All About Spike - Print Version
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Spiegel Im Spiegel
By Fallowdoe

--- Part One: The Key Inhuman ---

She was so beautiful and small.

Like a glowing speck in the distance of his vision.

A glowing brilliant light flowed from her like water. Crystalline, perfect water pouring over river stones in the long-ago sunlight.

He remembered it perfectly, but distantly. He'd gone over it a thousand times in his mind, and as if it were made of old, delicate paper, each time wore at the edges, creased and softened it. It was a million miles away and immediately, ever-present at the same time.

And forever, forever the soft current of that shining figure was pulling and calling and straining so softly in the mist of his memory.

The world went quiet and the sunrise, just hinting at the corners of the sky, seemed to freeze in place. And ever since, the light had never grown brighter in the sky than at that moment-- the eternal, twisting moment that lived with him and inside him like a virus.

It was as if time, as he had understood it, stopped in that second, when all the worlds converged together, breaking and shattering in the impact with forceful, terrible power.

And she had been so beautiful in that moment, the moment before she dissolved into that flowing glow, falling from her like trails of water into the air.

Blood.

She was so high above him, that when he came to himself, lying on the pavement, all he could see was that beautiful light that ended the world they had known forever. Ended an innocence he had come to know with a tentative sort of intimacy. That he had discovered to be strangely, perfectly beautiful. Sometimes, when he woke, he couldn't admit to himself that she was dead. It ached within him, sometimes, dull and silent, and the weight of his responsibility, of his failures to her broke his heart again.

It wasn't what happened afterwards that did it. Deaths couldn't mean much to him, after everything he'd been. But she was small, and innocent, and he knew her. That meant everything.

And he could remember lying beneath the tower. He was transfixed by that tiny glowing shape so high above him, and, dazed from his fall, didn't entirely understand its import-- he didn't see the mad god's horror rending the very fabric of the dull world around him-- of the sober, asphalt and concrete reality around him.

His vision was clouded from the impact of his fall, and he felt himself moving, twisting and shifting. He thought it was the spinning, swimming pain in his head. Not the asphalt beneath him.

But it had really happened.

And the little glowing figure stood on its tower entirely alone. The creature that had cut her vanished, his task complete. Her skin glowed pale and bright, the faintly green hue spilling out into the sky around her, falling in glowing green trails down her ankles and down, down into the air below her, ripping the space apart beneath her feet.

And the pavement beneath him began to buck and thrash violently, and he was suddenly thrown from where he lay in an eruption of earth, thrown across the pavement to land against the iron leg of the tower. He tried to move, and his broken ribs screamed agony as he shifted, ignoring the pain. And in that moment, he saw a small, familiar figure on the roughly made stairs just above his head. Crumpled and unconscious, breathing shallow gasps, her blonde hair strewn out around her in her empty sleep. Her forehead was bruised and bloody.

And then the world blurred again, the pain overcoming him. And as the world darkened around him, the dull certainty of what had happened fell on him, suddenly, like that darkness.

"No..." he whispered, desperately. Painfully, as if what he said mattered.

It was all he thought before he faded, fell away into the darkness of his mind.

---

The memory hung over him like a heavy fog as he walked across the dull landscape.

Spike walked across a grassy plain, its earth smoothed into gently sloping hills by the constant, harsh wind. The long, tedious years-- or what would have been years before-- had worn the space down, filled in some of the sickly rifts with rubble and earth and sand. It was dry and cold, and fitful snowflakes hit his cheeks in the gusty breeze. Frost clung to the tall grass at his feet.

He could instinctually feel the soft, supernatural hum in the air, the quiet reverberations of arcane power, unnatural to this world in which he walked. His innate, vampiric senses burned strongly in his veins, making him aware of the rifts and fissures in his world, sewn together by impersonal, green light. Bound by supernatural force that called to the forces within himself. He was stronger since it happened, that same supernatural power doubling the strength of his body and his instinct. It was the same power that made the feeble grass grow without sunlight. That hung the earth in its suspended animation.

As the grass waved thin and strange and brown, moving against his legs in the cold wind as he walked, he let that instinct wash over him, let himself feel the presence of that energy. Sadly, he let it flow over his mind with the memories of how it was released, and who had held it close once. Who had bound it together in human form for a brief time. And then was gone.

The cold night was breaking, and the sun began to rise. But only just began. It hung in place, softly, where it stood in the sky. Time froze at that moment, and would reverse itself to blackness at the day's close, and again cycle back to the halfling-dark of the eternal, early-morning gloom. The physical laws of their world were assailed, encroached upon by a thousand thousand different dimensions and different laws.

A ruined world. And the unwavering strength of the Key Inhuman was incorporeal-- hovering in power over it all.

It created a shaky equilibrium, a pale shadow of a world, in which none truly lived, but a small few had the strength to survive.

They had failed.

And he survived. He walked through the plain, his crossbow strapped to his back with his quiver of arrows. His knife in his boot, a scabbard at his side. The tired leather of his duster moved against his ankles as he walked, rustling smoothly in among the dry grasses.

He had a purpose, a purpose he'd learned long ago. From her. From her sister.

He headed towards the next settlement, a small disturbance in the grass, insignificant in its vast, silent movement. Set adrift in the dry, dancing waves of a golden ocean.

All alone, a dark figure in the faint, diffuse light.

---



Part Two: Traitor's Gate

Aylis wept in fear. Loud, incomprehensible shouts echoed off the brick walls around her. She clung tightly to the banister, watching the fury of her companions as they barricaded the door.

"What's happening...?" she whispered uncertainly, moving forward, crouching next to the cluster of bags in the foyer. Her voice faltered, its accent slurred and heavy.

A human girl. Too weak for this terrible place that was nothing like home.

When she had fallen through the terrible, green light and awakened here, she'd thought she was in hell.

Through the thick darkness chinks of dim light cut into the room, pouring from between the boards on the windows. Dust specks fell through them delicately. The movements of her companions broke their shafts, throwing moving shadows on the walls. Muffled sounds broke through the bricks, sounds of cursing and shouts and the deadening, rhythmic attack on the heavy old door. A woman-- a creature she knew as Maggie was bracing it with all of her strength.

"Buffy!" Maggie called, throwing her full weight against the door, "Get the latch, they're pushing through!" Her eyes flashed yellow and evil as she glanced back past Aylis across the room. The curved, carnivorous fangs were white against the darkness.

Buffy met her gaze, turned and leapt over the dufflebags and crates they'd stolen together, landing beside her companion, lunging for the lock. The door buckled under the pressure from without, and she ground her shoulder into its heavy surface, trying to hold it in.

She was bracing hard. It felt natural to her. Forever bracing and struggling for breath in the suffocating night. She was jolted violently as they beat on the door from outside. It cracked in tiny fault lines, running up the grain. She pressed harder.

"Foster!" she shouted, "Hide the stuff!"

Aylis shifted against the collection of bags.

"Why... why does this happen?" Aylis said softly, leaning forward a moment towards them.

"And hide your human!" Maggie added, kicking hard at the door jamb in frustration. There was cold disapproval in her tone. Kills should be clean. They shouldn't take years to carry out.

Aylis shrank back further into herself, trying to meld into the woodwork unseen.

At that moment his hand-- Foster's hand fell possesively on her waist.

Foster. She had begun to learn the strange language of this place from the vampire who protected her. The price was acceptable, and she had no alternative. And sometimes it was almost allright, if she was quiet-- invisible enough.

Sometimes she dreamed of becoming completely invisible. And now she prayed for it, burrowing into the collection of supplies for which the others were violently struggling.

Foster leaned close to her small ear. She was always faintly off, faintly wrong somehow. The body he touched was somehow too blue, too translucent. Something subtle about the shape of her face was otherworldy-- a hair different from what it should have been. He wasn't sure if he enjoyed it or loathed it. At that moment, he didn't really care.

"Get back," he whispered as he moved towards the door. He pressed against it with the others, holding it shut with desperation.

She watched them moving and it all blurred together. The cacophany outside was a dull mirror to their own shouts, fading in and out of focus to her ears.

She was very tired, suddenly, and wished it would end quickly. She didn't care how.

Suddenly Buffy was in front of her. She was kneeling beside her and seizing her firmly by the arm. Her face was different from the others. Aylis knew there was something sad and special about her, about the haunted taught face framed in brown hair. Once, in a strange and light moment, when the others were sleeping, Buffy had leaned over their campfire. She told her how she'd dyed it blonde when she was young.

"I can't tell you how many hours I'd work on that hair, can you believe it?" she said, chuckling gently, "It was a fine art. And hey, even when I got mutliated demon goo all over it half the time, there were no split ends. Nothing put out of place..."

Her voice was sadder then, her eyes glazed as she stared into the fire.

"Perfect..." she whispered, "Perfect hair..."

Young and stupid, back when there was hair dye and styling foam. That's what she'd said, and her eyes twinkled a moment with a slight smile before it faded to sadness.

But now, the tight, dark braid of her hair hung over shoulder as she knelt beside the bags. The noises around them seemed to be growing organically, coming to their inevitable crisis, full of panic and blood and anger.

"We should hide you somewhere," she said. It was a statement of fact, empty and resolute. She lifted her from the ground, guided her to the stairwell. Her touch was almost gentle. She kicked open a panel under the stairs. The space within was stale and murky.

Buffy pushed her towards the little opening and turned to go. Tears came to Aylis' eyes, and as the little form before her turned, she jumped forward, grabbed its hand.

"Why..." she whispered, and Buffy's shoulders tensed. Her hand was motionless in Aylis' grip.

"Why did this-- why did all of this have to happen...?"

The small, drawn face flinched, pale white against the brown hair.

She had been running, running two stairs at a time. The sounds of shouting and violence floated on the cool night breeze. Running up the metal progress. One level, two. Her sister's small form high above. She wasn't alone.

Running, using the girders to vault herself forward. Lunging into the future and the promise of her birthright.

And the stair gave way beneath her foot.

And her ankle twisted, and the failing metal pitched her backwards, and she was falling, falling violently against the unyeildng metal. Her forehead hit heavy against the girders. A hard crack of contact. And the movement continued, the sensation of falling. And then nothing. Darkness.

And she remembered, strangely, a night months before even that. Inane, meaningless. Dawn opening the refrigerator, the light inside it glowing white on her face. The dull hum. Dawn reaching for a carton of milk. The microwave chiming with mechanical cheer.

Popcorn's ready.

"Why... why did this have to happen...?" Aylis was near tears. Buffy started, her face hardening.

"Get in the hole," was all she said.

And the door burst open, throwing Foster and Maggie back. They rolled with the impact and leapt to their feet in preternatural speed. Buffy swung herself up by the banister onto the stairwell, crossbow aimed as she landed spry and silent on the stairs.

Something burning was thrown through the open door, and Aylis saw flames starting in a far corner of the room. She cowered into her knees, crawling into the musty space Buffy had found her, and peered through the gaps between the stairs.

And the noise continued. Vampires outside. One lunging for the two standing inside, throwing itself against the open, empty doorway. It hit hard against the invisible barrier.

"Pull back!" Buffy yelled, "We've been living here, they can't get in--"

The creature dissolved as the arrow struck. The smell of smoke was becoming thick in the air. She felt herself breaking inside.

She looked where Foster was reaching with those hands and those arms, seizing one on the outside, pulling him in and ducking out of the path of Buffy's crossbow. Saw the evil in his face, the sheer joy of breaking the body in his hands, of breaking it and throwing it headlong into the growing fire. And the noise outside continued.

Each night with him. Each night with all of them. Maggie screamed something to Buffy over the din.

They were so desperate to stay alive. Things seemed to slow in Aylis' vision. The world blurred around the edges as she became aware of the weariness in her bones. This wasn't where she belonged. Foster screaming with lust as he threw burning debris at their enemies. The insistant nights in his angry arms.

And she rose. The creatures were throwing themselves at the broken door, and the fire rose behind her as her companions desperately fought for their miserable lives. A vampire swung in to strike the invisible barrier with an unrestrained fury.

"Come in..." she whispered, coming to stand. The vampire who swung at the door spun out of control, her weight out of balance, falling forward and onto the ground. And as she landed, suddenly, they all-- all of them, froze in shock.

The silence lasted seconds. It was pure and white and empty.

She stepped forward, in that time, and moved towards the door. Her light hair fell in its thin whisps against her back.

"Come... in," she said again, louder this time. She was sure she'd gotten the words right. She'd learned their language as quickly as she could. She had to.

And she turned to the three stunned figures behind her. The beasts would know justice. The other would know peace.

The smoke was rising, becoming too thick to bear. She coughed.

And then she smiled.

"I hope you all die," she said, smiling softly at her friends, as the raging creatures without lunged on her from the shattered gateway.

---



Part Three: Contrast

He opened his eyes and saw light. Light everywhere, pouring onto every surface and bringing all into harsh contrast. Light. It burned at his eyes.

The world was only black lines and dazzling, incomprehensible light.

It fell against his skin and made it crawl, like scores of tiny beetles running up his body.

And there was the noise. Rushing, like a waterfall-- thunderous. Its momentum raged and gathered, growing beyond all ability to understand. He sensed the sounds within that horrible rushing-- sounds of splitting asphalt and shattering brick.

Collapsing buildings. Trees uprooted. Moaning metal hinges.

Roaring. Mythic and beating wings. Human fear.

He moved his head. He saw some of the others, and struggled to process it, bring his brain to harmony with what he saw. Their figures were like negatives, brilliant and white, strange silhouettes of these children he knew. One of them stepped forward, like a little stop-motion cartoon in that moving, vibrant light. The groaning sound of metal continued, and he saw her lips forming words as she moved.

"Spike!" she had cried out, breaking from Willow's side and rushing forward. Through the haze of his vision, he saw Tara running towards him. She was the only one that had noticed.

"Spike!" she called again, seizing his wrist. It was only then he realized he was falling, sliding down as the asphalt beneath him broke off and began to shift towards the black void he sensed at his back.

Of course it would be her. She's like that, in her quiet way. Always had been. The good bird, the white witch. Any of the others would probably have let him fall.

Probably. And she-- she was probably dead, now.

At the sensation of falling, he started violently. With instinctual speed, he moved his other wrist to her arm, trying to push up with his feet, gain purchase onto more stable ground. The tower above them was swaying, the fault line a few feet away from him collapsing through the earth on which it stood. The metal cried out like it was in pain.

She tugged on his arm, her little hands desperately tight on his wrist. She wouldn't let go.

He became suddenly aware of living things inside the fissure beneath them. Living creatures, moving and spilling over themselves in a giant conglomeration. He could hear their cries. He tried to ignore their strange, animalistic chirping as he struggled to escape. Those somethings-- a great and terrible mass of somethings, were waiting should he fall.

He focused on the white pain of his broken bones as he pushed forward-- white as the blinding light burning and twisting before them.

And the asphalt beneath him slid away in earnest, and Tara cried out as his weight jolted her forward, towards the void. With a cry of exertion, Spike pushed one last time against the hard surface, while it fell away from his feet.

He found himself thrown forward onto Tara, an ungainly tangle of limbs against the sickly edge of the rift. Her skin was warm and soft, her pulse fluttering and terrified. There was a time he might have lingered on that, savored it. Embraced the chaos.

But that was a thin game, a world fallen away. That horrible white light cut through it as if it were nothing.

The chirping inside was growing in intensity, and he saw a steely grey, spidery arm move against the rift's edge. He pulled Tara up, hurrying her away from the unknowable brink.

And suddenly, the light grew a fraction brighter still, the roaring sound of it a riot of blinding cacophony.

The temperature of the air suddenly dropped some thirty degrees.

Noises. The metal tower crashing into the void. The sounds of a million whispering voices in a million languages. Prayers and curses and lamentation. And roaring screams like the mobs at a soccer game, and dust falling down from the sky in soft white masses.

And then it was all gone in a second.

The gloom was deafening in its empty darkness.

A feeble sound of crackling fire filled air that was now freezing cold.

Tara crouched beside him on the pavement. He could hear her ragged breathing. The dull light made her skin look blue. The others were a distance away, across a spider-web of cracks and fissures and broken earth. He thought he could see Buffy, doubled over beside Giles, vomiting.

Tara's eyes were glazed with terror. And he suddenly realized Willow had succeeded with her. She'd regained her sanity-- been cured.

And just in time.

Dust and ash fell into her light brown hair as the orange, smoky light stretched over edge of his vision. He could smell a great deal of blood in the unnaturally cold breeze.

They just stared, eyes wide.

He made no motion as she took his hand in fear, old conflicts and alliances forgotten. She squeezed it tightly in her own.

---

He walked uphill on the worn road. Muddy ruts were frozen in place, snow clustering in the recessed, dry cracks. The pale and meager vegetation grew in tall bunches to the left and the right of the path. Behind him, the expansive plains stretched out like a great ocean of grasses. When he had intercepted the road, curving off into the distance, he knew his journey was reaching the final stretch.

A chipmunk skittered across the mud, small and natural and good. It had a clutch of food stored in its cheeks, and disappeared into the brush.

He wondered, for a moment, how much the chipmunk noticed the difference between this and what had come before.

And suddenly, for no reason he could name, it made him wonder where Buffy was. If she was allright.

The dull ache moved in him as he reached the crest of a hill. He stood and looked down its long, graceful slope. Overhead, a crow flew, its wings a quiet rustle against the soft wind.

The blue halfling-light fell on the frozen earth, shaped gently into hills and valleys. It was harsh and barren, but he could see something in it-- something oddly tender. Something in the curves of the landscape seemed made-- hand-carved. Sculpted.

And the hand that made it had dissolved into an ever present, flowing energy, holding the creation together. Pure Spirit. Binding death to life with its impersonal force.

He wondered, then, wherever she was-- he wondered if Buffy could sense that green and writhing power-- the strength behind the long-haired girl who had once spoken to him in tears-- once told him that she was evil.

He sighed.

He knelt a moment, against the earth, and brushed his fingers, almost reverently, against the frozen clay of the road. Crumbling powder came off on his fingers, and, as he rose, he rubbed his thumb against them softly, feeling the grit move and shift on his fingertips.

And then, he heard a noise break the silence. His muscles tensed. Behind him. He turned towards it, listening intently.

Further down, on the crossroads, he could hear it. The inevitable sounds of attack. The cries and the shattering of wood.

He drew his dagger and stalked toward the sound, moving into the brush, melding into the landscape.

---



Part Four: Moving

Maggie sat on a crate, legs folded under her gracefully. She was opening a small box, her concentration obvious.

Buffy could see her through the human crowd. She had wanted to hide in the abandoned, burned-out buildings in this town, and perhaps slip later into the wilderness beyond it. Maggie was right though, that the best way to hide was in this mass of people, trading and gathering here. They blended in well enough not to attract much attention.

They'd had to run after their opponents took the upper hand. After Aylis let them in, and died. The fire grew too strong and they'd had to fight their way out before it consumed them. Foster didn't make it. There was something right about that, somehow-- the pair left to burn in an abandoned building.

Now it was just Maggie and Buffy, a pair that would have seemed so unlikely in the time before.

She'd worked with vampires in her previous life-- but it wasn't the same. She simply didn't care anymore. The things she said in the past seemed unbelievable, patently ludicrous. She could hardly believe the world had ever been so clear and simple and easily understood.

But it was something that she found difficult to grasp now, and while she could remember her life before perfectly, somehow she couldn't remember what it was like to feel like she did living in it. Now, in the eternal dark and cold of this place, she just fed and moved on, fought and moved on, struggled with death and then moved on. In some ways, she was as much a vampire, now, as this Maggie that sat on a crate, intently and carefully laying out her violin strings on the wood at her feet.

The violin strings. It was ridiculous to Buffy, but she thought it was worth her skin to say so to her companion. Maggie had actually turned back as they ran from their attackers, blonde hair streaming, and hurled herself through the smoke-filled doorway. She plunged into the bags they had stolen, found what she needed. She had retrieved the strings, and then broke what she could of the creatures who had kept her from them into bloody, uneven pieces.

In the time before, it might have made Buffy uncomfortable.

Now, she just pushed her way through the crowd, having become certain no one had recognized them here-- not yet. They were safe enough to rest a while. And then they would move on.

Buildings-- burned out, brick shells, had been reconstructed into makeshift shelters all around the marketplace. Crowds of travelers, moving from the larger settlements to the north and south, clustered in small groups on all sides. It hadn't been raided in several months, and people there were somewhat calm. Narrow streets, covered in loose earth and rushes, filled the air with a musty, indeterminate odor. She could hear voices, most in English, chattering around her. Words jumped out from the general din at times, but none of it captured her interest.

And Maggie was gently removing her violin from its case, preparing to restring it in this rare and quiet moment that they had.

And through the crowd, a hand grabbed her arm.

"You!" a voice called, trembling. She wrenched free and spun to meet it face on.

A boy. About seventeen years old. She felt a wave of sensation move through her. He would have been about ten when it had happened.

"Can you see the light-- can you see the light--"

He was pointing up in the sky above them, fingernails stained and chipped as they broke through the worn knitting of his gloves. He breathed in ragged gasps. It seemed there was something wrong with his lungs.

"Can you see the light--canyouseethelightcanyouseethelight--"

He clung to her arm again, and she felt vaguely repelled. She glanced around to see if anyone was watching them, and turned to breeze by him quickly.

"STOP!" he cried, shuffling after her, "Stopstopstop-- you can help it if you can help. Slayers know it they do helping..." His voice trailed into a wavering, shrill whine. He was crying. She clenched her fists tightly.

Blonde and strong, a leader in designer wear. Her words. If Dawn dies, that's it. She remembered how it had sounded in her mind.

If Dawn dies, I'm quitting.

She pushed him off to arms length forcefully, and began again to shove through the moving crowd towards her companion. Somewhere, through the crowd, she could hear the sound of Maggie idly plucking her violin strings, testing the tuning, enjoying the vibration of it against her fingertips.

"You can see-- you can see and you can come for us you can come for us now because you're here and we're waiting--"

It was too much.

She threw him through the crowd with violent force, seizing him by the shoulders and pushing him out. He landed against the far wall of a building. He sat there dazed.

"HEY!" she heard the sound from behind her, "Get the hell away from my brother!"

A girl. About thirteen. She ran up to Buffy with foolhardy confidence, jumping in front of her and stepping in to stare her down.

Maggie saw and had packed her instrument with care. She moved silently through the crowd, eye contact on Buffy, stepping some ways away, but behind, the children. She was nervous. They were just children, yes. But this wasn't right. This girl wouldn't be alive now, behaving like this, without some unknown and terrible power behind her.

"You should watch him more closely," Buffy replied, her words cold and short.

She turned to leave once more, but then paused. She spoke again, spitting the words out bitterly.

"You aren't getting saved and there's no one coming for you."

"Come for us... it will come," the boy whispered. His voice sounded wounded. And he looked up towards Buffy.

His eyes had gone pitch black. He was whispering.

"Simon," the girl said, rushing to her brother's side, placing a hand on his forehead, "Come on Simon, stop it, it's ok. Let's just go..."

Buffy felt it more than she saw it. It was a dancing, light sensation on her temples and then grew into a sort of vision. Painful, terrible fear. The pulsating light. A little Cape house with a swing set in back. The swings thrown back in forth in that horrific tumult of energy and motion. Vampires. Reptilian claws. Feral, wild beasts from other worlds, stalking. Three children and pain and blackness.

And she was thrown backwards, felt the sensation of air running past her before she realized she'd left the ground. And she was thrown hard on her side to the tightly-packed earth.

She sat up, brushing some blood from her temple. She stared at the boy before her. He was himself again, looking at his sister, tears in his eyes.

"Mom said not to leave the light on except for when we're reading..." he whispered to her.

"Shh, it's ok," she whispered, "We have to get going, come on."

"She scared me," he said, pointing to Buffy violently.

"I know."

"Can... you see it..." he said as he cried.

The girl pulled him up. He was clinging to her hand like a child. Buffy wondered what had happened that had driven him so deeply from reality. And she remembered Willow's black eyes. She had met up with her, briefly, a while after everything had happened. It wasn't something she wanted to think about, now. She bit her lip.

The girl paused as she led her brother away.

"It's true though," she said to Buffy, her eyes soft, glowing gently, "Our other brother, he went not twenty miles south to trade... and he saw a slayer that saved him and everyone on the road there. He saw it, and it's true... someone will come for us."

Buffy simply stared at the ground, and felt defeated all over again. And Maggie placed a hand on her shoulder.

"Buffy we've got to move-- look over there." She gestured through the crowd. Familiar, angry faces pushed through it, alerted by the commotion. There would be confrontation. And there would be more violence and more death.

And it was time to move on.

--



Part Five: Slayer

"My heart with the barrier, my mind with the key... my heart with the barrier, my mind with the key..."

She whispered the words over and over, legs folded beneath her. The dark night pressed close on all sides, and little flickers of movement flashed through her peripheral vision.

Stay calm, just stay calm-- concentrate and be calm...

"My heart with the barrier, my mind with the key... my heart with the barrier, my mind with the key..."

She tried to blot everything else from her mind, strained and struggled to ignore the violence of the attack. Tried to ignore the sobbing of a child beside her, and the figures of her other companions, crouching low, curled up in the old, rusty flatbed they'd taken apart and shaped to a horsecart when gasoline became impossible to find. The creatures outside, unable to kill the human travelers within, had already killed the horses.

She needed to stay calm, and her magical barrier would remain. They couldn't get in-- they couldn't get in, they could only throw things and shout with their horrible, distorted faces and pearly fangs.

"My heart with the barrier, my mind with the key... my heart with the barrier, my mind with the key..."

A translucent, green arch of energy covered the space from the walls of the flatbed. The dome was impassable, so long as she concentrated. So long as she chanted. An adept could hold it with mere will... but she was only learning. Only learning. Everything depended on her. Everyone around her depended on this.

She needed to concentrate on the casting...

And she wasn't very good at it. Casting spells... like any art, if you don't pick it up young, the chances of mastery fade away fast. And she was far from young now, fading into the tail end of a middle age that had felt much like the dull and drab darkness around them.

The flatbed lurched and fell suddenly at one corner, collapsing and pitching itself into a sharp angle. They were all thrown sideways and towards the earth with the impact. The others lunged to cling to her, trying to hold her steady. The sound of twisting metal split through the air.

They were pulling it apart... they were pulling it apart piece by piece...

"Oh my God..." a man beside her whispered, looking up through the slightly greenish barrier to see the vampires, now working on the second wheel. Their shapes were phantasmagoric silhouettes, illuminated by the green glow of the spell, shapes leering out of the black night darkness.

One of them smiled at him through the barrier.

She bit her lip, her greying hair falling over her face as she looked down into her lap. Concentration... she had to concentrate.

"My heart with the barrier, my mind with the key... my mind with the ba-- with the--"

The protection faltered a moment, and the dome above them flickered like bad television reception. She gasped, a tear running down her face as she quickly suppressed her fear and started again.

"My heart wtih the barrier, my mind with the key... my heart with the barrier, my mind with the key..."

