³Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.²
--J. Robert Oppenheimer,
quoting the Hindi "Bhagavad-Gita²
³So who are you bringing to the party
tomorrow?² Odin asked in a mocking tone. Anansi had a smirk
on his fangs, and Raven was killing himself laughing.
She, of course, said nothing. How could she?
³What¹s the matter?² Anansi asked mockingly. ³You never seemed like the silent type before.²
If looks could kill, the spider would have been a smouldering pile of ash. For the Banshee, though, it was her voice which was truly fatal. That did not do her a lot of good at the moment, considering she had a thick iron plate covering her mouth.
~The whole thing is a stupid idea,~ the Banshee raged as she turned away, trying to ignore the howls of laughter behind her. ~First Oberon pulls us away from the mortal world, where I quite liked to be. Then, when he gets bored, instead of sending us back, he decides to have us kidnap mortals and bring them here! Doesn¹t he realize the kind of trouble that mortals can cause?~
It was a mortal, after all, who had prevented her from ruling Ireland. Granted, Cuchulain had been a very special mortal, one of the Great Heroes. Most of the other humans had been completely at her mercy.
Yes, in Ireland she could have been a queen. Here on Avalon, she was simply one more of Oberon¹s children.
³Banshee?² She turned in the direction of the voice, and there he was behind her, the sanctimonious twit himself.
³Mm mmph mumumumm,² she mumbled, which would have been ³My lord Oberon² had she not been wearing the iron plate. She forced herself to pick up her skirt in a curtsey. Should she anger Oberon further, her next punishment was likely to be worse than an iron plate on her mouth. The unfairness of it all rankled her. That obnoxious blowhard Odin had been the one who had started it!
³We do hope you are bringing someone to the party,² Oberon said. ³All our children must bring guests.² The Banshee nodded. ³That means you as well.² She nodded again. ³You are bringing a guest?² Another nod. ³Good. We are glad to have had this little talk.² Oberon drew his cape around himself and proceeded on his way.
~It isn¹t like I have a choice, now is it?~ The Banshee stalked away from the castle, heading for her private hideaway halfway up the nearest mountain, thinking as she went. ~So, I am to be forced to bring a guest to this ridiculous party. Very well, then. Surely I can find someone to invite who will make Oberon sorry he ever had this idea! Someone who will ruin the entire affair. Perhaps...if I can find someone powerful enough... someone who will make Oberon realize that it is far more convenient for both of us if I am allowed to rule in Ireland...~ The thought brought the hint of a smile curving out from under the iron plate.
~Who in the mortal realm would have such power?~ At the moment, she had no idea. She would have to take some time to think--and think quickly, for she had little more than a day to come up with a plan and carry it out. The Banshee parted some large bushes, and there ahead of her was her secret place.
The clearing was paved with worn white stones and ringed with fallen columns. There was the odd statue, half worn away with time, and on the other side of the square stood a decrepit temple, slabs of fallen stone partially blocking the entrance. The Banshee walked into the temple--battered though it was, it was still cleaner than the bogs of Ireland--and sat down before the altar, leaning with her back against it. It was odd that any place in Avalon should have fallen into disrepair, but she didn¹t care. She liked it.
Her ears picked up noises coming from the courtyard outside. As far as she knew, none of the Children of Oberon came up here. They all preferred Oberon¹s palace to these weathered ruins. Gargoyles, perhaps? No, it was not quite sunset yet. The Banshee waited, hoping the newcomers would pass by.
They did not. Minutes slipped away. Finally, the Banshee decided to risk a peek. She carefully got to her feet and walked along the inner wall of the temple. Dropping to all fours, she crouched behind the fallen slabs that half-covered the entrance. A group of fay were gathered outside, and the Banshee cursed; ruins were perhaps appropriate for the gloomy little convention that was meeting here.
The leader of the group wore Egyptian robes in bold primary colours; his most striking feature was his canine head. In his left hand he carried a long pole wrapped in a white shroud. Another fay in a long black robe leaned against a pillar; he sported a zodiac symbol on his forehead and Roman sandals on his feet. A third lounged on the ground, her back against a slab of stone, wearing a very modern-looking black cocktail dress and toying with her cornsilk blonde hair, appearing rather bored. An eight-armed woman in a sari sat on a pedestal which had lost its statue long ago. She appeared Indian in the sub-continental sense. Walking along the path came a man who looked Indian in the American Native sense.
The eight-armed woman cast a baleful glance at the newcomer. ³Who might you be?² she asked.
He bowed. ³Xolotl, at your service.²
³Now that¹s a mouthful,² the Nordic blonde cracked.
Xolotl looked annoyed. ³And who are you?²
³Hel. That¹s Hel with one ³L². Stupid humans always get it wrong,² she said, still playing with her hair.
~A Death convention,~ the Banshee thought. ~Perfect. I don¹t dare leave this temple now or they¹ll find out where my secret place is, and then I¹ll never have any peace on this blasted island.~
Had the Banshee taken the time to look behind her and up into the roof, she would have realized that the fallen temple was the secret place of someone else as well. Crouched on a marble beam, right beside one of the tall white columns, sat the stone statue of a female gargoyle. As the Banshee knelt in hiding, her attention riveted on the dark fay gathered outside, the sun slid below the summit of the mountain and Ophelia came to life.
The gargoyle yawned, stretching her arms and shaking the last remnants of stone skin off her double-clawed wings. Her eyes popped open in surprise when she realized that she was not alone; she had considered the temple to be her private hideaway for her entire life. Last night¹s troubles almost faded from her mind as she slunk back into the disguising shadows and tried to figure out what was happening here and now.
Her problem was with her rookery brother Michael. Perhaps the best warrior of her rookery, Michael had asked her, that past night, whether there was a chance that they might become mates some day. ~We have been close friends, that is true, but try though I might, I simply feel no attraction to him!~
Thinking in the temple often helped to clear her mind. In her childhood days, when her rookery siblings had become too boisterous and rowdy, or when they had a disagreement, Ophelia came here to the ruined temple for peace. More recently, it had been her safe haven on the evening when Anansi had decided that changing all the gargoyles to spiders for a night would be most amusing. Ophelia chuckled to herself, remembering how Princess Katherine had chased the arachnid-like fay around the castle with a fly switch, to the delight of Oberon¹s other Children.
Then her features grew serious as she looked down at the convention below. She could hardly demand that the fay leave, since they had as much right to be here as she did, and Ophelia had always prided herself on being fair in disputes and sympathetic to the viewpoints of others. She looked down at the grim little group in the courtyard, and then her eyes picked out a green, glowing figure kneeling behind the rubble in the doorway of the temple, evidently in hiding.
It was the Banshee. Ophelia was startled at the realization. She didn¹t really know very much about the Banshee--none of the gargoyles did, except from secondhand gossip. Ophelia¹s rookery sister Diana, she of the ice-blue skin and tall white ponytail, had been on the balcony above the Great Hall during the initial Gathering.
³Odin and the Banshee made quite a scene,² Diana had said. ³Grandmother tells me that the Banshee was quite reluctant to leave the mortal world--even more so than Puck--and had to be brought back to Avalon by force.²
Ophelia had intended to ask the Irish fay for her side of the story, since she didn¹t believe in making judgements about people without allowing them a chance to defend themselves, but the iron plate Oberon had placed over the Banshee¹s mouth had nipped that plan in the bud. It seemed rather unfair to Ophelia, though if Angela¹s story had been true--and Ophelia had no reason to doubt her rookery sister--perhaps nullifying such a fearful weapon as the Banshee¹s voice had been wise. Whatever the ethics involved, the actual result was that asking questions of the Banshee was an exercise in futility. Ophelia had almost forgotten about her, until tonight.
~Why, it seems as if the Banshee was using this temple as a hideaway, just as I do,~ Ophelia thought, watching the fay below. ~I¹m not sure I like having someone else in my secret place...no, that¹s being selfish. The temple is open for the use of all.~ The gargoyle shook her head, knocking her long horns against the roof of the temple and wincing. She ducked back down, mindful of the tall crest on her head.
The Banshee, realizing that she was trapped in the temple, frowned and lay with her back against the slab that blocked the entrance. She chose to listen in to pass the time.
Overhead, Ophelia decided that remaining concealed was in her best interest as well--and besides, she was now curious about the mysterious Banshee.
Outside, the eight-armed Indian woman frowned at Xolotl. ³You are interrupting us,² she said.
³Let him be, Kali.² The jackal-headed Anubis spoke at last. ³Xolotl is one of us. He was worshipped by the Aztecs and spent the last thousand years in the Americas.² Xolotl bowed.
The Banshee cursed the fay outside. ~First that stupid party, and now I am trapped like a worm in its hole by Death¹s own minions. I wonder who _they_ will bring as guests? Their favourite morticians?~
³Then I suppose that¹s everyone,² said Hel. ³Let¹s get this over with.²
The Banshee¹s features suddenly grew more interested. ~A _secret_ Death convention. They don¹t want anyone else to know. Perhaps this will be interesting after all.~
³Wait a minute,² said the fay in Greco-Roman clothing, as he looked around. ³Where¹s Azrael?²
³Azrael.² A flicker of anger crossed the features of the normally passive Anubis. ³Azrael has Transcended.²
³Azrael?² Hel demanded. ³You have _got_ to be kidding. Someone actually killed that guy? With his power, you¹d think a thousand iron spears wouldn¹t stop him.²
³Hel, you are an idiot,² Kali snapped. ³There are other ways for a Child of Oberon to Transcend. He may have developed into...well, for convenience¹s sake I¹ll call them angels or demons.²
The Greek ventured an opinion. ³He looked like demon material to me.²
³Silence, Pluto,² Anubis said with a glare.
³It¹s Hades,² he replied, irritation in his voice. ³I prefer to go by Hades.² Anubis glared all the more. Evidently the jackal-god was in a bad mood tonight.
³Hey, dogface, what¹s got your tail in a knot?² Hel demanded.
Anubis kept his control, but his words were clipped short with barely concealed anger. ³Azrael and I had a falling out long ago. He ended up in alliance with a human named Moses; the result of that escapade caused me a great deal of labour. Such a backlog of souls to deal with...²
The Banshee snickered under her iron plate. ~Poor Anubis, running his tail off...~
Xolotl stepped forward and spoke. ³He¹s the one who took Oberon¹s father to Transcendence, isn¹t he?² Anubis nodded, and Xolotl continued, ³Yes, I remember him. Truthfully, he always scared me, and if I¹m not mistaken, even Oberon was uneasy when Azrael was around.²
³He had the greatest power of any in our line of work,² Anubis said in his sepulchral voice. ³Power such as that is corrupting by nature. It is just as well that he has Transcended. No one here on Avalon had the means to control him. I could not stop him on the night now called Passover. Had he chosen to destroy Avalon or the mortal realms, I fear the outcome of that battle could have fallen to either side.²
³But if he¹s Transcended, he¹s more powerful than ever!² Hel protested.
³He is now known as the Destroying Angel. As such, he takes orders from the ruler of Transcendence.²
³It¹s a relief that someone can keep him under wraps,² Hades said. ³So, what¹s the point of this meeting anyway?²
³The point of this meeting,² Anubis repeated, ³stems from a most unpleasant experience I underwent just a few mortal years ago. Have any of you been joined with mortals as avatars?² Four heads shook no. ³The progression of birth to death was interrupted that night. An entire town was wiped from the map as a result.²
Xolotl frowned. ³A problem, requiring extra labour, but surely Transcendence can accommodate...²
³That¹s _not_ my point.² Anubis paused and then continued. ³A human man, an Emir, wanted to become an avatar so he could bring his son back from the dead.²
The others now appeared quite concerned, even Hel.
³That cannot be allowed,² Kali stated, crossing four sets of arms. ³I find the notion of someone actually attempting such a desperate gambit to be very disturbing.²
³No kidding, Spider-Woman,² Hel cracked. ³Maybe Anansi will hold your hands.²
Anubis glared at her, his eyes glowing with rancour, and Hel fell into a sulk. Kali turned her head away, pointedly refusing to react. Anubis continued, ³Worse, another human hijacked the process and joined my powers to his will. In this case, his will was to make all of life and death his toy.²
³What happened?² Xolotl asked tentatively.
³Creation was lucky.² The jackal-god frowned. ³A handful of gargoyles, a human female, and the Emir who originally summoned me stopped the avatar. The Emir then joined with me to repair some of the damage, having finally been convinced that no one should reverse the passage to Transcendence. Unfortunately, under the terms of that realization, those killed in the town could not be restored to life. The town remained a ruin. When the stolen energies were restored, the Emir permitted me to carry him to Transcendence.²
³Is there a moral to this story?² Hades asked impatiently.
³The...moral...is that mortals must not be permitted to take on our powers. I had great difficulty convincing the Emir that his wish could not be acted upon--and he was a reasonable man, though he had been made stubborn and angry by grief. None of us could have convinced the insane one, who defiles my name by fashioning himself as a jackal.²
³So the answer is, don¹t let some human turn you into an avatar,² Hel summarized. ³No problem. I think you¹re the only one of us anyway who was ever bound to such a spell.² She stood up and brushed off her dress. ³I¹ve got a party to plan for and...²
³Halt.² The jackal-god¹s eyes flashed again. ³That is only the beginning. Right now there is a mortal who has the ability to summon and command the power of Azrael.²
A flicker of light danced across the bindi jewel in the center of Kali¹s forehead. ³Who?²
Anubis clapped his hands, and a swirl of black cloud spiralled outwards, slowly clearing to reveal an image of what appeared to be a blond-haired human man in his late twenties or early thirties. He was quite handsome, six feet tall, with chiselled Aryan features and an athletic build. His eyes, crystal blue, held emotion far beyond their apparent years--bitterness, worry, anger, resignment, grief. He had an ironic little smile on his lips, as if he¹d found life to be a rather sick joke and chosen to laugh along.
