It was not hunger that roused Jack from sleep - rather something seemed to pull him, from outside himself. Something in whatever he'd been dreaming, maybe. It brushed rapidly across his consciousness as he rose from the dream-state, and by the time he was fully aware, it was fading to a memory - urgency, sudden understanding - and then it was gone.
He opened his eyes, blinking away sleep. He was aware of a sense of warm comfort, even though a cool breeze was blowing against his face; the warmth, he realized after a moment, was Annie, asleep half in his lap, her head on his chest. The breeze came from the half-open door to the balcony.
For a moment, he just looked down at the top of Annie's head - she was still deeply asleep. She didn't even stir as he extricated himself and stood up. He glanced down at her face as he closed the door - her face was surprisingly peaceful, giving no hint of hte events of the night before, or the tirade of the day before that. It was strange - Annie never ceased to surprise him.
His stomach growled, then, loudly enough that he wrapped his arms around his middle to muffle the noise - but Annie was still sleeping soundly. Satisfied that nothing would disturb her, he crossed the room and let himself out into the hall.
Jack had never quite grown accustomed to the way the sun looked from Crystallis. It was nothing quite concrete enough to be an obvious difference - it was the same sun, certainly, and day was the same length - but something about the quality of light just felt... different. Cleaner, somehow.
He paused, just outside the door to Fiona's rooms, and looked out one of the many windows lining the wall of the corridor. What he saw could have been taken for any beach, anywhere - sand, outcroppings of dark stone, the surf creeping up the slope - except, perhaps, for the glowing protrusions of crystal that sprouted everywhere like some strange form of vegetation. For some reason, the sight of the bright and unusual quality in an otherwise unremarkable surrounding put him in mind, again, of Annie, and then he was flushed, warmly, almost in embarassment - though not quite - even though no one was about to see it. He chided himself for his own foolishness, and then started and turned at the sound of a low, rumbling growl - Lann stood in the half-open doors (though Jack clearly remembered closing them), regarding him almost suspiciously.
Jack sighed and, with a glare for the panther, carried on down the hall, shaking his head all the way.
Annie woke to find herself alone, the sun shining into her eyes. She sat up, rubbing her face, and glanced at her watch. She'd been asleep slightly less than the proscribed two hours - it was late morning, and within half an hour the others would start arriving. Annie got to her feet, stood for a few moments at the glass-paned doors, looking out at the sea. Then she went to make use of Fiona's small shower, nearly tripping over Lann on the way.
By the time she emerged ten minutes later, wrapped in a thick towel, she felt much refreshed, though still somewhat fatigued - but that, she knew, was a consequence of over-extending herself, and would not be remedied by a mere two-hour nap.
As she dressed, she wondered what had happened to Jack. It wasn't like him to be an early riser in any sense, and he seemed to have been gone almost an hour. Then again, she thought as she combed her hair, he'd probably gone to breakfast. Jack's stomach was not a force to be trifled with.
Breakfast at the Island was always an informal affair. The long, narrow room was sunny even this early. This morning, as every other, it was laden with a variety of dishes, and stacks of clean plates and cutlery.
As she'd expected, Annie found Jack seated at the breakfast table, demolishing a plate of scrambled eggs. He barely glanced up as Annie entered - and Annie rolled her eyes, briefly - but the other two people in the room, Jeri and Belle's brother Chayson, looked up and waved her into a seat.
Chayson's eyes gleamed as bizarrely violet as his sister's, and his grin just as mischevious. Looking at him, anyone who didn't know him might easily assume he was up to something.
Sitting close next to him was Jeri Minnister, who pushed a plate towards Annie as she sat down next to Jack. "Glad to see you back among the living," Jeri said as Annie served herself. "You look a hell of a lot healthier than Terren usually does."
"I still feel pretty fried," Annie said. "How is Terren, anyway?"
Jeri made a consoling gesture. "Oh, don't worry about him, Annie. He's an old pro."
"He was in and out of here half an hour ago," added Chayson, sipping what looked like coffee but probably wasn't - Katia actively discouraged the stuff. "A far cry from bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but walking and talking."
"That's something, I guess," Annie said weakly.
"What about you, Annie?" Jeri asked. "Terren said you discovered a new Gift last night." The expression on the young mutant's face said clearly that she already knew exactly the nature of Annie's new ability. It was, she realised, and not for the first time, nigh-on impossible to keep a secret among telepaths. Annie sighed.
