Point of Focus

by Aadler
Copyright 1999


Set shortly after "Doppelgangland" in Season Three, this story takes a look at a might-have-been that has always intrigued me. Character death, unusual twists, and so on.

Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and related characters are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy Productions, and Twentieth Century Fox.


prologue

April 1999

It was a closed room, lit only by the candles placed at the points of the pentagram. A soft sheen of sweat glistened on the temples and upper lip of the young woman who knelt in its center, her eyes fixed without focus and her mouth moving in the words of a language which had been ancient before Latin was born. Obscure runes limned her forehead, cheeks and the backs of her hands; at her left, nameless herbs smoldered in a shallow bowl of cut glass, on the side of which the words WELCOME TO SUNNYDALE were inscribed in black and gold; at her right, a toad had been neatly eviscerated and various organs arranged at five points about its head and feet.

Preparation for this ritual had required weeks of painful research. Her schooling in mystical practices, brief as it had been, had ended over a millennium ago; after her elevation by the elder demon D'Hoffryn, she had needed no spells or charms, her power had surged out from her inmost essence, crystallized into a single point of occult force. Still, eleven hundred years as the living retribution of betrayed women had given her an instinctive awareness of the rhythms of dark magicks. That, and her dim recollections of the vengeance curses of her girlhood, had been supplemented by recent urgent study, driven by the determination to regain her former status.

This was her third attempt. First she had begged D'Hoffryn for reinstatement, and been rejected with dismissive scorn. Then she had sought the help of a neophyte Wiccan (an infant, an ephemeral, barely past the level of party tricks, yet with power that insultingly surpassed her own in the state she now occupied). This time she would rely on none but herself. She was deep in the seeking trance now, her respiration at less than two breaths to the minute and her pulse rate in the low twenties. As her physical senses retreated from external stimuli, her mind reached out, tracing delicately into the lines of her past.

It had been a mistake, she now knew, to attempt a retrieval spell. Even had her shaken companion not recoiled from the searing images which streamed from that snarled fold in time, the vessel she sought contained far too much mana for their feeble arts to have transported it back to her; it would have been like trying to pull an eighteen-wheeler from quicksand with a chain of paper clips. Her present approach was both more subtle and more direct, a manipulation not of physical forces but of the lighter, infinitely more malleable currents of thought.

In the mind behind her unseeing eyes, a scene grew slowly, sharpening as remembered details accreted to it. A sun-drenched schoolyard; a tall, dark-haired girl with chiseled cheekbones and a matte complexion, in a close-fitting dress of vibrant electric blue; a pendant on a finely wrought chain, silver and onyx resting in the hollow of a flawless throat. Slim fingers touched it as the dark-haired girl's lips bent in petulant anger, and this was the moment!

Carefully now, carefully. It takes only a touch, but the touch must be perfectly directed, the borning inspiration diverted to a more convenient course. Fortunately, this one's mind would offer little resistance even if she were aware of the intrusion. The tiniest of nudges ...

The scene twisted and blurred, and the watcher cried out silently. No! The girl's very pettiness was stronger than the will of her would-be controller, twitching the firming decision away from the safe, calculated path with impetuous vindictiveness. The interior tableau flared to unbearable intensity as Cordelia Chase said grimly, "It all started with her, they all think she's so special; I wish Buffy Summers wasn't the Chosen One!" And in the background a ghostly, gloating voice responded, Done.

Then it was gone, the last rich remembered echoes of Anyanka's power whisked into nothingness, and eighteen-year-old Anya was staring, fists clenched in frustration, at the guttering candles and the gutted toad.

"Damn it," she said bitterly. "Now I have to clean up this crap."

* * * * *

Part I

December 1998

From the parking lot she could hear the first bell, and she hurried to the front entrance, clutching her books and brushing her hair from her eyes. For once she would actually make it on time; she had gotten barely three hours' sleep, but that was all she needed these days, and everything was ready for her first class with minutes to spare. Her step quickened, and then checked as a thin, biting voice broke into her thoughts. "Running late again, Summers?"

She halted with a sigh, waiting as he stepped out in front of her. "Can I help you with something, Principal Snyder?"

"This is becoming a commonplace sight in the morning," he replied, acid satisfaction radiating from him. With his close-set eyes and small, twitching mouth he looked more than ever like a rat -- a bald rat -- and not for the first time she wondered if there was something in the atmosphere of the Hellmouth that was progressively liberating the inner Snyder. "This daily performance of yours is hardly what this school needs," he was continuing. "We need punctuality, we need reliability and planning and discipline ..."

It took effort, but she managed not to yawn in his face. There it was: seven hours of night patrol, two ferocious bouts of hand to hand combat and five stakings -- God, what it took to get that dust out of her hair! -- didn't tire her as much as twenty seconds of Ratboy's pontificating. "I'll give that a lot of thought, Principal Snyder. May I go now?"

He flushed at the honeyed politeness of her tone, but before he could spit out a reply another voice sounded behind her. "Excuse me, might ... might I have a moment of your time?"

She felt the familiar slow fury suffuse through her; yes, it helped keep things in perspective, to be reminded that there was indeed one person in this school she loathed more than Snyder. She turned to face him, and as usual his eyes slid away from hers. "Yes, Mr. Giles?" she said, even more politely, and he flinched at the chilled steel behind her words.

"I just ... I had hoped we might meet after classes to discuss ... to go over your reading lists for this term." He blinked helplessly, looking to Snyder as if to an ally. "Reading lists," he repeated faintly.

Even from Giles that sounded idiotic, but she knew what he wanted. More training, or a warning about this week's doomsday threat, or perhaps another carefully phrased lecture about her responsibilities. Well, she'd be there -- why miss a chance to make him squirm? -- but there was no point in saying so just yet. "I'll see what this afternoon looks like," she told him, and strode quickly away without farewell to either man. Behind her she could hear Snyder spluttering, but her thoughts were already elsewhere.

The halls were almost empty now as students rushed to their first class, the final bell only seconds away by this time, but even so several of them -- the males -- paused to watch her pass. In a photograph she never would have attracted attention (she had a nice face, a decent body, no complaints but no fireworks either), but the living reality was a different matter: she moved with the casual vitality of a strolling panther, and adolescent eyes followed her with wonder and yearning.

One of the oglers was elbowed roughly by his companion, a beefy ginger-haired young man in a football jersey, who warned, "Whoa, throttle back there, stud. You don't even want to think about Summers."

The first boy laughed. "Come on, Larry, like you never do?" He grinned back at his friend. "Hey, she can't kill me for dreaming."

