"Come on, man." Randy's popcorn hit the set. "You can't kill a giant widow spider with Raid!"
"You don't know that," Mendel defended the cowering reporter on the screen, salt drifting off his pretzels to dust his labcoat. "Just because one spider was immune to everything but pyrethrins, doesn't mean all of them are."
Nudging the popcorn bowl out of Randy's reach, Nick Tatopoulos leaned back on the couch. It was a slow night at H.E.A.T. headquarters, the lab shut down, the H.E.A.T. Seeker safely moored, Monique Dupres off making one last security check. The team was winding down after chasing a mutated hydra out of Chesapeake Bay, and the late-night silence was broken only by a spate of bad movies and worse wisecracks.
Hernandez' eyebrows went up. "Yeah, but come on! A dead cow?"
"What's wrong with that?"
"What's wrong with that? The eight-legs like their meat live an' kicking. Remember?"
"Remind me again," Nick murmured in Elsie's ear. "Whose idea was it to stay up for the all-night Monster Marathon?"
Dr. Chapman nudged his shoulder. "Shh! This is where the deputy gets picked off right in front of the small-town sheriff."
"Eaten." The screen dissolved to a gory blur of legs and screaming, followed by slow drops of blood. "Riiight." Sigh. Didn't any of these filmmakers ever study the creatures they vilified? Spiders drank blood, they didn't let it leak all over the place...
Warm metal bit into the edge of his palm, and Nick relaxed his grip. He didn't want to bend his mother's brooch.
Sorry I didn't ship this over earlier, the note taped inside the heavy chest had read. But I just happened to be doing our five-year cleanout of the safe deposit boxes and the attic and - well, you know how it is.
Actually, he didn't know. His mother had shaken the dust of the Inire family home from her heels at twenty-one and never looked back. All Nick remembered of the place was a hush of black crepe, a subdued wealth of mourning veils; an awkward, deliberate silence any time he'd walked into a room.
At least he'd been the one to check for packages when they got in. If Randy had hauled this in... god, how would he ever explain?
Twenty years to ship over his mother's last possessions. It was just so... typical.
Hope you weren't missing any of this. Though how anyone could miss some of this... junk...
Odd, stray things. Brass hinges, iron nails; bits of glass and stone. Old, musty pages covered in Latinate scrawls. A small box of old, formal jewelry.
More precious than all the rest, a slender photo album.
Nick bit his lip, remembering laughing blue eyes, gentle hands prying his small grip from lengths of chestnut hair. A gleam of hammered gold from the shadowy gray cloak his mother was never without. The cloak she'd been buried in, after that horrid, frozen night. Mom.
To this day, his heart clenched at the sight of ice-sheathed trees.
No formal regrets to end off the note. No polite phrase of apology. Not even a signature. Just, Call when you find a real job.
The mutation biologist cradled the golden dragon in his palm, watching light flicker in green glass eyes. Every scale was perfect, wing and talon curved as if the crafter had come upon the mythical beast curled in sleep. The long pin seemed an elegant afterthought, visible only as a point of gold when the brooch was worn.
Swallowing the hurt. Nick tucked bright gold into his shirt pocket. It's over, he told himself. It's done. Let it go.
Elsie tugged up her afghan. "You could turn in for the night."
Nick rubbed his head, feeling that insistent prickle of another awareness; a sense of moving water, of peering through the dim night. "Thought about it. Figured I'd wait until Godzilla got tired of cruising the harbor."
The paleontologist's green eyes met his. "Restless?"
"Always is, when we get back to Staten Island," the mutation biologist admitted. "I think he needs to reaffirm his territorial boundaries."
"Hey, it's New York," Randy stuck in, stealing a pretzel. "You never know who might make a move on your turf."
"Hey!" Mendel snatched a retaliatory handful of popcorn.
Elsie tossed her team leader a smile. "Kids. Nick?"
The biologist was off the couch, heading for the roof. "It's okay," he waved a hand. "I think someone just wants to be tucked in for the night."
A mountain of grey-green scales, dark against the New York skyline. A hundred and eighty feet of claws, teeth, and tireless muscle. Eyes of lambent, nightmarish orange, that burned with an unquestionable intelligence.
"Hey, big guy," Nick said softly.
Godzilla rumbled quietly, ducking his head so his foster parent could scratch the softer scales under his eye. Not that human fingers could make much of an impression, even there. But it was the contact that counted.
Nick sorted through the rush of images; thoughts, feelings, all came clearer when they touched. Discomfort, something flying, the sound of rotors... "I know you don't like it, but the helicopters do have a right to fly here."
A gusting sigh. The fishy breath ruffled brown hair.
Snuffling breath along his cheek. A wordless question.
"Old memories," Nick said softly. "It's all right." It would be all right. Eventually.
A wavery image; chestnut hair, blue eyes, a half-memory of the scent of roses.
"My Mom." He ran a finger along a scaly ridge, a bittersweet laugh tugging at his lips. "She'd have loved you. A real dragon..." Never mind that Godzilla was born of man's haphazard science, not magic. The sheer wonder of the mutation's existence would have brought that bright gleam to her eyes, the reckless laughter that would chance everything on one calculated risk-
Ironic, that no chance of her own had killed her.
Don't think about it, Nick told himself. There was nothing you could do. Nothing you could've done.
Warmth in his mind. Gentle, inhuman affection. The wind was full of informative scents, there were no intruders, his human allies were whole and safe, and there was one school of jacks in the bay that was just begging to be hunted.
Nick smiled, leaning against rough scales. Live, love, protect. That was Godzilla to the core. "Love you too, big guy."
Sniff. A soft growl; an image of dark hair, dangerous readiness.
Nick scanned the rooftop. "Monique?"
The French agent detached herself from the shadows, particle beam rifle slung over one shoulder. "You may wish to find cover, Dr. Tatopoulos." She gestured out over the harbor, where familiar flashes of red lit the night. "Someone is playing with very dangerous toys."
"That's the helicopter," Nick said absently, watching the lights veer closer. Godzilla rumbled unhappily, head lifting into the sky. "Who are they? Not Skywatch..." This kind of technology wasn't in the police arsenal.
"Unknown." Monique's finger rested near the safety, dark eyes watching the helicopter bob and weave. "They appear to be pursuing something."
Orange eyes narrowed. The wind exploded with scent; a mix of leather, old bricks, blood.
Nick sucked in a breath. "Whatever they're after, it's alive. And hurt." Alive, and going near seventy miles per hour, if he was any judge of airspeed. That ruled out most flyers in New York, except the peregrines, stray golden eagles... or a mutation.
The safety clicked off.
"Monique, we don't know it's a threat."
The French agent never took her eyes off the sky. "It is the wounded beast which is the most dangerous, no?"
True. Too true. "I'll break open the armory," Nick sighed.
"No time," Monique said crisply. "Prepare yourself!"
The small dark shape had zigged once more, putting on speed, dodging yet another blast. Putting it on a line straight for them.
Nick readied the mental defenses that would keep Godzilla's battle-rage out of his mind, sick dread roiling in his gut as oncoming lights arrowed toward them. There wasn't a pilot in the tri-state area who didn't have H.E.A.T. marked on the map. And while Nick couldn't keep New York Harbor clear of air traffic, the area around the ferry building was a definite no-fly zone.
Randy's scent on the breeze. "What's up, jefe?" Sneakers jerked to a halt. "Whoa, man!"
"Randy, call the cops!" Nick ordered.
Hernandez stared up at oncoming disaster. "They got a death wish, or what?"
"Go!" Faint, amplified voices were audible on the wind; something about monsters, and test subjects-
A fleshy impact against scales; Nick heard it even over the rotor whine. Godzilla whuffled, more curious than afraid. A long, taloned hand snatched at air, reached back to deposit its fragile burden on H.E.A.T.'s roof.
"Sacre bleu," Monique breathed, watching the limp, cocoa form spill onto concrete. Snow-white pterodactyl wings crumpled over a small humanoid frame, and a tail curled near taloned feet. Long white hair was daubed with red, crimson streaming from a gash near small, paired horns.
Nick checked for a pulse. She hit Godzilla, going somewhere near eighty... ouch. "She's still breathing." At least, he thought it was a she. Dressed like a woman, in crimson and sapphire, one silver earring winking from a pointed ear.
"Step away from the monster!" A megaphone-amplified snarl, punctuated with particle beam fire. Nick held his ground as Monique shot back, calculating the best way to move a creature with this many broken bones. Die now, die later, hate those kind of choices-
Godzilla let out a warning roar, rattling rooftops for blocks.
"Oh shi-" A squeal, as panicked hands dropped the megaphone. Particle fire redoubled, now aimed at one massive, annoyed, territorial thirty-story lizard.
Bad decision, guys.
Godzilla snorted. Lunged upward.
Rotors screeched into the air, snapped off by unyielding teeth. High-tech alloys squealed as they crunched together, high-tech hunters shrieking as the megaton lizard shook his prey like a terrier with a rat.
"All units, all units. 10-57 from a helicopter at Morvan Pier," the Staten Island dispatcher's voice said shakily.
A silence on the radio. "Five Adam Thirty, Dispatch. 10-9."
Elisa's brow climbed, for a moment distracted from scanning the sky. That sounded like a good broadcast, why would Patrol need a repeat of shots fired at-
"Morvan Pier, Five Adam Thirty," Dispatch said firmly. "You know the address."
H.E.A.T. headquarters. "Oh, man," Detective Matt Bluestone moaned. "Tell me we're going the other way?"
His partner's face was grim as she yanked the Fairlane through a swift left. "Talon said the helicopter was chasing Delilah toward the harbor." She'd heard the flyby in Brooklyn, just as she and Matt were wrapping up an illegal weapons sting. Then Talon's voice had come over Goliath's radio and the two detectives had headed across the Verrazano Narrows bridge just over the posted limit.
Matt doublechecked his seatbelt. "Elisa, this is H.E.A.T. we're talking about. Monsters. Big ones. The biggest."
A speedy right. "I remember when the first Godzilla showed up, Matt."
"You were on that Avalon boat trip the last few times Godzilla came home," Matt pointed out. "I swear, that lizard has only gotten smarter."
A sigh on the radio. "Five Adam Thirty en route. Any details?"
A nervous chuckle. "Better than that, Five Adam Thirty. I'll play you the tape."
Tape buzzed. "911, what is your emergency?"
"Ah, yeah. This is Randy Hemandez, at H.E.A.T. headquarters." For someone reporting an attack, the voice was remarkably calm. "Some idiots in a chopper are cutting loose with laser rifles, you better send someone before somebody gets killed-"
Even transmitted through the radio, the roar shook the car.
"Ooooh, that's gotta hurt." A resounding crash, as of two tons of metal dropped onto unyielding concrete. "Ah, scratch the sirens. Better send the Jaws of Life." An adolescent snicker. "And one heck of a tow truck."
Elisa blinked. "What was that?"
"My guess?" Matt raised red brows. "Godzilla one, helicopter - zero."
The Fairlane pulled up near the old Staten Island Star Ferry Building, joining a Fire Rescue truck and a handful of nervous blue-and-whites. Uniforms crouched behind the frail shelter of their cars, hands hovering too near holsters for comfort. Not that bullets would be any help.
A wall of gray-green scales guarded the building, tail twitching like an annoyed tiger. Jaws massive enough to take the Fairlane in one gulp hovered near head height, amber eyes fixed suspiciously on a mass of twisted steel. A low rumble shook the air like oncoming thunder.
"Oh, man," Elisa breathed.
A uniform eased her way, gaze never leaving the monster of Manhattan. Banier, his nameplate read. "Miss, I'll have to ask you to-"
"Maza, 23rd Precinct," she said crisply, flashing her shield. "We were in the area."
Banier rolled his eyes. "Whatever you do, don't fire. And don't flash any lights at it. 207s, 245s, 10-80s... I hate this place."
Kidnappings, assault with deadlies, explosions. Sounded almost as bad as the Eyrie Building. "What's the plan?"
Banier nodded at the rumbling lizard. "Wait for it to get tired and go away." He ran nervous fingers through short-cropped brown hair. "You know, this is usually dayshift's problem."
"That's why I left dayshift," his partner grumbled.
Faint screams could be heard from the wreckage, redoubling in volume when Godzilla took one shuddering step nearer.
Elisa blew out a breath. "We've got to get them out of there."
"I'm open to suggestions."
Getting out, Matt nudged his door closed. "We could call H.E.A.T.," the redhead deadpanned.
"Godzilla!" A human voice, from the rooftop. Half-lost on the wind, nothing any of the tense cops would ordinarily pay attention to.
The massive head lifted.
"It's okay. Go. Go to the water."
A snort. The mutated lizard cast one last, rumbling glance at the helicopter's wreckage, then splashed into the harbor.
Yells rose from the mangled craft. Hands pounded on steel.
"Do not move," a cold French accent stated. "The wreckage surrounding you is not stable."
Matt covering her, Elisa led uniforms toward the nearest hole in the downed copter. "NYPD! Everybody freeze!"
Randy Hernandez stepped into the spotlights, grinning ear to ear as he held up empty hands. "Man, are we glad to see you!"
"Indeed." The woman sounded utterly unimpressed. "Perhaps we can, as you say, wrap this up?"
Elisa held her aim steady, noting the deadly rifle in the dark-haired woman's grip. "Put it down. Slowly."
"In his mouth," came the hysterical gibber behind them, as Fire Rescue started attacking crumpled metal. "We were in his mouth!"
The slim Frenchwoman carefully set her particle beam rifle down. "I am Monique Dupres," she stated, unruffled even as a uniform moved in with cuffs. "H.E.A.T. security."
"Hey, hey!" Randy tried to get between the officer and Monique. "You don't need those. The bad guys are over there!"
Another officer intervened. "Yes, sir," the brisk brunette said, all but leading him away by the hand. "Why don't you tell us what happened..."
Elisa picked up the rifle, noting its unfamiliar lines. Not quite like the ones Dracon had let loose on the street. The heat in the barrel was fading fast, but it'd been used. Recently. "I don't suppose you have a permit for this."
A thin smile. "As a matter of fact, yes." A slim hand motioned toward her jacket pocket. "If you will allow me..."
"Slowly," Detective Bluestone said. Elisa caught the tension in trenchcoated shoulders, gave him a slight nod. So. Her partner'd caught the same clues she had. Even unarmed, Dupres was dangerous.
"Legit," Matt sighed, examining the laminated form. "All the way up to the White House. How'd you do that?"
Monique took back her wallet. "Mutations are not stopped by conventional firepower, Detective."
Not an answer. "You want to tell us what happened here?" Elisa asked, not relinquishing the rifle.
A Gallic shrug. "Those in the helicopter were willing to fire upon us in their pursuit of a mutation. Godzilla took offense, and they fired upon him as well." A strong hand waved at the wreckage, where Fire Rescue was peeling off fang-marked metal. "As you say, a very bad idea."
"Another mutation?" Matt asked, feigning professional disinterest.
Delilah. Elisa shook off a sudden chill.
"Relatively small. Human sized. Not something I have seen before." Monique frowned. "Though that is not uncommon."
"Which way did it go?" Elisa asked carefully. Delilah could be hurt, frightened, dying... The way she'd been created might give Elisa nightmares, but the hybrid was her sister. Sort of.
Dupres studied her. "It has not gone anywhere, Detective."
Matt paled. "Is it dead?"
"Non," the Frenchwoman shook her head. "Not yet. It struck Godzilla at a high rate of speed, and it has not yet regained consciousness. H.E.A.T. is attempting to stabilize it." She gestured toward the rifle. "I would prefer that back, in case they succeed."
"You're sure on that blood sample?" Nick asked, swabbing the inside of a cocoa-hued elbow with disinfectant.
Test tubes clinked. "Sure as I can be without the gel electrophoresis results," Elsie stated. "Basic blood chemistry's mammalian. She can take fluids, no problem."
Nick squeezed the vein up, slid the needle home. Without compatible plasma, the best H.E.A.T. could do was try to keep her pressure up while they determined the extent of her injuries. Alphabet, the biologist reminded himself, recalling the first aid training Elsie had insisted they all get, after one too many times hauling victims out of concrete rubble. Airway. Breathing. Circulation. Disability. Exposure.
Airway seemed clear. She was breathing on her own. They'd bandaged the scalp wound after the spinal brace was secure, and fluids would help if there was internal bleeding. Pulse and breathing were faster than human norm, which might mean there was... but then, she wasn't human.
Mendel pulled the IV stand into place, took the bag Nick handed him. They'd done this a hundred times before, when one of H.E.A.T. was injured and miles from home. Mutations tended to take out hospitals along with the rest of the skyline. "She looks so... fragile."
Nick took a moment to eye the creature's collection of fangs, claws, and elbow and knee spurs. "Be careful, Mendel. The last thing she's going to remember is humans shooting at her." Working around the neck brace, he started feeling her skull for any depressed areas. "She may not realize we're not the enemy."
Leaving the gel to run, Elsie yanked open a drawer for industrial shears. Steel gleamed as she snipped off the creature's jacket and started on the blouse. "Looks like a lot of bruising on this side," the paleontologist reported. "May be the point of impact."
"Better than her head," Nick murmured, working around the horns. So far so good, but... "We need an MRI."
"And something for a splint," Mendel added. He traced gentle fingers over the extended digit that supported the wing membrane, pointing out the obvious breaks.
Red brows rose. "But she's bruised over here..." Green eyes widened. "Her wing hit Godzilla!"
"Like a plane clipping a tree," Nick realized. He'd seen that happen, when someone made too tight a turn trying to escape a mutated bee. The results... hadn't been pretty.
Mendel bit his lip. "The bone fractured, she cartwheeled-"
"And she hit him sideways," Elsie finished, tracing a bruise in the shape of a giant scale. "Ouch. Dislocated hip, and three of these ribs are gone."
"But it may have saved her spine." Nick brushed back white hair from a swelling lump. "We probably have a concussion here, but if she'd hit him headfirst-"
The other two winced. "Check pupils?" Elsie asked.
"Seem to be normal." Hip, Nick thought, there was something about the hip. Autopsy enough mammalian mutations, you learned where the vulnerable organs were. "Is her pelvis intact? We could have visceral injuries."
"Bruised organs," Elsie translated for the roboticist. "If she's bleeding inside... where is that ambulance?"
"Hasn't been that long," Nick reminded her. Time stretched when you had blood flowing in front of you. Or snapped in on itself, everything moving faster than you could comprehend.
Time. Five minutes since the creature had slid to the concrete roof. Three hundred seconds of unconsciousness.
Get to six hundred, and they were probably dealing with brain damage.
Brown eyes met his, and he knew Mendel was thinking the same. "Please wake up," the roboticist whispered, chafing warmth into taloned fingers.
A sudden cascade of images. Flashing lights, radio static; the acrid scent of gunpowder.
Blinking away nonexistent lights, Nick finished recounting her pulse. Still fast. But stable. "The cops are here." Randy and Monique were by the downed chopper. They could run interference.
Elsie pulled a sheet out of the storage closet, settled it over the unconscious form. "We can take it from here, Nick. Go."
Right. Make sure his adopted child didn't step on New York's finest. Stripping off latex, Nick dropped the bloodied gloves in the biohazard bin.
Lights laced the wind whipping through the steel railing, catching a stray shred of newspaper. Sirens wailed from blue-and-whites and one red firetruck, aching in his ears, and he fought back a snarl of his own. "Godzilla!"
