|O, Brave New World|
|By Chandri MacLeod|
|Fandom: So Weird|
|Categories: drama, action/adventure|
|Summary: Fi, Jack and Annie are training with the Circle. But what is this somehow-familiar, looming shadow that haunts Jack's nightmares, and Annie's visions? And why does it know their names?|
|Disclaimer: All recognisable characters are the property of Disney and Joss Whedon. They're not mine, alas. I'm just using them for fun.|
|Author’s Note: This is a sequel to Cold Comforts, taking place approximately two months later. A crossover with my Paxverse; all original characters and concepts are mine.|
|Prologue: Life Before Light|
|Chapter One: At Rising Amber|
|Chapter Two: Glimpse It Brighter|
|Chapter Three: High and Failing Shadow|
|Chapter Four: Waning Yellow|
|Chapter Five: Pale, Dimming Quickly|
|Chapter Six: Casting Black Angles|
|Chapter Seven: Breathe Only at Twilight|
|Chapter Eight: Gathering Ebony|
|Epilogue: Our Share of Night to Bear|
Tara, Breagh - One Month Ago
It was night again.
At least, he was fairly sure that it was night. It was dark, at any rate. And the chill that seeped into his very bones certainly gave the overwhelming impression of night. The black was receding, though. Off at the edge of his sight, the edge of his sensing, something was waking, rising, but it wasn’t the sun.
Someone was shaking him, gently. Lowering the barriers he’d only recently learned how to construct, he let the presence brush against his mind.
“Mmph. Fi?” He huddled into the sleeping bag. It was too early to be awake...
“Right first try, Big Brother. Come on. Wake-up time.”
Blearily, Jack cracked open one eyelid, squinting up at his sister. Fiona sat back on her heels and sighed.
“S’dark, still,” he mumbled, opening the other eye.
Fi rolled her eyes. “Not quite. Come on; get up, and I’ll show you. And Terren says he’s gonna make breakfast.”
As if on cue, Jack’s stomach growled. He cringed, resisting the pull of hunger, but then the other thing Fiona had said reached the slowly-waking part of his brain.
He sat up, wincing as the draft from the open tentflap raised goosebumps on his arms. “Show me what?” he asked. Fi merely smiled and preceded him out of the tent, while he pulled a shirt over his head, grabbed his shoes, and followed her.
He waved at Terren as they passed the circle of the other tents, in the middle of which a small fire was burning. Jack caught a glance of Beilenya, one of the Guardians, sitting with several others on the grass near the fire, eyes closed, still. Immersed in something he couldn’t see, not without stopping, dropping his shields.
“Fi, hey - wait up!” he called, hopping one one foot while tugging his shoe onto the other. He had to run to catch her, stumbling up the side of the hill they were camped beside. He noticed with some satisfaction that his steps were quieter than they’d been a month ago - anyone not trained they way they had been would never have known he was there.
The hilltop was scoured black, broken stones scattered in what might once have been a careful pattern. But Fi was not looking at the stones. She was standing at their centre, staring out toward the horizon. Toward the sea. Toward the sunrise.
::No way.:: Jack checked his watch. It read... he couldn’t read it. ::What’s going on?:: he wondered. ::What’s that light?::
Fi must have sensed his question, because she answered it.
“It’s the Greylight,” she murmured quietly, pointing towards the spreading grey light in the distance. It was then that Jack realized that the light was not coming from the East, or even the West, or really from any specific direction at all. It was coming from all around them, from the horizon on both sides, from the edge of sight in all directions.
“What... what time is it?”
She laughed. “It’s not sunrise, Jack,” she said. “Do you remember what they told you, about how Crystallis is like a giant heart-muscle?”
He nodded. “Life-force of everything... like a bloodstream. I remember. I remember feeling it.” His voice was hushed.
So was Fiona’s. “It’s the Greylight. It’s the time between night and morning when the Flow is strongest.”
Jack stared. “It’s so bright.”
Fi nodded. “You wouldn’t even be able to see it if Belle and the others hadn’t invoked it. It happens every morning - but most people don’t know it’s there.”
“That’s us, isn’t it?” he whispered. He felt her start beside him, then turn.
“Yes, it is,” she said, with some surprise. “In a way. The Greylight... it’s like the energy given off by all life. Everything - trees, people, chipmunks...” she chuckled. “Everything. And it’s strongest now. It sort of peaks... it’s always there, but it’s hard to see, even for us. And that...” she swept her arms out, indicating all that lay about them, and the spreading light that gathered at the edges of the hilltop like fog. “That’s us. Do you see it?”
Jack looked down; indeed, tiny, barely-visible tendrils of white-grey trailed from his fingertips, drifting away from him, down and along the ground, joining the massing Greylight around them.
“This is it, Jack,” she said, her hand joining with his. “This is life.”
Jack smiled into the half-light.
In the depths of the ground, in a dank, dark place, it stirred.
It opened unseeing, milk-white eyes, tongue licking dry lips. It could smell them. It had been a long time since it had used its senses, but still, it could smell them.
It could smell blood. It could smell Bright blood.
They were there - waking up, like it had woken, growing stronger, growing brighter.
Young, Bright blood, coursing through their veins, pulsing with power.
It blinked upward toward the surface, toward the light. It could smell them. It had been a long time.
And it was hungry.
Hope Springs, Colorado - Present Day
Fi stood at the foot of the stairs, tapping one foot. “JACK! We’re gonna be late! Will you move it, already? Or I’m leaving without you!” She jangled the car keys in one hand and smiled as she heard the telltale stampeding of Jack falling out of bed and running from bedroom to bathroom. Annie peeked her head in through the front door just as Fi heard the upstairs toilet flush.
“Don’t tell me; he’s just getting up now?” asked the other girl with a smirk.
Fi nodded, returning the smirk. “As always. I swear; it’s like he doesn’t want to graduate...”
“I heard that!” Jack came down the stairs, stuffing books into his backpack as he walked. “I’m coming. I’m just--”
“Slow?” Fi and Annie suggested, in unison, with matching sweet smiles.
Jack glared, then held out his hands for the keys. Fi shook her head, holding them out of his reach.
“No way. I need to practice,” she insisted, following Annie out the door. As Jack followed, both girls took off at a run.
“That’s what you get for sleeping in, I guess,” chuckled Annie from the passenger seat when Jack caught up and jumped into the back. Fi turned the key in the ignition, and grinned with satisfaction when the engine of the small car roared to life.
“That, and certain death,” he remarked, as Fi backed somewhat jerkily out of the driveway. He hurriedly fastened his seatbelt as Fi glared briefly at him, then sped off down the street.***
Fi and Annie left their last class of the day a few minutes after the bell, meaning to avoid the after-school press of students rushing to escape the school building. They emerged into the hallway on the tail-end of the stampede.
“Some day,” grumbled Fi, slipping her arms through the straps of her backpack. “Rotten teachers can’t just fail you, they have to tell you you’re failing, in front of the entire class.”
Annie patted the other girl’s arm, consolingly. “Don’t worry, Fi. Math’s just not your thing. That’s what Jack’s for.”
They exchanged grins as they walked out onto the parking lot. “Speaking of Jack, where is he?” asked Fi.
“He’s got football practice, remember? He said he’d be a bit late meeting us.”
“I suppose he expects us to wait for him,” Fi said, sighing heavily. “I guess we probably should, since I have the keys, and...”
As Fi trailed off, staring, Annie looked ahead of them. There was someone leaning on the hood of the car - a young woman of about twenty or so. Fi and Annie exchanged perplexed looks, and kept walking, warily strengthening their mental shields as they went.
Annie studied the stranger as they neared her. Her hair was blonde-brown, short in the back but longer bits brushed her shoulders. She was dressed casually, or at least casually enough that no one but Annie and Fi would have noticed anything amiss about her.
But Annie could see subtle irregularities - the flat-soled, mid-calf-high boots that were obviously more practical than fashionable, and well-worn. The way she stood and the slight shape under short grey skirt she wore, on the outside of her thigh, indicating a hidden dagger.
Not to mention the tangible aura of power about her, that only the Gifted would have been able to sense.
She looked up as they approached, dusting off her hands on the thigh-length leather jacket she wore. Annie and Fiona walked up to her cautiously.
“I’ve been waiting for you for nearly a half-hour,” she told them, her tone not scolding, just friendly. “But it’s good to finally meet you. You’d be Fiona, then, and you’re Annie, yes?”
Fi and Annie blinked, and nodded in mild confusion. The woman seemed to see it, and threw up her hands.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m with the Circle. Tilia Bico.” The girl stuck out her hand, grinning brightly. Fiona could only stare. The girl’s eyes were the strangest shade of blue-grey.
“Um... hello?” Fi greeted her dubiously, holding out her own hand, noting the woman’s accent.
She shook her head. “No; I was born in Johannesburg.”
“Oh,” said Fi, blinking. “South Africa?”
“Hello?” Jack appeared at Tilia’s right shoulder, hair damp and with his football gear slung over one shoulder. “Did I miss something?”
Tilia turned quickly, grinning at him. “Jack, right?” She grabbed his hand and shook it. “Tilia Bico.”
“She’s with the Circle,” Fi supplied, wearily. The woman’s briskness could wear a person out quite quickly.
“Um.” Annie spoke up from just behind Fiona, as Jack moved to stand next to her. “Not to be offensive, but... why are you here?”
“Oh,” Tilia said. “Official Circle business, you know. I was sent to find you.”
“Find us?” Fi suddenly sounded nervous, glancing over her shoulder at Annie. “We didn’t get any summons...”
“Oh, nothing like that, love,” Tilia shook her head dismissively. “No one’s died or anything, and as far as I know the world isn’t coming to an end, at least not today.”
“Love her choice of words,” Jack muttered into Annie’s ear. Annie giggled. Tilia didn’t notice, and went on, instead.
“No... I’m here because I’ve been put in charge of your weapons training,” she said definitively.
Annie and Fi barely kept their jaws from dropping open. Jack only raised an eyebrow. “Just out of curiosity, what does that mean?” he asked, voice even.
Tilia turned to him, eyes narrowed curiously. “You know, young man, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you had some relation to our First’s brother.”
“You mean Presskin?” Fi inquired.
Tilia nodded. “The expression on your brother’s face right then, Fiona, was almost identical to the one Presskin habitually wears. Downright eerie, that.”
Fi and Tilia exchanged smug, amused looks.
“Weapons training though, Mr. Phillips, means what it sounds to mean. You’re to learn training in weaponswork. Traditionally, your parents would teach you, but under present circumstances, that’s quite impossible.”
“You mean... Mom?” Fi was agawk. “Mom knows weaponswork?”
Tilia nodded, leaning casually against the hood of the car, running one heavily-braceletted hand through her hair. “Certainly. Almost all members of the Circle are taught some basic fighting skills. It’s rather a requirement in our line of work, as I’m sure you know. I’m given to understand that your mum was quite good. Good enough to give Presskin and Carsyn competition.”
“Wow,” Fi said, looking over her shoulder, eyes widened, to indicate the significance of that qualification. Neither Jack nor Annie had ever met Presskin or Carsyn, but Fi had worked with most of the Guardians in her first few months with the Circle.
“Sorry, but why now?” Jack asked, eyes fixed on Tilia. “I mean... we only got back from our first training thing at the end of the summer.”
Tilia nodded, her eyes meeting his, stare for stare. “But you’re still half-trained, Jack. You all are.”
Jack frowned and crossed his arms, obviously unconvinced.
He was rewarded with a wide grin. “If you’re dubious, Master Jack, I could demonstrate.”
Jack shot Annie a bemused glance. “Demonstrate?”
Tilia nodded and shrugged out of her jacket. Folding it and placing it on the hood of the car, she held out her hands. “Come at me.”
Jack shot Annie a second bemused glance. Annie looked vaguely alarmed. Fiona only smiled.
Finally, Jack shrugged, and took a step forward.
Annie had been looking nervously around them - it was significantly after the end of the school day, but there still might have been someone about to see a fight and report it - which was about the last thing they needed.
But when she looked back, it was already over. It couldn’t have taken more than a few seconds. Tilia had hardly moved, and held the arm of a red-faced Jack behind his back - and seemed to be expending very little effort doing it.
“Okay...” he grunted. “Point taken.”
Tilia released his arm. Jack stumbled a little.
Behind Jack’s back, Fiona was laughing so hard that her eyes streamed. Annie merely covered her mouth with one hand as her face twitched. When he turned around, Fi tugged Annie up by her shoulder and wiped away tears as both girls tried to arrange their faces into a semblance of calm. Jack only glared suspiciously at them.
Tilia only gave a bright smile when he looked back at her. “Shall we go?” she asked.***
“What is this place?”
Annie and Fiona, walking side-by-side, looked around the huge space with matching awe. Jack, walking a few steps behind, tried to conceal his surprise.
“We’re not on the Island, are we?” Fiona looked to Tilia, who stood with her fists on her hip, looking around appraisingly.
She shook her head. “Oh, no,” she said. “This is one of the Circle’s training grounds: Ailean Mor - this one in particular hasn’t been used in twenty years or more.”
“But where are we?” Jack asked.
Tilia looked at him: “We’re on the Continent, m’boy. Breton, to be precise.”
“That’s France, Jack,” supplied Fi. He glared at her.
“I knew that,” he said.
The huge space was barely qualifiable as indoors - a high ceiling arched five hundred feet above their heads, doming to a point in the shape of a star. Pillars driven into the grass - eight, of course - held up the roof, twisting like gnarled vines shaped from stone. Probably granite, Fi thought, or maybe limestone. There were no other walls. Inside, the grass-covered space was smooth and green, almost unnaturally so, but Fiona had seen more unlikely landscaping, usually accomplished by way of application of a green thumb and a bit of magic. One of the first teachers she’d had a few years ago had lived in an isolated house a few hours outside Calgary surrounded by such unlikely greenery that, had she not seen the application of Green Magic first hand, would have had her suspecting a veritable troupe of gardeners, capable of vanishing at a glance.
But Emalet Lyani, the young woman who had inherited Andra Kurk’s house after her death, had Green Magic almost as strong as her predecessor’s - that kind of magic was strong in the Kurk family, and Terren’s grandmother Andra had been perhaps its most powerful worker in a thousand years. Though his father had done, Terren hadn’t inherited that gift; but he said he never regretted it. After all, he often said with a grin, he’d given up a mere piece of land and missed out on the ability to coerce plants into amusing shapes, and gotten Areahannah, instead. It seemed, he said, like a fair trade-off. In any case, he frequently added, in a lower tone of voice, Emalet was there to carry on.
Outside the dome, the plain was a low, flattish hill, and beyond it rolled more hills, birch and elm and oak-topped, descending to the misty seashore kilometres away. The dome itself was ancient and weathered, but sturdy still, probably by virtue of its construction - the carvings were celtic knotwork and faerie-themed, and Fiona could feel the magic in its stones. Something powerful had built this - something older than the Circle.
“I’ll never get used to going from Colorado to France in under a minute,” Annie said, looking out over the hills.
“The Gates do throw you for a loop at first, don’t they?” Tilia observed with a smile. She referred to the portals the Circle frequently used to travel quickly between points. They were found all over the world, but mostly in the Covenant-bound lands of Western Europe, far-eastern Asia, the British Isles, and in the most anciently inhabited parts of the Americas. These were the places they were expected - though they were sometimes found in strange places of which not even the Guardians themselves knew. The history of the Circle was long, and old, and a lot of it had been lost in the first World War. The Gates were doorways - usually arches or doors carved in solid walls of wood or stone or earth. Often, these doors would not have the open space in the middle that most doors did - and until the spell to activate them was spoken, one could walk into one and collide with an unyielding surface. Until the spell was spoken, that’s all most of them were - solid.
Annie jumped a little as a whiskered muzzle pushed its way under her hand, demanding attention. She looked down to see Lann looking up at her expectantly - the panther was usually invisible to everyone but her, but in magic-heavy places like this one, even non-Sensitives - people without magic - would have been able to see him. For that reason, among others, it was necessary to keep their Circle-related comings and goings secret from their more “normal” acquaintances.
Fi seemed to pick up on her thoughts, because she sighed. “I wish Mom would come with us when we do things like this,” she said. “I don’t understand why she doesn’t.”
Jack shrugged. “She says she’s still... what was it? Re-acclimating.”
Annie nodded at her friend. “Yeah. It’ll take time. But just time, Fi. At least she and Arrah are talking, again.”
Fi nodded, not entirely convinced - but then she shook herself. “All right,” she said. “We’ve got work to do, right?” She looked to Tilia, who had been leaning against one of the pillars, arms crossed, listening to their conversation. At Fiona’s words, she straightened, and removed her jacket again. She crossed to the centre of the open space, and beckoned to the three teenagers.“Right,” she agreed. “Who’s first?”
Lann = “blade”
Geur Lann = “Bright Blade”
Ailean Mor = “Great Green”.
All Gaelic references are in Scottish Gaelic. I know that the O’Siannon family probably would have spoken Irish, not Scots, but I don’t know any Irish, and in any case, the Circle tends to use Scots. So.
For all his annoyed protests, Jack came away from the afternoon’s practice with no few bruises and a wounded pride. But it was not the first time, and Fiona and Annie could only smile and shake their heads. Annie had come away with the fewest bruises and muscle-strains, thanks in no small part to Lann’s constant interference on her behalf - which had earned the panther a stern talking-to from Tilia. After having it explained to him, loudly, that if he kept coming to Annie’s rescue, she’d never learn to defend herself, and that if he didn’t stop interfering, he’d be trussed up like a housecat in a travel-carrier, Lann retreated to the edge of the training dome and lay down between the pillars, his ears flattened against his skull. Annie wasn’t quite certain whether Lann had actually understood what Tilia had said to him, but he had clearly understood her mood.
Fiona was unquestionably the best of the three of them, but that was because, as Fi kept saying, she had had at least three more years of training than either Jack or Annie. Annie, at least, had had some sporadic and wildly varied experience in self-defense while travelling the world with her parents, though she was far from proficient in any one style. Which made Jack the least experienced of the three of them. Being bested by two girls both notably younger than himself, one of them his baby sister, was clearly taking a toll on his ego. Annie and Fiona couldn’t agree on whether this was a good thing or a bad thing.
In any case, the incident meant Jack spent the rest of the evening sulking around the house, slamming every door he passed through, silently glaring his way through dinner, and finally shutting himself in his room at ten o’clock.
Molly raised an eyebrow when Jack excused himself from the table and went up to his room, giving Fiona and Annie a quizzical look. “Should I even ask?”
Fiona snickered. Annie hushed her, and said: “I think he’s still sore from this afternoon.”
“His pride, anyway,” Fi added. “He’s just mad ‘cause he was beaten by two little girls.”
“We had self-defense training this afternoon,” Annie explained.
Understanding dawned on Molly’s face, and she nodded. “Yes; they told me you’d be late.” She paused. “Boys are like that sometimes,” she said, looking at Fiona. “Your father was the same way, actually. But be nice, Fiona. Jack hates being less than the best at anything.”
Fiona was clearly not in a charitable mood. “Hah! Well, there’s a first for everything,” she said, getting up. “Homework,” she said.“Be nice, Fiona!” her mother called after her. “I mean it!”
Despite her own defense of Jack’s “poor delicate pride”, Annie was having trouble feeling all that much pity for him, herself. After all, he’d had the opportunity, more than once, to have the benefit of the training Fiona had received, and at a younger age. It wasn’t the Circle’s fault, or Fiona’s, that he’d refused them. And Jack could certainly stand to have his ego deflated a little.
::Besides,:: she thought as she got ready for bed, allowing herself a most uncharitable smirk, ::That’ll teach him to play “protector” over me and Fi like we can’t take care of ourselves.::The smirk lingered on her face even after the rain outside lulled her to sleep.
The dream that chased her out of warm and comfortable rest was a familiar one - so much so that after a moment she knew it wasn’t a dream.
Freezing rain soaked her to the skin, and branches and pine needles dug into the soles of her bare feet. A thin mist clung to the ground, making the forest look surreal, ethereal. The forest itself seemed to stretch on forever in every direction. It was wrong, though, in a way she couldn’t quite explain - it felt wrong. Something tugged at her, a sense of urgency she also could not explain. She was being hunted.
Her breath caught in her throat, her heart sped up its rhythm ‘til she could feel it in her throat before she realized - no, not her, but someone else. But she was there, she could feel it. She could feel it at her back. She could feel its hunger, an alien savagery from a mind she could not comprehend, and she dared not try. This was a monster, with a single purpose...
That was unfamiliar, and she realized that though similar, this was not the same dream.
::This is not the night my father died.::
This time, it was different, the urgency was different - and she could feel the monster’s thoughts and not only its prey’s.
She could sense both: the fear of the hunted, the sweat coursing into her eyes and obscuring her vision, the rain running down the back of her neck, the stitch in her side from running too far, too long.
And then there was the monster; the ravenous hunger, the delight in the chase, the almost lustful joy it felt when it tasted her fear...
She recoiled, disgusted - the monster’s mind was alien, different, dark and unclean. At the same moment the monster turned, struck out at her with an almost distracted annoyance: ::Go away!:: it spat, and returned its attention to its prey.
The hunted stumbled, fell, struggled to her feet again. She raked her hair out of her eyes, and as she ran she reached into her jacket for something - groping for an inner pocket, for a shard of crystal within, she clutched the crystal to her chest, muttering words that sounded like gibberish, though they certainly weren’t. There was heat in the palm of her hand, then pain, and then the stone was gone, and the pain in her side was too great, and she fell again, head-over-heel, her face buried in the forest floor.And as she looked up, looked back, the monstrous glee of the thing behind her filled the world, and everything went bright, wavering red, then white, and then black.
Fiona woke herself when she hit the floor - and when she finally awoke completely, she found that, thrashing in her sleep, she’d thrown herself right out of bed. Her breath came in shallow gasps, and her heart beat so fast and so loud that she felt it in her fingertips. Staring at her hands, flat on the floor, she blinked once, twice, and then the the room cleared and the dream was back with a rush. She scrambled to her feet and half-ran to the door, out into the hall.
She almost collided with her mother, who seemed to have been making her way to Fi’s room, her face just as distraught as her daughter’s.
“Mom!” Fiona gasped, “Mom, I had a --”
“Dream?” Molly interrupted, her face drawn and pale. “I know. I had one too. And I bet it was the same one.”
Mother and daughter turned to see Annie standing just outside her own bedroom door, and beside her, Jack.
“Was it in a forest?”
Molly blinked at the girl, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath, seeming to steady herself.
“Everyone get dressed,” she said slowly, looking at each one of them in turn. “Now,” she added, when none of them moved right away.
Confused, Annie, Jack, and Fiona all darted back into their rooms, emerging fully-dressed in less than five minutes. Molly had, by then, gone downstairs. Fiona and Jack were surprised to find their mother already sitting at the kitchen table, dressed and wearing boots, her jacket folded over the back of the chair in which she was sitting.
She was tying her hair back into a ponytail when they entered the kitchen, and they all stood in the doorway staring at her until she noticed them. “You’d better get your shoes on,” she said, taking a sip from the cup of coffee at her elbow. From the expression on her face, one would have thought she was steeling herself for battle.
Before any of them could move, the phone rang, startling the three teenagers enough that they all jumped. Annie let out a surprised squeak.
Molly, however, got calmly to her feet, crossed the room, and lifted the receiver. “Hello?” she said, and a few moments later, “All right.” Then she hung up, stretched, and looked again at Jack, and Annie, who were still standing in the kitchen door as if rooted to the spot. Fi had already fetched her shoes and was sitting in a kitchen chair, tying her laces.
“Shoes,” she reminded Jack and Annie. “Now.”Still confused but not about to argue with this calm, collected, and entirely unfamiliar Molly, both sprinted for their shoes and jackets.
Neither Jack nor Annie really figured out even part of what was going on until Molly led them out the back door, across the yard, and into the woods at the back of the house. Deep in these woods was a Gate, which was surely where they were headed. Which meant...
“Are we going to the Island?” Annie blurted out before she could stop herself. Molly didn’t stop walking, but she did look back and favour Annie with a faint smile.
“Yes,” she said simply.
They walked on in silence for several minutes, and this time it was Fiona who spoke.
“I used to have dreams like that about Dad,” she said quietly. Jack gave her a closed and unreadable look; Molly looked pained.
“You and every Sensitive in the Circle, honey,” she told her daughter. Everyone felt it - saw it - when he died. If they hadn’t... no one ever would have known what happened to him. He was very powerful. He made it that way.”
Again, for several minutes, no one said anything, until Annie spoke up, her voice hushed and nervous: “You mean... the dream we had tonight - it means someone’s... someone’s...”
“Yes,” said Molly again, and her voice had gone quiet, too. “Her name was Marya Bico.”
All three of the teenagers recognized the last name, but it was Jack who voiced it. “The woman who trained us yesterday was named Tilia Bico.”
After a look of mild surprise, Molly nodded, still looking straight ahead. “Marya was her mother.”
“Did you know her?” asked Annie cautiously, and instantly regretted it; Molly seemed to swallow back tears, and nodded.“Since I was seventeen,” she told them. “She taught me how to fight.”
Fiona had visited the Island many times over the past several years, and had seen the Great Hall of Crystallis during some rather urgent crises, and yet she had never seen it this crowded. The Hall was designed to accomodate slightly more than the normal five hundred members of the Council of Nations. Tonight, though, there seemed to be not just hundreds, but thousands of people milling around the circular room. Only the high, peaked ceiling and the tall windows spaced evenly along the walls kept it from being suffocating.
The noise, especially, was astounding. Marble floors and walls did nothing to muffle hundreds of voices all carrying on separate conversations. The din was nearly deafening; which was strange considering that the overwhelming majority of the Council and the Circle were Gifted in some way, and all were able, in Crystallis at least, to speak mind-to-mind. Fiona only wished that they would. It would have spared her ears.
It was so loud, in fact, that when her mother spoke into her thoughts, she jumped.
::Fiona,:: she said, ::Jack, Annie - follow me.::
At the same time she made eye contact with each of them, then moved off through the crowd. They followed her across the room, around the round table where the Guardians themselves sat, and all the way to the other side where rows of stadium-like seats rose halfway to the ceiling. Several people called out or nodded a greeting to Molly as they traversed the huge room, some with surprise in their features, but Molly only nodded back.
Molly climbed up to the third row and then moved along the row to the left. They seemed to inch sideways along the row of backed benches forever, but finally Molly stopped and sat down. Fiona sat down next to her mother, Jack on the other side, and Annie to Fi’s left. The bench on which they were sitting seemed to be one of hundreds of sections like it - every few metres was a table-like ledge, presumably there so that those seated would not go flying into their neighbours below. And despite the stadium-like design, the room was clearly as ancient as the rest of the Island - and of the same strangely indescribable design.
The crowd of Circle and Council was still milling loudly by the time they were seated, and so Annie took the opportunity to look around. The room itself she marvelled at briefly before turning her attention to the gathered crowd below them. The people gathered were of a stunning variety, of all shapes and sizes - some of them even looking not quite human. Here was a man with cat-slit yellow eyes and gracefully-pointed ears, there a woman with what looked like wings. But they couldn’t possibly have been wings...
Annie was just rubbing her eyes to take another look when the crowd suddenly, inexplicably, went quiet and began filing to their seats.
And still Annie gaped. Fiona had told her about the Council, but there were obviously far more people here than merely the Council of Nations, which, Fiona had told her, numbered less than four hundred at present. There were definitely more people gathered in this room than the room was designed to hold - after the seats around the perimeter of the room had been filled, there were still dozens, if not a couple of hundred people still standing at a respectful distance from the round wooden table at the exact centre of the room.
The room went finally, totally silent as a door on the far side of the room opened. Through it entered a line of - Annie counted - eleven people, three of whom, a tall, bespectacled man with sandy blond hair, a young, athletic woman with dark, curly hair and dark eyes, and another man, whom Annie recognized as Terren, made their way through the standing crowd to the last unoccupied box in the bottom row, and took their seats.
The other eight - Annie could not help, for a moment, but stare, because these were, without question, the Guardians. Without even looking at them directly, she could tell - she could feel it. They were like glowing stars down there, and in comparison, every other person in the room was only a mirror reflecting them. The brightest of them all was Areahannah, who motioned, presently, for those still standing to be seated.
None of this was physically visible, of course, and Annie realized with a start that she had let her shields drop. Embarrassed, she raised them again, but no one seemed to have noticed. With this many minds around her, it was unlikely that anyone would have.
“We’re going to be here a while,” Areahannah said wearily, and those gathered on the floor sank to sitting positions, some with worry in their faces.
Annie really looked at Areahannah then, and was surprised at the exhaustion in her face - ::Then again,:: Annie thought, ::She’s an Empath, isn’t she? She’s been feeling everyone else’s worry and grief for the past three hours - or more, whatever timezone this place inhabits. If it’s in a timezone...::
As always, Annie pushed that thought out of her mind. No one was exactly certain what physical space the Island inhabited, or where on a map it would be located. All anyone knew was that the Gates led here, and that one could only approach it by sea if one knew the way - which was a much more complicated proposition than it sounded.
“By now, I’m sure you’re all aware of what’s happened,” she said, her voice carrying even to the back row. “Several hours ago, a Circle member was killed. Her name was Marya Bico - she was of the Sixth Covenant. The Bico family has been of the Covenants for more than six centuries.”
A respectful murmur rippled through the crowd, and many heads turned toward the box where Terren was seated - only now did Annie see Tilia sitting there, next to Terren, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes on the Guardians. She had clearly been crying, but there was a strength in her features that Annie did not quite understand.
“She was a skilled and respected fighter, and trained some of our best members. She was also a kind, loyal, and honourable woman who served the Circle all her life, always thinking of others before herself.” Areahannah stared at her own hands where they were spread on the table top. “We honour her life and her light.”
“We honour her life and her light,” repeated the entire assembly, and the sudden chorus of unified voices was again almost deafening. Annie’s ears rang briefly.
“She was killed tonight,” Areahannah continued, her voice now even more sober, “in Aislinn Park.”
The residual murmur then died completely - the silence was just as deafening as had been the din of voices, and even Annie sensed the sudden cold fear that rippled through the room. Someone further down the row muttered an oath. Molly sagged in her seat, her face white.
Suddenly Annie was afraid, and she didn’t know exactly why. At her feet, Lann stirred and sat up abruptly - until that moment, Annie didn’t even know he’d come along with them. But she heard the rumble deep in his throat. Quickly, Annie looked back to the great table, to Areahannah, somehow sure that the “why” was forthcoming.
“As most of you certainly know,” Areahannah went on, her own face quite white, “Aislinn Park is the place where, more than ten years ago, Delegate Richard Krane was killed.” The First Guardian took a deep breath, folding her hands together before her.
“We believe that the creature that killed him is the same one that killed Marya.”
With that pronouncement, the room went wild with shouting again, but Annie scarcely noticed - because she had gone quite cold, and beside her, Fiona had gone stiff and pale, her fingers clutched in the fabric of her jacket. Beside her, Molly looked even whiter than she had a moment ago, and Jack’s face had gone closed and hard. It was a moment before Annie realized that every eye in the room had turned to the place where Richard Krane’s widow was sitting.
The remainder of the assembly seemed to pass with unnatural swiftness, as the Guardians below dispatched the gathered Delegates to their respective tasks - to observe, to investigate, and in some cases, to interrogate. The Circle had many resources - after untold centuries in existence, it was almost inevitable - most of them in the form of human beings in convenient positions, and in situations such as this one, they all but demanded exploitation. The Hall emptied quickly, leaving only a few dozen stragglers, who drifted toward the main table and were bent quickly in conversation with two of the Guardians, both men, whom Annie did not recognize. Shortly, the only boxes still occupied were the one where the Phillipses and Annie were seated, and the one in which Tilia Bico sat, staring, into space.
Annie herself remained seated, albeit uncomfortably - this was her first Assembly and she was unsure of what was appropriate. Molly hadn't moved a muscle since Areahannah had uttered the words “Aislinn Park” - Jack was staring now at his lap, and Fiona's eyes were riveted on Areahannah herself, far below them. Annie had shielded, and so she could not sense Fiona's state of mind - and still uncertain as to what was appropriate, she didn't unshield to find out. Instead, she merely sat and stared at her hands, glancing up every now and then to look down at the table.
Only a few minutes passed, however, before her discomfort was interrupted. She glanced someone approaching out of the corner of her eye, and when she looked, spotted Terren making his way up the stairs toward them. Fiona must have seen him too, because she stood even as Annie did, and moved out to meet him. Molly and Jack remained in their seats.
“Great way to be woken up, huh?” he said with a careful smile, and Annie noticed that Terren looked just as exhausted as Areahannah - which only made sense, she realized. He looked a mess - red-blond hair askew, dark eyes tired, and his normally olive complexion a bit pale. Though if Annie hadn't known Terren, she never would have guessed that this was him at half energy. He was expert at holding up under far worse than this - though he tended to keep going at full strength until he simply collapsed. Annie had seen that happen at least once. It was sobering proof of just how trying this life really was.
Next to her, Fiona shrugged and smiled back - she seemed to have recovered rather quickly, or at least, had put her shock to one side. “You get used to it,” she replied, looking at Annie.
“Well,” Terren said, looking over Fionas shoulder to where Molly and Jack were still sitting, “I came to rescue you to a more civilised environment.” He grinned. “There's tea and coffee. Breakfast, even.”At the word “coffee”, even Molly looked up.
