Shameless Plug III: Labyrinth
by Christine Morgan
christine@sabledrake.com / http://www.christine-morgan.org

Author's Note: the characters of Gargoyles are the property of Disney and are used here without their creators' knowledge or
permission. The characters of the world of MageLore, and all others, belong to the author. This is to mark the debut of Archmage
of the Universe, the conclusion of the trilogy. June 2001; 18,500 words.

#71 in an ongoing saga.



Thanis, 48 RH (Reign of Highlords)

The boys pretended to play at toss-bones in the nook where two walls of neighboring buildings came together at an odd angle. The pig's knuckles, carved and smoothed and marked with symbols, rattled on a square of cobblestone that had been cleared of rinds, wilted cabbage leaves, damp straw, and clots of dung.
They paid the roll only the most cursory of attention, their main interest being fixed on the greengrocer across the way. Likely that the rinds and leaves had come from his well-stocked stall, where many fine fruits and vegetables made a patchwork of colors in the late-summer sun.
One of the boys' stomachs rumbled loudly, and they laughed the way boys do at the various sounds of digestion, but the hungry gurgle was only an audible proof of what they were all feeling.
Of a sort, being small and underfed and raggedy-dressed and dirty, they attracted no notice from the passers-by. It would only be a matter of time until one of the City Guard, resplendent in chainmail and the rich blue of the Highlord's livery, happened by and shooed them back to the Lower Rings where they belonged. To be here, on the Fifth Ring, was daring enough in and of itself for boys whose parents lived and worked in the Seventh or Eighth.
They were the sons of fishgutters and tannery-jacks, freight-haulers and bargemen. Most of them came from families overburdened with children, in the hopes that some at least would live to adulthood to care for their elders … and in the Lower Rings, the term 'elder' was granted to anyone living to see two-score years.
"Are we to do it or waste the day away?" asked the leader of the boys. At twelve, he had some months on the rest of them, but most importantly, he had some inches on the rest of them and could turn them upside-down in a trough if he took a mind to it.
At this, all eyes turned to Skeet. He was already regretting getting into this, but it had been his suggestion – made in all boastfulness and never expecting any of them to take him up on it – and his pride would not let him back down now.
"Mayhap," began one of the smaller boys nervously, "we shouldn't … if we hurry, we can be to Old Man Grayley's shop when he brings out the leavings."
"Sick of leavings," grumbled Byrle, the biggest boy. "What he throws out isn't fit for a rat."
The rest of them made noises of agreement, and looked to Skeet again. He sighed.
"You know what to do?" He made it a question, not an order, because Byrle would be quick to pummel him if Skeet presumed to act like he was in command of this foolhardy venture.
A bobble of nods replied. It wasn't anything they hadn't done before, on many an occasion. But the fare to be found in the Lower Rings was nothing like the bounty of the greengrocer's wares, so surely the risk, and the punishment, would be greater than that presented by the shopkeeps whose lot in life included accepting the predations of urchins as just one more woe in the daily slew of woes.
Skeet swept up the toss-bones and stuffed them into the cloth poke tied to his belt. He made sure the belt was cinched tight but the upper half of his tunic was loose. This was not a difficulty, as it had been handed down to him from the son of one of his mother's friends, and Skeet was glumly sure that he would never, even when he was fourteen, fit into the roomy, patched garment.
He stood, the rest of the boys doing likewise, and all tried with varying degrees of success to make it seem idle, casual, as if they'd finished their game and were about to move on. Byrle watched the flow of people, housewives and servants on errands for the most part, and Skeet watched Byrle. So did the rest of them, and at his signal, they sprang into action.
The swarm of boys erupted from the corner nook, laughing and shouting and lobbing a worn leather ball. An oncoming woman with her arms full – baby on one hip, basket on the other, somehow balancing a load of parcels between, and still towing an older child by one hand – squawked and launched into a shrill tirade as she fought not to drop her things. A serving girl, fifteen if she was a day and as toothsome as could be, shrieked indignantly as Byrle made a playful grab at the hem of her skirt. Devins arranged to collide with a distracted, pipe-smoking man.
For a few crucial moments, the street of the Ring was in confusion. The rest of the boys dashed at the greengrocer's stall, snatching up whatever they could reach. As the plump man rushed around from behind, roaring anger and brandishing a stout stick, Skeet ducked around behind him and began scooping fruits and vegetables into the loose collar of his tunic.
The other boys yelped and dropped their ill-gotten gain and fled, exactly as planned. The greengrocer pursued them several steps before stopping, puffing and red-cheeked. He turned, and his eyes bugged from his head when he saw Skeet, whose tunic bulged so as to give the skinny boy the look of a woman several months' gone with child.
Skeet grinned and waggled his fingers at the man, and ran for it. Even loaded down as he was, clamping his collar shut with one hand, he was still swift enough to live up to his name. The greengrocer, hurling oaths and promises of dire revenge, was quickly left behind.
Laughing inwardly, Skeet weaved through startled crowds and slowed to a walk as soon as he was able. Once he was walking again, no one paid much mind despite the awkward stuffing of his tunic. Nothing else about him was special, and sometimes it was a benefit to be the next thing to unseen.
He fished out a sunfruit and ate it as he trotted down the steep stairs leading to the Sixth Ring. He'd never eaten sunfruit before, with its thin, tender skin and its juicy, chewy interior. It brought his appetite raging up and he knew that he could easily eat all that he carried. The thought tempted him … instead of meeting with the others and sharing out, he could scurry off to one of his hiding places and feast until he was sated. Until he was full, praise the gods, full for the first time in his life.
But if he did that, he'd be letting himself in for a beating for sure. Fullness would only last a while, and Byrle's enmity would go far longer.
So, already missing the luxury of stuffing his belly to capacity, Skeet continued on his way until he came to the Seventh Ring and the spot that the urchins jokingly called the 'town square.' It was a bare lot where a tavern had once stood, until fire took it to nothing but soot and a few leaning timbers. People kept saying that sooner or later someone would build there, but it had been a year now and all the place did was serve as a gathering-site for the younger inhabitants of the Lower Rings.
Most of the boys were already there, waiting anxiously. They broke into cheers as they saw him, and crowded around. Byrle pushed through them, slapping at hands that were too-eagerly trying to get at the burden of treats.
"Half a breath, would you, half a breath," said Skeet, and undid his belt enough to let the fruit and vegetables tumble out to bounce around his feet. They rolled through old soot and splinters, but no one seemed to mind.
Dirty hands below tattered sleeves scrabbled for their share. Soon, each boy was munching, spitting seeds, wiping juice from sticky faces with those same tattered sleeves. All too soon, though, it was gone and only the memory of it remained, and there hadn't been enough for even the smallest of them to really feel full.
The day was waning, shadows lengthening across the city. In this part of town, a subtle shift was beginning to take place, as the tanneries and slaughterhouses closed and the taverns chocked their doors wide to take advantage of the cool breeze that would never quite clear out the smells of smoke, sour ale, and unwashed sweat.
"That was grand!" the little boy who'd been doubtful before said, and looked at Skeet with shining eyes. "That was grand indeed!"
Uncomfortable in the face of such overt admiration, Skeet stared at the ground. "Wasn't all that much."
"Aye, come now, you're a hero," said Byrle, grinning a grin that wasn't very friendly. "Learn that from your da?"
Skeet's fists clenched helplessly. Some of the other boys said, "Ooooh," as they did when a cur at the dogfights got in a vicious bite. A few, newer to their bunch, glanced between Skeet and Byrle in puzzlement. A few more snickered.
"Oh, wait, you couldn't have," continued Byrle, that grin widening. "Have to have a father to learn from him!"
"Probably has more'n one, knowing his mum," someone behind Skeet said, but when he whirled to confront this, no one owned up.
Shame burned in him. Injustice did too – half of these boys were orphans anyway, and of the ones who did have fathers, they weren't all that much to be proud of. Byrle's own was in the mad-pit, but if Skeet brought that up, he'd be nursing bruises for the next week.
"Fine," Skeet said. "Fine, be so. But get your own food from now on."
"No, you don't," said Byrle. "You'll run with us and you'll do as I say."
"I'll not."
"What else will you do when your mum turns you out? You'll have nowhere to go."
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Skeet. "My mum's not going to turn me out."
"Maybe not her," Devins allowed sagely, "but Mame Yedda will."
More confused now than angry, half-remembered rumors bubbling through his mind, Skeet shook his head but couldn't form the words to protest. Turn him out? They wouldn't! His mum loved him, she told him so all the time! And Mame Yedda adored children …
But Nellis had just been gone one day, a year or so ago. Skeet had seen him once, a bent and broken figure of a youth towing a cart full of flyblown hides, chained to the cart, with three others, all of them under the uncompromising lash of a drover. He hadn't believed it could be Nellis, handsome Nellis with his mop of blond curls that the women used to exclaim over.
If that could happen to Nellis, who was smarter and better-looking … if Nellis could be turned out and come to such a grim fate …
No. Skeet refused to even allow the idea any consideration. He glared around at the circle of boys, most of whom seemed to be waiting to see if he'd avenge these insults and slights by taking a swing at Byrle and whose side they'd jump in with if he did, and walked away from them without a word.

