested by the Magus ... twice,
to Avalon's shame," he said. "I forgave you for permitting mortals to tread
upon this magical place, for --" he magnanimously indicated Gabriel, and
the tensely observing Katherine and Tom, "-- they have proven their worth.
But I had forgotten, in the pleasures of the Gathering, how you served the
Archmage."
"My lord, please!" Selene clasped her hands. "Do not let yourself
be led by him!"
"It must have been by your suggestion that he learned how he
might bring the Grimorum to these shores, how to use the Eye of Odin,"
Oberon went on relentlessly. "By your hands, recall, that he came into
possession of those items! You did his bidding over mine, interfering in the
mortal world on his behalf! You thought to find your way around my
restriction with the two called Demona and MacBeth by making them
immortal, thereby allowing or excusing your further meddling, but if not for
you, they would yet have been mortal!"
Winken, hearing the rising ire of his lord, poked his elfin head into
the room, tested the emotional weather therein, and just as quickly departed.
As Oberon's new steward, he would keep any of the other Children from
disturbing their lord, but the Sisters also knew that Winken's flapping tongue
would hasten the news of their scolding to every willing ear.
"All this, you did at the Archmage's bidding!" Oberon concluded.
"And now you expect me to protect you from him?"
"Does our service mean nothing to our lord?" Luna cried.
"You have been most diligent," Oberon allowed. "And for that, I
will not exile you."
All three of them quaked in their slippers at the reprieve from a fate
they hadn't even considered, but Phoebe warily spoke up. "What will my
lord do?"
"Hmm ... would that my queen were here," Oberon mused. "Her
counsel would be wise, I am certain."
"Excuse me," Gabriel cut in, aggravated. "The Archmage has
stolen my mates! Shouldn't that come first?"
"Gabriel, hush," Katherine urged gently.
"I take no offense, Princess," Oberon generously said, seemingly
forgetting his earlier finely-crafted outrage. "The Clan Leader is concerned,
rightfully so, for his mates and their unborn offspring. They shall be
returned to him. My handmaidens shall see to it."
"We?" Selene gasped.
"Although you have not ... written their story ..." Oberon permitted
himself a small smile, "they are, in a way, your responsibility ... your
children. Did you think I had not seen the resemblance?"
Gabriel rocked back on his tail as he, for the first time, saw the
resemblance. "What?"
"My lord," Luna said imploringly, "you cannot mean to send us!
Against the Archmage, to retrieve these gargoyles?"
"It is what he wants!" Phoebe nearly shrieked. "He has done a
Gathering of his own, not only these three but among the humans as well, I
know it to be true! I have seen them!"
"Humans as well?" Oberon asked with mild disinterest. "It is of no
consequence --"
"It is!" Phoebe insisted. "He told us, should we ever be brought
all together, face to face, a terrible misfortune should be ours!"
"And could he name this terrible misfortune?" At their drawn-
out silence, Oberon nodded. "I thought not. He tricks you with shadows and
vague forebodings. He knows that, since it is your magic that keeps him
bound to the world, it is your magic that can strip his last shred of power
from him. He fears you, yet has made you so timid of him that you will not
take a single step to stop him."
"Then why would he make all this known to us?" Selene asked.
"Why would he not simply go on, letting all believe him dead and gone
forever? Why would he take the gargoyles, and possibly the humans as
well?"
"I grow weary of your incessant arguing," Oberon said. "Whatever
may be, the Archmage lingers like a stench. You three made him what he is,
and must therefore tend to these matters. An injustice has been done against
the Clan Leader. The sanctity of Avalon has been violated. I would have it
taken care of. You will not disobey me."
Phoebe's jaw firmed. "No, Lord Oberon ... but if in idle supposition
we did ...?"
"I'm sure your mother would be delighted to see you," he replied.
Luna and Selene seized Phoebe by both arms and hissed at her to
be quiet, while Katherine and Tom and Gabriel looked at each other in
confusion.
"Now, go," Oberon ordered.
"I'm going too," Gabriel said, stepping forward, his expression
declaring that he expected objection.
But Oberon merely inclined his head. "As you will."