---

He replaced the dagger with which he'd approached, and drew the sword from his side. He closed his eyes a moment in preparation, and then sprung onto the road in a fluid motion.

A shape moving next to him. A swift coup de grace. The first was dust before it hit the floor.

The second rushed him, running full tilt towards him with the bloodlust in his eyes. A stake deftly materialized in his free hand and it was gone. He turned to the others.

He moved as one with his blade, ducking to miss a blow and sweeping out with the brilliant metal. His veins surged with a sense of life, and he pushed onwards through the throng. He was awake. He was here. He was awake and this was real. These were the only times he felt at peace.

It had always been this way. He remembered it through the recesses of his movement-- action and reaction. Every long fight, stretching past into the heady mist of his memory. So much he remembered.

Drusilla, and chaos. The strength in his arms, the speed in his legs. Desperate brawls, back to the wall-- twisting little alleyways in Prague, Angelus laughing bitterly, bloody nose running. Balance and tempo. An empty subway car. Counter attack, second intention. The final gasp. Feint and defense. The perfection of instinct. The white noise of the moment. Deadly dance, jibes and blows. And Buffy.

And Buffy.

The fast hum of the conflict was moving like electric jolts through his arms, letting the long years of muscle-memory carry his actions faster than his conscious mind could process.

There was silence in that mind while the violence raged without. It was calm-- a perfect calm flooded through with the strange fire of exhilaration. Like the distant sunshine dancing on moving water. It was what made him alive with existence-- made him aware he really even existed at all.

Buffy probably wouldn't approve of that.

He yelled aloud, a formless, feral sound that echoed and twisted in the night. And he moved through the throng, rolling to miss an attack, falling gracefully and springing up like a wild cat in the hunt.

---

They clutched close to each other, hiding their eyes from the conflict without. The novice witch whispered her mantra, and they concentrated their attention on it. The words kept them safe.

They heard a strange yell outside the broken cart. It sounded like a wild creature in pain. And the inevitable, pressing sounds of terrible violence mingled with the harsh gasps of their breathing.

---

Quickly as it was started, it was done.

He walked away, down the road. He didn't know why he did it-- why he intervened. But he always, inevitably did. He took the dangerous roads, sought out the raiders and killers where they'd hunt. He didn't know why. He thought that, maybe, he should try to feel connected to them. But that simply wasn't the way of it, for him.

It wasn't about their distress-- that wasn't why he did it. It was something in him. Perhaps the thin platitudes had rubbed off more than he knew. Perhaps he hoped that, one day, he'd spring to the rescue, and find Buffy there first, fighting the fight she'd taught him. And perhaps it was the light spinning out around him, the fissures of green energy that pervaded everything he saw and knew. She was there. She was always there.

Dawn was watching him.

---

The night filled with a profound silence. A cold breeze floated over their refuge. The witch's green barrier swiftly faded to nothing, its purpose complete.

And a woman of twenty stood up on the shaky, slanted surface of the broken flatbed. She gazed out over the frozen road, and saw the receding figure where it walked away with such a towering, fluid confidence. Her eyes grew bright with a strange combination of awe and tears. The wind blew her hair back, throwing it away from her face, and her cheeks were bright and flushed with the cold.

"It's him..." she whispered, her tone hushed, reaching with one arm out into the night, "The Slayer of Evil..."

---



Part Six: The Orphaned Forest

The two women walked together down the sprawling, four lane highway. The traffic was some seven years late in coming, and the world was deserted around them. The pavement had split, and was riddled through with cracks, full of waving, tall grasses. There was no sound save their footfalls in the broken asphalt, and the eternal sound of wind rustling in the overgrowth.

The barren peace of the empty world around them was a strange contrast to the violence with which they'd escaped their enemies. And they'd moved on, taken the wilderness road, that wound through the dark and into the next populated cluster of hovels and homes, where they could stay a while. They would travel down the highway, and into the wilds.

In the distance was the spidery silhouette of a giant, ancient oak tree. It burst from the ground, rising through the middle of what was once a frenzied hub of movement. The remains of the median strip split and crumbled all around its trunk.

It looked like it had been there forever, its heavy bark twisting up into branches tall in the sky, with its dead, winter leaves clinging to them. They moved in the wind, and some were captured by it and ripped away, carried in swirling circles through the turbulent air. Its bark hummed with an otherworldly beauty.

It was like a myth had crashed through the pavement with magical, timeless roots.

And indeed it had-- when the brilliant light had mingled its reality with the world around her, leaving it behind. Standing alone, it was an orphaned forest. A few dozen crows called to each other in rasping, mournful croaks from their shelter within its branches.

"Now who put that there...?" Buffy said, breaking the silence, a slightly whimsical smile on her lips, looking up at its vast, soaring arms. The question cut her even as she said it. They both knew the answer.

Maggie smiled at her softly, stepping over a root. The vampire knew the girl next to her, more than she may have expected. She knew that Buffy had been there at the last, been part of what happened. Even though she had never said so. She could read it in her eyes, how she gazed too long on the dead remnants of what had been, or sometimes on a person they'd meet that must have reminded her of someone she'd failed in the time before. She knew also that when Buffy looked at her closely, when she'd watch her as she moved, that she too reminded her of someone past and gone. Buffy was watching her now, quietly, with that look in her eyes. They continued to walk, lost in their own thoughts.

She was quiet. Very quiet. But she understood that. Maggie liked her. She liked her as a fighter-- for her daunting tactical sense-- for her strength as an ally, for the trust she could give her without fear of being compromised. And she liked her for her sadness-- for her sense of loss and gravity. And she liked the quiet, thoughtful silence that communicated everything about her pained companion, all while saying nothing at all.

They were two small figures, dwarfed by the straight ribbon of highway around them, and the oak tree-- the living past, the sprawling, powerful mass of strong arms. Maggie let her hand trail against its rough trunk as they passed, and felt a vague kinship with its age.

They continued on in amicable silence as the highway rose up a gentle hill. And Buffy was still looking at Maggie, watching her walk down the broken road beside her.

---

It was about two years after the destruction first took place when Willow materialized from the darkness and appeared before her.

Buffy had been cutting through an alley quietly, alone. And suddenly, the shadows seemed to rise from the corners of the bricks-- they moved and twisted, and formed the familiar and beloved shape.

"Hi Buffy," she said softly, a little smile curving on her face. It was pale from lack of sun-- white and glowing out of the darkness that surrounded her, that seemed to cling close to her and engulf her in its liquid presence.

Yes, her face was very pale from sunless days, and it made Buffy wonder how differently she must look herself. For a girl who had once preened and primped like a fantastical, brilliantly colored parrot, she hadn't looked in a mirror for a long time.

Willow stepped out of the dark and towards her friend. Buffy gasped.

Willow's hair was very long, hanging in soft locks to her waist. It was streaked black, breaking through the red, tingeing it with something murky and dark. Her eyes were slightly shadowed-- different than Buffy remembered. And she stood smiling before her, a bit sadly-- a bit strangely. Something unsettled rose in her stomach, danced there and begged attention.

And she pushed it aside and wrapped her arms around her friend with a frantic sort of affection. She hadn't realized until she had her in her arms how much she'd ached for the familiar, lost friends of her childhood. And she pressed her close and embraced too the relief that came with it.

Her skin was cold to the touch.

---

"You're thinking about something," Maggie said. It was more a statement than a question.

"Yeah," she said. She wondered vaguely if all vampires were as direct-- as forthright as those she'd known well. But Maggie was never offensive, respected Buffy's distance. Buffy respected hers in return. Perhaps it was just the difference of a female temperament, or the fact that Maggie wasn't trying constantly to sleep with her. Spike hadn't let her keep any distance, and even Angel had spoken for her emotions often. But Maggie was quiet.

Buffy liked her. She liked her quiet.

Buffy remembered how Angel had tried to contact her, right after it had all happened. He was with Faith, and they wanted her to join them. But she'd sent the messenger away, and had never gone to look for them.

And she wondered to herself where Spike had gone. She wondered if he blamed himself for what happened, or if he'd shrugged it off and embraced the chaos he'd loved so much. Perhaps he was still in love with her. But whatever had happened, he had a way of seeing things that made her want to ask him what he'd made of it all.

But she wouldn't see any of them again-- her human friends were almost certainly dead, and perhaps the others were, too. So she traveled randomly, sometimes in groups, and now she traveled with Maggie.

There was a time that it wouldn't have seemed right. But it didn't much matter now, those questions of morality. And it was good, in its way, to have someone around she could trust in a fight, someone capable who wasn't very emotionally demanding-- someone who wouldn't try to make her feel more than she chose to about anything they saw or did. A distant kind of friendship, wrought from brawling together, surviving the world, and a mutual respect for each other's considerable physical strength.

"Just thinking, well... that things are different. In the world."

Maggie chuckled softly, "And I hadn't noticed..."

And there was silence, as they scaled the swelling hill, approaching its crest. Maggie chuckled to herself once more, turned her head to Buffy, her light hair falling loose around her face. Soft. Everything about her face looked young and soft. Almost vulnerable. And yet, when she was angry, she'd seen her in the throes of some of the most horrific violence she'd ever witnessed

"We still have this wonder of American Infrastructure..." She gestured to the broken pavement around her, an ironic, friendly glint in her eye.

"And we still have seasons," Buffy countered, the cold wind stroking her face.

"Sort of..." It was cold most of the year, but it grew warmer, sometimes. A black, nighttime summer.

"Yeah, sort of..."

"We still have slayers, apparently. Think that little girl knew what she was talking about?"

"I don't know..." Buffy responded. Perhaps Faith had met her end.

"It wouldn't have to be a real slayer, though-- I mean, it wouldn't have to be the chosen one," Maggie said, her brow furrowed as her thoughts flowed out, "Most of these people wouldn't know what a slayer was. Maybe it's a description... not a title."

"Well you should hope so," said Buffy, "So she might not come around and kick your ass."

Maggie smiled.

"She could try..."

"Think I'd have kicked your ass?"

"You could try," Maggie replied, her laughter ringing gently around them both. It sounded light and warm.

"It's strange," Buffy said, her voice quiet, musing, "That someone would try to fight it all off, now that it's all gone to hell..."

And they trailed to silence again.

"Birds!" Maggie exclaimed, breaking through Buffy's thoughts, "We still have those. There are still all sorts of birds and squirrels and animals... lucky thing too."

Buffy ignored the veiled reference to Maggie's diet. Humans were sometimes hard to come by, now. It was something they never spoke of, and they always hunted their food separately. She shrugged the thoughts off, pushed them to the back of her mind where they faded away to the background again.

"There's still-- oh!"

Buffy's voice caught in her throat as she crested the hill. The highway broke off, the overpass that continued it thrown down, collapsed into the abyss before them. Beyond that, the world stretched out in an immense and soaring beauty.

Rolling hills, spinning out into the misty horizon, all covered in ancient trees like a mossy carpet. An old growth forest, fallen into the middle of the interstate. The sound of the wind moving through their venerable arms was like ocean waves, and the dusky orange glow on the horizon illuminated them, making the dry and fluttering leaves twinkle with dim light.

Wind whipped passed her cheeks, throwing oak leaves by her, dry and dead, into the air all around. One caught in her tight braid a moment before hurling itself into the distance. And suddenly she heard a flurry of plaintive cries behind her, and the beating of a hundred wings. A murder of crows flew past in the wind overhead, soaring headlong into the airy space above the living woods, moving as of one mind into the plutonian, shady expanse. The wind that flowed over her smelled brisk and alive with energy.

This was an otherworldly forest, perhaps from the same world as the old, orphaned oak on the broken highway road. The buildings of her own world rose in tired shells through their branches in places, tired hulks fighting through the mass of trees. But mostly it was a sea of grey arms and brown, dying leaves, moving in air and pulled with force into the wind.

And she looked down below her feet, where the grassy hill shot down into the woods, away from the collapsed overpass, its concrete pillars rising superfluous and lonely into the open air. The easiest path down was worn into the grass, a small, dirt path leading to the dark and forest roads-- and all that lay beyond them.

Maggie was motionless beside her, paralyzed by the sight. Buffy had said, once, that vampires couldn't love. But she was wrong. Maggie was in love with beauty. She sought it out, made it with her hands and her violin with as fine a skill as she made death.

Time passed by, but they did not move. It was time to go, but they simply stood together a while, looking silently out on the strange and empty glory of the wilderness.

---



Part Seven: May Queen

He was always tired.

He had tried to rest, hidden where the shells of buildings began to rise again from the frozen earth, where they clustered together like haunted trees in the nearby forests. And the people who traveled here were like specters, faded shells wandering alone and confused through the mass of buildings, swelling up into a great and abandoned city. It didn't matter what its name had been, before. It was nameless, now.

They sought shelter in the settlements, the populated, defended buildings clustered together at the center of the ruins, where the destruction of the long ago, sweeping fires-- the fires that had followed immediately after the key's destruction-- had not been total.

He had tried to rest, but was driven from his sleep, unable to settle his mind. It was running, always running, pushing memories to the surface and demanding his attention. And it was all he really had, now, so he let it roll over him, let the recollections sprint desperately through his thoughts, firing over and over, disconnecting themselves from all sense or care in their progress.

He turned down the broken asphalt, the grass tall all around him, clinging in heavy bunches of overgrowth over the fallen rubble of buildings, and against lonely walls with useless windows cut into their brick and stone and metal. He listened, sweeping from road to road, alley to dark corners and back again. Pacing the black streets relentlessly, thinking and listening for noise and disruption in the night.

Patrolling-- hunting. Looking for something to distract himself from the internal turmoil-- searching for a way to place it in a framework that he could understand, and accept, and, perhaps, finally lay to rest.

His mind was wandering, and his body wandered with it, through the hollow desolation of the broken streets.

---

"Giles, she's dead."

Willow's voice was dull and empty. She knelt beside the body, next to the rubble they'd pulled off her. Next to where he was trying to revive her.

Xander was standing a few feet away, ash falling softly into his hair, his eyes glazed.

In the cold air, a soft rumble of thunder flowed over and around him. Xander's hand was in his pocket, fingering something rectangular with a steady, unconscious rhythm.

"Giles stop-- we can't... we can't stay here..." Willow's voice remained even, a thin, reedy whisper. But it seemed as powerful as a tidal wave in that moment, and made Giles' shoulders sink and his head fall into his hands. He breathed deeply, and looked up.

Suddenly, lightening cut through the night, and thunder bellowed in the air like an explosion. Icy rain fell in sheets over them all.

Tara knelt in the heavy rain, stroking Anya's cooling brow. She closed her empty eyes, tenderly. The motion frightened Spike in a way he couldn't explain. It was as if the entire world had been buried with that gentle gesture. And Xander stood, fingering the object in his pocket like a rosary.

Spike became slowly aware that his hands were shaking.

---

He threw the foolish fledgling to the ground of the alley, where it fell into a spray of dead ash. It had mistaken him for prey, as he stalked in the night.

It was new. Days old. Those who had made it would nest nearby, taking the travelers who sought refuge at the inner settlements as they passed through the ruins.

He turned down the alleyway, dust clinging on his boots, and searched for them.

---

Things were falling apart, all around. The group, crowded around their fallen friend, filled with a silent anxiety. It was an electric current in the strangled, frozen air.

They could hear someone in the distance, screaming, and shambling, unsettling sounds echoed through the hail and rain.

Buffy was curled into her knees, unmoving. Rain fell down over her hair, and darkened it with moisture. It fell in heavy beads from her expressionless face. Bloody bruises spread across her brow, and Spike worried a moment, distantly, that she might have a concussion. She whispered something to herself, quietly.

"Dawn..."

Dawn. Her face had been terrified when he was thrown from the tower. Now the tower was gone-- sunk into the abyss. And she was gone.

Spike's strangled sob surprised himself. Heads suddenly spun to stare at him. He half-turned, a hand to his temple. A sinking, twisting horror moved in his stomach and mingled with the pain of his broken ribs. It caught in his throat, closing it tightly.

He wasn't sure if he would fall down crying or break everything in reach.

A hand fell on his shoulder.

"Spike..." Giles said, his face calm, resolved, "We have to care for the children."

---

He followed a trail of filth and blood to where he heard loud voices. They were arguing.

"We've fed you and watched you and kept you from all the beasties out there- -"

There was weeping. And as he grew close, crouched behind a half-fallen wall of bricks, he could hear more. The entire scene pieced itself together in his mind, the rich tapestry of sounds creating an awareness of all the figures on the other side of his shelter.

"You have a lot more than you could have, and we've been generous, and we've been patient--"

A large group, males and females both, sitting around a large fire. The weeping, solitary creature was apart from them, on the other side of that inferno. Spitting and laughing and faint murmurs filled the air. They rumbled under the sound of the icy diatribe against the lone accused. Coughing and heavy, hoarse breathing whispered through the night.

Breathing.

Humans.

"We've done a lot here, you know-- built something real-- we survive, and so do you. Why would you run off like that?"

They were humans. This was a nest, but a very different nest than that of the fledglings he'd faced. Their sires dwelled elsewhere. Perhaps they'd even been killed by this band of human hunters.

He knew, deep down, that when he finally died, it would be by human hands. As he crouched in the thick darkness, unbroken by their firelight, he knew the chip would be his death, in the end. It had continued to reign him close, long after the human society that created it had fallen away. He'd survived long on his wits, but one day a human would understand it, see the weakness, and would take the chance.

He'd learned much in his long life. He knew humans were dangerous. Others of his kind didn't take them seriously, but after the destruction-- after it had all fallen to pieces, he learned that humans could be as cruel and as dangerous as the evil things that fed on them.

He turned, looked over his shelter, and watched the group. A wiry, nervous looking man stood before them, spitting out his words as if they confused him. He was clearly their leader, and though he was thin from hardship, he was powerful. They listened to him with fear and loyalty. He stood beside the bound woman, her stomach swollen heavily with pregnancy. She looked like a porcelain doll in the firelight.

Someone had covered her black hair in a crown of wild plants and grasses, and she was sobbing heavily. Pale blue flowers, that had survived the cold, fell in garlands down through her hair. The dark locks shook with her tears, and the leaves of her flowered crown trembled with it, quivering with her movements. He could see her gasping breath, floating like mist in the cold air.

Their leader's tone was losing focus, swelling in intensity. Soon it would shatter into rage.

"No one runs away-- No one escapes! We have to stay together-- don't you understand that we have to stay *together*!"

---

"We must stay together..." Giles said it calmly, trying to focus the groups attention on himself, appealing to them to break their stupor, "We need to go somewhere safe-- we must get moving."

Tara and Willow stood with him, now, on one side, and Spike stood on the other. Xander was frozen in place, simply staring at Anya. Giles took off his jacket and covered her while he continued to speak.

"We might not be able to drive, the roads seem impassable..."

And Spike watched Buffy, who sat curled on the pavement, her eyes blank and empty. Like she'd been in the gas station, in a time that seemed years away from them, impossible to recover. He wondered with increasing dread if they could ever get her back.

"We can try," Spike responded, clearing his throat, "We can... we can get you all east, into the mountains-- somewhere isolated."

They hadn't thought this far ahead. It became clear they never really expected to fail. They simply hadn't planned what they would do, and it still felt impossible, like somehow they could convince the universe to take it back as something unfair and unwanted.

Something about Spike's words had made Buffy shudder, and she broke her paralysis. Without warning, she bolted upright, looked around wildly a moment, and then ran at full speed into the distance.

Without thinking, Spike immediately ran after her, leaving the others alone.

---

It was just the way he was tempered. He did things without thinking.

These long seven years he was acting without understanding why. It was the same as when he ran after her in that moment-- he couldn't have done otherwise. It was why he was wandering in these bleak hours, hunting his own without her watchful eyes to see that he did it. To see that he was doing what she wanted.

And it was why he was impelled, deep in his gut, to action, even though he found it difficult to care about the humans. They would kill each other easily, as soon as they were saved. Moths to the flame. And he couldn't fight them, couldn't live with them-- and in the end, they'd kill him, one day.

But the firelight that danced before him still drew him in, and he couldn't quite walk away from it. He never walked away, not now. And they called him Slayer for his efforts. The irony was enough to make him sick.

"Stop it! Stop crying!"

The man at the fire was beginning to lose control. Spike knew the sound of it well. The girl gasped and struggled to stay her cries, but she was beyond all effort.

"STOP!"

As he wound to strike her, Spike stood up and stepped closer to the fire.

"I don't think you're going to want to do that," he said quietly, eyes reflecting the twisting flames, standing in the hazy space where the firelight was swallowed whole by night darkness.

---



Part Eight: Pale Diana

The trees rose like obelisks in a cemetery, blue and silent and strong in the pale half-light.

A flutter of dead leaves fell like snow all around her, floating from eternal arms onto the pungent forest floor. The smell of the pines mingled with the earthiness of decaying leaves, and frost, and cold wind.

The trees went on forever in this halfling-darkness, the predawn glow that would never become morning. Their tall, heavy trunks surrounded her in haunting beauty. Cold, damp fog hung close to her ankles, carpeting the earth with its gentle moisture. Its diaphanous clouds loved the branches, mist clinging and swirling slow and soft on the trees and fading out into the dark and distant emptiness-- the rows of gnarled trunks that knew no ending.

She was silent, her bow drawn, a pale Diana in the darkness. She was alone, and she was hunting. She always hunted alone, separated from her companion to feed. Maggie did the same. And now, she walked through the underbrush as if she were in a church. Her eyes were bright and alert, as she tracked the progress of her intended.

Her muscles tensed, and her breath grew shallow. A spray of cold, misty water fell constantly through the air. It turned to frost on the forest stones, covering dying moss with ice as delicate as Victorian lace. These were the moments Buffy had been born for-- for the ritual progress of the hunt, for the strategy and the silent stalking. For the readiness before the storm of the chase, for the pause and absence of thought it leant her. For the bursting energy of the conflict, and the unnatural calm in its conclusion.

She was born for this.

And her instinct sent a thrill of warning through her in the instant before she heard the breaking twigs, saw the four delicate legs spring swiftly to action. And they leapt with desperate speed through the trees, and she sprung with them. The chase began.

---

"Go away!"

"Dawnie, let me come in--"

She opened the door slightly, and looked in. Surrounded in a chaos of books and clothes and bright posters and discarded socks, her sister sat on her bed, hugging a pillow shaped like a frog. Her eyes were red with tears.

And the Power Incarnate-- The Terrible Key was just a little girl who had been laughed at by a boy in a school hallway.

"Oh, honey..."

And there were no more words. Buffy just smiled at her softly and understood and wrapped her arms around her. It was silly, and it made Buffy love her painfully. It made her love the afternoon, after-school brilliance, with its sad sweetness and candy-colored bedspread and the sound of sprinklers watering lawns outside the open window.

And she let her sister cry as if the world had torn itself apart around them. Let her cry and mourn in a way that transcended the cruel words of a shy crush-- let her weep for the loss of her childhood and the length of years she didn't yet know were a lie. She simply let her cry, and embraced the sweet light of the moment, streaming through the window onto the little- girl wallpaper and her sister's hair. It was all allright.

She'd have more reason to cry in the months to come.

---

Trees whipped past her vision as she ran. The world fell away and there was only wild pursuit. She leapt over a stone and landed running, the pure white doe before her kicking moss up from the undergrowth as it burst forward and away from her. There was the rhythmic shock of her breathing, the crisp rustling of unsettled leaves, the spry pattern of the doe's hooves on soft earth.

She felt light, weightless. With grave intensity she followed the doe's every movement, its white pelt glowing softly, the muscles working under the thick fur. It ran because prey always run, because it is written in the rituals of nature and the bloody tears of history. She took chase because she always moved, always hunted, always followed the legend to its conclusion. It was in her, and it was her. She was the hunter, and she was gaining ground on her quarry.

And she could hear rushing water through the fury of pursuit. She could smell it in the air. And she took a running shot at the creature before her, letting the arrow glance off of a tree, trying to force the animal right-- to guide the hunted towards that sound.

And it veered right and it ran towards the water, the rushing river stream that broke like an ice-coated ribbon through the trees. It rushed with a fast current, frozen at the pools, but moving too quickly to freeze where it poured over the brookstones.

It tried to maneuver at full speed through those wet stones, and fell. The sound was like shattering glass as it collapsed into a thin layer of ice. It was the time Buffy needed to take pause, and aim her weapon once more.

The creature rose, shaky on a broken leg. It looked up at her with animal's eyes. They were wholly black, open wide and dark and inhuman.

It was slender, tall, and pure white. It belonged wholly to this forest, to some world far away where there was nothing but ancient trees and haunted wind. It belonged to a wild life remote from men-- to questing bark and raising young in the wilds of a dimension that was nothing but trees, nothing but thick forests and running streams.

Silence rose between them. The soft breath fell misty and cold from the deer's dark muzzle.

Buffy released the trigger, and the arrow shot into its neck with a violent speed.

---

Her eyes had been open wide. They were wholly black and dark and inhuman.

She stroked the smooth concrete, in the warehouse they'd taken as a home. They sat in the small office, the walls covered in the pilfered remains of a dead world-- Maxfield Parish prints and Indian tapestry sheets they'd chosen to remind them that this was home.

The girl stooping low on the floor wasn't the Willow who had stormed after Glory, who had attacked her with knives and raged vengeance for her lover. This wasn't the foolhardy Willow who had faced a god in anger. These eyes were fragile, defeated. Their cold was broken, not raging. The world had died and her heart had slowly withered on the vine.

And she stroked the concrete, crouched low on the floor of the warehouse office. She stroked it with her white hands and hummed as she did so. Her music was disjointed.

"Willow...?" Buffy asked quietly, as she worked on her crossbow, repairing a damaged trigger system with studied care.

Willow's humming ceased, and she looked up at her friend. Her hair hung over her face in its reddish, dull-dark strands. Stained murky, like uprooted mud clouding water.

"Willow... what can you see in there...?"

She lowered her darkened head and stared at the concrete, the trowel's patterns still swirling in circles on its smooth surface. Dawn's energy-- The Key's presence had changed her power, made her stronger. She could see everything around them. She could see everything that was, and everything that could have been if the world had survived. She could see the glowing green light all around them, working in the corners and holding the unnatural to the remains of the natural.

Yes, she saw the light that Buffy did not know-- was not, could not ever be attuned to. Buffy was lost to them, lost to Dawn. Disconnected. Weak, even stupid, in her way. But Willow could see it all, and there was no way to tell her, no way to explain.

"I see pain..." she whispered, softly.

---

It was bleeding.

It tried to stand, once, raising its slender head up, pawing ineffectually at the ice-encrusted bank of the stream. Its legs, fragile like thin spindles, collapsed under the trembling effort, and it fell once more to the frozen earth.

Buffy lowered her bow, her eyes wide, her breath coming fast from exertion. She looked down a moment and collected herself, her pulse slowing as the hunt ended.

And she pulled her dagger, walked up to the creature, and knelt beside it. There was a time the prospect of cleaning a kill with her own hands would have repulsed her, but the thought didn't come to her, now. It would feed her for quite a while. She wondered idly if Maggie's hunt had been as successful.

