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Nick Tatopoulos leaned back in his lab chair, two letters spread before him. Deliberately he picked up the first, rereading the sheet that had wrapped an iron cup; the words that had shaken his world.


Dr. Tatopoulos-

I cannot call you Grandson. I gave up that right long ago, for good and sufficient reasons. Though your mother never accepted them. Eurielle's heart was warm - and that warmth was her undoing. I lost mine one frigid February night, in the midst of the Great War.

Memories of that time grow dim now, even for me. But I remember the rattle of dried leaves against the window, the rattle in my mother's throat. The keening of the cyhyreath on the hill, as Gwendydd Tremayne passed out of this life.

Doctor Bancroft claimed it was pneumonia, brought in the wake of the influenza. But we knew better. Before the fever drove her into darkness, she whispered words of the bitter trenches, the last sight of our father under mortar fire, the mustard taste of the accursed gas. Her Beast had been caught in a British onslaught, and there was no time to flee. Heart to brute's heart they were bound - and heart to brutish heart they died.

The Inires - of course, we were not called that then - were quick to take us in. It was the only Christian thing for the town's finest family to do. And they kept us, even when Aunt Seirian came on wings of storm. Human law, human decency giving us refuge; we and the property we were rightful heir to. What life could Seirian Mailli give three orphans when she herself was unmarried; indeed, it was rumored, not even Christian? No; merciful law granted us to the Inires, rather than forsake us to be raised as "Gypsy vagabonds".

Unwise, I know that now. Those of my blood are... perilous, when enraged.

Twenty souls died that night, by claw and fang and sword.

I felt that rage in the darkness. Felt the sting of bullets, as men were swept away by a shape of scales and fire. Felt the wild inhuman shriek that was Seirian tear my own throat, as she and her Beast battled toward us. Felt - God forgive me! - my own flesh and blood surge forward to answer that call, that drive to protect at any cost.

Peg caught me. Held me, as I fought like a wild thing; drowned the roar of the Beast with her prayers. Muirne and Fihr had fled, leaving battered nursemaids behind, but Peg gripped me strong as iron.

The rest is nightmare. Seirian, gold gleaming on one shoulder, dripping sword in her hand. An obsidian shape, coiling behind her in the night. An outstretched, bloody hand-

A gunshot.

I know nothing more.

Little enough left to be said. Our family treasure had vanished with Seirian's body. Muirne and Fihr were among the dead - or so I prayed. Under Peg's patient guidance, I renounced my clan's dark ways. I lived, and loved, and married Peg's son, Patrick Inire. And eventually I bore your mother.

And she left us.

This cup came to me a week ago. Your mother might have known its purpose. I do not, nor do I wish to.

Shannon Inire.


 

Shaking, Nick laid his grandmother's letter aside. He turned to the pages it had wrapped; text and diagrams, some of which Mendel had already walked off with. A shred of notepaper clung to the top, incongruously modern against aged paper. Father died waiting for you to call, it ran; short, choppy slashes of ink. I'm not taking "returned to sender". Either you talk to us, "Shannon", or you talk to Gwydrfaen. Don't think we won't.

Under the note were pale sheets, covered in a bold, curved hand. Curves that blurred in spots, as if drops of rain had fallen on fresh ink.


 

Ja'thibyya, my sister-

Once more, I beg you to relent. There is still time. Those of our blood live long; you might have half a century still, if you bond now. Will you leave us ever grieving?

We tried to find you; I swear we tried. But the Stuarts moved so fast. By the time Gwydrfaen had brought us to safety and stopped Seirian's bleeding, you were already gone.

Powers, I cannot forget that night. The armed guards about us, bent on wiping out the "witch's brood" once and for all; the screams, as Gwydrfaen's flames proved deadly distraction. The shear of Damascene steel through shotguns meant to fire on us. The blood... oh, so much blood...

Years we searched. Years, combing the country, the globe - our clan spreads wide, though we are few. We cannot keep our allies too close together, after all; the local fish stocks couldn't handle it-

But I wander. As we did with Seirian, and later her children, in search of you. With no guerdon. We searched, but we could not find. The Stuarts had powerful allies. And the murder warrants did not help.

It was only chance that anyone found your daughter. Bless the gifts that draw us always to the scholar's calling; Rhedyn met her glance across an aisle of biology tomes. And we knew.

Have you any idea how lucky you were, Jae? Our clan breeds few enough as it is. To bear even one child, without the aid of our allies... Eurielle was a miracle. To see her was to see you, fierce and strong as the summer storm. Fierceness they stole from you, as they stole your chance to know us - stars, how can you defend them?

We taught her what she was, how she might ward and guard herself against the Dark. But we knew Eurielle wished to reconcile with you. So when she married and left us, we let her go. We did not question... Night Above, I wish we had!

