More than two hours before true nightfall the Sunnydale group was still milling around in preparation, and Annie was trying to calm her humming nerves. She felt as if she were vibrating - no matter how strongly she shielded she could still feel the pull of the Hellmouth, and it was as unpleasant a sensation as any she'd ever felt, akin to being underwater and unable to equalize the pressure in your ears. She kept reinforcing her shields, but whatever she did there was still a faint sense of differential gravity, as if something was pulling at her from one side. Whichever way she faced, the side facing the town felt, if only slightly, heavier.
She was focused enough on her efforts to maintain her shields - and her sanity - that when Mina sidled up to her, she blinked at her in surprise. "What's wrong?" she asked the other girl. Mina was radiating anxiety and focusing on Annie.
"I, uh-- can I ask you a favour?" Mina asked, casting furtive glances back over her shoulder at the adults.
"Sure," said Annie, getting to her feet. "What is it?"
"It's-- my mother's medallion," she said, holding up her right hand. Her wrist was bare, and Annie remembered that Mina had worn one of the imprinted medallions worn by many of the Delegates. "I was wearing it when we left, I was wearing it when we went into the town - I think I dropped it near the fence."
Annie, for a moment, gaped. "You lost it in Sunnydale?" she asked, dropping her voice suddenly to a whisper.
Mina nodded, biting her lip. "I can't leave it, Annie, but I don't want to go back for it alone, and if I ask Chayson he'll just..." she shrugged. "It's just a piece of jewelry, but... it was my mother's."
Annie looked over to where Chayson and Jeri were bent over a spread-out map on the ground, then looked back to Mina, who was looking at her with earnest entreaty.
Annie sighed. "All right," she said. "But we hurry."
"Deal," said Mina, grinning again. She caught up her weapons, and together they slipped away from the others, and back into the town.
Impossibly, Sunnydale seemed even more deserted now than a few hours ago, with the desert storm beginning to insinuate itself between the buildings of the outskirts. Annie and Mina went carefully and quickly, goggles on and hoods up; the wind was full of sand and debris and goggles and hoods served as a doubly utilitarian disguise, should anyone happen to sight them - not that it was likely they'd be spotted. They'd seen for themselves that the Slayer and her friends were busy with other things than a pair of teenage girls who really oughtn't be there.
At a silent, ground-devouring lope, they reached the high school in under ten minutes, and paused behind the outlying buildings for a few moments, to make sure that they were, indeed, alone - but they saw only a few girls patrolling the school building itself, far across the field, and felt confident enough to cross the intervening space and begin to hunt along the ground at the base of the chainlink fence.
Just a few minutes later, Mina stood up with a triumphant "hah!", the lost medallion clutched in her fist, and Annie smiled with relief as Mina tied it back onto her wrist. It was perhaps because of Mina's overhwhelming relief that they didn't hear anyone coming.
"Well, well. What have we here?" said a husky, amused voice.
Annie and Mina looked up in surprise. About ten feet away stood a young woman of about twenty, dark hair a little wild and pouting dark lips curved into a challenging smirk. Annie recognized her from the roster of the Slayer's friends, though couldn't quite remember her name.
::That's the other Slayer,:: came Mina's voice, laced with chagrin, and some embarrassment. ::I can't believe I didn't scan for another patrol!::
::No point worrying about it now,:: Annie said, looking sideways and seeing another girl standing some ten feet distant. Mina confirmed another girl on the other side; they were hemmed in.
::Any ideas?:: asked Annie, as the Slayer took a cautious half-step forward.
::Gimme a minute,:: Mina answered, as they both got slowly and carefully to their feet.
"Now, this is interesting," the Slayer said thoughtfully. "Mostly 'cause I know that everyone who lived in this crappy little burg high-tailed it out a few days back. But here you are, all squirrelly and infiltrating." She cocked her head to one side. "Now what exactly are you two under all that?"
When a moment passed and neither Annie nor Mina moved, the Slayer placed a hand on one hip. "If you replay it in your heads, you'll realize that that wasn't a request."
