A Gift by Starlight

by Mina Martin


Chapter 7: Rule of Three


Early Spring of 2005 – inside the Citadel, Scottish Highlands


The cursed dagger glinted in the faint light of the room. The witch Amy Madison held it high over her head - mindful that even a nick could be deadly if she mishandled it and cut herself - and then she plunged it down towards her prey: Sleeping Buffy, helpless under the nightmare-spell. But definitely still a beauty. She hadn’t changed much since high school, had she?

And even though the cavalry arrived in time, shooting Amy in the shoulder with an arrow and tackling her to the ground, she felt the knife make contact before it was knocked out of her grasp.

“Oh my god!” Xander shouted.

He ran to Buffy and hunched over her prone body, as if he could still protect her after the act, and grasped for the weapon. There was only one thing to say.

“This is the crappiest sacrificial dagger I’ve ever seen.”

The would-be assassin’s smile dropped from her face when Xander held it up for everyone to see. The knife was split down almost to the hilt, like a banana peel. Buffy was completely unharmed.

What?!” She shrieked her disbelief, so confident in her abilities. Too disbelieving, and too confident, he would later realize.

“You really think we let Buffy sleep without mystical protection?” Xander boasted. He didn’t have a lick of magic himself, but he knew how to delegate and even strategize. Xander Harris was really living up to the Nick Fury eyepatch these days. Even better, some of the baby slayers were also comic book nerds and actually understood his references. It helped that they were mostly late teens, early twenties ladies and not actual babies, but the nickname stuck.

Amy wouldn’t be able to teleport away. The Citadel’s magical security forces would keep her prisoner now that she’d made an opening attack. A shining rectangle cage surrounded Amy, see-through as if made from colored glass but actually made of magic. It let air, light, and sound in and out, but magic could only go one way. Anything she cast should be reflected back at her.

He had a lot of time to think about these things, sleeping alone these nights. “This isn’t open wand night in Sunnydale, sweet cheeks! You’re dealing with pros.”

The evil smile returned to Amy’s face, and she laughed. “Any of you pros notice she’s still asleep? She’s living a nightmare, genius! And the only thing that can wake her up is The Kiss Of True Love.”

Xander winced. Felled by a bog-standard fairy-tale curse? He should know better than most how deadly fairy-tale magic really was. Willow was always telling him to read the old, original versions. So much for boasting. “Seriously?”

Buffy was unconscious but breathing, although clearly dreaming about something not of the nice. He sent some of the girls to get their in-house healers. Then Xander pestered Amy about the curse. Villains loved to monologue, after all.

 (X: “So, this doesn’t have to be someone she’s in love with?”

 A: “No, I said, just someone truly in love with her.”

 X: “But not friend-love.”

 A: “Right. Someone who wants to kiss her, like they’re passionate about her.”

 X: “And not a sister.”

 A: “Well. A twisted sister.”

 X: “Haha, but no and I hate you.”)

And then the action really got going – one of the girls burst through the door and yelled that they were under attack! The east wall was fully breached! From an army of the living dead!

Wow, Amy was really going for the classics. Xander planned on telling her exactly that, so he wouldn’t have to think about how everything was suddenly FUBAR. They’d trained for this – him, Buffy, all the baby slayers – they’d trained for what to do when a full-scale-enemy-army marched on their home turf. But dismissing the latest threat because he’d faced worse odds and survived was an easy way to get killed. A papercut was less dangerous than a dagger in the back, but if it got infected and gave you antibiotic-resistant sepsis, well, you’d die all the same.

So, telling Amy off would give him time and breathing room for some of that strategizing. See, he’d grown up since high school. The snark and sarcasm had a greater purpose now.

Then came the sound.

That horrible hell-is-that-noise sound, and a reverberation that went all the way through the deep, vast Citadel.

Xander, and the baby slayers in the room with him, all closed in on Amy. An entire world shaking – it wasn’t exactly an earthquake, but it was pretty darn close, and that was the specialty of active fault lines and hellmouths. Xander hadn’t experienced anything like it since that fateful last day in Sunnydale, when they’d done the impossible and destroyed a hellmouth. Among other, world-change-y things.

“Hey, that wasn’t me,” Amy protested, hands up.

“Keep your hands down, where we can see them not trying any magical mojo!” Xander ordered.

“I’m just saying!” their prisoner protested. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a place enchanted by Willow Rosenberg hasn’t got its kinks sorted out yet. Or maybe someone’s come to rob the mansion while Miss Scarlet is in the library with the lead pipe. I’m Lesley Ann Warren, of course. And I’m going to bash in your skull like a piñata.”

The riving and the rumbling came again. It was an earthquake and an air-quake coming from all directions, and out of the corner of his eye Xander thought he saw a shimmering crack in the world, like a hair-thin oil slick.

And then there was another new and unexpected thing: a symbol appeared on one of the walls. It was a large, intricately patterned circle, at least six feet in diameter. It looked like something out of the new Fullmetal Alchemist anime that Andrew, the latest addition to the Scooby gang, had gotten Xander addicted to watching. It glowed brightly against the dark stone wall.

Next, apropos of nothing at all, a man walked out of the symbol on the wall with his hands up and ready. He put out a spell that blasted Amy backwards and into Buffy’s dresser by the opposite wall, with enough force that it cracked in two.

“Woah,” Xander said. “The magical hardcore Scottish bar scene is not what we’re going for here in Slayer sanctum.”

Amy growled, and it might have been more menacing if some lacy piece of Buffy’s clothing hadn’t fallen over her entire head. She ripped it off and tried to throw it out of the cage, but it just slid down the side to pool at her feel. “Bad idea, stranger.”

“This whole thing is a trap!” the man shouted, although he didn’t need to. The noise had stopped, and everyone was tense waiting for it to come again.

“No duh,” said Xander. “If you’re going to state the obvious, maybe start with your name?”

“Unpronounceable by any living creature on Earth except bottle-nose dolphins,” said the man, who looked like an ordinary human. He even had a distinct Brooklyn accent. “But when I need a cup of coffee, I go by Whistler.”

“See, as much as I love free exposition,” Xander opined, “The talky ones tend to be bad guys. Not that I don’t appreciate you having a whack at Amy, since we’re all about to be very busy.”

