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This Sort Of Thing

Chapter Text

Some said Crean Deorcha was haunted; others laughed and pointed out that any property would look a bit rundown if there was only one person to oversee it.

Most of the acreage surrounding the connected farmstead had been sold over time, back when the property changed hands from the Overlands, whose family tree dated back to the earliest settlers, to the Sickles, who took it over. Old-timers shook their heads and said that young people didn’t have the stick-to-it-iveness that their parents had, choosing instead to answer the siren song of the cities, hoping to make their fortunes but more likely wandering the world wherever the wind took them.

And in the last few generations, even the Sickles seemed to have thinned out and gone, the young masters becoming stranger and shyer and more solitary as the years passed. No one could recall a house party or a dance being held at the big house in decades. And there hadn’t been a young mistress since even further back in local lore.

The only constant at Crean Deorcha, through wind and snow and bloom and burr, was the succession of caretakers over time, all nephews or second cousins in an unbroken line, all with the surname Mariner. Every one of them as taciturn as his predecessor, every one of them lanky and sinewy, every one of them a great hand with horses, every one of them with a book to stick a long beaky nose in when, very rarely, the caretaker would drink a glass of cider in the pub, always paying with coins so worn that they were nearly black.

Local wags would jest that it was a wonder that there was such a string of Mariners, with nary a Missus Mariner to been seen. And what kind of name was “Mariner” for a farmer? Someone back in the caretaker’s family tree must have been a sailor…. Or a pirate.

The latest Mariner in residence had been caretaker of Crean Deorcha for about ten years, and bore the unusual given name of “Tarminster”. If people shortened it in his hearing to “Tar”, he would gravely but firmly state that he would prefer the use of his surname. Barring that, if he *must* be subjected to a nickname, he would suggest that people call him “Pitch”.

Chapter Text

Long before the Man in the Moon named his Guardians to care for humanity's children, Gaea had Guardians of her own to care for her offspring. And Fear was among them.

Fear at first was formless, as were many of the earliest creatures. Fear did not think in those days... it merely lashed out and caused reactions in the simplest cells, reactions that would make those cells move away from it.

And Gaea approved of Fear, and watched its progress as her creatures took form and evolved. She took pleasure in knowing that Fear moved in their minds to keep them safe from harm.

And as more and more new creatures learned to know Fear, Fear in turn learned with them. Fear became powerful and wily in the shapes that it took, and knew that it was a part of the force that kept the creatures alive.

Fear ran on all fours, slithered on its belly, wheeled on wings, swam through depths, slashed with beak and talons, sank fangs into flesh and drew blood with claws.

And then one type of creature among Gaea's many creatures took Fear's fancy, and Fear began to watch this new type of creature more closely than any of the others. Fear did not leave any of the other creatures behind, but spent more and more time with the youngest of Gaea's offspring, fascinated by the way it viewed itself as it grew and changed, and most particularly how it imagined.

As creatures established dominance on land, in the air, and in the sea, some of Gaea's offspring grew numerous; others did not thrive. Fear both guided the new creature and was guided by it, to the point where the new creatures first named themselves humans, and then gave names to Fear.

Fear found itself dividing into multiple forms to match the names given to it. Each name had a different sort of hold over the psyche, holds that still ruled the older creatures in their need to freeze, flee, or fight when faced with danger, but holds which were more refined in the thoughts and imaginations of the humans...

Chapter Text

There was little wind on this mid-September day, but the spaces between the trees in the fruit orchard were rippling.

There was no other word to describe it.

The tall lean man continued to gather pears from laden branches, feigning unconcern despite knowing, deep in his metaphorical bones, that something was going to shatter his tranquility. Life had been too quiet, of late. He balanced carefully on his ladder and continued to drop fruit into bushel baskets below him, while waiting for his unseen visitor to emerge from seeming thin air.

When no "pop!" or thunderclap was forthcoming, the caretaker raised a thin eyebrow. And then a large hand clamped onto his shoulder, at a height that no human should possibly be able to reach.

"Pitch Black, my old friend! You are looking well!"

Anyone else... anyone human... would have been forgiven for being startled enough to have fallen from the ladder.

Bur Tarminster Mariner, who had previously been Petronius Mariner and Reynolds Mariner and Constant Mariner and a dozen others in the last two centuries, caretakers all to the Overlands and the Sickles, was not human.

