The Dissidents: Bodwyn's Coffer
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
consent. All other characters property of the author. "The Dissidents" is a spinoff series involving members of the Avalon Clan.
Some violence and language. 14,000 words; November 2000.

#3 in a series.


Tourmaline looked into Corwin's steady eyes and understood that if she did not do something to end this now, he would
make good on his threat and wrest the leadership of this shattered fragment of a clan away from her.
They had been six nights floating in the mist, neither in the outer world nor returning fully to Avalon but staying somewhere in
the fluxspace between. Six nights of letting stone sleep mend their wounds – though Tourmaline's emerald skin would forever be
marred by a circular patch of scar where the horrendous necrivore had bitten a round mouthful of flesh from her. Six nights of
letting their human charges adapt to the upsetting turmoil that had overtaken their lives. Six nights of trying to come to terms with
the loss of Hippolyta, and in that most of all, her dissident clan was not doing so well.
"Enough!" she said sharply, striding between Ezekiel and Icarus. "We have been through this argument again and again, and
there is nothing more to be done. Let this new destination, whatever it is, be as a fresh start for us all. Let us put what has gone
before, behind, and be done with it."
"You'd have us forget Hippolyta?" rumbled Icarus, the frost-white glow of the moon highlighting the cracked scars that scrawled
their way along the side of his head. "Act as if it never happened?"
"No." Tourmaline put her hand on his chest and felt him shrink from her touch, but only a little. "We cannot do that. But we
must learn from our losses and defeats, or else it will have all been for nothing."
Ezekiel scowled, his mottled green skin darkening to night-forest hues. He looked as if he would have liked to swat her hand off
of Icarus, and she knew that she'd have to address this possessive jealousy of his sooner or later. "I still say we shouldn't have brought
the humans along. What good are they?"
"They need our help," Cassius objected. "They have been friends to us, and we owe it them."
"If not for us, they'd be dead now. I say, they owe us!"
"And I say," Tourmaline said, fixing him with a stern and imperious glare, "that for better or worse the humans are with us now, until
we can find a safe place for them to stay."
"You don't mean to maroon them," Corwin said, mildly but with an edge of warning.
Tourmaline sighed and combed her talons through her hair, freeing the long black strands to stream in the wintry wind. "No. But why
else did we bring them, unless to see them to safety?"
"Perchance that'll be where Avalon guides us," Cassius said. "Perhaps that is this place."
The five of them looked toward the shore. When the mists had cleared, they'd found themselves in a mirror-smooth lake, ringed by
gentle hills that glistened pure white beneath a blanket of snow. Majestic trees, denuded of their foliage but bearing fruit of ice, cast
skeletal shadows. There were no other crafts to be seen, but at one side of the lake, the lights of some small human settlement twinkled.
The sky was muffled in clouds, and a crisp yet damp scent to the air made Tourmaline wonder if more snow was on its way. Growing
up in temperate Avalon, they'd known of winter only through the tales told by Princess Katherine and the Magus. Yet there was a
briskness, a freshness, to this cold that appealed to her. An edge, a newness, a reality to the world. For all its harshness, they led sheltered
lives no longer.
"It would help," she said, "if we knew where this place was."
None of the humans – Ron Jessec, his son Toby, and his sister Michelle – had recognized the surroundings. They were below now,
their thin skins no match for the deep chill. It had been summer when they'd met the Jessecs, or at least that was what they'd said it
was … Ron joked weakly that the denizens of his land, the Pacific Northwest, did not so much tan as they did rust. The six nights adrift
in the fluxspace of the mists had translated to nearly six months here in the outer world, and wherever they were was a place where
winter had a firm hold.
Although it still irked her greatly that the humans were aboard, Tourmaline did her best not to show it. Not that she had particularly
anything against humans, pitiful and inferior though they were. These ones were all right, in their way, though it troubled and amused her
by turns the fawn-eyed interest Michelle seemed to show whenever handsome Corwin was in attendance.
The other humans, the ones of the Coalition – those ones, Tourmaline bore ill will aplenty. Her clan's first efforts at battle, and they had
been badly routed, badly hurt. Worst of all, one of their number had been killed.
The piercing pang that went through her as she thought of Hippolyta was no less sharp than it had been on the previous night. Tourmaline
would have given much for a chance to re-say the last things she'd said to her copper-skinned sister. They had not parted on good terms,
and how was she to have known that Hippolyta would have so little time left? She fiercely regretted her words, but now it was too late,
and as leader she couldn't show the weakness of repentance.
It had struck them all a savage blow. More savage than it should have, reminding them once again that their sheltered lives on Avalon
had made them something less than true gargoyles. That had been Jericho's stance, and while Tourmaline had never believed it before, it
made more and more sense the more she came to know of the real world.
Had they been raised by their clan, they would have understood. They would have known the harsh realities of war and death. They
would have seen rookery parents killed, learned to cope and move on. Nothing on peaceful Avalon could have prepared them for this.
But now they were being shown, brutally and in truth's stark light. Hippolyta, fiery daredevil of the ready bow and white-gold braids,
was gone. Icarus had seen her fall, found the spot where she'd landed. By then, all that remained were crumbled bits of stone, already
being washed away by the creek.
Hers had been a valiant death, a hero's death. She had lain waste to the forces of the Coalition, saving all of her brothers with her
marksmanship and courage.
And what had they done?
Had they avenged their sister?
Oh, there had been a fight, yes, and humans had been slaughtered, but only the soldiers. Not the humans who had given the orders. Not
the evil sorcerers that Michelle spoke of, the ones who had opened such a gate between worlds as to admit terrible flesh-eating monsters.
Those humans remained untouched, because the gargoyles had fled.
In defeat and disgrace, their sister left only partly avenged, they had fled.
Back to their vessel, and away into the mists. And like frightened mice the Jessec humans had come with them.
What to do now? Tourmaline pondered that question as she gazed at the strange and beautiful snowscape around her.
Would a true gargoyle have fled, as they'd done? Would great Goliath, on tales of whose bravery they had been raised? No … great
Goliath would have gathered his warriors and stormed the citadel of this Coalition, laying waste all around until not a guilty human was left
standing. Great Goliath would have smashed apart the gateway, and prevented it from ever being used again.
"We should have gone after them," Ezekiel muttered, giving voice to her very thoughts. "If we'd gotten rid of them, we could have left
these other ones where they were, and they wouldn't have been in any more danger."
"We were no match for them." Cassius, normally in a good humor, remained grim. "Their weapons were too strong, and who knew how
many of them there might have been?"
"Cassius is right," Tourmaline admitted grudgingly. "Yet how, then, are we to protect these hu --" she caught Corwin's look and
amended it, "Ron, Michelle, and Toby from them, if they choose to find them?"
"That's the tricky bit," Corwin said. "If what Michelle says is true, and we've no reason to believe it isn't, in a world such as this there's
no way for them to simply move to a new town and pick up the skeins of their woven lives. She says the Coalition can track them by their
very names, by these numbers and cards that seem to make this world go 'round. The only way to protect them may be to keep them with
us … or take them back to Avalon."
"No!" Tourmaline said, more curtly than she'd intended. She softened her tone. "No, brother … this task has been given us, and we
must fulfill it. I'll not be ferrying all of our problems back to Avalon."
His expression was guarded and she suspected he knew her mind better than that. Artifice and deception had never been her tools,
especially with Corwin, who was so perceptive and quick. He saw through her words to what was behind them – they had been gone
only a scant while from Avalon, and she was not about to return there, a failure, with the death of one rookery sibling already on her
conscience.
Very well, let him know the truth … either way, Tourmaline had no intention of bringing them fully home to those magical shores.
"But we cannot keep them with us!" Ezekiel said. "They need to be with their own kind."
"There must be some humans who can help," Icarus said.
Cassius nodded. "The Coalition cannot be so powerful as to rule all the world."
"Then let us go and investigate this village," Tourmaline decided. "Ezekiel and Corwin, come with me. Cassius, Icarus, stay here and
protect the vessel until we return, hopefully with good tidings."
As the three of them glided toward the distant lights, Tourmaline felt the first cold wet flecks against her skin, and looked up to see
motes of snow whirling down from the heavens. She caught some in her outstretched palm and they melted away to water, fresh water
that tasted clean when she touched it to the tip of her tongue.
The lights were the ceaseless glow of electricity, some caught in square windows and others caged as bright globes at the ends of tall,
crooked-over posts. The buildings were for the most part brick and large, rising three or four stories to their peaked roofs and adorned
with scalloped stonework, columns. They were joined by paths that had been scraped clean of snow – though the new fall was already
powdering the walkways – and between them, some of the white expanses were broken by crisscrossing footprints. Several of the buildings
had sculptures in front of them, fanciful things such as winged horses and sailing ships that seemed to have been carved from vast blocks
of ice.
