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Sunset came with a blinding burst of pain.

Alban flung himself away from agony, a howl ripping from his throat. He heard stone tear, deep wrenching sound, and a womans startled curse, but neither stopped him from snarling and savaging his way forward. Taloned feet dug into the floor, muscle straining with fury. Iron squealed, tearing without breaking. He howled again, reverberating sound so deep plaster crumbled. There was no escape: iron bound him hand and throat and ankle, making walls distant and red with pain. He couldnt move his hands more than a few inches from his head, chains limiting his range of motion.

Panicked instinct drove him to try transforming, anything to escape the bone-deep fire of iron. Fresh pain spasmed through him, denying him the human form hed become so accustomed to wearing. Tenterhooks curled into his muscles, ripping with an eye to deliberate, debilitating anguish. Every time, it shattered through him, and yet he could not stop trying.

Somehow he had never imagined it would hurt so badly, not even with Hajnals memories of captivity fresh in his mind. Perhaps hed mistaken the pain of iron bound to flesh and stone for the pain of her injuries, or perhaps the passage of time had muted the outrage. It was possible that the filtering of so many minds experiencing the barbaric sting of slavery had, over the millennia, dulled its edge. If that was so, the gargoyles had lost something even more precious than Albans freedom. They were losing the history of their people, of all the Old Races, to the inexorable wear of time. It could be their diminishing numbers as their own range of experience became so limited that they couldnt fully appreciate, and therefore fully recall, the passions and pains of history.

Three and a half centuries had passed since Alban had last joined in the overmind and shared his experiences with the rest of his people. It happened from time to time; a promise was made to remember, but not to make the memory open to all. They were made for finite periods, until some crux had passed.

Alban, friends with two men of other races, had made a promise to stand a lifetime alone to protect their secrets, and in the thirty and more decades since then he had never seriously considered breaking his word. His people called him the Breach, for selfishly holding back the memories of the last of his family, the Korund line, from the whole; he compounded it now with Hajnals family memories buried within him.

Now, bound in chains, his blood recoiling and sending shards of pain through him at each encounter with the metal, it seemed he had something worth breaking his promise for. He could feel the metals weight inside him, demanding obedience, and doubted he would be able to stand against any command Biali might give. That, too, was a warning his intellect spoke of: the distant recollection that gargoyles bound by iron could be made an army unable to refuse orders. It wasnt a worry that had ever haunted him, but now Alban feared blunted memory did his people and all the Old Races no good. If agony shared could sear open the depths of history his people could recall, it might yet be worth betraying onetime friends.

And perhaps the secret he carried for them could alter the status quo the Old Races had lived with for so long. Perhaps that alternation could awaken the Old Races to the possibilities of the future, as a fresh introduction of pained captivity might awaken the gargoyles to their neglected histories.

For shame, Korund. Such brief captivity, leading so easily to thoughts of betrayal. Margrit would say a little forced perspective was good for him.

Margrit. She had been in danger.

Pain surged through him again, inadvertent attempt at transformation, as though wearing a human form might somehow free him from his bonds.

Humanoid. A gargoyles natural form was humanoid, unlike the other surviving Old Races. Dragons were sinuous reptiles; selkies, seals in their first-born form; the djinn barely held shape at all, their thoughts made of whirling winds and sand, and the vampires, well: no one saw a vampires natural form and lived to speak of it. But gargoyles walked on two legs, stood upright, saw with binocular vision, as much like a man as a member of the Old Races could be.

Gargoyles did not leap and snarl like a dog in chains.

Alban ground taloned toes into the stone floor and surged forward. Rattling chain scraped again, pulling him up short and choking his breath away. He roared fury, words lost to him.

Sorry, love.

A womans voice again, so unexpected it brought Alban up as short as the chains had, distracting him from pain and rage. Focus swam over him, the words giving him something other than himself to think about. Grace?

