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'Helena Joslin is dead.'
'What?' I said. 'But but that's impossible.'
'Unfortunately not,' Tara continued.
'But wouldn't someone have noticed?' I asked. 'What about her sister? Surely she would have noticed something?'
'It's complicated,' Tara began. 'Why don't you sit down.'
I was tempted to argue just on basic principle, but I didn't want to waste time so I sat down on the edge of my bed. Zauriel had climbed in through the window and was standing in the corner. He was trying to be unobtrusive, but you try being inconspicuous when you've got a twenty-foot wingspan.
'When Helena slit her wrists, she died,' Tara explained. 'Her spirit moved on and her body was left empty. Now, under normal circumstances that would have been the end of it, but we both know that stuff that night was far from normal.'
'But how does Helena figure into all that?' I asked.
'Has Tara explained the Ghost Roads to you?' Zauriel inquired. 'Basically, they're the paths departed spirits walk until they find a new home. Some people call it Limbo.'
'And?' I prompted.
'On the night your sister died,' Zauriel said, 'the Ghost Roads were deserted. There was some major disturbance in the spirit world and everyone took part in mass exodus to find somewhere to belong, somewhere to hide.'
'Helena's empty body made a tempting target,' Tara continued.
'Are you saying that whatever's in Helena's body isn't Helena?' I asked softly. 'It's not Buffy, is it?'
'No,' Tara and Zauriel insisted simultaneously.
'You know something, don't you,' I said. 'You know something about Buffy that you're not telling me.'
'Yes, I do,' Zauriel replied.
I glared at him and he met my stare unflinchingly. Heck, he didn't even blink. I looked away first. It was no contest really.
'What about Helena?' I asked Tara.
'Yes, what about her?' Zauriel agreed. 'I've looked into her heart and it seemed to me that that soul belonged where it was. Now you're telling me she's got a squatter?'
'More a rent-paying lodger,' Tara replied. 'Like I said, it's complicated.
'When whatever this thing is made a beeline for Helena's corpse, it got all tangled up with Helena's spirit going the other way. They merged, for want of a better word. The spirit got a place to hide and Helena gained some of the abilities the spirit had in life.'
'That explains her Wonder Woman tendencies,' I reasoned. 'Does Helena know she's sharing her body with something else?'
Tara shook her head. 'I'm not explaining this very well. Helena isn't sharing her body with anything. There is only one spirit in her body. It's not Helena and it's not the ghost that tried to take her over. Or maybe it's both. It thinks it's Helena. It has some of her memories and some of her character, but it isn't her. It's something different, something new.'
'So what do we do about it?' I asked.
There was crashing sound downstairs. It was the sound of someone knocking the front door inwards. Trust me, it happens often enough around here that I know exactly what that sounds like.
'What's going on here?' Dad was shouting. 'Who are you and what do you think you're doing?'
Was that Xander's voice?
'Dawn who?' Hank lied. 'I don't know what you're talking about so why don't you get out before I call the police.'
Xander laughed and I shivered.
Then Dad started screaming.
'Stay here,' I ordered Tara and Zauriel.
'I'm coming with,' Tara insisted. 'They can't see me, remember?'
I nodded and ran out on to the landing.
Lydia was standing at the top of the stairs. She was holding her hands in front of her face and she was wailing even louder than Dad was. Dad was lying in the hallway, writhing in agony as purple lightning played across his body, lighting that leaped from Xander's fingertips.
'Out of the way,' I snapped at Lydia as I pushed past her and threw myself down the stairs. I barrelled into Xander and the pair of us rolled out of the open doorway. I landed painfully on my side, too winded to get up. Xander was on his feet almost instantly.
'Aren't you supposed to be in a wheelchair?' I gasped.
'I got better.' Xander smiled. I'd seen that smile before, but it belonged on Glory, not Xander.
'What are you doing?' I asked. 'Why are you doing this?'
Lightning danced between Xander's hands like a cat's cradle.
'There's been a lot of death,' Xander said. 'Tara and Willow and Buffy.'
'There's been too much death,' I agreed.
Xander smiled again.
'No, not too much,' he corrected me. 'Just the wrong people. Buffy killed herself to save you, but she's worth ten of you, Dawn, twenty of you. A hundred. You should have died, not her. And I'm here to correct that mistake.'
He splayed his fingers and ten crackling arcs of energy rolled across me. I arced my back and screamed. It felt as if my blood was on fire and I struggled to focus on anything besides the pain. Darkness began to cloud the edges of my vision.
'Leave her alone!' Tara shouted.
I could see her running out of the house, but she didn't strike Xander. Instead she seemed to be tearing up the air behind him. What was she fighting?
And then I saw it. Two figures appeared flanking Xander, drifting into focus like objects under a microscope. One was short, with black, shoulder-length hair and blue veins standing out against her pale skin. The other was taller, wrapped up in a long red dress like a drop of blood.
Tara was locked in combat with Willow and Drusilla.