Neither was the enormous bearded being currently hovering a good six feet off the ground, garbed in a voluminous fur-trimmed red coat more suited to the frigid sweeps of northern Asia than to the temperate climate of North America. The caretaker sighed in exasperation and snapped, "And YOU are looking extremely out of place".

The giant did not appear to be the slightest bit embarrassed. "No hug?"

"Certainly not!"

"Well then," said the interloper, his voice now far less booming and jolly, "May we speak of serious matters? I would not trouble you otherwise."

I knew it, I knew it! screamed the caretaker... within the confines of his own mind, of course. He had no reason to dislike this visitor, and there had been times in the past where they'd actually fought enemies back-to-back. There were rites and rules to be observed, and debts to be paid. And so, with a softened tone [but still a begrudging one], he replied, "Come back after dark, to the house. It's not going to do my reputation any good to have the locals thinking that I'm talking to myself."

A few hours later, after popping in and out of all eight chimneys of the Big House, North finally found Pitch seated in a rocking chair by the fire in the kitchen of the Little House. Pitch had reverted to his spirit form for this visit... impossibly elongated limbs accentuated by his long black robe, ridiculously long fingers currently flexing and unflexing in the shadow-fabric of said robe, hair stiffened into a swept-back crest. He did, however, sport one human feature... small half-moon spectacles perched on the bridge of his prominent nose. A well-loved copy of Edward Lear's Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets lay open on his lap.

"Now tell me, Nicholas," the former Guardian of Caution uttered grimly to the present Guardian of Wonder, "what could possibly be world-shaking enough to need MY assistance?"

====================

The first sign that things were a-stirring at the Sickle farmstead came from a notice posted at the village tavern. A general call was put out for housemaids, cooks and job-men. The ballroom and Great Hall were to be opened and aired, bedchambers above and below to be dusted, scrubbed, and put into apple-pie order, employment to last for three weeks at generous wages.

The news spread like wildfire, and speculation was keen and lively. Young Jacob Sickle must be coming home from his studies in the big city.

Sophie, one of the newer serving girls at the tavern, was the first one brave enough and bold enough to approach Mister Mariner, as she served him an ale, three nights after the notice had been put up. The landlord had avowed publicly that it was none of his business, although privately he was curious as could be, and none of the other girls could think of a way to open a conversation without risking a haughty rebuff.

Not that the current caretaker of Crean Deorcha had ever been rude or unmannerly to the tavern staff; quite the contrary, in fact. He was always polite, unlike one or two of his predecessors. Tales were still told of the sharp tongue and fiery temper of Reynolds Mariner, who had held the joint positions of estate steward and village schoolmaster at the turn of the century. It was rumoured that he had worked himself into a state of apoplexy and had had to retire for the sake of his nerves.

Tarminster Mariner, on the other hand, while not gregarious, unbent himself to take part in village life from time to time, particularly if conversations could be turned to folklore and local legends. But there was a distinct reserve about him, and the harsh angles of his face, coupled with his often keen and piercing gaze from bright grey eyes, made him not the most approachable of persons.

Nevertheless, Sophie was fond of Mister Mariner; she relished the ghost stories he would sometimes tell an audience of spellbound children and adults during winter socials and literaries, after harvesting was done. At the grand old age of fourteen, she felt that she knew him well enough to ask him the question that was on the minds of all the villagers of Hawthorne.

"Are you expecting company, Sir? Everyone's been talking about the sign you put up."

Pitch laid his book aside and gave her a small smile of acknowledgement. He trusted Sophie enough to believe that whatever he told her would be accurately repeated... with the emphasis on "accurately".

"Well, my dear, they aren't MY guests, exactly; they are Master Sickle's guests. He's planning a house party, which is why we'll need more household help for a few weeks." He leaned towards the young girl and whispered conspiratorially, "They're foreigners, you see... some of his science crackpot friends... and while I can toss together a fry-up for myself, it's going to take more hands than mine to keep 'em cosseted and fed while they do heaven knows what."

Sophie giggled and hid a grin behind her hand. Poor Mister Mariner. "When will they be arriving, Sir?"

"On the last day of September, and there's so much to do. You shan't see much of me until they're gone."

And that was that. His absence from village life would now not be questioned, nor would the appearance of strangers at the farmstead.

At least Jack would be at his side through all of this. His irrepressible, unquenchable Jack.