"I feel like somebody grabbed my brain and squeezed."
"Terren describes it as being 'plugged in'. Like high voltage," Jeri volunteered.
"Sounds familiar," Annie agreed. "So, where is everybody?"
"Getting things ready for Assembly, mostly," Jeri said.
"What things?" Annie asked, but Jeri and Chayson exchanged a look, and then Jeri turned to her and shrugged - but Annie could see the apprehension in her expression. Then she glanced at her watch and stood up.
"You'll find out in a few minutes," she said, leading the way out of the room.
Annie could not help but think that the atmosphere of this Assembly was similar to the last one - only moreso. She followed Jack, Jeri and Chayson across the grey marble floor of the Great Hall and up into the seats. Chayson took his seat at the main table, and Jeri took her oft-unusued seat next to him. Jack and Annie made their way up into the seats traditionally occupied by the Phillipses - which were empty when they reached them. Annie had only a moment ot wonder about the whereabouts of Fi and Molly before suddenly, every Delegate was rising to their feet, voices falling silent. Annie didn't need to look to know why - she could feel it as clearly as anyone else in the room. The First Guardian had arrived.
Annie looked down towards the floor, several levels of seats below her. The big carven main doors were already open - they led, among other places, to the sea gate and the helicopter pad, and all those Delegates that had not arrived through the Earth-Gate had come through them.
But somehow, when Areahannah appeared in the doorway, the entire room went quiet, all eyes turning in her direction. No human being could remain totally unaware of a Guardian's presence - though Delegates, for the most part, had been indoctrinated to their presence almost since birth, and the Guardians tended to remain tightly shielded at all times, Areahannah most of all. But she'd told Annie once that the best way to get someone's attention was to surprise them. And Areahannah certainly did not look like what she was.
It took Annie a few seconds to take in the people following them. First was Jenaya, and her brother Sylvrain, who was still in travelling clothes - Annie vaguely remembered being told that Sylvrain (who had been absent from the last Assembly) had been in New Mexico, or Arizona, or something, touching base with those Delegates watching the Slayer - Behind them, arm-in-arm, were Katia and Matt - Matt, she noted, didn't look much better for sleep.
Carsyn and Presskin walked together, heads bent in whispered conversation.
Last of all, came Belle, supporting Terren - and looking at him, Annie's heart ached. Terren and Arrah were closer than any two people Annie had ever even heard of - except maybe Matt and Katia - and Arrah was his whole world. The same, unfortunately, could not be said for Arrah.
That wasn't by choice - Arrah certainly loved him as much as he loved her - but in Arrah's life, Terren could never come first. Annie could nothing more tragic than the calm benevolence with which Terren accepted that. Because even she knew that it could be no other way.
Her eyes drifted, then, from Belle and the pale and drawn spectre of Terren - who seemed to have benefited less than Matt from Katia's mandatory nap - to the last two people in the party. And then she drew in a breath of surprise - because trailing the group were Molly, her eyes heavy and tired, and Fiona, her arms full of books and papers.
It was the look in Fiona's face that turned Annie's surprise into dread - because there was none.
It was so uncharacteristic for Fiona to be expressionless that Annie nearly breached protocol and reached out to her mentally. She stopped herself, but could not help brushing the outer edge of Fiona's shields - she received acknowledgement, but little else. The mental flavour said "wait".
Troubled, Annie turned to look at Jack, who met her gaze with a worried one - probably because he'd just done the same thing as Annie. He shook his head, slowly, looking back down at the table as Fiona and Molly took their places behind two of the five spare seats at the round table.
::I don't know,:: he told her. His mind was most tightly closed, but Annie could sense how very afraid he was. She frowned.
::I've never seen Fi like that.:: It was a question as much as a statement, and she got her answer quickly when he shook his head again, once, quickly.
::Neither have I.::
If it had been a long time since Molly had last been present at two consecutive Assemblies, it had been even longer since she'd seen one from this vantage point. In fact, she'd only once occupied a Delegate seat at the round table - only once, and she'd hoped never to have the honour again.
The night of Rick's death - the night of so many deaths - the policemen had been gone only fifteen minutes before Ethan Llwellyn had arrived, followed by half a dozen younger Delegates, only some of them known to Molly. He'd spoken to her in low and urgent tones of the urgency of the situation, begging her without begging to come back with him to Assembly. Molly had worried about the children, and Ethan had tilted his head across the room to where his sixteen and eighteen-year-old nephews, his twenty-year-old niece, and three tall, strong young men - whose names, to this day, Molly could not remember - stood waiting. "They are staying," Ethan had said; "We are going. No enemy will enter this house while they still live."