A child. A child. Is that what you hid from us, with your hasty funeral? Your silence? Your - is it "white lies" you call them now? Is that what Eurielle meant to tell us? She'd sent word to Seirian the week before, claiming she had a way to draw our sundered kinship back together. But what that way might be she never said. And when we went to speak with her husband, he too was gone - fled in the night, with a police ambush armed and waiting.

Patrick's doing, that? It smacks of the Stuarts. I pray it was not you, my kinswoman. Whoever arranged it nearly sent ten good men to their deaths.

Jae, whatever your anger, think of your grandchild. The depth of our gifts may not wake until well past our third decade. Even were the babe born the week before she died - and I know 'twas not - Eurielle's child would be closing on the dangerous years. If the gifts are great - if the child should call, and bind, unknowing-

At the least, send these blueprints on. We are not like other folk, Jae; there are perils out there we must defend against.

I beg you, sister. Speak to us. We still love you.

Fihr Tremayne, Clan Wyvern


 

Pages drifted from Nick's hand. Two versions of a night he'd never seen. Two voices... only one of which he'd ever heard. "One of you is lying," he said softly. "But which one?"

"Sources are few." Monique stepped into his line of sight, a slim manila file in hand. "But both Inire and M'sieur Tremayne provided facts we could trace." Laying the file before him, she regarded the biologist with calm compassion. "I believe we have determined some of the events of that night."


 

February, 1918. Upstate New York.

Shrieking like a madwoman, Seirian Mailli stepped clear of her latest foe. His blood spattered her gray cloak, head sheared off by her red-streaked blade.

In a way she was mad; and worse, she knew it. Her bond with Gwydrfaen was fresh and fierce; the young wyvern's anger at this theft-of-young dragging his twenty-four-year-old partner near the edge of insanity. But Seirian had remembered her mother's training all through the hopeless court hearing, the grim decision to steal her nieces and nephew away by night. She'd held her mind safe and sane-

Until that damned Berton Stuart had held a gun to Muirne's head.

No telling where he was now, in this slew of blood and bodies. He wasn't dead; she scented that, as she could scent the iron heat of blood, the acrid tang of spilled gunpowder. Smith and Wesson made fine firearms, but they were little match for Damascus steel. Not when it was driven by a wyvern's fury...

"Aunt Seirian!" Muirne; twelve, tear-streaked and terrified. Cold hands daring to seize her arm, regardless of the blood - and worse - that streaked to the elbow. "Aunt, wake up! Please wake up!"

Kin's touch- Seirian levered a shield into place, held it against the raging fury. "I'm here," she gasped. Weariness struck; her muscles started to shake. "I'm here. Your sibs-"

A groan; Fihr flung an unconscious lawman out of the shadows, short-cropped hair flying. A spurt of irrational anger made it past the shield, tightened Seirian's grip on her blade. They cut his hair...

Small enough damage, compared to the wreck of the town's veterans around her. And all because Berton and Peg Stuart had convinced the town her sister's children - and their estate - belonged in their hands.

Fire gouted behind the Stuarts' mansion; Gwydrfaen, setting yet another barn ablaze. At least we didn't slaughter the firemen, Seirian winced. So much blood. So many... pieces... Stars, she was going to be sick. I should have waited for the rest of the clan. I should have...

"Jae's still inside," Fihr panted, white puffs in the chill night wind. Seventeen and small, like most of the clan; one eye red in the way that promised a horrendous bruise later. "That gast Peg grabbed her - we couldn't get through-"

"One goes only once to hell," Seirian muttered. Dead veterans, dead officers, the town's richest family howling for her blood - the clan would have no better chance. 'Vaen! Over here! "Stay with Gwydrfaen," she ordered the children. Black wings dropped out of the sky, obsidian membranes spilling wind; her partner landed, tail coiling in rage. "If I'm not back in a few minutes, tell him to take you home." She met the wyvem's gaze, blue eyes to burning scarlet. "Hear me, 'Vaen? If I don't come back, you take them home."

Talons twitched, scraping at bloody snow. The wyvern gripped ground with all four limbs; obsidian wings folded over his back, each membrane supported by one long finger. Grudging agreement wove through the fury.

This is the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life-

Seirian slipped in through a shattered window, heading toward shouts of rage. Tracking the feel of a young, terrified mind. There!

"Our Father, who art in Heaven..."

Peg Stuart. Seirian gripped rage with her fingernails, held her blade at her side. "I've come for Ja'thibyya."

"As if we'd let you have her!" Dark eyes flashed with hate. "I saw what you are. Spawn of heathens. Murderer. You have no rights here!"

"Aunt Seirian," Jae sobbed; wrists already purpling. She twisted in the jeweled grip, cried out as Peg squeezed one arm tighter about her waist. "Mama..."

"Shh, shh," Peg crooned. "We won't let them taint you. I promise."

