Part 1: Superstition and the Sword
Alexander Fox Xanatos looked up from his notes, twitching his long braid out of the way with a practiced flick. Unlike the "bohemian casual" ponytail favored by his father, Alexander had grown the red hair he inherited from his mother from birth and kept it tightly braided down his back. Of course, it had been cut a time or two, but then only in battle. Alexander considered those incidents proof that his reflexes could still use some work.
"Yes?" He did not smile, though he could probably guess word-for-word what Owen was about to say. He'd known Owen too well and for too long.
"Are you absolutely certain this is the course you wish to follow?" Owen Burnett stood across the table from him, absolutely nothing in his expression or his voice to suggest anything but the most mild-mannered curiosity. Most people would not even have registered his query as a question from its bland, stated delivery.
But then, Alexander knew Owen rather differently from most people.
"Stop worrying, Owen. It's going to be fine." Alexander gave a rather jaunty smile that he had learned from his father. "We've only been over this a dozen times."
"The specifics of the spell, yes. But not necessarily the consequences."
At that, Alexander's smile sharpened into one more like a shark's. "Don't you trust me?"
"I am certain you do not want me to answer that question honestly."
Alexander laughed. "No, probably not. Though it might be entertaining."
"If it is entertainment you seek, may I suggest you wait until you have a more suitable partner?"
"Well, obviously. I'm waiting on you, here."
Owen nodded and carefully removed his glasses, tucking them into his breast pocket. As he did so, Alexander could not help the swish of smug pride that washed through him any time Owen used both hands for anything. It was one of the few bargains Alexander had ever won against Owen or Puck, one he had levied at the tender age of eight and finally fulfilled just after he turned ten: if Alexander could restore Owen's stone arm to human flesh on his own without any help from Puck, then Owen would have to call Alexander by his bare name, not "Master Alexander," for the rest of his life. It had taken him two years (and one awkward experience where he accidentally transfigured the stone arm into glass for a few hours), but he had persevered.
Alexander was fairly certain Puck had never been prouder than when he finally succeeded, even if the faerie had merely berated him for taking so long.
The familiar pulse of magic swirled around Owen for a moment before the staid and unremarkable form vanished and Puck emerged, grinning brightly. Just as the years had not changed Owen Burnett in any way, neither had they changed Puck. But then, one wouldn't expect them to change an immortal.
"Well! If you're so eager to play with fire, we'll just have to get started all the sooner!" Puck clapped his hands and rubbed them eagerly.
Alexander met his grin. "It's about time!"
"Do you want me to do the incantation?"
Alexander rolled his eyes. "Thanks, but no. You'll change it, and I really don't want any more complications than I've already got going here, thanks."
Puck sighed but he was still smiling. "You're getting smart, kid."
"And whose fault is that?" Alexander shot back.
"Oh, mine. Mostly. Your Mom and Dad helped a bit I guess, but really? It's all me."
"Of course it is."
Alexander was used to indulging Puck's conceit, but if asked, he would have had to admit that Puck wasn't entirely exaggerating. Oh, Alexander had learned at the knee of everyone who wanted to teach him, had gained immeasurable insight from the different kinds of intelligence, different ways of thinking and seeing the world around him - that was certainly true. But when it came to Puck, there was the simple truth that Puck had been rather closer to Alexander's mental development than anyone else.
Alexander remembered with clarity the first dream of his life - held on the very night after the attempted Gathering of himself by Lord Oberon. Puck had entered his thoughts then, had explained that he had what Puck called "the wit of a fae." Later, Lexington called it "advanced cognition," and his father had mostly referred to it as "obvious given his genetics." It meant that while an infant still, Alexander's waking self had been little more self-aware than any human baby. But when he slept, the fae part of his heritage woke and brought with it the advanced mental development common to Puck's kind. By the time Alexander had been learning to crawl in the waking world, he had achieved the aptitude of a ten-year-old in his sleep. And as his fae mind grew, so too did his magic.
The only ones who truly knew of Alexander's unusual mind were Puck himself, Owen Burnett, and Lexington. Puck, of course, would not have told anyone, and Owen was unwilling or unable to explain to David Xanatos the exact nature of Alexander's fae heritage. But Lexington knew because his was the body Alexander most often borrowed if he needed to be working magic in the real world and not in the dream world. Lexington had a quick, interesting mind, and moreover was extremely fond of Alexander. When Alexander borrowed Lexington's body, the young gargoyle welcomed the boy and shared all his curiosity and interest openly. Lexington kept the secret not because he had to, but because, as he told his regular passenger, he always wanted Alexander to know he was safe with Lex, no matter what anybody thought.
Of course, the secret rather came out when baby Alexander came to grow enough to merge with his fae mind. It happened all at once on his third birthday - he had learned to crawl and walk before then, of course, but his speech had been uncertain and babyish. The moment the moon rose on his birthday, however, Alexander had closed his eyes, shaken himself, and looked up at his parents with true, aware intelligence. And he had greeted them as politely and confidently as any twelve-year-old.
Then there had been what Broadway called an "epic" argument at that revelation, and by the end of it David Xanatos extracted a vow from Owen never to withhold information about Alexander from him again even if he failed to ask direct enough questions. But Alexander had missed that part - Lexington had removed him from hearing range of the yelling and had showed him around the castle instead while teaching him to ride on Bronx, a skill he would utilize many, many times until his own legs grew steadier beneath him.
Once the denizens of Wyvern Castle had gotten used to the idea of someone who looked and walked like a toddler but was rapidly approaching his teenage years in understanding, they adjusted fairly well.
However, as in all things related to the fae, there was a downside.
While Alexander's mind developed far in advance of his body, stabilizing around the cognition of a fifteen-year-old and remaining fairly constant while his growth caught up, his emotional development did not. It seemed to be tied to his human form instead. So five-year-old Alexander might be able to read books well above his years, but he found them difficult to understand. He could memorize passages of Shakespeare, but they often made him cry because they were scary or sad. No matter how keen and impish his thoughts, Alexander was possessed of a gentle and empathetic soul. It took him a great deal of work and support from his friends and family to reconcile the two.
But in that, Alexander had never been alone. The Manhattan Clan was as much his family as his parents and Owen, and that included Elisa Maza and Matt Bluestone. Elisa's own parents were a recurring fixture in Alexander's life along with his biological grandfathers, giving him multi-generational support as well as multi-special. Alexander had never known a time when there wasn't someone somewhere willing to explain something or offer a hug or, in the case of the gargoyles, give him a ride in the warm air currents. His mind and magic were fed ably by Puck on a nearly nightly basis, but his heart and soul were held and carefully nurtured by the unusual tribe that had become his family.
And now I'm putting it all at risk, he thought to himself, staring at the item on the table before him. Twenty years of nothing but support and kindness, and I could very well break it all in one go.
But then he shrugged. It's a risk worth taking.
Puck was leaning on the table and looking at the various ingredients and items scattered about. Any time Owen came into this castle tower room Alexander and Puck had claimed for their magic, he tended to tidy things up; however, knowing that Puck would be in attendance as himself tonight, he hadn't bothered. No amount of organization ever survived fifteen minutes of Puck's presence.
Alexander shuffled his notes one last time, then turned his full attention to the plain wooden box in the center of the table. It was imperfectly made, a little lopsided and the pure silver hinges were slightly unevenly set, but then, Alexander had hewn it completely by hand. Even if it had an edge that didn't quite meet correctly, he knew that edge with every bit of his fingers and brain, and that made the box far more important than if he had splurged his allowance to purchase something exquisite.
"You get this right, kiddo, and you'll be worlds ahead of some of my rather dull brethren," Puck said. "But then, some of them can't manage more than living under bridges and scaring sheep, so I guess that isn't saying much."
"You know, the more you tell me about Oberon's Children, the more I'm glad I've never met any of them but you and Lady Titania," Alexander replied.
"Why, because they sound boring?"
"No, because anybody who annoys you so much you can still insult them after how many hundreds of years apart is probably not somebody I'm going to get along with."
"You get along with everybody. Even boring people." Puck's face twisted in disgust.
"But I'm not boring?" Alexander asked. His eyebrow was raised archly, but the question was sincere. Alexander knew better than anyone that the day he bored Puck was the day he stood to lose a good friend.
"Not remotely. It's not everyday someone threatens to rip apart the minds and souls of a dozen mortals." Puck winked. "Trust me, kid. Boring's not in your nature."
"Is that your way of saying you approve of my plans?"
"No. But I do. If nothing else, it's definitely going to catch our esteemed Lord and Master off-guard. I'd do it for that anyway. Lord Oberon makes such a face when he's surprised."
"So you've said."
Puck tipped his head and his smile turned darker. "And you'll see soon, won't you?"
Alexander's fingers twitched against the table before he could hold them still. "I guess so. Then let's get started."
He lifted the box and began the incantation.
"Father of fire, Brother of air
Sister of water, Mother earth so fair,
Body of mortal, spirit of fae,
Sun and moon, I summon thee today.
With mortal will, by mortal blood,
I capture these souls and bind them up
Within the heart I hold so dear,
That power be mine, my power be feared.
I call their names, bound fast to me,
An unbreakable spell that none can see,
And when their names I call out true
Their fates be mine however I choose."
His heart thudding, magic dancing around him, Alexander closed his eyes and recited the names.
"David Xanatos. Fox Xanatos. Goliath. Elisa Maza. Hudson. Brooklyn. Broadway. Lexington. Angela. Bronx. Coldstone. Coldfire."
The box in Alexander's hands grew warm.