Larry looked after the retreating figure and shook his head slowly. "You might not want to bet on that," he murmured.

As she had feared, the bell shrilled while she was still a dozen steps from the classroom door. She slowed, considering her approach. It wouldn't do now to rush in, that kind of entrance would get her the wrong type of attention, and this business was tricky enough without that. Control was the key, never let them see that you were rattled. She composed herself and pushed open the door, and the normal morning chatter subsided as several dozen heads swiveled to watch her come in. She nodded to them, moving with easy, calculated assurance, and said firmly, "Good morning, class."

About half of them answered in a soft chorus (most respectful, some slightly mocking, but none openly derisive), "Good morning, Mrs. Summers." She acknowledged them with a smile as she went to the big desk facing them at the front of the room, and settled in to begin the school day.

It was a full eight hours before she saw Giles again; he even took his lunch in the library, rather than in the teacher's lounge where she ate, and she didn't know if this had always been his practice or if he had retreated to a safe haven when she joined the faculty, nor did she care enough to ask any of the other teachers. She had changed from the tailored suit to a pair of cargo pants and a sleeveless pink sweatshirt that had been baggy on her daughter but fit her rather snugly, and as she entered the library she saw his face stiffen at the sight of the familiar garment. Good, another prick in that piece of rotten leather he called a conscience. His voice, when he spoke, was vague but steady. "I didn't know if you would come."

"I had to stay with one of my students for detention," she replied. Larry, of course; at least twice a week the hulking football player did or said something that elicited from her a frosty command to remain after class, ostensibly to help her sort the supplies and clean the studio, and neither of them acknowledged that it had become a deliberate routine. He was her favorite student, and she never showed it, just as he stubbornly hid the eager hunger with which he devoured the lessons he affected to despise. He painted in jagged swaths of color, great slashing streaks of raw emotion, all the while jeering to his teammates that art was for wusses but it was an easier grade than geometry, and in another life she would have sacrificed almost anything to nurture the promise she saw in him.

But no, she reminded herself once again. Teaching wasn't an end to her now, but a means. To stay close to the center of Hellmouth activity. To protect, when she could, some of the children who had walked these halls with her daughter. To learn, and train, and ready herself for the day when Buffy's killer would return for the showdown that had to come.

And to pursue the only pleasure that remained for her in this world: the steady, relentless torment of Rupert Giles.

"Very well," he sighed. "I assume you will, as usual, set your own programme?"

For three quarters of an hour she went through her self-appointed practice as he watched her without speaking. She fired a hundred straight punches into the makiwara in a period of twenty seconds, and the post didn't splinter. She launched kicks and elbow strikes into the heavy bag from every angle, leaping and rolling and spinning, then did it again, and a third time, and a fourth, and the bag never burst. On the wooden dummy she went through forms for wing chun, jeet kune do, choy li fut, pa kua, shifting smoothly and tirelessly through the odd-angled protruding limbs, and when she was done the structure stood without damage.

In her first scheduled training here, she had exploded through all the equipment, reveling in the destruction, shredding and smashing in a moving swirl of carnage. Stupid, and childish, and pointless, and unspeakably satisfying. When her rampage was ended, Giles had looked over the wreckage with wounded eyes and said only, "Yes, well, then. Right." Now the very faultlessness of her behavior was a continuing reproach to him, for he had seen what she could do and what she wanted to do, and knew full well where it would be directed if she ever let her passion have its sway.

She worked with the staff, the Filipino escrima sticks, the Okinawan tonfa, the wooden training sword of the samurai, and finally with the sharpened stakes that fit her hand so sweetly: striking with the point, the butt end, feigning parries with the hardened length of the shaft, driving them by main strength into selected targets and hurling them across the room to transfix others. This was her weakest area, throwing with accuracy, and she settled herself into serious concentration, where before she had only been demonstrating to Giles that he no longer had anything to teach her.

Just as she had put seven in a row into various targets without a miss -- her best performance to date, it was finally coming together -- something struck her shoulder and caromed away. The impact was negligible, but she started at its unexpectedness, and the eighth stake clattered away into the shelves. As she whirled to glare at Giles (it had to be him), he drew back and snapped another tennis ball at her with a fluent sidearm motion, and only instinct and paranormal speed allowed her to deflect it inches from her face. "What the hell is this?" she demanded, panting.

With that maddening primness of speech, he said, "You will not always have the luxury of addressing your targets without distraction, Joyce. You move beautifully, but there is also the matter of reacting to multiple attackers. I know --" he held up a hand to forestall her, "-- you have already faced that challenge in the parks and graveyards, and emerged victorious. Surely, then, a bit of added verisimilitude in your practice is all to the good?"

She would not demean herself by arguing with him when he was right. "Fine," she said stonily, stuffing back the snarl that wanted to get out. "Fire away."

She slapped aside the next two balls with contemptuous ease; the third she sent rocketing back to glance off a corner of his forehead, knocking his glasses askew. He said nothing, but donned a catcher's mask and began throwing again, and she attuned herself to his presence and got back to work with the stakes. Spin, sight, throw; crouch, sight, throw; somersault, sight, throw; strike, strike, cartwheel, sight, throw; and at every instant she had to be ready to dodge or deflect one of the tennis balls, or even to continue without hesitation through the throw while he stood poised to launch another one at her. She felt her awareness expand, she was moving in a maze of perfectly balanced forces, and every shift in the balance brought an automatic response in her own readiness.

Giles let out a long breath and stepped back, removing the mask. "Yes, very good," he said. "That one, I believe, is worth repeating in the future. I will confess," he continued, looking about at the dozens of yellow-green balls that now littered the library, "that I had not expected you to adjust quite so quickly. That was ... excellent."

She nodded, hating his praise, hating that he had after all shown her something new. "So do I get a passing grade this week?" she asked, and for once the edge in her voice just sounded ... well, catty. Damn him!

Giles, in his turn, studied her uneasily. It had been a superb performance, but still ... the thing was, it was so bloody difficult to avoid comparisons. When he had first met Buffy Summers, she had struck him as superficial, undisciplined, lacking in seriousness and respect. Quintessentially American, one might say. Then he had watched her fight, seen her through scores of battles in fact, and had come to appreciate that flippancy was the way the girl maintained her equilibrium, that the seeming lack of discipline was in fact an eclectic flexibility, and that respect ... respect was his once he had earned it.

