Nightmares drove her out of bed to run.
She’d become accustomed to another sort of dream over the last weeks: erotic, exotic, filled with impossible beings and endless possibility. But these were different, burning images of a man’s death in flames. Not by flame, but in it: the color of her dreams was ever-changing crimson licked with saffron, as though varying the light might result in a happier ending.
It never did.
The scent of salt water rose up, more potent in recollection than it had been in reality. It tangled brutally with the smell of copper before the latter won out, blood flavor tangy at the back of her throat. She couldn’t remember if she’d actually smelled it, but her dreams tasted of it.
Small kindness: fire burned those odors away, whether they were real or not. But that left her with flame again, and for all that she was proud of her running speed, she couldn’t outpace the blaze.
There was a dragon in the fire, red and sinuous and deadly. It battled a pale creature of immense strength; of unbreaking stone. A gargoyle, so far removed from human imagination that there were no legends of them, as there were of so many of their otherworldly brethren.
Between them was another creature: a djinn, one of mankind’s imaginings, but not of the sort to grant wishes. It drifted in its element of air, clearly forgotten by dragon and gargoyle alike, though it was the thing they fought over. It faded in and out of solidity, impossible to strike when it didn’t attack. But there were moments of vulnerability, times when to do damage it must become part of the world. It became real with a weapon lifted to strike the dragon a deathblow.
And she, who had been nothing more than an unremembered observer, struck back. She fired a weapon of absurd proportions: a child’s watergun, filled with salt water.
The djinn died, not from the streams of water, but from their result. The gargoyle pounced, moving as she had: to save the dragon. But salt water bound the djinn to solidity, and heavy stone crushed the slighter creature’s fragile form.
The silence that followed was marked by the snapping of fire.
Margrit ground her teeth together and ran harder, trying to escape her nightmares.
She struggled not to look up as she ran. It had been almost two weeks since she’d sent Alban from her side, and every night since then she’d been driven to the park in the small hours of the morning. Not even her housemates knew she was running: she was careful to slip in and out of the apartment as quietly as she could, avoiding Cole as he got up for his early shift, leaving his fianc'ee asleep. It was best to avoid him, especially. Nothing had been the same since he’d glimpsed Alban in his broad-shouldered gargoyle form.
Margrit could no longer name the emotion that ran through her when she thought of Alban. It had ranged from fear to fascination to desire, and some of all of that remained in her, complicated and uncertain. Hope, too, but laced with bitter despair. Too many things to name, too complex to label in the aftermath of Malik al-Massri’s death.
Not that the inability to catalog emotion stopped her from trying. Only the slap of her feet against the pavement, the jarring pressure in her knees and hips, and the sharp, cold air of an April night, helped to drive away the exhausting attempts to come to terms with—
With what her life had become. With what she’d done to survive; what she’d done to help Alban survive. To help Janx survive. Her friends—ordinary humans, people whose lives hadn’t been star-crossed by the Old Races—seemed to barely know her any longer. Margrit felt she hardly knew herself.
She’d asked for time, and that, of all things, was a gargoyle’s to give: the Old Races lived forever, or near enough that to her perspective it made no difference. They could die violently; that, she’d seen. But left alone to age, they carried on for centuries. Alban could afford a little time.
Margrit could not.
She made fists, nails biting into her palms. Tension threw her pace off and she wove on the path, feet coming down with a surety her mind couldn’t find. The same thoughts haunted her every night. How much time Alban had; how little she had. How the life she’d planned had, in a few brief weeks, become not only unrecognizable, but unappealing.
Sweat stung her eyes, a welcome distraction. Her hair stuck to her cheeks, itching: physical solace for an unquiet mind. She didn’t think of herself as someone who ran away, but she couldn’t in good conscience claim she ran toward anything except the obliteration of memory in the way her lungs burned, her thighs burned.
The House of Cards burned.
“Dammit!” Margrit stumbled and came to a stop. Her chest heaved, testimony to the effort she’d expended. She found a park bench to plant her hands against, head dropped as she caught her breath in quiet gasps that let her listen for danger. She’d asked Alban for time, and couldn’t trust he glided in the sky above, watching out for her, especially at this hour of the morning. Typically, she ran in the early evenings, not hours after nightfall. There was no reason to imagine he’d wait on her all night. Safety in the park was her own concern, not his.
Which was why she couldn’t allow herself to look up.
If she would only bend so far as to glance skyward, he would have an excuse to join her.
Alban winged loose circles above Central Park, watching the lonely woman make her way through pathways below. She was fierce in her solitude, long strides eating the distance as though she owned the park. It was that ferocity that had drawn him to watch her in the first place, the reckless abandon of her own safety in favor of something the park could give her in exchange. He thought of it as freedom, pursued in the face of good sense. It encompassed what little he’d known about her when he began to watch her: that she would risk everything for running at night.
That was what had given him the courage to speak to her, for all that he’d never meant it to go further than one brief greeting. It had been a moment of light in a world he’d allowed to grow grim with isolation, though he hadn’t recognized its darkness until Margrit breathed life back into it.