And she was losing.
The fight was savage, the women clawing at each other with their fingernails and I could see them tearing chunks out of Tara. She didn't bleed like a living person, but her form was fading, wavering, becoming less and less substantial. Could a ghost die?
But the distraction had worked. Xander was no longer attacking me.
'Run,' Tara shouted.
'But what about you?' I called back, struggling to my knees.
I clambered to my feet, but the fell face first on to the lawn as Xander struck me in the back.
'You're not going anywhere,' he snarled.
His fingertips sparkled with lightning and he held his hand so close to my face that I could smell the ozone.
Then the night was ripped apart by the sound of police sirens. Someone had heard my scream and acted on them. I wondered if I'd ever be able to repay them.
'We'll finish this later,' Xander whispered, pulling away from me. 'There are other things that need fixing.'
Then he folded his arms across his chest and disappeared in a flash of light.
I crawled across the lawn to wear Tara sat huddled with her knees under her chin.
'Are you all right?' I asked.
She shook her head. 'I never saw Willow go bad. I guess part of me didn't really believe it.'
'Are you all right?' one of the policemen called as he ran from his car.
I ignored him.
'We have to stop them,' I said to Tara. 'We need to work out where they might have gone.'
'What the hell happened here?' the policeman continued.
'He said something about the wrong people having died,' Tara said, 'and about correcting the mistake. He wanted to kill you because he thought you should have died in Buffy's place.'
'That wasn't Xander talking,' I insisted.
'I know,' Tara replied, putting her hand on top of mine.
'Maybe it wasn't really Willow,' I suggested. Tara offered a sad smile and shook her head slowly.
One of the policemen put a hand on my shoulder.
'You should really let the paramedics examine you,' he said.
'Helena!' I shouted.
'Helena?' the policeman repeated. 'Is that you?'
'You don't think ' Tara began.
'She came back to life the night Buffy died,' I said. 'It all fits.'
'What did you say?' the policeman asked.
'We need to get after him,' I told Tara. 'Zauriel!'
The angel swooped down, put a strong arm around my waist and lifted me up off of the ground.
I looked back. The policeman's jaw had hit the floor.
* * *
Helena sat bolt upright in bed, woken by the screaming.
'It's Piv,' Ruth explained. She was already sliding out of bed.
'Piv?' Helena asked following Ruth.
'Pavinder,' Ruth continued. 'You know. Dormouse.'
Helena nodded. Piv was the smallest and youngest member of the household and tried to use her age as an excuse to get out of the chores.
'She gets nightmares,' Ruth continued. 'Can't say I blame her. Night after they told me what happened to the little mite, I had nightmares too.'
Piv's room was on the floor below. As Helena and Ruth descended from their room, Mrs Clemens was ascending from the floor below. She and Ruth looked at each other. Mrs Clemens nodded and stepped aside to allow the two girls to enter Piv's room.
Piv was still asleep, still caught up in her nightmare. She was writhing on the bed, hands twisted into claws at her sides. Her face was a picture of terror. Ruth stepped forward and sat on the edge of the bed, taking one of Piv's hands in both of hers.
'It's okay, Dormouse,' Ruth said. 'Everything's going to be okay. I'm here now.'
Taking her cue from Ruth, Helena went and sat on the other side of the bed, taking hold of Pavinder's free hand.
'We're both here,' she said.
Piv's nails were digging into her hand, but Helena didn't let go.
Ruth brushed Piv's damp hair away from her face.
'Shh,' she whispered. 'Don't fret, kid, he ain't here. Just us girls, remember, where it's safe.'
Helena felt the hand she was holding relax. The lines on Pavinder's face smoothed as she calmed beneath Ruth's caress.
'That's right, kid,' Ruth continued, 'it's just a dream. He can't hurt you any more.'
Piv opened her eyes and sat bolt upright in the bed. She tugged her hand away from Helena before throwing both her arms around Ruth's neck. Then she buried her face in her friend's chest and began to cry. Ruth held her close.
'That's right, Piv, let it all out.' Ruth looked at Helena and mouthed 'thank you.'
There was a crash outside.
'What was that?' Ruth asked.
'I'll go,' Helena offered, standing up.
'Be careful,' Ruth warned her.
Helena stepped out onto the landing.
Mrs Clemens was lying at her feet, eyes closed, blood trickling from a cut at her temple.
A man Helena didn't recognise was standing across from her, purple flame dancing across his skin.
'Did you do this?' she asked him.
'Helena Joslin,' Xander said. 'Alive and well I see.'
'Did you do this?' Helena demanded. Her eyes narrowed and her breathing quickened.
'You never met Buffy, did you?' Xander continued. 'She's dead now. She died and you got to live. Where's the justice?'
'You hurt her,' Helena said, hands clenched into fists.
'Here's the justice,' Xander explained, raising his right hand so that Helena could see the sparks crackling across his fingertips. 'Judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one. Say goodnight, Helena.'