Her mother was almost precisely the opposite. In training she did whatever he asked of her, mocking him with the perfection of her skill. She was every bit as dedicated as her daughter had been (more so, and that troubled him for he knew its source only too well), but never hid that determination behind wisecracks or sardonic turns of phrase. She could reproduce with uncanny exactness the tactics and techniques of as many martial arts as he could name ...

But she made little use of them, that was the problem. Again the comparison presented itself. Seen in battle, Buffy had been like a force of nature, animal instinct coupled with trained reflex and directed by that quality of will which was uniquely her own. Joyce in practice was a flawless machine; but Joyce in combat was simply rage made flesh, driving to her target like a crossbow bolt, smashing through any opposition and heedless of what damage she might herself sustain in the process. It made her a terrible enemy, and demons of centuries' vintage had fallen before her simply through being unprepared for the savage totality of her onslaught. But it wasn't healthy ...

"You have all the tools," he said, choosing his words carefully. "You work hard, no one can question your commitment, and your technique is impeccable. But you lack a, a focal point, one might say." He shook his head in frustration, seeking some way of phrasing it that would make sense to her. "Surely in your teaching you have occasionally encountered those with too much talent? It comes so easily to them, and they never have to reach into themselves, to find that central focus ..."

"I have a focus," she interrupted him.

It was nothing in her voice that startled him, but an absence; the fury that drove this woman was never far from the surface, and the effort she expended in hiding it from her students and coworkers made it all the more likely to manifest itself in her private dealings with him. This time, there was nothing. Her voice was empty, and when he looked to her, her expression was empty. "I beg your pardon?"

"You said I lack focus. I don't. When I fight, my mind is always in the same place. When I slam the stake into a vampire's chest, the same thought goes through my head. The same words, every time." She laughed softly, a sound like cartilage tearing. "A mantra, though I don't think a Buddhist would approve; a point of focus. The same words, every time. Do you want to know what they are? Do you want me to tell you?"

For once he met her eyes, and shuddered away from what he saw there. "Thank you, no," he said, the words barely audible. "I'd rather not, if it's all the same to you."

He stood silently as she caught up the gym bag which, he knew, held her regular clothes and the books she would be taking home with her. He was still staring at the door through which she had left, long after the echoes of her steps had faded from the hall outside.

* * * * *

She had only a whisper of warning, and hurled herself blindly back without knowing why. Her instant surrender to instinct carried her clear of the main sweep of the battle-axe, but as she arced backward the broad blade cut through the lower segment of the bulky jacket and bit into her hip, scoring along the bone. Adrenaline surge subsumed the vicious jolt of pain, and her hands found the grassy carpet of the park lawn and guided her through a gymnastic walkover to bring her back to her feet. Even as she came upright she was launching herself forward in a leaping kick, the foot of her wounded leg driving like a spear point to the massive chest of her assailant, just below the heart.

Before the blow had landed she already knew it wouldn't be enough, for in the split-second of reaction she had recognized her adversary. The demon warrior Lagos, whom she had thought killed weeks ago in the collapse of the Von Hauptmann crypt during the brutal three-way struggle for the Glove of Myhnegon; that he had survived was merely further testament to his eldritch vitality. She landed from the rebound of the first attack, and immediately went for the monster's knees, smashing at them with stamping kicks that could have shattered teak. Another swing of the axe, easily avoided, and she darted inside his reach to piston a palm-heel thrust into the snoutlike nose, to strike with rigid knuckles at the throat beneath the tusked mouth, then whirled and slashed outward with bladed hands against the biceps of the arm that wielded the axe. The weapon sagged momentarily as the knotted muscles numbed beneath the double strike, and she wrenched it away in a twisting circle that brought it above her head, her arms tensing to bring it down in the killing stroke ...

She froze as a black wave of horror swept through her, and in that same moment the great hands closed on the axe handle and on her shoulder, calluses like crocodile armor biting into her flesh. Her paralysis vanished at his touch, and she released the axe and threw herself in the opposite direction. She had neither the strength nor the time to break the demon's grip directly, but she swung her entire body up and around his arm as if around a trapeze bar, using leverage and momentum and all her weight to twist out of his grasp. She landed in front of him with her right arm around his neck and her back to him, and powered forward in the koshi guruma, the hip wheel of judo, spinning the huge body around and over her.

For an instant Lagos hung poised in the air, inches above her, and in that moment she thought with icy clarity, It won't bring back my daughter. Then, as he fell toward the ground, she yanked backward with the arm encircling the shaggy head, the palm of her other hand locked beneath the jaw. The creature's neck snapped under the opposing forces with a deep soggy crack!, and she let the deanimated body flop to the earth.

She stepped back and looked around for other enemies, but there were none. A good thing, because really determined opposition could cause her serious problems just now; there was no such thing as a routine night patrol, but this one had proven more debilitating than most. She got the corpse tucked into a dense patch of bushes, hoping she or Giles could return to dispose of it before it was found by picnickers or oversexed teenagers, and started slowly back to where she had left her jeep. The pain was returning now, and Joyce found herself moving sluggishly. Already she could tell she would need help; she healed quickly, the blood had ceased to well from the wound as her enhanced metabolism began the process of damage repair, but this one was deep and ugly, and infection from demon accoutrements was far from unlikely. Settling into the driver's seat was like having the left side of her lower body clamped into an iron maiden, but fortunately the uninjured right leg was the one needed to work the accelerator and brake pedals. She started the engine and pulled out with scrupulous care, then began the drive downtown.

Buffy, she knew, would have gone to Giles for the tending of injuries (not to her mother, no, never that), but this was a course she was unwilling to follow except under the direst of circumstances. Joyce had developed an alternative that would have horrified Giles -- and she yearned to tell him, for precisely that reason, forbearing only because it would have cost her a precious advantage -- but it was a tricky matter necessitating certain precautions. These added an extra quarter of an hour to the length of her trek, so that by the time she reached the unlit back door she was almost to the limits of her strength.

A tiny toggle switch was set unobtrusively in the jamb above the door, well out of ordinary view; she flipped it on and back, twice, then leaned against the wall, hoping nothing would delay the response from within. Half a minute later there was a single sharp rap from the other side, and Joyce let her fingers dance across the surface of the door in a quick, broken rhythm. In a moment the door swung open and Willy hurried her inside, shooting an anxious furtive glance down the alley before closing the door again.

"Criminy, Joyce, what are you tryin' to do to me?" His tone was aggrieved, his eyes darting in search of hidden observers. "It's bad enough you come around in the daytime, but if any of my third shift clientele ever saw you here ... Every time that little light blinks, I like to have a heart attack, wonderin' if somebody found the switch and is movin' in on my blind side."