Annie looked at Mina, who nodded, slowly, and both girls reached up and pulled back their hoods, and pulled down their goggles.
To her credit, the Slayer looked surprised to see that the infiltrators were only a pair of teenaged girls, and it was a full ten seconds before she said "Now what in the--" and took another step forward.
That was as far as she got, because then she went stiff, and froze, face frozen in an expression of surprise. Annie looked to either side, and saw the other two girls in a similar state. She looked at Mina, then, and saw her companion concentrating fiercely. She held out a hand to Annie. "Annie, have you ever channelled?" she asked, as Annie regarded the hand with puzzlement.
"Channelled?" Annie asked, confused.
Mina shook her head impatiently. "I have to make it so they don't remember seeing us - but I need a little boost. Gimme your hand, and lower your shields a touch. Just a touch. It won't hurt, I promise," she assured when Annie didn't react right away.
::Annie,:: she repeated, ::I promise.::
Annie sighed, and placed her hand in Mina's.
It was over less than a split-second later, and then Mina sagged a little dropped her hand. Annie looked at the Slayer and her charges; all three women seemed unharmed, albeit slightly dazed.
"Come on," Mina said, "It'll wear off in about ten seconds, and we need to be out of here before it does."
::And what say we don't tell Chayson and Jeri about this?:: she suggested, and Annie was forced to agree.
They replaced goggles and hoods and Annie, with one last glance at the Slayer, followed Mina as she darted past their would-be captors. Five seconds later saw them vanished into the deserted Sunnydale streets.
An hour after sunset, Jack looked up with surprise to see his mother standing over him, features composed and even. He was somewhat more surprised when she sat down next to him. "Jack?" she said, "Ethan talked to you?"
Jack looked at her, turned to look down the slope towards the shield, which was darkening as the day waned, shapes moving inside. He nodded, swallowing.
"Did he explain--"
"He said I had to shed blood," Jack said, rubbing his hands distractedly together. He looked at his mother hesitantly. "He said you'd explain it better."
His mother, studying him, nodded. With some confusion he studied her in return and saw little hesitation, little guilt - though there was worry, tamed and tamped down for later. He could tell. Fi looked the same when she was doing it.
"Did he tell you why it has to be you?" Her voice was uncharacteristically patient, and Jack realized suddenly that she was sitting straighter, more calmly, than he'd seen her in days.
"He said it had to be a blood relative of Dad's."
Again, she nodded. "Your sister volunteered, but she was vetoed."
"Well, good," he said, with emphasis.
His mother looked down the slope for a moment, taking in the shield, and the shapes moving inside. "What Ethan said is true - it has to be you, because of your dad, because you're the oldest... because you're stronger than Aunt Melinda."
Jack abruptly recognized his mother's calm as the studied detachment he'd seen in older Delegates. Helena Llwellyn, Tilia, and others - they seemed to be able to file away panic, worry, grief, all the inconvenient, unavoidable emotions that came part and parcel of a Delegate's life, shut them up until later, until it was safe to release them. He hadn't been sure at first whether the ability to suppress so efficiently were deeply unhealthy or exceedingly clever, but on reflection he'd realized that Delegates were among the healthiest people he'd ever known, emotionally and otherwise. He supposed it came from the honesty necessary among telepaths, from the way Crystallis had of blurring the lines of privacy. In any case few of the Delegates had secrets from one another, the Guardians alone, and Arreahannah in particular, being the exception. Areahannah, however, was an empath, and he'd heard Terren saying, once, that Arrah worried a great deal about losing herself among others. But she still exhibited, most of the time, that detachment common to her people; and it occurred to him, suddenly, that at some point, years ago, his mother would have been trained the same way, taught to centre and ground herself in order to function this way. The fact that she had not used this ability in intervening years was just another example of her having rejected everything to do with Circle life, even those lessons that were beneficial. For the first time in a very long time he saw, in his mother, something akin to wisdom. Right now, he knew, was not the time to wrestle old issues. There were other things to worry about; so he just listened.
She turned to look at him, supposedly gazing his reaction.
"So, it's because I'm the tastiest treat?" he asked, smirking. "I'm bait."