**

Manhattan, 2008

Derrek Maza, who had largely given up that name many years ago in favor of his alias, Talon, was determined. And when he was determined, no one could stand in his way. Not even his sister.
"Damn it, Elisa," he'd said, "I just want them to have as normal a childhood as possible. I know that's crazy, all things considered, but I've got to try. As normal a childhood as possible. Down here. With no mother. Being the only mutate children in the world. There's not much I can do for them, but by God, I can do this."
So it was that on a muggy, heat-wave New York summer night, Elisa loaded up the Fairlane with kids, sleeping bags, and assorted stuff. The car was on its last legs – or wheels – and had been repaired so many times that there probably wasn't an original part left, but she kept it for sentimental reasons.
"This car's a dinosaur," Alexander Xanatos proclaimed as he slid into the shotgun seat and poked dubiously at the cracked leather upholstery. "My dad says that these gas-guzzlers are going to be outlawed any day now."
"When it happens, I'm sure I'll be the first to know." Elisa peered into the back. "Everyone okay back there?"
Three heads, two light and one dark, nodded. In the eerie lighting of the underground parking garage, it struck her again how much Sebastian St. John was growing up to look like his father … sort of. Oh, he had Owen Burnett's white-blond hair and sharp features, but every so often when the light hit him just right, there was something about his eyes, something definitely … well … Puckish.
His sister Patricia, at age ten, was already well on her way to becoming a cool and elegant beauty like her mother. Sandwiched between the boys, she held her Dior overnight case primly on her lap and raised an ice-blue, too-adult gaze to Elisa. "Do our parents know you're doing this? I can't imagine they'd approve."
"Mine do," said Orpheus Bluestone. A compact boy with black hair and enormous deep brown eyes, he had a quiet way about him. But when he did speak, everyone listened. When he sang … he was in the school choir … he could bring an entire auditorium to their feet, or reduce them to tears.
"I believe my parents are slightly more discriminating than yours," Patricia informed him.
Elisa shook her head. If the girl was this bad at ten, she was going to be a terror at twenty.
Alex, buckling himself in, just grinned. "Come on, Trish, it'll be an adventure."
He was the oldest of them and by far the best looking, not that there was a plain one in the lot. Elisa sometimes ruefully wondered if Xanatos would have returned him for a refund if the heir to the empire hadn't turned out exactly as desired. Tall for his age and trim, he blended the best features of both Xanatos and Fox while still being uniquely his own. He read at a high-school level and had a natural charisma that lacked the smarm of his sire.
Patricia merely sniffed haughtily and tossed her head so that her French braid flipped from one shoulder to the other. Sebastian snickered.
Hearing the distinctive scrape of claws on concrete, Elisa straightened up from her seatbelt check and turned around. Goliath was there, somehow managing not to look absurd holding a sleeping bag emblazoned with the Powerpuff Girls and a backpack shaped like a panda bear.
"Hi, Zaza!" Amber chirped brightly. "Is it time to go?"
"It is. Are you ready?"
The little girl, who couldn't have worn her backpack anyway without having it interfere with her wings, beamed, and then frowned. "Uncle Brooklyn says we're supposed to sleep. But Zaza, I just woke up a little while ago. I'm not sleepy at all."
"Who's gonna sleep?" Alex laughed. "We're staying up all night, eating junk food and drinking pop and telling ghost stories."
"Ghost stories?" Amber paused, wings flaring slightly in apprehension.
"Really really scary ones, Amburger," he said, leaning toward her and widening his eyes.
"Good!" she cried.
"Are you certain you wish to do this?" Goliath rumbled, stowing Amber's things in the trunk. "Alone?"
"It's a slumber party, not a stakeout," Elisa said, sidestepping as Amber zipped past her to scramble into the car. She put her palm on the swell of Goliath's bicep and rested her cheek on the back of her hand. "I think I can handle it. I'm already used to one kid being up until dawn. Besides, it's Talon's show. They get out of line, he's in charge. I'm just there for backup."
"I should come with you."
"I'll call if there's any problem, you know that." She stood on tiptoe to kiss him. As always, what was meant to be a brief buss turned into something more, and he made that sexy growling noise that she loved down low in his throat and folded his wings around her. Almost their tenth anniversary, at least as official mates, and the spark hadn't dwindled.
It did, however, sputter out when she realized the whole carful of kids was watching. She reluctantly disengaged herself from Goliath. "I'll see you tomorrow," she promised.
"And call me if there's trouble," he reminded.
"As if I'd forget." She kissed him again, a quick one on the cheek that managed to actually stay a quick one on the cheek.
Amber had managed to dig the front middle seatbelt out from hiding, but wasn't having much luck securing it. She was chronologically seven years old, but her development had been all out of whack as she tried to find a happy medium between aging rates. That left her smaller than Sebastian, who was younger, more agile in overall physicality, but still a bit clumsy when it came to the fine dexterity required for tasks like tying shoelaces, or buckling seatbelts.
Elisa got her secured, and slid behind the wheel. "Sleeping bags?"
"Check!" Alex said smartly.
"Overnight bags?"
"Check!" parroted Amber.
"Looks like we're ready to roll." She smiled up at Goliath, who reached in through the window to caress her hair and the line of her jaw. "Bye."
"Bye, Daga!"
"Goodbye," he said. "Have fun."
His tone made Elisa bite back a wider smile. He sounded as if this was the last thing in the world he'd expect to be fun, another one of those human peculiarities that still mystified him even after fourteen years of living among them.
The city was in the middle of a garbage strike as well as a heat-wave, so Elisa rolled up all the windows and turned on the air conditioner before they left the parking garage under the Aerie Building. It helped some, though Alex was quick to point out that his dad's new car, which was so well-sealed it could retain its integrity even if it was submerged to depths of nearly a mile, would have been better.
She couldn't help but wonder if Talon was really ready for this. The twins wanted a slumber party, and he was going to give them one no matter what, but the past few years had been rough on him. Losing Maggie that way … that terrible, senseless way … it had shattered him. The only thing that had kept him hanging on was the fact that the twins needed him. His clan needed him.
Glancing down at her daughter, Elisa felt an unexpected wave of sadness for her brother and his children. Amber was part human, part gargoyle, but if she followed Elektra's example, she'd be able to find happiness one way or the other. But Talon, Dee, and Tom were practically the only ones of their kind now. Maggie was dead, Fang hadn't been heard from in years and was probably dead too – he just had that sort of personality that didn't lend itself toward longevity – and Claw had left the Labyrinth. It wasn't as if anyone was making more mutates, either … though she supposed that was a good thing. Even if it boded ill for the future of her niece and nephew.
Then again, there was Samson, and he was coping despite being the only one of his kind. He'd found love and happiness with Delilah, and in just another year or two, they'd find out how well their genes had merged. Four eggs' worth; they must have done something right!
So it was possible that Talon might still find someone … assuming he ever got over the bleakness of his mourning. And she couldn't write off the twins just yet. If Brooklyn's long-ago reaction to Maggie was any indication, other gargoyles wouldn't see anything wrong with Tom or Dee.
But instead of worrying about the future, she decided Talon was right about one thing – it was important to give these kids as normal a childhood as possible. He'd originally just suggested she bring Amber, but even the human (mostly) kids of her acquaintance weren't exactly living the normal life either. So it could benefit them, too, why not?
A few minutes later, she was parking in yet another underground structure, this one considerably less nice and smelling rather strongly of urine. Patricia didn't have to say a word. The way she wrinkled her nose was perfectly calculated to express her utter disgust and yet suggest that she'd really expected no better.
The eau de piss aroma of the parking area notwithstanding, the Labyrinth had undergone extensive remodeling and upgrading in the past few years. Thanks in part to Xanatos, William Harmond, and various relief efforts, a fund had been established for its upkeep. The dwellers down here nowadays were still homeless, in many cases still battling mental illness or substance abuse problems, but they were sheltered, well-fed, well-cared-for.
Elisa had referred more than one family down here herself, and it had become a popular refuge for those fleeing abusive partners. Somehow, wife-beaters lost interest in tracking down their wayward spouses when they realized they'd probably be coming face-to-face with a panther mutate, a Sasquatch, or a gargoyle.
The security systems – a joint effort by Cyberbiotics and Xanatos Enterprises – had identified them and passed word on, so Elisa had only barely gotten the doors open when Samson came lumbering out of the shadows. The shaggy giant was a great favorite with kids of all ages. Amber let out a piercing squeal of joy as she went from ground to hood to roof and then leaped at him, skimming the banks of florescents and casting a flickering batlike shadow.
Samson caught her and whirled her in an airplane spin, which would have stopped the heart of most mothers if they hadn't gotten used to a daredevil daughter. Or to Samson's unfailingly gentle nature. Elisa sometimes thought that only Broadway had a bigger heart. It would have to take a big heart, a huge one, to be able to forgive Anton Sevarius …
That was a trick that Talon, Elisa, and the gargoyles hadn't managed yet. But Samson had, and his was perhaps the worst grievance of them all. He'd been changed by his own father, to save his life, yeah, but without asking, without caring. And yet Samson had begun having tentative conversations with Sevarius, making those first cautious steps toward forgiveness.
Maybe it had something to do with Sevarius inhabiting a different body now, the wheelchair-bound, mostly paralyzed form of Sabra Indrani. Samson, who had spent most of his early life dying by inches from a progressive bone disease, might be sympathetic now that Sevarius was living with that chronic pain and helplessness. While the original Sabra Indrani was, by last report, living the high life as an exotic entertainer in the android body known as Godiva.
Unlatching the trunk so she and Samson could collect all the sleeping bags, Elisa wondered if she knew any normal people at all. Her parents, okay, maybe … they had just brushed up against weirdness in their lives. And Chief Chavez, Captain Alvarez, Officer Morgan … they were all fairly regular folks.
But she did know a much higher percentage of weirdoes than even the usual NYPD detective.
Even so, as Amber trustingly tucked her little hand into Elisa's, she knew she wouldn't trade it for anything.