"I take these souls, their fates align,
And by this power and will of mine
I forge them into my own design -
One weapon whose powers I thus enshrine!"
Magic exploded like a lightning bolt striking the box, filling the room with crackling energy and power. Alexander held on, not wavering for an instant even when he heard Puck laughing with glee at the pure amount of force at his command. It took several moments for all the magic he had summoned to settle, slowly draining out of the air and into the box which now felt both impossibly heavy and ridiculously light.
"Nice work," Puck approved. He ran a few fingers over the lid of the box, now tightly closed with a binding only Alexander himself could release.
"Thanks." Alexander was not out of breath, but he felt he should be. He set the box down in the center of the table and moved to the small cauldron already set up under the bunsen-burner. "Ready for phase two?"
"Oh yeah," Puck's fingers danced and ingredients began to rise into the air and congregate around the cauldron. "This is the fun part."
"I'm glad you think so," Alexander said. He closed his eyes. He didn't even need to touch the box to feel it now, primed and waiting and so, so important.
I hope I haven't made the worst mistake of my life.
Part 2: The Age of Gargoyles
In spite of having lived in Manhattan for more than twenty years, there were still many, many things about the past Goliath missed. Tonight, for example, he missed his entire Clan being easy to summon with nothing more than a bellow.
Instead, Goliath was obliged to bellow and send mass texts. Gargoyles were not meant to text, no matter what Lexington said on the matter and Goliath hated it. Even with the smartphones specially designed by Lexington and Fox for gargoyle hands, Goliath found his fingers had a tendency to hit more wrong buttons than correct ones, and when they did so, his phone sought to help him, a help Goliath rarely requested and even more rarely desired.
So his summoning text for this night ended up reading: I am Calkin a meeting in the Great Halt at midnight. Do not be Latin. Alert the otters if necessary.
It was only Goliath's legendary temper that kept the most mischievous of his Clan and its allies from making otter noises when they saw him. It did not, however, prevent more than one poorly-hidden snicker.
Goliath stood at the head of the room where he once remembered the lords and ladies of the castle hosting their feasts. To his left were Brooklyn and Hudson, his proper second-in-command and the wise advisor he had trusted for so long. To his right stood Elisa, the first human the Manhattan Clan had counted as their own - but not the last. Bronx was curled up nearest the floor heater where it was warm, happily dosing. They, at least, arrived early.
The same could not be said for everyone else.
At the stroke of midnight and not a moment earlier or later, the rest of the Clan and its allies began to appear. Alexander was prompt as usual, chatting easily with Lexington about something that sounded like gibberish, which in Goliath's experience meant it was to do with computers. A few moments later, the door that led to the courtyard opened and Broadway stumbled in.
"We're not late!" he declared.
"Barely," Brooklyn told him.
"It's my fault," Angela was coming along in his wake. "We just wanted to hear the end of it."
Goliath looked past his daughter to where his brother Coldstone was entering beside his own mate, now called Coldfire. Coldstone made a fond half-smile. "One does not rush a storyteller, my brother."
"We were recording it," Coldfire said. Her face did not bend as naturally because she was entirely machine and not flesh, but her voice was highly expressive instead. "We could have returned to hear the conclusion later."
"Yeah, but it's better all together!" Broadway glanced at Goliath and immediately hunched his shoulders, looking away submissively. "Sorry, Goliath."
"It's all right," Elisa said when Goliath crossed his arms - she often served as peacemaker against his disciplinarian role. "Not everyone's here yet."
The assembled gargoyles and two humans chatted for another few minutes before the ding that signified the elevator had reached the Great Hall. It opened to reveal the remaining humans that were the recipients of Goliath's summons.
David Xanatos and Fox strode out with confident expressions, clearly neither of them troubled at their tardiness. They sailed to the grander chairs across the broad hall's table from Goliath. Behind them, Owen Burnett's face was as expressionless as usual as he stood rigidly just behind Xanatos's shoulder, and Goliath would never expect him to be punctual when Xanatos was not. But behind them were the pair of humans who were more welcome among the gargoyles - and not only because they had the decency to be chagrined by their impoliteness.
"I'm so sorry," Matt Bluestone's face was red as if he had been running. "I even got Brynne to bed on time, but then I got an email from Chavez on the Barrio robberies and-"
"Did the forensics come back?" Elisa interrupted him.
"Yeah, and wait until you see-" Matt immediately looked at his hands. "I had the file...I was printing it when my phone reminded me it was time to go...what did I do with it?"
"Here." Jason Canmore rolled up, brandishing a folder. "You dropped it." He looked up to Goliath and offered his own sheepish smile. "Sorry for being late."
Goliath was still not certain which was stranger - the inclusion of Xanatos amongst the people he most trusted in the world, or Jason Canmore, former Gargoyle Hunter. But while the former had proven himself loyal since Goliath's Clan had assisted in defending Alexander from Lord Oberon and Lady Titania, Jason Canmore had come to them more gradually. After the injury taken in the cathedral at the hands of his own brother, Jason had struggled to adapt to life paralyzed from the waist down. His brother Jon had fled, anger in his heart, and his sister Robyn had taken over the job of finding him, leaving Jason alone much of the time. Elisa had befriended him, but for a long time Jason had been unwilling to accept help.
Then, one day, Lexington had thought to ask Hudson how his friend Jeffrey Robbins dealt with his own visual impairment to see if that might give Elisa some insight. And Elisa had that very night recruited Hudson to bundle Jason up and give him a ride to Jeffrey's house, even while Jason argued the whole way that he did not need anyone's help. It was only Jeffrey, with his rare wisdom and sincere kindness, who was able to show Jason that his friends wanted to help him not out of pity or anger or anything but their own honest appreciation for him as a person. Jeffrey's own struggles in a seeing world were quite different from Jason's in a walking world, but he had the perspective and experience to offer practical support and realistic advice. Jason had accepted Jeffrey as something of a mentor and brother, and the pair had written their first book together about overcoming disability after less than a year. Jeffrey Robbins remained a friend to all the gargoyles, whose identity he had long since deduced, but Jason had asked to be more heavily involved in order to atone for his family's sins against gargoyles over the years.
And so now Jason split his time between writing books with Jeffrey and sometimes serving as his eyes, and allowing Jeffrey to serve as his legs in return, and working in the Eyrie Building where he helped the Manhattan Clan stay connected to the other gargoyle clans worldwide.
Still, as Goliath presided over the gathered group, he thought it was just as well this was a relatively standard meeting. Larger meetings included others such as Petros Xanatos, who still grumbled that the whole business was bizarre (and Goliath could not disagree with him), Elisa's mother and father, and sometimes even Talon and the Labyrinth Clan - though occasions that necessitated alerting Talon's people were usually nothing short of genuinely catastrophic.
And yet it was still so strange. A score of years prior and Goliath alone might have interacted with only a few of Wyvern Castle's inhabitants. In fact, the less contact with humans, the better for all. And now he looked over a Clan he shared with a human mate so closely allied to the humans of the castle that some days he could not have said which individuals were allies and which had truly become Clan.
"Now that we are assembled," Goliath said, letting everyone settle down in the remaining seats around the big table or lounging nearby. "Let us begin."
All eyes turned expectantly to Goliath, but he gestured with one hand to where Alexander was trying to remain unobtrusive to Elisa's right. "Perhaps you had better explain."
"Alexander?" David Xanatos narrowed his eyes at his son. "What's this about?" Then his gaze turned to Owen who did not wither but also did not apologize.
"I asked him not to say anything," Alexander said quickly. "Made him promise."
"If you've made a bargain with Puck to keep a secret, a great secret it must be," Hudson rumbled. "Tell us, lad."
Alexander should not have needed the steadying breath he took, but he took it anyway. "Okay. Most of you remember the Gathering."
"And can't wait to forget it," Fox growled in a low voice.
"Right. Well, the truth is that we, that is, Owen and I, uh, we think it might happen again soon."
David Xanatos surged to his feet, slamming his fists into the tabletop with a resounding crack. "I won't allow it!"
"What about our bargain?" Fox looked sharply to Owen. "You've been teaching him. And Mother hasn't been back to bother us in years. Why now?"
Owen did not flinch under the combined ire of the elder Xanatos and Fox, but he did tip his head towards Alexander. "Please allow your son to continue."
Alexander straightened his shoulders and faced the assembly. "Numbers are important in magic, especially on Avalon. I'm almost twenty years old. Time moves differently on Avalon, but Owen and I have done some calculations. And, depending on whether you start your count at midnight or dawn, exactly three hundred days on Avalon from when Oberon tried to Gather me and failed will correspond to our next Spring Equinox. That's a coincidence no fae could ignore."
"If Lord Oberon wishes to return for the boy," Owen put in, "he will do it then."
"In addition," Goliath spoke up, "because Alexander is no longer a baby, Lord Oberon may determine that his age is no longer a deterrent, no longer a reason to keep him in the mortal world."
Xanatos let out a breath that shuddered through his tense shoulders and looked up, his eyes piercing. "Alexander. Tell me now. Do you want to stay here? Because if you do, I will fight for you until my dying breath."
Alexander smiled at his father. "I do want to stay here, but I'm hoping it won't come to that. Thanks, though, Dad."
The comfortable familiarity of Alexander's expression reassured his father and with an obvious deliberate shake Xanatos brought his emotions back under control. He returned to his seat and leaned back in his habitual pose. "You have a plan, son?"
"Yes, I do. First of all, I want to invite Lord Oberon here. I don't want him to surprise us if he comes a day before we're ready or three days late. I'd rather meet him on our terms."
