The Akido Saga:

Prologue (parts 1-5)

by Emambu

Standard stuff: Firstly, Gargoyles belongs to Disney. They own all the property rights to the show as well as to the character Brooklyn,
an established character. Also, Brooklyn's timedancing theme, adventures, and all references to it and as well as Sata and her unborn
child are the property of the talented writers and editors at TGS. Everything else, though, is mine. You're free to use any of my characters
provided you simply ask first. At this point however, I can't see anyone doing that *grins* This is simply the first piece to the prologue.
It's not even the whole prologue. That's coming later. However, it is about as long as some full length stories out there so you have to give
me that at least. ;) Lastly, this is my fandom debut here. I'm not going to always ask for tons of feedback (though as a writer I can assure
you it's really nice to get some), but I really, really would like feedback for this. I'd like to know where I stand as a writer in the gargoyles
universe and how/where I can improve. If you decide to follow this series and only give feedback on one of my stories, please let it be this
one. Honestly, I'm pretty thick-skinned. If you think I'm a terrible writer then let me know (preferably with ways in which to improve as
well) :) Thank you and enjoy!

Some profanity and violence.

A Forest, 2km outside Managua
Nicaragua, Central America
February 3, 1997; 23:53 local time

The pale yellow moonlight filtered down through the dense canopy and on to the four soldiers sitting in a circular fashion on the ground. They had been waiting for nearly half an hour for the rest of their team to return back with a plan. No fires had been lit, as they would have attracted unwanted attention this close to the capital city of Nicaragua. The soldiers sat shivering in the cool air, waiting for their fellow soldiers. It wasn’t long before the weariness led to restlessness.

“Hey Jose, how much time has it been now?” one of the soldiers asked, a hint of worry in his tone.

“Pedro, you’ve been asking me this almost every minute for at least ten minutes,” Jose hissed. “Stop asking me all the damn time, and learn to wait.”

“It’s been about a half an hour, Pedro,” a third soldier said as quietly and evenly as possible. He paused before adding, “I don’t get you sometimes. This is an important raid, and you wanted to tag along because you said you wanted your first assignment to be important. Well now you’re here, but you’ve done nothing but gripe since we entered the forest.” The soldier fixed his gaze on Pedro. “Why is that?”

“I thought we’d be doing something, not sitting around here twiddling our thumbs and waiting for Jefe and Carlos to return, Juan,” Pedro exclaimed a bit too loudly, and a bit too nervously. His voice reverberated through the forest.

“For God’s sake, keep your voice down,” Jose hissed again. “Did you leave your brain back in Honduras or something? We’re less than two kilometers from the capital city. We have two knapsacks full of explosives that are going to help us throw the country into a state of panic. And we also have detailed maps of the city for future strikes that would be invaluable to our enemies. The last thing we need is to bring the entire Nicaraguan military down on our heads because you can’t control the level of your voice!”

“Yeah, and that’s another thing,” Pedro continued without acknowledging Jose. “When I signed up for this mission, I was told that we would be setting off charges at strategic sites, military sites. Hospitals and child centers were not what I had in mind.”

“No one said that this was going to be fun,” Juan said calmly. “When you play to win, you have to make sacrifices along the way.”

“But this seems wrong,” Pedro insisted.

“You’re more than welcome to leave and head back to Honduras by yourself if you want to. Don’t expect any money for you or your family if you do that though.” Juan’s tone indicated that he was in no mood for further discussion. Pedro sighed. For someone who wasn’t the leader of the team, Juan could sure act like one when Jefe was gone.

Sullenly, Pedro lapsed back into silence and stared at the ground while Juan leaned back against a tree and waited for the rest of the team. However, Jose wasn’t about to let the kid go that easily. He slid a bit closer to Pedro before whispering in his ear, “What’s your problem anyway, huh? Why can’t you be like Reuben?” Jose nodded his head towards the fourth mercenary sitting on the cool grass. He hadn’t said a word throughout the entire exchange. Jose turned back to Pedro. “It’s his first assignment too you know, but you don’t see him making idiotic remarks. You don’t see him jumping at shadows like a damn baby.”

“Damn it Jose, knock it off!” Juan said, anger starting to creep into his normally calm voice.

Jose blinked in surprise, clearly not expecting the veteran to hear his remarks to Pedro. He recovered quickly though, “I’m just getting tired of this kid whining and jabbering about every little thing, that’s all. I mean ever since we entered this blasted forest, he’s done nothing but complain. First it was the length of the walk, then it was the fact that the forest was too dark, then it was the annoyance at having to wait for Jefe and Carlos, and now it’s a morality conflict.”

“Jose-” Juan began, but the mercenary cut him off.

“I’m concerned for my own safety. It’s obvious to me that fresh meat here,” Jose said sardonically, all the while pointing at Pedro, “is breaking down under pressure. What happens if we run into trouble and have to start shooting? I really don’t want an emotionally unstable rookie on my side. He’d be a threat to himself and to the rest of us. You and me, we’ve been through too many fights to know that. 
Hell, Jefe would have shot him if he heard half of the stuff that this kid’s been babbling about.”

Jose emphasized his point by glaring back at Pedro. However, the rookie mercenary was still staring at the ground, seemingly oblivious to the conversation about him. “You know, our employers are paying us a lot of money for this,” Jose said coldly. “We do this job, stir up civilian unrest, and they can march in and reestablish the old Somoza government. Now, I personally don’t give a damn about the 
politics involved. I’m doing this for the money. I’ve waited a long time for a chance like this, and I will not let it all fall apart because some kid couldn’t take the strain and broke down.” Jose tone had changed from sarcasm to malice, but Pedro didn’t seem to hear. Disgusted, Jose turned away. It was then that Pedro spoke up.

“Reuben doesn’t hear what I hear.”

Jose spun back to face Pedro. It took him a second to realize that the kid was answering the question that he had asked a little while ago. It seemed that Pedro hadn’t heard a word Juan or Jose had said. “What did you say?” he asked.

“I said the reason Reuben seems so calm and quiet is because he doesn’t hear what I hear,” Pedro said softly.

Jose’s arrogance took over, “And what exactly do you hear?” he asked indignantly.

“That these forests are cursed,” Pedro said with a bit more strength behind his voice.

“Cursed? Oh, give me a break.” Jose rolled to put emphasis on his disbelief, and prepared to berate the kid some more but Pedro cut him off.

“Yes, cursed. Haven’t you noticed that in the last eighteen months the success rate in missions such as these have gone down considerably? During my training, all I heard about was how wonderful things were going. Raids were being pulled off with little effort. Then we started getting reports and rumors of demons roaming the forests of Nicaragua at night. Suddenly, the ease in the missions stopped. Whole teams started disappearing. Of course, you wouldn’t know about it since most of the missions have been coming from teams based in El Salvador. But if you’d paid attention, you would know that in the last four months we lost both Bravo and Hotel squads.”

“Come off it,” Jose said, sighing in annoyance. “Where do you get this shit anyway?”

“I can read,” Pedro exclaimed hotly. “If you’d put two and two together, you’d know that there’s more to this than coincidence.”

“You’re being superstitious.”

“I’m telling you the truth.”

Before Jose could make a witty remark about where Pedro could shove his truth, Juan interrupted, “That’s enough out of both of you! Jose, quit egging the kid on. And as for you Pedro, you better make a choice quickly. Either you shut up right now, or you pack up and leave. I’ve had about all I can stand at this point!”

Pedro was surprised by the outburst from the Juan who was normally very controlled. He figured that he’d upset his superior and quickly closed his mouth. However, what he didn’t know was that part of the reason behind Juan’s eruption was to cover up his own underlying fear. Juan had read those reports too. At first, he dismissed it as mere rumors, and chalked up the failures as either sloppiness on the mercenaries’ part or an increase in Nicaraguan ingenuity. Soon though, more reports came in, detailing the loss of entire teams. As the casualties mounted, Juan grew worried. Like Pedro, he also noticed that these losses were coming around the same time that rumors of demons in the Nicaraguan forests first appeared. Then two teams that he knew personally, Bravo and Hotel, disappeared. There was
no claim by the government that they had captured them. Both teams just seemed to vanish without a trace. That was when Juan became superstitious about the rumors. He didn’t know if the “demon” part was true, but he was convinced that there was something out there in those forests, something that was killing without mercy.