* *

THE PLAIN OF FIRE

"Where are we?" Onyx whispered, then began to cough harshly.
Opal, her eyes watering from the acrid, smoke-filled air, covered
her mouth with the edge of her halter. "What happened to us?"
Citrine fanned her wings, trying to disperse the smoke, but it was
an impossible task. There seemed to be nothing but smoke, drifting tendrils
of it in the bitter-tasting air. The sky overhead was a pall of gritty brown-
grey, tinted all around the horizon as red as an angry she-gargoyle's eyes.
Thin rays of flame-colored light speared down through chinks in the smoke-
clouds, illuminating the drear landscape that stretched out around them.
The earth beneath their feet was hard-baked clay, cracked and
uneven, dotted with stubbly tufts of burnt grass. A fine ash sifted
everywhere, soot puffing up around their talons and tails when they moved.
Instinctively, they moved closer together, backs in, scanning the
endless lifeless plain for any immediate threat.
"The light, the portal," Citrine said. "Do you remember, sisters? A
compulsion ... a spell."
"A voice," Onyx added somberly, then coughed again.
"The Archmage," Opal concluded. She jumped and hissed as a
spark fell on her bare arm, looking up. "It rains ... fire!"
More sparks, a twinkling shower that might have been pretty if they
hadn't been standing under it, fell from the clouds. The three gargoyles did
what they could to avoid them, but each was speckled with stinging
pinpricks before the shower ended. It only lasted a matter of minutes, luckily
for them, and they all escaped without hair or clothes igniting.
When they were able to look around again, they saw that the
scenery had changed subtly. Now a distant ridge of mountains blotted out
the furnace of the sky on one side, curving to meet a wall of flame that
seemed to reach from the earth to the very clouds in a glowing yellow-white
blaze. A few trees, or the scorched skeletal remains thereof, poked like dead
fingers from the hard-packed ground.
A narrow cyclone of smoke dipped down. It wandered close to the
gargoyles, and they backed warily away, staying together.
Sapphire-amethyst light flashed overhead and they all looked up,
recognizing the lightswirl of another portal even as it opened.
"Quickly!" Citrine commanded. "Try to reach it!"
They leaped in unison, wings beating and seeking currents although
all three of them knew they didn't have enough altitude.
Three forms tumbled out of the portal, collided with three
gargoyles, and all of them bounced and thudded to the ground.
Citrine was so stunned by what she saw that she completely forgot
to be upset by the fact that the portal winked shut and was gone. Her sisters
stood likewise rendered immobile.
The new arrivals were three dripping-wet humans. Water ran from
their bodies and evaporated in puffs of steam when it hit the earth. One of
them, whose pale blonde hair was turned a darker shade of gold by the
wetness, was sputtering and gasping.
Three young women in revealing garb, but what was most shocking
about it was looking into human faces and seeing mirrors of their own.
All three shot to their feet with pained cries and hopped from foot
to foot. With a corner of her mind that wasn't occupied trying to deal with
their features, Citrine realized that the nearly-uncomfortable heat beneath
her own talons would be more painful to tender human skin.
Opal seized Citrine's and Onyx's hands, and with her chin gestured
toward the cyclone. It had grown thicker, more substantial, and was etching
a circle around the six of them.
The humans quit their hopping and screamed in horror.
The gargoyles looked around quickly to see what the alarm was,
saw nothing, and then realized their counterparts were staring straight at
them.
"Monsters!" the brunette shrieked.
"Gargoyles!" The blonde outdid her by half again the volume.
The one with silver-white hair only sustained her initial scream,
attaining operatic heights, until it seemed a certainty that she would faint
from lack of breath.
"Stop!" Onyx shouted.
Amazingly, they did, and huddled together in abject fear.
"Who are you?" Citrine asked as Onyx went into another coughing
fit.
"Who are you?" the blonde shot back. For the first time she
looked at Citrine, truly seeing her, and that realization that had earlier
stunned the gargoyles now clouted her a dire blow. "You look ... like ... like
..." she couldn't finish.
"This can't be happening," the brunette moaned.
Opal's claws dug in, directing them back to the cyclone. It had
colors in it now, swirls of blue-purple-gold. As they watched, it took on the
shape of a man.
The smoke whirled away into thin streamers, and they found
themselves looking upon the face of their enemy.
"Oh, but it can," the Archmage assured them all.

* *

AVALON -- OBERON'S PALACE

"Gabriel, ye canna do this!" Katherine said imploringly. "Ye canna
leave yer clan!"
Tom gently took her hands and drew her away from Gabriel. "He
must, my love. Would I have done otherwise?"
Katherine began to weep softly, a terrible, broken sound that went
directly to their hearts. "I canna bear to lose any more o' my bairns," she
sobbed.
"Princess ... Mother," Gabriel said, touching her lined brow.
"The Guardian is right. I have to go."
"Let me come with ye, then," Tom offered, but Gabriel shook his
head even before Katherine could finish her cry of protest.
"You're needed here, Guardian, more than ever. If the Archmage
does return, the clan will need you to look after them during the day."
"All is in readiness," Selene's silky-cool voice cut in.
"As am I." Gabriel kissed Katherine's cheek, clasped forearms with
Tom, and then turned to face the dark-haired Sister.
She led him to a round room ringed with mirrors between white
marble columns. The columns supported a black dome where a lunar shape
rolled swiftly across the sky, ever-changing in its phases as it did so. Though
neither Selene nor her sisters explained, Gabriel knew that he was seeing
with his own eyes how time passed in the outer world. How a single night
here was a month of nights to Angela.
The mirrors reflected nothing but themselves, silent silver
marching forward and backward into eternity.
Gabriel swallowed and fought to conceal his nervousness. He took
the place that Phoebe directed, in the direct center of the chamber, while the
three of them joined hands around him.
"Do nothing," Luna told him. "Say nothing. Until the spell is
complete, else you will cast all of us into the Abyss."
He started to reply, changed his mind, and nodded.
The three of them closed their eyes and began to speak.
"Here are time and space forsworn, in this room by mirrors
walled."
"Send us not where we are needed, but where we are called."
Gabriel kept his eyes resolutely open, but there was nothing to see
as the world went to silver light all around him.

* *

THE PLAIN OF FIRE

"Archmage!" Citrine dropped into a crouch, wings half-spread and
claws at the ready. Beside her, her sisters did the same, lips drawn back over
their fangs in fury and fear.
He laughed heartily and folded his hands up the wide flowing
sleeves of his blue-purple-gold robes. "Oh, I'm not here to hurt you, my
pretties! Not at all!"
A gulp of dismay sounded behind them. Citrine realized they had
put themselves between the humans and the Archmage without even
thinking about it.
"Nor you," he assured the three young women. "I've only gathered
you here to help me take care of some unfinished business." One hand
slipped free of his sleeve and sketched a strange gesture in the air. It hung
there as if made of smoke.
Citrine felt a brief, almost painless tug that seemed centered in both
her head and her chest. Gasps from her sisters and the humans told her that
she wasn't alone in that sensation.
"Now," the Archmage said contentedly, "you're ready. And the last
guests should be along momentarily."
"I want to go home!" the blonde-haired human announced with
surprising strength.
The Archmage favored her with a smile that made her take a step
back. "In good time. If you're able, that is!"
"What do you want from us?" Opal demanded.
"All you have to do is stand there," he said. "I've already done the
rest. You've each been holding something for me, and the time has come to
collect it."
"You'll have nothing from us!" Citrine declared. "Not without a
fight!"
Her sisters growled assent, while behind them the humans clung to
each other and made small incoherent noises.
"There probably will be a fight," the Archmage agreed smugly.
"But it's not me you'll be fighting ..."
"You don't expect us to fight them!" Onyx indicated the humans,
who, if anything, looked even more frightened.
"Not at all," he replied.
"Tiffy ... do something!" the brunette whined.
"My brother's the gargoyle expert, not me!" the blonde said.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Get us out of here!" the third one begged.
The Archmage tipped his head to the side as if listening to
something none of them could here. "Aha. Places, ladies ... it's showtime."
A silver ripple raced along the smoke-clouds, then a shaft of pure
white radiance shot down. Four shapes appeared in the heart of it.
The Archmage frowned slightly.
The light faded, and Opal, Onyx, and Citrine called out as one.
"Gabriel!"