Fox smiled as well and nodded. "That's a good start."
"Second, I want to see if he will make a bargain with me instead of just Gathering me again. I wouldn't mind seeing Avalon someday, but I want to be able to come home, too."
"When Oberon isn't ticked off at your father," Elisa said, "he's fully capable of being reasonable."
"But his reason is his own," Owen added. "He does not play by mortal rules or logic."
"Neither do I." And Alexander's smile went wide and knowing and very, very like Puck's own.
A green tail shot out from a chair near the front and snatched Alexander's closest ankle, giving it a firm tug. Lexington frowned up at his friend. "Put your fangs away and tell us the rest of your plan."
Goliath watched ease return to the room in full. There were those both in the Clan and among the human allies who were uncomfortable with Alexander's true fae nature. Even Owen was less difficult for them to handle because the two sides of his personality were so well and thoroughly divided. But Alexander had a habit of sliding into his Third Race persona particularly when he was excited, and it was so alien on the otherwise familiar face. But of everyone who knew his true nature, it was Lexington who had always been able to ground Alexander and remind him of his humanity.
Goliath glanced to Elisa at his side. Even those who are most willing to accept a human mated to a gargoyle grow fearful to recall a human who is also one of Oberon's Children. In the days of old, Alexander would have been killed long ago for his heritage, and perhaps Elisa too for some sort of human heresy. To learn to live together in peace is never easy, nor do the lessons come quickly, but they are worth it in the end. For without them, would any of us be here?
Goliath did not need to count the members of his Clan or his allies and friends to answer his own question. The proof was in their very lives.
"It's actually fairly simple. We'll invite Lord Oberon here to test me, to ensure that Puck is keeping up his end of the bargain. Lord Oberon will take that as an invitation to renew his interest in me, and possibly to taunt Puck for being stuck as a human all this time. And if I can just talk him into what I want, that will be that."
"And what if you can't?" Brooklyn asked.
"Then Alexander will be obliged to battle Lord Oberon directly for his continued freedom," Owen said. "A battle he will assuredly lose if he is not helped by as many as are willing to take the risk. Alexander is immensely powerful, but none can stand alone against Lord Oberon."
Alexander showed the first hesitation. "I'll understand if you don't want to help." He swallowed then held still, his eyes landing on each person in the Hall. "Lord Oberon doesn't normally try to kill mortals, but anything can happen in a fight like this. And it's really my fight, after all."
Goliath could see Xanatos winding up to fury again and held up a hand. "You have fought beside us for years, guarded us in daylight. You restored our brother and sister," he nodded to Coldstone and Coldfire. "And all this aside, my answer is now what it was on the night of your birth. No child should be forced from its family."
Goliath inclined his head towards Alexander. "You are not a child in the reckoning of your own kind any longer, but we are still your family. I, at least, will fight by your side and will protect you with all my strength."
Hudson smiled. "A gargoyle can no more stop defending the castle than breathing the air. And the castle would be lonesome without you, lad. I'm with ye."
"Me too," Brooklyn said. Bronx yipped.
Elisa, with the fond smile of a woman who had told Alexander stories of her own visits to Avalon many times, actually reached out and tugged on his braid. "Don't think you're doing this without me."
Angela and Broadway exchanged glances before Angela smiled at Alexander. "We're in."
"I owe you my soul and my independence," Coldfire said gently. "I will give you all the support I can."
"And you have stood watch beside me many a day while our Clan slept in sunlight," Coldstone added. "As you have guarded my family, so shall I repay the honor to guard you."
Lexington actually got up to stand next to Alexander, though the boy was now much taller than his closest gargoyle friend. "You're an idiot if you think I'm letting you do this on your own," Lex said, elbowing him sharply.
There was no doubt about David or Fox, and Owen simply gave a very tiny smirk to his charge confirming that, of course, he would not miss such a fight no matter the consequences. The only ones who had not yet given an answer were the other humans.
Matt and Jason exchanged glances. Matt cleared his throat. "I would, you know…"
"Don't worry," Alexander shook his head. "I know you've got Brynne to think of."
Matt rubbed the back of his neck. "Sorry, kiddo."
Alexander smiled. "Just tell her I said hi, okay?" He'd grown rather fond of Matt's daughter, a precocious eight-year-old.
Matt and his wife had split after only two years of marriage, but Kate had been killed in a car accident a year later, so Matt was Brynne's only family in the world. If Broadway had taken being Elisa's other partner seriously before, once he realized he needed to guard both Elisa and Matt to make sure little Brynne had a daddy at home, he had practically glued himself to their car when they were out on patrol. Angela enjoyed protecting the pair of detectives as well, and the four of them working together went a long way towards ensuring everyone came home safely at the end of the night.
But even they little knew how many nights Goliath spent tailing them all, just in case. It wasn't that he didn't trust Broadway and Angela with the human members of his Clan, not exactly. Goliath just didn't trust anybody with Elisa. Period. Including Elisa herself. Maybe especially Elisa herself. But that was another matter entirely.
Jason shrugged a little embarrassedly at Alexander. "I'm not much good in a fight, but if there's anything you do need, you know I'm here for you."
"I know. Thanks, Jason."
"So," David rose to his feet once more and sauntered to the front of the room. "When would we like to invite the terrifying Lord Oberon to my castle? And exactly what preparations shall we have to greet him?" He smiled the famous Xanatos smile that sent corporate rivals running for the hills and placed a hand on his son's shoulder - narrower than his own, but no less able to bear the burden of battle to come.
Alexander returned the shark's smile with interest. "I've got a few ideas."
Part 3: Sworn to Protect
Alexander sent his invitation to Avalon at the end of the first full week of January. That specific date was chosen by weighing several different variables.
Elisa and Matt pointed out that their caseload during the first week after New Year's Eve in New York City was usually slower as people grudgingly returned to work or settled into the cold, wet part of the winter. It was also when the tourists and guests would start leaving the city after the holidays, cutting down the number of people up on the Empire State Building taking pictures of Wyvern Castle.
David himself approved of the choice because it would give him an excuse to claim a week or two away from running his company after the busy time at the end of the year. He had learned that his Board of Directors did not particularly appreciate Xanatos staging aerial battles above his building when financials and taxes were due to the government.
However, it was Owen and Alexander who argued for the date most strenuously, if for entirely separate reasons. On the one hand, the pair intended to make use of the Winter Solstice a few days before Christmas for the bulk of their magic-working. The longest night of the year lent itself well to certain kinds of spells and workings, and they would take every advantage they could get in designing their defenses.
But Alexander also made the point none could argue. "If it works, it's a great way to start the year. And if it doesn't, well, at least we'll have had one more Christmas and New Year's Eve together."
With the threat hanging over their heads, it was not anybody's most festive Christmas or most light-hearted New Year's Eve. But everyone pitched in and tried to focus on the positives of the moment rather than worry about the fears to come. David and Fox threw a huge Christmas party and invited all the gargoyles and associated friends, even those not aware of the coming battle with Oberon. And even those most inclined to worry found it difficult not to smile when Brynne Bluestone dragged Brooklyn from the crowd to teach him "The Chicken Dance" in front of everyone.
(It was Brooklyn who had the last laugh, however. As soon as the other members of his Clan started to laugh at his ridiculous movements, he sent Brynne to pull them onto the floor to teach them as well. Within minutes, even Goliath was wiggling his elbows while scowling at his lieutenant and muttering dark promises of revenge beside Coldstone who squeaked when he clapped. When the song ended and Brooklyn beat a hasty retreat from all the gargoyles and humans universally humiliated at the easy manipulation by an eight-year-old, Alexander made absolutely sure to preserve the security feed from the party before anyone else could delete it and he gave a copy to Elisa as part of her Christmas present - on the condition that she never, ever tell Goliath where she got it.)
When the Friday night came, Owen seeing to sending the invitation and wording it such that he felt certain Lord Oberon would not hesitate to accept it, Fox pulled her son aside. She had every faith in David directing the very last preparations, and knew that every eye in Castle Wyvern would be on lookout for the arrival of their guest.
"Alex," she said softly, settling her hands on his shoulders, marveling anew that he had almost achieved his father's height. "Are you sure about all this?"
Alexander smiled fondly at the name only she used for him. "Come on, Mom. How sure were you about every crazy thing you've ever done? How sure was Dad?"
Fox huffed a laugh. "And here I thought we taught you better than to use us as your primary role models."
"Maybe so," Alexander's eyes danced with humor, "but that just leaves, well, a whole lot of other reckless people. And gargoyles. And Puck."
"You're right," Fox squeezed his shoulders. "You were a lost cause from the beginning."
"Pretty much, yeah."
Fox's left hand drifted from her son's shoulder up to his cheek. With delicate fingers she traced his eye. Alexander had not been born with the unusual mark that she bore and it had never developed as more than the slightest shadow of color visible only in the right light when one knew where to look. Owen had explained that Fox's mark had been the external expression of her own suppressed fae heritage; because Alexander's magic had grown correctly, his heritage had not manifested outwardly instead.
"Hopeless," she told him.
Alexander's own smile dimmed. "Mom. However this ends, thank you."
She was surprised. "For what?"
"For everything. Fighting for me when I was a baby. Letting Puck teach me and not going nuts when you learned some of the things I was learning. Helping me figure out who I am. Letting me have this huge crazy family."