The massive head lifted.
"It's okay." Leaning on the rail, the biologist projected gratitude, appreciation. I'm safe. I'm okay. Don't worry. "Go. Go to the water."
His charge snorted. Police were not in Godzilla's worldview. There were humans with guns, and there were threats to his territory. The first were to be avoided; the second, chased away or killed.
But his parent felt safe, and he wanted to hunt. Seawater was a cool sting, splashing over his scales, and the currents tugged at him as he swam.
Nick drew a deep breath. Panic later, he ordered himself, heading back inside. You've got a patient.
Right. Like he was any excuse for a doctor.
Maybe we should call a vet.
Hand on the doorgrip, Nick stopped. Why not? With all the zoos in New York, there ought to be someone who specialized in large mammals around.
"No, you wouldn't be working on a lizard- hello? Hello? Oooh!" Fuming, Elsie slammed the phone down. "Isn't there any vet in New York who does house calls?"
Nick locked the roof door. "No luck?"
The paleontologist snorted. "I get this suspicious little click when they hear the address."
The price of fame. Or more accurately, the price of Audrey Timmonds plastering the latest Godzilla-mutation face-off over the airwaves. "We ought to get that hip back in place. The longer we wait-"
"Ah, guys, I could use a little help here."
Taloned fingers had wrapped tight around Mendel's hand, and painful whimpers were rising from the table. "Shhh," Elsie soothed, stroking white locks off the tear-streaked face. "You'll be okay. You're safe."
Nick checked the clock. Seven minutes, give or take half. Still in range for a simple concussion. Hope it was just a simple concussion. "Elsie, we don't even know if she can understand-"
A breath of silence, still as a stopped heart.
Elsie blew out a breath. "You're in our home. I'm Elsie, that's Nick, and the guy whose hand you're about to break is Mendel."
"Hi," the roboticist blushed.
Brown eyes scanned the room, flicking nervously over the racks of test tubes and equipment. "This looks like... a lab."
Appear nonthreatening, the biologist thought. He pulled over a chair. "It is a lab," Nick said calmly, sitting down. "You're in H.E.A.T. headquarters. But we also live here." At least, he did. Though they'd stocked up on blankets and folding cots so the team could sack out when it was just too late to go home.
"We're not going to hurt you," Elsie told their visitor, as talons touched the stiff plastic supporting her neck. "That's a spinal brace. In case you're hurt somewhere we can't see." Elsie tapped the IV. "These are fluid electrolytes. Liquids, like your blood. We haven't given you any drugs, and we won't unless we think it's safe."
Dark eyes considered that. "Are you doctors?"
"No," Mendel admitted. "We're just trying to help. What's your name?"
Nick blinked. Was that his imagination, or did she relax?
"Delilah," their guest said. "If you are not doctors, why would you give me-" White membranes shifted, and she shrieked.
Running feet on the ladder. "Leave her alone!"
Nick held up empty hands, putting himself between Delilah and the angry woman in the red jacket. "Everybody, just stay calm."
The trenchcoated redhead behind her put a hand on her shoulder. His gaze swept the room, while the woman's fixed on the shivering creature on the table. "Detective Bluestone," he introduced himself, flashing a badge. "Someone want to tell me what's going on up here?"
"Needless heroics, no doubt." Monique, cool and sardonic as ever. "Dr. Tatopoulos?"
"We're fine. Delilah just woke up." An intelligent mutation. Major Hicks worried enough about Godzilla, and even he didn't realize how smart the mutated lizard was. If the public discovered a mutation with human intelligence... he didn't want to think about it.
A gasp from the table. "You said... you were not doctors."
So much for good intentions.
"Well, not medical doctors," Elsie clarified. "You fell on top of a bunch of Ph.D.s. Can we get a paramedic up here?"
"No doctors!" A cougar's growl; brown eyes glowed crimson.
A little color came back into the dark woman's face. "Will she make it until sunrise?"
Oh...kay. That wasn't the usual reaction of a non-H.E.A.T. member to a mutation. Even a New Yorker. "Sunrise is-" He glanced at Mendel.
"About five hours, thirteen minutes," the roboticist said, peering at his watch. "What happens at sunrise?"
No answers. Just a swift exchange of glances; worried, frightened, wary. Like a teenager in the emergency room, Nick realized, watching Delilah tremble under the sheet. Scared to death; of us, of what might happen to her.
Delilah sucked in a breath. "Elisa. The men in the helicopter-"
"Are currently being pried out by some very amused guys in the fire department," Bluestone chuckled. His face lost the smile. "After which they're going to be booked for assault, aggravated assault, possession of unlicensed firearms, assault with intent, and attempted murder. Trust me, they are not getting out tonight."
"More court testimony," Monique sighed, moving to get a better view of Delilah. "Phillipe will not be amused."
Five hours until sunrise. Nick traded a glance with Elsie. "I can't find anything besides bruising," the paleontologist answered. "But somebody needs to watch her. And she shouldn't be moved."
Elisa laid her hand over talons. "Are you all right?"
Delilah's gaze was fiercely brave. "They haven't hurt me."
Nick traded a glance with his team. They know each other. They care about each other.
Not as a human being might care for a mutation. As one person for another.
Monique gave him the slight nod that meant she recognized the danger. Elsie's eyes crinkled in emerald fascination. And Mendel looked positively dazzled.
A thousand questions sprang to Dr. Tatopoulos' mind; a bright flicker of wonder that banished the fear. Who is she? What is she? How did you find her?
But Nick held them back. He knew what it was to be young and hurting and afraid, the world shattering around him like frozen glass. "We have to set your wing and your hip," Nick said gently. "And I'm sorry, but that will hurt."
"Topical analgesics," Elsie muttered, diving into the first aid kit. "We can start with a small dose and work up."
Matt blinked, watching H.E.A.T. circle the injured gargoyle. Sleeves were rolled up, gloves donned over scrubbed hands, and coffee was starting to perk. Somewhere downstairs a TV played the rapid music of a chase scene, and a half-empty bowl of popcorn lay abandoned on a lab counter. "They do know there's a helicopter crashed in their parking lot?"
"The shooters were not in danger." Monique hung back, rifle within reach. "We do not have the proper equipment to remove casualties from such a wreck." The dark head nodded toward the table. "She they could help."
Dr. Craven rattled back up the stairs, carrying a toolkit, a sheet of rubber foam, and a handful of three-foot metal rods. "C-clamps," the blond announced breathlessly. "I looked up Elsie's stress factors on pterodactyl bone; we should use as light a splint as we can."
"Good thinking," Dr. Tatopoulos murmured. He glanced up. "Where's Randy?"
"He was detained by a brunette with steel jewelry," Monique said, amused. "You may rescue him if you wish."
Nick chuckled. "Maybe later."
Elisa shook her head, watching the scientists work. Improvised splints, the best leverage on damaged ligaments, chemical screening for potential adverse reactions; the details flew thick and fast as three heads bent over their late-night visitor.
They're trying to help. She wanted to believe that. She wanted it so badly words caught in her throat, hung up on the fear this hope might shatter like spun glass.
But she didn't dare. The gargoyles had been betrayed so many times... "Why are they doing this?"
"H.E.A.T. was created to neutralize mutations." Monique shrugged. "If she proves dangerous, then we shall act."
"We need Dr. Tatopoulos' statement," Matt reminded her.
"Immediately?" The Frenchwoman's brows angled toward the strangled shriek as a hip slid back into its socket.
"I guess not." Matt thumbed on his radio. "Banier? Make sure they're all booked. Start with assault with a deadly and felonious possession of unlawful firearms, that should be enough to hold them..."
Wincing in sympathetic pain, Elisa turned her attention to the run-down ferry building Godzilla's defenders called home. Chipped walls could use a little paint, cracked windows hadn't seen soapy water in months, and the plumbing looked like someone'd hit a hardware store's discount bin. But the samples and files were neatly organized, and the equipment seemed to be in excellent shape. Coffee mugs hung with beakers on a wooden drying rack, an aluminum pot was propped over a cold Bunsen burner, and the two microwaves had large labels pasted on the front: "Samples" on the right-hand side of the room, "Food" on the left. "Do you live here?"
"No. Only Dr. Tatopoulos." A fleeting smile. "When one is known to have Godzilla as a caller, it becomes difficult to rent an apartment."
Matt choked. "No kidding."
Elisa glanced sidelong at the pale scientist. Not especially tall, brown hair brushed impatiently out of blue eyes, Nick seemed oblivious to the armed trio standing by. "He actually comes looking for Dr. Tatopoulos?"
Opening a file drawer marked L, Maza shivered. "They're going to want to study her." Friendly or not, she wouldn't leave Delilah to that.
Monique gazed at her. "They will wish to, yes," the Frenchwoman said evenly. "They are scientists. It is their nature." She placed her rifle on the counter. "But if she wishes to leave, we will not stop her."
Elisa raised a skeptical brow, fingers flipping through labeled files. Lamprey - lemur - Loch Ness-
Eyes wide, she pulled the file. There in glorious color were photos of the same sort of creatures she, Angela, and Goliath had freed from Sevarius. Only the single offspring seemed much younger. Tentative identification: mosasaur, ran part of the printed report. Nonhostile unless provoked. Possible twenty-year breeding cycle. Naturalized resident of the Loch Ness ecosystem. Historical evidence suggests a stable population has existed for at least the past 1500 years.
Matt stared. "Is that what I think it is?"
"You can ask Angela." Noninterference. And she hadn't seen word one about any Nessie in the news, even though this report was dated well before her side trip to the loch.
Hope clutched her heart like an iron vise. Elisa's gaze went to the frightened eyes on the table, slim talons gripping a human hand hard enough to bruise. Yet Mendel barely flinched, keeping up a shaky stream of soothing words as his friends caught their breath.
Hope was here, breathing from tape on cracked glass, scribbled lists of antigens thumbtacked to corkboard. Hope that trickled in from a half-dozen remembered broadcasts, stray chatter overheard from Staten Island detectives that had wandered onto the 23rd Precinct's turf.
H.E.A.T. Humanitarian Ecological Analysis Team.
Elisa sucked in a shuddering breath. I want to believe.
If she only dared.
Two flickers of purple outside the windows. Goliath and Angela. "I could use some fresh air."
Monique's attention hadn't left the gargoyle-laden table. "That door will take you to the scene, Detective."
"Doesn't miss much, does she?" Matt murmured as the two detectives walked out onto the rooftop. Holes scored concrete, the unmistakable burns of particle beam fire surrounding a splash of drying blood.
Elisa knelt, bringing out a flashlight to survey the scene. Footprints were all over the place, at least one sneaker print stomped in concrete dust. A breeze tickled her nose with the briny scent of drying seaweed. "See anything?"
"Looks okay so far."
Nothing to contradict Monique's story, then. "Goliath?"
Eyes glowed red and white in the shadows. "Elisa." Wings settled over Goliath's shoulders, thumb-claws linking to form a cape. "I had thought humans had slain the dragons, long ago."
The detective breathed a sigh of relief. Depending on the wind, the Fairlane could leave gargoyles in the dust. "Sorry, Goliath. It's a lizard."
"Big, mean, radioactive lizard," Matt muttered. Snagging the Loch Ness file, he headed over to where Angela was perched on the railing.
Goliath held out a gleaming, emerald-gray scale, large as a clenched fist. "Hudson carried such a scale when I was a hatchling. It was a gift from the creature that shared Wyvern Hill with my clan, before the Scots came." A brow ridge rose "Not all dragons fly, Elisa."
The detective lifted a hand to explain; sighed. Hard to argue definitions with someone who'd grown up in tenth-century Scotland. "Delilah's hurt, but they think she'll make it until sunrise."
Goliath nodded slowly. "I had feared we would have to bring Talon ill tidings."
Elisa smiled. "Not tonight."
"They're Nessies!" Angela's voice was low and delighted, taloned fingers turning printed photos. "Can you get a copy?"
"I'll have to ask." Matt peered over the file with the young gargoyle, blue eyes wide and wondering. "I don't think H.E.A.T. meant these to end up public."
"Oh." Wing-cloaked shoulders drooped. "We'd better not let them near Lexington, then. He'd scan them in for his laptop."
Elisa bit her lip. "Angela, is there something wrong?"
Dark eyes slid away from hers. "It's... nothing."
Goliath folded massive arms, eyes slightly aglow. "Have the Trio been discourteous?"
A shrug. "No. They're just... guys."
"If you ever need a break from them, I know a place you could go out for the night," Matt offered.
"Matt?" Elisa raised a skeptical brow.
"No, really." Her partner held up empty hands. "Muldoon down in Vice took me to this Goth club. Half the people on the dance floor have fangs." He eyed the young female. "Cloak for the wings, a little makeup... I bet you could walk right in the front door."
Angela brightened. "Could I?"
"We'll... consider it," Goliath allowed.
It'd be nice if she could, Elisa thought wistfully. Good behavior or not, dealing with the Trio night after night could get on anyone's nerves.
Come to think of it, she might just join Angela on that club-hop. When was the last time she'd gone out for a night with other women? No monsters, no crime, no guys. Just fun and music.
Not that she hated spending nights with Goliath. He was a friend. One of the best she'd ever had. But gargoyle or not, he was a guy. He just couldn't seem to see that Angela needed time to be herself, not a potential mate.
Time to talk to Mom, Elisa decided. We're going to get you a night off.
A shriek pierced the evening air, and the massive gargoyle whipped toward the door.
Elisa barred his way. "Hold it."
A snarl. "I will not leave even Thailog's creation in enemy hands."
"You'd scream too, if they had to set your wing without anesthesia." Elisa put her hand on the tensed shoulder. "They're trying to help," she said softly. "If her wing's still broken up at sunrise..."
A soft growl. "Very well." Goliath straightened. "But we cannot leave her here."
"We can't risk moving her." Elisa stood fast. "I don't know how much you know about internal bleeding, but if we take her out of here, we may make a bad situation worse."
"Way worse," Matt added, as Angela risked a peek through the windows. "Unless you've got a doctor I don't know about, H.E.A.T.'s her best chance."
A rumbling sigh. "Our healers were... lost," Goliath admitted. "Long ago."
In the massacre at Castle Wyvern. "Matt?" Tight, controlled fear. She'd seen only the frightened face, so like her own; the broken body in strangers' hands. She didn't know if these scientists knew what they were doing. She didn't know what she'd do if they didn't.
"They seem to know their way around a first aid kit," Matt reassured her. "We can keep an eye on her. Make sure she stays okay until sunset."
"One of us can, partner." Shutting away the fear, Detective Maza dusted off her hands. So far as she could tell, Monique's story held up. "Looks like I'm doing your paperwork tonight."
"Yes!" Matt punched a fist toward the sky. "Payback at last."
Goliath scowled. "Elisa. I know her existence is unsettling to you..."
"It'd better be me, Goliath." Matt waved at his partner's face. "They're already suspicious. I don't think we want them seeing the family resemblance."
Elisa watched her partner head for the door, gearing up to interview the ferry building's residents. A cool breeze blew off the harbor, carrying a scent of salt and seaweed. Metal bit into metal with a subdued whine as Fire Rescue pried the helicopter door open. Somewhere below seawater splashed, waves filling in behind a massive form.
"Shall we be off?"
"Give me a few minutes," Elisa replied, watching Angela grip the railing.
She settled in next to the young female, watching the dark water. "Penny for your thoughts."
Talons scraped against steel. "I just wish... I wasn't the only one," Angela said in a rush. "That there were more of us." Clawed fingers wove together. "That they had someone else to chase besides me."
It was a problem. "There are other gargoyles out there." Elisa tossed her a grin. "If it came down to it, we could even ship them air-freight to Japan."
Angela shook her head. "They won't leave Manhattan. Even if we could send them to Avalon... I only have fifteen rookery sisters."
And almost twenty rookery brothers. Definitely a problem. "You know, you can always talk to my mom," Elisa offered. "She knows things about guys even Beth hasn't figured out."
That got a smile. A small smile, but it was a start. "Maybe we could check out this... Goth club."
"It'll be weird," Elisa warned her.
"Stranger than having your body possessed by a gargoyle who's been dead a thousand years?" Angela shook her head. "I know I offered to help her..."
"When you thought it was Goliath who was asking." Elisa suppressed her own snarl. Yes, they'd wanted to free the three souls trapped in Coldstone's body, but... Puck had a lot to answer for. "It's okay to be mad, Angela."
"But it wasn't Broadway's fault!"
Technically, no. But it had been Broadway's body, embracing the soul within Angela. As it had been Lex's body casting the spells that tore soul from flesh, and Brooklyn's body who'd tried to kill them all. "Sometimes your heart takes a while to catch up with your head," the detective admitted. She rested a hand on the wing-cloaked shoulder. "Maybe you just need a little time away from the guys."
"Maybe." Angela hopped up onto the railing, claws flexing as she spread her wings. "I'll... go on ahead."
A rumbling sigh behind her. "The soul transference?"
"If it were me, I'd be having nightmares," Elisa said frankly. "Give her time."
A wing settled around her, violet suede against her skin. "This isle would be a good protectorate," the clan leader acknowledged. A faint glow still lit his gaze. "Let us hope those within are worthy of it."
"Come on," Elisa said softly. "Let's give Derek the good news."
A gray fist slammed down on an oak table, denting it. "We lost Delilah!" Eyes glowed white. "And to a pack of mundanes!"
"Calm, Melor. I'll admit Demona's interference is galling. Especially since she shields her hirelings against outside influence." Long fingers gestured over glowing blue crystal, invoking an image of a shattered helicopter. "But we haven't lost Delilah yet."
Melor cloaked his wings, charcoal-gray skin fading into the shadows of the stony chamber magic had carved near Belvedere Castle. "She eluded them." A wide, fanged grin. "Powers, she is a fighter!"
"Better," the mage breathed, eyeing the frantic auras etched on night air. A finger combed through short white hair, brushing a stray strand back into place. This age shunned the flowing hairstyles of his youth; he didn't miss them. "She's clever. And determined." He lifted his gaze. "Excellent qualities in any mage."
The gray gargoyle shook back his dark mane. "Who'd have thought New York would be a good place to find apprentices?"
"Who'd have thought Aimerigot's spellbook would end up auctioned off on this... Internet." The elderly mage gazed into glowing crystal, musing at the odd turn of events that had led him from his stronghold in the French Pyrenees to the City That Never Sleeps.
Less than a year ago he'd been content to lair with Melor in the mountains, as he had for all but a few years since his awakening in this new century. Together the two had sharpened their powers, perfecting spellcraft as they quietly searched for any remnants of gargoyle clans. Studying the patterns of human politics, so they might best seize and hold the territory about their home. Time had no hold on this mage as it did on the run of humankind; he could afford to build his power slowly.
Or so I thought, the mage scowled. Long fingers tapped a staccato on oak, recalling the terrifying surge of power that had set off every protective spell in his castle.
Fae magics had rung like thunder through the skies for all those with ears to hear. Wails, shrieks, unearthly cries of joy; power had shimmered over the world like the dancing veils of the Northern Lights.
Avalon's shores were open. Oberon had called his Children home.
And they've not returned, the mage thought darkly. Which could mean nothing; time flowed slower on Avalon, and the ranks of faerie might still be caught in their own revels.
Or it could herald the end of humanity's reign, crushed under faerie heels.