He turned to the other baby slayers in the room. “Najat and Luzia, you’re on Buffy guard duty. Everyone else, head out into the field to defend against this Army of the Dead, chop-chop, and I mean that adverb literally. Use the heavy hitter blades; machetes, broadswords, macuahuitls. Yes, I know there’s no actual field Dilys, we can debate accurate military phrasing when there are no more reanimated corpses trying to eat our brains through our faces! GO!”

It would have been military procedure to refer to everyone by their last name, or rank, or to just point and shout. But he knew all their names. He wanted them to know that he knew all their names.

And Xander wanted to know where the hell Dawnie was – cooped up in the ancient barn attachment or wandering the moor like the Wuthering Heights character she was moping into? Would she be a huge (ha) help against the army of the dead rip-off, or would bringing her into the fight mean she’d only get taken down like an AT-AT walker? She couldn’t exactly join the Citadel’s non-combatant inhabitants wherever they were bunkered. Dawn literally didn’t fit.

Xander tried to be subtle in moving to keep both the New Guy and Amy in his very singular sight. “So, Mr. Whistler - who are you again?” he asked.

“What, your Slayer friend and her vampire knight never mentioned me? Maybe it’s because I’m not wearing my hat today. Good accessories make you distinctive, and us gentlemen just don’t got as many options as the ladies nowadays.”

Xander briefly looked down at the fuzzy yellow pajamas he was wearing. He thought he’d go to bed early for once, and look what happened. So what if he wasn’t in his Nick Fury-inspired work uniform. Was he supposed to sleep in a suit? He had half-tied boots on at least, kept right by his bed for situations just like this.

“Normally I got my favorite Homburg on; found it in a little shop along east 65th Manhattan. I keep her as fresh as the day I got her. Which I remember because it was one of the few times the world went to hell, but not because of some evil mystical force.”

“9/11?” Xander questioned.

“Nah, Black Tuesday. Wall Street’s as evil as any keratha demon army, kid. Made for a depressing Halloween that year, let me tell you.”

One of the girls guarding Buffy gasped. “The crash of 1929?”

“Oh my god, would you all just shut up!” Amy shouted.

And then they all did, eclipsed and not a little scared by the return of that saw-machine noise, grinding away like it was inside their heads as well the room. The stones under all their feet rattled in a way that made Xander stumble and briefly sick to his stomach. The half-magical construction of the Citadel meant the walls and floor weren’t pervaded with damp the way a regular castle was, but he still didn’t know how the mortar would hold up against a full magical assault.

“Okay, what is that, and how do we stop it!” Xander shouted at Whistler.

“We’re running out of time,” Whistler answered. “That’s my bad – I’m usually the silver-tongued psychic, not the guy that throws the punches. We’re losing players fast. But you and your pals gotta make like Dorothy and get the hell outta Dodge if you want any chance of saving the world. Gotta do it from the outside-in this time, not inside out. Take the Slayer and go to the southwest entrance while it’s still free, or even there at all. I’ll keep the Wicked Witch occupied.”

Hot energy gathered near Amy’s hands, crackling in sharp points as the edges of her cage became fuzzier by the second. “Oh, will you?” she said. The Citadel’s security magic might not be holding her as captive as Xander originally thought. Damn. If they survived this, he was so going to hold a Lessons Learned meeting complete with PowerPoint.

“And why should I trust you?” Xander challenged him. He wasn’t about to leave the Citadel and all the baby slayers in the middle of a fight against a zombie horde. It could all be a ploy to leave Amy unsupervised.

“’Cause now I’m the only one left to fight her off for you, kid.”

“We can handle-”

Xander went cold and didn’t finish his sentence. There were only four people in the room, and one of them was unconscious. When had that happened?

The cage dissipated and Amy attacked, front and center. Both men ducked out of the way – Xander, to the side in defense, and Whistler, forward into a tuck and roll in offense. But when he came up again there was a bloody stump where one of his elbows ended. It only took seconds for the smell of magic and blood to reach Xander’s nose, but in that time he could see the limb already regrowing. Nerves and veins dangled and waved like tentacles before knitting together over new bone.

Xander’s mouth dropped open. Just when he thought he’d seen it all-

Save the girl to save the world already, you dumb freakin’ xanderkite!

He jolted to action and ran to where Buffy’s body lay, still in a magical coma.

Amy and Whistler fought over and around him. Well, Whistler seemed to be fighting around him, Amy didn’t care. Xander hadn’t done this much creative darting since middle school dodgeball. They conjured weapons that flew through the bedroom space and spoke in languages that could burn throats if even one syllable was incorrectly pronounced. He wouldn’t be surprised if at some point there’d be a spell to turn the floor into lava.

Xander grabbed Buffy and ran off with her in a bridal carry. Of course, he tripped on his way out – not even from being hit by something Amy shot out, just over what felt like an oil slick under his own feet – and in order to cradle Buffy from being hurt he fell right on his funny bone and scraped a generous amount of skin off his forehead temple too. Xander wheezed air in and out between his clenched teeth at the pain, but they made it out alive.

The whole running away thing, it was a good lifestyle choice, in that you kept your life to make stylish choices. Like woolen long johns. Oh, he’d initially scoffed at the notion as an ex-Californian, but going from the warm sunshine coast to the chilly lands of remote Scotland had made him a true believer.

He was so far away from the beach townie underachiever that once did the same thing with Anya, one sultry summer night after drinks and dancing at The Bronze. Anya had borrowed a sparkly pair of Buffy’s shoes and insisted until the blistered end that they did not hurt and were not too small. She made Xander carry her to the car, and then from the car to the apartment, and no, she would not jump on his back for a piggyback ride instead to make it easier on him. For the love of Elaine Duillo, did he not want to be the living embodiment of a romance novel cover and to hell with the Fabio?

Xander ended up half-dropping Anya and stumbling into the entryway table corner hard enough to full-on gouge himself. She berated the lack of arm muscles his construction job was supposed to build and stormed off. And then spent the rest of the night kissing it all better, the only way she knew how to apologize. He’d gotten pretty fluent in that dark language. Hadn’t spoken it with anyone since he left his beloved bride at the altar.

Back in what used to be Buffy’s bedroom, Whistler breathed a little easier when he couldn’t see Xander and Buffy anymore. He had a feeling him and the chit were going to end up making a real mess of the place, but if that’s what it took to let the white hats escape – ah, but it was too bad. The Slayer had put up twinkly lights, ice skating posters with putty, the requisite Yankee candle on her nightstand. She’d treated it like a dorm room, instead of a literal castle tower.