Fox looked at the sincerity shining in her son's eyes. "I'm always amazed that you consider everyone family. You didn't learn that from Puck. Or David and I." It was the regret of Fox's life - her only regret - that she struggled with the pure human emotions of love and trust and kindness and gratitude. She and her husband had mastered pride and courage and honor and respect, but those softer things had always come to them less easily. And Fox was certain all she had learned of love, she had learned not from David, but from her son.
"You'd be surprised." Alexander leaned forward into the touch. "I don't know if you'd be more surprised to believe that Puck actually loves me in his own totally insane way or that I know you and Dad do think of us all as family, too, even if you can't admit it. I can't imagine my life without them all. I bet you can't, either."
Fox sighed. "The castle wouldn't be the same without Broadway yelling in the kitchen at all hours of the night or Lexington in his lab or Goliath and Elisa standing watch at the parapet. And I don't even want to think about how a few days would have turned out if we didn't have Coldstone and Coldfire awake to stand guard in daylight." She released her son's cheek to grip his hand at her own. "It's quite a madhouse, isn't it?"
"Well," and here his eyes twinkled again, "I'm not sure anything else would have kept us all entertained this long."
Fox laughed. "And we can't have you getting bored. Or your father. At least Puck isn't bored when he gets to be Owen."
"Forget us. Imagine putting up with a whole Clan of bored gargoyles."
"Perish the thought."
The pair grinned at one another for a long moment. Then Fox drew her son into her arms.
"There are two things I want to tell you. The first is that I love you and I'm very, very proud of you. No mother could be prouder."
Alexander returned the hug. "I love you, too."
"And the other is something that might help you. On the night of the original Gathering, my mother whispered something to me, something I've never told anyone. Not even your father. And it might help you."
Alexander drew back to study his mother's face. "What is it?"
"She told me that the fae were distinguished not by their power or magic, but by their wit and perception. That power is not only the ability to command the world by force, but by guile. She was telling me that she had arranged matters just to her liking without lifting a finger. I know your father is gearing up for the battle of a lifetime and so is Goliath. But perhaps you can follow her advice instead and there will be no need for a war against Oberon."
Alexander didn't quite smirk, but it was a near thing. "Put it this way, Mom. I'm doing my best to take after Puck on this one. And Puck never out-and-out fights if he has a choice."
"All right." Fox released her son straightened her shoulders. "Well, I hope you know what you're doing, then. We'll all follow your lead, Alex."
"Thanks, Mom." Alexander smiled once more at her before she swept back into the hallway to continue her own preparations. She was long out of sight when Alexander sighed and reached around to tug on the braid he wore - a reassuring habit he had rarely used since he had grown dextrous enough to braid it himself. "I hope my lead doesn't get us all killed."
Alexander turned away from the direction Fox had gone and instead made his way up the back stairs that wound to the south-facing wall-walk. Just before emerging into the open air, Alexander swept a cloak of magic around his person; he didn't bother to make it impenetrable to all means of perception, but just the basic human (and gargoyle) five senses.
It was a trick Puck had taught him early on, and Alexander had often made use of it for eavesdropping.
As expected, Alexander found his father standing with Goliath, the both of them alternating between looking over the city and down into the courtyard. The courtyard was bustling with activity as everyone ran or flew and glided around checking defensive positions, hidden weapons, and lines of sight. Brooklyn was mostly trying to keep everyone on track, Bronx trailing at his heels. Hudson was loudly reminding everyone that faeries could be defeated without modern trickery, and Lexington was just as loudly reminding him that every little bit helped. Elisa was off on the side with Coldstone and Coldfire, helping them arm themselves. Alexander knew Owen was working with Fox on a few easy magical defenses inside. He didn't see Broadway and Angela, but he figured they were off in a corner somewhere spending some "time" together.
It's a good thing gargoyles mate in set cycles or we'd be knee deep in eggs by now, he thought wryly.
But he turned towards the two who were his goal, the two men - or maybe "males" was more accurate - who had taught him the most about courage and fortitude and loyalty. Alexander had timed it perfectly. His father, wearing his Mark 12 Steel Clan suit with some cold iron extras, turned to Goliath and cleared his throat.
"It's strange to think that twenty years ago we were doing something quite similar together," he said.
"Twenty years ago," Goliath gave the slightest smile, "you did not think we would come to your aid."
"True. To be honest, if our positions had been reversed, I wouldn't have done the same." Xanatos looked slightly chagrined to admit it.
Goliath chuckled. "Much has changed since then, hasn't it?"
"Everything changed. Myself maybe most of all." And Alexander was not surprised, not one bit, that his father said it without shame.
"Hmm. Yes. And for the better." Goliath looked down at his Clan working within the castle that had been their home for twenty years. "And we have all benefited from it."
"I'll say. Six kidnapping attempts on my son, four on myself, only one on Fox - because most people aren't idiots - all thwarted by you. And I stopped counting all the rest of the incidents and attacks you helped defend against. Though I could have done without some of the things your people encouraged Alexander to, as well." He smiled wryly.
Goliath snorted. "Do not blame your son's recklessness on the influence of my Clan. He is part fae and all Xanatos. Be only grateful that there are enough of us so someone could keep an eye on him at all times." But then his expression softened. "And it is not only we who have guarded you. More than once, Coldstone and Coldfire alone could not have saved us from disaster. It was your dedication that carried those days."
"And Alexander's own." David's eyes trailed out to the city, to a brightly-lit skyscraper memorial that was as much testament to strength as reminder of grief in the skyline. "I've never forgotten his face that day. What he made Owen promise."
"And I," Goliath's voice went soft with emotion, "have never forgotten what you did for Elisa that day."
Alexander swallowed the lump in his throat. He, too, remembered that day all too clearly.
When his father spoke again, his own voice seemed a little thickened by emotion. "Who'd have thought the two of us would be standing here without trying to kill each other? That'd we'd be, dare I say it, friends?"
Goliath huffed a laugh. "Friends? Perhaps. But certainly partners, even brothers-in-arms. And after so long, maybe even Clan."
"I'm touched, Goliath."
"As you should be." But the slight light in Goliath's eyes betrayed his inner laughter, the humor he most often used to disarm Xanatos.
"Hey." All three turned to see Elisa emerge from the doorway, brushing past where Alexander stood cloaked in magic. "It's almost time. I sent Matt and Jason home and the building's been cleared out. Have you seen Alexander?"
"Not lately," Xanatos said. "But if I know my son, he's working on one last angle before the confrontation."
Goliath extended a wing and Elisa moved to his side, allowing him to drape it around her like a blanket. The gargoyles were not as sensitive to temperature as humans, and even if it wasn't miserably raining, January in New York City was still cold.
"You should have gone with them," Goliath said quietly.
"Not a chance. This is my Clan, too, and I'm going to protect it right with the rest of you."
"He's got a point," Xanatos said with mild amusement. "Other than myself, everyone else here is either gargoyle or fae. And you still won't let me build you a suit. You're rather exposed, detective."
Alexander had to bite back a sigh. After all these years, his father still liked to taunt Elisa by making her title an insult. It veiled a real respect and a certain degree of affection now, but still.
Elisa tossed her head. "Don't start with me, Xanatos. I've got dirt on you even Fox doesn't know about."
"I highly doubt that."
Unable to resist the drama of it, Alexander swept away his magical cloak and grinned at the surprised trio. "You shouldn't. I'm the one that gave it to her."
Elisa smirked at Alexander. "Thought I'd find you here."
Alexander winked back. Elisa wasn't magical, gargoyle, or a genius, but she held her own amongst them all just the same. And, in some ways, she understood Alexander more clearly even than Puck did. When all the powerful, alpha-type people in Alexander's life had had one of their blow-up, castle-shaking arguments, he could always count on Elisa to roll her eyes and take him out for ice cream or a movie. Not that she couldn't throw down in a fight right along with the rest of them, but Elisa didn't get into the ego-tripping that seemed to be a common affliction in the castle some days.
"My own son, a traitor," Xanatos said with a sly drawl. "Somehow, I'm not surprised."
"Excuse me." Owen appeared and joined the four of them on the wall-walk. "I believe the summons has been received and will be answered momentarily."
"Are you ready for what is to come?" Goliath asked Alexander.
Alexander drew up his shoulders, fingering the wooden box he kept concealed in his pocket. "As I'll ever be."
Xanatos nodded, his demeanor switched to focused, all-business mode. "Then let's go await our guest."
Goliath lifted Elisa into his arms to carry her from the wall to the courtyard, Xanatos following with a near-silent whir of the jet affixed to his suit. Alexander took the moment of their departure to look over to Owen.
"You don't have to do this," he said.
"Neither do you, Alexander."
"Which part? Because from where I'm standing, I have to do all of it."
Owen shrugged at him. "If that is your intention, then I could do worse than stand beside you."
"Yeah, but if this doesn't work…"
"There is not much left that Lord Oberon can do to me, and little worse than what he has already done. I will endure. But you will not if you are absent from your place when he arrives."
Alexander nodded and took a deep breath. Then he stepped over the wall-walk's low edge and let his magic carry him to the stones below, knowing that Owen would either follow on the stairs or would emerge as Puck. Honestly, Alexander didn't know which Puck would choose - to appear as himself or to remain in his mortal guise - and he didn't know which he preferred.
But it wasn't as if he could have made Puck choose one way or the other. Nobody made Puck do anything he didn't want to do except maybe Oberon himself. And not always then.
That might change tonight, Alexander thought. But he carefully schooled his features and joined the others. They were grouped in a loose half-circle around the center of the courtyard where a thick red carpet had been spread, one that would have lent glamor to the palace of any king. The carpet was lined on either side by candles held high on intricate, lovely pedestals.
