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A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


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CHAPTER 24

Alban remained still in the first minutes after sunset released him, savoring a subdued sense of belonging that had not been his for well over three centuries. As a youth he would never have noticed the quiet sense of connection that lingered in the back of his mind: the awareness of his people, both physically and mentally. They shared their lives and their thoughts easily, an endless background murmur, and not until hed cut himself off from it had he realized that it had a sound of its own. Not until he could hear it again did he understand how alone he had been with his own memories.

They still weighed him down. Would always weigh him, as they should. There was still despair when he thought of Ausras death, though that was tempered with inevitability now. There was still horror at Maliks death, and an awareness that his acceptance within the gargoyle overmind might be short-lived: there had not yet been a reckoning on the matter of the djinn. Only confession, spilled messily into the minds of all the trial attendees through Margrits dangerous inability to control her thoughts and memories.

Unfair, Stoneheart. Albans silent chiding came the way Janx would form it, as if he played up the stoniness by scolding Margrit for lacking a skill she had no reason to have. No one, least of all Margrit, could have suspected what would happen if she attempted to share memory with the gargoyles.

And there was a certain relief in all secrets being undone. He wasnt made to keep them, not the kinds hed accumulated in the past few months. Kate and Ursula, yes; Sarahs life; that secret he had been willing to keep for the sake of children and for the sake of friendship. Killing, done in defense of another or not, done accidentally or not, was too burdensome to bear.

Bialis grumbling presence was nearby, awake and tinged with bitterness. Alban welcomed the familiarity as much as he regretted the divide that parted them. Regretted, but doubted he would try to cross: too many lives, too many deaths, lay between them, and Biali was not by nature a forgiving soul.

Sour humor pulled his mouth long and Alban stretched out of his crouch, admitting the truth behind that thought: gargoyles were not by nature forgiving. Stone did not forget easily.

Beyond Biali in Albans mental awareness, if not actually in physical distance, were the gargoyles of the tribunal. Eldred was the steadiest of those, his sense of self and his roots in the memories reaching down until they became bedrock. Amongst those memories were the last encounter any of the Old Races had had with the selkies before theyd slipped into the sea, becoming, as far as their ancient brethren were concerned, extinct. Eldred had, all those centuries ago, expressed disgust for the selkie attempt at saving themselves; at their decision to breed with humans. It had seemed futile at the time, and the elder gargoyles opinion had been widely reflected throughout the Old Races.

Their world had changed profoundly since then. Alban had, as hed foreseen in his youth, watched humanity restructure the world to its liking, and had held fast against those changes, believing tradition to be the only way to survive. That long-held conviction had been shaken under the tidal wave that was Margrit Knight.

Margrit. A smile curved his mouth. She pervaded his thoughts the way Hajnal once had, her actions affecting him so deeply that he could barely imagine his life without her. Hed lost passion to solitude centuries earlier; rediscovering it in her arms was a breath-taking adventure. For all that he couldnt always agree with her, her fire was welcome, warming him after lifetimes of loneliness. Her memory, and the long-lost echo of the gestalt whispering at the back of his mind gave him courage, and with it in hand, he left his chamber to greet his own people at sunset for the first time in centuries.

Korund. Graces voice cut down the tunnels, sharp with alarm. Alban turned, surprised, and Grace strode toward him through flickering lights and tall, round walls. What in hell are you doing?

Alban glanced down the tunnel, then back at Grace, eyebrows lifted in confusion. Searching out a meal and the tribunal before finding Margrit.

Like that? Grace gestured as sharply as shed spoken and cold curdled Albans heart. He flashed to human form, hands lifted to stare at them. Talons disappeared into well-formed nails, the one delicate compared to the other, though even in mortal form he had strength beyond anything men could conjure.

I have never forgotten that before. Disbelief strained his voice. In all my years, Ive never forgotten.

