The Dissidents: Daughter of the Sun
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. All other characters belong to the author, except for actual persons whose names are used in a fictitious context.
Some strong language and violence. 22,000 words. May/June 2001

#4 in a series.



March, 2004

Pickworth Hollister was nervous and trying not to show it. Being afraid was bad enough, but letting Henry see his fear, that would be far worse.
He could already hear his brother's mocking tones. "Aww, look, Picky is scared!" It had shamed him when he was a boy of eight; twenty years later, it would be unbearable. Especially because there was really nothing to be afraid of. He was letting all those movies get to him.
Everyone knew the ones he meant. The ones in which all of a sudden the earth opens up and teeming hordes of bugs come out, or someone steps around corner and is suddenly snatched by a decaying, dried hand partially swathed in bandages.
But, as Henry so often said, this was real life, not a movie. This was archeology. Or, more to the point, it was treasure-hunting. Tomb robbing, not to put too fine a point on it.
Under daylight, the place might not have looked so creepy. Sunlight would have lent a dusty, warm glow to the ruins, perhaps picking out a few flecks of color on painted pillars, perhaps gleaming on undiscovered gold. Even firelight, or lantern-light. This eerie green, as viewed through the nightvision visors Henry insisted they wear, made it seem like they were underwater. Or on another planet. Or underwater on another planet. Like a moon of Neptune.
The trouble with torches or lanterns, or even flashlights, was that it might have revealed them to the wrong eyes. Light carried a long way over the desert sands at night. Normally, this wouldn't have been a problem, because Akhetsu was remote, far from anyplace inhabited or frequented by tourists. Henry had been counting on that when he'd planned this trip.
He hadn't figured on the television people. First the ones from Survivor VI: Valley of the Kings – a misnomer if there ever was one; the Valley of the Kings was dozens of miles from here. They'd set up a base camp for the production crew, complete with a bar, while two groups of idiots starved and backstabbed each other for forty-five days. Henry had hoped it would end early when one of the contestants got mauled half to death by a croc, but apparently even a gory maiming wasn't enough to make those ghouls and ratings-whores pack up and go home.
Now that they were gone, another bunch had set up in their place, even using the same camp. This one, according to one of the locals that knew someone who delivered supplies, was a smaller team, scouting locations for some other show. A comedy, a historical action spoof, it seemed.
Pickworth didn't care. He never watched television anyway. Not since they started televising executions and running game shows like Torture Chamber, in which people earned prizes by doing time on the rack, or in thumbscrews. They called this entertainment?
Henry did care, but only because it interfered with his plans. He didn't want to be seen prowling the ruins, because the moment word got out about his find, the place would be crawling with legitimate Egyptologists. They'd want to catalog everything, analyze it, and then shove it in a museum where no one would ever see it except bored kids dragged on educational outings by their parents. Not much profit to be made in that.
But after already waiting more than three months, Henry's thin patience was wearing through. He'd gotten in touch with one of his friends – if such was the right word for the nutcases in the Reich 2000 – and obtained the nightvision visors. That way, they could go in under cover of darkness with no chance of being spotted.
And so, here they were. Henry, his thick-necked American buddy Joe to carry the tools, and Pickworth bringing up the rear.
Akhetsu hadn't been discovered before for a few reasons. One was its location, nestled in some inhospitable cliffs. A tributary of the Nile had once flowed in a violent cataract nearby, making access to the town difficult. The inhabitants would have used posts and ropes to make it easier and safer to scale the narrow ledges. Now the river was sluggish, little more than a brown rill, and the ledges were weathered and all the more precarious.
Just the memory of that ascent was enough to make Pickworth break out in a cold sweat. He'd been sure he was going to lose his footing. In the olden days, he would have been carried away by the churning river and smashed to bits, or drowned. He wouldn't be so lucky now. The fall wouldn't be guaranteed far enough to kill him, and the muddy ground beneath would cushion his landing. He'd break some bones, and then die a slow, miserable death.
No … Henry wouldn't let that happen … he'd put a bullet in Pickworth's brain and bury him fast, before his agonized screams could draw the wrong sort of attention.
He hadn't fallen, though. He'd made it to the opening in the cliffs that led into the town of Akhetsu, or what was left of it. Another reason it had gone undiscovered for so long was because it had been largely covered by sand. The capricious winds that had buried it over hundreds of years had changed their minds and uncovered it.
There still wasn't much left. There was no pyramid here, no pharaoh's palace. The only works of stone that had lasted the eons, in varying degrees of intactness, were some pillars, some statues, a few hieroglyph-covered walls, and the temple itself.
That last had more to do with the fact that the temple was dug into the cliffside, like a tomb, rather than be a free-standing structure on its own. A slanted stairwell of a design familiar to any student of Egypt led down to a doorway, while above it, a wall covered with carvings and a row of twenty-foot-tall statues rose in a prominent façade. Those statues, being the most exposed to the whim of the weather, had suffered greatly and were impossible to identify without closer inspection. Whether pharaohs, queens, or gods, Pickworth couldn't be sure.
With the temple, his goal, finally in sight, Henry took a perverse pleasure in examining everything else first. He pored, he lingered, over the double row of short pillars that had flanked the main avenue heading through the town.
At one time, statues of a Whitman's Sampler of the Egyptian gods would have looked down on passers-by. Now, only a few remained complete. Pickworth identified hawk-headed Horus, motherly Hathor, and sleek Bast among them. He was drawn to the inscriptions, wanting nothing more than to linger … well, all right, he would have preferred to examine them in the well-lighted security of his study, with a cup of hot tea at his elbow and the trappings of civilization all around. He'd never been much of a one for field work.
"Step lively, Picky!" Henry called back. "Lag behind, and you'll be left behind, that's what I say."
"Don't call me that, you know I hate it when you call me that!"
Henry and Joe laughed. In the strange world of the nightvision visor, which took all available light – nothing but starlight in this case – and magnified it and turned lighter hues green, they looked like trolls.
He wished he could go back in time and ask his mother, as she was getting ready to give birth, why she had chosen to name him Pickworth. It wasn't as if there was some doddering old squire of a great-uncle that would leave him a whopping big inheritance because of it. Instead, all she'd accomplished was to tag him with a moniker that would damn him for all of his life.
Thinking about that at least helped to take his mind off his growing edginess. He would have expected to feel more at ease now that they were protected from view on all sides by the steep walls of the valley, but the sense of isolation only added to his jumpiness.
The temple was at the far end (of course!) and they had to pass through the entire town to get there (of course!). Pickworth hurried to catch up with Henry and Joe, who had left off their dawdling and now inspected the short, wide flight of stairs. At the top, almost as if set there to guard the descending steps, were two more squat pillars.
The one on the left boasted a somewhat malformed statue of a handmaiden of Isis, head turned to the side and arms outstretched so that the feathered wings underneath were clearly visible. The other one was empty, without even a stump of a foot, just a scattering of gritty chunks on the ground nearby.
"Look!" All of the mocking was gone from Henry's voice now, replaced by a greedy awe. He tore off his visor and struck a match.
His actions distracted Pickworth from his perturbed contemplation of that statue – if they were going to make it in such exquisite detail as to show the individual strokes of each feather, why had they made the other features so monstrous? The claws, the tail? The distortion of the headdress so that it almost looked like it had grown from the head?
But Henry was mounting the steps toward the closed door, the flame in his hand a brilliant emerald blaze that stung Pickworth's eyes. He removed his own visor, blinking until his ocular equilibrium was restored.
The walls leading down to the door were covered in hieroglyphs. That, Pickworth knew, was the reason Henry had brought him. While Henry had spent most of the years of his schooling in the pool halls, Pickworth had gained useless degrees in many dead languages and more active ones. That knowledge would now and finally come in handy. He dug a flashlight from his pocket, and began to play it across the symbols.
"It's a temple to Wadjet, as you thought," he said.
"I know that," replied Henry imperiously. He didn't even glance at the hieroglyphs, his interest fixed elsewhere. "Joe, give us a chisel, would you?"
Pickworth moved to see past Joe's blocky back, and his eyes widened. "Henry, I don't think --"
"Hush it, Picky."
Years of conditioning made him shut his mouth, even though his brain knew better. He had to watch, stomach sliding around like a loose egg fried in oil, as Henry brought the tip of the chisel to the item embedded in the doors.
It was stuck across them like a bar, as if to hold them closed, stuck into a channel that had been carved into the stone. The circle of brightness from his flashlight danced over gold and a green type of gemstone that Pickworth thought might be olivine, or peridot.
The item was a staff, a golden pole with the polished gem, shaped into a snake's head with flared hood, at the top. More hieroglyphs were stamped into the metal.
"Oh, we've got a bit of a pretty here," crooned Henry. "This alone's worth the price of the trip, even counting the weeks we spent waiting for those buggers to bug out."
"Henry, I really think you oughtn't --"
"Save your mewling for Mum." He applied the chisel even more diligently. "And hold that damned torch steady; you're shaking like a schoolgirl."
Pickworth was suddenly seized by a feeling he'd read about countless times but never expected to actually feel. It was too trite, too corny. But he knew it was true – they weren't alone here. They were being watched. Some deadly, malevolent presence was coming closer … closer …
"Got it!" Henry cried, as the staff popped out from its niche into his grasp. He turned, holding it over his head like it was the prize in some athletic competition.
A sudden wind, when the night had been still, gusted past Pickworth. He sensed something large racing close overhead, the wind a downdraft of its terrible passage. He yelped and jumped back, missing his step on the stairs and falling on his back. The beam of his flashlight swept crazily up, catching the briefest glimpse of dark, scaled skin and batlike wings. Then it was jarred from his hand and rolled to illuminate nothing but a blank section of wall.
Joe and Henry shrieked in unison. From his strange position, tilted with his head down and his feet on the stairs, Pickworth saw the whatever-it-was land in front of them. It nearly blended with the night, but he had an impression of a broad, muscular shape standing upright like a man … yet it was no man.
It reached for them. They were caught between it and the door. Henry swung the staff like a weapon, but when the creature made to grab it, recoiled and clutched it to his chest. Pickworth saw his eyes for just a split second, and they were bulging and deranged.
Gunfire broke out as Joe began blasting away with the twin pistols he insisted on wearing through his belt. Pickworth knew that there was more to America than New York, Los Angeles, and Texas-everything-between, so the idea of all Americans as cowboys was cliché. Cliché, but in Joe's case, true. Pickworth was suddenly glad for the guns, although he normally abhorred all violence.
The creature's large body jerked from the impacts, and bled, proof that it was alive and not invulnerable. But neither was it killed. It roared, a sound that froze Pickworth's blood in his veins, and swept Joe aside with one powerful arm. Joe, a big man who had once played professional football, sailed through the air like a stick figure and smashed into a wall. He slid down, groaning, while Henry screamed for help.
Pickworth somehow was standing, not sure when or how that had happened. "Henry!"
A massive, clawed hand, like that which an alligator's might have been had they evolved into men instead of the apes, shot out. It covered Henry's face like a mask and drove his head into the door with terrible force. There was a grisly cracking sound, and Pickworth knew that when bone met stone, something had to give … and it usually wasn't the stone.
In a desperate, dying action, perhaps meaning to save his treasure or perhaps meaning to ensure that his brother went out with him, Henry hurled the staff over the creature's head. The creature snatched for it and missed, and it clattered beside Pickworth.
He grabbed it up without thinking.
"Run, Picky, run!" came his brother's muffled, already fading cry.
Whirling, Pickworth took to his heels. He plunged heedlessly back the way they'd come, although only moments ago he had been making his way with the utmost caution and care. Now, he would almost welcome the bugs, the mummified horror. Those, at least, were known. This other thing, this monster, was beyond all comprehension.
He heard a wet tearing sound, followed by a splattering rain, and did not look back. The images his own imagination provided were perhaps worse than the reality, but he knew that if he saw the reality, he would be blown headlong into the land of madness.
And then it was after him. He heard the thudding as it galloped, no longer on two legs but loping along on all fours.
Pickworth was aware that his hair, beneath his safari helmet, was trying to stand on end. He also imagined he could feel drifts of it falling out as the follicles loosened from sheer fright. That was how hair appeared to go white overnight; the greyer strands were thicker, and held their place.
He also became aware that he was trying to scream but no sound was coming out, or was so high that only dolphins or bats might hear.
Right on him, it was right on him!
Another gunshot split the night. Joe was still alive, having risen like Lazarus and opened fire on the creature again. But it did not break off its pursuit of Pickworth to go after Joe. No, it wanted the staff, it was some sort of temple guardian and it wanted the staff.
Common sense begged him to fling it away, but his hands were not receiving the message. They were clenched so tight it might well have taken the chisel to pry the staff loose from this hold as well.
More gunfire, and a bellow of pain –
Dear God, it was less than a yard away!
And then, just as it lunged, just as it struck Pickworth in the back and brought him down as neatly as football-Joe had ever tackled an opponent, just as its hideous clawed hands settled onto Pickworth's shoulders, a final shot rang out. The creature went rigid. Pickworth felt what seemed like eight blunt daggers pierce his flesh.
Its flesh went heavy and slack, dead weight, crushing him into the sand. Pickworth was pinned, still trying to voice his ultrasonic scream. He was being flattened under a slab of stone, that was what it was like, an enormous slab of stone.
A crackling, grinding noise filled the world. He thought it was the sound of his own bones being ground to powder. Bits of stone, pebbles, came bouncing down over his head, stinging when they hit him. There came a great, coarse exhalation like a sigh. Dust puffed around him.
It was over, and amazingly, he was not dead. He could still move. His mind felt rather like a blimp that had come free of its moorings and was drifting at the whimsy of the wind, but he unsteadily rose and looked around.
A tittering, shrill laugh escaped him. There was no sign of the creature, no sign at all. Just a heap of gravel and dust … and amid it, a curve of shine just barely caught by the backsplash from his flashlight. Pickworth bent and touched it, found it to be some sort of a coin on a cord.
He picked it up and stuffed it into his pocket. As he moved, the wounds in his shoulders prodded at him with lances of white fire. He realized blood was making his khaki shirt dark, sticky.
On jittery legs, he tottered over to Joe and found that the shots that had saved Pickworth's life had been the final act of Joe's. His head had slumped to the side, his eyes staring at the stars as if they held answers that would never be told. The gun had fallen from his grip.
His laughter was lunacy although there was no moon in the sky. He did not go over to survey the remains of his brother, did not try to take the gun. His eyes were vacant, starey. His feet shuffled as he made his way back through the town, dragging the staff with him.