It was the sort of welcome the Lord of Avalon might expect from an equal if he had any, which he did not.
The scent of magic on the air alerted Alexander that his summons had been successful. "Here we go," he warned aloud.
Then, cognizant of the power swirling at the far end of the carpet, Alexander dropped to one knee, though he did not bow his head. To his right, Owen stood tall and still while his mother almost vibrated with tension. On his left were his father and Goliath, both motionless though their eyes glittered. The rest of the Clan remained a few paces behind; Alexander noticed but did not have time to even smile that Elisa had positioned herself between Brooklyn and Broadway - at the heart of the battle-ready gargoyles and not back with Hudson and Bronx.
We all fight in our own way, Alexander thought as a vortex of light emerged. And it's time for mine.
Part 4: The Spell is Broken
There was a sound like thunder and suddenly Lord Oberon appeared, tall and implacable, his magic like a sizzling star of power and ancient might.
Alexander allowed himself to look at Oberon plainly for a few instants, enough to drown out the mortal desire to stare. Then he shifted his gaze downward and spoke clearly. "My Lord Oberon. Thank you for honoring my request. I am grateful."
Lord Oberon took long strides down the carpet, sharp eyes missing nothing. "You were but a babe in arms when last I saw you, child. How quickly the years pass in the mortal realms." He looked to Owen, who bowed very slightly. "Do you still find the guise of humanity so entertaining, Puck?"
"Indeed, my lord."
Alexander kept his eyes downcast so he could only see Oberon's tall boots when Oberon stopped less than a yard from his position.
"And how does the boy progress in his studies?"
"He is an intelligent and able pupil, my lord. He does credit to his admirable bloodline."
Alexander bit the inside of his cheek. Puck in his true form would have been roaring with laughter if he had tried to say that - at least once a week, Puck found some way of taunting Alexander and calling into question his heritage. Just last month Puck had asked if Alexander's magic might have been begotten by the worms of Avalon instead of its Queen.
"I know your hand, Puck, and I know your tricks. You have brought me here to test the boy, then? To what purpose?"
"The message was mine, but the request is Alexander's own, my lord."
"Very well." Alexander could feel Lord Oberon's attention shift. "Rise, boy. Tell me why you have requested my presence."
Alexander could not have remained kneeling if he had wanted to - Lord Oberon's command reached into some part of his mind and practically yanked him upright. It would have disoriented him badly if he hadn't been prepared for it.
Even so, it took Alexander two tries to swallow before he could speak again, and he could not meet Lord Oberon's eyes at all; he settled his gaze on the faerie's chin. "Lord Oberon. First, I wish to show you my gratitude for your leniency when you permitted me to remain here during the Gathering. Puck assures me the finest way to demonstrate this is by showing you what I have learned under his tutelage." Then, with almost a smile, he added, "I hope Puck has not misled me, my lord."
Lord Oberon's face bent slightly. "You are wise to mistrust his council, but in this he is correct. I would be interested to see what sort of magic you have mastered away from Avalon's shores. But this is not your only reason?"
"No, my lord. And you have concluded it yourself, I believe. I should like to earn the opportunity to travel to Avalon myself to learn more."
"That is easily managed. You may return with me to Avalon tonight to take your place among my Children."
Alexander's chest constricted and he had to battle to deny the sudden, insistent desire to obey without question. "If you will forgive me, my lord, I would like to choose the time of my journey, and the time of its return. Just as Queen Titania may come and go as she pleases, I too would like to have your permission to visit at will, and to return to the mortal world as well."
Lord Oberon gave an icy frown. "You ask for a very special privilege. I am not in the habit of allowing my Children such freedom. Only my Queen and Puck himself are so at liberty, and for Puck that allowance has only been because of my indulgence."
"Yes, my lord."
"And yet you have called me here to earn similar indulgence?"
"Yes, my lord."
Lord Oberon's smile grew slightly less frosty. "While you are clearly better-mannered than your parents, both of whom comported themselves rather crudely at our last encounter, you are no less ambitious. Perhaps that is my Queen's obstinacy in your blood. Or perhaps it is your human side - they are a willful people."
Alexander could feel both his parents fuming, and he was glad they were willing to keep from making their usual commentary for his sake. So he merely inclined his head and said, "As my lord wishes."
This is it, Alexander thought.
Puck had made it absolutely clear that Alexander must arouse Lord Oberon's interest and curiosity without insulting or angering him in the slightest - that only when Lord Oberon was in the finest of moods would their plan work at all. There would be plenty of time in the next few minutes for Alexander to be jaunty and disrespectful and everything else he had picked up from Puck and the rest of his family. But now, if they were to strike this bargain, they must begin with Lord Oberon's approval.
"I perceive that you have a great deal of magic, carefully controlled of course," Lord Oberon said after a moment of brittle stillness. "Those few humans with strong faerie blood who were raised among other humans to harness their powers were always interesting as well as unusual. It has been long since I have had the opportunity to see one so young. I wonder how you will compare to your cousins?"
"Then, if my lord would like to find out, test me. And if I prove worthy of consideration, I ask that you grant my request that I may journey to Avalon to learn and may return here as I wish."
"Yes. I believe I shall. And if you impress me, such a reward would not be undeserved. However, should you fail, I may choose to keep you to correct your education myself and Gather you as I have all your kin."
Alexander hid his flash of triumph behind a polite nod. "Then, if my lord wishes to determine the rules of the contest, I am ready to begin."
"There will be three trials, one for each of the merits which I prize most highly in my Children. And if you cannot name them, you will fail before we have begun, child."
Alexander nodded. "Wit, Clarity, and Magic, my lord."
"Very good. Then you know what to expect?"
"Assuredly not, my lord. But I am ready regardless."
At that, Lord Oberon's face split into a proper smile. "Well answered, young one. It is true that you cannot imagine all that I could do. You show rare wisdom in admitting your ignorance." He tipped his head slightly in Owen's direction. "That is a trait I would not have expected you to be capable of teaching, Puck."
"Believe me, my lord, it was not easy."
"I think I comprehend a benefit to your character from this human guise, Puck," Lord Oberon said. "For all I am certain you are unchanged, you at least must pretend to be something rather more respectful and cautious. Is it so entertaining to be staid and proper and humble all the time?"
"Very, my lord."
Even Alexander could feel Puck's humor beneath Owen's dry voice, and Lord Oberon actually laughed. "I have missed your own wit, Puck. It is a great pity that you are barred from Avalon forevermore."
Owen said nothing. Just as quickly as Alexander had sensed amusement, now he was keenly aware of Puck's pain. The trickiest of tricksters would never have admitted, even to Alexander, how badly the loss of Avalon had hurt him, but he did not need to admit it - Alexander had been able to see it in him for most of his life.
In order to distract Lord Oberon before Owen's composure gave way, he coughed delicately. "My Lord Oberon? What rules would best satisfy you for my tests?"
Oberon raised a silver eyebrow at Alexander, aware of the redirection, but he allowed the boy to save face and permitted his impudence. "For all three trials, you must answer my challenge with no help from anyone." His expression went cold again as he looked to the others gathered around. "Should any of you dare to interfere, it will mean the boy's forfeit and you will also be punished."
"We understand, Lord Oberon," Goliath said, inclining his head regally.
"Fair enough," Xanatos said, but his eyes glittered. "But if he does lose all on his own, it'll be easier for you to return to Avalon alone than to try to keep him. I think he can beat you, but I'm not about to let you win."
"So coarse," Lord Oberon said. "I should take him from you just to teach you some respect." But the King of Faeries turned to Alexander and said, "However, I shall allow you your trials as I have agreed. Step forward."
Alexander did as he was told, moving from his family a few paces until he faced Lord Oberon on the plush carpet. Oberon raised his arms and the many candles in their candelabras rose into the air. Their forms blurred and vanished into puffs of pure flame. Then, at a gesture from Oberon, the fire fell in a wide circle around the pair of them, cutting them off from the rest of the castle and its inhabitants.
"Alexander!" David called. He took one step forward, arm outstretched, but Owen interceded.
"This is what he chose, Mister Xanatos. You must trust him now. The time to fight will be later."
"Do not encourage the mortals to throw their lives away against me, Puck," Oberon frowned. "That none perished in their previous battle against me was a kindness on my part which I am not so far likely to extend another time."
"There won't be a battle if I can help it, my lord," Alexander said, letting a bit of his own smirk leak through. "I would rather just win."
"That remains to be seen, child. Now prepare yourself, for I will not be gentle with you."
Alexander nodded, clenching and unclenching his hands reflexively. "I am ready, Lord Oberon."
"Then your first trial is one of Wit. Using any powers available to you, you must solve my Labyrinth without destroying it."
Alexander could hear his mother repeat the word "labyrinth" as a question behind him, but all his focus was taken up on the light expanding before him like a glowing sun. Alexander tensed reflexively to fling himself clear, but this was a trial he had accepted and he could not let himself show weakness by running away now. He held himself tall and still and the magic engulfed him.
From the outside, the bystanders looked on, some of the gargoyles even growling though they all held still. However, Lexington did speak into the eerie quiet with concern.
"Do you think he'll be all right?"
"He will," Owen said. He turned to Lexington with something like a nod - Puck as himself and as Owen had become rather fond of Lexington over the years, and not just because Lexington had proved regularly willing to help in teaching Alexander magic in his body's infancy. Lexington, like Alexander, and like Puck himself, was endlessly curious and had a rather sharp sense of humor. Of course, Puck wouldn't admit to liking anybody, but Alexander and Lex both knew they could count Owen and Puck as friends inasmuch as the faerie made friends at all.