* *


MEADOWGROVE COUNTRY CLUB
JUNE 1999

The stony silence of a very long trip came to an end as the dark
brown sport utility vehicle slowed to a stop on the curved drive, when the
valets came out and failed to conceal their surprise.
"They're looking for your gun rack," Margot Yale said cattily.
Brendan Vandermere's grip tightened just a little on the steering
wheel, but he forced his voice to remain light. "I'm having it installed next
week."
"Don't try to be funny, Brendan, you've never been good at it."
Rather than reply, he got out, tossed the keys to the valet (who had
now left off staring at the SUV and was now staring at the driver instead, or,
more specifically, his battered leather jacket).
To the valet's intense unexpressed relief, Brendan opened the rear
door, shrugged out of the jacket, and donned a proper coat. He then went
around to the passenger side and opened Margot's door.
She accepted his help out, still moving gingerly. The bandages had
finally come off, and most of the stitches were out. Raised arms in a
protective gesture had saved her eyes and face, so a long-sleeved blouse and
slacks concealed most of the scars.
"You didn't have to drag me all the way up here," she said bitterly.
"Dad wanted to see us, and I thought we could use the time
together to work things out."
She sniffed and turned toward the front doors. "What's there to
work out?"
He circled around in front of her, thinking to himself that they
should have discussed this on the way up, not on the steps of the country
club. "Us, Margot. I know what's happened is partly my fault."
"Partly?"
"I should have called. I admit that. There's no excuse for it."
She stopped short and glared at him icily. "What do you want me
to say, Brendan? Do you expect me to forgive you for vanishing without a
trace? I can do that, since you were kidnapped by those creatures! But then
you start defending them, talking about them as if they were your
friends --"
"They are my friends," he said, softly but firmly.
"If you think for one minute that I --"
"Brendan! Thank God you're here!" Ginny Vandermere, his
twenty-something stepmother, hurried over to him. "Your father --"
"Has something happened to Dad?" Brendan turned away from
Margot, not missing the flash of ire in her eyes.
"It's Tiffy ..."
"Oh." He relaxed a bit and chuckled. "What's she done now?"
"She's missing!"

