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My neighbor’s language went downhill from there but Victor never lost his composure. The golden gargoyle’s voice was silky with violence. “Don’t let us catch you here again. Do you understand?”
“Don’t threaten me,” Blocker snarled. “You guys might think you’re tough with your brass knuckles but they’d be pretty useless against a real weapon.”
Valor didn’t seem to like the sound of that. My feet left the ground as he lifted me into his arms. He took a few running steps into the darkly shadowed forest then opened his wings and rose into the air. I would have squawked when we took off but he pulled my mouth against his chest and silenced me as we glided upward, out of danger.
“What about the others?” I whispered. My lips moved against Valor’s skin as we circled over the park. “Will they be okay?”
“They’ll be fine. They can handle themselves.”
“But what if my neighbor has a gun?”
Valor shook his head. His handsome mouth was set in a grim line. “They’ll kill him if he gives them an excuse.”
It wasn’t exactly the answer I expected but I was relieved Valor didn’t think his family was in any danger. Only when I got to thinking about it, I started wondering how I would explain a dead body to the police. I hoped nobody got killed. “Why did you hide me from him?” I asked. “I could have told him you were allowed to be here.”
“I couldn’t stand the idea of him looking at you,” Valor growled. “That guy is pure evil, MacKenzie.”
My neighbor had always given me the creeps and I knew Valor was right about him. As far as I was concerned, Valor’s statement proved Dare’s earlier claim that gargoyles could tell a good person from a bad one.
I rubbed my cheek into Valor’s smooth skin and tried to take strength from his warm, comforting presence. He smelled good in a way I couldn’t describe. And it was nice to be in his arms, even if he was only trying to protect me. I might have enjoyed the flight over the park if I hadn’t been so unnerved about what had just happened and so worried about what might be happening now on the patio deck behind my house.
“Reason protected me. What was that about?” I asked. I was having a hard time accepting the idea. Up until then, everything Reason had done indicated that he didn’t like me…at all.
Valor tucked his chin into his chest and looked down at me. “You’re part of the pack now,” he said quietly. “Reason will protect his hearth, home and family. It’s instinct.”
I decided this instinct business was working out in my favor. “But I thought…”
“What?” he asked.
Actually, I thought Reason couldn’t stand me but I didn’t say that. “I thought he didn’t like me.”
Valor seemed surprised. “I don’t think Reason dislikes you. It’s just that he’s the second oldest and feels responsible for the safety of the pack.”
“Shouldn’t that responsibility fall to the oldest?”
“It does,” he agreed. “Victor is the oldest and he leads the pack. But the second oldest is the one who must first put himself in danger to protect the pack and defend the leader.”
“Is that why Reason landed first?” I asked.
“Aye. We formed our strategy in the air,” he explained. “Victor and Defiance joined Reason to set up the first line of defense. They positioned my brothers behind them, to make sure they were the second line. I was meant to be the last line of defense. My job was to protect you and remove you from danger if anything happened to them.”
If anything happened to them? I felt a sudden rush of emotion at the idea of the pack defending me…at all costs. “And you guys planned all that out while you were flying here?”
Valor gave my question some thought. “Actually, we didn’t have to plan anything. We just did it as naturally as…breathing. I suppose it was instinct again.”
I nodded without speaking, not sure I could comment without my voice shaking.
“You’re trembling,” he said softly.
“That guy gives me the creeps,” I murmured, which was true. Just thinking about my neighbor gave me the shivers. I tried to laugh it off but that just made me shake more violently. Valor tightened his grip on me. His heat warmed me but I was still trembling when we returned to the house. The place was quiet, the hateful neighbor gone, while Havoc and Dare waited for us on the deck behind the house.
As soon as Valor set me on my feet, I opened the sliding glass door and stepped into the kitchen. Hooligan cantered over to me and licked my fingers. “Are you guys okay?” I called out as we hurried into the living room. “You didn’t kill him, did you?”
“Sadly, we couldn’t find a good enough reason for murder,” Defiance grumbled.