And she reached for the bloody wound, bracing one hand against the creature's neck, and pulled the arrow gingerly from the tissue. She could repair it, and knew not to waste anything. The warmth of its soft fur worked through her chilled fingers. Its blood was warm on her hands.

And it stirred a moment as she reached down with the knife, intent on her work. Its movement broke her focus, and she turned to look it in the eye.

Quiet, drawn, and trembling, it watched her. It tried to rise again even now, even when whatever certainty its animal mind knew of mortality settled through its eyes. It breathed ragged, thin gasps. Animalistic grunts escaped its broken throat. And the blood flowed.

Buffy looked down at her hands, stained red, and felt tears sting in her eyes. Drawn, empty-- used up. A tired shell of life, drifting through the wavering descent into shadow. It was like Willow had been, at the end.

It still moved. A thrill of dread passed through her. Moving, trying to live. Struggling out the seconds. She felt she would cut it again just to stop its moving... but she simply stared, a hand on the matted wound, its warmth feeding up her arm and thawing the winter chill around her. She stared as it tried to move-- tried to rise again.

And the doe failed. No effort could stop it, and it came silently, and Buffy couldn't feel the moment the threadbare pulse had faded to nothingness. Its eyes stared empty out into the mist of rain and falling leaves. The rush of the stream beside them mingled with the sound of wind in the tree branches.

The dead gaze. She knew it, she made it with her hands. Aylis had fallen through her looking glass, then died in Buffy's world. Her foreign eyes had been empty. Anya had stared into the sky-- her mother to the empty plaster field of a living room ceiling. That last, distantly remembered death seemed a mercy, now. She wouldn't have wanted to see this.

Silence fell over the hunter as she knelt on the moist earth. The flesh cooled quickly, its defenses broken. She couldn't stop staring, with muted horror, at the slender, alien face of the otherworldly deer.

It seemed forever before she could move, her hands trembling, and she scrambled on her knees to the waters edge. She plunged her hands into the cool, open pool of water the deer had broken into through the ice. They were shocked nearly numb as she held them under. And she saw her reflection in the space beyond them, the ice beginning already to reclaim the freezing mirror.

Dark hair, pale skin. A hairline scar ran down her right cheek, from a long-ago fight. Drawn, empty-- used up. A tired shell of life, drifting through the wavering descent into shadow. A ghost of herself, and yet herself.

The animal's blood ran from her wrists and down her fingers into the pool, staining the quivering image a soft red.

She never cried, not anymore. But she fought back the tears that threatened her resolve as she stared at herself laid bare. It was wrong. She sensed, deep in the recesses of her empty determination, that it was-- somehow, all gone wrong.

She sighed, removed her hands and clutched them close, tried to keep them from going completely numb and freezing dangerously. There was something wrong, yes.

She looked around herself, at the forest that was once a network of highways. She laughed, a tragic, painful chuckle. Of course there was something wrong, here.

But she wouldn't go hungry.

So she drew her knife once more, and went to clean her kill.

---



Part Nine: Ring of Fire

---

"I'm an effigy / A parody of who I appear to be. / Put your flaming torches under me..." --Natalie Merchant, 'Effigy'

---

A tiny of flicker of movement caught their attention. It had followed the voice-- the voice that floated calm and measured through their numbers.

"I what?" their leader questioned, turning to the interloper, where he stood behind the fire, hidden in the flickering shadows. Small glimmers of orange light reflected from him, making only parts of his shape clear at any time. The line of a shoulder, the gesture of a hand, the head tilted slightly to the side, as if admonishing them-- or apprising their power.

"I don't think you're going to want to do that," the shape repeated, simply. It turned, as it said it, to look at the human leader sideways. It stepped slowly and languidly around the circle, far back, where they could barely see.

And their leader followed it with his gaze, and said nothing. Instead, a strange, little smile thrilled across his face, and shined into the glimmer of his eyes. The kind of smile that came across vampires when they saw easy prey. Mindless and mirthful, he smiled at the prospect of the coming chaos.

The pregnant girl, bound and trembling, stared at that smile with instant recognition and foreboding. Her flowered crown sagged on her brow, falling to the left awkwardly as she recoiled in visceral horror.

The smile grew into a toothy grin as he drew a dagger from his belt, and gestured to those around him to stand. A moment of silent pause filled the crowd, and the sound of the crackling fire dominated them all for a short space. But as they began to rise and join their leader, their movement was broken by the sound of the voice as it began to circle, slowly, around the camp.

"I cannot rest from travel; I will drink life to the lees," it declared calmly.

It spoke with an unwavering confidence that paralyzed them in motion. The poetry fell with simple clarity from the creature's unseen lips. They stared into the darkness with disquiet, straining to see the shape making its slow progress in circles around them, the sound of its boots shuffling across cardboard and the great masses of assorted dross from their campground. It stank of waste and rotting leavings. The smell of it was utterly overpowering. They lived in itinerant, careless filth.

"All times I have enjoy'd greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those that loved me, and alone; on shore, and when thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades vext the dim sea..."

Their leader stayed his followers once more with a signal from his thin hand. He took a step forward, his eyes gleaming with a joke that only he understood.

"Who are you?" he asked, chuckling with cold humor.

The shape seemed to pause a moment, and the sound of its movement in the cold night stilled to nothingness. And it shrugged, the shoulder dipping into the orange light of the wavering fire, the tired leather momentarily visible. Its calm voice continued in an unassuming, nearly dismissive tone.

"I am become a name," it responded steadily, "For always roaming with a hungry heart much have I seen and known,-- cities of men and manners, climates, councils, governments, myself not least, but honor'd of them all..."

"I can cut you," the leader responded simply, with a quiet menace. He stared into the black just beyond the flames, heard the strange sound of the creature's motions, the heady smell of strong alcohol and travel following it as it moved.

"And drunk delight of battle with my peers," the creature continued, unwavering, "Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy..."

The creature paused once more, behind the group of followers clustered to one side of the fire, directly across from the leader and the isolated woman.

The leader slowly became aware, as the figured moved, that it must be stalling... something, something about them was keeping it from attack. His brow furrowed slightly, thought breaking through the exhilarating promise of violence. His eyes followed the figure as it walked once more around the circle, towards where he stood with the cursed woman.

"I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro' gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move..."

The opponent was close, the leader could feel it. The girl was aware of it too, standing right next to her, a few feet to the left, hidden past the firelight. She felt a tear slide down her cheek, catching on a leaf clinging there like a raindrop. And the thing leaned in, and she heard a crisp, metallic snap sound close beside her.

A lighter came to life in its hand, a faint light glowing from it. It illuminated the monstrous fangs, the golden eyes. Savage and feral, it smiled to them both as it spoke.

"That last bit always made a lot of sense to me..."

---

Windy Troy. The delight of battle. He knew them. And, like Ulysses, he alone remained, wandering.

Spike let his fingers trail quickly through the lighter's flame as he looked in on them. The girl gasped as their eyes met, and stared in bright shock, unable to turn away. The rest of the assorted humans simply watched him from across the fireside, cautiously looking to their leader for a reaction.

And their leader laughed once more, louder now. He had that look in his eyes-- the mad, smiling gleam that made him unpredictable. He liked this. He liked this a great deal. Spike smiled right back through sharp fangs and contorted features. This was a game he knew.

"You're a vampire," he said, "You think we'd even be alive right now if we were afraid of *one* vampire?"

"It depends on the vampire," Spike replied grimly.

"You'd be dust before you even moved," the man replied, a shaking, smoldering anger coiling in his voice.

"And I could rip your lungs out before you could try it," Spike snapped back, "So I wager that's a stalemate, then, isn't it?"

"Now I don't understand why you even care," the leader countered conversationally, "Unless you wanted her for an easy snack-- why even bother?"

---

"I made a promise to a lady."

Bound and helpless. The sound of breathing and the smell of pure fear. Large and trusting eyes.

The moments dragging into the dread of impending silence. And an answer that inevitably came, with blades and apocalypse and her screaming after him.

---

"I'm taking if you're giving," he said dryly, "What use is she to you anyway-- save you the bloody trouble."

"Oh," the leader sighed, his eyes suddenly distant in their hilarity, "It's no trouble..."

The light moved between them like a living spirit, flickering, licking at the edges of their hands. The light didn't penetrate the dark-- swallowed, overwhelmed by night cold that stood like empty, negative space around the circle. Spike felt a strange sense of anger raise in his gut, twist serpentine in his veins.

This was the world he knew. This was a world he'd lived in for a hundred years, the world that he inhabited comfortably. The shadows clung around him like the familiar old leather on his shoulders. It sang to him from the corners with its promise of blood and dust-- empty like the ashes flying up on the heat of the fire, glowing red and fading-- absorbed whole into the night darkness. Empty, but so bright as it flared.

The bonfire moved still in its undulating currents. His lighter glowed in his hand, the metal burning his fingers with heat where he held it. The sensation moved in his mind as he stared into the elated face before him.

And he was a little in love with the moment, when he could believe for a blind instant that he was as he should have been-- that he could tear into the throng and come out blood-soaked and alive with the sheer and useless rage of it all.

But then a dead girl raised a hand in his memory, brushing her hair away from her tearstained face. She was in his element, hidden in the secret places, the night caves. She came, even before that, to him-- for fairy stories of infanticide and didn't seem to understand that they were true. She thought she was evil. She didn't know. She had no concept of it. Even when that dark nightmare void was crawling at the edges-- creeping with desperate certainty to claim her and steal her and rend her living flesh to pieces in its teeth.

She just didn't know.

And he looked into the lust-laced, blue eyes of his opponent and hated his own with a bitter, uncontrolled spite. He jaw clenched with it.

"Ok, I asked. Now I'm telling," he said, anger starting to take over his movements. He began to pace back and forth behind the weeping woman. She was shivering in the cold and staring at him in the familiar, old way. He could have told Dawn quite a story about it, if the situation was only slightly different.

"Give the girl to me," he ordered, a thick growl rising in his throat, "Give her to me now."

The man before him smiled once more, breathed in heavily as if he were savoring the moment.

"You see friend, it's like this," he said, his arms spread wide, "I really, really just don't want to."

Spike smiled back, his closed lips curving slightly. He allowed his human features to settle back into place.

Then he shrugged. His voice was amicable, nearly careless, when he spoke again. It rang in the taught and nervous silence.

"Ok."

He threw the flask swiftly into the fire. He dropped his lighter onto the trail of alcohol he had poured out around them, while he circled them and recited dead poetry.

The fire flared and the chaos ensued, the cardboard and discarded trash taking quickly to the flame, eaten fast and spreading the holocaust into a ring around the camp.

He leapt forward and grabbed the girl, still bound and screaming. The others struggled desperately to control the fire all around them. And he clutched her head close to protect her skull, moved back a space-- coiled and leapt out with preternatural strength into the negative space of the blackness, rolling with the impact as his shoulder hit the broken asphalt and frozen earth.

The brilliant fire met smokey darkness at his back.

---

"Endless-- so far in myself. Follow me..." --Natalie Merchant, 'Effigy'

---



Part Ten: Duet for One

---

"The pain of war cannot exceed the woe of aftermath." ---Robert Plant

---

The trees stood in columns around her, and she couldn't see their end. They stretched out immense and infinite, and above her the sky soared out through their branches. A bird cried sharply overhead, and burst from the trees out into the wide, open air.

She felt like she was locked in a closet. Or buried alive. Like walls were closing in on her, like she couldn't ever escape the forceful weight of the world around her. The fog pressed against her like a damp shroud. The air was cold and burned her lungs as she breathed, made her throat raw. Her hands still tingled numb and unfeeling from the freezing water with which she had cleaned the pale doe's blood away.

Buffy was drained. She was a zombie-- an undead creature, wrenched from its rest and left to wander the bone yards and dark corners with an uncaring aimlessness. She was exhausted from the hunt, from the rage of emotions that danced through her chest and in her throat. The silence of the woods was deafening, profound. The dead earth beneath her feet, the blue tint to the light were dull and felt ugly to her in the moment-- the world was nothing but tired, strangled plants and dormant trees..

She felt as if she had been through great confrontation and battle, and had been consumed by fire.

Her eyes were dry, but they were irritated with fatigue. She felt like she had been weeping, screaming out at the top of her lungs to the dead forest until the leaves shook and fell at her command. But she was silent. She was overcome with her own silence, and wanted only to curl up beside the fire, watch the flames move against the predawn gloom that was now the recurring backdrop to her life.

She walked through the underbrush, and it moved against her ankles. She pushed the branches of a sapling out of the way as she moved up an embankment. It clung close to old boulders, that scattered numerous over the side of the steep hill. A brown mouse froze as it saw her, and then ran from her across the lichen on a nearby stone, disappearing with nervous speed into the crevice beside it..

And as she reached the top of the hill, she could hear the echo of music-- a single violin ringing soft and low through the forest.

It bounced off the trees, reverberated into the empty space, and seemed to mingle with the fog. It seemed to belong to the forest, to things not human. Things to which she and all of human history were utterly alien and irrelevant.

Maggie played the tune. It reminded Buffy that while they walked in human forms, the creatures she had once hunted were far from human in ways she could never understand. Ways that had nothing to do with blood and murder-- for those were things common to them both. And she paused a moment before she crested the hill, turned to look out over the forest stretching out below her, just to listen.

She lingered there, letting time pass by unheeded, simply standing, and listening. She closed her eyes.

There was something sad about it, to her, as she stood on the winter hillside. Something tragic about taking pause, about standing out over the highway spaces that death and mystery had formed into trees. Because those trees were so strong and somber, so finely carved from their heavy trunks to the fanning canopy of their skeletal arms. Because the music was lovely and painful and twined around her and echoed through her as she stood.

Because it was so beautiful.

---

The music was haunting and sad, and seem to lament something Buffy would never feel in a time Buffy would never know. But it reminded her, somehow, of standing in front of a door, years ago, and trying to decide whether or not to go in.

When she finally decided to try the handle, she didn't expect it to move. Willow had locked her out for days, hiding in their makeshift home, unwilling to let her through.

But today, the door swung open, and the stale air choked Buffy as she stepped inside.

Willow was sitting on the oriental carpets they had stolen to cover the concrete-- stolen to make this look like a home. Her legs were folded. Her body was still. She never moved, now.

Buffy was sweating from the stagnant heat that hung over the brief hours of the nighttime summer. It was deep August, and the night flared with an oppressive humidity that cleaved to her skin. Inside the warehouse office, it was worse.

Yet Willow was blue with cold. Her lips had lost their color.

Buffy stopped in the doorway, paralyzed by the sight. She held two rabbits on a string over her shoulder, and had even found fresh apples. The best part of the brief, fitful outbursts of summer weather was the fruit.

Some of the best times had been like that. Sitting, once, before Willow had retired only to this place, they had been happy in a small way. They had perched on the roof of the warehouse, eating fresh plums they had come across, and Buffy had almost felt like things were allright. Like they were on the roof of her mother's house, and that they could talk freely like they used to.

But they had simply eaten the plums, and sat in the warm breeze. There was nothing they could say. And Willow's eyes had been growing more distant, even at that time. And as summer grew to its fitful climax, Willow receded more and more into what remained of her mind.

And Buffy came back from her carefully laid snares, with meat and fruit in hand. But she knew it was hopeless, and the foreboding that had been growing in her swelled. Willow wouldn't eat. She drew her strength from the earth now. She said she could see it-- the magical force. She had said it, before she had gotten to this point-- before she had stopped speaking altogether.

But the problem was a simple one-- and Buffy knew it as she looked at her friend, whose hollow, wasted face stared blankly forward at her. The earth was sick, and its strength was corrupted. The world around them showed it plainly, with trees and plants that grew still-- but grew twisted and thin and hungry. And when Willow opened her veins and her soul to it, it clung within, changed her, and fed on her like a cancer left to spread. It wasn't the force that kept this world alive that brought Willow her strength. It was the force of the old ways, the shadow, the remnant of things long past and gone. It was nothing that could ever create any more life.

Willow seemed hardly aware that-- and also seemed hardly of her friend and companion. As she sat on the office floor, there was a single, snowy white moth on her fingertips, weaving between them and around her hand in its flight. Swirling over her too-white skin over and over again in a strange and unnatural cycle.

"Willow..." Buffy whispered, not expecting a response. So when Willow's head snapped up, she jumped at the motion.

"It's telling me things..." she said hoarsely. It came out rough, her throat tight and strained from disuse. And the moth danced still around her fingers, pale and white in the thick and humid darkness.

"What does it tell you?" her friend replied quietly, patiently waiting for her to speak again. Trying to draw her out without frightening her. Her words were hopeful to Buffy. Perhaps she could break from this stupor and come back...

"It travels... it flies around all its life, just moving and moving. And it burns out. But it's seen things, heard things. It knows the whispers and rumors," Willow responded. And then she paused conversationally and continued again.

"Did you know that Giles died today?" she said softly and without emotion. The moth fluttered softly over her skin and she smiled at it slightly. And it rushed away, out a crack in the window. Buffy followed the movement with her eyes, and that is when she saw them.

Thousands of insects, clinging still and silent to the windowpane. Monarch butterflies and moths, dragonflies and hornets. She looked up and saw them clinging in the shadows of the ceiling, against the corners of the walls. Their wings silent, waiting.

And one by one, they began to move, until the air threw her hair back with the breeze they made. They beat past her arms, past her cheeks. She started back, eyes stinging with unshed and bewildered tears.

They settled on Willow, clinging close to her hair and arms. She was a mass of moving wings and crawling legs. And she looked up, her face cloaked and obscured with the churning forms.

"Moths to the flame... it's always that way really. They're trying to escape something, I think. They always try that..."

And, for the first time, it occurred to Buffy that Willow might be dangerous to more than just herself. And a question that had been forming in her mind for the year they had been together now found the words of its expression.

"Willow," she asked steadily, "What happened to Tara...?"

---

It seemed like hours before she passed over the forest hill, and Maggie still continued to play. The light of the fire warmed the cold blue light around them, that was already fading away into the blackness of the night. It made Maggie's light hair glow around her like a crown of gold, where it fell in loose curls down her shoulders and spilled over her arms.

She smiled at Buffy, nodded slightly, and resumed her music.

Buffy sat down on the other side of the fire, pulling her pack close from where it lay and leaning against it like a cushion. She saw the open violin case, the resin resting in it with the spare strings left over from the unfortunate raid that had gotten their companions killed. And the end of a linen cloth fell out over the lip of the case. It was embroidered in faded silks.

She'd never gotten a very good look at it, and thought better of pulling it out to examine it. But she saw the edge. A sampler. A very, very old sampler. She could see part of the last two lines of text, where they rested over a pattern of thorny vines, primitive birds, and flowers:

-Mary Magdelene Neville - Year of Our Lord 1732 - Aged Thirteen Years - Be Testament When I Have Gone of Greater Works my Lord Hath Done -

Its scrolling, simplistic patterns looked strange against the modern, molded plastic of the violin case. But as new as the case was, she was certain the violin was as old as that scrap of worn fabric. Buffy wondered why Maggie would have wanted to keep it, over these years.

She didn't feel it would be wise to ask.

And the woman before her nodded her head as she moved her bow, her hair shaking with each motion. It was strange.

And Buffy shook off thought, tried to free herself of the weight that oppressed her, and snuggled close into her knees, staring out into the fire. The light was quickly fading into a black void, back into the darkness. It somehow made her more comfortable when she could no longer see out into the depths of the trees. She almost settled into sleep, the haze of it clouding her mind and bringing her to the edge of dreaming.

Something batted against her cheek, fluttered past it. She moved up a hand to brush it away. A moth, drawn to the light. Its touch was like a blow to her gut, broke her reserve and filled her with emotion once more.

It played on her fingertips a moment, and Buffy smiled at it, sadly, and remembered.

---

"It was strange," Willow said softly, "When you love someone, you're supposed to stay with them, right?"

Buffy was silent. Her hand tightened around her satchel of apples as if they grounded her and kept her stable.

"But she wouldn't stay... I mean, she was there with me, but the power that was unleashed on Glory's tower-- it made her stronger. She had twice the power she'd had before. And it got hard after a while-- and when I crept in her mind, tried to fix it, she started blocking me out. I wanted it to be like it was before. But she'd sense it, and she'd stop me..."

Buffy felt her stomach clench and twist. Her thoughts moved unbidden to the hunting knife secured on her belt. The sense of unreality that filled the air around her reached a fever pitch.

"And so I fought back. I fought back hard. And she seemed to come around-- she seemed like she really understood and things were fine for months. She didn't try to do things on her own. She stayed with me like I wanted her... like she should have wanted me..."

Buffy was more sickened, saddened than frightened. Willow was fading fast. Speaking seemed to be tiring her, and whatever she was doing with the swarm of insects was making her shake spasmodically. She cast them about on her skin, and some would fly off a small space as she moved and rush back again in a flurry. It made her difficult to see. She was a blur of jolting movement.

This wasn't Willow in Power, like she had been that night in Glory's house. This was Willow fading, Willow sad and Willow failing. She was a worn shell of herself, painted in blackened hair and moving wings.

"And then one day, I was sleeping with her-- against her shoulder, and it seemed just right. We were passing through the hunting grounds around an Abbey by that time-- it was a coven of power that had settled in that place. And when I woke up, I was on the ground alone. She had run to them, and they wouldn't let me in..."

Her voice was ragged and hoarse, but the emotion communicated itself beyond its inexpressive tone. She was truly bewildered and couldn't understand why Tara had run away.

"If she ever leaves their walls," she said bitterly, "I'll be there... I'll take her back and love her like she deserves. She'll understand it then."

When she laughed, it came out a tragic little croak.

"I know I could have taken them on, if I could have just gotten my hands on the power. If I had all the resources we'd had before-- even the things in the Magic Box, I could have done it. But they were so strong, Buffy, and they didn't want me. They wanted her, but they didn't want me."

She sounded like she would cry if she had the energy. But it was all too much for her.

But her dry and rough voice turned colder, and Buffy began to see the shape of what was to come.

"But you won't leave me... you always wanted me with you. From the very first day in high school you let me in. It's why I came... and you won't leave now..."

Willow's legs moved, shaking, and she managed to pull herself up to stand. The insects still moved over her, rolling in cycles around her body. Her arm rose out from her body, and her hand clenched into a tight fist, closing over the insects that rested there.

Buffy tried to step back, to put some distance between them, but came to realize she couldn't move. A prickling, numb sensation moved through her ankles and spread up her legs.

"Willow-- Willow stop!"

She called out as her lungs froze in her chest, and her jaw locked tightly shut. She heard the apples fall in scattering thuds to the carpeted ground.

"Don't leave, Buffy," Willow said softly, approaching her friend with a sad sort of vulnerability, "Don't leave, just don't move at all..."

---

Buffy's brain was screaming behind her temples, her muscles burning with the need for air. And Willow stood before her, hand outstretched, fist clenched. There was nothing she could do.

And Willow faltered, swayed forward and lost her balance. Her legs couldn't hold her up any longer.

Buffy fell with her, her muscles released from their paralysis. Her breath came out in deep, choking gasps. She was lightheaded and a thrill of sheer alarm filled her veins. Willow tried to rise once more, and Buffy kicked her away. She flew across the room and fell, her shoulders slumped. Momentarily stunned.

Buffy thought once more of her hunting knife. But she couldn't-- couldn't ever do it.

She ran out into the mass of conveyer belts and machinery in the warehouse proper, and heard Willow moving and whispering a singsong chant close behind.

---

She dropped to her hands and knees behind the still hulks, their purpose long forgotten to the world and unknown to Buffy. She could hear Willow approaching, leaning against the metal monstrosities, the hoards of insects following her as she moved. Her breath was short, came in thin and ragged whispers. Buffy's keen hearing told her she was near and coming nearer.

Buffy crawled silently under the gears of a large machine, covered in cobwebs. Sweat rolled down her neck and she clung to the parts as she pulled herself forward, trying to find a path from under the machine to a window beyond Willow's direct line of sight.

Willow moved down the corridor between production lines, and came to rest about three feet from where Buffy hid.

And she laid a white hand against the machine, and it sprung to life.

Buffy cried out as she rolled to miss the moving of a heavy pump, and a gear glanced her shoulder blade and threw her forward with brutal force towards the progress of another sharp, spoke like object she could not name. The sounds around her were rusty and groaning, and moved together in a terrible and swift rhythm.

She seized a bar above her before she struck the rusty points that jutted towards her with mechanical and rigid speed. She spun around and to the cold floor. It was a sharp and immediate contrast against her burning back.

She saw a heavy metal foot above her coming down towards her chest, and moved in the only direction available to her. She rolled out into the aisle with all of her speed.

Willow wasn't there.

The machines came to life all around her, one by one, and she realized Willow was starting them each in turn. She moved once more, on hands and knees, towards the far wall and its windows.

She turned left down a larger avenue between the production lines, and down towards the far wall, that stood brick and strong in her vision. It was the only thing that seemed real to her in that moment.

She moved across the stained floor, the cracked concrete steady and cool under her. She leaned against the end of a conveyer belt and tried to hear where Willow was moving. Through the heavy noise of the machinery, Buffy couldn't hear her until she saw her feet on the other side of the moving, metal structure.

She had one chance. She reached for her knife, trying to control her frantic breaths so Willow wouldn't hear. As she drew it, her fingers grew clumsy and awkward. Its metal gleamed, at last, in her hand.

But as she looked at it, it filled her with pale disgust. She threw it away and it fell beneath the conveyor's feet. The sound made Willow spin around, and, in the same motion, Buffy leapt up and threw a kick to her jaw with a heavily booted foot.

It threw her down. There was blood running from the corner of her mouth when she looked up again. It should have knocked her unconscious, but Willow was now beyond all consciousness, gathering all her remaining strength. She stared up at Buffy and Buffy could feel herself becoming paralyzed again.

The sensation was slower this time, and very cold. Like how Buffy imagined it would be to fall asleep in some Arctic tundra, and never to wake up again. The haze of it filled her vision, and she heard Willow speak to her tenderly and desperately through its heavy fog.

"Buffy, don't-- I love--"

And Willow shook once, and fell to the ground. She never moved again.

---

The moth moved off of Buffy's hand and flew towards the fire. Maggie continued to play, complicated rhythms and notes running together in a delicate chain, intertwining in thirds and shifting minor keys.

And Buffy wondered how she'd become this way. Become a woman who would let her friend die before her eyes and yet do nothing. Who would see vampires hunting in the streets and let them pass by her unimpeded. She wondered how she could ever have chosen not to care, ever have given it all up for lost.

When she saw vampires hunting, when she saw them looking for prey, she let them pass. They had won already. The fight was over.

And yet it had moved on without her. Slayers still roamed the dark places and rooted out the evil where it stood. When Buffy died, long ago, another rose to replace her. When she had simply lost interest, another assumed her role. And the mass of hopeful fools told stories of their salvation.

The world had moved on and left her at the wayside, looking into its ashen and twisted remains.

She had seen a Slayer fall into evil. She had seen them fight in strength. She had many stories of her own great battles, lost to that dead and distant past. She had tried and failed, come so close to saving it all again.