His mother flinched slightly, but nodded, smiling a little. "When it recognizes you, it will watch you, carefully. It won't be able to focus on anything else. And then, when you're ready..." her eyes flickered toward the shield, then back, "...brace yourself. Then you need to lower your shields, just enough for a merge."
"Lower my shields?" Jack croaked, blinking. "But--"
"When it sees you vulnerable - it's a trick, Jack. It won't hesitate. It won't be able to. Because through you, it will see the rest of us. Me, Fi, your aunt and your cousins. It doesn't think - you know that. It will come through you, instead of going after you. It will extend all of itself. It will see you as a way to the rest of us."
His mother placed a hand on his arm, steadying, strong, and oddly unfamiliar. "We'll be right behind you, Jack. It won't be able to see it, but we'll be ready for it. Waving our unprotected fannies around like flags, but ready as anything for it."
Jack stared at his feet. "And then it'll attack."
She nodded. "It'll come rushing out through you - you need to be ready for that. It'll be... unpleasant." Through her hand he felt her shudder, if only slightly.
"But when it does, it'll be defenseless - it won't see Arrah ready to shore up in front of it. She'll hold it. And that's when you strike. When you feel her join the merge, that's when you..."
Jack held up his left hand, nodding. "Why blood?" he asked, softly.
Molly looked thoughtful, then reached down to her belt, and drew something out of a scabbard at her hip. She held it, looking at it, for a moment, then held it out to him.
"This was your dad's," she said. Jack stared. It was a dagger, about eight inches long and narrow, the pommel wrapped with leather and worked in silver at the crosspiece. A flat red stone was set into the base of the hilt, about the size of his thumbnail. It looked strikingly familiar; he remembered, abruptly, finding it one day at age nine, rifling through his mother's things looking for the makings of a school project. He also remembered his mother snatching it from his hands and ordering him coldly to never, ever touch it again.
She was looking at him, now, with hesitation showing through her composure. "It's an athame. It was his mother's, and probably his grandmother's before that. Witches use them - there were always witches in your dad's family. Athames are powerful because the worker imbues his own with a part of himself."
She stared at it, then looked at him. "When the moment comes, you need to - it doesn't need to be much. Just a few drops." She turned the knife in her hand, so expertly that it surprised him, and nicked the edge of her palm, to demonstrate, not even flinching as she did so. A bright red drop of blood welled up, dark and gleaming like the jewel in the pommel of the knife. He felt, for a brief instant, in awe of his mother.
"It doesn't need to be much," she repeated. "That much will do." She pulled a hankerchief from her pocket and dabbed the blood away. Then she held out the knife again, handle first. "Take it."
Jack took it, cradling it uncertainly.
"The blood... is another piece of bait. But it's a trap. It seals it to you - on your terms. It will make it vulnerable enough for us - all of us - to do what we have to do."
Jack stared at the knife, the jewel glinting in the fading sunlight. "This isn't Circle magic," he said slowly.
"No, it's not. It's arcane magic. It's what it understands. You're challenging it in its own language. And the most important thing, when you do this, is for it to believe it can beat you. Otherwise it might think."
"And ruin things," he said, nodding. "So I should be overconfident."
"As arrogant and reckless as you can project," his mother agreed.
Jack looked at her, forcing a grin. "I think I can manage that," he said.
She clasped his arm again, giving him a reassuring squeeze. "We'll be behind you, Jack," she said, and rose to her feet. "It will be all right," she added quietly. Jack watched her go with a mixture of nervousness and confusion. But now was not the time to resolve things with his mother, he reminded himself.
He looked down at the athame in his hands. For its age, it seemed well-cared-for. But for all that, it still felt, faintly, like his father. How he could remember enough of his father to know that, he wasn't quite sure.
It was not long before Ethan and Katia came to fetch him, walking him down toward the perimeter of the shield talking lightly, running him through the plan one more time, Katia surreptitiously scanning him as they did, and for once, Jack didn't protest. Finally she nodded to Ethan, and the older man gave Jack a reassuring grin.