**

Thanis

Skeet wouldn't have been surprised if Byrle had followed him partway, happy to take the chance to get in more digs at his expense. It was the fruit, Skeet saw now. By having his plan work, by providing such a feast for the bunch of them, he'd made what Byrle could construe as a motion toward claiming status. Taking status away from Byrle.
It may have been understandable, but that didn't make it any easier to bear. Skeet's normally light, quick pace was slow and draggy as he turned onto the next street. His shoes, for all that they were of leather so thin he could feel each individual crack in the cobblestones, might as well have been encased in lead.
Mame Yedda's house was at the end of the block, a square brick building whose drab lines were relieved only by the whitewashed wooden-frame balconies jutting at intervals along the second and third floors. Or, more to the point, the drabness of the balconies was relieved only by the women upon them, relaxing in the evening air or leaning over to call out to the men passing below.
Skeet had never really paid much attention to this display before, but now he paused and looked up, his other troubles momentarily forgotten as he surveyed the corsets and smallclothes and sheer undertunics and the array of flesh they enticingly revealed. He'd always known, of course, that women came in a variety of shapes and sizes, some with hair like cornsilk and some with hair like darkest night, some fair, some dusky. He'd known, but it hadn't ever really seemed to matter all that much before.
Three men in carpenters' clothes climbed the steps to the double doors in front, under a painted sign with letters that Skeet couldn't read but a picture he'd have to be a lackwit to not understand. They negotiated briefly with Kevo, showing the dwarf enough coin to convince him to let them in, and vanished into the building.
Kevo, who was almost as wide as he was tall, a solid block of a dwarf with a steel-colored beard of which he was amazingly proud, settled back against the wall with a contented grunt. He spied Skeet and nodded brusquely. In his hauberk of iron rings, with a businesslike mace at his side, he was no figure to be trifled with. Skeet knew better, knew that despite the dwarf's fearsome looks and formidable prowess with that mace, he was a jolly enough sort. One thing he had always wondered was how Kevo had ended up working at Mame Yedda's, but it was a question he'd never quite mustered the nerve to ask.
During business hours, the front door was for patrons only, so Skeet walked down the alley and around to the back. A gate let him into a tiny fenced yard, the back wall of which was one of the curved Ring Wall. If he cared to climb it – something he'd done once in his youth and earned such a thrashing from his mum – he'd be able to look forty feet down into the squalor of the Eighth Ring.
Many of the windows overlooking the yard were open, the sounds of creaking furniture and groans and gasps spilling out in the wake of the blowing curtains. The kitchen door was open too, and Skeet trudged up the splintery wooden stairs and into the cramped, hot, humid room. The woodstove was roaring, a boiling pot of soup and sizzling skillet of sausages atop it. A haunch of something that smelled like goat was turning on the spit in the fireplace, and the cook's helper was pulling a tray of bread from the baking oven.
Despite having supped on nothing but fruit, Skeet found his appetite deserting him. The heat in here was tremendous, not just from the cooking sources but from the great steaming vats in which dishes and linens were washed. He scuttled through before he could be spotted and put to work, emerging into the short hall that led to the back stairs.
The attic was the nursery, a single long, slant-ceilinged room that ran the length of the building. In the winter, it was so cold that breath frosted in clouds, but in the summer it was stifling, the heat rising from below and the sun baking down on the slate tiles of the roof. It was filled with cots, at the foot of each a lidless crate in which they were allowed to keep their meager belongings.
Because he was one of the oldest still living here, Skeet had advanced to one of the cots on the end, having a wall at his side and half a view out of the round window. He skirted the smaller children, ignored a scathing look from Deemie as she struggled to tend them while he went about the city, and stretched out on his cot.
A few of the wee ones came over and tried to talk to him, but he turned on his side and draped an arm over his head until they caught on and let him be.
Much later, he wasn't sure how long but woke with a start to discover he'd dozed off, the door banged open and the cook's helper was there with the supper trays. Deemie scurried to help, and Skeet roused himself enough to accept a dish of the soup and a slab of bread.
"Your mum wants to see you," the cook's helper, a tall skinny youth with a shock of carrot-orange hair, said to Skeet. "Soon's you're done."
He gulped down the soup, ate half his bread, gave the rest to scrawny Kippie, and hurried downstairs. It had been a long time since he'd seen his mum for more than a few moments in passing. He went to her room, knocked, and waited until she called before going in. That, like not climbing the back wall, had been a lesson he'd learned early and well.
But she wasn't with a patron, was waiting for him in a long skirt and overtunic that made her actually look like someone's mum. Not his mum, gods knew; he'd been born when she was fourteen, and with her fresh-scrubbed pink face and sunny hair falling in ringlets, she didn't look much older than that even now.
"Skeet," she said, and smiled, but there was a sad shadow on her like a cloud across the sun. "My, how you've grown."
Not that he had; he sometimes feared he was going to be barely taller than a gnome for all of his life. Still, he bobbed his head. "Yes, Mum."
"Almost twelve. It's hard to believe."
"Yes, Mum." He felt he should be saying something more than that, but didn't know what to say.
She, however, did have more to say. "Skeet, I have something to tell you … I wish I didn't have to, but the time has come." She took a deep breath. "Skeet, you're going to have to be sent from the house."
Coming just on the heels, as it did, of Byrle's taunting on just this matter, Skeet blinked and hoped that he was still napping, that this was some mad dream. But when he pinched himself, he felt the pain, and nothing changed. His mum was still regarding him with those sad, shadowed eyes.
"It's Mame Yedda's rule," she went on. "If one of us gets with child, she allows us to keep the babe if we wish, and raise it here until it's of age. If it's a girl, and she wants to, she's welcome then to stay on and learn the trade. If it's a boy, though, as you are, once he gets to be twelve, it's time for him to go."
"Go? Where, Mum? And why? What've I done?" Wild thoughts – she knew about the buch of urchins he ran with, she knew about the stealings, she even knew about today's business – fluttered around in his mind.
"You've done nothing wrong, Skeet. It's just that you'll be twelve soon, almost a man. Starting to notice girls, women. You have, haven't you?"
"Um …" He unaccountably blushed. "I don't know what you mean."
"I think you do, and I think it's so. Once a boy starts getting to be of an age to notice women, he can't live in a place like this. It'll give him all manner of ideas. Ideas, desires, but no means to act them out when he has no profession, no money."
"Mum, I don't understand!" He wailed it, but deep inside he knew it was a lie; in some way, he did understand. "I have to leave?"
"A growing young man can't live among coinwenches."
"But … but …" he floundered. "Is that what happened to Nellis?"
"He turned twelve, and had to go. It broke his mother's heart as surely as it'll break mine to say farewell to you."
"We could both leave, then! Together!"
"Skeet, Skeet …"
"We could!" he insisted, speaking hastily so as to overrun any objections she might raise. "You could find some other work, and I could too, and we could have a nice little house just for the two of us."
"This is the only trade I know --"
"Or," it nearly choked him to get it out but he did, "you could get married. I wouldn't mind, Mum, honest I wouldn't, it'd be hard at first getting to know a stepda, but I'd try, I truly truly would!"
"No, Skeet. I'm happy here. This is my home. Look at me. I'm twenty-six. Most other women my age have half a dozen children, a hovel or a shack, and spend their days arguing the price of twine and chickens. They're old, Skeet, they're homely. I like my life here."
"So you'll … you'll send me away?"
"I must."
"But this is my home too! I was born here! Where else would I go?" Byrle's taunts were ringing in his head like the Bells of Thanis now, tolling the hours, louder and louder. Worst of all, Byrle had known, somehow he'd known that Skeet would be turned out into the Rings with nothing and nowhere to be.
Then his mum said something that froze him to the spot. "You'll go to your father."
"My … my what?"
"Your father. I've done the raising of you these first twelve years. He can see to the next few, until you can get by on your own."
"My father!" Skeet reeled. "Who is he? What does he do?"
Mum patted his hand and looked him sincerely in the eye. "Skeet, your father is … a Nightsider."
He gasped. "A Nightsider!"
"Where did you think you got your quickness, your stealth? Not from me. That's your father's gift to you."
The strength fled from his legs and Skeet sat down on a footrest. His mind was all awhirl. A Nightsider! The citywide guild of cutpurses, rogues, and knives-for-hire, said to be so high that they even had had the sanction of the old Highlord himself!
He imagined telling Byrle and the others. There would be no quicker way to earn their envy and respect than that! A Nightsider!
"Mame Yedda says you can stay here another month by the silver moon," Mum was saying, though Skeet barely heard. "But you might want to start looking for him now. If the tales are true, the Nightsiders are at secret war with the forces of the new Highlord and the Archmage, so they might be hard to find."
Skeet nodded vaguely. The new Highlord, aye, everyone knew about that, how Duncan Farleigh had been devoured by the same monstrous beast that had slain Talus Yor, leaving Jarrell Farleigh to rule with the guidance of a minotaur mage. His nerves tingled with excitement. A secret war! Plots and plans! That would be ever so much better than filching fruit from a greengrocer!
Mum had gotten up and gone to her dressing table. Skeet, busy imagining the darkly dashing figure of his Nightsider father, jumped in surprise when she dropped a sheathed long knife and a small purse into his lap.
"You'll need a proper weapon, and a bit of coin, it's all I can spare."
"What's his name, Mum? What's my father's name?"
"Calidar. His name is Calidar."

**

Manhattan

The living room in Talon's subterranean quarters was strewn with pizza boxes, soda cans, bags of chips, and the random debris of do-it-yourself ice cream sundaes. It made Elisa groan just to look at the mess, let alone imagine what the stomachs of the kids must be going through. She only hoped that all ten of them would make it through the night without upchucking.
In addition to the five she'd brought, there were the guests of honor, Tom and Dee, as well as three other youngsters about the same age, the children of Labyrinth-dwellers. They were sprawled all over the couches and beanbags, caught in the flickering glow of the television. The lights had been turned down, and on the screen, Star Wars III: The Clone Wars was moving toward the climactic finale that would see Anakin Skywalker take the typical villain fall from a high place and into a pit of molten lava, believed to be dead until he turned up in the sequel. Or the original. Which Elisa had seen at the drive-in, a depressingly long time ago.
None of the slumber party attendees were paying attention to the video, having already seen it so many times they could recite the dialogue in their sleep. The sound had been muted, and all eyes were on Alexander Xanatos as he wove a tale of a ghost he'd seen in the halls of Castle Wyvern.
"That's not true, is it, Zaza?" Amber hissed in a stage-whisper.
Elisa just smiled and pulled her onto her lap. But that was for babies, and wanting very much to be like the big kids, Amber wiggled down almost immediately. She pushed a place for herself on the couch between Tom and Dee, both of whom gave way with grudging good humor.
It hurt Elisa's heart nowadays to look at Dee, and she imagined it was even worse for Talon. As she'd gotten older, the faint rosettes that had sprinkled Dee's fur had faded until her pelt was a uniform tawny gold, and her dark-blond hair fell to her hips. Her batlike wings were a dark velvety-brown, and she even favored the same color of green tunic that her mother had always worn.
Tom, on the other hand, was turning into the spitting image of his father. His pelt was a sleek black, as were his wings. In his face, Elisa could see hints of the Derrek she remembered when they'd been young.
"I'd be scared to live in a place like that," said Susan, one of the other children. She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.
"Oh, yeah?" Alex's eyes twinkled. "And you live here?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked, quick to take offense. "My daddy lost his job and --"
"No, not that. You're not scared down here in the Labyrinth?"
Susan glanced quickly at the boys on either side of her, and when she spoke, her tremulous tone belied her words. "No, of course not."
"That's good." Alex leaned back and crossed his arms behind his head, a pose copied straight from Xanatos. He grinned at the ceiling. "I mean, you'd have good reason to be …"
"What are you talking about?" asked Tom. "Nothing down here to be afraid of."
"No? Are you sure?"
"We've lived here nearly all our lives," Dee said. "If there was anything, we'd know."
"So you've explored every inch of the Labyrinth?"
"Well, not every inch," Tom demurred. "Dad won't let us go down in the deep tunnels."
"And you know why?" Alex said knowingly.
"Why?" asked Susan.
"Yes, why?" Patricia seconded, but icily, as if she – at only ten – already didn't much care for the way both Dee and Susan were looking at her boyfriend.
"I'd think it would be obvious."
"Come on, Alex," Sebastian said. "Tell us!"
"Tell us, tell us!" chimed Amber.
Alex hunched forward to peer intently around at all of them. "Well, it's a Labyrinth, isn't it? Know why they call it that?"
Tom snorted. "'Cause it's like a maze, duh."
"The other reason."
"No other reason," said Dee.
"Yeah? What else is definitive about a Labyrinth?"
"What's defiffitiff?" Amber asked, frowning.
"I mean," Alex said, reaching past Tom to ruffle her hair, "what else is the one main thing about a Labyrinth?"
"People get lost?" Susan guessed.
"It's dark," tried one of the other boys, Jacob.
"I give up," said Sebastian.
"Aw, come on, you have to try harder," Alex said.
"Just tell us." Orpheus Bluestone spoke softly, but it was enough to make Alex exhale an exasperated breath.
"You guys take all the fun out of it. The thing about a Labyrinth, see, is that it's got to have a minotaur. Otherwise it wouldn't be right."
"Oh, Alex," said Patricia disdainfully.
"What's a minotaur?" several voices asked at once.
"A … monster!" Alex announced. "A gigantic, strong monster like a man with the head of a bull."
"There's nothing like that here," Dee said.
"How do you know? You just said you've never explored all of it."
"Does it eat people?" Susan squeaked.
"You bet it does. See, the story goes that a long time ago, there was a king who made the gods angry, and the gods punished him by turning his son into a minotaur-monster."
Elisa, who was slightly more familiar with the legend, did not bother to correct him. Pasiphae and the bull wasn't exactly a fitting fairy tale. Orpheus, who had understandably been raised on the Greek myths since the cradle, looked bemused.
"The king didn't want to kill him," Alex went on, "so he had his magician build a dungeon maze called the Labyrinth, and stuck the minotaur down there forever. But the king also didn't want to let him starve, see. And he was the overlord of this other kingdom, so every year he'd make the other kingdom send a bunch of people and he'd put them down in the dungeon for the minotaur to hunt and eat."
"Gross!" Jacob said, in the admiring way that meant 'cool!'
Susan visibly mustered her nerve. "But that's not this Labyrinth."
Someone rapped at the door just then, eliciting hastily-muffled cries of surprise from more than one of the kids. A moment later, Delilah's white-maned head poked in. "Elisa? The phone is for you. It is Goliath."
Elisa got up, thinking to herself that even after all these years, Delilah still spoke with the careful precision of someone who'd learned English as a second language. She still hadn't quite got the knack of contractions, either, making her occasionally sound like the android from that old Star Trek series.
"No food fights," she said as she went to the door.
"Scout's honor," Alex said.
"You needn't worry about that," said Patricia, and Elisa was a lot more inclined to believe her than Alex's failed attempt at making the Boy Scout salute. "There's hardly a thing left."
"Good point." She closed the door behind her and shook her head at Delilah, chuckling. "Kids! Well, at least they're having fun."
"They have grown up so fast," Delilah, who was really only a little older than Alex but who's counting, said. "It does not seem more than yesterday that Tom and Dee were babies. I miss that."
"Trust me," Elisa said, clapping her on the shoulder. "You won't miss it at all once those four eggs of yours hatch. Wait until you have to try diapering around tails!"
Delilah laughed, but uneasily, and Elisa could have kicked herself. Of all the eggs in the rookery, they couldn't really be sure about those four. A cloned gargoyle with some human DNA for a mother, a human-Sasquatch mutate for a father … it was pretty amazing they'd succeeded at all, without the benefit of magic or genetic meddling.
Dr. Masters had offered to ultrasound the eggs, or run them through an MRI, but the clan had unanimously refused. They knew the genders thanks to the patterns of mottling, and would be content to wait and see on the rest. Even Delilah, who had the most reason to worry, stood firm in that resolve.
Elisa didn't know how they did it. She'd taken every opportunity to make sure Amber was developing all right, and it would have driven her purely crazy to have to wait sight unseen for just that span of months, let alone ten years.
She followed Delilah to the other room where Talon's clan spent most of their time, the kitchen. It was windowless and industrial, but efforts to make it homey with hanging racks of copper-bottomed pots, warm earth-toned accessories, and a cozy breakfast nook had helped considerably.
Samson was watching Broadway on television, his 'Cooking Big' show that aired at midnight, with all the grim concentration of a college senior studying for final exams. He was stirring a pot with one hand while trying to measure out level teaspoons of spices with the other. Talon held the phone out to Elisa.
"Checking up on you, sis."
"Thanks." She held it to her ear. "Hey."
Several minutes later, after assuring her big purple worrywart of a husband that everything was fine, she hung up and went over to see what Samson was doing. Meals in the Labyrinth were always an adventure. He and Talon, the vegetarian and the carnivore, had a hell of a time finding a happy medium, while the twins were at that age where if it didn't come in a take-out box or bag, they didn't want it.
Broadway's show, tailored for the non-health-conscious with enormous appetites, didn't solve many of their problems. Last week, he'd made a submarine sandwich big enough to feed a football team, and then proceeded to eat most of it himself live on the air. Brooklyn told him that if he kept eating like that, he'd go from being a household word to a household paragraph. But it was great to see the gargoyles getting favorable attention. Between Broadway's show and Elektra being so active and visible in Daniel Harmond's administration, acceptance was coming. Slowly, and not without vocal opposition, but coming.
"I'd better go back and make sure they haven't trashed the place," Elisa finally said, once the credits were rolling.
Talon walked with her. "Told you it would be fine."
"Yeah, yeah."
But when they reached the sitting room, the door was ajar and upon entering, only half of the slumber partiers were present. Alex, Amber, Jacob, Tom, and Dee were gone.
"What's up?" Talon asked.
Patricia, who was marshalling Sebastian, Orpheus, Susan, and Duane in cleaning up the mess, turned toward them and rolled her eyes as if to say, 'what did you expect?'. "They went off to find the minotaur."
"What?" Elisa and Talon said.
"Tom bet Alex that there was no such thing as a minotaur or any other monster down here, and Alex bet that there was," Sebastian said. "So they went to settle it."
"Oh, for the love of …" Talon's fur bristled.
"I'm glad some of you had the sense to stay put," Elisa said, putting on her jacket.
"I wasn't about to go off spelunking in the steam tunnels, nor would I allow my brother to do such a dangerous, unsanitary thing," Patricia said, offended.
"And Susan was too chicken," Duane said.
"Well, you didn't go either!"
"I hadda go to the bathroom and they were gone by the time I was done!"
"I would have talked them out of it," Orpheus said, "but I was in the bathroom too."
"That's what took me so long," Duane insisted. "Because I had to wait for him to get out."
"Hold it, hold it!" Talon said. "Where did they go?"
"And when? I was only gone ten minutes!" Elisa flung her hands in the air. "Ooh … I … when I get my … dammit!"
"Come on," Talon said, and jabbed a claw at the others. "And you five stay put, I mean it!"