"How do you know?" Fox asked.
"As long as Alexander recalls our Three Rules, he will succeed."
Lexington made himself smile. "What? You mean the rule about not using my body without letting me know where we're going, the one about wearing pants, and…?"
"Not those." Owen's expression was disdainful, which meant Puck was probably giggling. "There are laws of magic, but we have always operated under a specific Rules Three. First, that energy is energy whether generated by magic or science and that the laws of energy, while poorly understood by humanity, do apply. Second, that faerie ways are not human ways nor gargoyle ways, and in order to defeat any of the three, one must be willing to understand the thinking of one's opponent."
"And what is the third?" Goliath asked.
It was Xanatos himself who answered, "That one must always have an escape hatch or a security backup or a hidden trick up the sleeve. So that when a head-on approach fails, there is a way out to try a different angle. Because there is always another angle to try."
"In this case," Owen said, "that may literally be true. And if Alexander holds to his training, he will not be bested by this trial."
Inside the Labyrinth, the words spoken in the courtyard echoed strangely, bouncing around the space clearly enough to be understood, but only just. Alexander was grateful that Owen was keeping his family from losing their composure, and he was even more grateful for the veiled reminder from his teacher.
One of the Three Rules has the way out, he thought to himself. I just have to figure out which one.
While on the outside it appeared that Alexander had been absorbed by a ball of light merely a handful of yards in diameter, Alexander's perspective was quite different.
It's like an Escher painting. Except it would give even Escher a migraine.
Indeed, the space was vast, twisting around itself and shifting its own reality and dimension. But where an Escher painting wound stairs impossibly up and down, or bent perspective to change the flow of gravity mid-stream, this was that in more than just three dimensions. The human part of Alexander could rationalize what he was seeing as stairs and platforms and tunnels and passages and doorways, but the faerie part saw layers invisible to human eyes. It was not only space that was warped here - reality was warped. Gravity itself, not just how it acted on where one might be standing, but as an element, twisted in and out. Time flowed backwards and forwards and inside-out freely.
Alexander took a step from the central platform on which he found himself. At once, the entire area upended itself, bending and changing until up was down and now was before and energy was matter and there was no stillness. It clawed at his understanding, this alien otherness, this reality that was both real and unreal and never the same.
Alexander wondered if he was going to go mad. Forget solving it - could he even endure it? Or would he fade away into a gravity well where light was sound and life was time?
No. I won't. I got myself into this and I can get myself out.
But he did shut his eyes.
Owen mentioned the Three Rules. Think! Okay. Energy is energy. So even though it is changing all the time, it still plays by the rules of my reality at least sometimes. And I can manipulate energy. So there's that.
Lord Oberon is fae. He set this up as a fae challenge. Which means there is a fae answer. A mortal might try to literally solve the Labyrinth. A gargoyle might fight it. But this is a test of Wit, not strength. If I was supposed to blast my way out of here, it wouldn't matter if I could solve it.
Another angle. A back door. Another way out. Solve the riddle not with power, but by outsmarting it.
The disorienting sensations that pounded against his senses almost broke him, but Alexander reached into his pocket for the small wooden box and held it until he felt its uneven edges bite into his skin. It grounded him, kept him from being swept away in writhing sensation.
And then a new idea popped into Alexander's head. What is the Labyrinth made of?
As soon as he understood the question, it gave him the answer - and the solution.
Alexander removed his hand from his pocket and, with his eyes still closed, spread out his arms. He let out all the air in his lungs and held perfectly still for an instant.
Then he began to breathe in, his magic swirling around him in a vortex.
"Well done, child."
Alexander opened his eyes to find himself standing on the stones of Wyvern Castle's courtyard once more. The ball of light was gone.
Lord Oberon beckoned at him. "Tell me how you solved it."
"It was me," Alexander said. "Magic and eternity and all the inconstants that make faeries what we are. I had to be fae and I had to take it all in. It would have killed a mortal."
"And mortal you are not," Lord Oberon's voice was subtly approving. "You have passed the first trial successfully."
Alexander bowed his head, fighting the urge to smile. For that matter, he was fighting the urge to turn around and fist-bump and high-five his way through the entire Clan. He would have to do that later.
Assuming there was a later.
"Your second trial is that of Clarity. And for this, I shall require a judge. Titania!"
Within the fiery circle, there was a soft green glow that coalesced into the form of Queen Titania. "Greetings, Husband." Then her eyes fell on Alexander. "And greetings to you, grandchild."
Alexander bowed formally at the waist. "Greetings, Queen Titania."
"The boy has asked for three trials. The second is one of Clarity," Oberon said.
Titania's eyes lit up and a knowing smile graced her features. "Of course. Please continue."
Lord Oberon turned back to Alexander. "Using only what is within the circle, we will each craft a gift for my Queen. She alone will determine who has seen more clearly to the heart of matters."
"Only what's in the circle?" Broadway whispered. "There's nothing there!"
"Have faith," Coldfire whispered back.
"I will begin." Lord Oberon opened his hands and the plush red carpet beneath his feet burst from its place. It swirled before him before shrinking into a tiny form which was revealed to be a single red rose, the most exquisite ever crafted and softer than moonlight.
"For you, my Queen." Lord Oberon presented it to her with a gallant bow. "That which the mortals lay at my feet is yours. I shall never trod upon you, and shall give you only that which you find beautiful."
"It is a lovely gift, Husband. I thank you."
Alexander gulped. He wanted so badly to turn to the women of his family - his mother, Elisa, Angela, Coldfire - for some kind of guidance. Not because he was nervous about girls. Well, he was, but this wasn't that. Queen Titania was to girls what a pegasus was to rats. But how to give something when there was nothing within the circle?
"That's not fair!" Broadway's whisper was louder now. "There's just rock and dirt now!"
"Trust him," Coldfire said softly. "Trust him to see clearly how best to declare himself."
Alexander put his hand into his pocket for the box again. But he only needed to brush its rough planes before inspiration struck. He straightened his shoulders.
"Would my Queen permit me to approach her?" he asked.
"Of course, young one."
Alexander tried neither to fidget nor to shake as he crossed the distance between them. His heart was pounding and blood was rushing in his ears and Alexander was absolutely, positively certain this would either work perfectly or he was about to buy himself a one-way ticket to Avalon.
But for all he was fae, Alexander was also all Xanatos as Goliath had said. So he smiled with a certain cockiness.
"Lord Oberon has certainly crafted the finest thing of beauty that could be created from within this circle. But I hope you will accept this gift as well."
Alexander leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. "Thank you, Grandmother. I have missed you."
Lord Oberon's mouth twitched. "Even Puck has never been so bold."
Queen Titania looked across to her husband. "Puck was never my grandson." Then she turned back to Alexander and rested a pale, elfin-green hand on his cheek. "I have missed you as well, Alexander. But I see I was correct and you have been held in the best of care."
"Because of you," he said. "Thank you for that, Grandmother."
"You are most welcome, child."
Lord Oberon crossed his arms. "Have you chosen which of us has seen most clearly this night, my Queen?"
"I have." She released Alexander's cheek and faced them both. "Your gift is worthy, Husband, as are your words and vow, for I know them to be true. But the love of a grandchild is a treasure unlike any other. I deem Alexander has passed his second trial."
"So be it." Lord Oberon nodded. "Will you remain to witness the final trial, Titania?"
Titania shook her head. "I believe I would be a distraction to the boy and his family. I will retreat for now. However." Her smile fell on Alexander and Fox behind him. "When you best Lord Oberon, I will return to visit with you sometime."
Alexander bowed. "I look forward to it, Grandmother."
His eyes were down, his face hidden by his posture, which saved him from inadvertently reacting when he heard Titania's voice clearly in his mind. I see your plan, young one. I should expect no less than recklessness from a child of my own daughter. But know that you already have within you the only power you need to succeed, and that is the ability to remain yourself in spite of Oberon's will. Hold to that and your plans will not fail.
Alexander had no ability to reply in kind, so he straightened up and met her eyes wordlessly.
"I shall see you again soon." Titania smiled at Fox before vanishing.
"Then," Lord Oberon uncrossed his arms and took a step forward. "It is time for your final trial. The trial of Magic. And this you will not find so easy!"
Without warning, Oberon attacked.
Part 5: Defenders of the Night
The blast of pure force came at Alexander so quickly it was only the fact that he had been drilled endless times the same way by his father, mother, Puck, and all the gargoyles that saved him. Alexander called up a shield of energy of his own, catching Oberon's power and holding it at bay.
I can do this.
Alexander stole a page from Oberon's first trial and bent his protective shield into the shape of a cyclone. The crackling power Oberon continued to fire at him was caught up in Alexander's own whirlwind, which he promptly reflected back at the faerie king with interest.
Lord Oberon caught the attack in his own defenses, vanishing the power as if it had never been. "Very good. But what will you do with these?"
He waved his arms and figures grew out of the fire that encircled the pair. Three flame creatures advanced on Alexander.
Alexander could hear everyone else shouting for him, but he didn't have time to listen. With the fae grace and the athleticism developed over years of working out with some pretty unconventional partners, Alexander dodged the fire creatures, lithely slipping to the side and rolling out of range. When he popped up a moment later, he stretched his hands upwards.
Alexander didn't have time to think through a complicated spell, but Puck had taught him to improvise on the fly. "Raindrops that dance above in clouds, get down here and help me out!"