A stair. One simple stair had succeeded where a goddess had failed.

She had seen it all, but she couldn't understand. She didn't understand how a Slayer could become a passive bystander to the world around her.

---



Part Eleven: Dance of the Race

"It's allright... it's-- just stop crying now, love, can you...?"

He reached out tentatively and touched her arm.

She flinched back wildly, screaming anew and burying her face in her hands. He cursed himself silently for the impulse. She burrowed close against the brick wall, nestled into the corner of the dark room. Shadows clung all around the abandoned building he'd brought her to, and it was quiet. But he was still nervous. They were too close yet, and they might have followed-- but he couldn't move her in this state.

"No touching then, allright-- that's allright... just breathe a little..."

He was uncomfortable. He didn't know quite what he should do. She was like a frightened rabbit, pulse racing so fast that she might burst-- kill herself from sheer shock like a wild creature. Her hair fell over her face in long, black strands. The remains of her flowered crown clung in her hair, a leaf caught in a thick tangle by her ear, a few flower petals clinging to the ends where they trailed across her arms.

He was frustrated. She was being impossible, and he had no idea what he was going to do with her.

And she looked up with frightened eyes. They were dark. She looked a bit like Drusilla had when she was crying. And he softened to her a little.

"They might be coming," he said as gently as he knew, "We need to get you moving."

She swallowed hard and looked at him with an eerie sort of sadness. Her voice trembled, a bare whisper, and her eyes were solemn.

"You'd only kill them too..." she whispered, and laid her head against her knee in quiet exhaustion.

"No..." he said softly, "No pet, you're not going to die today."

She looked up again at his face, watched him warily. He stood from her side, losing patience again, pacing back and forth across old, creaking floorboards.

"Why would I go through all that if I was going to kill you...? Lost my lighter and my flask for it, too-- and I was bloody fond of those I'd have you know... my mum always used to say I was too impulsive..."

She still watched him with dread. But her hands had stilled and her eyes, rimmed red, were growing more sober.

"Come on then," he said steadily, responding to the change in her, "We'll need to get moving. I won't hurt you."

"You won't..." she whispered softly, watching his eyes and speaking with a quiet confidence. And there was an uncomfortable silence between them a few seconds, before her brow furrowed and she spoke again.

"But you're--"

"Rakishly handsome, yes," he interrupted, avoiding her inevitable question, "But that's beside the point right now, isn't it?"

And she looked down again, leaned her head against a frail hand, exhausted. She sighed. It was the sound of someone trying to collect herself and finding it impossible. And her hand trembled, and he began to lose the progress he had made with her. Even if there were no more tears. She seemed drained and defeated, and simply shook and trembled with her own scattered thoughts.

He continued to pace, frustrated and confused, while simultaneously angry at himself for that same frustrated confusion. He couldn't keep her with him, and he couldn't get her calm.

"Where can I take you? Where did you live?"

"Before...?"

"No-- I mean, yes-- before they-- before they took you, is there anyone I can bring you to, anyone who would pay you any mind?"

He was desperate for her to say yes. He couldn't care for her, couldn't just take her with him from place to place. The very idea filled him with a dread panic.

"Heorot."

He paused.

"What?" he replied.

"Take me to Heorot... it's near... the elementary school. There are people there. I was staying with them, before they found me..."

Her voice grew more strained as she continued to speak.

"It was so long ago... so long..."

And he realized how long it had been since he'd really spoken with a human-- with anyone, really. How long it had been since he'd been around them intimately for any length of time. Known their fears. Not since the Scoobies, really, had he been familiar with their daily habits. Not since Dawn had anything breathing relied on him.

He remembered her, and the old hollowness rose up in him again. And he looked towards the trembling girl, her bare arms white with cold before him. He took off his duster and offered it to her tentatively. She hesitated a moment, and then took it from his grasp.

"I'm sorry..." he whispered to her, softly.

---

Buffy had fled. Leapt up from the floor like some strange gazelle and burst off into the night. All of them had turned from the body of their friend, shrouded in a discarded jacket, and started at the lightening fast movement. The sound of her feet on the crumbling asphalt filled the air.

And Spike did what he always did. He ran after her.

He bolted off to the right, leaving the group huddled around the body with a heedless abandon. Ignoring the pain swimming through his body as he pushed himself to run faster-- scaling the crackling rifts in the pavement through which the sickly sounds of alien creatures chirped in the night.

And he could see her, ahead, blonde hair flowing behind her, the pale white of her sweater an eerie, glowing blue in the early morning light.

Light. He didn't have long before it would swell into an inferno of sunshine-- but at that moment, he didn't think of it. He just needed to catch her, bring her back.

And he was filled with a dead certainty that if he lost her now, she would never come back at all.

There was nothing but movement. Ash fell into his hair and onto his arms and he was heedless of it. Buffy veered left, scaling the bumper of an old station wagon that had been crushed under a fallen tree. He was gaining on her, anticipated her movement, and cut some seconds off her lead by increasing the angle at which he shifted towards her. The heavy tread of his boot made a strange metallic noise as it impacted with the metal bumper and vaulted him over the rough, unearthed roots of the tree's trunk. In an instant, he was back onto the broken pavement again.

They sped through an alley, full of the bricks of the old, industrial buildings around them. He could smell smoke and hear the flames that were coursing through the warehouses.

They ran through destruction for what felt like an eternity, until it seemed that they had done nothing but this for the whole of their lives. As if she was always running and he was always following, a strange mockery of the ritual of hunting they both knew so well.

But she wasn't Prey. She would never be Prey, even if she fell at that moment into the void of despair that was yawning to swallow her whole. Not Prey. Not her.

And he wasn't a hunter. Not now. She'd seen to that. They were dancing in this desperate race-- and in this dance he was longer Predator. Instead, he was a pathetic bloke who, for several deeply stupid reasons, didn't know any better.

And so he ran. And as eternal as their long race was, it was drawing to the inevitable crisis-- to the end and its decisive moment. He didn't know what he planned to do, but he was gaining-- soon he could reach out to her shoulder, stop her. Beg her to-- to what?

He didn't know. But he wouldn't let her leave, not like this.

And he could hear the flurry of her breathing, fast and crazed. He could hear the sobbing intensity of the gasps, and was certain she wept as she ran.

"Buffy!" he called out to her. He couldn't let up-- had to run faster, pushed his muscles on and propelled himself further as his bones shifted and burned within his chest. If he'd slowed an instant he would lose her forever.

And she faltered. She ran straight through the long maze of alleys and stopped herself seconds before colliding with a concrete wall. She turned around, and he started. Her eyes were cold, remote. She looked at him like she didn't recognize him.

"Buffy..." he said softly, as if her name were something holy. She looked so small, engulfed in her white sweater, standing against the field of stained grey. Her hair was full of dust and ash, and when she moved the powder danced around her and glowed in the early morning light.

And he realized it should have been sunrise, by then. But it simply hadn't come...

He stepped towards her, eyes wide and earnest. They stung suddenly with tears as he looked at her. And he had never forgotten an instant of what happened in that moment. The way the freezing air made her breath a cloud of tremulous mist. The painful familiarity of her features. How she gazed intently at him as though she were confused. Her lower lip, porcelain and delicate, trembling slightly as she stared.

And he was moved. Suddenly and swiftly. And it was as if nothing had happened-- none of it, none of the death or destruction-- nothing was real at all. There was just her.

"Love..." he whispered again, his voice hitching in his throat. She remained still, watching him. A single tear, that had been clinging stubbornly to her lower lashes, fell unheeded down her cheek in a slow trail. It was a sad and fragile moment of connection while the world around them burned.

And he made a mistake.

He reached out and touched her arm, very softly. His fingers trembled but lightly across the soft, knit surface of her sweater.

It was like electricity had been jolted through her. She started, and he pulled his hand back as if he had been burned. Sickly dread filled him and his eyes darted to hers, entreating in the instant before she acted.

She kicked him in the ribs, already broken, and he felt them forced full into his lungs as he flew into the brick wall behind him. Pain coursed through him in excruciating waves as he crumpled to the ground. Blood ran from his nose and he fought with his consciousness, clinging to the tangible feeling of pain, desperate to claw his way up from the dirty asphalt and pursue her once more where she ran.

But he could not move. He could only see the pavement around him as he heard her running away.

---

He waited for the girl to collect herself where she sat, trembling. He remembered how it had been, once, for him, as he fell crumpled and defeated onto the asphalt, beyond caring if something came to rend his flesh. His hands were shaking and the horrible, intense pain in his body was insignificant as he came to realize what had happened, put the pieces together until they gelled and the whole terrible evening had become truly real to him.

Buffy was gone. And she was dead. Dawn was dead. Dead.

He could have stopped it. But he hadn't. He could have stopped Buffy, but he had let his impulse carry him, as he always did. He couldn't do otherwise. It was in his nature, and his nature had destroyed her.

The woman before him brought out the guilt, somehow, in him. The way she sighed and trembled with her fear brought it all back to him.

Lying on that asphalt, in the empty morning gloom, the world he now lived in had become real. And it was in that moment, when he was lost in a strong current of despair, that he had first seen the energy, twining so small and delicate in tendrils through the broken pavement.

It spread, before his eyes, over the earth, and he had watched it with awe. It was pure, and ethereal-- he could see it, but not in the way he saw the rest of the world-- not in the reaction of light and retina. It was like seeing what he could only describe as a pure, ringing sound-- it echoed through his mind like a clear bell tolling. The spiderweb light moved over the earth, but was not part of the earth-- was not part of anything else he could see or know. Distant, illusory-- unreal. And yet more real than anything else had ever been.

And it was there ever since-- even in the room where he sat with this broken, pregnant girl. It twined across the floorboards, danced at their toes, and grounded him with the certainty of its ever present strength.

And he waited for her to calm herself, patiently. He sat in heavy silence, trailing endless paths through his memory as he watched her in her fear.

---

She looked out through a curtain of her own hair. It obscured the dark room in clusters of black strands. The creature sat several feet away, casually, as if it were perfectly normal for them to be together. He'd even handed her that strange leather duster, when he'd realized how cold she was in only her loose, white shift. The leather was old and tired, full of many tears and gashes. He had been through great violence, which was fitting for one of his kind.

He watched her steadily, waiting for her to speak. He was a picture of calm.

And yet he was unconsciously rapping his foot in a fast rhythm against the uneven floorboards. His calm was only skin deep.

"I'm alone..." she whispered, mostly to herself.

The creature seemed to take notice. It looked up from its swiftly tapping boot, and their eyes met.

Its blue eyes were bright with awareness, alive with thought. Its hair fell in careless, soft brown curls around its face. She didn't understand the creature, why it had taken her. She did, though, understand what would have happened to her if he hadn't.

And he cleared his throat, and spoke.

"You're not alone..."

"You..." she said again, her voice cracking again with new tears. She thought a moment of running away, but didn't know where she would go or how she would live if she did escape him.

"You... You don't count," she said, unsure of how to express herself. And he smiled, softly, at that.

"I've been around long enough to know I don't count," he said, his tone strange, sadly ironic, "But I didn't mean me..."

He hesitated, unsure if he wanted to continue. As if he was about to ask a question, the answer of which meant a terrible lot to him. As if he wasn't sure he wanted to hear the answer he would receive.

"Can you see her...?"

"Who...?"

"She's here," he said, "She's all around-- can you see?"

She stared at him in confusion, and he moved towards her. She froze, and he paused, slowing his pace and reaching out for her hand cautiously.

She decided to let him take it, gently, and he laid the palm down against the rough floorboards, moved it slowly across the surface. Guided it in a strange, intricate, webbing pattern.

"There," he said, pressing it against the cold wood, "There... can you see the light, can you feel it there, moving?"

She looked at him again, his eyes were intense, and she shrank back from his touch once more, pulling her hand close to her chest. She had looked at him, before, as if she questioned her safety, and she looked at him now as if she questioned his sanity. A new fear sprung up in her eyes as she responded.

"No..."

He stood abruptly, turned from her, began to head for the door. Avoided her gaze.

"Come on," he said, "You're ready to move. We need to be on our way."

And he walked to collapsed and broken doorway, and waited patiently for her to follow.

---



Part Twelve: Golden Arches

A strange, scrabbling sound. Like clutching claws on bark. Maggie's eyes darted to the tree branches above them.

"Buffy--"

"I heard it..."

But she couldn't see it. And there was definitely something out there.

But there were only trees. Countless trees stretching into the distance. Like there had been every day in the journey.

But it was different here. They had been traveling nearly a week in this forest space, walking long miles, and now, the forest changed. It made the instinct hum in Buffy's skull, and she could tell by the darting, nervous movements of Maggie's hands and eyes, that she felt it, too.

They'd recently found the highway again, where it cut through the oaks and pines and birches. It was a mass of pavement, cracked and full of weeds and leaves. They planned to follow it out of the woods, and into whatever lay beyond them. It looked lonely-- tragically absurd in its winding, broken expanse.

Buffy stepped out of the road, and squinted cautiously through the night, trying to discern any unnatural sound. But there was just her own breathing, and the now familiar rustling of the leaves.

---

The two figures stood near the pavement, and it could see them below. It moved a spidery, pale-white leg quietly, tensing it back and forth as if it were nervous. These were strong, not like the other creatures that traveled here. It could smell their predatory nature, and it was filled with instinctual unease. They encroached on the territory of its pack, and they shared their hunting grounds with nothing.

It tossed an elongated muzzle back, let out a low frequency, guttural series of clicking noises. And as the wind rolled through the air, moving the branches, its rubbery frame moved with them.

It heard a faint response, the same guttural sound returning to it in the wind. It should join the others in their home ground, and they would stalk together. Now was not the time.

And so it took a careful look at the pair, and then leapt, lightly, onto the tree beside it, and to the one beside that with lithe, springing speed. And it carried the memory of their scent with it as it moved away into the dark.

---

Buffy stared into the black expanse, trying to detect the source of her disquiet. There was rustling, fading away into the distance... but also the sound of breaking twigs coming closer, of rhythmic movement. She tensed, anticipating attack.

Suddenly, three deer burst out of the darkness, and Buffy let out an indelicate shriek as they brushed past her, into the road, and away. In an instant, faster than any human could have come, Maggie was at her side.

"What was it?" she asked tensely. Her thin hand fell on Buffy's shoulder, squeezing it with a strange mixture of stoic sobriety and friendly concern.

"Just..." she whispered, a bit abashed at shrieking out loud in front the vampire, as if she were something that needed to be afraid.

"Just the deer. It's allright..."

---

They walked for hours, and the light began to grow in the sky once more, dark blue and misty and faint.

Strange, carved stones pushed through the asphalt now, as they walked further down the old highway. Mist clung to their ankles, cold and damp. It flowed over the feet of the strange obelisks and crosses, carved in a language that neither could recognize. Their shadowy forms were visible in- between the trees, cutting the dim shafts of light into diffuse beams that cast strange patterns on the earth.

They didn't speak, both listening intently for any sound. Buffy had drawn her crossbow, to be ready.

And she walked, so intent on her purpose, so silent and absorbed, that she didn't notice that Maggie was no longer beside her.

"Buffy!" she heard her call. She darted around, crossbow raised and ready to fire.

Maggie was standing, far behind her on the road, staring at the remains of an exit sign. A crow perched on the top of it, watching them with a vague, animalistic disinterest.

Buffy sprinted back to her friend.

"You're lucky I didn't shoot you..." she said, catching her breath and gesturing to her bow.

Maggie smiled at that.

"You didn't even know where I was, how could you shoot me?"

Buffy ignored her companion, looking down. There was always this contention, hidden beneath the surface. Who could kill what and who could do it faster. The vampire didn't forget who she traveled with easily. And that filled Buffy with a strange sense of isolation.

And Buffy reached out to touch the sign, to finger the rosaries and beads that hung all over it. There were dried flowers, prayers on yellowed paper, all clung to each other and the sign with strings in a shambling mass. Useless currency, in a variety of denominations, clung into the tangle with the dripping, cold wax of burned-out candles. The forest floor around them twinkled with coins. The whole space smelled faintly of stale incense.

"A shrine..." she whispered, softly, "There are people here..."

Beyond the exit sign, a road spun out from the main highway. Buffy seemed entranced by it in an indescribable way. As if, somehow, the presence of her own kind called to her. She walked onto it, and began down its progress.

Maggie hesitated, uncertain she wanted to follow. But, in the end, she sighed softly and followed close behind.

---

They began to hear the singing about a mile down the road. Soon after, they saw the light of the torches, flickering against the gloomy mist. It was the singing of amateurs, off-key, and the tempo was slightly irregular-- erratic. It reminded Maggie of congregations, and they way they had sung in services. Buffy had never spent time in church, and it didn't occur to her.

The road rose in a sloping swell, and at the top was a building awash in the light of torches and candles.

It was a rest stop, from the old highway, that had somehow kept from falling down with the Key's destruction. Its plastic siding and fast-food stylings seemed deeply incongruous among the mysterious trees. It was topped by a cheerful, mass-manufactured cupola, that was stained and bent slightly from harsh weather and lack of maintenance. A row of horses were tied to the gas-pumps.

Someone's voice broke through the crowd.

"Hello over there!"

It was kind and delicately feminine. It reminded Buffy of her mother's, calling through door, when she came home from work.

They both turned, and saw a tall woman approaching them. Middle-aged, with red hair piled up on her head in elaborate braids.

She smiled a placid smile, and stretched her arms out in welcome.

"Are you here to join the pilgrimage?"

"The wha-- I mean, no," Buffy stammered, "I mean, we were traveling through, and saw the lights..."

"Well feel free to share our fire. You're lucky to have run across us here. This is a holy place."

"Aren't you afraid we'll kill you?" Maggie asked flatly. She didn't have much patience for this place, and felt rather cross with Buffy for her inclination to move among the humans.

The woman's nearly unnatural calm was broken for a moment by confusion. Buffy broke in, stepping a little in front of Maggie.

"Thank you, we'll be glad to stay-- we've been traveling a long time."

The woman's smile returned, and she looked at them with an unveiled sympathy and warmth. They were small, slight. They had to have a hard life out there. There were things bigger and meaner than a pair of girls, who must be lost and frightened. No wonder the blonde one looked so uncomfortable, looked at her like she was something alien and untrustworthy.

"Are you sisters?" she asked. Most families had been broken up by this time. It was good to see the young cleaving together. Souls had to look out for one another-- it was the way of her people.

Buffy moved to speak, and Maggie interrupted her.

"Yeah, that's right. I'm Magdelene."

Buffy smirked grimly.

"Buffy," she said, casting a warning glare to her companion as she spoke.

And as she looked at Maggie, she wondered if it was at all wise to have brought her here...

---

The fireside was warm and bright-- a flurry of conversation and song. It was strange, to Maggie, as she sat on the edge of a felled log, staring at the asphalt beneath, still painted with fading yellow parking spaces. The dozens of faces around her, drawn with hunger and hardship were eagerly laughing and trading stories in a chaotic whirl of surging life. There was something wrong, here. Their bantering voices made her anxious.

And she realized it was all the laughter that was off-- they were simply too *happy*. People simply weren't like that, anymore.

It made her uncomfortable, tinged her bad mood with a bitter flavor. And Buffy, for all her eagerness to come to these people, had simply sat next to her on the log, and stared into the fire with some kind of wistful sadness.

As they sat, they'd learned about the group. They'd seen their type before. Pilgrims hunting for the answers no one else really cared about. And they never found anything-- not really.

So they just kept wandering, from place to place-- seeking. And Maggie had chuckled softly to herself, at that. There were some things in even these humans that she could empathize with.

This particular stop on that endless journey-- they called this place holy because it held a seer. A Prophet.

He lived with his monks here, in the remote wilds, to be connected to the power they were certain swelled from the broken earth. And if they were lucky, they could speak with him. Learn something about themselves-- about the world. As if there anything to know they couldn't see themselves.

And she looked up from her glowering and watched Buffy's face. She felt a stab of pity then, and her bitterness softened a little. She could see her friend was uncomfortable-- she had that look in her eyes, as she listened to the stories being banded about-- heard about people who had found their paths through visions and prayers-- prayers to a saint they said wore a cloak of green light and wandered through the world like the very spirit of mercy.

They shouldn't have come here. But Buffy had been drawn to it, and she could tell even through the wistful emptiness of her eyes that she was listening, intently, to the conversations around them. The tales of healed illness and silent moments when they swore, as they meditated, that they felt direct sunlight on their cheeks, burning their skin with vibrant power. But when they opened their eyes, it faded away and only the warmth remained, tickling their skin like feathers and fleeing into the misty confines of their memory.

And she saw Buffy stand, at long length, and walk away from the group. But she didn't pay her much mind. She could well use some time alone.

And hours passed of simply sitting in the warm firelight, among others. Their conversations became cycled rhythms of words, and Maggie measured time by their cadence, listening to them like music in an exotic meter. And she found herself humming along to their songs. She recognized some of the older ones, and they reminded her of hills that were no longer green and river streams that ran with fat fish. And she felt her hollow bitterness fade and die, and in its place the quiet comfort of sound filled her, made her rich with the beauty of music and the poetic words of simple faith.

---

Buffy stepped over the shattered, brilliantly yellow remains of the pair of golden arches, that had at some point toppled to the ground. The broken shards that littered the pavement crunched under her feet.

She paused in front of the door a moment, uncertain, as if to enter might be a violation. But at long last, she pushed open the doors, and stepped into something stranger than the forest itself.

The air was misty and indistinct, full of smoky incense. Every surface was covered. The booths were cloaked in scraps of colorful fabrics, rich and sumptuous in the flickering light of hundreds of candles that rested on the fast-food counter.

But it wasn't a counter. It was an altar. And the few people who were there kneeled before it. The menus had been covered with icons and offerings, glued there and obscuring lurid photographs of value meals and apple pies that come in cardboard sleeves.

She walked forward, the smoky air harsh on her throat. She had to push curtains of beads and long, draping sheets of diaphanous fabrics away as she moved. It was surprising the place hadn't gone up in flames, considering the volume of thin drapings.

It was beautiful, breathtaking even. Like nothing she had seen before. The light flowed indistinct through the fabric and she could see the blurred, obscured forms of the monks in their prayers, reciting a liturgy she could not understand in a language she would never know.

And the absurdity of it hit her all at once. It was ridiculous to have come here, just to be near people-- it was even more so to be taken in by candles and light when she was simply standing in a tacky rest stop. The cheap linoleum of the floor, where it wasn't covered in dried rose petals and sheets of torn-up silk, glared orange and yellow at her.

There couldn't be anything to it. It was even pathetic, in its way.

"He is eager to see you," a voice said calmly from behind her. And a hand fell softly on her arm.

"What?" she whispered softly, turning to look at him. A man in a plaid flannel shirt and torn blue jeans. A monk in the post-modern chapel of his dead world.

"We've been waiting. And the Prophet will talk with you. I will bring you to him."

---

Stiffness gathered in the small of her back from sitting too long by the fireside.

Maggie stood, up, moved a space away from the bonfire to stretch her legs. Her shins were burning with the heat from it, her cheeks warm from facing the flames, and they faded quickly to their natural cold as she hopped onto the curb of the sidewalk that lined the rest stop. She leaned against the cool, plastic siding and looked out into the crowd.

And she heard a noise around the corner. Someone was back there.

Someone was all alone.

---

They walked down a hallway, lined with what were once the cradles for pay phones. But the phones had been torn out, and the wood-grained plastic cases were filled with tall candles, brought by the travelers that sought this place. Where the phones had once been were icon paintings of a beautiful, Marian figure in a green robe, arms outstretched, a rainbow over her head and the earth under her feet. Each of them depicted that same, placid face-- those same, outstretched arms.

And she noticed, as she walked, that there were red gashes of paint covering the saint's wrists, depicting deep and bleeding wounds.

Her mind was humming with a sensation she could not name. They stopped before a door.

"In here. He waits." the monk said softly, and walked away, returning to whatever duties he was sworn.

And she looked at the door, and nearly turned around again. The universal symbol still rested there, affixed firmly to the door and impossible to mistake.

"You have to be kidding me," she whispered to herself.

It was insane-- even with the paintings and the mysterious, smoky incense.

But she was hollow, and ached for something more. So she opened what was once a men's room door and entered the chamber of a Prophet who waited for her within.

---

It was the only room in the building left untouched. Porcelain urinals hung on the tiled walls, and mirrors lined up in a neat row over the sinks. It was a bathroom.

The only difference was the man, sitting on the center of the floor on a small prayer rug, his legs folded comfortably under him. An oil lamp rested before him on the floor, and he stared at it with a strange intensity.

He had long, unkempt brown hair. His beard had been trimmed, but not recently. He was in his late thirties, and wore a wrinkled, brown bowling shirt with orange diamonds embroidered on the front. Loose, worn brown corduroy pants covered thin legs. He was unassuming. His hands were folded neatly before him.

And he hardly seem to notice she was there. So she broke the silence.

"You live in a bathroom," she said in a tone that suggested he might not have noticed yet.

"No," he said, his voice a soft and musical tenor, "I sleep in the common room with my brothers. But it's quiet here, don't you think?"

"It's a bathroom," she said again, with emphasis.

"Well yes. But they're sort of-- well, introspective. Aren't they?"

She didn't know what to say, so she simply walked around the room, following the walls. His voice echoed off the porcelain, mingling with her footsteps as she walked.

"Why did you come in?" he asked, as she walked by the stalls, trailing a finger across their immaculate surfaces.

"Come in?" she asked.

"To see me."

"They said you wanted me to come," she responded.

"But you didn't want to come."

"It's all a little-- well, sorry, but you have to see it's a little... crazy."

He simply smiled, nodding slightly up to her from the ground. His eyes were a warm brown, and glowed brightly with interest in her-- in her thoughts, as she walked around him, past the towel dispenser and around the corner of the room. And it prompted her to ask him a question.

"Why would you want to live out here all alone and do this?"

"Can you think of something better to do out there?" he asked. And she got the distinct feeling he wasn't entirely talking about himself.

And she stopped dead in her tracks as she stood before the mirrors. She didn't want to look, but did so anyway, and the pale stranger that looked back had wild eyes that were suddenly threatening to spill over into tears she didn't want to shed. It was the same well of pain that had driven her from her room at night and into her parents' bed, when she was a child, clinging to them with fear and desperation.

And she was embarrassed to do it, but she chose to fall for it all. To trust him, to plead him to stop the pit of pain swelling in her stomach. It was so easy, when he was warmer and kinder than anyone she had met in years.

"What do I do?" she entreated him desperately, darting from the mirrors and settling to the floor in front of him. Her voice was small and pained.

"Tell me what to do..."

---

Maggie turned the corner of the building, and there was a boy there. Young. She'd be generous to call him sixteen. He was absently kicking a stone about with worn sneakers, pacing back and forth.

"You don't seem happy," she said simply. He started, and missed the stone in mid-swing. It took him a moment to balance himself, and he secretly cursed himself for his clumsiness in front of a pretty girl. Her approach had been oddly silent.

"Yeah, well try walking a couple hundred miles with your parents and you might feel the same way," he replied.