It had been to Megan Llwellyn that Molly had looked - the girl, who looked younger than her twenty years, had nodded, solemnly, with no hint in her face of the mischevious humour Molly knew her to possess. What looked out through the girl's eyes had been at that moment nothing more or less than what she was sworn to be: a Delegate, who would live or die for her oath. It had, Molly recalled, both comforted and frightened her as she left that night with Ethan Llwellyn.
The thought remained with her later that evening as she took Rick's place at the round table and defied thirty (or maybe more) generations of her husband's blood - as she told them that Rick's children, her children, would never take the oath. She remembered the faces looking down from the levels of seats: the betrayal, the contempt (mostly from the younger ones).
Worst of all, the simple, utter incomprehension, in the face of Molly's accusation and anger - especially in Areahannah's face.
Idly she wondered how many of those present were old enough to remember that night.
It was rare for any of the round table's spare seats to be occupied - even Matt, Terren, and Jeri, who now sat next to their beloveds, usually occupied one of the many seats surrounding the round table in tiers. That alone was an indication of the seriousness of the situation - Matt was chief among the Circle's Watchers and Jeri was official liaison with most of the major mutant groups along both coasts of the American continent.
As a result, even the majority who had no idea as to the situation since last night were murmuring amongst themselves - at least they had been, until Areahannah's arrival. Now they stood, silent, waiting, as one, until the Eight stood behind their seats, as Areahannah gestured for everyone to be seated.
This was accomplished with a surprising minimum of noise - in fact the silence persisted for several long moments. Molly looked across the table to where Fiona sat between Sylvrain and Jenaya, her hands resting on the stack of books and papers over which they'd been poring for the past hour with Belle, Matt, and Areahannah. Her daughter did not look up, did not meet her eyes, and Molly tried to ignore the nagging hint of accusation in Fiona's mental reply when Molly tentatively touched her mind.
"You all know why you're here," said Areahannah finally, quietly, because no one was making a sound. "Most of you know by now the events that transpired two nights ago in Aislinn Park." There was a murmur of assent. "Fewer of you are aware of the string of mysterious deaths of the past year or more. Some of them - few of them - have been Delegates. Of these deaths you are most certainly aware, even if you assumed, like many of us, that they were suspicious accidents. In fact, every death has been that of a Delegate who was isolated and long out-of-contact. Every one, that is, until that of Marya Bico, three nights ago. We feel we have failed you." She looked around the Hall. "However dangerous and suspect the circumstances of our lives, even among us, accidents sometimes happen. But these were family." She paused, and Molly almost thought it was for effect.
"For family, we should have exercised more caution. More suspicion." She shook her head. "We have been fortunate in recent years - we have known relative peace - but it has made us grow less cautious, and for that I beg your forgiveness. "Her eyes rested, now, squarely on Molly's face. Molly forced herself not to look away. "For family, we should have remembered that even in peace, we must forever maintain our purpose." Her eyes rested silently on Molly only a few seconds before lifting away to survey the room. Molly found her own gaze drawn suddenly to Terren, whose face, in the silence, showed both pride, and pain. Then Areahannah went on.
"We now know for certain that what killed Marya is in fact the same creature that killed Rick Krane. We also suspect that the same force is responsible for many of the deaths I have just mentioned."
The silence dropped away like the floor, and the bottom of Molly's stomach. Although she was sure the clamour of voices did not come close tot he sudden clamour of Gifted minds, she was still grateful when Areahannah held up a hand to still the din.
"Of the other deaths - of which there have been dozens - you know we can't account for them by our current lists. Many - most - of them were strangers, or seemed to be. So I set Beilenya and Fiona Phillips the task of locating the old Delegate Registry. To our great surprise, they found it, at least some of it."
Molly looked up in time to see Arrah look to Fiona, to see Fiona nod, and get to her feet as Areahannah sat down. Fi was very white, but none of her nerves were evident in her voice.
"I am Fiona Phillips of the Covenant of Eire," she began, unnecessarily, and Molly had to suppress an inappropriate smile at how faithfully her daughter followed protocol. Though everyone agreed generally - or had, in Molly's time - that the tradition was rather silly (it had probably made more sense in the past when the Delegates had numbered more than the current three hundred and change), she was somewhat gratified to see them still carried on. Fiona cleared her throat and continued.