Lightning shot from his hand and struck Helena in the chest. She could smell her flesh burning, feel the pain, not just from the damage, but from the way her body stitched itself back together. She didn't care.
'There's been enough harm,' she said, taking a step forward. 'Enough pain.' Another step. 'It's over.' One more step closed the remaining distance between herself and Xander. 'I'm putting a stop to it.'
She hit him. The punch lifted Xander off of his feet and carried him the length of the landing and sent him tumbling down the flight of stairs at the end. Helena bounded after him.
'Incoming!' I screamed.
Zauriel flew straight threw the window, glass scattering everywhere. He dropped me and I rolled away. I had hoped to roll back up to my feet, but the best I could manage was a crouch.
'Xander, stop!' I shouted.
'I think we may need to reassess the situation,' Zauriel suggested.
Xander was cowering on the ground as Helena raised her fist to strike him again. Zauriel caught her hand and held it immobile, despite Helena's strength.
'Helena, don't,' I told her. 'Zauriel's a friend, I think.'
'Thanks,' Zauriel replied, throwing me a half-smile.
'So's Xander,' I continued. 'Most of the time.'
As if to prove me wrong, Xander's eyes began glowing with barely contained energy.
'I can help him,' Zauriel told Helena quickly, 'but I need to know you're not going to start hitting him the moment I let you go.'
'Do what you have to do,' she said.
'Thank you.' Zauriel released her arm and turned to Xander. 'Now you need to remember who you are.'
Then he plunged his fist into Xander's chest.
Xander screamed and I started to lunge forward, but Zauriel's glare froze me in place. Then he let Xander go. Xander fell to his knees, tears running down his face.
'I'm sorry,' he wailed. 'I'm so sorry.'
'What did you do to him?' I demanded.
'I have the ability to read souls,' Zauriel explained. 'You friend needed to remember who and what he is so I let him share my power, but seeing who you are in all detail is rarely a pleasant experience.'
'Will he be okay?' I asked.
'Given time,' Zauriel promised. 'I'll take him home.'
Then he scooped Xander up in his arms and flew away.
'How am I supposed to explain this?' Helena asked.
'Don't bother,' I said. 'Nobody else saw anything so however they rationalise it they're bound to come up with something more believable than possession and angels.'
* * *
'So, do you want to explain things to me?' Dad asked.
We were walking through the cemetery. The morning was cold, even for January, and I was wrapped up in hat and scarf. I had to move the scarf in order to uncover my mouth to speak.
'Explain what, Dad?' I replied.
'Something happened last night,' he said. 'No one else seems to be able to tell me exactly what. I was hoping you might be able to shed some light.'
'It was all a bit of a blur,' I lied.
'Lydia tells me you rescued me from whoever it was,' he continued.
I shrugged. 'Must have just been acting on instinct.
Dad put a hand on my shoulder.
'Thank you,' he said. I grinned, showing teeth.
'Dad,' I said after a pause, 'if you knew something about a person, something about their past that they didn't know, would you tell them?'
'I take it that this thing isn't something pleasant?' Dad deduced.
I shook my head.
'Well, you could argue that they have a right to know,' he said.
'But what if the information would end up hurting them. And what if they were just recovering from being hurt recently.'
'Well then I guess you have to ask yourself whether it'll make a difference to them if they don't know,' Dad mused, 'and if you can live with keeping the secret to yourself.'
We had arrived at our destination, the graves of Joyce and Buffy Summers. For the first time in years we stood united as a family.
Dropping to one knee, I carefully position the flowers we had brought with us.
'Happy Birthday, Buffy,' I said.
* * *
Grant was tied to the chair, tied with plastic rope so that he could not burn his way out. He struggled, but Wesley was confident that he was not going anywhere.
It had taken some time for Wesley to gather the supplies he wanted. Some of this stuff he could buy at the Magic Box. He had tried to talk Anya into letting him have it for free given the importance of his experiment, but she was adamant that he should pay full market value. And it wasn't like he couldn't afford it, he supposed. The other stuff, however, was more exotic and it had taken him several days of networking and bribery to secure the items he required.
But now he was ready.
'You've put on weight,' he told Grant as he dragged the chair to the centre of the room. He had taken up the carpet first. He was only renting the place and was still hoping to get his security deposit back when he left.
Then he drew a chalk circle on the floor around Grant. He had considered asking Janice and Chrissie to help him out. They were much more sensitive to the mystic arts than he was. However, they were also inexperience, not to mention still teenagers, and he needed to keep distractions to a minimum if this was to work.
Making frequent reference to his notes, Wesley drew symbols around the edges of the circle, in various different coloured chalks. Then he got to his feet and created a circle of salt around the chair then a circle of a yellow powder he was assured was the ground horn of a Rettori demon. Then he placed candles at each of the four compass points. The candles themselves were not magical, but the candle holders were the mummified hands of Idri, an twelfth century Indian warrior blessed - or cursed, some scholars claimed - with four arms, one for each of his four chosen weapons of battle, the sword, the axe, the flail and the spear.
