It was raining.
It seemed that water was all around her, and it streamed down her face and arms and ran into her eyes - she couldn't see past the amorphous blurs of trees and branches and the undergrowth that shadowed ominously beneath her feet, trying to trip her up. She swiped at her watering eyes, trying to clear them, to let her see.
It was coming.
She couldn't be sure of what it was, even though she could feel it at her heels, and feel its hot, greedy breath on the back of her neck. Any second now, she would trip, and it would catch her, and...
She gasped as it swept past her with a wash of foul-smelling air. And then she did stumble, and as she went head-over-heels into the brush and the mud, she found it only a little strange that she felt no pain.
She hauled herself to her feet - it didn't want her! It was after someone else.
::No!:: A sob rose up from somewhere deep inside her as she broke into a stumbling run again, her breath coming in short gasps. But she still felt no pain, only an aching terror that something terrible was about to happen.
He was ahead of her, so far ahead of her - he didn't even know she was there - she wondered if she actually was. She could feel its anticipation as it neared him, laughing at his attempts to fend it off. She could feel those attempts, drawing power from beneath their feet and throwing it, burning, into the air. She could sense the flow of fire-bright energy and life between him and the ground and the pools of magic, far below. She could sense it beginning to run out...
::No! Not yet!::
She tried to run faster - but even as she neared them she knew that it would be too late. She heard a scream - his scream. The sob escaped, hovering in the night air as she ran past. And then she was crying, sobbing, pleading with something, anything, anyone, to STOP THIS...
He was running again - certain, somehow that he would never escape. Firm in his decision to fight it to its end or his, thoughts of his wife and children on the surface of his desperate thoughts. He was running, and now she could hear his feet crunching on gravel, stumbling, falling to his knees, and then getting to his feet and opening the door of a car...
The squeal of the car's tires as it sped out of the parking lot and onto the deserted highway could have been heard for miles. Every sound seemed somehow amplified, maybe by the atmosphere of the released power nearby. And then there was darkness, and she stood on the edge of the road, blinking in the glare of the streetlights. The sound of the car approaching was from the left - she looked, and saw it coming, swerving - it was there, in the car with him, next to him, whispering in his ear, its fingers around his throat, revelling in the last moments...
There was a stomach-twisting upheaval of the world around her, and she fell to her knees, lifting her face and cursing the unreality of the dream - she couldn't feel it, only knew that it was there, the pain, the incomparable PAIN as he died, as his soul was torn from his body...
There was a squeal, and a crash, and then another crash. The sound of honking penetrated her brain. She thought that she should have been able to smell smoke. She looked up.
She saw the car - no; she saw him. She saw it, then - and she saw it smile before it disappeared--
There was no overt sign that she had woken, though if anyone had been present they might have seen her body jerk as she was startled from her dream. She was lying still now, covers pulled tightly over her shoulders, which were trembling.
Fiona was crying, her face buried in the pillow. She was sobbing with exhaustion and confusion and hurt - this was hardly the first time she'd had this dream. In fact, since she'd moved in with her aunt, she'd been having it with more and more frequency. In the past week, it had been every night, and every night it became clearer, more detailed. Every night she woke up feeling the pain of what she'd seen in the dream and was unable to get back to sleep until the sun rose. Every night she sobbed into her pillow until the trembling subsided, until she was able to think clearly enough past the hurt to concentrate on lying still again.
She'd learned early on not to tell her aunt about her dreams - they only worried her, and when there was nothing she could do, anyway, Fi felt guilty for bringing it to her. Now she lay in the dark, slightly calmer and staring at the ceiling, covers still pulled up to her chin.
"This isn't really fair, you know," she whispered into the darkness with a rough voice. "It's not fair you're pulling all this on me *now*. Why explain it all to me *now*? Why not..." She stopped as a new sob rose up in her throat, swallowed it down, and took a deep breath. "I turned it off, okay? I closed the door, took myself out of the game, whatever. I gave up all... I gave up so much for it. And for all that I'm still seeing this? Why?"
Fi wasn't sure exactly who she was talking to, only that she was heartsick and sleep-deprived and desperately wanted an explanation. Seeing her father's death every night for months, in ever-increasing detail, seemed hardly fair compensation for taking the risk she had in giving up all her ties to the Circle in favour of protecting her family. She'd been so sure, at the time, that what she'd done was the right thing. So absolutely certain.