Seirian snarled. Stars, she was so tired... "I don't care what you think we are, or who you think you are." Hold the fury. Don't let it rule you. "She comes with me!"

"I don't think so."

Berton. Smug. Sure. Behind her-

Burning pain in her side. Echoes of thunder. No strength left. So tired...

Roar of flames, of inhuman rage. Talons' grip about her chest; a swift launch into freezing February winds.

"Please don't die." Muirne's voice, quaking with fear. Almost drowned by the rushing wind. "Please don't die. Aunt Seirian, please-"


 

"Sarah Ann Mary, alias Seirian Mailli, was treated for gunshot that night in a Hartford hospital," Monique concluded. "Authorities took many days to connect her injury with the battle. Apparently the more sensible among them declared her innocent by default. No one could have survived that wound for more than an hour - and the Stuarts' estate was over a hundred miles away."

"But there's still a warrant out on her?" Mendel looked pale. The rest of H.E.A.T. had gathered around the living area, quiet support for their silent leader.

"There is no statute of limitations on murder." The French agent tapped a copy of the court records. "And murder is what Berton Stuart charged Seirian with, before he and his family assumed new identities; she, and Fergus, sometimes called Fihr, Moyra, called Muirne... and Jane, called Ja'thibyya."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Randy waved his hands wildly. "They charged the kids?"

"Including the one they kept?" Elsie shuddered. "That's sick!"

"But effective." Monique shrugged. "By all accounts, Peg wished to ensure Ja'thibyya broke all ties to her clan." Dark eyes were cold. "It would seem she succeeded."

Nick wrapped his arms about himself, chilled. "But Seirian was a killer."

"She has killed," Monique acknowledged. "Yet think. Why argue for the children's custody, if she meant to slay from the first? Why hold children at gun point - which witnesses testified did occur - if you did not wish to provoke a fight?"

Has killed. Nick looked up. "You think she's alive."

"The note implies that Gwydrfaen is." Monique shuffled her file together "I believe that what occurred that night was a mistake."

"A mistake?" Nick shot a glance at her, gut churning. "Twenty-one people died, and you call it a mistake?"

"A mistake," the agent said deliberately. "Made by a man who saw an opportunity to gain wealth and remove a disruptive element from the community in one swift move." Her gaze softened. "And by a young woman, who had just lost her sister, threatened with losing her sister's children as well."

Elsie's hand, warm over his. "It's what I would have done," the paleontologist admitted. "If someone told me they were going to take Katie away - god, Nick, you don't think. You just fight."

"Instinctive rage," Monique nodded. "And with no one to draw you out..." A shrug. "In a fight, five minutes is a very long time."

Nick shook his head. "I'm not - I-" The biologist drew a shuddering breath. "I need some air."

Cold steel under his hands. Nick pressed his forehead against the roof railing, breathing in cool salt air.

Questioning. Sleepy curiosity.

Fingers tightened on the rail. I need to be alone.

Gentle warmth. Like stepping into sunlight on a cool spring day.

Nick let that comfort seep in, warming his chilled soul. "Perilous when enraged," he murmured. Shannon... Ja'thibyya... had hit that one on the head, all right. Upset him, and there was a twenty-story lizard looking for trouble. Tick off Godzilla, and Nick would bring every resource H.E.A.T. had down on the cause.

Enrage both of them...

He still didn't know the total body count from Shanee Kaplan's lab. Somewhere over a hundred, at least.

Soft footsteps behind him. "Your mom never told you any of this?" Elsie asked.

Nick sighed. And that's what really hurts, isn't it? he told himself bluntly. "She'd just say... she and her family disagreed on some things. Grownup stuff. Boring."

A quiet laugh. "Nicky, life around you may be a lot of things, but I guarantee it's not boring." Elsie craned her head around to meet his gaze. "Are you okay?"

"Ask me in a week." Nick rubbed steel, noting the warmth where his fingers had rested, the chill of the rest of the rail. "Right now, I just feel... confused." Bewildered. Betrayed. "Why didn't she tell me?"

"Maybe she didn't know how." Elsie stared out at dark water. "It's hard to go against your family. Even when you know they're wrong."

Purple bridesmaid's dress, Nick recalled. Absolutely horrid on a redhead. Which Elsie had worn without a hint of complaint... at least, to her relatives. "Are you okay?"

"What, with knowing you've got convicted felons sneaking around your family tree?" The paleontologist grinned at him. "Did I ever tell you about my Great-Uncle Joe?"

"Ah... no."

"Great-great-great uncle Joe, actually." Elsie took his arm, heading back toward the door. "Convicted horse thief, highwayman, all-around no-good dastardly dashing rogue. Could talk his way into or out of anything. Locks, castles, beds... we don't know how many kids he had..."

Chuckling, Nick let her lead him back into the light.