Then, from behind his back, a pair of black batlike wings stretched to their full span. Like some of the gargoyles here on Avalon, this creature had tiny hands on the wing limbs; unlike Avalon¹s gargoyles, his wing hands had four fingers and a thumb, encased in golden gauntlets. The wings would be beautiful were it not for an ugly row of bones and joints across the middle of their length, which evidently were what allowed this creature to fold his wings up behind his back. Where this row met the edge of his wings, midway between the wing hand and the wing tip, a large spike curved out of the final joint.
³What manner of creature?² Hades asked.
³He is a gargoyle,² Anubis said.
³He looks human!² Kali protested. ³Five fingers...²
³There is human blood far back in his ancestry, and that of his entire clan,² the jackal-god explained.
Hel¹s face lit up in recognition. ³The Iron Clan of Bavaria!² she said. ³That region historically showed great reverence for Nordic fay like me. My, has the Iron Clan interbred with humans to that extent? All that¹s left is the wings.²
³No,² Anubis said. ³A chisel and a liberal helping of magic enabled a secret group known as the Illuminati Society to carve his gargoyle features into those you see here. His name is Wagner. In him, they have created an assassin with the strength and flight abilities of a gargoyle who can make his way unnoticed through the human world. He is currently living in New York City under the name Richard S. Wagner.²
Ophelia¹s eyes grew wide, trying to take all this information in. Avalon was a very sheltered place to have grown up. Tonight, in less than an hour, she¹d been exposed to knowledge about avatars, plagues of death, Transcendence, and now a gargoyle who looked like a human!
To the Banshee, the most amazing fact of all was that she recognized the gargoyle called Wagner.
BELFAST, NORTH IRELAND AUGUST
Tension hung in the air like the compression
after a lightning strike. Everyone in The Green Drum could feel it,
from the British soldiers at a table in the corner to the grizzled regulars
on their barstools to the young men in the booths to the humanlike gargoyle
who sat quietly in front of the large side window and watched. Everyone
in the tavern also knew that it was only a matter of time before lightning
Even now, Wagner noticed, there were signs. The British troops, who¹d been called in to keep the people of Northern Ireland in line after the direct British takeover of 1972, were obviously uncomfortable in the bar. The young men were taking no pains to hide their hostility to the British. The regulars squirmed uncomfortably on their stools, trying to pretend that everything was normal. And, of course, nothing else but troubles could explain Wagner¹s own presence in Belfast.
Wagner hadn¹t a clue why the Illuminati wanted to support the Provisional IRA. They never bothered explaining their reasons. They just sent him orders. In this case, those orders had resulted in the creation of his latest persona: Seamus Ryan, an Irish-American Catholic who had returned to the Old Country to be an enforcer for the Irish Republican Army.
The door swung open and a pair of brown eyes searched the room from under a thatch of unruly rust-coloured hair. The British soldiers took no notice of the newcomer, and Wagner wondered what they¹d think if they ever learned that this man, Patrick Gunn, was the chief of an IRA division. Wagner raised his hand, and Gunn made his way over to join him.
Business. It was all business. Patrick Gunn found it oddly amusing to conduct business under the noses of the British Army. Wagner was convinced that the Irishman¹s daring would one day lead him to his grave. Their drinks had just arrived when a third man detached himself from his group of friends and made his way across the tavern to join them.
Outside The Green Drum, a red-haired colleen
casually sauntered down a street that was still littered with the debris
from last week¹s firefight between Irish Catholics and British Army
troops. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and one might have
considered her beautiful, were it not for her turned-up nose that rendered
her merely cute. Still, she never had too much trouble attracting
any man she pleased--but that had less to do with looks and personality,
and more to do with a little supernatural cheating.
Molly O¹Leary did not fear bullets or pipe bombs or rioters. She was, after all, very close to immortal. Even Cuchulain had not been able to do away with her permanently. As she surveyed the wreckage in the streets, she smiled coldly to herself and for a brief instant, her green eyes flickered greener still with the unearthly glow of the Banshee.
The fighting pleased her. There were so many young Irishmen, Catholic and Protestant alike, who fancied themselves heroes and were willing to sacrifice anything for a cause. More disturbing to her, it was not uncommon for them to liken themselves to Cuchulain. Her fear was that one of them just might, in a way, _be_ Cuchulain.
She had beheld a prophecy in a scrying pool, deep in the bog country, many years ago. It had told her that Cuchulain¹s soul was to be reborn in a mortal body very soon now...or perhaps he had been born already. Cuchulain. The one person who could curb her power. From the moment she¹d learned of his return, she¹d been plotting to find him and lead him to his ruin--or his death--before he could recognize what he truly was inside.
Now there were many claiming to be Cuchulain reborn. Fortunately, they were all naive in their faith and easily destroyed. She sought these men out in her human form, encouraging them to join the IRA and fight for Northern Ireland¹s freedom. To provide an opposing force, she¹d also been known to urge on the British Army troops and Protestants. Now it was time for the slaughter of would-be heroes.
Another night¹s work had begun. Molly O¹Leary--the Banshee--pushed open the door of The Green Drum.
The moment she saw him, she knew there was
something different about him.
Tall, blond, with an odd light in his crystal blue eyes, the man in the corner was trying his best to blend in with the other patrons in the bar. A quick glance around the room told the Banshee that the other humans did not notice anything remarkable about him. To her fay senses, he gave off an aroma of ancient magic, and whatever he was, it was obvious to her that he was not quite human.
As she walked towards her target, the Banshee¹s ears began to pick up the conversation the blond man was having with his two companions. She paused and took a closer look at the other two men at the table in front of the window with the object of her interest. Humans, both of them. She recognized one of them as Patrick Gunn; the other, stockier and with thick brown hair, was even more familiar to her. Liam Dugan. Poor, dear Liam. She couldn¹t help a snicker.
Liam Dugan was the greatest dreamer she¹d ever met. He knew all the old legends off by heart, and was never long parted from a dog-eared paperback book containing the early works of W.B. Yeats. Night after night he would sit at the bar and tell great stories of Ireland¹s glory days, and of how those days might be reborn.
Liam was telling a lot fewer stories these days.
³I want out,² Dugan said frankly.
Gunn¹s face registered surprise. ³You, of all people? What happened to your Œold days of Irish glory?¹²
³They died,² Dugan said bitterly, ³died with my wife in a Belfast alley.²
Wagner took Liam¹s hands. ³It was an accident, my friend. The trouble with bombs is that you never know who is going to be passing by when they go off.²
But she had known. Molly O¹Leary smiled coldly, took a seat at the bar, and listened.
Wagner continued, his own words reminding him of his foster father Faust. ³Fate has been cruel to you, my friend. And yet...some sacrifices are necessary for the advancement of the cause and the greater good.²
³Blame the English,² Gunn urged. ³If they had not taken over our country, there would be no need for bombs!²
Liam Dugan sniffed back tears. ³Perhaps...perhaps if that were all...but there¹s more. I¹m the father of a month-old son, and if I were to die in this war, there would be no one to look after my little Rory. No. I¹m finished, Gunn. The fighting¹s over for me. I¹m going to take my son and move to the country, away from all the killing.²
³You¹re turning your back on us?² Patrick Gunn inquired, and Wagner suddenly felt sick.
~Please, Gunn, please don¹t ask me to kill him...not the single father of a little boy...~
³No,² Liam replied. ³If you ever need some help, arms or a place to stay, you can always come to me. But I¹m retiring from the front lines. I¹m going to settle down and farm and look after Rory. This war is over for me.²
Patrick nodded. ³Very well.² Wagner breathed a sigh of relief as Liam Dugan finished up his drink and left.
Molly smiled to herself as she watched him go. A fool, one would think, and yet there was something about Dugan that had worried her deeply. There was one night she¹d even found herself wondering if this paunchy dreamer might be Cuchulain himself. Furthermore, his devotion to his wife had rendered him almost immune to her seductive charms. But now....yes, luring his wife to the alley had gone exactly as she had planned. With only Liam to look after the baby now, Dugan¹s possible career as a hero had been nipped in the bud.
But what about this tall, blond stranger who carried a distinctive fragrance of sorcery?
Once Dugan had left, Molly hopped down from her barstool and sauntered over to the table. ³Evenin¹, boys,² she greeted with a smile.
Gunn looked up at her. ³Evenin¹, Molly.²
³So,² she whispered with a wicked smile, ³how many Englishmen did we kill tonight?²
The blond man--odd, his features looked more Germanic than Irish--frowned at her, an expression Molly noted with annoyance. What kind of patriot didn¹t like killing the bloody British?
Patrick Gunn took her hand. ³Molly, I¹d like you to meet Seamus Ryan.²
Wagner nodded. ³How do you do,² he said automatically, his attention barely registering the girl before it returned to the British soldiers. Was he becoming overly paranoid, or had one of them been looking towards the table with an odd expression on his face?
³Seamus Ryan?² Molly repeated, her eyes wide. ³_The_ Seamus Ryan?² The Banshee had heard of him--one of the IRA¹s most feared enforcers. ~Cold. Ruthless. Deadly. I would have called him a hired killer, not a hero, and yet, even before he was enchanted with the magic he now wears, I know he was not human.~ She put on her ³wide-eyed fool² act and said, ³My, it¹s not every day a girl¹s after meetin¹ one of Ireland¹s great heroes.²
³Seamus here was born in America,² Patrick explained, ³and returned to Ireland just after the Troubles started.²
³Come back to defend the Old Country, now?² Molly asked, giving him a fetching smile.
³It¹s a job,² Wagner replied grimly, his eyes keenly watching the British soldiers, especially the younger one who¹d been looking their way. ~Shut up, girl,~ he thought, ~we¹ve got a situation here...~ That soldier, a corporal, was now whispering to his nearby friends...and his unit commander, Wagner noted with a frown.
Molly¹s face displayed an expression of shock. ³Surely you can¹t mean that!² ~Just a job? Those are _not_ the words of a hero.~ Furthermore, the Banshee couldn¹t understand why Seamus Ryan was showing so little interest in her seductive charms. ~What is your motivation, dark enforcer? What is your origin? I mean to know.~
³Ireland¹s still a sight better than Vietnam,² ³Seamus Ryan² replied with a rakish grin, mentally cursing himself for the slip. ~Watch your cover, Wagner. You¹re supposed to be an Irish patriot!~ He put the slip behind him and concentrated on giving Molly a wink to cover himself.
~Ah, he responds at last,~ the Banshee thought.
Across the room, two soldiers got up and began walking towards the bar. They ordered drinks. Another one, the unit commander, headed for the mens¹ room. Three more ambled to the door.
~All at once?~ Wagner wondered to himself, and under the table he reached for his Walther handgun. ³Patrick?² he whispered. ³We¹ve got a situation...²
³Patrick Gunn! Freeze!² the unit commander said, drawing his weapon.
Instantly the two soldiers at the bar dropped to their knees and drew their guns. The three heading towards the door had weapons out as well, and even some of those at the table had guns in their hands. Citizens cried out and dropped to the floor with their hands over their heads, cringing and praying not to be hit by stray bullets.
Molly ducked and wondered what to do. The scream of the Banshee would kill everyone in the tavern, Gunn and Ryan included, and while the lives of mortals were not of great concern to her, she also knew she could not risk a supernatural incident. The last thing she needed was to let Cuchulain know that she was active in Ireland, and with her not even knowing who or where he was!
~Too many,~ Wagner thought. ~There¹s only six shots in this thing, and six more for Gunn...but we can¹t hit them all before they shoot.~
³Drop it, Patrick,² the unit commander snapped.
Wagner took a quick glance over his shoulder at the large window, then jumped up into the air, using all of his gargoyle strength to drive himself backwards. The window shattered and Wagner flipped himself over in the air, letting his wing claws tear two holes in the back of his jacket for his wings to come out. The British soldiers fired wildly and Wagner felt a bullet graze his left arm; another punctured a hole in his wing. Wagner hit the ground hard with his knees and raised his gun, shooting into the tavern.
Patrick Gunn took advantage of the distraction to bolt for the kitchen door, firing bullets over his shoulder as he went. Molly O¹Leary was now in the firm grip of two British soldiers. Wagner crawled on his hands and knees up to the broken window and fired two more shots into the room. A soldier went down, clutching his lower leg.
Two soldiers followed Gunn into the kitchen and the noise of a firefight broke out. The focus of the soldiers in The Green Drum was now on Wagner. The gargoyle ducked as the British began firing out the open window and bullets whistled above his head. Around the front of the tavern, Wagner could hear the door slam open and the pounding of booted feet on the sidewalk. They would be around the corner in seconds.
Wagner crawled to the far side of the window until he was out of the field of fire, then got to his feet. Alley ahead. High walls. Only one way to run. Street behind, soon to be filled with soldiers. Fire escape...
Wagner jumped again, his wings carrying him onto the fire escape, and began to climb. He could hear the noise of the soldiers in the alley, but he did not look back. He was almost over the roof when one of the four Englishmen called ³Up there!²
But he was on the roof now, his wings rising behind him as he ran to the other side of the building. There was nothing to be done for Patrick Gunn now, not in a tavern full of witnesses...~innocents,~ Wagner reminded himself. ~That¹s more important.~ He¹d break Gunn out of jail later. In moments he¹d be airborne and away...