“Stay away from him,” Victor advised simply.
Like I needed to be told that! I had no intention of ever having anything to do with the guy. I certainly didn’t buy his story that he was just checking on me. Unfortunately, I didn’t like to think what his real motive was, or how often he’d spied on me in the past.
“He’s a bad man,” Havoc said as he came up behind me.
“D-Did you see Hooligan?” I asked as I rubbed my hands over my arms. “He looked like he was ready to take on my neighbor all by himself.”
“I think he was ready to take out his throat,” Havoc chuckled and stroked his hand over Hooligan’s furry head.
Hooli lifted his muzzle and gave a soft bark followed by a low, tough-guy growl.
We all laughed at my wolfhound and it helped to lighten the mood a little but I was still wound up. I think the others felt the same way. We stayed up late watching TV and it was almost two o’clock before the gargoyles started picking out places to sleep. I offered them my mother’s bedroom but Victor said he’d bunk with Reason in my brother’s room and Defiance said he was fine on the couch in the living room. Valor insisted that Dare move into the guest room with Havoc.
When I closed my bedroom door, Hooligan flopped down at the foot of my bed and opened his mouth in a huge yawn. He settled his face on his front paws and closed his eyes. Evidently, barking your head off is very tiring.
As I changed into my pajamas, I looked around at the shadows clinging to the corners of the room. I shivered and wondered if I’d ever really feel safe again. A firm knock on my bedroom door made me jump and I cursed myself for being such a wimp. I opened the door an inch then pulled it wider when I saw it was Valor. “What is it?” I whispered. “Is something wrong?”
“Now that there are three more gargoyles here, there aren’t enough beds,” he said as he looked back over his shoulder.
That wasn’t quite true. “You could sleep on the sofa, downstairs in the family room,” I suggested in a low voice.
He crossed his arms over his chest and gave me a stubborn look. “I won’t leave you alone.”
My eyes widened on him. “What are you trying to say?”
“I’m sleeping here, in your room,” he answered, and pushed past me into the bedroom like I wasn’t wearing a baggy pair of powder blue pajama pants…dotted with little black penguins…wearing red earmuffs. Fortunately, the top I had on was a quietly understated, plain white T-shirt.
“But if anything happened, you’d hear with your gargoyle super hearing,” I pointed out, not really wanting to convince him of anything. I knew I’d feel safer with Valor in my room.
“I might not hear soon enough. And I might not get to you quickly enough,” he argued. He glanced around the room and threw himself into my wide, French Provincial chair.
Valor looked good in the upholstered chair. It’s been in my family for three generations and it’s really comfortable. I usually take a book and drape my legs over one arm while I rest my head in the crook of the other arm. Anyhow, Valor looked too good to argue with, so I didn’t try to make him leave. And I wanted to know about the spikes I’d seen on his knuckles. “What did I see tonight, on the back of your hands?”
For once, he didn’t try to avoid the truth. “Hackles. When we sense danger, our hackles pull back and our barbs…extend.”
“Show me,” I demanded as I reached for his hand.
He shook his head and drew his hand away before I could touch it. “They’re dangerous.”
“What do you mean by dangerous?” I demanded. I found it hard to believe that Valor might endanger me in any way. I felt so safe when he was around.
“The talons are poisonous. They…release venom when we use them.”
My mouth dropped open. “You told me you didn’t have any super powers!” I almost shouted, feeling like he had totally misled me.
He chuckled softly. “I don’t consider poisonous barbs to be a super power.”
“You have hackles on the backs of your hands that peel back to reveal poisonous talons and you don’t consider that a super power? You could probably kill a man with one blow.”
“It would take more than one blow to kill a human male,” he said matter-of-factly. “But it might kill a small female like you. It would definitely make you very ill.” He gave me a serious look. “So you must be careful.”
I backed up until my legs touched the bed then I sat down. “Okay, I’m being careful,” I told him. “Can you make the barbs come out so I can see them?”
He made a fist and looked at his hand but nothing happened.
“Well?” I asked.
“Hang on,” he muttered. “I’m trying to concentrate.”