Chapter Text

Time and again over the millennia, from the time that the primal forces of fear coalesced into separate yet related thinking beings, one thought repeated itself... why are we different from the others who guide and shape human thought?  Why have we divided when the others have stayed whole?

And why has one of us stayed formless and primal, while the rest of us have evolved?

 ====================================

"We are going to do this my way, Nicholas."  Pitch's tone brooked no argument.  The elder spirit gazed sternly at the younger over the rims of his half-moon spectacles.  "I have entrenched myself in this mortal community for my own reasons, and if someone... some power.. is trying to subvert humans into... older... patterns of behaviour, I feel it best not to alarm those in my immediate vicinity, at least until we know what we are fighting against." 

"But this threat MUST be one of your splinters!  I feel it... in my belly!"

"Then how do you know it's not me?" Flames from the kitchen hearth leaped fiercely; shadows roiled along the rough-hewn walls in indistinct but fearsome patterns.

Despite his heavy coat and his well-padded bulk, North could not repress an involuntary shiver.  Retired Guardian or not, Pitch was still a force of Nature, quite literally, and was capable of wielding great power.  The fact that he chose not to devastate the Earth by coalescing with his kin and sweeping all Life into unending darkness did not mean that he couldn't do it.

And Pitch was the least volatile of the incarnations of Fear.  When one compared "worry" to the other embodiments of "panic, dread, and wrath".... well...

North knew Pitch would not like the answer to his sharply-worded question, but there was no help for it. "We know it is not you because Manny told us so."

"You were... told."  His host's thin lips thinned even further in disapproval at the mention of the Man in the Moon.  "So I was under suspicion?  And you had to be... told... by that feckless ivory tower philomath that I was not the enemy of the world, rather than trusting me, your comrade in battle?"

Pitch slowly moved the book off his lap and onto the shelf beside him, got to his feet equally slowly, and moved to stand in front of his seated guest.  North remained silent, unsure of what to say to dispel the hurt in his old friend's eyes.

The curator of nightmares sighed after a seemingly interminable silence, turned on his heel with a swish of shadowy robe, and began to pace.

"If this threat IS one of my kin, we need to approach them one at a time."

North was quick to agree.  "I will summon other Guardians..."

"No, WE will summon other... Guardians," retorted Pitch.  "Jack and I will summon them.  In the midst of the human community, this needs to be done in the human way."

"And what way is that?" North asked, genuinely confused now.

Pitch's harsh face was transformed by one of his unnerving grins, with many sharp teeth in evidence.

"We host a house party, of course."

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Tarminster Mariner, the caretaker of Crean Deorcha, met Marwin Rudd, the town librarian, at the Unionville station just as the train arrived in a shower of soot and sparks.  To any human observer, the two men looked nothing alike, apart from height; the former Sickle family tutor sported curling auburn hair and van Dyke beard, as well as tinted round spectacles.

Anyone with The Sight, however, would think they were seeing twin brothers; with glamour stripped away, the librarian's hair was just as black as that of "Mister Mariner", his facial features just as angular and pale. 

Piki was fussing about “the ruffians” handling the luggage.  Pitch wondered why Piki was not leaping onto the train to fuss over Jack, and made a caustic comment to that effect.

Piki’s expression was a fond one, as was to be expected in matters pertaining to Jack.  “Our Jack has… grown.  You’ll see.”  Surprisingly, Piki’s expression was also suffused with pride, which Pitch did not expect.

Having anticipated the familiar hunched-over, slight-to-the-point-where-a-stiff-breeze-would-topple-him waif, Pitch was startled to see a tall, slim, confident young man descend surefootedly from the train and stride towards them, hand extended.

Jacob Sickle apparently still favoured dressing in shades of blue and brown, but he now longer looked like his garments were three sizes too large.  His cravat was snowy white, his waistcoat was sleek, his frockcoat well-fitting and his trousers snug.  He moved lightly, but no longer hesitantly, and while there was still a touch of shyness and uncertainty in his eyes, his smile was closer to a grin than to a rictus of fear.

Pitch silently applauded what was an undeniably masterful acting performance on the part of the young master of Crean Deorcha.  Letting a little bit of Jack Frost show through the customary timidity of past generations of Overlands and Sickles would do no harm.  The villagers might even get used to Jack's mischievous side, given time.