"So... you're not big on the pilgrimage I take it?" she asked conversationally. He rolled his eyes and spoke as low as his young voice would allow him.

"I don't know what I'm supposed to be seeing, but the whack jobs seem happy enough to walk *forever*. And to find what? Some glowy thing? I don't even know what we're looking for. I sure as hell haven't seen a glowy thing... have you?"

"Well, there's the fire. That's kind of glowy," she said, smiling a small, empathetic smile to him.

"And I'm staying as damn far away from it as I can, let me tell you-- my parents are those ones, over there," he said, pointing to the distant fireside and a man who had brought out a guitar since she'd left them, and a woman with red hair perched close beside him. Maggie recognized her as the one who had greeted them as they'd entered the encampment.

"It'd be big with the kum-ba-yahs. That gets ugly fast."

"Don't you think it's... going to get a bit cold all alone over here...?"

He smiled a wide, boyish grin.

"Well I'm not alone now," he said.

---

The Prophet smiled with a fraternal sort of kindness at her, and reached up steadily to touch her cheek. His hands were thickly callused. He must spend long hours, when he wasn't in this room, chopping wood and working with his hands.

"It's ok," he whispered, softly. And his voice seemed to staunch the flow of her tears like a firm hand pressed to a deep wound.

He breathed in a moment, and looked straight into her eyes.

"I'm going to tell you something," he said, "And it's not something I'd tell most of the people who come here. You see, dear one, you're not the sort of person who needs this. You're part of the legend, you don't read it or preach it-- you live the myth. You don't need to be asking me what to do. You should be asking yourself."

"But..." she whispered softly, "But they said this was a holy place..."

"This is the men's room," he responded quickly, as if he was surprised by her statement.

"So there's nothing," she said, standing, pushing her hands into her pockets and looking at the floor, "There's just nothing."

He looked up at her where she turned from him, headed for the door, and a wave of sympathy fell over him for the girl. He stroked the surface of his prayer rug lightly, trailed his fingers over the tiles at his bare feet. He could see the green light there, twisting and jumping, splayed out in patterns around her boots where she stepped.

"Don't believe that," he said, kindly, searching for something that was speaking in his mind, through the prophetic mists and intuitive sense. She paused at the door she held open with one hand.

"Don't say that... Dawn," he continued, as if pulling the name from a distant memory, or as if it were written on something he could hardly see, "Dawn. She wouldn't have wanted that. And she loved you so."

---

Things were looking considerably up for Maggie.

She threw the boy's body into the rusty old hulk of a dumpster that sat against the back of the building. No one would find it until they were long gone.

---

"The Queen of Light, took her bow, and then she turned to go-- the Prince of Peace embraced the gloom, and walked the night alone--"

"Oh-- Dance in the dark of night-- sing to the morning light...."

The voices twined together, singing the rock songs-turned folk songs of the world that had died with Buffy's sister. Maggie seemed considerably happier than she had, as she sat by a man playing a guitar, singing with him in good cheer. The woman who had greeted them sat beside the man, smiling at him with open fondness. A couple, who were in love. It made Buffy wonder, as she walked back to the firelight, if they had siblings and a family and other people to share that abundance of affection with. They seemed the sort of people who would be good with children.

Maggie's violin was in her lap, her bow in her hand. She had been playing, and a cluster of people had crowded around her and the man, who seemed to have struck up a pleasant acquaintance with her over their music. And they continued to sing together, Robert Plant and Robert Burns, folk ballads and even an old, liturgical duet. Their voices and instruments twined in ecstatic beauty.

Buffy sat across from Maggie, who saw her, and gave her a bright smile. They were both happier, now than when they had arrived here. And she simply leaned back on the log, and listened to the music.

And she also listened to the stories. Those around her were talking, in excited, hushed tones, the tones reserved for former varsity players rehashing old victories and the retelling of the lives of saints and heroes.

"And they were completely alone, there was nothing they could do," the quiet voice recounted, "And they only had this novice witch to hold off the gang, and she couldn't do it forever. It was a matter of time."

The music filled the air as the voice went silent, all the surrounding pilgrim's heads moving forward in a cluster towards the speaker. And the voice hushed lower with awe and barely repressed excitement.

"But then the Slayer came," it said, "And it must have been a only a few minutes and the whole lot of them-- had to be twenty vampires-- the whole undead lot were dust in the wind. They told me on the road, when I was coming here-- it was amazing."

"I heard of a Shalnok demon who was hunting the children of a colony east of the forest-- they have every one of its heads, now, on a pike outside of their longhouse"

Maggie's song ended, and the storytellers interrupted themselves to applaud the two musicians. The pair smiled back in response.

And Maggie noticed, before she lifted her violin to her chin, that Buffy was staring, once more, into the fire.

But this time, she was smiling, slightly.

---



Part Thirteen: Shallow Cuts

The old, grey building was sheltered quietly in a pine grove. Beyond the thin copse, the ruins of the city stretched out in their shambling decay. But within that circle of evergreens, it seemed remote, distant from everything else. The building rose solemn from the trees like an ancient mead hall in the dark, Dane's woods. He could see the mountains swelling in the middle distance, painting strange, sloping shapes against the overcast, nighttime sky.

A pair of sleeping lions, in carved majesty, forever guarded the steep stairwell to the doorway. The stones were carved boldly over the wide entrance that was once filled with leaded glass. The carvings stated the building's name with a sense permanence and surety the world had long forgotten.

'Joseph P. Heorot Memorial Elementary School' they read with sober, timeless lettering.

All of the windows were boarded shut. The school yard was empty. A lone morning dove called from a shelter in a gargoyle down spout.

But all this hardly impressed itself on Spike. He clutched her tightly in his arms, to keep from dropping her as she was wracked by violent spasms.

It had started soon after they'd left the shelter of the abandoned building. She collapsed in blood and pain, the strain of her pregnancy breaking her all at once. And he'd known nothing for it but to seize her and run to this place. She'd barely been able to tell him the way through her shattering gasps.

And they had arrived, and Spike paused before the door, to register her breathing and her heartbeat, and check on her condition.

For quite some time she had gone quiet, and that made him more uncomfortable than the sound of her wailing screams. Holding her and running to this place, it was too familiar. He could smell the blood and the glazed-eye silence, could feel her head rolling loosely against his arm. She wasn't the first he had held this way.

It was altogether too familiar.

And her dark hair moved in the growing wind, and trailed out ahead like a mourning banner. She reminded him of more than past victims, in this distant, cadaverous stupor.

He could remember when he was the scourge of Europe, the night terror that children feared. When he was fast and strong and tore through the masses like a ragged blade. When he was in Prague, and he was terrified. His eyes had glimmered with unshed tears, and he had barely saved Drusilla from the hands of those who hunted her. And he had held her-- just like he held this girl now-- fleeing through Saint Wenseslaus Square, his hands trembling, covered with her blood.

It was just like this. Just like this when Drusilla had bled. And the memory collapsed on itself, and he could see where Dawn stood restrained, calling desperately after him. He was the very last to have seen her alive, excepting the thing that had killed her.

And then there was a sudden movement from the foundation of the building.

He shook off the dull horror of his memories as the sound of wild barking filled the air. German shepherds rushed forward from the bushes, straining against their restraints, heralding their arrival with frothing, angry snarls and cries.

The girl moved her head then, and surprised him. He hadn't realized she was still conscious. She was staring at the dogs intently, but in a blank and distant way that made him wonder if she could actually see them.

And he rushed forward, through the cluster of dark, barking shapes, using his speed to keep his balance as they tried to seize viciously on his legs.

Leaping up the stairs, Spike reached the glass door, covered completely in thick boards. The dogs strained at their chains at the foot of the stairwell, pulling forward and unable to reach him, growling guttural snarls in the cold air. He used his forward momentum to strike at the door hard with his foot. The wood began to buckle as he beat on it. The loud rhythm of the breaking wood twined with the barking and filled the night with cacophonous noise.

But still no one came. It seemed like forever. And for a moment he wondered, looking at the still facade, if everyone here had simply left, left the dogs-- and the building was actually empty.

He was about to break down the door in earnest when it swung open. A slight, elfin looking woman with short, dark hair stood in the space. Warm air rushed out into the cold from the hallway. There were silhouettes of several other people further behind in the hall, looking out.

"Goddess..." she whispered, "Rachel...?"

Her eyes were wide, and she reached out for the girl, and two men behind her moved forward to rush the shaking, pain stricken figure inside.

In the moment of bustling chaos, there were people calling back into the dimly lit hallway, and the sound of more behind those, all alert with concern as they carried her into the back rooms where he could not see. It afforded him a moment to process what had happened.

Rachel. So that was her name.

But it was all he had time to think before a foot collided with his chest and sent him careening down the stone stairwell. Landing hard on his side at the base, he felt a heel grind brutally into his throat. The woman's voice was chill as she spoke.

"What the hell did you do to her?"

---

"Hey, what's this one for?"

She kneeled on the cold stone floor, in among the dust of the dead and the caskets-- beside his bookshelves and records. She was perfectly at home. He could hear her moving about from where he stood in his bedroom, searching for something he could use to keep her busy. Echoing down from the first level, he could hear her footfalls mixing with the clanging sound of shifting metal.

"Don't touch anything!" he called from the space below. His voice echoed on the stones as started up the latter, to see that Dawn didn't hurt herself.

"Oh I bet you could, like cut the heads off of stuff with this one, right?"

His head appeared from the entrance to the first level of the crypt, and he could see her holding one of his short swords awkwardly. The old structure of the ladder making comfortable, wooden sounds with the step of his boots. The night pallor of the cold room contrasted with the warm glow of her skin in the candlelight, and the bright pastel colors of her still-childish clothing.

She was in a novice fencing stance with the toes pointed too far inwards and the angle of the heels uneven. He could see she was trying to imitate her sister. Her dark, reddish hair fell over her small shoulders, and she was smiling brightly. She was the picture of gangly teenage bravado.

"That's sharp," he warned.

"Well yeah-- or not so much with the beheading, right?"

Spike stood up off the ladder and walked over to her. His foot glanced against an axe she'd left on the floor and it spun to the right, filling the air with the rasping sound of metal on stone.

Beside the axe were a plethora of other weapons, scattering over the floor where she had been rooting them out of his weapons chest. He shook his head and made a mental note to lock it in the future.

And she was standing with that short sword, holding it out to look at it with one hand and rubbing her forearm, to alleviate the strain, with the other.

"I wish they weren't so heavy," she said, musing quietly, "If they weren't, I could help more."

"Or get yourself strung up gutless. Think that'd help?"

"I was just saying--"

"You were just saying how much you'd love to be out poking bads with sharp things. And if I let you I reckon I'd be the one Big Sis'd string up."

"But still... if I could help, it'd be better..."

"You don't need to worry about it," he said quietly, his tone suddenly serious. He hesitated, before continuing. She'd been nervous this time, more so than any other time Buffy had brought her here. He could see it in her face, in the way she'd been fidgeting and avoiding talking to him.

She was beginning to realize how seriously she was in danger. They were all beginning to realize it.

"Don't worry," he continued, "We're going to be watching out for you, 'Bit."

She sighed, looked away from him, fingers clutching the pommel of the weapon with white-knuckled intensity. Somehow it was the wrong thing to say-- if there could have been a right thing to say, and it set her off. Her eyes were bright with some sort of repressed anger, that was now cracking and spilling out the seams with caustic energy.

"Well yeah, you're all hiding me here. Again. If I could protect myself no one would look at me like I'm about to fall apart. Or like I'm this horrible thing that ruined your lives."

"You know full well we don't think that, nibblet-- just give me the sword and we'll put these things back and do something a little less agonizing, ok?"

"What's there to do? And what's the point of even being here?" she spat out, hand gesturing wildly. The blade caught a shaft of moonlight and shone silver.

"Glory'll just come in take me if she wants to-- what would you even be able to do about it?"

"Dawn--"

"You know what?" she said, her voice louder now, on the verge of breaking with tears, "I don't even care now! I wish she would!"

And she moved her hands forward, gesturing her frustration emphatically, and cried out in sudden pain. She dropped the sword. It made a loud clatter that hung in the air.

Her left hand welled with blood from where the blade had made a shallow cut. She watched it flow down her palm and fall in slow droplets to the floor.

She looked at it and her face went slack with a presentiment of dread. The rhythm of the drops falling to floor mimicked the rhythm of words. Shallow cuts, shallow cuts, shallow cuts...

And she looked down at the blade, where it lay on the floor. For the first time, he thought, she began to really understand that he'd used it to kill. That it was real, and it was harsh, and it was cold. And when she looked up, their eyes met.

And they couldn't say anything, and couldn't move. He felt a strange new distance between them. And there was just the thin, faltering trickle of blood, and the sudden, bare awareness of what might soon be coming.

---

She regarded him a moment, head to toe, where he lay on the earth beneath her foot, poised as if he were ready to react at any moment. She was breathing heavily, the air from her lungs a frosty cloud trailing into the night. There was no wasted breath swirling into the air.

"You're a vampire," she said flatly.

"Perceptive bint, aren't you," he responded, his voice rasping and strained under the press of her boot.

"We kill vampires," she said, pressing harder, and letting a stake fall from her sleeve.

One day, a human would see the weakness in him, and take the fatal chance. He wondered, in a strangely detached way, if it would be her.

She swiftly leapt for him, dropping to her knees over him and driving the stake downwards. He rolled with her movement, seizing the weapon as he pushed their weight left, and throwing the shard of wood to clatter against the tightly packed ground.

She lost her balance and fell to the side. He was on top of her now, restraining her by the wrists, careful from long knowledge of the chip not to exert too much pressure. She turned her head to the left, eyes alight with desperation, looking towards the stake lying lonely on the floor.

"Come!" she called out, and the stake sprung to life, flying to her hand as she strained to pull it from his grip.

A witch. And when he realized she was a witch, he was shocked he hadn't sensed the power in her before. Perhaps, without the chip, it wouldn't have been such a short fight after all...

She strained to strike, struggling with him for control. And a voice called out clearly from behind them.

"Wait!"

The sound of someone rushing out of the small crowd broke through the night. The group was clustered at the stairwell, frozen in place, watching the struggle with uneasy intensity. The sound approached the two where they struggled together.

Another woman, fading swiftly into old age, approached them. She knelt beside them and they both watched her warily. There was something stately in her gait, and he could sense a strong, magical power in her.

"Erin, look at him," she said to the girl calmly.

"I'm not getting much choice right now," she responded, her tone frustrated, struggling still to gain purchase and escape. She darted her gaze to the side, and the two women's eyes met in a sort of silent conversation that implied a long and intimate friendship.

"But look at him," the woman replied, steadily, "We can let him inside... it's allright"

And she reached out with papery, rough old hands and took the stake from Erin's fingers. She then took Spike's wrists gently in her hands, and pulled them away from the girl. Something about her-- about the way she looked at him, made him allow it, made his hands loosen at her touch and made him move away from the figure below him.

"Look at him," the old woman repeated, "Look in his mind. He can't harm you. And he won't."

Erin scrambled to her knees, and they found themselves facing each other, sitting on the ground. She whispered some incantation he couldn't entirely make out, and reached out to touch his temple.

And she pulled away as soon as she made contact, gasping suddenly, like she had touched something burning. She looked at him with pure shock. A flood of images and emotions filled her mind, ranging from the deep macabre to the sublime as they spanned the corners of his existence. A savage and wild sensation of movement through time and space filled her with the height of overpowering life and the pit of agonizing loss.

And it all spoke in a strange language to her. And all of that language could be spoken in only one word, and she spoke that word aloud as she stared at him, appalled and amazed at the same time.

"Slayer..." she whispered, softly.

---



Part Fourteen: The Foundation Crumbles

Buffy walked between the tombstones absently, thinking.

The forest was changing-- thinning. The brush grew smaller, the trees farther apart. And between them, an ancient cemetery began to sprout from the earth. The stones were worn down, most were broken to pieces. The amorphous, limestone stumps filled the ground around her. Most of the names were illegible.

Beside her, a tree root broke clear through the chest of angel, splitting the statue in half. The roots covered the base in clinging tendrils, like the alien, sucking tentacles of a sea creature. The angel's face was still serene-- still fighting along-- even while it fell apart into faceless, empty nothingness. Its hands were still clutched together, where the fingers were melting into one, amorphous object. Its identity was crumbling with its features.

Buffy could relate.

She stopped and reached out to touch the thing. A piece crumbled off in her hands, left a trail of white powder across her gloves.

Soon the forest would be behind them, a distant memory of blue spaces, shadowed light, and tall branches. The memory of living things moving in the wind-- birds calling in mournful, rasping voices.

One fluttered down at that moment, and landed on the angel's robed shoulder.

It regarded her a moment. One wanderer to another. But their worlds only crossed-- they weren't the same. She thought a moment of a life in the sky, moving on cold currents of wind, soaring over the trees that would seem small from the height-- the world below like a train set-- where the giant expanse of forest was simply a place to land and rest before taking to the clouds again.

And she wondered if it was aware of itself-- if it had memories and attachments, or if its animal mind was too narrow to pinpoint those details.

And in that moment the bird sprang from the angel, and soared into the air. It flew high and higher, and she followed its progress up into the sky, where it landed again on the very top of the bell tower of the ruined church that sprung from the ground like an ancient mountain or solemn, sleeping giant.

Gothic. Like those spider-web trees. She walked over a swell in the ground, and headed for the church. They'd stayed there to sleep. It had been good to wake up and see walls around her again. It broke the agoraphobic expanse of the trees and made things feel more grounded.

Far above the woods, in the arched, glassless window of the tower, Maggie crouched, a tiny figure, staring off into the distance.

And suddenly, it wasn't a vampire on in a gothic window, but Dawn up on her tower. And the image of her sister hung in her mind's eye, frozen in time and space and removed from everything else. It impelled her forward, suddenly, as if she wasn't in that woods at all, as if she were back on that ugly construction site.

She burst through the ruined doors of the church, and up to the east, past the worn alter. And the vision swam away, faded from her eyes. And she was just there, again. Just Buffy. The arched entrance to the shadowed, murky stairwell stood before her.

And the birds rode the currents of the wind high above her as she began to climb up the uneven stairs.

---

They were on the move.

Their quick, darting progress through the trees brought them well past the highway spaces pilgrims walked and into the eerie remnants of a vast and rambling churchyard. One paused, clinging with flexible, sensitively clawed fingers to the tip of an obelisk. It looked like a spidery gargoyle come alive, with its distorted features evocative of humanity, but forever removed and alien from human life and thought.

It clung to the top of the pale, white monument, and took in the air. The scent was getting stronger.

With white, willowy arms and pale, rubbery movements, they leapt together through the night, charging forward with bestial grace. Occasionally, they would communicate in the guttural, low frequency noises that broke the silence together with the impact of their powerful, arachnid legs and lupine claws on the wood and stone.

The pack would find the two hunters soon-- the predators that threatened the hunting of their territory. And this pack of creatures, the long- nosed, short-necked creatures, were all the more strange for the oddly human visages, the nagging similarity that suggested that, in the dimension they called home, these were what humans were, and would always be.

And they had a plan, as ancient and ingrained in their blood as the instinct to feed.

They knew they could wait for the two strong fighters to separate, and they could take them one by one.

One by one, when they fed. They always separated to feed. Which was ridiculous. Any pack animal knew it. And these two hunters, the smell of predatory power pouring off them in waves, they traveled together, like a pack should. But they were separate. Eternally disconnected from each other in some fundamental way. And that would be their undoing.

And the otherworldly predators moved as one through the trees, strong on the scent of their hunted.

---

She darted up the stone stairs, crumbling from where they split apart in the cataclysmic death. One floor and then another, and yet another went past her as she leapt forward with agile grace.

The cold faded from her bones as she moved, and she left the trees behind her, with the weighty pressure of the earth, as she climbed into the sky. The stairwell was dimly lit and dust filled. Shafts of light pierced mistily through the stonework where small, pigeon hole windows stood. Old bird's nests settled close to the tired, wooden support beams.

And she felt calm, suddenly, as she ran, as she moved up the stairs. The world slowed around her. This is what she had always done and what she would always do. She wasn't Buffy anymore, as she ran, she was just movement. The air rushing past her cheeks was pure solace.

And she came to a place where the stairs suddenly crumbled away, and the gargantuan church bell had fallen into the landing, imbedded into the crumbling stonework. An entire wall of the tower had fallen away at that point, and she could look back down into the roofless sanctuary, its stone floor scattered with fallen stones. She could see their own bags and equipment there, crowded around where they would make their campfire.

She pulled herself up on the stonework, vaulting up from the neck of a gargoyle on the outer wall and up to the half-demolished bell chamber. She landed soundlessly.

The breeze was stronger here, where the tower was nothing but delicate gothic stonework, slowly falling into decay. It pulled at the dark whisps of her hair, fallen from her braid, brushing them cross her flushed cheeks.

Maggie sat in a gothic arch, that dwarfed her with its size. She stared into the distance absently, blonde hair spilling over her back, tangled by the wind.

At the sound of Buffy's feet shifting on the stone, towards her, Maggie turned.

Her face was contorted, her white fangs glowing against her pale skin. Her eyes shined a golden yellow.

And they were full of tears.

"Hey..." she whispered, turning back to watch the landscape. Buffy avoided the gaping holes in the stone, and made her way carefully against the outer walls to her. As she sat down beside her friend, the expanse of the eastern sky stretched out beyond her vision.

She could see the space beyond the forest, where the lace of branches trailed away to nothing.

And there was sky-- a large, mighty sky painted like a renaissance fresco in half-lit oranges and deep reds. Rimming it-- as if the space between heaven and earth, were the carved faces of rolling hills. They were alive with golden grasses, vast and timeless, nodding together in the moving winds like ocean waves.

She heard a strangled sound from her friend, who had turned to wipe a small hand against her monstrous face.

And Buffy suddenly remembered that little sampler in the violin case. She'd read once that girls used to make them to practice the sewing they'd need in adult life. If they made it that far.

She wondered how long it had been, after Maggie embroidered it, that she had died. Looking at her, it couldn't have been more than a few years. Since the destruction, Buffy had aged. She looked the older of the two.

"Are you ok?" Buffy asked, softly, her voice unsure and tentative. They rarely talked about their thoughts or motivations. Buffy had always felt there lay a path to trouble, and had avoided it. But somehow, above in the sky, it seemed to matter less that the girl next to her fed on blood and death. And she felt a wave of peace move through her as she settled comfortably against the gothic arch.

Maggie smiled, the gesture strange and discordant through her carnivorous teeth.

"Yeah... it's just that..."

Her voice trailed off, and she gestured to the expanse of moor land. A herd of wild horses ran across it in the distance, a small rush of shapes moving through the grass.

"It's beautiful..." Buffy whispered. She couldn't get that sampler out of her mind. Mary Magdelene Neville.

Mary.

"Why'd you drop your first name?" Buffy asked on an impulse. Maggie turned away from the landscape, to her friend, her hair rimmed in gold half-light.

"I don't know..." she said, "I didn't, at first. But it just didn't fit anymore-- it went on too long. Like I wore it out."

Buffy nodded. It made sense to her. And Maggie continued, her voice still tremulous, though her tears had faded away.

"You get to--- well, when you get to be around as long as I have, things change," she said, "Things that don't seem like they could ever change. Names and places and countries and language-- everything that was certain just isn't so sure anymore."

Buffy remembered the pilgrims around their fire, telling the legends of their post-modern hero. And for so long, that name was hers. It had meant her. But she wasn't Slayer now. It'd been usurped. The world had moved past her when she threw down her cause like a long suffered burden.

It sent a stab of pain through her that was almost jealousy. It was true. Things change, things that seem set in stone. Roles and status. People.

The foundation crumbles, the rock erodes.

"I don't know if you need to live forever to get that," Buffy said softly.

Maggie chuckled, and shook off her vampire's face. She was just a girl again, her blue-green eyes rimmed red and swollen.

"I guess not," she replied, calmly, "I guess not..."

And Buffy smiled. They sat together in combinable silence, taking in the glory of the cloud-strewn sky.

"It's good, Buffy, you know that? All of that out there, it's still good..." Maggie sounded like she was just talking to herself, to the air around her that spilled over their faces in cold, flowing waves, "It's still beautiful... still full of life."

And Buffy was listening to the dead creature extol the beauty of the living world, among the ruins, as the dragon's wings came into view.

The webbed membrane suddenly shrouded the space around them like a tent, and the dragon's body made sharp impact with the stone of the bell tower, as it sped out into the plains.

The stone shook, pieces falling into the trees below. They clung tightly to the walls, desperately clingining so as not to fall. They could see the rippling, dark scales in detailed relief they were so close.

Roaring, screeching sound tore at their ears, echoing through the hills. And its wings beat as it sped away at full strength into the grassy fields.

The world was still again. The women stared. Maggie rose to stand, shakily, staring intently at the receding creature. Buffy stood with her, framed in the archway.

It soared over the distant, grassy hills, swift and twisting in the air. The wild horses ran from it as it dropped low, skimming the herd. Missing, it swooped down for another pass.

Buffy cringed as its roar filled the air again. She'd heard that sound before... she'd seen the shadow of these wings before...

The noise of it could be heard moving in the air, muted as the direction pulled away from them, and roaring when it carried on the wind. The orange light rolled off its black wings, its dark scales, as it stalked and hunted- - as it moved with violent determination among the horses, and seized one in its claws. A savage shake, and the thing lay still in the sharp talons.

And it dropped it like a doll, and went on chasing the herd where it raced across the hilltops, swiftly thinning its numbers.

Buffy whispered out her horror.

"Holy mother of--"

A hand touched her arm.

"Stop it..." Maggie whispered vaguely. Their eyes were still fixed on the sight pulled from a thousand legends. Grendel and gargoyle-- the mythic Beast. Enemy to man, lonely wanderer of the dark places.

"What...?" Buffy asked, her eyes still on the nightmare monster. Her mind reeling, racing with the memories of coming to consciousness on that stair on Glory's tower, a whirlwind of confusion and pain and light and the sound of that roar-- the screech of that *thing* as it was born in the glowing green radiance and soared away.

Maggie responded, her tone distracted, watching the living shadow tear the herd to shreds with deliberate, systematic savagery.

"Don't swear in church..." she said.

---



Part Fifteen: The Lady of Heorot

There was a mural in Heorot Elementary's gymnasium. He stared at it from his perch on the bleachers.

It covered all of the expanse of the far wall. A bright sunburst, surrounded by a brilliant azure sky. Puffy, cottonball clouds danced in amorphous, round shapes circling a bright rainbow, stretching across the sun and into the far corners of the room.

In bright colors, arching along with that rainbow, bubbly lettering informed him that: 'You Can Be *Anything* You Want to Be!!!'.

It didn't seem like the best advice, to him.

Must have been inspiration for the children, or some other rot, when this was a school, nestled comfortably in one of the quieter corners of a busy city. And he wondered what those children would be doing now, and how they'd feel about a vampire surveying the thin and harried crowds that had settled in their schoolyard.