**

Asim Khepri fell to her knees, the backs of her knuckles pressed to her mouth. She could not believe what she was seeing.
"Asim Badru?" she asked, hoping against hope that it wasn't so, that what littered the earth before her was not what it appeared to be.
But what else could it be? His perch was empty, and already the flesh-cleansing scarabs were at work on the bodies of the dead intruders. Tracks in the sand spoke to her of how one had escaped, bearing the sacred Serpent Staff with him.
They had come … men had come. After all this time, men had returned to Akhetsu, but not as promised. Not to lift the onus upon them, end the evil, and make this a place of life once more. They had come to plunder, come to kill.
Worst of all, they had taken the staff. Which meant … which meant …
She could not bear to complete the thought. It was too much to think that she must confront this, and to be doing it alone …
Khepri raised her face to the sun, and wailed her grief. Not only for Badru, but for herself, and for all the world.

**

"Anything you need me to do?" Birdie Yale said.
She was expecting to get turned down, and that was just what happened. Dakota Jones half-turned toward her, settling her battered fedora more securely on her wild chestnut hair. "I think you'd better leave this part to us."
"Gotcha."
Brendan Vandermere looked up from the digital camcorder he was fiddling with. "She means it, Birdie. We're the first people in three thousand years to set foot anywhere near the lost city of Akhetsu, and we have no way of knowing what we'll find. Or how dangerous it could be."
Birdie Yale blew a lock of burgundy-streaked black hair out of her eyes. "Hey, Uncle Brendan, I have seen every movie Brendan Fraser's ever been in. I know the drill. No books of the dead, no bug-shaped jewelry, nada. Trust me."
Unlike the two of them, in their scuffed leather jackets and dust-colored clothes, Birdie was going for comfort in loose linen. There were times when carrying around an extra forty pounds of insulation was a drawback, no matter how much the local guys liked the looks of a gal with some meat on her bones. Not that she was interested. She had a steady guy, sort of. But it was nice to know.
Further, as they squatted over their trays with their little picks and brushes, engaged in what looked like about the most mind-numbingly boring work on the planet, she was parked in the shade, the headphones of a Walkman slung around her neck emitting good rock and roll, a Dean Koontz paperback tented open on one thigh, and a nicely-chilled Pepsi at hand. All in all, it was far too cozy to move, especially out there into the blinding yellow sun.
She found it a little hard to believe that she was in Egypt at all, let alone off on some exploratory deathwish with her erstwhile uncle and his girlfriend. Hard to believe, also, that she was going to be in a TV show. Thanks to good ol' Uncle Brendan! What a sweetie!
He and Dakota had been contacted by Sam Raimi's people, who needed Egyptologist consultants for their new historical action spoof starring Bruce Campbell. Brendan, who really owed Birdie nothing now that he was no longer hitched to the nightmare that was Aunt Margot, happened to mention that he had a niece who was a struggling actress, and how great it would be if she could at least get an audition.
Now, here she was. With a fairly major role as Pharaoh's daughter, and a vacation along the Nile to help them scout locations and clear things with the Egyptian government. It was a dream come true, even if she did have to put up with it being hot and arid – and in March, no less; small wonder that all the explorers ran for cooler climes when summer hit the desert – and these inevitable side-trips to feed Dakota's archeological hunger.
Everything had gone well so far. The production crew of Survivor VI: Valley of the Kings was willing to let the All's Pharaoh team move right into the camp they'd used, and the authentic-looking mural-covered walls and plaster ring of animal-headed god statues that had served as Tribal Council would become part of the palace set.
She just hoped that the bad luck – and accompanying trash-talk about curses – didn't plague their show as well. Even with the public's lust for blood and guts and sex, there was still an audience for silly action adventures. Good thing, too, or she wouldn't have had this job. Might still be back in Manhattan, singing "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," in a very off-off-Broadway show.
Instead, she was here, fanning herself and staying out of the way as Brendan and Dakota crawled eagerly through the dirt, getting all worked up over some shards of pottery. They sifted and dusted and poked and prodded, and Birdie was waiting for the inevitable moment when one of them would trip some devious booby-trap and open up a whirlpool in the sand that would suck them all to a suffocating doom.
They were at a spot that was, according to Dakota, the Oasis of Akhet. Once, the upwelling pool had been the source of six rivers that flowed down a system of canyons to join the Nile. Because of its remote location, Akhet had been used as a site of exile, and there had never been much proper building done here. Those sent to live out the remainder of their lives in this place would have been stuck with tents, or the ever-popular mud hut.
But the most interesting thing, again, according to Dakota, was that somewhere in the surrounding cliffs was the town of Akhetsu, for which archeologists had been searching for most of the century. She hoped to find some clues to its whereabouts starting from here.
Birdie, kicking back in the moderately cooler shadow cast by Dakota's all-terrain motor home, looked around at the uninspiring dunes and tried to imagine what it must have once been like. The oasis itself would have been far bigger; at the moment, it was half the size of an Olympic swimming pool. The water was a drab browny-grey, not the shimmering mirage-blue she would have thought to see. A few palm trees leaned over it, when once there must have been a lush profusion of growth.
The only structure of any note was a broken obelisk that poked up out of the sand looking fairly phallicly obscene. Time and wind had worn away most of the markings on it. It had been sheared off to a flattish plane, and the upper half was mostly buried at its base. Its pointy top would have originally been covered in gold, so it had probably been broken on purpose by someone wanting to strip away the precious metal.
"You guys are going to pass out," Birdie remarked, digging a fresh soda from the ice chest. "This is supposed to be a vacation."
"A working vacation, for us," Dakota said.
"Besides, this is fun," Brendan added. "The thrill of discovery --"
"Ooh, half a clay pot," Birdie teased.
He made a face at her. "The thrill, then, of possibility."
"Uh-huh. The possibility that you're going to dig up some mummy who'll mistake me for his girlfriend. Though come to think, if he looks like the hunk from those movies, post-regeneration, that is, I might not mind."
"I thought you had a boyfriend," Dakota said, gingerly lifting a piece of something from the dirt and blowing on it. "If I can use the term for a man old enough to be your father."
"Old enough to be my father? Honey, you don't know the half of it," snickered Birdie.
"Neither do your parents," Brendan said dryly. "Are you ever going to tell them?"
"Chas knows."
"So you'll tell them your secret when he tells them his, is that it?"
"What do you care, Uncle Brendan? You don't have to put up with them anymore. Lucky you."
"Yes, but I have to put up with you."
She raspberried wetly at him.
"Save moisture," Dakota said, grinning. "But while you're at it, you could get dinner going."
"I see … this is why you brought me. To cook, and clean … I'm starring in Cinderella." She got up, dogearing her place in Phantoms, and stretched. "I'll throw a couple of those frozen French bread pizzas in the oven."
"That's hardly Egyptian," Brendan said. "When in Rome, dear niece."
"We're not in Rome, or even Cairo, and if we were, I could pop down the street to a McDonald's."
Dakota shuddered. "Don't remind me. What's the world coming to? All the places are turning the same. The camel drover in Abydos was wearing Reeboks."
"Progress, baby, progress," Birdie said. "I liked Cairo in a smoggy, crowded, yucky sort of way. Reminded me of L.A."
Now Dakota wasted moisture. "There's something to be said for the old ways."
"So what are you saying? You want me to make flatbread, layer it with mashed dates, and roast a goose stuffed with figs and goose eggs? And put perfumed wax on my head so as it melts, it gives off a nice scent?"
Brendan chuckled and nudged Dakota. "And you thought she wasn't learning anything."
"Yeah, yeah." Birdie glanced at the sun, which was slowly turning into a vast red-orange beach ball as it lowered toward the hazy horizon.
She absently kicked the sand from her shoes as she climbed the folding steps that led into the motor home. It was quite a contraption, this rolling monster of Dakota's. As big as a standard RV, it rested on huge pillowy tires but also had a tanklike tread that could be lowered from the underside. The windows were treated with a heat-defeating paint that was opaque from the outside and tinted from within, keeping the interior cool.
It had a civilized bathroom that they were only supposed to use in emergencies, connected to a tank of water mounted on the roof. The kitchen was slightly larger than the galley of a 767, with a dining nook that could seat four as long as all four were as skinny as Calista Flockheart. There was a tiny bedroom that Brendan and Dakota shared, a curtained-off bunkbed area that was all Birdie's, and a front cockpit with four seats – fancy swivel jobbies, each with cupholders and headphone plug-ins and side compartments for storing stuff.
The rest was taken up with junk. Archeologist junk. Books, tools, crates of samples, a handheld X-ray device that Birdie was sure would give them brain cancer, sonar imaging whosits, carbon dating whatsits … and they liked living this way.
Birdie herself couldn't wait for filming to start so she could have her own posh trailer. With no archeologist junk anywhere to be found. A few souvenirs, okay. Autographed 8x10 of Bruce Campbell, you betcha. But it would be hers, she could unpack instead of living out of her duffel bag, and if she wanted to have a guy over, that would be her business.
She squeezed into the kitchen – even with most of the vehicle's space devoted to it, there were piles of books and notes on the counter, on top of the small fridge, everywhere. Birdie couldn't take two steps without her ample backside running into something, or her ample frontside running into something else, but she'd had practice and got the pizzas from freezer to oven without bruising anything important.
When night came here, it didn't screw around. Once the sun dropped, that was it, hasta la vista baby. The hot air started rising up, up, and away, into the crystal-black of the sky. With no cloud layer to trap it and hold it down, the cold could be almost as deadly as the unrelenting heat of midday.
Not that any of this was going to stop Brendan and Dakota. Birdie figured that, her griping about doing the cooking aside, it was a good thing she was here. Otherwise, they might just go on digging until they dropped from hunger. She had to go out there and damn near pull them away from their work to get them to eat, and once they'd scarfed a pizza apiece, Dakota threw the switch on the exterior-mounted floodlights and they went straight back to it.
"Obsessed," Birdie muttered, taking the dishes in. "You guys are seriously obsessed. I kinda hope you don't find any clues to Akhetsu, or we'll never get back to Cairo."
If they heard her, they ignored her. She did up the dishes – they only had four plates, four bowls, four cups, etc., so there wasn't the luxury of letting them stack up, even if there'd been the room. With that chore out of the way, she changed into sweats and thought about the beach. Bonfires, weenie roasts, making out with some hunk and not even caring that there was sand chafing unmentionable places …
She went back outside and picked up her book. Better to be cold out here – only a few hours ago, she would've sworn she'd never be cool again, and here she was already wishing for the sun to come up – than claustrophobic in the dune-crawler.
The book was good, one of Koontz's older ones (and one of the few that didn't have a dog as a main character) that Birdie hadn't read. She was just getting to a creepy part in which the spunky teen sister of the heroine was being menaced by the reanimated naked body of a lecherous scumbag deputy when she heard a scream and just about knocked her chair over jumping out of it.
Dakota and Brendan had both left off their digging, and were looking at each other as if to ask, "Did you hear something?" Birdie was about to chime in, when the scream came again. It was ragged and hoarse and full of terror, desperation, and insanity.
Funny how you could tell that much just from a scream.
"You did, didn't you?" Birdie accused, only halfway joking. "You raised the dead or something."
"Shh!" they hissed in unison.
It was getting closer, and underlying it was a rustling, whispery sound that unaccountably made Birdie's skin tighten into goosebumps.
"Over there," Brendan said, pointing.
A shadow was rippling down the side of a dune.
"Oh, jeez," Birdie said. It was fine to make wisecracks about Brendan Fraser movies, but if that really was a scuttling mass of scarab beetles bent on devouring her down to a steaming skeleton, she was not going to be happy.
"Let me get the light." Dakota scaled the ladder on the side of the motor home and turned on a spotlight. She swept it in that direction, passing briefly over what looked like the fast-moving figure of a man.
"Go back!" Brendan and Birdie yelled.
She did so, and caught him in the brightness. He was charging along at an all-out run, but seemed to be on the verge of collapsing, driven onward only by total panic. His arms were over his head, holding some sort of long gold stick, and he screamed again, spinning and beating at the ground and resuming his forward motion all without slackening his pace.
"Good lord," Brendan said as they saw what was behind him.
Birdie waited for Dakota to say it, Dakota had to say it, given who she was, or there was something wrong with the smartass sense of humor of the universe. But when it seemed that Dakota wasn't going to say it, Birdie supplied the words herself.
"Snakes! Why does it always have to be snakes?"
"That's not funny!" barked Dakota.
It might not have been funny, but it was snakes. A lot of snakes. A veritable shitload of snakes. A coursing sea of them, a green-black-brown-banded-speckled undulating carpet of them. The leaders kept gaining on the running man, whereupon he would whirl and smack at them with the stick.
He must have seen the lights, because he was making a beeline right for their camp. Bringing a plague of snakes like something out of Exodus. Birdie felt like she was in a dream, a particularly horrific dream, her legs leaden and her feet stuck to the ground, unable to move, staring at the approaching menace.
Dakota, with a stuntwoman agility that Birdie would never be able to master, gripped the tubular rail at the edge of the roof and swung down feet-first through the open door. She emerged seconds later, jacking a shell into her pet shotgun.
"Inside!" she ordered.
Birdie and Brendan turned toward her, toward the door that would offer some sanctuary, and here came another wave of snakes, from the other side of the motor home, parting to go around its wheels. They were headed for the man, but Birdie and Brendan were trapped in the middle.
As the vanguard of this new ophidian army appeared almost right beneath her feet, Dakota cried out in revulsion and shot straight down into their midst. Sand and snakemeat exploded out.
"This way!" Brendan grabbed Birdie's arm and started tugging her away from camp, toward the soupy, silty pond of the oasis. But he had misjudged the speed of the running man, who was only a dozen yards away and closing fast.
He was still screaming, like a train whistle, like a police siren. As he drew abreast of Brendan, he tossed the staff, frantic to be rid of it.
Brendan caught it. Birdie saw the green snake-shaped gem on the end. And then the swarm converged on Brendan. No slouch, he tipped to it right away and yelped, tossing the staff back at the man. Who tossed it to Birdie. Who cussed and batted it back at Brendan.
It was crazy. All three of them were running now, playing a goddam game of Hot Potato with a gold staff while they did.
Dakota's shotgun went off again and again, but the snakes didn't seem to notice or care that big holes were being blown in their number. As tightly packed as they were, she could take out twenty or more at once, but when there were thousands, what was the difference? The next ones in line simply filled in and flowed over.
The other bunch of snakes was cutting off their escape, fixed on the damn staff. Birdie thought about throwing it away, but they couldn't heave it far enough to get out of the path of all the intent serpents.
She spotted the jutting stone of the broken obelisk and had an idea. "Gimme it!"
The stranger, whose legs from the knees down were bloodied and peppered with puncture wounds, obliged immediately. Bites. Snakebites. She had no idea how much poison must be galloping gaily through his bloodstream. It was a miracle he hadn't fallen over dead already.
When the staff smacked into her palms, she booked it for the obelisk. Brendan, seeing what she was doing, made a token protest but was at the same time busy hauling ass for the pond and dragging the stranger with him. They had to plow through a thin river of snakes to do so, both of them crying out as fangs struck home.
That was okay … that was okay … there was a first aid kit in the crawler, and Dakota would be right on it. Birdie just had to worry about saving her own butt.
She reached the obelisk and didn't stop to wonder how she was going to climb holding the staff. There was no room for pondering. No room for remembering how she had always tried to get out of crap like this in P.E. or flatly refused to take gymnastics, not because she couldn't do it but because she was worried about looking funny. Looking funny became a lot less important when the alternative was being overrun by a nasty, slithery tidal wave of snakes.
Juggling the staff and clinging to the rough stone sides of the obelisk, she went up it like a monkey on a stick. Amazing what a system full of pure adrenaline could do. Like lifting a car off a trapped child. She would never know later just how she'd done it, and everybody else had been, understandably, too caught up in their own pocket of scaly hell to take notes.
But she did it, and the next thing she knew, was standing atop the crumbly, uneven top, eight feet off the ground.
The snakes massed around the bottom, wiggling over each other, coiling in frustration. Some reared up like they were about to strike, but the biggest of them could still only get his head three feet up, not enough to reach her. Unless they could spit … there was a happy thought! She squinted and shielded her face with one hand, recalling something about how the venom could only hurt if it got in the eyes or open wounds – had that been from something legit like biology class, or was she thinking of the spitty dinosaurs from Jurassic Park?
None of them spit, so she didn't have to find out the hard way. But there were thousands of snakes, millions, clustered around the base of this damn thing. Seething. The ones at the back continuing to press forward. Like kids at a concert, the sort of concert in which the formerly lucky ones who'd gotten front row sometimes wound up crushed to death.
That was what was happening. The nearest, bottommost snakes were being crushed, their bodies providing a mat for the others. Layer by layer of legless corpses, they would pile up until some of them could reach her. She didn't doubt that there were more than enough to do the job. They'd overwhelm her and carry her down into their midst, like some sort of Dantean torment that she'd rather die of than survive, because to survive meant carrying a total phobic complex around forever.
Dakota, despite her own phobia – one that had probably been handed down to her from her grandpa's knee – was gamely trying to blow away enough snakes to clear a path to Birdie. But she would run out of shells long before they ran out of snakes. Stragglers were still coming in from all points of the compass, homing in on the staff like some sort of twisted version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Brendan and the man, no longer of interest to the reptiles, were emerging wet and muddy from the oasis. The man looked semi-conscious, maybe all that venom and exertion catching up with him; Brendan was half-carrying him.
But here was something new and bad … the obelisk was ancient, not all that secure. Now it had a hundred and (cough-cough) pounds of Birdie standing on top, and a million snakes surging against it, and it was developing a very distinct tilt.
Even if she threw the staff now, she'd still plunge right into the thick of them. All those pairs of fangs just waiting to pierce her skin and pump poison into her.
"This is not a vacation anymore!" she shouted, and scrambled for balance as the obelisk shifted at a quickening angle.