Juan looked at Pedro and Jose for a few moments. Both of them were still a little shocked over the fact that he had lost his temper. Sighing, Juan said in a low, calm voice, “There are no demons in this forest.”

At that point, a twig snapped, audibly resonating throughout the forest. Pedro gave a small yelp and dove for the ground. Jose and Reuben quickly darted behind trees and drew their guns out. By the time they looked back, Juan already had his assault rifle out and pointed in the direction of where the noise came from. Or at least what he thought was the direction that the noise came from. The echo had made it hard to pinpoint a precise location.

Juan held the gun tightly in his grasp. He could feel the sweat starting to bead on his face despite the cool breeze that was gently blowing through the forest. Steam from his breath wafted in the air. His senses were heightened as a surge of adrenaline rushed through his body. He picked up every sound and smell; however, he ignored it all and instead concentrated on listening for any other telltale sign that would give away his unseen attacker.

Another twig snapped, and this time Juan had no doubt in his mind that it had come from straight ahead. As he waited for some kind of visual clue, the moon slipped behind a cloud, plunging the area into almost complete darkness. Juan didn’t notice though. He continued to stare into the crosshairs of his rifle, letting the enhanced night vision on the scope light his path. The seconds ticked away sluggishly. Finally, Juan’s patience was rewarded by two blurred shapes that appeared within his sights. He placed his finger around the trigger of his gun, applying just a hint of pressure to it. He waited for the shapes to get closer. He was vaguely aware that Jose and Reuben had their guns drawn as well, and were also pointing them in the direction of the two shapes. As more detail came through the scope, Juan noted
that they were of humanoid shape, and they were getting closer. Juan steeled himself for what was about to happen next. Closer… closer… then…

“Halt! Don’t move or I fire!” Juan’s voice rang out. Both figures stopped in their tracks.

And one of them cursed.

“God damn it, Juan! What in the name of sunny Jesus do you think you’re doing?”

Juan inwardly cringed. He recognized that voice, and he knew from its tone that he was in serious trouble. With his eyes still locked onto the scope of the gun, Juan watched Jefe- the team’s leader- and Carlos- the team’s scout- move into focus. The former had his hands on his hips with a pistol held loosely in his right hand. The scowl on his face spoke volumes about how annoyed he really was. Juan sighed and lowered the gun.

Jefe was not a big man by anyone’s standards. Of the six mercenaries he was the shortest and possibly the lightest in weight. Physically, he contrasted perfectly with Juan who was by far the largest and strongest in the group. However, Jefe’s strength was drawn from all around him. There was no question by the way he talked, walked, and acted that he was in charge. And the little man had proven himself in past missions to be the kind of guy that didn’t take crap from anyone. Mistakes were dealt swiftly, sometimes brutally, under his command. That was what made him Jefe.

Juan could feel the muscles in his shoulders tense up. The tension ran down his biceps, across his chest, up his thick neck, and finally residing in his bullet shaped head. As Jefe continued to stare at him, realization finally dawned on Juan. His boss was waiting for answer to the question. By the way he held his pistol, Juan knew that the response would have to be good. The big man holstered his assault rifle and tried desperately to save face.

“I’m sorry, Jefe,” he began in a militaristic tone of voice. “We heard a noise and thought that it might have been an enemy patrol.”

As Jefe took in the short explanation, Juan stole a glance at the other mercenaries. Jose and Reuben each had their guns holstered and stood with Juan. Pedro’s gun was still out but the nozzle was pointed at the ground. Even through the camouflage, Juan could see that all the color had been drained from the kid’s face. Carlos, on the other hand, wore a look of utter confusion. Juan silently held his breath. If Jefe had overheard them…

But if the leader did listen in on the superstitious conversation about demons roaming the forest, he didn’t reveal it. Instead, he tucked the 
pistol back into his belt pouch. “Next time, don’t give away your position so quickly like that,” Jefe gruffly stated. “If it had been an enemy patrol and there were more soldiers nearby, you would have made yourself a perfect target.”

Juan tried to not let the relief wash over his face. “Sorry Jefe,” he said crisply but quietly. “I’ll remember next time. Did you find what you were looking for?”

The cool gaze slowly melted into a sly grin as Jefe replied, “As a matter of fact, I did. Carlos, get the map out.”

“Yes sir,” came the automatic reply as the scout produced a folded up map from his pocket. The mercenaries gathered around as Carlos unfolded it, displaying a view of Managua. To Juan at first glance, it didn’t look any different from the maps that each of them were carrying. All the important roads were marked, as were the potential strike targets. However, upon closer inspection Juan noticed 
several new lines running around a nearby target in a circular fashion. To the trained military eye, they looked very familiar.

Jose beat Juan to punch though. “Those look like patrol routes around the Santa Cruz General Hospital,” he stated.

The smile never left Jefe’s face. “Exactly! We counted four, dressed in civilian clothing to try and disguise themselves.” He shrugged nonchalantly, “They were easy to spot regardless. Military types can’t blend into a crowd real well.”

“But why would the military guard the hospital?” Juan asked. “Were they tipped off?”

“That’s what I had thought at first. But no, after a bit of information gathering I learned that they’re guarding Maricarmen Suarez, daughter of General Hernando Suarez.”

“Isn’t the he the one in charge of Nicaragua’s army, the one with all those political ties?” Jose asked.

Jefe’s grin widened, “The very same. Apparently poor Maricarmen had a car accident yesterday. She’s in stable condition and will be released tomorrow.”

“Lucky for us then,” Jose said gleefully. “Our target just became ten times larger, not to mention our paychecks. The whole country’s going to feel this, from civilians all the way up to the head of the military.”

“Right, here’s the new plan,” Jefe said. The mercenaries focused their attention on the updated map.

Pedro only listened with half interest. The idea of killing innocents still wasn’t boding well with him. He had signed on for military targets, not civilians. He wanted to take out General Suarez, not his daughter.

From the corner of his eye, Pedro thought he saw something move. He turned his head sharply around, focusing on the trees behind him. The branches gently swayed in the chill wind. There was nothing there. Pedro tried to mentally chastise himself for jumping at shadows, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he had seen something moving across the trees, something that had been watching him 
only minutes earlier. His eyes continued to search in vain for a clue. However, he was rewarded only with silence. Whatever was up in those trees had vanished.

Worry lines showed prominently on Pedro’s youthful face as he turned back to the group. Not one of them noticed his nervousness. Instead, they listened closely to Jefe’s new set of instructions, trying hard to burn it into their minds.

Pedro caught the last bit of it as his world focused back on the team rather than the unknown. “You all have your orders. We only get one shot, so no screw-ups,” Jefe said brusquely. He glanced once at Pedro so the kid would know who the mercenary leader was talking about. “Carlos, you take point. Juan, you have rear-guard. Pedro, you’ll be on the left flank and Reuben will be on the right. Jose, you’re with me. Diamond formation, people. Let’s move.”

Upward they rose in silence, the six mercenaries. Onward they marched through the dense forest, carefully scanning for contacts. Minutes ticked away as the distance from the forest edge gradually lessened. To Pedro, stuck out at left flank, it was particularly nerve-racking. He glanced about the tops of the dark trees more often then he glanced at the ground in front of him. The feeling of being watched hadn’t left him, and he continued to look for some kind of sign that would either assuage or confirm his fears. What bothered him most was the utter 
silence. It was not so much the fact that his unit was moving soundlessly through the forest. It was the fact that the forest itself had quieted down. No birds chirped. No insects buzzed. Even the wind had died down so that the trees stood motionless and unwavering. Pedro was alone with his thoughts, which amplified his fears. It was bad enough that he could only barely make out the shapes of Jefe and Jose, the
mercenaries closest to him, through the inky darkness. He felt alone.