"We've counted a total of one hundred and ninety-two deaths in the past year that fit the pattern of the creature that killed Marya and - my father."
Molly was impressed. Fiona's voice had not wavered, and she'd hesitated only an instant. She was not sure she could have done the same.
"Of that number, only nineteen have been registered Delegates."
Molly was mildly surprised when that revelation only roused the Assembly to a faint hum.
"From what we can determine, from what we recovered of the Registry, one hundred and forty-five belong - or belonged, I mean - to formerly Delegate families. Ones that have been lost from the line over centuries, for whatever reason. Lost Delegates."
The hum increased in volume only incrementally. Molly sympathized. One hundred forty-five of the blood but not in the line - the number was staggering, even considering that others certainly existed whose names appeared in parts of records long lost to the Circle.
"What of the others?" called a voice from the tiers. Molly recognized the speaker as Helena Llwellyn.
Fiona looked down at her notes. "The last twenty-eight were all female, between the ages of fourteen and twenty. All were in good physical shape, though none were mutants, so far as we know. Nearly half of them were killed in the western United States, mostly in the states of Arizona and California."
The sound level, this time, did not increase, but Molly could feel the sudden intense surprise among those few that realized the significance of what Fiona had said.
"You're saying" - that was Helena's voice, again - "this involves the Slayer."
At that, a few more voices rose in recognition. Then silence fell heavily as the entirety of the Delegation turnd their attention on Matt Hamilton, who responded by squirming in his chair.
"I've never been good at public speaking," Molly had heard him confide to Katia before the Assembly. His face had been white and strained, and despite Katia's promise to make him rest, he'd looked tired. "I especially dislike getting up in front of three hundred people, all of a passionate bent, most capable of knocking me flat with a thought, and telling them something they very much don't want to hear."
Katia had touched his face and smiled reassuringly. "This isn't a firing squad, Love, and they're not Hums," she'd said. "Hum" was short for "Humdrum", which was a word used commonly by mutants to refer to non-mutants - it was also used by many Delegates to refer to the magically mundane. It was not necessarily a complimentary word, but Katia had not been using it in a complimentary context. "They may not like what you tell them, but they're not going to kill you for it."
Katia had, it seeemed, been only partially right. Molly decided that while the Assembly wasn't quite of murderous intent yet, it certainly wasn't pleased, even as Matt got to his feet, not bothering to announce or introduce himself.
"The Watchers have been with the Circle for almost as long as the Circle itself has existed," he began. "But. All Watchers once existed to chronicle the Slayer. That's been their purpose almost from the beginning of time. During the time of the Covenants, a large number - nearly half - left the old Watchers' Council to join the Circle. We call it the Schism.
"The young women murdered in the western U.S. were all what we call Potential Slayers. There's only ever one true Slayer at any given time, but potentially dozens more are kept in reserve.
"You're probably wondering what the two circumstances have to do with one another." He paused, rubbed at his face. "A little over two months ago, every major headquarters of the old Watchers' Council was destroyed - explosions, fires - all within twenty-four hours. We think the same force did this."
There was a waiting and curious silence.
"Of course we suspect that the situation - including our casualties - have something to do with the current Slayer. Which would certainly explain the number of deaths in or near Southern California - where the current Slayer resides. Unfortunately, we tend to keep track of the Slayer's circumstances through, ah... correspondence with elements within the Watchers' Council. Less diplomatically? We spy on them. And quite frankly, it's not usually necessary. Not much that involves the Slayer involves us, except when things reach apocalyptic proportions. We operate in separate spheres, and the old Council has always preferred it that way. In fact, those few of them even aware of the Circle's existence prefer to pretend that we don't exist.
"Since the collapse of their system, we've been unable to determine what was happening with the Slayer. In fact, until Marya's death, we hadn't even considered the possibility that the two sets of events were even connected - the deaths and the destruction of the Watchers' Council.
"Yesterday we revisited Aislinn Park. With the help of Terren Kurk - " he gestured to Terren, who nodded, "- we managed to recover a part of Marya's last moments that she didn't include in her Sending." He took a deep breath. "Marya had been sent there to investigate another reported death - you know that we routinely monitor that place." There were quiet nods. "We've learned - Marya discovered the body of a young woman: a Potential Slayer. Nearby, she also discovered the girl's Watcher, who was near death. He told Marya about an ancient force - older than the Circle, older than the Slayer. He told her it was on the rise. He told her to warn us." Matt's eyes dropped to the table. "You all know what happened after that."
