FLESH AND STONE
February 7, 2006
IN HER WORLD, SHE WAS A PROTECTOR
Mara Kincaide knows what it is like to live in chaos. For six years, she has operated a shelter for women, bearing witness to the dark side of mankind as well as the great potential for good in humanity. But when a client whom she deeply cared for disappears, a concerned Mara follows her friend’s trail—and ends up falling victim to the same ominous fate…
IN HIS WORLD, HE WOULD PROTECT HER
Powerful, lithe, and cunning, Connor Rihyad is a force not to be trifled with, even among the other Gargoyles who, with him, have watched over humanity for centuries. But when Mara is “given” to Connor, she senses something about the brooding guardian that separates him from his ageless brethren—an untamed desire that yearns to be unleashed.
Now, as betrayal and savage violence threaten to explode around them, Mara must decide if she has truly found the man of her dreams—or the embodiment of her nightmares…
An excerpt from FLESH AND STONE
As children, he and Nathan had been friends. Then over the years, Connor had begun to envy the man his rightful position as future leader of their people, and finally to despise him for his ideals. For the strife he brought to their congregation. But he’d never thought he would have to kill him. Never thought any of his kind would kill another.
He’d been wrong.
Shrugging off thoughts of just how wrong, he fisted his hands, still tacky with Nathan’s blood, and turned his face into the wind. The coppery scent in the air had stirred the beast within him, and the bitter breeze helped hold the monster at bay until Connor was ready to release him.
He’d been told the weather was unusually warm this winter, for Minnesota, anyway. The thermometer barely dipped below freezing during the day. Current still trickled along the shores of the river. The ice in the middle was hardly more than paper thin, and yet Connor shivered at the thought of the cold water beneath. If this was warm, he didn’t know how anyone lived through a cold year here.
Hell to some was a fiery place, but Connor’s idea of punishment was eternity in a barren wasteland of ice where nothing lived, nothing grew. Not unlike the rural countryside he looked out over now.
His gaze rolled across the riverbank, across the fields of snow to the farm barely visible atop the hill. The tin roof of the massive barn gleamed dully in what little moonlight it caught. Two dark grain silos stood like sentries against the night.
Those who lived there were lawless, without morals or conscience. But they were powerful. They’d thrown aside the mantle of obligation that had shackled their people–his people–for a thousand years and taken control of their destinies.
No longer would they be servants to the frail human race; they would be masters, and he would be one of them, the murder of Nathan Cross the price of his admission. A test of his loyalty.
The wind lifted his longish hair. Dark strands clung to his cheeks, covered his eyes. His lips moved, but no sound issued from his mouth.
Sound wasn’t necessary. He heard the words in his head, and his voice was not alone. A thousand voices over a thousand years lifted to join him in the ritual chant.
E Unri almasama
E Unri almasama
Connor’s skin shrunk, tightened until it felt as if his bones would burst through. His muscles contracted, and he fell to his knees beside Nathan.
This was the curse and the beauty of his people. The Awakening of the beast inside. Tears filled his eyes, and yet he embraced the pain. He was one of Les Gargouillen. A Gargoyle. Pain mattered not. Only the mission mattered. The purpose.
Calli, Calli, Callio
The words pulsed like a drumbeat in his skull. His blood pounded with each beat. The rhythm drew his arms inward. His bones hollowed to make him light enough for flight, then splintered. Humerus, radius and ulna divided, radiating from a center point at his shoulder like spokes in a wheel, with skin that had blackened and turned leathery stretched between each spine. His jaw and facial structure jutted forward. His forehead sloped back and elongated to a single to a point.
Somara altwunia paximi
Only his labored breath broke the still of night. He rested a moment, then stood, no longer a man, but a magical creation made in the image of a creature nearly as old as Earth itself. A pterodactyl. A prehistoric beast with wings like a bat’s but many times larger, a lethal serrated beak and sharp talons strong enough to snap a human spine.
He tipped back his head and studied the farm in the distance again, this time with round, avian eyes.
There was his mission. His purpose.
There was the source of his hate.
He spread his wings, flapped once and screeched into the night. It was a predatory cry. A challenge. He followed it with a shrill, ultrasonic blast far above the hearing range of humans. Only Les Gargouillen could hear the Calling. Only Les Gargouillen would answer.
Mere moments passed before he heard them: hooves beating frozen turf. The whump of heavy wings. Dried, frozen grass rustling as some legless being slithered through the snow.
They stood in a semicircle at the end of the bridge, some taking back their human form, some still amalgamations of all imaginable beasts, modern and prehistoric, real and mythical. All watching warily.
Connor morphed back into human form and met the eyes of each one, man or animal, in turn. “I’ve done as you asked,” he called. “Now it’s your turn to fulfill your promise.”
Devlin, a burly man, and one of the ugliest and most unkempt sons-of-bitches Connor had ever seen with a round face and rounder body, took a step forward. He’d been the first one Connor had met when he’d approached the Minnesota congregation and asked for admission, and the meeting had been almost enough to convince Connor to call the whole thing off.
“That’s him?” Devlin asked.
Connor put his foot on Nathan’s shoulder and rolled him to his back. The blood on his shirt, which had run thick and crimson a little while ago, had congealed to gelatinous black.