And now he hungered for that brightness again, a desire for life and love awakened in him when he’d thought it lost forever. He supposed himself steadfast, as slow and reluctant to change as stone, but in the heat of Margrit’s embrace, he changed more quickly and more completely than he might have once imagined. He had learned love again; he had learned fear and hope and, most vividly of all, he had learned pain.
He thought it was pain that sent Margrit running in these small hours. She’d asked him to stay away while she came to grips with it, but she hadn’t said how far away, and he was, after all, a gargoyle. He watched over her every night from dusk until dawn, even when that meant sitting across the street on an apartment-building roof, patiently watching lights turn off in her home as she and her housemates retired to bed. He ignored the others who had demands on his time: Janx, the charming dragonlord who’d lost his territory in the fight that had ended Malik al-Massri’s life; who had, in fact, nearly lost his own life and who was still healing from the wounds Malik had dealt him. Alban had helped him escape, had brought him below the streets, into the vigilante Grace O’Malley’s world. Janx was safe there, but Grace and the children she helped were not, not so long as Janx remained. And yet Alban took to the skies each night, watching Margrit instead of resolving the conflicts that grew in the tunnels beneath the city.
If it were not entirely against a gargoyle’s nature, Alban might say he was hiding from those responsibilities by insisting on another. But then, he’d lost his sense of what was, in truth, a gargoyle’s nature, and what was not. A few months earlier he would have answered with confidence that a gargoyle was meant to keep to a well-known path, to be a rock against the changes forced by time. Now, though, now he had lost his way, or found it so reshaped before him that he had to gather himself before he could move forward. He hadn’t wanted to leave Margrit when she said she needed time, but suddenly he understood. Distress might be eased when shared, but the need to understand herself—or himself, now that he saw it—could be as necessary a step toward recovery. To edge back and rediscover the core of what he thought he was, without outside influence, might be critical.
And the secluded nights did give him time to think. No: time to remember. Remembering was a gargoyle’s purpose in existing, and for the past two weeks he would have given anything to be unburdened by that particular gift borne by his people.
Margrit sprinted away from a park bench without looking up, and Alban felt a twist of sorrow. Not anything: there was, it seemed, at least one thing he would not give up under any circumstances. He had killed to protect Margrit Knight, not once, but twice.
It might have meant nothing—at least to the other Old Races—had he taken human lives. But he’d destroyed a gargoyle woman with full deliberation, and a djinn thanks to devastating mistiming. Those were exiling offenses, actions for which he could—would, should—be shunned by his people. For all that he’d exiled himself centuries earlier on behalf of men not of his race, knowing he now inexorably stood outside the community he’d been born to cut more deeply than he’d thought it could. And for all of that, what disturbed him the most was the unshakable certainty that, given another chance, given identical circumstances, he would make the same choice. If he could alter the paces of the play, he would, yes; of course. But if not, if the same beats should come to pass, he would choose Margrit and the brief, shocking impulses of life she brought into his world.
He was no longer certain if he’d stopped knowing himself a long time ago and was only coming back to his core now, or if Margrit Knight had pulled him so far from his course that he had nothing but new territory to explore. He would have to ask Janx or Daisani someday; they had known him in his youth.
Startling clarity shot through him, the disgusted voice of another who’d known him when he was young: You were a warrior once. You could have led us. Biali hadn’t meant it as a compliment, his shattered visage testimony to the battle skills Alban had once had. Maybe, then, the impulse to make war had always been in him, buried during the centuries of self-imposed exile. Maybe the ability to kill had waited until it was needed, or wanted: a vicious streak through a heart of stone.
Too many thoughts circling near the same ideas that had haunted him through Margrit’s sleepless nights. Alban shook himself, leaping from the treetops to follow her, certain of this, if nothing else: he would not let the human woman come to harm, not after the changes she’d wrought in himself and his world. To lose her now would undo the meaning of everything, and that was a price too dear to be paid.
An impact caught her in the spine and knocked her forward. Margrit shouted with outraged surprise, hands outspread in preparation for breaking a fall she couldn’t stop. But thick arms encircled her waist, and the ground fell away with a sudden lurch. A body pressed against hers, muscle shifting and flexing in a pattern that might have been erotic, had Margrit’s incredulous anger not drowned out any other emotion, even fear. She struggled ineffectively, swearing as her captor soared above the treetops. “Alban?”
“Sorry, lawyer.” The words spoken into her hair were gargoyle-deep, but not Alban’s reassuring rough-on-rough accent. There was no sincerity in the apology, only a snarled mockery made of its form. “Hate to use you as bait, but I can’t do this out in the open.”
“Biali?” Margrit’s voice broke into a rarely used register as she twisted, trying to get a look at the gargoyle who’d swept her up. Her hair tangled in her face, blinding her. “What the hell are you doing?”
An edged chuckle scraped over her skin. “Getting Korund’s attention.”
“You couldn’t use a telephone like a normal person?” Margrit twisted harder and looped an arm around Biali’s shoulders, so she was no longer wholly reliant on his grip around her waist. He grunted, adjusting his hold, and gave her a baleful look that she returned with full force. “This was your idea.”