Through windows unblocked by curtains or shutters, Tourmaline caught glimpses of humans. Here were some bent to books, there were
others laughing, here was a vast roomful of them, all seated and staring intently forward as if enspelled.
It looked like no village she would have imagined … where were the shops and farmhouses? She spied one that appeared to be like an
inn, a roundish building from which came the smells of cooking food and the sounds of discordant human music.
Tourmaline beckoned to the others, and they swooped to land atop a high ledge. Nearby, a stone wall covered with dead and frozen
vines surrounded an opulent house that had been allowed to fall into disrepair, and stood dark and brooding as if ghosts walked its silent
halls.
"Well, brothers? Have you any ideas what manner of place this is?" she asked.
Ezekiel shook his head, but Corwin seemed pensive.
"It's no village," Tourmaline added, and was about to say more when a fast-moving shadow caught her eye.
A gargoyle-shape, was gliding on a path that would take him past and below their perch. Tourmaline recognized him at once, and reacted
instantly in a spate of cold fury.
She leapt from the ledge, plummeting with her legs extended and knees locked and wings swept up behind her.
Her heels hit him in the small of the back. He was driven straight down, limbs and tail flailing in surprise, with such force that when he
plowed into a snowdrift, he vanished from sight and left only the outline of himself.
Tourmaline backwinged and touched down gracefully a few feet from the hole, and brushed her hands one against the other in a gesture
of self-satisfaction. Moments later, her astonished brothers landed beside her.
"What by the eggs of our ancestors are you doing?" Corwin demanded.
"He followed us. I should have known."
"Who was that?" Ezekiel asked.
"I'll show you." She plunged her hand in, found a tail, and hauled him out to fling at their feet. "Jacob."
They looked down.
"That's not Jacob," Ezekiel said.
Tourmaline rolled her eyes. "Of course it --"
As she looked down too, she sputtered to a halt. The male gargoyle sprawled in the snow was small like Jacob, web-winged like
Jacob, but olive-green where Jacob was brown, and bald where Jacob had a hedgehog's bristle of hair.
"Who is that?" she barked indignantly.
"A stranger," Corwin said. "And as usual, you've managed to make a wonderful first impression." He pointed to the hole in the
snowdrift.
A cry from above startled them all. "Lexington!"
Another stranger, a grey female with a sweeping crest rising from the top of her head, swooped down and landed atop an ice sculpture
of a sleek panther. She threw her arms over her head, fully extending her webbed wings, and shouted some words in Latin.
A sheeting fan of silver energy issued from the female, and before Tourmaline could even call a warning, they were enveloped. She
was pulled away from her brothers, and ringed in light, dazzling heatless light. When it dimmed, she was in a spherical cage of silvery
honeycomb.
Ezekiel and Corwin were similarly trapped, and though their reflexes were good, they could not break through. Tourmaline's own
efforts – kicking, punching, and clawing – also proved futile.
The grey female raced past them and dropped beside the olive-green male, tenderly lifting his head from the snow and stroking his
face. "Lex? Lex, can you hear me?"
He coughed and his eyelids fluttered. "Wh'appen?"
Cradling him to her nearly nonexistent bosom, the female shot Tourmaline an accusing look. "Gargoyles …"
The word brought him to full alertness as if she'd dashed water on him. "Who? Where?"
"Don't worry. They're not going anywhere."
"Wait," Corwin said. "We meant no harm."
"I saw what she did!" flared the female, and it was almost funny, like watching a kitten arch its back and spit and try to look fierce.
Yes, almost funny, if not for the effortless magic with which she'd entrapped them, Tourmaline could have laughed.
"I mistook him for another," she said, and forced an apology through her proud throat. "I am most grievously sorry."
"Who are you?" The male, Lexington if that was his name, had risen and was staring at them with wary fascination. "Where'd you
come from?"
"The lake," said Ezekiel, and at first Tourmaline was cross with him for being so thick-witted, but then she realized it might be best to
conceal their true origins until they knew who these strangers were.
Further, to make matters more difficult, a crowd of humans was gathering. They were for the most part young and not underfed, bundled
in heavy garments, clouds of their breath wreathing around their heads. They seemed oddly unperturbed by the fact of the gargoyles, but
glowered at Tourmaline and her brothers as if assessing them as possible enemies. Siding, she realized, with the web-winged pair.
"Who are you?" she countered.
"Lex. This is Aiden, my mate." They clasped hands, a gentle and instinctive gesture.
"I am Corwin," he of that name said warmly, with all of the formidable charm at his disposal. "My brother is Ezekiel, and she is Tourmaline
… our leader."
She didn't have long to wonder what it had cost him to get those words out, because no sooner had he said the names than a surprised
recognition filled the eyes of both of them.
"Angela and Elektra mentioned you!" Lex exclaimed. "And Broadway too! You're from Avalon!"
"You know our sisters?" Corwin asked.
"They're our clan!" Aiden said.
"You're of great Goliath's clan?" Ezekiel measured their lack of height with a look of disillusionment.
Lex either didn't see or didn't care, grinning in delight. "Wow! From Avalon! This is great!"
"Well, then … as we're all friends now?" Corwin indicated his spherical prison.
"Oh, gosh! I'm sorry! Sure!" Aiden clapped her hands smartly, and the cages winked out. "I didn't mean … I only thought …"
"We fully understand." Corwin smiled at her so winningly that Tourmaline thought Aiden might melt right down into a hole in the
snow.
"Aiden?" asked one of the young humans. "Is everything okay?"
She became aware of the crowd for the first time, and smiled in embarrassment. "Oh … sorry, everyone … it's fine. They're clan."
And that, incredibly, satisfied the humans and they went on their separate ways, though not without curious and appraising glances
at the newcomer gargoyles. Tourmaline found herself the object of much male attention, which she discouraged with a baring of her
fangs.
And of course Corwin, she noted, drew the eye of nearly every one of the females. It was his mixed curse and blessing to have
such an arrangement of features that somehow touched on ideals of beauty from each of the three races.
The humans dispersed, and only when they were gone did Ezekiel venture to ask, "Who were they, and what is this place?"
"This is the Sterling Academy," Lex said. "A school, a private school. We work here, Aiden and I."
"Work?" Tourmaline's brow ridge rose. "As humans do?"
"Sort of," Aiden amended. "We're not really professors or anything, but Lex is teaching a computer seminar, and I'm assisting
Professor MacDuff with his thaumaturgy class. And tutoring the headmistress' daughter."
Ezekiel was frowning deeply, all of this a bit much for him to grasp. "Your clan does this? Work?"
"Sure," Lex said. "Not all of us, but after the IRS landed on Xanatos for trying to claim half the clan as dependents last year, we
figured we might as well give it a try. And Goliath thought it would be a good idea to get out among them a little more, give them a
chance to get to know us."
"We saw the … article?" Corwin glanced at Tourmaline to see if that was the right word, but she only shrugged.
"In VIP?" Aiden asked.
"Yes … so the humans know about you, and they no longer try to destroy you? That is happy news indeed from what last we
heard! How fares your clan?"
"All right … now," Lex said. "It's been pretty quiet for these past few years, since Devil's Night."
Identical shadows of remembered pain crossed their faces, and they clasped hands again without even seeming aware they were
doing it.
"But what about you?" Aiden asked. Her eyes widened. "Avalon sent you here … why? What's wrong? Is something going to
happen here?"
"We've only just arrived," Corwin said. "We were not even certain where 'here' was, but our brothers will be delighted to make
your acquaintance. As will our human friends, no doubt."
"More gargoyles?" Lex grinned. "Can we meet them?"
"This way!" Corwin swept his arm and wing in a dramatic gesture, and they began walking toward the dark oval mirror of the lake.
Lex paused, tilting his head up at Tourmaline. "By the way, why'd you blindside me?"
"I thought you were Jacob," she said.
"Who's Jacob?"
"He was her mate," Ezekiel answered when Tourmaline hesitated, and moved closer to her with a purposeful air.
"We did not part on the best of terms," she admitted, seeing their curious expressions. "He is constructed as you are, Lex, and I
mistook you for him and acted on impulse. Pray forgive me."
"No prob. He looks like me, like us?" He waved his arms, fluttering the wing membranes.
"Oh, Lex, maybe he's your brother!" Aiden said excitedly.
"We are all brothers and sisters," Ezekiel pointed out. A thought occurred to him and he spoke it with a hint of eagerness. "Is great
Goliath here? Is this your clan's home?"
"No," Aiden said. "He stays in Manhattan, mostly. He and Elisa have their hands full with Amber."
"Another like Elektra, then?" Mai, Beth Maza's Avalonian alter ego, had mentioned her crossbred niece. Tourmaline couldn't hold
back a faint scowl, reminded of all the reasons they'd left home, the bitter argument over Elektra surely foremost among them. The next
cruel words slipped out before she could recall them. "Another barren mule."