Annie was surprised to learn just how long the Assembly had lasted - when they'd left the house it had been just barely past three in the morning. But when they entered the comfortable room that served as a dining room, the light coming in through the window told her that it was now nearly eight or nine oclock - though she wasnt altogether certain of just how reliable her own judgement of time was, given her present location. With the realization came renewed fatigue as well as a gnawing hunger that demanded immediate attention. The fatigue could not be helped at the moment, but judging by the dishes of food arranged along the table... her stomach began growling with renewed vigour.
The rectangular table took up most of the space in the long, narrow room, nearly flush against the far wall, most of which was occupied by the rectangular window. The room was lit entirely by the light coming in from outside - most of Crystallis was full of natural light. Annie realized, absently, that every room shed seen of the Island thus far seemed lit by window-light or skylight. Shed yet to see an artificial light - incandescent, fluorescent, or otherwise. She wondered how they lit the rooms deeper within, the ones with no windows. Then she realized that it was probably over her head at present and stopped wondering.
Right after the food registered the fact that she, the Phillipses and Terren were not alone in the room. There were several other people already seated along the table - right under the window at the far end was a woman in her late twenties. She sat with her legs folded beneath her, perching on the chair with what to Annie was enviable ease. Her dark blonde hair curled softly to her shoulders, and some of it fell into merry eyes of a strangely muddied blue. Annie recognized her, at least, as Katia - one of the Guardians, and a doctor. Which meant that the man next to her - the tall, sandy-haired, bespectacled man Annie had seen earlier - must be Matt Hamilton, another doctor and Katia's not-husband (Fionas word - she'd said that “boyfriend” sounded too silly and “significant other” too melodramatic. Matt and Katia had been together more than eight years, and were what Fiona had called “bonded”: she'd said it with a very sober and mysterious air that Annie had chosen not to question, though shed decided that it was something very serious and a form of relationship with which she was previously unfamaliar. Something like Soulmates. Whatever Matt was to Katia, Terren was to Areahannah. But that, Annie had decided before ever either seeing the two of them together or knowing what such a relationship was - based solely on the way Terren said Areahannah's name.).
Across from them was seated the dark-eyed, athletic young woman with the curly hair whom had been with Matt and Terren earlier. She was noticably younger than any of the Guardians - probably by five or six years, at least. This was Jeri Minnister, a member of the more trusted Inner Circle, an informal delination but very much a reality. The Kranes had once been - and still were, at least in the form of Fiona - considered a part of it, as one of the oldest Delegate families.
Seated next to Katia was another person that Annie recognized - Beilenya, another Guardian, whose bizarre violet eyes looked nearly black in the sunlight flooding the room. Beilenya's eyes were bizarre only because she was clearly of Japanese descent, and the colour seemed out-of-place, though quite striking, especially framed by the Guardian's straight, jet-black hair.It was Beilenya who looked up and greeted them. “Look who's here!” she said, smiling easily and gesturing to empty chairs. The others looked up and smiled as well. “Haven't seen Fiona in a while, and she's brought friends! Who's...” Beilenya's voice trailed off as she sighted Molly, standing just behind Terren's right shoulder, regarding the seated Guardians and Delegates with no expression on her face whatsoever. That was when Annie remembered that this was the first time that Molly had been to the Island since Rick's death, over fifteen years ago.
Fiona momentarily cursed her brother's ability to put on a stoic expression with a moment's notice. She was quite sure that her own apprehension showed clear on her face. She'd almost forgotten herself, until a few seconds ago, the terms under which Molly had last left the Island. Until the two Guardians seated at the table realised just who was in the room with them.
Fiona then, for a moment, resented Arrah - for Fiona was no empath, and could only rely on her impressions to tell her mother's mood and her likeliest reaction. Katia and Belle, to their credit, sat silent and unmoving, Belle rather like a cornered mouse in the eyes of an owl who hasn't decided on lunch. Katia, Fiona knew, was the more diplomatic - being a doctor she could scarcely help it - and merely watched Molly with mild apprehension.
Her mother, Fiona saw then, was afraid.
She was not sure whether anyone else had noted it - certainly Matt and Jeri could not have done so, as Jeri was even less an empath than Fi and Matt was barely Gifted at all. Not to mention that neither of those two had been around when Molly had left. Jeri would have been barely ten at the time and certainly unaware of the Circle.
It seemed that Molly's eyes were on the Guardians only, though - watching them almost warily. The silence stretched on - Fi ground her teeth.
Again, Terren came to the rescue. He cleared his throat and stepped aside, no longer blocking the light from the window and Molly was suddenly at the full mercy of the morning sun. She blinked in surprise - Terren took the opportunity to end the silence.
“Molly Phillips - I dont think you've met...” he gestured and Jeri got gracefully to her feet - very gracefully, Fiona noted for the umpteenth time with vague envy. Jeri was a mutant, and had abilities ranging from sporadic - though violent - precognition to an unusually heightened sense of hand-eye co-ordination, as well as reflexes far superior to any normal human. She practically flowed across the intervening space and presented her hand to Molly without any sign of unease - which meant that either Jeri was not entirely aware of the situation (which Fiona doubted), or that she simply didn't care. Jeri had never been anything but direct, even brash - and frequently scoffed at the vagaries of politics. Which was probably why she was very rarely assigned to anything political. She was too honest for it.
“This is Jeri Minnister,” Terren said cheerfully, and Fiona couldn't tell whether it was forced or not - with Terren it was often difficult to tell. He had a very dark sense of humour.
And then her mother seemed to wake up, and took the offered hand. “Nice to meet you,” she said uncertainly, apparently taken off-balance.
“Me, too. I've heard a lot about you,” Jeri answered with a smile that could only be described as impudent. Terren gave her a warning look and turned to the Guardians. Beilenya was standing with her hands folded before her, face carefully composed.
“Hello, Molly,” she said. “Its good to see you again.”
Any response on Molly's part was interrupted by Katia bullying Matt out of his chair and around the table. “Molly,” she said, “This is Matt.”
“Matt Hamilton,” Matt himself supplied, sticking out a hand. He seemed more flustered than did Katia, but that was hardly a surprise. Matt tended to fling about bravado far less than she did, and was even sometimes shy - but then he had been a Watcher far longer than he'd been a Delegate, part of a secret society of historians even older than the Guardians, a discipline that, apart from his former medical career, lent itself to mostly solitary pursuits. Jeri had once described the older man as having a “low blush factor”. Fiona had laughed, especially after seeing it proven true. Right now, though, Matt seemed to be holding up well enough.
Katia herself watched the exchange with arms crossed. “I'm glad youre back, Molly,” she said, without pretense or politic, and smiled. “Its about damned time.” Jeri laughed.
“I've got to go, I'm afraid,” she apologised then. “I only stopped in for a quick breakfast. Arrah called a meeting in Salem - the East Coast group is meeting at the Academy. Later!” With that, she edged her way past the group in the door and headed off down the hall. Molly watched her go, then turned back to Katia.
“How long has she been around?” she asked. “She seems barely older than Jack.”
Jack, who had until now been standing to Annies right with his arms crossed, started as he heard his name mentioned.
“Shes just twenty-three, I think,” Katia told her, and Mollys eyes widened. “But then, Jeris a mutant - prescience and lots of grace, mostly, which I'm sure youve noticed. Jen, Arrah and I have known her since she was just a little - about nine. She joined us when she was about eighteen. Now she heads up most of the co-ordination of the mutant groups along both coasts of the Americas. Better that than politics, anyway - I'm sure you noticed shes not much for diplomacy.” The Guardian grinned, and Molly gave her a faint smile.And Fiona breathed.
“Jen” was Jenaya, the fourth female Guardian - and was at the moment away from the Island. She'd departed immediately after the Assembly had been dismissed - other things to attend, jobs to do. Jack was disappointed. Jenaya of all the Guardians had always seemed the most sensible, and seemed to enjoy nothing more than stroking Jack's ego only to deflate him a moment later - frustrating, but entertaining. Strange that he should enjoy a game he could never win - Jenaya had trained as a psychologist.
Instead he settled for being led through the labrynthine corridors by Katia and Belle, Annie at his side, his mother behind. Fiona walked between the two Guardians, involved in some conversation that seemed to have been continued from the last time they'd seen each other. Molly walked lost in her own thoughts.
Beside him, Annie yawned. “I know I should be used to it by now, but I'm exhausted,” she told him. “Plus I never realized that sitting still is more tiring than actually doing stuff.”
Jack only nodded - at least when he was moving, there was adrenaline to keep him awake. Instead theyd sat still for five hours, then sat for another hour eating. Now they walked, though that was better than being motionless again. He felt more restless than tired, though he was tired. He longed for Ailean Mor and its open green spaces. He longed mostly for the sky. He hadn't seen it undiluted for nearly six hours now and it was making him edgy. Annie seemed unperturbed - but then, she was more easily distracted. She seemed quite content to be more fascinated with the situation than concerned by it - at least for now.
“I do wish I could have gone with Jeri, though,” she continued wistfully. Jack rolled his eyes and smiled to himself. Annie was more than a little interested in the genetics of mutancy - with two scientists as parents she could hardly help it. And nearly fifty percent of the Delegates were mutants. Annie had never met a mutant in person before the Circle (Fiona and Jack certainly had, but that had been years before either of them could remember), and for several weeks after meeting Jeri, she had followed the older girl around like a tagalong younger sibling, nearly driving Jeri mad with questions. Fortunately, Jeri was good-natured enough not to mind it - even enjoyed it, especially after a childhood of being hated for her differences, to suddenly be revered and idolized for it.
Theyd since become friends, though, and although Annie wasnt allowed yet to take part in real missions like the ones for which Jeri was responsible, it was generally agreed (though Annie was unaware of it) that when Annie were trained well enough, she would, indeed, be working under Jeri. Jack had only learned of this plan by accident, overhearing a conversation once between Fi and Arrah, and knew that it would please Annie. Jeri, too - she was still quite young despite her responsibilities. She would probably enjoy the company.
The flow of converstion ahead of them ceased suddenly as they came to an intersection in corridors. Jack looked up to see the reason theyd stopped - a young man stood with his head bent in conversation with the two Guardians. Jack took a second look, and blinked, as he realized that this man was a Guardian, as well, judging by the ovular red stone set in silver that hung about his neck. The man was tall and muscular, but lean - his hair was dark brown with a hint of red, and his eyes were a familiar shade of green. He also wore a seemingly permanent frown and looked about him with a faintly menacing air. Jack found himself immediately intimidated, which brought just as quickly a wave of resentment. He didnt like being intimidated.
This had to be Presskin, Areahannah's brother. The resemblance was unmistakable. This was the same man to whom Tilia had compared him. Jack found himself resenting the comparison as well. He found himself scowling, and quickly set his face into neutral as Katia looked up, at them, and then beyond them to Molly. Jack looked back, and saw his mother stiffen when she noticed Presskin. Presskin merely nodded respectfully, his face unreadable save for the frown.
“Ms. Phillips,” he greeted her evenly. “Areahannah needs you - in her... office.” There was a moment of uncertain silence before Molly nodded, slowly.
“I trust you remember where it is?” Presskin added, and only this time did Jack catch a hint of real animosity. But his mother merely held his gaze, and nodded again.
“I can manage,” she told him. She turned to her son and daughter and Annie. “Ill see you later,” she said, and proceeded back the way theyd come. Fi and Annie looked at each other, shrugged, and then Katia and Belle led them on down the hall. Presskin gave them a parting nod as they passed him. Jack could not quite qualify the look in the older man's eyes.
Molly could count, almost to the day, how long it had been since she’d last walked these halls.
She certainly had no trouble finding her way to the part of the Island that housed Areahannah’s “office”. Navigating the labyrinthine corridors proved no more difficult than it had been back when she was a new Delegate, still young enough and innocent enough to look on the whole affair as one great adventure. And she’d had Rick at her side, Rick, who’d been a Delegate much longer, almost since childhood. Rick, who’d never doubted his calling, not even a little. And at first, she’d even understood it.
Molly paused to look out a South-facing window, raised her arm to shield her eyes from the glare of the sun setting to the West of her. ::No,:: she thought, frowning. ::Maybe I never really did. Not the way I should have.::
She turned and continued past the window. Back then, she’d never doubted anything. Not until it was too late.
::And then I panicked.::
She couldn’t quite identify the feeling that rose and trembled within her chest as she climbed the narrow staircase between the private and public sections of the Island complex. The dining room she’d just left with the others was in the private section, as were things such as living quarters and the medical bay. The public held the Hall, the Library, some offices... including Areahannah’s. Though she doubted that the corridor down which she now turned had originally been intended for the purpose of offices - in fact the only one of these rooms that was regularly used as such was the one at the very end on the right - it was more likely that they’d been built as meditation chambers. At least that had always been Molly’s overwhelming impression. She’d used one of them - incidentally, the one just facing Arrah’s office - for just that purpose. In fact, it was where she had learned that elusive art. Back in her younger days, Andra Kurk, Terren’s grandmother, had been the one to teach her - back when she still ventured so far from her home, before her death. As she paused outside the door and listened, hearing the muted laughter of two or more children, she surmised that it was still being used for that purpose.
Back then, of course, Areahannah had not really had an “office”, per se - a fifteen-year-old has little need for such things. Molly had stared with some bewilderment when Fiona had once mentioned that she had one now. But she’d recognized her daughter’s description of just where that office was, certainly.
Turning to face the office door, Molly reached out and rapped on the door frame. A moment later, she heard a muffled “come in!” from within - she turned the handle, and pushed open the door.
Molly understood in only a moment why Arrah’s “office” was given that title so dubiously. The place was alternatively stacked, stuffed, and cluttered with books, papers, maps, and all other manner of assorted junk, not much suited for anything overly “official”.
As she entered, Areahannah, almost invisible behind a big desk stacked high with books, waved her over to a seat in one of several overstuffed armchairs against the back wall. It was a comfortable little room for all the busy clutter, the longer walls hidden behind bookshelves and the wall behind Areahannah’s desk filled with a window as tall as Molly. The other wall was similar, but the window not as wide, and beneath it was a low window seat stacked with cushions. Through the left window the Beaches were visible, the crystal protrusions shifting pastel colours in the early morning sunlight, and through the right, cliffs of dark, granite-like stone marched down into the sea.
Molly closed the door behind her and allowed herself to drift across the floor as the Guardian turned back to something on her desk. As she crossed the office Molly saw that it was a telescreen - and to her surprise, the face of Taylor Matthews was displayed on the screen. Taylor Matthews had, until recently, been the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Now he was the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Global Union.
Molly blinked and hastily removed herself from the range of the telescreen’s cameras. Areahannah was telling him something, or maybe asking, about the last session of the Global Union Assembly. Molly considered with some intrigued surprise for a moment as she realized that both the Global Union and the Circle held a Council of Nations. She wondered about it - wondered which had been the namesake of the other - as the Guardian concluded her conversation - a little too quiet to make out individual words - and closed the connection. Then, the realization of Areahannah’s eyes upon her drove all other consideration from her mind.
The silence that followed was not exactly uncomfortable. It certainly was not comfortable - but it felt, to Molly, more uncertain than anything else.
“So,” said Areahannah, finally, drawing her legs up into her chair to fold them underneath her, and for a moment Molly was reminded of a much younger girl, “I’m sorry about the mess.” She grinned, and Molly had the impression that this was a set pattern. She clearly didn’t mean a word of it, so Molly just smiled back.
“I never envisioned you having an office,” she ventured, looking around once more.
Areahannah laughed, shrugged. “I’m sure you noticed that when directing people here my comrades tend to hesitate in calling it an office. It isn’t, really.” She followed Molly’s gaze around the room and then settled back on Molly, herself. “The truth is, I just loved the view, and when I started hoarding books up here, that’s just what it became. I don’t even do much of an official nature here if I can help it.”
Molly looked back at the Guardian, who was now looking at her again and now, definitely looked uncomfortable. It had always baffled Molly how Areahannah could go so quickly between serene and uncertain. For a moment, there were no titles, and Molly was merely a middle-aged woman with two children, facing a younger woman, almost a child in comparison, who seemed dwarfed by her authority in matters of life. Molly knew quite well that this was not the case, at least not anymore, though it had once been - the illusion persisted several seconds. It passed quickly, for the most part, and Areahannah folded her hands in her lap.
“I, ah... I bet you’re wondering why I wanted to see you,” she said, and Molly shook her head.
“I had a few guesses,” she replied.
Areahannah nodded, slowly. “I suppose you would.”
As uncomfortable silences went, the one that now filled the small office would have ranked in the top ten. Reckoned among its fellows between Molly and Arrah of the past few months, it was somewhere in the top three. Which was saying something, as in general it was Areahannah who grew rapidly tired of long awkward silences and did something to fill them or end them.
Presently, Areahannah’s eyes dropped to her hands in her lap. “I would have greeted you at the Assembly,” she said finally, “But... you were there, of course. You saw it.”
Molly shook her head. “Yes, I saw it. But I doubt that’s why you wanted to see me.”
“Molly, I asked you here because I need your help with something.” The statement was blurted and awkward, and when Molly looked up she saw something bordering both desperation and discomfort in the younger woman’s eyes.
“You’ve been working up to that for an hour, haven’t you?” she asked, holding back a smile.
Areahannah turned slightly pink, and nodded, slowly. “I’m -- sorry. I wasn’t sure how to broach something so...”
“Just ask,” advised Molly.
“The dream,” Areahannah said, seeming to steel herself. “The dream Marya gave the Circle. There was one just like it when... when Rick died.”
Molly felt her whole body clench up, and realized that Arrah must have seen it, because she hesitated. She forced herself to relax, and nodded. “What about it?”
“We need your help,” the Guardian explained slowly, “We need you to... to go through it again.”
“Why?” Molly demanded, before she could stop herself. “Why would you--”
“If there was another way, I would take it, Molly,” Areahannah interrupted her. “But Marya is not the only Delegate to have been killed in the past several months. She’s just the only one who managed to get off a Sending before she died.”
Molly felt suddenly numb. “What?” she managed. “How -- why haven’t you told the Council? Why wasn’t this told to the Assembly? Why--”
“This information has only come in in the past few hours. Since the Assembly. The Council knows. It’s been happening all over the world, in events seemingly unconnected. Not all of them were Delegates - but they were all young women, all killed in similar ways.”
“Similar, how?” Molly asked.
Areahannah squirmed. “All killed very quickly, and apparently by someone with what borders on superhuman strength. And something very... evil is a vague term, but the only description I can really give you. There is the sense of something ancient and utterly evil. And it seems to be spreading. Marya’s death is only the latest sign.”
Molly stared at the Guardian as realization dawned. “It’s not just what killed Rick, is it?” Molly asked, her voice hushed. “It’s something bigger.”
The Guardian finally looked Molly in the eyes, her gaze unwavering. “Molly, you know that the reason Rick was killed... it was not only about your family. At the time something was killing our allies. Something was killing whole families. Something, now - maybe that same something - is back, and growing in power. Something older even than us.”
Molly felt an involontary shudder as ice shot down her spine. Older than the Guardians?
Areahannah shook her head in earnest. “I know that this is a lot to ask of you, Molly - I would have asked Fiona, but I hesitated in subjecting her to this. I would not be asking you if it were not absolutely necessary. But something touched him that night. Something touched me, too - but I think that you would remember better.”
Molly nodded, slowly. “You’re right,” she said. “And better me than Fiona. I would rather... I would rather it were me.”Slowly, relief filled the younger woman’s face, and she stood. “Good, then,” she said, moving toward the door. Halfway there, as Molly stood, Areahannah turned back and smiled at her. “I’m glad you’re back, Molly,” she said impulsively. “We all are.” ***
Jack glared, and concentrated, trying not to let his frustration get the better of him.
Somewhere in his immediate vicinity, both Annie and Katia were lurking, getting ready to (in Annie’s case) pounce and tackle him, or (in Katia’s) merely trip him unceremoniously onto his back. Which struck him as terribly unfair seeing as they’d started this so-called “training session” by tying a blindfold around his head.
The purpose of this exercise was ostensibly to force him to use his powers to sense the attacker before she struck instead of just seeing her. He’d managed the “spot and duck” part of this method a few weeks ago, but the second stage involved not only avoiding, but countering the attack while blind. Blind except for the eye within, anyway.
The problem was this: Katia, as a Guardian, presented such a brightly thrumming source of lifeforce that Jack had difficulty pinpointing her within a specific room, let along predicting her movments. He could sense her as a person, but he kept getting thrown off by the sheer power of her aura and missing. Or as Fiona liked to put it, getting “distracted by shiny things”. He had the same problem, to some degree, with almost everyone, largely because everyone he’d trained with was Gifted, mostly powerfully, and their Gifts tended to blur out their physical presences.
In Annie’s case, her presense held a strange duality, because of Laan. He also didn’t trust the damned panther not to just sit in an oppurtune spot so that Jack could trip over him. It came down to blocking out their auras and focusing exclusively on their bodies, on the physical space they inhabited. But it was damned difficult when his Sight kept getting filled with bright, noisy Power. He was sure he’d be able to pull this trick with someone UnGifted - unfortunately, it was unlikely that anyone UnGifted would ever try to jump him from behind.
As he went down on his back for the fourth time in an hour, he finally tore off the blindfold. “That’s it,” he growled, “I need a break.”
Katia pushed damp curls out of her eyes. “All right,” she said. “Take a walk or something. We’ll try again later.”
“I don’t know why this is so hard for you, Jack,” Annie mused from her seat on the floor. Laan was curled up next to her, purring contentedly - and a bit smugly, Jack thought.
“I imagine it has something to do with coming on his powers so late in life, Annie,” Katia said. “Jack never got used to having other minds around him. He’s just learning now. Figuring out how to tune them out must be difficult enough, but separating a person’s aura from their presence must be very frustrating. But you’ll get it. It will just take time.” Katia got to her feet. “It’ll be a few hours before anyone needs you two,” she said. “Why don’t you go outside? Get some fresh air. That’s an order.” She grinned at them and left.
“Don’t worry about it, Jack,” Annie advised cheerfully, getting up to grab a towel from the waiting hooks. “It took me almost a month to get it. And I was never blocked up like you were.”
“Yeah,” griped Jack, “But if somebody sneaks up on me, I don’t have a semi-mythical panther to watch my back.”
Annie blinked at him, and held out the towel. “Maybe we should take that walk. I think dipping your head in the ocean wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
Jack accepted the towel Annie handed him with only a minimal glare. He mopped sweat from his face as he paced across the mats laid across the floor to the window on the other side of the dojo. This room was one of the ones that had been rebuilt recently, and looked down on the main courtyard. Beyond the sea wall were the glowing marches of the Beaches.“Fine,” he agreed. “Let’s take a walk.” ***
The wind did a great deal to improve Jack’s mood. It also revived him a bit after the physical exertion of the training session. By the time they had descended the staircase from the main complex down to the beach, he was feeling much better - as well as he could given the situation, anyway.
“I wonder how Tilia’s doing,” Annie said suddenly, and Jack looked at her in surprise. It was amazing how much, recently, Annie echoed his thoughts. And without actually reading them, so far as he could tell.
“About as well as Mom, I bet,” Jack answered, digging his hands into his pockets. This beach could have been any one in the world, except for the glowing protrusions of crystals everywhere they looked. Before them, though, the sand stretched out and became the sea, normal as you please. Jack led the way down the beach. Annie followed.
“But Molly...” Annie said, and then trailed off. Jack turned to look at her and found her watching him uncertainly.
“I was going to say something about Molly,” Annie said, shaking her head, “But I suddenly realized that maybe it wasn’t a very nice thing to say.”
Jack stopped, turned to look at her. In Crystallis the best of shields were only conditionally useful, and he could sense Annie wanted to say what she was thinking.
“Say it,” he insisted.
Annie stared at him for a moment, wisps of blonde hair blowing into her eyes, then sighed. “I was just thinking,” she said, “That... well, Molly knew about your dad when she married him, didn’t she? About his being a Delegate, I mean.”
Jack nodded very slowly. “Yeah; she knew. He told her, right before. I think... something about his grandmother telling him he had to.”
“So... she knew what she was getting into. She even joined the Circle when they got married.”
Jack nodded again. “So?”
Annie bit her lip. “I never really understood why your Mom hated Arrah so much, Jack. I guess... it was a misunderstanding, and she never really knew what happened, or she didn’t want to, or she... I don’t know. But it all seemed a lot like a big excuse to me.”
Jack blinked at her. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Well,” Annie said quickly, “She wasn’t really being fair to your dad, was she? Arrah told us that he was one of the most devoted Delegates they had - and you know what they’re like, Jack, you’ve seen them. It’s just short of a religion with them. It’s a way of life. They’re raised in the Circle, they die in it. It’s everything. You know that, you’ve felt it. Your mom knew that, and she accepted it, and then suddenly things got scary and she got scared, and she expected your dad to get scared, too. But he didn’t, and he didn’t leave, because this was more important. And don’t glare at me, you know it is.”
Jack felt his face growing hot. “That doesn’t make it right that he lied to her!”
“She wasn’t being fair, Jack,” Annie persisted, crossing her arms defiantly. “Maybe she never really did understand what she was getting into, but she had plenty of chances, and if nothing else she had to know what it meant to your dad. Expecting him to just drop it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t right what she did to you, and it wasn’t right for her to blame Arrah for something that just... it happens, Jack. It just happens. The Delegates know that from childhood. Even I know that, and I wasn’t raised in the Circle. It’s accepted that you can die, suddenly, and alone. It’s just the way it is.”
“Do you have an actual point?” Jack demanded, interrupting her. “Or are you just--”
She stepped forward, and suddenly the fact that he topped her by a foot became irrelevant. “I’m not trying to make you angry, Jack,” Annie said, glaring right back at him. “I just want you to realize - it’s not the same. It’s not the same now as it was then. It might be part of the same thing, but it’s different. Your mom must have looked at this as some kind of - I don’t know, army, or cult, or something. But it’s not. It’s not that at all. It’s good.”
“If it was so good people wouldn’t be dying all the time,” he protested.
“God, Jack, make up your mind! You’re walking around bubbling underneath because you resent having to be here. Even though you know you have to be. It’s not a contract, Jack. You know they wouldn’t make you. If you want to be here, then be here. But don’t be here and hate it. You know why you should be here; you feel it just like I do. But if that isn’t enough, then go home, and stop acting like such an ass.”
With that, she turned on her heel and stalked off down the beach, leaving Jack very confused, and just a little intimidated. A righteously enraged Annie was a totally new and unfamiliar concept, one that frightened and amazed him at the same time.
He gathered his shattered bravado about him and hurried to catch up.
He was somewhat less shocked to discover that Righteously Enraged Annie was much quicker on her feet that regular Annie - he was out of breath by the time he caught up with her, almost a kilometre down the beach. She was stalking along with her arms crossed, occasionally stooping down to pick up a stone and hurl it into the water. He’d never seen Annie angry before. Possibly because it took so much just to get a rise out of her. He’d apparently pushed the right buttons, though, because as he approached, she turned with one arm raised as if to hit him.
“Jack, I swear, one more word of angst-fuelled defiant bravado and I’ll hit you on the nose--”
Jack raised his hands in surrender. “I come in peace,” he said quickly. “I’m sorry. I guess I shouldn’t be allowed to talk when I’ve had less than three hours sleep.”
“If ever,” Annie said with an edge to her voice, but most of her anger seemed gone. “I guess - I’m sorry I yelled. I’ve wanted to say that for months, now, ever since we found out... about everything. I couldn’t say it to Molly, so I guess you got her share as well as yours. It felt like intruding, except I couldn’t go anywhere, and it was driving me crazy.”
“I don’t, however, apologize for calling you an ass.”
“I wasn’t even going to suggest it,” he said.
They walked in silence for several minutes before either of them spoke again. “Annie, can I ask you something? Totally non-confrontational, I promise.”
Annie chuckled. “Ask away.”
“In all of this - you’ve hardly batted an eye. Like none of it was a surprise at all. But you said yourself - you weren’t raised in the Circle, your parents weren’t even directly in the line. But you act as if this was no big surprise. No shock.”
Annie was quiet, staring ahead of them as if deep in thought. “I don’t know, Jack,” she said finally. “I guess - I never knew they were here, of course, not exactly, but I... I’ve always known something had to be. I just... felt it. Knew it. And I mean - I wasn’t brought up being told that, y’know, I was going to be part of a Big, Shiny, Force for Good, but... I guess nobody ever told me that I wouldn’t. So finding out that there really is something real and warm and alive that does Good in the world... it wasn’t a surprise. Just... new.”
She turned her head to look at him. “Does that make sense?”
Jack smiled at her, laughed. She looked confused. “Did I say something funny?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Not funny. Just... amazing. You’re amazing.”
She beamed at him, and then suddenly threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. “So are you, you know,” she said into his ear. “I just wish you didn’t like to pretend you weren’t.”
Jack was going to answer, but his attention was suddenly diverted by something else - that something being a dark shape against the sky, something on the beach ahead of them. The shape of a human being, tall and stately and proud, standing on the rocks at the base of the last protrusions of crystal. As he approached it, Jack saw that it was a statue, in true human proportion and half a head taller than he was, mounted on a pedestal.
The statue faced the ocean, one hand reaching back toward Crystallis, the other, palm out, as if in offering, extended to the sea and the world beyond. The statue was so simplistic - the face didn’t even have eyes, or a mouth, and yet somehow conveyed a sensation of... Jack couldn’t quite explain it. He stood staring up at the statue’s face, motionless, absorbed. It was beautiful in a strange way, but almost sad.
“Jack,” said Annie, her voice quieter than it had been a moment ago. “There’s a plaque here.”
“What?” Jack blinked, looked down, only realizing now that Annie had followed him. She was crouched at the base of the pedestal, where indeed a plaque of what looked like brass was mounted on the front of the pedestal. Jack bent down beside her. Carved into the brass was no statement, no meaningful proverb, but what looked like a long list of names, with empty space at the bottom as if more would be added later - even though this statue was clearly hundreds of years old. Perhaps more names had been added over time. Certainly the names themselves varied wildly - male, female, from all cultures, many he couldn’t even pronounce.
“Jack, look,” Annie said, and Jack stooped down to look where she was pointing.
Near the bottom of the plaque, between the names “Isabel O’Shea Kurk” and “Sebastian Saras”, “Richard Krane” was carved, seeming to stand out more than the others’, though at least a dozen more names followed. Suddenly Jack understood.
“I know what this is,” he said. “It’s a memorial.”
“To the Delegates who have died serving the Circle.” Annie’s voice was just barely above a whisper.
“But there’s so many,” he murmured incredulously.
“That’s right,” she said, standing to look up at the statue again as he did. “Hundreds, over centuries, and still they come.”
For a time the only sound was of the waves crashing at their heels. The tide was coming in. They didn’t notice until the water lapped at their ankles, but even then they didn’t move. Annie reached out and clasped Jack’s right hand in her left, and to Jack’s own surprise, he didn’t flinch away. He merely tightened his grip a little.
“Annie?” he said finally, as the tide became more insistent.
“Hmm?” she answered.“No more bubbling. I promise.” ***
The Library had always been Fiona’s favourite part of Crystallis - thousands of years of history and knowledge all in one room. Although what remained here now was but a pale shadow of the vast riches the Library had once held, Fiona could still spend hours just staring. Right now, however, she had more important things on her mind. Like keeping the pages upon pages of indecipherable writing from blurring before her eyes.
She was suddenly distracted by Beilenya’s explosive sneeze from fifty feet above, where the Guardian perched on one of the three ladders attached to the shelves that reached from floor to ceiling. Fiona closed the book she was holding, a Greek volume about the sacking of the Oracle at Delphi, and crossed the room to the base of the ladder. “You all right?” she asked, looking up. She was answered by another sneeze.
“For all the time people spend poring over things in here,” Belle called down the ladder with an audible scowl, “You’d think someone could dust, or something.”
“Did you find anything?” Fiona asked, grinning.
“I’m not sure. Hold on.” Beilenya climbed down the ladder, hopping down the last few rungs, crossed to the table, and set down what seemed to be an enormous sheaf of papers bound haphazardly with a length of leather thong. “These ones, at least, are in English.”
Fiona watched Belle unbind the papers before asking: “So remind me again what we’re looking for?”
“Well,” said Belle speculatively, flipping through papers, “About five or six generations of Guardians back, there was something called the Delegate Registry. Which was exactly what it sounds like - a list of geneolagies. Members of the circle and their parents, descendants, who had what Gifts, who was part of what Covenant, that kind of thing. We only re-instituted the Delegate Assembly about fifteen years ago, around the time we re-took the Island, so we know we’re still missing people, whole lines, whole families, probably, who just never got brought back in. And if what’s killing is killing Delegates, it’s probaby not a bad plan to see if we might be able to track them down.”
Fiona raised one eyebrow. “But I thought... didn’t Arrah say that not all the people killed were Delegates?”
Belle paused, then, and stared at her. “You know, that’s the funny thing. I know they weren’t. Some were, but not all. But when I asked Arrah that very question, she got all evasive and said that they might not be Delegates, at least not as far as we know, but that didn’t mean that all the killings weren’t connected somehow. And then she suggested we look for the Registry, even though most of our records of that sort were lost or destroyed about fifty years ago, along with a lot of other things.”
She gave a perplexed shake of her head. “I hate it when she gets like that - won’t answer a question directly, no matter what you do. And she wouldn’t. I expect she knows something we don’t, or she’s working on some other angle and can’t tell us yet. It annoys me, but there’s not much I can do about it. She is the First, after all.”
“Still makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” Fiona said thoughtfully. “If they weren’t Delegates - then who were they?”