Oberon had no love for mortal kind. But in the past he had left most mortals be, to live their own lives.
No longer. The fae king's power had crackled throughout New York, blazing like wildfire through every artifact of detection the mage had. For the space of a few hours, Oberon's spells had shrouded the entire city.
And Titania was with him.
The queen of Avalon and the faerie king, united in purpose. Powers not even a mage of his caliber could stand against.
Not yet, the mage thought coolly. But that would change. He'd found Aimerigot's tome of spells in France, it'd been all but in his grasp-
When some fool had auctioned it off over the Internet. To Demona, of all creatures.
Well. She was easy enough to find, if one knew what to look for. The tome's signature had vanished off the face of the earth, clear signal the gargoyle had ordered her spellbook shipped in cold iron, but he knew Demona's mind. The tome would come to her - to New York.
So he and Melor had moved here for a time, setting up an occult bookshop in this area known as East Harlem. With luck, Demona herself might seek them out. Without... well, the moment she used the tome, they would strike.
And so they waited, building up strength with the aid of their inhuman servants. Servants that had nearly brought them Delilah.
Melor looked aside, wing-hands gripping each other. "Magister... do you think she'll understand?"
"In time, my own." The Magister reached out, gripped his foster son's shoulder. "We've watched her, but she knows nothing of us, or of the threat of Oberon's cursed Children-"
Crystal chimed, a two-tone of rung glass. "The aural detector?" Melor crossed the room to the network of smoke quartz shards hanging over a map of the East Coast. Five gleamed with shades of emerald and gold, weaving an intricate pattern of light and darkness. "What in New York could carry that kind of power?" Silence. "Magister?"
"Orchil's signature," his foster father said at last. "Yet I'd thought that damned Arab..."
"Hah! Cold iron, I'll wager." The mage shoved up the sleeves of his starched shirt, gray eyes narrowed. "Someone has been very clever." His mouth twisted. "Did you locate the source?"
"No," the gargoyle said thoughtfully. "But from that ripple... it must have been near her."
"Yes; one of the talented would echo it farther than normal, even with iron nearby." The Magister paced, arms crossed. "After so many centuries..."
Melor studied the map. "Near water. Should we send our servants to search for it?"
"Into a nest of cold iron? With only our own powers, and the energy the will'owisps have drained?" The Magister shook his head. "One target at a time. First we must find our apprentice. Then... then we shall seek what was stolen from me, so long ago."
"You left her where?"
Elisa stood her ground as her brother's ears flattened, panther-gold eyes all but spitting sparks. The mutate stalked through the clocktower like an ebony hurricane, wings twitching as he brushed past Hudson and the Trio. He nearly walked through Angela, only backing off at her snarl. "She gets chased, she gets shot at - and you leave her with a bunch of scientists?"
Deliberately, Elisa reached down to scratch Bronx under the chin. "Matt's with her. I don't think they'll try anything." She glanced up. "They left the Loch Ness monster alone, Derek. They're not out to destroy everything that's different."
"They freed a Nessie's child, and kept her secret." Angela shook her head. "That doesn't sound like most humans."
"No." But they were scientists, and so far the clan's luck with those hadn't been good. "Lex. When I left, they were running some sort of test on Delilah's blood. I don't know what the machine was, but it was hooked up to one major computer network."
The web-winged gargoyle stretched his arms over his head, cracking his knuckles. "One hack, coming up."
Brooklyn studied her, brick-red wings folded. "You don't trust them?"
"Staten Island's out of my jurisdiction." Thank goodness. "They could be dangerous, Brooklyn. They're armed, and they're not afraid."
"And you left her there." Talon's voice was low and deadly.
"Save it, sis." Wings unfurled, the mutate leapt up to the clock face. "I don't leave my clan behind."
"Be careful!" Elisa called, taking the steps two at a time. "Godzilla hates bats!"
The balcony was empty.
"At least, that's what the Nigerian cops said, when Mom was there," she sighed, turning back to the clan. "Fara Maku made a detour just to show her the bridge repairs."
"Did you see Godzilla, Elisa?" Broadway asked, wide-eyed. He'd been glued to the news reports ever since the first Godzilla hit Manhattan. The monster's rampage had actually helped the clan, distracting the city's attention from the stone rubble littering the streets, all that was left of the victims of Demona's petrifying spell.
"Did I ever," the detective murmured. "On TV... you just can't get the scale of it." She groped for words. "It's like a mountain with teeth." She remembered those few, furious days, camped out in the clocktower and praying the creature wouldn't hit the 23rd. Which it hadn't, though the Chrysler Building had come down in flames, silver falcons smashing to the city streets.
Handling the mess as New Yorkers moved back in had been a nightmare. Every cop had worked overtime, and between that and her impromptu campout, she'd been utterly exhausted when Demona challenged her to come to Belvedere Castle.
But I won, Elisa reminded herself. "Keep a safe distance, guys. That helicopter was flatter than a Tracker in a five-car pileup."
"Yet the men survived," Goliath said thoughtfully.
"Dragons don't slay without reason, lad," Hudson observed. "So long as the beast's not threatened, it has no cause t' kill."
"It's not a dragon-" Elisa started.
Her cell phone rang. "Maza," the detective sighed, flipping open the phone. A gift from her parents, just in case she ended up on another boat, as Peter had so bluntly put it.
"Hey, partner," came an all too cheerful voice over the line. "Have you ever tried Jamaican double mocha?"
Matt on a caffeine high. This could get ugly. "The guys in the helicopter?"
"I thought I'd seen that blond somewhere before." Paper rustled. "Joseph Mitchard. Last known place of employment, security guard, Arimathea Artisans. Which is a shell company of-"
"Xanatos Enterprises," Elisa finished, unsurprised. Growls rose around her, and she held up a hand. "Hang on, guys. Let me get the whole story."
"Staten Island's looking into it," Matt said, "But they've already got a lawyer. He's saying they just got a little carried away chasing a monster." A chuckle. "Nick's already left a message for H.E.A.T.'s lawyer. Keeps muttering something about getting tired of being sued by people who were trying to kill him."
She could sympathize. If Xanatos ever admitted the gargoyles existed, she might be facing a score of lawsuits. "So what's the situation over there?"
"So far, so good. She's... kind of dozing, right now." Another rustle; a pen tapped against paper. "I thought about calling your mother to spell me later. Think she'd be all right with that?"
"Oh, yeah." Diane Maza had embraced her unlikely "daughter" with open arms, gargoyle or not. Every weekend she was in the Labyrinth with the clones, bringing food, books, and all a mother's protective love. Delilah was kin, whatever the circumstances of her birth, and Diane would fight as fiercely for her as for her own children.
Derek. "Just keep an eye out, partner. Talon's heading your way, and I'm not sure he's in the mood to be subtle."
"Got it. See you tonight, partner." The line clicked.
Elisa hung up. "Oh, boy."
"So it was Xanatos who sought to capture Delilah," Goliath rumbled.
"We don't know that yet." Elisa tucked the phone into her jacket. "Circumstantial evidence. Nothing we could get a warrant on."
"But it's a lead," Broadway pointed out.
And a better one than she'd had on a lot of cases. "Anyone want to drop in on the castle?"
Owen Burnett peered at the Eyrie security monitor, raised one blond brow. "It appears we have company, Mr. Xanatos."
Hands clasped behind his back, David Xanatos turned from the office window. "Invite some people over once, they never stop coming."
"Detective Maza is with them."
That drew the multi-billionaire's attention. "Really." He stepped over to the screen, studying the purple and green forms soaring toward Eyrie airspace. Angela, Broadway, and Goliath, with a slender, dark-haired human in his arms. No sign of the rest of the clan, which could mean they were otherwise occupied... or waiting in reserve.
"Shall we test the latest version of the security grid?"
"Not yet," Xanatos decided, straightening his suit. "If they just wanted to cause property damage, they wouldn't have the detective along." A subtle smile tugged at his lips. "She's incredibly moral that way." Unarmed, he strolled toward the courtyard.
"Detective Maza." He held his voice even, just loud enough to be heard over the leathery billow of landing gargoyles. "What a pleasant surprise."
"Cut the small talk, Xanatos." Elisa stood, lovely and annoyed as ever. Not nearly as lovely as Fox, of course; but then, no one was. "This isn't a social call."
"It never is," Xanatos said regretfully. A pity she didn't work for him; but then, Goliath wouldn't be nearly as much of a challenge without the detective's swift mind to back the clan leader up. And he needed that challenge, if Xanatos Enterprises was to stay one step ahead of the competition. Needed the honed edge that came only from life-or-death decisions, not electrons switching from one numbered account to the next.
Goliath's clan was useful. In more ways than one. "So what do you think I did this time?" He could think of any number of projects the clan might object to, if they knew about them. But he'd been careful to keep the bulk of those out of New York.
"Some of your men nearly slew Delilah this night," Goliath stated, eyes glowing lightly.
And I'm still in one piece, Xanatos thought. They must expect her to recover.
The trickle of relief was short-lived. Someone had attacked the hybrid. The only known human-gargoyle crossbreed in existence, possibly the finest work Sevarius had ever created.
And for once, it wasn't him.
"Owen," he said sharply. "Do we have any projects that would require Delilah?"
Notepad computer resting on his stone fist, the executive assistant leveled a cool gaze at angry gargoyles. "No, Mr. Xanatos."
"Or any researchers that might consider acquiring her?"
"None that have requested the necessary funds, or the personnel." A flicker of a smile ghosted over the fae's human features. "I assure you, if Xanatos Enterprises meant to capture Delilah, we would not have failed."
"Capture did not seem to be your men's intent." Goliath loomed, menacing as only a seven-foot-plus gargoyle could be.
For a moment, Xanatos wished for the red exosuit two floors down. But only for a moment. "Believe me, Goliath. If someone attacked Delilah, I want to know why just as much as you do. Because it wasn't me."
"Right, just some guy who worked for you." Broadway wasn't too bad at looming himself. Give him another decade, and he might match Detective Maza.
Xanatos let his gaze rest on the dark-eyed detective. "It's not in my best interest to antagonize your clan, Goliath. Oberon could change his mind at any time." Change his fickle, fae mind and come for Alex again, blasting aside everything in his path. The memory haunted his nightmares. "One gargoyle hybrid, interesting as she might be, isn't worth it."
Maza weighed him, eyes narrowed, hand straying near the left side of her jacket. He could see the hate there; low, quiet embers, that nevertheless fed a flame Oberon himself might shrink from. Pity she wasn't here that night, Xanatos thought, I'd like to see what Oberon would have done with bullets.
On second thought... maybe it was just as well she hadn't shown up. If the Lord of Avalon had struck Elisa down, Goliath would never have mustered the calm voice of reason that had swayed Oberon into relinquishing Titania's claim.
Elisa would never forgive him for what he'd done to her brother. But Detective Maza weighed the evidence, and gave Goliath her answer with a subtle shake of her head.
"Let's be off," the clan leader decided, turning away.
"But Goliath-" Broadway started.
Elisa shook her head more visibly. "He knows the evidence isn't anywhere we can find it."
"Or he's telling the truth."
Ah. Angela. All her mother's beauty, with none of the rage for vengeance that burned in Demona's gaze. "I am," Xanatos smiled. "If there's anything I can do to help-"
The young female's eyes glowed crimson. "She has help." Lip curled in a snarl, she launched herself from the battlements.
Her mother's beauty, and her father's short fuse. "Well," Xanatos said softly, watching gargoyles ride the wind. "That was interesting." He cocked an eyebrow at Owen. "She has help?"
His assistant was busily punching keys. "Staten Island police responded to an emergency call from Morvan Pier. Involving a helicopter." A blond brow lifted. "Detective Bluestone took interviews from the witnesses."
"Morvan Pier?" It took a second for the address to click. One he'd sent a moderately large, safely anonymous check to, not that long ago. Of all the places for a distressed gargoyle to land... "I take it Dr. Tatopoulos was to home."
"With company." Owen adjusted his glasses. "Very large company."
Xanatos' eyes narrowed, taking in that hint of nervousness. Owen had never said one way or the other, but he'd long suspected there were a few creatures on this planet even one of Oberon's Children might find too much to handle.
As long as he lived, Xanatos would never forget the morning the first Godzilla had stomped into Manhattan. He'd been working at his office desk, catching up on subordinates' reports after seeing the mutates settled for the day. It'd been an ordinary, gray, rainy New York day, nothing more interesting on the news than the holdup of a Korean shopkeeper.
And then... his coffee had rippled.
He'd had the Eyrie Building designed with fire, flood, earthquakes, and gargoyles in mind. Nothing short of a major tremor should so much as rattle the office windows.
Yet his coffee trembled, like rainwater next to a passing freight train. With a feeling of impending doom, he stood-
Just in time to see fishing trawlers scattered like toy boats, shaken off by a scaled form a hundred times as massive as the entire Wyvern Clan put together.
"Owen," he'd managed, as the creature stalked out of view amongst the skyscrapers.
Efficient as ever, the fae stood behind him. "Yes, Mr. Xanatos."
"Demona." It was the first thing that came to mind after he and Goliath had broken her petrifying curse on Manhattan. No one else he knew of could envision such terrifying destruction.
"Unlikely." Burnett peered out the window, as if he could still see the creature. And for all Xanatos knew, he could. "That creature owes its creation to science, not magic."
Meaning... there'd be no easy counterspell to this disaster. "Cancel my calls."
Tonight, standing on the castle battlements, Xanatos considered the itinerant Dr. Niko Tatopoulos. After he'd heard Ms. Timmonds' report he'd intended to hire the young biologist. Anyone who could evade the U. S. Army, nearly two hundred young Godzillae, and the creature itself could only be an asset to Xanatos Enterprises. Certainly, he might have leaked classified information to the press... but there were ways to ensure that didn't happen twice.
But Dr. Tatopoulos had been wrapped up with the military, combing the ruins of Madison Square Garden and Penn Station for any trace of Godzilla's nest. Major Hicks had been a roadblock even Owen couldn't get around.
So Xanatos had decided to wait. A few hours, even a few weeks, couldn't make that much difference. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission didn't look kindly on those who breached security. Once the cleanup was over, Tatopoulos was out of a job.
Who'd have thought anything could have survived a missile strike? the multi-billionaire thought ruefully.
Not his first miscalculation. Probably not his last. But certainly one of the biggest.
News reports of the second Godzilla's destruction in New York Harbor hadn't mentioned Tatopoulos. But Owen had no trouble locating the name on the Staten Island property deed. Cross-reference that with known purchases of fish, and you had one mutation specialist taking care of a very large specimen.
Brains, daring, and a definite disregard for the law. A perfect candidate for his research division. Rubbing his hands in glee, Xanatos had once more attempted to corral Tatopoulos.
Only to find the man gone. To Jamaica, of all places.
New York. The Pacific. The Atlantic. The North Pole. The South Pole. Mexico, Scotland, Japan. Tatopoulos' wayward team of scientists was everywhere and anywhere, harder to pin down than Puck on Midsummer's Eve. And when they were in town... well, so was Ms. Dupres.
After the fourth person Xanatos had sent to hand-carry a job offer to Tatopoulos had ended up stuffed in a dumpster, he'd quit. Xanatos Enterprises might have a larger income than most countries. But he was not about to start a war with France.
So now H.E.A.T. crisscrossed the globe, hunting mutations with the aid of Godzilla's sole surviving offspring. And Xanatos' chief insurance agent had finally come down off the ledge, after handing in his report on just how much a thirty-story lizard would add to the Eyrie Building's already-astronomical rates.
Not worth it, Xanatos decided, a slight smile on his face. Besides... Tatopoulos makes such a good distraction for Winter. It'd be a shame to rob him of the diversion.
Especially since Solstice Technologies was one of the few real competitors Xanatos Enterprises had. Though Nightstone Unlimited was getting there. No; an independent Tatopoulos was far more helpful than yet another scientist on his payroll.
If he'd had time to plan it, Xanatos might have arranged to lure Godzilla near the Eyrie Building before Oberon attacked. A nine hundred foot humanoid would have set off every territorial instinct the beast possessed. But H.E.A.T. had been out of town, chasing mutant scorpions in Arizona. And where the team went, Godzilla followed.
Or rather, where Dr. Tatopoulos goes, Xanatos thought. Now, there was a tantalizing mystery. From the information his research departments had gathered, if the biologist was in danger, the mutation would never be far away. Yet no one - not scientists, not the military, not even Owen - seemed to know how.
H.E.A.T. might know. But they weren't telling.
Xanatos tapped his fingertips together. "I don't believe the good doctors are experts in gargoyle physiology."
"Shall we have Spiker ensure they have not made any unfortunate mistakes?"
Xanatos smiled. "An excellent idea, Owen."
"...We had to retune Nigel's chemosensors, and it took forever!" Mendel waved a hand in the air. "But Elsie figured out there had to be chlorophyll in the mix from the hydra's symbiotic algae, and once we filtered that out, the magnesium compounds were clear."
"So you can detect the - the compounds a creature leaves behind?" Delilah was sitting up now, wearing a blue hospital smock; Elsie and Monique had shooed out the males while they went to work with scissors and duct tape.
"Detect, analyze, and track," Dr. Craven said, stretching his arms with justifiable pride. "Sometimes we can synthesize, too, but that's more Elsie and Nick's field."
One cocoa talon tapped against her lips. "Have you thought about using these devices for police investigations?"
"We've adapted some of them from forensic research," Mendel admitted. "But mutations are fairly chemically distinct. Telling Godzilla from a giant king cobra is one thing. Telling humans apart... the equipment just isn't sensitive enough." He sat up. "You have an interest in the field?"
"I like detective stories. The Three Investigators, finding fingerprints on soda glasses..." The white head ducked, as much as the brace would allow. "I don't read very well yet."
Mendel leaned forward in his chair. "Is Detective Maza teaching you."'
A wistful smile. "She works nights." Delilah shook off the gloom. "Diane teaches me. She says I have a - seventh grade reading level. But I'm better than Brentwood." A fanged grin. "He still tries to eat the books, sometimes."
"Maybe we could borrow some of Randy's comic books," the roboticist suggested. "If you like shape-shifting, fireball-throwing characters in skimpy outfits."
Dark eyes went wide. "Like Oberon's Children?"
Mendel blinked. "Who?"
"Oberon's Children. The elf-folk. Anansi, the trickster spider; did you know Diane met him?"
"Spider?" Mendel paled. "This wouldn't happen to be a giant spider, would it?"
Talons patted his hand. "Don't worry, this is a good story." The alien planes of her face were alight with wonder. "And it has a happy ending..."
"So do you do this often?" Detective Bluestone asked in an undertone, leaning back against a counter. "You know, provide first aid for unknown creatures falling on your roof?"
"She doesn't seem to be unknown to you," Nick observed, keeping his voice low so they didn't disturb Delilah. Or Mendel, who was sprawled in a chair by their patient. So he could keep an eye on the splint, he'd said. Nick might have believed him, if the roboticist hadn't turned red as a tomato.
Elsie had chuckled, but had given Craven a friendly tap on the shoulder before heading downstairs to a spare cot. Randy was currently sacked out on the couch, having finally talked his way out of the brunette officer's cuffs. The team was taking the rest of the evening in shifts, just in case their visitor's health took an unexpected downturn before sunrise.