A woman¹s scream pierced the night from the alley below. Wagner halted in mid-step. A rough voice said, ³Get back here, Ryan, or we slit her throat.²
In the alley, a young private looked at his sergeant in horror. ³You can¹t mean that!²
³I¹ve had enough of these bloody Irish,² the sergeant growled, holding his knife to Molly¹s neck. ³They see no harm in blowing up women, kids and old folks, and I¹ve about had it with them. Don¹t you be feelin¹ sorry for this little Taig hussy.² His hand dug cruelly into Molly¹s shoulder.
On the rooftop, Wagner hesitated. If he returned, he¹d be risking his own life. The Illuminati would want him to give this night up for lost and live to fight another day. His job now was to warn the rest of Gunn¹s IRA group members to watch their own security.
Molly cried out, ³Seamus! Help me!²
~Just a foolish girl. I can¹t abandon her.² He dropped to all fours and leapt across the alley to the building opposite The Green Drum, his wings carrying him farther than a human could jump.
~He¹s gone,~ the Banshee thought with anger. ~Fine hero he is. Cuchulain would have returned...well. It will be my pleasure to dispatch these louts.~
³Your boyfriend¹s run out on you,² the sergeant leered. Molly O¹Leary glared at him, her eyes green as a cat¹s. ³Oh, you¹ve got spirit, have you, colleen? Well, I know what to do...²
The sergeant¹s voice broke off. The green in her eyes had become a glow, enveloping the entire pupil, and spreading. Molly smiled wickedly, preparing to morph into the Banshee and unleash her deadly song.
Her form was still that of Molly O¹Leary when the sergeant was slammed from behind. He fell to the ground from the force of the blow, dragging Molly down with him as his attacker landed hard on top of him. A strong hand gripped his right wrist and pried the knife free.
³Sarge!² the private cried, fumbling for his pistol as a powerful blow knocked the sergeant out.
Wagner was up on one knee in a flash, his wings falling in a cape behind him. His Walther was drawn and its harsh bark filled the night as two of the soldiers went down. The last man standing, the young private, had just located the hand grip of his weapon when he looked up and noticed that Wagner¹s handgun was aimed right at his heart.
³Freeze,² the gargoyle growled, and the young Englishman obeyed. Perhaps even more effective than Wagner¹s gun were his eyes, glowing an angry bluish-white. At his side, the girl was climbing to her feet. The private saw that her eyes too had a supernatural glow, this time an eerie green.
Wagner perked his ears for the sounds of noise in the tavern. Nothing yet, but that could change. ³Do you want to die tonight?² Wagner asked coldly, climbing to his feet.
The young soldier, still a teenager, was terrified. He¹d been prepared for thugs and guns and bombs, but nothing like this creature with lantern eyes and long fangs.
³Drop the gun. Now,² Wagner ordered, tightening his grip on his trigger in case the Englishman did not comply. He didn¹t have time to waste in this alley.
The young private obeyed instantly, and in doing so, saved his life.
The second the gun fell from his hand, Wagner jumped into the air, lashing out with his left hand and knocking the soldier out. He didn¹t think he¹d used enough force to break the young man¹s neck. The Englishman should live.
The Banshee let the glow die out of her eyes as she returned completely to her persona of Molly O¹Leary. ³You saved me!² she cried, giving Wagner a hug. ³How can I ever thank ye?²
³Watch your back next time,² he answered coldly, turning on his heel. ³Now let¹s get out of here before more soldiers come along.²
Molly ran down the alley after him. ³But there must be something I can do,² she insisted, taking his hand. Wagner shook her off, and she frowned. ~What are you, to overcome my charms?~ the Banshee wondered.
~Silly girl,~ he thought. ~Thinking war is romantic...~ He looked into her eyes. ~If you knew half the things I¹d lived through, you¹d change your mind soon enough.~ He wondered how many of the four English soldiers would survive their wounds, and felt sickened now that it was over. He felt sick after every such incident. ~How many lives has my life ended?~ he asked himself, and felt a cold chill run through him when he realized that he did not want to know the answer.
³Thank you, my hero,² Molly whispered.
³I¹m no hero. Just a killer,² Wagner replied bitterly, walking away, and his black-caped form merged into the misty Irish night.
The Banshee stared after him. Where had Mr. Ryan gotten that long cape from? ~An odd creature. Well, if he is to be a threat to me, I will meet him again soon enough.~ She shrugged and continued back the way she had came.
Ahead of her in the alley, the young private and the sergeant had struggled to their feet. One other soldier was moaning softly. The private shook his head; his body ached, especially his jaw, but everything was working. ³I¹ll get help,² he said, and stumbled off.
The sergeant, however, had caught sight of Molly. ³So, little Taig, you came back, eh?² he said angrily, madness lighting his eyes. ³And without your boyfriend this time.² He stumbled towards her, out of the light cast by The Green Drum¹s broken window and into the darkened alley.
The Banshee smiled cruelly, glad that Seamus Ryan had left this one alive for her.
As the sergeant stared at the object of his fury, he noticed her eyes starting to glow again. Her hair tore free of the ponytail and rose in a supernatural haze. Her dress changed into a short green shroud with a golden belt. Her eyes....oh, God, her _eyes_...
The Banshee laughed wickedly and began to keen the fatal notes of her screaming song.
Inside the Green Drum, the old regulars simply nodded and quietly drew the blinds. Some of the young men, who had previously scoffed at the legends of the Bean Sidhe, turned very pale. The Green Drum was filled with true believers that night.
When she was done, the Banshee floated there, surveying the damage she had wrought. Finally satisfied, she morphed back into Molly O¹Leary and walked away down the street.
~Wagner,~ the Banshee thought. ~A German.~
No wonder ³Seamus Ryan² hadn¹t looked Irish! ~And
a gargoyle. How interesting.~
Hades stated the obvious. ³You¹ve been checking up on him.²
³My experience as an avatar has taught me that mortals possessing power over life and death is dangerous beyond measure,² Anubis replied grimly.
³An assassin.² Xolotl frowned. ³And you say he has the power of Azrael?²
³He can _summon_ the power of Azrael,² Anubis clarified. ³To do so, he requires this.² The jackal-god held up the shroud-wrapped object in his left hand. He placed its tip on a nearby stone and carefully began to unwrap it.
The staff was made of some kind of ancient wood, burnished to a coppery rust colour and brilliantly shiny. There was a gold hand grip halfway up its length,with protruding gold guards above and below. A gold plate wrapped around the bottom protected its tip. At the upper extremity, an orb sat in a bed of gnarled wood and silver filigree. Water and rainbow light, smoke and wind, cloud and fire seemed to swirl in processions through the orb. The staff flashed and the orb began to cast coloured light on the faces of those assembled. The light even pierced the temple, casting a glow like the Northern Lights on the walls. The Banshee smiled to herself, for she could feel the power radiating from this object.
Ophelia, on the other hand, was frightened. There was an aura of maliciousness emanating from the staff. Nothing could have induced her to touch it. She wished she could run away, and settled for retreating several feet into the back of the temple roof. ~Why am I thinking this way?~ she demanded. ~It¹s just an artifact like any other!~
No. _Not_ like any other. Her instincts were screaming at her to stay away from the staff, and looking down at the assembly, she was engulfed by a wave of primal fear that rose out of her subconscious and sent a chill through her body.
Xolotl recognized the object. ³The Avatar Staff,² he whispered.
Hel noticed the concern on Xolotl¹s face and began to feel some concern herself. ³What does that do?² she asked, voicing the same question that was in the minds of both Ophelia and the Banshee.
³With this, mortals may summon for themselves the power of Transcended fay,² Anubis explained.
Hades¹ face grew even whiter than it normally was. ³You¹re saying that with that staff, any mortal can grant himself the powers of Azrael?²
³Not any mortal,² Anubis said quietly. ³In most cases, touching the staff directly will bring death. For thousands of years it was buried in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen. Several of those who uncovered the tomb made the mistake of touching the staff with their bare hands, and they paid for it with their lives. This staff was the reason for the legend of Tutankhamen¹s curse.²
In the temple, Ophelia gasped and the Banshee smiled. ~This staff,~ the Irish fay thought, ~could have its uses. What if Oberon¹s mortal guests were to touch it?~
Anubis bowed his head. ³It quickly fell into the hands of the Illuminati, a secret society which has existed since time immemorial. In the days when I was worshipped as a deity, there existed such a group--under a different name, and with certain different goals, but they have evolved over the centuries into the modern Illuminati. With the ancient knowledge they inherited, the Illuminati found a way to prepare their operatives to summon the powers of the avatars.²
³So they could have an army of Azraels?² Xolotl said uneasily.
³No. Our forerunners guarded the staff as well as they could. As I said, it is fatal for most mortals to touch it directly. Only those who are fated to be avatars--magically linked with Transcended fay--can do so. Furthermore, there is a direct link between the mortal and his or her Transcended counterpart. Avatars can only summon the powers of their chosen counterpart.²
³So Wagner is the only one who can become the Destroying Angel,² Kali stated, and Anubis nodded. ³That means Herr Wagner is the only menace.²
³He is the only one who has the same control of life and death as we do.²
³Should we eliminate him?² Xolotl mused.
³There would only be another born as Azrael if we did. Remember that,² the jackal-god warned.
³But this Wagner is an assassin,² Hades protested. ³Furthermore, he is aware of his powers. Would it not be better to do away with him? The next avatar would have no idea of his potential, no knowledge of the staff, and much less of a penchant to kill!²
³We must consider this matter carefully,² Anubis said. He looked at the rising moon and frowned. ³This night is passing swiftly. Oberon bids us prepare for the party tomorrow eve.²
³This seems more important than a party,² Xolotl replied.
³We dare not anger Lord Oberon. The staff is here on Avalon, not in the mortal realm where Wagner--or any other mortal avatar--may access it. Without the staff, the chosen mortals are unable to summon their avatars¹ power.²
³Geez!² Hel cried. ³All that fuss, only to tell us the staff is safe!²
³Temporarily safe,² Anubis stressed. ³I would prefer to conclude this business permanently so that we need never trouble ourselves with it again.²
³Indeed,² Kali agreed. ³One of the gargoyles or humans who live here might be an avatar. At the very least, some innocent mortal could stumble across the staff, touch it, and die.²
³That is why it will remain here,² pronounced the jackal-god, walking towards the ruined temple. ³I do not know of anyone who frequents this place.²
The Banshee scowled and darted back along the temple wall to a pile of rubble in the corner. She took cover behind it, hiding herself from the view of anyone in the temple doorway, and then cursed when she realized that the green glow which surrounded her also lit up the corner where she hid. It would give her away.
The Banshee concentrated and did something she had not done since her return to Avalon. She transformed herself into Molly.
The green glow vanished as she took on her human mortal form. Oddly enough, she found that she¹d transformed into the ponytailed, dress-wearing Molly O¹Leary of the 1970s rather than her most recent form, Molly Devlin, who had short hair and wore denim jeans and a cropped shirt. The transformation was likely because she¹d most recently been thinking about Molly O¹Leary. Her lips parted in surprise, and she gasped with shock and pleasure when she realized that the iron plate did not confine her mouth when she was in human form. Granted, she was still denied the power of her deadly voice, but at least she could speak.
As Anubis strode towards the altar, carrying the Avatar Staff, Ophelia ducked back into the roof corner as far as she could force herself to fit. Anubis placed the staff on the ruined altar, then held his arms straight out from his body and muttered a few words under his breath. A black shield wall rose up from the altar around the staff.
³That¹ll protect it?² Hades asked skeptically.
³No mortal may break that wall,² Anubis assured him. ³Let us depart now. We have another Gathering to prepare for.²
Ophelia cringed. Her hiding place now had the atmosphere of a tomb. Frightening vibrations of evil that permeated the air, radiating out from the staff on the altar. The staff of death.
Death was something of which Ophelia had very little knowledge. The Magus¹ death was the first experience any of Avalon¹s gargoyles had ever had with the loss of a loved one. Perhaps that was why she and so many of her rookery siblings had taken Angela¹s departure so hard--they were not used to being parted from their loved ones. Ophelia could remember crying for the Magus for weeks, here in her secret temple.
The idea of a gargoyle who had killed was horrible enough to her, but one who had killed many times? One who made a habit out of killing? One whose profession in life was not to protect, but to destroy? Such a thing was terrible beyond imagining.
To the Banshee, though, such a thing was wonderful beyond imagining. She had seen how effective Seamus Ryan--Wagner--had been with only mortal weapons. Imagine this enforcer with the power to kill with a thought!
Ophelia looked down at the Banshee with curiosity. The Irish fay, in the form of a red-haired human girl, carefully crept out from behind the rubble and peeked out the doorway of the temple, assuring herself that the Lords of Death had departed. Then she turned around with a smile and approached the staff on the altar.
Ophelia considered whether or not she should warn the Banshee. Anubis had said that it was impossible for any mortal to break the shield wall he had placed over the staff. Perhaps it would be dangerous for the Banshee as well, if she attempted to take the staff in human form.
³No mortal,² Molly O¹Leary said quietly, ³but I am much more than that...² Before Ophelia¹s eyes, she morphed back into her fay form. The iron plate reappeared on her lips, but then she transformed again into a spirit-wraith, wrapping her wispy body in ever-tightening circles around the shield wall. The black barrier flickered, obviously weakening beneath the assault. Finally, she returned to fay form and brought her hands down on the shield, which crumbled and fell away at the blow. The staff was hers.
