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 her*self*, 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.