A burly man in a railway staff uniform helped Pitch load Jack's valises into the waiting carriage.  Under the cover of the train's noise as it prepared to resume its journey, the man, whose name badge read "Peter Constant", gave Pitch's ear a swipe of his tongue and whispered, "Later, dear."

Pitch grimaced and then quickly twisted his expression into something more appropriate for curious onlookers.  Once Piki and Jack were seated inside the carriage, Pitch climbed up onto the driving box and lightly clapped the reins on the backs of the two beautiful black horses in harness.

The first set of pieces had been moved onto the chessboard.

Chapter Text

The old wags who were fixtures at the tavern could never agree later on whether one or two carriages had passed them on that afternoon.  Logic dictated that there MUST have been two, because true ladies would never have travelled alone, or at night.  And the four [or was it five?] women in question, when seen around the town in the week to follow, were indeed ladies in looks and manners.  They were there now, so they must have arrived with everyone else.

But Sophie Bennett never saw them arrive, either, on that golden afternoon, although she was on hand to attend them in the days to come.  It never occurred to her to question it; she took it in stride that it was Mister Mariner's and Mister Sickle's concern, not hers.

Sophie had been hired as an upstairs maid for the duration of the house party.   Her brother Jamie and their friend Monty had jumped at the chance to be stablehands; their friends Pippa and Cupcake (who hated her given name Lucinda) were helping out in the kitchen, and their friends Caleb and Claude had been retained as footmen.  Other townsfolk had answered Mister Mariner's call for temporary help, and a respectable household staff now stood in a semicircle behind the young master of Crean Deorcha, at the doors leading into the Big House.

Mister Sickle stood on the front steps, greeting the newcomers with a shy but sweet smile.  He was flanked by Tarminster Mariner on one side and by Marwin Rudd on the other; both men visibly rolled their eyes when Mister Sickle insisted on introducing his guests and his staff to one another, to the consternation of the latter and the gracious amusement of the former.  

Count Alexei Nikolayevich Severnaya was the most enormous man that Sophie had ever seen.  He should have been completely terrifying, with his height and bulk and his booming voice, but she soon discovered this giant was a gentle one.

He deferred completely to his tiny little wife, the Countess Tetiana Olegovna, whom he called "his sweet коллибри".  When Sophie got up the courage to ask what the strange word meant, she was told it was the Russian word for "hummingbird".

The count and countess both wore beautiful long velvet coats, his a deep red, hers a bright green.  Both were trimmed with feathery black fur on their sleeve cuffs and hems.

Sophie was curious about the silent, but always smiling, Lord Sanderson, who was short and stout and who dressed like a gentleman from the previous century.  His neatly tied cravat, richly embroidered waistcoat (was that real gold thread?), and snug fawn-coloured frockcoat and knee breeches contrasted sharply with his wildly tousled hair. He wore shoes with copper buckles on his incredibly tiny feet, and seemed to almost float over the ground rather than to tread upon it.

The last member of the party to descend from the coach was the coachman himself, a very tall man whose heavily wrinkled brown face was obscured by thick muttonchop whiskers of brindled black and grey, matching the collar-length hair that could be glimpsed under a fine beaver hat.  His heavy greatcoat with capes seemed to swallow his body from his neck to his boots.  His brilliant green eyes and his white teeth were that much more startling when they could be seen.  His driving gloves were a dark grey leather with interesting markings on them.  

Sophie was amazed to discover that the coachman was no mere servant, but one of the houseguests.  He introduced himself as Girraween, and bent over her hand in as courtly a manner as had the Count.  His grin, however, made her think that he was a co-conspirator with her in any class battle of nobs versus working folk. 

The ensuing bustle of people heading into the house, as well as luggage being sorted and carried upstairs to the rooms that had been made ready over the past fortnight, completely drove the question of why none of the guests had servants of their own from her mind.

Chapter Text

If Caleb and Claude Belazair were to judge, the house party was proceeding swimmingly, and every entertainment, indoors and out, had been a success. 

Tonight's dinner, on the fourth evening, however, was to be a far more formal occasion, and the first time the twins would be in full footmen's livery.  They wanted everything to be perfect, especially for the lady guests.  Claude sighed longingly but silently whenever the tall and stately Miss Iansa Oya spoke to him; Caleb preferred the plump and mirthful Miss Doris Tyche.  They were a little afraid of the dour Miss Alida Schwarm, but had come to realize that the other guests and Mister Sickle had great respect for her.  Both the slender Miss Melia Fraxinus and the strongly built Miss Tyva Kyzyl always had cheery greetings for them at breakfast and supper.