The Banshee smiled cruelly as she lifted the Avatar Staff from the altar. The iron plate chafed at her lips, but it would soon be gone, if she was right. The seeds of a plan had found fertile soil in her mind.
Oberon had instructed his children to bring mortal guests. Mortals, by definition, could die. Should Seamus Ryan--Wagner--Azrael Wagner--unleash his killing power at the party, he could destroy them all.
The Banshee had no love for mortals. ~Oberon himself sees them as inferior beings, with little value aside from the amusement they provide! Granted, he respects the two humans and thirty-five gargoyles who live here on Avalon, but even they could not have bested him, had not his lady-wife Titania given them the knowledge they needed to do so!~ No, the loss of a handful of mortals would not be very great at all...and it would certainly ruin the party.
Ophelia laid herself down flat against the temple supports. It was clear that the Banshee was up to no good, but no gargoyle could best a fay in one-on-one combat, let alone a fay with an artifact as powerful as the Avatar Staff. Who should she tell? Gabriel? Princess Katherine? Oberon himself?
The Banshee wondered offhand what effect Azrael Wagner and the staff might have on other fay. Fay were extremely long-lived, and very difficult to eliminate entirely, but it was technically possible to kill one. Iron spears, for instance, or the repeated ringing of an iron bell, could end a fay¹s life. The Avatar Staff might be enough to do it as well, if Anubis¹ fear of Azrael had been well-founded. The Banshee paused to consider the ramifications of such a scenario.
~What do I owe them, anyway?~ she thought in her rage. ~They were the ones who took me from Ireland by force and brought me here.~ She thought of Odin¹s obnoxious jibes, the idiotic laughter of the tricksters, the annoying gloom of the Lords of Death, that goody-two-shoes Grandmother, and all the rest who had watched with amusement as Oberon fastened the iron plate to her mouth. ~What _if_ Oberon were to be destroyed? Then no one would prevent me from returning to Ireland and ruling as its queen.~
She smirked to herself and decided that she would just have to remain far away from the banquet hall. She had found her guest.
NEW YORK CITY ONE HOUR BEFORE SUNRISE
The spirit-Banshee swirled though the trees
of Central Park before she materialized, holding the Avatar Staff in her
left hand. From here it should be easy enough to locate a phone booth
and look up ³Richard S. Wagner² in the book. She¹d
learned a lot as ³Molly² over the years.
Minutes later, Molly Devlin was paging through the book. Randy P. Wagner, Richard H. Wagner, Robert Wagner...
~Did you really expect an assassin to have a listed number?~ she berated herself. Well, there was more than one way to find Mr. Wagner. Molly Devlin took a quick glance over her shoulder to assure herself that no one was around, but her search was not thorough enough to catch the grey-suited jogger coming up the path.
The jogger¹s gaze focused on the red-haired girl in the phone booth. With her short spiked hair, black leather jacket, and smirking mouth, she looked like any other punk in this city. The jogger shook his head. A shame, for such a pretty young girl to...
Before his eyes, the punky girl¹s form faded into that of a thin, glowing faerie woman, and then a puff of smoke with wide yellow eyes which twined its way out of the phone booth and rocketed across the sky.
³I¹ve seen some weird things in this city,² the jogger muttered to himself, ³but that takes the cake.²
In a large top-floor apartment, Wagner poured
himself another drink and prayed for the coming dawn. An old photo
album lay open across his lap, and empty bottles littered the end table
at his shoulder. The calendar grinned at him mockingly, its pages
open to an anniversary he wished with all his heart that he could forget.
Wagner sighed bitterly, looking down at his hands and twisting the gold ring he saw there around in circles, heedless of the metal biting into his flesh. It had been thirty-three years today that he had seen his human wife for the last time. Thirty-three years since he got on the airplane to Saigon and burned all his bridges behind him.
He wondered what Cora, his Cora, was doing now. She would be retired, an elderly woman--if she was still alive. She had been twenty-one when they had married, and the Second World War had still been on. Where would she be living now? In a rest home? With her children?
Children. Wagner and Cora had never had any children. The Illuminati had threatened them all with death if they¹d produced crossbreed children. For Cora to have children now, she would have had to have married again, and soon after his departure.
Part of him hoped that she had found a good, caring man who could heal her heartache and enable her to enjoy those years since he left. Most of him hoped not. Selfish, he knew, but the idea of his Cora with another man made him feel physically sick. A low moan escaped from his lips.
He was an assassin. That fact carried its own guilt. Most of those who¹d met him on a ³professional² basis called him cold, heartless. Tonight, in the privacy of his apartment, there was no one to see, no one to know. Only in these circumstances could he release some of the tears he¹d buried inside himself for so many years.
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS MARCH 1964
Wagner, dressed in the white-collared shirt
and pressed slacks of corporate America, looked at the kitchen floor with
an expression of horror. He gripped the telephone tightly.
³What?² he said with shock.
³Your wife has become a liability,² Mephistopheles von Sturm, King of the Illuminati Society, repeated. His voice was tinny with the static of the long-distance connection between Texas and Bavaria. ³Dallying with her during the war was fine, but now, she has aged and you have not. She is forty. You look, perhaps, twenty-something. You are currently passing yourself off as her son. I¹m certain that people are starting to ask questions. It is time to move on.²
Wagner¹s thoughts raced wildly. He¹d never even told Cora about the Illuminati. He was eternally grateful for her trust in him and her understanding when he had to go away on jobs. Oh, how he¹d wanted to tell her...but he didn¹t dare. They¹d have killed her if she knew. Now they were threatening to kill her anyway.
³I can¹t just leave her,² Wagner replied angrily.
³Leave her or we will kill her,² he said bluntly. ³The choice is yours.²
Cora. The woman he¹d met during the War, who¹d loved him unconditionally in the twenty years since. She¹d never cared that he wasn¹t exactly human. She was the closest he¹d ever come to redemption. He had to protect her, no matter what.
³Next. We are posting you to South Vietnam to do some jobs for us. Your cover will be that of a captain in the American Army, and one of our agents will equip you with the necessary documents...²
³Wait a minute.² A desperate plan had come into Wagner¹s mind. He could not let the Illuminati kill Cora. He _would_ not leave her wondering, for the rest of her life, why he had suddenly abandoned her. That left only one way to keep her safe...and to give her the closure she would need to go on.
Von Sturm listened, and at last, agreed.
SAIGON SOUTH VIETNAM APRIL 1964
The typewriter clacked out a marching beat in a small office in the American Army building.
Dear Mrs. Cora Wagner:
We regret to inform you that your son, Franz Wagner, has been killed in action.
Mrs. Wagner, I knew your son personally. He loved you dearly, and only moments after his posting to my unit, he asked me to promise him that, in the event of his death, I would write this letter to you.
He asked me to tell you exactly how he died and to assure you that no mistake had been made. This is not regular protocol, but I gave him my word. Franz was killed when he stepped on a land mine during night exercises. We identified the remains through the use of dental records, and they were unquestionably those of your son.
Finally, Mr. Wagner made me promise to pass on this message. ³Wherever I am and wherever I may go, my heart will always be with you. I¹ll love you forever.²
My condolences in your loss. Your son will be greatly missed.
He took the letter out of the typewriter and
stared down at it, rereading it and blinking back tears. Then Wagner
took a pen off his desk and signed it CAPTAIN R. CASTLE, U.S. Army.
The nametag on his uniform and the braid on his sleeves also identified him as Captain Castle. The remains in the box going back to the United States were those of a North Vietnamese soldier. The Illuminati had facilitated the instant ³death² of Franz Wagner, just a few days after his arrival in Vietnam, and the sudden birth of Captain Richard Castle.
Wagner personally dropped the letter in the mail. It was done. Cora was safe from the Illuminati. She would mourn him and move on.
There was no such closure for him. Wagner spent that night alone at his desk, his head resting on his arms, crying softly in the humid Vietnamese darkness. Many such nights would follow.
NEW YORK CITY TWO MINUTES BEFORE SUNRISE
This was one of those nights. Thankfully,
mercifully, it was ending at last. Wagner tossed back the last of
his drink before he stumbled to his feet, carefully setting the photo album
down on the coffee table. The gargoyle went down on one knee, the
better to support himself, and caped his wings behind him. From this
pose, he stared down at the ring on his left hand. ~You didn¹t
take it off. Now you¹ll have to look at it when you wake up.~
It was too late to do anything about that, though, because the thought
had no sooner passed through his mind when the rays of the morning sun
turned him to stone.
The spirit-Banshee slipped under Wagner¹s balcony door. She coalesced into her fay form and examined the statue. ~Perfect. However, my fine young soldier, you need some weapons.~ She smiled coldly and began to search his apartment, returning to wraith-form to slip through the locked doors of Wagner¹s gun cabinets and retrieve the more promising items. Piling them at the statue¹s feet, she laughed evilly and leaned the Avatar Staff against the shoulder of her stone assassin.
The Banshee evaporated into a wraith once again, wrapping herself around Wagner and the objects she had chosen, keening the Gaelic words of an ancient Irish spell. Wagner¹s statue and the weapons shifted, rose a foot into the air, and slowly took on the same ethereal nature as the Banshee-wraith. Still keening, the Banshee passed back under the door, taking her unwilling guest with her.
In the apartment next door, Margot Yale clapped her hands over her ears. ³What is that terrible noise?² Poor Brendan simply shrugged, and his wife fixed him with a look of scorn. ³Oh, let¹s move, you said. Quieter neighbourhood, you said. HAH! First we have Count Dracula as a neighbour, and now this!²
Time passes differently on Avalon. When
the spirit-Banshee and her cargo passed out of the mortal realm, the island
of Avalon emerged through the mist with the red light of sunset shining
behind it. It was almost time for the party to begin, the Banshee
realized. What was worse, it was almost time for Wagner to awaken.
She did not want him to come to life as her prisoner and spend the whole
night fighting her.
She had hoped to deposit stone Wagner, the weapons, and the staff on the balcony over Oberon¹s banquet hall. With the sun setting, she would have to release him immediately. She had barely reached the island¹s shore before sun sank below the horizon. The Banshee-wraith hurriedly deposited her cargo and vanished into the nearby forest before Wagner fully awakened from his stone sleep.
Wagner awoke with a yawn and a falling away of stone. His head hurt as if he¹d hardly slept at all. No wonder, with the thoughts of the previous evening, although he more often got nightmares than headaches. Ah, well, just another evening in...
~Wherever I am, this is _not_ New York.~
His senses were instantly alert. He leapt to his feet, scanning the area around him for threats. Sand beneath his feet, surging ocean, nearby forest, exotic flowers growing wild, a pile of supplies, and no signs of intelligent life.
~How did I get here? Who did it--the Illuminati?~
~Whoever it was, they must have transported me in my sleep. That means, if they¹d just wanted me dead, they¹d have smashed me where I slept.~ It was an unnerving thought. He¹d been very careful to keep his gargoyle nature hidden, and he had thought the security in his apartment was reasonably good. ~Evidently not good enough.~
Unless... ³Goliath? Brooklyn?² he called quietly. No response at all. He could smell no one, nor could he hear anything more than the wind through the forest and the pounding of the surf. ³Lexington? Angela?² Still no answer. ~Where am I?~
Wagner took a closer look at the pile of supplies at his feet. There was a short German-made machine gun with a belt of ammunition, two Walther PPK handguns, several boxes of bullets for those, a Beretta 9mm plus ammo and ankle holster, a hunting knife...and that was only what he could see. ~It looks like the inventory of ³Serial Killers ŒR¹ Us,²~ the gargoyle thought sarcastically.
~Someone put this here. For me.~ What other reason could there be for a pile of weapons on the shore? ~Someone wants me to have these.~ A frown creased his brow. This was _not_ how the Illuminati operated. They simply sent him orders. Besides, the Illuminati thought he was dead. ~I hope.~
~Surely if they¹d found out I was alive, they¹d have either killed me in my sleep or interrogated me as punishment for defecting.~
~Is this an interrogation?~ His eyes swept the forest, suddenly wondering if any of it was real. He picked up the hunting knife, lopped one of the flowers off its stem, and watched the juice ooze out of the wound. Wagner¹s hands touched the sap--yes, it was sticky, and yes, it smelled like green, growing things. This flower _had_ to be real. ~If it is an interrogation, it¹s not like any procedure I ever heard of.~
~I¹m not going to learn anything from just staying here.~ He cast a glance at the weapons. ~Better safe than sorry.~
He knelt over and picked up one of the handguns. Its weight, its grip, even the scratches on its barrel were familiar. ~This is _my_ gun.~ He quickly checked over the other weapons. The Beretta, the machine gun, and the hunting knife were all his. One of the Walthers was his World War II vintage special edition, with ³WAGNER² engraved in flowing letters along the barrel. ~I had these all under lock and key...how¹d they get out here? And who would dump me in the jungle and arm me to the teeth with my own weapons?~
It made no sense. That reason alone made Wagner uneasy. He strapped on the ankle holster and slipped the Beretta inside. His personal Walther went into the waistband of his jeans; the other went with the bullets into his jacket pocket. He threw the machine gun over one shoulder, wrapping the ammo belt around his other shoulder, and decided he¹d have to carry the knife in his hand if he wanted to chop his way through all that jungle.
As he picked up the weapons, he noticed a long, cloth-wrapped object that lay beside them. Curiosity got the better of him and he carefully began to unwrap it.