He fell silent now, and it took only a moment for the Delegation to rouse to shouting and questions. But only five seconds passed - Molly counted - before several among them began calling for silence, mostly older family members. When the noise level had dropped again, it was Helena Llwellyn's daughter Deanna who spoke.
"Would it be correct to assume you've discovered the identity of this force?"
Matt looked down at Molly, then. "Yes, we believe we have."
And then all eyes were on Molly, and feeling as if a great weight had been laid uon her shoulders, Molly stood.
"I'm Molly Phillips," she said, "Of the Covenant of Eire."
Looking down from several tiers above the main floor, Annie was struck by just how different Molly seemed. Alert, accustomed - though not exactly comfortable. The calm professionalism in her demeanor was something Annie had never seen in her except on stage. This Molly was a stranger.
Annie realised, then, with a purely mental start, that perhaps this was really the old Molly. As she watched her make the traditional Delegate introduction, Annie decided she liked this Molly, very much.
Then Annie was jarred unceremoniously from her contemplation as someone in the next row cried out: "Are we to understand that Molly Phillips is now speaking for her family?"
Next to her, Jack, who'd been sitting impassive, expressionless, through all the other speakers, started. Annie looked down the row and saw the speaker - a boy maybe a little younger than herself. She didn't recognise him for a moment - skinny and tall, with ginger hair - but she recognized the older girl placing a warning hand on his arm as a friend of Fiona's: Mina Quade. Which made the boy fourteen-year-old Jason. Annie knew neither of them well, but knew their father had been close to Richard Krane. She also knew Jason thought very little of Molly. His voice a moment ago had been full of sarcastic accusation.
He was not, however, the senior member of his family, and his older sister, who was, was now all but forcing him back into his seat before standing, herself. "He asks a valid question," she said, her voice without inflection. "I'm afraid that the Quades have been absent from the last few Assemblies - but the last I knew, the senior representative of the Phillips family was Fiona - or at least Jack." She nodded in Jack's direction, and Annie was puzzled when he coloured slightly. She surprised herself with a surge of irritation, but tamped it down as Mina continued. "I also seem to remember that Molly Phillips abdicated her position of authority more than a decade ago. Has the situation changed?"
The answering murmur from most of the Delegation told Annie that the question had been on most minds.
Those at the round table were momentarily silent - Annie saw Molly go a shade or two paler. But none of the Eight came to Molly's defense - instead it was Fiona, still standing, who met Mina Quade's eyes.
Fi was silent for so long that Annie wondered if she were speaking with Mina mind-to-mind - but when she did speak, it was with a clarity and confidence that sent shivers down Annie's spine.
"I think that all of us agree that we'd rather not see our numbers dwindle when we can help it. Fidelitas Domus." Her eyes drifted along the tiers. "Despite her absence, now that she's here my mother is a part of this Delegation." She looked at Mina again, then, and Mina, still expressionless, nodded and retook her seat. Fi sat back down, then; the surprise visible on Molly's face was almost comical. Annie almost did laugh when she turned and saw a similar expression on Jack's face.
::Fidelitas Domus,:: she remembered. ::Fidelity, family.::
Jack could not have described his state of mind at that moment, not even to himself. He was only grateful when people stopped looking in his direction, and in his mother's instead.
Fi had tried to explain it to him, mor than once - why his mother had done what she had. But still, to him, it felt like betrayal. In recent months he and his mother had spoken very little - their relationship, though no longer open enmity on his part as it had been immediately following his introduction to the Circle, was still far from comfortable. Even though most of the Delegates - with the exception of a few like Jason Quade - harboured no ill will against his mother, Jack still couldn't bring himself to forget what Areahannah had told him, almost the first time they'd met: that it had been his mother's desertion, months beforehand, that had somehow caused his father's death; and possibly the deaths of others, like Eddie Quade, Jason and Mina's father.
Arrah had only - and hesitantly - hinted at the connection. Something had been hunting their family. Something that had, until then, been kept at bay by some protection afforded by the alliance with the Circle, one that had been unbalanced, destroyed by his mother's absence. More than that, though - an explanation of how, or what, or why - no one seemed to know. Not even the Guardians themselves.