Aiden's mouth dropped open in a wounded gasp.
"Sister!" Corwin snapped.
"She is not!" the tiny grey female said, and looked torn between anger and tears. "Her egg is in the rookery right with ours!"
Cutting Tourmaline to ribbons with his eyes, Corwin did his best to undo the damage. "And was it Broadway? Do tell me that it was
good-hearted Broadway who mated and bred our sweet sister!"
"Yep," Lex said. "Hudson says it'll be a male, and they plan to name him Malcolm." He shot Tourmaline a dirty look of his own, and
added in a clipped tone, "After her father."
"I thought she was chasing off after Jericho," Ezekiel said.
It was the wrong thing to say, even Ezekiel could see that. Lex actually snarled, his eyes flickering briefly to white, and Aiden made
a low pained sound, dismay written in large letters on her face.
"What is it?" Corwin asked. "What's become of our brother?"
"He's in Hell where he belongs," Lex said tightly.
"Lex!"
"Come on, Aiden … I know you like to think there's good in everyone, but really, it couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy!
After what he did …"
"What did he do?" inquired Tourmaline, interest piqued. "When last we knew of him, he'd left Avalon with the she-gargoyle who'd
attacked us, but he swore it was because she'd been ensorcelled by the Weird Sisters."
"And that she was his mother," Corwin added.
"Oh, boy, are you guys out of touch," Lex groaned softly.
By then, they had drawn near enough to the moored Mist's Passage to be seen from the deck. Cassius, the red undertones of his ebon
skin barely discernible and the ivory horns studding his brow and framed wings, materialized out of the night like a darker section of it
given its own life.
"What good tidings are these?" he called joyously, his merry voice dispelling the dark ominousness of his appearance. "New friends?"
"Clan," Corwin called back. "These are Lex and Aiden, of Goliath's clan. And this is Cassius, our brother."
"Well met indeed!" Cassius bowed extravagantly.
"They bring much news," Ezekiel said.
"Not all of it good, I take it," Tourmaline put in. "But come, share wine and bread with us, and tell us what has befallen our siblings."
The six of them glided the short distance and settled onto the craft.
"It's a lot bigger than the skiff Goliath told us about," Lex observed.
"A gift from gracious Titania," Corwin said, leading the way below.
A gift from Titania, yes, and thanks to her magic the interior of the Mist's Passage was larger than its outward dimensions. The room into
which they descended was spacious, wing- and tail-room for all. Icarus rose from tending the fire that blazed warmly in a metal brazier,
startled by the arrival of strange gargoyles.
Aiden, Tourmaline decided, was one for whom playing games of chance and bluffing would never be a wise practice – her visible
horror at the sight of Icarus with his landscape of scars and the bound, broken wings jutting up over his shoulders was outweighed only
by her visible pity and sympathy.
Her mate handled himself better, but their reactions made Tourmaline see Icarus again, see past the deformities to which she'd
grown so accustomed over the years. They accepted his inabilities as a matter of course, but it had never crossed her mind to wonder
about him, the pain and rage and shame with which he lived every single night.
The humans were astonished and, especially in Toby's case, delighted by their unexpected visitors, and shocked to hear of where
they were.
"The Sterling Academy?" Ron Jessec repeated. "But that's in New York … how could we come from Puget Sound to the Atlantic?"
"Not even the Atlantic," Lex said. "You're currently floating on Lake Weishaupt."
"It's magic," Ezekiel said with weary patience – it was a rare thing for him to be the one struggling to get another to grasp so simple
a concept. "The magic of Avalon."
"At least we're far from the Coalition," Michelle said. "Not that it does any good to run. They'll find us … or they'll find Mom and
Dad … if they haven't already --"
Tourmaline shook her head. When the mists had closed around them, she'd half expected to be transported to wherever Ron and
Michelle's parents were, thereby bringing two more tiresome humans into their custody.
"We will not let you come to harm," Corwin said, resting a hand on her shoulder.
She turned to him, dark hair whispering over the golden skin of his forearm, and raised such admiring, trusting eyes to him that
Tourmaline had to stifle a groan. "I know you'll protect us, Corwin. I'm just worried. That's all."
"I take it this isn't your first stop, then?" Lex asked.
"If only," Icarus said somberly, sinking to a crouch with the firelight dancing over him. With his slate-grey skin, he seemed almost a
gargoyle that never woke from stone, but had been pitted and worn by years of exposure to the harshest weather and elements."Hippolyta
might then be with us."
"Oh, no," breathed Aiden. "One of your sisters?"
"Yes," Tourmaline said when it didn't seem any of the others were going to. "She died fighting humans."
"I'm so sorry."
A heavy silence of grief mixed with shame fell over them, gargoyles and humans alike. It weighed most on Michelle, burdened by the
knowledge that it had been her life and freedom that cost them Hippolyta, and so she also bore a vast relief at being spared, but great
guilt at feeling that very relief. A touch of that was with each of the males – all keenly aware that it could have been him to die that night.
"But let us speak of happier things," Cassius said with a more forced degree of cheer than his usual wont. He opened the larder,
passing flagons of wine and loaves of Avalon's soft, sweet, chewy bread around to them all. "You have news of our siblings?"
"Not all of it good, I'm afraid," Aiden said.
Haltingly, clearly not wishing to speak ill of the damned, she sketched in for them a brief picture of just what Jericho had become and
what evils he'd done Goliath's clan. She went violet with blushing as she attempted to convey without saying how his relationship with the
one named Demona had been, and concluded with the terrible events involving Angela's egg.
"That was three years ago," Lex said when she had finished. "They're gone for good, all of them, they've got to be."
Tourmaline was speechless and could only stare bleakly at her brothers.
"I knew he hungered for something more than Avalon could offer," Corwin said, "but never suspected he'd be drawn into such corruption,
or that it would run so deep."
"Sister, are you all right?" Cassius asked gently.
"Of course," she said, managing to keep her voice steady. "He's nothing to me now; we settled all of that long before he left Avalon."
"So did he and I," Corwin said, "yet it still pains my heart to hear of this." He exhaled and bowed his head, white hair falling in waves.
"Poor Angela," said Cassius. "How does she fare?"
"Not well," Lex said. "She's almost always in the rookery, practically sitting on her other egg. We've tried to cheer her up, but it's hard
when we all feel like our guts were ripped out that night. It hasn't been easy for any of us, but it's worst for her."
Another silence reigned for a time, each lost in his or her own thoughts. For Tourmaline, it was to recall Jericho, the azure and scarlet
beauty of him as he dove to the hunt or embraced her … the knowing skill of his touch … the fire of his rage when she'd broken with him
to pursue Gabriel.
"Although he wronged your clan greatly," Corwin finally said, "forgive us, for we must mourn him. He was our brother, and well-loved.
And we are … we are oh, so unused to this wretched habit of grieving … all those years we lived in peace, and then to lose so many siblings
in such quick succession … Opal, Onyx and Citrine to the Archmage … bold brave Hippolyta … and now to learn of Jericho!"
"And we've still no word of Gabriel," Ezekiel said. "He could be dead too, for all we know."
"No, Gabriel's alive," Aiden said. "He was with our clan for a while, but is with his parents now."
"Parents?" Icarus asked.
"Sort of." Lex explained the fate of three of Goliath's generation, science and sorcery and robots. While Tourmaline didn't grasp all that
he said, she got the gist of it. "Anyway, once Angela figured out that Goliath and Demona were her parents, she also guessed that Coldstone
and Coldfire were Gabriel's. And Angus'. Which is another story in itself."
Aiden tipped her head to the side and looked at Corwin. "And yours, I wonder? Coldfire has wings like that."
Corwin, still lost in other thoughts, gave it not even the mildest nod of interest. Michelle Jessec, Tourmaline could tell by every line of her
frame, wanted to console him for his loss, comfort him.
"Gabriel was wounded on Devil's Night," Lex went on. "One of his hands was severed, and though he saved it and held it to his wrist at
dawn, it never healed all the way. Maybe seventy percent efficiency. It hit him pretty hard, plus he blamed himself for a lot of the rest of it. For
failing Angela, Jericho, even Ventura. It depressed him, and finally he decided he couldn't stay with the clan anymore."
"He ran away," Tourmaline said. "Again. Thus is Gabriel's habit."
"That's unkind and untrue, sister!" Cassius argued.
"Is it? When tragedy struck us, did he take solace in the support of his clan? No, he fled! The better to wrap himself in his guilt, and not
absolve it by good action!"
"How is that different from what we did?" Icarus asked. "We fled Avalon."
"We did no such thing!" she bristled. "We left Avalon to find our own way in the world. We ran from nothing."
"We ran from the Coalition."