Shifts, right, Nick thought wryly. At least somebody'll get some sleep tonight.
He was the mutation specialist, after all. If something went wrong, he'd have the best chance of figuring it out. Especially since Detective Bluestone was determined to be pleasantly vague.
"Well, you know," Bluestone shrugged. "We get all kinds in New York."
"He has no intention of answering us truthfully," Monique stated quietly. Another person who wasn't planning to sleep tonight.
"He's a cop, Monique." The biologist studied the redhead's carefully nonchalant attitude. "I'm sure he has his reasons."
"Reasons which threaten the security of this facility. It is not tolerable." A nutcracker clicked ominously in her hand.
"We don't need that kind of trouble," Nick said firmly.
The French agent frowned, touching her jacket pocket. "As you say." Gathering up her rifle, she headed for the roof outside.
Nick watched her go. That was suspiciously easy.
"Nervous?" Bluestone's voice broke into his thoughts.
"Not usually," Nick answered absently, juggling facts in his head. Monique, rifle, roof...
Randy's console bleeped. A red light started spinning madly, and below he heard Nigel squeak across the concrete floor. "She canna take much more of this, Captain! Back off or she'll blow!"
Mendel started. "Scotty?"
"A hacker," Nick swore, punching keys. The main database was up and active, and none of the methods he knew were shutting it down. "Someone's trying to get into our files. Get Randy-"
"Right behind you, jefe." Hair rumpled, Randy slid into the chair. "Somebody's going to be eating fried circuits tonight."
Matt made a move toward the young hacker, stopping short when Nick's gaze fixed on him. "If anything you do is illegal-"
"We have classified data here," the biologist said tightly. Information on scores of mutations; causes, powers, vulnerabilities. Not to mention the Leviathan aliens - and Godzilla. "If they're in the database at all, they've broken the law." He gripped his friend's shoulder. "Do it."
Dark hands were already flying over the keyboard, and a confidant smile lingered on Randy's lips. "Never fear, Cyber Stud is here!" Dark brows waggled. "Anyone trying to slip one past us is going to wish they'd never picked up a UNIX manual."
"So we're looking at information on Delilah?" Brooklyn hovered over his rookery brother's shoulder, tail twitching as he frowned at the glowing screen.
"Well, we will be," Lexington said, half-wishing the clan's second in command had left with the others. Hudson was more interested in the Monster Marathon than computers, but Brooklyn knew just enough to make annoying suggestions. "They've got a lot of security - hey!"
Parts of the screen were going blank, files disappearing from his computer's access. "I take it that's not good," Brooklyn observed.
"That's not an automatic system," the small gargoyle said grimly. "Somebody's awake over there."
The red beak curled in a frown. "Can you beat him?"
Lex snorted. "Are you kidding? What do humans know about hacking?"
"Whoa, dude!" The young redhead currently abusing a Xanatos Enterprises keyboard shook her head, earrings jangling. "Serious company, here."
Owen stood behind the annoying human known as Spiker, one blond brow slightly tipped. "Someone else is attempting to access the files?"
"And they're good, man." Tattooed knuckles cracked. "But I'm better."
"Oh no," Randy murmured under his breath, calling up encryption programs that had stopped Cameron Winter cold in his tracks. Monique had helped him put these together, adding fillips not seen outside the French Secret Service. "You do not do that to me, man."
Two hackers. Both wanting into his system. Both stomping on the G-man's turf.
Both about to get fried.
Teeth bared in unconscious imitation of H.E.A.T.'s resident lizard, Randy launched a counterattack.
"Not much of a place," Talon muttered, landing lightly on the fire-scarred roof. Delilah's scent was faint, fading as the blood dried. Elisa's and Bluestone's were fresher, tracking a search pattern across the scene.
The wreck of twisted metal told him all he needed to know. One door gaped wide, the light haze of the city shining through a massive puncture in steel alloys. Fire Rescue had been and gone, leaving the snapped-off rotor buried blade-down in asphalt.
Wasn't much to hear. Wind, a stray gull calling in the dark before dawn, distant traffic. A tugboat's horn haunted the night, echoing off the water.
"Mains en l'air." Cold. Dispassionate. Behind him. "Hands up."
Fangs bared, he turned on the small woman, ignoring the rifle in her grip. "Where's Delilah?"
Not so much as a flinch in dark eyes. "You are trespassing." The safety was definitely off. "Leave."
"I don't think so!" Snarling, he loosed lightning.
"Look, let me deal with this," Matt argued, trying to block the roof door.
"Detective, if it was something a cop could handle, Monique would've been back already," Nick stated, slipping past the taller man with an agility born of dodging large chunks of concrete. The trank gun was a familiar weight in his arms; if a rifle wasn't denting it, tranquilizer gas might slow it down.
"I'm sure she's good, but-"
Electricity crackled, lighting the night. A particle beam sliced green through the darkness, searing a hole through a black-furred membrane. A nightmare figure roared, panther eyes gleaming.
"The next shot will not be a warning!" Monique snarled, crouched low in a corner of the roof. "Leave. Now!"
"Think you can get lucky twice-" the humanoid growled, hands glowing blue.
"Talon!" Matt rushed into Nick's line of fire. "Look. I'm sure this is just a misunderstanding..."
Talon? Nick thought, catching Monique's gaze. Bluestone knows it... him. "Electric?" he mouthed at the agent.
A sharp nod. Monique gestured at her hands.
Hang on, Nick signaled the agent, laying down the trank gun. Swift and silent, he ran for the door.
"What's going on out there?" Mendel wanted to know as he dashed past.
"Winged humanoid panther throwing bolts of electricity," Nick replied, yanking equipment out of lab drawers. Randy was still swearing at the computer screen, punching keys like a man possessed. "Bluestone's trying to talk it down. Where's the electrical cable?"
"Talon," Delilah sighed, struggling to rise. "He never listens."
"You should stay put." Mendel put a hand on her shoulder, gesturing across the room to the dangling roll of black wire. "We can handle this." Worried eyes slid to Nick. "Right?"
The biologist gave them a quick smile. "Let's catch a cat."
And I thought Elisa had the temper in that family, Matt thought, dodging another lightning-laced punch. Those claws were way too close for comfort. "Talon - Derek - will you just listen a minute?"
"Get clear!" He could feel Monique lining up the shot.
"No shooting!" The detective's attention wavered toward the agent.
Blinking spots out of his eyes, Matt touched his purpling cheekbone. Ow. His back felt cold; the roof, he realized, feeling grit through his trenchcoat. Funny, the world looked different when you were horizontal...
"And stay down!" Talon's lips lifted in a snarl as he glared at Monique. "As for you-"
Something slim and black whipped through the air. Monique released the rifle, let it slap against her side as she grabbed for the coppery end.
"Now!" Tatopoulos ordered. "Go, go, go!" Feet rushed past the groaning detective, and Matt heard three bodies pile on Talon.
"Think you can hold me-" Electricity crackled, and Talon roared.
Harsh, panting silence.
A hand hovered in front of Matt's face; Mendel, helping him to unsteady feet. "Are you all right?"
"Been better." Swaying, the detective looked down the roof. There was Nick, and Monique, one purple sleeve slightly singed...
And Talon, hog-tied with heavy-duty electrical cable.
"We've dealt with electrical mutations before," Mendel shrugged.
"How come I never thought of that," Bluestone muttered. He'd always wondered what the department would do if Fang got loose again.
The mutate yanked against his bonds, sank back with a hiss. "You can't hold me forever!"
"We don't want to." Nick hunkered down by Talon, out of range of any lunge. "This is private property. You don't belong here." He glanced toward Bluestone. "And we just happen to have a cop on the scene."
Uh-huh. Tatopoulos didn't believe it was a coincidence. Matt couldn't blame him.
Talon growled. "You son of a-"
"Hey! You leave our parents out of this," Mendel said indignantly, labcoat flapping in the wind. "The last thing Delilah needs is to come rushing out here because you couldn't hold your temper. Do you have any idea how hard it is to set a wing?"
"Tranquilizer," was Monique's flat suggestion.
"Everybody, just hold it!" Matt stepped in. "Talon. The door's over there. We can take you in to see Delilah."
Panther eyes glared at him. "You can take me in to get her out of here, Bluestone."
"That's not an option." Nick stood. "Talon. You can behave, or Monique can shoot you. Right now, I don't really care which." Turning on his heel, he left.
Matt rubbed off the feeling of frostbite. Hudson snarled like that sometimes, when human or fae stupidity rubbed the elderly gargoyle's nerves raw. But Hudson had talons and a sword to back it up...
And Tatopoulos has Godzilla.
"Brave guy," Talon snorted, tugging against the cable.
"Oui," Monique stated. "Mendel." She nodded at the slammed door. "I believe hot chocolate is in order."
The roboticist drew his labcoat tighter around him. "You think he's-"
Monique was gazing out at the dark water. "Calm would be advisable. For all of us."
"Got it." Mendel hastened after the biologist.
They want Tatopoulos to cool down, Matt realized, taking out his cell phone. Something about that seemed... odd.
But he couldn't put his finger on just what. "Hey, partner," Matt said, hearing the phone picked up. "Guess who's going to need a ride home?"
"He did what?" Elisa barely noticed their touchdown on the clocktower balcony, concentrating on her partner's voice.
"Is Matt all right?" Angela asked, wing-hands linking over her chest. "Talon isn't always careful when he fights."
"I'm okay. Think I'm going to have one heck of a shiner, though." Liquid poured in the background. "We came within a few inches of having fried cat."
Goliath's gaze narrowed. "He did invade their territory," the gargoyle admitted grudgingly. "But I do not countenance harm to one of my clan's kin."
"They gave him a chance to back off," Matt sighed. "He didn't take it." His voice lowered. "Look, it'd probably be better if you stayed clear. I took a better look around while I was out there. Monique wasn't just guessing."
Roof sensors, Elisa realized, half-listening to Lex punch computer keys as they walked down toward the TV. Sensors hidden well enough that they'd both missed them the first time around.
So they skimp on the paint, and max out on the security, the detective thought. Definitely not the head-in-the-clouds researchers they looked like.
"Yes!" came over Matt's phone; Hernandez' voice, as a chair squeaked backward. "And the crowd goes wild!"
"No!" Lex's agonized wail echoed through the room. "How did he - you can't do that!"
Elisa's gaze jerked to the computer screen, where an animated Godzilla head was currently munching its way through various windows. "Ah, Matt..."
A slurp. "Was that Lex?"
"How'd you guess?"
A synthesized roar echoed from Lex's speakers. "Cop intuition," Matt said dryly.
"Just a human, hunh?" Brooklyn folded his arms.
Snarling, the web-winged gargoyle yanked the modem cord from the wall.
"Busted!" Spiker moaned, seeing massive teeth munch through her screen. A puff of breath blew green-tipped bangs out of her eyes. "Who is this dude?"
Owen adjusted his glasses. "I believe his name is Randy Hernandez."
Spiker turned a horrified gaze on him. "The Cyber Stud?" She blanched even whiter than her Goth makeup. "Man, why didn't you say so? I was using C-4 when I should've been using nukes!"
The fae frowned. "And now that you know what you should use..."
"No way, dude." A vigorous headshake set earrings jangling. "He'd see me coming f'sure. Access from this address just got cut off cold."
Pale eyes narrowed. "And if Mr. Xanatos requires you to try again?"
Spiker snorted. "Then his ten-million-dollar network is going to be ten-cent pieces of junk." She jabbed a thumb at the munching maw. "Image overwriter. Give it ten minutes, an hour maybe, it'll be gone. Next time, it'll be a virus." A shudder. "An' you don't want to know what the Cyber Stud can do with a virus."
"You want to tell me what you thought you were doing?"
Talon hunched low in Elisa's passenger seat as they drove over the Brooklyn Bridge, Matt's trenchcoat hiding his fur from passing eyes in the darkness before dawn. "And what if it was Angela in there?"
"Then I'd be there." She let an idiot in a red Camero pass. With any luck, the speed trap at the end of the bridge would grab him. "But if someone told me it wasn't safe to move her, I'd at least give them the benefit of the doubt."
A low growl. "I tried asking nicely."
Uh-huh. Right. "Derek, you landed on the roof of people who have large, mutated monsters trying to eat them on a monthly basis, who'd already been shot at once tonight." She tried to stomp down her frustration. "What did you think they would do?"
Sullen silence. Elisa sighed. Act first, think later. It might make for a good helicopter pilot, but as a cop, it stunk.
And as a clan leader, it's dangerous. Maggie had mentioned Talon's little visit to Xanatos while she and Goliath had been on Avalon's trip. Small potatoes, next to Fang's uprising; at least, that's what the mutates thought.
The cop in her shivered at the possibilities. Xanatos could've taken the whole clan, then and there. If he'd wanted to. And while Hudson wasn't nearly as decrepit as he sometimes believed, he and Maggie wouldn't have been enough to break them free.
Dammit, Derek! You chose to be a clan leader. People are depending on you. Which means you've got to think.
But he wouldn't hear that. Not from his older sister. "You want me to drop you off at Mom and Dad's?"
Me big, tough mutate, Elisa thought dryly, heading north. Me not afraid of muggers in alley.
Good thing it wasn't H.E.A.T. in the alley. The sight of her snarling brother trussed like a turkey was going to stay with her a long, long time. Matt had bit his lip to hold back the snickers, in between holding an icepack to his cheek and taking notes from Craven on just what they'd jury-rigged to stop a mutate cold. "I'm going to stop there anyway. Mom's got some extra clothes for Delilah."
"She doesn't need to know."
All right, enough was enough. Spotting a dead end, Elisa pulled over. "Out."
Talon's ears flattened. "Elisa-"
"No." The detective folded her arms. "I didn't tell them when you ran into Sevarius." But I should have. "I'm not leaving them in the dark about Delilah."
Melor rubbed weary eyes, feeling the oncoming dawn. "I can't find her, Magister. There's too much interference."
"With that much iron nearby, I doubt I could find you without help." Comforting knuckles brushed his brow ridge. "But we know where she is not."
The gargoyle mage nodded. "She's not in her protectorate."
"And we know she'll return there. She has to; her people are in danger."
"Danger we cause." The gray gargoyle stepped through the shimmering portal to the surface. The first thin light before dawn faded the stars, turned the night sky pale and lifeless.
"As we must." The Magister was close on his heels, scanning the ramparts of Belvedere Castle for any watching eyes. "Oberon has gathered his Children from the far corners of the globe. Humans have forgotten the old magics, and most of your kind are dead and dust. When the Elf-King comes, neither humans nor gargoyles will have any defense." Bleak anger flitted across his thin face. "And he will come."
Wings spread, Melor glanced back over his shoulder. "We'll be ready."
"I pray we will." The mage stepped aside as his foster son prepared to meet the dawn. "Until nightfall, my own."
Gray flesh turned to granite, and the mage shrugged on his overcoat. This night's work was done, but the man this age knew as Sacheverell Keyes still had a bookshop to run.
Time, the Magister thought, feeling the dregs of another night slip away. We're running out of time.
Avalon's time ran slower than the mortal world. But even with only one hour to every mortal day, the fae would soon tire of their isle's delights. And they had not forgotten the twisted joy of toying with mortal lives... even if most mortals had forgotten them.
Science. The Magister's lip curled. The mobs place their faith in that, when true power flows about them unseen.
As it ever had been. But no matter. When Oberon came, human science would fall, as it must. And he would have the mages to protect the last remnants of natural magic, human and gargoyle alike.
Whatever the cost.
The older woman smiled and shook Elsie's hand. "Please, call me Diane. You must be Dr. Chapman."
"Elsie," the paleontologist allowed, leading the way into the living area. "The guy sacked out on the cot is Mendel, Randy's on the couch, our fearless leader's tucked in back there," she waved toward Nick's bedroom. "And Monique's around. Somewhere."
A quiet chuckle. "Who's on the couch?"
Elsie look a second look. No Randy. "One of these days, I'm going to nail his sneakers to the floor."
"Oooh, kinky." Hernandez stepped off the ladder, dreadlocks bouncing. "Can I help you with those, Mrs. M?"
Diane passed over a tote bag. "Yes, you certainly may." She eyed the steel ladder. "Is the elevator out?"
Elsie shrugged. "No. It's just - noisy." Her gaze sought Randy's.
A slight nod. "Nick's a light sleeper," the young hacker picked up the thread. "Don't want him throwing pillows at us to keep it down."
Usually he wouldn't even throw that. But late nights tended to thin Nick's shields. And given they were home, in what Nick regarded as his territory...
Oh, it's nothing, ma'am, Elsie thought, grabbing a rung. Just a little territorial instincts leaking through.
Echoes of predatory agressiveness, was the phrase in Dr. Chapman's notes; notes that would never make it into any scientific literature. They studied the link - they had to, for Nick's sake - but none of H.E.A.T. would ever publish.
Maybe only another scientist could understand that sacrifice. To have something so rare, and not trumpet it to the world. Her peers would no more conceal this find than Audrey would sit on a story about Godzilla.
Good thing Monique only talks to Phillipe, and LaRoache doesn't talk to anyone, Elsie thought darkly, strangling steel. Or some government would have Nick faster than you can say "experimental test subject".
Even so, it'd been touch and go for a few months. After Nick's link with Godzilla became conscious, the biologist had been terrified that the alien emotions would overwhelm him, would make him something other than the quiet, gentle scientist he'd always tried to be. And she couldn't tell him otherwise. How could she? She'd only met him a few days before Godzilla had imprinted.
A long talk with Randy had filled in some of the gaps. Yes, Nick was different from the shy biologist the hacker had known. Fiercer. More determined. And far more likely to walk through anything that stood in his way... especially when it came to protecting Godzilla.
The Nick Tatopoulos Randy had known avoided people. Audrey had left him without a word, and Cameron Winter had done his best to make Nick's college career sheer hell; assuming he'd ever had any confidence in people, they'd shaken it badly. So Nick sat in the lab and studied radioactive creatures, or went on solitary excursions into Chernobyl and other hazardous places to find new specimens. Anywhere he could help people without actually dealing with the risk of trusting another person.
Her Nick chased monsters. Crashed barricades. Casually broke into secure, classified, or fortified locations, perfectly aware that people would be shooting at him, in order to save the world.
And if one of the team went missing, he'd turn the world upside down to find them.
If that was Godzilla... she wouldn't have him any other way.
A hand tapped the side of her leg. "I think this is the top."
"Sorry." Elsie stepped off onto the lab level. Diane's shoes seemed incredibly loud after listening for Randy's sneakers, or Monique's noiseless stride. "Lose a little sleep and I'm almost as bad as Mendel."
Spotting a rare flat surface uncluttered with files or equipment, Diane put down her tote bag. "Long night?"
"On top of too many long days," Elsie affirmed, helping her unpack. "I don't think any of us have slept two nights in the same place this week."
"Unless you count the H.E.A.T. Seeker," Randy added. "Anybody up for a grocery run? We could use some stuff that's not freeze-dried."
"I think Nick's going later." Elsie checked the freezer, looking over the list of perishables. S.O.P. was to load everything that wouldn't last a week onto the boat before they left. It made for some interesting meals in the galley, but it did keep the fridge clean-outs to a minimum.
Spotting gray stone, Diane strode across the 1ab. "There you are," she said softly, stroking marbled hair. She studied the jury-rigged rods and clamps splinting Delilah's wing. "You did this?"