Not that the gentlemen were stand-offish in the slightest; Lord Sanderson had a perpetual smile for the twins, and Mister Girraweem seemed to view them as equals to himself, though he was landed gentry.  Count Severnaya's booming laugh and Countess Olegovna's trilling one were shared as much with the servants as with their fellow guests and their host.

Even the crusty Mister Mariner seemed to have softened during this week.  Tonight he made a special point to commend the brothers for their efforts in helping things run smoothly, and noted their fine penmanship on the dining room placecards.  Caleb and Claude had been justifiably proud of the results therein, particularly on some of the more tongue-twisting names.

All was in readiness.

Those who came from town to dine with Mister Sickle's guests at Crean Deorcha were an assorted lot: the mayor, Trainor Duncan, and his wife Bonita; Francis & Liesl Raymond, who managed the Mountain Home Hotel;  Marwin Rudd, tutor-turned librarian; Peter Constant, the stationmaster; and Antoine Maynard and his sister Helena, proprietors of Maynard's Music Hall.

Mister Mariner, acting as butler, was in his formal swallowtailed suit.  Honoria Belazair, the twins' mother who had been brought in as housekeeper for this week, looked forbidding and elegant in black taffeta.  They each flanked the dining room doors and took turns announcing each set of dinner partners.

The Count and Countess were seated first, followed by Lord Sanderson and Miss Tyche, then by Mister Rudd and Miss Kyzyl, Mister and Missus Duncan,  Mister Girraweem and Miss Fraxinus, Mister Constant and Miss Schwarm, Mister and Miss Maynard, Mister and Missus Raymond, and finally Mister Sickle and Miss Oya. 

Mister Girraweem whispered to Claude as he passed him, "Good to see that Jack doesn't believe in any of that 'No boots in the Big House' nonsense."  Claude risked a grin back at him, since Mister Mariner was occupied with his announcements.

Lucinda Leslie, known to her friends as Cupcake, and Pippa Chandler started bringing in their heavily laden serving trays, and Caleb and his brother helped them pass dishes to the guests under Missus Belazair's gimlet eye.

====================

Earlier in the day, Mister Sickle, with Mister Mariner's supervision, had arranged for a round of charades in the parlour after dinner for those who were interested, and card tables in the back anteroom (which the two young footmen had initially heard as "the bacchante room" and had dissolved into laughter, in which fortunately Mister Sickle had joined, while Mister Mariner glared), for those who were not.

"And I am quite sure that we will all enjoy some music to close out the evening.  Has the pianoforte been tuned recently, Mister Mariner?"

"Yes, Mister Rudd saw to it earlier in the week."

"Splendid!"  Mister Sickle clapped his hands like a delighted child.  "Well, lads, please make sure that it's moved to the corner so that there's room for everyone.  Off with you now!"

The Belazair brothers nodded and withdrew.  It did not occur to them until much later that the young master seemed to have outgrown his childhood stutter.

====================

After coffee, brandy, and sherry had been served, the two footsore footmen and the two weary kitchen maids were allowed to retire downstairs for their own dinners.  Mister  Mariner was expected to take care of the town and country guests for the rest of the night. All the rest of the household staff, including Claude and Caleb's mother, had gone home, expecting to be back very early the next morning.  Jamie and Monty as grooms were out in the stable, on hand for when the guests' carriages would be needed.

Tired as they were, they made short work of their meals and the washing up.  Pippa and Cupcake bade them goodnight, and the twins crept quietly upstairs to the half-closed parlour doors.

Carefully, the youths sat down to listen.  They were both very fond of music and grasped every opportunity to experience it.

They heard the sound of the pianoforte, and voices joined in chorus in a series of unfamiliar tunes.  They could pick out Mister Rudd's tenor blending sweetly with the soprano and contralto of the Misses Fraxinus and Tyche.  Then the far deeper voices of Miss Schwarm and Miss Oya performed a duet. Finally the inimitable voice of Miss Kyzyl, who practiced what she announced to the gathering was called throat-singing, rang out in a strident solo.  

Their audience reaction seemed to be a mixture of polite applause from some and more exuberant kudos from others.  The Count's bellowing in a mix of Russian and English was full of hearty praise. 