**

Thanis

Everyone knew that the Empty Mug was more than just a scummy Lower Ring tavern. It, and the fence-shop next door, were the two better-known openly secret fronts for the Nightsiders. So Skeet made the Empty Mug his first stop.
The knife his mother had given him was prominent on his hip, and he made himself walk like he'd know what to do with it if trouble presented. The purse of coin, he kept stuffed not only under his tunic but inside his leggings, and tried to walk like he was as markless as any beggar.
He wasn't sure that he was doing a good job at either, but no one accosted him as he made his way to the tavern. It was doing a brisk business, tough-looking people coming and going, but more sober and purposeful than the staggering reel typical of drunkards. They strode as if they knew where they were going, and on deliberate, dark business indeed.
Gulping down a sour mouthful of nervous saliva, Skeet approached. He stood aside to let two more men pass, and agonized because any one of them might be his father. It had been a decade since Mum had seen him, and while she'd recalled his name, the faces of the men she'd known had a tendency to blur together out of sheer numbers.
The interior of the Empty Mug was raucous and smoky and dimly lit. Skeet got up against a wall, out of the way, and looked around as he breathed in the thick scents of ale, roast meat, pipe-tobacco, leather, and oiled steel. The atmosphere was one of dangerous good fellowship. Dice and toss-stones rattled in wooden cups, the riffle-snap of cards being dealt came from a corner table, and threads of conversation wove a tapestry of voices. Wenches maneuvered skillfully through the crowd of men, holding trays of mugs and plates aloft.
One of them noticed him and came over, bending low so he could hear her over the din and also giving him a good peek down the front of her off-the-shoulder blouse. Mum was right, he was starting to notice, because the view left him tongue-tied.
"Why, hello little man," she cooed, seeing his discomfiture and being amused by it. "What can Ronalie do for you?"
"I … ur … I'm seeking someone." He forced his eyes up to meet hers. "A man called Calidar."
"Ah, well, you've come to the right place, then. He's just over there."
Having been braced for worse news, even the strong probability that Calidar was long years dead, Skeet blinked in amazement. "Thankee, miss."
She winked at him and left in response to a loud summons from a busy table. Skeet peered in the direction she'd indicated, where a short hall led into a back room. A man was there, seen only from behind, but he was a formidable figure. Tall, broad-shouldered, it would have taken three of Skeet to make up one of him. A tousle of dark brown hair topped his head, and his jerkin was scuffed suede in a dark reddish-brown.
Skeet started toward him. So this was his father! He was at once delighted – naturally, he should have expected that Mum would only choose a fine example of a man to sire her son – and melancholy – with a father such as that, how come he'd turned out so small and weedy?
He hesitated a few paces away, not wanting to interrupt and unsure how best to pursue this. He could hear the low, melodic rumble of the tall man's voice, something about Solarrin.
The name of the dreaded new Archmage stopped Skeet in his tracks and he listened all the more keenly.
"… everything we can to ensure he's far too busy to even think of Cat," the tall man was saying.
"What more would you have of us?" asked another man, blocked from Skeet's sight. "We've been keeping the Guard busy, right enough, but what can we do against magic?"
"Precious little," admitted the tall man. "But we must try. Cat and her friends, they're our best hope, mayhap our only hope. If Solarrin finds them …" He let the rest go unsaid.
Skeet, thrilled at this revelation that not only was his father a Nightsider but one of evident high rank, high enough to command others, was emboldened enough to reach out and tap at the man's elbow. "Sir … pardon, sir, but are you Calidar?"
He turned, presenting a strong and handsome face with dark eyes and a furrowed brow. "What's this? You seek Calidar?"
As he moved, the other man was revealed. He was short and wiry, compactly muscled with a sly face marked by a dueling scar, and pinned Skeet with eyes like two steel arrowheads. "Who are you, boy?"
Understanding fell on him like a smiting from above. "You're Calidar!" Not without a flash of disappointment, Skeet recognized himself in those sharp, almost rodent-like features and slight build.
"Asked who you are, and be quick about it," snarled his father. "We've business to tend."
"I'm Skeet … your son."
The tall man's dark brows raised. "Well, well, Calidar, congratulations are in order. It's a boy."
"Hrmph," Calidar snorted. "So he says. Who tells you this, boy?"
"My mum. Kenda."
"Kenda …? Oh." Calidar swept his gaze over Skeet, measuring him, missing nothing. "I suppose you must be, then. Fine and well. What do you want?"
This was not quite the reunion he had in mind, so Skeet floundered. "Mum … she said … she sent me …"
"Ah, Calidar, what a shame he's simple," the tall man said. "Might've made a footpad of him."
"I'm not simple!" Skeet gathered up his scattered wits. "Mum sent me to live with you. Da. She can't keep me there anymore."
At being called "Da," Calidar flinched. "Now, wait, you tell your mother --"
The other man nodded in understanding. "Lad must be twelve. I wouldn't have guessed it, but if they're putting him out of the house --"
"See here, Stryker!" Calidar declared, shooting an angry look at the tall man. "I'll handle this."
"As you will. Be quick about it. We've work to do." Stryker vanished into the back room, leaving Skeet and Calidar alone in the hall.
Alone, they might have been, but not unobserved. The nearest tables in the common room were close enough to have overheard some of the goings-on, and Skeet was aware of many a curious eye upon them. Calidar was, too, and glowered.
"Listen, boy … what was your name again?"
"Skeet." He didn't trust himself to say more, feeling the tingle and burn of impending tears. This wasn't how he'd wanted it!
"Skeet." At that, Calidar allowed himself a tight grin. "And is it fitting? Are you fast?"
"Yes, sir."
"Good. That's something, at any rate. You should do well for yourself. But listen to me, Skeet. I can't take you in. Gods know what your mother was thinking to come up with such a daft notion, but it just shan't be so. What did she tell you?"
"Only that you were a Nightsider."
"That I am. And now's a hard time for us. We've much to do, and I can hardly drop all to take care of you. Go back to your mum. This is no place for you."
"But they're making me leave, putting me out, like the other one said!" Skeet protested, nearly wailing. "Mum said I was to come to you! Where else would I go?"
"That's none of my concern. There's other matters need my attention now."
"I … I'm your son," Skeet said meekly.
"So your mother says, and by the sight of you, she's likely right." Calidar looked him over again, nodding. "Likely right. But it's not as if I wed her, not as if I ever knew."
Skeet's chin was quivering and he was sure that his abject misery showed in every inch of his face and posture. "You don't want me here."
Calidar groaned gustily. "Don't be like that, boy. Don't be all weepy. You've done fine these dozen years without having a father, and you'll do fine for the next dozen. You've got guts to come here, I'll grant you that, but you can't expect me to upend my life, least of all now, because of something I did years ago."
"Where am I to go? What am I to do?"
"I can let you have a bit of coin," Calidar said. "It's not as if I want you to starve, for gods' sakes. Buy yourself an apprenticeship."
He counted out several marks and offered them to Skeet, who just stared up at him with damp, pleading eyes. "Couldn't I be your apprentice?"
An incredulous laugh burst from him. "Mine? Have you any idea what I do? No, strike that, you came here so you must. But I work alone. I'm no Tahm Sabledrake, raising a child to follow in my boot tracks."
"Give me a chance, Da, please!"
"Even if I would, now's hardly the time. I can't take you on now, Skeet. It's too risky." Calidar grasped him by the shoulders and leaned close. "I only tell you this so you understand my reasons. You know about Solarrin and how he's bent on seizing control of the city, the Northlands. We're not going to let that happen. But going up against him is almost surely suicide, certainly folly, and I can't do it with you trotting along at my heel like a puppy. Your mother wouldn't want that any more than I do. She'd want you to be safe."
"Calidar!" called Stryker from the door to the back room. "Settled yet?"
"A moment, half a moment," he called back. "Skeet, I know this isn't what you wanted, but you must understand. This is too important. Further, it's possible … probable, more like it … that I'll not live out the year. Where would you be then? It's best if you take these marks and go find yourself a nice shopkeep in need of an apprentice. Come by and say hello every now and again if you're of a mind; I wouldn't object to that."
With that, he offered a wry half-smile and followed Stryker into the back room. The door closed behind him, cutting him off from Skeet's view.
He waited there for a little while, wishing that the door would open again, that his father would have reconsidered and invite him into the warmth, into the circle. But it stayed shut, and gradually, Skeet began to realize that it was a symbol – he was shut out of his father's life altogether.
What was he to do?
Become an apprentice? If he hadn't been so distressed, he could have laughed aloud. Apprentice! Like the boys that he and Byrle and the other urchins sometimes saw, scurrying about on their errands. Clean, they were, and well-fed, clutching their baskets for shopping or muttering to themselves the litany of their lists. They gave a wide berth to the urchin bunches, and with good reason, because there were few things Byrle and his ilk loved more than surrounding such a boy, pinching and poking at him, stealing his cap for a game of keep-away, mussing those clean, mended clothes with mud or dung. Most of the time, they could get those apprentice-boys crying like babies.
Why did they do it? Why were they so cruel? Was it because, somewhere down deep where they wouldn't look or admit, the urchins envied them? Envied them having a warm hearth to sleep beside, hearty meals, wages, the learning of a craft?
Mayhap it was that very thing, but that didn't mean Skeet was about to join the ranks of the apprentices! He knew what would happen if Byrle ever got wind of such a thing. The torments would be beyond endurance. The shame would be unbearable.
Aware that he was still drawing curious stares, Skeet gave up on the door and hurried from the Empty Mug. He wandered the streets, through occasional pools of pallid yellow lamplight and wider expanses of inky shadow. He couldn't bring himself to go home, because it wasn't his home anymore. He might be permitted to stay another month, but how could he face it now?
If only he could have become a Nightsider, like his father! He didn't care if it was dangerous. Life was dangerous.
"I could do it," he told himself in a low mumble. "I could be one of them."
And why not? He was quick, he'd had experience at thievery, his hands were dextrous and clever, and if he was a novice with a blade, well, he could learn. If they would have given him a chance.
But they wouldn't. His own flesh-and-blood father had sent him away, and if he wouldn't have Skeet as a pupil, how could any of the others?
"I wish there was a way to prove myself," he said, kicking at a bird-picked rat carcass. "That'd show them. That'd make them think differently."
And wouldn't it! If he became a Nightsider, or even a Nightsider apprentice, there'd be no more taunting from Byrle. No more scrounging through midden-bins.
He entertained himself briefly with the idea of trying to become a thief of such renown that the Nightsiders came to him and begged him to join their ranks. But he dismissed it quickly – if there was one law below the Fifth Ring, it was that the Nightsiders tolerated no non-guild activities. Anyone caught in a deed of such nature would be swiftly punished, subject to the cold justice of the knife.
Without conscious direction, his path brought him to one of his usual haunts. This was a wedge-shaped nook hidden away between a wheelwright's and a leather-worker's, its entrance seeming nothing more than another alleyway. But it widened out into a pleasant little space where the wheelwright's wife kept a flower garden, and there was a bench built into the wall with a waterspout of a sea serpent trickling water into a shell-edged basin.
Skeet sat on the bench and rested his head against the wall. He liked this place because, with the angles of the walls as they were, from this spot and this spot alone he was afforded an unobstructed view all the way up the tiered Rings of the city to see the very Palace of the Highlord at the top. And rising above it in a pearly, shimmering spire, was the Tower of the Archmage. The Tower had gone dark for a while after Talus Yor had died, but now that Solarrin was in residence, the magical aura around it had returned.
When he'd been younger, Skeet had sometimes wondered what it would be like to live in the First or Second Ring, near the Great Library, and the fabulous Lord's Retreat. He knew of those places only from tales, having never ventured higher than the Fourth Ring.
And that had been on one occasion, on a dare. He'd been seen by some older boys, whose families were well-to-do merchants, but their wealth and status hadn't made them gentlemen, not where an urchin was concerned. He'd been lucky to escape that one with only one blackened eye and his shirt half-torn, his innate speed having served him well.
But a thought came to him as he sat there gazing up at the distant glow of the Tower.
Solarrin.
The Nightsiders were desperately attempting to hinder Solarrin.
If he could help them in that … why, wouldn't that be enough to make his father reconsider? To be proud of him? To take him in, teach him, tell all the world, "Yes, this is my son," love him?
"I'll do it," Skeet whispered. "I'll do what no Nightsider has done … I'll get into the Tower of the Archmage and find out what Solarrin's up to, and stop him. That'll prove that I'm someone to be reckoned with, someone of value!"