Movement in a large bush not ten meters in front of him snapped Pedro out of his thoughts. His knuckles whitened as he griped his rifle tightly in his hands. He had caught a brief silhouette of the creature, and there was no mistaking the outline of wings and a tail. A quick glance to his right revealed that neither Jose nor Jefe were paying any attention to him. They continued moving at their set pace 
towards the city. Pedro didn’t want to risk signaling the rest of his team. For now, he maintained the element of surprise on the creature. As he approached, the bush rattled again causing the young mercenary to stop in his tracks. After a few tense seconds it seemed like whatever was hiding amongst the shrubs hadn’t moved, so Pedro pressed on. His lock on the bush never wavered as he stared through 
the light-amplified scope of his gun. When he got close enough, Pedro parted several of the branches with the barrel of his assault rifle, hoping to get one clean shot in.

And that was when the bush exploded.

A frenzied squack pierced the night, and a flurry of wings beat at the offending soldier. Pedro stepped back to get a better shot, but slipped on an exposed, mossy tree root. His own cry of dismay mingled with the startled screams of the creature. Pedro landed on his back with a dull thud and had just enough time to watch a large bird, with a beautiful plumage and a long, colorful tail, land on a 
branch right above him. It eyed the dazed mercenary contemptuously, and then with another sharp cry, took off into the night in search of a safer roosting spot. After a few moments, Pedro let out a sigh of relief.

Jefe let out a growl of irritation. Pedro’s cries had halted the rest of the team’s progress through the forest, forcing them to follow the source of the commotion and possibly aid their teammate. When the mercenary leader saw that his orders for a silent formation had been broken because his youngest subordinate got scared of a bird, dark thoughts began to swirl in his mind. Carlos and Juan, who had 
arrived on the scene around the same time as Jefe, didn’t know whether to look angry, relieved, or worried. Reuben arrived seconds later with his gun out, ready to start shooting, but his expression changed to one of confusion when he realized that there was nothing to shoot. Jose, on the other hand, looked like he was going to start laughing at any moment. Jefe shot him a warning glance though, and the
mercenary quickly clammed up.

“Jose,” Jefe said in a dangerously low tone, “go help him up to his feet. And then bring him back here.”

Jose nodded quickly and jogged over to where Pedro lay. The young mercenary had been doing his best to get his heart rate to return to normal. He almost succeeded when an upside-down image of Jose’s face appeared in his field of vision. Pedro quickly tensed again. If Jose was here, then chances were good that Jefe was as well, which meant that Pedro was in a lot of trouble.

Jose shook his head, disdainfully grinning like a fool as he held his hand out towards Pedro. The young mercenary grabbed it, and started to haul himself back up on his feet.

“You really are pathetic, you know-” But whatever insult Jose had prepared, died on his lips.

Pedro glanced up to see Jose’s eyes go wide with fright. His hand loosened and Pedro slipped out of his grasp, landing unceremoniously back on the ground. Jose didn’t even notice. His eyes never wavered from the spot directly behind Pedro. The young mercenary slowly turned around as well, and froze when he saw it.

It was a good two-thirds the way up the tree, stationed on a thick branch like some demonic nightmarish visage come true, a creature of the night. Powerful claw-like hands and feet gripped the tree. Even imposed against the black  sky, there was no mistaking the large set of wings and tail attached to the creature’s back. Its mouth was curled back into a feral snarl, exposing several sharp, white fangs. What scared the mercenaries most were the eyes. Both were lit up like twin moons, and glowed an eerie topaz color.

Pedro froze up, finding himself unable to tear his eyes away. Jose, however, was slowly attempting to back up, and away. The other mercenaries wore looks ranging from fear to disbelief. Even Jefe found himself becoming unnerved by this demon.

“What the hell is it?” Jose muttered to himself as he continued to back away, adding with a bit more volume, “What the hell IS it?”

A growl from a different direction pierced the night, and the mercenaries turned their heads to see another one of the creatures. Only this one was moving through the treetops, its yellow eyes never taking their gaze off the men below. Needing no further provocation, Reuben quickly brought his rifle up, hoping to get a shot off at the creature.

And all hell broke loose.

Reuben was the first to fall.  The first gunshot came not from the mercenary but from directly behind him. The sound resonated throughout the forest as the bullet struck him in the back of the head, blowing it wide open. Reuben fell without a sound, a fine, red mist lingering in the air, marking the spot where the base of his skull used to be.

The remaining soldiers turned towards the noise. Jose instinctively raised his gun to return fire when another shot from the unseen attacker penetrated the night. Jose was hit in the chest just above his heart. Despite the Kevlar vest he wore, the bullet went right through him, almost nailing Pedro in the process. A stream of blood poured down the exit wound in his back as Jose collapsed in a disheveled 
heap on the forest ground.

“Sniper!” Jefe shouted. “Down, down! Everyone down!” He dove at the nearest mercenary, Juan, as a third shot kicked up a geyser of earth where his body had been a microsecond ago. The two went rolling down a small hill before coming to a stop at the bottom, out of the sniper’s line of sight. Jefe gathered himself quickly. Two of his team members were dead and within a matter of seconds, but he was 
not about to go as quickly. He motioned to Juan and the two began to work their way around the base of the hill in an attempt to outflank the sniper. However, they didn’t get much further. The trees directly above the two mercenaries exploded in a shower of leaves as two of the demons ambushed them.

One landed directly on top of Juan’s back, and immediately wrapped its fingers around his throat. He gasped and struggled with the surprisingly strong grip. The other landed directly in front of Jefe, swatting his gun away before he could help Juan. Jefe glanced up at the image before him, his trained eyes taking in every detail almost instantly. The creature itself was tall and lean, but well built. Even in the darkness, Jefe could see well-honed muscles rippling through its arms. Its whole body was tattooed in a camouflage pattern, masking it amongst the dense foliage even at a close distance. For the briefest of moments, Jefe wondered if it was perhaps male, judging from its features. And there was no mistaking the human defensive stance it was currently in. Jefe pushed the thoughts aside. Parts of it may have
looked human but there was no mistaking the wings tucked neatly against its back. There was no mistaking the tail it had, which was forked at the tip. Perhaps the most convincing feature was the beak like snout on its face, not to mention the glowing eyes-yellow, like all the others. Jefe prepared himself for the attack. He didn’t have to wait long. With an inhuman growl, the demon creature pounced.

From his temporarily secure position, Pedro watched as the unseen sniper fired another round, puncturing a tree where Carlos’s head had been a split second before. The young mercenary pushed aside his terror and peered into the trees where he had seen the muzzle flash. Even with the light amplified scope, it took precious time before Pedro could see anything. However, he was soon rewarded with a slight 
movement. He trained his sight on the spot, and saw it. Its features were distinctively feminine, despite the beak attached to its face, and the wings and tail on its back. The creature moved gracefully through the trees, and its entire body was tattooed so as to blend in with the dark green forest. However, there was no mistaking the deadly sniper rifle it carried. Pedro found himself having trouble keeping track of
the creature. Its litheness and agility, plus the fact that it was camouflaged, kept the young mercenary from attaining a solid lock. However, it soon stopped in a thick patch of leaves, armed its gun and began searching for targets again. Pedro followed a few of the sweeps to make sure that none were passing near his position.

Satisfied, the young mercenary quietly picked himself off the ground and into a crouching position. Very slowly, he placed the creature’s head within his sights, knowing full well that he was only going to get one shot. His hand brushed the trigger of his gun.

At that instant a clawed hand reached out, grabbed Pedro’s gun, and threw it aside wildly, spoiling his shot. The bullet sped off into the forest, not even coming close to the sniper. Pedro found himself being hoisted by his gun up into the air, and turned around into the face of one of the demons. Viewing one from afar was terrifying enough. Now inches away, Pedro felt a kind of fear he had never known. Like the sniper, this one was camouflaged as well, and at the top of its head was a fin-like crest. Its eyes illuminated the darkened area around the two beings with their yellow light, and its mouth was twisted in a silent growl. The creature drew back with its free hand and landed a solid punch on the young mercenary. Pedro flew back into a tree, hitting it with a dull crash.