Bricriu was hardly one to be trusted. Quite the contrary... Fi bit down a surge of bitterness and hatred - whatever Bricriu was, it had been at the very least involved in whatever had happened to her father. Was it possible that he had simply wanted a way to render her helpless? Powerless? No, because she had *sensed* the change when she'd done that spell - felt the walls rise around her, Jack, her mother. She was sure that she had accomplished at least that much. But if she had given up her Gift, then why was she still having these dreams? She hadn't been there - she couldn't be remembering - could she? No... it had to be something else...
Fi covered her face with her hands, sighing. She had wanted to *solve* problems, not create them. And...
She paused as a strange, non-existent pressure washed over her, up and down her spine - something was *wrong*. Very wrong. She remembered that feeling, and it was never good. She didn't wonder *how* she was feeling it, but she leapt to her feet and was halfway to her dresser before she realised several things - one, she was thousands of miles from home, and whatever she was feeling... even if it involved her family, she was hardly in a position to do anything about it. Two, she had cut all contacts with the Circle, and she had never told Arrah what she'd done, only left home. The Guardian, she reflected, couldn't have been overly pleased. Third, and maybe most important, it was three-thirty in the morning, and she didn't have a car.
Fi stood in the middle of the room, cursing the inconvenient nature of space and time. Then her computer started beeping.
True to form, Fi took the distance between bed and desk in a single leap, and noted the unusual icon blinking in the corner of the screen - a simple dark-coloured ring. A circle.
She stared at the screen for several seconds before the significance registered, and then, with a muttered curse, double-clicked the circle icon and read the message, in simple block letters, that appeared on the suddenly-black screen.
Tha feum againn dha'a'thusa. Tha mi feith an taobh a muigh.
Fi blinked some more. That was Gaelic, she was sure - but it was in Scots Gaelic, the language the Circle tended to use in messages like this. While she'd spent a few months deciphering messages sent to her in that tongue, her very small amount of expertise in Gaelic was still limited to Irish, rather than Scottish.
She muttered to herself, trying to figure out what it meant, while ignoring a nagging voice that told her she'd gotten behind in studying, gotten lazy.
"Tha," she said out loud. That meant... it meant... it meant am, or is, or... it was an affirmative. Thusa was the dependent form of "you". But that word in the middle... it had to be a verb, she knew, for the sentence to make any kind of sense...
With a sigh of surrender, she took down the Gaelic/English dictionary from the shelf, and flipped through the F section in search of the word. Finding the correct page, she skimmed down with her finger until she found it.
"Need," she said out loud. Then she looked back at the screen, feeling it all click into its proper place. "We need you." The second part of the sentence she had seen before, and needed no translation. "I'm waiting outside."
Drawing in a hasty breath, Fi set down the book and hurried to get dressed.
Sneaking out through the window at home, or the window of her room on the tour bus, was something Fiona had done so often in recent years that she'd had it down to a science - an easy science. Slipping out the window here proved, however, to be somewhat more difficult. She was on the second floor, for one thing, and although there was a handy oak tree leaning fairly close to the edge of the roof, it had been raining and the roof was probably slippery.
Fi sighed for what she guessed would not be the last time that night, and peeled off her socks, tucking them in her pocket. Her shoes she tied together by the laces and slung over her shoulder. Then she pushed open the window, clambered over the windowsill, and stepped out onto the sloping roof.
She stopped to close the window, peering inside one last time as she did to make sure the note she'd left her aunt was propped against the pillow just right - just noticable for someone to see it if they ripped the bed apart looking for her, and just unobtrusive for someone to miss it if they just walked in and didn't find her first try. Fi rolled her eyes skyward as she crept across the roof, imagining what Jack would say if he could see her now. It probably would be less than flattering.
She reached the edge of the roof with little mishap and reached out toward the nearest branch of the massive oak, a sturdy-enough looking one that was just a little bit out of her reach. She found herself glad she'd come out barefoot, even if it was rather cold, because the leap she had to make to gain proper footing would have slipped if she'd been wearing shoes. For a moment, Fi clung to the branch, eyes closed, and then she cracked open one eye to look down. Berating herself for stupidity, she then opened both eyes and resolved to keep them pointed anywhere but down at where the ground was shifting unpleasantly back and forth.