Wesley dimmed the lights and then lit the candles with a red taper.
In one hand he picked up a silver crucifix, in the other a small mirror. The curtains were open and Wesley used the mirror to reflect the light of the moon onto Grant's face.
'I call upon you, spirits that inhabit this vessel,' Wesley intoned. 'You do not belong here. Release this man. I cast you out. I call upon you, spirits, and, in the names of Birgit and of Isis, I cast you out.
Grant tilted back his head and cried out. A wind whipped up and blew out the candle flames so that the room was lit only by the thin stream on moonlight and the purple fire playing over Grant's body. Then that fire died as well.
Wesley shivered. There was an expression for that. It was as if someone had just walked over his grave.
Then the candle flames roared back into life.
'Where am I?' Grant Renfield asked.
'Safe,' Wesley said, 'believe it or not.'
He picked up a knife and began cutting Grant's bonds.
'You can go home in a minute or two,' he continued, 'but first, there are a few questions I'd like answered.'
* * *
Another night, another gathering in Wesley's apartment. There were even fewer of us this time. Xander was still recovering and Clem had opted out. No one had heard from Trix or Halfrek.
That left Anya, Janice and me. At least there was more pizza to go round.
'I've worked out what it is we're dealing with,' Wesley began. 'I had my suspicions, but the exorcism I performed on Mr Renfield confirmed them.'
'Well?' Anya prompted. 'I just know I'm not going to like this so we might as well get it over with.'
'If I'm right, there's a Bean-Sidhe or Banshee at work in Sunnydale,' Wesley explained. 'The banshee is a particular type of Sidhe or fairy '
'I know all about the Sidhe,' I interrupted.
'You do?' Janice asked.
'She does,' Anya confirmed.
'First-hand experience,' I said.
'Right,' Wesley said. 'In any event, the banshee is associated with death, wailing against the injustice of it.'
'That doesn't sound so terrible,' Anya offered.
'That would depend on the effect of the wail,' Wesley pointed out.
'Not good?' I asked.
Wesley shook his head. 'Two people have died here recently, both of whom are connected by what they see as the unjust death of a lover.'
'You're talking about willow and Drusilla, aren't you?' I deduced.
'Yes, I am,' Wesley confirmed. 'Both of them exhibited a deep, fundamental link to magical forces and Drusilla at least has already displayed her reluctance to move on to the other side.'
'You're saying they're still out there?' Janice asked. 'What are they? Ghosts?'
She looked at me when she said that last bit and I fought not to give anything away. It wasn't that I didn't trust Wesley and Anya it was I don't know, maybe it was that I didn't trust them.
'Well, it's just a theory, but given their connection it's possible that their spirits have bonded, forming a gestalt entity.'
Two spirits in one. I so did not like where this conversation was going.
'This gestalt would be our banshee,' Wesley continued, 'but because they're just spirits, they can't affect things physically so they're forced to act through intermediaries.'
'Like Grant and Xander,' Janice said.
'Yes, exactly.' Wesley smiled encouragingly at Janice and she beamed right back. Go to the top of the class, why don't you.
'The theory runs that Willow and Drusilla's wail acts as a form of possession,' Wesley continued. 'They cause people to act out to 'correct' any unjust deaths in their own lives. I suspect that Grant was merely a test of their power. Xander was much closer to what they hoped to achieve since, in his own way, he was acting to avenge their own deaths.'
'So what do we do about it?' I asked.
'At the moment, there's not much we can do,' Wesley admitted. 'I can exorcise anyone who has been possessed, but we can't act against Willow and Drusilla directly until we find them. Even then, I'm not entirely sure what we can do.'
'What do you mean?' Janice asked.
'Well, Drusilla and Willow are driven by their rage,' Wesley responded. 'That's what makes the gestalt work. But how do you defeat an emotion?'
'So basically you're telling us there's nothing we can do,' Anya said. 'I'm so glad I sacrificed my evening for this.'
'At least we know what we're up against,' Janice offered.
'And a lot of good that's going to do us,' Anya retorted.
'Well, if you've got any better ideas, let's hear them,' Wesley said.
Anya folded her arms and pouted.
* * *
'You want to what?' Drew demanded.
'I want you to write a story,' Greg replied. 'I thought that was the point here.'
Greg was the editor of the school newspaper. He and Drew were in the broom closet that was supposed to act as the newspaper office.
'Since when do you get to decide what stories I work on?' Drew persisted.
'I'm the editor,' Greg responded. 'I kinda thought that was my job.'
'Well you've never done it before.'
'I've never needed to before,' Greg pointed out. 'There used to be a time I could rely on you to deliver good stories. You haven't given me anything for three months.'
'So this is my punishment is it?' Drew asked.
Greg shrugged. 'If you like.'
'But a geology field trip?'
'Not my idea,' Greg confessed, 'but they want the publicity. And you gotta admit, it's different.'