The sky, dark and already overcast, gave an audible rumble and suddenly a torrential rain began to fall. Alexander was gratified to see the fire creatures steam and sputter, extinguished before they could reach him again.
Puck must still be Owen or he'd be yelling lines from The Wizard of Oz again. But he'd also be yelling at me for not coming up with a better rhyme. Clearly I got my skill at poetry from Dad.
"Rudimentary weather control," Lord Oberon noted. "A rather inelegant display, but sufficient."
Alexander took a breath, fighting the urge to gasp for air. "Thank you, I guess?"
Lord Oberon tipped his head. "Did you think it would be so simple?"
Alexander groaned aloud. "Ugh. No, I suppose not." Then, belatedly, "My lord."
It seemed like it went on forever. Oberon grew to enormous height and stamped on the ground until Alexander shrank enough that he could hide between the cracks of the stones. Alexander conjured ropes out of nowhere to bind Oberon. Oberon turned the ropes to vines and sent them back at him while he returned to his normal size. Alexander, still tiny, took to the air and dove to hide in Oberon's own cloak. Oberon swallowed Alexander whole with the cloak and Alexander had to turn himself inside-out to escape.
Lightning flew, torrents of wind were raised, a thousand moves and counter-measures came and went so quickly Alexander could not hope to reason his way through - all he could do was react.
But even twenty years of learning from Puck could not help Alexander maintain his magic forever and eventually he grew tired. When Oberon extended an arm made long and sharp like a lance, Alexander only barely evaded it, falling to the courtyard stones with a painful crash that knocked the wind out of him.
"And now it ends," Lord Oberon said, looming over him.
The gargoyles were roaring and several human voices were upraised in shouts, but Owen's whisper reached Alexander amidst the din.
Lord Oberon raised his arms for a finishing blow, his magic crackling and humming.
Alexander drew the wooden box from his pocket and held it out before him.
And Oberon's own attack dropped him to the ground.
For a moment, Alexander couldn't move, didn't dare move. The box in his hands was glowing and all he could do was stare at it and swallow against a dry throat. His eyes were blurred with tears and his heartbeat felt frantic and he wanted to flop down on the frigid stones and be finished.
But he wasn't.
Alexander carefully climbed to his feet. Across the circle, Lord Oberon was looking up from one knee.
"Impressive indeed, child. How did you manage to enchant an object of that magnitude without my being aware of its presence?"
Alexander's fingers tightened on the box but he tried to keep his voice calm. "It wasn't easy, my lord."
Lord Oberon did not dignify that flippancy with a response, instead standing once more. "Very well. The trials have been concluded. I perceive that you have succeeded. Therefore, it is my decree-"
Lord Oberon's eyes went flinty cold.
Alexander took another deep breath. "Before you pass judgment on me, I have a challenge for you, my lord."
"Alexander! What are you doing?" his father bellowed from outside the circle.
"You...challenge me?" The expression on Lord Oberon's face was torn between anger and amusement and it settled somewhere altogether unpleasant. "That is an impudence of the highest order, child."
"Nevertheless," Alexander tried to keep his tone even, "I have a question. And I would like to propose a deal."
"If you can correctly answer my question, I will forfeit the trials and you may do with me as you see fit."
"No, Alex!" Fox shouted.
Alexander forged on. "But if you cannot give me the correct answer, I ask that, in addition to permitting me to come and go from Avalon as I wish, you would restore Puck's powers and allow him to return to Avalon as well."
"Puck?" Oberon's gaze fell on Owen. "Attend me, Puck! This instant!"
There was a terrible shift, not the usual shining swirl that marked Puck's willing transformation, but a visceral yank of Puck's body from Owen's disguise. The flames parted at his feet and Puck was drawn in - he seemed almost pulled.
"Kiddo, you don't have to do this," Puck said, his usually upbeat demeanor cold and nervous.
"Explain this at once, Puck!" Lord Oberon demanded.
"It's not my idea!"
"He's telling the truth," Alexander said. The box in his hands gave him courage. "This is something I decided to do all by myself."
Lord Oberon looked between the pair. "You, child, would risk my displeasure and your freedom which you value for the sake of one such as Puck?"
Alexander looked over at him. "Puck has been my teacher and friend for my whole life. He's saved my life more than once, and he's helped me save my family. I owe him a debt. And the fae do not like to owe a debt. If I can repay him this way, I will."
"We're square, kid. You and me. Always have been. You know that," Puck said. "Don't throw your freedom away now."
Lord Oberon looked thoughtful. "So you have also learned the importance of a debt, child. In that case, foolish as your wager may be, I will accept it. If I correctly answer your question, you are mine and will join me on Avalon for as long as I please. I may even install you into Puck's former position at my side."
"And if you don't," Alexander said, "then I get my freedom and Puck gets his own, and his full powers back too."
"Very well. Ask your question."
Alexander could not pause or his courage might fail him. He held out the box. "Without touching it or opening it, can you tell me what is in this box that gives it its power?"
Lord Oberon's eyebrows rose as his eyes lit with interest. "A riddle. A simple one, but I do not expect one of your skill to have posed a question with such an easy answer." He took a step towards Alexander. "I will neither touch it nor remove it from your keeping, but you did not forbid me from reading it with my own magic."
"No, I didn't."
Lord Oberon extended a hand over where Alexander held out the box. "Reveal unto me the source of your power!"
Twelve ribbons of light rose from the box, each a slightly different hue. One by one, the ribbons wound through the air before attaching themselves to the hearts of one of the spectators.
Lord Oberon recoiled. "You have taken the hearts of these mortals? Bound them up into servitude?" He frowned darkly and the very air grew colder. "This is an abomination. My Children are forbidden from interfering in the lives of mortals!"
"Is that your answer?" Alexander asked, trying not to flinch from the growing shadows that seemed to reach for him from every direction.
"I am Lord Oberon of Avalon! My word over my Children is Law! You will surrender that monstrosity to me and suffer punishment for your despicable acts against those you call family!"
Alexander's knees locked and for an instant he felt himself giving in, loosening his grip on the box.
Titania's words came back to him. But know that you already have within you the only power you need to succeed, and that is the ability to remain yourself in spite of Oberon's will.
Alexander fought bile that rose in his throat. "I am of the Third Race, but I am my father's son, my mother's son, and I am of the Manhattan Clan first. I will not surrender it to you."
Lord Oberon grew in size and darkness. "You dare defy me? Contemptible creature?"
Alexander shivered but he looked into the fae's face. "Is that your answer to my question?"
"You have stolen the hearts of these mortals and used them to create a power fueled by their very mortality. Yes, boy, this is my answer."
Alexander's knees almost gave out in relief. "You're wrong."
And he opened the box.
To anyone without the gift of faerie sight, or any other sort of magical sight, the small box would have appeared to hold only small stones and some hair and a few bits of metal. But Lord Oberon saw what Alexander saw inside the box.
"I didn't steal anything. I didn't ensnare anybody," Alexander said, and if his voice was shaking he chose not to think too hard about it. "Everybody gave me something willingly."
"And not our hearts," Goliath said from outside the circle of fire. A white tendril of magic still hovered in the air, attaching his chest to a single strand of black hair in Alexander's box. "The boy has earned his place with us not by guile but by honest love and loyalty. We could not give him our hearts for he is already a part of them."
David's face was caught between a triumphant smirk and a raw relief. "So we entrusted him with our memories."
Lord Oberon frowned. "Memories?"
He cast his long fingers through each of the tendrils of magical connection. As he touched them, Alexander shivered, speaking the name of the one to whom it was bound and recalling the exact memory he had chosen.
"Bronx. Coldstone. Hudson. Coldfire. Brooklyn. Angela. Broadway. Lexington. Elisa. Mom. Goliath. Dad."
"Explain this magic," Lord Oberon commanded.
"I knew I couldn't beat you on my own, my lord. And I wasn't willing to lose, either. So I asked Puck for a way to give me an edge against you."
Oberon looked sideways at Puck who shrugged. "Hey, you told me to teach him! Can't complain at me now for being thorough about it!"
"Puck told me that your own Law prohibits you and your Children from interfering in the lives of mortals," Alexander said, trying to draw Oberon's attention from Puck again. "So we figured that if we used something tied to mortals, your powers wouldn't work as well against it. I know you can interpret your Law however you want, my lord, but it was a gamble worth taking since I didn't have any other good ideas."
"Your memories enclosed in this box could not have given you any power you do not already possess in full," Lord Oberon said, but the anger had melted from his features and he was watching Alexander closely.
"They weren't mine, not exactly." Here Alexander fought the urge to sigh. What he had done was invasive and uncomfortable even if it had worked out. "I did take a strong memory I had of everyone and used it as the focus, but the magic, the real power, came from them."
It was Goliath who said, "We gave Alexander our memories of him - all of them. That collective power is what resisted you, your majesty."
"A foolish gamble," Oberon said. "Had your powers buckled before me, every one of these mortals would have forgotten your very existence. And you might have forgotten them in turn. Even your parents."
"No." And Elisa Maza stepped forward to stand between Goliath and Xanatos. "We had one last contingency ready." She held up the sidearm she had been wearing.
"Mortal, your weaponry is useless against me."
"Normally, yes," Xanatos said with a smirk. "But this one I made for her specially out of cold iron. You have no idea how difficult it is to forge working bullets out of that stuff."
Oberon's brows lowered and all the gargoyles tensed as the King of Faeries turned his fury towards Elisa. "You would threaten me with iron?"
Elisa did not even flinch. "Not you. Alexander."