She got halfway down the tree before it happened - she reached a branch that seemed only just sturdy enough, only planning to be there long enough to make the reach to the next one, a few feet below her. But the branch chose that inopertune moment to decide that it didn't feel like carrying her weight anymore - it snapped, and Fi got the wind knocked out of her by the branch below on her way down. She just managed to catch onto the same branch with now-aching fingers, and dangled dangerously in the air, only vaguely noting that her shoes had preceded her to the ground. She was just starting to panic, and wondering how she was going to get down from the tree before her fingers grew tired and she got down the hard way, when a voice called up from below.
"Fiona? That you?"
Fi breathed a huge sigh of relief - she wasn't sure why. "No, Terren, I'm just really big kitten. Gimme a hand?"
She heard him chuckling quietly somewhere below her. "You're not that far up, you know. If you let go, you probably wouldn't even be bruised."
She glared downwards, not even sure that he could see her in the dark, but he must have sensed just how un-impressed she was with that idea, because he gave a mock-sigh. "If you can get down to that branch just underneath you," he suggested, "you can drop from that one, and I'll catch you."
Fi pondered that for a moment, and squinted down at the branch. It wasn't *that* far down, she decided, and reached out with one foot to find a foothold big enough to hold her. She made it down to the branch, after a few scrapes and near-misses, and then dangled again, the only difference being that she was now a bit closer to the ground. She felt Terren touch her bare foot.
"You can drop, now," he said.
More than a little uncertain about the wisdom of this plan, but lacking anything better, she let go.
Probably less than a second later, Terren caught her. To his credit, he stumbled a bit, but managed to stay upright. He grinned at her in his arms. "Hi," he said cheefully.
Fi raised an eyebrow as he set her down in the damp grass. "Hi," she said. "Am I missing something? Or are you awfully cheerful for having called me out on an alert? Speaking of which..."
Terren interrupted her flow of questions. "I know, I know, you gave up your powers. You do know that doesn't mean you aren't part of the Circle anymore, don't you? Or did you think that only Gifted get to be part of our little club?"
He was watching her with a raised eyebrow and what she suspected was carefully-concealed annoyance and even a little hurt. But he was keeping it well-hidden, just waiting for her to answer.
"I..." she faltered. "I guess I thought..." She dropped her eyes. "Sorry. I thought I was doing the right thing."
"Yeah, well..." he seemed to consider, and then opened his arms to her. "You're forgiven, brat. But don't pull that kind of crap again, all right?"
Fi smiled weakly and hugged him back. Then she stepped back and looked at him. "I'm forgiven? Really? I thought..."
"You're not in *trouble*, Fi. It's volontary, remember?" He laughed. "We started to think you didn't like us anymore." He affected an expression of mock-hurt that held a tone or two of the actual sentiment. "We were a bit worried, to tell the truth. And you've still got some explaining to do... to Arrah."
Fi flinched. "I know. I--"
He interrupted again. "Not that I don't think she already knows all about it, but... you know how she is..." Terren shared a conspiratorial wink with her, and then looked down at her feet. Fi looked as well.
"Oh; I dropped them when I fell. They should be around here somewhere."
He nodded and turned away to search around one side of the tree, while Fi looked on the other.
"Just out of curiosity - you did call me out here for a reason, right?"
"Yup," was all he said. Fi rolled her eyes.
"So... if it's not an emergency, which it's obviously not, what *is* going on?"
"Ah hah!" Terren emerged from the rosebushes, somewhat the worse for wear, holding her sneakers by the knotted laces. He handed them to her, and then put a finger to his lips. "It's a surprise," he said. "And a secret." He waited for her to put her shoes back on before continuing, taking her arm and setting off, Fi presumed, down the street towards the smallish wooded area a few blocks away, where she knew there was a Gate - these were the portals, usually carved in stone, and were the method by which which the Guardians and their contemporaries travelled from place to place.
Most of the Guardians could do that really disturbing thing where they appeared out of nowhere and disappear the same way, but that particular method of travel was, according to Areahannah, extremely tiring and in any case, very few others could do it. The doors were always carved in something solid, always stood in isolated areas (in some of the strangest and most unlikely spots), and some even had stone or wood filling the space where in a normal door, there would have been empty space. But with little more than mysterious muttering and some effort, they always opened to where you wanted them to. Fi still couldn't figure out how they worked.
"A surprise?" she asked as they walked, passing out of the light of the last streetlights. "What are you talking about?"
Terren smiled. "I'll tell you on the way."