'It's boring,' Drew replied. 'I mean, who wants to spend a day looking at rocks?'
'You do,' Greg told him, 'that is, if you want to keep your job on this paper.'
'Is that a threat?' Drew asked.
'Still as sharp as ever, huh, Drew?' Greg shot back.
'At least tell me you asked the geologists to write their own piece first,' Drew said.
'None of them can write,' Greg replied.
'What about Rachel?' Drew suggested. 'She'd be perfect for this.'
'Ray isn't the one failing to deliver.'
'Oh yes,' Drew commented sarcastically, 'she gets all those juicy sports exclusives that only a cheerleader can.'
'Maybe you should try it, Drew.' Greg winked at him. 'Who knows, you might catch some big football player's eye.'
'Laugh it up, Greg,' Drew retorted. 'This is bogus and you know it.'
'Maybe so,' Greg replied, 'but either you get down them there caves or you get off the paper. Permanently.'
* * *
'Can you believe this?' Drew complained to Chrissie. 'I'm supposed to go caving tomorrow all because Greg's got a bug up his ass about something. I think I'd rather have Mr Engel's science class all day than go look at some rocks.'
They could hear the waves crashing on the shore below them as they stood on a bluff overlooking the beach and waited for their friends to arrive.
'Yeah, well if you think that's lame,' Chrissie replied, 'you should try my life. The mighty midget's latest idea is for me and Jan to take part in some blah-de-blah Wiccan ceremony-type thing.'
'I thought you liked all this magic stuff,' Drew pointed out.
'Oh, I like the magic,' Chrissie replied, 'but that's just it. This is all ritual and worship and stuff. No real magic involved. It's like going to church, only without a roof over your head.'
'You're wrong about the magic,' Jonathan said as he walked up behind them. 'Just because there aren't the bangs and flashes that you're useful doesn't mean that there's no magic involved.'
Chrissie executed a mocking bow. 'Yes, oh wise and diminutive Zen master.'
'I'm kind of looking forward to it,' Janice confessed. She and I had arrived with Jonathan.
'Oh great, don't tell me you're a convert, Jan,' Chrissie remarked. 'The great cult of woman power finally get its claws into you?'
'It's not like that,' Janice replied defensively. 'It's just that I've been reading up on all this Wicca stuff and it's, well, interesting is all.'
'See,' Jonathan said proudly. 'You might learn something yourself, Chrissie, if you'd only try to be open to new experiences.'
'Yeah, well if this is so good how come you're not staying, short-stuff?' Chrissie asked.
'I, er, I don't believe,' Jonathan admitted. 'You don't have to accept the religious aspect of Wicca to practice magic.'
'See,' Chrissie said triumphantly.
'However,' Jonathan continued, 'to make an informed choice, you need to know what it is you're missing out on.'
'He's got you there, Chrissie,' I pointed out.
'Whatever,' she muttered. 'Let's just get this over with.'
'Then follow me, ladies,' Jonathan said, 'and I'll introduce you to Tabitha.'
Janice and Chrissie followed Jonathan down the narrow path that led to the beach. This little cove was already crowded. Men, women had all gathered to celebrate. Janice could see people setting up a barbecue on the far side of the cove.
'We get fed at this thing?' Chrissie asked.
'Later,' a woman said. She was wearing a simple white dress and wore a pentacle around her long, swan-like neck. 'The coven likes to have a bit of a party when we finish our rituals. I'm Tabitha, but everyone around here calls me Tabby.'
'Hi, Tabby,' Jonathan said. 'This is Janice and Chrissie, the two girls I was telling you about.'
'Of course,' Tabby said. 'So, you're here to share Imbolgc with us.'
'So Jonathan says,' Janice replied. 'To be honest, though, I'm still not entirely clear what Imbolgc is about. I've read about it, but '
'There's no substitute for experience,' Tabby replied with a smile. 'Basically, Imbolgc is the first day of spring, when we celebrate birth and growth in the land. It's also known as the Festival of Light. Just wait until you've seen the crown with made for Heather. Heather's our High Priestess, by the way.'
Jonathan cleared his throat.
'Um, is it okay if I leave the girls with you, Tabby?' he asked.
'Sorry, I know our rituals make you uncomfortable, Jonathan,' Tabby confessed. 'By all means, go away and come back later. The girls and I will just have to have fun without you.'
'There's something that's been bothering me a little,' Janice began when Jonathan had left.
'Really?' Tabby prompted.
'Well, it's just these ceremonies we don't have to be well naked, do we?'
Tabitha laughed, but it was not unpleasant.
'No, no you don't,' she assured Janice. 'I know some other witches like to practice skyclad, but to be honest you're not the only member of the coven who likes to preserve her modesty.'
'Too bad, Jan,' Chrissie commented. 'I know how much you were looking forward to ogling my beautiful body.'
'Knock it off, Chrissie,' Janice scolded her.