“That’s a neat trick, with the limb regrowth,” Amy commented. She and Whistler circled around the room – her floating, him on his two hind feet. It was tricky when he had to cross over the bed. “Does it work on your head?”

“You know what’s funny? Grímhildr said near the exact same thing to me last time we met. Not far from here, either.”

“I’m going to enjoy twisting your tongue from out of your mouth, however many times it takes. Maybe you’ll finally shut up.”

That was just a hair too confident. Time to hit her in the flank.

“Not much respect for your elders, huh? Kids these days ain’t nothing more than useless rodents.”

Amy’s smile turned brittle and furious, matched by the look in her eyes.

Distraction achieved.

* * * * * * * *

Two of four. And the Heart is a lonely hunter.

* * * * * * * *

Beneath the Willow Tree


“So, I was wondering,” she started.


“But I don’t mean to sound un-appreciative or un-grateful by asking, because I am super-duper thankful to you for doing all this!”

Willow broadly waved her arm at all this around them. It looked and smelled and sounded like a secluded, pristine Caribbean beach, but it was so much more than that.

“Super appreciative, superheroine appreciative, capital A appreciative, A++ and 4.5 GPA and extra credit appreciative,” she babbled. “And I would know about that stuff because, total former school nerd here - I once brought in an actual mouse as part of my book presentation on Stuart Little.”

Aluwyn stretched against the warm, flat-faced rock they were leaning on, enjoying the mineral heat the way a reptile naturally would. She was, after all, a serpent enchantress. “You caught a mouse? Do tell of the hunt.”

“Oh, there’s not much to tell. Looking back it’s a little strange that 10-year-old me saw a mouse in the house and instead of screaming for my dad, I used some string cheese to lure him in a Tupperware container that I’d stabbed all over with a fork so he could breathe. It was very ACME-esque. And I got that extra credit, but only because Mrs. Henricks demanded I put him outside as soon as she saw him. I ended up releasing him right by the monkey bars. I just hope he had a good life – eating little bits of forest foliage, enjoying the warm sunlight, maybe meeting a nice lady mouse friend. Or another Mickey instead of a Minnie, you know, as long as he was happy.”

Aluwyn laughed. “Well, I would have given you extra credit too. I’d say you earned some today as well. You’re a very diligent student.”

Willow wriggled a little more under Aluwyn’s arm, and also in the magical sand of the beach. She totally understood now why French ladies liked to sunbathe topless. The sand here was softer than the California beaches she knew, kind of like heavy powdered sugar. But it never got hotter than human skin could tolerate, like real sand. It never had any surprises shed or laid from a crustacean hiding just under the surface, like real sand. And, greatest of all when rolling about in the tropical island’s metaphorical version of hay, it didn’t get up into any crevices she didn’t want sand particles to go.

“Will I be able to do this one day?” Willow asked her mentor-turned-lover. It wasn’t the question she originally wondered about, but it was so exciting that it broke through all the other questions she had crowding in her brain. When would her thoughts ever learn to form a nice, British queue? The possibilities here were endless – a miniature but fully functioning dimension! She could banish things that otherwise couldn’t be killed. She could create safehouses. She could fulfill every fellow nerd’s deepest Holodeck desires, starting with her own. This time she would get a winged pony for her 8th birthday, and no one would tell her she was being stupid.

“I wouldn’t have bothered to teach you anything if I didn’t see the potential in you.”

A second ago they were the only two people in the world. Now the word ‘potential’ was a stark reminder of all the baby slayers at the Citadel, training under Buffy and Giles and Xander. They had changed the world for the better that last day in Sunnydale, but when you make it through the fight life just goes on, becomes the new normal. And how did Willow adjust to that? By leaving to finally go on a traditional witch’s journey, a quest for emotional balance and magical knowledge and training, meeting friends and guides along the way.

Sure, it was totally an important experience for her to undergo, part of her journey towards being a Better Witch, but she ran away all the same. The Scooby-gang would miss her, but when she came back they’d welcome her and it would be fine.

Willow was so far away from the young sophomore that just wanted a cool technopagan like Ms. Calendar to teach her anything and everything magic, in between also taking her Computer Science classes at Sunnydale High School. Back then, high school was the whole world: the contained bubble of social life with her friends and frenemies and crushes, and oh how they interconnected and frequently changed like a love tesseract, no boring old triangles here. Sometimes she thought about trying to contact Oz, see how he was doing. She always decided it was better to leave him alone, lest she do any more damage to her first and only boyfriend.

Apparently gifted students tended to burn out later in life – maybe that was Willow’s real luck, because she’d burned out and burned bridges in a completely different way.

The greater world was her home, not this small paradise, which was its own bubble of existence. The perfect bud unfurling where a little bee could hide and nap. Beyond that were the breathing roots and the shaking leaves on winding branches, and the trunk rings of time in the middle. Home was the whole tree. Even if Willow asked, Aluwyn wouldn’t want to join her in the real world with the rest of her waiting family. That’s not where an immortal Saga Vasuki lived.

A seagull that wasn’t really there cawed in the distance. That had to be a concession, since Aluwyn wasn’t fond of birds, and also gulls weren’t native to the tropics.

Willow turned on her side and let Aluwyn coil her sinuous, lamian body around hers. There was being the big spoon, and then there was going all the way from the shrimp fork to the teaspoon.

“Be honest, contrary as that is for you,” Willow insisted. “This wasn’t actually a reward for mastering Seven-League Leaps in one lesson using a Skip-It, or because you ‘needed a break from trying to teach the brattiest witch since the invention of the broom.’ You did this because eventually I’ll be going back to cold, rainy, peat-y Scotland, didn’t you?”

“Sooner than you think.” Aluwyn sighed, and curled a finger in some of Willow’s red hair.

If only Aluwyn could keep her. More time in this place and that deep sangria color would turn into a lighter rose gold, the kind that seemed to flash metallic under the bright sunlight. She’d seen it over and over, memorized the memory that would never be, and still longed for more.