Below them, his mother, looking more strained than she had a moment ago, leaned forward and depressed a control on the tabletop. An instant later, a semi-transluscent rectangle had appeared, seemingly hovering, over the table. Displayed clearly on the screen was the gaping crater in Aislinn Park.
Any voices still murmuring suddenly fell silent. Jack thought even the minds of the Delegates had gone quiet. Certainly the sight had a generally silencing effect.
"This image was taken yesterday in Aislinn Park," his mother said, her voice wavering only slightly. "The crater, until recently, was a small regenerated lake. Recently, about two months ago, for no reason we can determine, the lake dried up. There's now nothing living within twenty feet of the edge - not even grass. We believe the crater to be the source of the creatures that killed Marya Bico."
"Creatures?" echoed someone to Jack's right, faintly, in a choked voice.
"The distance to the bottom isn't measurable - or even visible from the edge." She pressed the control again. Two images replaced the first, both ink drawings. The first was a sketch of what seemed to be the same site, but clearly fresh. The second was so realistic that Jack had to force himself not to look away.
The screen showed a second ink drawing - one of the gliding black spectres from Marya's Sending, and the night of his father's death. The artist had captured it expertly, seemingly in motion.
"These come from a page out of the Chronicles - the volume is dated April of 1678."
Jack tore his eyes from the screen. His mother had resumed her seat, and Matt was speaking. "The record refers to what's being called 'the Rising' - a major node under Aislinn Park was drained when something opened underneath it. The cave-in resulting created the original crater.
"The last time this thing rose - the chronicler refers to it as..." Matt glanced down at his notes as if he'd forgotten, but Jack thought that unlikely. Indeed, when he looked up again Jack caught a hint of - was it fear? - on the older man's face. Then he spoke again, and Jack understood.
"...the First Evil."
The mere utterance of the words seemed to draw a pall over the Assembly.
"The Watcher Marya encountered warned her about this force. It seems clear that this is what destroyed their Council, and what's been killing our people.
"The last time it rose - or tried to - it was the Circle that stopped it. The last time, we were ready for it, and were able to stop it before it could do too much damage. The area was regenerated, with the help of the Kurks and a few other families with Green talents. A permanent watch was set on the area - the tradition was so firmly ingrained that Delegates have continued to monitor the area despite not knowing why, though most tended to assume it had to do with the node, which is a particularly potent one, and has now been drained again." He took a deep breath, and Jack was acutely aware of Matt's eyes on his mother.
"The last time was not without casualties. Almost a dozen Delegates were killed in the attempt. The last man to die, however, was the first to report back the draining of the node to the Circle. His name was Elias O'Siannon, of the Covenant of Eire."
A few more heads turned in Molly's direction.
"The First Evil operated - operates - best in secrecy. It was aware of the Circle, and knew that if O'Siannon was allowed to return, it would be threatened. It set a boon on him; instructed one of its servants - called Bringers - to kill him before he could reach the Gate. O'Siannon, however, escaped.
"After the Evil had been subdued, a group of Delegates and a few of the Eight returned to the area - which only became a park in the nineteenth century - to clean up the mess, so to speak. The evening of the second day, the encamped group sighted - sensed - the Gate-spell being activated. They rushed to the Gate and found the Sentry - rather gruesomely - injured. Before she died, she told them that a Bringer had attacked her and torn the Gate-spell directly from her mind.
"Of course there was an immediate alert - everyone assumed that the creature had come here."
All around the room, eyes flickered nervously toward the Gate in the wall behind him.
"It was soon, discovered, though, that the creature had exited at the Tara Gate, only a few kilometres from the O'Siannon home.
"Re-inforcements got there just in time to witness Elias O'Siannon dying on his own doorstep. The Bringer then attempted to enter the house - his wife and six children were hiding - but fled at the sight of a dozen Delegates and two Guardians.
"After it escaped, they searched, but couldn't find it. And worse, it had become clear that the boon laid on O'Siannon applied to his entire family - his entire bloodline. The Circle quickly went to work setting protections against it on every member of the O'Siannon family - ones that would pass to any descendants."
He paused - he closed his yees, and when he opened them they were fixed on a point on the opposite wall far above the highest tier of seats.
"Richard Krane was a direct descendant of Elias O'Siannon. We now know that those protections were in effect until..." he looked uncomfortably down at Molly, "...until the very day that Molly Phillips left the Covenant."