The gymnasium floor was a trading post, the busiest hub of this that was now a kind of walled and protected town. As he sat perched high in the bleachers, the people below moved in clusters. Fragments of their speech floated up to him. Some Canadian French mixed with the English in low murmurs, and he realized how far he had traveled, back and forth, since those days in Sunnydale. And the remarkable distances he had traveled over the whole world, before then, seemed somehow insignificant in comparison to this newer, aimless journey.

Rows of tables held the odds and ends humans found important, and they moved among them, bartering for what they felt they needed. They were decorated with brightly colored strips of fabric. The crowd's footfalls and the shrill squeak of the soles of their shoes filled the air, intermingling with their voices.

But he could tell something was wrong here. All of the windows were boarded shut, and they lived in a minimum of light. The wood, though, hadn't had time to warp or stain. It was new. And there were far more tables than traders in the gymnasium space, and even the crowd among them seemed thin. It was designed for a higher capacity. Something was wrong here. And he could hear it in their words and see it in the movement of the crowd-- the amorphous, rambling assembly was alight with unfocused fear.

And he noticed a movement beside him, a small intake of breath. It broke him from his thoughts.

"No, don't look up," Erin said. She was the one who had kicked him down the front stairs, and later invited him into the place.

He looked away from the crowd, and their eyes met.

She was sitting several rows below him, a large pad of paper in her hands. He had noticed her, trailing behind him, as he'd wandered the halls of this place. She had looked at him with confusion and a sort of bare and earnest fascination. And now she seemed unable to leave him alone. She didn't understand him, and she was amazed and repelled by all that she had seen in his mind.

"What's that, then?" he asked, gesturing to her paper and her charcoal- smeared hands.

"I was drawing your face," she said simply. She was never one to be shy. She turned the page towards him, and he found himself staring back, in greys and soft blacks.

"Oh," he said, distantly, scanning the paper, "So is that what I look like nowadays?"

"Guess it's been a while for you, since you've seen that..." she responded, her tone grown more uncomfortable as she remembered that this creature didn't breathe and didn't age.

"Has," he answered simply.

"So you help people-- save their lives," she said, standing up and moving towards him with sudden determination, "I don't understand that."

"Not much to understand," he said, shrugging off her inquisitive nudging, "Helps to decapitate whatever's trying to chew their skin off or what have you. There was this one time--"

"But, I mean, you're--"

"A vampire?"

"Yes."

"Evil?"

"Yes-- well... probably. I mean... you say that, but..."

She paused a moment. He was watching his knees with unusual intensity. She sat down on the bleacher beside him.

"But you're so unhappy," she said. He looked up again at her directly, his eyes cold and unreadable.

"You seemed-- so deeply unhappy..." Her tone was gentle, and she found herself moved with a sudden compassion for the terrible conflicts she'd sensed in his being.

"Well," he said, his eyes softer now, "I think everyone out there now's got something to mourn for."

And she nodded, and they were silent a moment. Time passed by, and she began to sketch once more.

"I'm sorry I kicked you down a flight of stairs," she said, and he smiled.

"Sure I deserved it for something or other."

And suddenly, the sound of children laughing filled the air around them like bells from below. They were running, chasing each other through the merchant's stalls. And behind them, the brilliant, almost-garish mural brightly proclaimed the innate potential of their futures. One small girl waved to Erin, before running off. She waved back, smiling.

"Yours?" he asked.

"Yeah," she said, "Right before what happened-- well, happened. If I didn't have the magic I don't know that we could have lived through it."

She stopped drawing again, her hands still.

"And it's terrible," she continued, looking up to him where he sat quietly beside her, her voice raising as if she were asking a question, "But... if I'd known, I don't think I would have...?"

And then a sadder silence floated between them.

"Amazing," he responded, thoughtfully, "How many'll grow up not even knowing what it was like before."

The noise of the crowd was like the subtle rhythm of rain on a windowsill.

"Where will you be heading next?" she said.

"I don't know yet. Somewhere else."

"You-- you could stay a while," she said, her tone lower, her eyes conveying veiled meaning, "Considering we did try to kill you and all, it's the least we can do..."

"Sorry, love," he said, a little sadly, "Got to keep moving on."

Her eyes lit up with sudden understanding, and parts of his being she hadn't understood suddenly gelled and fell together.

"There's someone," she said, laying a hand on his arm, "From before-- isn't there..."

"Yeah," he said, smiling again, remembering, "Real firebrand she was. Probably kick me in the head if she laid eyes on me again."

"But you'll keep going."

He shrugged, still smiling.

"Ain't love grand?"

"I could help you," she said steadily.

"What?"

"I live in the old science lab here. You can come by, later on tonight. It's good for casting. It'd be easier if I had something of hers... but still, I can help you. Locator spell. Try to find out where she is."

He paused a moment, emotions she didn't know running across his expressive face. After a while, he spoke.

"No."

"What-- why. Did you--"

"I know," he said, "But looking for her and not finding her, it's not done me ill. But if I find her, I don't want it like that-- like I chased her down again-- chased her like some hunting animal."

"Think she's still alive?" Erin asked wistfully, looking out into the groups of playing children, and that little girl. Her father hadn't lasted a year in the new world.

"Her?" he said with the old twinkle in his eye, "Take a hell of a lot more to kill her..."

Erin rose. She had always had a talent, since she was very young, for knowing when was the time to leave. And she knew the time had come to leave this creature, in his web of complexities, alone to his future. She smiled at him, and turned to go.

But she paused.

"What was her name?" she asked.

He looked up again at the woman's small, elfin face and warmly toned skin.

"Buffy," he said, his eyes bright with something ineffable.

She chuckled at that, kindly.

"That's a stupid name..." she said, shrugging, as she walked away.

And Spike made a decision, unconsciously and suddenly, to let her in.

"My name's Spike," he said, calling after her. She was laughing outright now.

"That's a stupid name, too!" she called, and was lost into the crowd once more.

---

The courtyard was the only place she could see the stars, since they'd boarded up the windows. As much as she understood it, she had hated to nail those windows shut. But this was home, and it needed to be protected. And she was one of the few with the power to do it.

And so Erin sat on a stone bench in that courtyard, in the center of the school, as she put the finishing touches on her portrait. She'd done good work, and it was an excellent likeness. She'd shut it away in a drawer, soon, in among the other collections of things she'd come across that were interesting or beautiful.

The night was cold and wintry. The air promised that snows would start falling, in just a few days. It was electrically charged with the sense of anticipation and movement.

And then the sound of beating wings filled her ears. She froze, as the familiar, shrieking cries rang out overhead.

It had come back, as they knew it would.

The doors burst open behind her.

"Erin!"

It was Michael, whom she had trained herself to protect this place with her art. Her eyes darted to his, and found his face pale.

"Erin, we don't have much time--"

And she was up, and darting past him, ready to face the beast. The drawing lay forgotten in the dead, winter grass.

---



Part Sixteen: Peace on Earth

There was something hunting her. A group of somethings, moving silently through the trees.

The misty half-light surrounded Buffy in a silent fog. There was murky blueness all around her, closing in on her in a damp, congested blanket. She could see the outlines of the tombstones, see the trees faintly in front of her. Shadow-things, insubstantial grey silhouettes. She had gone out hunting, and now she was hunted.

She cursed her eyes that she could not see through the foggy predawn glow.

A movement startled her to her right, and as she spun to follow it, it receded again into the greyness. She caught glimpse only of a white, spidery leg-- a glow of thin white hair. And then nothing. The silence maddened her senses as she clutched helplessly at her crossbow.

A soft, guttural clicking broke the silence in rapid patterns, tossed back and forth, closing in around her in a circle. Her stomach knotted and her blood ran fast in the old way, and she knew what was coming.

As the first sprang into view, its face a twisted parody of mouse-like humanity, she spun and landed her foot on its chest. She directed its body into the several that followed, leaping out of the mist and collapsed like fallen pins under the weight of their packmate.

She took the opportunity as she heard others moving from behind her, coiled and sprang over the mass of flailing, arachnid limbs, and bolted over the mossy, forest floor. They followed close behind, the sound coming in violent rustling movements from above her in the trees. They cared nothing for stealth now, though she knew now that they had been silently tracking Maggie and her for days. Small twigs clad with dead leaves sprinkled down as they darted back and forth, keeping swift and daunting progress with her flight.

She leapt over a tree trunk as the tombstones grew more numerous around her. She ran past the angel, divided in half by the sucking roots. Suddenly, one of the surreal creatures landed on the statue, crumbling it to pieces with the force of its spring. Like a rubber thing, all muscles and coiled strength, it volleyed itself forward onto an obelisk rising ahead of her, and sprung for her with crushing force. The obelisk shattered in half, the sound breaking the gloom like icicles falling from a gutter.

She was on the ground now. She cried out as the sharp claws tore at her flesh. And there were others, their weight falling on her. And the world was nothing but moving legs and soft, soft white hairs and blinding pain.

Her crossbow lay broken on a stone beside the skirmish, and she struggled with their arms, holding them back as they fell over each other and stole her breath with their weight. She could feel their breathing on her skin. Gaining purchase with one leg, she broke the spiders-arm spindle that had jutted powerfully from the mob towards her chest. It flowed with black blood.

But these hunters that challenged her didn't know their folly. She was the very spirit of the hunt, held that spirit in her blood and birthright-- a birthright that had always been, since the earliest age. She was determined and strong, and moved in archetypes and legends, and had embraced that power in glorious victories and the one, terrible, aching defeat. And she celebrated and lamented it all in blinding, physical energy.

She hunted.

She had known since she was fifteen years old that whole worlds shook with her choices.

In a burst of strength, she forced herself upright, springing with her legs to her feet, throwing the mass down. And she drew her blade, and two of them were gone before they could recover. Her hands flowed with the black blood, and something primal stirred in her heart.

Bursting over the hilltop, her hair thrown back as she tore through the air, she grew nearer to the old, gothic stone walls of that ruined church. Ghostly it rose to her sight in the distance-- the stone giant of the forest, sleeping silently in its churchyard.

The music that she could suddenly hear startled her at first-- soft and high and plaintive, twisting through the air as she turned to her attackers once more. Maggie, in the ruins, among the broken fragments of the pews, playing a sweet and simple melody. The world seemed to slow in its pace and her soul flooded with calm at the sound. Her bruised and bloody brow caught her hair in thin wisps as she whipped her face around to meet her captors. Her eyes glowed a soft and determined green.

And in the fraction of a second it took to turn, she wondered at her determination to survive, when she cared so little for what happened to her. But she realized it then-- she wanted to live. She wanted to live and be Slayer and fight her battles.

She took a chance of losing her blade, and threw it. It landed cleanly to the neck and the creature fell. And she turned to the others, down to her hands and her feet and the speed of her mind in the fight.

The quiet melody came back to her on the wind as she broke into the fold. The Ashokan Farewell. She knew it from those times in summer that Giles would take out his guitar and sing for them all. When they sat on the porch and looked into the trees and could smell neighbors barbecuing and sense the heady, perfumed evening setting over everything in a gentle, soothing mantle.

The same melody floated gently over the hills now, hanging over the trees. And it was pure and perfect, and very quiet under the sounds of savage violence among the tombstones. She threw one up against a stone with the force to break its legs, and it withered to the ground, defeated.

And she was down to only two, and could feel her victory coming, when a second wave spilled over the hill and from the trees above her. And still the music played. And its sweetness became dread in her heart, the bottom dropping from her confidence as she saw herself quickly becoming surrounded once more. Alone-- she knew she would someday die alone by the hands of some inhuman creature. It was the way for her. And she was in danger, but somehow the possibility of her death seemed distant and remote. There was too much in her-- wordless energy that suddenly sprang forth from her that still wanted to find its expression.

The music was gentle and insistent, and she realized even as she ran towards the church that she was not alone at all. She broke through the line of the hunting creatures, and ran at full speed for her friend.

---

Maggie heard the noise before she saw them, and abruptly stopped her tune in mid-note. It never reached its tonic, never found its conclusion, and hung empty and unanswered in the air a moment before it faded into nothing. She put the violin down gently, and rushed towards the cries she recognized from long familiarity as Buffy in the fight.

"Buffy!" she cried, running down the long, central corridor of the ruined church, shattered pews surrounding her among the shattered remnants of stained glass. Plaster crumbled from the stones, decorated still with strange, vine-patterned frescoes depicting ancient symbols and faces with unseeing, distant eyes.

The light was swelling around them the brightest it would ever be in their world, and the pale blue of it fell over the shape that flew through the arched doorway to fall sprawling on the ground.

It was a thing she could only describe as a grotesque combination of recognizable creatures. But they had become unrecognizable and strange in this different, alien form. Others burst through the shattered glass windows and she found she had no time to dwell on the thought.

"Buffy!" she called again, looking for her. She couldn't hear her anymore, and was alarmed that she may be in danger.

And Buffy rolled in the door, grappling with one of the creatures and Maggie found herself toppled over by one of them, recovered from its fall.

And they fought with the same familiarity they always had, working their way among the pews. And Maggie reached the alter, vaulting herself over the alter freize and seizing their weapons bags. She threw Buffy another knife, which she caught with deft speed and put quickly to use. Buffy stayed the creatures at the end of the pews nearby, and Maggie had time to wind her crossbow.

And when she attacked, it was with the inhuman precision wrought from two and a half centuries of long practice.

---

Buffy drew a small group of the creatures to the side, clearing a path for Maggie's arrows. They came fast and clean, and the numbers shrank with alarming speed. Buffy focused on the ones in her strangely intimate corner of this great space, painted through with fading plaster, the Latin inscriptions mingling with the eerie, lyrical images falling away into nothing around her.

She threw one away and sprung on the other, dodging a swipe of its claw as it reared up on its back legs. Ducking low, she rolled along the stone and found herself inside its guard, and struck clean.

And the one that leapt towards her fell like a crumpled doll, shot through from Maggie's altar-bower.

And the sound of scrabbling claws filled the air as the rest began to flee. They had conceded the territory, and in small numbers tried their escape. Maggie stood to watch them go.

But Buffy was in the hunt, and seized the one closest to her before it could flee. With a great cry, she captured it by the neck, and broke the primitive spine in the same motion she flung it through the air.

The sound of splintering wood filled the ruins. And then there was silence.

It lasted seconds, but stretched out forever in her mind. Maggie, standing at the edge of the alter, was frozen in place. Her eyes were, just in the moment, unbelieving, horrified. But they were also full of betrayal and hurt and a strangely child-like, agonizing desire to set back time and undo what had just been done.

Buffy was breathing hard, but as her blood slowed she began to realize what had happened. She felt like she was floating, she couldn't feel the ground beneath her.

The violin.

And after that single moment's hesitation, Maggie darted forward in a frenzied blur. She threw the body carelessly away where it fell.

She reached out, touched the shattered sound board. Stroked the loose stem as the snapped strings danced against her fingers.

She was looking down, and her shoulders shook a second, a small, strangled sigh escaping her lips.

When she looked up, she locked on Buffy's gaze. Her eyes were filled with a cold and bitter spite. There was nothing in her at all but that chilling, exacting and evil anger. There was nothing but passionless rage, for the rest of her had shattered away.

Buffy couldn't find her breath to speak. So she did the only thing she could think of to do, and ran away.

She leapt over the scores of grotesque and mangled bodies on the floor, and landed in a full sprint. Seconds later, she heard the sound of Maggie snarling in a deep, lupine growl, and following soon behind.

And she passed under the arched, gothic doorway of the church as she fled into the dim and murky cemetery grounds that stretched beyond them.

Painted above that archway was a fresco she never saw, of three words she never read. They stood lonely and unknown there for years after, until age and weather finally faded them away.

'In Terra Pax,' they read.

---



Part Seventeen: To The Flame

"Then in the first light of dawning day Grendel's war-strength was revealed to men: then after the feast weeping arose-- a great cry in the hall of Heorot... In perpetual darkness he held to the misty moors: men do not know where hell-demons direct their footsteps."

--Beowulf, Norton Critical Edition

---

Spike had drifted into a cautious sleep, against a remote corner of the wall. Behind his head, the cinder blocks were a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors-the base of the rainbow that darted up and across the azure blue of the gymnasium's mural. A painted sun shone down on him as he stirred in his light sleep, his fingers sensing a vibration in the ground-- against the foundation.

And in his dreams, he saw the horrible explosion of long-ago light-- saw Tara lunging for him moments before he sank into the deep-- all over again. And the ground shook with terrible power-- and everything was falling, and sinking, and tearing apart. And just her tiny hand held him-- clinging stubbornly to his wrist while the overpowering bursts of light exploded all around them both.

His eyes snapped open.

"Everyone inside--- stay calm, shelter against the *inside* walls!" a voice called desperately over a rushing din. Not the sound of tearing buildings, not the rushing current of light. The sound of humans, shouting to each other in barely contained hysteria.

He could feel it like a drum against the floorboards, hear it in the air. Rhythmic, papery noises beating behind the mural he rested against-- beyond the walls of Heorot and growing closer.

---

Erin threw her full weight on the door, and rushed into the chemistry lab. The smell of her stale incense mingled in the air with the smells of her herbs hanging in bunches from the ceiling. They cast lurid shadows, like spidery fingers trailing across the periodic table that hung on the wall.

Her foot glanced against a stuffed rabbit, sewn by hand from an old, faux- fur coat. It slid across the linoleum and took its company with a pile of homespun toys-- crafted by her own hand for her daughter, that were carelessly strewn on the floor.

Everything was silent here, the sounds of the crowds being shifted into the gymnasium faded to nothing in this far-flung wing of the building. For a moment, she was simply home, alone-- as if nothing was wrong.

She stood in the center of the room, surrounded by her carpets, the sense of the many spells she had cast here echoing like whispers in the dark.

And Michael burst into the room at that moment, Sophia behind him. Sophie's eyes met hers from the doorway, her papery, elderly hands resting on the doorframe, her grey hair piled on her head in an elaborate braid. They hadn't seen each other since the vampire had come-- since she'd pinned her to the ground and Sophia had stopped them in their deathgrip.

And they didn't need to speak. They sat on the carpets, and Erin took Michael's hand in her left and Sophie's in her right. And the magic took over-- suddenly the room was gone, and there was only her mind's eye, moving images through her vision-- She was whirling up into the dark air, and could feel the wind moving against her cheeks. The trees clung against Heorot's roof, and the clouds clung to the mountainside beyond it.

And it was there. The dragon. She didn't see it, but she could feel it-- moving.

A novice would have to chant the invocation-but these were not novices. And she with practiced skill she teased the spinning green strength of the barrier from where it flowed from key-- as she had taught so many who moved through these places. But none had ever seen it as she saw it-- none could cast this spell in the same way as her.

The web spread like a dome over the building, strong and immutable. And the triumvirate sat in the darkness of Erin's room, the boarded-up windows glowing faintly with the light of the barrier, wending through the cracks in the plywood.

---

The walls were shaking, as force was exerted on them from the outside.

He could sense something powerful just outside the stones, and as the earth trembled with its movement, he jumped up from the wall and away.

"Everyone! Just hold to the side of the wall-stay close to the foundation!"

Spike pushed against the flowing of the crowd into the gymnasium, and headed towards the doorway. Somewhere, a child was crying, the wail of it piercing through the sound of a hundred voices muttering in confusion.

And the wall shook again. He could sense something powerful on the other side. He turned away grimly, quickly approaching the gymnasium doorway in long strides. There couldn't be much time.

There was a young man, standing at the door, calling out over the crowd, trying to maintain order. Spike seized him by the shoulder, stared him down with piercing eyes.

"This has happened here before."

"Hey!" the sandy-haired man called out, jumping back from Spike's grip, "Just stay inside, we'll be ok if we do what Sophia says..."

He moved into the crowd, flowing past them on all sides, jostling their shoulders. Spike stepped in front of him, thinking of his peacebound weapons, taken from him when he entered this place, shut away in a distant locker near the exits.

"Tell me what it is."

And it struck again. The masonry started to give, and suddenly, one of the old florescent lights fell crashing to the floorboards. Glass shattered, and the crowd was beginning to lose all control.

---

Erin was thrown forward. Blood ran down from her nose in a small trickle. The others started, suddenly with her in the dull reality of the room. They looked to each other, momentarily stunned.

Erin clutched her head in her hands, pain flooding through her veins. She willed it away, trying hard to focus.

"You're hurt..." Sophia whispered, reaching out to her falteringly.

"We have to keep going," she responded. And she seized their hands once more, and moved back into a world of visions and power.

---

"You'll be safe if you just stay inside here with everyone else."

Spike felt frustrated anger rising in him and moving through his body. These were the confines of living in the human world. Before he lost control, he turned from the room, moving out towards the doors and out.

"Hey!"

The boy came in from of him again, this time, several others followed.

"No one leaves."

"I'll kill it."

"What-- are you crazy?"

"Yes, probably. Now let my by."

---

The three fought to hold their connection, but it was failing. The dragon was strong, and it lived on magical powers. Where they were so powerful among humans, they were rendered helpless in the face of this creature-- in the face of great demons of darkness.

To the observer, they were just three figures in a darkened room, holding hands in the night. But the power that moved between them cannot be described in words

And Erin felt the breath of the dragon on her neck. It was drawn to her, like a moth to a brightly burning flame.

She pulled her hands from the others' grip. The jolted back, the connection abruptly broken. She jumped to her feet.

They felt the force of a distant impact on the walls. They could hear the echoing sound of falling masonry.

"This isn't working. Stay here," she commanded, and ran from her room, leaping over her daughter's stuffed toys as she moved.

---

The boy stepped in front of him again, and Spike pushed him out of the way. Suddenly, the others were around him, pulling him back. And he rounded on them.

"Let me go." he snarled, deep in his throat. In a swift motion, he sprung from their grips, throwing them to the ground hard. One cried out in pain.

And he collapsed to the ground, the fire of pain moving through his own skull like lightening through the mountains.

"We're just trying to. help you!" the boy called through his exertion, trying to restrain Spike, on the ground.

And suddenly, the air filled with the sound of breaking supports and falling stone. The far wall, with its brilliant mural, was falling, tearing the room into rough halves.

And the scream of the dragon filled their ears, a multi-layered, inhuman shriek, and dust mixed with rain in billows on the stunned crowd.

"No. let me." Spike growled, trying to right himself, the panic of his utter inability to fight his way up overpowering him- his helplessness-his utter weakness among the humans. They made him weak.

And he looked up from the brightly polished floorboards, the world turned upside down in his vision. And he could see the reversed image of the azure sky, falling apart-of an inverted rainbow charred with fire from the jaws of a black-scaled dragon.

The writing on that rainbow smiled down on them through the fire. 'You can be anything you want to be!!!' it read.

And the lettering fell to the shattering floorboards. And he read it absently through the pain, and it was all that was in his mind as he fell into unconsciousness.

---

Erin stepped into a dark hallway. Rows of icon cases, that were once the trophy cases for children's sports teams. The light from the candles wavered in a soft draft, the glow flickering against the paintings of the Green Saint- of the young woman draped in jade robes, surrounded by the whole of creation. But now, the faithful hid, and there was only her to ward away destruction.

She stepped reticently up the stairs, reaching the wide second floor landing. Her footfalls echoed cavernously in the quiet. She could hear the sound of rain on the roof, that would have been soothing once. Instead, its insistent rhythm contrasted with the silence within, and reminded her of moments of normalcy in her own bed that were a thousand years from her grasp.

A wide wall of windows, a story tall, stretched out in front of her, boarded shut. She could feel it on the other side, moving towards her.

And she realized it was her it was drawn to-her power, her magic. It was just a half-intelligent creature drawn to the light. Like a raven drawn to glistening silver.

She stepped forward, her movement suddenly timid. She wasn't used to being afraid. And she was reminded, distantly, of stepping from the hallway into her father's room in a long ago ICU. The sound of life support and the sense of finality. And she stepped forward with the same sense of grave purpose, swallowing her fear that welled in her stomach like a pool of ice.

And she drew into herself the green power of the key, tried to channel it forward, breathing deeply. Her nails dug into the palms of her hands.

"Leave." she whispered, softly.

The boards on the windows buckled in response. The glass behind them fell in shards to the ground, the sound shattering the night. She threw her arms up, glass cutting them from all angles.

She raised her chin, swallowed.

"Leave."

The boards shook and split, falling in a heavy blast into the darkness. And there was nothing left between them.

She could hear the beating of its wings, a gentle wash of air blowing over her, throwing her hair back. She could smell the acrid breath-feel the heat twisting through the carnivorous teeth. It tilted its head to the side, its eyes bright as it regarded her.

And she pulled once more within herself, teased the light from the ground, green and swirling in wild patterns like vines. It spun around her and through the darkness, and she cried out again in a formless scream, beyond language and all thought. The dragon jerked back, thrown. Its heavy tail crashed against the wall, its legs clutching to the gothic stonework, springing back with the force she exerted-escaping into the night as the stones began to fall. Erin watched it trailing away into the night, a black, winged shadow retreated to the mountains.

And as the roof collapsed in crushing weight, she smiled.

---

The first thing that invaded Spike's senses was the sound of steady rainfall. The next was the scent of coagulating blood.

It was dark, and cold. He tried to move, and a random piece of limp weight fell against him, and rolled away.

A hand.

Beyond it, he could see the pale distant rafters that remained from the ceiling, and he could feel the sensation of rushing wind. And he remembered. The wall had caved in.

Soft raindrops drifted into the room from the far, collapsed wall. They sprinkled across his forehead in a soothing spray.

He tried to shake the haze from his skull, and finding the floor against his hands, he pushed himself up.

Broken bodies. Dead. Dozens of them. He had been thrown among the casualties of the attack. His head throbbed, and some distant, studious, clamoring part of his mind reminded him that he *was* dead-- that they must have taken his pulse, while he was unconscious. And moved him here among the dead-- where he belonged.

But he did what the other dead could not, and stood up.

And for a small space, he wasn't the evil vampire, or the strong protector. He was just, suddenly, a very tired and bewildered creature, damp with rain. And he felt a strange sadness creep into his bones, as he looked across the charred, colorful cinder blocks fallen from the mural. And the rain began to beat harder against the remains of the roof.

People were moving back and forth, with few words spoken softly in the air. A girl was crouching against the wet floor, helping a middle-aged man splint his broken arm.

Spike moved forward, stepping out from among the dead, and into the small crowd that had gathered at the doorway. A shape on a sheet was being dragged in, the old woman he remembered from when Erin attacked him-when they had fought on Heorot's steps, following it. That time on the stairs outside this place seemed distant and remote in his memory.

He trailed along in the flow of movement, the overwhelming sadness in the air, and felt it pulling him forward among these broken, confused people.

And when he saw her, he froze in place. His eyes softened as he tilted his head slightly to the side.

They hadn't closed her eyes. She was staring, her brown eyes looking up into the broken ceiling and the sky. Rain fell in her still lashes, and ran like tears.

Like Anya. And others before and since. And it was far better than what the ones he'd killed had had.

But somehow that didn't comfort him, or settle the racing movement in his mind, the weakness in his wrists.