“I don’t know,” said Belle. “But they must have been awfully important. Whoever killed them not only managed to do it without any legal authorities blinking an eye, but they managed to kill known Delegates without anyone finding out about it, until we looked. Which we’re doing now only because Marya managed to do a Sending before...”
Belle sat down abruptly, staring into space. “Whoever’s doing this... they only went after people who were alone, with no close relatives or friends - with no one to miss them. Whoever did this knew who they were and that their deaths would raise no alarms. As long as they didn’t raise alarms themselves.”
Fiona sat down across from her. “And they were all killed suddenly, almost instantly, out in the middle of nowhere, so that they couldn’t.”
“Marya... she must have found something. By accident. If they had meant to kill her, we never would have found out. Not until it was too late. Like the others.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Fiona rose from her chair and went back to rifling through shelves. “What are you doing?” Belle asked her.
“I think we’d better get back to finding that Registry thing,” said Fiona.In silent consent, Beilenya joined her.
The woods were cold, so cold that fingers and toes went quickly numb. Rain pelted down, plastering clothing to bodies and hair to skulls. The four women began to shiver as wind seemingly borne of the coldest Northern climes swept through the trees.
::I don't remember it being so cold,:: Molly thought, looking around her. She and her three companions, Areahannah, Beilenya, and a third Guardian, Jenaya, stood in the centre of a small cleared space. Above them, the trees reached skeletal branches toward the heavy, ominous clouds, towering stories over their heads.
::Thats because it's not,:: Beilenya reminded her. ::It's a dream, remember? It's not cold. It's an emotion. Represented.::
::Fear.:: The other three looked at Areahannah in startled agreement. The First Guardian seemed disturbed, even frightened. Molly sympathised.
::I can feel it,:: Molly added. ::Over there.:: She pointed off into the darkest, densest part of the forest, where shadows seemed to beckon and threaten simultaneously.
::I remember,:: Arrah nodded.
That was when they heard it.
::I know you're here,:: called the voice, though it didn't really speak. ::I know you're here!::
::Rick!:: Molly felt suddenly colder, if that was at all possible. ::That's Ricks voice--::
She felt a “hand” close about her arm, looked up, and saw Areahannah holding her back - she hadn't realized that shed started moving in the direction of Ricks voice. ::It's not real, Molly. Just a dream. A memory.::
Beside her, Jenaya nodded. ::We can't affect anything here. We can only watch what's already been.::
Molly bit her lip and nodded. All four moved into the trees.
The woods themselves were more ominous even than the dream suggested - in this strange half-dream, half memory, things seemed both more and less real than they ought to have been. Everything floated by them with a strange, swift and roaring poignancy and even the wind in the trees seemed supernally loud. The walk through the trees was shortly over, and they stood at the edge of the trees, looking out on yet another clearing.
::Which way is the road?:: Belle asked. Molly pointed off to the right and behind them.
::That way. He -- he ran through the woods to the road and got in his car.::
::But what was he running from, is the question.:: Jenaya was moving out into the clearing, almost a valley, which stretched out before them and then dipped out of sight over the crest of the nearest hill.
::The dream always started in the trees,:: Molly said. ::Even Fiona's. That must be when he started the Sending.::
Suddenly they were elsewhere as if pulled, standing beneath the trees once more, wind roaring in their ears. In front of them was an overgrown path, and as they watched they saw a figure stumble through the trees and past them, making his way toward the road.
::Hot, greedy breath...::
::Rick!:: Molly started to step forward again, but this time she stopped herself. They watched as the shadow of Richard Krane fell, scrabbled in the dirt, struggled to his feet, and staggered on. Molly fell back as a moment later, something swept past them with a wash of foul- smelling air.
Something tugged at them, something like fire in the sounds rushing at them, and raw power being drawn from the ground beneath their feet with desperate, terrified determination.
::You might get me, monster, but it won't do you any good...::
Ricks voice rang through the trees, and she felt a sympathetic pain in her side as somewhere, Rick tired, staggered out of the trees, something old and terrible at his heels.
And then images of Fiona and Jack, and Molly - even Molly, though she didn't understand, and had been so angry, but he loved her, he loved her so much it hurt - seemed to swirl in the very air, and triumph, feverish jubilation, because he'd done it, he'd done it, and they were safe, it was too late now, and it would never find them--
--a gasp of pain, and fire, and smoke, an the squeal of tires, and his voice, a last burst of sound and light and strange calm, saying ::Arrah, Arrah, it's here, tell Molly--::
::Molly; it's not real.::
She looked up, and Jenaya was looking at her, hand on her shoulder, clear blue eyes calm. Molly blinked, nodded.
They were back at the edge of the trees, the valley before them, a shadow looming over the hill.
There was something there.
The foul smell was fainter, but present. And It was still there, simmering with triumph and satiation, that spilled over into the valley like polluted water. The four women cringed back as, in its euphoria, it stopped protecting itself and gloated.
::Be pleased,:: came the wheedling, slimy voice. ::And soon, from beneath, devouring--::
Abruptly, the voice was gone, and they were alone but for the wind in the trees. All suppressed the urge to brush the sense of taint from their skin, instead drawn forward out of the trees, across the valley, to the crest of the hill.
Below them was a massive crater, kilometres in diameter, deeper than the trees were tall. As they looked down into it, a sense of death and utter nothingness seemed to flow from the very ground.
Molly opened her eyes, and immediately regretted it. Even the tiny light from the candle in the middle of the circle blinded her momentarily, and she blinked back tears, swaying with exhaustion. She had forgotten how draining Recall could be. Across from her, the three Guardians seemed in similar state.
Belle pushed hair out of her eyes and regarded Molly. “You all right?” she asked. Molly nodded.
“Could use a drink, though--” she stopped as a hand set down a glass of water before her. She looked up to see Katia, a full jug of water in one hand, the sides beaded with moisture.
Katia smirked at them. “I swear, if it werent for me, you would all dwindle away in a week.”
Arrah reached for the glass Katia handed her, smiling gratefully. “Good thing you're here, then.”
Katia settled herself on the floor with them, handing out two more glasses to Belle and Jenaya. “So. Any luck?”
Areahannah stilled, the smile disappearing from her face. She looked at Molly, who suppressed a shiver.“There's something in that park,” she said.
Matt Hamilton was sitting at his window, wondering at the strange sense of creeping urgency that was slowly filling him, when a knock came on his door. It startled him, and hed leapt halfway to his feet before realizing that it couldnt be anything untoward, not here. His heart slowing back to normal pace, he crossed the room and opened it, to find Belle and Fiona standing in the hall, Fiona's arms full of parchment and in Belle's hands...
He blinked down at it. It was one of the glass sheets that the old Circle had once used to encase important documents. The pages would be enclosed in two panes of glass then sealed, so that whatever it was they were protecting would not be harmed by time.
“Matt, we have to ask you a question. Its about the Watchers,” Belle said, then pushed past him into he and Katia's rooms, Fiona close on her heels.
Five minutes later they had spread out the various parchments in two rows across the living room table, and Belle still held the glass in her hands.
“We found these in the old chronicles, looking for the Registry,” Fiona explained. “But they're not Circle chronicles, at all. They didn't even look like they'd been written by any of the Circle chroniclers - all of them have their own mark, they put it at the base of the page, here -” Fiona pointed to a sigil marked in the bottom right corner of each page - each was different, but similar, he could see that. “But then we found this tucked in with them...” She pointed to the bottom row, and Matt saw that these pages were different, random, and lacking the chronicler's sigil. They seemed to have been ripped out of a book, and in a moment he realized that these were pages from someones journal.
“And underneath those was... that.” Fiona now pointed to the glass in Beilenyas hands. Belle met his eyes, and he felt simultaneously confused and concerned.
“What is it?” he asked, starting to reach for it, but Belle held it just out of his reach.
“Whats the Schism, Matt?” she asked.
Matt blinked at her, and all of a sudden froze, realisation dawning. “The... Schism?”
Belle must have sighted the understanding in his eyes. She nodded. “What is it? All we know is that its got something to do with the Watchers.”
She handed him the glass plate, and he took it. This page did bear the mark of a Circle chronicler, but must have been one of the oldest documents hed ever seen on the Island. As he stared at it, he groped blindly for a chair and sat down, feeling heavy, his mind reeling.
“The... my god. I cant believe I didnt think of it sooner.”
“What?” queried Fiona, looking intensely at him. “What is it?”
Matt sighed. “I... youd better sit down. This could take a while.”
They sat, and he set the glass plate on the table in front of him. “The Watchers - the ones that document the Circle - have been around almost as long as the Circle itself. That seems incredible until you know that... well, the Watchers themselves have been around since before the Circle ever existed.”
He heard Fionas wordless gasp, but continued. “The Watchers were originally created... oh, millennia ago, for a different purpose. They existed, then, solely to watch the Slayer.”
He looked up at the ensuing silence, and saw Belle looking at him in shocked disbelief. “You mean they're the same - I always thought--”
“They were once the same. One Watchers Council. When the Circle appeared it offered a lot of alliances to the great powers of the time - you know that much. It offered such an alliance to the Watchers Council, but by that time they'd... well, they'd gained a rather inflated opinion of their own importance. They refused. They believed their purpose was higher, was more important...”
“But they didn't all feel that way,” supplied Belle.
Matt nodded. “The Schism... happened when roughly half of the Watchers Council - mostly the younger ones - decided that the Circle needed them, that they had a duty to...”
“So... two Watchers Councils?” asked Belle.
Matt shook his head. “The ones that left never formed a Council - they felt that the bureaucracy was the reason that theyd become stagnant to begin with. And yet they remained somewhat removed, for the most part, from the Circle, unless absolutely necessary, because what the Watchers are meant to do is watch, and document, and... there are still times when theyre needed to do other things, and as a whole thats the reason that records are sparse and a bit fragmented over the centuries - knowing their history, the Circle handed over responsibility for their record-keeping to the Watchers that joined them, and... well, things happen.” He shrugged.
“I guess being pillaged every fifty years doesn't help,” mused Fiona.
“No. It doesn't.” Matt sighed. “And at the same time, the reason the current Slayers been having so much trouble is that the way the original Council runs things hasnt changed in the last... four hundred years or so.”
“And thats why that mess in Devonshire? When Arrah had to...” Belle trailed off, looking a bit pale. Several months back there had been an apocalyptic threat in Southern California, one that could only be aided by the intervention of Arrah, alone. The rest of the Eight hadn't known the entirety of what was going on, still didn't - only, in fact, Matt and Katia, as Matt had been the one to inform her of the threat to begin with - and afterward they'd been told only the slimmest of details, that it had involved the Slayer, and a coven in Devonshire loyal to the Circle.
“That's one of several very good reasons, yes,” Matt told her. “We - the Council and the rest of us - dont have much to do with one another. Most Watchers on either side dont even know about the Schism at all - we don't dwell on their stuffiness and they like to pretend that we don't exist. They don't even teach their initiates about the Circle beyond its mere existence, and that much only because it's a nigh on impossible to remain unaware of its existence once one gets more than peripherally involved in anything of the paranormal variety.”
“But thats...” Fiona sputtered.
“Stupid. Yes. A bit.”
There were what seemed like minutes but must have been moments of silence, before Matt spoke again. “I just cant believe I didn't realise it sooner.”
“Realise what?” asked Fiona.
“Well... we keep an eye on them, as a matter of course - they like to interfere, you know. Think it's their right. Doesnt much matter anymore, of course.”
“Why not?” Fiona asked exasperatedly.
“Because about six months ago, every major headquarters of the Watchers Council was blown to Kingdom Come. We didn't think much of it at the time because the arrangement they've got with the underworld brings them in for a lot of apocalypses. This has happened before - they usually just re-collect themselves and carry on. But now I think I know why.”
“Why?” both Belle and Fiona asked in unison, glaring at him impatiently.
Matt looked at them, blinked in surprise. “How much do you know about the Slayers, Belle?”
She shrugged. “In every generation, one girl, strength and skill to fight the monsters, etcetera, etcetera.”
Matt grinned at her. “Thats about it, yeah. One girl at a time - but there's also Potential girls, who can be Slayers but don't end up as Slayers unless the current one... well... dies.”
“Dies?” Fiona looked pale.
“We've been getting reports of dozens of mysterious deaths for weeks now,” Matt went on. “And over a quarter of them in the western United States. Almost as if they were all on their way to California.” His expression was now grim.
“Where the current Slayer just happens to be,” murmured Belle.
“Yes,” agreed Matt. “Gods, I'm so stupid.”
“So... somebody's been killing Potential Slayers,” Fiona said, her voice small. “And then that same somebody went and blew up the Watchers, who would have been able to figure out what was going on -”
“In which case we would have known, through spying on them,” Matt said, nodding.
“But they weren't all girls,” Fiona said suddenly. “They weren't even all young.”
Matt shrugged. “Arrah did have you looking for the Delegate Registry, didnt she? The truth is that we simply don't know how many old families just never got brought back in. They could be Delegates we don't know about.”
“And Marya was killed - because she walked right in on whatever it was, doing its thing...” Belle looked a little green. “Which means it knows about us, and it knows how to find us.”They were all quiet for a moment, and then Matt stood up, gathering parchments. “I think we'd better go talk to Arrah.”
Although at first glance it seemed green, bright and utterly mundane, Aislinn Park was no less unpleasant in daylight than it had been at night, in the rain. In fact, as the group of nine stepped through the Gate at the heart of the trees, most of them alternately stumbled or cringed at the sudden, overwhelming sense of wrong that hung over the place like smog. Annie felt momentarily weak with the sheer revulsion she felt for the place.
“Terren? Are you sensing anything?” Katia turned to look at Terren, who was staring into the trees with a contemplative expression on his face. He looked up, shook his head.
“I don't see anything, not yet,” he said. “But I do feel - something. That way.” He raised his arm and pointed off through the trees.
“That's where the crater was, in the dream,” Molly said.
“We might not be close enough yet,” Terren added, then gave Katia a wry smile. “Don't worry, though - you'll know when I do.”
Terren, until several years ago, had worked as a criminologist with the RCMP in Calgary. He'd ended up in that field because of his particular, and very rare Gift - known as Touch, it allowed him to see events connected with objects and places simply by touching them, or even being in close proximity to them. He'd told Annie once that in his earlier years with the RCMP he'd had several unfortunate close calls with walking into traffic, nearly falling off balconies - simply because of the tendency of his gift to activate itself without much instruction from him, with often debilitating side-effects. He said he didn't mind, though, as the information gained from the use of his Gift always outweighed any discomfort it caused him.
“Well, I feel something,” Annie said. “I can't even describe it, really. It just feels... wrong.”
“As if there's... nothing,” Jack said. “Nothing alive, anyway.”
“There's not much in the way of animals here, either, in case you hadn't noticed,” Belle said uneasily.
“If I were a squirrel I think I'd steer clear of this place, too,” Fiona muttered as they started walking.
Annie trailed along behind everyone else with a queasy feeling in her stomach. Laan eyed the rest of the group warily and kept pace at Annie's heels.
The sense of lack, of flatness, grew more pronounced as they neared the lighter edge of the woods. Presently they came out of the trees into the valley, and the hill loomed to their right. The queasiness in Annies middle intensified.
“I feel like Im going to be sick,” she said, clutching her stomach.
“Its not really your stomach, Annie,” Katia said over her shoulder. “You're reacting to the... whatever it is.”
“What - my mind is playing tricks on me?”
“Pretty much literally,” Katia agreed.
“Great,” grumbled Annie, but looking around she saw that she wasnt alone. Fiona looked apprehensive and unhappy, and Jack looked positively green. And she couldn't see Arrah, but she would have been willing to bet that she was suffering the effects more than anyone else.
As they neared the top of the rise, Katia made them stop. “Anyone not shielding, do it now.Meaning you, too, Arrah,” she admonished the First before she could protest. “We don't know what's here, and we don't want to be finding out when someone passes out. Doctor's orders.”
The rest of them complied, only Beilenya grumbling about it.Then they crested the hill, and saw it. Annie barely managed to keep her footing as it struck her.
Fiona saw Annie begin to topple and grabbed her elbow before she could fall - at the same moment, she saw Terren stumble, catch himself, and turn to where Fiona was holding a pale Annie up by her elbows. Katia turned simultaneously, eyes wide. Laan crouched at Annie's feet, ears flat against his skull.
“Annie? What is it?” Katia hurried to her side as Fiona eased her to her knees. Annie merely clutched at her reeling stomach.
“I feel... I don't know,” Annie croaked. “It's like noise, but it's not noise. Like...”
“Screaming?” Annie looked up and saw Terren looking at her. She nodded.
“But not people. Not animals, even. I don't think. Nothing I've ever heard.”
Fiona looked around - everyone looked faintly ill, and being in close proximity she even felt a little of what Annie meant. She couldn't hear it, but it didn't seem like anyone else was hearing it, either. Except--
“Do you hear what shes talking about, Terren?” asked Fiona, looking at him.
Terren looked up from Annie to meet Fi's eyes. “I think she's hearing echoes, Fiona,” he said, and Fi saw that his normally olive complexion had turned a shade or two greener. “Of something that's no longer here.”
“Like you hear?”
He nodded. “More starkly, maybe - she wasn't prepared for it. I think Annie might have a little bit of Touch.” He looked to Katia, who was holding Annies wrist.
“More than a little, I'd say,” Katia said, sounding strained - as a Healer she couldn't help but sense some of Annie's discomfort. She crouched down. “Has this ever happened before, Annie?”
Annie shook her head vehemently.
“Sometimes it takes something really strong, the first time,” said Terren. “It did for me. And I think this probably qualifies.”
“Fiona, maybe you should stay here with Annie while the rest of us go on -” Katia began, but Annie made a noise of protest.
“No, I want to go on,” said Annie. “It's going to drive me crazy, otherwise.”
“It'll be safer if we stay with everyone else,” added Fiona, nodding. She didn't add that she really didnt want to be left behind, just the two of them - plus Laan - in this place where everything felt wrong. She met Jack's eyes, for he stood looking down at them worriedly, and he nodded.
Katia sighed exasperratedly, and beckoned to Jack, who came over and helped Fiona pull Annie to her feet.
“I don't exactly like the idea of leaving them alone either, Kay,” Arrah said quietly. “We don't know that what was here is gone.”
“And if it isn't, it's certainly not going to hesitate just because there's a few more of us,” said Matt from behind Katia. “Not if it's even close to what I think it is.”No one asked.
They started down the hill, gradually more and more drawn to whatever it was in the valley below. And when they came upon it, they almost missed it, because of the way the ground tilted upward - they came upon the edge of it and stood staring in mute horror.
The crater that stretched out before them must have been kilometres across - it was so wide that the other side vanished in a haze, and so deep that the bottom was only darkness and vague shapes. Jack stepped back from the edge, slightly dizzy. He turned to see Fi and Belle lowering Annie to sit on the ground between them - Annie bent over, eyes screwed shut, head in her hands. Jack clasped her shoulder but she didn't seem to know that he was there. She was leaning against Fiona's legs, Laan curled up at her feet, his eyes wide and dialated.
“There's nothing down there,” came Arrah's murmur.
Beilenya leaned out, looked down. “I don't see anything, but--”
“No,” the First said, shaking her head. “I mean there's nothing. Nothing at all. Not a weed, not an insect, not a microbe. Theres... theres nothing. It's as if the life was sucked right out of the ground.”
“That must be what Annie's--” Terren began, but stopped abruptly.
He heard the muttered exclamation and turned his head just in time to see Terren stumble again against Arrah, who steadied him. “It's over there,” he said, pointing along the edge of the crater. “There's something over there.”
“I'll get it,” said Jack, easing out from under Annie's arm and ignoring his mother's tentative gesture in his direction.
Jack set off at a jog, skirting the edge but keeping well back from it. After five minutes he sighted a telltale gleam in the bushes along the edge, made his way toward it - he was nauseated, though strangely unsurprised, by what he found there. He took several steps back out into the open, fighting the urge to retch, as Fiona caught up with him. His sister gave him a strange look, went into the bushes, and came out moments later looking slightly ill.
“What is it?” called Belle from the knot of their companions.
“There's somebody - something - um, in the bushes over here,” Fiona answered. She seemed to hesitate over whether the mangled remains were really a person, or a thing. Jack found it difficult to decide, himself.
He heard a muttered curse and the others approached them. Annie now seemed to be walking on her own, though Katia and Belle were walking alongside, watching her carefully. Terren looked like Jack felt, weak and nauseated, and somewhat overwhelmed - Arrah walked next to him, just as pale, clasping the hand Terren had laid on her shoulder. Matt walked just behind them, understandably the least severely affected - Matt was virtually un-Gifted - but wearing an expression of intense apprehension. He looked merely unhappy instead of ill. Jack couldn't decide whether or not he envied him.
There was a moment of silence and hesitation - broken by Belle, who patted Annie on the shoulder, edged past Matt, Arrah and Terren, and nodded to Fi. “Come on,” she said. “Let's have a look,” she said. Fiona, still looking pale, but determined, nodded, and followed her. Jack marvelled silently at his sister - though she'd always been the one with the stronger stomach. He took after his mother - who was currently leaning against a tree, apparently trying to decide whether or not she wanted to see what it was her son and daughter had discovered. Jack credited his mother with an adequate enough imagination, though, to guess.
Less than a minute had passed before Fiona and Belle emerged from the trees. “There's more than one,” said Belle. “Three, at least - I think. Its a bit... hard to tell.” She grimaced.
“Three?” Arrah said, frowning.
Belle nodded. “One was Marya. Again - I think. She was here, though. We found --” she turned to look at Fi, who held up something silvery and metallic. Jack caught a glimpse of a medallion imprinted with the Chronauchus, the symbol of the Circle, as it was handed across the intervening space to Arrah.
“This was Marya's,” the First Guardian confirmed. “But who were the other two?”
“One way to find out,” said Terren, and Arrah looked at him apprehensively. “It's why we came, remember?” he reminded her. She sighed and opened her hand.
“I should warn you all,” he said as he reached for the medallion in Arrahs hand, “I'm not up to much in the way of shielding at the moment. This might hurt a bit.”With that, he closed his hand around Arrah's oustretched palm.
It seemed to Annie that the world had jerked suddenly out of alignment - a moment later she realised that it was, in fact, her own eyes that seemed wrong, out of perspective. A moment after that, she realised that it was because she was viewing everything through someone else's eyes.
Marya's eyes, she realized presently. It was bizarrely familiar, and she was reminded of the dream, but the sense of urgency was diminished. She felt only confusion, curiosity - determination. She saw the crater, felt its empty pull, and to her right the rustle of bushes caught her attention. Everything felt strangely vivid, unnaturally bright, bright auras of rainbow colours surrounding everything, so bright that the colours seemed to actually hum.
She heard a moan, and it sounded human, and her feet carried her to the edge of the trees. Half-concealed by bushes a man lay, bleeding from a deep gash that looked as if some animal had tried to rip a piece from him and only partially succeeded. The sense of wrong prevalent in the park intensified, a feeling of anxiety spiking in her middle before his eyes fluttered open, wide and dialated and latching onto hers like a lifeline, though it was clear in his eyes that he knew he was dying, would die.
“They killed her,” he croaked, and Marya heard an accent in his voice, similar to her own but more provincial - it would have been haughty but for the circumstances. The Englishman's eyes rolled in their sockets. “They went away - they'll be back.”
Marya stepped forward, knelt down next to him. There was blood on his hands - not his own, judging by the way it had splashed across the arm of his tweed coat. “What happened?” she asked, reaching for his hands. “What happened in this park? Who did they kill?”
“Llita,” he said, choking on the name as tears spilled down his face. “My Slayer. They killed her.”
The word struck a familiar chord in Maryas mind. The Slayer. She couldn't remember in any great detail what she'd learned in her youth about the Slayer, but knew it was important. A Chosen One - not that there weren't many kinds. This one was a girl who killed vampires.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Her Watcher,” he replied, and then, to her surprise, “You're one of them - aren't you?”
“One of what?” Marya asked, bewildered.
“Guardian?” he said the name with such strange, frank curiosity - it seemed wrong to say it with such flat casualness. But then, she remembered, he was one of those other Watchers, the ones Matt Hamilton had told Tilia about, the ones who had rejected the Circle. He didn't even know.
“Not one of them, no,” she said, shaking her head.
“One of her people, then,” he ammended. She nodded. “You must tell them--”
He coughed, and little droplets of blood spattered across her hands. “It knows about them,” he said. “They stopped it, last time. It happened here. And its happening again - Sunnydale - and damn Travers, anyway, the arrogant bastard, he's doomed us all...”
The dying Watcher was nearly delirious now - and Marya felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle. He said they'd be coming back, and she didn't doubt it.
“But what did this?” she asked, leaning over him. “What's happening? Do you know who's been killing--”
“The First Evil,” he said, his breath rattling and shaky. “Ancient - older than us. Than you. You must tell them -” The shiver of fear carried by his words ran deep as instinct, the same inborn terror inspired by the night and the smell of blood, inexplicable in the rational language of Modern Man but irrefutable in the sense that explanation was unneccessary. But she had little time to consider it.
Marya stiffened as she heard the bushes rustle - stealthy footsteps, like someone trying not to be heard. A foul stench suddenly permeated the air - her heart leapt into her throat as she recognised it. That smell had been all over Rick's body when they'd found him.
The Watcher seemed to have heard it as well. He looked at her, his eyes bulging, desperate: “Go!” he gasped. “Run!”
Marya made no pretense to noble rescuer - he was doomed and he knew it. She closed her eyes briefly, drew her shields around her, then rose to her feet and threw herself into motion. She broke cover and swiftly crossed the distance between the treeline and the hill, slowing briefly only to look over her shoulder, across the crater - regretting it instantly when she saw two great black shapes gliding around the edge of the gaping hole. Behind her she heard cracking, ripping - something falling on the dying man in the trees like a wild animal to carrion. He didn't even scream as she felt him die. After that she didn't look back.
The sun had been setting when shed found him, and now only the weak orange light of dusk showed her the path. And then the clouds that had been threatening all day finally gathered and struck. Thunder boomed across the sky, lighting flashing at its heels, lighting the forest for a moment before it was abruptly darker, her eyes dazzled. The rain started almost as if a dam had broken.
Freezing rain soaked her to the skin in moments, and branches whipped into her face as she thrust them out of her way. A thin mist clung to the ground, making the forest look surreal, ethereal. The forest itself seemed to stretch on forever in every direction.
Her breath caught in her throat, her lungs burning from running - what a moment ago had been merely dark shapes became a hungry force surging after her. She could feel it at her back. She could feel its hunger, an alien savagery from a mind she could not comprehend, and she dared not try. This was a monster, with a single purpose...
Marya blinked against the sweat coursing into her eyes, obscuring her vision, the stitch in her side from running too far, too long. Suddenly, abruptly, a fatalistic calm descended upon her - he was right, they knew her, knew what she was, and they were not going to let her escape. They had driven her, herded her - she was lost, and would not find the Gate now. She would not risk leading them through it, chance that they might follow her. Only one thing remained.
::...Bright Blood...:: She stumbled, fell, struggled to her feet again. She raked her hair out of her eyes, and as she ran she reached into her jacket -- groping for the inner pocket, for the shard of crystal within, she clutched the crystal to her chest, muttering words whose meaning she had never fully understood, though she knew their purpose well enough. There was heat in the palm of her hand, then pain, and then the stone was gone, and the pain in her side was too great, and she fell again, head-over-heel, her face buried in the forest floor.And as she looked up, looked back, the monstrous glee of the thing behind her filled the world, and everything went bright, wavering red, then white, and then black.
It seemed as if hours had passed and Fiona was surprised to discover that it had been only moments. She looked around her, looking up just as Terren went down like a felled tree, his face white as paper. She leapt forward as Arrah caught him under one arm, steadying him under the other so that he missed burying his face in the grass. Fi saw Areahannah shoot her a grateful, though pained smile before turning to survey the damage in the others. Fiona followed her gaze and saw that fortunately, most of them seemed to have weathered it much better than Terren, with the possible exception of Annie, who seemed inordinately proud of herself merely for remaining conscious.
Arrah looked, however, at Matt first.
Matt stood staring into space, paler even than Terren. He jumped at the sound of his name, and looked down at Arrah as if surprised to see her there. Fiona saw, in his eyes, such terror that it made her go abruptly cold.“It's worse than we thought,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper. “My god, it's so much worse.”
The journey back to the Island passed in stunned silence. Terren walked slowly, clearly exhausted, with Katia and Arrah supporting him on either side. Matt walked next to them, his face still paper-white. Molly and Beilenya walked together, and Jack, Annie and Fiona trailed along behind the rest. No one said anything until they reached the Gate, and everyone passed through as quickly as possible. Everyone wanted to leave Aislinn Park behind them.
The late afternoon sunlight streaming into the Great Hall through the tall windows seemed, somehow, false and inappropriate. It took a lot of effort on Jack's part to remember that what they'd seen half an hour ago had happened two days past. Still, the image seemed uncomfortably near, unpleasantly real. He tried to put it out of his mind, to think of something else, but the mental image of Marya Bico's mangled body still remained with him. He wondered whether it would ever go away.
::...what a moment ago had been merely dark shapes became a hungry force surging after her. She could feel it at her back. She could feel its hunger, an alien savagery from a mind she could not comprehend, and she dared not try...::
He shuddered, shook his head as if he could shake the image from his mind, rid himself of the memroy of the dark, slinking things lurking in Aislinn Park, and lurking around the edges of his memory.
::Those things killed Dad,:: he thought, watching Arrah as she stood staring around at them. She looked as shaken as he felt, possibly more. He dared not meet eyes with his mother.
“Matt?” The Watcher looked up when Arrah said his name, as if surprised to find other people in the room.
“I need to know what you know about this. And now.” Areahannah was pale, and she seemed torn between the situation and concern for Terren, who for his part seemed close to collapsing again. Jack stole a glance at Annie and saw her fighting to conceal the same state. He surreptitiously stepped closer to her, just in case she actually did collapse like she'd done before; he saw Lann standing close to her other side, apparently with the same plan in mind. He envied neither Terren nor Annie - this was not a “Gift” he would want.
“Not now,” said Katia sternly, so sternly that Arrah glanced at her with obvious surprise. “Right now, you are going to bed for two hours. That's an order.”
Arrah started to protest: “Katia, there's no time. If this is as bad as Matt says it is, we've got to call an Assembly, and warn the Delegates, and someone needs to--”
“Oh, no, you don't,” Katia interrupted her. “In medical matters I outrank you, First Guardian -- unless you plan to change that?” She gave Arrah a challenging glare, and the First seemed to shrink back slightly, and shake her head. “I'm telling you that he needs rest --” she nodded in Terren's direction, “-- and isn't going to get it passed out alone in your rooms. The Delegates can handle it without you for two hours - and it will take that long to get the other Watchers together, won't it, Matt?” She looked sharply at Matt, who was watching the entire exchange as if without seeing it. He actually jumped when Katia addressed him.
“Yes, yes, of course,” he said, and Katia turned back to Arrah.
“There, you see? Now go to bed before I get someone to carry you there.”
Areahannah seemed about to say something more, but she seemed to think better of it, and sighed. “All right,” she said reluctantly. “Two hours.” She turned and walked slowly from the Great Hall, Terren leaning heavily into her arm.
“I'm timing you!” Katia called after them. Then she turned on the remainder of the expedition. “And as for the rest of you--”
“Don't tell me, I'm already going,” said Beilenya, halfway out the door. She beckoned to Molly. “I'll toss Molly into a room on my way past.”
Katia set her glare on Molly, who went without further argument. That left only Jack, Annie, and Fiona - and Matt, still leaning against the table, looking pale and disturbed.
“You three,” Katia said, “Especially you, Annie - Fiona, can you take them to your room? There's plenty of space in there, and I get the feeling that the place is going to fill up pretty fast in the next two hours.”
Fiona nodded. “There's five times as much room as I've ever needed,” she said, shrugging. “Come on, guys.” She started out, and Jack followed a bit more slowly, half-carrying Annie, who by this time was beginning to stumble every other step. Katia nodded approvingly, then turned to Matt.
“I've got to notify the others, Kay,” he said, holding up his hands before she could order him to bed. “I promise I'll pass out in an appropriate place immediately after I do - though I don't know if I'll be able to sleep.”
Katia crossed back to the table and put her arms around him, her expression softening to one of concern. “Don't worry,” she said quietly, kissing him on the cheek. “You'll sleep - even if I have to nudge you into unconsciousness.”
Matt sighed. “You're too good to me,” he said wryly.Jack couldn't help but smile as they left the Hall.
By the time they reached Fiona's rooms, Jack was carrying Annie - in fact he stopped to scoop her up not five minutes after they left the Hall. Annie made a token attempt at protest, but was soon half-dozing against his chest. Jack tried not to notice just how light she was - it was like carrying a child.
“Is she going to be okay?” he asked his sister uncertainly over Annie's head. Fiona glanced over her shoulder at the slumbering Annie and shrugged, shooting him an encouraging smile.
“Aside from one heck of a headache when she wakes up? She'll be fine. Don't worry.” Then she stopped, and set her hand on the join between one of many identical sets of carven double doors along the hallway they were standing in. The door creaked, then swung ponderously open. Jack blinked at it, and followed Fiona into her rooms without a single comment.
As the doors closed behind them, Jack looked around, and decided that “rooms” was not an adequate description. The plural certainly applied, though perhaps “suite” would be more accurate. Tall windows faced him from the opposite wall, and to the left and right opened wide, brief corridors - one of which led to what was obviously a bedroom. This room, the living room, was scattered with low, squashy-looking furniture and cushions - Jack set Annie gently down on something that vaguely ressembled a futon, and straightened up just in time to catch a stack of blankets that Fiona threw at him from the bedroom door. Two pillows followed.