"You should install a peephole," she said distantly.

"Oh, yeah, sure." He shook his head. "Sorry, doll, some of the folks in this neighborhood, you don't want 'em to catch your eye, even through a one-way lens." He stopped abruptly, turning to her. "Your car -- you didn't ...?"

"It's parked six blocks away," she said with immense effort. "With a false license plate and a HONK IF YOU LOVE SATAN sign in the back window for camouflage." Then nerve and will were no longer enough to carry her, and she stumbled forward into blackness.

When she awoke on the folding cot in the dingy recesses of his private office, there was a fresh dressing on the hip wound, with an itching that told her healing was well along and a dull ache that almost surely meant a shot of morphine. She looked around for the weasel-faced bar owner, knowing he would be there, and found him watching her from a padded deck chair, its back set under the knob of the office door. "How long?" she asked him.

"Little over five hours," he told her. He held up the Sunnydale High letter jacket she had been wearing, a great rent running down one side clear to the ribbed bottom. "Let me guess: varsity wrestling, right?"

She smiled despite herself; he was almost the only person who could make her do that these days, one of the reasons she continued to come here periodically. "I was trolling for bloodsuckers," she explained, and indicated her hair, which had been pulled back in two loose braids. "They've been avoiding me lately, so I tried to look like a softer target. I was going for the cheerleader type, but I didn't want to overdo it."

"You might wanna change bait," he offered. "Don't many vampires use meat cleavers, so I figure you reeled in somethin' else." She made no move to offer explanation, and he nodded as if having expected that. "I gave you a tetanus booster just for grins -- you're up on your rabies, right? thought so -- and a solid hit of tetracycline, plus a couple cee-cees of Demerol to take the edge off. Would'a' made it more, but I know you don't like to hang around long."

"Other obligations," she agreed. "Let's see, I have some khaki slacks stored in that lower drawer, don't I?"

"And a couple blouses that would go with 'em; I'd say the light blue one." He made a vague, uneasy gesture toward a black plastic garbage bag that lay beside the cot. "Those hiking shorts you had on, they're pretty much totaled."

She had already noticed she was still wearing her briefs, though they had been cut (and bled through) just as badly as the shorts. Poor Willy, it surely mortified him to know she was aware of how much he would have had to bare her in order to dress the wound. "Better them than the leg," she acknowledged. "I'll change and move on. Thanks for the patch job."

He waved it away. "Hey, drop in anytime. I mean, it's not like I wanna keep on livin' or anything."

The sun was clearing the horizon as she found her vehicle, removed the misleading sign from the back window, and drove off. On the way she had checked several times to be sure she wasn't being followed, for Willy's protection rather than from any fear that he might betray her. Only a fool would trust him: hustler, fence, informant, collaborator with dark forces. Joyce trusted him, and whenever she sought his help he gave her whatever she needed, with whining complaints and doglike worship.

She would never return that devotion, and not just because of what he was. Her heart was a sealed gate, admitting no sentiment or affection, and would remain so for the foreseeable future. Three times since her daughter's death she had allowed herself to care for someone -- for Ethan Rayne, for Gwendolyn Post, and for shy, lethal Kendra -- but two of them had betrayed her and all three were dead, and she would not again make herself so vulnerable. Someday, if she survived, she would leave Sunnydale and build a new existence for herself, and perhaps then she would relax her defenses. Not before.

Her hands tightened on the steering wheel, and the metal groaned beneath the force of her grip. There could be no thought of leaving until certain matters of business had been properly completed. Not until all her daughter's living schoolmates had graduated and moved out into larger lives. Not until Rupert Giles was insane, dead by his own hand, or an alcoholic wreck. And not until William the Bloody -- also known as The Frost-Haired Devil, also known as Razor Jack, also and most recently known as Spike -- had ceased to walk the earth.

The awful paralysis in the park had taken her completely by surprise, but though she had not foreseen it there was nothing mystifying about the event. It would not happen again (she had been warned now), would not in fact have occurred at all if she had known that the trap was lurking in wait within her. But standing as she had once stood, holding a weapon so sickeningly similar to the one she had once held ...

She no longer dreamed, at least not any dreams she could remember, but the scene had played through her waking mind at least once a day for more than a year now. She kept returning to it, picking at it: not from obsession in the strict definitional sense, but from a bone-deep inability to admit that she couldn't find anything she might have done differently, that might have changed the results of that dreadful night. Again she called it back, still searching for whatever tiny detail it might have been that had remade her world so terribly and irrevocably.

Fix the picture. Study the picture. Start the action ...

* * * * *

Part II

September 1997

Buffy lay stunned in the darkened hallway, the lean blond man in the black duster standing over her. Joyce had long forgotten what he said, if she ever knew the words, but the smooth, arrogant Cockney voice was still fresh in her memory. He drew back to club at Buffy again with the torn chunk of wood he had somehow wrenched from the wall, and in that moment Joyce, standing behind him, swung the fire axe with all the muscles in her arms and back and shoulders. She had meant to strike with the flat of the blade, rather than the edge (and if he died of a crushed skull she would shed no tears, but she was aiming to stop him rather than specifically to kill), but some sound or vagrant moving shadow or demonic prescience warned him at the last instant, and the blade ripped across the side of his head as he attempted to twist himself out of the way. Then he had wheeled to tear the axe from her fingers, lurching drunkenly, the gash in his scalp spattering her face with his blood, and Buffy had regained her feet with an impossibly nimble shoulder spring and was starting for the man -- what was the matter with his face --?

There was nothing deliberate about it, of that much Joyce was positive, for he had been facing her with his back to her daughter; but as the flailing arm reached the end of the arc which had torn the away the axe, the curved point on the side opposite the blade punched into Buffy's neck, and she staggered and began to fall, shock in her eyes, bright arterial blood jetting from the enormous puncture.

The scream ripped Joyce's throat, and she was on her knees next to her daughter, the blond man forgotten, struggling to stem the flow from that frightful wound. Buffy clutched blindly at her mother, and then her hands fell away, and Joyce tried hopelessly to force air into her daughter's lungs, realizing with sick horror that she could taste Buffy's blood mingled with that of the blond man. Then she felt, unmistakably felt, the life leave her daughter's body and pass through her and vanish, and she shook with sobs from a pain that could not be endured and yet would not kill her.