And the old woman moved forward then, beyond the shadowy darkness of the hallway, her lips moving in strange, rhythmic crooning. And he realized she was singing-- so softly singing in a voice that sounded strained.

"Oh-- what is this, that I can't see the ice cold hand taken hold of me?"

And her eyes caught his abruptly as she move forward and brushed past him. The group pulled the sheet forward, towards the casualties-- towards the assembled dead.

In a burst of movement, he broke through the throng and out into the hallway. Sophia, the old woman turned, broke off her song, and watched him go.

---

He kicked at the lock, and the locker fell open, the door falling to the ground in a senseless clatter.

He quickly surveyed the contents and took what he needed, moving with determination.

And he turned to go.

"Wait!"

The old woman-- Sophia walked up to him, her eyes rimmed with red from unshed tears. She laid a strained, papery hand on his arm, that trembled with age. He looked down at its weathered beauty distantly, felt its warmth.

And their eyes met, and she didn't flinch at the piercing anger in his eyes. She had a brave heart, and met his gaze.

She understood when she looked at him what he meant to do, and with a sharp intake of breath, laid her other hand on his own.

"You can't."

He turned away, left her trailing behind him down the hallway, towards the main entrance and those old, carved stairs.

"Erin was strong," she called after him. He paused.

"She was strong and she couldn't kill it-you can't do this. You'll die."

And he turned in the doorway, slinging his crossbow on his back.

"She used magic," he said, his tone cold, "That thing-that thing's about as magical as you can get."

"You can't do this," she said firmly, staring back at him with the same intensity.

"She used magic," he repeated emphatically, stepping out into the rain, "I have other methods."

And the storm gathered around the broken halls of Heorot as he moved into the night.

---



Chapter Eighteen for you all today. Just three more left, after this. You'll note a poem by macha precedes the text. It's very appropriate, I think to the piece, besides being beautiful in its own right. Please do let macha know what you thought of it. And as always, do let me know what you thought of the chapter. It's a big communication thing. :) But now, the chapter-and thanks!

--Fallowdoe

----





VAMPIRE LAMENT

by macha (macha@ntl.sympatico.ca)

for Fallowdoe's Spiegel im Spiegel



the old world time was red and black

we drained its continents of blood

when the hunt was up

we danced the plague

and we conquered time and

we gave it back

only to fire

but the old world dies

when the world was young

when the hunt was up

on a night like this

the Slayer fell

into golden eyes

we fell to dust

she was worth the dance

but the old world dies

now the world is ours

but, oh, it cools

and its spark turns ash

and it's full of fools

and we live too long

without the hope of

fire and dust

and the Slayer has

abandoned us

and we cannot die



Part Eighteen: Farewell

Buffy ran.

She didn't stop, couldn't stop. She knew that there was nothing she could do to fix this, and the raw panic of that knowledge held sway over her body.

She burst through the cemetery stones, the crumbled faces watching her and the limestone names eroding unseen as she pushed through their lonely clusters. A dead leaf floated in the air above her, and settled in her hair a moment before the wind, rushing past her, pulled it away.

The gales were growing strong. The pale, deceptive swelling of early morning light was overshadowed by clouds blowing in. And she felt a fat raindrop on her cheek as she ran, jumping over a gnarled tree root and on into the thick, tall grasses that started to grow around the trunks.

The trees were smaller here, the grasses thicker. And she just had to keep running, so she let the sapling's branches slap past her cheeks like whips, only increasing her speed as she moved.

And the rain began to fall, a soft, gentle rush, moving south into the forest from the abandoned cityscapes that lay beyond it-- the sprawling ruins and settlements she had not yet seen or known.

She couldn't hear anything behind her, but she knew Maggie must be close. And she just wanted to get away, to prevent what was coming and what she couldn't think of doing. So on she ran.

She was exhausted from her previous fight, and her lungs were tired and aching from the cold air. Her hair was soaked with rain, flowing over her shoulders and down her back in a drenching downpour.

She hardly noticed when the woods fell behind her and she entered onto the massive, rolling hills of the grasslands, stretching out into mighty sculpted shapes where wild horses ran.

All of a sudden, she was a small disturbance in the nodding grass, insignificant in its vast, silent movement. Set adrift in the dry, dancing waves of a golden ocean.

The grasses brushed against her waist, the sound of them moving in the wind as strong as the sound of the rain. It was a roaring, natural sound that filled her ears with white noise.

And there was a sudden, heavy impact to her back. She was tackled from behind, never hearing the approach. Maggie had caught up to her. The pair rolled forward on the grass, down a sharp slope in the sliding mud. When they hit bottom, the grass swallowed them, towering waist high above the ground. From the muddy earth, it was like a minature forerst sprouting over their bodies, stretching on forever.

Maggie had her by the wrists, and Buffy cried out, throwing her off with all her strength. Leaping upright, they faced each other. There was a moment of silence between them.

Maggie was drenched wet, her clothes covered in mud from the earth beneath them. Mud ran in trails against her cheeks, flowing in rivulets of the rain. Her golden eyes sparkled, but Buffy saw that they were empty, that she was fighting for her life. And it made her own eyes sting with unshed tears.

Buffy's hands trembled with cold and sadness as she whispered to her hopelessly.

"I'm sorry..."

Maggie was tiny in the agoraphobic expanse of hills behind her The grasses moved-- framing her face and flowing golden like the leafed fields of some medieval icon. She had left her coat behind her, somewhere, and her damp, grey sweater clung to her slight shoulders. A strand of hair fell across her face in a wild curl, and she stared up through it at Buffy. She looked delicate, like she might break in half.

But she didn't shake in the cold, didn't gasp with tired breaths. She was still and silent. And she held some of the pieces of the violin in her hand, that she had gripped painfully tight as she ran. Buffy could see her hands were bloody with splinters. It was a moment of paralysis, and Buffy couldn't move as she watched Maggie spring into action with preternatural speed and strength, so inappropriate for her tiny frame.

She threw the pieces with devastating speed, and they as they struck Buffy's cheek, she staggered backwards. She could feel the skin tear sharply as the ragged, broken edge of the violin's neck struck her and clattered to the ground.

And she was there, inches away in an instant, striking high to the brow. Buffy blocked, grasping Maggie's wrist as she passed and spinning on her heels to face her again.

Buffy was thrown back by the force of a sudden kick to the side. A rib cracked and sharp pain rushed up her chest. She strained to breathe, the heavy gasps soundless under the crushing noise of rain and wind.

Maggie cried out as she lunged, and Buffy seized her arms and grappled them, straining to hold her in place. She grimaced through the pain, struggling to keep her balance. But the mud was slick, and they toppled to the ground once more.

It was a scattered mass of limbs, and Buffy rolled swiftly to her left. Maggie's head darted up, and Buffy kicked her in the jaw with desperate force. Maggie fell back again, spitting blood down on the damp earth.

Buffy hesitated as she tried to pull herself up, slipping on the muddy soil and falling again. She bit her lip, her eyes grown large in their expressive pain. Her mind was resisting- refusing to accept what was happening. But as she pulled herself up again, she willed her well-used stake to fall from her sleeve into her waiting hand.

And she felt the power moving in her, and, not for the first time, didn't really want it to.

Maggie attacked with her powerful speed and well practiced timing, and Buffy parried with swift efficiency, instinct carrying her where her mind would not.

And her conciousness detatched itself from her movements. As if from afar, she watched herself, distantly, moving through the rain, struggling with her friend in the tumultuous grass. And then she realized it. When she had pulled back-- become removed and seperate, she could see how truly, painfully sad Maggie was. The throes of passionate grief filled the air in the same movements with which the passionless anger struck her face and bruised her flesh. It was viceral and real. It tore at them both in the stormy half-light. Buffy was dazzled by the brilliance of that grief, struck through by the sight of this raw and simple agony.

And she remembered, distantly, the day they'd slept in an abandoned Natural History Museum. She remembered Maggie smiling in delighted wonder at the towering dinosaur fossils, propped up in the cavernous darkness of the halls that they had walked. She had been so purely happy-- so quietly awed by the ancient frames, that Buffy had smiled, too.

In that moment, Maggie struck at her and she missed the parry, the impact to her brow sent stars into her vision. She was moments from falling, and she felt the stake fly from her hand into the distant grass.

Another kick to the side, and the broken rib screamed fire in her body, and she collapsed to the ground.

Maggie was on her in an instant, her sleight weight pressing on her chest and accentuating the pain.

And her arm was on her throat, and Buffy could not breathe. Everything slowed in her vision. Her mind cast about wildly on memories and faces.

This was it.

Maggie held one of her arms down, the other clamped firmly on her throat. Buffy let her free hand trail and flex uselessly in the mud, the stalks of grass bending under its slight pressure. The world went silent in her mind, and she couldn't hear anything.

Her nerves tingled with electric energy and her brain screamed out for breath. A strange wash of unnatural calm moved over the violence of her vision, like a heavy curtain closing.

And something brushed against her free fingers, and she grasped it. With swift instinct, she thrust her weight forward and forced the object home.

Something like relief passed through Maggie's face, as it shifted to its human form. And then it collapsed into nameless ash.

The pressure on Buffy's chest and throat instantly evaporated into nothing, and she instinctually gasped a deep breath. Her throat coated with thick dust as it fell on her face, and it filled her lungs as she gagged against it heavily. Coughing, she rolled onto her side, spitting the grey, silty substance away and trying desperately to breathe. For a moment, her mind didn't process anything besides the pain in her lungs and the immediate need to clear her throat.

But then she realized what had happened. She looked down on her muddy clothes, coated with ashen dust. She let out a small cry, and brushed at it frantically, trying to paw it away as it congealed with the rain and the earth.

She felt hot tears running down her dirty face, burning the cold flesh with their trails. How could it have happened? How when her stake was lost and gone and there was nothing else... nothing that could have done it.

But the violin stem, broken into a sharp point, fell from her lap to the earth then. She stared at it, the rain flowing through her matted hair. Her shoulders shook with heavy sobs and rasping, struggling breaths.

The titled her head up and screamed, formlessly, into the rain. She stood, her body shaking with the cold and pain and racking, sobbing gasps. She screamed again, out into the world-- primally, shattering the raindrops with the sound.

But she didn't have the energy to continue, and she looked down again at the splintered violin's neck-- Strings still hanging loosely, the scrolled head still intact.

She batted her foot out, childishly kicking the pieces further away into the grass. But the motion made her lose her balance in the mud, and she flew down to earth hard, biting her tongue as her jaw jolted with the impact.

And so she simply sat where she fell, in the pouring rain, weeping heavy sobs.

---

Buffy walked silently down the wilderness road, knee deep in rolling fog. Alone again. Nearly swallowed in the swirling grey of the misty vapor. Reduced to a feminine sillohouette, wandering the moors like a ghost in a victorian novel.

She shivered against the growing cold. The swirling patterns of mud had frozen in place on the road, a rolling, temptestuous sea made solid and unmoving. She crossed over it like the Christ.

A crow was calling, in the distance, the silence thick between the echoes of its voice. And another replied, far away, in a haunting duet.

And she moved forward, one step after the other. But her heart wasn't in it.

And she felt so much older than she had-- like she had earned the premature, hairline wrinkles just beginning to trace their progress around her eyes. A whisp of her dark hair fell across her forehead, stubbornly flying out of her long, tight braids.

And in that moment, she stepped over the swell in the hill. She saw a flatbed truck there, that had been altered-- shaped into a horsecart.

She trailed over to it with a vague sort of curiosity. The flatbed was filled by a pool of water, crusted over with ice. Shapes were strewn in pieces at the front of the contraption-the remains of the horses, from which she turned away in disgust.

Something had attacked here. She could almost feel it in the air. But there was somethign wrong... something different.

There were no human bodies. They had lived. They had all survived this to walk away.

She brushed her gloved hand against the peeling wall of the flatbed. She traced her finger across a sharp, slashing gouge in the paint and metal. A sword blade had made it. And she saw more evidence of the fight, as she cast her gaze about, and she could trace its movements like ghosts in the air.

And she whispered softly, out loud, remembering the stories of a slayer that she had been hearing. Realizing that the stories were true.

"You came here..." she said, quietly, hand pressed against the chipped metal, "You saved them..."

---

Empty, urban facades stretched up into the sky, the rooms within gutted and collapsed away. After all the days in the forest, away from people and city things, Buffy felt uncomfortable as she stepped over the cracks in the pavement. The buildings shrank close all around her.

She wandered aimlessly, not entirely certain where to go. There were others here-- travellers. Trailing along in groups through the abandoned streets, heading towards or away from the settled parts of the city. They had bags and horses and children by their sides as they journeyed to wherever they were going.

Buffy watched the beleagured, tiny clusters of people walk through the lonely wasteland, and followed them. A woman in a long, grey coat pulled a child along by the hand. A man walked with a cluster of golden retreivers, who followed him without leashes. A group of pilgrims sang a song as they walked, softly and out of tune.

She trailed off the main road to a side street, stepping over the traffic light that had crashed to ground years ago, and never been moved. There was a nest of twigs and branches in its face.

And in a clearing, beside a crumbled wall, she saw a circle of charred trash. She paused, looked at it. She could see where the fire had swelled and spread, traced black against the earth.

But she didn't see where her foot struck a blackened lighter on the ground, knocking it back under the lip of a piece of stray, burned cardboard.

---

The body lay still and dead in the alleyway, where it had fallen. Its neck was covered in dry blood from the wound. A rat ran across its ankle. The body was dead.

Its eyes snapped open.

The vampire started in shock, aware for the very first time. He was terrified.

The world wasn't like he remembered. He didn't feel cold, although he was fairly certain that he was cold. He didn't feel the asthma that had kept him from being able to run.

Bizarre details threw themsevles out at his ears, eyes, and nostrils. He couldn't filter all the new information in a way that made sense to him-- it was all a blur. The sparkling of the micah in the gravel, the sound of footfalls. The smell of the wind and the earth and the humans just outside this alley.

He could hear their hearts-- the fluttering rythms, and he didn't understand what the sound meant.

And he wanted something he couldn't comprehend-- wanted it desperatley, and he jumped to his feet, throwing his head from one side to the other, overcome by the huge amount of things he'd never noticed before, hadn't felt before-- he couldn't process it.

He staggered out of the alleyway, his muscles reacting with more force than he'd ever known, throwing him forward before he could adjust. He clung to the wall of the building, tracing its progress to the cracked front steps. He sank down on the broken concrete of a stair.

He buried his head in his hands. There was so much noise. So many hearts.

He just wanted them to stop.

---

The widower held to the back of the group of travellers. He was too old to lead, now. Too tired from all he'd lost in his life. So he followed them, and they sang the old songs-the old hymns he hadn't forgotten, and taught to everyone he met that would listen.

He wandered through the devestated streets. The group was moving to somewhere better, but in this shady, urban wilderness, nothing seemed quite right to him. It had a smell of sickness to it.

He passed by a charred circle in the ruins, where a small woman was standing, deep in thought. Her dark hair was bound into tight braids, and she looked bruised, battered, and very tired. He also thought, for a moment, that she looked rather lonely. And because he'd had the folly, as a young man, to choose to care what happened to others, he felt sorry for her as he passed by-- always clinging to the back of the crowd.

And then he saw the young man-- slight of build. The bookish sort that did so poorly in this new world. He could relate to that.

He was crouched on the stairs, head clutched in his hands. He looked like he was in pain, and his shoulders were trembling heavily.

The old man paused. The group continued without notice of his stopping. He watched the boy a moment, and sighed and turned away to go.

But it didn't seem quite right to leave him. So he turned back. The group walked up the road, and other travelers trailed past him as he approached the boy.

"Hey there, son," he said in his warm, paper-and-tobacco voice, "You needing any help?"

---

The vampire smelled the aged musk of the old man, heard his unsteady heart. He heard the scrabbling of the soles of his shoes against every grain of broken asphalt.

The figure towered like a shadow over the vampire's lowered head. And when the old man spoke, the vampire looked up. The aged figure recoiled back in shock, pulled back as prey often does.

And the vampire suddenly wasn't afraid any longer. It knew what to do.

---

Buffy stood among the ashes of some days-old conflict. She could see where the earth had been freshly burned, but didn't understand how it had happened. She could only feel the tension in the air, still hanging over everything. This had been a nest, of some kind. And she knew, somehow, in the corners of her being, that the one she had been told of had walked here. She shivered a the thought. It gave her a strange sensation.

Like walking over her own grave.

She sighed, and walked on down the road. There were fewer travellers, now. The larger groups had headed down into the heart of the city. No one spoke, and leaves danced in the wind and brushed across her back and shoulders as she walked, swirling in the updrafts.

She wondered, sadly, what Maggie would have talked about with her, as they walked down this road. But those were thoughts for the past. And she tried to leave them there, with everything else. And she continued to walk down the road.

Suddenly, a noise broke her reverie, and she darted around to look. An old man jumping back from a stairwell. Another figure darting forward. The man weakly running. The vampire giving chase.

The idle travellers, in their small clusters, stopped a moment, turned to see the spectacle. A mother clutched her child close, turning her face away.

And Buffy watched with them a moment, as the vampire lunged forward, seizing the old man where he was running, and pulling him back into the alley. And there was silence, eerie and tense.

A moment later, the crowds began to speak again. Soft mutters. Mutters of relief that it wasn't them.

And they began on their journeys once more. Nothing mattered. Not like it did, before. So Buffy did what she'd done for years, and simply followed them down the street.

But as she neared the alley, her feet planted firm on the pavement. She could hear the struggle within. This was a new fledgling. It was confused, disoriented. It was throwing the man back and forth, and hadn't killed him, yet.

And she remembered where she'd been, days ago-- what she'd heard. Sitting at the campfire, at the rest stop monestary, surrounded by trees. Maggie's violin, her singing voice filling the air. And the sound of the hushed voices, telling tales:

"It must have been a only a few minutes," the voices had said, "And the whole lot of them-- had to be twenty vampires-- the whole undead lot were dust in the wind..."

She turned into the alley.

"Hey..." she whispered. Unsure, uncertain. As if she wasn't convinced she could remember the steps of the dance.

And yet she stepped closer. She could see them now, the vampire pinning the old man against the brick wall, a smile on his distorted face.

"Hey!" she shouted, surprising herself by the confident volume in her voice. He froze in place, his head turning towards her.

And she smiled at him cooly, standing with her weight shifted on one foot, her shoulder slanted to the side. She drew her stake and raised it.

"I don't think you're going to want to do that," she said.

---

It was over in an instant. One pass, a simple feint. And there was dust.

She watched it fall to the ground. It hurt, somewhere in her, to look on it crumbling away. Because there had been so much death already.

But then, when she saw the old widower alive, trying to right himself from where he sprawled on the ground at her feet, the pain faded away to nothing.

She gave him a slight, reassuring smile as she took his hand to help him upright.

As she turned to go, he clung tightly to that hand, so that she had to face him again.

He was watching her with quiet wonder, eyes flowing with something hopeful and brilliant. Like he'd never seen anyone do what she'd done. Like he'd been waiting for this moment for a very long time.

"You're the one," he said with hushed confidence, "You're the one they talk about... are you?"

She looked at him blankly. He covered her hands in both of his, swallowing their small, white forms with his spotted, worn old skin. The kindness cut through her.

He spoke again, inspiration in his warm voice.

"Are you the Slayer...?"

And she squeezed his hand and found she couldn't meet his gaze. She smiled a closed-lipped, small smile to him as she turned to go, unable to find her voice to answer him. He clung to her hand still, softly, and her fingers trailed against his a moment before she receded back, away into the shadowy expanse of the city.

---

I can see the distant light, hear the music all surrounding,

That shatters the silence so heavy to bear,

Lifts my soul into the night, fills my heart with love abounding,

And brings me the peace we all surely will share.

--The Ashokan Farewell

---



Part Nineteen: Revelation

Spike took a moment in the darkness, to prepare.

It had alighted here, in the mountain crags. Where the trees began to thin and the sharp, broken rocks scattered all around, breaking through the meager soil. Roots tangled in among those stones, and the deep black of the night clung to them.

And Spike clung to those shadows, unseen. He had trailed it-- had it been days or just hours? He didn't know any longer, was beyond that sort of simple measurement. He only knew what had to be done.

The night pressed all around him like icy, black water. The wind moved like a smooth, strong current against his face and hands.

It had alighted to rest in this barren clearing, coiling the black scales together , the tail curling in serpentine grace over the compact, muscled form. The sound of its breathing was strong, the trails of its misty, cloudy breath flowing softly in the air above it..

And all around it, the green brilliant light overlaid itself across that night darkness, in spiderweb veins, delicate and eternal. The luminous movements of the key followed the dragon everywhere it went-- like a glowing, draping train-- and he had simply followed it here, followed the glowing light that cut straight up the mountain wilds like a jet trail.

And he felt the hollowness he always felt, when as he looked on that light, he knew it had no personality. No humanity left. No fear or tenderness, and no more blood.

And as he waited, he wondered when it was that a lack of humanity had become something to regret, for him.

And there was no reason to wait any longer. He stood in the night air, the bitter cold winds flowing by, pulling at the curls of his hair as he rose his crossbow and took aim.

He'd only have one shot, before it would react. One shot. That was the only chance.

The scales were strong, and he didn't know if he would pierce them. So he aimed carefully at the sleeping eye. The breath trailed still in ribbons of steam around the reptilian head.

He aimed, his hands steady. The world focused down to the target, to the dark lidded eye. The scales around the socket gleamed in a dim, starry pattern through the darkness. He aimed, and he shot.

He missed.

The arrow lodged deep into the cheekbone of the creature, and like an electric jolt its eyes snapped open. Whipping its head around-- unfurling its wings, it saw the vampire, dropping his crossbow. It saw him draw his sword and leap forward. And as he moved, like a breaking of the tension in the sky, the snow began to fall.

---

Rachel rolled over in her bed. Her hair, newly brushed, fell across her shoulders, and she sighed softly.

It was so quiet, now. She hadn't really been anywhere quiet for a long time. Not since she'd been taken by the raider's band.

And the quiet felt like home, even after being gone for so long.

And she was alive. They'd left her to rest. The pain was over-entirely over, and somewhere close there was a new life, sleeping in the nearby rooms.

---

Fire spilled from its throat and lit the night ablaze. Flames smoldered against the brush as he leapt from the path, rolling with the impact to the ground. And it was on him. Sharp razor claws raked against his back, rending the flesh. He cried out in pain. But he clenched his fist tight around his weapon, and stood up again.

Lashing out, he struck its soft cheek muscles, where the arrow still lodged. Black blood flowed from the open wound. The scaled, reptilian face glowed against the firelight.

And over it all, the green light danced like little bells in the blackness, rippling over its flesh as he moved to strike again.

---

She smiled, when she rolled towards the wall. There was a small window, and the boards had fallen loose that blocked it. She leaned over slowly, and pushed the rough wood panels aside. The cold draft from the glass cooled her cheek as she leaned out against it.

Snowflakes were just starting to dance against the panes. The rolling hills rose into gentle Adirondack mountainsides. And she saw something.

She squinted in shock, peering into the masses of trees there. Smoke rose from against the branches up on the highest hills, sputtering against the night clouds.

"Rachel--" a voice called from the door, "Rachel, you should be resting..."

She started, because it was now unfamiliar to have someone care if she were in pain. Sophia's worn, yet strangely strong hand fell on her shoulder, and she looked out the window with her.

"The mountain's burning..." Rachel whispered.

---

The massive body moved with unnatural speed, turning swiftly. Blood ran down Spike's brow as it struck him with its tail. The screeching cry echoed against the stones and it turned fast on his fallen form, thrown crumpled against the ground with the sheer force of its strike.

But he forced himself up. Bones were crying out in pain, but he fought through it desperately. Crying out, he raised his blade and struck against the creature's shoulder. The blade shattered against the rough scales, sent the shock of impact up his arm. He held a broken sword, uselessly, in the night, and the creature flung him back again, into the tree trunks.

And yet he stood again-- rushed forward, throwing his full weight into the attack, forcing the ragged edge of the broken blade into the tensing arm muscles.

It pulled its leg back, began to rear and rise into the sky. The beating of the wings sent waves of air spilling out over the ground, that trembled in response.

It rose, slow and stately, turning towards its attacker once more. The arms of the trees shook, the sapling pines nodding vigorously in the night.

And without thinking, he seized the pommel of the broken blade, buried firmly in the flesh, and vaulted himself onto the creature's back.

The wind rushed by with a new force, as they it rushed away from the earth. He didn't look up as the ground receded, pulled back further and further until his crossbow lying on the ground was like a child's toy on the soil.

Struggling against the speed of the wind around him, trying to hold his place, he pulled his dagger from his belt, dragging himself up the shoulders to the short length of its muscled neck, which was covered in a black, razor-edged crest of bone.

There was just the sensation of speed, of movement-- tree branches beat against his back as they pulled through them and above. Each strike was a punctuating accent in a symphony of pain.

The mountainside rolled out below them like a majestic tapestry, the plutonian beauty of nighttime snow filling the whole world with white. The sky was a grey blanket of mist, gathering at the mountaintops. The empty hulks of the fallen skyscrapers stood tiny and empty and useless dwarfed by the magnificence of everything beyond the ruined city, the rolling fields, the wide stretching space of the forests beyond them.

But he could only see black scales and feel the force of the wind as it rose. It hung low over the mountain, and he struggled, felt his fingers weakening on their grip. Before he could lose it, he forced himself forward, crawling up agonizingly on the crest bones, reaching out with a frozen hand and seizing them hard. He felt them cut the skin, and his blood ran down his wrists. But he pulled ahead, hoisting himself forward on his shattered sword hilt.

He reached for the eye socket, the one he had missed in the very beginning. It seemed so long ago.

The air rushed passed him, and for just a moment he looked up.

He saw the brilliance of the world all around, of the stretching landscape full of snow and riddled all through with the hairline glowing network of veins-- the key inhuman holding the hills to the earth. Clutching the stones close in its grip so the mountains wouldn't come crashing down to the barren hills.

And he drove the blade down, and the back twitched, jolted. He was thrown back, lost his grip, only to catch hold of his sword hilt with swift reflexes.

But the second of the violent death-throes threw him back into the night sky, and the soaring view disappeared as he was falling, thrown from the collapsing back, gathering speed until he struck headlong into the mountainside.

He felt the splintering impact of the rocks before the darkness took him.

---

She was so beautiful and small.

Like a glowing speck in the distance of his vision.

He had been lying beneath the tower, that rose straight into the sky like a mad woman's dreams. He had fallen-- fallen down again to the ground-- he was forever fallen and broken with the impact of the earth.

She had bled light into the sky, and it poured over everything, spreading out through the portals and the breaking streets. But he didn't know, lying there-- it wasn't death. It was just light.

He may have been dreaming, he had thought at the time. The familiar dreams of mountains falling and radiance breaking on the earth like waves. Presentiments of that one moment, lost in the misty eternity between what was real and those fleeting seconds of nebulous uncertainty.

And there as always something of sweetness in the memory-- because he had seen her, the flowing green beauty of her and hadn't yet known what it meant. Didn't know, dazed on the pavement-- didn't understand.