It was very dark when they started, beginning the merge once again, in tandem instead of in unison, trying not to alert the creature of their intentions. And this time they left Jack outside it, so that he could see it, feel it, but was not a part of it. The monster had to believe him alone. All the same he felt the tenuous connection of dozens of minds - and not only those in Aislinn Park, but those he knew were linking from elsewhere; the groups stationed around the other hellmouths, the other Delegates and Guardians lending power from Crystallis. Everyone was connected to this, watching, waiting, and every one of them was focused on Jack, not linked, but watching and ready to pull him into the merge when he reached for them.
All the attention, both visible and otherwise, was unquestionably reassuring, but all the same had him almost vibrating with readiness and trepidation by the time he stood facing the crackling wall of energy that contained the monster. He stood there for a long several seconds, breathing, steadying himself, before he could think clearly again.
As Jack stepped through the shield, the merge was like a line about his waist, ready to pull him back if he stumbled, though even he knew that if he failed, there would be no second chance. The energy of the shield tingled as he passed through it, like warmth on his skin, but not exactly. A little below him, and growing, he felt it stir again, this time in recognition.
It smelled him.
He could feel that, that the way it knew him was nothing like knowledge or sentience, that this creature knew nothing of light or air or living, only what it could taste, and smell, and devour. He felt it inspecting him, at a distance, as one inspects a meal. Worse was its sense of delirious excitement, the obscene glee it felt at the idea of tearing his flesh from his body, sucking the life from him like marrow from a bone... its thoughts - if thoughts they could be called - went on in greater detail, open and displayed for him with colour and enthusiasm. Jack shuddered, swallowing back the reflex to gag, not even aware of fear so much as disgust that made every part of him recoil. It was nothing thinking, only feeling, and wanting, childlike but nothing like a child. For a split-second he thought he couldn't do it.
But then he swallowed again, steeled himself, and shaking so hard he feared dropping the knife, he lowered his shields.
The creature reacted so quickly that he staggered backwards with the force of it - distracted by the temptation of what it saw beyond him, what seemed suddenly available, it did not move, did not pounce, but reached for him, pushing out through him, slid across his unresisting thoughts, the contact making him shudder, violently, and cry out, and somewhere behind him he heard as well as felt Fiona gasp, make an abortive gesture toward him, even as he felt his mother steady her, holding her back. The monster, unabated, rushed out throughthem in triumph, upward, and outward, skyward, blood-mad and thirsty and free-- for a moment, until something strong and unmoving and ready met it, seized it, and held it... and then, from far away, something... else.
As they spread out around the shield - a substantially-sized one, as it contained all of Sunnydale - they were left, almost out of sight of the others, as distantly, through the tenuous merge of hundreds of minds, they felt the spell in Aislinn Park grow, and breathe, and strengthen, like a living field. Distantly Annie felt Jack steel himself as he stepped into the shield.
Annie was partnered with Jason Quade, Mina sent with the Sarases, and neither teenager spoke much as they backed slowly away from the shield. Whatever the Slayer and her friends were doing, it, too, was growing in strength as a spell was carefully crafted and fed, like a tiny fire being fed with kindling.
They stood in the shadow of a craggy cliff, a huge mass of bleached stone that thrust up out of the earth like the sun-whitened bones of some ancient beast. Jason leant against the rockface, ignoring her.
They hadn't much to do - the shield was in place, and would more or less take care of itself. It was a good thing, because Annie herself was distracted with worry for Fi and Jack and Molly; it took her a while to notice that Jason was regarding her with almost sarcastic curiosity. Finally she turned on him with annoyance. "What?"
Jason started, as if surprised she had noticed his scrutiny. "I-- nothing," he said, with a glower.
"You were staring at me," she pointed out.
"I was not," he replied, affecting a haughty tone. "look, you're supposed to be focusing on--"
"Don't tell me what to do," Annie snapped.
"I'm senior to you," he snapped back.
"And nobody put you in charge of me," she reminded him. "We're supposed to be partnered, remember?"
"So that means we're equal," she pointed out again.