"Hear me now," she said, going to him and bracing her fists on her hips. "I know you would have sooner waged war on them, but to
what end? To the end of all of us … they would have destroyed us, and it would have availed us nothing."
"We let our sister die unavenged!" He stood, towering over her like the crag of a formidable cliff.
"Revenge would not have brought her back."
He turned from her, trembling with the pent-up emotions she wished he would release before they burst him from within. But Icarus, too
long a master of holding back and hiding his feelings, only ground his clenched jaw until it sounded like boulders rolling downhill, and would
say no more.
"This Coalition …" Aiden ventured meekly, "they were responsible?"
Cassius explained as well as he was able, with help from Michelle. They told of the attacks on Ron and Toby, the terrible necrivore
creature that had infected or possessed one of Michelle's colleagues, the threat and ultimatum made to Michelle herself, and the grim battle
that last night in Bellingham.
"I've heard of that outfit," Lex said. "Matt was talking about them."
"So was Miss St. John," Aiden said. "I think I know why Avalon sent you here."
Corwin perked up a bit. "Do you?"
"Well, if I had to think of anyplace where Ron – you really write the Jessica Reynolds books? I just loved Changeling Moon! – and
Michelle would be safe, it'd either be with Mr. Xanatos or here."
"At a school?" Ezekiel said, askance. "Weren't you listening? These humans are armed, deadly, vicious. Teachers are no match for them."
"You haven't met Professor MacDuff," she said with a small smile. "But it wasn't the teachers I was thinking of. This place … well …
it's not just a school."
Lex nodded. "Ever hear of the Illuminati?"
"Sure," said Ron Jessec. "A secret society controlling the world. Conspiracy theories are all the rage, but this one's a perennial favorite,
going back all the way to the founding of America. Or farther, to the Templars. They're supposed to have access to advanced technology
or magic or both, depending on who you listen to. But no one really believes it. Except for the crackpots."
"Hate to break it to you, but you're at Crackpot Central," Lex said. "They're real, and this is their headquarters. Or one of their headquarters,
anyway. I'm not sure about the details."
"They are what this Coalition wants to be, but for different reasons," Aiden said. "As I understand it, the Coalition's a new group, what the
Illuminati might call 'upstarts.' But they're powerful, dangerous upstarts."
"Now, wait," Michelle said. "You can't be telling us that there really is a secret society controlling the government. That's … that's …"
"Like saying that gargoyles are real?" Corwin said.
"See, the big difference is," Aiden went on, warming to her topic, "the Illuminati as a whole really are looking out for the best interests of
the world. It might not seem that way sometimes, but their overall goal is benevolent. Groups like the Coalition are in it for selfish reasons.
Power and control."
"What about the rest of it, then?" Ron asked. "Are we supposed to believe in magic?"
Ezekiel snorted. "Once again, how'd you get here?"
Aiden looked seriously at him. "I believe in magic."
"Show him," Tourmaline said.
The small grey female obediently closed her eyes and murmured soft words of Latin, sweeping her hands in a graceful, arcane gesture. Her
fingers left trails of silver mist that hung in mid-air, strengthening and brightening until a pale eldritch glow more reminiscent of moonlight than
moonlight itself filled the room.
The misty light coalesced and condensed into a second Aiden, a mirror image down to the last detail. As the original stopped and opened
her eyes, so too did the duplicate. It mimicked her every move as she took a few steps, spun on one toe-talon, and raised her arms high
overhead. Another murmured word, and the Aiden-doppleganger lost its shape and flowed smoothly into that of a silver-furred wolf, and then
into a sinuous dragon.
Toby, agog with wonder, reached out. As he touched the tip of the dragon's coiled tail, it dissipated into smoke and wisps of mist, and then
was gone.
"A lovely demonstration," Corwin said.
"Still …" Ron seemed to be struggling, as if someone here had to be the sensible one in the face of all this strangeness, but he was failing
even to convince himself.
"Magic is real," Aiden said. "I'm still a beginner, really, and most of what I'm best at is defensive spells."
"All right, all right," Ron said. "Gargoyles, yes, and magic, and secret societies … but how does this help us? Michelle's right. The Coalition
want her, and they won't stop until they get her working for them. They already tried to kill Toby and me, and threatened our parents. How
can the Illuminati help us, and why would they?"
"I don't know," Lex said. "But it must be why you're here. Why else would Avalon send you?"
"And maybe you can help the Illuminati, too," Aiden said. "They don't like groups like the Coalition, butting in where they don't belong and
giving secret societies a bad name. I bet the Grandmaster would want to hear all about this, so that he could put a stop to it."
"Something does have to be done," Michelle said. She shuddered and drew closer to Corwin as if wishing he'd put an arm around her. "When
I think of Gerald Smythe and what he turned into, what they did to him … all those people dead … they've got to be stopped. Whatever door
they opened has to be kept closed so more of those things can't come through. Those necrivores."
"But assuming the Illuminati are real," Ron persisted doggedly, "how do we know they really are separate from the Coalition? How do we
know they're not working together?"
"From disbelief to paranoia in one easy step." Lex grinned.
"We have a meeting with the Grandmaster tonight," Aiden said. "He wants our help with – uh, with a project. You could come and talk to
him beforehand. I'm sure he wouldn't mind."
"A reasonable idea," Tourmaline said. "But not all of us shall go. Just in case Ron may be right. I shall come and speak with this Grandmaster
myself. And Corwin, if you'd be so kind … I may have need of your diplomacy."
"Wisely done," Cassius commented. "But what of the rest of us?"
"Stay here and protect the humans," she said. "If it does come to pass that these Illuminati and the Coalition are one and the same, they may
seek to capture us and come after you. I doubt that will happen, but we cannot be careless."
"I will accompany you, sister," Corwin said.
"But be careful, promise you'll be careful," Michelle said. "I don't want anyone else getting hurt because of me."
"I am ever careful," he assured her.
"He has to be," teased Cassius. "He doesn't want to ruin his pretty face."
"Let us go," Tourmaline said. "We'll return shortly with word."
She ascended to the deck, with Corwin, Aiden, and Lex following. The snowfall had thickened, large fluffy flakes spinning down from the
dark underbellies of the clouds. The deck and railings were already dusted white with it, and it powdered Tourmaline's hair in a veil.
Aiden, giggling to herself about someone named Rudolph, summoned up a ball of silvery light to help guide their way. She and Lex soared
ahead, darting and playing in a way that made Tourmaline feel very old, although their ages weren't so far disparate. She felt a swift pang of envy
for the two young mates, that despite all their clan had been through, they could still be so happy and carefree together.
As if they had not a worry in the world, as if they knew nothing of what it was to be mateless and with egg and shouldering the responsibilities
of leadership and failure.
The thought surprised her, but it shouldn't have. All of those things were true … and the future pressed down on her like a tangible force,
making her feel old and sour. When was the last time she had frolicked so? When was the last time she had done aerobatic swoops and turns
purely for the pleasure of the wind?
Too, too long ago …
Lex and Aiden glided over the vine-laden stone wall toward the shabby and abandoned opulent house Tourmaline had noticed before. They
touched down on a balcony shielded from view on all sides by the close-packed trunks of tall trees, and moments later she and Corwin joined
them.
"You have to put a stop to it, brother," Tourmaline said, not even aware that she meant to bring it up until the words were out and could not
be recalled. "You can't let this go on."
"Let what go on?" Lex asked.
Corwin, to his credit, didn't try to act ignorant. He rubbed his knuckles along the side of his jaw fitfully, with an abashed look. "I know … but
how do I tell her? I've already tried to explain that she's not my type."
Comprehension brightened Aiden's eyes. "You mean Michelle?"
"She's taken quite a fancy to handsome Corwin," Tourmaline said.
"Well, is that so bad? Goliath and Elisa --"
"It's not that," Corwin said. "I've nothing against humans."
"A mate you left behind on Avalon?" Lex asked.
"No. I had no mate."
"Why?" Aiden asked incredulously, then blushed. "I mean … well …"
"Oh, it's not that I don't appreciate the beauty of my sisters," Corwin said with a mild shrug. "Just as I appreciate the beauty of moonlight
on a waterfall, or a graceful tree framing the stars in its boughs. But while that sort of beauty touches my heart, it does little to stir my loins."
Aiden gaped at him. "You're … you're not. Are you?"
"What?"
"Well, you know …" She looked to Lex for help, floundered. "You know. Gay."
Corwin frowned in puzzlement. "At the moment, I'm not particularly merry …"
"Hoo, boy," Lex said. "Uh, in this part of the world, it means that you prefer males."
"Aha!" He glanced amusedly at Tourmaline. "They have a word for it. You see, sister, it must not be so unusual after all."
"You are?" Aiden said.
"It's, uh, not unusual, yeah," Lex said, "but it's not exactly typical either. The humans make a big deal about it."