* *

THE PLAIN OF FIRE

Gabriel barely noticed his surroundings, so relieved was he to see
his mates alive and unharmed. He started toward them the moment the
Sisters unlinked their hands, but a cage of flame sprang from the earth and
enclosed him.
"I see you brought an uninvited guest," the Archmage said to the
Weird Sisters. "No matter. He cannot help you. And now you will pay the
price for failing me."
"You failed yourself!" Phoebe said. "We upheld our part of the
bargain!"
"Oh, I know," he said. "I'm just the type to hold a grudge, you see."
"Your death is not on our hands!" Selene declared.
"Death ... have you any idea how hard it is to come back from the
dead? No, of course not, you're immortal! Well, we'll soon remedy that!" He
made a grand sweeping gesture. "Look who I've brought with me!"
The nine of them stared at each other with varying reactions while
Gabriel tried to test the walls of his fire-prison. The heat made his skin
tighten and eyes water, and he could not even get close enough to the flames
to try and force his way through.
"Of all three races," Opal murmured in awe.
"It means nothing!" her counterpart, Luna, snapped. "So you've
found lookalikes for us, Old One. Why should we fear them, or you? We
could destroy you all!"
"Try," the Archmage invited.
Three witchbolts streaked from their fingertips and passed
harmlessly through him.
"You see," he said as they looked from their fingers to each other.
"I'm still only a phantom. I haven't the strength to fully restore myself. But
as you grow weaker, I shall grow stronger! Even now, your powers are
draining slowly away, like one grain of sand at a time slipping through an
hourglass. Don't you feel it?"
From the sudden comprehension and uncertainty on their faces,
Gabriel was sure that they did.
"How ...?" Phoebe began, then understanding came and she turned
with a deadly expression toward her counterparts.
"Yes, that's right," the Archmage chortled. "The power you loaned
me during our alliance. I set some of it aside for safekeeping, in them. And
now that you are all together, the spell is complete, and your magic will flow
into them. They're not trained to hold it, of course, and the excess will come
to me. Rather like a basin to catch water from an overfilled pitcher. There's
not a thing you can do to stop it."
Now the witchbolts flew again, this time directly toward the
humans and gargoyles. Gabriel shouted in warning and frustrated rage, and
threw himself at the jets of flame. Hair and skin singed, he reeled back and
could only watch helplessly.
His mates tried to dodge the deadly energy, but weren't quick
enough. A bolt struck each of them squarely ...
... and dispersed in a harmless spray of twinkling glitter.
Panting, surprised to be alive, his mates looked from each other to
the Sisters to the Archmage.
"Your magic cannot touch them," the Archmage announced with
immense self-satisfaction. "Nor the humans. They'll siphon your power
away, and when it is gone, you will be mortal." He grinned. "For a very
short while, that is."
"No!" Citrine cried. "We won't help you!"
"You have no choice," he told her. "You've been made for this,
from the very egg. It's nothing you can control."
One of the humans began to shriek and swing her head from side to
side in denial, fists clenched in her silver hair. The brunette had adopted a
blank horrified stare. Only the blonde seemed to still show the slightest bit
of alertness.
The Archmage crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. "So,
make yourselves comfortable. It will only be a short while. And then I shall
live again. Would that I could say the same for you, my erstwhile allies."
"What of us?" Opal demanded. "We don't want this! We have no
quarrel with Oberon's Children!"
"You do now," Luna said in a soft tone with a steely undercurrent.
"You've misjudged, Old One," Selene said. "If we kill these
mortals now, it will put an end to your spell and your plan!"
"No!" Gabriel pushed toward the fire again and was again driven
back. "You promised Oberon --"
"Try," the Archmage said again. "But believe me, your magic is
useless against them."
The Sisters joined hands, and the earth began to shake and rise in a
tidal wave of crumbling dried clay and blackened, hard-edged stones. But
when all was done, Gabriel's mates and the three humans stood untouched
on a smooth patch of ground.
"We are not your enemies!" Onyx shouted. "Together, we can
defeat the Archmage!"
"Don't be a fool!" Selene snapped. "He's right!"
"Not entirely ..." Phoebe said. "Our magic might not affect them,
but it still affects us!"
"Yes!" A smile spread on Luna's lips, rendering what was beautiful,
hideous.
They moved together, arms entwining and reaching to the bleak
smoke-filled sky. "Wind of fire, shapechange brings ... let three as one wear
dragon's wings!"
Their three bodies melded into one and grew to ten times the size,
blurring and melting. Pale skin and moon-hued garments darkened,
thickened into ash-grey scales. A pair of wings unfolded. A long neck
uncoiled, bringing into view a head larger than Gabriel was tall, a head with
three mirror-silver eyes and a ropy mane of black, yellow, and white.
Two of the humans fainted and the last, the shrieker, began
pummeling herself in the head. The dragon's hungry gaze fell upon them,
and a long triple-forked tongue slicked its black, pebbly lips.
"Damn it all," the Archmage said in the petulant voice of a child
protesting some imagined unfairness.
The dragon's jaws gaped wide and a spark glowed in the tunnel of
its throat.
Gabriel had never been prouder of, or more terrified for, his trio of
mates as they raced to scoop the humans to safety. The dragon's breath
scorched a wide, long path, catching the tip of Onyx's tail but missing the
rest.
"Attack!" Citrine commanded, setting her counterpart down. Opal
did likewise and moved to obey. Onyx's tail was still smoking -- the pain
must have been incredible -- but though she lagged behind, she pressed on
regardless.
"No!" Gabriel gritted his teeth and bodily flung himself against the
bars, but the searing agony left him crumpled, parallel burns all down his
chest and legs. "You can't go into battle," he moaned. "The eggs!"
Onyx heard him and turned back, the pain in her eyes now
tempered with sorrow. "There are no eggs, Gabriel," she said gently, sadly.
"The three of us never quickened. We wanted to tell you, we meant to tell
you, but we knew not how. Nor why, until now." She glanced at the
Archmage. "What he did to us changed us somehow. I am so very sorry."
With that, leaving him stunned, she turned and followed her sisters.
The Archmage nudged the only conscious human, who had given
up hitting herself and was now crouched and whimpering. "Get up and
fight," he said in disgust. "You're of wealthy, noble birth ... don't cower like
a peasant!"
The dragon's laugh was at once beautiful and hideous. "You
misjudged, Old One!" it thundered. "You might have done better to choose
a peasant! There is little strength to be found in the modern breed of
nobles!"
Its vast wings began to beat, whipping soot and smoke and sparks
into a frenzy. Citrine, whose own wings had been spread in preparation for a
jump onto the heated currents rising from the baked earth, was caught like a
kite and hurled head over heels. She landed with bone-jarring impact, tried