**

Manhattan

"I don't like it down here," Jacob said. He was normally a cherubically cheerful-looking kid, pudgy and chubby-cheeked, but apprehension and the red-gold backsplash of Alexander Xanatos' witchlight made him look like a constipated Elmer Fudd.
"You wanted to come," Dee said. The muffled sound of a Flirty Boys CD issued from the headphones that didn't quite rest flush against her inhuman ears. She did not so much walk down the tunnel with them as dance, sometimes singing along.
"It's creepy, isn't it?" Tom's sharp teeth were bared in a mock-predatory grin. "This is where they used to lock up the bad guys. Like Fang, and Demona, the evil gargoyle queen."
"She was nice to me," Amber said.
"Oh, yeah, like you ever met Demona," Alex said.
"Did so!"
"Did not, Amburger. Your folks would have croaked before letting you get anywhere near her."
"I did meet her, I did, she saved me once."
"She also loosed all the devils of Hell on New York, stole Angela and Brooklyn's egg --"
"And that's when our mom died," Tom added, a growl underlying his words.
Amber shut up, but she stuck her lower lip out in the petulant manner Alex had come to know and dread. He was looking for a way to change the subject when Dee stopped, went, "Ayow!" and sang, "'Cause …" she jumped, "…I …"crossed her feet, "… just …" landed, "…can't help …" spun, and finished with "luh-uh-uh-ving you!" as she did a raunchy bump-and-grind with her hips.
"Jeez, Dee," Tom said, wrinkling his nose. "Dad sees you got the moves like that, he'll never let you watch MTV again."
"Huh?" She hadn't been listening to the conversation, lost in the music, and Alex laughed.
"Come on, you guys."
"There's no minotaur, is there really?" Jacob asked.
"That's what we're going to find out." Alex concentrated, and the bobbing radiant puffball of his witchlight brightened.
It revealed a tunnel stretching away into gloom, cracks in the concrete, overlapping scrawls of ancient graffiti, the water-swollen lump of a collapsed cardboard box, a couple of beer cans and a broken bottle, and a torn brown paper bag with a girlie magazine poking out.
"I'm going to marry Joey Mack when I grow up," Dee announced, punching a button on her portable CD player. She glanced around as if only now realizing where they were. "Uck. It smells down here."
"You chickening out?" Alex inquired lightly.
She stuck her nubby cat's tongue out at him. "You're the fancy rich boy. If anyone's going to be grossed out by squalor, it's you."
"Yeah," said Tom. "We go rat-hunting down here sometimes."
Amber looked at him, awed. "You do?"
"Sure. Catch 'em, too."
Jacob swallowed audibly. "You … you don't … you don't eat them, do you?"
"What if we do?" Dee said, nipping at nothing. "We like meat."
"Rats? Eeew!" Amber said, more fascinated than repulsed.
"Run 'em down, grab 'em by the tails, and you should hear how they squeak!" Tom said.
"We ate out of the garbage sometimes," Jacob said solemnly, "but we never ate rats!"
Dee grinned. "Maybe you weren't quick enough to catch them."
"Shh," Alex hissed. "I heard something."
Amber grabbed his leg. "Is it the minotaur? Is it?"
"Take it easy, Amburger. Don't be --"
"Are we gonna fight it?"
"… scared," Alex finished, and made a face. "Fight it. Figures. Now, shhh!"
They all hushed, and this time they all heard it, a stealthy, sinister scraping noise. Alex subtly dimmed his witchlight, not enough so they'd notice he did it on purpose. The shadows grew, reaching out from the wall like black-gloved hands.
"It's his hooves," Alex breathed. "Grating on the floor, do you hear it?"
"It is not," Jacob quavered.
"A minotaur, just like I told you."
"Quit it!"
scraaaaaaaape … clitter-clitter …
Dee crouched low, haunches twitching. Alex had forgotten that she and Tom, and probably Amber too, could see in the dark way better than humans could. In a flash, she was off, darting into the darkness. Tom bounded after her, while Jacob yelped and Amber squealed a giggle. There came the sounds of a chase and scuffle, and then an argument.
"I saw it first!" Dee snapped.
"I caught it first!" Tom countered.
They came back, Tom holding a dead rat swinging by the tail, keeping it out of Dee's reach as she tried to grab for it.
"Whew," Jacob said. "I knew there was no minotaur."
"There is," Alex said. "We're just not far enough into the Labyrinth yet."
From far behind them, drifting like a voice from a dream – "Amber! Alex!"
And then Talon – "Thomas Reed, Diane Elisa!"
"Whoops," Alex said. "Busted."
"Are we going back?" asked Jacob hopefully.
"I wanna see the minotaur," demanded Amber. "Alex, you promised!"
"There's no minotaur," Tom said. "He was messing with you. I told you so."
"Oh, yeah?" Alex hoisted one eyebrow in his father's most sardonic.
"Give it up. You lost the bet."
"A Xanatos never loses a bet."
"Then how come our dad whups your dad at poker all the time?" Dee challenged.
"That's different."
"Amber! Alex! Kids, where are you, this isn't funny!" came Elisa's call.
"Doesn't matter," Tom said. "There's nothing down here but us, so you lose, and you owe me five packs of Technomon cards."
Alex raised his chin. "Okay … you want a minotaur? Let's go."
"But Zaza's calling."
"Dee, take the little kids back --"
"Bite that, rich boy! I'm coming with you."
"Me too!" Amber thrust her fists on her hips.
Jacob didn't whimper, though his face was screwed up and he looked more like Elmer Fudd than ever. But he didn't beg off, and when Alex began striding purposefully into the darkness, his witchlight little more than a candleflame now, Jacob fell in with the rest as they followed.
And if Patricia or Sebastian, or Aiden, or Elektra, had been with them, any of those four could have easily detected the increasing aura of magical power as Alexander's silent spell gathered its strength and ever-so-minutely began to alter the world around them.