**

Always before on their jaunts, Avalon had brought them to relatively solitary waters, if not necessarily still ones. Thus, to have the mists part and be thrust into the midst of noise, light, and chaos was a jolting experience for them.
The light, foremost the light … it was so bright, harsh, and glaring that Corwin's first thought was that it was day, the radiance of the never-before-seen sun. He was so shocked by this that he froze in place, and was aware of his siblings doing likewise, as if already turning to stone. His eyes watered copiously, and he had to cover them with his hands before the light speared into his very brain and ignited it like tinder.
When he did not immediately feel the stiffening of his limbs and joints, or any other of the cues he acquainted with morning, Corwin began attending to the other parts of the violent barrage of stimuli.
The noise – here were great crashing bangs of a gun, and voices raised in pain and fear. The chaos – as he squinted and blinked, he began to make out blurry details of motion, of human forms dashing hither and yon.
Then, with a squelching splat, the Mists' Passage came to a halt so jarringly that Cassius, at the prow, was catapulted over. He tumbled but got his wings open and glided to a safer height before he could pile face-first into the muck.
"By the Dragon!" gasped Tourmaline, on Corwin's left. Beside her, Ezekiel said nothing, gaping at the scene before them.
Cassius got a better look as he wheeled briefly and alit on the deck. Under the blinding but heatless white light, his skin was deeply black with a reddish undertone, like ink that had been mixed with a few drops of blood.
"Did you see?" he asked, incredulous. "So many snakes …"
"Those humans need our help," Corwin said, but paused before fitting deed to word, and looked to Tourmaline for either approval or denial.
"Come on, then," she said decisively, and tugged the swordbelt that girded her admirably trim waist. The green and red gems along the hilt caught and threw off sparkles of reflected light.
Their craft had run aground on the sandy, wet shore of a pool barely large enough to contain it. Icarus leaped over the side to bound on all fours, his wings as usual securely strapped to his back. The other four of them took to the air.
Ahead of them, some sort of bulky vehicle was the source of the eye-searing light. It was also the source of the gunfire, as a woman in brown clothing and a hat fired and reloaded, fired and reloaded, into the roiling tangle of snakes. A similarly-dressed man was trying to help an injured fellow, and a second woman was perched precariously atop a leaning square-sided pillar of stone. It was listing further before their very eyes.
"Catch her!" Tourmaline cried.
Corwin was closest, and swooped to obey. As he passed over the men, the injured one saw him and began to shriek and flail at his companion. Gibbering, bleats of fright mingling with senseless spates of words – "Don't let it get me! It's come back! Don't let it get me again!" – he tried to fight free. As the other man attempted to calm him, their struggles took them dangerously close to the horde of snakes.
Tourmaline signaled to Ezekiel and Cassius and they followed her down, pulling the two men apart. The injured one was transported with terror, lending him the strength of ten. It took both males to hold him while Tourmaline steadied the other.
The woman on the pillar, a voluptuous if indifferently-clad brunette, slipped. Her cry as she fell was an unladylike outburst of profanity, and cut off short as Corwin caught her in his arms.
Agog, she stared at him, but rather than the shock and fear he was prepared for, a smile of relief and salvation curved her full lips. "You gargoyles," she said, startling him beyond all sense, "have the best timing, I swear, you really do!"
He was unsure how to answer this, so looped about and started back toward the vehicle. But the woman thumped him on the shoulder.
"No! It's this staff, this stupid damn staff, they follow it! Look!"
Corwin looked, and surely enough, the snakes were slithering after him as fast as their coils could propel them across the terrain. Many lay motionless at the base of the pillar, crushed to death by the weight of their companions, and more were twitching the last of their lives away thanks to the woman with the gun, but enough remained to blanket the ground in a wedge-shaped darkness coming after him.
"Then we must be rid of it!" he said.
"Sounds good to me!"
Banking sharply again, he lured the serpents away from the others and out into the trackless desert. In passing, he was stunned by the wide-openness of it, the apparently endless sea of dunes and cliffs and muddy riverbeds. He could not take time to admire the scenery just yet, though.
"They'll stay with the staff?"
She shrugged while he was holding her, a sensation he supposed any of his rookery brothers might have found fascinating even in a human, the flex and jiggle of so much sumptuous flesh moving in so many tantalizing ways. "Hell if I know!"
"We'll just have to hope for the best."
Shifting her into the crook of one arm, he took the staff with his other hand and threw it like a javelin. It sailed off, a descending streak of gold, and stuck upright in a dune, buried half its length. Backwinging, Corwin watched as the horde passed under him, still mindlessly following the staff.
"Whew," the woman said.
He circled and glided back to the camp, where Icarus was setting the limp form of a man on the ground. The other was sitting, having yanked up his trouser cuffs to wince at several pairs of holes peppering his legs. Ezekiel knelt by them, having some experience at matters medical. Tourmaline and Cassius were near the other woman, and Corwin was relieved to see she'd put the gun aside in favor of a white box marked with a red cross.
Landing, he set the dark-haired woman on her feet. She looked him up and down, and then again more lasciviously, and said with a smile, "Do I still have two wishes coming, gorgeous, or did it use up all three to bring you here?"
"I know naught of wishes," he said, returning her grin rather ruefully, "but should warn you … I've seen the look in your eye before, and am afraid I'm doomed to disappoint you."
"What, you don't go for humans?"
"I might …" Corwin said, "if he was the right human."
"He? Oh, for pete's sake … doesn't it just figure?" She laughed. "I guess I'll just be thankful for the rescue, then. I'm Birdie. That's my uncle Brendan and his girlfriend, Dakota. Who are you?"
"Corwin." He gestured to include his siblings. "These are Icarus, Tourmaline, Ezekiel, and Cassius."
"And who's this?" Ezekiel said, prodding at the snakebit man.
"I wish I knew," Brendan said, face taut with pain. "Is he going to live?"
"He's done for," Tourmaline said in the brisk, brusque tones of a warrior. "That many bites would have filled him with enough poison to kill him thrice over."
"I don't think they're all venomous, not all of them." Brendan indicated his calves. "They hurt like the very dickens, but I don't seem to be suffering any other effects."
"If anybody wants a sample, they're waaaay over there," Birdie said, pointing. "But I'm not going back. No thanks."
At that moment, as if to give lie to Brendan's words and confirm Tourmaline's, a hideous rattling breath issued from the unconscious man and he convulsed, and died.
Seeing this, Brendan labored all the more urgently with the first-aid kit that Dakota had fetched from the vehicle, dosing himself with antivenin. The rest of them stood in an awkward silence in the presence of death, until Dakota pushed the tangled, sparse grey hair out of the man's face and frowned.
"Brendan, I think this was Pick Hollister."
"The linguistics expert? What in the world was he doing here? I thought he was a museum-man, not a field-man."
Her scowl deepened. "Where'd that staff go?"
"Good riddance," Birdie said, jerking a thumb over her shoulder. "We ditched it. All the snakes are out there right now like natives brooding around some big stone idol."
"Describe it."
"Jeez, Dakota, it's not like I had time to catalog its features --"
"Describe it, Birdie!"
"Okay, okay, gold, about six feet long, covered with marks, green jewel on the end that looked like a snake."
An incredible expression of excitement, envy, and dread claimed Dakota's features. "The Staff of Wadjet. He found the Staff of Wadjet … the Serpent Staff … that means he found Akhetsu! We're close, Brendan, close, but Henry Hollister must've gotten there first!"
Blank looks greeted this from every direction except Brendan's. "The lost temple!"
Dakota turned to the gargoyles. "Can you tell us more?"
"Us?" Corwin asked skeptically.
Birdie frowned a little. "Yeah, come to think of it, I would have expected you guys to look more … I dunno … more Egyptian. Hawk-headed, jackal-headed like Anubis, maybe. The London clan looked like they stepped right out of a heraldry book."
"Egyptian?" Tourmaline gazed around. "So this is Egypt?"
"Perhaps, buxom lassie," Cassius said genially, "that's because we're not from around here. We're … well, Scottish, I'd say, by way of Avalon."
Once again, Corwin was startled, when all three of the humans reacted with recognition, and pleasure. "Avalon!" the man said. "So you're Elektra's clan?"
"You know Elektra?" Icarus, normally reticent even among friends, was surprised into speaking to these strangers.
"Sure," Birdie said. "And Angela, and Goliath, and Broadway, and everybody. We go way back."
"Some of us more than others," Brendan murmured in an aside. "My early experiences with gargoyles only went as far as cowering in my car and then calling my insurance company."
"Then if you're not from around here, what are you doing here?" Dakota, somewhat crestfallen, asked. "You don't know anything about Akhetsu?"
"Avalon sent them," Brendan said. "To where they were needed, lucky for us."
"I'll say!" said Birdie. "Cut it a little close, though, didn't you? I could have been snakebait."
"What about that staff?" Ezekiel asked. He wielded one himself, of stout ironwood, and reflexively felt to see that it was still secured to his back. "What is it?"
"According to the myth," Dakota said, "the staff was a gift from the cobra-goddess Wadjet to one of her priests. It was supposed to have the power to summon and control reptiles. He must have found it and activated it, but didn't know how to use it."
"Do you?" asked Tourmaline.
"No."
"Well, what good is it, then?"
"There should have been instructions with it, hieroglyphs, detailing its function."
"Then why wouldn't he have known?" wondered Brendan. "You said he was even better at hieratic and demotic scripts than you are."
"If his brother Henry was with him, he might not have had time," she said. "Henry would have grabbed it right up."
"Who's this Henry dude?" Birdie asked.
"A treasure-seeker," Brendan said. "Never bothers with the niceties like, oh, the law, international customs regulations, what-have-you."
"What happened to this man?" Tourmaline asked, looking down at the corpse with a noticeable lack of empathy. "Why did he panic so when he saw us?"
"Hate to break it to you," Birdie said, "but sometimes you can be pretty scary-looking. He freaked, that's all."
Brendan fingered the torn cloth of Pickworth Hollister's shirt. "No, I don't think so. Look at this."
"Those are not snakebites," Ezekiel said. "Those are made by claws. See?" He positioned his own hands, and the marks matched neatly to give the impression that a gargoyle had seized this man by the shoulders from behind. "But they're closed, crusted, at least a day old."
"Then …" Tourmaline couldn't finish.
Cassius could. "There must be other gargoyles here! That's why we've been sent, to find them. And perhaps …" he trailed off, with a wistful look.
"The love of your life is among them," Ezekiel and Corwin said, while Icarus scoffed and Tourmaline rolled her eyes.
"Wait, wait," Dakota said. "Let me think about this."
"About what?" Birdie asked.
"The legend of Akhetsu. What was that …?" She pinched her temples between forefinger and thumb and bowed her head into her hand. "Something about … drat, I can't remember …"
"Hey, what's this?" Brendan held up a coin on a cord he'd found in the man's shirt pocket.
Birdie examined it. "This is an ankh. That's the symbol for life, right? And I don't know what this is on the other side. Some long skinny naked lady bent over on her toes and fingertips."
"That's Nut." Dakota snapped her fingers. "Right! The Sons of Nut and the Daughters of Ra! The nomarch – that's a governor, appointed by Pharaoh – the nomarch of Akhetsu and the priest of Wadjet were deadly enemies. There was some sort of a curse, some danger bad enough to make everyone abandon the town. The nomarch made a pact with the Sons of Nut and the Daughters of Ra to watch over the place until it was safe for the people to return."
"Nut is the goddess of night," Brendan said for the benefit of those who weren't following. "Ra is of course the main incarnation of the sun god."
"The Sons of Nut," Corwin said. "You don't think … gargoyles?"
"To protect the town from the minions of the snake goddess. Cool!" said Birdie. "It adds up. Except who are the Daughters of Ra?"
"We have to find Akhetsu!" Dakota said. "The gargoyles – if there are gargoyles, not to get anyone's hopes up too much – must have tried to stop the Hollisters from looting the temple. But somehow Pickworth got away, with the amulet and the staff."
"Is the amulet magic?" Birdie suddenly looked a little more wary about holding it.
"It has that flavor to it," Corwin said. "According to the Magus, being raised on Avalon gave us something of a sensitivity."
Brendan nodded. "Yes, I remember, Elektra could do that."
"She was the most gifted at it," Tourmaline grudgingly acknowledged. "She was the Magus' pupil."
"We will help you find this hidden city," Cassius said, and failed utterly to disguise his willingness to get started this very minute.
Corwin laughed. "Patience, brother, patience."
"What's this 'love of his life' thing?" Birdie asked.
"If she's not on Avalon, that means she must be on Earth," Cassius explained. "All I need to do is find her."
"You haven't the foggiest idea how big this world is, have you?" sneered Tourmaline. "And you think that you'll find the female of your dreams just like that?"
"It worked for me," Brendan said, smiling warmly at Dakota. "Avalon brought us together … why not unite Cassius and his mate?"
"If it's gonna get mushy around here, I'm going inside," Birdie warned. "It's hard enough just standing here kibitzing around a dead guy."
"Time for mush later," Corwin said. "I agree with Cassius … we will help. Isn't it part of our goal and hope to find other clans? If there are gargoyles here, we must make the effort. From whence did this Pickworth come?"
"Screaming down the hill from thataway," Birdie said. "Before that, who knows?"
"Akhetsu is supposed to be on a river that springs from this oasis," Dakota said. "There used to be six of them, but they've mostly dried up. Still, tracing the watercourses would be a good place to start. You can do it from the air, so that's even better."
"Corwin, Cassius, and I shall begin the search," Tourmaline said. "Ezekiel, Icarus, you'll remain to secure our vessel and look after things here. But for this first pass, we are looking only, looking for signs of this city. I do not want to risk any of us --"
"But if they're gargoyles --"
"Looking only, Cassius," she said sternly. "We can't know if these gargoyles are friendly or hostile, nor can we know if this human's companions escaped. I won't have you getting shot out of the sky."
"No," said Corwin, rubbing at the spot on his chest where he could still keenly remember the bullet he'd taken outside of Ron Jessec's home. "We none of us wish that."
"And do not glide too far," she went on. "A few hours at the most, to give yourselves time to be back here well before dawn."