Youre getting complacent, Grace snapped. Too many things have gone too well for you lately. Youre forgetting what you are and what the world would do to you.

Never, Alban murmured without conviction. But thank you, Grace. He finally took his gaze from his hands, training it on the curvaceous vigilante instead. The impulse to follow Margrits curiosityand his owncaught him for a moment, but he swallowed it with a reminder to himself as much as an acknowledgment to Grace: It seems the debt I owe you is growing by the moment.

And Ill call it in some day, she promised. In the meantime you can get your Margrit to call in her last favor with the dragonlord and get him out of my tunnels.

Alban lifted an eyebrow. And thats not calling in my debt?

That ones Margrits promise to keep, not yours. Besides, youre the one walking around human territory in your natural form, love. Even if Id never done you any other favors, youd owe me large for that one.

I would. Alban studied the door hed almost taken, then looked at Grace again. Tell me what my welcome will be, Grace OMalley. I was confident a moment ago, confident enough to forget myself. But now I find myself remembering that these men and women were called to pass judgment on me, and while they have granted amnesty and I can once more walk among the memories, I know very little of them, or how they think of me.

And you think I know?

Humor quirked Albans mouth and he quoted, carefully, Grace knows more than she should, love.

Surprise brightened the womans dark eyes and she laughed. Theres a spark of cleverness left in there after all. All right, Korund. Theyre curious, is what they are, which I think you could learn quick enough from the memories.

I could. Alban hesitated over continuing, and Grace hopped on his pause with a spark of humor in her eyes.

But it seems like prying, does it, after all this time? Ah, Korund, youre not one of them anymore, but you cant be human, either. Maybe youre well matched with Margrit after all, the both of you forging ahead into new territory. A shadow passed over Graces face, aging her unexpectedly and making Alban realize he had no idea how old the platinum blonde was. Shed been part of the citys underground for years, according to Margrit, but it hadnt left its mark. Just then she looked far older than even the greatest number of years he could accord her, though it faded and left her as she had been, young in form and face, but somehow ancient in her gaze. Go on, then, Stoneheart. Join them. See who you are among them, and then move on to see who you are in the world.

What about you, Grace? The question held him in place even when he might have wanted to move at her command; to embrace the world as it had become and learn his place in it. Will you stay where you are while the world changes around you? Will you not move on, too?

Ah, sure and you know the answer to that, Grace said with a sighed smile, and a ghost of humor turned Albans mouth up at the corner.

Youll move on when youve been given the kiss of angels, isnt that what you say? What does it mean?

Gracell let you know when she finds out. She nudged him toward the door with a bump of her hips, encouraging him to move without touching him. Alban chuckled again and went where he was bid, putting weight onto the heavy iron door handle that opened the way into the below-streets central refuge.

It opened silently. Graces territory was inevitably well oiled and smooth-running, far more so than might be expected of a ragtag bunch of teens led by a leather-clad den mother. The group within, though, was wholly different from the youthful faces and chip-on-the-shoulder attitudes Alban had come to recognize and admire over the past months.

Instead an older man straightened from his crouch and turned to look at Alban. He was stocky, not gone to fat, but broad and jowly. White touched otherwise steel-gray hair at the temples, and deep-set eyes were much the same shade as his hair. Alban wondered suddenly if it would be as clear to Margrit that this was Eldred in his human form, or if the ability to recognize one another in any shape was part of what made them unique.

Looking over the others, he thought it took no more than an ability to extrapolate. The lanky youthyounger, certainly, than Alban himselfhad a touch of strawberry to his white-blond hair and was as leggy and elbow-ridden in human form as in his gargoyle shape. The two women were as much ValkyriesMargrits memory intruding, that; Alban wouldnt have chosen the word himselfin mortal form as in immortal, both broad-shouldered and blue-eyed with long, pale hair. They looked like themselves, all of them.