“You can leave her there,” Fiona said. “There's a sort of a little nook... thing... through there.” She pointed down the other corridor, which, when Jack looked, proved to terminate with a long windowseat, also covered in squashy cushions. “She won't be waking up for a couple of hours, at least.”
Jack stared down at Annie, who seemed quite peacefully asleep. “I don't know if I'll be able to,” he said doubtfully, “Sleep, I mean.” He looked up to see Fiona give him a knowing look.
“I used to feel that way after... well, after things like this,” she said, yawning. “Take my word for it. You only feel that way until you hit the pillow. Good night, Jack.” She turned and vanished through the door, waving absently at him over her shoulder until the door closed behind her.
Jack turned back to the couch. Annie was halfway through sitting up, looking at him with eyes half-open. “Oh,” she said as Jack came closer. “Hey, Jack.”
“Annie, you should go to sleep...”
“C'mere,” she said, gesturing to him. Her words were slurred as if she were intoxicated - but Jack knew over-extension well enough to know that this was merely the effect of over-using one's powers. It was a state very much like intoxication - judgement was impaired, motor skills...
Jack sat down, and was very much surprised when Annie pounced him like a small child, latching onto his arm. “I didn't like it, Jack,” she said in a low voice. “It was... I didn't like it.” She was shaking her head, and her eyes were fixed on some point beyond the open window.
“What you saw... in the park, you mean?” he asked. Annie nodded.
“I know I wanted... something. I'm not a mundane anymore, but now this... I always felt bad for Terren. I actually thought... anything but that.” She turned her head suddenly, looked at him. “It must be like he doesn't even have privacy in his own thoughts. Even in dreams. All the things he sees... they're always there. He can't get away.”
Most of Annie's weight was settled on his shoulder now, and as she looked at him he saw, through the haze of exhaustion, real fear in her eyes. He recognized it abruptly as something he'd seen in his own face several months earlier.
“You were scared too, weren't you, Jack?” she asked. Jack blinked at her.
“I was...” he blinked down at her, finding her looking at him with great intensity. “Annie... Katia said you should sleep--”
“You don't want to talk about it. That's okay. You never want to talk about it.” She snuggled into his arm, and Jack found himself relieved that he was no longer the object of her direct scrutiny. Another side-effect of this state was that shields often became unstable, and while he didn't worry much about picking up something Annie would rather keep to herself - Annie wasn't much for secrets at the best of times - he himself was close enough to exhausted to have little confidence in his own shields.
“Really, Annie,” he said again, nudging her slightly. “If you don't sleep, Katia will know, and I think I'm the only one she'll skin alive...”
“Oh, she'll be too busy with Matt,” Annie said matter-of-factly. “Even though she says she'll knock him out, she almost never really does. She doesn't like using her powers that way.”
Jack looked down at the top of Annie's head. She sounded almost lucid. “Then how does she...”
“Oh, you know,” Annie's voice held a knowing tone, and he could tell she was smiling even though he couldn't see her face. Jack felt himself growing warm with embarrassment. Annie pushed herself up on one elbow and looked at him for a moment.
“Jack,” she said with amusement in her voice, “You're blushing!” She giggled softly before settling back down. “I bet I could make you blush redder if I tried,” she said. “I mean, here I am, at your mercy...”
“Oh, stop being such a gentleman,” she chided him, yawning. “You're always like that. Makes me feel like I'd be...” she yawned again, “...taking advantage of you. If I did anything...”
She fell silent, then, and presently Jack realized that she was asleep - in his lap, quite immovable. He stared down at her slumbering form, frozen with surprise. Had she just said what he thought she'd just said?After a while his discomfort ebbed, as exhaustion finally overtook him. He fell asleep just as the light of sunrise began to creep across the sky.
Molly could remember liking sunrises.
She couldn't remember exactly when that had changed - though she suspected that her chronic insomnia over the past decade hadn't helped. Sunrise had once been a rare, beautiful thing. Now it was only a reminder of the things keeping her awake.
She hadn't expected to be able to sleep, and in fact she'd spent most of the last hour on the balcony, watching the sea. Not that there was much to watch - the only change in the sea had been the tide - but she'd been restless. She couldn't bear the thought of doing nothing for the two hours Katia had ordained.
For a moment, Molly smiled - she remembered Katia as a child. The girl had been no less impetuous at fifteen than she was now. By the time she'd been introduced to Molly she was well on her way to becoming a doctor, and if anything she'd become more formidable with age - she'd have to have done, to be able to overrule Arrah, medical precedent or not. Since then...
...a great deal had changed. It had been such a very long time... she hadn't realized just how much until she'd sat down in Assembly. Their numbers in Molly's time had never been staggering, but they seemed less than two-thirds of what they had once been. And why? Because of the danger? The not-infrequent sense of futility? Doubtful. Delegates were born and raised breathing Circle mythos and duties. It wasn't something most of them let go lightly. So why?
Molly bit her lip. The most likely reason was that they had been removed from the Assembly's ranks by forceful, outside means. Not much else could cause them to abandon their callings - death was often the only way they went, at all. What was it Andra Kurk had told her? “Precious few of us live to gripe about old age.” She'd said it without regret, only... wistfulness? No. Not exactly. Andra was one of the oldest people Molly had ever met - the oldest Delegate then living, in fact, over one hundred years old. But her son and daughter-in-law, Terren's mother and father, had died when Terren was very young - leaving him in the care of his grandparents. Andra's husband, Edmund, had followed them, not much later. All in the service of the Circle.
When Molly had left them, Andra had been there, and had watched her, silently, with no expression. At the time it had made Molly angry - as if the calm face was the front for the old woman's accusation. Molly knew now that she'd been wrong; the sense of bitter betrayal she'd felt hadn't been Andra's, but her own. She'd been selfish - she hadn't been the only one to lose loved ones to duty.
Down the beach, she could see what looked like a silhouette, standing erect and proud against the sunrise. That was Delegate Rock - a monument to all those who had died serving the Circle. Rick's name was down there, somewhere. She'd never gone to look. After his death she'd been far too angry to accept any gesture from them - too angry to believe that anything they said was anything but pity, or mockery, or contempt.She pushed away from the balcony railing. She still had almost an hour. Maybe now was the time.
Fiona rose only an hour after sunrise, and stood in her doorway for several long moments looking out the window at the sight of pale sunlight on the water. Finally she stretched, yawned, and moved out into the main room. She paused behind the futon, registering first surprise, then amusement. Her brother was asleep there, his head lolling to one side. Annie was slumbering contentedly in his lap. She turned away then, smiling to herself, and headed out the door.She still had nearly an hour before the others arrived - the corridors were still quiet, enough to hear the surf below. All along this corridor's Eastern side were arched windows, facing East. Glancing down as she passed she saw someone stepping out onto the stairs that led down to the beach. She paused at the window as she recognized the figure. Then she made her way back down the hall to join her.
Molly was only halfway down the stairs when someone touched her shoulder - she jumped, startled, and almost lost her footing, but caught herself in time. Fiona looked down at her with equal startlement, then amusement when she was steady.
“Here I was, all impressed,” she mused, as if to herself, “and then you almost take a dive down a perfectly navigable flight of stairs. I tell you, Mom, I don't know what to think.”
Molly raised an eyebrow at her daughter, and turning, continued down the stairs, Fiona at her side. The steps were carved directly into the cliff-face, with no railing, but were cut deeply enough that that shouldn't have been a problem. Still, a fall from this height would have had dire consequences.
“Should I ask what you're talking about, or do I want to know?” Molly asked.
Fiona grinned at her. “We had training with Tilia a few days ago. She told us... she told us you knew weaponswork.”
Molly shrugged, giving her daughter a sidelong glance. “It's required, Fiona. You know that.”
“She told us you were good.”
Molly gave Fiona another glance, and shrugged. “I used to be.”
Fiona laughed. It began as a giggle and gradually became a snicker, then she had to stop, leaning against the cliff-face. Molly stared at her. “I think I'm insulted,” she said, with mock-hurt.
Fiona took deep breaths, shook her head, and faced her mother with less amusement, though not none. “Sorry. It's just... it was such a strange image. And you just sort of...” They started walking again. “If I'd asked you that a few months ago...”
“I'd have flatly denied it and told you to stop asking,” Molly said, with certainty. She sighed. “I'm sorry, Fi.”
“I know,” Fiona answered, without a trace of bitterness or regret. Molly turned, blinked at her in surprise.
“But I thought...”
They stepped from the bottom step onto the sand. Fiona shrugged. “I know why you did what you did. Why you acted that way. I don't agree, but I understand.”
Molly stared at her feet. “Jack doesn't seem to agree with you.”
“Jack doesn't understand. Jenaya says that sort of sentiment comes more readily to the female conscience than the male. It'll take him longer. 'Course...” she looked at her mother, who didn't return her gaze. “...it might be easier if you explained it to him.”
Molly took a deep breath of the ocean air. “I don't think it's as simple as all that, Fiona. And while we're on the subject,” she looked at her daughter with curiosity, “when did you get to be so wise?”
Fi chuckled. “This is what I've been doing with my weekends for the past two years, remember?” She looked ahead, away, her smile fading. “People talk about Dad a lot. About you, too. I figured things out.”
“I suppose Areahannah helped, too.”
“A little.” Fiona looked at her, eyes carefully expressionless. “She really misses Dad, you know.”
Molly sighed, but said nothing.
“She said - she didn't exactly say. Matt did. He said that - none of them ever knew their parents. Is that true?”
“Your dad told me,” Molly said slowly, “that the last Eight died when they were quite young.”
Molly pressed her lips together. “They would have been six.”
“Oh.” Fiona was silent a moment, then, “Is that why Presskin is like that?”
“Like...” Molly considered. “Well. You know how he is with Areahannah.”
“He worries about her. Like, all the time. I think it kind of ticks her off, sometimes.”
“Rather like Jack worries about you.”
“An awful lot,” Fiona agreed, with rancor. Then her eyes widened. “Oh.”
Molly nodded. “I think... Presskin tries to make up for lost time. I think it makes him feel guilty. It shouldn't, but it does. I know it makes him angry.”
“I guess that's what Tilia meant when she said Jack was like Presskin.”
Molly looked thoughtful. “I never really thought of that.” She was very quiet for a few minutes. Then the proud figure of Delegate Rock was ahead of them. Molly stopped, stared.
“Haven't you ever been down here before?” Fiona asked, her voice quiet.
“Not since your dad died,” Molly told her. She took a deep breath, then started walking again.
At the base of the statue, she stopped, looking up. She felt, more than saw, Fiona standing beside her. “You know, your grandfather's name is here.”
“It is?” Fiona looked down at the plaque. “I guess it would have to be.”
Molly nodded. “Your dad's family have been Delegates for longer than I think even anyone knows.”
“I know.” Fi smiled, almost proudly. “Makes me feel right at home.”
Molly started, looked at her, sighed when she saw the look in her daughter's eyes. “Duty,” she muttered, almost to herself, but Fiona raised an eyebrow quizzically.
“You'll never know how much like your dad you really are, Fi,” Molly said, slipping an arm around her and hugging her close. “He tried to explain it to me, over and over, what it meant - duty, he said. That's all he ever said, as if it explained everything. But until I met her - I couldn't have had any idea. It seemed impossible.”
She sighed. “But you're just like him. You understand it without even trying. When I think about it now, I almost envy you.” She looked down at Fi, who smiled and hugged her back.
“They were so young, Fiona. Your age, almost exactly. I thought they'd break under the weight. But they never did. And your dad had a lot to do with that.”
“That wasn't all, though. They were friends.”
They were both quiet a moment, then Molly said: “They're all friends, Fi. They're family. That's what it means. That's what he told me.”
“Hey, Mom--” Now Fiona was kneeling down, peering at the plaque, at a spot halfway up. The lettering was so tiny Molly wasn't sure how she could read it, but presently Fiona was pointing. “Look! Is that Grandpa?”
Molly crouched down next to her daughter, looking where Fiona indicated. “No - can't be. That's got to be from four hundred years ago.” The plaque was immense, the base wider than the reach of her arms. The name “Elias O'Siannon” was crowded in between two Molly couldn't pronounce, but certainly, she decided, eyes running from top to bottom, further back than a few scant generations.
“But he's got to be related to us. He's an O'Siannon.” Fi stared, shrugged, and bounced to her feet. Molly leapt up and followed her, glancing back over her shoulder as she ran.
“Fi! What's the hurry?”“If he is a relative, there's only one way to find out!”
The book was where Fiona had left it, tucked in where she supposed, now, it shouldn't be, on one of the bottom shelves that was actually within reach. She'd known they'd need it later and hadn't wanted to go looking again, and Matt had flatly refused permission to keep any of the records anywhere but the proofed and warded library.
Her mother stood at her shoulder as she manhandled the heavy book over to the round table in the centre of the room, set it down with a resounding thud and opened it. As she flipped through remarkably well-preserved pages, her mother made a questioning noise in the back of her throat.
“I told you, yesterday, Arrah had us looking for the Registry? We only found part of it. Nothing going further back than a few dozen generations seems to have survived the last general pillage. But what's here should be enough.” She stopped flipping, ran her finger down the page.
Molly leaned over the table. The page was covered in branching lines - a family tree. Of course. Fiona's finger drifted, then stabbed. “Elias O'Siannon. Son of William and Monica, married to... uh... Mary McBride. Um... huh.” Fiona was staring down at the page with a puzzled look on her face.
“What is it?”
“His name's got a special mark,” Fiona said, in that same puzzled tone.
“What does that mean?”
“It means,” she said, turning back to the shelf and pulling out a slightly less ponderous volume, and flipping through it in turn, “Usually, that something happened to him and his kids got adopted into another Delegate family. The mark's the make sure the line doesn't get muddled.”
Molly nodded, watching her daughter with some amazement as she navigated the chronicles deftly. At least she knew what Fi was talking about. She remembered Helena Llwellyn's daughters being taken in by the Brodys right after Rick's death - Rick hadn't been the only one to die that night. She remembered that when Helena had been found, alive, she had greeted her daughters only after thanking the Brodys for taking care of them. At the time Molly had thought it thoughtless, cold - but now she realized, with a shudder of unpleasant familiarity, that she'd have probably done the same. It was custom, if nothing else. Life was dangerous for Delegate families and all too often, at least since the rise of bureaucratic governments, children were snatched away from the Circle life by social workers before their sworn godparents could retrieve them.
Molly remembered riling against Katia, once, on this point - she'd thought the “real world” of the foster-care system safer. Katia had merely faced her with a cool stare and asked her how she'd feel to be a child and lose her parents, and then be forced to face the second hardship of being plucked from the midst of extended family and friends, her entire world. Molly had repented a moment later, remembering that six of the current Eight had been at the tender mercies of the Canadian foster care system for nearly four years, and two had not been even so lucky as that.
Circle life was not safe, perhaps, but at least it was home. Godparents - called Second Families - were designated before the birth of a first child, and the position was taken very seriously. She'd once thought, uncharitably, that it was all a device to keep children in the line, to keep numbers up - and in a sense, she knew now, that was true. There had never been enough Delegates - “Many,” she remembered Rick saying, “but not nearly enough,” and many traditions pointed towards the great value placed on the devotion offered by the Delegates. Children, for instance, were not automatically given the father's name, or even the mother's. Typically children inherited the name from the family side with the fewest remaining members. That little tidbit had made Molly shudder, but she understood it.
“Mum,” Fiona asked as she turned pages, “who were our Second Family? Or do you remember?”
The question was all-too-casually asked. Fiona was glancing up at her, attention only partly on the pages of her book.
“Of course I remember,” Molly said, a bit irked, though she wasn't sure why. “You'd have gone to the Quades.”
“Quade? Wasn't that Dad's partner?”
Molly looked up in surprise. “How did you know that?”
Fiona grinned at her before going back to her book. “I pay attention. And I know Mina. She works with the GHC.”
“Mina--” Molly bit her tongue. The last time she'd seen Mina Quade, the girl had been a rambunctious four-year-old with a penchant for getting into rather impressive trouble. But working for the Good Humans Club? One of the most controversial mutant rights organizations in the Union? At Jack's age--?
“How is her family?” Molly asked, then, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“Their mom died last year. Car accident. It's just Mina and Jason now.”
Molly thought, suddenly, that she should look them up, and dismissed the notion. Eddie Quade had died only a few days after Rick. Molly hadn't sent condolences because she'd been...
She wondered if Rebecca Quade had died hating her. She hoped not. They'd been friends, once.
“Found it! Hey--”
Molly looked up. Fiona's voice had stopped in mid-sentence as if the words had been choked away. Indeed, her daughter was white as chalk.
“Fiona? What's wrong?”
When Fiona didn't answer, Molly made her way around the table and looked down at the page marked by Fi's thumb.
When she saw what was on the page, she wished she'd followed Katia's advice and just gone to bed.
It was not hunger that roused Jack from sleep - rather something seemed to pull him, from outside himself. Something in whatever he'd been dreaming, maybe. It brushed rapidly across his consciousness as he rose from the dream-state, and by the time he was fully aware, it was fading to a memory - urgency, sudden understanding - and then it was gone.
He opened his eyes, blinking away sleep. He was aware of a sense of warm comfort, even though a cool breeze was blowing against his face; the warmth, he realized after a moment, was Annie, asleep half in his lap, her head on his chest. The breeze came from the half-open door to the balcony.
For a moment, he just looked down at the top of Annie's head - she was still deeply asleep. She didn't even stir as he extricated himself and stood up. He glanced down at her face as he closed the door - her face was surprisingly peaceful, giving no hint of the events of the night before, or the tirade of the day before that. It was strange - Annie never ceased to surprise him.
His stomach growled, then, loudly enough that he wrapped his arms around his middle to muffle the noise - but Annie was still sleeping soundly. Satisfied that nothing would disturb her, he crossed the room and let himself out into the hall.
Jack had never quite grown accustomed to the way the sun looked from Crystallis. It was nothing quite concrete enough to be an obvious difference - it was the same sun, certainly, and day was the same length - but something about the quality of light just felt... different. Cleaner, somehow.
He paused, just outside the door to Fiona's rooms, and looked out one of the many windows lining the wall of the corridor. What he saw could have been taken for any beach, anywhere - sand, outcroppings of dark stone, the surf creeping up the slope - except, perhaps, for the glowing protrusions of crystal that sprouted everywhere like some strange form of vegetation. For some reason, the sight of the bright and unusual quality in an otherwise unremarkable surrounding put him in mind, again, of Annie, and then he was flushed, warmly, almost in embarassment - though not quite - even though no one was about to see it. He chided himself for his own foolishness, and then started and turned at the sound of a low, rumbling growl - Lann stood in the half-open doors (though Jack clearly remembered closing them), regarding him almost suspiciously.
Jack sighed and, with a glare for the panther, carried on down the hall, shaking his head all the way.
Annie woke to find herself alone, the sun shining into her eyes. She sat up, rubbing her face, and glanced at her watch. She'd been asleep slightly less than the proscribed two hours - it was late morning, and within half an hour the others would start arriving. Annie got to her feet, stood for a few moments at the glass-paned doors, looking out at the sea. Then she went to make use of Fiona's small shower, nearly tripping over Lann on the way.
By the time she emerged ten minutes later, wrapped in a thick towel, she felt much refreshed, though still somewhat fatigued - but that, she knew, was a consequence of over-extending herself, and would not be remedied by a mere two-hour nap.
As she dressed, she wondered what had happened to Jack. It wasn't like him to be an early riser in any sense, and he seemed to have been gone almost an hour. Then again, she thought as she combed her hair, he'd probably gone to breakfast. Jack's stomach was not a force to be trifled with.
Breakfast at the Island was always an informal affair. The long, narrow room was sunny even this early. This morning, as every other, it was laden with a variety of dishes, and stacks of clean plates and cutlery.
As she'd expected, Annie found Jack seated at the breakfast table, demolishing a plate of scrambled eggs. He barely glanced up as Annie entered - and Annie rolled her eyes, briefly - but the other two people in the room, Jeri and Belle's brother Chayson, looked up and waved her into a seat.
Chayson's eyes gleamed as bizarrely violet as his sister's, and his grin just as mischevious. Looking at him, anyone who didn't know him might easily assume he was up to something.
Sitting close next to him was Jeri Minnister, who pushed a plate towards Annie as she sat down next to Jack. "Glad to see you back among the living," Jeri said as Annie served herself. "You look a hell of a lot healthier than Terren usually does."
"I still feel pretty fried," Annie said. "How is Terren, anyway?"
Jeri made a consoling gesture. "Oh, don't worry about him, Annie. He's an old pro."
"He was in and out of here half an hour ago," added Chayson, sipping what looked like coffee but probably wasn't - Katia actively discouraged the stuff. "A far cry from bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but walking and talking."
"That's something, I guess," Annie said weakly.
"What about you, Annie?" Jeri asked. "Terren said you discovered a new Gift last night." The expression on the young mutant's face said clearly that she already knew exactly the nature of Annie's new ability. It was, she realised, and not for the first time, nigh-on impossible to keep a secret among telepaths. Annie sighed.
"I feel like somebody grabbed my brain and squeezed."
"Terren describes it as being 'plugged in'. Like high voltage," Jeri volunteered.
"Sounds familiar," Annie agreed. "So, where is everybody?"
"Getting things ready for Assembly, mostly," Jeri said.
"What things?" Annie asked, but Jeri and Chayson exchanged a look, and then Jeri turned to her and shrugged - but Annie could see the apprehension in her expression. Then she glanced at her watch and stood up.
"You'll find out in a few minutes," she said, leading the way out of the room.
Annie could not help but think that the atmosphere of this Assembly was similar to the last one - only moreso. She followed Jack, Jeri and Chayson across the grey marble floor of the Great Hall and up into the seats. Chayson took his seat at the main table, and Jeri took her oft-unusued seat next to him. Jack and Annie made their way up into the seats traditionally occupied by the Phillipses - which were empty when they reached them. Annie had only a moment ot wonder about the whereabouts of Fi and Molly before suddenly, every Delegate was rising to their feet, voices falling silent. Annie didn't need to look to know why - she could feel it as clearly as anyone else in the room. The First Guardian had arrived.
Annie looked down towards the floor, several levels of seats below her. The big carven main doors were already open - they led, among other places, to the sea gate and the helicopter pad, and all those Delegates that had not arrived through the Earth-Gate had come through them.
But somehow, when Areahannah appeared in the doorway, the entire room went quiet, all eyes turning in her direction. No human being could remain totally unaware of a Guardian's presence - though Delegates, for the most part, had been indoctrinated to their presence almost since birth, and the Guardians tended to remain tightly shielded at all times, Areahannah most of all. But she'd told Annie once that the best way to get someone's attention was to surprise them. And Areahannah certainly did not look like what she was.
It took Annie a few seconds to take in the people following them. First was Jenaya, and her brother Sylvrain, who was still in travelling clothes - Annie vaguely remembered being told that Sylvrain (who had been absent from the last Assembly) had been in New Mexico, or Arizona, or something, touching base with those Delegates watching the Slayer - Behind them, arm-in-arm, were Katia and Matt - Matt, she noted, didn't look much better for sleep.
Carsyn and Presskin walked together, heads bent in whispered conversation.
Last of all, came Belle, supporting Terren - and looking at him, Annie's heart ached. Terren and Arrah were closer than any two people Annie had ever even heard of - except maybe Matt and Katia - and Arrah was his whole world. The same, unfortunately, could not be said for Arrah.
That wasn't by choice - Arrah certainly loved him as much as he loved her - but in Arrah's life, Terren could never come first. Annie could nothing more tragic than the calm benevolence with which Terren accepted that. Because even she knew that it could be no other way.
Her eyes drifted, then, from Belle and the pale and drawn spectre of Terren - who seemed to have benefited less than Matt from Katia's mandatory nap - to the last two people in the party. And then she drew in a breath of surprise - because trailing the group were Molly, her eyes heavy and tired, and Fiona, her arms full of books and papers.
It was the look in Fiona's face that turned Annie's surprise into dread - because there was none.
It was so uncharacteristic for Fiona to be expressionless that Annie nearly breached protocol and reached out to her mentally. She stopped herself, but could not help brushing the outer edge of Fiona's shields - she received acknowledgement, but little else. The mental flavour said "wait".
Troubled, Annie turned to look at Jack, who met her gaze with a worried one - probably because he'd just done the same thing as Annie. He shook his head, slowly, looking back down at the table as Fiona and Molly took their places behind two of the five spare seats at the round table.
::I don't know,:: he told her. His mind was most tightly closed, but Annie could sense how very afraid he was. She frowned.
::I've never seen Fi like that.:: It was a question as much as a statement, and she got her answer quickly when he shook his head again, once, quickly.
::Neither have I.::
If it had been a long time since Molly had last been present at two consecutive Assemblies, it had been even longer since she'd seen one from this vantage point. In fact, she'd only once occupied a Delegate seat at the round table - only once, and she'd hoped never to have the honour again.
The night of Rick's death - the night of so many deaths - the policemen had been gone only fifteen minutes before Ethan Llwellyn had arrived, followed by half a dozen younger Delegates, only some of them known to Molly. He'd spoken to her in low and urgent tones of the urgency of the situation, begging her without begging to come back with him to Assembly. Molly had worried about the children, and Ethan had tilted his head across the room to where his sixteen and eighteen-year-old nephews, his twenty-year-old niece, and three tall, strong young men - whose names, to this day, Molly could not remember - stood waiting. "They are staying," Ethan had said; "We are going. No enemy will enter this house while they still live."
It had been to Megan Llwellyn that Molly had looked - the girl, who looked younger than her twenty years, had nodded, solemnly, with no hint in her face of the mischevious humour Molly knew her to possess. What looked out through the girl's eyes had been at that moment nothing more or less than what she was sworn to be: a Delegate, who would live or die for her oath. It had, Molly recalled, both comforted and frightened her as she left that night with Ethan Llwellyn.
The thought remained with her later that evening as she took Rick's place at the round table and defied thirty (or maybe more) generations of her husband's blood - as she told them that Rick's children, her children, would never take the oath. She remembered the faces looking down from the levels of seats: the betrayal, the contempt (mostly from the younger ones).
Worst of all, the simple, utter incomprehension, in the face of Molly's accusation and anger - especially in Areahannah's face.
Idly she wondered how many of those present were old enough to remember that night.
It was rare for any of the round table's spare seats to be occupied - even Matt, Terren, and Jeri, who now sat next to their beloveds, usually occupied one of the many seats surrounding the round table in tiers. That alone was an indication of the seriousness of the situation - Matt was chief among the Circle's Watchers and Jeri was official liaison with most of the major mutant groups along both coasts of the American continent.
As a result, even the majority who had no idea as to the situation since last night were murmuring amongst themselves - at least they had been, until Areahannah's arrival. Now they stood, silent, waiting, as one, until the Eight stood behind their seats, as Areahannah gestured for everyone to be seated.
This was accomplished with a surprising minimum of noise - in fact the silence persisted for several long moments. Molly looked across the table to where Fiona sat between Sylvrain and Jenaya, her hands resting on the stack of books and papers over which they'd been poring for the past hour with Belle, Matt, and Areahannah. Her daughter did not look up, did not meet her eyes, and Molly tried to ignore the nagging hint of accusation in Fiona's mental reply when Molly tentatively touched her mind.
"You all know why you're here," said Areahannah finally, quietly, because no one was making a sound. "Most of you know by now the events that transpired two nights ago in Aislinn Park." There was a murmur of assent. "Fewer of you are aware of the string of mysterious deaths of the past year or more. Some of them - few of them - have been Delegates. Of these deaths you are most certainly aware, even if you assumed, like many of us, that they were suspicious accidents. In fact, every death has been that of a Delegate who was isolated and long out-of-contact. Every one, that is, until that of Marya Bico, three nights ago. We feel we have failed you." She looked around the Hall. "However dangerous and suspect the circumstances of our lives, even among us, accidents sometimes happen. But these were family." She paused, and Molly almost thought it was for effect.
"For family, we should have exercised more caution. More suspicion." She shook her head. "We have been fortunate in recent years - we have known relative peace - but it has made us grow less cautious, and for that I beg your forgiveness. "Her eyes rested, now, squarely on Molly's face. Molly forced herself not to look away. "For family, we should have remembered that even in peace, we must forever maintain our purpose." Her eyes rested silently on Molly only a few seconds before lifting away to survey the room. Molly found her own gaze drawn suddenly to Terren, whose face, in the silence, showed both pride, and pain. Then Areahannah went on.
"We now know for certain that what killed Marya is in fact the same creature that killed Rick Krane. We also suspect that the same force is responsible for many of the deaths I have just mentioned."
The silence dropped away like the floor, and the bottom of Molly's stomach. Although she was sure the clamour of voices did not come close tot he sudden clamour of Gifted minds, she was still grateful when Areahannah held up a hand to still the din.
"Of the other deaths - of which there have been dozens - you know we can't account for them by our current lists. Many - most - of them were strangers, or seemed to be. So I set Beilenya and Fiona Phillips the task of locating the old Delegate Registry. To our great surprise, they found it, at least some of it."
Molly looked up in time to see Arrah look to Fiona, to see Fiona nod, and get to her feet as Areahannah sat down. Fi was very white, but none of her nerves were evident in her voice.
"I am Fiona Phillips of the Covenant of Eire," she began, unnecessarily, and Molly had to suppress an inappropriate smile at how faithfully her daughter followed protocol. Though everyone agreed generally - or had, in Molly's time - that the tradition was rather silly (it had probably made more sense in the past when the Delegates had numbered more than the current three hundred and change), she was somewhat gratified to see them still carried on. Fiona cleared her throat and continued.
"We've counted a total of one hundred and ninety-two deaths in the past year that fit the pattern of the creature that killed Marya and - my father."
Molly was impressed. Fiona's voice had not wavered, and she'd hesitated only an instant. She was not sure she could have done the same.
"Of that number, only nineteen have been registered Delegates."
Molly was mildly surprised when that revelation only roused the Assembly to a faint hum.
"From what we can determine, from what we recovered of the Registry, one hundred and forty-five belong - or belonged, I mean - to formerly Delegate families. Ones that have been lost from the line over centuries, for whatever reason. Lost Delegates."
The hum increased in volume only incrementally. Molly sympathized. One hundred forty-five of the blood but not in the line - the number was staggering, even considering that others certainly existed whose names appeared in parts of records long lost to the Circle.
"What of the others?" called a voice from the tiers. Molly recognized the speaker as Helena Llwellyn.
Fiona looked down at her notes. "The last twenty-eight were all female, between the ages of fourteen and twenty. All were in good physical shape, though none were mutants, so far as we know. Nearly half of them were killed in the western United States, mostly in the states of Arizona and California."
The sound level, this time, did not increase, but Molly could feel the sudden intense surprise among those few that realized the significance of what Fiona had said.
"You're saying" - that was Helena's voice, again - "this involves the Slayer."
At that, a few more voices rose in recognition. Then silence fell heavily as the entirety of the Delegation turnd their attention on Matt Hamilton, who responded by squirming in his chair.
"I've never been good at public speaking," Molly had heard him confide to Katia before the Assembly. His face had been white and strained, and despite Katia's promise to make him rest, he'd looked tired. "I especially dislike getting up in front of three hundred people, all of a passionate bent, most capable of knocking me flat with a thought, and telling them something they very much don't want to hear."
Katia had touched his face and smiled reassuringly. "This isn't a firing squad, Love, and they're not Hums," she'd said. "Hum" was short for "Humdrum", which was a word used commonly by mutants to refer to non-mutants - it was also used by many Delegates to refer to the magically mundane. It was not necessarily a complimentary word, but Katia had not been using it in a complimentary context. "They may not like what you tell them, but they're not going to kill you for it."
Katia had, it seeemed, been only partially right. Molly decided that while the Assembly wasn't quite of murderous intent yet, it certainly wasn't pleased, even as Matt got to his feet, not bothering to announce or introduce himself.
"The Watchers have been with the Circle for almost as long as the Circle itself has existed," he began. "But. All Watchers once existed to chronicle the Slayer. That's been their purpose almost from the beginning of time. During the time of the Covenants, a large number - nearly half - left the old Watchers' Council to join the Circle. We call it the Schism.
"The young women murdered in the western U.S. were all what we call Potential Slayers. There's only ever one true Slayer at any given time, but potentially dozens more are kept in reserve.
"You're probably wondering what the two circumstances have to do with one another." He paused, rubbed at his face. "A little over two months ago, every major headquarters of the old Watchers' Council was destroyed - explosions, fires - all within twenty-four hours. We think the same force did this."
There was a waiting and curious silence.
"Of course we suspect that the situation - including our casualties - have something to do with the current Slayer. Which would certainly explain the number of deaths in or near Southern California - where the current Slayer resides. Unfortunately, we tend to keep track of the Slayer's circumstances through, ah... correspondence with elements within the Watchers' Council. Less diplomatically? We spy on them. And quite frankly, it's not usually necessary. Not much that involves the Slayer involves us, except when things reach apocalyptic proportions. We operate in separate spheres, and the old Council has always preferred it that way. In fact, those few of them even aware of the Circle's existence prefer to pretend that we don't exist.
"Since the collapse of their system, we've been unable to determine what was happening with the Slayer. In fact, until Marya's death, we hadn't even considered the possibility that the two sets of events were even connected - the deaths and the destruction of the Watchers' Council.