"Mendel came up with the clamps." Elsie gazed at the crouched creature, weariness washed away by a wave of fascination. She'd seen dawn sunlight touch Delilah, watched her drift into sleep - then turn gray and solid as granite. "It's not stone, you know." The paleontologist touched a raised ridge that had been duct tape. "We couldn't take any samples, but with Raman microscopy... the light spectrum's all wrong for silicon. It's carbon-based."
"What, like graphite?" Randy asked.
"A little more like lignite, or jet," Elsie answered, thinking back on her puzzling, intriguing results. "Not as organized as diamonds, but it's definitely a crystalline matrix."
With a final pat, Diane stood. "Thank you."
Randy blinked. "Uh, sure. What for?"
"For taking care of our... adoptive daughter." Diane laid out a fresh tunic. "Delilah's precious to us. Not quite what we expected Elisa to bring home... but then, you can never be sure what Elisa will bring home."
Elsie chuckled. "You should trade notes with Nick. He never planned to bring home a lizard." She picked up Nick's notepad, covered with questions they'd thought of during their long vigil. "Ma'am-"
"Diane," the older woman insisted.
"We ran a few tests while Delilah was still awake," Dr. Chapman forged on. "She's not radioactive. There's nothing mutagenic in her system. We couldn't find any evidence of unusual energy emissions, or toxic exudates, or anything out of the ordinary for a large mammal." She frowned. "Though some of the physiological characteristics are closer to the mammal-like reptiles. And the hexapodal aspect..." Elsie shook her head. They weren't going to mention Talon. Not yet. One mutation on their doorstep was coincidence. Two, both intelligent, both phenotypically and genetically distinct... you didn't have to be Monique to realize something was up.
"Anyway. We know you've kept her a secret for almost a year, and if I know Nick, he has no intention of changing that." Elsie put down the pad. "But we have to ask. Is she dangerous?"
Sighing, Diane sat down. "She's a child, Dr. Chapman. Fully grown, and of course she can be dangerous... but a child. My child." Dark eyes came to a decision. "Have you heard of Anton Sevarius?"
Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork, Elisa groaned silently, putting the last piece aside. She resisted the urge to pound her head against the desk.
"In early, Detective?"
Maza dredged up a smile. "Morgan. Hi." She waved a hand at the unruly stack. "You know how it is. Stumble on a crime scene outside your precinct, they want everything in triplicate."
The uniformed officer chuckled. "Heard you did a bit more than stumble on it. Morvan Pier!" He whistled. "Now, that's one beat I wouldn't take on a bet."
"You've got the Eyrie Building," Elisa pointed out, snapping her computer off.
"Hey, it may get weird, but at least it doesn't step on you." Morgan's glance shot toward the back of her chair. "Your jacket's ringing."
Gaah - with all the paperwork, she hadn't even noticed the phone. "Maza," she sighed, flipping it open.
A chuckle. "Is that any way to greet your favorite mother?"
The day felt better already. "You're my only mother, Mom." Elisa leaned back. "What's up?"
"Did Derek tell you anything about why Delilah was out of the Labyrinth?"
The detective snorted. "What do you think?"
"I was afraid of that." Paper rustled. "I'm getting this third-hand, and you might want to drop by this evening for details. But according to what Mendel took down, Delilah was looking for clues."
A shiver ran down Elisa's spine. Delilah might be a fierce fighter, but she was still too young to realize how much trouble she could get herself into. "Why?"
"She thinks people in the Labyrinth have gone missing."
Derek, you are toast, the detective thought. "Okay. Tell me."
A pencil tapped against paper. "Apparently there's been some kind of illness working its way through down there. Headaches, fever, exhaustion. Just another cold... or that's what Derek and Maggie kept telling her."
A reasonable explanation. The Labyrinth had sources of clean water, and most of the denizens tried to maintain reasonable standards of hygiene. Still, the underground rooms were clammy, and even the best stoves sometimes didn't take the edge off the chill. "But?"
"People who'd already been sick were getting sick again. So she started keeping track. Did you give her this notebook?"
The detective shrugged, uncomfortable. "All the old TV cops have them. I thought she could practice her writing."
"Writing, map-drawing, and interviewing, it looks like," Diane affirmed. "Everything from 'what did you eat' to 'who did you talk to'. But it looks like after a few chats, she figured out she ought to ask where they were when they started feeling sick."
Oh, she really didn't like where this was heading. "And?"
"Hang on, I'm handing you off to Elsie."
Elsie? Detective Maza raised an eyebrow. Not Dr. Chapman? Mom must really like it over there.
A rattle on the phone. "Detective?" The redhead's voice was brisk, like a beat cop's on the scene of a burglary. "I'm not an epidemiologist, but based on the data, this looks like a localized phenomenon. She's got it narrowed down to one area on her map."
Elisa grimaced. "You don't think it's just a cold."
"Given that as far as Delilah could tell, people who don't go that way don't get sick? I doubt it." The paleontologist sighed. "Look. Diane told us Derek's group likes their privacy, but I don't like the sound of this. The conditions she described sound perfect for a fungal infestation, and that can kill people if it goes on long enough."
And Delilah thought people were missing. The hybrid was young. She wasn't stupid. "If it is, what can we do about it?"
"Find out what's there," Dr. Chapman said briskly. "Go in with protective gear, seal off the affected area, and treat anyone who's been near it. Move fast; some of these fungi are carcinogenic, and it sounds like you've got enough problems down there."
Derek was going to kill her. But... H.E.A.T. was here, and her mother wouldn't have shown them Delilah's notebook if she didn't trust them. "Can you help?"
A pause. "Usually we handle things a few stories taller," came the dry reply. "We can do an environmental survey. Find out what it is, if it's not viral. If we come up dry, you're going to have to call in real doctors." A murmur in the background. "Diane says she was going down there tonight anyway, to meet... Hudson?"
Elisa blinked. Hudson, going down to see the Clones? Goliath had given her the impression that the clan thought of Thailog's creations the same way he thought of their deceased master; abominations, thieves of their face and form.
But she wasn't about to look a gift gargoyle in the mouth. Derek hadn't taken Tatopoulos' little snare calmly. If her mother was planning to bring H.E.A.T. down to the tunnels... they could use a level head. "I'll tell him."
"You're going where?" Lexington blurted, shaking off a stray shard of skin.
"I know ye have no love for 'em." The elderly gargoyle turned to the clan leader. "But are we t' let more gargoyles be led into Demona's way; to care for none, save their own hides, since none cared for them? 'Tis not their fault they are what they are."
Stepping down from his perch, Goliath sighed. "You must do as you think best, old friend. But take Bronx with you."
Hudson raised a brow ridge, sunset's last colors painting his gray mane. "It's Elisa's mother I'm meeting, not an army."
"My Mom, and H.E.A.T.," the darkhaired detective pointed out. "I wouldn't take on that bunch without backup."
The clockface door creaked, and the clan tensed; settled back, seeing a bruised redhead step through. "What about backup, partner?"
Elisa ran through the sketchy details; possible missing persons, possible danger. "I don't want to bring them in on this," she finished, frustrated. "But unless you can think of someone else who can keep quiet about the mutates..."
Matt gave her a lopsided smile. "Relax, partner. I did some checking - of the old-fashioned kind," he added, glancing at Lexington. "Tatopoulos and his team are about as straight-arrow as they come. I grant you they've got a list of charges from here to Fifth Avenue, but those are all property destruction."
"Caused by a certain thirty-story lizard?" Elisa raised an eyebrow.
"Ahh... no," Matt confessed. "About a year ago they broke into a lab on Long Island. Totally trashed it and about twelve years of the owner's research." The redhead rubbed the base of his neck. "Seems that Dr. Jonathon Insley had about two hundred genetically engineered, man-eating creatures ready to hatch. H.E.A.T. just happened to get there while a particle beam rifle could still take them out."
"Good fortune?" Goliath scowled.
"They said they got an anonymous tip." Matt looked just as unconvinced. "After the autopsies, the state dropped the charges."
Elisa put her fists on her hips. "Honest, but not law-abiding."
Matt nodded. "Word is, they worry about lives first, lawsuits later. Keeps their lawyer busy."
"They'll aid, or they'll hinder," Hudson said decisively, picking up the blue beast. "Ne'er you worry, lass. Your mother's no fool."
Elisa laid a hand on his shoulder. "Be careful."
"And when am I not?" Hudson gave her a knowing smile. "I've met dragonslayers afore." With a snap of wings, he launched into the night.
"Godzilla's not a-" The words sank in. "He has?"
Goliath nodded. "Once, years before I was hatched. Sadiq ibn Ajmal ibn Fahdlan, he named himself." The clan leader looked distant, recalling times over a millennium gone. "A slight man, no more than your height, but match for any of our kind in courage."
Dragonslayer. Elisa drew a deep breath. Gargoyles, Arthur, Oberon's Children... somehow, none of them hit home like this. Not a legend, not a myth; just one flesh and blood man against a creature of nightmare.
I wonder if he felt like me?
Matt mouthed the name. "Sounds - Arabic. What was he doing in Scotland?"
"Running," Brooklyn said bluntly. Brick-red talons spread, offering the words. "At least, that's what Hudson always said."
Angela leaned forward. "I haven't heard this story."
"You gotta hear Hudson tell it. It's a good one." Broadway leaned on the stone railing. "Y'see, there was this mage over in Brittany who had a protection racket going with a dragon. He got a slice of the treasure, the dragon got advance notice of any dragonslayers coming his way."
"Since the Magister was one of the high nobles, he knew exactly what trade caravans were coming through," Lexington went on. "You paid up or you got fried."
"But Princess Rozenn grew suspicious, and set out to hire a man the Magister would not know," Goliath continued the tale. "She had heard of a human who defeated a fire-wyrm in the North, and sent to him asking for aid. He himself could not come... but one of his clan did." The gargoyle almost smiled. "A man of the East, of perfumes and kohl, bearing silks and kaffe to trade. The Magister never suspected him."
"Long story short, Sadiq took out the dragon, but the scum the Magister was working with almost took him out," Brooklyn summed up. "Only reason he made it out alive was he jumped his horse onto an outbound ship about that far ahead of the guards' arrows." The red gargoyle held thumb and taloned finger about two inches apart. "Sadiq bounced around the coast for a while, finally ended up at Wyvern Hill. He thought he'd lost the Magister on the English border. Year later, turned out he hadn't."
Matt whistled. "So what happened?"
"We... do not know," Goliath admitted, wings rustling. "Hudson will only say that Sadiq defeated the Magister, and departed with his mate for lands he knew."
"Married a local girl?" Matt grinned. "Lucky guy."
"Defeated?" Elisa asked, more worried about what hadn't been said. Mages had a habit of turning up when you least expected. "As in killed."
Goliath frowned. "The Magister was powerful in magic; far more skilled than the Magus. Sadiq did not have the chance to slay him."
"So you don't even know if they made it," Angela said softly.
Her father shook his head. "It is one of Hudson's griefs. He saw Sadiq as a friend, and he knew his mate well." Goliath sighed. "I would we could have known."
"You brought them down here?"
Bronx at his side, Hudson strode through the dim concrete tunnels of the Labyrinth, nodding to stray inhabitants as he passed. There was caution in the faces here, and little true friendliness... but it was no worse than Castle Wyvern. Talon, Talon, the elder thought, heading toward the low growl. When will ye learn? A true leader doesna let pride o'errule what's best for his clan.
"There is something wrong." Delilah's voice; so like Elisa's, the poor lass. "Can't they just look?"
"Delilah," Maggie soothed, tawny hand brushing white hair off the youngling's horns. Now Hudson could see Diane by some sort of yellow contraption, though Talon's height blocked the strangers from view. "It's just a cold. And people... leave here all the time. It's nothing to worry about."
"If that's the case, then we won't find anything, and we'll leave."
Hudson stopped cold in his tracks, heart drumming in his ears. That voice...
The last rays of sunset faded out of Scotland's sky; a startled horse's neigh rang in his ears. The young second-in-command of the Wyvern Clan snarled at the slim, gray stallion, watched its blackrobed rider reach over his shoulder for his strange, curved sword-
And stop, eyeing the gathered might of the clan. "I am Sadiq ibn Ajmal ibn Fahdlan," the human said, weariness heavy in his voice. Gaelic rolled off his tongue, smoky with the air of foreign lands. Smaller than a Scot, far smaller than a gargoyle, he held the reins with one fire-scarred hand. A woven band of jet and silver beads bound a black scarf over short brown hair, a golden dragon clasped his shadow-gray cloak, and dark ring-mail glistened in the twilight. Jet and carmine beads decked his steed's harness; a beast far slighter than Scottish mounts, with wise, wide eyes. "I came to this place in search of rest and shelter; I did not know any others dwelled here..."
"If there's going to be a problem, we'll leave."
Hudson shook away the memory. No; 'twas not Sadiq. The slayer had barely three words of English. And even if he did, the man Hudson knew was surely dead and dust. Near eleven hundred years, after all...
"Not before you check," Diane said decisively. She held up one warning finger. "You live down here too, Derek."
Panther ears flattened anyway. "They don't belong down here."
"Believe me, I wouldn't want to." A rather timid blond human; he seemed to be hiding behind Delilah.
Purple and black stepped into view; a slender, night-haired woman in shirt and jacket that left her midriff bare as any sister of the clans. A warrior in leather and cotton, dark gaze cool and calculating. "Hold fast."
Elisa's stubbornness hardened Diane's eyes, "Derek-" She stood on tiptoe, whispered words even gargoyle ears couldn't make out. Something about - baby pictures?
The mutate's fur stood on end. "You wouldn't!"
Diane cocked her head, hands on her hips. "Try me."
Maggie raised a hand to her mouth, covering a fanged smile. "Could I see those sometime?"
"Of course you can, dear." Diane smiled. "They're part of the family photo album, after all."
"Mom?" Hudson moved into view in time to see a dark young man blink, braided hair dangling over a blue jacket. "And I thought my family tree looked funky."
A bony redhead smirked, smoothing her green sweatshirt. "Before or after you shook the arcade games out?"
Bronx sniffed the air. "Aroo?" Blue ears perked up, and the gargoyle beast took off at a run.
"Bronx!" Hudson called, as the panting beast dodged furry legs. "Nae leapin' on the guests, ye great lump-"
"Yuck." A bare breath, in that same too-familiar tone. "Um. Good dog. Or - whatever. Ah..."
The redhead bent down, watching Bronx happily lick away at someone in green and brown. "First time I saw a dog that actually liked you." She studied the horny ridges, the short, wagging tail. "Though dog might be stretching the term."
Pale fingers shoved at Bronx' muzzle. "Elsie, just give me a hand."
"Away wi' ye." Hudson shoved the gargoyle beast back. "Here, lad." He reached down, met a grip that belied the slender fingers. Strong, for a human. "Up ye go-" His breath caught.
Pale. Far too pale. Hair too straight, and eyes a clear, twilight blue. And yet...
Wide blue eyes blinked once more, gazing at the three-fingered hand that'd effortlessly drawn him to his feet; the man brushed off a slug of slobber, and looked up. "Is something wrong?"
"Ye look like... someone I once knew, long ago," the elder said softly. Even to the wonder, the inquiring tilt of head... Ah, enough. The past is gone. Let it lie. "I'm called Hudson. And who might ye be?"
"Nick Tatopoulos." The names came thick and fast, then, as human customs called for; Elsie, Mendel, Randy, Monique.
"Don't chew on Nigel!" Mendel moved between Bronx and slobbered wires, gingerly pushing the gargoyle beast away.
So, even the little yellow machine bore a name. "Humans," Hudson murmured. "Must ye name everything?"
"Easier than saying 'Hey, you' all the time," Randy pointed out, offering a hand for Bronx to sniff. The beast snuffled up his arm, teeth nibbling at his wristwatch.
"You're going to lose a hand," Mendel warned.
Randy rolled his eyes, scratching behind blue ears. Bronx leaned into dark fingers, rumbling happily. "Relax, Dr. C. He's just a big puppy."
"Big puppy," Elsie muttered. She jabbed Nick with an elbow. "Guess it's just Canis familiaris that can't stand you."
"Hmph." The biologist brushed off a last bit of dust. "So which way do we go?"
A crystal glowed blue, chiming like silver bells. "Show them to me," the Magister murmured in Latin, waving one gloved hand over the glowing shard.
Blue cleared, showing a hazy image of light-bearing humanoids and one gargoyle beast weaving their way through the tunnels. Two bore the incandescent aura of the gifted; another three the ordinary, soft glow of the magicless.
"She's back. With another we could teach," Melor smiled. "But what is that?"
The gray gargoyle's talon tapped the crystal, above a wavery distortion in the image. The Magister frowned. "Clearer," he ordered with a wave of his hand.
The image sharpened, showing the flame-bright hair of one of the gifted, but the distortion remained. "Awake, and active," the mage calculated, panning over the group. "Strong enough to be invisible, even with two gifted ones nearby. This is... unexpected." He turned from the scrying crystal, picked up his staff. Saluting the East, he used the glowing tip to draw the intricate pattern that would summon his watery servants.
Melor watched, eyes glowing white as he counted the number his master had ordered toward that patch of tunnels. "Twenty? It should only take four to carry off our chosen ones. To call over a dozen more, to drain two humans and one gargoyle..." The darkhaired gargoyle waved his own hand over the scrying crystal, with no better luck. "What's awake, Magister?"
The mage rapped his staff against the cavern floor, ending the summons. "There are powers alien to magic in this world, Melor. Powers that would crush it, if they could." A thin, grim smile crossed his lined face. "Powers that shall fall. Tonight."
Nick swabbed another wall, feeling the chill of concrete even through leather gloves. The tunnels were a cold maze of dripping water and distant train rumbles, lit in patches by their helmet lamps. "Anything yet?"
"Nothing atmospheric," Mendel reported, fussing over Nigel. He sneezed.
Elsie passed over a box of tissues, tucked a sample into a screwtop vial. "I'd call that a yes on the mold score."
"Toxicity?" Nick raised an eyebrow.
"Nada." Randy shook his head. "Wouldn't leave Mendel down here, but so far, so good."
Something stirred in the back of Nick's mind. Puzzlement. A reflection of the dark around them, tinged with curiosity.
The biologist let shadows hide his smile. I'm underground, he told the sleepy lizard. Nothing to worry about.
Waking interest. His parent was hunting?
Well... yes, Nick admitted. Though not for anything Godzilla would usually chase. For bad air, Nick tried to convey. A threat to humans.
A wash of puzzlement; though not as intense as it would have been a few months ago. Godzilla knew there were things that hurt humans that he never noticed. There was no intruder?
A feeling of caution touched him; flickers of falling concrete, twisted rebar like so many rusty spears.
I'll be careful, Nick reassured his giant charge.
"How long is this going to take?"
Ah, yes. The brooding lump of black fur behind them, holding up a wall as yellow eyes watched H.E.A.T. work. Nick trapped irritation inside his shields, let it dissipate without touching Godzilla. No sense ruining his partner's rest just because Talon was throwing around testosterone.
"Perhaps a few more hours." Monique answered. Her rifle rested against her side; the agent's version of a security blanket. "If we are conforming to standard procedure?"
"More or less." Nick shone a flashlight into a crack, probed the recesses with a cotton-tipped toothpick. Somewhere under New York Harbor he could feel a massive form settling back to sleep.