Finally they heard a voice they'd not heard in years... the soaring counter-tenor of their childhood playmate Jack, as Caleb and Claude had known him before he had become Mister Jacob Sickle, before he'd had tutors and then gone away to University.  Both his voice and the words of his song brought the twins to tears they were not ashamed to shed.

 

 

 

 

They say there's a place , where dreams have all gone
They never said where, but I think I know
It's miles through the night just over the dawn
On the road that will take me home

I know in my bones, I've been here before
The ground feels the same, tho' the land's been torn
I've a long way to go, the stars tell me so
On this road that will take me home.

Love waits for me round the bend
Leads me endlessly on
Surely sorrows shall find their end
And all our troubles will be gone
And I know what I've lost, and all that I won
When the road finally takes me home

Time seemed to suspend itself; somehow it was suddenly very late in the evening and the hallway tapers were burning low.  They scrambled rapidly to their feet as they heard Mister Mariner's voice approaching the door, saying, "I'll see that the carriages  are brought 'round".   Not wanting to be subjected to what they privately called his "boogeyman face" if he should realize that they'd been eavesdropping, they stood smartly at attention as the town guests exited the parlour at the caretaker's heels, amidst calls of "Good night!" from the houseguests, who as a body headed upstairs to their rooms.

Caleb was dispatched to the stables to wake Jamie and Monty, while Claude helped Mister Mariner gather greatcoats and pelisses.  After the last of the townsfolk had left, the boys were free to go. 

Growing up, neither twin had admitted to having the Sight that their mother Honoria and their father Jean-Pierre had.

Something in the music tonight, however, made them realize that among the eighteen that sat at table this evening,  only six were human.

On their walk home, they quietly talked about the shimmer they'd started to see around the houseguests, around Mister Mariner, Mister Rudd, Mister Constant, and most profoundly and disturbingly around Mister Jacob Sickle.

 

 

Chapter Text

The scene in the parlour rapidly changed once the humans had departed.

Spirits shed their glamour, regaining their accustomed fur, feathers, wings, height, skin tones, carapaces, mandibles, extra limbs, and extra eyes. 

Piki Black and Pitch Black bookended one another in their long black robes roiling with shadows, seated in matching armchairs. Piki's robe had a constant flowing oily motion that would have been very disconcerting to any eyes but those gathered here.  Pitch's robe was sleeker, as was his crest of hair.  Both still wore their human eyewear, Pitch with his half-moon spectacles and Piki with his round tinted ones, both seemingly unaware of the affectation. 

The third fear spirit in the room stood nearly nine feet tall, but was currently slouching to lean an elbow on the mantel above the roaring fire, dashing and rakish in his buccaneer's coat of black and scarlet.

Assorted Guardians and nature spirits stood, perched, hovered, and sat in clusters about the room, alternately looking at North, Pitch and Jack.

Pitch broke the silence.  "Now that your humanoid presences have been noted by our village residents..." he began.

"And any gossip should roll along under its own steam," interjected Pitchiner.

The brothers Black both shot Pitchiner equally dark glares in unison.  They had to admit the giant had a point, but old habits died hard, and Piki and Pitch both hated being interrupted when speechifying. 

Pitchiner did not do them the courtesy of sizzling into a pile of ash under their gaze, but instead grinned toothily back.

Pitch drawled caustically, "Yes, gossip has been seeded, to run in the channels we desire.  But, as I was saying, the town now knows you're here, and has gotten used to seeing some of you out and about, as well as getting used to others of us tucked away at their own.... scientific... pursuits."  He too looked over at North.  "This means that we can all investigate, in shifts, pairs or teams, the threat that has been brought to our attention.  The threat that is unbalancing human development and invention, both necessary to their survival."

He turned his head to grin at each of the nature spirits in turn.  "Like old times, hmmmm?  The young ones need us relics to show them how it's done." 

Tyva shook her head in frustration, sending ropes of her flamelocks cascading behind her. "This... 'New World' could use more guidance."

Schwarm was quick to buzz their agreement. Iansa, Melia and Doris remained silent, awaiting further instructions.

Jack stood at the window with his back to the room, curtain held aside in one slim hand as he looked out into the night.  Without turning, he said, "Isn't it time we stopped beating around the bush?  There's an awfully good chance that the threat is Proto.  So let's start making plans for how to STOP Proto, not just 'investigate' him."