to rise, and sank down again.
Opal and Onyx had better timing, leaping into the air and riding the
dragon-made wind. They swung wide, Opal to the right and Onyx to the left,
and passed beyond the dragon's field of vision.
It swiveled its head and snapped, missing Opal's leg by a
handbreadth. While it was distracted, Onyx dove with fists extended. Her
blow struck the base of the dragon's skull, driving its head down. Opal
whirled and raked her claws along the side of its neck.
The dragon convulsed, and pale light rather than blood oozed from
the wound. At once, Onyx's burnt tail healed, and Citrine rose up with
renewed strength.
"You see?" the Archmage shouted gleefully. "They drain your
power even now! You'll only grow weaker, and soon you won't be able to
maintain that form! You'll be helpless! And I will have my revenge!"
The dragon reared up, screeching in fury. Its limber forelegs
snatched Opal from the sky. Muscles flexed along the scaled length of its
limbs. Silver-edged black claws closed on Opal and tore her nearly in two.
Silence held sudden sway over the battlefield, the silence born of
utter shock. Gabriel could not even breathe, let alone cry out.
It was broken by the dragon's triumphant chuckle, and the hideous
thud of Opal's body falling. Its wound was closed, healed. "You thought to
best us, Old One? We take back our power! As each of these mortals dies,
what was stolen from us is ours again!"
Now Citrine and Onyx found their voices, drowning out any
reply the Archmage might have made. Onyx ripped through the dragon's
wing membrane, leaving a hole large enough for her to pass through. Citrine
went for the dragon's three eyes, narrowly missing being engulfed in a jet of
flaming breath.
Onyx wasn't so fortunate. Coming through the ragged rent in the
dragon's wing, she was directly in the path of the fire before she knew what
hit her. She didn't even have time to scream before her charred corpse fell to
earth, trailing smoke.
Gabriel found himself outside his cage with no idea how he got
there. No idea, until he became aware of the heat on his head from his
burning hair and knew he had somehow forced himself free.
He spread his wings, wincing as he felt crisp flakes of blackened
skin split and peel off like shards of stone. But even as he took to the air, he
was too late.
The dragon made to seize Citrine in its jaws but only grazed her,
knocking her down again. She landed hard, rolled loosely, and came to rest
nearly at Gabriel's feet. He dropped to his knees and reached for her.
"... have to slay the dragon," she gasped.
"I won't leave you!" he protested. "You're all I have left!"
She shook her head. "Know this, we loved you as best we could."
Her head lolled and her hands, which had been clutching her leg, slipped
away.
He stared at the bite, which had torn flesh from bone. Her blood
darkened the ground in a rapid flood, then slowed as her body stiffened. Her
skin turned grey and began to crumble.
The dragon sat back on its haunches for a moment, its great sides
heaving like a bellows. Its fang-filled mouth was not made for grinning, but
it grinned nonetheless as it surveyed its handiwork.
Gabriel, heartsick and knowing what he would see, looked too. Of
his three mates, only piles of grit and gravel were left.
"Don't be so pleased with yourself," the Archmage said. "This
battle is only half over."
Dragon and gargoyle both shifted their gaze to him, and saw the
three human women standing in a row before him. Their eyes were as blank
as those of MacBeth and Demona in the attack on Avalon.
The Archmage raised his arm and spoke some words in Latin, and
the dragon's grin fled. Its three eyes widened. "Nooooo!" it shrieked.
"Oh, yes," the Archmage replied. "Now." He curled his fingers into
a tight fist, and the three humans extended their hands. Tendrils of pale light
uncoiled from their palms, seeking the dragon.
It did its best to backpedal in horror, fell over its own tail, and
rolled turtle-like on its back for a long, ludicrous moment with all four legs
waving in the air. The tendrils of light twined around it, and the dragon
thrashed and writhed.
Gabriel, his merciful numbness beginning to wear off as anguish
and wrath nibbled at the edges, rose from his knees. He slowly approached
the Archmage, who was standing back as the human women moved forth.
"I think I understand," he said quietly. "While the gargoyles fought
the dragon, you used the distraction to work another spell."
"And now these three are drawing every last ounce of power from
my one-time allies," the Archmage agreed. "True, it will be more than their
mortal forms can bear, and it will be the death of them, but it will also
destroy the Sisters."
"There's one thing you're forgetting," Gabriel said.
The Archmage sniffed. "And what might that be?"
"Me."
His first punch did not so much break the Archmage's nose as
shatter it, splaying it into a flattened ruin. While the Archmage staggered
back, gasping bubbles of his own blood, Gabriel leaped on him and bowled
him over.
"I saw you touch the human," Gabriel snarled, "and knew you
weren't a phantom anymore. If you're far enough back to touch, you're far
enough back to be touched. What I wonder is -- are you far enough back to
die?"
His second punch cracked the old man's sternum.
"You dare!?" the Archmage tried to indignantly shout, but it only
emerged as a glottal grunt that Gabriel nonetheless understood.
"Those were my mates you used as tools!" Third punch, popping
the Archmage's jaw out of joint and aslant like a crooked dresser drawer.
Gnarled hands with split yellowed nails, came up to dig at Gabriel's
face and neck. He answered with a fourth punch that caved in half a ribcage.
"You cannot ..." the Archmage gurgled.
Gabriel roared and hooked his claws into the old man's torso and
pulled it apart like a well-cooked chicken. Amid the gushing blood and
bulging organs, a small cyclone of blue-purple-gold swirled up from the
wreckage of his chest, wailing piercingly.
The humans faltered. Two of them began to sob and the third
looked around as if she'd just awoken from a dream to a nightmare.
The dragon's single voice split into three, and its body melted and
shrank. Now three aged crones struggled to their feet. Their withered fingers
pointed at the lightswirl, and loosed three witchbolts. Midair, the magical
energies braided together. When they struck the swirl, it was torn apart as if
in a brisk wind. One final despairing cry rang out, trailing off into
insufferable agonies, and then it, too, was gone.
"Now our powers return to us," one of the crones said, tipping back
her head and inhaling as if she was getting her first taste of springtime air.
As she did, her limbs straightened and smoothed, her hair regained its
silvery luster, and her human counterpart slumped over.
"Well done," Selene told Gabriel, her own youth restoring itself
before his very eyes. "It was the Archmage's spell that --"
His slap sent her flying. "You killed my mates, you pack of
harlots!"
"Ungrateful mortal!" Phoebe, still a withered hag, stepped toward
him, then paused and glanced in annoyance at her counterpart. "Give back
to me what is mine, you wretched sow!"
The human lashed her head from side to side, blonde hair whipping
wildly. "I want to go HOME!!!"
The world exploded.