“This is the one who killed your brother,” he said. “Emasculated him and then ripped his throat out.”
Devlin’s bushy eyebrows drew down. “Why should I believe you?”
“I can show you the memory if you want. I was there.” He didn’t have the ability to communicate in words or direct thought telepathically. None of his kind did. But they could make intent clear to one another, a skill that came in handy when fighting side by side. And they could share images, even memories. He would show Devlin his brother’s death if he had to, though he’d be sure to edit out the part where he himself, not Nathan, had killed the second Minnesotan who had attacked the school. That wasn’t likely to earn Connor any points here.
He still didn’t know why the two Gargoyles had come to St. Michael’s, the school where Les Gargouillen of Chicago raised their young, other than that they’d tried to take some of the boys. But in the months that had passed since, Connor had spent every waking moment–and many dreams–tracing the movements of the two intruders. Who were they? What did they want with the children?
What he’d learned was beyond anything he could have dreamed. Gargoyles are born with two tenets emblazoned in their minds, their very souls, by the ancient magic that created them: protect humankind, and propagate the species.
Never in his ten incarnations had Connor heard of a Gargoyle who could deny these basic drives. Even Nathan, who had sworn he would not produce children in this life, thus loosing his right to reincarnate into another upon his death, had finally given in and taken a wife. Connor expected it wouldn’t be long before Nathan and Rachel produced a child. It was the natural order.
Although it was definitely not natural for a Gargoyle to stay with a woman once the child was born, as Nathan planned to do. Usually, once a son was born, Gargoyles took the son and left the woman and any female children behind.
The Gargoyle magic did not pass to females, so girl children were useless. And human women would not understand when their male babies began to sprout horns or extend claws in their cribs.
For the best interests of all, Les Gargouillen remained a male society. At least they had until Nathan Cross came along, spouting ideas of admitting women into the congregation.
Even that seemed more believable than these Minnesotans’ idea that they no longer were responsible for protecting humans. That, in fact, they preyed on the very race they’d once sworn to protect.
Devlin advanced another step, his fists clenched at his sides. “Maybe later. First I’m gonna tear him apart with my bare teeth.”
“This piece of garbage? You’d probably choke on his putrid flesh.” Connor sneered and shoved the body carelessly off the side of the bridge with his foot. The river swallowed Nathan with a crack of ice and a quiet splash, an inauspicious end to a life that had created such controversy, such division, in his congregation.
Devlin growled his outrage. Connor walked slowly toward him. “I’ve done as you asked,” he repeated. “Now does the Council of the Minnesota congregation of Les Gargouillen accept my petition to join them, or not?”
Devlin spit noisily, his arms growing a thick pelt of brown fur and teeth and nails elongating as he changed into the form of the bear, like his brother. “Council? We don’t got no stinkinâ€™ Council! And since you just tossed my dinner into the water, maybe I’ll chew on you instead.”
Connorâ€™s stomach turned. Years ago, he’d heard stories of Les Gargouillen who ran in the form of their beasts even when they weren’t in battle. Who lived and hunted and ate as animals for the blood sport of it. He thought they’d only been horror stories the older boys told to scare the little ones.
With a popping of bones and ligaments, he quickly Awakened his own beast, leaving only enough of his face human to be able to speak. Six inch talons with razor edges extended before him. “You can try,” he said in a voice laced with menace.
A thinner man, much better groomed with dark blond hair and a mustache–Jackson, Connor remembered his name was, he seemed to be the informal leader–stepped from behind Devlin with a slap and squeeze of the bigger man’s beefy shoulder. “Relax, Dev. We could use some fresh blood in the congregation.”
The blond man stepped forward. “Did you learn where the Chicagoans have hidden the children since their school burned?”
“I didn’t have time to do a lot of talking.”
Devlin scowled. “I don’t trust him.”
“Trust is earned, not given.” Jackson peered at the dark hole in the ice covering the water below. “He’s taken a good first step toward earning ours.”
“I still don’t like it,” Devlin growled.
“You don’t have to like it.” Jackson’s voice was sharper now. “We have our orders.”
Connor stilled his reaction to the last comment. Orders. So there was some sort of command and control structure above Jackson in the renegade band, even if they didn’t have a Council. He wondered who their leader was, and where–not to mention what sort of orders he’d issued. What were they up to?
Jackson held his arms wide and gestured at the winter landscape. “Welcome to the frozen tundra, Connor.” He dropped his arms. “Come inside and get warm.”
A moment of indecision–hell, of panic–froze Connor in place. The lure of what these men offered was seductive: a life spent living for himself instead of serving a population of thankless humans who didn’t even know those like him existed.
It was also very, very dangerous.
He let out a slow breath and forced his shoulders to relax. He’d made his commitment. He’d sealed it with the blood drying on his palms.
He seriously doubted Devlin and his friends would let him walk away now, anyway. He’d passed the proverbial point of no return, and so he walked with his head held high to the end of the bridge. Without so much as a backward glance at the dark, cold waters where the body of Nathan Cross, the rightful next Wizenot of the Chicago congregation of Les Gargouillen had sunk, he stamped his feet to restore circulation, blew on his hands to warm them, and marched up the hill toward the farm with his new brethren.