The creature watched Pedro land in an unmoving pile. With an affirming nod, it turned back to head down the hill where the other mercenaries were, but stopped short. Twenty feet away stood Carlos, his gun leveled straight at it. The creature tensed up, knowing that there wasn’t much it could do. Carlos’s body jerked as a gunshot rang out and the creature instinctively put its hands up to its chest to try and cover up the wound that was surely to be there. However, after a second or two, it dawned on to the fact that it had not been shot. Rubbing its hands across its body as if trying to believe it, the demon quickly looked back up at Carlos. The mercenary scout was still facing it, gun in his hands. However, the gun soon grew slack in his hands and slipped from his grasp. Carlos sank to his knees, then limply
fell forward. The creature glanced up at the trees, and with its superior night vision, was able to catch a brief but friendly wave.

Juan was still having trouble with whatever was on his back. It was small, smaller than the other demons that he’d seen, but it was still strong. Through fading sight, he could see Jefe having a tough time fighting the beaked demon. Juan knew he had to try and help his leader. With a burst of strength, the big mercenary drove himself backwards into a tree. A small groan from behind him and the 
weakening of fingers told him that his plan worked. Juan quickly reached back, plucked the creature off of him, and threw it into the nearby bushes. He drew out his gun, preparing to fire, when a three-pronged tail grabbed it and tossed it away. Juan turned around just in time to receive a whack across the face from something metallic and very heavy. He landed on the ground hard, blackness consuming 
him. He last saw a large creature retract a metal staff in its hand. Then Juan’s world dissolved away from him.

Jefe knew from the moment he started fighting this demon that he could not win. The creature was stronger, quicker, and had more endurance than him. Jefe could already feel himself tiring out from all the attacks he’d blocked, but the demon wasn’t slowing down at all. It dove in with its left fist first, but Jefe parried it. Just as quickly though, it turned around driving its right elbow towards the mercenary’s head. Jefe caught it at the last second, but he had nothing free to block the fork tail that whipped around and struck him in the face, leaving two ugly marks. Jefe staggered back as if punch-drunk, and the creature closed in on what it thought was the kill. However, Jefe secured a grip on his knife, hidden in his vest pocket, and aimed a vicious slash at the creature’s face. Only a timely duck kept it from having
its beak sliced off. As it was the knife still caught the tip of the demon’s snout. Blood flowed freely from the open wound, and the creature growled savagely, forcing a grim smile out of the mercenary leader. 'If it can bleed, then it can die as well,' Jefe thought to himself as he watched dark red splotches stain the soil.

The mercenary drove again with the knife, but the creature blocked his thrust, pivoting inward, and brought its left hand down hard on the 
mercenary leader’s wrist. Jefe lost his grip on the knife, crying out in pain as he heard bones snap. But the scream was cut off as the creature brought up its knee into the mercenary’s stomach, and then followed it up with an uppercut. Jefe staggered back for real this 
time, trying to fend off the next attack, but the demon moved with lightning speed. Before Jefe could react, the creature drove its right fist directly into the mercenary’s throat, crushing his trachea.

Jefe fell backwards and began wildly thrashing about, trying to breathe. The creature calmly walked up to the mercenary and kicked him onto his back. With its left foot, the creature firmly stepped on Jefe’s chest, immobilizing him. The mercenary gasped and sputtered, but found himself unable to breathe or even move himself from the demon’s weight. He clawed ineffectively at the leg pressing down on 
him. The creature looked at the pathetic gesture with amusement. As Jefe continued to stare at the creature wildly, the glow in its eyes faded and was replaced with a cold, hard glint. Jefe found the look to be more frightening than when its eyes were lit. The creature gazed at him, gazed at his weakening motions, with contempt. And then it spoke.

“Your days of killing are over. You will not harm this country anymore, ladrón!” It said in harsh whisper. Jefe merely looked back up in shock that the demon had actually spoken. The revelation didn’t last long with him, however, as the lack of oxygen to the brain took its toll. Jefe shuddered once, and lay still.

Juan wasn’t sure how long he’d been unconscious. The right side of his face still stung greatly from the hit it had received. Slowly, he opened his eyes and almost immediately wished he hadn’t. Staring back at him was the barrel of a high-powered sniper rifle. Juan raised his hands in a non-threatening gesture and attempted to stand. He only managed to get on to his knees, however, when an audible click from the rifle made him stop. Juan seemed to sense what was coming next and slowly placed his hands on the back of his head, steeling himself for the inevitable and swift gunshot. He glanced up at his executioners.

There were five in all, some of whom Juan recognized. All of them were camouflaged in the same patterns too, blending them with the night shadows. He could see the beaked demon that fought Jefe, and the large one that had taken him down with a blow from its metal staff. A pronged tail, the same one that tore Juan’s gun away from him, swished back and forth across the ground. Next to it was a 
much smaller demon, and perhaps the most “human” looking. Unlike all the others, this one didn’t have any facial protrusions, and its hair was tied back in a ponytail. However, one look at the wings and spaded tail erased any possibility in Juan’s mind that it was even somewhat human. The mercenary guessed that the little one was the one that had jumped him. Behind the smaller one was another demon. This one had a crested ridge running across the top of its head, and spitted the mercenary with a look cold glare. The fifth one, 'the one holding the gun,' Juan surmised, must have been the sniper. It was tall but frail looking, and even with the beak on its face there was no mistaking the savage beauty in its stance-Juan still refused to believe that these could possibly be male or female. They were demons, 
nothing more. Juan gazed at the five calmly. In mere minutes they had killed his team, and now he was next. Juan found himself surprised at his own resolve over the issue. He had always thought that he’d meet his end in a blaze of glory, fighting to the end. Now, he simply resigned himself to his fate. He was not going to give these monsters the satisfaction of knowing that he was afraid.

Before he could think of anything to say, Juan caught movement in his peripherals. He quickly glanced his eyes to the right, catching the outline of another teammate that was stirring. Despite the distance and lack of detail, Juan could still make out the prone form of Pedro trying to raise himself off of the ground. Juan silently prayed that none of the demons had seen it. However, his prayers went unheard as the crested demon nodded its head in the direction of Pedro. The others quickly picked up the movement, and a silent exchange seemed to pass between them.

Juan realized what was going to happen and called out, “No, please! Just leave the kid alone. He didn’t even want to be here, you hear me? Please, just leave him alone.”

Juan’s response was a bullet that shattered his skull.

Pedro woke up the same way Juan did, facing down the barrel of a gun. His eyes went wide and he tried to scramble to his feet with his hands outstretched but slipped on the ground and landed on his back. He quickly scooted back into a tree and rose to his knees in a pleading stance.

“Please,” the young mercenary begged, “please. If you let me go, I won’t come back, I promise. I only did it for my family. My mother, she needs money to eat. She needs money to live. That’s all I did it for! I never wanted to kill civilians. Please just let me go and I won’t come back.” Pedro found he couldn’t say anymore. His whole body shook, and the young mercenary found himself on the verge of 
breaking down.

Pedro wasn’t sure if the demons even understood him, but he was beyond caring at that point. He mumbled prayers to himself, prayers to his family.

Then one of the demons, the smallest of the five, spoke. “You know, from what I overheard he’s telling the truth,” he said to the other four. Pedro immediately stopped praying. He had not expected them to even understand what he was saying, let alone be able speak his language. The demon continued, “He didn’t know that his targets were going to be non-combatants, but he was forced along regardless. I think that, if given the chance, he would have left.”

“But he shot at Alicia,” The demon with the crested forehead spoke up pointing at the beaked sniper. Pedro wasn’t sure which was more surprising: that the demons could talk, that they had names, or that one of them had defended him. “He shot at one of us. No one forced him to do that, Roberto.”

The one named Roberto gave the protestor an annoyed look before turning to the other beaked demon. “Akido, you heard the whole exchange too. You know what was said.”