Ah, and so now he comes to his senses. In the blur of his anger he hadnt scented her, hadnt seen her, though a whisper of memory now told him hed heard her alarmed squeak as hed awakened so violently. She stood across the room from him, one foot propped against the wall, her arms folded under her breasts. This was her territory, the tunnels beneath the city; she ran a halfway house for teens down here, and had for some months provided sanctuary for Alban himself. His mind was still too muddled to make sense of his awakening there, and she gave him no chance to ask questions. Sorry for the accommodations, Stoneheart. Biali wont release you, and Ill not be risking you tearing down the walls in a fit of temper. I can unfasten the locks that hold you to the floor, but only if youll control yourself.

Alban lowered his head, panting, and even to him, the minutes seemed long before he lifted his gaze again. I am controlled.

Sure and you are, Grace muttered. Like a tempest in a teacup. All right, its only my own neck then, isnt it? She came forward with a key, crouching as Alban relaxed and let slack into his chains.

I wouldnt harm you, Grace. He spoke the promise in measured tones, reminding himself of that truth as much as reassuring her. Grace opened the chains at his ankles, letting them drop to the floor. He came to his feet, hands fisted around the chain at his throat; he was entirely helpless like this, arms folded close to his chest. Eating would be awkward, but he could spare himself that humiliation: stone had no need for regular meals. Were in the tunnels. But Biali and I

Were making fools of yourselves on the rooftops, Grace supplied. I couldnt leave you there to fight it out at sunset, now, could I? What were you thinking, Alban? she added irritably. Youre bright enough to stay away from that one.

Hed taken Margrit. Where is he? Where is she? Alarm spiked through Albans chest and pain rippled over him again as he tried, fruitlessly, to transform. Grace slapped his shoulder, still annoyed.

Stop that. It looks horrible, as if all the snakes driven from Ireland have taken up under your skin and cant get free. He is chained up in another sealed-off room, throwing more of a tantrum than you, and Ive no idea where your lawyer friend is. Better off without you, Id say, Grace said sourly. Not that either you or she will listen to the likes of me.

Breathless confusion pounded through Alban, counterpart to the pain the chains brought. Speaking helped: being spoken to helped. Even Graces clear pique helped push away the bleak, mindless rage. I do not understand. He kept the words measured, trusting deliberation over the higher emotions that heated his blood. How did we come here? What are you doing? What did Biali want?

Grace has her tricks, and a few friends to call on when she needs to. Im trying to stop a fight before it schisms your people, Grace added more acerbically. As for what Biali wants, you tell me.

Alban breathed, Tricks, incredulously, then, distracted from the thought, said, Revenge, the word heavy and grim and requiring no need of consideration. Revenge for Ausra.

Grace stepped back with an air of sudden understanding, speaking under her breath. So it wasnt Margrit who saved herself after all. And Biali found it out. She paced away, then stopped, hands on her hips, chin tilted up, gaze distant on a wall. Then Ive done whats best, havent I?

What have you done?

Grace turned, all leonine curves in black leather. Ive sent for a gargoyle jury.

The countdown calendar was at sixteen hours, failing to take into account the after-court work Margrit returned to the office to do. She waved goodbye as coworkers slipped out, and gave the calendar a rueful glance. If she was lucky it wasnt off by more than three or four hours.

She was alone at sunset, bent over paperwork that gave her a cramp between her shoulder blades, but it redoubled, then racked her with breath-taking shocks of pain. Semifamiliar images crashed through her mind in spasms, too brief and disconcerting for her to hold. They had the feeling of being seen through someone elses eyes, as though she once more rode memory with Alban. Minutes after the sky went dark with twilight, concrete chambers finally came into resolution, body-wracking shudders fading away. Fingers clawed against her desk, breathing short with astonishment and dismay, Margrit struggled to recognize the rooms. Finally, sweat beaded on her forehead and hands trembling from holding her desk too hard, her own memory clarified where shed seen them before.

Belowground, in Grace OMalleys complex network of tunnels under the city.

There were innumerable ways to enter those tunnels, but only one Margrit felt certain of. She stopped long enough to change shoes, then, still wearing the skirt suit shed worn to court, left the office at a run.