He subsided with a glare, then stared fiercely at his feet. Annie sighed in frustration and concentrated, for a few minutes, on ignoring him. She wasn't quite sure why he irritated her so much - but he did. He was just so arrogant, and condescending, and...
::...and exactly like Jack was when I met him,:: Annie realized. She snuck another glance at Jason. He really was radiating the same kind of uncomprehending, simmering perpetual anger that Jack had carried around like a mantle of pride when she'd first known him. Not surprising, considering: their situations were almost exactly the same. The only difference was that Jason, she supposed, hadn't had a dozen people beating sense into him for the past two years or so, the way Jack had.
The fact that he was being so snotty about it, though, did not inspire her to overweening sympathy.
::You're supposed to be the mature one,:: she reminded herself. ::Lacking all that angsty baggage, and all. *You* have no excuse for tantrums.::
Not that Jason did.
She sighed again, and looked at her "partner". He was standing at slumped attention, eyes on the nearest team, some half a mile away. Laan was padding softly toward him, nose twitching curiously. As the panther shoved his nose under the boy's slack arm, Jason jumped in surprise, then looked down at the panther with a mixture of confusion and annoyance; but there was fascination mixed in there, too.
"Sorry," Annie said, moving forward to extract her curious familiar. "I think he's bored."
Jason stared at Laan, then looked up at Annie. "He's a familiar, isn't he?" he said, eyes widened a little with wonder. Familiars were not unheard of in the Circle, but generally they were smaller, less obtrusive creatures, ones that attracted less notice in the wider mundane world. Also for the most part they were, strictly speaking, more "real" than Laan, who was more spirit than substance, for all his intelligence.
Annie nodded cautiously, feeling Jason's haughty standoffishness slip in favour of boyish curiosity. "I got him when I was little - when I was living Africa. A shaman gave him to me. He's quite safe," she added, seeing Jason's hand reach tentatively out to pet the creature. At her assurance, he glanced at her, then knelt down to run his hand down the panther's silky neck. Laan arched his neck in cat-like encouragement of the attention.
"He's a manitou, too, isn't he?" Jason murmured, half to himself, now scratching behind Laan's ears at the panther's own urging.
"A-- oh, yes," Annie acknowledged. "Manitou" was a First Nations word that loosely referred to any kind of spirit creature.
"I wish I had a familiar," Jason told her, still staring at Laan as he petted him, to the panther's delight.
"Why?" Annie asked, curiously.
Jason looked up at her. "Mostly only powerful people have them - mostly they're gifts," he told her.
"He was a gift," Annie told him. "As he reminds me constantly." She grinned, and Jason returned the smile. Annie moved cautiously to sit on a boulder near Laan.
"What's his name?"
"Geur Laan," Annie told him. "Fi named him. It's Gaelic. It means--"
"'Bright Blade,'" Jason said, not looking up. "Nice."
"Right." She might have guessed that Jason would speak Gaelic - much of the Circle did. In fact the closest thing to an official language the Delegates had was an odd mix of Gaelic, Latin, and a few other tongues. It wasn't used often in conversation, but knowing it passably well was equivalent to learning Hebrew for a Bar Mitzvah. "Actually Fi just provided the translation - the name was Jack's idea."
At the mention of Jack, Jason tensed, and Annie caught a flash of resentment; not exactly focused on Jack, but present.
"What?" she demanded, trying to keep the annoyance out of her tone. Longingly she thought of the days when she could more easily compartmentalize her loyalties - then again, a few years ago she hadn't had many friends to speak of. She couldn't help that slights against the Phillipses, Jack in particular, brought her hackles up. She had felt protective towards him since the first evening they'd stood on the back porch of the house in Hope Springs and he'd admitted his anger towards his mother.
"Nothing," Jason said, ruffling Laan's ears.
"It's Molly, isn't it?" Annie observed, and saw, with some satisfaction that Jason started.
"How do you - you're not supposed to be an empath!" his tone was almost accusing.
"I'm not," she said, shrugging. "I'm just good with people. Especially when they all act alike."
"What do you mean?"
"You and Jack," she explained.
Jason scowled, but tried to hide it.