All eyes focused on Akido, like citizens waiting for a judge to carry out the final verdict. The beaked demon took several slow breaths while idly tracing a finger over the wound on his face. Finally, he turned towards Pedro and stared with uncaring eyes. “What I know is that this mercenary would have helped destroy the hospital one way or the other. I already saw the sequencer charges in his backpack and the maps. No, he must not live, Roberto.”

“But Akido-”

“Enough!” Akido roared, his eyes lighting up momentarily. “I am in charge here!”

That seemed to be enough. Akido’s decision was one that brooked no further arguments. “Of course,” Roberto replied quietly.

Akido nodded to Alicia who armed her rifle. In that instant, Pedro realized that his sentence had been passed. The other demons had already turned their backs to him.

“No, don’t!” Pedro started. But the loud crack of a gunshot cut off his cries of protest. The forest was silent once more.


Undisclosed location on Nicaraguan Plains
Nicaragua, Central America
April 07, 1997; 21:19 local time

A field tent had been setup on a small hill overlooking the grassy plain as a temporary command post. Towers of electronic equipment formed makeshift walls as half a dozen men darted back and forth, checking the sensor systems, comm arrays, and the targeting and tracking gear. On each side of the field tent, arranged in semicircular fashion, sat four artillery pieces, their squat frames almost 
impossible to identify against the dark horizon. The command post was both the figurative and coordinative keystone to the whole operation.

A seventh man stood in the center of the tent with his arms casually folded over his chest, an air of authority hanging over him, as he watched the last minute preparations. Casually, he glanced at his watch and frowned. His gaze moved over to a soldier sitting directly in front of him who was busying entering plot points into a targeting computer.

“Lieutenant, give me a status report. The time deadline to our little exercise is nearing.”

“Yes sir,” the soldier replied, hastily giving his keyboard a few taps to bring up a command list. “SATCOM is currently up and running at 100%. Telescopic, sonic, GPS, and FLIR radar tracking systems are also at 100%. TAS is now at 95% and should finish uploading into the mainframe within the next sixty seconds. GPS has confirmed the location of all targets out in the field, and the coordinates fed back are accurate with the earlier tests. DTAT and Norden SPS are only at 84% currently but should finish uploading in less than three minutes. I was just about to radio our units out in the field and request a final sit-rep, with your permission Colonel?”

“Go ahead.”

The Lieutenant opened a tight channel with the soldiers manning the artillery stations, immediately wincing as static feedback coursed through the speakers. He picked up the microphone, speaking none too gently into it so as to be sure that he was heard. “To all Gong units, this is command. There appears to be interference on present waveband; switch to 365. Mandatory sit-reps by 21:22. I repeat, 
there is interference on present waveband; switch to 365. Mandatory sit-reps by 21:22.”

As the Colonel watched the Lieutenant finish his broadcast, a young looking Private ran up to him, skidded to a halt, and threw a quick salute before speaking. “Colonel Benitez, sir, I have General Suarez on the phone. He wishes to speak with you about tonight’s test and-”

“Tell General Suarez that everything is proceeding according to plan, and that I am too busy to take any calls at the moment,” Benitez replied calmly while cutting off the Private in mid-report with a wave of his hand.

The soldier glanced at the Colonel uneasily for a moment. He could clearly see that Benitez was not too busy. Thinking that maybe he hadn’t heard correctly, the Private tried again, “But sir, General Suarez is-” However, Benitez cut him off again.

“It’s all right. Just tell him what I told you.” Upon seeing the nervousness in the youth’s face, Benitez added, “Don’t worry. You won’t get in trouble.”

That seemed to be enough. The Private saluted quickly again, and ran off to lie to the head of the Nicaraguan military. Colonel Benitez watched him vanish behind a wall of computer equipment with a bemused expression. “Was I ever that young?” he asked out loud but more to himself than anyone else.

“Probably, sir. But I think the real question is: were you ever that naïve?”

Benitez was jarred from his thoughts. It took him a second to realize that the Lieutenant in front of him had answered his question. The Colonel chuckled and relaxed his arms, “Don’t get me wrong, Lieutenant. General Suarez is a competent soldier and a fine politician. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the man; however, he seems to think that successful completion of this nighttime test will put us on par with other military powers. That’s why he keeps calling and checking on every little detail. I love and serve my country, but I’m enough of a realist to know that this doesn’t even come close to the capabilities of America, China, or Britain. In truth, a successful test will put us on par with, and to a certain extent ahead of, the other Central American countries. We can station the artillery units along our borders to repel external attacks from Contras and other mercenaries.”

“So that’s why you kept this operation a secret,” The Lieutenant stated, his mind beginning to catch on to the Colonel’s train of thought.

Benitez smiled, “Exactly. If the accuracy tonight is as good as I hope it to be, our enemies won’t know a thing about this until it’s too late to counter.” He paused and took a deep breath as if trying to make the victory that he was so confident in a tangible thing that he could smell and taste. The artillery units were beginning to report in over the comm channel, each one signaling that their status was green and that they were ready to commence firing. Benitez waited patiently until the last one informed that it was ready and standing by. Feeling even more relaxed, he ordered, “Time to find out if the last element is in place. Radio the Night Walkers.”


A temperate wind swept across the central plains, blowing through the trees, and dislodging several twigs and leaves. Roberto grumbled as several of the smaller pieces entwined themselves in his long hair and on his wing tips. He tried in vain to wrap his bat shaped wings around his body protectively as he squatted on one of the larger branches.

“It’s April, spring time, yet the trees shed,” he complained aloud with a soft growl. He delicately reached back and detangled a projectile that looked like a small scythe. Sighing, he flicked the twig over the side, watching it briefly flutter in the wind. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“Ah, quit you’re whining, Roberto,” a voice called out from above. Roberto glanced upwards at his partner who was holding a pair of binoculars and looking out over the plains. “It’s only a bunch of sticks.”

“That’s easy for you to say, Sun-Tzu. You don’t have hair, so you wouldn’t know what it’s like,” Roberto retorted with a slight grin.

Without missing a beat, Sun-Tzu rubbed a hand over his scalp, tracing the crested ridge that ran lengthwise along the top. “Hey, it’s all in the look. And it gets me chicks too.”

“Correction, chick. As in only one,” Roberto stated before adding in a mock threatening tone, “And I don’t think Alicia would appreciate you calling her a chick. Remember, she’s got a gun.”

Sun-Tzu grinned. “Well regardless, it’s still one more than you, isn’t it?” Finally lowering the binoculars and turning towards Roberto, Sun-Tzu almost broke out laughing upon seeing his friend’s sour expression at the last comment. He knew that Roberto wasn’t really offended. Roberto had had his fair share of women when he was younger. Both Akido and Sun-Tzu jokingly called him the Don Juan of 
Nicaragua. But that was all in the past. Roberto was the oldest of the five, despite being the smallest. Sun-Tzu recalled Roberto telling him once that he had lost interest in “woman hunting,” as he liked to call it, years ago. So when he and Alicia started growing closer together, Sun-Tzu never worried that Roberto might have harbored a slight grudge.

Another gust of wind kicked up some more loose debris, and Roberto once again shielded his hair from the onslaught. Sun-Tzu tried hard to hide his growing amusement as he called out again, “You know, Roberto, I could always just cut it off, save you the trouble.” With his right hand, he mimed a pair of scissors cutting through the air.

Roberto’s response was instantaneous. “No thanks. I’d rather not look like a Klingon.” He glanced up and smirked good-naturedly as his friend unconsciously rubbed the ridge on his head.

“Ah, what do you know anyway?” Sun-Tzu huffed after a brief pause. He stuck out his tongue at Roberto and picking up his binoculars, turned back towards the plains.

Roberto was about to add another jab for good measure when a rush of wings and the jarring of the tree branch he sat upon stopped him. He looked over at Akido who had just landed, his frame eclipsed by the light of the moon that shone brightly in the night sky. The leader expertly tucked his wings against his back and padded silently towards Roberto, his eyes occasionally flicking back towards the horizon. Roberto sighed inwardly and put on a neutral mask in front of his superior. Akido was in another one of his moods.