He only needed to see the orb at its head to know what it was.
BAVARIA, GERMANY 1938
³Are you ready?² asked the Illuminati
³We have prepared him as you directed,² replied Grendel, a slate-grey female gargoyle in a military-style uniform. She had three stubby horns: one above each eye ridge, and one in the center of her forehead. Her blond hair was pulled back into a severe bun at the nape of her neck, and the spade-shaped tip of her tail rested on her four-toed foot. Grendel picked up the mirror she had set down and busied herself polishing the glass.
³Do you have the staff?²
³Jawohl,² came the answer. Another grey gargoyle, this one a male, walked into the forest clearing. His hair was clipped short, but otherwise his features were eerily similar to Grendel¹s. In his five-taloned hands he carried a long, slender object wrapped in burlap. ³How will we hand it to him?²
³Wagner will unwrap the staff himself,² said Mephistopheles von Sturm, King of the Bavarian Illuminati.
³And this will not harm him?² the male gargoyle demanded.
³Grendel tells me you have prepared him. You did, I trust, follow the ceremonies to the letter.²
³Indeed we did. Grendel herself cast the spells. You must understand, sir, that I fear for my son. I have seen firsthand what happens to those who touch the Avatar Staff directly.²
³It is a risk which must be taken, Faust.²
The male gargoyle, Faust, frowned and stepped backwards, still holding the staff. ³Risk? You said the rites should protect him!²
³Should, Faust. _If_ he has been chosen by a Power. If none of the Transcended fay have chosen him as their own, then no spell in the world can save him.²
Faust bit his lip, frightened to risk angering the mighty von Sturm, and yet worried for the welfare of the gargoyle he had adopted as his son. He had seen firsthand how difficult it had been for Wagner to come to terms with being carved into the form of a human--and with the resulting rejection by his clan and his mate. He did not want to see Wagner die. ³I can¹t believe Wagner agreed to this risk,² he whispered.
³We didn¹t tell him,² Grendel replied.
Faust stared up at his mate. ³You what?² he said in disbelief.
³There¹s no sense in upsetting him and delaying the rite until the next new moon. Act your rank and proceed,² Grendel snapped.
~Why did I mate with her?~ Faust asked himself, as he had so many times before. Once again, the answer was the same. ~Because she was the strongest, fittest, most devoted warrior, and my sacrifice was for the advancement of the Illuminati and the greater good.~ A short sigh of regret, and then he laid the staff down in the center of the clearing and waited for Wagner.
Grendel turned to von Sturm. ³Let us hope that Wagner brings us a powerful and useful avatar.²
³Yes.² Von Sturm paused, and then spoke. ³I believe I have found the reason for our prior disappointments. Of those who survived touching the staff, the first was a drunk and the second, a trickster. That is why they became Bacchus and Loki respectively. Bacchus was incapable of sober action and Loki, impossible to control. Now, though, I am offering up a highly disciplined assassin. He is better material to begin with.²
³How sure are you of this theory?² Faust dared to ask.
³Sure enough to risk my best soldier.²
Faust looked at the ground. He was the only one who knew how much Wagner hated killing. Granted, the humanlike gargoyle was incredibly good at it, and Faust was certain he was the only one who had ever seen Wagner consumed by guilt.
Then a shadow passed above and momentarily blotted out the stars. There was no moon this night. Wagner touched down in the clearing, folded his wings, and bowed to von Sturm. ³I am ready.²
³Excellent,² von Sturm replied. ³Continue on your own time.²
Wagner approached the burlap-wrapped staff. A wind sprang up, whipping at his long blond bangs and causing them to snap in the breeze as he went down on one knee and began to unwrap the bundle, taking care not to touch the staff.
There it lay now, fully uncovered before him, pillowed on the burlap. The orb at its top pulsed with a supernatural light. Wagner risked a quick glance upward. Concern was written across his foster father¹s face. Grendel¹s features registered impatience--she wanted him to do it and be done. Von Sturm was merely expectant. Wagner bowed his head and slowly extended his arm as he examined the staff. It seemed so innocuous, lying there, and yet its beauty was a deadly one, like a poisonous snake sunning itself. The light in the orb began to swirl as his hand approached. Wagner paused, steeled his nerves, and seized the staff.
The orb gave off a burst of light. An avian scream sprang from Wagner¹s throat as rays of pink light sprang from the staff and began to rotate out from it like the spokes of a wheel. When Grendel¹s vision cleared, she beheld an image in the mirror: a dark-robed figure with great black feathered wings, passing over a desert town and leaving a trail of death in its path...
³Azrael,² Mephistopheles von Sturm whispered, his eyes alight with pleasure. ³The Destroying Angel.² Faust¹s face went pale.
³Say this,² Grendel advised her King, scribbling the three words in a book. ³Wait for the light to turn white before you invoke the avatar.²
The pink light had already become yellow when von Sturm turned away from the mirror towards the clearing¹s center. Through the rays, he could just barely make out the outline of Wagner, clasping the staff above his head. He quickly scanned the page and then dropped the book.
³Wagner!² Faust cried.
The light flashed a brilliant white.
Mephistopheles von Sturm raised his hands to the sky. ³Arise...Destroying...Angel!²
Wagner screamed again, this time in agony, and the light in the orb extinguished itself. Wagner¹s head was thrown back, his eyes shut, his teeth clenched, his back arched. He could feel a powerful energy coursing through his veins, and struggle as he might, he could not control it. His body was at the mercy of this power. Black lightning crackled at his feet and threw itself up in a burst. When the darkness faded, the being before them was no longer Wagner.
Wagner¹s batlike wings were thrown wide and, in a burst of light, became covered with glossy black feathers. Their frame had been stripped of all skin and muscle, leaving bare bones. His tail, taken from him when he had been carved into a human, had returned, but slender now and tipped with a backwards-curving barb. His hands were skeletal, the skin stretched taut, and his fingers were sharp talons once again. His uniform was transformed to a black robe with a cowled hood. A smaller version of the crest he¹d sported as a gargoyle curled out from under the hood. His blue eyes shone out as well, and their centers radiated blackness.
Looking at his adopted son, Faust felt a chill run through him. The temperature in the clearing plummeted, wrapping the forest in the chill of the grave.
Azrael Wagner¹s eyes swept over Faust, Grendel and von Sturm, each of whom felt their body temperatures drop and their hearts skip beats. The humanlike gargoyle searched for the mirror to see what had happened in that burst of white light. He felt awful. Powerful, yes, but terrible. There was a slow ache all over his body that he felt down to the bone.
A crow fluttered down from the sky to perch on a branch in a nearby tree. The bird opened its mouth to caw, and in doing so, sealed its fate. The noise attracted Wagner¹s attention, and he focused his attention on the crow.
~That bird certainly looks surprised,~ he thought innocently. ~It really ought to balance itself, though, before...~
The crow fell over, simply collapsed backwards off the branch. It hit the ground hard and did not move again. Von Sturm turned his head towards the fallen animal.
As Wagner watched in confusion, spots of rot appeared on the bird¹s body. Wagner gaped in horror as the rot spread, exposing the flesh below, eating that away too, and finally leaving only a skeleton. Even so, the process was not done--before his eyes, the bones crumbled and fell apart, decomposing to dust which blew away on the wind.
Azrael Wagner wrenched his gaze away to the forest, which seemed to shudder in distaste, or defence. His gaze fell on a large oak tree, and he thought about it--how strong it was, how healthy, how... Suddenly its leaves started turning brown and dropping, first in a smattering, then in a torrent, and before his sight the bark fell away, the heartwood powdered, and the trunk disintegrated to nothing.
~Did _I_ do that?~
Just in case, he looked down, away from the living things around him. At his feet, the grass was dead, and the death was spreading in a widening circle with him at the center.
~What _am_ I? Mein Gott...Sturm, what have you _done_ to me?~
³Excellent,² von Sturm said, lips split in a fanged smile.
³A word of caution, sir,² Grendel advised. ³I doubt that Wagner meant to kill the crow.² The black-robed avatar agreed, closing his eyes and shaking his head wildly, not daring to speak. Grendel glanced briefly at the spot where the crow had fallen. ³Perhaps this power is too much for a mortal to control.²
³Wagner, what has happened to you?² Faust spread his wings and launched himself towards the Destroying Angel¹s avatar.
³Faust, no!² Grendel¹s arm grabbed his wing and yanked him backwards to the ground.
³Let me go!²
³He¹ll kill you!²
³We¹re immortal!² Faust protested.
³Not in the face of that,² Grendel said grimly. ³A spell grants us long life, true. But Wagner--Azrael Wagner--is now the very essence of Death itself, and more powerful than any spell or charm.²
~I¹m a monster,~ Wagner thought, touching the staff to the ground and leaning on it. He shut his eyes in the hope of stopping the destruction. He could feel the power building within him, the dark energies that urged him to unleash them, and he could do so at his whim, but he had to do it soon or they would overwhelm him...
~Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.~
Wagner¹s eyes flared wide and for one brief moment, he looked at Mephistopheles von Sturm.
Power met power. The spell granting von Sturm immortality was an ancient and mighty one, but as Grendel had said, not even that spell could deny the direct and deliberate intent of Death itself. Had Wagner¹s eyes not closed almost as quickly as they had opened, von Sturm would have died--and the Illuminati King knew it. As it was, he felt his heart stop for that moment, his lungs refuse to breathe, his organs cease functioning, all but his brain...and then Azrael Wagner¹s eyes closed and the killing gaze was gone. For the first time in centuries, Mephistopheles von Sturm knew fear.
Wagner raised the Avatar Staff above his head, fighting the dark energies which were whispering phrases into his mind, words in many different languages, but he knew what they all meant. They were spells to release his power, to spread the death he carried inside him. He could feel pain in his mortal body, which was advancing towards his own death at a far more rapid pace than normal.
Wagner, too, possessed a spell--not one of immortality, but one that slowed his aging, with the added help of drugs. He dared not imagine how a mortal without this spell would fare, holding the black power within himself. Even now, Wagner knew he could not hold out much longer if he did not release the energy. Death coursed through his veins. He struggled to put a little of that power into the action he wanted to perform.
Wagner fought to raise the staff, which suddenly became very heavy. He could feel an almost magnetic tug pulling it towards his body. He allowed himself to recall the decay of the unfortunate crow and oak tree, imagined himself doing the same to the gargoyles of his clan, and that gave him the fortitude to do what he needed.
Azrael Wagner straightened his arms, holding the staff above his head, and began a motion forward. His fingers were stiff, but his will was strong enough to cause them to snap open.
The Avatar Staff fell from his hands.
~What had von Sturm said? ³Arise, Destroying Angel?² Let¹s try...~
The pain was incredible. His body crackled with electric death, and yet he could feel the evil power ebbing away from him. His eyes still tightly shut, he spoke the words in a rush...
³Descend, Destroying Angel!²
Wagner crashed to his knees, his head buried in his hands. The world was spinning and he dared not open his eyes. His wings, batlike leather once again, settled down around his shoulders like a cloak. His chest was burning and his whole body ached.
³Wagner?² It was Faust.
Wagner turned his head away from the sounds of living beings and opened his eyes, fixing them on another tree.
~Die, tree. Die.~
Wagner gritted his teeth and wished with all his might that this fine strong pine would die. Only when the tree remained unharmed for several minutes did he finally dare to raise his eyes to the group.
³Thank God,² Faust said, wrapping an arm around him. Wagner allowed his adopted father to help him to his feet. Cautiously, Grendel approached the place where the staff had fallen, wrapping it back up in the burlap.
³This project is closed,² Mephistopheles von Sturm pronounced, for the first time in centuries fighting to keep a quaver out of his voice.
The colour drained from Wagner¹s face as he quickly wrapped the Avatar Staff back up with shaking hands. ³I will never touch this thing again,² he said aloud. ³Never!²
He wanted nothing to do with the staff. ~But I can¹t leave it here. Who knows who might stumble across it? This is far too dangerous to ever fall into anyone else¹s hands.~ He frowned and checked the staff¹s wrapping one more time, then set off through the jungle, hacking the foliage away with the knife in his right hand and carrying the deadly staff in his left.
The Banshee peered down from her perch in a tree. ~So, he won¹t use the staff,~ she thought, frowning under the iron plate. ~Ah, well. I gave him enough weaponry to make short work of the mortal guests before my fellow Children can stop him.~ She returned to spirit-wraith form, deciding to put in an appearance at the party before her guest arrived...fashionably late, and dressed to kill.
Noises. There was something ahead of
him, something alive. Yes. Voices.
Friendly, or hostile? He couldn¹t afford to take chances. Wagner crouched down in the bushes, hoping he wouldn¹t be seen.
The voices¹ owners came into view. Three gargoyles. One of them was a dusty blue with dishwater blonde hair, two thick backwards-swept horns, a spike-tipped tail, and a single rib down the center of each wing. The second was female, similar in colouring to Angela. She had a tusk growing out of each cheek and the tops of her wings; several ivory plates lined her tail. The last gargoyle was a golden-coloured male with shoulder-length blond hair, tall and proud, shining from neck to ankle with polished silver armour.
~Gargoyles...but they might be members of the Illuminati. I can¹t trust them,~ Wagner decided regretfully.
³Have you seen Ophelia tonight?² the golden gargoyle asked.