**

He followed no particular set course, letting luck and instinct guide him over the strangely barren landscape. So this was Egypt … the land from whence hailed Anubis and a host of other gods.
What little Cassius knew of the culture that had sprung up around them was that it centered rather strongly on death, with their rulers going to tremendous pains to make sure that their time in the next world was spent as sumptuously, if not moreso, than their living years.
He recalled other tidbits of information, mostly having to do with the inherent contradiction of the land. Along the great river, the Nile, the soil was bountiful and the harvests considerable. But only a few miles from that artery of life, it was unforgiving desert.
Yet the marks of those ancient people were still holding fast. He spied the distant triangular bulk of pyramids against the stars, felt their mystic pull even from here.
Cassius was brimming with hope and anticipation as he saw an artificial irregularity in the cliffs ahead and knew himself to be in the presence of stone that had been worked by the hands and minds of men. This had to be the lost town of which Dakota had spoken, from which the wounded man had come. It was situated so as to be nearly impossible to find except by seeing it from above.
He glanced over his shoulder, picking out the glow from the humans' camp. The proper thing to do would be to go back, tell them of his discovery. They would want to do whatever it was that they did to such sites, and would be assuredly cross if he disturbed something …
But the siren song of possibilities was too strong for Cassius to withstand. He promised himself he would only take a quick look around, touch nothing, damage nothing, and then wing back to report his findings. Just a quick look. And, if there were other gargoyles here, wouldn't it best to approach them as a solitary envoy rather than come at them en masse?
If Tourmaline could have heard that line of reasoning, she would have unleashed the acidic sharpness of her tongue and temper on him, telling him he was a fool to go blithely in, expecting other gargoyles to be friendly. In this world, in this hostile outside world, they could trust no one. He'd have to be a lackwit to rush right in …
Well, was that not what love did? If this was the place where he would meet the destined love of his heart and soul – and he was sure it must be, even though he saw no signs of habitation or movement as he began his wide, spiraling descent – he could not bear to wait while everyone else debated the best ways to approach.
A closer look at Akhetsu would have dimmed the optimism of anyone but Cassius. As he landed, legs flexing smoothly to absorb the impact, he was tingling with excitement. Part of his mind spoke up and told him that he was working himself up too much, and the greater the expectation, the farther the fall. He was able to shunt aside that inner voice with no great effort.
He looked curiously at the rows of statues, noting the resemblance to some denizens of Avalon. It gave him a chill, in all honesty, to see the broken ones on the ground. Even knowing that they had always been stone, sculpted by careful skill, wasn't enough to get rid of that unpleasant shiver.
A hush, but an expectant hush, lay over the town. Cassius cleared his throat.
"Ahem … hello? Hello, is anyone there?"
No answer came. He listened and heard only the breath of the wind and a faint, scabrous rustling. He moved toward it, noting the walls with their vestiges of paint and the figures they depicted – all seen in profile, humans long of nose and dramatically outlined of eye, holding their arms at awkward-looking angles.
Something was at the base of one of these walls, and now he glimpsed motion. Like that of cloth rippling. He stepped closer, and caught himself a bare moment before his talon came down on the picked-clean bones of an outflung, five-fingered hand. A weapon, a gun, was only inches from the thin ivory twigs of the fingers.
Cassius grimaced and backed up, tracing the spindly arm-bones into the heart of the darkly-rippling mass that was not cloth at all.
Moonlight traced eldritch runes of green and blue in the shiny, glossy carapaces of the insects. They crept busily over the corpse, mandibles plucking away scraps of flesh.
Oh, human death was so messy! What horror, to be at the mercy of carrion-eaters and wet, rancid decay! Far better the clean oblivion of return to the stones and dust!
He found another skeleton, scoured of everything edible. Even the clothing was gone but for that which could not be cut up or devoured – a zipper, some buttons, eyelets that might have come from boots, the buckle of a belt, and so on. This one was sprawled face-down, skull turned to the side and sockets gaping in perpetual, dying surprise.
Unthinkingly backing away from these gruesome remains, Cassius bumped into something solid. He turned, raised his head, and caught his breath in amazement.
She was so lifelike, so beautiful, that for a moment he was sure she was real. But then he saw that she was stone, only a statue, not a live gargoyle at all but a monument to one, perhaps set up in tribute by the same ones that had crafted the images of the gods.
But this one was so much more detailed, so much more lifelike … it was hard for him to believe that any sculptor, no matter how gifted, could so perfectly, flawlessly capture the very essence of a gargoyle.
She was posed not unlike one of the painted human figures from the wall, arms outstretched and head to the side in sharp profile. Yet her form was anything but human.
Cassius' wistful eyes traveled up from splayed talons to high arches, over strongly rounded calves, knee-spurs rayed like the upper half of the sun, pleasingly firm thighs, flared hips, a curve of tail ending in another sunburst spur, the indent of her waist, the rise of a bosom beneath the depiction of a pectoral necklace like a wide collar.
The statue was shown in a gown perhaps meant to be linen, sleeveless and slit high on the sides of the skirt. The wings were of a style unfamiliar to Cassius, extending from the undersides of the statue's slim arms and being made of feathers. Such small wings would never be able to support a gargoyle in flight, he knew, but they were exotically enticing all the same.
At last, his gaze found her face again and lingered there. Like the paintings, her eyes were dramatic and her features proud. Her brow ridge curved down and flattened out to frame her face in the manner of a queenly headdress, even rising above the bridge of her nose into a cute little horn like a cobra, except instead of an extended hood, the pattern was that seen in her knee and tail spurs – a rayed half-sun.
Her hair was shown hanging to her shoulders in a thick, ridged pattern suggestive of masses of many tiny braids. He could not see ears, just the crescents of earrings sticking from beneath the hair. She was muchly adorned in jewelry – the earrings, the pectoral necklace, anklets, bracelets.
"Would that you were real," he whispered. "I've never seen a female so lovely! You could be she, the one for whom I've sought, were you but real!"
He imagined that her hair would be black, as in the paintings. But what would her skin be? Coppery-brown? No … a glorious bronze-gold like that of poor, dear, lost Hippolyta. And against it, the thin, almost sheer, linen of her garment would be like a gauzy cloud crossing the sun. The gold and bands of precious stones on her jewelry would be insignificant compared to her beauty.
By the Dragon … he was in love!
No, that couldn't be. She wasn't real, only an image made from stone. She wasn't about to waken and cast off the shell of her skin and part her lips and breathe.
And yet, looking upon her, he felt a lightening warmth in his heart that he'd never known before. Was this what many of his brothers had felt when the time for youthful rompings had begun to give way to more serious thoughts of taking mates? The sudden surge of longing that did more than embody sensuality, but fostered thoughts of oaths, and eggs, and being bonded one to the other, as one, now and forevermore?
Or was he experiencing now what poor Carnelian did, pining in hopeless love for the fair Lady of the Lake? She who was just as unattainable to Carnelian as this maiden in stone was unattainable to Cassius? That would account for the underlying twinge of sorrow, for down deep where he dared not look too closely, part of him knew just how doomed this infatuation must be.
Cassius reached up, and because of the pillar – the pedestal, not inapt – he could only just touch the downsweep of her brow ridge. He ran a fingertip along the fine-grained stone feathers of her wings and wondered if they would be swan-white, eagle-gold, or banded in many colors.
Where would such a female be sensitive? Her wings did not join her back. Would a mate or lover stroke along the place where feathers merged with skin? Might that correspond? Would the area between her shoulderblades be sensitive all the same?
"You're disturbed," he told himself, removing his hand from the cool, lifeless statue. "Stroking a statue as if it was a living thing."
Disturbed, yes, he admitted it freely. That did not stop him from walking slowly around her, surveying her from every angle. The detail was marvelous, nothing missed. There was even a counterweight on a chain hanging down her back – her supple line of back that segued so enticingly into the base of her tail – to balance the heavy necklace. Her mass of hair had an adornment in the back, a disk clipped to some of the braids. Upon the disk was an emblem of the sun.
What a peculiar symbol to be found on a gargoyle. And yet, somehow, it suited her.
"What is your name?" he asked. "Who are you?"
The statue stood impassive, of course. He would have just as much luck questioning the stone likeness of Horus. This was ludicrous.
Remembering what the human girl, Birdie, had said, he supposed this was what she'd had in mind. Egyptian-looking … certainly, this female was that, even if she did not have the head of a crocodile or cat or jackal. He could easily see gargoyles just such as her, clans of them, guarding the tombs of the pharaohs and alighting on the massive Sphinx. This would be a good place for gargoyles, why not?
Thinking that reminded him of why he'd come here. All this time spend sighing over a false gargoyle when there could well be real ones about … perhaps in hiding, perhaps – and this brought a flush that would not show up against his night-dark complexion – watching him. They'd think he had taken leave of his senses, carrying on as if trying to court a female.
The line of ivory quills that formed his brow ridge contracted in his embarrassment. Cassius forced himself to divert his attention from the statue, and look more diligently for any indications that his kind did live here.
After all, those claw marks had not made themselves. And given the presence of two freshly-denuded skeletons, the companions of the man called Pickworth had died suddenly, possibly violently.
Where, then, were these mysterious gargoyles?
Turning reluctantly away, he began a more purposeful search. Here was another pillar, this one empty … but what were these pieces of stone? Kneeling, Cassius scooped up a handful and confirmed, with a thrill of excitement, that it was nearly identical to the shed skin he and his rookery siblings left behind them each evening. It was their habit to scuff and sweep away the bits, so as not so clutter their roosting sites, but apparently, whoever had been sleeping here hadn't been so bothered.
Moving on, he found some telling marks on the earth. Talon-prints. A trough that might have been dug by a tail sinking into loose dirt for balance.