“Give me a status report,” Akido commanded, breaking the brief silence.

Sun-Tzu called out from above, “I’ve got a clear view of the target area from my vantage point, so I’m good to go.”

Akido gave a firm nod and turned to Roberto. “What about you?”

Roberto pulled out a small computer screen from his belt pocket. He held it up so Akido could read it. “TAS is up and running on my end. I’ll be able to track the trajectories of the artillery shells and coordinate impact points with the field tent.”

Akido gave another nod before turning to look out over the plains once more. Short grass covered the landscape like a green blanket. Along the horizon, the terrain rose up to form several small hills, barely perceptible even to Akido’s sharp eyes. Although he couldn’t see it, he knew that a field tent and eight artillery pieces sat atop one such hill, waiting to begin the night’s exercise. At random points, Akido could make out small, dark lumps on the ground itself. Those were the mannequins, dummies attached with sensors that would feed information back to computer towers at the field tent. A handful of beat up, worthless old vehicles, likewise attached with sensors, were also visible.

Akido rubbed a hand over his beak thoughtfully, taking care not smudge the camouflage paint he had put on when he first awoke this evening. He resented having to wear it over his entire body. After all, his natural coloring didn’t stand out at night like Sun-Tzu’s and Alicia’s, but then it didn’t hurt either. Truthfully, the paint helped him blend in with his surroundings, perfect for sneaking up on contras and other mercenaries that would try and harm his country.

As Akido’s thoughts strayed towards his enemies, his eyes began to take on a hardened glint. He had dedicated most of his life to protecting his country. He knew that that made him uncompromising on the field. However, Akido found it to be a necessary measure. Sometimes sacrifices had to made in order to protect the innocent, so they wouldn’t have to suffer like he had. A handful would die so thousands could live. With that knowledge, Akido had dedicated his life to the military. No matter what the cost, he would win; he had to.

A faint beeping noise brought Akido back to the present. It took him a moment to realize that it was Command calling in, requesting a final sit-rep.

Roberto had been made official liaison of the group due to the fact that, out of the five, he was the most human looking, not to mention the most diplomatic. He took the comm unit out of his belt pouch answering, “Dominos pizza, twenty-four hour delivery. How may I help you?”

“Very cute, Roberto,” a small, tinny voice responded from the other end. “Colonel Benitez would like a final status update from you guys since you’re the only ones holding up the show at the moment.”

Roberto glanced over at Akido who nodded once. He spoke into the receiver, “Well, we’ve been ready for quite some time now. How come it took you guys until now to finally call us up?”

“I copy your status,” the voice said, refusing to answer Roberto’s question. “First barrage will commence in thirty seconds.” Without waiting for a reply, the voice clicked off.

“Nice talking to you too,” Roberto said mildly while staring at the idle comm. The branch shook slightly causing him to look up at Akido who was preparing to jump off. Roberto quickly asked, “They’ll be firing any moment now. Where are you off to?”

“I’ve set up post with Halley and Alicia. In between barrages I’m taking aerial shots so I’ll be traveling back and forth across the plains. My comm line’s open if you need to contact me.” Akido launched himself from the tree and glided off before Sun-Tzu or Roberto could say anything.

After Akido had gone Roberto hopped up to the branch where Sun-Tzu was. He leaned up against the main trunk of the tree and watched the trailing silhouette of his leader. “I swear he’s got a spilt-personality sometimes,” he said to Sun-Tzu.

“Uh huh,” Sun-Tzu grunted, only half listening. He continued to scan the horizon with his binoculars. After a few seconds he paused long enough to ask, “How so?”

Roberto eyed him skeptically. “You don’t find it the least bit odd that he can relax, joke around, hell, even act downright cordial sometimes, but when we’re doing anything that’s military oriented he becomes something entirely different? He’s more distant, and a lot colder.”

“It’s just the intensity and pressure of being a leader,” Sun-Tzu responded dismissively. “He’s got a lot to worry about. Besides, Akido’s spent most of his time with the military, and with the life he’s had I can’t blame him for the way he acts. To be honest, I find his determination comforting, knowing that he would do anything possible to win while keeping all of us alive at the same time. You should 
appreciate it.”

“Was that you talking just now, or your position as second in command?” Roberto asked casually.

Sun-Tzu finally put the binoculars down long enough to look straight at Roberto. “I understand him, simple as that.” Sun-Tzu watched his friend shrug once as he went back to work. Sun-Tzu continued to scan the horizon line, knowing that he was going to have to start playing the role of spotter soon. Sure enough, within a few seconds his patience was rewarded. “Got one incoming, Roberto.”

Roberto pulled out the computer and angled it in the direction of the shell. “TAS is tracking…”


Even though Akido and his clan scoured the vicinity with a watchful eye, and despite the numerous sensors equipped all along the plains region, no one noticed the ball of fire that mysteriously appeared over the grassy landscape. It expanded slowly, hovering a good three feet above the ground, reddish flames licking the tops of the short grass but failing to ignite them. Within the center of the ball emerged a shadowy figure, and then, as quickly as it appeared, the flames vanished, depositing its occupant on the ground in a crouched position. He folded his wings around his body as he, Brooklyn, Timedancer, contemplated the newest chapter in his journey.

A warm wind stirred the cotton white hair on his head around his eyes as Brooklyn surveyed his surroundings. The land in front of him was flat, aside from the occasional bush, stretching out towards the horizon where it began to slope upwards. On either side, and directly behind, stood the silent sentinels, watching over the land, and marking where the u-shaped plains ended and the forest began. Aside from the faint stirring of their leaves, no other sound could be picked up by Brooklyn’s sharp hearing. For now, the world was still.

As the Timedancing gargoyle treaded his way through the grass, he allowed himself a quick look up at the cloudless night sky and the sparkling diamonds scattered across its inky darkness. A soft smile tugged at Brooklyn’s lips as memories of Manhattan, and of his clan, flooded back to him. From a distance, the stars looked like city lights. He recalled the days when he used to go gliding with Broadway and Lexington. Seemed like a long time ago. Brooklyn sighed once, and turned his gaze back toward earth.

“Looks like I’ve been dumped into the shooting set of a Tylenol Allergies commercial,” Brooklyn mused aloud. He automatically turned to his right as if searching for something and froze when the realization hit. Normally Sata, his mate, would be standing beside him, ready with a chiding remark about his odd sense of humor but failing to hide the secret amusement from her eyes. Normally she would be standing there, his pillar of strength, someone with whom he could share his soul. And he in turn would know the feeling of what it’s like to be truly loved by another, know what it’s like to look upon her beautiful jade skin and feel utterly content, know what it’s like to have the problems he shouldered melt away simply because he gazed into her eyes and understood that she was carrying the burden with him.

But Sata wasn’t there. No, she was somewhere in the future, or the past since Brooklyn didn’t know when or where he was, carrying their child. Brooklyn desperately fought the tears that tried to run down his crimson beak as he pictured Sata when he left her: lying on the floor sobbing both from the pain of her magically induced sickness and from the pain in her heart, spasms slowly killing her and their child. He remembered having to make the hardest choice of his life. He had to leave her. The magic from his timedancing was slowly poisoning her body. It was only the knowledge that she had been left in the care of friends, and the countless vows he had made to return to her someday, that kept him going. However, even that didn’t make the ache go away. And so, like now, Brooklyn still found himself sometimes thinking that this was all some crazed nightmare that he would wake up from at some point and find things back to the way 
they were.

“I will find my way back to you, Sata,” Brooklyn whispered to himself. “I promise.”

For now, Brooklyn knew that he needed to focus on the present and that meant figuring out where he was. A quick look at the Phoenix Gate in his pouch showed that the talisman was temporarily idle. He began to head for the small rise on the horizon, but didn’t take more than a couple steps before his foot connected with something lying prone in the grass. It was hard and plastic, and the jolt surprised Brooklyn enough that he had to snap his wings open to keep his balance. Glancing down, he picked up the shadowy object, eliciting a quick intake of air as the soft lunar light played upon its surface.