"I'm pleased you're not alone in your quirk, brother," Tourmaline said, "but the point remains, you must explain to Michelle before she
embarrasses herself, or you, or all of us."
"I've never embarrassed easily."
"So it's not because she's human … it's because she's a woman? A female?" Aiden asked.
"Yes, precisely," Corwin said. "She is not unattractive in her way, but it simply doesn't appeal to me. Even in the wild impassioned nights
of our clan's youth, when we all romped in pairs or groups of every possible mix, I was only ever truly drawn to my brothers."
"When you all what?" Aiden's chin seemed to be resting in the vicinity of her collarbones.
"Oh, for the Dragon's sake!" said Tourmaline, half exasperated and half laughing. "Did your clan never romp? Did you never indulge in
loveplay with your sisters?"
Aiden backpedaled several steps, until her rump hit the rail of the balcony. "What?!"
"Um, now might not be the best time to bring this up," Lex said, "but … Aiden grew up human."
It was Tourmaline's turn to gasp. "What?!"
"She used her magic to make herself into a gargoyle a few years ago." Lex gave Aiden a loving look, which she missed as she was
still goggling at what Tourmaline had said. "To be with me, so we could be together."
"What a noble and romantic thing!" Corwin said.
"So … so I didn't have a clan, or sisters, until I joined Lex's," Aiden stammered. "So I never … it must have been because you
were on Avalon and things were different there. Because there wasn't ever anything like that going on. Right, Lex?"
He coughed. "Uh … what do you mean exactly, 'ever'?"
"What do you mean, what do I mean?" she squeaked, her breath a whistle in her throat so that she sounded like a mouse. "Ever
ever!"
"Well, you know, when you're young, sometimes you try things … and maybe this isn't really the time to be discussing this," Lex
said in a nervous rush, his olive complexion flushed to a muddy rusty hue.
"Your mate seems about to faint on her feet," Corwin said in concern.
"Human," Tourmaline muttered disdainfully.
"I'm all right," Aiden said. "I just … I just don't want to know, okay?"
"It was a long time ago --"
"Lexington, I said I don't want to know!" She nearly shrieked it, so high and shrill that Tourmaline wouldn't have been surprised
to see bats drop dead from the sky and dogs start bleeding from the ears.
"Be that as it may," Corwin said with his usual unworried ease of manner, "I suppose I should make my stance plain to Michelle.
It's good to know that the humans have an understanding of the concept."
"But that they frown on it," Tourmaline pointed out. "Should her response be any indication."
"Ah." Corwin considered that, gazing thoughtfully into the snowy distance. "Yet it seems not so great a matter to me … why should
it them? We each of us have our differences that define and drive us. As sweet Elektra refrained from all loveplay, or as you, dear
sister, are set aflutter more by a male of status than form --"
"I hardly think that needs be said now, Corwin." She regarded him sourly.
Meanwhile, Aiden had recovered her composure, though remained shaken and looked with some new dubiousness upon her
mate. "We should go in," she said. "I told the Grandmaster we'd be here at midnight, and it's already five-past."
"As you will, gentle lady," Corwin said.
Lex went to the rear wall, where the balcony met up with the bulk of the building. Here there was a pair of doors, their frames of
wood made to look less sturdy than it was, the pewter-tinted glass of their panes apparently cracked but in truth laced throughout
with metal so as to render breakage nearly impossible. At the center were twin handles in the image of leaping winged lions.
When he laid hold of them and turned, rather than opening the doors he caused one of the panes to slide upward with a slight grating
sound,and revealed there beneath was a pattern of buttons, each bearing a number. Above the numbers were four holes arranged so
as to admit the three fingers and thumb of a gargoyle hand.
He tapped at the numbers, then inserted his talons into the holes. A swift pulse of greenish light leaked from around his digits, and
a muted beeping came from the other side of the door. Then, to Tourmaline's surprise, the entire affair drew to the side rather than opening
down the middle.
Within, it was all the more clear that the outward disrepair of the house was done with calculation, so as to make it seem to contain
nothing of value. That was all proved by their first glimpse of the well-appointed sitting room, which gleamed with polished wood and
crystal sculptures. The carpet was deep and plush, rendering their talons silent as they proceeded inside.
Lex closed the door behind them, and only when it was firmly in place did Tourmaline notice that there were no other egresses from
this room. Yet no sooner had she had that thought than did a panel of the wall vanish like illusion, and a man's voice summoned them.
"I'm sorry we're late, Grandmaster," Aiden said, dipping her head respectfully as she entered the next room. "We found --"
"More gargoyles," the man finished as Corwin and Tourmaline came in. He rose from his chair, tugging at the bottom of his burgundy
jacket to smooth it. "Most interesting."
In that instant, Tourmaline was forced to re-evaluate everything she knew about humans and her own perceptions of them. As she
looked on the Grandmaster, she felt a weakness in her knees and a dizziness that she had never imagined might be inspired by a mere
human.
Yet here was power. Here was control. No leader of a clan, this, but a male whose will directed the course of societies, on whose
word the fate of nations depended, on whose whim lives could be elevated or cast down.
He looked unassuming. Striking, yes, with the sheen of his scalp unmarred by a single scar or blemish, with proud features and eyes
that seemed able to penetrate to the very core of one's being. He was tall but not of notable physical prowess, and in the lined countenance
she read a tale of advanced age, but the aura of power and presence surrounded him no less plainly than had he been outlined in a halo
of light.
Tourmaline was deeply thankful in that moment that she'd brought Corwin, who never lacked for the appropriate words. She did not
trust herself to speak just then, for who knew what might have issued from her lips?
"Grandmaster." Corwin bowed. "We are at your service. I am Corwin of Avalon, and this is Tourmaline, my sister."
She managed a nod, managed to keep both upright and dignifiedly silent. Aiden and Lex told an abbreviated version of how they'd
made the acquaintance of her small clan, and mentioned that there was a matter in which they might be beseeching the Grandmaster's aid.
"I'll be pleased to hear you out in a while," he said. "First and foremost, I have a pressing matter to attend to, and have need of Aiden's
spells. While this building is already decently warded, I don't want to take chances."
"I'm happy to help," Aiden assured him.
"Might we be of assistance?" Corwin offered.
The Grandmaster looked him over, and then his gaze moved to Tourmaline. She unconsciously straightened her spine, drew back her
shoulders,flared her wings just a tad, and raised her chin at a confident tilt.
"You might at that," he said. "After all, you come from Avalon, and so I doubt it is coincidence that you are here tonight. Tell me what
you know of your Sleeping King."
"The Magus told us the history," Corwin said. "He was Arthur Pendragon, a king of Britain, mortally wounded by his own bastard
nephew-son and brought to Avalon by four sorceress queens. He slept there until Elisa wakened him to aid us against the Archmage's
attack. He left Avalon shortly before we did, and after that, I know naught of him."
"We haven't heard from him in a few years," Aiden said. "Not since Goliath and Elisa's wedding. He and Griff came to that, but then
went away. To Wales, I think was where they said they were going next, to try and find out what ever happened to Merlin and the scabbard
for his sword."
"What of the four queens?" the Grandmaster asked, as if testing them, and Tourmaline was pleased to be able to answer.
"One of them was of the Third Race, Nimue, who is the only remaining Lady of the Lake. Another was Sebile, the human queen of
Norgales, who returned to your world after ferrying Arthur to Avalon. The third is unknown to me, but the fourth is known to all – Morgana,
called 'the Fay' although she was human."
"Oh, yes," Corwin said. "We've heard much talk of her of late! Lord Oberon still bears a grudge, although the lady has been dead for
centuries."
"She spent much time on Avalon," Tourmaline said, "and was won over by Hecate, a goddess of dark sorcery. Gifted with Hecate's
Wand, she waged such war on Oberon that the magic of Avalon was depleted."
"They say it bent her mind," Corwin went on. "And that with her dying breath, she swore revenge on Oberon and all his kind."
"And she got it," Tourmaline said. "With Avalon nearly scoured bare, Oberon was forced to send his Children out to dwell among
humanity, a punishment of a thousand years' duration."
"I'm glad I gave that thing up," Aiden murmured. "I get into plenty of trouble on my own, thanks, without having the wand that almost
wiped out Avalon."
"But what has this to do with us?" Corwin asked.
"An artifact has recently come into my possession," the Grandmaster said. "It is a coffer which supposedly belonged to a knight named
Bodwyn of Cameliard. Sir Bodwyn was the secret lover of Elyzabel, confidante of Guinevere herself. This put Bodwyn in a position of
accepting a weighty vow from the queen, and she gave him the contents of the coffer to help him carry out the deed."
"What does the coffer contain?" Tourmaline asked.
"That is what we'd very much like to learn. We have tried every scan available to us, magical and otherwise, and cannot discern what is
within. Our only recourse now is to open it."