Minutes later she scrambled over the fence to Trinity Churchs graveyard, all too aware that she had no good explanation if she was caught. She dropped to the ground easily, suddenly surrounded by headstones, some worn beyond readability, others as sharply etched as if they were new. Wilted flowers lay on a handful of graves, though an April breeze caught lingering scent from one bunch and carried it to her. The church itself was a dozen yards away, glowing under nighttime lights, lonely without its tourists and parishioners.

Paths brought her to an inset corner of the church near its front entrance. She glanced over her shoulder, nervous action, and mumbled an apology to the dead as she stepped over a grave and placed her palm against one of the churchs pinkish brown stones, pressing hard.

The scrape of stone against stone sounded hideously loud in the churchyards silence. Margrit held her breath, as if that would somehow quiet the opening door, and for a moment heard the city as it actually was, rather than simply the background noise of day-to-day life. Engines rumbled in the near distance, ubiquitous horns honking. The wind carried a voice or two, but most of the sound came from mechanical things.

The door ceased its scrape and she stepped inside it, looking guiltily around the churchyard again. If shed designed a hidden door, she would have put it at the back of the church, not the front. She saw no one, though, and pressed the door closed again as she used her phone for a flashlight.

The light bounced off pale walls. Margrit blinked at the steep stairs that led downward, never having seen them so clearly before. The walls had been scrubbed, an inch of soot washed away, and the stairway was much brighter for it. She trotted down, curious to see what other changes had been made.

The room at the foot of the stairs was almost as she remembered it, though cleaner. Walls reaching twenty feet on a side had been washed free of their sooty blanket, and the cot settled in one corner no longer touched those walls. A small wooden table was also pulled a few inches away from the wall, its single chair pushed beneath it. Bookcases lined the walls, candles and candleholders set on them. Electric lights had been added, wires looping above the shelves. There was nowhere to cook in the room, nor any obvious ventilation. Only Albans books were missing, safe in his chamber in Graces domain.

She switched on the lights and tucked her phone back in her pocket before moving Albans cot to reveal the flagstone theyd escaped through. It was two feet on a side. Margrit sat down on the cot, dismay rising anew. Shed forgotten its size, and the incredible strength necessary to move it. Even in his human form, Alban was disproportionately strong. Margrit could barely conceive of his gargoyle-forms strength limitations. Certainly her own weight was inconsequential to him. Half-welcome recollection flooded and warmed her, the memory of his hands, strong and gentle, holding her, guiding her, seeking out her pleasure. In flight, in love, that strength had been sensual.

And in battle it had been terrifying. Margrit made fists and opened them again deliberately, trying to push away the remembrances, and stood to examine the stone. She had no other way to get into Graces tunnels, so she would have to lever the stone out somehow. Grooves marked two sides of its sides and she slid her fingers into them, then laughed with frustration at the uselessness of her attempt.

Stone grated against stone again, sound rolling down the stairs. Margrit froze, eyes wide, then spun around in a circle, searching for somewhere to hide. There was nowhere, save under the cot, and for some reason the idea struck her as absurd to the point of embarrassment.

Pardon me. A terribly polite voice came from the direction of the stairwell. Margrit, for all she knew someone was coming down the stairs, shrieked in surprise and whipped around again.

An Episcopalian priest with an erratic white beard peered around the corner. Pardon me, he repeated drolly. I hate to interrupt, but I saw you come down, and I feel rather obliged to tell you thater, Ms. Knight?

Father. Margrit squeaked the honorific, utterly at a loss to explain herself. Im, um. Oh, God. Uh.

Merely a representative, the priest said cheerfully. Ms. Knight, what an unexpected pleasure. What are you doing here? I havent seen you in a while. Either of you, he added more calculatingly. How is Alban?

In trouble, Margrit replied in a burst. Thats what ImI needed to get into the tunnels. I didnt even think to come ask if I could come here. I would have, if I had. The old mans kindness and his awareness of both Albans presence beneath the church and Albans secret had been evident the time or two Margrit had spoken with him.