Diane's dress rustled behind him. "You have a standard procedure for this?"
"Biohazard search 101." Shielding her headlamp with one hand, Elsie turned toward the older woman. "Even if a mutation's been destroyed, the area may still not be safe for people."
"Though we usually have to go in anyway," Mendel grumbled.
Talons scraped across cement; Delilah, Bronx, and Hudson, bringing up the rear. "Why?" Delilah wanted to know.
"Comes with the job." Randy shrugged. "The tin can can't find everything. Somebody's got to check it out. Might as well be the best."
Mendel sniffed. "Nigel is a highly sophisticated information-gathering system. If you'd stop messing with his processor-"
Only half-listening to the familiar argument, Nick advanced toward the sound of running water. The slow current of a storm drain rippled in their lamplight, carrying stray oak leaves and a few paper bags. According to the maps Randy had pieced together these tunnels should lead right into the main city drains. If they were going to find fungus, here was probably their best bet.
Wheels squeaked. "Detecting a photonic anomaly, Captain."
Nick stopped. Something seemed... off, about the shadows ahead. "Mendel?"
The roboticist groaned, tapping away at his handheld. "More Star Trek. And it's not even interfaced with the readings!"
Bronx growled, and Nick felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. "Are you sure?"
"Silence!" Monique breathed. "Douse the lights!"
Headlamps snapped off, his team responding to that grim urgency. Darkness closed over the tunnel.
Talon snarled. "What's going on?"
A metallic shing. "Quiet, lad," Hudson said softly. "We're bein' hunted."
Black on black; the utter lightlessness of the abyss. Except for the small sounds of eight lives behind him, Nick could imagine he was in a sub a thousand feet down. There was the same damp stillness to the air, the same magnified rustle of your own clothes in your ears with no other sounds to mask it.
The same blue, phosphorescent flickers at the edge of vision...
Bioluminescence. No doubt about it.
Fungus, the biologist thought sourly, watching blue-green light ebb and swell around the corner. Strobing, or drifting closer? I should've brought the rifles.
Monique was armed. Monique was always armed. But the rest of them...
Two people and one... dog, with claws, Nick calculated, hugging chill concrete. Electrical blasts, if we can get Talon to aim somewhere besides us. And Hudson's carrying some kind of blade.
All in all, not his favorite kind of odds.
A blast of fierceness. The driving urge to protect. Sleep was banished; he felt a massive form splash into the harbor.
You won't fit! Nick protested. His heart thudded against his ribs, and he strangled a gasp. Biting his lip, he dug in mental heels, dragging up a shield. Tunnels, he pictured, imagining the possible devastation if Godzilla decided this place needed a skylight. Concrete. I'm okay. Wait.
Hand on his shoulder. Light scent of vanilla perfume.
Elsie, Nick knew, fighting for some semblance of rational thought. Most of his mind was fixed on the light ahead, trying to decipher just what it might be... but the part linked to Godzilla wanted nothing more than a savage leap, fangs bared, protecting his nestmates at any cost.
Wait, he ordered himself as much as Godzilla. Wait and think.
Elsie's fingers traced down his arm, pried one hand from the wall. W, traced on his palm. A, t, e. r...
The light was... sinking into the drain channel? Possibly amphibious, the biologist calculated. Ought to be coming around the corner right about... now.
A saucer of translucent blue glowed in the channel, trailing a mane of shimmering tentacles in its wake. It pulsed slowly, azure flickering out like water ripples, swimming languidly past.
"Merde," Monique cursed. "Jellyfish?
"Hydrozoa," Nick answered, feeling Elsie's hand slip off his. "Basically, yes."
"Didn't think those things came in freshwater, jefe."
"Contrary to your usual entertainments, they don't usually fly, either," Mendel pointed out.
A metal-on-plastic click; Monique, checking her safety. "We did not see it fly."
"No. But high as that light was, it was out of the water." Nick gingerly lowered his shields, sending reassurance to his charge. "But how?"
Silence beside him. Dr. Chapman was a paleontologist, first and foremost, and hydrozoids didn't fossilize well.
But Elsie was a biologist. Usually she'd throw out some idea, even if it was as off-the-wall as speculating the mutation was electrically splitting water to create hydrogen for lift.
"Magic, lad," came the grim answer down the line. "'Tis a will'owisp."
"Foxfire?" Monique sounded doubtful. "They are legends, yes-"
"Nae more than I am, lass. I've met their like afore."
"Now you want to get loud?"
Finally an intelligent question from Talon. Nick tried to ignore Elsie's worrying silence. Maybe she was tracking down a stray thought. "It's a hydrozoid. Their major sensory input comes from chemoreception."
"Basically, it's gotta smell us," Randy translated.
"Or taste us," Mendel shivered.
Nick watched the fading glow. "They can sense pressure changes, but it's in water. If we keep it low, it probably won't notice."
"Aye, lad." A whisper of wings. "But if it's hunting, it's not alone."
"What do you know of these - will'owisps?"
"More than I wish, lass." A low growl. "Swamp beasties, they are. They feed, an' folk dinna remember it 'til the creatures drain 'em dry. My own clan lost half a score to'em. We would hae lost more, were't not for two brave ones the wisps couldna dazzle wi' their charms." His voice dropped to a whisper. "Ah, Sadiq... would ye were here."
"Ah... if it doesn't know we're here, can we turn on the lights?" Diane sounded shaky. Dark wasn't a thing most humans were familiar with.
"Hydrozoa have eyespots." Nick let out a slow breath. "I think we found your cold-"
Air moved beside him, a sudden absence. "Elsie?" He reached out, felt only empty air. "Elsie!"
"Lass!" came the cry from Hudson's end of the line. "Delilah, no!"
Twin splashes rang off the tunnel walls, a maze of echoes. "Lights!" Nick ordered. Move, move, move, you're targets now-
Red hair shone against dark water, disappearing around the corner of the tunnel. Following the hydrozoid, Nick thought, chilled, as Monique took point and H.E.A.T. pelted after. Rhythmic glow, and none of the other probable victims remember encountering a giant floating jellyfish-
Light glistened off silvery tentacles; Monique dropped to wet concrete to slide under the venomous mane. Mendel wasn't so lucky, stumbling into poisonous silver with a shriek. Twisting out of his long-sleeved shirt, Nick flung it over the hydrozoid, using his weight to pull the creature away from the gasping roboticist. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Randy and the others race past, bent on dragging their two dazed companions clear of another hydrozoid's hypnotic glow.
"Keep breathing!" Nick ordered, yanking off tentacles with a gelatinous snap. Red welted Mendel's face, trailed white-centered dots down the scientist's throat. Glittery slime wrapped his right arm where he'd flung it up to cover his eyes. Thank goodness for cotton labcoats, Nick thought.
And thick gloves. The same slime coated his fingers, held at bay only by thick leather. Nick didn't want to think how many nematocysts were lying in wait in the glitter, ready to fire chemical harpoons at the least touch.
His shirt writhed, tentacles seeking exit. Snarling, Nick bunched edges together, sloshed it through the running water. Wet cotton would hold better. "Sample jar?"
"Big enough for that?" Mendel mumbled through swelling lips. He fumbled back toward Nigel, unloading their usual sampling containers.
"We'll take tentacles if we have to. Can you breathe?" Secrecy could take a long walk off a short pier. If Randy's map didn't show a way out, Nick was going to grab Talon and make him tell them where to find the nearest exit.
"Like wasp stings," the roboticist grumbled, blowing open a thick plastic bag. Not too different from what the local aquariums used... if the local aquariums stocked piranha. "Lots of - get down!"
Nick flattened himself on cold cement, feeling threads of fire slash down his back. T-shirt's not thick enough, the biologist noted, biting his lip against the acid pain. He lashed out with his dripping bundle, cotton meeting jelly with a squelch and a clink-
White fire blazed from the point of impact, shattering the gray crystal embedded in blue gel. Colorless flames wreathed the creature, shriveling translucent tentacles into black ash.
A chilling roar echoed down the tunnels, bioelectric thunder snapping close behind. The unmistakable p-shew of a particle beam rifle opened up, and that deep-throated growl could only be Bronx.
Coming. No thought of denial. No whisper of hesitation. Fact, solid and burning as white-hot iron.
Protect. It blazed in his mind, raw ferocity echoing through the depths of his own soul. No way to tell who felt it; H.E.A.T. was all the family Nick had. He'd tear mountains apart to find them.
Protect. Instinct for Godzilla. A raging fury for Nick, that shredded any trace of human gentleness.
"Nick, come back!"
Hand on his arm. Not an intruder, the intruders had tentacles. Couldn't quite catch the scent...
Nick drew a deep, musty breath, levered a shield into place. Fighting clear of the maelstrom, the biologist shook out his slimy prisoner into the sample bag. Venom sample. They had to have a venom sample. Figure out the fireworks later. "How many?"
"Too many!" Mendel ducked toward the wall, sent Nigel screeching down the tunnel. The robot's arm snared a writhing net of silver, yanking one floating menace out of the air.
Four down or contained, Nick calculated, seeing Hudson's sword slice through glowing jelly. Five, six, seven, he counted off; a fried black lump near Talon and two swiss-cheesed gels at Monique's feet. Randy and Diane had whipped off her coat, used it to herd another hydrozoid into Bronx' raking claws. Eight-
Still too many to count. Blue strobed like a dozen cuttlefish hunting crabs, synchronous flashes driving a pulsing headache between his eyes. Nick grabbed for the rope they'd packed on Nigel, unwrapped about a yard. Nine, he thought grimly, flailing the remaining coil through a watery body.
Four floated onto Elsie and Delilah, wreathing the two women in a silver net. Green eyes were glazed, reflecting the white glow building about them.
They're not being stung, Nick realized, headlamp catching unmarred skin. Why?
A wave of nausea swept him, and the tunnel spun. Venom, the biologist thought, going back to back with Mendel as they both faltered. He could feel the feverish heat through the white labcoat, sense it muddying his own thoughts. Everything ached.
"Tired," came the painful sigh behind him.
"Fight it, Mendel!" Nick let Godzilla's ferocity flood the link, cushioning him against his body's need for rest. A well of strength, his for the asking; keeping him alive even as it shut down every thought but the will to fight. If only he could share that fierceness.
No such luck, he knew, shaking the slumping roboticist. H.E.A.T. was more resistant to toxins than the norm, but how many more stings could anyone take? "Stay awake!"
A hydrozoid settled onto Talon's unprotected back, lifting up silver tentacles to reveal a second, darker set of tendrils. The mutate roared, pulling with electrified hands as they bored in.
Black fur dropped like a sack of bones. Diane shrieked, rushing toward the limp form.
"Look out, lass!"
Strobing blue folded over her, silver tentacles a halo about her head. "No," Diane moaned. "No... won't let you..."
Snarling, Hudson slashed through his current assailant, leaping back to shelter the fallen woman under his wings. "Off o' her, ye blasted slimy thing!"
An image shoved through Nick's shield; himself against chill concrete, while asphalt thundered down. "Everybody, hug the wall!"
Concrete shattered into dark water, rent asunder by three gigantic daws. Night air gusted into the storm drain, carrying the sirens Nick had come to expect as par for the course when visiting Manhattan.
Massive teeth dipped into the gap, closing on two of the enemy. Surprise, flashed down the link. Sliminess. Stinging. Disgust.
Nick laughed, weakly flailing at yet another hydrozoid.
"What's so funny?" Mendel mumbled.
"He says... they taste awful..."
Green fire blasted down, searing trapped jelly into smoldering lumps. Massive talons probed the tunnel, bare inches above their heads, snaring hydrozoids by stray tentacles. A reptilian hiss echoed the light stings Nick felt through the link.
No more blue light, the biologist thought, eyes sliding closed. The fight was over, and his borrowed strength ebbed away like water. "Elsie," he murmured.
A clear sight of the paleontologist and Delilah floating through the air, nasty-tasting silvery tendrils wrapped around them.
"Those things took 'em!" Randy panted, checking Diane's pulse.
Yes; he could see them, disappearing into the night. The image slid away as Godzilla bent back to the tunnel. Worry; the need to have his parent out of this place of dark and pain. Hurt.
"'M okay," Nick mumbled. But the breaths beside him were labored, wheezing. "Mendel - Randy, epinephrine..." So many stings. He didn't know what those things had done to Diane and Talon, but Mendel needed help now.
And Elsie. See where they're going, Nick tried to convey. Follow.
Warm, wet muscle slithered around him; the taste of slime and cotton flooded his senses. Hurt. No room for argument. Elsie might be parent's possible mate, but Nick was parent.
The hiss of an injector was thunder in feverish ears. "We must call for medical attention." A safety snapped back on. "You will not wish to be here."
"Ye've that right, lass." Wings folded, a leathery rustle. "Send word to Elisa. She'll know how to search for our lost ones."
Nick fell the shadow of a smile tug his lips as Godzilla's tongue swept away. The impromptu bath seemed to have cleared his head; he knew that tone. Monique already had a fair idea where to start. And given that their resident spy couldn't have had a clue where the hydrozoids were headed...
Just hope their chemical composition doesn't mess with your tracer, Monique.
Familiar fingertips felt his own throat for a pulse. "What about the furball?" Randy wanted to know. "C'mon, compadre, stay with me..."
A snore echoed through approaching sirens. "He's but asleep," the gargoyle elder said thoughtfully. "Drained, like Diane. I'll get him t' Maggie. Likely he'll wake in an hour, an' ne'er know what happened. But your clanmates-"
Weariness ached at him, but the pain was gone. Acid stings - saliva is alkaline- "Sodium bicarbonate solution," Nick whispered, grabbing Randy's shoulder. "Neutralize some of the venom..."
Darkness swept down.
"Giant floating jellyfish?" Elisa said, disbelieving. To her left paramedics were loading stretchers bound for Metropolitan Hospital; two of H.E.A.T., and her mother.
Her fingers curled into fists. Mom.
Dupres' call had yanked her to the scene before the dispatcher could confirm H.E.A.T. was down. The Frenchwoman was standing by Nick's stretcher, dark scowl goading shaking medics into action even under Godzilla's watchful eyes.
"Witness says they were carrying somebody off. Hernandez confirms it. Whatever they were, they took Dr. Chapman." Officer Morgan kept his eyes on the giant lizard, forcibly holding himself still when a tail-twitch crumbled concrete. "Man, I did not need this tonight..."
"None of us did," Matt said grimly. "Go on, partner." He made a shooing motion toward the ambulance.
She hesitated. "Dad's already on his way."
"And she's your mother." Matt gave her a gentle shove. "I'll handle this."
Elisa gripped his hand. "Thanks, partner."
"Did it take?" A low voice. Something about it reminded Elsie of Hudson. "Delilah's mind is young, untested. But this one..."
"Is talented, and untrained." Older tones, almost French in their crisp coolness. "And therefore more vulnerable than any mundane's could ever be. We'll know soon enough." A man's hand on her shoulder; familiar, and yet... not. "It's time to wake."
The paleontologist blinked. Glowing white globes lit a stony cavern, set up with instruments straight out of a movie sorcerer's den. Sparks flew as a gray gargoyle stoked the fire under an iron kettle, watching her with wary eyes. In the corner parchment rustled as Delilah turned a page, frowning in concentration.
"You will call me Magister." Short white hair framed a cool smile. No black robes for this sorcerer; instead, a long, brown overcoat draped over a pressed charcoal-gray suit. "I am your teacher, and your friend."
Teacher, whispered through her mind. Friend...
"I have the answers you've been searching for."
Searching. Of course she was searching. No... she had been searching...
A woman's voice. Quiet words, that had pierced the whisper of other voices, alien voices...
...You have been searching, but you cannot find the door.
The door. The door in her mind, the fragile barrier she and Monique had raised against the Hivemind. The barrier they'd strengthened since, anticipating the day the Leviathan aliens would invade Earth once more.
It is right here. Reach out, turn the knob and run through the door.
She could almost see it; crafted oak and brass, more solid than titanium steel. In her mind's eye, her fingers reached, gripped the wrought iron handle-
Regain possession of your mind and body - now!
"Isn't that right, child?"
"Yes, of course," Elsie stammered. The cavern snapped into sudden focus, and her heart pounded like a jackhammer. She did not know this man, or this cavern, or the gray gargoyle who now had a brotherly arm wrapped around Delilah's shoulders.
But he'd tried to make her believe she did. Was still trying; she could feel the steady pressure against the door. Sooner or later, despite all her efforts, the barrier would give.
And her team was nowhere in sight.
There may come a time when we cannot find you, Monique's lessons echoed from her memory. You must believe that we will come for you. Until then, you must preserve yourself.
Save herself by pretending to yield. By letting the alien mind take part of hers, all the while hiding the core of her self under layer upon layer of deception. Monique's deception, that would keep even Elsie from remembering there had been more to her mind.
We'll come for you. Nick's voice. Nick's hand gripping hers, as the French agent implanted the perilous triggers in her subconscious. I promise.
Digging deep, Elsie imagined a mirror. Gazed into eyes that were hers, and yet not hers. Beside the silvery image lay a keyboard, waiting for the touch of her hand.
"Do you hear me?"
The redhead blinked, and smiled. "I'm sorry, Magister... what was that last bit?"
The Magister frowned. For a moment, it seemed as if his spell had - slipped.
Impossible, the mage decided. The woman had no magical training whatsoever, and no mortal in this day and age knew how to defend their own minds without magic.
Not that her companions were short of other defenses. Sixteen will'owisps, lost in one battle! The last time he'd lost so many-
The mage snorted. Ibn Ajmal's been dead and dust these past ten centuries.
Those who dealt with gargoyles were simply used to facing the unnatural, that was all. And this age did boast impressive weaponry. Take it away, and they'd be helpless as any other mundanes.
Indeed. Did you think you were facing dragonslayers? In this age? He rolled his eyes. Not surprising the old memories would rise, given the last time he'd seen Orchil's focus. But memories were all they were. Next you'll be jumping at shadows. "What is your name, child?"
"Elsie." An emerald gaze turned hard. "Doctor Elsie Chapman."
Ah. He'd remember that. His spell of mental control was loose, subtle as a veil of spiderweb. It allowed those enchanted to act with all their own intelligence; but in trade, their more stubborn personality traits remained intact. They were simply ruled by all the hate and rage mortal minds were prey to, making them... malleable. "Come, then... Doctor Chapman. Let me show you what you have to learn."
"Magister." His foster son's voice was quiet steel.
The mage settled his newest apprentice with a beginner's treatise on Oberon's Children. Actual spellwork would have to wait until both women had a rudimentary understanding of Latin. Even with translation spells to aid, that would take some time. "What is it?"
Melor pointed at the aural detector, where a shard of green light hung suspended. "The tripwire snapped."
Orchil's power signature. Someone had used the focus. "Any sign of the bearer?"
"None." Melor crossed his arms. "Considering the speed the servants fly, I'd say it went off during the fight." The gargoyle mage frowned. "Given the brevity of the flare - it's as if someone slipped it in and out of a cold iron pouch. But there's no distortion..."
The Magister's breath hissed. "It's not in cold iron." Curse it. Iron would have been far, far easier to deal with.
Damn you, ibn Ajmal. How many of your ilk are there?
One talon tapped against the table. "Then why can't we detect it?"
"Powers of the mind." The Magister rubbed gloved hands over each other, trying to chase away a sudden chill. Like before. This was so much like before...