"Yesterday we revisited Aislinn Park. With the help of Terren Kurk - " he gestured to Terren, who nodded, "- we managed to recover a part of Marya's last moments that she didn't include in her Sending." He took a deep breath. "Marya had been sent there to investigate another reported death - you know that we routinely monitor that place." There were quiet nods. "We've learned - Marya discovered the body of a young woman: a Potential Slayer. Nearby, she also discovered the girl's Watcher, who was near death. He told Marya about an ancient force - older than the Circle, older than the Slayer. He told her it was on the rise. He told her to warn us." Matt's eyes dropped to the table. "You all know what happened after that."
He fell silent now, and it took only a moment for the Delegation to rouse to shouting and questions. But only five seconds passed - Molly counted - before several among them began calling for silence, mostly older family members. When the noise level had dropped again, it was Helena Llwellyn's daughter Deanna who spoke.
"Would it be correct to assume you've discovered the identity of this force?"
Matt looked down at Molly, then. "Yes, we believe we have."
And then all eyes were on Molly, and feeling as if a great weight had been laid uon her shoulders, Molly stood.
"I'm Molly Phillips," she said, "Of the Covenant of Eire."
Looking down from several tiers above the main floor, Annie was struck by just how different Molly seemed. Alert, accustomed - though not exactly comfortable. The calm professionalism in her demeanor was something Annie had never seen in her except on stage. This Molly was a stranger.
Annie realised, then, with a purely mental start, that perhaps this was really the old Molly. As she watched her make the traditional Delegate introduction, Annie decided she liked this Molly, very much.
Then Annie was jarred unceremoniously from her contemplation as someone in the next row cried out: "Are we to understand that Molly Phillips is now speaking for her family?"
Next to her, Jack, who'd been sitting impassive, expressionless, through all the other speakers, started. Annie looked down the row and saw the speaker - a boy maybe a little younger than herself. She didn't recognise him for a moment - skinny and tall, with ginger hair - but she recognized the older girl placing a warning hand on his arm as a friend of Fiona's: Mina Quade. Which made the boy fourteen-year-old Jason. Annie knew neither of them well, but knew their father had been close to Richard Krane. She also knew Jason thought very little of Molly. His voice a moment ago had been full of sarcastic accusation.
He was not, however, the senior member of his family, and his older sister, who was, was now all but forcing him back into his seat before standing, herself. "He asks a valid question," she said, her voice without inflection. "I'm afraid that the Quades have been absent from the last few Assemblies - but the last I knew, the senior representative of the Phillips family was Fiona - or at least Jack." She nodded in Jack's direction, and Annie was puzzled when he coloured slightly. She surprised herself with a surge of irritation, but tamped it down as Mina continued. "I also seem to remember that Molly Phillips abdicated her position of authority more than a decade ago. Has the situation changed?"
The answering murmur from most of the Delegation told Annie that the question had been on most minds.
Those at the round table were momentarily silent - Annie saw Molly go a shade or two paler. But none of the Eight came to Molly's defense - instead it was Fiona, still standing, who met Mina Quade's eyes.
Fi was silent for so long that Annie wondered if she were speaking with Mina mind-to-mind - but when she did speak, it was with a clarity and confidence that sent shivers down Annie's spine.
"I think that all of us agree that we'd rather not see our numbers dwindle when we can help it. Fidelitas Domus." Her eyes drifted along the tiers. "Despite her absence, now that she's here my mother is a part of this Delegation." She looked at Mina again, then, and Mina, still expressionless, nodded and retook her seat. Fi sat back down, then; the surprise visible on Molly's face was almost comical. Annie almost did laugh when she turned and saw a similar expression on Jack's face.
::Fidelitas Domus,:: she remembered. ::Fidelity, family.::
Jack could not have described his state of mind at that moment, not even to himself. He was only grateful when people stopped looking in his direction, and in his mother's instead.
Fi had tried to explain it to him, mor than once - why his mother had done what she had. But still, to him, it felt like betrayal. In recent months he and his mother had spoken very little - their relationship, though no longer open enmity on his part as it had been immediately following his introduction to the Circle, was still far from comfortable. Even though most of the Delegates - with the exception of a few like Jason Quade - harboured no ill will against his mother, Jack still couldn't bring himself to forget what Areahannah had told him, almost the first time they'd met: that it had been his mother's desertion, months beforehand, that had somehow caused his father's death; and possibly the deaths of others, like Eddie Quade, Jason and Mina's father.
Arrah had only - and hesitantly - hinted at the connection. Something had been hunting their family. Something that had, until then, been kept at bay by some protection afforded by the alliance with the Circle, one that had been unbalanced, destroyed by his mother's absence. More than that, though - an explanation of how, or what, or why - no one seemed to know. Not even the Guardians themselves.
Below them, his mother, looking more strained than she had a moment ago, leaned forward and depressed a control on the tabletop. An instant later, a semi-transluscent rectangle had appeared, seemingly hovering, over the table. Displayed clearly on the screen was the gaping crater in Aislinn Park.
Any voices still murmuring suddenly fell silent. Jack thought even the minds of the Delegates had gone quiet. Certainly the sight had a generally silencing effect.
"This image was taken yesterday in Aislinn Park," his mother said, her voice wavering only slightly. "The crater, until recently, was a small regenerated lake. Recently, about two months ago, for no reason we can determine, the lake dried up. There's now nothing living within twenty feet of the edge - not even grass. We believe the crater to be the source of the creatures that killed Marya Bico."
"Creatures?" echoed someone to Jack's right, faintly, in a choked voice.
"The distance to the bottom isn't measurable - or even visible from the edge." She pressed the control again. Two images replaced the first, both ink drawings. The first was a sketch of what seemed to be the same site, but clearly fresh. The second was so realistic that Jack had to force himself not to look away.
The screen showed a second ink drawing - one of the gliding black spectres from Marya's Sending, and the night of his father's death. The artist had captured it expertly, seemingly in motion.
"These come from a page out of the Chronicles - the volume is dated April of 1678."
Jack tore his eyes from the screen. His mother had resumed her seat, and Matt was speaking. "The record refers to what's being called 'the Rising' - a major node under Aislinn Park was drained when something opened underneath it. The cave-in resulting created the original crater.
"The last time this thing rose - the chronicler refers to it as..." Matt glanced down at his notes as if he'd forgotten, but Jack thought that unlikely. Indeed, when he looked up again Jack caught a hint of - was it fear? - on the older man's face. Then he spoke again, and Jack understood.
"...the First Evil."
The mere utterance of the words seemed to draw a pall over the Assembly.
"The Watcher Marya encountered warned her about this force. It seems clear that this is what destroyed their Council, and what's been killing our people.
"The last time it rose - or tried to - it was the Circle that stopped it. The last time, we were ready for it, and were able to stop it before it could do too much damage. The area was regenerated, with the help of the Kurks and a few other families with Green talents. A permanent watch was set on the area - the tradition was so firmly ingrained that Delegates have continued to monitor the area despite not knowing why, though most tended to assume it had to do with the node, which is a particularly potent one, and has now been drained again." He took a deep breath, and Jack was acutely aware of Matt's eyes on his mother.
"The last time was not without casualties. Almost a dozen Delegates were killed in the attempt. The last man to die, however, was the first to report back the draining of the node to the Circle. His name was Elias O'Siannon, of the Covenant of Eire."
A few more heads turned in Molly's direction.
"The First Evil operated - operates - best in secrecy. It was aware of the Circle, and knew that if O'Siannon was allowed to return, it would be threatened. It set a boon on him; instructed one of its servants - called Bringers - to kill him before he could reach the Gate. O'Siannon, however, escaped.
"After the Evil had been subdued, a group of Delegates and a few of the Eight returned to the area - which only became a park in the nineteenth century - to clean up the mess, so to speak. The evening of the second day, the encamped group sighted - sensed - the Gate-spell being activated. They rushed to the Gate and found the Sentry - rather gruesomely - injured. Before she died, she told them that a Bringer had attacked her and torn the Gate-spell directly from her mind.
"Of course there was an immediate alert - everyone assumed that the creature had come here."
All around the room, eyes flickered nervously toward the Gate in the wall behind him.
"It was soon, discovered, though, that the creature had exited at the Tara Gate, only a few kilometres from the O'Siannon home.
"Re-inforcements got there just in time to witness Elias O'Siannon dying on his own doorstep. The Bringer then attempted to enter the house - his wife and six children were hiding - but fled at the sight of a dozen Delegates and two Guardians.
"After it escaped, they searched, but couldn't find it. And worse, it had become clear that the boon laid on O'Siannon applied to his entire family - his entire bloodline. The Circle quickly went to work setting protections against it on every member of the O'Siannon family - ones that would pass to any descendants."
He paused - he closed his yees, and when he opened them they were fixed on a point on the opposite wall far above the highest tier of seats.
"Richard Krane was a direct descendant of Elias O'Siannon. We now know that those protections were in effect until..." he looked uncomfortably down at Molly, "...until the very day that Molly Phillips left the Covenant."
He looked up again. "The provisions of the spell were centred on Fidelitas Domus. When that condition no longer existed, neither could the spell. No one--" he said quickly, as murmurs rose again among the Delegates, "--no one could have known of this." Jack was startled that the gaze he levelled on the more mutinous members of the Assembly was a stern one. He was less surprised when Arrah added from beside him - in a voice that carried easily despite its low volume:
"Fidelitas Domus refers to loyalty," she said, "and loyalty must come by choice, or it means nothing."
Gradually, the murmurs faded. Jack looked around the room. Most Delegates were nodding in grudging agreement - though Jason still looked mutinous. Annie, when he turned, only looked sad. Fiona's face still bore no expression.
He wondered what his own face looked like. He certainly couldn't have explained himself to anyone else.
There was a long and uncharacteristic silence before someone asked the question Fiona had been expecting, and unsurprisingly, it was Mina - her hand tightly squeezing Jason's arm to keep him quiet - who asked it.
"If Molly's back - can't the spell be recast?"
"No, it can't," Fiona said, answering Mina herself. "We don't have that knowledge anymore. That thing - will just keep coming until it gets us, and now it's got friends going after every Gifted person it can get its slimy hands on. And anyway, the curse isn't the issue." She paused, surprised at herself. "Curse?" She supposed the word did apply, though even to her own ears it sounded almost silly.
"The problem is that this - First Evil... thing... is coming back. Might already be here. And we may not be ready for it."
"What about the Slayer?" called a voice from an upper tier. Fi couldn't see the speaker. "You said she's involved in this, somehow."
Fi nodded. "We think that the return, this time, is focused in Southern California - specifically, a little town called Sunnydale. The Slayer's there now." She pressed a key in the table, and the screen changed to show a map of the Sunnydale area. Another keystroke had the map superimposed with several pale yellow oblongs, interconnected with lines of varying thickness.
"Sunnydale is right on top of a very old and potent network of nodes and leylines. They're connected in such a way that the fabric of space-time - the barrier between planes - is actually weaker in that area. As a result, the town's a sort of a paranormal hotspot: the Watchers' Council calls it a 'Hellmouth'. There are more vampires, for example, living - so to speak - in the Sunnydale area than anywhere else on the West coast. There are also dozens of other Hellmouths all over the world. Aislinn Park is one of them."
"We haven't been able to get ahold of anyone in Sunnydale," said Arrah, folding her hands. "And whatever's happening is already started. We're getting that just from traffic - people have been leaving the town in droves for days. So we're doing the only thing we can - going on the defensive." She sighed, looking around, and her entire demeanour changed, again. Annie thought she almost looked taller, straighter. "The Quade and Llwellyn families will remain behind - the rest of you know where to go."
It was quite obviously a dismissal, and a few seconds later the entire room - surprisingly calmly - was moving. Annie and Jack found themselves virtually carried down onto the floor. Presskin, with a nod to the others, was on his feet and moving ahead of them, to meet group leaders and dispatch them.
Arrah, as soon as the bulk of the Delegates had departed either through the doors or the Gate, sank down into her chair, resting her head in one hand. Terren clasped the other as she looked up at those surrounding her.
"Well, that's it for a few hours, anyway," she said. She looked up at Helena, Ethan, and the other six Llwellyns (their son, daughters, niece and nephews) standing next to the table. "Helena, I'd like you to go with the Sunnydale group. We need a strong relay in case anything changes."
Helena nodded as Annie looked confusedly around the table. "Groups?" she asked, "What groups?" Then she blushed, afraid she'd spoken out of turn.
But Arrah only looked at her as if surprised to see her there. "Well, we can't do much, now, to stop this thing from rising. We've been caught off-guard." Her expression turned grim. "But if we have to, we can keep anything else from coming out."
"You mean..." Annie looked at the faces around the table. "...even if they're still inside?"
Slowly, Arrah nodded. "If it comes to that, we won't have much choice."
"Oh. Well." Annie gulped. "Great."
"I'm glad you think so, Annie," said Helena's youngest daughter - Annie thought her name was Victoria - "because you're coming with us."
"And us," added Mina Quade, almost cheerfully.
"She is?" Jack sounded affronted. "And what about the rest of us?"
"We're going back to Aislinn Park," Molly said, to Jack's evident surprise. When Molly looked up from the tabletop, her eyes were dark and unreadable - to the point that it made Annie shiver, slightly.
"We're going to end this, for good."
Okay: there are some things that should be explained before we continue, mostly regarding this composite universe's timeline. I wouldn't bother, because it's quite complex and not a little confusing, but as I'm taking the tail end of this story and hooking it into further fic involving more Buffyverse and Paxverse characters, anything else would only lead to more confusion. If you're reading this only for the So Weird, and Buffy (and more of my own Original prattling) does not interest you, then carry on straight to the story. After this, only one more part to go.
We are now sitting in a triply combined universe of So Weird (which plotwise was very isolated from its own universe and didn't have much of a timeline to go on), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which kind of has a timeline but can be moved around year-wise), and the Paxverse, which is the universe inhabited by the Guardians, the Circle, the Global Union, and other associated phenomena.
The Paxverse, perhaps more than Buffy and So Weird, has a very strict, set timeline. Even so I've fudged it a little for this story, but it's concrete enough that I decided to work the other two into it rather than the other way 'round. (I thought about the other ways, believe me: I have a piece of paper somewhere setting out events in Buffyverse and Paxverse on an hour-to-hour basis.) The Paxverse is also immensely complex, ridiculously huge, and spans several thousand years in great detail in either direction from this story.
In the Paxverse, there is a world government (which I believe has been mentioned in previous parts), called the Global Union. The Global Union comes into existence around 2005. At the time of the story, every nation on Earth is a part of the Union with the exception of Russia and the United States. The Global Union is a socialist democratic system with what is essentially an elected monarchy. Every social program is nationalised, the economy is standardised, and after there is little interaction and no commerce between Union and non-Union nations: which means that Russia and especially the United States became politically, economically, and culturally isolationist. Of course, all of the So Weird characters are Americans, so this presented an issue. None of them are Union citizens, and although there are other American Delegates, the Circle and the Union are closely tied (in secret).
In Paxverse terms, this story takes place in a time when the Union has been around not quite a decade. As I've fudged things a bit to make everything fit (not in the least regarding years and specific dates, because in the Paxverse the United States government collapses in 2012, and I've delayed/ignored this for this story). So here's how things are:
The United States is isolated from the rest of the world in almost every way. There's still travel between nations but very little of it by Americans, mostly because the U.S. government refuses to acknowledge the authority of the world government and so the Union has to take special precautions with American tourists. (Ironic, ne?)
The woman who formed the Union was named Fiona MacLeod. She died, in Paxverse canon, more than twenty years after its formation. A great deal of the Union's survival hinged on the strength of her personality, and when she died, the Union nearly collapsed, but didn't, quite.
The years leading up to the formation of the Union were very, very tumultuous. There were a couple of wars, a few crazy dictators, and among other disasters the world's oil supplies were almost entirely destroyed, creating serious global ecological problems and creating one of the main reasons for the American Isolation. The world's population was reduced, over that period, by nearly three billion. Virtually none of those casualties was American. Most of them were European, Middle Eastern, and African, thanks to something called the Middle Eastern Collapse and the deeply twisted efforts of a short-lived dictatorship under the leadership of a man named Ignatzio Caesar, who burned and pillaged his way up Central Europe for a period of eight to ten months before the rest of the world turned around and swatted him like a bug.
Finally, this world has also got mutants. Yes, I originally stole this idea from Marvel, but in this world, mutancy, or Hyper-Evolution, as the scientific community refers to it, came into the public consciousness almost suddenly, when a pair of mutant teenagers were beaten to death in an Athens square. After it was formed the Global Union took drastic steps to make discrimination/violence against mutants (Hypes) illegal, but in non-Union states the governmental reaction was pretty much whatever the hell people in charge wanted. In some places, the U.S. more than Russia, there were one of two official reactions. One was to refuse to acknowledge Hyper-Evolution altogether. The other was to quietly remove the offending mutants from their midst, this made much easier by the fact that about halfway into the first administration of President Jacob Wallace, the first President after the formation of the Union, the Republican government began to erode into a bi-factional system of religious totalitarianism and capitalist neo-feudalism (for those of you not up on political terms, that means that the separation of church and state thing finally, really broke down; the religious and capitalist sides started infighting, and things got more and more tense).
As the result of this, and several other political things, there was a series of exoduses of Americans out of the States and into Union nations, mostly Canada, some overseas, and some into the quickly-growing number of U.S. states that secede from the country in order to gain Union membership. By the time this story happens, about half of the border states (both borders) have left the American union, many on the coasts (California, Oregon, and Washington State are among the first five to leave, within the first three years of the Union's existence.), and more are threatening to do so as time passes. This is something that the U.S. media keeps very, very quiet and underrated, and so a lot of normal American citizens have very little idea of how serious things are becoming, and are encouraged not to worry about it.
Which is how I explain that few symptoms of this appear in either the So Weird or Buffy universes, because Buffy and co. never bloody leave Sunnydale, and So Weird has precious little in the way of political commentary. Essentially, the American government is going out of its way to make everything appear Very, Very Normal.
However, the Phillipses, and Annie, have spent the last few years in constant contact with the Circle, most of which is very, very involved in politics. Which means that they are more aware than their fellow citizens of what is really going on in the world. This may become more pronounced in following chapters.
Just thought I should warn you.
Rick's twin had never kept in close contact after he died, and to be honest with herself, Molly had been grateful. Rachel had always been somewhat inscrutable, and Molly couldn't even have imagined what to say to her.
So when she'd heard that Rachel had died, two years ago, she hadn't been sure what to feel. Relief seemed vulgar, and grief almost trite. So she'd settled, reluctantly, on regret.
Melinda, maybe by virtue of being youngest, had always been more friendly with her brother's wife, but if anything was more difficult to intuit. Melinda alone of all her siblings had any trace of diplomacy. When they'd visited with the show, she'd done so thorough a job of respecting Molly's wishes that even Fiona hadn't suspected much - until she'd found that damned book, anyway. Molly had suspected Melinda's hand in that, at first - that she'd manoeuvred it into Fi's path - but that wasn't really like her. Though it also wasn't like Melinda to leave important things unsaid: Molly had been “back” more than a year, now, and in all that time had not even seen Melinda, let alone spoken with her.
So she was understandably nervous when she saw her sister-in-law approaching her from across the room.
“Hello,” she said, smiling. She'd cut her hair, since last Molly had seen her, and it curled around her face - making her seem almost too healthy and awake, given the hour and the situation.
Molly realised, belatedly, that Melinda was leaning forward, and when she hugged her, Molly stood stiff and surprised, arms hanging woodenly at her sides. Finally, with an effort, she brought her arms up to hold Melinda's shoulders, only a moment before she pulled away, then stepped back, looking at her with concern.
“Uh,” she said, rather ineloquently, “Sorry. Fi warned me not to, but...”
“No, it's all right,” said Molly hurriedly, finding her voice. “you just... surprised me. I didn't... I didn't see you in the seats.”
“Oh, I wasn't,” Melinda said, shaking her head. “I was in the Fortress.”
“...oh.” Molly remembered the Fortress - the large, fortified room that had, in generations past, been used as a hiding-place for Delegate royalty during times of upheaval. Although she wondered what business Melinda could have had, there--
“That wasn't why I surprised you, was it, Molly?” Melinda said then, interrupting her train of thought. “You must have figured I'd be here. You were just hoping I wouldn't find you.”
It was anything but a question - Melinda was looking at her with a closed expression she'd seen often on Rick's face. Molly sighed and looked away.
“No,” said Melinda, more quietly, “You thought I wouldn't want to. Didn't you?”
“You've been talking to Fiona,” muttered Molly.
“Fairly frequently,” admitted Melinda. “Though she didn't have to tell me you're unhappy here.”
“No! I--” she looked up into Melinda's face: “I just...” she continued, with less urgency, then sighed again, “...I heard about Rachel. I'm sorry.”
It was a roundabout way of coming at the conversation, and Molly quickly regretted the mention, when Melinda's face momentarily froze, then slackened as she shook her head, slowly.
“Had you talked much, before...?” Molly asked, hesitantly, after several seconds had passed and Melinda had said nothing.
Looking up, Melinda sighed. “No - no one had, really, though. Not even her contacts. She, uh... she's been different, Molly. She was...” She crossed her arms. “You know... she was never the same, after Rick died. She still did her job, this one and the mundane, but she just withdrew. Even from me. When she got sick... it was cancer. Lymphoma. In her blood.”
“It wasn't treatable?”
“Oh... it might have been. But she... she wouldn't take a Healer. Not even Katia.”
“...oh.” It was said quietly.
Melinda shrugged. “I think she wanted to go, Molly. She just... faded away. Maybe it was better that way. Though I think it scared the girls.”
“How are they?” asked Molly, wanting to draw Melinda out of her dark contemplation. Indeed, she looked up, and gave a faint smile. “They're fine. Though... they haven't manifested, yet, and they're almost thirteen, now. I think Rachel worried we might be the last.” And her smile warmed. “It's a pity she's not here to see this, even with what's happening.” She shot a glance over her shoulder. “We've still got Jack and Fi. It's a good thing, Molly. And that you're here.” She squeezed Molly's shoulder, and Molly tried to smile back.
Maggie and Miranda, Melinda's twins - nearly thirteen and still showing no signs of any Gifts. Molly could see this troubled their mother as much as it had her sister. Thirteen was late, as manifestation went - and although unGifted Delegates were still Delegates, they still tended toward less intimate involvement than their gifted counterparts.
Then Melinda looked at her again, with concern. “What?” Molly asked.
“Oh--” Melinda shook her head. “I've been thinking about Jack. He seems - angry.”
Molly felt herself flush. “He's been angry for a year, now.”
“He blames you.” It was said with so little preamble that Molly blinked at her with surprise, and suddenly very tired, she sagged back against the wall behind her. “Have you talked to him?”
Molly shook her head. “He doesn't want to - and I don't know what to say. For the longest time, he blamed Areahannah. But now...”
Melinda looked thoughtful. “Maybe he should talk to Arrah.”
There was a call, then, from across the room: all the other groups had gone, and the Aislinn Park expedition was getting ready to move out. Molly started to cross the floor, and stopped, looking back at Melinda.
“Aren't you coming?”
“Nope - I'm assigned to the Fortress.” When Molly looked at her in puzzlement, she summoned a grim smile. “Over the past ten years or so, we've taken to gathering family kids in one place - we put them in the Fortress and set guards, just in case.”
“Just in case,” echoed Molly, faintly.
Melinda nodded, face closed gain. “Fidelitas Domus,” she said. “But I'll be there when it counts, don't you worry.” And then, still smiling grimly, she turned and strode out through the big doors. Molly watched her go with a strange mix of relief and foreboding.
Annie had never much liked Southern California - and she'd been here enough times to form an opinion. It was, she'd decided, overwhelmingly stark, unpleasantly dry, and frequently, dusty enough to choke several dozen horses, and set Annie sneezing.
There was also the heat. Annie emerged from the Gate with Lann at her heels and was immediately struck by a wave of hot, dry air - at least it was dry, she reflected to herself - as the others exited behind her.
::I've been spoiled,:: she scolded herself next. ::Grew up trudging through jungles. I've been spoiled by all that clean crisp mountain air.:: For a moment, she grinned.
The nearest Gate to Sunnydale was carved into a rockface six miles out into the desert, a few hours from the town. Annie could only stare for a few long moments, at the endless expanse of sand and brush and the apparent absence of anything living - but this desert, she knew well enough, was quite alive. She could faintly sense the sluggish currents of sleeping wildlife, the narrow reservoirs of force beneath her feet - she could feel, even, the pull of that current, running with heady swiftness in the direction of the town in the distance. Too swift, she realized. It reminded her of a flash flood she'd once just barely escaped. She'd been nine. A narrow canyon, a torrent of mud, and the river vanishing into the ground... this felt like that. for a moment, she swayed with the force of it - Lann leant into her to steady her.
“Annie?” She looked up to see Helena Llwellyn looking at her with concern. “You're all right?”
Annie nodded. “The node - it feels almost like being dizzy - when you stand up too fast?”
Helena nodded. “It's being drained - best to keep shielded, good and tight. Otherwise you might get drained with it.”
She moved on as Annie nodded. As she observed the flow again from behind her shields, she realized how easily she could be swept away, and shuddered.
“Annie!” That was Jeri, and Annie looked up in time to catch her pack as it was tossed in her direction. The other packs came flying through, then, and a few seconds later the Gate was closed, and they were alone in the desert.
The other dozen-or-so members of their group seemed unperturbed - either by the distant roaring of the leylines, or the very real roar of the desert wind, that seemed to be getting worse the longer they stood there. Annie slipped her arms through the straps of her pack as the others did the same. She made her way over to Jeri and Chayson - there had been a Guardian assigned to most of the more important groups, though Annie rather thought he must have drawn the short straw - both looked up as she and Lann approached.
“All right, Annie?” Chayson asked her, pulling on a pair of goggles which he left pushed up over his forehead. They'd come prepared, expecting the storm. Annie reached for her own pair, and pulled them on, but left them hanging about her neck, as Jeri had.
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” she asked, faintly annoyed by now that everyone seemed to be treating her like spun glass.
Chayson blinked down at her, and as always failed to appear innocent. Jeri rolled her eyes at him, then shrugged down at Annie apologetically.
“It isn't out of doubt of your competence, Annie,” she said. “Promise. It's just... some of us - most of us know how overwhelming an experience it is just manifesting something relatively easy to handle, like telepathy or plain sight, which we get so often the training's almost standardized, now. But Touch...”
“Nobody treads this softly around Terren,” Annie countered.
“Terren's had his Gift since he was a little, Annie,” Chayson reminded her. “He's been doing this for years. He's used to it - at least as much as you can be. You've just had this sprung on you, and it's going to be difficult at first. We're just trying to keep it from being any more difficult than it has to be - and make sure you don't pass out too many times before you get the hang of it. Besides,” he added with a roll of his eyes, as Annie nodded in grudging understanding, “We do watch Terren, just as carefully as you. He just won't stand for us doing it openly.”
“Well, neither will I,” Annie said impulsively. “I'm not going to wipe myself out - not by accident, anyway.”
“All right, Annie,” Jeri said, and her tone told Annie they'd still be watching her like hawks, regardless. “If you say so.”
Annie sighed as Chayson grinned at her and called out to the rest of the group to form up and get ready to move - they got into pairs and moved off across the desert as the wind began to kick up. Annie ended up paired off with Mina Quade, who said little as they started walking.
In the distance, the town of Sunnydale beckoned like a shadow.
The park was, rather unsurprisingly, even less pleasant in early evening than it had been in full daylight. What had been a faint foreboding a day ago was now a pressing, almost physical sensation of stifling, heavy anticipation. Jack felt almost as if he were walking through water, pushing, as though the air had become thick and heavy. When the gate closed behind them, his ears actually popped, as if he'd been sealed into a bottle.
Next to him, his sister was pale and drawn, though her face was grim and set.
::You all right?:: it wasn't asked in words, not quite, but she looked up at him and nodded.
“Not fantastic.” She shrugged.
Jack was surprised by an impression of sudden frailty in his sister - no, he decided a moment later: not frailty. Vulnerability. He was again surprised by his own rush of protectiveness - something with which he hadn't bothered for years, now. Fiona had long been able to look out for herself, despite his past protests to the contrary.
And he could only assume that any appearance of vulnerability, now, was only a result of her not paying attention.
Fiona wasn't just tired, he realized. She was scared.
The realisaton struck him to the core.
Fiona was carrying a sword.
Jack tried very hard not to stare, especially as Fiona seemed rather accustomed to the thing, but seeing a sword slung over his sister's back still gave him a bit of a turn. Certainly he knew that bladed weapons were used widely among the Delegates, and he'd supposed Fiona had trained with them.
But still. A sword.
He himself was unarmed, at least physically. He had his shields so tightly shut that his own biorhythms sounded unusually loud to his ears: heartbeat, breath. As if he were sealed inside a spacesuit, making his way through the trees under the pull of a lighter gravity, placing his feet carefully. And he was. For all the closeness of the air, everyone around him seemed slightly further away than he knew they really were.
He could feel the crater. It was like a pulse itself, and that was perhaps the most disturbing aspect of its existence. It was so like a pulse that he was reminded of the feel of Crystallis. Like a gigantic heart-muscle, drawing and driving... something.
But this was not the meadhon. That was life, pure, strong, clear. This was more like the pulling current of a polluted river. He remembered New York City and the Hudson, a year ago, standing on the bank and feeling the sense of sickness and taint, the lack of anything living or clean.
But even that had been the taint of something healthy made sick. This...
...this was the touch of something that had never been clean.
He tried to distract himself by watching the others as they walked. Fiona had fallen silent beside him. No one seemed much interested in talking.
Arranged in various groupings around them were the other members of the team. More than twenty of them, all told, had been assigned to Aislinn Park. Arrah and Terren - who had come despite the protests from both Arrah and Katia - walked just short of lead, and Arrah's expression was as indecipherable as always. Terren still looked simply exhausted. Katia herself walked on Terren's other side, with Matt to her right, and although the two were not touching Jack gained the impression that they were walking arm-in-arm. Katia's face was unreadable, although the tenseness in her shoulders was evidence enough of her mood. Matt looked openly apprehensive, but determined.
His mother walked behind them, almost alongside Ethan Llwellyn, behind whom the three younger Llwellyns who had accompanied their group walked with calm assurance. The confidence bothered Jack, probably because he was so far from imitating it.
At the rear came Tilia, openly hand-in-hand with a young man Jack had not met, though he remembered seeing him with groups of young Delegate children, usually dashing up and down the beach. He supposed he was a teacher: Delegate kids started learning defense very young, much younger than Jack himself had started. The man had a narrow face and spiky red hair, and when he saw Jack glancing back, gave an encouraging not-quite-smile. Jack stopped looking. The two were obviously together, though there was something about the man that - not exactly bothered him, except in the sense that he couldn't puzzle it out. A sense of unnatural balance, almost forced, that Jack wouldn't have noticed unless looking directly. He shook his head.
They were getting closer.
Presently he could see the red-orange light of dusk through the trees, and moments later they had cleared the forest, and stood on the open grassy plain above the crater. The crest of the hill stood between them and sight of it, but they were still moving, as one, across the grass.
A moment before he saw it he heard it, audible, pulsing, beating like a pulse. It filled every part of him, and he hoped he wasn't the only one that stumbled a little before he strengthened his shields against it. He felt as if the sound were trying to reach into him, to fill every empty place and push out his skin. He pushed it stubbornly back, back until the sound was more distant and no longer drumming against the inside of his skull. He looked around.
He was perversely glad that he wasn't the only one clutching at his head in surprise. It passed quickly, though, as everyone raised defences against it, and they stood for only a few moments in contemplative silence before Ethan Llwellyn called out orders and his son, daughter and nephew, followed by Tilia and the young man (whom Ethan addressed as “Daniel”) began making their way in opposite directions around the edge of the crater. Matt and Katia followed along the right, and Molly to the left. Fiona made her way directly toward Arrah and Terren, and Jack scrambled to catch up.
“It's just like shielding,” Ethan was saying as they approached. “Projective, and a hell of a lot bigger, but still the same principles. You've done this?” That last was asked of Jack and Fiona, and Fiona nodded with somewhat more confidence than her brother. Jack had only practiced this; though managing the shield was not what was worrying him. His gaze kept straying down into the pit, which was rather less lifeless than it had been a day ago. He found himself devoutly hoping that he was imagining the writhing, slithering things he could see, vaguely, at the bottom. Privately, he doubted it.
Then he was following Fiona along the edge, and after a few seconds, when he looked, they were ranged evenly around the pit. Not for the first time he was struck by how incredibly large it was, how great a destruction: Fiona, to his left, was at least a hundred feet away, and to his right, Terren was equally distant.
::Considering the state of the ley-lines in this place, we'll have to move in sync to get enough strength to do this,:: Ethan told them all, and Jack shuddered. The force of the thing in the ground had all but severed the ley-lines leading to what had been a node beneath where they stood, and they were bleeding power out into the ground and the air like severed arteries. That was the other thing setting him on edge, Jack realised.
When Ethan signalled, he almost missed it, and was left scrambling in his reach for the merge, and then for the trailing ends of the ley-lines closest to him. When he caught them, he was so immediately grounded that he felt pulled into a crouch, fingers digging into the earth for better purchase. The power flowed into him, and through him, and into the group mind of the spell, crashed together in the middle and then filled the shape of what they were weaving like water. It built from the circle of Delegates ranged about the perfect circle of the crater, reaching up and down, and Jack saw it rising like a door closing, surrounding the great, pulsing force and covering it, reaching down, into the ground, to surround it from all sides.