Willow pout-frowned. “Okay, that phrase is too stereotypical and too serious to be of the coincidental kind. How soon is this shore leave coming up? A week, a day-”

She squeaked like Stuart, and then used her power to conjure clothing on herself right then and there, sturdy bra and boots and all. Buffy might have her favorite slaying halter tops, but Willow knew what combat gear worked best for herself.

And because it was her power, and not a little bit of panic too, the same earthy-toned, size-2 bohemian outfit appeared on Aluwyn too. It immediately ripped in a bunch of places over her larger body.

“You know I don’t care for human garb,” Aluwyn dryly noted. She gestured to flick off the boots that had appeared over her hands. “Although you made an excellent case for little, colorful hats.”

Willow helped tear off the remainder of the extra human clothes, and stopped herself from attempting a Xander-approved type of joke. Aluwyn then moved past her, towards the ocean. The glittering points of reflected light looked like thousands of diamonds on the surface of the water.

Paradise indeed.

However, the short heels of Willow’s boots sank into the sand, like regular sand, as she tried to keep up with her mentor’s pace. Well, that was one aspect the Shoeless Joe Sorceress naturally wouldn’t have cared about when making this place.

“I’m nowhere near being done with my witch’s journey,” Willow brought up. “I mean, I know that you never really stop learning, but I was going for the magical GED and I’m only part of the way through. Or, part of the way done with the test? Maybe I should’ve gone with a college metaphor, since I only made it to junior year in real life. And then there’s the surprising link they both have to beer to back it up. Who knew that dudebro frat pledges and the precursors to alewives could have such a thirst-quenching connection?”

Aluwyn didn’t answer, but she smiled.

They came to the heavy, wet sand of the lapping water’s edge. After a few minutes Willow realized the faux sun was setting, much faster than it would in the real world. The air turned cool, drifting over her skin and through her hair. Soon enough, the sun had sunk beneath the horizon, taking the daylight with it. In its place was a beautiful supermoon. The moonpath beneath it, the reflection of moonlight dappling the water’s surface, was clear and bright.

Aluwyn held out an elbow for Willow to hold, and then they started ambling down the path.

“Where are we going?” asked Willow.

“Nowhere,” said Aluwyn. “But you’re getting five minutes to run back inside and grab what you can before the flood arrives.”


The moon in the night sky didn’t get any larger as Willow walked ahead, nor did the water to the left and right seem to change enough as she walked past. But it didn’t feel like she was on a treadmill to nowhere; it felt soothing, like a quieter version of the Out Run video game.

Aluwyn began instructing to her apprentice. “You already know that the mortal realm is not the only plane of existence there is – there are various demonic dimensions, liminal spaces, alternate timelines, higher non-corporeal domains. Also, the world without shrimp.”

“Bubbles of space-time made by ancient gods,” Willow went on. “Or dimensional pockets! Better than any purse or backpack.”

Something in Aluwyn’s face twitched. “Ancient – are you calling me old, darling?”

“I was distinctly thinking about small paradises and their precocious creators. But now that you’ve called yourself out, you’re definitely not the maiden or the mother.”

“Still sweet on your simplified, European inclined beliefs, I see.”

Willow grinned. She would have bumped shoulders with Aluwyn, but that kind of movement could be interpreted as stopping on the path – and they needed to keep moving.

“Humans are so often mocked and belittled for their small-minded beliefs and behavior. Rightly so, most of the time. But part of why you are the way you are, is your inability to truly see your world and yourselves. You believe the consoling falsehood - that you are singular, and therefore exceptional. You refuse to recognize the truth – that you are merely one part of a greater whole. Not inconsequential, but not the exalted top of a hierarchy as you’d prefer.”

“I’m getting flashbacks to my sociology classes. So, you’re talking about, uh, magical confirmation bias?”

No,” Aluwyn complained. “Why is this of all things taking so long for you to understand? It would be easier if you could speak any of the ancient tongues. Or German. We higher beings are able to perceive the mortal realm better than those living inside it, because we see from an outside perspective. You need to do the same. You will need to do the same.”

An ocean breeze brought salt on the air. Just breathing it in through her nose, Willow could taste it, like the memory of saltwater taffy. She wondered what Aluwyn tasted on the wind.

“I mean, I think I understand what you’re saying,” she said, frowning. “But you also sound like those old-timey doctors who looked down on any civilization that was outside the British empire, and thought they were noble savages in need of ‘correcting’.”

“Let me paraphrase a human who had more sense than most: When a wise man points at the moon, the fool examines the finger. Look ahead, witch. See.”

All that was ahead of them to see was the large moon, set against a night sky that only matched the one from Earth if you didn’t count the stars. Was that what she was supposed to look at? The more Willow gazed at the moon, the shinier it seemed to look. The hundreds of pockmarks that made a hundred different shapes and shades of shadows: they seemed to begin filling in with the impression of colors, the opposite of the Troxler effect.

“Oh, you mean literally see from an outside perspective – well jeez-Louise, Aluwyn! Why do you always have be so obtuse about the simple things, and acute about the complicated things?!”

Willow huffed in frustration, but also with renewed concentration and effort. Aluwyn spoke in circles, but it wasn’t always for kicks and giggles. Human languages were limited – they hadn’t always had words for things like the color green, for example. Whorfianism was a proven magical law, if not a scientific one.

But Willow was learning.

Non-magical humans processed the world around them with their given senses – the five physical ones, plus a few others like balance or time passing by. But a witch had all of those plus the raven’s magnetoreception, the bee’s electroception, the bat’s echolocation. She observed with her unblinking third eye, she kinaesthesiated with silver astral cords and red threads of destiny. Whispering a simple looking-glass spell, Willow watched as the moon became a bleached canvas, and the subject was a mess of oil slicks, still a wet mess from being painted, rainbow colored and wrong.

Finally, Willow saw, as easily if it were a reel of film being played over the backdrop image of the moon. She witnessed the sudden ruptures and tangling of magic and reality, the effect it was having on places and people and things – even a certain British and chaotic warlock that was supposed to be under military lock and key, now helping the trouble along under a petty god trying to roll with the tide. She saw, and understood.

“Oh no, NO,” she moaned. Simply and horribly put, the world was crumbling to pieces.

It was massive, massive wild magic, a shoreless sea of it that Willow wouldn’t have thought possible until now. And it wasn’t like previous encounters she’d had with ‘regular’ magical chaos, as when Ethan Rayne had made a deal with a devil and fractured reality all over the town of Sunnydale, inviting enemies from different timelines and time periods to come and play.