The funeral, one of seven from that same night, was a nightmare of unassuageable grief and numb incomprehension; her ex-husband, Hank, stood beside her at the service with tormented eyes, and his obvious wrenching anguish simply had no reality for her. Her home, when she returned to it, was empty, a bitter colorless tomb, and yet she could not force herself to leave it, to go out and reopen the gallery, or even to answer the door for the few callers who came to offer no-doubt-sincere but meaningless condolences.

She had no need to bring out photo albums or home videos; her daughter's face, voice, gestures, laugh, all played through her memory in an endless loop. She discovered that it was possible to wake up weeping, crushed by grief even before her conscious mind could recollect the source of the pain. Perversely she began to have trouble sleeping, and as each day spread out into twenty or more waking hours she finally could no longer bear to remain in the house.

She could have driven but felt like walking, and a cruel new energy carried her easily through the night streets. At this hour there were few places for her to go, so she went to the one where her heart was buried, and stood looking at the marking stone with her daughter's name, the dates of a life too brief, and the inscription BELOVED CHILD. Just stood, the aching sorrow inside her reaching out to embrace a vanished presence, the dew thick on the grass around her feet.

There was no thought within her, only a timeless beingness, so she could not later have said how long she had been there when a low, mocking laugh sounded behind her. She whirled, feeling something urgent and potent rise up inside her, and that loathsome Cockney voice was saying with lazy amusement, "Now, this is a bit of a kick, isn't it? Mother and daughter, soon to be reunited."

It was full night and there was no moon, but somehow she had no trouble seeing him or the two others who flanked him; and as he strolled forward it was clear that the twisted faces, only dimly glimpsed at the school, were not those of human beings. "Any last words, love?" he inquired in a sadistic parody of politeness. "I do like to observe the small courtesies."

It was the most curious sensation to know she was about to die, and not care. She flew at the blond man with a shriek of hate, and he caught her wrists, laughing again, with negligent ease ...

The gnarled face froze in shock as she broke free of his grip, raking at his eyes with clawed fingers. Her nails cut bloody furrows in both cheeks, then she was hurled backward by a crushing outward sweep of his arm. She had once been knocked down by a runaway horse on a riding trail, and this blow was harder, but the force seemed oddly muted, and in the moment of landing she was back on her feet and going for him again. One of the blond man's companions leaped to intercept her, and she clubbed him to his knees with an overhand blow of her clenched fist; but as he went down he wrapped both arms around her legs and the second henchman was on her, knotting his fingers into her hair. She tried to swing at him but was jerked off balance by the same yank that pulled her head back to expose her throat, and he bared jagged canine fangs with a guttural snarl and leaned in hungrily, yellow eyes blazing.

A pencil-thin feathered wand sprouted in his chest, and he goggled down at it for a fraction of a second before bursting into a shower of dust. The creature clutching at her legs seemed frozen with surprise; she yanked him upright, heaved him above her head by shoulder and crotch, and dashed him to the ground with all her strength. "Here, use this," she heard, and twisted to see something spinning toward her, she plucked it out of the air and it was an eighteen-inch length of wood with a sharpened point, and without hesitation she struck downward to slam it through the heart of the thing on the ground.

She coughed at the second explosion of dust, swung around with the stake held ready. The blond man in the duster was nowhere to be seen, but there was another figure beneath the cemetery trees, striding toward her without haste. His face was haggard and haunted but she recognized him all the same, and my God he was carrying a crossbow. "Mr. Giles," she blurted, her earlier savagery blotted out by sudden total bewilderment. "In heaven's name, what are you doing here? And those ... those ..." She gestured helplessly at the empty space where two snarling not-men had stood moments before. "Those were vampires," she said at last.

"Yes," he agreed, his tone quiet and unemphatic, and regarded her with what seemed to be mingled perplexity and embarrassment.

"My daughter was killed by a vampire," she said softly, trying the words for reality. It was insane. "What are you doing here?" she repeated finally, unable to think of anything else. "Why are you carrying that thing? My God, were you following me?"

"I should have been," he replied. "It should have occurred to me that you might need protection. But no, I came here for the same reason you did." He indicated the gravestone with a weary gesture, then lifted the crossbow. "As for this ... well, in Sunnydale it is not prudent for one to venture out after dark without weapons."

She was still trying to absorb it when he added soberly, "There is another matter we must address: the way you fought, a few moments ago."

There had been no time to think of it before now, and she felt her besieged mind spin out of focus as she remembered what she had done, the inexplicable strength that had surged through her. "I don't understand," she stammered. "I ... I don't know what came over me."

"Nor do I," Giles replied. "I know only that it could not possibly have been what it appeared to be."

* * * * *

He took her back to the library, and there for the first time she was told the full truth about the situation in Sunnydale. She was shaken to the depths of her soul by these revelations, less surprised by the fact of demon infestation than appalled by her inability to recognize the signs before now. For there had been so many signs, and not just in her daughter's life and behavior: rumors, disappearances, rushed funerals, one bizarre episode after another. (Every school had problems, but how many had a dead former student stuffed into a locker, a principal eaten in his own office, a talent show contestant with his brain removed, and a cheerleader bursting into flame, all in one term?) There was no comfort in Giles' assurance that the same mystical forces that made Sunnydale a magnet and conduit for sorcerous activity also clouded the perceptions of its residents; she had failed as a mother, failed in her first and most transcendent duty, through ignorance bringing Buffy into a killing zone and through obliviousness allowing the girl to remain.

Then he told her of Buffy's place in it all, and a chill came over her, sinking inward by fractional layers until she was cold to the core, and something in her heart hardened and turned ugly. For every generation, there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer ...

With eyes like slate she studied the rumpled librarian and said, "There's only one Slayer at a time, do I understand right?"

"Yes, that is correct."

"And when the current Slayer dies, it passes to someone else."

"The abilities manifest in the next candidate, yes."

"And because I was with Buffy when she died, it came to me."

"No. No, it absolutely could not have occurred in that fashion." He removed his glasses, polishing them absently and automatically. "Our records go back for more than a thousand years, you see, and in all that time ... Well, three things. First, the mantle of the Slayer has never fallen on a candidate before her fourteenth birthday or after her twenty-first. Second, there has never been an inheritance by bloodline; in fact, I don't believe there is a single confirmed instance of two Slayers who were related to any degree that could be traced. And third, though several lived long enough to have offspring, there has never been a Slayer who attained that status after having borne a child." His eyes rested on Joyce, baffled. "Even if it were possible, such an extraordinary event would surely have been foretold in the Pergamum Codex, if not in some less comprehensive text, but there is no such prediction. Your case is ... is an aberration, an anomaly which cannot be explained."