Jack felt with the others a great surge of surprise, anger, hatred - except not, because this thing had never been human and Jack could only cite equivalents - before the shield closed around it completely, sealing above them, hundreds of feet up, and below them, beneath their feet within the very ground, shimmering in his other sight like a great sphere for a moment before he blinked and opened his eyes.
Everyone was shaking themselves, shaking hands and arms and most of them had fallen into a crouch like Jack, hands pressed against the ground. He felt light-headed, and was so glad when Ethan called the all-clear that for a long moment he didn't move, just knelt there with his head hanging past his knees. He wasn't tired, exactly, but dizzy wouldn't have been far off. Instead of the insidious pulse of the thing below, now he could feel the sharp, clean tang of the shield, only a few feet ahead of him. The thing in the pit was still there, but at a greater remove and Jack was grateful.
The gratitude evaporated as his head cleared and he remembered that they weren't finished. Then Fiona was there, offering him a hand up, and they made their way back to the others. It was only just nightfall, and they still had work to do.
If Annie had hoped for Sunnydale to appear more pleasant close-up, she was sorely disappointed when they came close enough to the outskirts to make out buildings and streets.
It wasn't the town, really, Annie thought as they stood waiting for those at the back of the group to catch up. Sunnydale bore striking resemblance to most small Southern Californian towns: dotted here and there with Iberian archways, sun-bleached stucco and red-tiled roofs, in reminiscence of its Spanish origins, a few hundred years back, but mostly comprised of the glaring pittstops of modern urban sprawl; Annie could see a Super-8 motel from where she stood, and in the distance a Wal-Mart sign shone in the light of the westering sun. Annie squinted. No, it wasn't the town itself. It was something under the town.
Matt had called it a Hellmouth. Annie closed her eyes and shivered. It felt less like a mouth than... She searched for a comparison. A wound, maybe. A rent torn in the fabric of the world, drawing in everything good and living around it and burying it so deep it could never see light again. Next to her, Laan growled, low in his throat.
“Are you all right?” asked a voice from behind her, and Annie turned with a scowl already on her face.
“How many times do I have to--” the annoyance died at her lips, of surprise. It was Mina Quade who had asked the question, and the girl seemed as surprised by Annie's aborted anger as Annie had been by her approach.
Annie sighed. “Sorry,” she said. “It's just that everyone keeps asking me that.” She sent a dark look over Mina's shoulder in the direction of Chayson, who wasn't looking.
Mina laughed easily. “Yeah, I heard that.” She cocked her head to one side. “You do look a bit spooked, though.”
“Oh.” Annie glanced back over her own shoulder. “Well.”
Mina followed her gaze. “Yeah,” she agreed.
They stood in silence for several seconds, then Mina, temporarily dismissing the ominous situation, smiled again.
“I was thinking maybe I should apologise for my brother,” Mina said. “He has this unfortunate habit of... well, talking, actually. Tends not to notice when he's talking around his sneaker.” She rolled her eyes.
Although she smiled, Annie found herself puzzled. She and Mina had probably exchanged less than a dozen words in all their distant acquaintance, and yet Mina was addressing her with the circumstantial familiarity common between distant cousins.
“You don't really have to,” Annie said. “He didn't say it to me.”
“No,” Mina shrugged, “But you are with the Phillipses, and Jason won't do it himself.”
“Oh.” 'With the Phillipses.' That explained it, Annie supposed. She was being equated with Molly, Fi, and Jack. And if Mina and Fiona were friends, that made Annie her friend by extension, at least in Mina's view.
Briefly Annie wondered what other relationships that implied, before Mina distracted her.
“Fi knows what he's like, and Molly gets a bit twitchy whenever I try to talk to her, and Jack... well, with Jack it's not really necessary.” Mina's smile faded somewhat.
No, supposed Annie. With Jack it wouldn't, really, be necessary.
“They must get along,” Annie said.
Mina scowled into space. “Strangely, no,” she said. “Comes, I guess, of them both being so extremely, stupidly stubborn.” The smile brightened. “Though Jack's a lot better than he used to be.”
“Yeah,” agreed Annie, “he is.” Again Annie found herself feeling defensive, flushing slightly, as she had during the meeting. Mina didn't seem to notice.
“I'm glad,” she continued. “Jack's a nice guy, when he's not being all gloomy and ranty.”
She seemed oblivious to Annie's distance, and when Annie merely nodded, she turned back to the others as the new groups were set. “We're moving!” called Chayson, and they started walking again, setting off down several different roads. They were here for reconnaissance, he reminded everyone before they got out of earshot, and nothing else.
In the most classic sense, Sunnydale was a ghost town, to the point where Annie suspected actual ghosts hovering about the gutted skeletons of the deserted buildings. She didn't miss that the rest of the team kept her more or less in the middle of the group, but didn't complain this time; she was, after all, the youngest Delegate present next to Jason Quade, and unlike Jason, this was her first real mission; not to mention that the deep shadows of the town were overriding her early indignation at being babied.
They made their way into Sunnydale some time around when sundown should have been, but wasn't. Annie, Mina, Jeri, and Alan Saras followed what seemed to be the main road down a slight slope, and after several minutes the sparsely-distributed factories and hotels gave way to grocery stores and soccer fields and baseball diamonds and massive, ancient houses too grandiose and ponderous to fit in the smaller, crowded main town. Jeri led them out of the outskirts, past a rundown building with the appearance of a quasi-legitimate dance club with the word “Bronze” worked above the door in copper, through the town square littered with boutiques and coffee shops and dead cars, past the small, distinctive shop on the other side with moons and stars painted on it in blue that Annie thought, from the name, must be some kind of electronics or television store, but smelled of magic. They made a turn at some point, up a street lined with friendly verandaed houses, and then stopped at the end before a chain-link fence, looking down a hill of rolled-out turf. Below was the stark institutional shape of a high school, terrifyingly out-of-place in its surroundings.
“Matt did say the old school was nicer, right?” Alan said with distaste, arching one black eyebrow over dark-rimmed glasses.
Jeri made a scornful noise. “God, I hope so. Why is all modern American architecture reminiscent of prisons for the criminally insane?”
Annie, as the only American present, grinned.
Annie had always found it strange, that relatively speaking, there were very few American Delegates. A good proportion were of Celtic descent (probably the majority), with even samplings of Middle Eastern, Asian, European, and Aboriginal North American. But few Americans. Annie supposed that it was partly her own fault; her own culture had led her to expect Americans to hold the centre in most situations, but oddly enough, the majority of the most prominent Delegates were Canadians. Jeri, the Quades, and all the current Llwellyns were, and all eight Guardians had grown up there.
She supposed it shouldn't have surprised her overly; the Circle and the world government were rather closely tied, and she knew that many Americans had emigrated North or overseas when the United States had refused membership in the Global Union in 2005. So much of a Delegate's work involved extensive travel, and since the Insulation it had become more and more difficult for Americans to travel easily - and contrary to popular belief, it had never been precisely easy for Americans to travel internationally. Now vague dislike had been joined by the nationalistic suspicion of the citizen for the non-citizen.
Fortunately, at times like these, it was less of an issue: there was no one around to ask questions.
They dropped quickly below the level of the fence at a word from Jeri, and hunched behind shields as below them, a small group of teenage girls, led by a man who looked to be in his early twenties and sported a patch over one eye, picked their way across the field into their field of vision. They made their way around the foundation of the school, and at a signal from one of the oldest girls, split into two groups to surround it. The Delegates, watching from the hill above, passed several minutes in silence. Finally Jeri sighed.
“Reconnaissance of reconnaissance,” she muttered. “Looks like they're doing the same thing we are.” She looked at Alan. “Check in with the other groups?”
Alan nodded and closed his eyes, his face relaxing into the expression of one in telepathic communication. He was silent a moment, and then they all heard Trisha's voice. ::All's quiet here, folks.::
::Anything at all, yet?:: asked Jeri.
They could almost feel her give the telepathic equivalent of a headshake. ::We've got a watch on the square - but nothing's moving. About an hour ago a group of teenagers and an older girl came out of the magic store and went into the suburbs. We didn't follow them, but they must have been carrying their own body weight in supplies. Looked like they were planning something big.::
::They came here,:: came Helena's voice, stronger and louder than Trisha.
::Helena?:: asked Jeri. ::Where are you?::
::Watching the Summers house,:: came the reply. ::We're bunkered down in the empty house across the street.:: There was a pause, as if Helena were conversing verbally with someone next to her. ::There must be more than twenty people in that house, most of them teenage girls.::
::Those would be Potentials,:: Chayson said, joining the conversation. ::Matt said that they've been drifting towards Sunnydale for months now, and the ones that made it are all marshalled under Buffy Summers.::
::And that other one,:: added Helena.
::Other one?:: Annie asked, bemused.
::Don't remember the name,:: Chayson said, ::Also a Slayer. A little unstable, or so Matt tells me.::
::So that's a grand total of how many adults overseeing all those kids?:: asked Jeri.
::Five, counting the witch - Willow something? - the Watcher and young Mr. Alexander Harris, who seems to do everything else,:: Trisha told them.
::What you're telling me is that the fate of the world is resting on the shoulders of a large group of teenagers?:: Chayson said, sounding amused, as well he might: the Guardians had been younger than fifteen when they'd first come into their powers.
::Hey!:: protested Mina, Annie, and Jason, almost in unison.
::Ah, and isn't that always the way?:: Helena said, radiating fondness.
They stayed stationed just long enough to witness the Sunnydale group making their way with purpose towards the high school, and slipped out of town in their wake without being seen or even detected. They assembled again at the edge of town.
“They're heading for the Hellmouth,” Chayson summarised for the rest of them. “They're setting up some kind of spell, something none of us really recognise. Which unfortunately means it's also nothing we can help with.”
“So what now? We just leave them to it?” Trisha said.
“Among other things,” Chayson said, sighing.
“What?” Jason asked, looking around at the others. Annie looked at the faces of the older Delegates; all bore grim expressions.
“We have to shield the Hellmouth, Jason,” Jeri explained.
Annie sighed, looking at her feet. Arrah had hinted at this before they'd left the Island, but she'd hoped that they wouldn't have to do it.
“You mean... seal them in,” Jason said, and Chayson nodded.
“We're going to set a conditional shield,” he told them. “If they succeed in what they're doing - which we have to assume involves stopping whatever is coming out of the Hellmouth - the energy release will collapse the shield.”
Annie tentatively raised one hand. Chayson nodded at her. “Uh,” she said, “what if they can't do it?”
Everyone looked at her. Jason paled a little. The adults, however, just looked more grim.
Chayson sighed, quietly, and met her eyes. “If they fail, Annie, that will mean that the Hellmouth has opened.” He shook his head. “We won't have much choice.”
Annie bit her lip. “I know that,” she said. “I was just hoping we wouldn't have to...” She gestured toward the town. Chayson followed with his eyes, and nodded.
“Personally, I still am,” he said, then straightened, looking around at the others and rubbing his hands together. “Let's get to work.”
It had been more than an hour since they had completed the shield, and since then the others had been milling around, setting up wards and making links between those that would stand guard in the outer ring of the shield when they moved forward with the plan. Fiona had been handed the very important duty of sitting still, doing absolutely nothing, about thirty feet back from the border of the shield. Ethan had said something about making sure the beasts within the crater didn't scent her too strongly, and get too riled up before they could act, but Fi suspected her assignment had more to do with placating Jack, who had been given the same task, about a quarter of the way further around the crater. Although her senior in years, in Delegate terms Jack was still her junior, which meant that he was far less likely to protest being kept safely out of the way while preparations were made if his far more experienced younger sister were sentenced to the same temporary exile.
Regardless, Jack was sulking, arms crossed, and staring ominously at the sporadically flickering dome of the shield. But he was staying put, and that was what mattered.
Sighing, Fiona sat back on her hands, crossing her legs at the ankles. She was very, very bored. She supposed that was either a very good or a very bad sign: good in that she wasn't terrified out of her wits. Bad, in that objectively speaking, she really should have been terrified out of her wits. She knew, vaguely, that she'd shoved the fear so far back into the back of her mind that she just wasn't feeling it right now, and that she'd probably regret it later, when it caught up with her, but frankly she preferred boredom to twitchy sulking, when it came right down to it. She looked at Jack again, who had jumped nearly a foot in the air, just a moment ago, when Katia had tapped him on the shoulder, supposedly to congratulate him, with only a hint of sarcasm in her tone, on a job well done, thus far. Now he was glaring with renewed force.
Fiona sighed again. It must have been audible, for a moment later a (very) faintly amused voice observed: “Bored?”
Fiona looked up. Standing just behind and to the right of her was a lean young man with a narrow face and short, spiked red hair. Fiona shrugged. “I think it's probably a sign of dementia, but yeah.”
“Nah.” Shaking his head, he sat down next to her, elbows resting on his knees. “In my experience, people react to these kinds of situations one of two ways. Number one, immediate panic and disorder and general uselessness. Number two, relative calm, level-headedness, with the panic coming later.” He glanced across the grass towards Jack, then raised an eyebrow at her. “Your family seems to lean towards option number two. You're Fiona.”
It wasn't a question, exactly, but Fiona nodded. “You're... Daniel, right? Tilia's...”
“Yeah,” Daniel said, smiling ever so faintly. “We met about a year ago. When your Mom came back.”
“Yeah,” agreed Fi, looking at him more closely. “Not that I don't appreciate the company, but do you have nothing better to do?”
Daniel shook his head, apparently taking no offense. “Not actually,” he said, tilting his head toward the shield; the others were drifting in ones and twos away from the perimeter. “We're almost done setting up. Good thing, too.”
Fiona looked; the forms visible beyond the edge of the shield were stirring, circling. They seemed almost restless, if such an emotion could be assigned to the things. “Oh, good,” she muttered, under her breath.
They sat in surprisingly companionable silence for several long minutes before Fiona turned to him and squinted. “Are you always this quiet?”
“As a rule,” he admitted. “I used to be quieter.”
“It boggles the mind,” Fiona stated, smiling. “Wait - aren't you from Sunnydale?”
She faintly recalled Tilia telling her that, or maybe she remembered Daniel standing with Matt, heads bent in conversation, a month ago when Arrah had gone missing for five days and no one older than twenty had seemed concerned. Fiona had been, because Arrah seemed to have taken it upon herself to make sure Fiona felt at home, and this was, she now knew, unusual, for Arrah, because Arrah was anything but social. Fi had come upon them in the hall, and stopped, trying to decide whether or not to eavesdrop and feeling rather ambiguous about the morality because after all, she and Arrah had been talking the day before her absence, and they'd been in a lull, all of them, and nothing unusual had been mentioned.
The decision had been made for her when Daniel had nodded, then continued on down the corridor in the opposite direction, and Matt had come toward Fiona, and stopped to squeeze her shoulder, and answered her unspoken question with “She's dealing with something. Don't worry,” and moved on past her.
But after she and Belle had confronted Matt with the Chronicles and he'd admitted that Arrah had been meeting with someone in Sunnydale, it had occurred to her that maybe Daniel, who she'd met only once, maybe twice, was more closely involved than she'd first assumed.
“Originally,” he acknowledged, with a nod. “I left there a few years ago.”
“That's right,” Fi half-murmured. “You're Adopted.”
The half-smile appeared again, then faded as he nodded. “Thanks to Tilia.”
“But if you're a former native, why--”
“Why wasn't I assigned to the Sunnydale group?” He shrugged, and Fiona decided, watching his face, that anyone else would have been frowning. Daniel had a very strange face that managed to express a great deal despite the fact that he failed to display most of the typical facial expressions. Nonetheless, Fi gained the impression that he was repressing an inconvenient emotion. “It would have been... awkward, especially if we actually ran into any of the current natives.”
“But I thought Arrah said all the civilians left weeks ago--” She paused, as Daniel nodded. “--oh. You know the Slayer?”
One corner of his mouth quirked up briefly. “You're looking at an honorary former member of the Scooby Gang.” At her confused look, he waved one hand in dismissal. “Never mind. Private joke. We went to high school together.”
“Oh. So you were friends?”
“Peripherally, anyway,” he agreed. He looked at her. “I had to leave, under some kind of... awkward circumstances. And my showing up could make things... complicated.”
Fi sighed. “Everything's already pretty complicated.”
Almost another minute ticked by, before Daniel said: “Is this a stony silence sort of thing?”
Fiona had been glaring in Jack's direction. Jack, for his part, didn't even look up. She sighed again. “You know about... what happened to my dad. What my mom did.”
She saw him nod out of the corner of her eye.
“Well, it's been almost - I think more than - a year since he found out. He never knew, not until Arrah told him. He was always mad at Dad - since then he's been angry with Mom. I don't think he's eased up since.”
“That's a long time to stay angry,” Daniel said quietly, after a while.
“Oh, that's nothing,” Fiona said weakly. “I was angry with her before I even knew. Because all that time I knew she was hiding something and wouldn't tell me.”
“You have no idea,” she agreed.
“You're not angry anymore?”
“I-- no.” She looked at him. “I couldn't give you a real reason. I just decided not to be. It's not that I... learned anything new, or changed my mind about anything, or realized that it wasn't really her fault, or anything. That would have made sense. But it was her fault. I know it was her fault. She caused it to happen. I understand it, I forgave her, but it was her fault. I just couldn't be mad at her anymore. I think maybe Jack can.”
“You sound worried.”
“Annoyed, actually,” she said. “Worried, too. Just... can I ask you a question? As a more or less objective observer?”
Daniel straightened his legs, leaned back. “Shoot.”
“Can you ever really forgive someone... for taking things away you can never get back?” She looked at him, saw him considering the question with a distant look.
At length, he tilted his head to one side. “It kinda depends,” he said.
“On what was taken,” he said, quietly. “On who took it. And how important both of those things were to you, before.”
Fiona thought about that for a moment, looking back across the grass at her brother. “Damn,” she said, in a very faint voice.***
More than two hours before true nightfall the Sunnydale group was still milling around in preparation, and Annie was trying to calm her humming nerves. She felt as if she were vibrating - no matter how strongly she shielded she could still feel the pull of the Hellmouth, and it was as unpleasant a sensation as any she'd ever felt, akin to being underwater and unable to equalize the pressure in your ears. She kept reinforcing her shields, but whatever she did there was still a faint sense of differential gravity, as if something was pulling at her from one side. Whichever way she faced, the side facing the town felt, if only slightly, heavier.
She was focused enough on her efforts to maintain her shields - and her sanity - that when Mina sidled up to her, she blinked at her in surprise. "What's wrong?" she asked the other girl. Mina was radiating anxiety and focusing on Annie.
"I, uh-- can I ask you a favour?" Mina asked, casting furtive glances back over her shoulder at the adults.
"Sure," said Annie, getting to her feet. "What is it?"
"It's-- my mother's medallion," she said, holding up her right hand. Her wrist was bare, and Annie remembered that Mina had worn one of the imprinted medallions worn by many of the Delegates. "I was wearing it when we left, I was wearing it when we went into the town - I think I dropped it near the fence."
Annie, for a moment, gaped. "You lost it in Sunnydale?" she asked, dropping her voice suddenly to a whisper.
Mina nodded, biting her lip. "I can't leave it, Annie, but I don't want to go back for it alone, and if I ask Chayson he'll just..." she shrugged. "It's just a piece of jewellery, but... it was my mother's."
Annie looked over to where Chayson and Jeri were bent over a spread-out map on the ground, then looked back to Mina, who was looking at her with earnest entreaty.
Annie sighed. "All right," she said. "But we hurry."
"Deal," said Mina, grinning again. She caught up her weapons, and together they slipped away from the others, and back into the town.
Impossibly, Sunnydale seemed even more deserted now than a few hours ago, with the desert storm beginning to insinuate itself between the buildings of the outskirts. Annie and Mina went carefully and quickly, goggles on and hoods up; the wind was full of sand and debris and goggles and hoods served as a doubly utilitarian disguise, should anyone happen to sight them - not that it was likely they'd be spotted. They'd seen for themselves that the Slayer and her friends were busy with other things than a pair of teenage girls who really oughtn't be there.
At a silent, ground-devouring lope, they reached the high school in under ten minutes, and paused behind the outlying buildings for a few moments, to make sure that they were, indeed, alone - but they saw only a few girls patrolling the school building itself, far across the field, and felt confident enough to cross the intervening space and begin to hunt along the ground at the base of the chainlink fence.
Just a few minutes later, Mina stood up with a triumphant "hah!", the lost medallion clutched in her fist, and Annie smiled with relief as Mina tied it back onto her wrist. It was perhaps because of Mina's overwhelming relief that they didn't hear anyone coming.
"Well, well. What have we here?" said a husky, amused voice.
Annie and Mina looked up in surprise. About ten feet away stood a young woman of about twenty, dark hair a little wild and pouting dark lips curved into a challenging smirk. Annie recognized her from the roster of the Slayer's friends, though couldn't quite remember her name.
::That's the other Slayer,:: came Mina's voice, laced with chagrin, and some embarrassment. ::I can't believe I didn't scan for another patrol!::
::No point worrying about it now,:: Annie said, looking sideways and seeing another girl standing some ten feet distant. Mina confirmed another girl on the other side; they were hemmed in.
::Any ideas?:: asked Annie, as the Slayer took a cautious half-step forward.
::Gimme a minute,:: Mina answered, as they both got slowly and carefully to their feet.
"Now, this is interesting," the Slayer said thoughtfully. "Mostly 'cause I know that everyone who lived in this crappy little burg high-tailed it out a few days back. But here you are, all squirrelly and infiltrating." She cocked her head to one side. "Now what exactly are you two under all that?"
When a moment passed and neither Annie nor Mina moved, the Slayer placed a hand on one hip. "If you replay it in your heads, you'll realize that that wasn't a request."
Annie looked at Mina, who nodded, slowly, and both girls reached up and pulled back their hoods, and pulled down their goggles.
To her credit, the Slayer looked surprised to see that the infiltrators were only a pair of teenaged girls, and it was a full ten seconds before she said "Now what in the--" and took another step forward.
That was as far as she got, because then she went stiff, and froze, face frozen in an expression of surprise. Annie looked to either side, and saw the other two girls in a similar state. She looked at Mina, then, and saw her companion concentrating fiercely. She held out a hand to Annie. "Annie, have you ever channelled?" she asked, as Annie regarded the hand with puzzlement.
"Channelled?" Annie asked, confused.
Mina shook her head impatiently. "I have to make it so they don't remember seeing us - but I need a little boost. Gimme your hand, and lower your shields a touch. Just a touch. It won't hurt, I promise," she assured when Annie didn't react right away.
::Annie,:: she repeated, ::I promise.::
Annie sighed, and placed her hand in Mina's.
It was over less than a split-second later, and then Mina sagged a little dropped her hand. Annie looked at the Slayer and her charges; all three women seemed unharmed, albeit slightly dazed.
"Come on," Mina said, "It'll wear off in about ten seconds, and we need to be out of here before it does."
::And what say we don't tell Chayson and Jeri about this?:: she suggested, and Annie was forced to agree.
They replaced goggles and hoods and Annie, with one last glance at the Slayer, followed Mina as she darted past their would-be captors. Five seconds later saw them vanished into the deserted Sunnydale streets.
An hour after sunset, Jack looked up with surprise to see his mother standing over him, features composed and even. He was somewhat more surprised when she sat down next to him. "Jack?" she said, "Ethan talked to you?"
Jack looked at her, turned to look down the slope towards the shield, which was darkening as the day waned, shapes moving inside. He nodded, swallowing.
"Did he explain--"
"He said I had to shed blood," Jack said, rubbing his hands distractedly together. He looked at his mother hesitantly. "He said you'd explain it better."
His mother, studying him, nodded. With some confusion he studied her in return and saw little hesitation, little guilt - though there was worry, tamed and tamped down for later. He could tell. Fi looked the same when she was doing it.
"Did he tell you why it has to be you?" Her voice was uncharacteristically patient, and Jack realized suddenly that she was sitting straighter, more calmly, than he'd seen her in days.
"He said it had to be a blood relative of Dad's."
Again, she nodded. "Your sister volunteered, but she was vetoed."
"Well, good," he said, with emphasis.
His mother looked down the slope for a moment, taking in the shield, and the shapes moving inside. "What Ethan said is true - it has to be you, because of your dad, because you're the oldest... because you're stronger than Aunt Melinda."
Jack abruptly recognized his mother's calm as the studied detachment he'd seen in older Delegates. Helena Llwellyn, Tilia, and others - they seemed to be able to file away panic, worry, grief, all the inconvenient, unavoidable emotions that came part and parcel of a Delegate's life, shut them up until later, until it was safe to release them. He hadn't been sure at first whether the ability to suppress so efficiently were deeply unhealthy or exceedingly clever, but on reflection he'd realized that Delegates were among the healthiest people he'd ever known, emotionally and otherwise. He supposed it came from the honesty necessary among telepaths, from the way Crystallis had of blurring the lines of privacy. In any case few of the Delegates had secrets from one another, the Guardians alone, and Arreahannah in particular, being the exception. Areahannah, however, was an empath, and he'd heard Terren saying, once, that Arrah worried a great deal about losing herself among others. But she still exhibited, most of the time, that detachment common to her people; and it occurred to him, suddenly, that at some point, years ago, his mother would have been trained the same way, taught to centre and ground herself in order to function this way. The fact that she had not used this ability in intervening years was just another example of her having rejected everything to do with Circle life, even those lessons that were beneficial. For the first time in a very long time he saw, in his mother, something akin to wisdom. Right now, he knew, was not the time to wrestle old issues. There were other things to worry about; so he just listened.
She turned to look at him, supposedly gazing his reaction.
"So, it's because I'm the tastiest treat?" he asked, smirking. "I'm bait."
His mother flinched slightly, but nodded, smiling a little. "When it recognizes you, it will watch you, carefully. It won't be able to focus on anything else. And then, when you're ready..." her eyes flickered toward the shield, then back, "...brace yourself. Then you need to lower your shields, just enough for a merge."
"Lower my shields?" Jack croaked, blinking. "But--"
"When it sees you vulnerable - it's a trick, Jack. It won't hesitate. It won't be able to. Because through you, it will see the rest of us. Me, Fi, your aunt and your cousins. It doesn't think - you know that. It will come through you, instead of going after you. It will extend all of itself. It will see you as a way to the rest of us."
His mother placed a hand on his arm, steadying, strong, and oddly unfamiliar. "We'll be right behind you, Jack. It won't be able to see it, but we'll be ready for it. Waving our unprotected fannies around like flags, but ready as anything for it."
Jack stared at his feet. "And then it'll attack."
She nodded. "It'll come rushing out through you - you need to be ready for that. It'll be... unpleasant." Through her hand he felt her shudder, if only slightly.
"But when it does, it'll be defenceless - it won't see Arrah ready to shore up in front of it. She'll hold it. And that's when you strike. When you feel her join the merge, that's when you..."
Jack held up his left hand, nodding. "Why blood?" he asked, softly.
Molly looked thoughtful, then reached down to her belt, and drew something out of a scabbard at her hip. She held it, looking at it, for a moment, then held it out to him.
"This was your dad's," she said. Jack stared. It was a dagger, about eight inches long and narrow, the pommel wrapped with leather and worked in silver at the crosspiece. A flat red stone was set into the base of the hilt, about the size of his thumbnail. It looked strikingly familiar; he remembered, abruptly, finding it one day at age nine, rifling through his mother's things looking for the makings of a school project. He also remembered his mother snatching it from his hands and ordering him coldly to never, ever touch it again.
She was looking at him, now, with hesitation showing through her composure. "It's an athame. It was his mother's, and probably his grandmother's before that. Witches use them - there were always witches in your dad's family. Athames are powerful because the worker imbues his own with a part of himself."
She stared at it, then looked at him. "When the moment comes, you need to - it doesn't need to be much. Just a few drops." She turned the knife in her hand, so expertly that it surprised him, and nicked the edge of her palm, to demonstrate, not even flinching as she did so. A bright red drop of blood welled up, dark and gleaming like the jewel in the pommel of the knife. He felt, for a brief instant, in awe of his mother.
"It doesn't need to be much," she repeated. "That much will do." She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed the blood away. Then she held out the knife again, handle first. "Take it."
Jack took it, cradling it uncertainly.
"The blood... is another piece of bait. But it's a trap. It seals it to you - on your terms. It will make it vulnerable enough for us - all of us - to do what we have to do."
Jack stared at the knife, the jewel glinting in the fading sunlight. "This isn't Circle magic," he said slowly.
"No, it's not. It's arcane magic. It's what it understands. You're challenging it in its own language. And the most important thing, when you do this, is for it to believe it can beat you. Otherwise it might think."
"And ruin things," he said, nodding. "So I should be overconfident."
"As arrogant and reckless as you can project," his mother agreed.
Jack looked at her, forcing a grin. "I think I can manage that," he said.
She clasped his arm again, giving him a reassuring squeeze. "We'll be behind you, Jack," she said, and rose to her feet. "It will be all right," she added quietly. Jack watched her go with a mixture of nervousness and confusion. But now was not the time to resolve things with his mother, he reminded himself.
He looked down at the athame in his hands. For its age, it seemed well-cared-for. But for all that, it still felt, faintly, like his father. How he could remember enough of his father to know that, he wasn't quite sure.
It was not long before Ethan and Katia came to fetch him, walking him down toward the perimeter of the shield talking lightly, running him through the plan one more time, Katia surreptitiously scanning him as they did, and for once, Jack didn't protest. Finally she nodded to Ethan, and the older man gave Jack a reassuring grin.
It was very dark when they started, beginning the merge once again, in tandem instead of in unison, trying not to alert the creature of their intentions. And this time they left Jack outside it, so that he could see it, feel it, but was not a part of it. The monster had to believe him alone. All the same he felt the tenuous connection of dozens of minds - and not only those in Aislinn Park, but those he knew were linking from elsewhere; the groups stationed around the other hellmouths, the other Delegates and Guardians lending power from Crystallis. Everyone was connected to this, watching, waiting, and every one of them was focused on Jack, not linked, but watching and ready to pull him into the merge when he reached for them.
All the attention, both visible and otherwise, was unquestionably reassuring, but all the same had him almost vibrating with readiness and trepidation by the time he stood facing the crackling wall of energy that contained the monster. He stood there for a long several seconds, breathing, steadying himself, before he could think clearly again.
As Jack stepped through the shield, the merge was like a line about his waist, ready to pull him back if he stumbled, though even he knew that if he failed, there would be no second chance. The energy of the shield tingled as he passed through it, like warmth on his skin, but not exactly. A little below him, and growing, he felt it stir again, this time in recognition.
It smelled him.
He could feel that, that the way it knew him was nothing like knowledge or sentience, that this creature knew nothing of light or air or living, only what it could taste, and smell, and devour. He felt it inspecting him, at a distance, as one inspects a meal. Worse was its sense of delirious excitement, the obscene glee it felt at the idea of tearing his flesh from his body, sucking the life from him like marrow from a bone... its thoughts - if thoughts they could be called - went on in greater detail, open and displayed for him with colour and enthusiasm. Jack shuddered, swallowing back the reflex to gag, not even aware of fear so much as disgust that made every part of him recoil. It was nothing thinking, only feeling, and wanting, childlike but nothing like a child. For a split-second he thought he couldn't do it.
But then he swallowed again, steeled himself, and shaking so hard he feared dropping the knife, he lowered his shields.
The creature reacted so quickly that he staggered backwards with the force of it - distracted by the temptation of what it saw beyond him, what seemed suddenly available, it did not move, did not pounce, but reached for him, pushing out through him, slid across his unresisting thoughts, the contact making him shudder, violently, and cry out, and somewhere behind him he heard as well as felt Fiona gasp, make an abortive gesture toward him, even as he felt his mother steady her, holding her back. The monster, unabated, rushed out through them in triumph, upward, and outward, skyward, blood-mad and thirsty and free-- for a moment, until something strong and unmoving and ready met it, seized it, and held it... and then, from far away, something... else.
As they spread out around the shield - a substantially-sized one, as it contained all of Sunnydale - they were left, almost out of sight of the others, as distantly, through the tenuous merge of hundreds of minds, they felt the spell in Aislinn Park grow, and breathe, and strengthen, like a living field. Distantly Annie felt Jack steel himself as he stepped into the shield.
Annie was partnered with Jason Quade, Mina sent with the Sarases, and neither teenager spoke much as they backed slowly away from the shield. Whatever the Slayer and her friends were doing, it, too, was growing in strength as a spell was carefully crafted and fed, like a tiny fire being fed with kindling.
They stood in the shadow of a craggy cliff, a huge mass of bleached stone that thrust up out of the earth like the sun-whitened bones of some ancient beast. Jason leant against the rockface, ignoring her.
They hadn't much to do - the shield was in place, and would more or less take care of itself. It was a good thing, because Annie herself was distracted with worry for Fi and Jack and Molly; it took her a while to notice that Jason was regarding her with almost sarcastic curiosity. Finally she turned on him with annoyance. "What?"
Jason started, as if surprised she had noticed his scrutiny. "I-- nothing," he said, with a glower.
"You were staring at me," she pointed out.
"I was not," he replied, affecting a haughty tone. "look, you're supposed to be focusing on--"
"Don't tell me what to do," Annie snapped.
"I'm senior to you," he snapped back.
"And nobody put you in charge of me," she reminded him. "We're supposed to be partnered, remember?"
"So that means we're equal," she pointed out again.
He subsided with a glare, then stared fiercely at his feet. Annie sighed in frustration and concentrated, for a few minutes, on ignoring him. She wasn't quite sure why he irritated her so much - but he did. He was just so arrogant, and condescending, and...