Wild magic – it was a funny thing, funny like knock-knock jokes for kids, and also funny like leaving a lit cigarette in a firetruck. It was sometimes called chaos magic, or free magic, because it didn’t come from gods or demons, the energies of living beings or inanimate objects, and was the most arcane of all known magicks. And it was like fungi, something that had always existed as part of earthly life in between good and evil.

It only became a problem when something or someone poked where they shouldn’t, prodding the magical mycological to push up and out everywhere it wasn’t wanted, becoming an occasional infection. And it would laugh at feeble human attempts to dig out the roots afterwards, because had its own kind of inhuman sentience, branching out too far and too fast in the deep unreachable earth to ever truly be defeated, only pushed back to fight again another day.

But this – this was like magical radiation damage. The fabric of the mortal realm’s very reality wasn’t twisting or folding, or crumpling under the weight of chaos feeding off like it was barnacles or parasites. It was just disintegrating, like it had been exposed to some extra-universal ionization.

Or gone a hundred rounds in the largest industrial clothes washer ever, with a hundred cupfuls of cheap Tide cleaner. First semester at Sunnydale U had taught Willow more about how to properly wash clothes than her erudite mother ever did. The whole wardrobe makeover from cutesy schoolgirl to grown-up witch? Yeah, that was just as much about needing to buy new clothes as it was about ‘finding herself’ via modern boho chic outfits. Rest in peace, all her comfiest and fuzziest sweaters. They would be missed.

That could NOT happen to mortal realm. Willow steeled herself from the horrific damage unfolding before her eyes, like turning away from burning car with someone still stuck inside. She had to think. How? Why? That was her home. Xander, Buffy, Dawnie and Giles – the members of the Devon Coven - Mom and Dad – any little descendants of Stuart – no, this could not be allowed to continue!

“How do I stop it?” she said, like a firm statement, the sentiment of ‘I will stop it’ overlaid on the question it really was.

“Darling girl,” Aluwyn said fondly. “You think a single mortal, even one as unparalleled as you, can stop your universe from being ripped apart by some greater outside force?”

“Then why are you helping me see what’s going on in the first place!” Willow said angrily. “What, so the lover’s retreat was just a way of buttering me all up like a – a hot buttered popcorn thing, all ‘get used to the gilded cage because you’re never going home again?’”

Aluwyn flexed her arm tight, and her pupil hissed at the sudden abrade of scales dragged the wrong way against soft skin. She didn’t falter in her step at the pain, though. That’s why Willow Rosenberg was her star pupil.

“There are those among us,” Aluwyn hissed back with a stronger glottal affectation, “Who recognize that the total destruction of the human world shall cause, let’s say, ‘supply chain issues.’ And there was something else, what was it – something on the tip of my forked tongue – hmm – ah yes, an immeasurable loss of innocent life I am not a monster Willow!

Willow breathed in sharply, quickly. Her face was numb, and not from the cold. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. The Other as Female and Monstrous was like, Feminism 101. Aluwyn was immortal enough to have lived through the archetype. “But if my friends are in trouble, I have to help them. I owe them that, I need to leave.”

Aluwyn patted over the arm she’d just abraded. Delusional; humans were utterly delusional in their self-importance. But sometimes – very rarely – the grandiosity was for something greater than their own narcissism. A broken clock was correct twice a day, and that was when miracles happened.

“You’ll need to leave three times over before this is done,” she said, trying to impart as much as she could. “I’m just trying to point you to the escape raft.”

Aluwyn narrowed her eyes at the scenes playing out over the moon. “It’s an odd little apocalypse, this one. Twilight was falling; preparing the way for a total transmogrification of the human world, were it to succeed. And then this staple knocker of a cataclysm leapfrogged over it, kicked it back in line, and now it’s picking and pulling at the fabric of reality on its own. No one has any idea Where it originated, and very few on How to stop it.”

No one from the dwindling, motley assemblage of beings that were still bothering to try and save the mortal realm, that is. Aluwyn reckoned that the Μοῖραι probably had some ideas, but they’d been unintelligible since Constantinople got the works.

As for Who did it and therefore Who could and should undo it, well.

“What else can you tell me?” said Willow. She could see that her friends were still alive, for now, but this apocalypse was churning through reality fast. If she couldn’t save them, nevermind the world – then maybe she could bring them with her on this escape raft Aluwyn was talking about. But to where – here? Some other alien dimension, never to see home again?

Is that why Aluwyn brought her here? A lifeboat for only a select few? It made Willow shiver.

The movement made her realize her leg muscles ached, but that didn’t make sense. They’d only been walking and talking for a few minutes. Hadn’t they?

“We’re almost there,” Aluwyn replied. “You’ll think I lied when I said you can’t save the world, but that’s the limitation of human language. There are-”

A bird squawked, from not far above their heads. Willow looked up but saw nothing.

“Shut up!” Aluwyn shouted, and she pulled Willow along as if afraid that the movement of her head had slowed them down. “I’m getting to it! Interrupt me again and I’ll have tacos de gaviota for breakfast!”

“You’ll need a lot of salsa for that,” Willow muttered. They did not need a repeat of the goldfinch incident.

“Start believing what you tell your Slayer friend,” Aluwyn said, now speaking a little faster. There was a change in her tone Willow had never heard before. “That you’re stronger together and you don’t need to do this alone. You might get away with it too, all five of you meddling kids.”

The reference to the Scooby-Doo cartoon made Willow immediately think of the real-life Scooby-gang she was a part of. The members had fluctuated throughout the years like a classic rock band, but the core group had been the same since 1997: her, Buffy, Xander, Giles, and Dawn. Well, Dawnie was a special case.

“So we might be able to save the world after all. Why us?”

“Fearful symmetry. There’s a rule in magic, not always followed, but it likely applies here.”

“Which is what?”

Aluwyn saw that the scene on the supermoon was showing one of the last relatively safe places on Earth – northern Scotland, where safe passage was being assembled, if her witch could reach it.

“Those who created the problem,” she said, “Are often the right choice to repair the problem.”

Willow stopped and turned to her with wide-eyed, open-mouthed shock. “What?

The moonpath dissolved underneath them.

She screamed as she fell, the shock of plunging into freezing water cutting off her voice, and then the instinct to breathe in that had her sucking down cold seawater. The salt and the cold of it burned on her gums and down her throat, choking her from the inside out.

