[[HOPE SPRINGS, COLORADO 08:17 Hours, 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?"