³No, Michael,² Gabriel responded with a frown. ³I thought she was with you.²
³Nay, brother. I...I fear I might have upset her.²
³I haven¹t seen her either,² the female reported. ³What did you do?²
The armoured gargoyle sighed. ³We were out on the cliffs watching the meteor shower last night, and I asked her...just what our relationship was. Whether we might...possibly...become mates someday.²
Wagner held his breath as the trio walked along, hoping they might pass him by. Perhaps he could follow them back to their home and get some idea of where in the world he might be. ~They¹re speaking English. Accent sounds Scottish. But this jungle...this can¹t be Scotland.~
The blue gargoyle frowned, looking rather concerned, and Wagner could pick up hesitation in his voice as he swallowed hard and asked, ³What did she say?²
Michael sighed. ³She just muttered something and ran off. Gabriel, I don¹t know what to do! Ophelia and I have been the best of friends since we were hatched, and we always used to say we¹d be a couple someday, but now it¹s just...not like that. I don¹t feel those things for her.²
Wagner half-smiled to himself as Gabriel gave a sigh of relief which his two companions did not notice.
³Perhaps you should talk to her more carefully,² the purple gargoyle suggested. ³She may...² Suddenly, the female bit off and peered into the bushes, looking in Wagner¹s direction. The humanlike gargoyle froze, hardly daring to breathe. Carefully, trying not to rustle any leaves, he set the Avatar Staff down behind him.
³Martha? What do you see?² Michael asked.
Martha took a step closer. ³Hello? Is anyone there?²
~This is it...~ thought Wagner, tensing his muscles in readiness.
The purple gargoyle parted the bushes. Wagner¹s eyes flashed white and he jumped out at her, catching her on the jaw with his fist and knocking her over backwards. Michael and Gabriel were frozen with shock for an instant, which was time enough for Wagner to drop to a crouch and lash Gabriel with his long black wings. Wagner¹s gauntleted wing hands tore two gashes in Gabriel¹s breastplate. A shove sent the blue gargoyle staggering backwards.
Wagner stood up and eyed Michael carefully. The golden gargoyle looked strong and warlike. ~No guns,~ Wagner thought, ~no guns unless I can¹t help it.~ He did not want to kill fellow gargoyles who had been simply minding their own business--not unless there was no other recourse.
Wagner and Michael began to circle one another, eyes glowing. The golden male was younger, taller, and more muscular than his opponent. On the other hand, Michael had been raised on Avalon, where none of the gargoyles had practised battlecraft until the coming of the Archmage. In the time since then, they had all learned quickly--Ophelia had become quite proficient with a bow, Gabriel was a masterful flyer, and none could equal Michael in hand-to-hand combat--but Wagner had been a soldier for over sixty years in a world where only the best survived. Furthermore, while he looked like a human, the Illuminati¹s magic had granted Wagner most of the strength he¹d had in full gargoyle form. Most important of all, Wagner had learned patience.
Michael was fighting mad. First this stranger had jumped his companions, and now the--human? gargoyle? whatever he was--was simply pacing in circles, taunting him. Michael had trained long and hard for just such an occasion, and now that it was here, he intended to show this interloper what he could do. The golden gargoyle charged.
Wagner sidestepped him, giving him a blow from behind. Michael wheeled, fists swinging wildly, and Wagner blocked one with his right arm and the other with his left wing. His left arm caught Michael¹s unarmoured throat and squeezed. The young gargoyle choked and staggered backwards as Wagner let him go and drove him back farther with a kick to the stomach that dented his armour.
Michael¹s lip curled up in a snarl and he rushed Wagner, this time bringing the two hooks on the tops of his wings in downward sweeps towards Wagner¹s face. Wagner¹s own wings rose to meet the challenge, and the humanlike gargoyle¹s wing hands gripped Michael¹s wing hooks at their bases. Michael threw a punch, which Wagner blocked while tightening his grip on the Avalon gargoyle¹s wings. Wagner grinned coldly and began to force Michael¹s wing hooks over backwards in a direction in which nature never intended them to bend. Michael cried out, squirming in pain. He never saw the punch that knocked him out.
Martha had climbed to her feet and flung herself at Wagner¹s back, clawing and snarling. Wagner bent double as she landed atop him, then straightened himself up like a springboard, using her own momentum to throw her off. Before she knew what was happening, she found herself flying away from her target. She landed on her back with a whoof as the air was pressed out of her lungs.
Gabriel was up again too, attacking from behind, but a quick backwards chop of Wagner¹s arm knocked the blue gargoyle over. Meanwhile, Martha was kneeling, gathering energy for another attack. Wagner smacked her across the face, hard, and she fell in a heap beside Michael.
Two down. One to go. Gabriel still had some fight left in him, but the others were down for the count. Now that the odds were in his favour, Wagner could afford to talk.
He didn¹t turn his back on the other two, just in case they came around and decided to fight some more. He circled around until Gabriel¹s back was to his companions. Then, Wagner drew his Walther. The moonlight glinted off the engraving on the barrel.
Gabriel looked at it oddly, and continued to circle.
³Freeze,² Wagner said.
³Why?² Gabriel demanded, again looking curiously at the gun. ³What¹s that?²
~He doesn¹t know what a gun is!~ Wagner realized with shock.
The German gargoyle took aim at a nearby bird on a tree and fired once. Gabriel jumped at the sound of the gunshot--and then the bird fell out of the tree and landed at his feet, stone dead.
³You¹re next, unless you surrender,² Wagner hissed through his teeth.
The blood drained away from Gabriel¹s face, leaving the young gargoyle a noticeably paler shade of blue. ³Who are you?² he asked. ³What do you want from us?²
³Are you Illuminati?² Wagner demanded.
~There goes Explanation One.~ Wagner couldn¹t say he was sorry to learn that he hadn¹t been kidnapped by his old masters after all. ³Where am I?²
³A...avalon,² Gabriel stuttered.
Avalon. The name was vaguely familiar. ³What continent¹s that on?²
³It¹s an island in the middle of the sea.²
³So now you¹re telling me I¹m on Atlantis, is that it?² Wagner snapped.
³No, Atlantis was part of the Earth plane before it sank,² Gabriel said seriously.
Wagner was tempted to shoot this smart-mouth¹s tail off in the moment before his mind registered the fear and earnestness in the young gargoyle¹s voice. ~He certainly sounds sincere...but he can¹t be telling the truth...can he?~
³Avalon¹s not truly part of the Earth plane,² Gabriel continued, stumbling on some of the words. ³It exists in a realm of its own, a plane of magic. This is the birthplace of Oberon¹s Children...²
³Oberon¹s Children. The Third Race. The fay. They are beings of pure magic,² Gabriel explained as he struggled to keep his hands from shaking.
~The perfect interrogation subject. Sings like a bird!~ Wagner thought, and then the ramifications of the young gargoyle¹s words hit home.
³You¹re talking about fairy folk?²
Wagner let loose a string of German curse words, to Gabriel¹s confusion. Fairy folk..._that_ would certainly explain a lot of what had been going on! Wagner was absolutely terrified, though he refused to let any of his fear show on his face. Armed men, warplanes, guns and bombs were one thing, but fairy folk...
Wagner hated magic. He and magic had a long and unpleasant history. It was sorcery, after all, that was responsible for his humanlike appearance and subsequent rejection by the clan of his birth. Wagner knew a few spells, but while he was lethal with a weapon, his prowess as a sorcerer was limited at best. His spells had a terrible tendency to backfire. Magic just wasn¹t his thing. Unfortunately for him, magic seemed to be a way of life on this island.
³How¹d I get here?²
³How am I to know?² the young gargoyle cried. ³It can be done with a magic spell...²
Wagner shook his head. He¹d used no spell.
³Or perhaps one of Oberon¹s Children brought you.²
~Brought here. By one of the fairy folk.~ A chill ran down the back of Wagner¹s neck.
Wagner was confident in his ability to best any soldier on Earth, but in combat against a being impervious to bullets, to whom magic was as natural as breathing was to him? He knew he would not be the favoured contestant in a match against a fay. Being outmatched scared him.
³How¹d _you_ get here?² Wagner snarled, his fear fuelling his outward show of bravado. He lined up Gabriel¹s head with his gunsight.
³I was born here,² Gabriel explained. ³My clan is the honour guard of Avalon.²
Avalon...who had he heard that name from? The naive gargoyle girl that was Goliath¹s daughter. That was it! ³Do you know Angela?² Wagner asked suspiciously. ³Goliath¹s Angela?²
³You know Angela and Goliath?² Gabriel asked, and then his eyes began to glow. ³If you¹ve done anything to her, I swear I¹ll...²
³I would not do anything to her,² Wagner said, and lowered his gun. ³I would not do anything to any of her rookery, either. I mean you no harm.² He bowed. ³Richard Wagner.²
Gabriel was stunned. ³But...the attack!²
Wagner put the gun back in his waistband, crossed his hands behind his back, and began to pace. ³Yesterday morning I went to sleep in my apartment in New York City, not too far from where Angela and Goliath live. This evening, I woke up alone on the beach of this godforsaken island. I didn¹t know where I am, I still don¹t know how I got here, and there¹s a lot of people who would dearly love to see me dead. You can understand how I¹d be a little defensive.²
Gabriel nodded, seeming a little dazed, and just then Martha let out a moan. Gabriel rushed to see to his friends.
³They¹ll be all right,² Wagner assured him, ³no more than cuts and bruises. I take no delight in killing, no matter what some might say.²
³What who may say?² Gabriel asked, as he helped Martha to her feet.
Wagner¹s eyes darkened. ³Perhaps it would be best to leave those rumours on the Earth Plane.² He abruptly changed the subject. ³Tell me, why would one of the fairy folk bring me here?²
³Oberon, lord of the Third Race, is having a party tonight in his banquet hall,² Martha explained, keeping her distance and looking questioningly at Gabriel. She rubbed her jaw where Wagner had hit her. ³All of his Children are bringing mortals as their guests.²
³And one of them brought me,² Wagner said grimly. ~I do not like the idea of being some fairy¹s plaything.~
³I cannot imagine why a fay would drop you off in the forest,² Gabriel said.
³Perhaps I can, brother,² Michael said sarcastically, rubbing his aching wing hooks. ³Our visitor does not seem like the social type.²
Rather than reacting to the jibe with hostility or aloofness, Wagner pondered it. ³Yes. Whoever brought me either has no idea of my background...or else _intended_ to bring someone who was liable to open fire in the middle of the party.² He looked each of the trio in the eyes. ³Any ideas?²
³Some of Oberon¹s children are tricksters,² Martha admitted, ³but they are more thoughtless towards mortals than deliberately malicious.²
Wagner frowned as he reached back into the bushes to retrieve the Avatar Staff. ³Especially with this. Someone wants this party to become a bloodbath.² The more he thought about his last sentence, the more accurate it sounded. ~But who? And why?~
³What¹s that?² Gabriel asked, reaching out his hand.
³Don¹t!² Wagner exclaimed, jerking it away. The three Avalon gargoyles looked at him questioningly. ³It¹ll kill you,² he said grimly, winding the cloth tighter around it. ³I¹ve got to find a way to get rid of this thing and then get back home.²
³You could take a skiff,² Michael suggested. ³We can take you down to the beach and see you on your way.² Privately, he could hardly wait to see this newcomer gone from Avalon¹s shores.
³Tempting,² Wagner said, considering the option, ³but no. That won¹t answer who brought me here.² His eyes flashed as he shouldered the staff. ³Whoever did it might try again. I will put an end to this.² He thought of battling a fairy, and for the first time he was grateful for the object of power in his hands. ³One way or another.²
³Then come,² Gabriel said, ³and we will take you to our castle.²
From the castle parapets, the Banshee watched
Wagner arrive through the back door in the company of three other gargoyles.
She cursed in Gaelic and became a spirit again, hovering near one of the
³Let¹s find Princess Katherine and Tom,² Martha offered. ³Perhaps they can make some suggestions to help our guest.² The purple gargoyle and her blue-skinned companion excused themselves and began to search the nearby rooms.
³Gabriel! Gabriel!² Another gargoyle dashed into the chamber where Gabriel and Martha stood, her purple-lined wings trailing behind her. She was a female, greenish-blue in a green dress, with a golden armband. Her most striking feature was a large pointed crest on her head. Rust-brown hair swirled out from under the crest and a long horn protruded from each of her eyebrow ridges. Her face was thin, almost haggard, and her voice had a sharp edge. Despite her exotic double-pointed elbow spurs and wingtips, this lady gargoyle would hardly be considered beautiful. The Banshee smirked to herself, certain that she could morph into a Molly-gargoyle that could steal away the dusky blue male¹s attention.
³Ophelia! What is it?² Gabriel asked, with concern in his voice. ³Are you all right? Michael told me...²
³It¹s more than that,² Ophelia said agitatedly. ³I was looking for you all last night. Please, hurry!²
³Pardon me,² Gabriel apologized to Martha as Ophelia half-dragged him out of the room. ³Keep looking for them!²
The Banshee returned to the chamber where Wagner and Michael waited. Now there was only one gargoyle in the room with Wagner...but that was still one gargoyle too many. The Banshee did not want to risk having one of the nosy creatures learn of her plan. Other gargoyles had managed to interfere in her battle with Cuchulain at a most inopportune time.
Michael was glaring coldly at Wagner, his pride bruised from losing his recent battle with the humanlike gargoyle. He was the easy best in hand-to-hand combat with his rookery siblings, and to have been beaten like a hatchling was humiliating. ³Excuse me,² he said stiffly, and stalked out of the room.