'Come on, there's someone I want you to meet,' Tabby said, guiding the girls over to the barbecue. 'Hi, Jerry. We were just admiring your culinary skills.'
'I haven't even put the meet on yet,' Jerry protested.
'I've seen you at work before, Jerry,' Tabby replied. 'This is as good as it gets.'
'I hope you girls are smart enough to ignore Tabby here,' Jerry remarked.
'I think they're smart enough to ignore both of us,' Tabby said. 'Janice, Chrissie, this is Jerry. He and his family have been coven members for years.'
'I'm a hereditary Wiccan,' Jerry explained. 'My mom and my gran used to drag me along to these things.'
'And then he decided to drag me along too,' another woman said. 'I'm Ellie, the doting wife.'
'Allegedly,' Jerry put in.
'Ignore him,' Ellie told the girls. 'And that little bundle of sunshine down there is Caitlin, our daughter.'
'Oh, she's adorable,' Janice said, crouching down next to the little girl. 'Will she be staying for the ceremony?'
'I'm gonna play the drums,' Caitlin said proudly. 'Daddy said so.'
'Aw, she's so cute,' Janice said.
Chrissie rolled her eyes. 'Yeah, she's to die for.'
'Forgive me for saying so,' Janice said to Ellie, 'but do you think it's right dragging Caitlin into your beliefs?'
Ellie shrugged. 'I don't see that it's any different from a Christian taking their child with them to church on Sunday. And just because we're including our child in our faith, doesn't mean we're shielding her from others. If, when she's older, she chooses to believe in something else, well that's her decision and we'll support her in that. That's what parents are supposed to do.' Ellie paused. 'I take it from the look on your face that you haven't told your own parents yet.'
Janice shook her head. 'I'm not sure how my mom would react.'
'I don't blame you,' Ellie told her. 'Witchcraft gets a pretty bad press and there aren't a lot of people who seem to understand what it's is really about. Maybe that's why most of the witches I've known tended to be a bit more tolerant of other faiths, because they know what it's like to be on the receiving end.'
* * *
'Where's your friend?' Jonathan asked as he climbed back up the path.
'He had to head home,' I replied. 'He's got a big day tomorrow.'
'Right. And how's Xander? I heard about his stint as Emperor Palpatine.'
'He's recovering nicely,' I told him. 'But what about you? You're looking very pleased with yourself just now.'
Jonathan thought about this. 'You know, I guess I am.'
'Care to share?'
'You're going to think it's silly,' Jonathan insisted.
I shrugged. 'Tell me anyway.'
'Well, I've been a bit of a loser all my life,' Jonathan confessed. 'Nothing ever seemed to go right for me. So you know what I did? I tried to improve my life, but I did it by these big dramatic gestures that I hadn't really thought through. I mean turning myself into a superstar or trying to be a supervillain, it all seemed like a good idea at the time. I just wanted to be somebody, you know, to feel good about myself.
'But there was always Buffy in the background. She wasn't out for herself the whole time, but she had all the friends and she was happy, most of the time. So you know what, after everything that's happened, I thought I'd try things her way for a change. So I'm having a go at helping other people instead of me. And you know something, Dawn, making them feel better makes me feel better about myself for the first time in my life. Is that odd?'
'No,' I said. 'It's not odd at all.'
Jonathan ran and embarrassed hand through his dark hair. 'Guess you think I'm really stupid now, telling you all that stuff. Sorry about that.'
I smiled and met his eyes.
'I forgive you,' I said.
* * *
Caitlin wasn't the only child on the beach and between them they had formed a large circle of seashells around the altar the grown-ups had set up. The coven members all stood inside the circle. Heather, the High Priestess, had paced the perimeter of the circle three times to seal it. She was dressed in a loose white robe, the hem of which trailed upon the sand, and wore a crown of lights on her head. Four witches were responsible for the four elements and each in turn took the appropriate object from the altar - the salt, the incense, the candle and the bowl of water - carried it around the circle and then invited the guardians of that element to join the coven in their celebration.
Chrissie stifled a yawn and Janice dug her in the ribs.
'What?' Chrissie mouthed.
Janice just glared.
Heather stood in front of the altar, facing north, arms stretched out to the sky.
'Holy Mother, Divine Father, we invite you into our presence this night, to take part in our Imbolgc celebrations. This night makes the end of winter and we call upon the energies of the universe to purify us and to aid us in our petitions. Hail and welcome!'
Heather slowly turned on the spot, facing each of the coven members in turn. Her gaze lingered on Janice, and Janice pulled her coat tighter around herself. She doubted she would have felt more exposed if they had decided to go 'skyclad'. Then Heather's gave moved on and Janice released the breath she hadn't known she was holding.
When Heather had completed her circuit, she raised her hands above her head once more and began to clap, rhythmically. Caitlin, aided by her father, matched the rhythm on her drums. Then the members of the coven began to chant in time to the beat, softly at first, but soon louder and with more confidence. The rhythmic droning was soothing and Janice had to fight to keep her eyelids open. She felt so calm and relaxed.