“But you didn’t have to concentrate earlier when we were in the woods.”
“That’s because instinct kicked in,” he explained. “The situation was dangerous and I was angry.”
“You could think about my neighbor,” I suggested.
He flicked his intense gaze at me and nodded. As I watched, his hackles pulled back and his barbs crept forward.
“That’s amazing,” I breathed, my eyes probably as big as tennis balls.
His barbs sank back beneath his knuckles and he smiled at me. “Now go to sleep,” he ordered softly.
I hated to think of him spending the night in a chair even if it was comfortable. “You don’t have to do this,” I told him. “You don’t have to spend the night in my room. I’ll be fine here with Hooligan to guard me.”
Valor cast his gaze at my sleeping dog. “I don’t think so,” he murmured. He dropped his head onto the back of the chair and closed his eyes to signal the end of our conversation.
“Can I get you a blanket?” I offered.
“I’m fine,” he muttered without opening his eyes. “My wings keep me warm.”
As long as he was determined to stay in my room, I decided it was a good chance to learn more about him and his family. I was wide-awake, anyhow. “Tell me about the runes you wear on your necks. Are they letters from an old alphabet?”
He opened his eyes and gave me a surprised look. “Nay, they’re not letters. They’re words.”
“They’re words? Really? What do they mean? What does the rune on your neck mean?”
He reached up and laughed softly as he ran his fingers over the blue mark on his throat. “It’s my name,” he said as if it was obvious.
“The rune on your neck means Valor?” I questioned as I studied the blue tattoo.
He nodded and pointed to the symbol on his neck. “This is a rock in the ocean, turning back the waves. My brothers’ runes mean Havoc and Dare.”
“How did you get the tattoos?” I asked as I perched on the edge of the bed and swung my legs.
“Our mother named us when we were born and our father marked us when we came of age. All gargoyles wear their names on their throats. In fact, that’s why we’re called gargoyles.”
I tilted my head and questioned him with a look.
“Gargoyle comes from the French word for throat.”
“Nine hundred years ago in England, a lot of the nobility spoke French,” Valor explained. “Gargoyles tried to hide their existence from most people but they always had human friends and those friends called our kind gargoyles. But the stone carvings that drain rainwater from buildings were also called gargoyles because they poured water from their throats.”
“And because most of the manmade water drains were ugly, people used the same word to describe harpies,” I mused as my hair fell over my eyes.
“I suppose so,” Valor stated quietly. “Then the gargoyle race apparently died out while we were trapped behind that wall. And our kind were forgotten while the harpy race took our name.”
I peeked up through my hair at Valor’s grim face and quickly changed the subject. “So your father was a gargoyle and your mother was…”
“Human,” he answered with a distant sigh.
“When a gargoyle marries a human, are all the children gargoyles?” I persisted, determined to get his mind off the topic of his lost heritage.
“All the boys are. All the girls are human.”
That finally explained where gargoyles came from. “There are no female gargoyles?” I asked somewhat hesitantly. I remembered how he and Havoc hadn’t wanted to talk about it earlier.
“Nay,” he said, and closed his eyes again. “Now go to sleep, lass.”
Nope. He still didn’t want to talk about it. I scooted back on the bed and pulled the covers over my legs. I sat and watched him for a moment before I asked, “What happened to Dare?”
“What do you mean?” he muttered as if he didn’t really want to talk about it.
“Why can’t he fly anymore?” I asked softly.
“I don’t want to tell you,” he answered after a long silence.
“Why not?” I whispered.
Valor opened his eyes and leaned forward in the chair, resting his forearms on his knees as he watched the floor. “If I tell you, it will make you cry. And I don’t want to see you cry.”
“I won’t cry,” I insisted although I was half afraid of what he might tell me.
Without moving his head, he lifted his gaze to my face and watched me from beneath the shadow of his lashes. “You think you’re tough and strong, Kenz, but you’re soft-hearted.”
“Is it…that bad?” I asked tentatively.
“It’s bad,” he confirmed as his eyes clouded with sorrow.