~And now you are alone,~ the Banshee thought, peering in the window at Wagner. ~Perfect. You are a suspicious one, dark enforcer, but how will you fare in a world bereft of logic?~
Wagner stared in the direction that his blue-skinned host had gone. He took a cursory glance out into the corridor, then wandered back into the room and settled himself to wait. He began pacing around the room, examining the artifacts that stood on low tables around the perimeter.
Without warning, the walls of the castle seemed to bend and twist. A thick, cloying fog oozed in through the windows and curled around the floor. Outside, the spirit-wraith Banshee snaked through the air, whipping up her suffocating mist and casting her spell.
Wagner dropped the Avatar Staff and put his hands to his head. ~What¹s happening?~ he thought, half-panicked. His thoughts were not only scattered, they were lost. He tried to remember what had brought him here, and could not. Gabriel, the fight with the gargoyles, his awakening in the forest--they were all gone from his mind. He knew only that he was alone in a strange castle, and there was something happening that he could not explain. The fog thickened until he could hardly see the walls of the room around him.
The spirit-Banshee swirled out of the castle and metamorphosized into her fay form. ~Come, dark enforcer. Come to me.~ Her mind-probe reached deep into the castle, skipping over Martha, Michael, Tom and Princess Katherine until it found a receptive mind. Wagner¹s mind. She became Molly O¹Leary and began to call him.
³Seamus! Seamus Ryan!² A voice pierced through the fog and met Wagner¹s ears.
~Seamus Ryan. I know that name.~ His thoughts were slow, lethargic. ~I¹m Seamus Ryan. Or I was. In Ireland. In the 70¹s.~ He bent over and picked up the staff. ~Must keep this.~ ³Where am I?² he called, aloud, as in a dream.
³Seamus, help me!²
~A girl. I know her voice, too. And her name. What was her name?²
~Molly. That was it. Molly something...~
³Molly?² he called, trying to look through the fog. ³Molly, I¹m coming!² ~Can¹t leave her. Must help her. That silly little flirting girl...~ He had a mission, and with it a direction, a purpose in this dream-world where surroundings and thoughts melted and merged, darted and ebbed away, ever shifting, ever changing.
³Help me, please!² she cried, and Wagner stumbled off through the fog in the direction of the voice. His limbs were sluggish, as slow as his thoughts.
Overhead, two gargoyles soared back to the castle. They paused, hovering in mid-flight, flapping their wings, when they saw that the entire rear side of the castle was covered in a heavy white mist.
³What manner of fog is that?² asked a short, squat, gremlin-like male. ³I have seen nothing like it near our castle before.²
³I know not, brother,² replied the pale blue female named Diana. ³Perhaps it is the work of one of Oberon¹s children, for the party tonight.²
Wagner could no longer see anything but the heavy white mist. He walked onwards, through the castle courtyard, out the main door, into the forest. The fog was too thick for Diana and her companion to see him go.
³Molly? Molly, where are you?² The heavy moisture in the air suffocated his voice.
~He may be a gargoyle, and a mighty assassin,~ the Banshee thought to herself, ~but just like any other mortal male, he cannot resist me.~
Wagner staggered onwards, listening for the sound of her voice to guide him. ³Seamus! Seamus Ryan! Help!² Suddenly, the fog parted before him like misty curtains, and there, sitting cross-legged on the ground, was Molly O¹Leary.
³Molly?² Wagner asked, holding out a hand to help her up.
She took his hand, climbed to her feet, and gave him a fierce hug. He could feel the moisture of her tears seeping through his clothing, wetting his chest. He was confused, but then again, nothing in this world made sense...and she obviously needed him. He paused, then wrapped an arm and a wing around her.
³Oh, Seamus, thank goodness you¹re here,² she said, looking up into his face and not minding a bit that she had a five-fingered wing hand resting on her shoulder.
³Molly. What¹s happening?² Wagner asked. ³What¹s wrong?²
³We¹ve been kidnapped,² she sobbed, ³kidnapped by the fairy folk. They mean to keep us here on Avalon forever!²
³Are you sure?² he demanded. ³How do you know this?²
~Ever the suspicious one, dark enforcer,~ the Banshee thought grimly. ~But now you are on my turf, in a realm of magic, and nothing can save you from the full power of my charm.~
³I was in their Great Hall,² Molly sobbed. ³We have been brought for the amusement of their king, Lord Oberon. I saw others...a pretty young woman, a little girl, a pair of teenagers... I got away from the Hall, but they¹ll come looking for me. I don¹t want to go back!² She wiped a tear off her cheek. ³I...I just want to go home.²
³I¹m no hero, Molly,² Wagner said grimly, staring out into the fog.
³I remember ye in Ireland!² she protested. ³I remember what ye did to those British louts who were after tryin¹ to kill me!² Her face fell, and she grasped his hand, clinging to it as a drowning person clings to a life preserver. ³Seamus, please, ye have to try!²
The fear in her voice tugged at the gargoyle¹s heart. Assassin or no, he was still a gargoyle, and still beset by a natural compulsion to protect. He brushed the tears away from her eyes and took her hand in his.
³Seamus, please,² she whispered.
³My name is Wagner,² he replied quietly, taking the Avatar Staff in a wing hand so he could close his other hand around hers.
³Wagner, Seamus, whatever you call yourself, I don¹t care. Nothin¹ here makes sense. I just want to go _home_!²
³Me too,² he murmured, pulling her close. ³I¹ll do what I can. I promise you.²
Molly O¹Leary sniffed. ³We has to go to their Great Hall and force their lord to send us home.²
Wagner sighed. ³I¹m loaded to the teeth, but I don¹t think bullets are going to have much effect on magical creatures.² He ran his fingers over the ammunition belt around his left shoulder and forced a laugh. ³A shame these aren¹t silver.²
³Silver is for vampires and weres,² Molly informed him. ³For the Children of Oberon, cold iron will do.²
³Iron. Hmmm.² He carefully examined his Walther. ³I¹m afraid the iron in these things is minimal.² A snort. ³That was never on my inspection criteria for weaponry before.²
Secretly, Wagner was truly unnerved. He struggled desperately to think of something which would enable him to fight the fay lord on even terms...or better.
³What¹s that?² Molly asked curiously, pointing behind Wagner¹s shoulder.
³Oh. The wings. Ah...² He thought fast, trying to come up with an explanation that would not frighten her.
³No, that!² She reached out to take hold of the long object wrapped in cloths, supported by his wing hand. A thought nagged at the edge of Wagner¹s subconscious for just a moment before it vanished, as if into the mist. ~Isn¹t it odd that she doesn¹t mind my wings?~
³Don¹t!² Wagner cried, folding his wing around the Avatar Staff to block it from Molly¹s touch. ³That thing¹s dangerous.²
³What is it?² she asked curiously.
³A staff,² he replied, ³that¹ll kill you if you touch it directly.²
³So how come you¹re after carryin¹ it around with ye?²
³It¹s too dangerous to leave it lying around.²
³Always the hero,² Molly said, smiling winsomely. He eyes narrowed, and she spoke the next sentence in a harsh, secretive whisper. ³Say, what would you think that staff would be doin¹ to one of the fairy folk?²
There was his answer. It was also an answer he didn¹t like. ³I could kill you with that thing, Molly. You and everyone else in the Great Hall. I can hardly control it.²
³But it¹s your ace in the hole,² she reassured him. ³If we can¹t convince Oberon to send us both to Ireland, then ye have the means to force him!²
³We talk first,² said Wagner, hoping it would not come to that. His brief time as Azrael had been curse enough.
³Thank ye,² she said, giving him one more hug. ³Thank ye so much.² Before he could protest, she rose on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek.
Wagner almost blushed, forcing himself to interpret the kiss as a sign of gratitude and nothing more. The wedding ring on his hand was heavy, and a stab of guilt stung his heart. He shook it off and attempted to order his thoughts for the battle ahead.
³Very well, my girl. Show me this Great Hall.²
³Are you certain?² Gabriel asked
³I saw it myself!² she said, a tad indignantly. ³After the Lords of Death departed, the Banshee broke the shield wall and stole the Avatar Staff!²
³I saw that staff this evening,² Gabriel told her. ³It was in the hands of a newcomer...a gargoyle who looks like a man.²
³Wagner,² Ophelia whispered, so quietly that Gabriel did not hear.
³It seems that one of the Children of Oberon has brought him here to the party tonight,² Gabriel said, ³and yet he does not know his host...²
³It¹s Wagner!² she repeated, louder this time.
³Yes. How did you know?²
³Gabriel, we are in great danger!²
³So this is it, then,² Wagner said
reluctantly, looking up at the castle¹s main gates.
³Please, Wagner. Ye has to be gettin¹ us home!² She squeezed his hand. ³For the sake of all us mortals, ye has to save us!²
Wagner sighed bitterly and clenched the staff in his other hand. ³I hope you don¹t come to regret this.²
~Doubts. Still. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome those.~ The Banshee smiled to herself and prepared to show Wagner the true magnitude of her seductive powers. ~By the time I¹m through with him, he will be unable to think of anything else.~
Molly O¹Leary gave Wagner a seductive smile. ³Maybe, when this is all over and we¹re back in Ireland, you and I can enjoy the rest of the evening,² she suggested, reaching up to touch his cheek. The gargoyle backed away as if he¹d been struck, his crystal blue eyes wide with shock.
Molly pouted. ³What¹s after bein¹ the matter with ye?² She looked into his eyes, unleashing the full power of her mesmerizing voice. ³You and I, we could be good together.²
³No,² he said, struggling to draw away. He blinked his eyes rapidly, trying desperately to find a reality he could anchor himself to, and finding nothing. Molly was pretty...so very lovely...but something about all this was very, very wrong...
³I know ye¹s a gargoyle. It doesn¹t matter to me.² She took his arm. ³Tell me you don¹t find me attractive.²
Wagner¹s eyes closed, but seconds later he was peering out at her from between his eyelashes. ³I can¹t.² Forcing the words out of his mouth took considerable effort. After he spoke, he wondered if he¹d said that he couldn¹t tell her she _was_ attractive, or that he couldn¹t tell her she was _not_. He wasn¹t exactly sure what he¹d meant himself.
³Why not?² she asked quietly, taking his hand. ³Are you mated?²
³No,² he admitted. He didn¹t want to look at her, and couldn¹t make himself look away. ~What¹s _wrong_ with me? Why are my thoughts towards her so different than they were in Ireland?~
~For God¹s sake, what about this attraction is bothering me so much?~
³Prejudiced against humans, then?² she asked with a frown.
³I married one...²
There. That was it. ~That¹s why I can¹t act on my attraction to Molly. I don¹t love her. I love Cora.~ The realization had all the surprise of a new discovery. He twisted the wedding ring on his finger.
³And she¹s prettier than me?² A pout. ³Look into my eyes and tell me she¹s prettier than me...²
Wagner turned his head away. ³I don¹t know...haven¹t seen her in years.² He was desperately frightened now. The ring was slippery somehow, impossible to grip or hold. His reactions to Molly made no sense, and they were rapidly passing beyond his ability to control.
³If she left you, then you deserve a girl like me. I¹ll never leave you, Wagner,² the Banshee purred. ~A stubborn one, this gargoyle, but he¹ll come around. They always do.~ She could see his resistance crumbling.
³I...left her...² He dragged the words from between clenched teeth. His body turned back to Molly of its own volition. Whatever was happening, here in this dream world, he could not fight it much longer.
~I...love...Cora...~ The thought itself was painful.
³Then she must not have been worth havin¹,² Molly said, stroking his face. Her touch burned like fire, and it left cold lines that seemed to burn into his soul.
A tremor raced through him. ³No...²
³If she was such a catch, why leave her? You must have known, in your heart, that there were better things for you.² Her eyes glimmered green as they locked with his. She expected to have him at her beck and call after that reassurance; his reaction took her as a complete surprise.
Wagner jerked away from her, pulling his arm from her grip, and shutting his eyes tightly, denying her with all his strength. She could feel her spell faltering, and her mouth dropped in surprise. ³Better for her,² Wagner mumbled, his eyelids pressed together as he struggled to compose himself. ~I did it because I loved her...I still love her...~
This was not in her plan. ~I had Rory under my spell even after he¹d seen my true form! Until he became Cuchulain, he was mine to control! How could this gargoyle have broken my wordspell?~ She narrowed her eyes and increased the power in her voice and eyes to the limit of her strength. ³You didn¹t really want her,² Molly assured him in desperation.
Wagner¹s eyes snapped open, glowing with white-hot rage. ³I LOVE HER!!!² He turned away from the Banshee and shook her hand off his shoulder. Molly simply stood there, shocked into silence. The blond head turned slightly and she got a glimpse of his profile.
³Stay here while I case the place,² Wagner ordered in a voice devoid of emotion. With a few beats of his wings, he soared into the sky towards the windows of the Great Hall, leaving a speechless Banshee behind.
³Where¹s Anubis?² Gabriel asked.
³What do you want with him?² Raven replied. ³He¹s not exactly the life of the party, you know.²
³It¹s very important,² Gabriel said slowly, hoping the trickster would cooperate. Raven shrugged and pointed.
³Gabriel, ye can¹t just up and talk to Death!² Ophelia protested.
³Diana knows the Children of Oberon better than anyone. She watches them from the balcony all the time. If she says that Anubis is safe to approach, then I trust her judgement. Besides, we¹ll never be allowed to have an audience with Oberon.²
³I know. I tried last night,² Ophelia said.
Across the room, Gabriel caught a glimpse of a little patch of darkness in the middle of the festivities. Colourful costumes whirled on the dance floor, magic sparkled in the air, but there was a permanent shadow in the place where five figures sat, and it had nothing to do with the lighting.