**

Thanis

"I do not like riddles, mysteries, or surprises," Solarrin said.
"No, sir, Archmage Solarrin, sir."
He scowled at the abjectly groveling orcmaid in front of him. While insolence would not be tolerated, he did grow weary of her servile simpering. "Then I trust you have some explanation for this?"
"No, sir."
The matter that concerned him was the overturned laundry cart currently spilling its contents of freshly-cleaned linens across the smooth marble floor of the entryway.
"I only left it there a moment," Zura said, wringing and knotting the edge of her apron in her hands.
For some reason that Solarrin had yet to fathom, she had decided that her post as a lady's maid meant that she had to dress in high-collar dresses fastened by a row of maddeningly tiny buttons, a lace-trimmed mobcap, and apron. To make matters worse, she chose to exaggerate the figure the orc gods had in their lack of wisdom bestowed on the females of the species by including a boned corset and bustle. The effect was, to say the least, bizarre.
Solarrin knew that even though Zura was an orc, one of the sturdiest and toughest of all the races, he could snap her neck with a flick of his wrist if he so desired. That mollified him somewhat, but he didn't let it show as he pointed to the spilled linen.
"And when you came back, it was like this. For no apparent reason, with no ready explanation."
"Yes, sir." Her olive-green complexion had gone an even less attractive waxy hue and she seemed hunched, braced, in expectation of his wrath.
He was tempted to oblige, but really, it was only linen. Not all that much in the greater scheme of things, and it wasn't as if he expected to need it anyway. He'd ordered Zura to strip it from the guest bedrooms and take it all to the Palace laundry to have it washed, not for any reason other than to give her something to do. So it didn't matter if it was on the floor, which was clean as the domestic magic of Talus Yor's amorphous servants could make it anyway.
What did matter, though, was how it had happened. Zura might not be the most graceful of creatures – no orc could ever hope for that title – but neither was she clumsy, or a slattern. And the laundry cart, cloth-sided on a wooden frame, with four small wheels, wasn't likely to just tip for no reason. Nor would, he deduced, a simple topple have strewn the sheets so widely.
Zura melted deferentially out of his way as he went to the cart. His nostrils flared. He smelled human, and not the lye-soap and steamed sweat of a laundress, either. And here, what was this? A filthy handprint impressed clearly onto the white expanse of a sheet.
"I do believe we have an uninvited guest," Solarrin said. Although he sounded angry enough to make Zura quail, part of him relished the distraction.
Anything to take his mind off of the assorted fusses and hassles of the Highlord's royal ball, at which Jarrell would be given the chance to be spurned, jeered at, or ridiculed by every eligible lady in the Northlands. The young Highlord had been skittish as a colt lately, acting as if he was leery of every living thing including his oh-so-trusted Archmage.
More, it continued to annoy Solarrin that he'd found no trace of his one-time companions. They knew, they had to know, that the deaths of Talus Yor and Duncan Farleigh were not the sorcerous accidents they seemed. And being the types they were, interfering do-gooders, Solarrin would have thought they'd come rushing in with swords drawn and fireballs blazing, ready to throw their lives away in a futile effort to save Thanis from Solarrin's malevolent influence.
Their disappearance troubled him. Either they'd developed prudence – but given that they'd just mounted a seemingly-hopeless assault on the Morvalan fortress and triumphed, that was unlikely – or they had something else in mind. Not knowing what, not being able to anticipate them, galled Solarrin. He would not tolerate being outmaneuvered.
But this, this handprint, was new. Unconnected? Probably … but he'd had more than his share of troubles with Thanis' extralegal contingent of late, and while he would have assumed they'd be smarter than to throw their lives away so directly as to enter his Tower, neither would he put it past them.
Yes, the more he thought on it, the more sure he became. That scent did rather call up the Lower Rings. Some opportunistic cutpurse friend of the crossling girl's had presumed upon his hospitality. And, as such personages had no regard for property rights, was no doubt already stuffing his or her pockets with items rightfully – by right of murder – belonging to Solarrin.
Zura was still standing anxiously nearby, twisting her apron. He gestured her away with one imperious sweep of his hand and she fled with an uncontained mewl of gratitude. He didn't bother telling her to rouse the household. Aside from the two of them, the household consisted of one useless cook and one even more useless elfmaid.
"Tsk," Solarrin said. Alinora's magic would have come in handy now. Not that she had been anywhere near his level even before the tethers of her mind had slipped their moorings, but she did know a few spells that might have shortened this search. He'd just have to make do.
At the center of the Tower, a magical stairway spiraled upward, passing landings that led to the halls of the various floors. He detected nothing amiss there, and knew that no thief worth the name would go blithely up the main stair. It was well-lit, for one, with a moon-like radiance shedding softly silver from the domed ceiling. For another, the passage of a body was usually sufficient to disturb the delicate crystal and jeweled birds that dangled on thread-fine strands, setting them to swaying or jingling. At the moment, they hung steady and still.
This told Solarrin that the intruder must still be on the ground floor. The closest doorway to the place where the cart had overturned was that leading to the kitchens, lair of the cook, Hustilo. The clink and rattle of crockery indicated that Hustilo was directing the amorphous servants in putting away the dishes from their evening meal. Unlikely, then, that the thief would have gone that way.
The next nearest door was one that led to the cellar. Not a dungeon, gods forbid, because Talus Yor had never had the need or the desire for such things. The previous Archmage's appetites might have extended to many pleasures, but torture was not among them.
Perhaps this intruder thought to hide away below, in the darkness that made such slinking cowards feel more at ease, until late had turned to early and the house was fast asleep. Solarrin crossed to the door and was about to touch the handle when his keen senses picked up the unmistakable hint of blood.
Aha! Here was a sharp edge of metal on the latch, and it had cut into the thief's hand. Solarrin bent close and sniffed. Human … young … male … undernourished. He wiped the latch with a small square of cloth and folded it, put it away. One never knew when something of that sort might be needed, and in Solarrin's area of choice, necromancy, there wasn't much better than a dab or two of fresh blood.
He opened the door. A curving flight of steps descended into blackness, a suggestion of gleam in the dark showing where the wine bottles waited in their racks. Solarrin moved onto the landing and closed the door behind him, casting a spell upon himself that would allow his eyes to see not by light, but by the warmth of a living body. Why call up a magelight to give his prey a way to see?
Suppressing a chuckle, he placed a hand on the rail and started down. For all of his great size, he had a warrior's reflexes and could move with stealth, a tremendous improvement over his original body. Had he still been confined to the fat, misshapen form into which he'd been born, a flight of stairs such as this would have proved too much for him, and the wheezing and coughing of his exertion would have alerted everyone within earshot.
Orange smudges glowed on the wall, the floor. They faded as he watched, and he identified them as the residue of heat left by tiptoeing feet, hands feeling a way. He followed them, detecting amid the odors of dust and wine the sour tang of human fear. A woman's perfume could have been no more enticing.
As he moved between the racks, anticipating the catch and the struggle and the sweet victory of capture, Solarrin glimpsed a larger blotch of red and orange off to his left. When he reached it, he found only a shrinking patch of warmth and more prints leading away. He could imagine his prey sitting here, not daring to move, all but paralyzed with terror as Solarrin came relentlessly closer. Then, realizing that discovery was inevitable, rising and silently slipping away.
No sooner had he deduced that than there came a grating, grinding sound from behind him. Solarrin spun, there! Bright yellow with the raised temperature and pulse brought on by adrenaline. A small figure, very small, too small even to be Cat. A child? Not a gnome; the shape was wrong and he was sure the blood had been human.
Dispensing with stealth, he rushed that way. A white flare of alarm blazed within the figure. Something heavy and iron clattered to the stone floor, ringing like a gong.
The cistern! Thanis had been designed and built by dwarves, with extensive plumbing and sewage systems that honeycombed the mountainous city, drawing up water from an aquifer deep in the earth.
The orange-white smear that was the intruder suddenly was cut in half, and Solarrin understood that he was climbing into the hole, preferring – not unwisely – to take his chances with the uncharted pipes and tunnels below than face Solarrin's fury. Then the figure disappeared entirely, and there came a splash echoing up the pipe.
Solarrin reached the cistern, which rose to waist-high on him, gnashing his teeth. He leaned over and saw the figure, cooled by the water to yellowish-green.
"I think not," he growled. "Oh, no, my fine little thief, I think not!"
It was a tight squeeze, especially for his barrel chest and massive shoulders, and once he caught a horn in a seam of the pipe and felt as if it was going to splinter off from the root, but Solarrin wedged himself into the pipe and began working his way down. He could hear the frantic splashing and sputtering, the rapid breaths.
"Trapped like a rat, are you?"
The cold water on his legs, soaking the heavy velvet of his robes, made him pause and wonder if he was making the best choice. There were other options than to go fish him out personally. But the thrill of the hunt was too strong, the minotaur instinct to rend and tear an undeniable compulsion. Hadn't he been fighting it for too long already, forced to play by the rules of Thanian society? It was past time for a respite from the suffocating strictures of his role.
So, with no further debate, he dropped into the cross-pipe, immersing himself up to the hips and being thankful for his leathery hide and mighty constitution. Had he tried this in his original body, he'd be begging for pneumonia. And why did he keep dwelling on that? One would think that after almost eight years as a minotaur, he'd have forgotten, and gladly, the crippled gnomish shell that had once been his. Perhaps the constant remembering and comparing was his way of being thankful.
Down here, the darkness was total. If not for the green-blue smudge ahead of him, he would have been utterly blind.
Green-blue … the lad was going to freeze. While Solarrin could still punish him anyway, there was something less satisfying about exacting revenge on one of the undead.
He surged onward. The ceiling of the pipe was low, and after his brass-tipped horns had scraped a shower of sparks twice, he made sure to keep his head down. His robes dragged at him, hindering him, but he forged ahead with his seemingly inexhaustible strength.
The water concealed most of the scents, but every now and then he could still catch a whiff of the bright fear in his prey. What a horror this must be, down in the sightless, cold darkness, knowing that a deadly foe was gaining, knowing that death was close on his heels!
Solarrin heard another splash, saw the blur vanish, and knew the hapless human had fallen headlong. There came the clunk of skullbone against metal and Solarrin quickened his pace, concerned that the lad might have knocked himself unconscious and wanting to get to him before he drowned.
But the lad hadn't drowned; the blur reappeared in a sudden upward lunge, scrabbling, rising above the surface of the water. A ladder … the sound he'd heard had been the collision of head with metal ladder-rung, and now the intruder was scaling it. Dazed, but not hampered, he made good speed on the short-spaced rungs that would have been placed with dwarf-legs in mind.
Then the shivering blur was standing on a ledge. Solarrin could hear teeth chattering, the sound like dice in a cup.
He was beginning to be tired of this foolishness, but waded to the ladder as the intruder began edging along, groping at the walls, feeling for a way out. If Solarrin's memory and sense of direction served him correctly, they were under the Highlord's Palace by now, and what a surprise that would be for Jarrell to have his Archmage advisor come popping up from one of the drains!
Solarrin had just stepped from ladder to ledge when he heard the squeal of hinges. He plunged forward as the blur stumbled through a doorway, and fetched himself a jarring blow to the head and chest. Reeling back, he came within inches of going off the ledge and back into the water.
Recovering, he reached out and found the top edge of the opening to be five feet from the floor. Dwarves, again! Spitting curses, he ducked and crouched and somehow got himself through. By then, he'd lost sight of his prey, and went on regardless. The puddles of water through which he trod told him he was still on the right path. Soon, as the chill of the dunking began to wear off, he saw glimmers of heat again on the floor and walls of this new passage.
After that it became a matter of stalking. Intent on his prey, determined now that after all he'd been through he certainly wasn't going to let that thrice-blasted thief escape him, Solarrin paid no attention to the turns and intersections. Even if this labyrinthine course took him into the very bowels of the city, he would worry about finding his way back only after he'd caught the boy, crushed his windpipe, and listened to him slowly strangling, before tearing open his chest and eating the still-warm heart.
Despite his bloodlust, he was still cautious enough to go quietly. Soon his efforts were rewarded, for there he was! Resting, by the look, perhaps confident that no one could have followed this far, confident that Solarrin was wandering somewhere far behind or had given up long since.
Having learned for himself that this particular thorn-in-the-rump was a fleet-footed example of the species, Solarrin paused to concentrate on a spell. As he did so, he was overcome with the oddest feeling that there was another mage nearby, a power nearly as strong as his own … surely only nearly, not equal, and by no means more.
That couldn't be! The first thing he'd done upon assuming the title of Archmage was to survey all who might challenge him. It hadn't taken long. The talent for magic was quite rare in humans, and while there were elves in Thanis, most of them were dabblers. The truly dedicated sorcerers remained in the Emerin. And Talus Yor was dead, dead and buried, what little the black devouring creature had left of him.
Yet the feeling persisted, and the coarse hair of Solarrin's pelt was trying to stand on end. Power, yes, there was power nearby, a spell being cast, a great and complex enchantment.
First things first. He was not going to be distracted from his first goal.
Focusing his will, he brought his spell to the front of his mind and began the secondary invocation that would turn it into a projectile. He wouldn't have to get close to his prey, only close enough to throw.
The drawback was that the missile-spell caused a marshfire-green cloud to glove his hands, and in that dim, swampy light, the thief could see. And see, he did.
Solarrin saw him as well, and was disgusted. A boy! A mere boy, not even old enough to sprout whiskers!
The boy sprang up and began to run. The glow around Solarrin's hand had coalesced into a vivid, smoky-green ball. At the same moment, the air beyond the fleeing boy rippled like air over banked coals, and the tunnel beyond seemed to alter, to change. Solarrin drew back his arm and let fly.