"You know, he and Molly haven't really spoken in most of a year," Annie told him. Jason looked surprised.
"Why?" he asked, simply.
"He thinks it was her fault, what happened to his dad."
Jason's brow furrowed. "Oh."
"You must think that, too," Annie said.
He stiffened, the arrogance returning. "How do you know about my family?"
Annie shrugged, refusing to rise to the challenge. "Fiona. She's friends with your sister, isn't she?"
Jason nodded, still simmering. "Fiona's okay," he allowed. "But her mom..."
Annie sighed. "Yeah, I know."
Jason blinked at her, startled by her apparent about-face. "I thought you lived with them?"
"I do," she said, shrugging again. "And I like them. I like Molly, too. But... Rick wasn't my dad. I guess I might feel differently if I'd been there, but I wasn't."
"She feels guilty, you know," she continued when Jason said nothing.
"She betrayed her oath," Jason said, in almost a snarl. "What happened after - a lot of people died. My dad died."
Annie inclined her head, studying him. "Maybe that makes it hard for you to see things clearly," she suggested.
Jason stared at her, the simmering anger fading. "You sound like my sister," he said, tone exasperated. Annie laughed.
Suddenly the ground lurched underneath them, a little, then more, like a restless animal slowly waking up. Annie and Jason looked at each other, then leapt to their feet as the town, within the shield, seemed to surge.
The hellmouth was opening.
The shaking grew steadily worse, and as the power of the spell within the shield, grappling with the thing in the ground, grew, it seemed to blot out everything else. Even the merge seemed distant and out of reach. Annie and Jason staggered as energy crackled through the air like feedback.
So neither teenager heard the warning, neither heard the adults shouting for them to run, as the ground gave one final, fitful tremor, and the rockface behind them cracked, sharply, then suddenly crumbled, the air filling with dust and choking their voices too quickly for Annie to cry out; tumbling stones struck her on the shoulder, in the small of her back, her hip, and the rockslide knocked her off her feet. Distractedly she saw Laan slinking along the ground toward her, and Jason reaching for her as, a moment later, it buried them, and the world faded abruptly away.
It was with a sudden burst of clarity that Jack realized he was not afraid, not trembling except with anger, and something purer than revenge, and he reached back for the merge with the Circle, with his sister, and his mother, and distantly, reaching, his aunt, and everyone else who shared ten generations of his blood, and forward, with his hands, for the thing that fifteen years ago, a hundred years ago, had decided his future.
Raising the knife, he brought it against his palm and reached, and reached again, further than he thought he could, feeling as if he were stretching beyond his limits, and growing thinner and thinner, until--
--time, for an instant, stopped, and for a long, endless moment, he and the monster and the darkness and the world hung there, staring, Jack the pivot upon which everything balanced--
--abruptly, and strangely, because he'd heard Fiona call it a curse, and say they were breaking it, he had not expected it to feel as if something had broken, but then, just like, exactly like a guitar string breaking, Jack, straining, suddenly felt the strain rush out through him. The ground trembled, fitfully, for a moment, and exhausted, he found himself on his knees.
Before him, the thing that had haunted his nightmares and his mother's life, the creature that had run his father to the ground and murdered him, that had destroyed so many other lives and threatened everything...
...Jack looked at it, and felt only disgust. In the light of moonrise it seemed only a pitiful, shrivelled shadow, quickly fading as the clean night rose behind him. A moment later it was nothing but ash, a dusty, defeated heap of nothing swiftly being carried away on the breeze.
And somehow, Jack felt no triumph, no victory, but only relief, and something like emptiness. It was over.
When he looked up, Fiona and his mother had their arms around him and the shield was gone. The others were cheering and embracing and shaking hands, the air was filled with their weary satisfaction, and far below them, to Jack's distant surprise, water was suddenly rushing, noisy and bubbling across the bottom of the crater, the old channels again free to follow their chosen paths, the place becoming a lake again. The water flowed faster and faster, until finally it was spraying, like a fountain, into the air, and down onto the tired Delegates, just like rain, falling from a cloudless sky.