"But you haven't dared, until now?"
The Grandmaster nodded. "Sir Bodwyn died with his oath unfulfilled, and his death left the coffer cursed. Everyone who has tried to open
it has been killed, slashed to pieces by an invisible weapon against which there has been no successful defense."
"That's where I come in?" Aiden sounded worried, and rightly so.
"What was his vow?"
"According to one legend, it was to undertake the murder of Morgana, to prevent her from revealing what she'd learned about Guinevere's
affair with Launcelot." The Grandmaster sighed and ran a palm across his shining pate. "But according to another version, Bodwyn's vow
was the assassination of Arthur."
"I always thought she loved him," Aiden said. "Maybe not, well, passionately, but loved and respected him. That's what all the histories
say."
"She may have loved him enough to want to spare him the revelation of her infidelity," Tourmaline suggested.
"By having him killed?"
Lex took her hand. "Aiden, it's okay. It was a long time ago." He looked up at the Grandmaster. "But why do you want to open this
thing? What's in it for you?"
"Because its contents are likely to tell us which of the legends is true, for one. For another, because it's entirely possible that there is a
weapon of some sort inside. And because I think it would be best if I did it, rather than Arthur."
"He knows?" Aiden asked.
"He knows of the coffer, and recognized the design on its lock as a symbol used by Guinevere. Had our agents not intervened, he may
well have tried to open it himself. That was something that could not be allowed."
Aiden paled to a fine ash-grey.
"Of course," continued the Grandmaster, "this means that he's now rather annoyed with us, and sees us as having taken something that
belongs, by a circuitous extension, to him."
"Now, wait," protested Lex. "He's our friend too. Why should we help you open this when you stole it from him?"
"We took it to help him," the Grandmaster explained patiently. "Arthur Pendragon, awakened before his time but still of intense interest
to us, is too valuable to risk losing to this curse. Even if he'd survived it and opened the coffer, he might have found evidence within proving
to him that his own wife was trying to have him murdered. That betrayal, even after so many centuries, would have shattered his spirit. We
couldn't afford to take that chance. So, we must open it ourselves and find out once and for all whose life Bodwyn meant to take."
"I guess that makes sense," Aiden said slowly.
"We knew the Sleeping King but little," Corwin said, "but what little we did know of him showed him to be a wise and goodly man. We'd
not want to see any harm come to him either."
"What would you have of us?" Tourmaline asked. "A volunteer to open the coffer and fight this unseen foe?"
"Let us not be too hasty here, sister!"
"Oh, fine talk from the male who threw himself into a volcano to save all creation … whither has flown your generous sense of self-
sacrifice, brother dear?"
"I made that offer in good faith and did not expect to live through it, but that hardly means I was planning to make a habit of such acts,
heroic though they may be."
"I already have a volunteer," the Grandmaster said. "It is my belief that Aiden's magic will be able to deflect or deal with the curse itself."
"Gosh, I hope you're right!" Aiden's tail twitched nervously.
"But, should that prove not to be the case, I charge the rest of you with destroying the coffer. Shall we begin?"
He opened a door onto a short hall, and led them to a windowless room called an elevator, which conveyed them deep beneath the
building to a series of interlocked subterranean vaults and chambers. Some of the furnishings down here were passing familiar to Tourmaline,
putting her in mind of the Magus' tower. She spied many marks upon the walls, Seals and runes of warding and others that she could not
identify.
Remembering what Ron Jessec had so scoffingly said about magic, she had to smile. These Illuminati, whatever else they may be,
commanded a degree of power that was heady and intoxicating, and their Grandmaster was king and archmage rolled into one. Any female
could do far worse than to have a mate such as that!
The lowest and longest corridor led them past shallow recesses of catacombs, where stone caskets rested in eternal repose with the
images of their occupants captured in carved relief on the lids. Aiden sidled closer to Lex, the gulp of her timid swallow audible in the hush.
The air was damp and musty, and limp dangling strands of cobweb threatened to cling to Tourmaline's horns.
At the furthest end of the corridor, no longer beneath the house but buried somewhere under the woods surrounding it, the Grandmaster
ushered them into a star-shaped room. The arms of the star were stubby and rounded, each forming an alcove. The five-sided central portion
of the floor descended in five tiers, stepping down to a pentagon of alabaster and obsidian tile.
Incongruous electric bulbs lit the room, one in each alcove and a five-spoked chandelier hanging above the pentagon. Two of the alcoves
were taken up with machines that Tourmaline could not identify, but that were clearly familiar to Lex. Two others held objects that would have
been right at home in the Magus' study – stacks of leather-bound books, vials of mysterious components, candles in strange shapes and colors.
The last alcove was the one through which they entered.
Another human was here waiting for them. He was a male with the thews of a Viking god and a flowing blond beard to match, but his scalp
was shaven to a scratchy stubble and the inked tattoos climbing his bare arms were images of skulls and chains and wheeled black scaled things
that resembled the result of a union between dragon and machine.
For all his impressive physical prowess, Tourmaline paid him barely a second glance, for there was a thoughtless slack to his features, a
dullness to his eyes. A posture, an attitude, suggesting he was subject in all things to the commanding Grandmaster.
"Gargoyles, huh?" he asked, his voice the rumble of an engine, the snarl of a bear. "Never seen those two before."
"Visitors," the Grandmaster replied. "Tourmaline and Corwin. This fellow is known as Roadhog, our volunteer."
In the center of the room was a rough-hewn stone pedestal, and atop it rested the coffer of which the Grandmaster had spoken. It was
made of wood that had weathered the centuries amazingly well, but the glossy golden-brown was stained with a maroon blotch that spread
over the top and down the sides like a port-wine birthmark. The fittings were gold, with more maroon crusted and grimed into the crevices.
"Is that what I think it is?" Lex asked.
"Sir Bodwyn's blood," confirmed the Grandmaster. "He died in battle, and his last act was to throw himself across the coffer."
"Which was likely the moment the curse came into being," said Corwin.
A lozenge-shape was carved into the front of the coffer, just below the latch. It was painted green with the silhouette of a gowned woman
in white, and Tourmaline recalled vaguely the Magus once mentioning that 'Guinevere' was a name that meant 'white lady.' This, then, was
the symbol that Arthur had recognized.
"What if you're wrong?" Aiden asked, twining her hands together. "What if I can't? Someone could be killed and it'll be my fault."
"You have proven yourself adept enough at your art," the Grandmaster said. "My niece trusts you with the tutelage of her children, so you
should be well able to handle this."
"He's right, Aiden. Don't worry. Like you always say, someone's gotta play defense, and it's what you're best at." Lex gave her an
encouraging smile.
She remained looking doubtful, but took a deep breath and began examining the coffer without quite ever touching it.
"There's magic here, all right," she said, sounding more sure of herself once she was immersed in her work. "It's cold … I can almost see
how cold it is. Hey, wait, that gives me an idea. Didn't Puck have Alex cast a spell once that let Hudson see things that were invisible?"
"Yeah!" Lex said. "I remember that … that was when the incubus was after Elisa!"
Aiden spread her hands in front of her face, the thumbs and forefingers touching their opposite number, the rest of her fingers fanned stiffly
out. "Unseen be seen, unheard be heard," she intoned, and then said what Tourmaline presumed was the same thing in Latin.
A peculiar blink flashed through the room, leaving all of them momentarily disoriented. As Tourmaline shook her head to clear it, she saw
something that made her eyes widen. An indrawn breath from Corwin a split-second later told her that he saw it too.
Suspended directly over the coffer, hanging point-down, was a sword. A ghostly sword, floating unheld by any hand. Its blade was the dark
silvery grey of hematite, and the edges glinted like razors. The hilt was plainly-formed, but adorned with gems of red and green.
And now that unheard could be heard, they were all aware of a faint keening hum coming from the weapon, the sort of noise to set one's
back teeth on edge.
"Sir Bodwyn's sword," said the Grandmaster. "Never found after his death. Now we see the method of the curse's execution."
"Literally," Lex said under his breath.
Corwin, acting with either boldness or recklessness – two always so closely interwoven – reached gingerly for the hilt of the sword. His hand
passed through it as if it were smoke.
"It must only become substantial when someone tries to open the coffer," said Aiden. She chanted softly and a honeycomb of silver light, a net
of finer mesh than the one she'd used to ensnare the gargoyles, cocooned the sword.
Now, when Corwin stretched forth his hand, it met resistance. His fingers bent back as he pressed on the fragile-looking web, and it did not
give in the slightest. He rapped his knuckle against it, producing a dull knocking sound. "Solid enough," he said, "but will it hold something that
cannot be touched?"
"In case it cannot, we have a second stage planned." The Grandmaster beckoned to Roadhog, and the huge man came obediently forth.