* *

MEADOWGROVE COUNTRY CLUB
JUNE 1999

Brendan Vandermere stood at the edge of the pool, looking into its
depths without really focusing on anything, wondering what could have
happened to his sister.
Margot, with a disdainful sniff that communicated more than
twenty minutes' worth of harping could have, had retreated into the
clubhouse.
The senior Mr. Vandermere was still talking to the detectives who
had been called in -- normally in cases of missing persons it took at least 24
hours before the police got interested. But it just so happened that Muffy's
father was a close personal friend of the Boston police commissioner. Not to
mention the oddness of the sudden disappearance.
Plus, of course, Brendan thought wryly, money talks.
"Brendan? Are you all right?"
He jumped a little. "Ginny! Any news?"
"Nothing yet," his young stepmother sighed. "I was afraid
something like this might happen, but I didn't think it would happen until
after we told her."
"What are you talking about?"
"Isn't it obvious? They ran away."
Brendan couldn't help laughing. "Why on earth would Tiffy run
away? Especially in her bathing suit? Not to mention eaving her car and her
credit cards behind."
"You did," Ginny pointed out.
"I didn't have a whole lot of choice. Tiffy just wouldn't, Ginny,
really. She likes her privileges too much."
Ginny shrugged. "Well, but you know how she is about being your
father's special little girl ... I just thought, with the new baby and
everything --"
"New baby?" Brendan cut in. "Ginny, you're ...?"
"We didn't plan on it," she explained hastily. "But your father's
delighted."
Brendan mulled it over. "I can see why you'd be worried about
Tiffy," he finally said.
Just then, a faint distant squeal split the air, growing louder like the
shriek of approaching jet engines. The police and country club staff, plus all
those guests too important or nosy to leave (just about all of them, Brendan
had time to reflect sourly, and then be surprised anew at himself and how
much his adventures had changed him), all looked up, around, and at each
other curiously. Even Margot emerged onto the terrace with a margarita in
hand -- confound the woman, her doctor had told her to avoid alcohol for at
least six weeks!
When the rip in reality opened up right over the pool, though, that
drew everyone's undivided attention.
Three bodies fell out of it and splashed into the deep end.
The rip closed with a high-pitched zipperlike sound.
The bodies -- three young women in identical bathing suits -- began
to sink.
"Jalapena, it's them!" Broadway's swear was out of Brendan's
mouth before he knew it, but he didn't care. He jumped feetfirst into the
pool.

* *

AVALON -- OBERON'S PALACE

The entire clan insisted on crowding into the throne room. In their
shared loss, the squabblings and differences of the night before were
rendered insignificant.
Gabriel stood at the head of the group. A day's sleep had healed
him, but he would never forget the expressions on the faces of his rookery
siblings when he had been violently ejected from a magical rift, drenched in
the Archmage's blood, his skin burnt in countless places.
Yes, a day's sleep could heal his physical pains, but his heart was
still a raw lump in his chest, the living meat of it feeling run through with
thousands of tiny shards of razor-edged glass, so that each beat of it brought
renewed pain and reminded him that he lived while his beloved mates were
dead.
Oberon scowled as the grief-stricken mob of gargoyles came in.
The Sisters were on his left, fully restored to their immortal beauty, but their
eyes were downcast in sullen shame.
On Oberon's right sat Princess Katherine and the Guardian. One
look at Katherine's face told Gabriel that she was here over her husband's
objections. It was only a few days since her brush with death and Elektra's
exile, and here was fresh sorrow to rend her soul.
"My servants, it seems, have made a liar of me," Oberon said, and
the Sisters somehow managed to cringe without moving. "What would you
have their penalty be, Clan Leader?"
The three raised their heads, alarmed at the thought that their
punishment was Gabriel's to choose.
A ripple passed through the clan, suggestions of torture and
maiming that belied the soft murmuring voices.
Gabriel and Oberon looked evenly at each other for an endless
moment. In the Lord of Avalon's timeless gaze, Gabriel saw a smoldering
fury kept well-controlled. But he also saw that the fury was shallow, born
from Oberon's irritation at having been made a fool of.
"Thank you for the offer, Lord Oberon," Gabriel said, biting off
each word sharply, "but I will not condemn them to ease your injured pride.
The crime you bring against them is the crime against you, not me and my
clan. For that, you care nothing. The deaths of three gargoyles are nothing to
you. No, it is their disobedience, their betrayal of you that concerns you."
Oberon's scowl returned. "What are you saying?"
"Do it yourself, you arrogant cock-o'-the-walk!" Gabriel shouted.
"Don't put their fate off on me to keep your own hands clean! Be a man!
And if you can't be a man, pull your britches up and be a lord!"
Guardian Tom's lips quivered as he tried to suppress a smile. Some
time ago, after Oberon had reclaimed his throne, he had privately told
Katherine and Gabriel just how much he'd longed to say those very words
but hadn't dared.
Katherine herself seemed on the verge of fainting, and the clan
gaped thunderstruck. The startled whirring of the wings of one of Titania's
fairy spies was the only sound in the chamber.
Oberon himself wore the expression of one whose ears had to be
deceiving him.
An apology rose in Gabriel's throat and he locked his jaw against it.
"My lord," Selene said, "although he speaks out of turn, and from a
torment of the soul our kind can never comprehend, some of what he says is
true."
"Our wrongdoing against you was the greater one," Luna said,
making a deferential gesture.
"What?!" Ruth stepped forward, eyes like rubies. "Our sisters are
dead! Are their lives second to Oberon's pride?"
"To Oberon, and to his Children," Phoebe said with an indifferent
shrug.
Gabriel's hand closed on Ruth's arm tight enough to grate the bones
together. "Let it be, sister."
"How can you let them do this?" she demanded.
"Let it be, I say!"
Malachi drew his mate back by the shoulders. "As the Leader
commands," he rumbled.
"Lord Oberon ..." Katherine began weakly.
He raised one hand. "No need, Princess. You would intercede, ask
forgiveness on their behalf. But let it not be said that Oberon is without
compassion! For the pain the Clan Leader has endured, I excuse his verbal
trespass. And relieve him of the task of judge." He looked at the sisters, the
air between them seeming to drop several degrees. "That I shall do."
Gabriel nodded curtly. "If Avalon's lord will excuse us ...?"
"Go," Oberon said, not looking away from the Sisters, who now
seemed to realize they might have been better off with Gabriel's punishment.