A few moments later something strong wrapped around her torso, and Willow was lifted clean above the water’s surface to sputter and shiver, much heavier from the weight of her drenched clothes and body. It felt like stinging nettle was pressed all over her skin, and she had to squint through the salt pricking in her eyes.

Aluwyn was holding on to the edge of the moon with her hands, like a triumphant WNBA player hanging on to a basketball rim turned on its side. The muscles of her strong arms were prominent in exertion, holding herself up, and it was her long serpent’s tail that kept Willow safe from drowning.

It was no longer quiet or peaceful under the moon – the waves roiled higher and harder now, and the wind carved at their skin instead of caressing it.

Aluwyn simply maneuvered Willow to the circle of the supermoon, which, like traditional looking-glasses tended to do, had temporarily become a portal. Willow was able to climb through, with only a little numb-limbed resistance, and once her knees touched solid grassy ground, she turned around to pull Aluwyn in as well.

It took more than a few moments of grasping at shoulders to realize the Saga Vasuki wasn’t trying to climb through with her.

“What are you-” Willow coughed and didn’t finish her sentence, her voice rough from too much salt water. “Come on!”

“This isn’t my home,” said Aluwyn. She was staying where she was, in a safe, sterile tropical paradise of her own making.

“But, I still have so many questions!”

Then, Aluwyn did pull herself up – to give Willow a kiss goodbye. It was much like the kiss a sailor might receive, leaning over the hull of his ship and giving in to dangerous desire.

Oh, how she wanted to pull Willow down back with her, never to return to the world above.

Aluwyn reluctantly broke off the kiss, breathless, for she hadn’t stolen any breath with it. “You split the sea that day, and rolled the floods back,” she murmured, to the delicate shell of Willow’s ear. “It’s time to be a firewoman.”

And then, she let go of the moon.

She watched Willow’s crooked mouth, in a face full of shock, get smaller and smaller as Aluwyn fell from a much higher point than the two of them had started out from, and at some point she felt the portal close.

The ocean swallowed her with little more than a plop when she hit. It was the first element she had made in this fabricated dimension – the water was her ancient, ancestral home after all. They had all crawled out of the sea at some point, but her kind liked to return every now and then.

Aluwyn, Saga Vasuki, immortal ouroborian, let herself be cradled in the cold, dark water. Her weight carried her down while the salt tried to keep her buoyant, and she floated somewhere in between. Eventually the waves would carry her back to shore, and the sun would rise again, and she would be alone except for the hope that her greatest student would return to her.

She resisted the urge to curl her tail up to her mouth, and bite down on it like a stick to split the screams of pain.

* * * * * * * *

Three out of four. And the Spirit called it fate but [she] knew it was just drama.

* * * * * * * *

Early Spring of 2005 – a tenement in Cleveland


There was an abundance of tea bag boxes in the cupboard, all expired. Likely a souvenir from a previous owner. Nevertheless, Rupert Giles was definitely in need of soothing. Therefore, tea. He found a clean enough mug and heated up the water in the microwave – God forgive him – and let the chamomile steep while he waited for said current occupant to return.

This was a request that should be made in person, face to face. And it was most certainly a request – he wouldn’t order this done.

Giles wasn’t sure how he’d feel if she did turn this mission down. Relieved and proud, or unbelievably stressed and irritated?

He was still on Central European Time at Cleveland’s 3am in the morning, and not so tired that he couldn’t wait up for her. Although he wished he’d brought a book to pass the time. Perhaps he shouldn’t be so derisive of the standard airline bookshop selection after all.

But he didn’t have to wait too long. After a long, sad night of driving stakes through the hearts of little children who’d first been violently murdered and then turned into soulless vampires, Faith the Vampire Slayer – the last Slayer called and chosen, not one of the neophyte slayers who chose for themselves – made an emotional, noisy entrance into her apartment via a slammed front door and then multiple stake-point holes from one stake being repeatedly and angrily punched into the wall.

She spotted him right away. He didn’t bother to ask what the wall ever did to deserve that much violence, and she thankfully made no remark about the holiday ice-skating themed jumper he wore. It was - well, it was a long story.

Faith slipped off her jacket and dropped her main stake on the kitchen counter. “What brings you to my neck, Giles? Haven’t clocked you since the Sunny-D went from being an outie to an innie.”

“I have no idea what that means.” Of course he knew what it meant, but describing the collapse of La Boca Del Inferno, on that miraculous last day in Sunnydale, in such vulgar terms was something he simply chose to dismiss. “It’s good to see you, Faith.”

“You can skip the friendly uncle routine. I ain’t your beloved Buffy. I’m the go-to girl for dirty deeds done dirt cheap, right? So whaddya need me to kill?”

She had always seemed older than Buffy, though they were the same age. She was still too young for such weariness, even if most of it was her own doing. And Giles had come to her before, via intermediaries, for unsavory yet necessary tasks that he didn’t want Buffy to deal with. His Slayer was a symbol now, not just a leader.

And he had to get the pleasantries out of the way first, as it were. “I’m afraid this isn’t an ordinary mission.”

“Which makes it different how, exactly?”

“The stakes,” he very nearly cringed at his accidental wording, “Are higher, as are the rewards. My sources tell me that you’ve twice attempted to purchase a forged passport.”

Faith raised her shoulders in a so-what? motion. “So I was looking to do a little globetrotting. That a crime?”

“Yes, actually.” Giles took a long sip of tea. He wished – not out loud, of course – that he could make himself less tactful and get to the point at all quicker, like he knew she’d prefer. Call it an effect of his upbringing. “But I suspect the truth of the matter is that you want out of this second-rate hellmouth. Out of this life. If you accept my assignment I can offer you safe passage to the nation of your choosing. You’ll be given a generous annual stipend and be permitted to live out the rest of your days however you see fit.”

“Yeah, right,” Faith scoffed. “I’m an escaped con, a murderer. Why would the same Watchers Council that tried to ice me suddenly make with the pension plan?”

“For all intents and purposes, I am the Watchers Council. And I’m personally authorizing your early retirement. Just as I’m authorizing this directive.”