Tourmaline felt once again that entirely unexpected and unwelcome twinge of … of what? Not desire, surely. A hunger, yes, but it couldn't be
a sensual one. Still, it was some form of yearning. Roadhog could have flattened the Grandmaster with a single punch, but he was abject in the
face of the man's utter control and authority.
Aiden began a new chant, and a foggy grey cloud formed over Roadhog's head. A twinkling sterling rain began to fall from it. As it struck
him, the rain transformed into glittering mail that covered him from head to toe and molded itself to his features. The final effect was of a man
made of close-knit chainmail links, as if it had fused with his skin and flesh and clothing. When it was done, Aiden swayed on her feet, but
Lex was there to support her. Wearied, she laid her head against her mate's shoulder.
"There," she said in barely more than a whisper. "That should be impervious to about anything."
"About?" Lex and Corwin queried together.
"Well, short of a nuke or a direct hit by an asteroid, or anything else that would flatten the whole county."
Lex busied himself with the various electronics, recording all that transpired at the request of the Grandmaster. He was as a child with new
toys, exclaiming in delight as he flipped switches and dialed knobs.
Tourmaline tensed as Roadhog approached the coffer, thinking to herself how handy it might be to have had Ezekiel here, with his ironwood
staff. She and Corwin were both of the ilk preferring bare talons to crafted weapons.
The silver-gilt man reached for the latch, and the phantom sword swept through the cocoon that had held it. As it struck his arm, it solidified,
but rebounded from the magical mail without leaving a scratch. Undeterred, it whirled and struck again, a blurry fusillade of blows nearly faster
than the eye could follow.
Roadhog recoiled, but upon realizing that he was unhurt, endured the attack and unlatched the coffer. The moment he began to raise the lid,
the sword quivered and hung motionless in mid-air.
A misty, murky radiance spilled from the open coffer, pouring onto the floor like pale cold smoke and then rising into a column the height and
width of a man. It took on definition, and there before them stood a figure in hauberk and helm. He was all in shades of blue-grey and white. He
was the pallid, ghostly image of a knight whose armor was rent and whose surcoat bore a blackish stain of blood.
"Sir Bodwyn," said the Grandmaster, as one who had suspected this very turn of events but was still surprised to actually behold it.
"Forsooth, mine onus is yet upon me," the specter said, his voice a hollow and grim dirge from within the confines of his helm.
"What did he say?" Lex stage-whispered.
By the perplexed expressions on the others, Tourmaline realized that only she and Corwin understood his archaic speech. That, she
knew, was likely due to Avalon's gift of tongues. It had given Guardian Tom the ability to communicate on his many voyages in search of
great Goliath's clan, had given them effortless ease in speaking to these modern humans, and even allowed them to grasp the meanings of
this ghost-knight.
"His vow still binds him," explained Corwin.
"Long have I tarried, and must needs have mine release, mine rest!" Sir Bodwyn claimed his sword, by far the most real and solid-seeming
thing about him. "Whither is mine foe? No more shall I be denied the completion of my sworn duty!"
"Sir knight," Tourmaline said, a chill sweeping her as she felt his dead eyes find her through the slit in his visor. "What foe do you mean?"
"That most treacherous and vile of witches, Morgana," Bodwyn declared. "While she yet lives, so am I bound."
"Then you are free," Tourmaline said. "It has been many centuries, and Morgana is no more."
Contempt cold as the grave bathed her with a new chill. "Thinkst thou so? Were it verily, I would fain be free!" He turned slowly,
searchingly, and his gaze settled onto the Grandmaster. "Is it thee, o sorceress? Doth that be the mortal cloak in which thy eternal soul hath
hidden itself? Dost thou think to trick me by guising thyself as a man?"
Tourmaline instinctively and unhesitatingly set herself between specter and man even as Corwin translated Bodwyn's words aloud for the
benefit of the rest. Aiden, horror reviving her energies, edged closer.
"I am not Morgana," said the Grandmaster, and though his own speech was foreign to their ears, Bodwyn seemingly understood him well
enough.
The ghost scrutinized him for an endless moment. "Nay … but I charge thee to reveal her, that I might slay her as is mine oath!"
"She died, centuries ago."
"Thou takest me for a fool!" His hollow voice rose to a thunderous shout. "Body to body, mother to daughter, down through the generations
she hath flown like a pestilence! More powerful and less sane with each incarnation! In mine prison, I knew of this … canst thou in truth claim
ignorance?!"
"We are not your enemies," the Grandmaster said, placing a hand on Tourmaline's shoulder to move her slightly aside. Oh, and she could
feel the power coming off of him like heat, a strange and wonderful magic that transcended anything she'd felt even on Avalon.
"'Tis thy family, thy plague!" ranted Bodwyn. "Hast thou no ken of what evil thy blood hath harbored? Finished she must be, 'ere all the
world pays dearly!"
He slashed, the blade whistling. Tourmaline swept the Grandmaster back with one arm and raised the other defensively. She heard Aiden's
shout, and felt a shuddering impact as metal clanged on metal.
A shield graced her arm, sparkling with silvery light like the dances of stars. She did not pause to marvel at this magic, but raked her talons
at Sir Bodwyn.
It was as if she'd plunged her hand into a bank of ice, the cold total and numbing. A vision of surpassing terror overwhelmed her, bringing
a shriek to her lips as she saw herself die, saw herself crumbling away to death-gravel while she was still horribly conscious and aware.
The dread vision passed in a heartbeat, and she recovered with the echo of her own pitiful shriek still ringing in her ears.
The knight's half-corporeal form was disrupted by three smoky clefts torn across his belly. Tendrils of his ectoplasmic substance trailed from
her claws, and dissipated on the air as the wounds drew together and closed.
Roadhog, better late than never, threw himself into the fray. He was still shining with the mage-armor Aiden had encased him in, and Bodwyn's
next blow landed on the juncture of his shoulder and neck without slowing him.
But his violent charge merely carried him through the knight, bursting Sir Bodwyn into splashes and cloudy roils. Roadhog's scream was
piercing and terrible. His run became a headlong fall, and he landed gracelessly at Tourmaline's feet. The mage-armor evaporated, leaving him
as he had been before, save that his eyes were completely filmed with white, and his face was twisted in a mask of agony and fear.
Not even wanting to wonder what vision he'd seen, Tourmaline backed away and used her wide-spread wings to herd the Grandmaster further
from the apparition. "Do not touch him!" she called to the others. "His touch is death!"
Sir Bodwyn's body re-formed itself, making her think of a reflection in a pool that had been disturbed by the dropping of a boulder, reasserting
itself only as the water smoothed.
Lex snatched the stiltlike metal legs that held up one of the cameras and bounded into the pentagon. He thrust the clumsy makeshift weapon
at Bodwyn, but met no resistance and went right through him, almost hitting Tourmaline in the eye.
Aiden screwed up her face in concentration. She pointed at the knight, her hand folded like Toby Jessec's when he mimed gunfire. A brilliant
silver oval shot from the end of her finger and struck Bodwyn's elbow just as he was about to strike. There came a flare of white light and the
sword flew from his grasp as his arm was driven upward.
Corwin leaped to catch it with such deftness that it might have seemed they'd planned it just that way. But by his expression, he expected his
hand to find nothing of solidity, and that was exactly what happened.
"Minions of Morgana!" roared Bodwyn, retrieving it himself. "Thou wouldst turn thy sorcery on me?"
He reached into the coffer and withdrew what Tourmaline first thought was a snake. Then she saw that it was a chain, a short length of thick
links, made of some blue-black metal that hurt the eyes to look upon. He slung it around his neck, and there it stayed, though she'd been braced
for the awful clank of it falling to the alabaster floor.
"Oh, no," Aiden said softly. She lowered her arms and bit at her lip. "Lex. Problem."
"What?"
"That chain. It's … I can't remember the exact word, but --"
"Thou knowst the color, then, of thy doom. Thy powers are useless against me now, thou inhuman witch!"
"Is that true?" Corwin asked from the corner of his mouth. "Your powers are useless against him?"
Aiden's crest bobbed in a woeful nod.
"Is this to say that magic cannot touch him, nor can we?" Tourmaline weighed her chances of grabbing the chain, but the very idea of
touching the knight again made her nearly faint with a shaming fear.
"Exactly," Aiden said miserably. "He can walk through my wards like they weren't even there, and there's nothing we can do to stop him."
"Thou art fortunate that mine oath has naught to do with thee," Bodwyn said, burying his belligerence beneath a thin layer of composure. "Now
stay thee back, and I shall be on mine way."
He moved to pick up the coffer, but it was not there. The spectral knight whirled, and there stood the Grandmaster with the coffer in his
possession.
"I'm sorry, but I cannot allow that," the Grandmaster said.