* *

ARKHAM ASYLUM
JUNE 1999

"Would you like me to stay, Mr. Vandermere?" the white-coated
attendant offered.
"No, thank you," Brendan replied. "I'd rather talk to them alone, if
that's all right."
"Of course." The attendant paused to redirect an elderly woman
who was poking monotonously at her arm with a blunted knitting needle,
then left the dayroom.
Nobody paid much attention to Brendan as he crossed the room.
Several pairs of slightly glassy eyes were fixed on the television. One man
held a book in front of him, lips moving as if he was reading silently to
himself, but Brendan saw that the book was upside down and the man never
turned any pages.
He stopped at a round table in a patch of thin sunlight. "Hi, Tiffy.
Hi, Muffy, Babs."
None of them acknowledged his presence. They sat like
mannequins, hands resting limply on the table.
Brendan pulled up a fourth chair and sat beside his sister. She
blinked several times in quick succession, then resumed her blank stare.
He forced a smile and held her hand. "How are you, Tiffy? You
look nice."
She didn't respond. Brendan kept on anyway, chatting, making
small talk about anything that came to mind. The doctors insisted she was so
far withdrawn that she wasn't even hearing him, but he refused to believe it.
Catatonia. A waking coma. The doctors tried to say it was the
result of brain damage caused by nearly drowning, but that was a load of
bull as far as Brendan was concerned. He'd been there! He'd helped pull
them from the pool, and none of them had been under long enough.
But everyone else had developed some selective amnesia. No rip in
reality. The three of them had somehow been in the pool all the time, the
cops insisted. Under for that long, an hour or more. A miracle that they were
still alive at all.
A week later, when none of them had shown any signs of coming
out of it, their fathers had gotten together to decide what was best for all
concerned. Two days after that, they'd been transferred to the asylum.
They'd been here several days now, with no change.
"I'm not going to forget about you," he promised. "None of you.
And I'm going to find out what happened to you. Everyone else wants to
push it under the rug." His smile faded. "They're telling people you've gone
to a boarding school in Switzerland, how do you like that? So the families
won't be embarrassed."
Tiffy blinked again and made a small sound in the back of her
throat.
Encouraged, Brendan squeezed her hand. "Come back, Tiffy! I
know you can do it! Whatever happened, whatever you saw, you can get
through it! I'll help you. Let me help you."
It didn't help. Her face lost what little animation it had shown, and
her hand, which had moved the tiniest bit in his grip, went limp again.
"That's okay, Tiffy," he said. "One step at a time. I'll come and visit
whenever I can. I might be spending a lot of time in court, though ...
Margot's filed for divorce. But, hey, when you're better, how would you like
to go traveling with me? Ever been to Egypt?"
He talked to her for another hour, until they were interrupted by a
muted bell. Like Pavlov's dogs, the other patients stood up and began
moving toward the dining room.
"Sounds like it's dinnertime," Brendan said. He leaned over and
gave Tiffy a kiss on the cheek, probably the first time he'd done that in
years. "Goodbye, Tiffy, Muffy, Babs. I'll see you next time."
Tiffy mumbled something, and Brendan spun back around.
"What, Tiffy?"
Staring through him, she repeated it in a whisper. "I want to go
home!"
"Soon! Soon, Tiffy, I promise!" He called to a passing doctor. "She
talked to me! Just now! She said she wanted to go home!"
The doctor gave him a polite but disbelieving smile and came to
the table.
"Tell the doctor, Tiffy," Brendan urged.
She sat in silence.
"Mr. Vandermere, I know you're eager to see improvement," the
doctor said after minutes had passed. "But you have to understand that, in a
case like Tiffany's, it is extremely unlikely. Perhaps some of the courses of
therapy we'll be beginning shortly --"
"You're not going to give her shock treatments, are you?" Brendan
asked sharply.
The doctor sighed. "ECT has been proven effective in catatonic
patients --" he broke off at Brendan's glower, then went on, "-- but usually
only as a last resort, when medication and other therapeutic avenues have
been exhausted."
"I want to be kept fully informed of her treatment," Brendan said in
a tone that brooked no argument.
"Of course. I just have a few releases I'll need you to sign ..." the
doctor led Brendan from the dayroom toward the main office area.
On the way, they passed the dining room, which was filling up with
patients. One of them looked weirdly familiar to Brendan, but he didn't think
about it until he was already past. Then the penny dropped and he jumped
noticeably. He backpedaled a couple of steps and made sure he'd seen what
he thought he'd seen. He had. That pale face, those sunken, haunted eyes ...
"Oh, damn, Mosswell, I'm sorry!" he muttered. "Never did return
your tweed jacket, either."
The doctor glanced at him in an evaluating way that Brendan didn't
care for in the slightest, then opened the office door.

* *

AVALON -- CASTLE OF THE CLAN

"I knew that Oberon would do something worse to them than I ever
could," Gabriel finished. "That's why."
Laertes nodded in acceptance. "Immortal, they couldn't be killed.
All right, then."
The rest of the clan voiced their agreement, and on the heels of
that, Gabriel made his announcement.
"And now, I'm leaving Avalon." The agreement turned to uproar,
but he was as immovable as a stone. "Hear me out! I can't stay here. Not
when I'm expecting to see my mates around every corner. Not when the rest
of our sisters will soon be starting to show. Every night would be a fresh
reminder of what I've lost."
"But to leave your clan!" Ruth cried. "You should be here with us,
to share your grief, so that we all of us can find our way through it
together!"
"If that was all of it, you might be right," Gabriel said. "But there's
also the matter of Oberon. I don't trust myself around him or his witches. I
came close to getting the clan exiled tonight. I don't want that. We won the
right to stay here. I won't risk your home, your happiness."
"Don't leave us, Gabriel!" Miriam pleaded. "We need you! We
need a leader!"
"I won't be gone forever," he said. "Time passes faster in the
outside world. I'll be back before you know it. And you won't be without a
leader."
Malachi cleared his throat with the sound of boulders rolling down
a hill. "When Jericho left, you named me your second-in-command. I am
honored, but I would not make a good leader. Choose another warrior to
lead us, brother."
"Ophelia," Gabriel said. "You proved yourself well in the fight
against the Archmage. Lead the clan in my absence."
Her horns dipped in acquiescence. "If Malachi will stay as my
second."
"I will," Malachi said.
Gabriel clasped forearms with both of them. "Good. It is done. I'll
leave tomorrow night."
"Then tonight," Carnelian said, "let us feast your farewell, and in
honor of our sisters."