He looked up again. "The provisions of the spell were centred on Fidelitas Domus. When that condition no longer existed, neither could the spell. No one--" he said quickly, as murmurs rose again among the Delegates, "--no one could have known of this." Jack was startled that the gaze he levelled on the more mutinous members of the Assembly was a stern one. He was less surprised when Arrah added from beside him - in a voice that carried easily despite its low volume:
"Fidelitas Domus refers to loyalty," she said, "and loyalty must come by choice, or it means nothing."
Gradually, the murmurs faded. Jack looked around the room. Most Delegates were nodding in grudging agreement - though Jason still looked mutinous. Annie, when he turned, only looked sad. Fiona's face still bore no expression.
He wondered what his own face looked like. He certainly couldn't have explained himself to anyone else.
There was a long and uncharacteristic silence before someone asked the question Fiona had been expecting, and unsurprisingly, it was Mina - her hand tightly squeezing Jason's arm to keep him quiet - who asked it.
"If Molly's back - can't the spell be recast?"
"No, it can't," Fiona said, answering Mina herself. "We don't have that knowledge anymore. That thing - will just keep coming until it gets us, and now it's got friends going after every Gifted person it can get its slimy hands on. And anyway, the curse isn't the issue." She paused, surprised at herself. "Curse?" She supposed the word did apply, though even to her own ears it sounded almost silly.
"The problem is that this - First Evil... thing... is coming back. Might already be here. And we may not be ready for it."
"What about the Slayer?" called a voice from an upper tier. Fi couldn't see the speaker. "You said she's involved in this, somehow."
Fi nodded. "We think that the return, this time, is focused in Southern California - specifically, a little town called Sunnydale. The Slayer's there now." She pressed a key in the table, and the screen changed to show a map of the Sunnydale area. Another keystroke had the map superimposed with several pale yellow oblongs, interconnected with lines of varying thickness.
"Sunnydale is right on top of a very old and potent network of nodes and leylines. They're connected in such a way that the fabric of space-time - the barrier between planes - is actually weaker in that area. As a result, the town's a sort of a paranormal hotspot: the Watchers' Council calls it a 'Hellmouth'. There are more vampires, for example, living - so to speak - in the Sunnydale area than anywhere else on the West coast. There are also dozens of other Hellmouths all over the world. Aislinn Park is one of them."
"We haven't been able to get ahold of anyone in Sunnydale," said Arrah, folding her hands. "And whatever's happening is already started. We're getting that just from traffic - people have been leaving the town in droves for days. So we're doing the only thing we can - going on the defensive." She sighed, looking around, and her entire demeanour changed, again. Annie thought she almost looked taller, straighter. "The Quade and Llwellyn families will remain behind - the rest of you know where to go."
It was quite obviously a dismissal, and a few seconds later the entire room - surprisingly calmly - was moving. Annie and Jack found themselves virtually carried down onto the floor. Presskin, with a nod to the others, was on his feet and moving ahead of them, to meet group leaders and dispatch them.
Arrah, as soon as the bulk of the Delegates had departed either through the doors or the Gate, sank down into her chair, resting her head in one hand. Terren clasped the other as she looked up at those surrounding her.
"Well, that's it for a few hours, anyway," she said. She looked up at Helena, Ethan, and the other six Llwellyns (their son, daughters, niece and nephews) standing next to the table. "Helena, I'd like you to go with the Sunnydale group. We need a strong relay in case anything changes."
Helena nodded as Annie looked confusedly around the table. "Groups?" she asked, "What groups?" Then she blushed, afraid she'd spoken out of turn.
But Arrah only looked at her as if surprised to see her there. "Well, we can't do much, now, to stop this thing from rising. We've been caught off-guard." Her expression turned grim. "But if we have to, we can keep anything else from coming out."
"You mean..." Annie looked at the faces around the table. "...even if they're still inside?"
Slowly, Arrah nodded. "If it comes to that, we won't have much choice."
"Oh. Well." Annie gulped. "Great."
"I'm glad you think so, Annie," said Helena's youngest daughter - Annie thought her name was Victoria - "because you're coming with us."
"And us," added Mina Quade, almost cheerfully.
"She is?" Jack sounded affronted. "And what about the rest of us?"
"We're going back to Aislinn Park," Molly said, to Jack's evident surprise. When Molly looked up from the tabletop, her eyes were dark and unreadable - to the point that it made Annie shiver, slightly.
"We're going to end this, for good."