Only a few years ago Giles was himself punished by the Council – ‘awarded’ a Slayer, but one who hadn’t been identified as a potential and groomed as such. And supposedly a regular California airhead at that. Snubbed, and left out from the more academic and leisurely gatherings his heritage and experience entitled him to. Actually fired, at one point, to scrimp off savings and deal with green card issues by his lonesome.

The bastards were all dead, now.

Giles didn’t doubt his own capacity for compassion was more than Quentin Travers could’ve mustered even if the Queen herself commanded it, but was he as competent as the old prick? Running a global organization on near-fumes and keeping the secret supernatural from destroying the world – maybe this was punishment still.

“Must be one hell of a target,” Faith mused. She was warming to the idea. “What’re we talkin’ here, nisanti demon? Buski golem?”

Giles had barely opened his mouth to reveal a name when an earthquake moved through the entire apartment. His cuppa went crashing to the ground while he tried to steady himself. The single light above swung around, flickering on and off, and it seemed like the dark pauses took longer each time. Faith didn’t have much in her apartment but the dust to shake up, yet she could hear the neighbors’ furniture crash and fall and break, and the frightened screams of people waking up to a nightmare.

She could hear that because of heightened Slayer senses, but Giles didn’t – all he registered was the much louder noise. That unholy noise of something sawing at the world from every direction, like the last rattling wail of a dying god put through a synthesizer.

“The hell is that?!” Faith shouted over the racket. Giles didn’t answer as he was holding onto the kitchen counter edge for dear life. He’d researched earthquakes, years ago, to prepare for his move to Sunnydale, California. Of particular morbid interest was the phenomenon of soil liquefaction  – not merely water rising up from deep within the ground to drench the upper layers, but how the Earth under your very feet would suddenly start behaving like water. In Faith’s apartment, it was like he was in nothing so much as a rickety raft on the open, angry sea.

Finally the shaking stopped, and alarms in the more affluent neighborhoods nearby started. Giles had to force himself to let go of the counter. He felt his entire nervous system buzzing, still ‘dizzy’ after the spinning had stopped. He could still see false slivers of prismatic light out of the corner of his eye.

Faith rolled her shoulders. “This place is getting more first-rate by the night. Did you feel that?”

“I can barely feel my fingers, but i-if,” he stammered, “if you’re referring to some kind of extrasensory perception, I wouldn’t be surprised that you could so intuit a portend of a hellmouth.”

There was a distinct click in the room, and then the unmistakable  static of radio noise. But not the parts of radio noise that came from tuning between stations, the milliseconds of recognizable human speech. Just the electromagnetic, white-noise static, of something and nothing at the same time.

Faith located it first, and Giles followed her gaze: a heavy boombox lying on its back by the side wall.

Then, a faint melody came through the static, psychedelic and scratchy. Worst of all, it was familiar to him.

“Does it normally do that?” he carefully asked. There was always the chance of random electrical exchange. Or perhaps a pirate radio station had just started broadcasting.

“Thing’s been dead since before I moved in,” she answered. “It covers the old vent so I don’t get rats and roaches for roommates. Went hunting for batteries once – the ones in there are corroded in place.”

  “... if you really want an answer... to the question that you're asking...”

Faith flexed her ankle, aware of the knife in her boot if she needed it. Taking down the dead was, fortunately, her specialty.

  “... pay very close attention...”

Giles knew this song. He knew it, and it split him in two.

He was at once the man, no longer in his respectable 40s and past the halfway mark of his life, long since disillusioned with fair or happy endings, committed to the cause, the only sane and responsible adult in any given situation – and he was also the boy, smoking stolen cigarettes and flipping through stolen books of arcane magic, listening to a brand-new record with his friends, all of them young and alive and innocent. Was the song referencing the notorious, ancient tale of an appointment in Samarra? Now that was a truth worth pondering over.

  “... can I be dreaming... I am not sleeping...”

He and his mates are beyond such matters like parliament members resigning like flies over sex scandals or the Watergate version across the pond, not when there was real magic to try, damn the smug conventions of their parents trying to keep them on the straight and narrow and traditional. The hidden horrors of the world and the personal sacrifice needed to keep it all in check were met with no more than a stiff upper lip by the secret society of their forefathers, but a bunch of government stooges kick up a scandal and now it was the end of the world? Honestly, what kind of damage could human politicians really do to the world besides waste time and money?

  “His blood was like a living wine-”

Faith stomped on the boombox. Crunching it underfoot was much more satisfying than crouching down to stab a piece of electronics to death. It was too old to give out any dying sparks, but she didn’t stop until long after it had broken into multiple pieces, twisting metal and plastic under her heel, and a lot of it ended up falling down the vent. “Not really interested in hearing about what comes after the drinking blood part.”

“No, o-of course. Right, shall we get out of here?” Giles hurried for the entrance, the doorframe of which he wouldn’t trust to protect him during a light breeze. He was suddenly desperate for some fresh air.

Faith kicked at a piece as she turned for the front door, like some half-assed solo game of soccer with the wall. “You owe me a new vent cover.”

“Let’s not tarry, please. And I don’t see why you didn’t simply pick up something from the local hardware store from the beginning.” It was all Xander could talk about when they had raised the Citadel, how everything had to be specially ordered and specially delivered and it specially took forever to arrive, and he actually missed the wholesale warehouses of suburban Sunnydale, at least when they weren’t being used by dozens of vampires who naturally couldn’t kip in residential homes. He was right, of course, but had the man never dealt with any red tape while working construction in California?

Funny, that. Despite his everlasting immaturity Xander had indeed become a man at some point since Giles knowing him from the age of 16.

He sidestepped, as gracefully as Watcher of his age was able, over a large piece of the cheap floorboard that had broken and pushed upwards into a sharp mess. It was a miracle nothing had come crashing down through the ceiling on their heads.

“I don’t see why you think I oughtta put any of my own money into the upkeep of this cozy midwestern fixer-upper,” Faith countered. “Especially if I take this job you got and leave it behind for good. Honestly, if not for the creepy Pink Floyd I could’ve kept that plastic brick until the next 80s rolled around.”

Giles bristled and stopped in his tracks. He could feel his spine straightening, if not his cramped fingers. “Pink Fl- you do understand that you live in the same city as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, yes? You don’t have to live in the same musical ignorance as the rest of your generation.”

“Sorry,” she said, not at all. “I try not to grace my ears with anything before Pat Benatar. What, was it the song you first stamped your passport to?”