Janice turned. Four figures were standing behind her, one man and three women. They had the heads of animals. The man had the head of a bird with a long, narrow, curving beak. The women wore the heads of a cat, a cobra and a jackal. Janice tried not to look directly at the cobra because it brought her out in goosebumps. She really didn't like snakes.
Janice turned back around, looking for the coven members, but she was all alone except for these animal people.
'Janice,' the bird repeated.
'Dark things are coming,' the jackal continued. 'Storm clouds writhe on the horizon.'
'You must fight them back,' the cobra hissed. 'You must take up arms and strike them down.'
'You friends need you,' the cat purred. 'It is up to you to protect them.'
'But how?' Janice asked. 'What is this? Who are you?'
'We're your friends,' the birdman said. He put his hands on his temples and lifted his head from his shoulders like a mask. Drew smiled at her from beneath. 'We're here to offer you advice. You can turn back the tide, but this is a battle that requires wisdom, not force of arms.'
'Not every fight can be won physically,' the cobra agreed, removing her own head. Chrissie's eyes sparkled in the moonlight, 'but it can be won, if you know how and when to strike. You must take the battle to your enemy.'
'You all have talents.' The cat removed her head to reveal Helena's face. 'You all have an inner strength. This will be tested in the days to come and only by working together will you be able to defeat this evil.'
'Everyone has it in them to beat this,' Dawn said. She was dressed entirely in black and wore a silver ankh around her neck while carrying the jackal's head under her arm. 'The solution is closer than you think. It's in the air all around you. All you have to do is open your eyes.'
The world spun and Janice's vision blurred. She staggered backwards, but felt arms catching her before she could strike the ground.
'Are you all right?' Tabby asked.
'Sorry, just a little light-headed,' Janice replied, letting Tabitha help her back to her feet. She looked around for the animal people, but they were nowhere to be seen.
'Sorry, I should have been keeping a closer eye on you,' Tabby apologised. 'Are you looking for someone?'
'You're telling me you didn't see them?' Janice asked.
'Four people with the heads of animals,' Janice replied, 'only they were really my friends and I think they were trying to give me some advice, but it was so cryptic and none of this makes any sense!'
'Come and sit over here,' Tabby suggested, leading Janice to a dry patch of sand. 'It sounds to me like you may have had a vision.'
'I should have warned you,' Tabby said. 'It doesn't happen very often, but since the boundaries of past and future become more permeable here, visions aren't unheard of.'
'You're saying I had a glimpse of the future?' Janice asked. 'I thought you didn't do real magic at these things.'
Tabby laughed. 'Who told you that?'
'Well, I just figured '
'Look over there.' Tabby pointed and Janice followed her finger. Chrissie and Caitlin were sitting on the sand next to each other, banging happily on the drums, both laughing. 'You're telling me that's not magic?'
* * *
It should come as no surprise that there is actually a pretty comprehensive network of caves beneath Sunnydale. And not all of them are inhabited by spiny, slimy monsters. Which is a blessing if you want to run a geology field trip, but a curse if, as in Drew's case, you're attached to such a trip against your will.
'I hope these pictures come out,' Drew muttered to himself as he snapped away. It was darker down here than he had anticipated and he wasn't sure that his flash was strong enough. Greg would just love that.
'Hey, watch where you're pointing that thing,' Mr Kessler warned him.
'Sorry,' Drew called back, 'but you want this piece to look good, don't you?'
'Yes, well, I guess you'll have to carry on then,' Kessler replied.
Drew grinned and snapped a few shots of the guy in charge before turning elsewhere.
'Smile ladies, you're going to be famous,' Drew said, turning towards a small group of girls taking notes on a particular rock formation. Drew had been surprised that there were any girls down here at all, but he wasn't about to pass up his good fortune. Unfortunately, the girls were about as interesting as their male counterparts and Drew had soon given up. That said, they would make good eye candy for his article and that was the important thing, right? Right?
He couldn't keep this up, all this smiling and nodding and fake enthusiasm. It was just rocks, for heaven's sake. So he started hanging back from the rest of the group. Maybe they wouldn't notice if he snuck away early.
He wasn't the only one hanging back. A short, slim girl with pink hair was keeping her distance from the rest of the party as well.
'Hi,' Drew said.
'Keep that camera out of my face,' the girl told him.
'Fine, whatever,' Drew said, taking his hands off of the camera so that it hang only by the strap around his neck. 'I just wanted to talk.'
The girl looked him up and down. 'You're not my type, camera-boy,' she said.
'That's not what I meant.' Drew sighed and extended his hand. 'I'm Drew.'
The girl eyed the proffered hand with distaste.
'Ruth,' she said at last.
'Well, Ruth, what are you doing back here?' Drew asked. 'I thought you'd be up front with the rest of your buddies.'
'I'm looking for somewhere to have a quick cigarette,' Ruth replied. 'What's your excuse.'