Joyce could have argued with that; he had said that the influence of the Hellmouth warped natural laws, so why not supernatural ones as well? And as a freshman in college she had read Dracula, the Bram Stoker original, and remembered the communion of blood by which vampiric power was transmitted, remembered also the sickening taste of Buffy's blood overlaid by that of her killer; and finally, she had been there, had felt it happen, and was now standing here as the result.

But why bother? The thing was, and explaining it wouldn't make it any more so. "Whatever you want to call it, I have a Slayer's strength now, and a Slayer's speed and resilience. I'm here in the Beirut of the living-and-undead, and I have a strong personal motivation for hunting vampires. So that's what I intend to do, starting with the one who murdered my daughter."

"We mustn't be hasty," Giles protested. "Your case is without precedent, and calls for thorough study. We have no way of knowing if you will retain these abilities, or for how long, or ..."

Her eyes locked with his, and the words died in his throat. She held him with the force of her gaze for almost a full minute, and when she spoke it was with careful, almost passionless precision. "You sent my little girl into a war, and you hid it from me. Even if she had to fight, even if that was her destiny, you put a wall between us, you locked away from me a part of her life I can never share with her now. I could have helped her, supported her, told her I was proud of her, but you robbed me of the chance. I will never forgive you for that. I will never stop hating you for that. I will never stop looking for a way to make you pay for that. Now I've joined the war. You can work with me like you did with her, or you can watch and do nothing, or you can go back to England; but if you try to get in my way, I'll kill you.

"Am I understood?"

He looked away, and swallowed several times before answering. "Yes. Yes, quite. You have made yourself ... perfectly clear."

She had sold the gallery at a loss, and given up the house for an apartment near the Sunnydale High campus. It had been ridiculously easy to be admitted as a teacher, the faculty turnover rate being almost as high as its mortality rate. Giles had reported the facts to the Watchers Council and been approved as her observer and trainer, though he and they had continued to insist that she wasn't an actual Slayer. And she had learned the name and history of the blond vampire, and begun the hunt for him.

He was gone from Sunnydale now, but he would return, of that there was no doubt. His beloved Drusilla was dust on the same football field where Kendra's life had poured out, and he would never let that rest unanswered. She had no way of knowing how long it would take him to recover from the damage she had done before his few remaining followers had carried him away, shrieking vengeance, but she knew he would be back.

Meanwhile, the war went on.

* * * * *

Part III

December 1998

She got breakfast at a McDonald's drive-through, and swung by the apartment to get her books and class materials. There was time to change clothes (she threw away the bloodied briefs) but not to shower, though she longed for one. She called Giles at his home to say tersely, "Remember Lagos? I ran into him in the park last night. We need to do something about the body."

"Ah. I had thought he was dead."

"So did I. Now we're both right."

"Yes. Yes, of course. Is there anything else I should know?"

"Nothing worth mentioning." She described the location of the bushes where she had left the demon's corpse, and added, "Listen, the trunk of your car won't be big enough for this one, so I'll leave my keys at the front desk. You're ... oh, you're doing me a favor, dropping it off for an oil change."

"Yes, that should certainly be convincing. Our camaraderie is, er, legendary."

"Tell it however you like, then. And use a tarp this time, I don't want my upholstery ruined if he starts to disintegrate."

"Oh, quite, quite. That goes without saying."

She went through the morning classes largely on autopilot; drugged sleep had not been a proper substitute for normal slumber. During the lunch period she went to the library to get her keys, and entered with her mouth set in a grim line.

Giles greeted her with a distracted air; he had an armload of thick books, and was trying to turn the pages of the one on the top of the stack. "Ah, good afternoon, Joyce. The keys are there behind the counter; I, ah, I actually did get the oil changed for plausibility's sake." He paused to glance over at her. "And there was ... that is to say, I saw blood on the axe."

Afternoon, she thought. He says 'afternoon', at five minutes past the hour. How British. "He nicked me before I really knew he was there. Giles, just before I got here I saw Cordelia leaving."

"Yes, she, she did stop in for a moment."

"You're not trying anything cute, are you?"

His eyes had gone back to the book, one finger tracing a line of text, and he said absently, "I'm sorry, what?"

Her fists clenched. "Damn it, Giles, look at me!" He started at the violence in her voice, and she went on, "Are you trying to pull Cordelia back into this nightmare? I won't have it, Giles, we settled this long ago."

It was all she could do to keep her hands from his throat. There had been too many deaths in the past fourteen months, too many she had been unable to save. Most had been innocent and unwary, but some had known of the war and entered it willingly, only to fall. Xander, interposing himself between a defenseless Willow and the desiccated Inca girl, and losing the gamble that her affection for him would keep her from draining him to a husk; Jenny Calendar, tattooed by Ethan Rayne with the Mark of Eyghon, and weaving a net of cyber-mystic forces about herself that turned her body into a living booby-trap for the demon; Harmony, wanting so desperately to atone for the tragic consequences of her cowardice of Halloween night, and failing so terribly in her hopeless running battle with the Gorch brothers in the Sunnydale mall; gentle, quirky Oz, believing his lupine alter-ego to be responsible for the slaughter outside the Bronze (and worse, believing Willow to be one of the victims), taking his own life rather than kill again. Finally Joyce had decreed that there would be no more. She had driven Willow away with harsh, merciless words, and the heartbroken girl, reeling from the loss of the three people she loved most, had taken early graduation and was now studying under a special scholarship at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

She would have done the same with the enigmatic young man known as Angel, but he had dropped out of sight at about the same time, and occasionally Joyce wondered if he had followed Willow. That made them the only surviving members of the jestingly named Slayerettes ... with the possible exception of Cordelia, who had participated in at least some of the group's anti-occult activities but had never considered herself a member, and had distanced herself from them even before the death toll had begun to mount so hideously.

Her mind snapped back to the present moment; Giles was blinking at her in honest surprise, saying, "Of course not. She had a most curious tale to tell, and it certainly warrants deeper investigation. I may need to ask her further questions, after I've had time to research the matter, but I see no need to involve her more than that."

He would give no firmer guarantee, she knew; behind that flustery vague exterior was a surprising stubbornness that would arise when he was pressed, and she didn't want to break him unnecessarily, not when his destruction could be stretched out for years yet. "So what was her story?"

"The details were rather confused; as I'm sure you know, linear narrative is not Cordelia's métier. But it may tie in with some theories I've been developing over the last several months."