“How gracious. Uh, ‘Appointment with the Master’, by Bacchanal, or, something like that. Anyway, let’s move outside-”

“Woah, woah, woah!”

Giles was confused when Faith put her hands up. “What?”

“The Master? As in the old master vampire that earthquaked himself up through Sunnydale to kill Buffy?”

He glanced towards the boombox. It was nothing but silent, broken pieces of old plastic and fuzzy tips of old wires sticking out, completely inert. It seemed wrong that it wasn’t smoking or sizzing or noticeably ‘dead’ in some way. “It’s just a coincidence. The Master is long dead. Buffy killed him years ago.”

“Sure, just like I killed Kakistos, until your pal Ethan Rayne teamed up with a Big Bad to time warp Sunnydale and invited a few alternate timelines to cut in for a dance. ‘Cause that made for a real fun field trip starring all our greatest hits,” Faith said, in a way that was overly sarcastic but also completely justified. “Remember that? Didn’t you come here because something apocalyptical was going on, and it was bad enough you didn’t want B involved?”

In fact, Giles had been consulting with every oracle, prognosticator, and augur he knew over the past few weeks. He’d even visited a reputable family of haruspices who worked under the guise of a boucherie that had been in operation since the French Revolution. They had all been completely preoccupied with averting the grim outcome of what Giles had been about to task Faith with stopping – none of them had foretold of a natural disaster taking place in the last hellmouth of North America.

There was no strong evidence that Ethan was behind this, whatever this was. He hadn’t heard from the man in years. It could be an omen of a strong and legendary vampire or demon that was about to burst forth on the unsuspecting world and unleash a spectacular and unrelenting era of death and torture and destruction upon human society.

Yes, that was a much better possibility.

Of course, the precise moment of his commitment to denial was the precise moment the tremors returned, just as strong as before. This time he went down, fingers still too cramped to make a good hold on anything, and Giles might have just curled into a fetal position if not for the refrigerator bumping out and falling down. He rolled out of the way just in time for it to crash right through the floor and into the apartment below, leaving a hole big enough for him to fall through if he ever stopped scramble-skating for a foothold.

The ceiling light went out and stayed out.

When the shaking stopped for the second time Giles didn’t feel it right away, his whole body still buzzing like he’d been through a washing machine. Why did he have to be such a hands-on Watcher? Why couldn’t he be one of the pricks who gave the hard orders from atop the high tower?

“You were saying something about gettin’ outta here?” said Faith, moving easily in the darkness. She crouched down to give him a hand. “Anybody hurt down there?” she called through the refrigerator-hole, but nothing and no one answered her.

There was a sudden light, soft yet clear, like a ring of fireflies. Then an entirely different place lit up the Cleveland apartment, framing a powerful witch in the center of the image, which of course wasn’t an image at all.

“Willow!” Her appearance right after two shakings of the earth left Giles agog. She looked about the same as the last time he’d seen her. Which was different from how he usually pictured her in his mind: in a particular outfit from their Sunnydale High School days, aka a fuzzy pink jumper with embroidered daisies, butterflies, and happy faces, a matching pink skirt and set of pink tights, and thankfully white tennis shoes. She’d looked like a full bottle of Pepto-Bismol, and that was before her extradimensional vampire-self had worn the same outfit to disturbing effect.

Faith pulled him up to his feet. “You’ve mastered stable portal bridging!” he said.

Willow shook her head, flicking her oddly wet hair. “It’s not me – it’s too easy to make portals now. The fabric of reality itself is getting weaker. Are you guys okay? Hey, you’re wearing the holiday sweater I sent!”

The cabinets fell with a CRASH, splintering as Giles startled.

“Let’s save the chit chat,” said Faith.

“Yeah, yeah, come on through,” Willow stepped sideways on her side of the portal, and waved her hands in a way that could mean ‘hurry up and get over here’ or ‘knead the breadcrumbs into the ground beef like they betrayed you.’

“We need to hold the reunion in the Highlands,” she continued. “I know some of what’s going on, but we’ll have to put on our Think Tank hats, totally different than regular Thinking Caps, but possibly related to the ‘Six Thinking Hats’ technique by Dr. de Bono, although I don’t know if we have enough people for that.”

Seconds later, they were both fully on the other side of Willow’s portal. Faith shivered, now jealous of Giles’ sweater. They’d gone from dark and dusty Cleveland to bright and cold Scotland.

“I wouldn’t talk U2 in front of Giles,” she said, hankering for a pair of Ray Ban aviators in the sudden sunlight. There were some pretty spectacular sun dogs in effect, rainbow colored and bright. “He’s a real aesthete on Brit rock, bordering on aes-thole.”

“Children,” muttered Giles, still a little buzzy from the second round of feeling like he’d been mixed up like a martini – shaken, not stirred. “I’m surrounded by powerful, sarcastic children with unusually high vocabularies in the middle of a disaster. I despise how par for the course this is. All right, lead the way.”

Willow closed the portal, so none of them saw - at the moment of the decrepit building’s collapse, the stake-punch-marks in the wall seemed to weep oily, rainbow-slick tears, and then pulled in on themselves, like punctures in a spaceship bulkhead pulling everything over to the void of space, and the building and everyone inside never even made it to the ground.

* * * * * * * *

Four out of four. And the Mind is not like raindrops.

* * * * * * * *

to be continued...

* * * * * * * *

Author's Notes:

[Original notes posted elsewhere edited by Moon Momma per site guidelines]

Today’s trope belongs to the “Our Tropes Are Different” category. Our Chaos Magic is Different! There is no equivalent to Wanda Maximoff in this story, even if Willow has the scarlet hair and dark side for it. Slight spoilers, but this is more of a traditional crossover story, and I’m not going full multiverse here. (Although I’m definitely adding easter eggs.)

Willow and Faith’s reference to Ethan Rayne making a hellish crossover event in Sunnydale is the plot of the BtVS game “Chaos Bleeds” which also had a novelization and short prequel comic.

The human who had more sense than most according to Aluwyn is Confucius, and that quote is attributed to him. Thank you to Huitzil for thinking of it, it works perfectly in the scene!

And thank you/welcome to my newest beta Lou, who like all great reviewers is helping me kill my darlings to make for a better story. :)

return to Index / go to Chapter 8

The Nephrite and Naru Treasury