There were gargoyles here!
Cassius took two steps more before treading on a gritty spill of gravel and realizing with plummeting heart that were, in the past tense, was the operative word in that sentence.
He knelt again and raked his fingers gently through the loose rubble that told him, not through personal prior experience but by what he'd grown up hearing, of the death-spot of a gargoyle.
Grief stabbed him like a knife. He had not even known this gargoyle, and now he never would, and so he grieved for the friendship that might have been.
In his mind, that section of it which was not taken up by emotion, he added up what he'd seen. The wounds on Pickworth's shoulders, wounds from a large spread of fingers. The large tracks. Mixed in with the pebbles and dust, some nuggets of metal. Bullets.
A story began to play out in his mind, and he understood how Pickworth had come to escape. He also understood, with an almost crushing weight of despair, that there hadn't been a clan here at all. Only one, a male, who had died as a gargoyle should. Protecting his home.
Died, but a little too late to prevent one of the invaders from getting away, and stealing the treasure as well.
Cassius wanted to promise this dead brother that he would be avenged, that the treasure would be returned, that the home he had died to defend would be left unmolested. He ached to make the vow, but could not, because he knew that it would not be solely up to him. Their new human friends would not take kindly to the slaying of one of their own, and if he grasped their nature correctly, would be most eager to see this place, explore it.
And, when all was said and done, it didn't really matter now, did it? With the last gargoyle dead, what difference did it make if the humans came and did their digging and their analysis and their work? It might even, in the long run, prove beneficial to both their races. If it could be proven that gargoyles had dwelt alongside humans, dating back thousands of years into a respected era of history, might not that help their cause? Their welcome in this modern world?
Without realizing it, he found he had come back to the statue of the female to stare dreamily, adoringly, at her. Idle dreams and fancies entertained his thoughts – gliding with her, hand in hand, beneath a serene denim-blue sky, the land a dusty golden haze below them, the sun an encompassing paternal embrace …
The what?
The sun?
Blue sky? Daylight?
Cassius shook himself, and with a start saw that he'd been standing here for over an hour. By now, Tourmaline and Corwin would be worried, searching for him. If they found him here, having disobeyed the dictates of the leader, he'd be in trouble for certain.
What in the world had happened to him? For a moment, there, it had seemed so real, as if he truly had been soaring with Khepri and seeing the sands beneath give way to the patchwork green of the Nile farmlands, her skin so warm and alive against his, her laughter like birdsong, the feathers of her wings all in white and red and blue and yellow …
He jumped again, having almost lost himself in that vision. He was breathing fast, and found that his wings with their frame of dark, ivory-studded strut around the membrane of deepest maroon were extended as if to glide.
"Khepri," he said, speaking the name that had come to him, rising surely in his mind.
It wasn't as if he had invented a name for her, more that he had simply discovered the name that had been hers all along. It felt right in his mouth; more, it felt right to his heart. Which was lost. Which was Khepri's now.
"This isn't good, old boy," he said to himself. "This isn't good at all. You mustn't go and become like that fellow the Magus used to tell us of, the Greek who carved a woman out of marble and then fell in love with her. Mayhap Aphrodite granted his plea, but it's not as if there's some gargoyle love-goddess to beseech on this behalf."
But if there had been, oh, if there had been, Cassius would have tried it in a heartbeat. He even thought, for one wild moment, of returning to Avalon to beg for just such a boon. But then he imagined the mirthful, mocking reception his plea might receive, and dismissed the idea.
The stars had continued to wheel in the heavens and he was now dangerously overdue … by now, who knew what Tourmaline might be thinking? She'd expressly forbidden him to do anything besides look, for fear that he'd run afoul of gun-toting humans (which he had, in a way, not that the poor chap was going to be shooting anyone ever again) or unfriendly gargoyles.
She would not be amused to learn that he'd apparently spent hours here like a moonstruck calf, and it was the prospect of her wrath that got Cassius moving when he was sore tempted to go back and look, just one more time, at Khepri.
Instead of giving in, he resolutely set his face away from her and the temple entrance she guarded, and left lost Akhetsu to the custody of the dead.

**

At the considerably-more-crowded camp, all was not peace and harmony. What with Tourmaline's increasingly heated fuming, Birdie Yale did not know how Dakota was able to concentrate on her reading.
Distractions or no, Dakota was managing. She was hunched over a stack of books running her finger along tiny lines of print and muttering to herself, seeming to be reading four at once, flicking through them with eerie speed as she searched for references to the Staff of Wadjet, the Sons of Nut, and the Daughters of Ra.
It had been several hours since three of the gargoyles had gone off to scout around, leaving Ezekiel – plodding and unimaginative, in Birdie's opinion, but shaping up into a fairly decent field medic judging by the way he patched up Uncle Brendan – and Icarus – way too serious and brooding, made Goliath look like a party animal – to take care of their boat and generally get settled in. Taking care of the boat was pretty incredible in itself. At the appropriate command, the whole thing sank into the oasis although the water there couldn't have been more than five feet at the deepest.
Hunky Corwin and pretty-but-bitchy Tourmaline had come back a little while later with zilch to report, but the scary-looking, friendly one, Cassius, was nowhere to be seen.
Birdie hadn't been doing nothing in the meantime. She had been up since dawn, and should have crashed long since, but there was nothing like being attacked by a million snakes to perk a body up. Better than a triple espresso. Birdie didn't even want to sleep, knowing that the second she shut her eyes, she'd be having nightmares.
To keep busy, she helped bury Hollister and took steps to hopefully deter the snakes from coming into camp. It was creepy as could be to see them all out there, sometimes rearing up and swaying like a charmer was playing music only they could hear. And still, the power of that damn thing was kicked to its highest notch, because new slithery arrivals kept coming.
"Like St. Patrick in reverse," Birdie said.
"Like an Old Testament plague," Brendan said.
They had, with the help of Icarus, scraped out a trench all the way around the dig site and the motor home, and coaxed water from the oasis to flow into it like a half-assed moat. That in and of itself wouldn't have made any difference, since snakes could swim and were fairly intent on taking the shortest possible path to the object of their fascination. But when a concoction of palm oil and cobra-grass was sprinkled on top, it created enough of an aversion to convince them to go around rather than plunge straight through.
"It will be dawn soon," Tourmaline said. "I told him to be back well before, did I not? Did I not say such, Corwin?"
"You did, you did."
She paced, digging up divots of sand and flinging a spray of it every time she turned. Birdie noticed in passing that the female, whose skin was a neat varicolor that could look green, blue, or even violet depending on how the light hit her, wore a familiar logo pinned to the front of her halter. The eye in the pyramid, which, given the locale, Birdie found particularly apropos.
Before she could really work up into a righteous lather, a dark shape came cruising in for a landing. He fielded all Tourmaline's tirade with a dreamy expression, and if Birdie didn't know better, she would have sworn he'd been off necking in the dunes with some sexy she-garg.
"If you're quite done, sister dear?" he asked when Tourmaline paused for a breath before unloading with another round of 'irresponsible' and 'willful,' "I found it."
Given the way she had ignored all other distractions, it was amazing how fast Dakota got her nose out of the books. She nearly bowled Birdie over in her rush to get to Cassius, and everyone gathered around to listen.
He spilled his story, and then Dakota and Tourmaline started in on him again. The first was demanding directions and information, the second was reading Cassius the riot act, ripping him a new one, going up one side and down the other, pick your metaphor, and they were both doing it at the same time, trying to overtop each other.
Through it all, Cassius endured with that same goofy little grin that looked to Birdie like an absolutely lovesick smile. She glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed this and thought that Corwin did.
"What about other gargoyles?" Corwin said pointedly, confirming her suspicion by the tilt of his brow ridge. "Any luck, brother?"
Cassius sighed such a happy sigh that you almost expected tiny heart shapes to go spinning out in an aura around his head. Then he seemed to visibly catch himself, and sobered. "I found the remains of one, a sizeable male by the tracks, but nothing else."
"Are you quite certain?" pressed Corwin.
"Quite … but for Khepri."
"Khepri?" Tourmaline asked. "Who's that?"
He coughed into his curled fist and wouldn't meet any of their eyes. "There's a statue, the most remarkable statue …"
Ezekiel groaned. "Are you that desperate, brother?"
"She was so lifelike, I could have believed she was real." His sigh this time was that of the forlorn lover whose objet d'amour had no idea he existed.
"And you named her Khepri." Tourmaline's tone was cool and cutting.
"Odd choice," remarked Dakota. "It means 'morning light.' Hardly fitting for a gargoyle. Also the name of the golden beetle that guided Ra's boat through the underworld each night. But I want to hear more about this town. You say it's high in the cliffs? Can you lead us there?"
"Not tonight," Corwin said, jerking his head toward the east where the sky was distinctly brighter.
"No, not tonight," Brendan said. "We've been up for almost twenty-four hours, and I don't know about you, but I need some sleep. And we need to figure out what to do about the staff. It doesn't seem right to leave it stuck in the dunes out there."
"You're welcome to wade through the snakes to get it, Uncle Brendan," Birdie said sweetly. "Me, I'm sleeping on the top bunk tonight in case they come in through the vents."
"The crawler's seals are tight," Dakota said. She looked eager to be off, but there were bags of weariness under her eyes and she knew it. "All right, we'll get some rest and set out after sundown."
"We'll perch up there for the day," Tourmaline said, pointing to a rocky outcrop. "That should be far enough to put what passes for his mind at ease."
Birdie still didn't like it much, going to sleep knowing there were all those snakes just a few hundred yards away, but there didn't seem to be much choice. She watched as the gargoyles climbed up to the outcrop, and there was something oddly comforting in seeing them ranged out up there. Even if they'd be stone all day, it made her feel like someone was looking out for her.

