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.
::That's 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 Rick's voice--::
She felt a "hand" close about her arm, looked up, and saw Areahannah holding her back - she hadn't realized that she'd started moving in the direction of Rick's 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...::
Rick's 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 weren't 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 he'd leapt halfway to his feet before realizing that it couldn't 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. It's 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 chroniclers sigil. They seemed to have been ripped out of a book, and in a moment he realized that these were pages from someone's journal.
"And underneath those was... that." Fiona now pointed to the glass in Beilenya's 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.
"What's the Schism, Matt?" she asked.
Matt blinked at her, and all of a sudden froze, realization dawning. "The... Schism?"
Belle must have sighted the understanding in his eyes. She nodded. "What is it? All we know is that it's 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 he'd 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 can't believe I didn't think of it sooner."
"What?" queried Fiona, looking intensely at him. "What is it?"
Matt sighed. "I... you'd 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 Fiona's 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 Watcher's 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 Watcher's 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 Watcher's Council - mostly the younger ones - decided that the Circle needed them, that they had a duty to..."
"So... two Watcher's Councils?" asked Belle.
Matt shook his head. "The ones that left never formed a Council - they felt that the bureaucracy was the reason that they'd 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 they're needed to do other things, and as a whole that's 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 Slayer's been having so much trouble is that the way the original Council runs things hasn't changed in the last... four hundred years or so."
"And that's 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 - don't have much to do with one another. Most Watchers on either side don't 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 that's..." 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 can't believe I didn't realize it sooner."
"Realize 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. Doesn't much matter anymore, of course."
"Why not?" Fiona asked exasperatedly.
"Because a few weeks ago, every major headquarters of the Watcher's Council was blown to Kingdom Come. And 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. "That's 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, didn't 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 alternatively 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 Annie's middle intensified.
"I feel like I'm going to be sick," she said, clutching her stomach.
"It's 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 wasn't 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 she's 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 Annie's 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 didn't *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. There's... there's 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. It's 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 Arrah's 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 realized that it was, in fact, her own eyes that seemed wrong, out of perspective. A moment after that, she realized that it was because she was viewing everything through someone else's eyes.
Marya's eyes, she realized presently. It was bizzarrely 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 Marya's 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, then--"
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 it's 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 recognized 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 she'd 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.
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."