**

Manhattan

Even Amber was starting to look like she was ready to go back, though Alex could tell she was struggling bravely not to show it. Heck, even he was having some second thoughts. It was pretty dark and creepy down here, with the dripping of distant water and the rumble of traffic or subway trains. But Tom's ears were sassily perked, and Alex was not about to give up until he'd won his bet. They were going to catch hell from Elisa and Talon anyway, and he didn't want it to be for nothing.
A minotaur. That was all he needed. And he knew where there was one. New Olympus. The rest of the world hadn't had a lot of contact with the hidden island, but ever since that day that guy and the golden sphinx-woman had showed up – poof! – on the steps of the Capitol building, it wasn't like they were exactly secret either. And one of them, one called Taurus, was just what Alex needed.
Taurus. It was like Leo, or Una. Way original, as Aiden's pal Birdie would have said.
The hard part was doing it without being noticed. One of the downsides of magic was that it tended to have gaudy side effects, differing from individual to individual. Aiden, for instance, couldn't do much of anything without some sort of silvery lightshow. On the rare occasions when Alex's mom tapped into her Avalonian abilities, the result was in emerald.
So it would have been easy to whip up a connection portal 'twixt here and New Olympus, if he didn't mind it being characterized by a fiery red-gold starburst and halo. To do it invisibly, that was the tricky bit. And without saying or doing anything to give the game away.
Aha … connection! He felt it at last, felt it waver and then solidify.
"We're almost there," he said.
"When are you just going to admit it?" Tom began. "There's nothing --"
Someone came pelting pell-mell out of the shadows, way too small to be a minotaur. Alex had a fleeting glimpse of wet, wrinkled clothing in a weird, yet oddly familiar, style, and the wide-eyed astonishment as the newcomer saw them in the glow of Alex's witchlight.
The kid yelled something in a language that wasn't English, waving his arms urgently.
Alex froze. He'd understood him … it had been years, and he'd been young, but there were some things he was never going to forget.
An overpowering sense of menace came roiling out of the dark tunnel. Then, like the flaming pumpkin hurled by the Headless Horseman, here came a ball of sickly green fire.
"Get out of the way!" Alex cried, translating the kid's warning even as he issued his own.
The kid zigged to the side with a natural speed and grace that would have done him credit on the football field, if he'd been twice as big. The ball missed him, but now it was bearing down right on Alex and his friends.
They tried to evade, and almost made it. Jacob, wailing now and abandoning even the pretense of bravery, tripped. In springing, cheetah-like, to push him out of the way, Dee took the spell squarely in the back.
She went rigid, lit from within by awful radium-green that showed them her bones, veins, even the intricate traceries of capillaries in her wings. The unnatural light beamed from her gaping mouth, making St. Elmo's Fire dance on her fangs. Then she fell, still in that stiff posture, as if she'd been turned to stone in mid-leap. She hit the concrete and came to rest on her side, limbs jutting, absolutely motionless.
"Dee!" Tom was at her side in an instant. Her eyes were wide open and alive, aware, but no more able to move than the rest of her. They brimmed with a panic she could not voice.
A paralysis-bomb, Alex thought. Whoa.
"[Go!]" said the kid in the threadbare tunic and leggings. "[He comes, the Archmage comes!]"
Tom was calling his sister's name, afraid to touch her. Jacob had taken off in a blind panic. Alex looked around for Amber and found her staring, astonished, the way from which the kid had come. And somewhere back in the tunnels, Elisa and Talon had heard the commotion and were racing closer, shouting wildly.
"Minotaur," Amber said.
Minotaur.
Alex's mouth went dry. That wasn't Taurus, not even close.
The creature advancing on them was not so much a man with the head of a bull, but a bull in the shape of a man. His hide was all coarse brown hair, partly covered by long crimson robes trimmed in gold. Alex's witchlight glinted sparks from the sharp brass sheaths on the tips of his spreading horns, and flickered on the smooth-polished bloodstone pendant that rested on that broad chest. The fact that he was as wet and bedraggled as the boy did nothing to lessen the impact of his presence.
"[So you are the mage I sensed,]" he said in a voice as deep as Goliath's but ten times more sinister that even Thailog must have sounded before he changed his ways. Soulless, almost. "[A stripling? Who are you, human?]"
"Tom, get them out of here," Alex said.
"I'm staying," Amber announced.
"No. Go, now."
Something in his tone must have convinced her, because she joined Tom with no further protest, and between them, they were able to half-carry, half-drag Dee back the way they'd come.
The other boy stopped to regard Alex with incredulity. On his face was the visible evidence of his dilemma – run and save himself, or stay because he'd brought this down upon them? On the one hand, he didn't owe these strangers anything, but on the other, he didn't want to be responsible for the loss of innocent lives.
"[I am Alexander Fox Xanatos,]" he proclaimed. "[Who are you?]"
"[I am Solarrin, Archmage of Thanis.]"
Thanis … the city he'd once accidentally transported himself, Brooklyn, and Hudson to. Where they'd met a girl named Cat, who he'd accidentally summoned a year later. Now he'd botched another spell, and opened the way between this world and that for a third time. He remembered the Nightsiders, good rogues who'd been friendly to him. He remembered pretty Cat, and her large, fearsome-looking, but loyal companion, Alphonse. Somehow, he didn't get the feeling that this encounter was going to be as amiable as those previous ones.
"[You intrigue me, young mage, but first things first. Give me the thief.]"
A quick, pained intake of breath from the other kid answered any question before Alex had time to ask it. Now he faced a version of the same dilemma – he didn't know him from Adam, but every sense that Alexander had was telling him that Solarrin's intentions were dire, and he couldn't just hand the poor sap over when it was sure to mean gory death.
"[This is not Thanis,]" Alex said with a bravery he hoped was unfeigned. "[This is my city, and he is under my protection.]"
Solarrin snorted, a sound so bullish that Alex wouldn't have been surprised if he'd started pawing the ground with his hoof. "[The undercity belongs to the dwarves, if anyone, and I still hold dominion over it. Their ambassador has recognized my authority. This wretch invaded my home, and I will have him answer for it.]"
"[He shall slay me,]" the boy said, a helpless appeal in his tone.
"[No one slays anyone tonight,]" declared Alex.
Solarrin muttered a word – in another language altogether, one that Alex could not comprehend but still sent shivers down his spine – and looked piercingly at him. He had the strangest sensation then of being measured, as if Solarrin were a meter-reader scanning the dials and gauges of his power.
Whatever he saw gave him pause, and he left off his looming, threatening pose to cross his arms so that his hands slid up his voluminous sleeves. Alex did not find this as comforting a gesture as he was perhaps supposed to; he was envisioning forearm-sheaths and jagged knives.
"[Who are you?]" Solarrin asked again. "You have something of the flavor of the Avantari about you, and yet it is not entirely so. Are you some by-blow of Talus Yor?]"
Not sure what a 'by-blow' was or who Talus Yor was either, for that matter, Alex didn't answer. He had no idea where to go from here, thinking that at least he was buying some time for Tom and the rest to get to safety, send help. Though what good it would do was beyond him … Oberon might have backed down when Elisa shoved a pistol in his face, but he got no such sense of fae vulnerability from Solarrin.
"[No,]" Solarrin decided. "[Even if he discards his women carelessly when he's done with them, he wouldn't permit an Avantari-powered child to run about untended.]"
"[Hear me,]" Alex said. "[You are not in your world anymore. Look around you.]"
Solarrin did, and a frown furrowed his brow as he saw the dead light bulbs in their metal cages, the graffiti, the newspapers, the rusting carcass of a shopping cart. He looked more closely at Alex himself, who was wearing slacks from Armani Jr., a sweater, and three-hundred-dollar athletic shoes.
"[I have heard of portals through time,]" Solarrin said, not evidencing the unease that Alex had hoped to see. Instead, there was something akin to avarice creeping into his expression. "[But a portal between worlds? Impressive!]"
All of a sudden, Alex was sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that his life was not in danger … and somehow, that made him feel worse. Solarrin's next remark confirmed it.
"[Forget the thief, then. I have no more interest in him. You, however …]"
"Hold it right there, whoever you are!"
"Elisa, stay back!" Alex cried.
The raggedy kid cringed away from the sharp voice of the law, and Alex recalled how ill-at-ease Cat had been around Elisa, probably for much the same reason.
"Alex, what's going on? Is this one of your tricks?"
"It started out that way, but …"
"[This is none of your concern, woman!]" snapped Solarrin. "[The boy is mine! Now, hold, if you value your meager life.]"
They might not have been able to understand the words, but there was no mistaking the tone. Talon strode into view, his fur puffed out to make him look half again his size, and crackles of static electricity ran down his arms to wreath his hands in blue-white force.
"Nobody talks to my sister that way," he said darkly.
"[What shaper-mage mischief is this?]" Solarrin asked. "[A winged pantera-man? Those crazed elves never can leave well enough alone … though I suppose I do owe them some credit for creating this body's race.]"
"[Just go back the way you came,]" Alex said. "[Back to your own world.]"
Elisa was at his side, gun leveled. She shot him a glare. "You'd better have a good explanation for this, mister!"
"[I weary of this,]" Solarrin said. "[Come, young mage. We have much to do. Wars don't start themselves, you know.]"
"[I'm not going anywhere with you.]"
"[I have uses for your power. With it added to mine, the Northlands shall fall like a straw castle in a high wind, and all the lands shall follow. It is not a choice. You are strong, I grant you that, but I am more than a match for you.]"
"[Wanna bet?]" The words were out before he could stop them.
"[You amuse me, but as I said, I am weary of this. I could challenge you, beat you down, but what would that serve? When instead, I could seize the lives of these mortals and crush them in my hands?]"
He reached out, one hand each toward Talon and Elisa, and his fingers curled in an ugly, clawing gesture. Red-black bands of energy spooled out like spectral tentacles and wrapped them both. Their screams of pain were the most terrible things Alexander had ever heard.
Screaming notwithstanding, Elisa opened fire. The gunshots were enormous whipcrack thunder in the enclosed space, deafening. At such close range, she shouldn't have been able to miss. Yet miss she did, each bullet zipping past Solarrin with millimeters to spare.
Talon thrust out his fists and twin white glares of lightning shot out. Inches in front of Solarrin's face, they veered one to each side, and went harmlessly past him to leave charred spots on the wall.
His laughter was vicious and hearty. He twisted his wrists, and the bands around Elisa and Talon constricted. Again, their screams pealed forth.
Shielded, Solarrin had to be magically shielded. But Alex had trained extensively with Aiden and knew what to do. Rather than unleash his searing witchbolt directly at Solarrin, he aimed it at the curve of ceiling over that horned head. The cracked concrete gave way, dumping a pile of rubble that drove Solarrin to his knees. The bands of energy dissipated, leaving Elisa and her brother to collapse, gasping.
"[That does it,]" Alex said. "[I'm sending you home, Archmage!]"
Hands clutched at him and Alex almost jumped out of his own skin. It was the boy, the raggedy young thief, clinging to his arm. Distraught eyes met his.
"[Close the portal,]" he begged. "[Before he can return. Please!]"
"[And trap him here? Are you insane?]"
"[If he goes back, my world will pay the price!]"
"[Like mine should? And you'd be trapped here too, you know!]"
Stone grated and groaned, and Solarrin came bursting up from under the mound like some weird version of a gargoyle shedding his skin. Chunks and gravel flew in a pattering hail.
"[You dare?!?]" he roared.
"[Do it,]" urged the boy. "[Hold him here!]"
"[We've got bad guys enough without importing them from other dimensions!]" Alex said, or came as close as he was able since 'dimensions' was not a concept that was easily expressed in Thanian. "[Your world created him, so your world can deal with him!]"
He fanned his hands in a circle, and a whirling vortex of red-gold smoke formed. It spun out, widening. Through the center of it, another tunnel rippled and came into clearer view. It was all of hewn and mortared stone, dark and gloomy. The rim of red-gold grew until it encompassed the entire tunnel. It began to advance, to march toward Alex, and as it did, the tunnel changed from concrete to that hewn stone.
"[Better decide fast,]" Alex said, alarmed at how much this was taking out of him. And here he'd thought it would be easier to do it openly! But then, this wasn't exactly New Olympus; that was at least on Earth! "[You going, or staying?]"