'Honestly?' Drew replied. 'I'm not really into all this rocks and stuff.'
'Figured,' Ruth said.
'Listen, I'm supposed to be writing this article about this trip,' Drew confided in her, 'but I don't have the first clue as to what's going on down here. I mean, one rock looks pretty much the same as any other to me. You couldn't, you know, help me out a bit, could you?'
'You promise to leave me alone if I do?' Ruth asked.
'Scout's honour,' Drew promised, raising his fingers.
Ruth rolled her eyes. 'It's supposed to be your other hand,' she told him. 'Come on, let's take a look over here. Now listen up, Jimmy Olsen, because I don't want to have to repeat myself. This particular formation is special because '
There was a rumbling in the distance.
'What was that?' Drew asked. 'Sounded like thunder.'
The ground shook and Drew stumbled into Ruth.
'Watch the hands,' she snapped.
This time the rumbling was a lot louder and a lot closer.
'That doesn't sound good,' Drew remarked.
'Let's check it out,' Ruth suggested. 'Isn't that what you investigative reporter types do?'
'You read my mind,' Drew replied.
The pair of them followed the tunnel in the direction they thought the sound had come from. It only took them about five minutes to reach their destination. The tunnel was blocked by a wall of rock.
Drew stepped forward to examine it.
'So what do you call this, rock-girl?' he asked.
'Well, I used to call it the way out,' Ruth replied bitterly. 'Right now, I'm open to suggestions.
* * *
'No, I haven't heard from him either,' I said. I was talking to Janice on the phone. She was worried about Drew. 'I'm sure he's just worn out from all that caving they made him do. What say we hook up later and swing by his place? We can get Chrissie as well and head down the Bronze for an impromptu Scrappy Gang meeting.'
'Scrappy Gang?' Janice asked. 'Who came up with a lame name like that?'
'Never mind,' I said. 'So, is it a date?'
'What do you think?' Janice replied. 'We really need to get together, Dawn. That vision I had, on the beach, it frightens me.'
'You and me both, Jan,' I replied. 'You and me both.'
I wasn't alone. There was a shadow in the kitchen with me, sliding across the table.
I cried out.
'Are you all right?' Janice asked.
'Fine,' I lied. My ears were ringing, as if someone was standing next to me and screaming. 'Janice, I'm going to have to call you back.'
I put down the handset. Someone was whispering in my head. I didn't like what they were saying, but they more I listened, the more I recognised the voice. It was my own.
I walked across the kitchen, the heels of my boots clacking on the tiles, and opened the cutlery door.
'Dawn?' Hank asked. 'Are you okay. I thought I heard a scream.'
He was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, false concern etched into his face. Was that how he had seduced Mom, with that mask of earnestness? It disgusted me to see it. He was so transparent. He had taken Mom, used her and then thrown her away when he had tired of her, trading her in for a younger model. And then Mom had died, but Hank got to live. How fair was that?
But there was a way to make things right again. A way to correct the mistakes life kept making.
I put my hand into the cutlery drawer and my fingers tightened around the handle of a knife.
* * *
It should have felt like a weight lifting from his shoulders. But it didn't.
Trix had just ridden past the sign that said 'NOW LEAVING SUNNYDALE. COME BACK SOON!' Not likely. Coming back the first time had been a serious mistake. He should have learned the first time that he had never stood a serious chance with Anya, but that hadn't stopped him from trying. He prided himself on his realistic, some might say cynical, approach to the world, so what was it about that girl that turned him into a hopeless romantic? And what was it about her that still tied his guts in knots.
He brought the motorbike to a halt at the side of the road.
He could always turn around and go back. Xander had screwed up badly with Anya yet again, maybe even lost her for good this time. She could still be his for the taking. Sure, she'd never love him as much as she loved Xander, but maybe Trix could live with that. Or maybe not. Life had been so much simpler when he had kept his heart under lock and key, never trusting it to anybody else.
What was that song? Last Christmas I gave you my heart, but the very next day you gave it away. Stupid song, stupid lyrics. Stupid, but true.
Trix stepped off of the bike and spread his arms wide. He looked up at the stars.
'Okay, God, Goddess, whoever,' Trix shouted, 'if you're really up there, this is your big chance to make me a convert. All I'm asking for is a sign. You give me a sign that I'm doing the wrong thing here and I'll turn right around and take my butt back to Sunnydale for another shot. You hear me, your almightyness? Give me a sign!'
Rain began to fall, a light, almost embarrassed drizzle.
'You'll have to do better than that,' Trix shouted at the sky. Then he got back on his bike and revved the engine. 'Goodbye, Sunnydale. It was fun while it lasted.'
He took one last, lingering look at the sign, then pulled away, back on to the road.
The ground exploded in front of him as something hauled itself out of the ground, dirt caught up in its dark fur.
It was a rat. Not just any rat, mind. This rat was the size of a house. And its beady eyes watched Trix hungrily.
'Me and my big mouth,' Trix complained.
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