**

Khepri woke from a dream of gliding on a wind like dark water, beneath an infinite, black sky pierced with diamond-points of white. It was the sky as she'd never seen it, not a confining blue lid over the world but fathomless depths rising forever. The moon, more brilliantly aglow than she ever would have believed, painted the sands in silver.
In the dream, she hadn't been alone, but holding the hand of a male whose face was indistinct. All she knew was that he was a shadow-shape, but that his gaze caressed her adoringly. Her mind named him, oddly not an Egyptian name but a Greek-sounding one, and she knew that although the night was new to her, she need fear nothing so long as he was by her side.
Shards of stone fell away from her as she stretched and yawned. After yesterday, and the ominous discoveries of Badru's death and the missing staff, she should have dreamt dire visions. Not this oddly romantic strangeness.
She stepped down from her pillar and out of habit bent to clean up the detritus of her skin. Badru had not been so neat, so conscientious, and would never have the opportunity to improve upon his slovenly ways …
Khepri froze with outstretched hand, staring at the marks in the earth. Tracks, gargoyle tracks, and she would swear by Ra and all the gods that they had not been there yesterday evening when she'd taken her usual place. Nor were they Badru's prints, and definitely not her own.
"Hello?"
Her voice rang in the dawn stillness, disturbing nothing but a few beetles still optimistically going over the skeletons for any tidbits they might have missed. No answering call came.
Forgetting about her cleanup duty, she scoured the ground for more tracks and found a few, found a distinctive pair pressed deeply as if absorbing the weight of a landing.
Could it be?
Another gargoyle? Another Son of Nut, having visited during the night?
It was the only explanation that made any sense, and a wild hope filled her. But where had he gone? Why had he left?
She turned, seeking a new statue in Akhetsu, a statue that would be the shadow-shape from her dreams. But only the images of the gods, the same as ever, were there. Forgetting for a moment about the staff, the star, and the curse that was racing toward fulfillment, she found the crack in the cliff wall that gave onto a narrow, winding fissure.
How long had it been since she'd visited the rookery? Not since she was a hatchling, assuredly … it had not been a good place. The adults had never spoken of it much, but in their sorrow-laden silences, Khepri came to understand that instead of a place of joy, the rookery to them had become a symbol of hopes unfulfilled.
She went down anyway, even though the walls of the tunnel felt like they were pressing in on her. When it widened out into the cave, she felt the presence of death everywhere, because this was no longer birth and renewal … this was a tomb.
Ten eggs lay undisturbed, where they had been for the fifty years of her life. Their shells looked frailer than ever, brittle husks that would probably crumble if touched.
It made her shiver, it made her tense with a vague guilt. Why had she and Badru been the only ones to hatch? Was it because their mother had been the leader's mate, and therefore was allowed the most food while the rest went hungry?
She knew about the famine that had carried off most of the clan, leaving only a handful of survivors to wait and watch and hope that the next generation would replenish their numbers, give a chance to their dying clan. Instead, they'd spent ten long years and at the end of it, only two small, weak hatchlings had broken shell.
The rookery was undisturbed, with no indication that the mysterious other gargoyle had visited it. Satisfied of that, Khepri could not bear to linger. She was glad to feel sunlight on her face as she emerged.
Akhetsu stood silent around her, the entire town now feeling as much like a tomb as the rookery had done. It would be worse than a tomb if she could not find the staff. Whether or not the staff alone would be sufficient to hold back the Nagai, she didn't know, but she did know that without the staff, there would be no question.
She had spent the previous day in a state akin to shock, continually turning to look at Badru's pillar in hopes that her brother would be standing there, hunched fearsomely with his jaws agape in a threatening snarl. But he never was, and the dull pain of her loneliness had finally sunk in.
The last. She was the last of her clan. It had been hard enough when the last other of her kind had died and she had the day to herself, but at least then she'd had the comfort of knowing that the rest were here, sleeping but here. Just as it must have been hard for Badru when the last of his kind had died a few years later, leaving him to the solitude of the night.
The staff was no longer in the cradled valley of Akhetsu. She would have to leave to find it, something that she'd only rarely done in all her years.
Khepri scaled the cliff and looked out over the land. The canyon ran away toward the Nile, and the jumble of rocks in the other direction did not seem particularly promising either.
As she was deliberating, she spotted movement below by the riverbed. A long, undulating ribbon of movement, headed against the sluggish current of the muddy water. She knew its type and shuddered – it was an Apep-snake, sacred to the great chaos-serpent whose goal was to devour Ra. Its appearance here and now was no good sign.
No good sign, but a sign all the same. Khepri stretched out her arms, the wind ruffling through the feathers – as she did this, a half-remembered bit of her dream came back to her, in which the male gargoyle had touched her intimately along that sensitive skin. The golden light of power filled her and she leapt from the edge, gliding along the river in pursuit of the giant Apep-snake.
Her hunch soon proved correct. She saw the dark pall upon the land from quite a distance, never mistaking it for a growth of plant life. It was a circle of snakes, so many that it seemed as if every one of them in all the world had convened here in a mass around the staff, which was stuck upright like the post of a sundial.
The Apep-snake joined them, pushing his way through. Thirty feet long and as thick through the middle as a man's thigh, he was king of all these lesser reptiles and they gave way before him.
She understood what must have happened. The one who'd stolen the staff had activated it, summoning snakes to him, but must not have known that he could control them as well. It was a mistake that had probably cost him his life, and she felt no sympathy at all.
At any rate, here was the staff. She dove, the speed of her descent blowing the multitude of long braids back from her face and the flaps of her linen skirt pasting to her legs. As she skimmed just over it, one hand closed neatly around the olivine cobra and she pulled it from its resting place.
A flurry of hisses rose around her, and with a sort of convulsive heave the mass of serpents began to move after her. Hovering over them, holding the staff aloft in both hands so hard that the hieroglyphs along its shaft impressed themselves into her palms, she silently invoked its magic to end the spell of summoning.
For a moment, nothing happened, and then the snakes began to disperse. It was not peaceful, some striking at each other, age-old enmities and competitions coming to the forefront once more, but most simply streaked away as fast as their coils could propel them.
Still bearing the staff aloft, Khepri wheeled and was about to return to Akhetsu when she saw a strange object near the murky puddle of the oasis. It was a long box on wheels, a 'car' or 'truck' if she was correctly recalling the adults' tales – she and Badru had lived in relative isolation for decades now. But she still remembered the stories, and suspected that the tools and areas of excavation cordoned off with string and stakes were the marks of the archeologists, those humans who had so forgotten their past that they had to come and dig it up anew to rediscover it.
There were no hints of life around the 'truck,' so she surmised that it had belonged to the ones who had come to Akhetsu. All of them were dead, and a sudden overriding urge to explore their artifacts seized her. She didn't have time for such explorations, but she couldn't resist.
She glided down and landed upon the roof, hissing at the heat of the metal beneath her bare talons. She forgot the discomfort, though, as she saw the profusion of tracks in the sand. All over the place. Human and gargoyle, crisscrossing each other.
He had been here? And not alone … by the disparity of claw marks, she suspected there were at least three others, possibly four.
Were they within?
Khepri reached for the door handle and was about to open it when she heard noises from within, and a sleepy, irritated human voice in a language she couldn't understand. A bright spark of fear bloomed in her heart. They weren't all dead, they had killed Badru!
Soundlessly on the loose sand, she bounded away and sprang into the air, still carrying the staff.

**

A helluva thump on the roof brought Birdie out of an uneasy, nightmare-filled doze. Or daymare-filled. Take your pick.
She was soaked in sweat despite the steady hum of the dune-crawler's air conditioning because she was up too high to benefit from the way cool air sank and hot air rose, and the noise had been right over her head.
Birdie rolled from the bunk, seeing that the door to Dakota and Brendan's bedroom was still closed. Her hair was a sticky black mop, the t-shirt she slept in was stuck to her in damp wrinkles, and she was dying for a cold drink.
At the sink, she also liberally splashed her face and rubbed a wet washcloth behind her neck, grumbling over everything in general and nothing in particular. On bare feet, she padded to the door and opened it, wincing as a gust of wind kicked up fine granules into her face.
Only when she'd unthinkingly pulled the door wide open did she remember the snakes, and stifled a yelp, calling herself a hundred kinds of idiot.
"Would have served you right if they'd all been piled up against the door and avalanched in," she scolded.
But, as she leaned out to see that the snakes were all where they were supposed to be, she got a shock – they were gone! The huge hissing carpet of them was gone, and all she saw were a few individual ones slithering aimlessly.
The staff was gone, too.
"Uh-oh," murmured Birdie, already anticipating Dakota's reaction upon getting that piece of news.
She shut the door and pulled on a pair of blousy pants and some shoes, and then ventured out into the mid-morning light.

**

Khepri watched from on high, so high that she knew she'd look like little more than a bird against the sky, as a human came out from under the canvas strung up like a half-tent. Her far-vision was excellent, so she was able to determine that this was a female, trudging out toward where the staff had been, and looking around edgily as if afraid of something.
She considered swooping to the attack, avenging her brother, but hesitated. If there was one human, there might be more, and they could be armed. Besides, she had to get the staff back to the temple. She resolved to do that, and then return to observe this camp a while more before making her decision.

**

Yep, it was gone. So were the snakes, leaving only the rippled, wavy trails of their passage like a sinuous design in the sand. Birdie found the spot where it had been embedded, a hole with the sides already so caved in that she knew it would soon be gone. But there was no clue what had happened to it, no footprints, no nothing.
Okay … what was up?
Pickworth Hollister's shallow grave was undisturbed, so evidently he hadn't gotten his bad self up and gone back for the treasure … not that he would have anyway, given how eager he'd been to toss it away.
The gargoyles were still perched on their outcrop, their granite-grey camouflage not serving them quite as well here in this yellow-brown environment as it would have on a castle battlement.
Nothing else was moving, except for a couple of stray snakes and a bird way on high. Frowning and not liking the feeling of being sure she was missing something, Birdie returned to the crawler and got out of the sun.
But sleep had given up on her, despite how totally tired she was. Fetching herself a can of pop and a bag of pretzels – Dakota said it was important to keep up the salt intake – Birdie relaxed in her sling-chair and resumed reading.

**

The temple was still as it should be, the appointed hour not yet upon her.
Khepri didn't need to read the legend inscribed in symbols upon the closed doors because she had been raised on the story of how the last priests of Wadjet had misused the power of the goddess and been struck down by a terrible curse, locked away in their hideous deformity.
The purpose of the staff was to seal the doors, but she had no way of knowing whether it would be effective. Just because it had been every other time over the centuries didn't mean it would continue to be so, especially when now there was only her to stand guard, alone.
She replaced the staff all the same, fitting it neatly into the carved niche that crossed the doors. When that was done, she released a sigh of relief of a tension she hadn't even been fully aware of having.
How was she to keep it there? If the humans knew where to find it, they'd be back. What if they came by night again, when she slept? Who would protect it then?
Fretful and perilously close to tears brought on by grief and loneliness and nervous agitation, Khepri paced through silent Akhetsu and tried to busy herself by disposing of the skeletons, stirring Badru's remains back into the earth, and finishing tidying up around her pillar. When that was done, she decided it was time to glide back to spy on the humans.
Before she did, she had an idea, and spent several hours on the ledge that led to the only landbound entrance to the valley. She tore and kicked at the ledge, sending great chunks of it tumbling away into the riverbed, and brought down piles of rubble to block the way.
It took longer than she expected, and when she finally stopped she saw that she'd gotten so carried away that she had nearly demolished the entire pathway. Satisfied that it would be next to impossible for even the most determined human to pick his or her way over that mess, she paused only long enough to wash off the dust and some dried blood from scrapes on her hands and one skinned knee.
She glided back to the camp, circling around to come in from the other side in case they happened to see her. It wouldn't do to have them be able to figure out where she'd come from. She came in low over a rocky outcrop …
And nearly fell from the sky when she saw the row of stone forms perched atop it. Fluttering like a moth in a crosswind, she managed to regain control and landed in front of one of them.
It had been so long since she'd seen another gargoyle face besides Badru's that she was dumbstruck. There were five of them, four males and a female, and she could tell right away that they were different … they looked nothing like anyone in her clan.
In utter wonder, she moved from one to the next, peering into their faces, scrutinizing their wings and their strange clothing, and the weapons some of them wore, and their relative lack of jewelry. Too, none wore medallions of Nut, at least not anywhere she could find, and at that she was truly perplexed.
When she came to the last one, she felt a chill that had nothing to do with the sinking sun, but was the memory of the night wind, the star-strewn sky. The male, the shadowy, unseen male whose hand had clasped so rightly with hers …
He was taller than she was, and admirably broad of shoulder. A row of horns sprouted from his brow, smaller ones jutting back in a curve from the hinge of his jaw.
Fascinated, she lost herself in contemplation of his features, unknowing that the day was turning to auburn and scarlet.