::...and exactly like Jack was when I met him,:: Annie realized. She snuck another glance at Jason. He really was radiating the same kind of uncomprehending, simmering perpetual anger that Jack had carried around like a mantle of pride when she'd first known him. Not surprising, considering: their situations were almost exactly the same. The only difference was that Jason, she supposed, hadn't had a dozen people beating sense into him for the past two years or so, the way Jack had.
The fact that he was being so snotty about it, though, did not inspire her to overweening sympathy.
::You're supposed to be the mature one,:: she reminded herself. ::Lacking all that angsty baggage, and all. You have no excuse for tantrums.::
Not that Jason did.
She sighed again, and looked at her "partner". He was standing at slumped attention, eyes on the nearest team, some half a mile away. Laan was padding softly toward him, nose twitching curiously. As the panther shoved his nose under the boy's slack arm, Jason jumped in surprise, then looked down at the panther with a mixture of confusion and annoyance; but there was fascination mixed in there, too.
"Sorry," Annie said, moving forward to extract her curious familiar. "I think he's bored."
Jason stared at Laan, then looked up at Annie. "He's a familiar, isn't he?" he said, eyes widened a little with wonder. Familiars were not unheard of in the Circle, but generally they were smaller, less obtrusive creatures, ones that attracted less notice in the wider mundane world. Also for the most part they were, strictly speaking, more "real" than Laan, who was more spirit than substance, for all his intelligence.
Annie nodded cautiously, feeling Jason's haughty standoffishness slip in favour of boyish curiosity. "I got him when I was little - when I was living Africa. A shaman gave him to me. He's quite safe," she added, seeing Jason's hand reach tentatively out to pet the creature. At her assurance, he glanced at her, then knelt down to run his hand down the panther's silky neck. Laan arched his neck in cat-like encouragement of the attention.
"He's a manitou, too, isn't he?" Jason murmured, half to himself, now scratching behind Laan's ears at the panther's own urging.
"A-- oh, yes," Annie acknowledged. "Manitou" was a First Nations word that loosely referred to any kind of spirit creature.
"I wish I had a familiar," Jason told her, still staring at Laan as he petted him, to the panther's delight.
"Why?" Annie asked, curiously.
Jason looked up at her. "Mostly only powerful people have them - mostly they're gifts," he told her.
"He was a gift," Annie told him. "As he reminds me constantly." She grinned, and Jason returned the smile. Annie moved cautiously to sit on a boulder near Laan.
"What's his name?"
"Geur Laan," Annie told him. "Fi named him. It's Gaelic. It means--"
"'Bright Blade,'" Jason said, not looking up. "Nice."
"Right." She might have guessed that Jason would speak Gaelic - much of the Circle did. In fact the closest thing to an official language the Delegates had was an odd mix of Gaelic, Latin, and a few other tongues. It wasn't used often in conversation, but knowing it passably well was equivalent to learning Hebrew for a Bar Mitzvah. "Actually Fi just provided the translation - the name was Jack's idea."
At the mention of Jack, Jason tensed, and Annie caught a flash of resentment; not exactly focused on Jack, but present.
"What?" she demanded, trying to keep the annoyance out of her tone. Longingly she thought of the days when she could more easily compartmentalize her loyalties - then again, a few years ago she hadn't had many friends to speak of. She couldn't help that slights against the Phillipses, Jack in particular, brought her hackles up. She had felt protective towards him since the first evening they'd stood on the back porch of the house in Hope Springs and he'd admitted his anger towards his mother.
"Nothing," Jason said, ruffling Laan's ears.
"It's Molly, isn't it?" Annie observed, and saw, with some satisfaction that Jason started.
"How do you - you're not supposed to be an empath!" his tone was almost accusing.
"I'm not," she said, shrugging. "I'm just good with people. Especially when they all act alike."
"What do you mean?"
"You and Jack," she explained.
Jason scowled, but tried to hide it.
"You know, he and Molly haven't really spoken in most of a year," Annie told him. Jason looked surprised.
"Why?" he asked, simply.
"He thinks it was her fault, what happened to his dad."
Jason's brow furrowed. "Oh."
"You must think that, too," Annie said.
He stiffened, the arrogance returning. "How do you know about my family?"
Annie shrugged, refusing to rise to the challenge. "Fiona. She's friends with your sister, isn't she?"
Jason nodded, still simmering. "Fiona's okay," he allowed. "But her mom..."
Annie sighed. "Yeah, I know."
Jason blinked at her, startled by her apparent about-face. "I thought you lived with them?"
"I do," she said, shrugging again. "And I like them. I like Molly, too. But... Rick wasn't my dad. I guess I might feel differently if I'd been there, but I wasn't."
"She feels guilty, you know," she continued when Jason said nothing.
"She betrayed her oath," Jason said, in almost a snarl. "What happened after - a lot of people died. My dad died."
Annie inclined her head, studying him. "Maybe that makes it hard for you to see things clearly," she suggested.
Jason stared at her, the simmering anger fading. "You sound like my sister," he said, tone exasperated. Annie laughed.
Suddenly the ground lurched underneath them, a little, then more, like a restless animal slowly waking up. Annie and Jason looked at each other, then leapt to their feet as the town, within the shield, seemed to surge.
The hellmouth was opening.
The shaking grew steadily worse, and as the power of the spell within the shield, grappling with the thing in the ground, grew, it seemed to blot out everything else. Even the merge seemed distant and out of reach. Annie and Jason staggered as energy crackled through the air like feedback.
So neither teenager heard the warning, neither heard the adults shouting for them to run, as the ground gave one final, fitful tremor, and the rockface behind them cracked, sharply, then suddenly crumbled, the air filling with dust and choking their voices too quickly for Annie to cry out; tumbling stones struck her on the shoulder, in the small of her back, her hip, and the rockslide knocked her off her feet. Distractedly she saw Laan slinking along the ground toward her, and Jason reaching for her as, a moment later, it buried them, and the world faded abruptly away.
It was with a sudden burst of clarity that Jack realized he was not afraid, not trembling except with anger, and something purer than revenge, and he reached back for the merge with the Circle, with his sister, and his mother, and distantly, reaching, his aunt, and everyone else who shared ten generations of his blood, and forward, with his hands, for the thing that fifteen years ago, a hundred years ago, had decided his future.
Raising the knife, he brought it against his palm and reached, and reached again, further than he thought he could, feeling as if he were stretching beyond his limits, and growing thinner and thinner, until--
--time, for an instant, stopped, and for a long, endless moment, he and the monster and the darkness and the world hung there, staring, Jack the pivot upon which everything balanced--
--abruptly, and strangely, because he'd heard Fiona call it a curse, and say they were breaking it, he had not expected it to feel as if something had broken, but then, just like, exactly like a guitar string breaking, Jack, straining, suddenly felt the strain rush out through him. The ground trembled, fitfully, for a moment, and exhausted, he found himself on his knees.
Before him, the thing that had haunted his nightmares and his mother's life, the creature that had run his father to the ground and murdered him, that had destroyed so many other lives and threatened everything...
...Jack looked at it, and felt only disgust. In the light of moonrise it seemed only a pitiful, shrivelled shadow, quickly fading as the clean night rose behind him. A moment later it was nothing but ash, a dusty, defeated heap of nothing swiftly being carried away on the breeze.
And somehow, Jack felt no triumph, no victory, but only relief, and something like emptiness. It was over.
When he looked up, Fiona and his mother had their arms around him and the shield was gone. The others were cheering and embracing and shaking hands, the air was filled with their weary satisfaction, and far below them, to Jack's distant surprise, water was suddenly rushing, noisy and bubbling across the bottom of the crater, the old channels again free to follow their chosen paths, the place becoming a lake again. The water flowed faster and faster, until finally it was spraying, like a fountain, into the air, and down onto the tired Delegates, just like rain, falling from a cloudless sky.
The first thing Jack registered as he stepped out of the Gate the next morning, dirty and weary, were his cousins, barelling across the floor of the Great Hall toward him at top speed.
For several long moments he stood staring - he hadn't seen Maggie or Miranda for over a year, and although he had assumed that they would be brought to the Island during such a mission (this mission, especially), he had not expected them. His indecision kept him frozen just long enough for the twins to tackle him, laughing.
"Jack!" they cried in unison, then commenced chattering enthusiastically in tandem.
"Oh, don't be such a baby," Maggie scolded cheerfully, when he winced. "We asked Mom,"
"And she said you weren't hurt," said Miranda.
"Which is why we greeted you first," finished Maggie. "Hi, Jack!"
"Hi, brats," Jack said, a little winded, trying to get up and succeeding, finally, only through the careful application of tickling. The twins shrieked and leapt off him.
He was momentarily taken aback by their cheerful composure - Maggie and Miranda were young, it was true, but given recent events he wondered that they could be so carefree. Delegate children, he knew, lived most of their lives with the constant knowledge that life was not safe, with the everpresent subtle reminder that parents, family, and any kind of security could be pulled away at any moment.
Then again, he thought, maybe that made appreciation of the good times even more important. Certainly the adults around him seemed to be mimicking Maggie and Miranda's attitude.
He regarded his young cousins with some puzzlement for a moment; something about them seemed different, something that he could not quite place. They were dressed in traditional Circle garb, lightweight gauze-like chemises in cream and white under sleeveless tunics and jackets in green, blue, and brown, decorated in simplistic geometric patterns. Both children wore soft, laced mocassin-like boots. More often children wore traditional garb than did adults, children being more frequently contained within Circle life than adults, who spent much of their time in the outside world. Still, many adults reverted to traditional clothing when within the confines of Crystallis. Typically children dressed this way when training; the tradition of Circle clothing had evolved over millennia from the dozens of human cultures that comprised it, and for the most part it lent itself well to practical pursuits such as martial training. The vast majority of Delegate children regarded their Circle wardrobe as a source of pride; it wasn't surprising, Jack supposed, considering the lack, in Circle philosophy of many other such boasts.
Maggie and Miranda were no exception, and indeed he remembered his mother telling him that they'd recently gone through a growth spurt; he caught Maggie admiring the toe of one supposedly new boot for a moment before she looked back up at him with a grin.
Then he realized the difference - both girls were not only looking at him, but touching his shields gently, in the waiting, attentive (albeit ever so slightly overzealous) mental posture associated with the young and Gifted.
"Wait. You two have--"
"Manifested!" chorused both girls joyfully, Miranda doing a little twirl, and Maggie clenching her fists before her with excitement. Jack wasn't sure if he'd imagined it or not, but he could have sworn that a slight breeze whooshed past them as Miranda twirled.
"Last night!" said Maggie, looking at her sister.
"Mom woke us up and shielded us, and then--" agreed Miranda enthusiastically,
"--and we could feel something sort of pushing from outside, which was impossible, 'cause we were in the Fortress, so obviously that couldn't happen--"
"--but she said the monster was trying to find us so she told us to concentrate on being closed off, and she said that even if we weren't gifted we could still shield a little--"
"--and so we pushed out and then there was this sort of roaring and then there was a really big roar, and then all of a sudden there was all this noise--"
"--and then the shield just sort of jumped up out of nowhere and then Mom looked at us and she said--"
"--she said 'Girls!' and she looked scared and surprised but really, really happy--"
"--and then she passed out. And that was scary, but--"
"--but when she woke up all the other moms and dads were sort of pushed in next to us and she looked at us and she started crying and said she was really, really proud--"
"--and now we're not Hums anymore!" finished Miranda, in a pitch that had just about exceeded Jack's ability to hear it, and paused for breath while Jack looked from one another in surprise.
"You... manifested," he said.
"Yup!" they affirmed, in unison.
"Last night," he said.
Both girls nodded so hard he thought their heads might snap off and roll away across the marble floor.
"While we were... oh. Wow." He shook his head.
Maggie looked puzzled. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." He grinned. "Just thinking how there's absolutely no doubt that you two are related to my sister, is all."
"Come on, Jack," Miranda said then, pulling on one hand while Maggie took charge of the other. "Mom wanted you and Auntie Molly to come up to our rooms as soon as you got here."
Jack looked up to see his mother already being led down the hallway that led to private quarters by a pair of garb-clad boys Jack didn't recognise, but who looked about eight and Jack could only assume had assigned themselved impromptu pages.
Jack allowed himself to be led, and they were halfway to the stairs before something Maggie had said earlier finally registered. "Uh, Maggie," he said hesitantly, his jubilant and triumphant mood fading, "You said you asked your Mom and she said I wasn't hurt?"
"Yup," Maggie said, nodding and sending her sister a strange look. "We didn't want to jump on you if you had broken bones, or something. We're not stupid, you know," she said, grinning, though the expression held a trifle less cheer than it had a few minutes ago.
"Did she tell you anything else? Is everyone else..."
Maggie and Miranda slowed - so slightly that if he were not accustomed to children of such clever and resourceful (and sometimes downright manipulative) natures, he might not have caught it (and sensing the faint change in their moods helped) - and looked at each other again, then looked up at him.
"Oh," said Maggie, more soberly, which sent Jack's stomach plummetting pre-emptively southwards.
::They wouldn't have been told first, if it were anything serious,:: a little voice in his head reminded him sternly.
"Nobody told you?" Miranda said, not letting go of his hand.
"Tell me what happened," he said firmly, willing himself to remain calm, and wondering that he managed.
Sunnydale had ceased to exist.
What had been a small town, relegated to suburbian mundanity - with the notable exception of more resident vampires, per capita, than any other town in the continental United States - was now a rubble-filled crater, the Wal-Mart sign still faintly visible from the edge, nearly a mile above. The crater was a perfect circle, and neither the Delegates ringing the crater or the small troupe of Sunnydale natives now winging their way South along the interstate could have said whether that was as a result of the witch's spell, or because of the shield the Delegates had set to protect the surrounding countryside.
At the moment, however, none of them were paying much attention to the unsettling symmetry of the disaster.
"Mina, wait for us!" shouted Alan Saras, pushing dark-rimmed glasses distractedly up his nose as the panicked teenager quickened her steps, outdistancing he and Trisha. Finally Trisha broke into a run to catch up.
"I can't wait!" Mina called back, voice high and urgent. "He's hurt, and he's not answering me."
At the climax of the spell, as the witches in Sunnydale had completed their work and the hellmouth, half-open, had surged with something like frustration, the ground had begun to shake, creating a quake that had thrown most of them off their feet. It had also collapsed a rockface at the north side of the town, near the place where Annie Thelen and Jason Quade, Mina's brother, had been standing.
The others had tried to warn them, that the quake was travelling along the ground, that the rockface was unstable - but the magic heavy in the air, the energy being drawn to and released from the shield and the hellmouth, had combined to make communication at that distance impossible. They had all watched helplessly as the cliff vanished in a plume of dust. There had been a burst of terror and surprise from both teenagers, and then - nothing.
Now Delegates were converging on the spot, Mina leading the group. She didn't wait for Trisha and Alan, but sprinted on ahead. She reached the spot first, and stood frozen in terror as the others reached her. Before her was a pile of of broken stone and dust, and no sign of Annie or her brother.
She had her eyes closed and was straining, once more, to reach him, when a hand fell on her shoulder. It was Helena.
"I can't hear him," Mina said desperately, moving forward, but Helena held her back, gently.
"Mina - is he alive?" the older woman asked, eyes calm.
Mina bit her lip, nodded.
"Then he may be merely unconscious," Helena said, turning as the others clustered around them, Chayson at the forefront. Next to him, one hand on his shoulder as if being led, Jeri wore a look of abstracted concentration, face turned toward the rubble.
"They're definitely alive," she said softly, eyes unfocused. "But they're out - and there's a lot of rock on top of them," she snapped back into focus and shuddered, looking at Mina, who tried to take Jeri's words as reassurance. Among her other gifts Jeri also had Healing abilities - nothing compared to Katia, but she was skilled and also possessed a powerful, if not always consistent, prescience. She got her strongest visions in debilitating, seizure-like attacks - but her "feelings" about things were generally reliable.
Jeri did not seem to be panicking. Mina, therefore, took a deep breath - as deep as she could manage in the dust-choked air - and forced herself to be calm.
"Ideas?" Chayson asked briskly, looking around at the assembled Delegates.
"Are there enough strong TKs among us to lift it?" asked Alan Saras.
"Everyone who can lift more than twenty kilos raise your hand," Chayson said.
Andrew Llwellyn raised his hand. No others came up after it. "And I can't do it myself," he pointed out. "I'd get halfway into the pile and run out of juice."
"There goes that idea," Chayson said, sighing.
"Megan?" Helena said, looking at her niece, who gave the rockpile a speculative look, and shook her head, slowly. "I couldn't possibly carry them out," she admitted. Megan Llwellyn was in her mid-thirties, but a hair under five feet tall. Her primary gift was an ability to phase herself, and others, through solid objects. "Maybe Annie," she said, "But she'd be dead weight, unconscious, and Jason outmasses me by a good ten kilos, at least."
"And there's no way I can teleport them," Chayson finished, shaking his head. "I can't touch them, and even if Megan got me within touching distance, I can't do it phased."
"I guess that leaves us the old-fashioned way," Victoria Llwellyn said, rolling up her sleeves, twisting her wild, curly black hair into an untidy topknot, and starting forward.
Mina felt a rush of gratitude toward her old friend, and followed, dropping her jacket on the ground behind her.
Some fifteen minutes later, Trisha, digging furiously with both hands, called out that she'd found an arm, and the others converged on that spot. Slowly they uncovered the prone forms of Annie and Jason, and lying between them, paws over his ears, was Laan, so covered in dust that he looked yellow. The panther looked cautiously up at the rescue party, drew himself up into a sitting position with great dignity, and then sneezed. And sneezed again. Then he turned to nosing, gently, at Annie's unconscious face, making mewing noises more suited to a housecat than the huge jungle cat he was. Helena gently shooed him away; Laan subsided with a low rumble, and padded over to sit a few feet away, watching the proceedings intently with his tail curled around his paws.
They carefully extracted Annie and Jason from the rubble, and then Mina crouched over her brother as Jeri checked them both for injuries.
"They've both got concussions; I can't tell how severe," she said. "No spinal cord injuries, but there are broken bones - neither of them's going to be walking to the Gate."
There ensued a five-minute debate on whether or not the others should put them on pallets and take them back to the Gate on foot. Mina bent over Jason, still trying to reach him, but he was still unconscious; as was Annie, when she checked. Victoria came to crouch next to her.
"Are you up to the hike, if they go for option B?" she asked, and Mina frowned, shaking her head.
"I should stay with them," she said.
"Are you okay?" Victoria asked, frowning, herself, then the frown deepened.
"It is not your fault," she said firmly. Mina started; Victoria must have caught the fleeting edge of her thoughts.
She didn't look up from Jason's still face. "Chayson only re-assigned her because I made her go back into town," she muttered. "It was stupid, Vicky. If we hadn't, we would have been on the other side of the crater, and Jason would have been with your mum."
"Mina," Victoria said, her voice pitched uncannily like her mother's; practical and no-nonsense. "You heard Jeri. They'll get them back to the Island and Kay will see them and they'll be fine."
"I know," Mina acknowledged, softly. "It's just scary, Vicky." She wiped the dust from Jason's face with the edge of her sleeve. "I'm supposed to take care of him."
Vicky put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.
"All right," said Chayson as the debate dispersed. "I won't be long." He straightened, stepped back from the others a few steps, and vanished in a flash of violet light.
Mina looked up at Jeri and Helena, who were bent in conference. "What's going on?"
"He's going to get a couple more strong teleporters and send them back here, Mina," Jeri said, smiling reassuringly. "It won't be long. Then we can follow them back through the Gate." Few Delegates aside from the Guardians could teleport, and even the Eight tired quickly. Chayson was among the strongest, but even he didn't 'port outside emergencies. The fact that they were resorting to it now did nothing to shore up Mina's certainty that everything was fine.
"It's just a precaution, Mina," Victoria reminded her. "Protocol. You know that."
Mina nodded uncertainly. She did know - knew that if it were really urgently serious, if their lives were in immediate danger (providing Sunnydale weren't now a crater and the site of the disaster attracting a suspicious lack of emergency vehicles), that they would have resorted to civilian hospitals. And she knew that in this life, people got hurt. She knew that Jason knew that - that Annie probably did, too.
None of that made her feel any better.
Jack found his aunt reclining at her ease in the large, windowed and balconied chamber known as the sunroom. She was not alone; she was surrounded by half a dozen school-age children, several cradling infants or playing with toddlers. Probably their parents had been out in the field, with the shielding teams - and it occurred to Jack suddenly, with a jolt that passed quickly, that many of their parents might not be coming back, at all. He'd been told, as they left Aislinn Park in the early hours of the morning, that eleven Delegates had died in the previous night.
Next to his aunt was his mother, who was smiling in a very quiet way, head bowed slightly. Jack was careful not to look at her as Melinda noticed him.
"Jack!" she greeted, holding out her arms to hug him. Jack submitted to the embrace with only a twinge of hesitation, most of that from the corresponding twinge in his lower back. He hadn't really realized it, but now that the adrenaline was fading, he was aching all over. His aunt saw it, and gave him a chiding look. "Have you been checked over by a Healer?" she asked, one eyebrow raised.
Almost by reflex, he sent a pleading look in his mother's direction; his mother half-smiled and shook her head. "Katia checked everyone before we came back," she said.
"I don't know," Melinda said dubiously. "He flinched. I saw him."
"I'm just sore," Jack said, "Not hurt."
"We checked," added Miranda, grinning.
Melinda regarded her daughters mock-critically. "Well, then he must be fine, given your method of checking," she said. Both girls giggled.
A chorus of corresponding giggles rose from the assembled room of children, and Melinda craned her neck to see why; Jack turned to see two of the older children leading a tottering toddler carefully across the floor, to the delight of her older brother.
Melinda sighed and reached for an empty mug at her elbow. Peering inside, she heaved herself to her feet. "Can you take over for me, Molly?" she asked, indicating the room full of children. "I need more coffee."
Molly nodded, settling herself in the seat her sister in-law had abandoned. Melinda started for the door, looking back as she reached it. "Walk me to the kitchen, Jack?"
Jack blinked in puzzlement, and with a look back over his shoulder at his mother, who shrugged, followed.
The architecture of the Island was a baffling hodge-podge of several thousand different years of styles, and the common kitchen was no exception. The big room had been converted, fifty years ago or so, into kitchen, by way of wiring and counters and a big, rectangular table in the middle that was mostly used for baking during large gatherings. The newest additions reflected a 1950s sort of flair, speckled formica and all, though the appliances were mostly less than five years old, probably for the sake of efficiency; Crystallis's electricity came mostly from solar and wind-powered generators, and although the technology had undergone a great deal of advancment in the past decade or so, thanks to the technology standards projects instituted by the Union in its own first decade, out here, isolated as they were, it was still prudent to use as little as possible.
Melinda reached for the coffee pot just as rain began spattering against the bubbly glass panes of the wide, Victorian-style windows that took up half the East wall. Jack took it as a good sign, though couldn't be sure exactly why.
"Aunt Melinda," Jack said, watching his aunt add cream and honey to her coffee mug. "Maggie and Miranda... they said..."
Melinda looked up at him, spoon turning in the cup of its own accord, and Jack took it as a sign of personal growth that this did not even make him flinch. "Yes, dear?"
"I heard people were hurt... in Sunnydale." Jack wasn't sure how, but he had gone from distantly calm to rigidly terrified in the space of about four seconds.
This was not helped by the way his aunt froze, and turned to look at him very carefully. "What did you hear?"
"Nothing." He shrugged. "They told us, before they came back, that eleven people died... last night."
Melinda sighed, shoulders drooping in relief. "Oh, Jack. You had me worried you'd heard something I hadn't. She was hurt, but Annie's fine, honey." She squeezed his upper arm, then, shaking her head, reached for her coffee. The cup was white with a leaf pattern and the words "Oregon Shakespeare Festival" blazoned across the side. He started at the mention of Annie's name, not aware until just that moment how worried he had been - how the thought had been lurking at the back of his mind for the past hour and a half.
"I must seem unforgivably morbid to you, mustn't I? Smiling and making jokes," Melinda said, shaking her head again. "I'm sorry, dear. Eleven must sound like a lot - but relatively speaking... we got off easy." She patted his arm again. "We learn to be grateful," she added.
Jack took a deep breath, steadying himself, trying to stay awake - he suddenly felt very, very tired.
Melinda crossed the kitchen, sagged into a wooden chair next to the table. "Come here, Jack," she said, patting the chair next to her.
Jack crossed the flagstoned floor and sat down next to her. "I wanted to talk to you," his aunt said. "I wanted to tell you how proud of you I am."
Jack blinked at her in surprise. "You..."
Melinda smiled at him. "We all are. Your mother especially, though I don't think she's quite up to saying it, yet."
Jack didn't answer. Mention of his mother in this context still woke in him a tide of accusation; his aunt must have sensed it, because she tilted her head at him quizzically. "It's understandable, sweetheart."
"You're still angry," Melinda said simply, and Jack opened his mouth to reply, but his aunt stopped him with a finger to his lips. "I know she never talked to you," she said. "That was a mistake; she made a great many mistakes. She knows that, dear. She hasn't said so because she is where you get your stubbornness."
Jack, again, said nothing, only stared sullenly.
"Oh, your father was plenty stubborn, too - if he hadn't been, he would quite possibly still be alive."
She sent him an apologetic look as he started, staring at her, blurted: "He'd still be alive if Mom hadn't--"
Melinda shook her head, cutting him off again. "Sweetheart, I loved your father dearly - he was my big brother. He was senior in our family. We deferred to him. But what he did that night was foolish, and if our mother had been alive, she would have tied him to a chair rather than let him go. Unfortunately Arrah didn't have that luxury..." she shook her head, staring into space. "Imagine - she was such a little girl at the time. Your father knew his duty, he listened to her as much as he helped her; but I think that when the moment came and she told him to wait - he decided to think of her a child. Because you were his child, because you and Fiona were in danger, and... he didn't think. He couldn't think." She shook her head again, this time sadly. "In his mind, there was no choice."
Jack stared at his feet. "There are some bonds even duty can't change," Melinda said. "Between the Way and his children - at that moment it was only a choice of which could spare him better."
"Mom came last," Jack murmured.
"Of three? Yes. But she knew that, Jack," she reminded him.
He shook his head. "Fi says she never really did."
Jack looked up to see his aunt looking thoughtful. "That's probably true," she said. "Your mother... she loved your father, so much. They were... you've seen Areahannah and Terren together?" Jack nodded. "Like that. From the moment they met. Our mother saw it."
"That's why she gave them those rings."
Melinda nodded. "She was so in love with him... yes, maybe she was blinded, a little. She felt it - I know she felt it, felt the meadhon, felt what it meant to him... but Molly... I don't think she'd had that in her life before. Nothing even close. Not that much comes close." His aunt smiled fondly. "Most of us are lucky enough that we don't have to learn it. We're just born to it. It's harder for Adoptees, especially ones like your mom. She'd been so unhappy, and then she met your dad, and suddenly there was this whole other world... but... no. I'm not sure she ever really understood it."
She sipped from her mug. "She wasn't used to it. She still thought of it, I think, as... religion, or something similar. That didn't really apply to real life. The first time she saw him in danger... it frightened her. I remember, because Rick had me bring her back here. She just grew more and more frightened." Melinda shook her head. "We'd had peace for so long... if things hadn't happened the way they did, when they did, I think she'd have adapted."
"Did it bother Dad?" Jack asked, quietly.
"I think he hoped - no, he believed she'd manage, eventually. He kept saying that all she needed was time. She loved this life so much, after all... even if she didn't really comprehend it right away. She does now, though."
Jack looked at her skeptically, but then suddenly remembered his mother, the previous evening, the look on her face, the composed calm, the sense of purpose... he reached for the athame on his belt, held it in his hands. Melinda made a little noise of wonder. "I wasn't sure she'd have kept that," she said, tone sad and happy all at once. "I'm glad she did. It was our mother's."
Jack weighed it in his hand. "I guess it should go to Fi."
He looked up to see his aunt regarding him thoughtfully. "Traditionally it goes to daughters - your dad got it first because he had children first. But... you keep it. I'm sure Fi won't mind. In any case, you've blooded it. It's yours now, anyway."
They were both silent for a moment, listening to the rain spattering against the window. Then Jack looked at his aunt again. "You said... Mom loved this life."
Melinda smiled. "It was a grand adventure for her at first, Jack," she told him. "She was seventeen when he brought her here, the first time. She glowed every time she came." The smile turned warmer. "When you were born - I don't know which one of them was more proud. Your mother... I think she was in a state of delirium, emotionally, for a solid week. When they brought you - well, you've seen us with new babies."
Jack smiled and ducked his head. The event of a new child, a new "family" member, meant a solid week of celebration and sleeplessness - not for the child, who invariably spent the time being cradled, cuddled, and swaddled by any one of a dozen new family members, godparents, quasi-siblings, and others, while everyone else surrounded them, talking, greeting, and generally filling the place with welcome and goodwill and... Jack could almost, if he tried, locate in the muddled collection of memories from early childhood the feeling, if not the event, of being surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of welcoming, warm and loving minds. Though he had difficulty imagining his mother, much younger, flushed with praise and happiness.
Melinda, grinning for a moment, provided him the image willingly.
"Your father was so proud, Jack," she said. "He was so... *happy*. Happy that there was something of him in the world that would go on, even without him. Happy he could teach you the things that he cared about." Her voice was soft, a little distant, warm with nostalgia. "That's what children are about, I suppose. Passing on the best parts of yourself. He'd be so proud of you, Jack. I can't even tell you how much."
Jack was startled into looking at her, his vision blurred slightly because of the tears in his eyes. He swiped them away quickly. "I keep thinking I wish he'd been there," he whispered.
Melinda smiled again. "Oh, sweetheart - he loved you so much. But it's all right to be angry with him. It's as fair as being angry with your mother."
"He knew, didn't he?" Jack asked, voice hoarse. "When he left that night. He knew he was going to die."
His aunt sighed. "Oh, honey - I've never been a prescient. Neither was he. But he knew he might. He accepted the possibility. We all do," she placed a hand on his shoulder, looked very seriously into his eyes, "we all do. Even if he hadn't, that night - even if he'd lived to this day... in a lot of ways, dying young is the same as accepting that you might, very well. The difference is hesitation - if you fear it, if you resent it, it ruins what time you have. He never hesitated."
"Neither has Fiona," Jack said.
"No," Melinda said, her tone, this time, unreadable. "she hasn't."
"But I'll tell you a secret," Melinda said, a moment later. "Until I was about ten years old, it scared the hell out of me."
Jack looked up, found her grinning. "I got over it," she added, "when I manifested, and came here with my eyes and ears open."
"You got over it," Jack repeated, and his aunt nodded, clasping his hand around the handle of the dagger. He remembered, a year ago, his first glimpse of Arrah, with the walls around his mind finally gone. Slowly, he smiled, if only a little.
"Yeah," he said. "Me too."
Annie awoke less than half an hour after her whirlwind trip back to the infirmary, and was deeply regretful at having slept through her first teleport. The regret fled quickly when the headache from her concussion made itself known, and she'd laid with her eyes tightly shut and her arm flung across her face until Katia finally laid gentle fingers against her temples and quickly made the pain a distant memory.
Annie's right leg was broken, in two places, and aside from a few scrapes and bruises, she was otherwise unharmed. Jason had escaped unscathed except for a few cracked ribs and a hairline fracture in his left forearm.
Katia - with the help of her chief assistant, a young man named Kellin Brody - was able to heal most of their minor injuries, but broken bones took more than a few minutes to heal, and as it turned out, they would have to wait until later. She splinted and bandaged Jason's arm, and set Annie's leg to heal the old-fashioned way; a temporary measure, she assured Annie, until she could get back to it. Annie remained astonished at the speed with which the pain in her head had been defeated; she still wasn't used to Healers and just how quickly they could work. Although Katia also assured her that Healing or not, her leg was going to be out of service for a few weeks, at least.
It was nearly evening again before everyone coming arrived back at the Island, and Annie and Jason were temporarily discharged from the infirmary - with strict orders that they *were* to spend the night there, "just in case" - only because they were stable, if not exactly ambulatory, and the infirmary was beginning to overflow with the injured among the returning Delegates.
Privately Annie suspected that Katia just didn't want them there when they started bringing back the bodies of those who had not been so lucky as to survive the night. Eleven, she'd been told, was a low number for a mission on this scale.
Still, she shuddered to think about it. Eleven.
Matt having vanished into the ether, Katia assigned Mina "bodyguard" (to Jason's great chagrin) and loaded Annie into a wheelchair that she was "not, under any circumstances, to attempt to vacate". Katia had delivered this strict prescription while somehow managing to level a glare on all three of them at once. Annie and Jason had cringed appropriately on their way out; Mina, on the other hand, seemed to take the order as a holy mandate and walked out with her head held high, pacing her brother and pushing Annie in the chair.
"She's enjoying this way, way too much," Jason muttered to Annie as they left the infirmary.
Mina made a face at him and turned Annie's chair in the direction of the private quarters. Annie looked back at her. "Where are we going?"
"Well, since Fi has vanished - presumably with Matt and Belle - I figured I'd lend you a change of clothes."
Annie looked down at herself and agreed; her clothes were coated in dust and torn in several places. "Thanks," she said.
"Besides," said Mina, grinning, "You'll want to dress up a little for tonight."
Annie blinked, then stared up at her friend. "'Tonight?'"
Brother and sister shared a look full of anticipation. "Night after a big mission," Jason said.