“A mannequin?” Brooklyn observed questioningly. Indeed there was no mistaking it. The dummy was the size of an average human male, dressed in military fatigues and holding on to a plastic rifle. As Brooklyn lowered the mannequin and began to survey the land again, he noted several other dark lumps strewn about, at least a dozen at first glance. When he looked more intently, Brooklyn noticed that 
some of the larger ones previously thought to be bushes were in fact old, worn out jeeps.

“There’re enough fake soldiers and equipment nearby to form a small platoon,” Brooklyn noted, “but why are they here?” He was about to put the mannequin back in its position when a glint off the back of its head stopped him. His eyes widened slightly as he saw what looked like a little black chip on the base of the cap. Brooklyn brought the mannequin in close until his beak was practically touching it. Two little LED lights glowed a faint but steady green and Brooklyn read the words next to each one: Signal Input and Signal Output. At the bottom was a small logo with the letters “XE” written on it formally. XE, Xanatos Enterprises.

Brooklyn checked the mannequin over and found two more of the chips on its torso. Quickly, the gargoyle dropped the plastic soldier and hurried over to the next closest one. Again, he saw the same three chips in the exact same location, one on the head and two on the torso. Although Brooklyn was not as technologically oriented as his rookery brother Lex, he was no fool either.

“Signal Input, and Signal Output,” Brooklyn murmured as he continued to stare at the chip thoughtfully. “I’d be willing to bet a week’s worth of food that this is some kind of tracking signal or sensor device, bouncing back its location to whoever’s on the other end. Every other mannequin in this field must have one, the trucks too.”

The ruddy gargoyle broke off with a small sigh. He’d only been in this new dance for a few minutes and already he was forced to unravel a mystery. He still had no idea who was on the other end of the signal, or why they were pinpointing the locations for immobile objects, or why Xanatos Enterprises was on the logo of the chips. However, he chose to leave those questions unvoiced. Brooklyn wasn’t willing to chalk up the XE symbol as a coincidence, no matter how far reaching the corporation was. If the past dances had taught him anything, it was that very little happened for no reason. Something about this whole matter just wasn’t adding up, and it was starting to leave an unsettling feeling in his stomach.

Brooklyn glanced at his surroundings again, and almost immediately was hit with a sense of clarity. The variables began to slowly fit into place: the openness of the terrain, the mannequins in combat fatigues, the worthless old vehicles, the tracking devices on the immobile objects. All were leading towards one conclusion, and what it was didn’t sit well with the gargoyle.

“I think I’d better go,” Brooklyn said to himself more as a command than a suggestion. He dropped the mannequin that he’d been holding and slowly began to back away. However, his advice was heeded too late.

He heard it first before he saw it. It started as a soft, high-pitched whistling noise that echoed across the plains, making it difficult to locate 
an exact position. However, as the noise grew steadily in volume, Brooklyn’s sharp ears were able to hone down its location along the horizon, just where the ground began to rise. And then he saw it. A trail of fire was making its way across the night sky. By the time Brooklyn was able to focus on it completely it had already reached its apex, leaving behind a crimson streak that shone perfectly against the blackness, and gravity was already beginning to take its predictable hold. The trail reminded Brooklyn briefly of a shooting star that he had once seen in Manhattan, but this was no skyward asteroid. This was much deadlier.

As the artillery shell streaked back toward the earth, Brooklyn wanted to run, tried to run, but his eyes wouldn’t tear themselves away from the projectile’s descent. The whistling grew louder and shriller until it reached a point where it filled up his senses and hammered at his brain, riveting him to the spot. At the last moment, gargoyle survival instincts kicked in and shook Brooklyn from his partially frozen trance as he tried to dive for the ground. However, he only made it partway before the artillery shell struck.

The ground in front of Brooklyn erupted in a wall of fire. Yellow and orange swirled together, rising up beyond the timedancer’s field of vision. The searing heat blistered his tough skin, and the shockwave immediately following the explosion knocked him down effortlessly. Brooklyn lay on his back for a few moments, stunned, while the fire blazed away at the short grass. He desperately fought at consciousness, knowing full well that if he blacked out here he was done for.

Slowly, Brooklyn willed himself back up to a standing position. His whole body hurt, but Brooklyn pushed past the pain, reminding himself that he’d been in worse situations before. He quickly recalled back to his time spent in ancient Egypt where he fought with the dragon Apep. Now that had been a battle that took a lot out of him, both physically and mentally. With a final surge, Brooklyn hauled himself back up on his feet.

Through the smoke and flames, he could now see the impact point a bit more clearly. The artillery shell had landed practically on top of the mannequin that he had been holding earlier, confirming his initial idea that the chips were in fact tracers. Brooklyn realized that every dummy piece lying in the field was a potential target. He needed to get airborne, and fast.

But as Brooklyn glanced around him again, he discovered that that would prove to be more difficult than previously thought. It was close to impossible for a gargoyle to get airborne from the ground directly. Their wings were not designed for flying. Rather, they glided on thermals and air currents. Ultimately, all gargoyles needed a high perch from which to launch themselves off of as a result of this, like a tree or the roof of a building. However, Brooklyn was in the middle of flat grassland. There wasn’t even so much a slight incline nearby, and the closest trees were some distance away.

Still, he had to try. 'It’s better than waiting for an artillery shell to turn me into gargoyle kibble,' he thought wryly.

As Brooklyn turned to head for the forest’s edge, another sound pierced the cacophonous roar of the flames and the ringing in the ruddy gargoyle’s ears. It was high-pitched, shrill, and its volume told Brooklyn that it was not far off. Too close for him to even try and locate it. Brooklyn groaned in dismay and quickly crouched down, folding his wings around his body protectively, as a second artillery shell impacted to his left.

The noise was deafening but fortunately, the impact was far enough away that it did not batter Brooklyn as the first one had. A hot blast of air washed over his body and flaming bits of dirt and grass pelted at his wings but did little harm. After a second, the sound died down enough that Brooklyn felt it was safe to get back on his feet again. However, he knew that the temporary peace would not last long. 
The gargoyle quickly glanced at the impact point. This time the artillery shell had targeted a cluster of three of the mannequin soldiers. Bits of plastic mixed in with the upturned earth. The rest was simply gone, incinerated.

Now was as good a time to move as any. Brooklyn turned to his right and attempted to make a dash for the forest, but his body would not move as swiftly as his mind wanted. Getting knocked down by the first explosion had apparently done more to him than he wanted to admit. Still, he continued to press onward despite the protest from his muscles. Unfortunately, he didn’t get very far before his ears picked out a-by now dreadfully familiar-whistling noise. When he looked up, the gargoyle saw not one but two fiery streaks racing downwards. And one was about to land right in front of him.

Brooklyn hit the ground again as the first shell struck, using his wings once more as a makeshift shield. A second blast rocked his prone form a split second later, raining more debris down on him. It took several precious moments before Brooklyn managed to pick himself up. Instantly, he did not like the new scene that he was presented with. The escape route to the forest was now cut off by the spreading fires, thanks mainly to the shell that landed directly in his path. The other projectile had landed off to his right, sealing the box. Brooklyn now found himself surrounded on all sides by searing flames and smoke. His options were literally burning up before his eyes with each passing second, and for the first time tonight panic was starting to tug at the edges of his brain.

Brooklyn crouched low to the ground, trying hard to make himself as small a target as possible. The desperation he had felt earlier was now beginning to be replaced with animalistic anger. His eyes glowed hotly as he pulled the Phoenix Gate from its resting pouch and glared at it. He couldn’t be sure if it was a trick of light from the flames, but Brooklyn could have sworn he saw the gate twinkle with 
morbid amusement at the timedancer’s predicament. This only served to add fuel to his rage.

“You dropped me into an artillery range you sadistic son of a b-” he began to growl but the curse lingering on his lips was drowned out as another shell impacted in the dirt. The explosion itself wasn’t anywhere near Brooklyn but the impact tremors following were violent enough to shake the ground he stood on.