**

Birdie had snagged a nap later on, but was back in her chair when she saw something moving around up by the gargoyles. It looked like …
Jumping up, she grabbed Dakota's binoculars and trained it on the outcrop.
"Well, this is a new one," she said, incredulous. She ran to the crawler and surprised Uncle Brendan in a towel; Dakota already immersed in her books again. "You guys are not gonna believe this …"

**

He was dreaming again, dreaming warm and golden dreams of gliding along the slow-moving river, passing over boats upon which humans, hunting waterfowl with bent throwing sticks, looked up to wave and call welcomes.
She was with him in his dream, beautiful Khepri, and it was with great reluctance that Cassius felt the pleasant images begin to fracture and fall away just as his stone skin was doing. Dusk. Nightfall. Time to wake up.
His eyes blazed white as they opened, and the reflexive roar that had been about to burst from his throat wedged there and he strangled on it, because she was right there, in front of him, alive and moving and the exact shade of bronze-gold that he had envisioned, right there looking at him in absolute amazement.
"Khepri?" he said wonderingly.
"Cassius?" she replied in the same tone.
Her hand came up as if of its own volition and extended toward him. He raised his own, peripherally aware of the astounded expressions of his siblings, of the russet curve of the last bit of the sun slipping below the horizon.
An instant before they touched, something happened to Khepri. She stiffened in place, the colors bleeding from her flesh and clothing and jewelry to become light brownish-grey stone.
"No!" Cassius cried, but the hand he seized was solid, immobile.
She was poised before him, that one arm outstretched, the other down at her side and held slightly back at an angle. The rest of his clan crowded around, gaping and speechless.
"Khepri!" he called, pleadingly.
"What the blazes?" Corwin managed to say.
"We did not see that, did we?" Ezekiel turned to Tourmaline, as if hoping their leader had the answers, but she only opened her mouth, shook her head, and closed it again.
Just then, their new human friends came blundering up the escarpment, Birdie puffing in the lead.
"See? I told you. See?" she panted.
"She was real," Cassius insisted. "She was alive. I saw her. You all saw her!"
"It makes sense now," Dakota said.
"What does?" rumbled Icarus.
"Is she one of us? A gargoyle?" asked Ezekiel.
"She's a gargoyle," Dakota confirmed. "But not quite like you. I've figured it out now. I thought I was reading it wrong, but I wasn't."
"Out with it, human, if you know what this is about!" snapped Tourmaline.
"The legend of Akhetsu says that the nomarch made a pledge with the Sons of Nut and the Daughters of Ra to protect the town from the evil imprisoned in the temple," she said. "We assumed, correctly, that the Sons of Nut were gargoyles. But so are the Daughters of Ra, the sun-god. A breed of gargoyle that stays flesh by day, and sleeps in stone by night."
"That's impossible!" Ezekiel protested.
"I saw her," Birdie said. "She was up here checking you all out, like she'd never seen gargoyles before, and I guess sunset must've snuck up on her. And I bet she took the staff. It's gone, and so are all the snakes. Good riddance."
"She knew me, she knew my name," Cassius said.
"Well," Corwin shrugged, "you knew hers."
"What are you saying?" Tourmaline glared at them both. "He made that up."
"Then explain how she called him Cassius," Corwin said. "Coincidence?"
"It's not that." Cassius gently touched the plane of her cheek. "I dreamed of her … what if she dreamed of me as well? She is the one. I told you."
Ezekiel snorted. "Oh, very good, how's that going to work? She's stone by night, mutton-head."
"That is kind of an insurmountable obstacle," Birdie said.
"It's ridiculous," said Tourmaline.
"It's love." Cassius shot her a look. "I wouldn't expect you to understand, sister."
She bristled. "What is that supposed to –"
"They do have a point, Cassius," Corwin said. "Now, I'm hardly the one to dispute anyone's choice of mate, but this does pose certain difficulties. How can you be mates when you have only that split-second of time at dusk and at dawn?"
"Like in that old movie," Birdie said. "Maybe there's a way to --"
"Someday, you've got to come to grips with the fact that not everything you see in the movies is real," said Dakota.
"Oh, that's rich, coming from someone of your family background."
"In time, I fear," Corwin went on, sensibly but Cassius hated him for it, "your love would turn to dissatisfaction, sourness."
"I cannot believe that," he said.
"Open your eyes," Tourmaline said. "You're not …" she searched, and found a word they'd heard Michelle Jessec use. "Compatible."
"There must be a way." He traced her brow ridge. "I love her."
"You don't even know her!" Tourmaline erupted, flinging her arms in the air. "She's just the first female of our species – if she even truly is of our species – that we've seen since leaving Avalon, apart from Aiden, and she was not only spoken for, but not truly of our species either."
"Hey," cut in Birdie. "Fergs is one of my best pals. Watch it."
Dakota, meanwhile, had been walking around Khepri to study her from all angles. "Look at this."
They all did. It was the disk adorning the back of her hair that she directed their attention to.
"What of it?" Ezekiel asked.
"It's like the one Pickworth Hollister was carrying," Brendan said. "Except that is Ra, not Nut."
"Yeah," Birdie said, "but it's that necklace of hers that's really worth a fortune."
"No, no," he said. "The other coin was magical, wasn't it? I remember Broadway once telling me something about a clan in South America who had amulets that let them stay flesh during the day. Maybe this is similar."
"Yes!" Cassius said. "Two of them brought a raft to Avalon, and we helped them plant the trees and flowers. They took root remarkably well. But I remember them saying that their protectorate was a pyramid in the rain forest."
"Hmm," said Dakota, tapping her chin. "There are those who believe that both pyramid-building peoples were inspired by the same older culture …"
"And both regions have native clans of gargoyles," Brendan continued.
"So it might be that they have the same kind of magic, too!" Birdie finished. "Okay, so now what? How do we break the spell? Take the thing off?"
She reached, and Cassius seized her wrist. "No … I'll not risk hurting her. By day, you can tell her what you've told us, and see what she knows about it."
"Fair enough," Dakota said. "But that's probably something that would be better done in Akhetsu."
"You just want to go there," Ezekiel said.
"That too."
"And leave her here?" Cassius scowled, and because normally his perpetual smile was the only thing keeping his appearance from being wholly vicious and evil-looking, all three humans and even a couple of his clan drew back from him apprehensively.
Corwin took it in stride. "Not at all, brother dear. We'll take her home. We'll carry her."
So it was that, an hour or so later after they'd dined and Dakota had gotten together a kit of equipment, they made ready to set out. In stone, Khepri was too heavy for Cassius to carry alone, so he bore her in a hammock slung between himself and Corwin. Icarus stayed landbound with the humans while the rest of them glided above, at least until they reached the cliffs around Akhetsu and saw the damage to the ledge-path.
The only thing to be done then was return Khepri carefully to her perch, and then for the four who could glide with ease help the four who couldn't. Icarus did well enough with an arm over Tourmaline's shoulder, and soon all of them were standing in the middle of the town.
Dakota and Brendan were ecstatic with the find, even while Dakota groused at Cassius for tromping with his big talons all over the place. He mentioned that there had been a few humans here just the other night, not to mention gargoyles for who-knew how long, so she couldn't blame it all on him.
They found the staff set into the temple doors, and left the two archeologists there to puzzle out the inscriptions while Birdie joined the rest of them in poking around the corners and crannies. It was Birdie that found and squeezed into the crevice that led to the old rookery.
Tourmaline, her own stomach still perfectly flat despite her condition, was rendered pale and ill by the sad sight of the ten unhatched eggs. She fled almost as soon as it had registered on her consciousness, but the others remained to investigate.
"Why didn't they hatch?" Birdie asked.
"It must have been the wrong time to breed," Corwin said. "According to the Magus, our rookery parents had quite a ritual in which the leader of the clan would come before the elders and beg permission for the females to be allowed to breed."
"Sure," she said. "I was there when Goliath asked Hudson. With the humming and stuff."
Corwin nodded. "Only if hunting had been good and all the females had sworn mates to provide for them would the elders agree. If the food wasn't plentiful enough, you see, the females would be too weak to lay healthy eggs. That could be what happened here, why there aren't more of Khepri's clan."
"But if all the females sleep by night and all the males are normal," Ezekiel said, "how'd they manage to breed in the first place?"
Cassius knelt and fingered some broken pieces of shell. "Mayhap she can tell us, when she wakes. Look, brothers … by this, it seems two eggs did hatch. I'd wager Khepri, and the one whose remains I found, were those two. The rest of their clan must have died off long since."
"It's magic, I'm telling you, FM," Birdie said.
"FM?" Corwin asked.
"Fu … uh … never mind." She grinned. "Something a guy I knew in school used to say."
"I believe I grasp the general reference." He winked at her.
Brendan wormed his way in and glanced around without seeming to really see his surroundings. "We've deciphered some of the hieroglyphs on the door."
"That bad, huh?" Birdie asked.
"Well, Dakota's not inclined to believe in it because she can still be hard-headed sometimes, despite all we've seen. She doesn't believe in curses."
"Isn't that suicide for someone in her line of work? You were the one whose grandfather or whoever was on the Carter expedition in 1922. Didn't they see it first-hand?"
He looked abashed. "I didn't say I didn't believe in curses."
"Pardon me," Cassius said, "but what's the matter? What curse?"
"Well," said Brendan, "the inscription says that the door must remained sealed and guarded, to prevent the transformed high priest of Wadjet from escaping."
"Transformed," Icarus said. "Into what?"
Brendan spread his hands. "I wish I knew. But from what we've been able to determine, it looks like Khepri's clan has been protecting this town for over three thousand years, even after the last of the humans died or fled."
"And in all that time," Corwin said, "the doors have never been opened?"
"It doesn't seem so."
"Lemme see if I'm clear on this," Birdie said. "Khepri's job, along with her clan, is to protect this place and make sure the giant grody monster doesn't get out and lay waste to the planet."
"Sounds like." Brendan groaned. "And after Innsbrook, I think I've had enough of giant grody monsters."
"But she's the only one left, and how much do you want to bet that it takes at least one each of the Sons of Nut and the Daughters of Ra to hold that thing back?"
"No bet," he said uneasily.
"I'm not much caring for the way this is headed," Ezekiel said.
"That must be why we were sent," Cassius said. "To stop it."
"And save the world?" Corwin inquired with a rakish lift of brow ridge. "Again?"
Cassius chuckled. "You've had your turn. This time, I believe the honor is mine." He turned to Brendan and held out a hand. "Please give me the amulet."
"Beg pardon?"
"The coin, the token."
"Oh." He brought it out and looked uncertainly at Cassius. "We still don't know what it does."
"Here, what do you think you're doing?" Corwin asked.
"If Birdie is correct and it takes both kinds of gargoyles to guard that door, then one of us must do it. One of us must become a Son of Nut. If any are to do so, it should be me."
"Wait, wait! Let's not be hasty here, brother."
"Don't fuss, Corwin. It's what I'm meant to do."
"What?" Ezekiel scoffed. "Spend the rest of your life in this ruin, alone?"
"With Khepri," he corrected.
"Same thing! Except for those tiny moments at sunrise and sunset."
"That's enough for me. The rest of the time, I'll have my dreams." Cassius slipped the cord over his head, where it snagged briefly on his horns. At last he got it straight, and the coin rested at the top of his breastbone. He felt no prickle of sorcery, felt no different at all.
"Now, I'm normally one all in favor of noble self-sacrifice," Corwin said, "but do let's think this through, Cassius."
"The time for thinking is done."
"When did it begin?" Ezekiel shot back.
"Settle down, guys," Birdie said. "Cass, pal, what say you let the rest of us at least talk to your new sweetie, huh? I mean, ten out of ten to see a guy who's not afraid of commitment, hip-hip-hooray, but let's find out if she's even on the market before you buy a ring."
The four male gargoyles looked at her in varying degrees of blankness, trying to pick their way through her words to get at the meaning. Brendan was nodding sagely, but by the way he was shifting from foot to foot, he was plainly eager to get back out and sift through the ruins.
Cassius grudgingly let the matter drop, although he did not remove the medallion and dared the others with a silent stare to make something of it. None of them were so foolhardy.
They left the melancholy rookery cave single file, rejoining Tourmaline and Dakota above. For Birdie and the gargoyles, the rest of the night passed with agonizing slowness, especially for Cassius. For Brendan and Dakota, it was, he believed the term was, hog heaven. They bandied about terms like 'find of the century' and 'expedition grants,' and talked Tourmaline into taking Ezekiel and Corwin back on a few trips to ferry more of their equipment and camping gear up from the oasis.
After the long hours had dragged by, it was almost dawn. Pulse thundering in anticipation, Cassius went to the pillar where he had so carefully placed Khepri. Their curiosity getting the better of them, his brothers and sisters grouped behind him to watch something they had personally experienced countless times over the years of their lives, but never actually seen.
It was miraculous … the way the growing pale light made stone seem alive, the way a web of tiny cracks raced across the surface, widening. Cassius felt the sleepy lethargy fill his limbs and fought it, tried to resist, just a moment longer, just a moment more …
Khepri's eyes flared, not red like the females of his clan but with a brilliant golden flash like the sun caught in mirrors. Her stony coating fell away in pieces and she gasped, blinking, seeing. Her gaze found him, hesitantly returned his smile.
Once again, they reached out, but this time it was he that turned to stone just before they could touch.