Exasperation crossed Biali’s face so sharply that for a moment it diluted Margrit’s anger. That was just as well: they were passing rooftops now, and pique might get her dropped from the killing height. With anger fading, she realized she had precious moments that could be better spent in investigation than in argument. “What do you want from Alban?”
“Justice.” Biali backwinged above an apartment building, landing on messy blacktop. He released Margrit easily, as though he hadn’t abducted her. She bolted for the rooftop door, though seeing its rusty lock stopped her before she reached it. She spun around, running again before she’d located the fire escapes, but Biali leapt into the air and cruised over her head, landing between her and the ladders. “Don’t make me have to hit you, lawyer.”
Margrit reared back, staying out of the gargoyle’s reach, though she doubted she could move fast enough to avoid him if he wanted to catch her again. For the moment, though, he simply crouched where he was, wings half spread in anticipation, broken face watching Margrit consider her options. He wore chain links around his waist, a new addition to the white jeans she’d seen him in before. Wrapped too many times to be a belt, the metal made a peculiarly appropriate accessory for the brawny gargoyle, enhancing his thickness and the sense of danger he could convey. Margrit found it disquieting, the dark iron twinging as a wrongness, but that, too, added to the effect.
Any real expectation of escape blocked, she resorted to words for the second time. “Justice for what?”
Dismay plummeted Margrit’s belly. The name conjured as many demons as flame-haunted dreams did. Ausra Korund had styled herself Alban’s daughter, though in truth she was the child of his lifemate, Hajnal, and the human who had captured her. Driven mad by her own heritage, Ausra had lain in wait for literally centuries, stalking Alban, waiting for a chance to destroy him. She had been Biali’s lover, and very nearly Margrit’s death. The Old Races were meant to think Ausra’s fate lay in Margrit’s hands. Only she and Alban knew the truth: that Alban had taken Ausra’s life to save Margrit’s.
Only they, and, it seemed, Biali. Margrit felt all her years of courtroom training betray her as her mouth tightened in recognition. Dark humor slid through Biali’s expression. “Everything make sense now, lawyer?”
Margrit drew in breath to respond and let it out again in a shriek as a flash of white darted over her head. Biali launched himself skyward to meet Alban, all attention for Margrit lost.
They crashed together with none of the grace she was accustomed to seeing from the Old Races. Too close to the rooftop to keep their battle aerial, momentum and their own weight slammed them to the blacktop. Margrit staggered with the impact and ran for shelter, putting herself against the rooftop access door. It seemed impossible that no one would come to see what the sound had been, and each roll and thud the combatants shared made it that much more likely. She didn’t dare shout for the same reason, but she pitched her voice to carry, fresh fear and anger in it: “Are you crazy? Somebody’s going to come!”
Neither gargoyle heeded her, too caught up in their private conflict to respond to sense. Biali lifted a fist and drove it down like the rock of ages. Alban flinched just far enough to the side that the blow missed. The rooftop shook again and Margrit skittered forward a few feet, sure that interfering would be useless, but driven to try. “Alban, stop! He grabbed me to make you come after him! Just get out of here!”
For a moment it seemed he’d heard her, an instant’s hesitation coming into his antagonism. Biali took advantage with a backhand swing so hard the air whistled with it, his fist a white blur against the graying sky. Alban spun, dizziness swaying his steps. An appalled fragment of Margrit’s attention wondered how hard a hit that was, to stagger a gargoyle. A human jaw would have been pulverized.
Her gaze locked on the shattered left half of Biali’s face; the ruined eye socket that in gargoyle form was all rough planes worn smooth by time. Alban had done that centuries earlier, and if the blow he’d just taken hadn’t conveyed similar damage to his own face, Margrit couldn’t imagine what strength had been necessary to destroy Biali’s features.
As Alban reeled and regained his footing, Biali backed away, unwinding the length of chain from around his waist. Unwanted understanding churned Margrit’s stomach as the stumpy gargoyle knotted one end and began to swing it. It wasn’t an adornment of any sort. It was a weapon, and more, a prison.
Of all the Old Races, only gargoyles had ever been enslaved.
Margrit let go a wordless shout of warning that forgot the need for silence. Alban responded, flinching toward her as if he would protect her from whatever she feared, but too late: Biali released the chain, sending it clattering toward Alban. Margrit sprinted toward them, her only thought to break the chain’s trajectory, regardless of the cost to herself. She would heal from most injuries: that was the gift another of the Old Races had given her, and for Alban’s freedom she would risk her fragile human form against the dangerous weight of metal.
But she’d taken herself too far from the fight, her safe haven now a detriment. Crystal-precise clarity played the seconds out, letting her see how the chain left Biali’s hands entirely, flying free. Alban recognized the threat an instant too late, wings flared and eyes wide with comprehension and furious alarm. Metal wound around his neck and his hands clawed against it, desperate to snap the chain and shake himself free.
Dawn broke, binding iron to stone.