“Was it the harpy who captured him?” I asked, my throat tight. “Did she do something to his wings?”
“Did Dare tell you about her?”
“He told me a harpy caught him and kept him prisoner.”
After another long silence, he eventually said, “The harpy stripped his wings so he couldn’t fly. So he couldn’t escape from her.”
My heart pounded heavily and I lost all my breath. “She stripped his wings?”
Valor nodded. “She tore the leather out from between his spines.”
“But…why?” I croaked. I was beginning to wish I hadn’t been so nosy. I assumed the harpy had stolen Dare because he was beautiful. If that was true, why would she have vandalized him? “Why did the harpy capture him in the first place?”
“She wanted his venom…and his rune.”
I shook my head in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
“Harpies are closely related to gargoyles,” Valor explained. “But unlike gargoyles, they have no barbs for fighting and no venom. They crave our venom more than anything on earth because they become more like us once it’s in their bloodstream.”
“So the venom isn’t poisonous to harpies?”
“Nay. Once the venom is in their veins, the common stone they’re made of changes to the fine-grained material that gargoyles are made of. Imagine a flying monster that’s virtually indestructible.”
“Do they become beautiful, like you are?” I whispered.
“Do you think I’m beautiful?” he asked as the color of his gaze warmed to soft blue.
I rolled my eyes and sent him a wry look. “Duh.”
“Their appearance changes,” he admitted. “But the harpies are only beautiful on the outside. Inside, they’re just as horrible as any living thing can be. But the harpy didn’t only want Dare’s venom. She wanted his rune as well.”
Valor explained that his brother took a lot of risks when he was younger, and he didn’t always stay close to the pack. He was on his way to meet up with a girl on the night he was captured, and he was in his living form when the harpy got him. The monster flew north to Scotland and chained him at the back of her aerie where the sun couldn’t reach him. She wanted him to give her his rune so that she could have a permanent supply of venom. Evidently, when a gargoyle gives a female his rune, he’s bound by instinct to stay with her and protect her. He’ll never leave her. Even if he hates her.
I was beginning to understand that this instinct business had a downside. “How does a gargoyle give a female his rune?”
“He uses his barbs to mark his symbol on her upper arm, near her shoulder,” Valor said, and pointed to the top of his arm.
“How did Dare finally get away from her?”
“She died,” he answered in a flat tone.
“How did she die?” I asked tremulously, and wondered if Dare had managed to kill her.
“Old age,” he muttered.
My stomach churned in absolute horror. For a moment, I thought I was going to be sick.
“They’re evil old things,” he growled as his fists balled into tight knots. “Right up to the end.”
Like I said before, I’m not much of a crier. Crying makes your face blotchy and red and does nothing for your appearance. This is especially true for a redhead like me. But I cried when Valor told me Dare’s story. I couldn’t hold it back. I covered my face with my hands and tears just poured out of me in a blotchy red torrent of despair.
I felt a weight settle beside me on the mattress and realized Valor had joined me on the bed. He put his arms around me and pulled me against his chest. We sat on the bed while he stroked my hair and murmured soft words of comfort.
“You couldn’t rescue him?” I sobbed.
He tightened his hold on me. “We couldn’t find him. We hired every witch we could round up to scry for him, but none of them were powerful enough.”
I wept onto his shoulder for several minutes. Finally, he pulled my head away from the warmth of his hard frame. He smiled softly as he held my face and thumbed the tears from beneath my eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I blubbered. “I must look like a mess.”
“I think you look beautiful,” he insisted, his voice a soft stroke of sound. He brushed his lips across my forehead before he pulled my temple against his cheek. His warm breath beat against my ear in an uneven rush that made me want to pull closer to him. And I was already as close as I could get.
“But what happened to his hackles?” I sniffed as I remembered the deep scars that slashed across Dare’s knuckles. I looked up into Valor’s heavy-lidded gaze. “Did the harpy do that to him?”
“No,” he whispered in a way that made me think the worst was yet to come. “He did that to himself.”
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