**

"Whoa, hey, take it easy!" Birdie shouted as Khepri came at them like vengeance made flesh. "We're not the droids you're looking for!"
Should have foreseen that … she thought they were with Hollister's bunch, the ones that Cassius thought had killed the last of her clan. She wasn't taking it well, understandably.
Dakota called, "Khepri!" and followed it with a slew of gabble in what Birdie figured was Egyptian. Whatever she said was enough to get the bronze female to simmer down and not immediately rip out their internal organs.
While they conversed, Birdie soaked up Khepri with her eyes. She could see why Cassius was totally-gonzo-smitten; Khepri was a babe. What really intrigued Birdie, though, was the outfit and the jewelry and the hairdo.
"Just like that," she said. "For my character. I want a wicked-bitchin' necklace just like that."
Uncle Brendan was trying to follow the conversation but his written Egyptian was always going to be better than his spoken Egyptian, and he took the time out to say, "I doubt they'll have the budget for real gold."
"Real, schmeal, so long as it looks that cool."
The sun had climbed more than halfway to noon by the time Dakota and Khepri had worked things out. Evidently, her full name was Asim Khepri, the 'Asim' part a title, meaning 'protector.' Her brother had been Asim Badru, and they'd been siblings in the most literal sense of the word, having the same parents.
The gargoyle, looking both stunned and near tears, hunkered down at the base of her pillar and wrapped her arms around her knees. She looked so forlorn that Birdie thought about going over and giving her a hug, but first she had to hear what Dakota had to say.
"Between what she told me, and what I got from the hieroglyphs, sometimes I'm ashamed to be a human."
"That bad?" Brendan asked.
Dakota took a deep breath. "Her clan's been protecting this town for thousands of years. Dozens of generations. Dozens of generations, all suckered into the same stupid, selfish trap. The story has it that after the priest was cursed and sealed away, the nomarch told the gargoyles that he was taking the rest of the humans away for their own safety until they'd found a way to dispose of the priest once and for all. Until then, the gargoyles were to stay here and guard the temple, and make sure he didn't get out. But the humans had no intention of coming back."
"What?" blurted Birdie. "Are you saying they abandoned the gargoyles? On purpose?"
"That's what I'm saying. It was a big clan back then, a hundred or more. Probably took a lot of effort to keep them fed. The humans were tired of it and seized the first excuse that came along to get away from the responsibility."
"Abandoned them," Birdie said again. "Like summer people in New England who buy a puppy and then decide they can't take it back to Boston or New York, and ditch it by the side of the road. Goddammit, that sucks."
"And they've waited. Three thousand years, they've waited?" Brendan whistled. "That is faithfulness."
"All the while expecting that the humans would come back any day now," Dakota said. "Meanwhile, their clan dwindled and died off, until Khepri and her brother were the only ones left."
"Jeez," Birdie said. "That sucks so bad."
"I bet there wasn't ever even any real danger from the priest," Dakota said. "The story goes that he was turned into some sort of --"
"Giant grody monster," said Birdie and Brendan together.
"But I wouldn't be surprised if that was just something the nomarch made up to give the gargoyles a good reason to stay, a reason they could feel proud of."
"What a bastardly thing to do!" Brendan said.
"So here's the gargoyles, the faithful, dutiful gargoyles, waiting and waiting for the humans to return, while those humans were probably off in some other town making a nice prosperous life, congratulating themselves on how nicely they'd solved the problem." Dakota shook her head in disgust.
"I hope they were eaten by crocodiles," Birdie grumbled. "Did you tell Khepri all that? No … look at her … dumb question. How do you come to terms with the idea that your whole life, and all your ancestors', was wasted on some bogus promise? That your clan's sacred duty was a pile of sacred doody?"
"Shut up, Birdie, we get the picture," Brendan said. "What's she going to do?"
"Well," said Dakota, "the introduction of new gargoyles makes for a twist. It turns out she'd been dreaming about Cassius, too. If you believe in such things, I guess you could argue that it means they're meant to be together."
"Even though they're on opposite schedules?" asked Birdie.
"Somehow, her clan made it work. It does have something to do with the amulets; we were right about that. She said she isn't sure how, but she remembers her mother being able to switch back and forth."
Brendan glanced sympathetically at Khepri, who had lowered her brow onto her knees. "Poor thing … will she go with them, do you think?"
"There's nothing for her here," Birdie said.
"But it is still her home," Dakota said. "She's never known anyplace else, and might not feel right about up and leaving when she's the last of her clan. Besides, humans have come back. Us."
"Yeah, but, like, we're not staying." Seeing the firm, resolute expression that firmed Dakota's jaw, Birdie groaned. "You're not serious!"
"It's a hell of a find," Brendan said. "We could spend thirty years on this site. It's the sort of thing --"
"Every archeologist dreams of, yadda-yadda, tenure, grant money, documentaries, the lecture circuit, et cetera, I get it. You just cannot pass up the chance to poke around in that temple, even if there does turn out to be a giant grody monster in there, can you?"
"Nope," said Dakota. "And it's not like we had anything else planned."
"Excuse me … back to L.A., Bruce Campbell, television show, maybe they will be able to get Hugh Jackman as the sinister vizier, I am not giving that up."
"No, you'd go back, of course. But they only need us for the occasional consultation," Brendan said. "We can do that from here just as easily as we can from the States. Believe me, we would never stand between you and stardom."
"Well, okay," Birdie said, mollified. "But what does Khepri have to say about it? She's dedicated her life to guarding that temple. Is she just going to let you waltz in there and start tagging and bagging?"
"I think she will," Dakota said. "After all, her clan was supposed to wait until someone came to dispose of the priest, and that's one way to do it."
"Most of all," said Brendan with a smile, "she wouldn't be alone anymore, especially if Cassius has any say in the matter."

**

Dusk was approaching, the shadows lengthening over Akhetsu.
Khepri looked at the three humans as she raised her hands behind her head and felt the hard disk of gold in her hair. Her fingertips traced the emblem of Ra and the enormity of what she was about to attempt made her tremble in uncertainty.
The sheltered valley was already so different, with their campsite set up and their tools scattered about. She wanted very much to believe that they could, by their explorations and discoveries, make Akhetsu live again.
For the first time in millennia, the doors to the temple had been opened. Khepri had regarded this with a good deal of alarm, but contrary to everything she'd been told since hatchlinghood on, no bloodthirsty, ravening beast came lunging out of the darkness below. Only stale air, puffing harmlessly against the breathing-masks the humans wore.
"Places like this," Brendan had explained, "sealed off, with no ventilation, can be a hotbed of spores and anaerobic bacteria. Early explorers would breathe that stuff in and it'd kill them, for no apparent reason as far as their friends could see, and that lent itself pretty well to talk of curses."
They elected, despite temptation, to wait until the next day to venture inside. But the strong beams of their flashlights, shining across the floor, found the skeletons of three men in ornate priestly robes and golden and olivine headdresses in the shape of a cobra's hood.
But, giving some proof to the old legends, another set of bones was visible. These were not human, not entirely. The enlarged skull was that of a man except for the elongated fangs, but the body lacked arms and legs, having only the stacked vertebrae and ribs of a serpent that must have been upwards of fifty feet in length.
The priest had been transformed, into a man-headed snake of enormous size. But he had died, died thousands of years ago.
Seeing that was all the confirmation Khepri needed to believe everything Dakota said. A hollow ache engulfed her heart as she thought of her clan, ancestors stretching back beyond memory, standing by their oath when all along, there had been no need.
"I was kinda braced for a big battle with the giant grody monster," Birdie said. "Glad to be wrong, though."
Their speech was still strange to her, but Khepri was beginning to make sense of it. From time to time in her youth, some of the clan had ventured out from Akhetsu to hunt, gather food, or seek other supplies. They'd come back with news of things such as the 'truck' and the way the languages had changed. But if one could just learn how to listen, one could understand.
So she had listened, as these three humans chattered throughout the long afternoon, and now it was almost as easy as gliding.
The bottom rim of the sun touched the curve of the earth. Khepri tightened her grasp on the amulet in her hair. As she felt the process begin, she pulled the disk loose and held it out to Dakota.
The sun set, turning the sky to purple and deep blue. With crackling sounds and a sudden explosion of grit and stone dust, the five gargoyles standing in a group around Khepri's pillar came to life. Their eyes blazed, they roared and growled …
And she was witnessing it. She was flesh.
A weak cry escaped her, enough to instantly draw Cassius' attention. He came toward her, holding out a hand as if he expected her to slip away into sleep before his very eyes.
She reached out. Touched him. Warm, leathery skin against hers, the contrast of his red-tinted black with her bronze-gold striking a powerful chord in her. Night and day, even in appearance they were as different as night and day … but defining each other by that contrast. He was wearing Badru's amulet, the image of Nut.
"You're awake," he said. "Khepri … you're awake?"
"Cassius." Her voice shook with unshed tears, these ones of amazement and delight. "I am."
"We have a lot to tell you," Dakota said to the rest of them. "But I think the most important thing is readily apparent."
She went on to explain the rest, the truth of the past and the plans for the future, while Khepri and Cassius stood gazing raptly at each other.
"So," said a male whose hair was pure white and whose skin was even more warmly gold than her own, "I have the feeling that our little clan is about to decrease by one."
"You're going to stay, Cassius?" asked a mottled-green male, as if he could not imagine a more horrible fate. "Give up our travels, give up going home to Avalon? For her?"
"Avalon sent me here," Cassius said, never looking away from Khepri. "If I'm wanted, I'll stay, gladly."

**

"I don't know as we got the best deal in this trade," Tourmaline said, glowering as Corwin landed on the deck of the Mists' Passage. "In fact, I'm sure we didn't."
"It wasn't a trade, sister dear. We're just doing a favor."
"By getting her out of their hair."
"By seeing a young lady home." He deposited the last of Birdie Yale's luggage and grinned brightly. "She'll be entertaining company."
"I worry for you, Corwin, I truly do. We only just got rid of the last batch of humans you collected."
"Come now, Tourmaline, they're not all bad. As I recall, you were quite taken with at least one in particular." He tapped the hilt of the sword she wore.
Tourmaline flushed, remembering her uncharacteristic reaction to the Grandmaster. Or perhaps not that uncharacteristic; he had been status and power incarnate, something she'd always craved and sought in a male. But it was hardly the same thing. Hardly at all.
Birdie appeared from belowdecks, beaming. "This is a nice boat, you guys. Much better than the little skiff Uncle Brendan was stuck with. But tell me you do have control over it, right? We're not going to be jaunting around for months and months, right? Because I have to be back in L.A. in six weeks."
"I assure you," Tourmaline said with heartfelt sincerity, "we'll see that you make it well before that."
"I've been meaning to ask, anyway," she said, "why you're all out here anyway. Away from Avalon. From what I've heard, it sounds like a pretty soft and cushy place."
"That's precisely the problem," Corwin said. "We're rebels. Outcasts. Troublemakers. A few too many fights with the clan, and they were glad to see the tail end of us."
"Corwin!"
"Well, not all of us. Cassius was only interested in finding love, and me? I'm … why am I here, Tourmaline?"
"I ask myself that every night," she replied coldly, and walked away, knowing, just knowing that he and his new human pet were exchanging smirks and giggles behind her back.
She came to the stern, where Icarus was waiting, as solid and dour as ever. The muddy pool of the oasis was barely big enough to hold the craft, but when she gave the command, he leaned on the pole and they began to move.
Cassius, Khepri, Brendan, and Dakota waved to them from the dunes. Tourmaline raised a hand in farewell as tendrils of streaming mist formed out of nowhere and blotted them from her sight.
Once more, the Mists' Passage resumed its journey, carrying four gargoyles and one human on to meet their destinies.

**

The End.