Excerpt: Hands of Flame

Book Three of the Negotiator Trilogy


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 djinni, one of mankind’s imaginings, but not of the sort to grant wishes. Forgotten by dragon and gargoyle alike, it was the thing they fought over, drifting in its element of air. 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 death blow.

And she, who had been nothing more than an unremembered observer, struck back. She fired a weapon of absurd proportions: a child’s water gun, filled with salt water.

The djinn died, not from the streams of water, but from their result. Too late, 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. It was better to avoid him anyway. Nothing had been the same between them 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 catalogue emotion stopped her from trying. Only the slap of her feet against the pavement, jarring pressure in her knees and hips, 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 weaved 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 unwanted.

Sweat stung her eyes, 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. Only 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, more a fault in her mind than her feet. 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. Even as she did so, she quieted the gasps so she could listen for danger. She’d asked Alban for time, and couldn’t trust he glided in the sky above her, watching out for her, especially at this hour of the morning. She usually 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, diminutive height still granting long legs that ate the distance. 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, though the word fell short of what he meant. It was exploration, challenge, experience, all 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 in the park 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 that 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, 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 at night. 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, still healing from the wounds Malik had dealt him; Grace, whose below-streets charity operation was threatened badly by Janx’s presence.

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 re-shaped 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 re-discover 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 last five nights 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 unshakeable 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 had not 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, and that streak of viciousness ran as deep as stone through the heart of him.

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 to break the fall she couldn’t stop. Then thick arms were around her waist and the ground was falling away. A body pressed against hers, muscle shifting and flexing in a pattern that might have been erotic, had incredulous anger not drowned out any other emotion. No fear: Margrit was surprised to find no fear in herself, just disbelieving ire. She pushed at the arms around her waist ineffectively, half aware that she was better off being ineffective. They were already above the treetops, and if her captor loosened his grip, she would be lucky to survive the fall. “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 normal people?” Margrit twisted harder, shifting herself in Biali’s grip so she could loop an arm around his shoulders and no longer be wholly reliant on the grasp he had on 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 in their ascent, and pique would do her no good. With anger lessened, 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 wrapped around his waist, a new addition to the rough 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?”

“Ausra.”

Dismay plummeted Margrit’s belly, though she trusted a courtroom career to keep her expression neutral. 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 death 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. Something in Margrit’s gaze gave her away, her neutrality lost: 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. All of Biali’s attention left her, his bulky form suddenly launched skyward to meet Alban.

They crashed together with none of the grace Margrit 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 own private conflict to respond to sense. Biali lifted a ham 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 with the hit, 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 destroyed 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 found herself running without realizing she’d gone into action, 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. She saw, with crystal-precise clarity, 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.

from HANDS OF FLAME

Hands of Flame

CE Murphy

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