**

Thanis

Zura stood for a long time in front of the door to the cellar. She'd looked back and seen Master Solarrin go through, and he'd never come out. She'd heard the tolling of an hour-bell not too long before he went in, and heard another with still no sign of him.
She had other things she should be doing, other matters she should be attending to. Miss Alinora slept so little these days, rising before the dawn-birds, and she'd be wanting her tea and toast. And poor Zura, who hadn't slept hardly a wink what with running back and forth with laundry and other errands, wasn't sure if she trusted herself to toast bread just now.
What if something had happened to Master Solarrin? As much as she feared him, she had lived half of her young life in awe of him. He'd brought peace to the feuding orc tribes of Castle Selbon, ushered in a new age of prosperity, given the males battles to fight. His generosity toward Zura herself went far beyond that, for he'd made her a lady-in-waiting.
She told herself it was just taking him a while to conduct his search. She told herself that the cellar couldn't be that big; even if Talus Yor did love wine, she'd heard he did most of his drinking at the Lord's Retreat, which boasted an even finer selection. She told herself that Master Solarrin could be down there hurt, maybe dying, while she stood here dithering and wringing her apron. She told herself they'd probably all be better off if he was, and silenced that part of her mind in a right quick hurry.
Without Master Solarrin, what would become of Miss Alinora? What would become of Zura herself? Miss Alinora couldn't see to her own needs, not anymore. Maybe her own people, the elvenfolk, would take her in, but they certainly wouldn't welcome an orcish maidservant. Where would that leave her?
And if Master Solarrin was down there hurt, and she didn't come to his aid, he'd be awfully angry. Most awfully. If, on the other hand, she could help him, he might reward her.
So convincing herself, Zura at last mustered the courage to go to the door, open it, and bring a candle so she could peer into the darkness. She saw wooden racks with their diamond-shaped lattices to hold the stoppered bottles, she saw shadows and bare stone. She did not see Solarrin.
Chewing fitfully on her upper lip with her petite tusks, Zura began going down, one step at a time, into the cellar. A draft fluttered the candle's flame and she looked around, puzzled. A draft? Was there another passage down here?
She found it moments later, the open cistern with its heavy iron cover flat on the floor like the world's largest coin. The opening, a yawing circle like a throat, was the source of the draft.
Zura moved toward it, meaning to peer down although she couldn't for the life of her imagine what Master Solarrin would be doing down there. Or that he'd even fit.
Just as she reached it, a hand came up and clamped the edge. Zura screeched and stumbled backward, not quite dropping the candle but splattering molten wax all over her wrist.
A bellowing, echoing cough came from the cistern. Solarrin heaved himself out, drenched and scraped and generally all done in. When his weight thudded to the floor, Zura swore it nearly made the Tower shake.
"Close that blasted thing," he choked out, spitting water.
"Right away, Archmage sir!" Zura hastened to obey, grunting slightly as she lifted and slid the iron lid back into place. "Are you … are you all right, sir?"
His cold, dark eyes bored into her. "For the love of Haarkon, female, do I look all right? Enough with your questions. I'll have mulled wine in my study, and see that there's a fire going. And, Zura? Next time you bring in the laundry, or anything else, I suggest you run a spear into it a few times."

**

Manhattan

Tom Maza handed over the five packs of Technomon cards with a sour grin. "I guess you won, though I still think you cheated."
"All I said was that there was a minotaur down there. Never mentioned how." Alex winked.
"I'm never making a bet with you again." Disgruntled, Tom stomped away and stood next to Dee.
"Good," Elisa said. "He doesn't need the encouragement."
It was morning, though down here in the Labyrinth, they could only tell because Amber and Delilah had turned to stone. Elisa, having planned for this, was carefully loading the little statue into the trunk, padded by sleeping bags.
She moved a bit gingerly. The paralysis-bomb on Dee had worn off in a matter of minutes, but Elisa and Talon were still feeling the effects of Solarrin's spell.
They were all tired, though Sebastian, Orpheus, and Patricia had fallen asleep while waiting for the others to return, and had thus missed the night's festivities. Susan and Jacob were back with their families.
"What about Skeet?" Alex asked. "He's coming with us, right?"
"For now, he has to. You're the only one who can understand him. But you get to tell your parents how you wound up with a juvenile pickpocket from another universe."
"Good luck," scoffed Tom.
"Thanks," Alex said glumly. He looked at Skeet, who was now cleaner than he'd probably been in his entire life and fidgeting uncomfortably inside a too-big pair of jeans and a Yankees t-shirt. "I'm going to need it."

**

Thanis, ten days later

"Byrle! Byrle, come and see, you'll never believe it!"
He didn't want to go and see something he'd never believe. A sweltering blanket of heat lay over the city, a haze to the sky and clouds piled over the Bannerian Mountains offering teasing hope of rain, but the clouds never moved, and the rain fell only on the rocky peaks. Byrle had gotten himself a nice spot in a patch of shade, in the doorway of a closed tinsmith's, and all he wanted was to not move until the evening brought some measure of coolness.
Devins' next words got him to his feet. "It's Skeet, I'll be cursed if it isn't!"
The other boys lingering nearby, with no games of toss or other activities today, ambled over for a look. Byrle pushed through them and climbed up on the crate next to Devins. "It is Skeet … what's he doing there? Doesn't he know whose shop that is?"
"Of course he does," said one of the smaller boys. "'Twas him that told me to stay well away of Mage Leverie's place!"
But, to their shock, Skeet marched right up to the door. It and the walls were painted with a variety of strange symbols and elvish letters, announcing – or warning – anyone with eyes that it was a magician's dwelling.
And Skeet, too, looked different. He was clean, his straw-colored hair trimmed, and if the tunic and trousers he wore weren't new, they were still a far sight better than any worn by the rest of the urchins. He wasn't as thin, either.
"Skeet!" Byrle called. "Skeet, over here!"
He turned, saw them peering over the wall, and came closer but stopped a wary distance away.
"What are you doing?" Devins said. "That's Leverie's shop … he's a wizard! If you try to beg or steal from him, who knows what he'll turn you into!"
"I've nothing to fear from Master Leverie," Skeet said. He dared them with his eyes and his tone. "I'm his apprentice."
"What?" Byrle whacked himself in the side of the head to clear the dottle from his ears. "His what?"
"Apprentice," Skeet said, with a strange little smile. "Some friends taught me a bit about magic before they sent me home. I tell you this, next time I face an Archmage, I'll be ready for it. And next time I face my father, he'll see I've made something of myself after all."
They stared, dumbfounded, and not even Byrle could think of something to say as Skeet returned to the shop and went inside.

**
The End