He had been in love with destruction, before that, as surely as he could now admit that he had been in love with her.

Because she was small-- because she was her sister's. Because of her sheer certainty that she was something terrible-- her strangely somber surety that she could understand the evil that lurked beyond their reach and had finally stolen her away.

And something about that made him lose connection with himself, and the green light, when she dissolved away into the flowing glow, that seemed be alien even as it was coldy comforting.

But in that one small moment, he hadn't known. He hadn't known what had happened, hadn't known the cost of his fall. But ever afterwards, he did. Every moment afterwards, the glowing light reminded him.

Even in his dreams.

---

When his eyes fluttered open once more, it was snowing steadily through the arms of the trees.

The gentle flakes floated into his vision like tiny stars falling, forever falling with a fluttering grace to the earth. They gathered there in a delicate carpet over the ground, and over his body, broken and bleeding on the rocks.

He smiled slightly into the sky, from where his head rested on the frozen earth. The snowflakes fell on his forehead. Cold. Soothing against the bloody, broken skin.

The pain seemed more distant, now. It had settled into that wintry, fading calm. The screaming of his broken limbs was numbing. He wasn't sure, but he thought he couldn't move his legs. A spine injury.

That was ironic.

The night crackled with the sound of smoldering brush, the distant heat of it melting the frozen mud and making the flames smoke and burn low. The air filled with choking black smoke, and the stench of the dragon's searing flesh.

He couldn't see the fire over the hulking mass of it, crumpled broken across the rocks. All that magical fury, just flesh now. The green, beautiful light rolled off of it like beads of water, abandoning the lifeless flesh and trailing back into the earth again. He strained to focus his eyes so he could watch it.

It moved slowly at first, sliding gracefully in trails down the dark flesh and rolling then across the ground-- spreading out like roots, moving in fractal patterns of immense complexity and profound poetry. They joined the tree roots and climbed up the tree trunks to trail in circles around the branches.

And he was content to lie there on the ground, and watch the moving glow. It flowed in ripples across the tufts of grass clinging to the tree roots. Melted into shining pools and flowed like water over the fallen leaves. It cast green projections on the snow, illuminated the shapes of the pine needles.

It was flowing away from the dragon, returning to the earth. It had sustained its weight, made it possible for its giant body to fly. The dragon had been as magical as it was deadly. But now the black blood coagulated on the ground, and nothing remained of magic there.

The fire loomed brighter in a rim around the dragon, a strange gold halo crowned in jewels of green. He was sure now that he was paralyzed at his waist, and wouldn't be able to move. Not for months. He knew it, knew it and calmly accepted it.

And he knew the people here were afraid-to afraid to slay their own monsters. And that meant no one was going to come for him.

But the flames crackled in the middle distance, and he listened to them and to the wind and the rustling sound of snow falling on moving branches. Perhaps the fire would take him, before he could crawl from its path. And if it didn't, he would lie here on the mountain side, and waste away into a shell.

That seemed worse, somehow. To fade away and to sleep forever beside the dry bones of the mythic dragon. To be lost in the cold and the dark until the crows smelled his blood and gathered to feed from him.

The snow spilled over him like a gentle explosion of down feathers, and everything was slow in his vision, everything was peaceful and quiet after the savage violence that left him shattered here.

He smiled, again, slightly. All is calm. All is bright.

He had strained his head forward to look out into the green flow of light, but his vision began to swim before him as his skull swelled with nauseous pain. He let his head fall down again on the ground. It rolled to the side, his cheek pressed firmly against the cold ground. Pine needles tickled his jawline through the snow.

And the world shrank even smaller. No longer a mountainside clearing. Just a patch of earth. The root of a tree, the slope of a snowy incline. And the light that began to pour down over them both and flow in weaving patterns towards his body.

And he felt a suddenly desperate need to reach out to that light, that had accompanied him so long. And he regretfully wished that he'd talked to her, more, over the years. Even if she couldn't hear. She was empty-- inhuman. But even through this, she was like him, with him.

For he was inhuman, too.

"D--" he spat, the blood flowing newly through his throat and choking his words. He coughed on them, and strained a broken hand forward, the pain scraping at his nerves and piercing him through with a thousand knives.

But he had to reach out. He needed to touch her, when he felt sure, now, that he'd touch no one else again.

"Dawn..." he whispered hoarsely, "Dawn..."

The light sank into the earth and welled towards his stretching fingers. Just another inch.

"Sorry..." he choked out, cringing with the pain, but straining still.

"Sorry I... couldn't do better for you..."

And the light finally welled beneath his fingertips, flowed under his palm as immutably as the currents of the ocean. It rolled down the tiny slope and underneath him, and past him into the darkness. He was surrounded in it.

And he didn't see what had happened at first, because he had shut his eyes, a moment, to try to remember what they had all looked like. His people. Their faces.

And when his eyes opened again. He stared in stark awe.

A thin tendril of glowing light was winding around his fingertips. It raised in the air, wrapping his hand in complicated patterns, wending its way across the wrist and around it.

It recognized him.

He couldn't react, couldn't speak. He felt his throat constricting with years of unrecognized emotion as it moved across his arm.

When it slid across his arm's wounds, he felt a thrill of electric energy as it slid beneath the torn flesh.

And the gashes closed... he felt a strange sensation as the bones pushed together again. Painful, but beyond hurt and beyond words. Tears fell down his face unchecked now, and he felt the immense strength, the deep, benevolent power behind the glowing green hands of light. He understood-- really finally understood its nature at last.

It wasn't impersonal. It was her. It was *really* her. And it was more than just her... She wasn't less than a person. She was beyond personality.

And it moved in his veins and he could feel it-- he could feel the energy, like pure hope. It filled him with a vitality he'd long forgotten. Or that he'd never, ever known. And it burned, it burned like crosses and sunlight and he knew it was breaking him apart, cell by cell, and weaving those pieces together once more. It hurt more than anything he'd ever known and filled him with a sudden knowledge of everything he'd lost.

And the shattered vertebrae molded together and it brushed against his face, like burning fingertips. And it was like a sudden intake of breath as it darted through his lips.

And he was standing. Though he didn't remember standing. And he could see everything as she now saw it-- the humming of the trees, waiting dormant for the chance to bud. The heartbeats of the birds asleep on their branches. The running of mice in burrows below the earth.

And the light swelled, and moved widely across the ground. And in a single flash, it had receded away into the night.

He stood, alone, staring out with wet eyes. The great mass of green brilliance was gone. Only the narrow veins of it that were natural to the mountain remained.

The snow fell softly all around him, and gathered in quiet drifts at his feet.

---

Sophia was standing in the main hallway, staring at the broken locker. The door had fallen off its hinges where he'd kicked it off, and seized his weapons. She didn't expect him to return.

But even as she thought it, the dogs were suddenly barking, and the disharmonious cacophony made her jump. And she ran to the door, even as she was afraid of what she might find outside.

Throwing it open, the snow blasted in at her, pulling at her hair.

He was standing at the foot of the stone stairs.

She could only stare at him. He was afire-- completely covered with the green light.

He dragged the mighty arm of the dragon, roughly severed, behind him, holding it up against his shoulder. Its claws raked against the snowy ground.

The image flickered in the torch light, and against his piercing eyes.

---



Part Twenty: Cries Softly of the Time Before

The snow was falling against Buffy's hair like a crown of soft flowers.

The sounds were muffled, as she walked down this darkened path, flung far into the distant reaches of the city. It wound in among the pine trees, where they took root and grew tall like those of the Dane's wood in a fairy tale.

She followed the footsteps, the marks deeply ingrained in the snow of worn footfalls. The crisp lines of the soles, the defined ridges of the treads-- all of these were being softly eradicated by the new snow, forever filling the spaces inbetween.

Forever blanketing the earth in a strange serenity-- resolving it all to pure white.

She followed the footsteps, and they all seemed to lead this way. There was excitement here tonight. She could feel it in the air, as she stepped down the path, looking out into the snow.

And the light from the distant building suddenly broke through the trees. It was brilliant-- golden-- like the glow of her mother's oven when she had been baking.

---

When Sophia entered the room, he didn't look up.

"Don't be troubled..." she murmured, softly, as she approached the silent vampire. And she wondered, a moment, that she was inclined to treat him tenderly, when he was so dangerous.

He sat on the wide window ledge, strangely quiet, staring out into the snowy forest trees. They had taken the boards down, and replaced them with all kinds of lamps and torches. Her rooms-- once the headmaster's offices-- now glowed with the warm, flickering lights they defiantly lit against the night air.

The light flickered on his face, tinting his features warm orange and deeply shadowing his jawline against the candlelight. And in his eyes-- in his liquid, azure eyes, she could see he was afraid.

And of course he was frightened. The green light rested in him still.

It danced in his veins, moved on his skin. She could see it everywhere he touched. Everywhere he walked. Something in him had died on the mountain tops, and something new was growing here. It was miraculous and dangerous. And he knew this, and he feared.

She squinted at him, looking at the quiet trembling of his fingers on the glass panes, where he brushed them lightly in worried, restless patterns. Moisture clouded where he touched, condensing and welling against the blue- black world of snow without.

And over it all, the green light danced and trailed like little silver bells dancing in their minds. It hovered on him brightly...

"Like tongues of fire..." Sophie whispered, finishing her thought aloud.

He heard her, and recoiled visibly from the thought.

"Stop looking at me like that..." he said softly-- brokenly.

"Like what?" she asked.

He spat the words, looking constantly out into the snowfall.

"Like I'm Saint Bloody George."

In a silent pause, she smiled.

"You're really quite a bit more like Beowulf..."

But then she receded, pulled away from him and let him sit there in thought. Because she couldn't desire to add to his burdens, she stepped away. And though she found compassion for him in her heart, she was still disturbed by him. Here was a creature who slays dragons, who knows the Key by human names. And she could sense an exacting restraint in him over something volatile and tense.

She retreated to her desk, sat down there and trailed her hands against the rich, cherry wood grain.

"Rachel..." she said, her voice soft and fluid and full of years, "Rachel- the one you brought here. She bore her child."

He shifted on his perch, but did not look up.

"A boy child. And he will live."

He shook his head at that, a soft sort of chuckle rolling from deep in his throat.

"Poor bastard..."

She looked up from her hands then, burning with her questions.

"Is it so dark outside that you can say these things...?"

And he had no response, but to look out into the falling snow. Flying out like blossoms from the trees when spring went too ripe and too warm.

So she pulled the old, brass key from her pocket, and turned the old lock on the drawer. She pulled it open with a familiar scraping of wood against wood, the smell of old furniture oils floating close against the grain.

She removed the cloth-wrapped bundle. She stood once more, carefully, and came close to him again.

She pushed it out towards him, her worn hands resting comfortably against the twisting wrinkles of the linen.

"We don't have much we could do for you, after... after what you did for us," she said, "But Rachel asked me to find these for you..."

He turned from the window, looked up at her finally. His eyes were heavy with tired, uncertain thoughts.

---

Buffy couldn't read the sign, didn't know the name of the building. The carving that bore its name was covered by an enormous, sinuous arm.

It was nailed above the door-- its black-clawed hand hanging uselessly against the bricks, staining them with black blood as snow collected against the scales.

Her nose wrinkled at the sight, and she turned away.

The flicker of countless candles and lamps outlined her face, where she stood. There were people all around, coming and going, and speaking together.

And she looked back up at that arm, in the snowfall, and wondered.

---

The new flask was resting comfortably in his pocket as he lit the cigarette with the new lighter. Rachel's gifts. It had been a long time since he'd gotten his hands on one, though he'd always carried that lighter. The thing had had memories about it.

And he turned the new lighter in his fingers, feeling the smooth metal beneath them. He twirled it about idly, as he walked through the hallway, filled to the brim with travelers.

All had come to see what had happened here. To stare at what they'd nailed to their ridiculous door.

The smoke whirled up into the ceiling as he walked. A group of children tore through the crowd, bumping against his legs as they rushed past.

Candles burned in the open trophy cases, surrounded by the icons. He paused a moment, lost in the silence of his own thoughts, and looked down at the statue there.

One of those Marian figurine, the kind that dotted suburban streets. One of those ones that made the kiddies think the virgin lived in an upright bathtub.

But it had been painted green. These people worshipped her-- The Green Saint. And as he moved by, bumping into someone's shoulder, brushing through the crowd that pressed on all sides, the image filled him with a strange unease.

---

Buffy walked among the crowd, looking out into the sea of people. She felt cast adrift, floating through the hall aimlessly. She'd been aimless too long. It really had gone on for far too long.

And she wondered, idly, how she'd come to be this way. How she'd lost touch.

And she knew it was when she'd run away, really. It all came back to that. When she'd bolted upright from beside Anya's cold form, when she'd leapt away into the promise of dawn that would never be again.

And that was sad, to her. Because she missed them still-- missed them all and their warmth.

And even after everything, she realized she felt a pang for Maggie. Walking through the crowd of people, every one of which could have been Maggie's victim, she found herself wishing childishly to have her friend by her side.

But even if it hadn't happened-- if the violin hadn't shattered, they would have to have parted their ways.

Because she knew it. She knew it and hadn't ever let herself really think about it. Maggie fed.

And Buffy had a purpose. She'd learned it again. She had to kill Maggie's kind. And, with a sudden conviction she hadn't held in years, she knew that it was right. Knew somewhere in her gut that it was the right thing-- the real thing that she had to do. She knew it, when she hadn't known anything right or wrong for so many years.

And as she reached the icon cases, her steady, even breath suddenly caught with the billow of smoke. Tobacco. It irritated her throat and she turned to the wall, coughing hard. People brushed by her on all sides, and someone bumped into her shoulder blade on the way by, jostling her slightly.

And the smoke began to fade.

As she regained control of her rebelling lungs, she looked up again. The air was tinted still with the familiar scent, that she hadn't smelled in so long. Strange how the musky, rich flow of it brought back memories.

Perhaps it was strange, but above all else, it really reminded her of Spike.

---

Things were different, now. Everything about the hall teemed with life. There were mice under the floorboards, and he could *feel* them there, moving about.

And the people-- the people seemed real in a way they hadn't before. They had a solidity about them, in their eyes. They were alive.

And he realized, suddenly, how amazing it was. Not that this world harbored life, but that it harbored life so abundantly. Everywhere it clustered in the cracks and corners, teeming against the nighttime. And now, it seemed to him like that might be a good thing-- that it persisted, like the weeds that tenaciously grew in the cracks of the pavement outside, buried now by the gentle snow.

So it was allright then. Dawn had done it, chosen in those last moments to let it be this way. And he knew her in the ways that these crowds could not. He knew, knew surely in his gut that she didn't entirely belong in an icon case, painted full over in green robes. She was too real for that.

And he smiled, to himself, uncertain, brushing by the groups of travelers in the close press of the hall. As he pushed through the crowd, he finally reached the door, and opened it wide into the night air.

And he stepped out into the cold, and moved on once more from this place, the smoke of his cigarettes trailing behind him.

---

The children were playing in the snow, in the courtyard, beneath the open sky.

Buffy watched them through the door. Heard the excited shouts, watched the small forms throw powdery flakes into the air like seafoam and laugh like nothing had ever gone wrong.

She pressed her hand against the panes of glass, set into the metal surface of the doorway. They were cold to the touch. She ran her fingertips against the diamond pattern of wires threaded through the smooth surface.

And she opened the door, in a sudden whim, throwing her weight against the bar handle. Ice flakes prickled against her face, and the cold welled around her once more as if she had plunged into chill water.

They ran about, the children, in frenzied circles. She couldn't tell what their game was. But she didn't mind that-was content to watch, a sense of peace falling around her-- surrounding her shoulders like the gathering snow. All the sounds were muted, muffled by its blanket, that covered the whole of the courtyard's ground in lazy drifts, riddled through with small footprints.

Buffy receded under the ledge of the building, out of the snow. She sat down on the stone bench there, to watch them. The doors on the opposite wall were facing her, their glass windows welling with the golden light of their wicks and lamps.

And something moved behind the glass, in the hallway beyond it. Something disrupted the light, threw a long shadow across it so that it caught Buffy's eye.

It was a little girl, staring out from behind that glass, clutching a worn, homespun rabbit in her hands. She watched the other children run, a moment, and turned away like a tiny ghost. She didn't seem to want to join them.

And the cold was settling once more into Buffy's toes and fingers, and she stood to leave-- to find somewhere to sleep. And when she woke, she hoped she wouldn't be aimless anymore.

Something brushed against her feet. She looked down, the pale corner of it poking through the snow cover.

It was paper.

She reached down, idly, and picked it up with cold, reddened fingertips. She shook the snow free, and the flakes tumbled to the ground in a curtain.

And the shouts of the children faded to nothing as she looked at it-- as the pieces fell together for her at last. And she was struck through in a violent rush with memories of the time before.

---

"Wait up!" she had called, laughing. Buffy had heard her padding barefoot through the wet sand behind her.

Buffy only clutched the Frisbee tighter. Throwing a sidelong glance back at her sister, she called out.

"Just try and catch me!"

And the sunlight dazzled her, breaking bright and brilliant on the white sand. Dancing off the waves of the blue sea, that lapped at her ankles and filled the air with the rushing, rolling sound of the tide pushing forever against the shore.

She could feel it on her skin, bronzed and warmed with the glow of it. And the sunlight poured over them all. Everyone on the beach was flooded by the rays. The laughing children. The beer-bellied men. The quiet student sitting by herself, writing furiously in a journal while crouched over her teal-patterned blanket.

And she rushed by them all, running along the shoreline. Just on the border of the land and the sea, feeling the sand cake firmly across her wet feet until the water would lap up once more to wash it all away.

And Dawn ran behind, trying to catch her.

"I'll get you!" she cried out, shrill with laughing and exertion.

And Buffy had to slow down, so that Dawn would be able catch her.

Run-- she had thought-- just run. But not so fast that she can't catch you. And when she comes, don't fall so hard that you could hurt her.

And the hurt of the falling was the last thing in their thoughts-- the tower stairs and her bruised, bitter collapse-- the collapse that had caused all of this-- these things were in the impossible future. So it was ok to run.

It was allright to turn and leap forward, make that one courageous jump out into the bright sunlit beach to seize her sister.

And remembering this, it occurred to her that maybe-just maybe if she'd made it up-if she hadn't tripped-maybe it could have been her to jump. She might have saved her sister.

Her sister-- her sister. God, how she loved her.

They had tumbled down together, on that day, and Buffy carefully made sure to land on the bottom. And she had her sister in her arms, her long, red- brown hair trailing like the Waterhouse mermaid's. And the waves rushed over them, and Dawn was trying to grab that Frisbee, that was as red as the apples their mother had left on the counter for them, when they'd gotten home, on that bright, long ago afternoon.

---

And that was it. She'd forgotten to keep track of it all. And before she knew it, years had flown by, and she had run too fast, and for too long.

She'd missed him by seconds, this night. She knew that, now.

And she stared at the image. It was a good likeness. And in it, he looked much the same, really, despite the wild ringlets of his hair.

But of course, she knew that he would.

And the memory of Dawn at the oceanside persisted in her mind, running circles around her as fast as they'd both run that day. He'd chased her too, once, as she bolted through the newly decimated ruins of their old world. She could remember it, a foggy, feverish remnant of a memory from a time she couldn't forget and yet couldn't bear to really remember.

He'd chased her like Maggie had chased her, just days before. With desperation and suffering. And he was chasing her still, in his way.

Slayer. It would make her chuckle, if she weren't already in tears.

And those tears just barely stung against her eyelids as she finally knew-- finally understood. The burnt out campsite. The stories. They ahd made her walk with a purpose. She had envied his place in them, that was really her own. It had really been him all along.

It was just like him to his promises, finally, when no one was around who really cared or knew what they meant.

And it made sense-- a perfect sort of ridiculous, vibrant, ringing sense. It almost made her feel she would have guessed it if she'd tried- if she'd really thought of him much at all in the long years that had gone by. Or even nearly as much as he seemed to have thought of her.

And she sank down, again, on the bench, the sketch of Spike in her hands. A thousand other memories crowded in on her mind, as she looked on this face. Some of him, and some of Dawn. And the others. All of the others.

So she simply looked on it, and let remembrances trail over her senses like gentle fingertips.

And the snow fell.

--



Epilogue: Mirror in Mirror

The college bells were ringing, high in the clock tower. The world was alive with the sound.

They pealed through the air in rich and resonant gales, as Buffy walked through the iron gates of Mount Holyoke College, still standing strong in the nighttime world.

The wind swelled up, and she turned her face to it. It pulled her hair away from her neck, in long, loose locks. She never braided it anymore. It fluttered across her cheeks, on the warm current of the breeze that smelled like moss and water.

The spring trees were clustering with flowers, pale against the blue, diffuse light that was forever frozen in time-- that eternally promised morning, hanging just on the cusp of the horizon, hovering just out of reach forever.

Buffy stepped onto the worn pathways, as she entered the college gates-the warm, brownstone buildings rising tall and dignified around her. Staid Harvard ivy riddled over the stones, their leaves as plentiful as beads of dew on a spiderweb. And in these walls everywhere were the persistent signs of life. A laundry line tied between two apple trees. The barking of a dog in the distance. The bells themselves, ringing from a clock, carefully maintained, that still told the time even after time had ended.

People still lived here. People still learned here. And that is why she thought he might be in this place.

It was easy, once she'd discovered in which direction he had gone, to follow his trail. The stories moved like the currents of the running streams, all around her.

So many stories. She must have been blind that she hadn't seen before.

And the names had grown-- changed. Not just Slayer anymore, but also the Walker. The Shadow of the Passing.

The Pilgrim of the Green Saint. Who could heal in her name.

It had been easy, at first, to begin to catch his tracks. The stories were like footprints marked deep in the winter snow, showing his path to her. But just as the springtime rain washed the snowcover away, the stories dissolved and reformed themselves anew.

A shadowed, female figure invaded them, leaving the dust of her enemies on the ground and whispers of hope in her wake. And in the songs-- in the poetry she was described as a glorious queen of light.

And that was her. It was meant to be her.

The stories were becoming confused. Male or female, dark or light. No one knew which was which. Things that were once important no longer seemed so, and things that she had never noticed meant more than life itself. And the confusion in the tales reflected the paths that they had chosen.

For in the stories, they were the same person.

The Westminster chimes faded in their ringing clarity, leaving echoes in the air, and she stepped off the walkway, out onto the mossy, grassy ground. The stalks of soft clover pushed between her toes as she walked barefoot, her boots tied together, slung over the strap of her traveling bag, that hung on one shoulder. They rapped against her back gently with the rhythm of her footfalls. And in her traveling bag, folded there neatly, was a drawing of the one she sought, and next to this drawing, an embroidered sampler, starting to yellow with age, that she had gone back to retrieve. She didn't want to forget-not anymore. She didn't want to forget anyone.

She turned towards the college green, where tall oaks spread their branches wide, and the buds that promised leaves were pale, golden green, and delicate like flowers. In the predawn light, they glowed with soft, rainy dew.

As she turned the corner into the green expanse, she stopped dead in place.

He was sitting there, under a tall oak, an old leather book resting on his knee, absorbed and alone.

And when she saw him, she was glad it had been like this. She was sure it couldn't have been any other way. She wouldn't have been ready. She would have thrown him back, kicked him away, and never have accepted what she had seen in that snowy night at the elementary school. She couldn't just find him. She had needed to want to find him, first.

She didn't know what she would say. But she had been given a chance. A connection to her old world, in the least likely of places. And that was as it should have been. The things with the most permanent meaning are often what we least expect or wish for.

And for the first time in so long, seeing this connection sitting in front of her on the grass, she felt like she was a person. A person with a name, and a past, and a sister.

And she made to move forward, when she paused again. She squinted.

Was there something there-- flitting across his shoulder? Something green and brilliant. It flashed for a second in her mind, and was gone.

But she couldn't be certain. And she moved forward again. A thrill of fear raced through her as she walked, barefoot and silent on the grass, and approached him.

---

His fingertip trailed against the page, underlining the words in restless motion against the rough, yellowed paper.

He had saved these old pages, in the late, deep days of the winter, when it had grown so cold the people had burned their books to survive.

They had been making a bonfire, throwing in the ancient paper that took to the flames. Tearing the pages away from the tooled bindings, that fell in a pile in the darkness. One after another, the pages flew through the air like fluttering snow.

But not this one. Something in him just wouldn't let it go. Another book just couldn't burn, and he'd nearly met his own death struggling for it. But as he always seemed to, he had made it out once more. And he always would-- until that last time, that was waiting for him like a shadow among these humans.

Humans. His life revolved around them. He had needed them for blood and chase-- affection and grief. It always came back to them. He was vulnerable to them as he was to nothing else. And they would kill him one day, for all that.

But perhaps not for a long time, yet. He found he could fight with words instead of blades, when the situation called for their need.

And he turned a tired page of his book in the early morning gloom, and from it fell a pressed and dried flower, fluttering out into the breeze like it was weightless. He deftly caught it before it fell to the ground, and it did not crumble in his hand.

The colors were still vibrant, but it was old. It had known sunlight and grown long before all of this had happened. And he did nothing but watch it against his dust-covered palm. The veins in the petals, crushed flat, were tinted a soft yellow, stretching across and to the stalk, that still showed pale green in the night.

And he suddenly felt Dawn's brilliant light, that flowed still in his veins- - that rested there even after months had passed since the mountainside, begin to move again. It still, even now, filled him with uncertainty-- with a quiet fear. It was unpredictable, and he didn't understand its nature. It had great power, that he was only beginning to see and know. And as the small, crushed petals and leaves touched his hands, they began to grow stronger, unfurl themselves against the spring air. Moisture ran through the veins of the leaves, suddenly, and the colors became even richer than they were before. The small, delicate tendrils of its growing leaves wrapped around his fingertips gently, tracing the movement of the living light through his hand-- living light that moved where nothing alive should ever have been again.

And he felt his hand tremble slightly with the emotion that this always brought him. Fear of her-- not cold or apprehensive terror, but a quiet amazement that something so remarkable was moving before his eyes. Certainty that it should burn him to ash with its brilliance, but held this back.

That it wanted him to live, and knew who he was. That the flower in his hand was a gift of that light-that this was her language, and she was speaking to him.

Because of this, somehow, he began to realize something had changed. It didn't matter, looking at this flower in his hands-- it didn't matter if he didn't find her. He could look and search. But if Buffy didn't come, if he never saw her again-- that it was allright. There were other purposes, now, that by their diversity made the memory of her not less, but more-- infinitely more valuable.

And in the pale, new grass, he heard a sound as a pair of small, bare feet stepped there. They were covered with roadside dust.

When he looked up, his book slid from his hand to the ground. Its pages fluttered open, rustling back and forth in the wind.

And above them both, the morning doves scattered from their tower, as the bells suddenly rang out the half-hour in a violent rush of ringing sound. And they flew up and out-moving into the updrafts of warm air that hung over the college. And they spread out over the farmland, newly plowed, and the rolling, tree-covered mountainsides beyond it.

---

The End.