No, he told himself firmly. Ibn Ajmal knew what he held. And he had allies. This time, you have the advantage.
"Psychics?" Melor frowned.
"That is the word they use, in this age," the Magister nodded. Paltry fools, most of those; playing with cards and pretending to peer at the future. "I'd thought there were none of the true accursed left." He dusted off his hands. "If we're fortunate, the will'owisps' stings have slain our enemy." He waved at the detector. "I've destroyed such before. The dampening power of their aura takes time to fade."
His foster son shook his head. "I still don't see how they can exist. All that lives carries magic."
"Not in the same fashion." The Magister paced the floor, thoughts dark with memories of years before... before a dragonslayer and his gargoyle mistress had tricked him into a fae web, to sleep for over a thousand years. "A few humans and gargoyles are born with the gift to work magic. Most others are born mundane, with only a flicker that never sparks into life. And there are some..." He scowled at glittering green, shook his head. "The paths of their mind are different. Spells warp around them, vanish like snow at midsummer. And their touch can hide the strongest magics."
"Yes," the Magister agreed. "The one we did not see. But who?"
Melor turned to the redhead. "Doctor Chapman?" he asked softly. No need to startle her; not until the spell of influence was thoroughly settled in. "Which of your companions shatters magic?"
Green eyes widened, hurt. "I don't know."
"No reason you would, Doctor," the Magister soothed, hands folded in deliberate calm. "But tell me of those who walked the tunnels with you. Which of them is... different?"
"Different?" A thoughtful frown. "Well, Talon's DNA is all over the place; I'd say there was some definite biotech in there-"
"No. Not the mutate, nor his mother, nor the gargoyle Hudson." He'd spied on the Labyrinth denizens enough to be certain of those relationships, odd as they might seem. "The other human with you."
"The other human?" A dark laugh. "Magister, there's four other humans on my team."
Four. Powers Below, four.
And not one had appeared in the scrying crystal.
Whispering a Bretonnic curse, he sank into a chair.
Melor glanced at the orrey in the corner, calculating the hours left until sunrise. "We've time to move the lair."
"No." The human mage gathered his wits. "No, the will'owisps leave no trail. And whatever they are, our psychics are no mindspeakers. Doctor Chapman could not have missed the sense of someone tapping her thoughts."
"Humans have other ways to track," Melor pointed out.
"Ways that will meet our cloaking spells, and founder. No." A grim smile. "Even if they're still alive, there is no way they could find us."
"If they're still alive?" Mistress Chapman advanced on them. "What happened to my team?"
Delilah looked up. "Something happened to Mendel?"
Curse it. True concern, even in the depths of hate. Their spells would have to be strengthened. "Nothing you need worry about," he soothed, summoning enchantment with a wave and a whisper. "Return to your studies."
Delilah wavered. "Mendel's - useful. He helped set my wing, and he was showing me how they use machines to track creatures. Why would you want to hurt him?"
"Don't worry about Mendel," the Magister said, magic weaving through every word. Machines to track? What an absurd notion. "Think how surprised he'll be at what you've learned. Trust me." Oh, this Mendel would be surprised. If he had survived at all.
Not likely. The 'wisps could kill a man with a touch. And would, when they'd drained out the last bit of energy. But his controlling crystals bound them not to feed on the talented. Like cormorants who wore fishermen's rings round their necks, the 'wisps knew they must bring the talented to him to receive their longed-for feed of magic.
Psychics had no magic a will'owisp could reach. The creatures would slay them in a heartbeat.
"All right..." Frowning, the hybrid turned back to her book.
Red hair shivered as Mistress Chapman stood; a valiant struggle for such an untrained mind. "You can't kill them," she whispered. "You don't know what will happen."
"It's all right," the Magister pressed down upon her will. Powers, she was fighting! "Nothing will happen."
"We have to protect the world..."
Melor caught her as she fell. "What team could this be, that would drive her so fiercely?"
"Who knows?" The Magister caught his breath, shook out one weary hand. Even with the well of energy the will'owisps had drained from other victims, three spells of control so close together robbed much of his strength. "Probably some band of firefighters, or paramedics." She was a doctor, after all. "Perhaps even an environmentalist group. She's lived a mundane life."
The gargoyle frowned. "A pity we could not question her about her companions' arms."
"We know enough to be prepared." The Magister shrugged. "Besides, it's not as if we'll face those again tonight."
"Monique." A quiet, heartfelt plea. "Get me out of this."
In the middle of writing up one last statement, Detective Bluestone swung toward the stretcher. No way anybody could be conscious after that-
Apparently nobody'd told Tatopoulos that. The biologist was working his way out of restraining straps, batting away hands that tried to hold him down. The welts on his arms and back were fading; seemed he'd been right about the baking soda. Which was contrary to everything Matt knew about jellyfish - but then, the stings he'd slathered vinegar over as a kid had been from your average, run-of-the-mill non-flying medusas.
"Sir, you really shouldn't-" Massive nostrils snorted, and the paramedic fled.
Running would be a good idea, Matt thought, sweat trickling down his spine as the monster of Manhattan edged nearer. Right now. Run. Feet. Move.
An orange eye fixed on him.
"Come with me." Spine straight, Dupres stalked forward.
"You've got to be kidding." But he could feel his toes twitch to follow her. Are you crazy? Matt asked himself. "You're not going to-"
Standing fearless under the monster's chin, Monique undid the last strap. "I am tracking the creatures. Randy has retrieved Nigel. You should rest."
Nick levered himself up, clinging to her leather-clad arm. "Mendel?"
"Still out." She frowned at the slimy shirt dangling from one clenched fist. "I will put that with the rest of the samples."
"Not yet." Blue eyes narrowed. A gloved hand fished in a pocket, came out with a glint of gold. "Help me up."
"I do not think-" A massive talon lowered to asphalt, forming a solid wall for Tatopoulos to lean against. Monique scowled upward. "You are not helping."
A quiet rumble.
Swallowing, Matt moved to the trembling group holding their ground by Dr. Craven. "What do we do, Detective?" the oldest paramedic asked; Ransley, a dark face cappedby salt-and-pepper hair. "Is it going to let us take him?"
You're asking me? "Is he stable?" There was no way Matt was letting a man's life stay at risk. And exactly what are you going to do if they say no? a terrified part of his mind quipped. Tell Godzilla to freeze?
A bleary brown eye opened. "Nick... can we go home now?"
Matt stared. What did it take to keep these people down? "Are you okay?"
Blear turned to glare. "Do I look okay?" Dark eyes widened. "Nigel!"
"Yup, he's fine." Randy, with a dripping bag and a grin. He handed over a slim hand-held computer. "You gave us a heck of a scare there, compadre."
"Son, you really ought to go in and get checked out," Ransley advised. He shone a light into wincing eyes, seemed reluctantly satisfied. "Last time I saw stings like this was off the Great Barrier Reef."
Randy waved the glowing bag. "No offense, Doc, but I doubt you've got antivenins for this."
The paramedics recoiled en masse. Matt couldn't blame them. A jellyfish sloshed in tough plastic; large as a man's head, glowing blue with a gray crystal embedded in one side. Silver tendrils coiled and thrashed at the knotted top. "That's a switch," the detective said, keeping his voice carefully casual. "Usually we get alligators."
"Elsie?" the roboticist asked, lowering a foot gingerly to the ground. His face was sunburn-pink, still puffy despite the soda paste coating his stings. "Delilah?"
Hernandez sobered. "We'll find them." He pointed at the crystal. "You want to take a look at this? It's got some really funky EM."
Without knowing quite how, Matt found himself supporting the stocky scientist as they wove over toward the yellow robot. "Internal crystalline structure bears a distinct resemblance to a receiver," Mendel said thoughtfully. Trembling fingers flew over the tiny keyboard; he frowned at the spiking graph. "EM fluctuations indicate it's picking up a transmission."
The detective glanced at gray crystal Randy was holding in front of Nigel's sensors. Behind them. he could hear the revving engines and foul swears of an incipient Manhattan traffic jam. "Are you telling me that's a radio set?"
Mendel shook his head, ponytail flopping over his shoulder. "Wrong frequency range." Squinting through pain, he studied the readings. "But it's picking up something."
Randy lifted a dark brow. "Want to bet long, blue and squishy's remote-controlled?"
"Which means someone's on the other end." Leaning on Monique's arm, Nick eyed the graph, lip lifting in a silent snarl. "Source?"
"Give me a few minutes," Mendel muttered, distracted.
The biologist nodded at the rifle in Monique's hands. "Do we have enough time?"
"Given that we will likely be facing the beasts in their lair..." She lifted the strap over her head, laid the weapon on Nigel. "We will be swift."
"Randy, get those samples back to the lab," Nick ordered. "Make sure they're secure."
"On it, jefe." Glowing bags in hand, the hacker followed Monique down the street. "Yo, taxi!"
Matt eyed the particle beam rifle. "You sent them for more of those?"
A dark brow lifted. "Objections?"
You want them in order, or alphabetically? Matt grimaced. H.E.A.T. was civilian. Licensed to carry or not. This was a job for the SWAT team. Or the Army. Somebody with society's permission to commit mayhem and destruction.
"Got it!" Mendel scrolled down, brought up a glowing dot on the isle of Manhattan. "Transmissions originate somewhere north of the 79th Street Transverse." Brown eyes narrowed. "Right where Monique's signal faded out."
Central Park. Somehow, Matt wasn't surprised.
Nick lifted a fierce blue gaze to his. "We need a car."
Like staring down Hudson, the detective thought. Frankly, he'd rather deal with Goliath. Not that facing off with the clan leader wasn't scary. Like playing chicken with a tractor-trailer when you had a Trans Am.
But Hudson was a mountain. You moved, or you got flattened.
I am not afraid of a biologist half my size-
"Who's going to look for Delilah, if we don't?" the biologist pointed out.
Usually the clan would. Elisa had already asked Goliath to help search. But Hudson had been on the radio not a minute later, warning them off. Will'owisps hunted magic, he said. Hungered for it, as deer for salt. Between the domination spell Demona had once put on Goliath and the soul-switching Puck had pulled a while back... the clan might as well have targets painted on their backs.
Nick held out a shaky hand. "Trust me."
Something in him shivered, even as courtesy brought his hand out to match the biologist's grip. He did trust Tatopoulos. Enough to stand here under Godzilla's nose; enough to seriously consider which blue-and-white he could commandeer. Enough to set off all a cop's instinctive paranoia. A good detective trusts no one. "Ah, I don't think-"
Slim fingers met his.
Fury washed over him, stealing breath from his lungs. A boiling brew of intruders and one-of-mine hurt, one-of-mine in danger. A tight, fragile control of the need-to-hunt.
Matt shook his head. Sweating. Why- Oh. Right. Two of his own were missing, some idiot in a black Mustang was seriously crowding Godzilla, and the perp was somewhere near Belvedere Castle. "Let's go."
"...And while details remain sketchy, it seems clear that a new menace stalks Manhattan. This is Audrey Timmonds, reporting for WIDF News."
David Xanatos watched ripples form in his coffee cup, drained it in one long gulp. The Eyrie Building's security grid was up and the force field could be switched on at a moment's notice. "Will'owisps?"
"Indeed." Owen tapped his laptop, freezing news footage on an image of glowing blue gel. A grainy gray shape glinted in the streetlights; a shard of unnatural crystal. "It's been some time since I saw this means of control."
Magic-draining jellyfish under a sorcerer's control. Creatures that would just as soon feast on Alex or Fox, if they ever got the opportunity. Xanatos poured another cup of coffee. "What are their chances?" he asked quietly.
"Better than ours, Mr. Xanatos," his majordomo said frankly. "With the exception of Dr. Chapman, H.E.A.T. has no magical aptitude. I've never seen such an unmagical group."
How could someone be unmagical? The businessman shook his head. Worry about it later. "The Steel Clan?"
"Ready." The fae tapped up his glasses. "I would suggest we hold them as a last resort. Godzilla is known to be... irritable, when Dr. Tatopoulos is injured."
That was putting it mildly. He'd read the reports on Shanee Kaplan's island complex. Nothing left but rubble and charred bodies.
Kidnap Tatopoulos had immediately moved off the list of available options. Even Demona couldn't do that much damage.
Xanatos gazed north, where a massive, reptilian head had just cleared the edge of Central Park. "I don't want any of them getting away."
"Nor do I, sir." At his employer's sharp glance, the fae lifted a brow. "Will'owisps feed on magic, be it fae or human. Unless I am protecting Alex, I am as vulnerable to their attacks as you... and a far more attractive target."
"Fiat lux." Light glowing over his hand, the Magister began subtle whispers of dismissal. One by one will'owisps dropped into the dark waters of Turtle Pond. "Sleep, my own. Sleep, and rest, until I need you again."
Melor scanned the sky as he herded their two apprentices toward Belvedere Castle. Its height would allow them to catch the wind, sparing the energy of a transport spell. "Helicopters, Magister."
And while no camera would see them, there might always be one of the talented in those flying monstrosities. The Magister picked up the pace, willing his servants back into rippling water-
Rippling? There was no wind. "What in the worlds?"
"An earthquake?" Melor asked, talons gripping unsteady ground.
The Magister snorted. "In the middle of Manhattan?" Yet he felt grass shake through his bootsoles. Impossible, he thought. My wards would have warned me if the local faults threatened to move.
"That would be an impact tremor." Dr. Chapman broke away, studying the lap of wavelets against the shore. Her gait shifted, adapting to the gentle bounce of the ground. "Coming from..."
A roar he'd not heard in a thousand years shook the night. Trees swayed.
Scales the size of her clenched fist. Claws longer than her forearm. An orange eye that glared down, nightmare fire in the sky.
Know that we will come for you.
Elsie surfaced from the depths of her mind, gasping. If Godzilla was here, her team wasn't far behind.
Or they're not coming at all...
The Magister spat something chill and vicious in Latin. Blue light leapt from his hand, began sheathing the mutation in ice.
Lizard eyes flashed amber. Green flame gouted from Godzilla's maw, met frost with a flash of steam and thunder.
"Oh yeah," Elsie breathed, bolting for the road. "I really want to be in the middle of this!"
A rush of wings; something thick and muscular swept her feet from under her. Tail, the paleontologist realized, skinning her palms on asphalt. Ow, damn it...
Talons flexed, breaking off shards of frost. Ice, Godzilla wondered, tail weaving as he advanced on the human who'd attacked him. Even territorial fury couldn't cloud the strangeness of it. How could a human create ice out of thin air?
His parent couldn't tell him. Nick had raised a wall between them; a barrier Nick held with strength born of the fear of hurting his allies. Nick needed the wall.
But he needed to understand.
Godzilla shoved at the barrier. Shaky. But still too thick for him to break.
More words, shouted below. Words he didn't understand; words that didn't sound at all like his parent's, or his parent's allies. Words that flashed blue light, hurling boulders from the ground with the speed of missiles.
That, he understood.
Shaking off gravel, Elsie stumbled to her feet. Bruised calves ached, already protesting the balanced crouch that was the only way to stay standing when Godzilla cut loose.
"Where do you think you're going?" Melor demanded. "Stay and fight for your people!"
Her people. People like Delilah, like everyone who swore they'd seen Nessie; those who would always be just a little - different, from the rest of the crowd. Hatred, rage; they frothed in her soul, thundering in time with the oncoming engines. She remembered every time the team had let her down, every time they'd stood in her way-
Like the time they tried to keep you from raising Leviathan? Think!
Claws pressed four points of pain on her forearm. "Come. Now-"
A familiar dart slammed home in a gray shoulder. Two more followed close, a neat triangle. Monique's aim.
Dodge the stones. Slash a tail through space, knocking the enemy back into dark water-
Azure light flared as his scales touched the human, englobing the enemy in blue. Light that somehow slowed the human's fall, held him hovering over the pond instead of unconscious and drowning within it.
Unease stirred in the lizard's mind. Floating. Like creatures he'd seen before: not-quite-human intruders that had taken his mind, forced him to attack his own parent.
The biologist twitched at that plea, shivering at the growing worry that fueled it. Whatever those flashes of light were, Godzilla'd never met them before. He didn't understand them. He wanted help.
He wanted the shields down.
"Holding?" Monique had asked over his headset, as the Jeep caught up with Matt's borrowed cruiser. Mendel couldn't narrow the transmission down any farther than the park, and the agent's transmitter inexplicably refused to respond to their signals. At which fact Dupres had loosed a volley of French curses, some of which the team actually understood.
"Shaky," Nick had admitted. The night was alive with scent and sound; wailing sirens, the rattle and diesel tang of helicopters, the lingering disgust of stinging slime. His mind bobbed in waves of fury, the raw desire to hunt down intruders. It'd take so little to be pulled under... He started to shrug off his shoulder strap. "I shouldn't be armed."
A cool, Gallic glance had stayed his hand. "You will not fire upon us."
Hold the shield, he'd willed himself as they sped into the park. Hold it. "You can't know that."
"If you are not armed, you are in greater danger. You know it. He knows it." Dark-nailed fingers had formed a fist. "Trust yourself."
"Randy." He could see the French agent lean out the Jeep's window, trank gun in hand. She didn't need any distraction. "When she stops shooting, tell Monique I've taken them down."
"Jefe, have you lost it? You can't-"
Turning off his mike, Nick headed for the pond.
His team could handle the gargoyle. He had a lizard to rescue.
Melor roared, hurling the paleontologist into the headlights' glow. Elsie landed in a pile of familiar bodies, gasping as the road shredded one knee. "Nice... timing."
"You're squashing my spleen," Mendel grunted.
Matt slammed his door, striding around the blue-and-white with revolver drawn. "NYPD! Drop the grimoire and put your hands over your head!"
Fighting sleep, Melor snarled. "You think you can... hold me..." The white glow faded from his gaze, and he shook his head. "Desflagrate muri intervalia!"
"Damn!" The detective blinked away spots, glaring at the empty space where a gargoyle mage had been. "I hate it when they do that."
Not a dragon, the Magister finally realized, as yet another spell showered sparks over gray-green scales. Dragons were vessels of magic. It would harm them, as little else of this world could.
This... creature... resisted magic. Met enchantments' force with its own power, fierce as the sea in storm.
Not a dragon. But he could see the raw fury in nightmare eyes, the rage that meant one of them wouldn't walk away from this meeting.
So be it.
A wave of his hand stripped power from the lake, sent Delilah leaping at the beast. Let's see how you fare 'gainst innocent foes, monster.
Drawing a deep breath, Elsie leaned on the warm hood of the cruiser. Mendel wasn't far behind, face paler than the paste coating his stings. "You all right?"
A groan. "Ask me next week." He pried an eye open. "Where's Delilah?"
She pointed. "With the Magister. The - the man who kidnapped us. He controls the will'owisps-"
A darkhaired nod. "This we determined."
"He's controlling us!" Elsie burst out. She could feel the tug, the rage, the irrational desire to leave these mundanes behind. "You can't trust me, don't trust me-"
Steel clicked. "Got it," Matt said, fastening one cuff on her right wrist. "But we can't leave you here, either." The other cuff snapped around his left wrist. "If it was a faerie I'd just lock you in the cruiser. But according to Elisa you can't stop human magic with cold iron."
Magic. Faeries. The world didn't make sense any more. "Where's Nick?"