³There they are!² Ophelia whispered. Gabriel took her by the hand and headed in their direction. She protested, ³I can¹t do it.²
³Yes, you can,² he whispered gently. ³I believe in you, Ophelia. You¹re the one who saw her, so you¹re the one who has to tell them. I¹ll be right here beside you. I promise.²
³All right,² she said, swallowing nervously.
³Anubis!² Gabriel called, waving his hand. The canine ears perked and the Egyptian overseer of the dead turned his head in the two gargoyles¹ direction. ³Sir! We must speak with you!²
Just then an old man in a sparkling black cape appeared in their path. ³Who invited you two?² he demanded.
³This is important!² Gabriel said.
³You are not invited,² Odin pronounced. ³Leave this hall at once, or you _will_ be removed.²
Ophelia peered around the Norse fay, looking for Anubis. The jackal-god was coming their way, but that would be to no avail if Odin removed them first. The green gargoyle remembered something Diana had told her about the Gathering--how Odin and the Banshee had quarrelled. Ophelia hoped that the Norse fay still bore some animosity towards the Irish one.
³It¹s about the Banshee, sir,² Ophelia said. ³She¹s causing trouble again.²
³Really?² Odin said, a light twinkling in his eyes. ³Well, perhaps an exception can be made...²
³You called me?² Anubis asked, looming out of the crowd behind Odin.
³It¹s the Avatar Staff,² Ophelia puffed. ³Anubis. Sir. The Banshee took the staff from the altar.²
The jackal-head frowned. ³That is a serious charge, gargoyle.²
³There¹s more,² she continued. ³Her guest is the gargoyle known as Wagner. He has the staff.²
Another frown. Two of the other Death Fay--a blonde woman and a Native American man--drew nearer with looks of concern on their faces.
³Don¹t kill him,² Gabriel requested. ³If there¹s any other way, please don¹t kill him. He bears no ill will towards any of us. All he wants is to go home.²
A woman with eight arms approached and murmured into Anubis¹ ear. The Egyptian nodded.
³Wagner will leave alive,² Anubis said, ³and likely better off for having been here.²
As the eight-armed Indian fay turned to go, a black-robed Greek put his hand on her shoulder. ³Why, Kali, don¹t tell me you haven¹t brought a guest.² Wine slopped out of Hades¹ cup and left a stain on the hem of Kali¹s sari.
Kali looked down at the mark with annoyance and retorted, ³You should be thankful that I am patient, and when I choose, I choose wisely.² She clapped her eight hands and disappeared in a blinding flash from the bindi jewel in her forehead.
She was a Christian, not a Hindu, and so she did not know the name of the being with eight arms who stood at the foot of her bed. However, the aura the strange woman radiated, the dark sari she wore, and the sudden coldness of the room left Cora Schindel in no doubt as to the nature of her visitor.
This was Death, come to collect her.
Cora was seventy-five years old and in good health for her age. In a way she was surprised that death had come so suddenly; and yet, it was hardly unexpected. She was old, after all, and had outlived two husbands: dear sweet Henry, the widower she¹d married when she was forty-nine, and Wagner. Wagner, whom she¹d loved so deeply, whom she¹d lost so unfairly to a landmine in Vietnam.
~My Wagner.~ She had never stopped loving him. ~Perhaps we will meet again soon.~
Having been married to a gargoyle accustomed one to strange things, and so, Cora did not find it so surprising that Death would come as an eight-armed Indian woman who bid her to take her hand and come away.
~I have lived my life. It is time.~ Cora saw no reason not to cooperate, and put her hand in one of Kali¹s.
The afterlife was a ballroom that looked like
New Year¹s Eve. Cora Schindel stared in wonder at the spectacle
before her, feeling woefully out of place in her stooped old woman¹s
body and thin nightgown. Kali waved her third set of arms, and the
years fell away; suddenly Cora found herself feeling like a twenty-year-old
again. Looking In the mirror that stood near the wall, she could
see that her image had youthened as well. She stared down at her
nightdress in embarrassment.
A young man with dark hair, a black jacket, and a mischievous light in his eyes sauntered over. ³Come, now, you can¹t go to a ball just like that,² he said, and snapped his fingers. The rose-printed nightdress vanished in a flash of light, transformed into a peach coloured gown. Coyote left only one telltale rose, turned into a real flower as a corsage on her sash, to suggest what the gown had once been. Then he turned his attention back to his dance partner, a college-age girl with short black hair and coffee coloured skin, and waltzed away with her across the dance floor.
~I feel like Cinderella,~ Cora thought, ~but surely even Cinderella never saw a ball like this.~ She was surprised to see gargoyles in the crowd, dancing along with the humans and...magical creatures, like the one who had brought her here.
³Is this heaven?² Cora finally asked Kali.
³Tonight, my child, heaven is where you find it,² Kali replied enigmatically.
³Will I stay here forever?²
³No. You live. Tomorrow you will return to your mortal life. Tonight, opportunities are yours. Do not waste them.²
From the balcony overhead, Wagner surveyed
the dance hall. A party on Avalon indeed. There were humans,
fay in all conceivable forms, gargoyles, and even some odd creatures in
Greek-style robes which seemed half human and half animal.
~That¹s odd. They all seem happy to be here.~ He noticed a laughing little girl on a winged horse and a young woman who, if he remembered right, bore a striking resemblance to the photos he¹d seen of Elisa¹s sister Beth.
~Well. Time for the moment of reckoning.~ He checked his weapons, adjusted his clothing, and loosened the wrapping on the staff so he could touch it and transform, if the encounter came to that. He flexed his wings, stretching them, and thought about Molly O¹Leary.
Best to leave her outside. He didn¹t want her in harm¹s way when the trouble broke out, and he certainly didn¹t want her flirting with him any more. For good or ill, he was still in love with...
~Could that really be...~
Cora stood there, one more face in the crowd, but to Wagner the dance hall might as well have been empty. She still had all the power she had always had for him. Helpless to resist, he walked slowly to the stairs, seeing nothing else but her.
A creature with a canine head placed his cold
hand on Cora¹s shoulder. His voice carried the weight of the
grave, but she sensed no hostility in his actions. ³I believe
there is someone coming to see you,² Anubis said, nodding towards
The revellers danced on just as before, but to Cora, it was as if they had all parted to make room for the tall humanlike figure, with his cape of black wings, who was approaching. His head was bent downward, his gaze almost shy as he peeked up at her through a fringe of blond bangs. He paused in front of her, the cloth-wrapped staff in his left hand all but forgotten. ³Cora?² he whispered, tilting his head.
³Wagner!² she cried, rushing from her fay companions to hug him and hold him close, as she had in so many of her dreams.
Wagner would have dropped the Avatar Staff had not Anubis gently taken it from his hand. The gargoyle enfolded his mate in his arms, wrapping his wings around his back. The sights and sounds of Oberon¹s dance hall melted away, leaving only two lovers in one another¹s arms.
³We have only tonight,² Cora murmured in his ear.
³Then let us not waste it,² Wagner replied.
Neither of them was in any mood to question how or why. Thirty years of loneliness and dreams was enough to make even the former assassin throw questions to the wind. They danced across the floor on a current of love and magic, lost in their own little world.
Anubis passed the Avatar Staff to Hel and folded his arms in satisfaction. ³And so it ends,² Anubis said quietly.
³Or so it begins,² Kali replied. ³The choice is theirs now.²
³Why do _I_ have to take care of this thing?² Hel whined. The other Overseers of Death did not reply; Anubis was speaking to Kali, Xolotl was laughing it up with his Aztec compatriots, and Hades had consumed far too much wine. Anubis assumed, correctly, that Hel knew enough to take the staff somewhere safe. He also assumed, incorrectly, that the staff would remain there.
Outside, the Banshee was getting very impatient.
Finally, she got tired of waiting for Wagner to return and decided to go
to the party in search of him. She transformed into spirit-wraith
form and drifted into the castle through an upper window just as Hel and
her date came out the back door.
³Come on,² Hel urged her guest, ³we¹ll
dump the staff in the Hollow Hill, and then we can return to the party.²
³Whatever you say,² Hel¹s companion replied smoothly.
Hel wondered about him as she led the way to the Hollow Hill. Her guest was a human man of about thirty years, quite handsome, still strong and virile--and yet he had not hesitated to accept an invitation from a Goddess of Death. She frowned a little. Most humans shunned her, except the old or sick, and here this man had been quite eager to go on a date with Death.
~I suppose everyone gets lucky,~ Hel thought, and allowed the man to take her hand as they proceeded towards the Hollow Hill.
The Banshee swirled into her fay form in the
back of the Great Hall. She was so busy searching for Wagner that
she failed to notice Oberon come up behind her.
³Ah, Banshee. Where is your guest?²
Her jaw dropped and she scanned the crowd with a desperate urgency, finally finding Wagner dancing in the arms of a young human woman. She pointed.
³Hmmm. What was so special about her? She doesn¹t look like anything remarkable to us...²
The Banshee shook her head no and pointed again.
³Ah, the...gargoyle, isn¹t he? A most interesting choice. A shame your date seems far more interested in the young lady.² He wandered away to sample the punch, already losing interest.
She turned her attention back to her would-be mercenary. ~That gargoyle seeks to defy me?~ Rage boiled up inside her. ~Well, let¹s see how he deals with this!~ She was about to melt into a spirit-wraith when another voice came from behind her.
³His attention span is very like a human child¹s,² it said with a chuckle.
³Mm mmphy mumumumum!² mumbled the Banshee, which would have been ³My lady Titania² had she not been wearing the iron plate.
³Yes.² At Titania¹s shoulder was Anubis, and he was looking even more grim than usual. ³Anubis and a young gargoyle have been telling me that you¹ve been experimenting with the Avatar Staff.² Her expression was pitiless and firm.
The Banshee turned to flee, only to find Kali there behind her. The Indian fay held out her eight arms to bar the Banshee¹s way. The jackal-god¹s hand closed on her shoulder, taking it in a deadly grip.
³Outside,² Kali murmured. ³We must not spoil the festivities.² Anubis nodded.
Under an iron plate, no one can hear you scream.
JUST BEFORE MORNING
For Wagner and Cora, it had been a night of dancing, of love, of stories, of tears. Only Kali and Eros had noticed when the two lovers slipped away from the party. Eros had sighed wistfully and waved to them; Kali had smiled secretively and said nothing. Now Wagner and Cora sat side by side in a castle turret, watching the impending dawn.
³Where are you living now?² Wagner asked quietly.
³Canada. A little town called Hanover, in Ontario...here, I¹ll write it down.²
The only furniture in the turret was a low table which supported an old-fashioned quill pen and a narrow strip of blank parchment. Coincidence, or design? Neither one dared to guess at an answer.
Cora wrote the address and phone number--souvenirs of another life--on the thin parchment ribbon. She carefully detached the corsage from her dress, wrapped the parchment around the rose¹s stem, and handed it to Wagner.
He took the flower in his hands as if it were made of something more fragile than glass, something that could crumble into dust if he so much as bumped it. Wagner raised his head from the precious gift, and looked deeply into Cora¹s eyes with a smile more warm and honest than any he¹d given in a long time. Their mouths came together for one more kiss.
The party had not been over when a skiff had
slipped away from Avalon in the early hours of the morn. Hel had
finally passed out from an overdose of Dionysian wine, just in time for
her date to do what he had come to Avalon to accomplish. Foolish
goddess! She may have been a fay, but she had been tricked as easily
as any human.
Hel¹s guest leaned over and stroked the long staff, wrapped in cloth, that he had taken from the Hollow Hill and laid in the bottom of the boat. Hel had brought him here, and now the skiff would take him where he needed to be.
The light of an Avalon dawn danced briefly across the Illuminati pin on the man¹s lapel before he was swallowed up by the mist.
The next morning, Cora Schindel woke up in her bed in Hanover, Ontario, Canada, with a wistful smile. For a moment, she looked around for Wagner¹s stone form leaning protectively over her bed, the way he had often slept while they had been together. Of course, it was not there. She sighed, a little disappointed. A shame that even the most wonderful dreams had to end.
Richard S. Wagner, Hauptmann Wagner von Schloss, Seamus Ryan, Captain Rick Castle...by whatever name, the gargoyle awoke from his stone sleep that night to the familiar sight of his New York City apartment.
~One hell of a dream,~ he thought, rubbing the back of his head. ~So vivid...~
That was when he noticed the flower in his left hand. The rose from his dream. A thin strip of parchment was wound around the stem, and Wagner unwrapped it with trembling hands. It said exactly what he had remembered it saying, and it was in handwriting not his own. Handwriting he knew from love letters dated 1944.
Oh, but life was not a dream. Now she would be an old woman, perhaps with a family of her own, perhaps with no room for him in her life. Now he had thirty missing years, his supposed death, and a lifelong career as an assassin to account for. Now there would be a reckoning, if he chose to pick up that phone.
Or he could choose not, and let the darkness and pain back in.
Unless he¹d written the address himself, in his sleep, out of sheer loneliness and longing. Unless it was a lie he believed in because he _wanted_ to believe.
Did he dare find out?
He stood there for hours, staring at the phone, holding the parchment in his hand.
³What if...you fell asleep?
And what if, while you slept, you dreamed?
And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven?
And what if, in heaven, you picked a strange and beautiful flower?
And what if, when you woke up, the flower was in your hand?
Ah, yes, what then?²