Momentarily distracted from his fury, Brooklyn realized that now was not the time for anger. He needed to escape. Slowly, the light faded from his eyes but the panic remained. Everywhere he looked the grassland was burning; the once peaceful plains had been turned into a firestorm. Smoke drifted across in great plumes, turning the clear night into a thick haze that obscured the timedancer’s vision. Each time he would cough and try to wipe the water from his tearing eyes, and each time he would sink lower to the ground and try to breathe in the rapidly diminishing air.

A part of him wanted to give up, wanted to rationalize that the longer he looked for an escape the less likely he was going to find one. Brooklyn pushed that part aside. He couldn’t give up hope. Hope was all he had. It was what kept him searching for a way back to Sata. He dropped to all fours, below the smoke, and took off running. He forced himself right up to the perimeter of the flames, ignoring the heat against his skin as he hunted for something, a gap in the fire, anything. He could feel the artillery shells continue to rhythmically detonate around him, but Brooklyn refused to be deterred from his task, refused to let the panic overwhelm him again.

And then he saw it. There was a slight break in the fires from where two shells had hit nearby. It was still big enough for a gargoyle though the gap was receding as the fires ate away at the short grass. Brooklyn wasted no time as he raced towards the hole, diving through it just as the flames engulfed the last bit of green. He rolled once before tucking his legs under and up into a crouched position where he rested for a few moments to let a warm breeze waft across his burnt skin. Slowly, Brooklyn opened his eyes. The fires still burned brightly and the dark gray smoke prevented him from seeing into the blaze. The ground still shook as more artillery shells plowed into the dirt and Brooklyn could see several more crimson streaks in the sky.

“But at least I’m not in that pressure cooker anymore,” Brooklyn said to himself. Indeed, the area seemed safe from where he was crouched just a few meters away from the impact of the first shell. Even the edge of the forest, with its thick growth of trees, seemed closer. Seemed, that is, until Brooklyn’s eyes cast downward and he made out a shape lying prone in the grass. His eyes grew wide with shock as the shape formed a familiar image. Another mannequin.

Brooklyn leapt to his feet as quickly as his battered body would let him. He may have been safe now but he wasn’t sure for how much longer. He carefully took two labored steps backward before turning to make a dash for the forest. And Brooklyn almost ran beak first into a jeep.

A mixture of luck and good reflexes kept the gargoyle from plowing into the side paneling. Brooklyn took a dazed step back. The jeep was old and showed some serious signs of overuse. Two green LED lights on the hood and trunk stared back at him like sets of unblinking, remorseless eyes. Before Brooklyn could react, another shrill high-pitched whistle forced its way over the roar of the fires behind him and into his brain.

'Oh no! NO!'

The jeep exploded as a shell slammed through the roof and ignited the fuel line, just as Brooklyn brought his right wing up to help shield him from some of the blast. Unlike the first one though that simply knocked Brooklyn down, this one carried with it deadly bits of shrapnel from the jeep’s ruined frame as it burst outward. The shockwave spun the timedancer around and white hot bits of metal flew all around him. Like needle teeth they bit through his wing, tearing at his sides, raking his face, and leaving bloody streaks as they passed. The gargoyle’s cries soon turned to anguished screams when a fist-sized chunk of metal ripped a ragged wound into his wing membrane. Mercifully, they were cut short as Brooklyn cartwheeled over on end once before being buried face down in the soil.

Weakly, after several precious seconds, Brooklyn parted one eye open. His entire body rebelled against him, refusing to move. Though he couldn’t see the damage done to his right wing, the timedancer was sure that it had seriously ripped. His head throbbed-one eye wouldn’t even open-and his skin felt like it had turned to wax from all the blistering. Despite the physical injuries, Brooklyn knew his mind was still intact, and right now it was telling him that he had to move. However, as his good eye focused on the image in front of him, the sight that greeted him immediately made his blood freeze. Staring back at him was the expressionless face of another plastic soldier. It was lying next to Brooklyn, wearing the same camouflage garb and gripping its plastic rifle as its dead eyes stared outward, unaware of its fate.

'This isn’t happening to me. This can’t be happening,' Brooklyn’s mind recoiled. With a surge of strength, he pushed himself up halfway, enough that he could turn his head around to see where he landed. What he saw almost caused him to fall back to the ground. Another duplicate mannequin lay to his left. Brooklyn had been blown in between two artillery targets, his luck now having gone from worse to disastrous. The brick-red gargoyle didn’t even have to listen for the telltale whistling sound this time. Some sixth sense already told him that one was streaking down towards him.

Brooklyn struggled to get back on his feet before glancing upwards, his worst fear confirmed. He didn’t even need depth perception at this point to know that the crimson streak in the sky was meant for him. Like some messenger of death racing in its fiery chariot, Brooklyn watched his end speed closer and closer. He thought about running, but his sustained injuries put a stop to that. It was all Brooklyn could do at this point to even stand up. He had been beaten and battered, but his only regret was the knowledge that he had failed. He had failed Sata. He had failed his unborn hatchling. It filled his heart with deep sorrow in knowing that he would never see his mate again, that he would never return home to see his own clan again.

'It’s not fair,' Brooklyn thought. He had been in so many previous fights where his life was on the line; so many times he had risked much save the day or to win a fight. In Egypt, in Japan, in France. He had come so far in his timedancing only to see it get snuffed out like this. It was not the way Brooklyn had pictured his death.

A high pitched whistle broke through Brooklyn’s thoughts and his ringing ears. It seemed almost as if the shrill noise was calling to him, preparing him. “I’m sorry, Sata,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

At that point two things happened almost simultaneously. One, Brooklyn detected movement in the peripheral of his good eye. He turned his head around just in time to see a green blur slam into his side with tremendous force. And two, the artillery shell exploded. Fortunately for Brooklyn, he was already unconscious by that point.


A steady applause rang inside the field tent as the last artillery shell detonated along the plains. Half a dozen soldiers brought their hands 
together with rapt enthusiasm as they watched the final impact point light up on the numerous TAS monitors scattered throughout the tent. The various sensors in the field still displayed their last known position, and the Norden SPS and DTAT software systems displayed the impact points and damage radiuses of each shell, giving the soldiers a fairly good idea of how much punishment had been inflicted on the test targets. Of course, the actual artillery units weren’t privy to all of the systems as that would have made things too easy. After all, a real enemy wasn’t going to be wearing sensors on their backs. Instead, they simulated live combat, having to rely on their own radar and whatever the field tent troops felt like giving them. Still, the data did not lie. The artillery units were as accurate as anyone could have hoped for. Colonel Benitez would have been joining in on the celebration but he was too busy talking on the phone at that moment.

“Yes General, we just completed our test firings. A total of forty rounds fired, five from each unit,” Benitez spoke cleanly into the receiver. He paused as General Suarez took the opportunity to ask a question.

“How did it go, sir?” Benitez asked smiling. “Here, let me show you.” The Colonel took the receiver and held it up to the open door in his office. Vivacious clapping and lighthearted cheers flowed freely into the phone. After a second, Benitez brought the phone back to his ear. “I thought it would be better if my men answered your question, sir.”

Benitez paused again, this time to laugh politically at Suarez’s next comment. “Yes, I agree. Yes, definitely. …Understood. I’ll begin hiring technicians right away, sir. No, thank you, sir. Goodbye, sir.”

Colonel Benitez hung up the phone in good spirits. All that was left was to get a final report from Akido’s team and then he could settle on down for the evening with his good friend Jack. Maybe Ms. Sunrise would join as well, make it a three-way.

However, Benitez never made it away from his desk. The comm. Lieutenant he had spoken with earlier quickly strode into the open doorway. The officer paused, throwing a quick salute. The chestnut haired Colonel noted with some curiosity that the Lieutenant wasn’t smiling.

“Something I can do for you, Lieutenant?” Benitez asked.

“Sir, I just received a call from Roberto,” the Lieutenant’s voice sounded strained but he wisely dropped the level of his voice the moment he mentioned Roberto’s name so as no other soldier could hear. “There was an incident on the artillery range that you should know about.”

Colonel Benitez frowned as he listened.

To be continued...