Randy slammed the Jeep door. "Dropped the shields an' took off."
Mendel couldn't get any paler. "He did what?"
"You said it."
Elsie shook her head, stunned. "Why?" Drop the shields? When Godzilla was in the middle of attacking-
Oh. Oh, no.
"He's fighting a human," the paleontologist thought out loud, words tumbling over each other. "The Magister's human, not a mutation. He thinks. Godzilla can plan, but-"
"Perhaps not fast enough," Monique finished. Her trank gun was holstered, and the safety was off her rifle. Cool eyes measured the distance to the battle. "He will need assistance."
"So do we!" Randy pointed at blue-glowing water. Silvery tendrils shattered the surface. "Incoming!"
Sharp points of pain. A high, catlike shriek.
Godzilla batted at the sudden sting, pulling the blow at the last second. Familiar, leathery scent; the strange female his parent had rescued. Why was she attacking him?
White wings swooped; another slash. This one drew blood. Her claws cut through his scales, as human fingers could not.
His parent didn't want her harmed.
But he didn't want to be clawed.
Amber eyes gauged her flight, and struck.
Flipping pages, the Magister ran a thumb down dark ink. A pity about Delilah. She was worth thirty of the will'owisps the mundanes were blasting from the sky. But she'd distracted the beast just long enough, and her death would yield the power he needed to complete the firestorm enchantment.
A roar shook the air. The mage smiled grimly, reached for the power of a talented death-
And felt - nothing.
Unharmed, Delilah howled a hundred feel overhead, struggling impotently against talons longer than a man was tall.
Cold eyes stared. It caught her. But that was impossible. It was a beast, a mutation; a malformed offspring of mundane science. It wasn't a dragon.
It couldn't be intelligent...
Latin. He's chanting in Latin. Hiding in the shadows, Nick drew a deep breath. This was going to be tricky. Open the door. Just a crack...
A rush of scent and sound. Asphalt, distant sirens, the waterlogged scent of decaying flesh. Somewhere in there was the distinctive dark tang that was Monique, accompanied by the sharp danger of a particle beam rifle. He could feel Delilah struggle in a taloned grip, wing-claws grasping at gray-green scales.
Hold it there. Already Nick could feel the strain; like walking a tightrope between his mind and Godzilla's. Slip, and he'd never get the shields back up in time. Godzilla?
Nick. It shook his bones like thunder; fury, fierceness, protect. Intruders thronged this place; threats to his parent, and to the small, fragile humans who aided him. And the one that seemed human was the deadliest threat of all.
The biologist blinked at the image of a white-haired man floating, superimposed over an older, fainter memory of a Leviathan alien. No wonder Godzilla wanted help. He's not one of the Hivemind, Nick assured his charge. The team took turns scanning for tachyon emissions. No one in H.E.A.T. wanted to be blindsided that way again.
How to explain tachyon scans to Godzilla, though...
Trust. It shone like a beacon at the core of the storm of fury, bright glimmers that formed the first shreds of a plan. His charge dropped Delilah to the grass, lowered a massive head-
Fire blasted down.
Leaning on his staff, the Magister regarded the smoking crater with weary satisfaction. Without a death to add to it, the firestorm had taken most of his strength. But it was enough.
"Who are you?"
A slight, pale man stepped noiselessly through ashes, blue eyes deadly as the North Sea in storm. An unearthly rifle drew a bead on him with unerring aim. The Magister raised a pale brow. "Dr. Chapman's associate, I presume."
"You could say that. Who are you?"
A casual shrug. This man could not have Orchil's focus, else he'd have used it already. He was - expendable. "You may call me Magister."
"Master?" Teeth bared at the English translation of his proper title. "I don't think so."
The mage blinked, trying to shake off an odd sense of... recognition. A shred of memory; a sword silver as the moon, a dark gaze that met his with unwavering, feral determination. "Do I know you?"
"I doubt it." A wry, eerily familiar smile. "I don't know that many murderers."
How does he know? The will'owisps hid their prey deep, where no mundane could stumble across them. Deep as that smoldering chasm in the earth, where a monster's bones would now lie.
But he knew. The Magister knew that look, human or gargoyle. The cold rage of one sworn to protect, who'd found the 'wisps' handiwork scattered about his territory.
No matter. Delilah could still be salvaged if he took her now. One man, however armed with modern weaponry, was no obstacle. "Fulminos venite!"
And shattered, in a blaze of gold and emerald.
The Magister stiffened. He does have the brooch-
A mountain of scales hurled him skyward.
"Now there's something ye don't see every night." Hudson banked toward the roaring battle in Central Park. The clan might be at risk, but Delilah would not be left unaided. Not while he could wield a blade.
There. Most of H.E.A.T., Matt beside them, finishing off will'owisps in gouts of green. Delilah crouched on trampled grass, weaving to unsteady feet. A stretch away Nick faced down a white-haired mage, standing on the charred ash edging Godzilla's burrow.
Bronx whimpered in his arms, snuggling close as lightning lashed. "Lad, no!"
Emerald sparks flew. A familiar shower of green and gold, that left young Nick dazed and blinking, but unharmed.
Hudson stared. It canna be-
Scaled ridges tore through ash, flinging a broken body with a force that could shatter buildings. The mage's staff splintered, loosing a burst of crawling lightning into the wind.
The elderly gargoyle stroked for altitude, banking to intersect the man's fall. Like enough the mage was dead, but best to be sure-
Cold eyes caught his across night air. Familiar eyes, filled with a hate that burned like acid.
Bloody lips worked, spewing Latin. "Burn down the walls of space!"
Hudson cursed, blinking sensitive eyes against the light. He slashed a hand through air, grabbing-
A shredded overcoat, drifting in the wind.
Triumph roared through the night; a fierce exultation that shook Nick off his feet. He sat down hard, trying to draw a breath that didn't taste of death. Godzilla's smelling it, not you.
It didn't help. Battle-rage burned around the edges of his shields, fed by the memory of withered corpses the lizard had found discarded in hollowed bedrock.
Trembling hands slid his rifle's safety into place. Decay had set in, but he'd seen enough creatures drained of electrolytes to know how those people had died.
How they were murdered, Nick knew, fighting a wave of weariness. Hydrozoids were all nervous system, no brain. They didn't have the intelligence to hide their prey.
A scaled head butted against him, massively gentle. Fury faded into warmth. Gone.
Nick rested a hand against gray-green armor. "Gone?" He sorted through images of a man's body falling, of the bright fire that had vanished with it. "Not dead."
Gone. Which was good enough, as far as Godzilla was concerned. The threat was out of his territory.
Nick leaned into the quiet, contented rumble. No malice there. No hate.
Maybe Monique would understand. He didn't.
The team. He didn't hear any more rifle fire. Which meant-
"Get this beast off me!"
He glanced up in time to see Bronx pounce on a snarling Delilah. His team was slimy but intact, Randy and Monique were pinning cocoa talons, and Elsie was - handcuffed to Matt? "Hudson?"
The elderly gargoyle grinned. "Forgive me, lad." A leathery rustle. "These old wings are nae so swift as they used to be."
So that's how ye pulled it off, Hudson thought. At ground level, the beast's burrow seemed but a seared crater, dug by the mage's own curse. Clever, clever dragon.
"Easy, great one," the elder murmured, hands spread wide and empty as he advanced. By the Dragon, he'd forgotten what it was to stand in the shadow of a beast that could crush him under one scaled foot. "I mean nae harm to yuir friend."
Nostrils he could have put a fist in sniffed him over. "He's just - curious," Nick said carefully. "Don't make any sudden moves, and you'll be fine." The poor lad looked all but done in, leaning on talons as others would a wall.
As Sadiq would lean, after a battle, Hudson recalled. The Arab would rest so, sword sheathed, trusting coils of aquamarine that would squash the life from a lesser man...
"Elsie, what's wrong?"
"Mind control," the redhead said tightly. "He must not be dead. I can still feel it."
Hudson shook off the memory. "Aye, that was ever Karentec's way." He studied the swearing gargoyle under Bronx. "And her too, I'll wager."
Delilah spat a curse. "When the Magister returns-" She finally looked up. "Oh, no..."
Mendel knelt by the snarling gargoyle beast. "We can break it, right?"
Karentec had thought not. The clan's elders had thought not.
Sadiq had proved them both wrong.
"Aye, lad. That we can."
Eyes closed, Elsie fought the rage, the irrational desire to attack those she knew were her friends. Just hold on. Monique's going to help. One minute more. One more.
Warm metal pressed into her handcuffed palm. Scales, the paleontologist noted, fingers tracing delicate ridges. Wings. Spiny curve of backbone-
Something snapped, showering her in green sparks.
"Nick?" Elsie whispered, blinking citrine motes out of her eyes. She knew the hand gripping hers over scaly gold, just as she knew the odd, wordless croon by her ear. Knew them as well as the feelings that had suddenly slid back into place; the sense of safety, of being just where she belonged.
The biologist gave her an exhausted grin. "Welcome back."
Hudson chuckled softly. "Now that, lass, is a long night's story." He smiled. "But we've a bit o' time before dawn."
Wyvern Hill, Scotland, 932 AD.
"Ye're sure this will work?" the second in command of the Wyvern Clan asked. Rabi's turquoise tail was coiled round the clan leader, the wyvern's fangs bared and ready to strike. Caught in Karentec's spells, the leader howled and cursed them all, too full of rage to know clan from foe.
"There is but one way to be sure." Sadiq lunged into the wyvern's reach, gold glinting from his hand.
A shower of emerald sparks, and the evil glow faded from the leader's gaze. She shook herself, sapphire wings curling round her protectively. "Sorcery!"
"One that... helps, and does not harm," the dragonslayer answered, pinning the brooch back into his cloak. Even with over a year among them, his Gaelic was slow and careful. "Save in the hands of those like Karentec."
The leader advanced on the human, rousing a hiss from Rabi. "Sorcery, and you kept it from us." Massive fangs lowered, and she flinched. "Get that beast away!"
Dark eyes narrowed. "She saved your life."
The leader snarled. "From a danger you brought among us."
"How can you say such things?" A pale, fierce sister pushed forward; she who'd battled at Sadiq's side. The one he called Tariq, when no elders were about; morning star, in honor of her fairness. "Should we hold him guilty for the actions of an evil one?"
"You endangered this clan!"
"There is no more danger!" the fair one objected. "The Magister is imprisoned, until the sun's fire should touch the earth!"
"And what of the next mage, and the next?" Crimson did not fade. "Step away, sister."
"I will not!"
"My friend." Sadiq, low and quiet as he stroked the wyvern's jaw. "Step away." His gaze found the leader's. "What would you have me do?"
"Leave this place." Quiet, and far more deadly than the second had ever heard her. "Now, and forever."
A slow nod. "As you wish, Leader."
"No!" Pale talons dung to chainmail, fearless of the giant fangs above. "Don't go."
Sadiq brushed gentle knuckles over her brow ridge, brushing back a strand of hair fair as river ice. "They love you, my own."
"I will not yield you up." Pale fingers wove with olive. "Not now, not ever."
"Then you have this night to make your farewells." The leader's face was stone. "After tomorrow's sunset, Sadiq ibn Ajmal ibn Fahdlan, we will not see you again."
"And the clan did not," Hudson sighed, noting the shift of the stars that presaged dawn. "Sadiq was ever a man of his word."
"That's cold, man." Randy shook out his dreadlocks.
"The leader must protect the clan." Hudson folded his arms. "She was within her rights."
"I'm sorry." Delilah's eyes were squeezed shut, leaking slow, bitter tears. "I'm so sorry..."
"It's okay." Elsie wiped her own eyes. She gripped the lass' shoulder, holding tight when Delilah would have pulled away. "It's not your fault," she whispered. "It's not."
Delilah gulped back a sob. "I could've hurt you. All of you."
"We're not that easy to kill," Nick said dryly.
"And it wouldn't have been you, lass," Hudson said softly. "Karentec enspelled ye. There's naught you could have done."
"No. There are ways to protect your mind," Monique corrected.
"A little," Elsie added, rubbing the side of her head. "It's better than having them take everything."
Mendel gulped. "You - could teach her, couldn't you?"
"0ui." Dark eyes softened. "If you wish it, Delilah."
The lass bit back tears. "I don't know. I need to talk to Diane..."
"Aye. But not tonight." Hudson turned toward the silent detective. "Bluestone? Do ye need us more, lad?"
"No. No, I was just wondering about that curse on Karentec. Sun's fire..." Matt frowned. "A hydrogen bomb?"
"It would be appropriately ironic," Monique noted, glancing upward.
Elsie managed a smile. "I guess lizards run in the family."
"People. Come on." Nick tucked the brooch away, held up halting hands. "No offense, but - a tenth century Arabian dragonslayer?" He glanced over his team. "My mom's family came from Cornwall."
Hudson shrugged. "Sadiq didna say where he was planning t' go. Summat about a bit o' a disagreement with the local sultan. But ye're likely right." He took Delilah's hand. "Come, lass. We'd best away from here, before Matt's fellows close in."
Belvedere Castle was high enough to catch the wind. The lass carried Bronx; it was a long glide back to the Labyrinth, and he was weary.
A long glide, with time to think. 'Twas likely as Nick had said; Sadiq's line long dead and dust, the brooch passing into other hands.
Except he'd caught that tender croon as Nick shattered the spell on Elsie. Wordless, wavering... but the same lullaby he'd heard Tariq croon so long ago, in a hidden camp the clan would never find. A camp a gargoyle could visit, so long as he was not acting as Second of the clan. A camp Sadiq would make nigh a score of times over the next sixty-two years; he, and Tariq, and Rabi, and little Laa'iqah. And Faysal, and Ra'wiya, and Hashim after her. All raised under the same wings, soothed by the same song.
Ar lan y môr mae rhosynnau cochion;
Ar lan y môr mae liliau gwynion;
Ar lan y môr mae nghariad innau,
Yn cysgu'r dydd a chodi'r nos.
Or, as these modern folk would have it,
Down by the sea are roses scarlet;
Down by the sea are lilies white.
Down by the sea is my true love's dwelling,
Sleeping all day, rising up in the night.
I'm going to kill him. Major Tony Hicks snapped orders right and left, deliberately ignoring the heavily-armed band of scientists huddled by one of Godzilla's footprints. Dawn's first light glowed over Central Park, painting shades of rose and gold over weary faces. Damn it, Nick; I'm going to be gray before fifty, watching out for you.
Charcoaled jelly and misty tentacles dotted the lawn. A massive, scorched crater had gouged out half the turf between the Turtle Pond and Belvedere Castle. The detective Nick's bunch had somehow shanghaied from the 23rd Precinct was eyeing seared, gel-smeared holes in his trenchcoat with a look of pure disbelief. And H.E.A.T.-
H.E.A.T. looked happy to be alive.
Hicks shook his head, glancing at the biologist stroking red hair, whispering to the tear-streaked paleontologist clasped in his arms. Must've been a close one. "Set up a perimeter by the Transverse. And get that hazmat team in here!"
Elsie had her face buried in Nick's shoulder. Hernandez and Craven were within arm's reach of each other... and not fighting. Even Monique gave him no more than a glance, holding her ground by the others.
Too damn close, the major realized. H.E.A.T. took on man-eating mutations the way Army units took on an obstacle course they'd never seen; a challenge, but one they expected to win.
This... clinginess... was different. But he'd seen it before.
Hicks took a deep breath, pushing aside dark memories. Nick would've told him if there were any danger to his men. But maybe he ought to ask anyway.
Same old, same old, Hicks thought as he strode their way. Your team went looking for trouble. Surprise, surprise, you found some. And your pet lizard had to pull you out.
And the Sandy Point military base caught the call. The soldier stifled a grin, remembering the mayor's apoplectic sputter. By this time, the politician had them on speed-dial.
"Dammit, Nick," Hicks muttered. "Only you could wind up damn near stung to death by a jellyfish in the middle of Manhattan."
"It wasn't that close."
Good ears. Hicks glanced at one peeking through brown hair, dark and lumpy with dried slobber. Can't believe you let that lizard lick you, Nick. You know that thing's radioactive. But then, maybe Nick knew something he didn't. He'd run a scintillation counter over the biologist before. Barely a click - even when scorch marks swore the lizard had breathed fire right over his head. "Facts, Worm Guy. What went down here?"
A swift exchange of glances; five voices let loose at once, throwing details and theories every direction. A few quiet words from Nick and a swift arrete from Monique stemmed the tide, channeling H.E.A.T.'s observations into one more-or-less coherent whole.
The more he heard, the less he liked. "So as far as you know, this Karentec's still alive."
"Believe me, we're going to be looking for the body. Dead or alive." Detective Bluestone jerked a thumb toward the burrow, face green. "Tell Hazmat to mount a joint effort with Homicide. That's a crime scene down there."
No wonder the team looked shaky. Mutations they could handle. Human malice was something else. "Bad?"
"Very." Nick stared across the water, eyes bleak.
Elsie shivered. "Better drag the pond. The victims might not all be in the cavern if the hydrozoids were still-" She swallowed. "Feeding on them."
Mendel gulped, fist to his lips. "Nick... can we go home now?"
Randy patted his shoulder. "Hang on, compadre. Just think of all the gunk we're going to have to wash out of the 'bot."
A glare. "What did you do to Nigel?"
The hacker waggled dark brows. "Nothing. Yet."
Nick shook his head, looked away from the pond. "Detective." He offered a hand. "Nice working with you."
"Thanks." A firm shake. "I think." Dazed eyes glanced around the wreckage. "Don't know how I'm going to write this up for the captain."
"You're welcome at Staten Island, you know. Anytime."
Bluestone drew back, wary as a startled fox. "Somehow, that sounds like a threat."
Mendel was scribbling on a yellow sticky note. "For Delilah," he said hurriedly. "That's my phone. And the lab phone. And the address, and the radio frequency-"
"I get the idea." The detective checked for a whole pocket, tucked away the note.
Randy cracked his knuckles. "Where are you going to take her for a date?"
"I didn't say date," Mendel said defensively. "Just... maybe talk, get to know each other, exchange a few ideas on forensic identification - cut that out!"
Whistling a wedding march, Randy grinned.
Monique deliberately met Hicks' gaze. "I do not believe there is any further assistance we can provide."
Translation: get my people out of here. We've had enough, Hicks thought.
Funny, how a French agent had decided a bunch of Americans were her people.
"Get back to Staten Island, Doctors," the major declared. "Before your lizard decides for an encore - who the hell is that?"
Bluestone rubbed his eyes, frowning at ash-blond hair bouncing above a gray sweatsuit. "One of the Roadrunners," the detective said. The jogger headed their way, apparently oblivious to the scorch marks, the melting jellyfish, and the bands of camouflaged soldiers scattering around the turf. "My partner's run into him a couple times. Don't think I ever got his name."
Hicks stared. "He's heading right for-"
The sweatsuit vanished. "Aaaah!" yelped out of dented soil.
A snort of laughter erupted beside him.
Hicks turned in time to see Chapman elbow Tatopoulos in the ribs. "Nick! That's not funny!"
"S-sorry," the biologist gasped, still chuckling. "It's just - how could you miss that?"
Bluestone stifled a laugh. Randy snickered. Even Monique cracked a smile.
Hicks rolled his eyes as H.E.A.T. dissolved in laughter, and detailed a squad to pull the jogger out of Godzilla's footprint.