"Party," Mina finished, grinning again. With a whoop, she broke into a run, then rode the back of Annie's chair as they sped down the corridor, Jason struggling to keep up.
The celebration that took place in the well-titled Big Room that night rivalled any Jack had ever attended. The room was almost the size of the Great Hall, which was fortunate because almost as many people were squeezed into it.
In reality Jack knew that there were probably only a hundred or so people here, but the jubilant mood that prevailed made the place seem fuller than it was. Jack stood a few minutes in the doorway, watching and wondering that the night before could even have happened. Delegates crowded each other familiarly, laughing, drinking, and half-watching the impromptu show holding forth on the low stage at one end of the room, that had probably originally been meant for other purposes, but was serving its new destiny well. At the moment a group of Delegate children ranging from seven to twelve were cheerfully rendering "When Irish Eyes are Smiling", with varying degrees of skill. But the parents and other Delegates clustered around the stage were enjoying it to the hilt, regardless. The children were playing to a chorus of cheers and applause, even when - or especially when - they faltered.
Jack drifted into the room slowly, stepping around people standing, sitting, or sprawling in groups of varying size, on divans, cushions, or the bare carpet. He made his way toward the opposite corner, where in a window seat, Annie and Jason Quade, under Mina's watchful eye, were being regaled by oldsters and fawned over by children. Their "adventure" of the previous day had had several hours to percolate among the Delegates, and they were the centre of attention. They were also being plied with food and drink and dessert, which as far as Jack could tell, the younger children were competing to give them. As Jack approached he heard Arthur Brody telling both teenagers about "the time Rick and I sprung a rather potent artifact right out from under the British Museum's nose," to Jason's great amusement. Annie was laughing hard enough that she couldn't really speak much. But the story ended as she looked up and sighted Jack, motioning him closer.
"I haven't seen you all day," she said, faintly accusing, but smiling, and reached for him as he threaded his way through three layers of surrounding people to reach her. She reached up and grabbed his hand.
"They wouldn't let me in to see you until this afternoon, and then you were already gone..." he said.
"The infirmary got crowded, so Katia let us out," Jason told him, oddly cheerful considering Jason's usual distant scorn towards him. "We still have to go back later, though," he said, scowling, but was quickly distracted by the enthusiastic chatter of a younger girl to his right.
Annie smiled beatifically up at him. "I'm glad you're here, Jack." She sipped from a mug that someone handed her without even looking, then sputtered, coughed, and laughed. "That'll teach me," she said. "Everyone's talking about you." She gave his arm a tug, causing him to overbalance and plop down onto the cushions next to her. He noticed a wheelchair folded and tucked under the seat, and Annie's leg, enclosed in a polyfoam cast, propped up on a stack of pillows half as tall as she was. She must have noticed him looking, because she patted his arm.
"It's just broken," she assured him. "Katia says a few weeks, at least, but if this is the treatment I get 'til then, I think I can stand it."
Jack laughed, surprising himself. The cast was covered in writing, already, though she couldn't have been out of the infirmary more than a few hours. "You have fans, I see," he said, and she laughed.
"Look at what Fi drew," she said, pointing. Jack bent down, peering: his sister had drawn the road-side symbol that meant "watch out for falling rocks".
"Where is Fi, anyway?" he asked, and Annie pointed. Jack craned his neck; Fi was ensconced at a map-covered corner table with Matt and Beilenya, surrounded by half a dozen adult Delegates who seemed to be doing little more than nodding at odd intervals, given their inability to get a word in edgewise, between Fi and Matt talking animatedly and Belle interjecting enthusiastically every few seconds.
"They've been there for at least an hour," Annie said. "Plotting, or so I'm told. Something to do with Sunnydale."
Whatever they were doing, Jack decided, they were certainly enjoying themselves.
As was his mother, he noticed with some surprise, as she passed him, spinning; the music had picked up into a lively reel and many of the adults and no few of the teenagers and children were dancing. His mother was being jigged enthusiastically across the room by first Terren Kurk, then a man Jack knew, distantly, as Ben Carlton, and then a tall, smiling black man Jack had not met directly but knew vaguely to be a member of the King family. In any case she was, most definitely, enjoying herself. She was as flushed and laughing with elation as Jack remembered seeing her, in his aunt's mind, on the day of his birth.
Something niggled, at the back of his mind, then - a reminder that not all was settled. For the moment, however, he was content to sit with Annie and Jason and watch the celebration, drinking in the warmth and togetherness of the room and wondering how he could ever have thought ill of these people, how he could ever think he could live without them.
A few minutes later someone on the stage called out a demand that Molly give them a song; Molly demurred, unconvincingly, until a press of friendly hands all but carried her up to the stage. She was hoisted up to the microphone, and laughed a moment before she finally acquiesced.
"All right," she agreed, still laughing. "But only on the condition that my daughters get up here and join me.
"Oh, no," Annie giggled, as eyes turned to Fiona and Kellin Brody muscled his way through the crowd to scoop Annie up and hand her up to the stage. Jack watched Annie balance herself on Molly's shoulder as Fiona whispered in her mother's ear. Molly smiled, produced a guitar from somewhere behind her, and nodded.
As the opening bars of "One in a Million" sounded, harmonized by a bass guitar, a set of Northumbrian pipes, and half a dozen flutes, whistles, and at least two bodhrans, Jack leaned back into the cushions and took a deep, relaxed breath.
Halfway through the song, he became aware of someone standing over him; and when he finally looked up, he was surprised, because not only hadn't he felt her approach, but neither had anyone seemed to notice her presence. Arrah, at the moment, he realized then, seemed to give the impression of being just one more Delegate, looking a little tired, but unremarkable among the others.
He decided it was a matter of situation, and realized, with sudden clarity, that Areahannah had the rather disconcerting ability to be two different people. One was the commanding, inspiring figure that led them - the other was the girl now standing over him, smiling.
"Feeling better?" she asked, tucking a strand of hair behind one ear.
"Much," he acknowledged, after a moment. He spent a moment longer wondering at the difference, then nodded, as if to confirm it. "Is this... standard?" he asked, gesturing to encompass the entire room. She followed the gesture, then laughed, easily.
"More or less," she admitted, "we tend to take the good times when we can get them."
"Yeah," he said. "That's what my aunt said. But when does anybody ever sleep?"
Areahannah laughed. "When they get tired," she said. "But I expect the mood will keep them awake for hours, yet."
Jack was shaking his head in some wonderment, still grinning, when she tilted her head in his direction, as if asking a question. "Come for a walk with me, Jack?" she asked.
Jack tore his eyes away from his mother and sister and Annie, up on the stage, to look at Areahannah's face, half-afraid to see some grim expression there, but there was only gentle questioning. "Uh... sure," he said, and standing, followed her out onto the wide balcony adjoining the room.
Outside the moonlight was bright and almost tangible, lighting on the carved stone surfaces of the balcony, the benches, the plants in boxes along the wall, bright and white and solid. He almost felt he could reach out and touch it and his fingers would come away white. It was a suiting counterpoint to the celebrations inside, its warm yellow light spilling out onto the cobbles.
"I mostly wanted to tell you what Fiona and Matt are planning," she told him, setting her elbows against the carven railing on the edge wall.
"Oh - it's something to do with Sunnydale, isn't it?" he said. She nodded.
"We're sending a... I suppose appropriately, a delegation."
Jack laughed; she smiled in response. "You know about the Schism," she began, and he nodded an affirmative. "Well, Matt and Fiona have proposed we invite them back."
"What - the Watchers?" Jack said, surprised. "I thought they didn't much like... us." He blinked, surprised at the feeling that including himself, now, felt right.
Areahannah shrugged. "That was a long time ago," she said. "Many thousands of years. And there aren't many of them left, now. We also intend to invite the Slayers to join us. I'm sure you know they can be a lot more effective with our resources."
"Yeah," he said. "I guess that makes sense."
"Matt's going, of course - it seemed wiser not to send a Guardian right away; we don't want to give the impression we're trying to pressure them. But we have to send some Delegates with him, and since Fi has done at least half the planning for this grand scheme of theirs, Belle thought she and you should be the ones to represent the Families."
Jack gaped at her. "You want - you want me to go?" Going on a mission with a team of experienced adults was one thing - sending Fi, he understood. But he, himself, in what sounded like a position of actual responsibility? He wasn't sure if he were terrified by the prospect, proud that they proposed to trust him with it, or a combination of both.
Arrah was smiling at him, and Jack thought he spied a hint of amusement at his shock in her expression. "It's a big job," she confirmed. "Probably quite safe, but not necessarily easy. The Slayer is known to be rather... stubborn. Of course most of the negotiations will focus on her Watcher, Mr. Giles."
"I thought the Slayer was... Buffy Summers?" She nodded. "I thought she was the one who led the attack on the Hellmouth...?"
Again, Arrah nodded. "She was. But after last night... whatever they did seems to have redistributed their power."
"What does that mean?"
She looked distant, thoughtful. "Well, before, there was one Slayer. Dozens, hundreds of Potentials." Jack nodded. "Now it seems that the Potentials are all... Slayers."
"That sounds sort of dangerous," Jack observed. She shrugged.
"Not much more dangerous than the thousands of young mutants that manifest by surprise," Areahannah observed. "There are Watchers we know are level-headed, that we know we can trust, who will listen when we offer them this; resources, alliance - the Potentials will mostly follow them. And if we link the Slayer magic to the meadhon... it will be better for everyone."
"What about the Slayer, though?" he asked, referring to Buffy Summers.
Areahannah sighed. "I expect she'll object," she said tiredly, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "But if we manage to convince Giles, there will be very little she can do about it. The worst that can happen is that she refuses to have any part of us, and from what I'm told, I'd rather deal with Rupert Giles than Buffy Summers."
Jack saw the long-suffering look on her face, and couldn't help but laugh. "I'm sorry," he said.
She shook her head, smiling. "You've earned the right to laugh at my whining," she said. "Your dad always did."
Her expression sobered a little, then, as if realizing having said something she shouldn't. "No," he said. "It's okay. I'm... I'm okay with it... with Dad."
Arrah's face was even funnier, then, blank with surprise for a moment before she smiled again. "I'm glad," she said, then: "I miss him, especially at times like this."
"Me, too," he echoed.
He turned to see her looking at him with uncertainty. "I just can't remember if I ever told you that I was sorry."
Jack stared at her, shook his head. "I can't remember either," he told her, "but you don't need to."
She tilted her head, a faintly puzzled smile on her face. Then she turned her head; Jack followed her gaze. The sea was calm, and he could hear the tide coming in, far below. "My father died when I was eighteen," she said quietly. "I mean, my adopted father. I never knew my real father."
"I'm sorry," he began, but she waved her hand in dismissal.
"It was a long time ago," she said. "But... I wasn't there. When he died. I was here." She shook her head. "I missed it. That was the first time I wanted to find you."
She tucked hair behind her ear again. "The last thing your mother said to me, after he died... she said 'you took him away from me.'" She sighed. "My father was murdered. I remembered thinking the same thing about the people that killed him."
"At Freedom Square."
That sounded familiar; Jack rifled his memory until it surrendered what he was looking for. "Your father was Peter MacPine," he said with surprise.
Her face, for a moment, transformed. She smiled, and almost glowed with pride as she said: "Yes." Then she turned to him, with some surprise of her own. "I wasn't sure you'd have heard of him. I thought the Stateside news services went out of their way to keep the Hype riots outside the borders."
"Well, I didn't--" he shrugged. "I mean, they did. Until a few years ago I didn't keep up with much, and when I started paying attention I noticed how hard it was..."
"...which of course made you all the more eager to find out all you possibly could," Areahannah finished, smiling.
"...yeah, sort of," Jack said, shrugging. "It's sort of a hobby. But even in the States it's hard not not to know Peter MacPine. He's probably the second most famous Canadian ever."
"The first being Fiona MacLeod?" She smiled again, and this time the smile was a little more sad than proud. "I spent my childhood on picket lines," she said. "He was so crucial to making me everything I am; everything I believe, everything I ever fought for, I could not have done without him. After he died I only felt angry - and then I felt guilty. Later I felt... I don't know. Grateful."
"To both of them. My father, and yours."
"You said that before," he said after a moment. "That you were grateful to him. That he helped you."
"He did," she said. "I was a child when I came here, Jack. I understood it, but I had no idea what I was doing, and it was... frightening."
"Why frightening?" he asked, actually curious.
"Because of what it means to them - what I meant to them. Believe it or not, it can be rather intimidating." She grew serious, for a moment. "Terrifying, actually. I had had people die for me, before - but never with so little hesitation."
"Dad never hesitated." She looked at him with some surprise. "Aunt Melinda said," he explained. He frowned. "So did you just... get used to it?"
"No... not exactly," she said. "I simply... came to understand them. It came to make sense to me. That was your father's doing."
She was quiet a moment, as if thinking how to phrase something. He saved her the trouble.
"You mean... when he died."
She almost started, but seemed to stop herself. She looked at him, with an expression that was half fascination, half accusation. "It is sometimes disturbing just how much you remind me of your father," she said slowly. "Not often, but when it does happen it's always as if you planned it." She raised an eyebrow at him and smiled very faintly. "Storing up all that directness and saving it for a special occasion, or something." She shook her head and turned her face back to the sea.
"I used to wonder... if I had to, if I could do that. If I could... sacrifice myself, like that. And I used be afraid that maybe, when the time came - and after a while, I became sure that it was 'when', not 'if' - I'd be afraid... unable to do it. Most of all I was afraid of people dying for me. Of them giving everything for me and then finding I wasn't what they thought I was - that I'd fail them. That I was a fraud. But... they never doubted me. I wondered sometimes if they knew something I didn't, but mostly I just thought they'd got the wrong girl." She sighed. "And then he died."
She was quiet for a moment, then said: "All the explaining in the world didn't do it, Jack. But that's when I understood."
"What I was." She shrugged. "Why. That if it came to it, I could do the same thing. If I had to." She placed a hand on his arm. "Without your father... I don't think I could have done that. I don't think I would be sane. And it took a long time - at first I couldn't accept that it had been worthwhile: that I had been worth dying for. Until I realised that I wasn't. But this..." she held out her other arm, in one sweeping gesture encompassing the sea, the wall, the party behind them, and implicity, he knew, herself, the others, the meadhon, itself, "...was."
Despite himself, Jack shivered a little, not unpleasantly. Arrah looked at him again. "And he always knew that."
"I know that," Jack said, quietly. Arrah, for once, said nothing. "Mom knows, too," he said then, and found himself staring at his hands where they rested on the wall.
"You sound surprised."
"I am," he snapped, before he could stop himself, then sighed.
"You're still angry with your mother."
Jack blinked. "Now that was an artful segue," he said.
She shook her head a little. "Empaths don't need segues."
"I guess not."
She leaned against the wall, propped her chin on one hand. "You've gotten used to it," she observed.
Jack looked at her, finding her matter-of-fact tone rather annoying but unable to find the energy to summon any real anger. He shrugged, helplessly. "She was wrong," he said. "I know she knows that, and everyone says she's changed, and even Fi's forgiven her, even Aunt Melinda, but... I just can't help thinking that none of that makes it better, really."
"Jack," she said, gently, "nothing ever will make it better."
He tried to decide whether or not to look at her with bafflement, but she went on before he could decide. "Nothing will ever change what happened. That's not the point."
He stared at her, one eyebrow raised. "There's a point?"
"The funny thing about forgiveness," she said, slowly, "is that it can be simultaneously the most sensible and the least logical human act."
"How can it be both?" he asked. "If nothing can change it... it almost feels like... like..."
"...like forgiving her would be unfair?"
"Yes!" he blurted, throwing his hands into the air. "Like it means... that I don't care. But I do care. I should care, shouldn't I?"
Areahannah seemed to study him for a moment, then crossed her arms and leaned back a little. "You're always going to care, Jack," she said, again gently. "The difference is in how you exercise it." She shrugged. "Sometimes you just... have to forgive. Even if it doesn't make sense, because at that point it's not about what's right, or what makes sense... it's about getting the anger out of you so you can live your life." She smiled at his skeptical look. "Anger serves its purpose. But after a while, staying angry is useless. And exhausting."
"Unbelievably," she said, rolling her eyes. "It takes patience, and attention, and maintenance, to stay angry forever. I have no doubt you could, if you tried. But it's not healthy. It's never healthy. It sticks you in place, so you can't move. And you can even convince yourself that it's where you want to be. But sometimes it gets to be so much a part of why you do everything that it takes away all your choices. And then you can't do both. At that point you have to just decide what's more important: making it right, or going on, anyway."
For the past several minutes Jack had felt as if all the air were being drained out of him, and now he stood, somewhat hollow and feeling as if a stiff breeze could blow him away. With a sudden wash of clarity, he said: "I don't actually remember not being angry. Not... not ever."
"Oh, Jack," she said, sighing. "That's what I mean."
He drummed his fingers on the wall. "But what about the right thing? Doesn't it matter?"
"Of course it matters!" Areahannah said, with a hint of exasperation in her tone. "But you're mortal, Jack. Mortals have to pick their battles."
Jack glared at nothing in particular. "I'm not sure I trust my judgement in that area, anymore."
"So start over," she suggested, so casually that he boggled at her. She shrugged.
"It's all very well to rage against the injustices of the world," she said, "to try and fix everything and try and make everyone understand - it's well, and admirable - but it's exhausting. Take my word for it. It's how I spent the first twenty years of my life. The most efficient way to go about it, in my experience, is to make yourself right, and the rest follows."
They were both quiet for a while, listening to the party, behind them, and a new song start up on the stage. Listening, Jack could hear his mother's voice, in harmony with about a dozen others, and then more, as the room joined in.
"Starting over," he said, eyes on the sea. "Is it so easy?"
When she didn't answer right away, he turned to look at her - she looked, for some reason, amused.
"Not easy," she said, finally. "But simple - it is simple."
Molly sang until impending hoarseness allowed her to beg her escape from the stage. Fiona returned to her place at the planning table; Annie was carried back to her seat of honour. Jack met his mother as she made her way to the drink table near the door.
"Jack, honey! I haven't seen you in hours!" she said, surprised, and still filled with enough elation and adrenaline that his serious expression did not immediately register. When it did, he almost felt guilty, because the warm aura of excitement and security that had surrounded her dimmed, a little, her expression reflecting worry and grim resignation. "What's wrong?"
Jack didn't meet her eyes. "I want to talk to you."
They threaded their way back across the room and went out onto the balcony; Jack stood, as before, against the wall, and took a deep breath before turning to face his mother.
"I understand it," he said, finally.
His mother blinked, clearly confused. "Understand what?"
Jack shook his head, still looking at his feet, at the ground; "What you did. Why you did it."
Molly seemed to wilt, a little. "Oh," she said.
"No," Jack said hurriedly. "I get it, now. At least, as much as I ever think I will." He shook his head. "This is stupid," he said, then, sagging tiredly against the wall. "I realized something today," he said, quietly. "That I was mad at Dad my whole life for doing exactly what I would have done in his place. At least, I would now. I know I would. It makes sense to me now, the way it never could, before. I didn't understand it, before, because I was a stupid kid and no one ever really explained it. Because you didn't."
He spared a glance for his mother, who was watching him soberly, very little expression visible on her face.
"And last year," he went on, "After I knew better, I was mad at you - for doing something stupid because... because you didn't know, because you didn't understand... the weird thing is that I think I do understand it, now. Same as I understand that you're different than you were, then. That you haven't really been that person for... a long time. I've been angry for this long at someone I never even met." He shook his head. "And that's stupid. So... I forgive you, Mom." He looked at his shoes. "When Aunt Melinda talked about Dad... about you coming here when I was born... she talked about it like something she missed. She showed me you... after I was born, and everyone was so... you were so..."
"I was happy," she provided, softly, stepping closer to him. "That was the part I understood the best."
"Yeah," he said, voice choked. "And we can't be like that if we're still angry at each other, so..."
He stopped as his mother hugged him, hard, pushing the last words out of him in a sigh. He hugged her back, fiercely, feeling very, very young and very, very relieved and very glad that he wasn't crying yet. "I missed you, Mom," he said.
"I missed you too, baby," she whispered back. "Hell of a road to get here, huh?"
Jack laughed, the sound muffled.
When they both saw Rick, standing against the wall at the balcony's edge, neither spoke of it. Molly had no reason to believe that her son could see his father's "ghost". Jack supposed he only imagined seeing him. But both felt a sense of peaceful finality when Rick smiled, raised a hand in farewell, and disappeared, slowly, into the moonlight.
The second Assembly Annie attended was posessed of a drastically different atmosphere than her first. The air was thick with triumph and exhaustion, bizarrely mingled with elation and excitement. The first three she understood; the fourth she had to assume was simply beyond her comprehension at the moment.
With a broken leg (in two places - she was actually strangely proud), she obviously couldn't walk, and had been told that morning, by Katia and one of her assistants, a young healer named Kellin Brody, that alternate transportation would be arranged.
When said transportation arrived in the form of Presskin MacLeod, Arrah's brother and just about the only Guardian with whom Annie had never actually carried on a conversation, Annie had been completely unsure of what to say to the man. He had a reputation (well deserved, she'd thought from her limited observation) for being rather silent and cold, possessing an unpleasant temper.
Presskin, however, took control of what could have otherwise been an awkward situation by starting the conversation for her. "You're Annie?" he asked, with a rather unexpected grin. She nodded, and, with a slight bow, he scooped her up off the bed.
Annie squeaked a little in surprise, but had to laugh as he inclined his head respectfully to her, and announced: "I'm your ride."
"Presskin, right?" she said.
"Right," he confirmed. "Nice to meet you."
Annie was pleasantly surprised to find Presskin's public mind friendly and quick-witted, if a little enclosed; but then Arrah was much the same. Open with what she was willing to share, but fanatically private about everything else. Annie sensed in him a certain degree of self-protective arrogance, which struck her as strangely familiar until she remembered Tilia comparing Jack to Presskin, and laughed at the aptness of the description. Presskin, who had been navigating them carefully through the infirmary door, gave her a strange look. "Dare I ask?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
Annie blushed and shook her head, smiling.
"So I'm told you had a resoundingly successful first mission," he said, smiling, and Annie decided she must be very tired, because it took a full three seconds before the sarcasm reached her.
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, yes. Katia spent an hour and a half after I woke up telling me how a few broken bones actually qualify as 'getting off light,' although I think she was being sarcastic 'cause she said it five or six times."
Presskin laughed. "Some of the older Delegates never tire of telling us how lucky we are to have so many properly-trained Healers on hand, and then going on at great length about severed limbs and missing eyes... which I'm sure in some context qualifies as a very serious moral lesson, but over someone's birthday cake, surrounded by pastel balloons, and with Charlotte Diamond playing in the background, is a little less... shall we say: meaningful?"
Annie grinned. "Also Kellin was making faces behind her back every few minutes."
Presskin smiled, and sighed. "Kay means it, you know - she has a medical obligation to yell at us for hurting ourselves. Although sometimes I think she enjoys it too much."
Annie knew they were nearing the Great Hall when the noise level of hundreds of voices began drowning out their conversation. "Well, into the breach," Presskin said, as they entered the room.
On the injured list, Annie found herself in a position of honour: in the front box with Jeri, Terren, and Matt, in the row of seats closest to the floor and nearest the great table. Next to her was Jason, who was flushed and very much awake, being fussed over by his sister. Mina greeted Annie cheerfully as Presskin set her down, then stared at the Guardian's departing back as he picked his way back through the crowd toward the table.
"Okay, I'm impressed," Mina said, looking at Annie and momentarily letting Jason be - to Jason's great evident relief.
Annie blinked at her in surprise. "By what?"
"You were having an actual conversation with Presskin!" Mina said.
Annie shrugged. "He's not so bad."
Mina waved a hand. "I know he isn't, really, but he's not much for actually... y'know... talking. To much of anyone but Areahannah, anyway. He must like you." Mina grinned at her, and Annie blushed. But then she drew herself up straighter, and stuck out her chin.
"Well, I'm likeable," she said, then made a face at her friend.
The sudden drop in the noise level, then, told them that the meeting was starting. Mina kissed her brother on the cheek, waved at Annie, then made her way up the tiers toward her seat. Jason rubbed at his cheek, scowling, then gave Annie a long-suffering look. "She's been like that since yesterday," he complained. "Hovering over me like I'm going to fall over, or something."
"I'm afraid you're in for a few more days of that. Maybe weeks," Annie whispered, grinning, as complete silence fell.
Annie looked up, and saw Arrah, Terren and Katia entering from the great doors. The other Guardians already stood behind their seats, waiting. As Arrah reached the table and sat down, the others took their seats. A moment later Arrah stood up again, and clasped her hands before her.
"Another long night has passed," she said, and Annie was surprised to realize that Arrah was speaking quite quietly, and yet she could hear every word easily. She had been able to hear just as easily from much further back, where the Phillipses were now sitting, and suddenly she wondered whether this were by virtue of the architecture, or the result of some other aspect of Crystallis's own odd nature.
"And this has been much longer than only yesterday, and the day before - this is a night that has followed us for a very long time, taking many lives in the process. We have lost many friends this past night; but they went willingly and in full knowledge of the reasons. And now it is over; and we thank them."
Annie's eyes widened a little as there was a tangible upwelling of relief, from all around her. Arrah smiled, and bowed her head, and any murmuring that had been going on dropped away. The Assembly fell silent, and Annie could hardly hear anyone breathing; but the sentiment reached her, and she bowed her own head, and closed her eyes.
::For those that have given for us,:: came a voice in her head, ::And for those that will follow after.::
"Thank you," Came Areahannah's voice, a moment later. "I know that you are all tired, and we have little business to discuss; those of you who know what comes next already have your orders. And for the moment, we have a much more pleasant task." She turned to look at the box where Annie was sitting. "We have new family to welcome, and I see no reason to delay it further."
Annie suddenly found herself sitting up straighter as Presskin rose from the table and crossed the floor. She looked up at him as he stood over her, a moment, smiling a little at her nervousness.
"Ready?" he whispered.
With effort, she nodded, and let him pick her up again. He carried her back to the table, set her on her one foot, and stood at her left as the other Guardians, and then the entire room, rose to their feet. She started a little when she realized just how many eyes were on her.
"Will the sponsor come forth, please?" said Arrah, looking up into the seats, and Annie followed her line of sight to see Molly, laying one hand on each of her children's shoulders as she went, maneuvering her way out onto the staircase and down onto the floor. She approached the table smiling, somehow lighter, free of the weight that she had been carrying since before Annie met her. Annie found the change pleasing, and smiled back.
"I'm here," she said, sliding one arm behind Annie's shoulders, to steady her.
Areahannah placed her hand on a slightly darker square of wood before her seat; the other Guardians followed suit, and a moment later, the floating screen materialized, this time empty and transparent. She nodded to Molly, who leaned forward slightly and placed her own hand on the surface of the table; Annie mimicked her, nervously. When something inside the table beeped in ackowledgement, she jumped, stifled a giggle.
"Scan Delegate," said Beilenya, who was closest.
"Recognized: Phillips, Molly. Covenant: Eire," came an androgynous voice, even and uninterested. "Second individual: not recognized. Instruct?"
"Create profile," Areahannah told it, then looked at Annie. "Say your name, clearly and loudly," she whispered.
"Annie Thelen," Annie said, eyes on the screen. A moment later, her own image appeared there, along with several lines of text.
The computer was silent a few moments, and then announced: "Recognized: Thelen, Annie. Covenant: Eire."
Annie shivered, and dropped her hand to her side as Molly did, then looked at Arrah as the screen disappeared.
"For many thousands of years," she began, "actually, for longer than anyone remembers, the Circle has existed to protect Mankind from the worst qualities in himself. Greed, hatred, ignorance. Thousands of years ago, we were made part of that communion; the Guardians were made inseperable from it, not only the mistakes and triumphs of Man but of all life on this Earth. The Delegates," she continued, with a smile and a nod to the Assembly, "are people who strive to bring about the better qualities in themselves, and others. For millennia they have given of their time, their devotion, their lives... their children." She paused, taking a deep breath. "There can be no getting around the fact that this life is a sacrifice; that many of us do not live to a venerable old age. But there is also no question that those of us who die for it, too young, have lived better than those who never knew this life. And because of the gravity of that distinction, it has always been a choice - a choice that even those born among us must make again, when they are judged old enough and responsible enough to make it. The choice is even more complex for those who come to us from the outside; and there are very few who can manage it, who can understand what is being asked of them, and just what it is we are, to what they are committing themselves. For that reason," she said, "and because sometimes the choice is made too rashly, for the wrong reasons, we try to ensure that understanding is there. May we show you, Annie?" Arrah asked this of her directly, and Annie nodded.
Molly, after a squeeze, slipped her left arm from Annie's shoulders, then clasped her right hand with her own left. Chayson reached to take her left hand, and around the table, all those standing joined hands. "Close your eyes," came a soft voice from her right - she thought Molly. She did, lowering her shields as she did so.
It hit her all at once, with light and heat and force, and as she turned her head she saw, in her other sight, that they were glowing, all of them, but no one more than the Guardians around her. Arrah was brightest, not only glowing but almost burning, and Annie smiled as everything she was, unshielded, unhindered by normal senses, was drawn inexorably towards her, towards the surging brightness that was the meadhon, that shone out through Areahannah like the sun through a keyhole. It wasn't only power; it was sentience, it was birth and death, it was... everything.
The connection dropped away, and she opened her eyes, staggering slightly from the jolt until Molly's arm steadied her again. She felt herself smiling; she looked up and met Areahannah's eyes.
The older woman was smiling, too, eyes bright and vigorous as if she and Annie had shared an incredible secret.
"I understand," Annie said, her voice hushed and a little hoarse. Areahannah nodded.
"Do you remember the words?" whispered Molly, and Annie nodded, drawing herself up straight.
As Annie spoke the words of her oath, the Assembly smiled down on her, their own emotions filling the room with welcome and happiness until it was almost intoxicating, and indeed, as she finished, and the room burst into cheering and applause that almost made the floor shake, she swayed a little from the force of it.
For the feeling, Annie found she had no comparison.
Jack wrestled a half-dozen others out of the privilege to walk Annie back to the infirmary; in reality he was only pushing her wheelchair, which someone had produced and unfolded from under a row of seats.
"You look happy," he said to her, as they left the Great Hall.
Annie leaned back in the chair, eyes half-closed. "I've never been so happy," she said simply.
They were quiet again until they reached the infirmary, which was miraculously still empty, probably because the others were still lingering in the Great Hall. Jack wheeled her inside and maneuvered her across the floor.
"Help me up into the bed?" she asked, and Jack nodded, slipping an arm behind her shoulders. She tightened an arm around his neck.
He hoisted her up out of the chair, and with a great deal of cursing on Annie's part, for the inconvenient nature of the cast, they got her arranged on the bed, propped up against several pillows. She sighed and leaned back again.
"Are you okay?" Jack asked with concern as she sagged, slightly.
Annie shook her head. "I'm just tired. Kellin said the painkillers might do that. I don't mind, really - I'm just glad they didn't kick in during the party last night."
"Come to that, you've had a tiring couple of days," Jack noted, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
"No kidding," she agreed. "It was worth it, though."
"Yeah," he echoed, sighing of his own accord.
He looked up to see Annie staring at him.
"What?" he demanded, with mock rancor, when she said nothing, only stared, an expression of puzzlement on her face.
"There's something different about you," she told him, reaching out to touch his cheek. Jack was surprised, and didn't move, and a moment later she dropped her hand, astonishment and delight written on her features.
"What?" he asked again, a little alarmed by her behaviour. "You're happy!" she said, the tone almost accusing, but she was smiling, still.
"I--" he wasn't quite sure how to respond, so he glared. "So what?"
"I've..." she laughed. "I've never seen you happy, Jack. Not really. But you are!"
He closed his mouth, then slowly, shrugged. "Yeah," he said. "I guess I am."
"I'm sorry," she apologized, still grinning. "It's just... it's different. I like it," she amended.
"You-- uh-- good? I guess," he agreed, feeling his face grow warm.
"No, I do," she continued, her voice dropping in volume. "I'm happy for you."
Jack stared at his hands. How did Annie's presence always manage to turn the his most straightforward moments into a situation where he was blushing and confused? Faintly, it annoyed him, but at the same time, emboldened him, and before he could talk himself out of it, he leaned forward and kissed her.
Annie made a little noise of surprise, but an instant later he felt her smiling against his lips, and she kissed him back, warmly. Jack pulled away, a few seconds later, ears roaring, and trying to remember exactly what had possessed him to do that.
Annie, although at the moment a fetching shade of pink, was just smiling at him. Sometimes, he reflected, she was infuriating.
Mostly not, though.
Definitely not when she was smiling at him quite like that.
"Thanks," she murmured, tucking a strand of hair behind one ear.
"Um... yeah," he answered, not trusting himself to say anything else.
Jack felt dizzy and stupid and strangely thrilled, at once disinclined to go anywhere and yet anxious to leave before he could do anything stupid and ruin the moment. So he excused himself, stuttering, Annie grinning with, bafflingly, absolutely no sign of embarassment and a sort of grace and amusement that he had to assume was a trait unique only to girls.
"Good luck," she called after him as he left, radiating affection. He smiled as he closed the door behind him.
He stepped into the corridor with a lighter heart, realizing, as he passed the open windows, sea air rushing against his face, that Annie was right: for the first time in years he was happy. All was not right with the world, but all was right in his world. That was what Arrah had meant, he realized. ::Make yourself right, and the rest follows.::
Smiling and ready, he started down the stairs that led to the Gate, where his mission, and his future, were waiting.
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