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 labrynthine 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.