And they were all riding judgment on him. Nervousness that hadnt been present the night before fluttered in Albans gullet, a reaction that seemed inordinately human. He bowed, as much a slight offer of respect to the elder as a way to hide his own sudden nerves. After an instant Eldred tipped his head in response, gesturing Alban to join them. A mockery of outrage rose to replace worry: this was, after all, Albans home, and it should be he who offered a place at the table to the newcomers. Only a mockery, though, the thought seeming laughable even as he felt its sting. There were far more pressing matters to be concerned with than whether he was welcomed or welcoming.

Alban Korund. Eldreds voice was as deep and rich in his mortal form as it had been the night before. Welcome home.

What had been a trickle of mental touch suddenly became a flood, emotion ranging from reserved to angry and, as Grace had said, to curious. Unprepared, Alban shuddered under the onslaught, the round walls and concrete seating around him disappearing and staggering mountains replacing them.

There was vitality in these mountains, unlike the memories hed slipped through over the last months. Those peaks had been worn with time, too many lives lost to grow them taller. They had been his family, his closest friends, and they had reflected a dying race.

No longer. Now mountaintops were jagged with change, snow patches glowing blue in moonlight beneath clear skies. The tree line burst with the promise of spring, hints of green in the night, and echoes of voices rang the stone, shivering loose rock into short slides.

Stunned, Alban turned, taking it all in, and when hed completed a full circle, he faced a campfire, the half-dozen gargoyles in the room with him seated around it. Beyond them rippled hundreds of others, faces and minds joined in the gestalt but not physically present. Challenge was written on those faces; challenge and interest, anger and hope.

What has happened? Astonishment pushed his question out before he knew he intended to form it. We live. Welive.

Biali thundered in, door clapping shut behind him in the real world and carrying ricochets of sound into the mind of memory. He muttered, You happened, and sat down at the fire, making himself comfortable in a way that seemed beyond Alban to accomplish himself. You and that lawyer of yours, Biali added, clearly not expecting Alban to put it together himself. You and that quorum.

You sat for the gargoyles at the quorum, Alban protested. Not I.

Pah. You started it, Korund. Talking to the lawyer. Telling her what you were. Deep quakes send waves across the world. Biali shoved a thick hand into the fire, rearranging branches, and Eldred, looking wry, picked up where he left off.

We have been dying, all these centuries. You know this. You encompassed far more than just Alban: a shift of agreement ran through a thousand faces, swirling back through crowded memories until it had touched them all. We are slow to change, and have always chosen the safety of tradition over the risk of innovation.

At that, Margrits image, rife with exasperation, swam before Albans eyes and made him chuff laughter. That thought splashed through the linked gargoyle minds, making Eldred lift a heavy eyebrow. Alban ducked his head in apology, finding a smile still stretching his face. Ive always held that we were right to stand by our traditions.

And yet you have disregarded them broadly through your entire life.

Fresh astonishment burned away Albans humor and he straightened again, agape as he met Eldreds gaze. The elder gargoyles expression was cool, though beneath it lay a pool of warmth, even admiration, welcoming enough to startle Alban anew. Eldreds sense of self carried a hint of envy, memories shifting and exploring the choices he might have made, all of those thoughts visible to the gargoyle overmind. Hundreds of years earlier he might have embraced the selkies and their decision to save themselves by breeding with humans. Instead he had been repulsed, holding tight to tradition. Now, for all that gargoyles were not creatures in the habit of second-guessing themselves, it was clear that Eldred wondered what changes might have been wrought in the world if he had admired the selkie daring and accepted their choice rather than turned his back on a man who had been his friend for centuries.

You left our mountains before your hundredth year, Eldred said. You went to live among humans, to explore the world that they were creating. To try to understand it. Only one of us was bold enough to join you.

And she paid for that choice with her life, Biali snapped. For an instant tension sang through the gargoyles, Hajnals loss fresh and painful through the intimacy of memory.

Alban, softly, said, Weve all paid, and after long moments Biali settled back, no longer pressing the point.