* *

AVALON -- OBERON'S PALACE

"My lord summons his queen?" Titania purred as she came into the
throne room.
"How was your honeymoon?" Oberon asked, amused.
"Athens was lovely," she demurred, "but not so lovely as Avalon's
shores."
"And your husband?"
Titania smiled benevolently. "Petros is well. As are my daughter
and grandsons, although T.J. is having some trouble getting used to his new
life. I understand the gargoyles are somewhat ... disconcerting to him."
"Yes, I can imagine," Oberon said dryly. "They've caused me no
small amount of trials as well."
"So I've been told."
Oberon glanced at the fairy perched on Titania's shoulder. "I do not
begrudge you your spies, my dear."
"Just as I do not begrudge you yours," she replied, gracefully
taking her seat at his side.
"I'm sure you know we have a slight problem," he said, indicating
the three Sisters who stood in a quiet, expectant line in front of the dais.
"I do indeed. What with the Gathering and all, though, I can see
why my lord has not yet taken the time to address it."
"I had been inclined to let it pass unremarked," Oberon said. His
voice took on a more dangerous tone as he fixed the Sisters in his glare.
"Until these new developments disturbed my court. It has served to remind
me of each instance."
He lifted one palm, and a sphere of blue light appeared over it.
Within the sphere, images flickered, a visual chronicle of the Sisters'
interactions with the Magus, the Archmage, Demona, and MacBeth.
"Perhaps their mother's influence has not entirely been removed
from them," Titania suggested.
"Indeed. I thought of sending them to her," Oberon said, turning
the sphere this way and that, gazing at Demona's snarling visage as she and
MacBeth tried to kill each other in Xanatos' castle. "But in the end, I
realized my error."
"Your error, my lord?" Titania echoed, much more surprised that
he'd admit one than that he had made one.
"When we left Avalon, I sent my Children among the mortals to
learn humility." He shrugged slightly. "A lesson that failed, in most cases, to
take root. But these three were left behind to watch over the gateway to this
island. They spent little time in the mortal world, visiting it only briefly.
And so I have decided to remedy that condition."
The Sisters dared not speak, but dismay was written plainly on
their faces.
Titania considered the three. "Exile? As Puck is?"
"Puck's infraction was slight, and tempered by your cunning and
intervention, my queen. Puck retained the occasional use of his powers."
Three gasps in one.
"My lord proposes to strip them of their magic?" Titania inquired.
"I intend to do more than that. They shall live as mortals. Their
trickery and failure left their human counterparts imprisoned, tortured with
medicines and machines of so-called health. I can think of no better fate for
these three than to let them live as their counterparts."
"No!" Selene breathed in horror.
"Helpless," Oberon went on. "Suffering with full awareness. As
passengers only, as riders within, feeling all that they feel, but unable to
speak, unable to act. Yet, these mortals shall be protected, safe from harm
and death by any hand, even their own! I would not have the sentence cut
short!"
"How long a sentence?" Luna asked tremulously.
Oberon pursed his lips in thought. "How long, indeed. I could say,
as the humans do, until hell freezes, but the humans do not know until it is
too late how much of what they call hell is cold. But the sentiment is a fair
one. Until ..." he smiled widely, cruelly, and raised the sphere. "Until these
two mortals, Demona and MacBeth, of their own volition join together as
one! Only then shall the Sisters be released, and their powers restored!"
"But they hate each other! They'd sooner see the other slain!"
Phoebe protested.
"Yes, I know," Oberon said. "Prepare yourselves for a very long
wait."

* *

EPILOGUE
ROCKY POINT, NEW YORK
JULY 1999

The porch swing creaked as it glided back and forth.
No lights were on in the house. It was a small stone cottage, three
rooms and a loft, with a fireplace and a walkway that curved from the porch
down to the small stretch of sand between two immense boulders.
On the other side of the Point, the waves sometimes reached ten
foot swells. Here, the sheltered sea lapped at the beach in a series of slow
sips, foaming up the sand and leaving glistening trails.
The rhythm of the creaking chains stopped as he spotted something
far out on the water, then resumed at a slower pace.
The errant cloud, the wisp of mist that was so out of character this
time of year, dissipated nearly as quickly as it had formed, but it left
something behind. A black, solid shape.
A boat.
The swing stopped again as he observed the boat approaching.
Now he could make out the silhouette standing at the stern, handling a pole.
Sand gritted against the hull as the boat reached shore. The sole
passenger got out and looked toward the dark squares and angles of the
house. His posture was one of apprehension, but there was something else in
it, a defeated heartbreak that struck a single, all-too-familiar chord in his
unseen observer.
From the swing, he watched, knowing that he was all but invisible
in the deep shadows. His uninvited guest stood a moment in apparent
indecision, then, seeing that the only way off the beach was either a noisy
and precarious climb up the boulders or the path past the porch, chose the
path.
"Leaving so soon?" he asked.
His guest whirled, seeking the source of the voice that had
addressed him seemingly out of nowhere. And said, "Goliath?"
"A common misconception." He stood and descended the wide
steps, bringing himself into the pallid moonlight. "I am Ebon."

* *

The End