"I bound the spell into my clan braid," Alexander said, tossing his head so the long braid fell over one shoulder. "If anything went wrong, Elisa was going to shoot off my braid. That would nullify the whole spell."
"It would have left you without your enchanted defense against me. You would have failed and you would have returned with me to Avalon for all time."
"But it would make sure we remembered our son," Fox said. "And as long as we remembered him, no matter where you took him, to Avalon or the moon or the edge of the galaxy, we would find a way to rescue him."
Oberon frowned. "This is the same insolence I recall from our last meeting, child of Titania."
"He's still my son," Fox said. "Any time you try to take him from me, I'll have insolence waiting for you. And a whole lot more." Her hand fell to the cold iron of her own claw weapons secured at her waist.
Oberon looked back at Elisa. "Had you attacked me while I was conducting the trials, the punishment for such an interruption would be more than you could withstand."
"If Elisa were forced to make that choice," Goliath said, "you would have a war on your hands between us anyway, Lord Oberon. We came here prepared to fight for Alexander by any means necessary."
"And yet you are the ones who invited me." Lord Oberon's voice was cold, but his eyes were intrigued.
"I don't want a war, my lord," Alexander said. "I want to be able to visit Avalon. But I want this life, too. And I didn't want you to come to claim me when I wasn't ready, either."
"And how did you know I would?"
Alexander smirked. "I've been studying with Puck and I inherited my Grandmother's magic. There was no chance you wouldn't come to check on me someday, my lord. I just wanted to be prepared with a way out when you did."
Oberon crossed his arms. "I cannot fault your cleverness, child. But to challenge me in return, to wager for Puck, that is an audacity beyond even this willfulness."
Alexander looked across to Puck. "Well. My family was willing to put it all on the line to save me. Puck is Puck, but I still think of him as my family, too. If they," he gestured to everyone else, "trusted me enough to do this, then I figured I had a good chance of earning something for Puck, too."
"So you did know of this plan?" Oberon looked to Puck.
Puck grinned. "I never said that I didn't. I just told him it wasn't a good idea. And I was right. It wasn't a good idea. It was a great idea!"
"I am beginning to regret putting an impressionable mind in your hands," Lord Oberon said.
"But you gotta admit, my lord, he pulled it off. He played by all your rules perfectly, and he beat you. And you failed his wager, too." Puck's attitude was all arrogance, but those who truly knew him - Alexander, Oberon, and even David Xanatos - could see the quivery uncertainty he hid so well.
At last Lord Oberon's face bent into a small, amused smile. "You are correct, of course. The boy passed my trials and proved his worth as one of my Children. And I am impressed at his brash courage to challenge me in return, even moreso that he was able to succeed."
Alexander closed the box and held it against his chest, bowing at the waist. "Please, my Lord Oberon. Grant what you have agreed. Permit me my freedom to come and go and restore Puck's own along with his powers."
Lord Oberon lifted his hands. "It is my will that this grandchild of Queen Titania be able to journey to and from Avalon at will with the freedom of my Queen. As for you, Puck, I restore unto you your powers in full, save one."
Both Alexander and Puck, beginning to grin madly, froze.
"You may journey to Avalon, but only when accompanied by the boy. And you may not beguile nor trick him into entering Avalon unwillingly, nor remaining longer than he desires."
"My lord…" Alexander began.
"Silence. It is rare for me to reverse my own decrees, and rarer still for me to forget the reason for them. I have given Puck far more than he has earned from me."
Alexander opened his mouth to speak, but Puck reached over and elbowed him. "Leave it. I can work with this."
Alexander saw a familiar glint in his teacher's eyes and nodded.
"As for you, Goliath, and your Clan." Oberon waved an arm and the ring of fire separating the fae from the mortals vanished. "I cannot fathom why you would endanger so many lives for this one boy. Had we come to blows this night, many of you may have perished, all for one who rightly belongs to me."
"If you will forgive me, Lord Oberon," Goliath said, "Alexander belongs to us both. He is of your blood, but he is of my Clan. He would give his life for any of us. We could not do less for him."
Oberon looked at the box Alexander held. "I suspect you little realize the threat to you all. You may have permitted the magic pulled from you, but none of my Children would have given you a truthful understanding of all the risks of such an act."
"Honestly, neither would mine," Xanatos said. "But Alexander has a lot more family than just you and me and Fox and Puck, Lord Oberon. It's made him a better man than any of us. We understood perfectly. He told us everything."
"Then you are less a Child of mine than I thought, for all your power," Lord Oberon turned back to Alexander. "And more like your cousins than I could wish. You remind me a great deal of the one called Merlin. I wonder if you will be as much trouble."
"Oh, much more, my lord, if I have anything to say about it," Puck put in with a grin.
"I expect so." Lord Oberon turned. "This night has provided some distraction and cause for thought. I will return now to Avalon. When you journey there, I expect even more diverting tales and antics from you both."
"We won't let you down," Puck said.
"No, Puck. You never have." Lord Oberon glanced over his shoulder. "Good luck with him, Alexander. I hope you are prepared for the true and unleashed recklessness of the Puck."
Alexander laughed. "Probably not, but at least it won't be boring!"
"Indeed not." And Lord Oberon vanished.
The next few minutes were a disastrous mess of hugs and celebrations. Overall, nobody hurt anyone else once Broadway remembered to take off the cold iron hammer he had been carrying before it burned Alexander in the giant, rib-cracking celebratory squeeze he gave. Alexander was sure he hadn't had his hair ruffled or his back pounded or his shoulder gripped quite so many times all at once. He stammered his thanks and returned the excited triumph and was quietly grateful to remind himself that he had not lost his place with any one of those who had formed his family.
But when at last all went quiet, Alexander found Puck bouncing from one foot to the other away from the crowd.
"Hey," he called. "You okay?"
"The Puck is always okay," the fae replied, rolling his eyes. "Just deciding what mayhem to cause first."
"Puck or not," Xanatos said, putting an arm around Alexander's shoulders, "you're also still Owen and you still owe me that lifetime of service contract."
"Yeah, yeah. But I've gotta have some vacation time coming to me, right?"
Xanatos smirked. "You've never asked for it before."
"And I'm not asking now," Puck replied. "I'll go cause havoc when I want to and not until."
"I'd have thought you'd want to go visit Avalon right away," Fox said, glancing at her son.
Alexander and Puck exchanged a look of their own. Alexander shook his head. "Someday. Not right now. We're not bored here yet."
"Well, good." Xanatos gave his son's shoulder a squeeze. "Because we've got a victory to celebrate and I just happen to have everything we need for a party."
Alexander looked to Puck who shrugged. Then he promptly returned to his form as Owen who replaced his glasses with a bland expression. "It seemed prudent to be prepared for any outcome."
"So let's party!" Broadway cheered. Elisa laughed and elbowed him.
"You get started on that," Brooklyn said. "Lex and I will clean up some of the defenses up here. There's a few nasty surprises I definitely don't want going off unexpectedly."
The entire group began to break up, most heading for the Great Hall.
Alexander managed to slip away from his father without using any magic at all - just plain old human skill - and hung back until he and Owen were alone.
"Alexander. I am proud of you. And thank you. This is a gift I cannot repay."
"You said it yourself," Alexander said. "We're square. Always have been." Then, his face fell a bit. "You're okay with the whole deal? That you can only go to Avalon when I do?"
"It is somewhat restricting, but I am confident between the two of us we will manage somehow." Then Owen gave a sliver of a smile. "And perhaps another negotiation can be accomplished at a later date."
Alexander grinned. "Sounds fun! Count me in!"
And he extended a fist.
Owen blinked at it, more of Puck's surprise leaking through the mortal guise than Alexander had ever seen. Then he schooled his features and held out his own hand to complete the fist-bump.
"Did you know?" Alexander asked, beginning to head towards the Hall where he could already hear something crashing and Coldstone bellowing. "When you fought to keep me here, did you know how this would turn out?"
Owen shrugged. "One could argue that I couldn't have known. Too much of this relied upon you. And to be honest, none of us knew what sort of mortal or fae you would become."
"What sort is that? What did I become?"
Owen looked to the side where Lexington was expertly dismantling some equipment, calling to Brooklyn to unplug cords at will. The sounds of the party were getting louder, Goliath and David Xanatos both joining Coldstone's bellowing now and Bronx was barking just to be heard; but underneath the yelling was the distinct sound of Elisa and Angela laughing and Broadway apologizing for whatever he had done. Between their position and the broad doors were Hudson and Coldfire talking quietly. Fox was leaning on the doorway, turning to watch her son with a small, satisfied smile.
Owen looked back at his young charge. "I am not entirely sure. There has never been one who was part fae, part gargoyle, and part human before. Whatever you are, it is what you have made of yourself from those who surround you. The best, perhaps, of each of us."
"Including you," Alexander said.
"Well, certainly. My influence was never in doubt."
Alexander laughed brightly. "Nope. Not for a second." Then he rubbed his hands. "Want to go see what Broadway broke and what we can do about it?"
"Is this really the time for such antics?"
Alexander's grin went wide - and it could have been human, gargoyle, or fae, as the eager light and happy contentment was common to all - and he shrugged.
"We did promise Lord Oberon not to be boring. No time like the present to start."
Owen flashed a tiny smile and returned to Puck once more. "Kiddo, I couldn't have said it better myself!"
And the pair promptly charged into the chaos to 'improve' it, laughing all the while. And because the gargoyle Clan, David and Fox, and the fae were all family, it was a joyful, easy chaos that proved more than anything else that Alexander was theirs, no matter his heritage, no matter his destiny, for life.