"I haven't eaten yet, Giles, and I only get half an hour. Focus."

"Well, your encounter with Lagos calls to mind an earlier illustrative example. You will recall my contention at the time that the Glove of Mynhegon, when activated, had displayed rather more power than the historical records indicated?"

Joyce's lip curled. "You didn't really track down the Glove's exact nature until after the fact, so I didn't pay a lot of attention to your post-game analysis."

"Yes, well. Perhaps." He put down the books, carefully marking his page before continuing. "But when the spirit of Gabriela de Santos reconstituted several city blocks of Sunnydale into 17th century pueblo, you reminded me rather sharply of my prediction that she would be capable of little more than transient illusions."

"So you dropped the ball a few times. That's nothing new."

"The point I wish to make," he went on patiently, "is that for some time the threats we have ... that you have faced, have been more substantial than could be expected from their innate nature. I had feared this might signify an increase in the scope or intensity of Hellmouth influence, but that appears not to be the case."

Joyce weighed the idea, professional detachment for the moment supplanting her automatic animosity. "The vampires are no stronger than usual," she mused.

"No, but they are somewhat more numerous, despite the, um, fervor with which you pursue them." Giles shook his head. "No clear leader has emerged among them since the rather demoralizing end you devised for Dalton, yet they remain as active and aggressive as ever."

She didn't like to be reminded of Dalton. There had been something different about that one, and at the last he had looked at her with sadness rather than hate as the rising sun consumed him. But that was the way of war: even if you respected your enemy, he was still an enemy, and Dalton's meticulous organization had posed a far greater danger than had any of Spike's theatrics. "I still don't see what that has to do with Cordelia," she said.

"Ah. Yes. Well, she described an encounter with an individual who may have demonstrated an ability to affect reality." He avoided her eyes ... but he always did, so there was nothing unusual in that. "Our own experience has made us aware that the Hellmouth, even when quiescent, exudes an aura that seems to potentiate other natural and quasi- natural phenomena. Cordelia's account suggests the possibility of a second influence which may itself be enhancing this, er, catalytic effect."

"Amplifying the amplifier, you mean?"

"Something of that nature, yes."

Joyce felt her interest waning; when it came right down to it, the only question that mattered was, Will this give me something to fight? "I'm sure it's fascinating," she told him. "Call me if you find out the world is ending, I'll want to reschedule my parent conferences." With that she retrieved her keys and departed.

All the same, the conversation kept nagging at her. Her afternoon students noticed a certain distraction about her, and Larry wordlessly decided to save his posturings for another occasion. Summers was pretty cool, but you didn't want to cross her when she got one of these moods. Not that she really did anything if you made her mad (not in class, anyhow), but the air around her just seemed to ... crackle ...

She drove back to her apartment when classes ended, slept for an hour, then rose and made a small pot of canned soup for an early supper. There was still another hour until nightfall, and she spent that time grading papers, then dressed in dark clothing and went out to where she had parked.

Time to hunt.

* * * * *

The cemeteries took longest; there were a dozen of them, and they had to be covered on foot. The city parks also required foot reconnaissance, but there was more open area and they were closer together, so checking them went more quickly. Then the mall; then the Bronze, and the surrounding streets where some of the regulars occasionally parked ...

There. She braked to a halt and was out of the jeep, running to where a convertible was wedged into an alleyway, and inside it a screaming dark-haired girl swinging a small handbag in futile desperation at the five figures that ringed the trapped vehicle. Joyce was among them in instant explosive fury before they could react, dropping one with a crushing kick to the small of his back and running another headfirst into the side of the convertible with a force that caved in the door; then the other three were on her like wolves, and she met them with an equal ferocity.

Willy had told her of the muttering among his arcane customers about the way she fought, of how she seemed unaware or even scornful of pain, of wounds suffered in battle. She had seen the same wonder in Giles' eyes, though he never spoke of it. It was a joke too bitter for laughter. Pain? This was how she escaped pain, this was where she could leave it behind for just a few moments; this was anodyne, not ordeal.

Jagged nails ripped through the cloth of her blouse and down her side, and she trapped the arm and broke it; she slammed another attacker away with a looping crescent kick, and let her body continue through the turn and spear the stake through a third vampire who had thought he could take her from behind --

it won't bring back my daughter

-- and used his mass to rebound in a spinning backfist in the split-second before that mass crumbled into graveyard dust. Gnarled knuckles crashed into the side of her head; she counterpunched automatically, missed, followed up with a double-hammer to face and groin, staked the unlucky recipient before he could recover --

it won't bring back my daughter

-- and fell back momentarily, putting the convertible behind her so she would only have to guard from the front and sides. Instantly she saw that the three remaining were all damaged, injured, their speed and aggressiveness diminished, and she went for them like God's own thunderbolt.

it won't bring back my daughter

it won't bring back my daughter

it won't bring back my daughter ...

The street was empty. Joyce straightened and returned the stake to its place of concealment beneath the light jacket, then pivoted to face the girl in the car. "Cordelia, what are you doing out alone? I thought you at least knew to keep to well-lit areas."

Cordelia was staring at her, mouth agape, eyes almost starting from her head. "You ... you're ..." She closed her mouth with a snap, and said faintly, "Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I didn't know ..."

Joyce had always been ambivalent about Cordelia. That she had once stood with Buffy and the others against demonic forces spoke well for the girl, but their few chance encounters at the school had left a different impression; in fact, the calculated sophistication and oh-so-hip Valleyspeak had reminded Joyce all too keenly of the vicious, vapid cliques of her own high school days. Tonight's incident did little to improve her opinion. Had Cordelia learned nothing in the past two years?

The girl collected herself with obvious effort and climbed over the crushed door to stand beside the older woman. "Giles sent me to look for you," she explained. "He called me up, said it was urgent, told me the places you might be." She grimaced quickly. "I didn't understand, not then anyway, it was like Hello, what would she be doing there --"

"Giles? He sent you out here?" This was too much, damn him, he'd answer to her and answer in blood.

Cordelia nodded eagerly. "He said he tried to reach you but you weren't answering, and there is just mondo mojo going down right now, so I told him I'd try to find you."

Joyce swore at herself. She had left her pager and cell phone back at the apartment, this was her own fault. But, "Why didn't he come out himself?"

"He's at the library, setting up for some big hairy exorcism, or is that 'exfoliation'? He said there was no time, he said ... he said you might need to reschedule those conferences after all." Cordelia laughed. "Only he said SHED-ule, you know, the way these British guys always do?"