"Why not?" Lex asked. "He's one of the good guys, right? Morgana was one of the most evil sorceresses of all time, and if she's out there
somewhere, why should we get in the way of him stopping her?"
"Lex, no!" Aiden cried, aghast. "I get it! He said it was in the Grandmaster's family!"
He gasped in a comprehension that eluded Tourmaline, but all that mattered to her was that the furious Bodwyn was advancing on the unarmed
Grandmaster.
The fear was there, rampaging through her veins, but she scythed her claws into Bodwyn's neck, felt them grate and snag on something that
was not bone. The cold numbness engulfed her hand, raced up her arm. She saw herself falling as Hippolyta had done, falling with wings buffeted
uselessly around her, the unforgiving earth rushing up like a hungry beast, felt the mortal crash of her landing and the moribund weight of her
stiffening flesh.
Her effort did not stop, or even slow him. As she fell – this time in reality as well as in the vision, she heard his war cry. The Grandmaster threw
the coffer over Bodwyn's head and a frivolous hatchling memory came to Tourmaline of herself and Jericho meanly teasing quiet Thisbe by tossing
her beloved blanket back and forth out of their smaller sister's reach.
"Destroy it!" he ordered.
A bare instant later, Bodwyn's sword sheared into the Grandmaster's side.
From where she lay, unable to move, Tourmaline saw the coffer smack securely into Corwin's hands. He dashed it against the wall with all his
strength, and the old wood split in a jagged crack along the lid.
Lex scrambled to help him, and they dug their talons into the crack. Between them, muscles and wiry sinews flexing, they pulled it wider. Wood
squalled and creaked horrendously.
Bodwyn screamed and contorted, sorely hurt but not finished yet. He charged at Corwin and Lex, lifted his sword for a ruthless decapitating
strike …
… and a sheet of silvery force sprang up in his path. The sword rebounded and cleaved off Bodwyn's own arm as if he were as tangible as
any man.
The males wrenched the coffer apart in a shower of chips and splinters and what looked to be ancient fragments of paper. A sickly grey dust
puffed out. The wood, which had remained in good condition for so many centuries, blackened and turned spongy with rot and woodlice. Tarnished
flecks of gold came loose from the fittings.
The knight screamed again, but the sound receded from them as if he were being drawn swiftly away down a long, long tunnel. As it faded, so
did he. Fainter and fainter and finally gone, only the sword clattering to the floor.
Tourmaline faded away too, for a little while.
When she opened her eyes, somewhat amazed to find herself still among the living, she found that she was back in the upstairs study rather
than the underground chamber, resting on a leather couch.
Aiden was peering worriedly down at her. "Are you all right?"
"You warded them. I thought you said such would be useless."
"It would have been," Aiden agreed, "if you hadn't gotten the chain away from him."
Startled, Tourmaline turned her head and looked the length of her outstretched arm. Tangled around her fingers and clenched hard in her fist
was the blue-black chain.
"You wouldn't let go of it," Aiden said. "Or else I could have used my magic to rouse you. But not even Corwin could get you to let go."
"The Grandmaster?"
"He's fine." Aiden looked as relieved as Tourmaline felt. "He … uh … heals pretty quick."
Tourmaline struggled to sit up and finally made it. "I owe you an apology, Aiden. I had been well on the way to dismissing you as a poor excuse
for a gargoyle, even before I learned that you were once human. I regret those unkind thoughts. You protect as well as any of us … better, even."
"As diplomatically put as ever, I see," Corwin chuckled. "And look at you, sister … napping while the rest of us do all the work."
She got up, a trifle unsteady but capable enough to shoot him a mock-glare. "And what work have you been doing, brother?"
He buffed his talons against his chest. "Merely negotiating the terms by which our friends the Jessecs will be taken into sanctuary here."
"The school can always use new teachers," Lex said. "And they'll be safe here from those Coalition people."
"Was our service so great as to earn this boon?" she wondered.
"Without your help, we probably all would have died down there," Aiden said frankly. "That man, Roadhog, might never recover. Whatever
Sir Bodwyn did to him stripped his mind blank."
"And it also saved the lives of the Grandmaster's niece and her daughter," Lex said. "Bodwyn would have gone after them next, thinking one
of them had to be Morgana."
"Are they?" Tourmaline asked.
The young mates exchanged a glance, and Aiden pursed her lips. "Well, I don't know … maybe, I guess. Patricia was born with more magic
than I'll ever have, but I always thought it was because of who her father was."
"Merlin?" said Corwin, only half-jesting.
"No, Owen Burnett," Lex said. "Puck's human form."
"It does make me feel weird," Aiden confessed. "Especially because she's going to get Hecate's Wand when she grows up. That thing nearly
destroyed Avalon once."
"What I wonder is this," Corwin said. "If Morgana was indeed enemy to Oberon's folk and will someday be again, why would Avalon send us
here on this mission? Or did we fail somehow? Were we truly meant to help Bodwyn?"
"And kill a six-year-old girl?" Lex shook his head. "I can't believe that. You must have done what you were supposed to do. Patricia's a good
kid, a sweet kid."
"We left Avalon to find our freedom," Tourmaline groused, "yet here we are, being moved about like pieces on a board, for some purpose we
cannot understand. How much of it has to do with our wishes, Corwin? Where is our choice in this?"
"We can step off of the boat at any time. Beyond that, I do not know. But I do know that it's late, and Cassius is doubtless running out of ways
to keep Ezekiel from coming in search of you." Corwin chuckled. "Speaking, as we were some hours ago, of romantic matters that need to be
addressed. If you do not plan to have him for your mate, you'd best tell him soon."
"Go ahead and tell them of our night's adventures," she said. "I will be along shortly."
Corwin's brow ridge went up in amused speculation. "Something still to attend to, sister dear?"
"Only practicing good manners and diplomacy, since you so often chide me about my lack," she said pointedly.
He wasn't fooled for a moment, and told her so with the twinkle in his eye as he turned to slip a companionable arm around the shoulders of
Lex and Aiden. "Come along, friends … let us go and break the good news to Ron and Michelle."
They left by way of the balcony, and Tourmaline would have glared holes in her handsome brother's hide if she could. Taking a deep breath,
she went to the wall that was only illusion, and it vanished beneath the brush of her hand. Of course it did; she yet held the chain.
It was as if the events of the past few hours had never taken place. The windowless room was as she remembered, down to the lionfish drifting
in its spherical glass bubble in the wall. If the burgundy jacket the Grandmaster wore was the same one, it had been mended and cleaned; if it was
another, it was identical to the first.
"Tourmaline," he acknowledged. "Tea? It's Earl Gray."
One thing was different – Sir Bodwyn's sword, all that remained after the knight's departure, rested on the desk.
"No, thank you, Grandmaster." Now that she was here before him, here alone with him, she did not know what it was that she meant to say.
This was nothing like Avalon, he was nothing like her rookery brothers, and she had no idea what she was doing. She looked down at the chain
looped around her talons, and deposited it on the desk with a heavy clink of metal. "This is yours, I believe."
"You were of great help to me tonight," he said. "I'm obligated to repay."
"You already have," she said. "Corwin told me of your generous offer to care for our human friends."
"That was his repayment."
"You needn't --"
He waved a hand negligently. "Oh, I know, but I like to keep things balanced. If your clan is looking for a home as well, you'd certainly be
welcome here."
"Someday, we may do that, but for now it is too soon to accept. My brothers are not ready to stop our journeys, even if I might be. Each of
us came on this quest for reasons of our own, and we must play it out, like it or not, as Avalon has written it for us."
"I understand."
He came closer to her, and for the first time since she'd blossomed from hatchling into young female, Tourmaline felt skittish and shy. But his
intent was not to embrace her … he affixed something to her halter so quickly and adroitly that she never felt the brush of his fingers.
When she looked down, she saw a gold pin gleaming against the cloth. It was in the shape of a triangle, and set with a milky jewel of banded
white and blue that gave the impression of a watchful eye.
"You have earned the favor of the Illuminati," the Grandmaster said solemnly. "This token will show that, and find you allies and aid you might
never have suspected."
"Thank you," she said uncertainly, touching the pin.
"And on behalf of myself and my family, will you accept this in gratitude?" He held up the sword, its hematite shine brilliant. "You'll make better
use of it than I would."
She took it, and the hilt felt right and purposeful in her grip. "Grandmaster …"
He smiled. "I think that's enough for one night, don't you?"
"But we'll meet again?" She couldn't keep the eagerness from her voice.
"I'd be sure of it."
It would have to do. With a brief, almost curt nod of her head, Tourmaline returned to the illusion-wall and passed through, and moments later
was on the balcony. She breathed deeply of the damp, frosty air and spread her wings to the winter night, finally and truly feeling like the leader
she'd always wished herself to be.

**
The End



November 2000 Christine Morgan