Im sure you would have. I told you I grew up in this parish, the priest said after a moments thought. Margrit nodded, but he went on without heeding her, and gestured toward the stairs, clearly expecting her to follow him. I used to get in trouble exploring the church grounds. The tower in the corner of the graveyard held endless fascination for me. Have you seen it? He led her back to the graveyard, striding across it with confidence, so familiar with the paths that their ruts and joinings had no fear for him, not even in the dark. Margrit scurried to keep up, unaccustomed to walking at his clip and unwilling to start running to match his pace.

Sure. I always wanted to climb it.

The priest threw a delighted smile over his shoulder. Exactly. So I did.

Margrit stumbled over a corner, more from surprise than treacherous footing. Didnt you get in trouble?

Well, of course, but not until I got caught. I was nine the first time I climbed it and fourteen when I got caught. But by then Id found all its secrets. I should write a history, he said wistfully. The secret history of Trinity Church. There are so many stories to tell.

Not all of them are yours to tell, Margrit said softly. He gave her a sharp look that softened into agreeability.

True, true, thats true. Still, wouldnt it be wonderful to read? Now, he said, stopping at the base of the bell tower. Im far too old to go climbing this thing, especially at this hour of the night, but youre young and healthy. You should be fine. Be careful on the drop down. Its a doozy.

What? Margrit stared from the bell tower to the priest.

The priest smiled. I told you I imagined dragons, Ms. Knight. This is where I fought them. Beneath the tombs, where Gods power bound them. Evil could stain Trinitys walls and make them black, but it protected the faithful and I imagined myself helping it. There are tunnels under the bell tower, just as there are from Albans room. After his room was discovered, I risked my old neck and went into the tower one more time to see if I could find a back door into his room from it. Didnt manage, nor could I find it from inside his room, but if I were he, Id have had more than one way out.

Or in, Margrit murmured. The priest nodded.

Theres a clever mechanism in the floor of the tower. The stone to trigger it is part of the floor, third from the right if youre facing north, two down from the wall. Press down hard. It takes more than body weight standing on it to set it in motion.

What does it do?

He gave her another sunny smile. I wouldnt want to spoil all your fun, Ms. Knight. Good luck. Be careful down there. And take care of Alban. He nodded, making the admonishment a command, and stepped back.

Margrit blinked, then handed over her phone, letting him provide light for her to climb with. At the top of the tower she turned back and the priest tossed up the light to her. North is to your left.

He saluted and strode off through the graveyard, leaving Margrit to drop into the towers hollow center. She gnawed her lower lip, watching him hurry away, then turned her attention to the tower bottom. It looked slippery, grown over with moss or algae, and her quiet laugh was hoarse. At least if she injured herself jumping down, Daisanis gift of healing blood would make certain shed recover quickly.

She jumped before she had more time to think, landing with as much ease as she had in scaling the churchyard gates. Breathless, she found the stone the priest had describe and pressed hard.

The bone-rattling scrape that shed expected didnt sound. Instead the entire floor lurched, sending her stumbling. Margrit dropped to her knees, fingers spread on the floor for steadiness as a mechanism clicked, clockwork sound of chain rattling through gears. The floor lowered, smooth after the initial jolt. She tipped her chin up, watching the walls roll away. Chains came into view, links thicker than her thumb and tarnished, but not debilitated with age, and she wondered if someone kept them in working order.

As if being lowered into the unknown wasnt bad enough. She had to wonder if the chains would break and drop her into the unknown. Margrit pulled a face and glanced at the floor beneath her knees. The priest had seemed confident. Of course, Margrit wasnt certain he weighed as much as she did, which sent a chortle of discomfort through her. Of all the times to suddenly be concerned about her weight. It seemed typically female.

The stone elevator banged to a stop before she could tease herself further. Margrit pushed to her feet and stepped forward, flashlight picking out a black-edged tunnel.

Id fight dragons down here, too, she murmured to the absent priest. Looks perfect for it.

Oh, good, a womans voice said dryly. Thatll be what were asking of you, then.

CHAPTER 4 | Hands of Flame | CHAPTER 6