Eldred continued as though the brief fracas hadnt happened, his gray eyes turning blue as moonlight spilled over his face. That in itself was a break with tradition. More so was the friendship you built with Eliseo Daisani and the dragonlord Janx. Dragons and vampires, he said with a shake of his head. No one befriends vampires. But even that, extraordinary as it might have been, was nothing to the choice you made on their behalf. To separate your memories from all of ours, to make yourself a breach amongst our people, in order to hide half-human children? What and he sounded as though he truly wanted to know were you thinking?

That the sins of the fathers need not be visited on the children. Alban turned a palm up, knowing he borrowed human concepts and hoping to placate all his people with the gesture. They were condemned by their heritage, but innocent in their birth. Their mother loved two men of the Old Races and would have never betrayed the truth of them to the world. I saw no risk in helping them all to live.

And that, Eldred said, voice filled with granite, is why you are the Breach, Alban of the clan Korund. Your life has not been that of a gargoyle, not in any way that we recognize. You have lived separately from our memories. Youve told humans about our existence more than once. Youve chosen to allow forbidden children a chance to survive. You have taken the lives of our brethren, and you have made no apology for these choices and decisions.

I Words were useless in the gestalt, memory and emotion riding faster and farther than any vocal construct could, even if Alban could muster them. Eldred was right: there was no apology in him for the deaths hed caused. Sorrow, yes, and guilt, and regret, but a lifetime, even one as long as a gargoyles, would not change the fact that he would act again as he had in the heat of the moment. He would choose Margrit over Ausra; he would, in any way that mattered, choose Janx over Malik. Ausras madness would always be a point of agony, a thing he would never find a way to cease mourning, but Malik had intended to take Janxs life, and for all his horror at causing the djinns death, Alban knew it had been accidental. He had not done the deliberate murder Malik had intended, and whether the Old Races, whether the gargoyles, whether anyone at all understood that, it was the fine point of difference that mattered to Alban himself.

And that sentiment rocked back through centuries of time. He believed the choices he had made were the right ones, whether they were supported by Old Races law or gargoyle tradition. Sarah Hopkins had not deserved to die for having loved Janx or Daisani; her children had deserved a chance to live, for all that their fathers people said they were aberrations which should not exist.

You are right, Alban whispered. I am not like you at all. Shock made him cold, unusual for a gargoyle, and he stared across the shifting faces within the overmind in a disbelief so deep it was stained with humor. All this time spent in defense of our traditions, and it seems I have had very little sense of them at all.

Biali once said you might have led us. Eldreds eyes went to the stark, white gargoyle, and the weight of a thousand more gazes joined him before they all returned to Alban. Even Biali looked up, mouth flattened with irritation. I believe you have done so, Eldred continued. Whether deliberately or not, you have led us to this place and time, and to these schisms in what we were and what we must become.

The urge to apologize rose in Alban, but that intent was drowned beneath the weight of Eldreds words. We have discussed this amongst ourselves, amongst all the clans who are left. Power lifted his words, a tide of tears and fear and joy so profound that it tore through Albans chest, ripping away the breath there and leaving nothing in its wake. Anticipation: the gestalt tasted of it, and his heart began a too-fast beat of uncertainty, as though understanding lay just beyond his grasp.

We have debated, Eldred said again, and have found only one answer that we can agree to. We gargoyles number in the hundreds, no more, and our time as part of this world will come to an end if we do not choose to change as the selkies have changed. We are not well equipped to force ourselves down that road, and so for all our people, before all our people, it comes to me to tell you that we have, for the first time, chosen a leader for all of our clans, chosen someone to guide us down a path we cannot walk without help.

So I put it to you, Alban Korund. A hint of humor darted over Eldreds face as he obviously and deliberately formed his question in a fashion not typical to gargoyles. Will you be our first democratically elected leader?


CHAPTER 23 | Hands of Flame | CHAPTER 25