Conferences --? Joyce felt a chill go through her, and started back for the jeep. Cordelia ran along beside her, stumbling in high heels. "Wait, I'm coming with you."

"Go home, Cordelia. Call a taxi if you can't get your car started. You're not part of this."

"But I want to help," the girl cried after her; and as Joyce sped away she could hear a voice calling plaintively, "It's all my fault ...!"

She went to the apartment first, hoping it wasn't a bad decision, and pulled out the long bag that contained the heavier weapons she kept for demon combat; whatever this was, it might call for more than stakes and holy water. She grabbed the cell phone as well, and back in the jeep she keyed in the number for the library as she punched the accelerator.

Giles answered on the fourth ring, harried and breathless. "Cordelia?"

"Joyce. What's happening?"

In the background she could hear sounds of irregular pounding, and a female voice chanting something. "There's some kind of apocalyptic warrior priestess cult," Giles said rapidly. "They're ... push that against the others there! I'm sorry; they're trying to reopen the Hellmouth, we've barricaded ourselves in here ..."

"We? We who?"

"Listen, they're in the halls, you need to come in through --" The call snapped off, and REDIAL brought no answer. Joyce tossed aside the phone and increased her speed.

She parked in the lot nearest the library, used her key to get in the side door. Warrior priestesses, Giles had said; from her bag she selected the pistol-grip crossbow and a heavy cavalry saber that approximated in weight and balance the bokken with which she had trained, and for good measure tucked a British commando dagger into her belt. She started through the darkened halls, watching for movement and trying to put herself in Giles' place. If he had the main doors barricaded, she wouldn't be able to get in that way, so what had he meant to tell her --?

Distantly she heard a scream, and changed direction without conscious thought, sprinting toward the sound. She broke out into the open area by the gymnasium doors, and there to the side were hunched shapes holding a struggling figure, and in the dim glow from vending machine lights she couldn't make out faces but damn it that was Cordelia's voice! She raised the crossbow and loosed a bolt, and one of the forms screeched and fell away, the bolt through its neck. Joyce shifted the saber to her right hand, discarding the crossbow, and was on the others before the small weapon bounced from the tiled floor.

There were four of them, and they turned on her with yowls and short swords. She slapped aside one blade with the saber, felt the cold fire of a second point slide into her thigh, and struck back with a lightning slash that tore across a misshapen face. She could hear Cordelia babbling hysterically to herself, and she cursed the foolhardy courage that had brought the girl here, did she think good intentions held any weight against Satan's footsoldiers ...?

A tremendous echoing blast split the air, and one of Joyce's opponents flew backward to crash through the plastic front panel of a soft drink machine. Two of the fluorescent bulbs behind it exploded, but in the revealed light of the others Joyce looked back, shocked, to see Cordelia using both hands to rack the slide of a pump shotgun. The demon priestesses -- was that blue skin? -- shook off their amazement and started for the girl, then turned back to face Joyce as she drove for them.

She had been given a few seconds to take their measure; they were fierce, tough, and determined, and more skilled with their weapons than she with hers. She went through them like a scythe, a whirlwind of steel and wrath. The shotgun roared again as she kicked one of them momentarily clear of the clashing knot of conflict, and that left only two, one already crippled, and in moments there were none.

She turned to Cordelia, panting harshly, and demanded, "For the love of God, girl, where did you get that thing?"

Cordelia was staring at her, appalled, but answered defensively, "From the police cruiser sitting in the front lobby. You're bleeding!"

Not in more than a dozen places. "Why did they drive it into the lobby?"

Cordelia let out a nervous giggle. "Well, the police haven't exactly caught up with it yet." Seeing the older woman's glare, she set her mouth stubbornly and said, "Look, did you ever try to find a taxi this time of night?"

There was a choice: explode, or let it go. Joyce let it go. "Come on," she said. "Let's get to Giles."

* * * * *

Part IV

They came up from the basement, in the dumbwaiter used to ferry refuse down to the incinerator. When the single door slid open, Giles was facing it with a leveled crossbow; seeing Joyce, he let out a sigh and lowered it, saying, "Good, I wasn't sure you heard it all before they cut the line."

"I didn't," Joyce told him. She swung her legs out and stood. "I just knew you were getting at something, and this was what made sense."

"I'm relieved all the ... good heavens!" He stared as Joyce helped Cordelia struggle from her position in the back of the dumbwaiter. "Was it really necessary to --?"

Exasperated, Cordelia said, "Now don't you start." She reached back in to haul out the shotgun, and Giles' eyebrows climbed another notch. "I swear, I haven't been so unpopular since the third grade."

"What's our situation?" Joyce asked, looking around the library. At the front she saw where tables and file cabinets had been braced against the doors, and nodded in recognition to the yellow-scaled humanoid standing beside them. "Kulak," she acknowledged.

The Meeqhuat fighter raised a bone knife in salute and replied, "Brother."

"Ew," Cordelia said.

Joyce glanced back to Giles. "Calling in all our old markers, are we?"

"Very nearly," the Watcher agreed. He removed his glasses and rubbed at his eyes. "It was fortunate that I did ask Kulak and Amy to join us; just precautionary, mind you, I had no notion then that the Sisterhood would attack --"

Joyce's eyes had already found the girl perched halfway up the steps leading to the stacks: hazel eyes, light curly hair, and her memory supplied the rest. "Amy Madison? You brought in a cheerleader to help stave off the Apocalypse?"

Wearily Giles said, "Amy is a Hecatite witch. She was to help me with the summoning spell; I called Kulak in case you didn't return in time. Even before we came under siege here, I anticipated that we might need numerous resources to face Anyanka."

"Anyanka?" Cordelia looked to Giles. "Anya?"

"As she initially appeared to you, yes."

"I'm falling behind the curve here," Joyce observed to no one in particular.

"Anyanka is a sort of demonic avenger of scorned women," Giles offered. "We believe she approached Cordelia, er, some time ago and offered to grant her a wish."

"It wasn't like that," Cordelia protested. "She looked like any other Senior, and she gave me this" -- the girl pulled a necklace from beneath the collar of her blouse, the pendant marked with an equilateral design -- "and told me it was lucky, and tricked me into making a wish." She bit her lip. "I didn't know. I didn't know what she was, and I didn't know how everything would change ..." She looked to Joyce, and the woman was astonished to see genuine tears in her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said. "I can't tell you how sorry I am."

There was something in the girl's expression that made her uneasy, and Joyce automatically recoiled from it. "We don't have trouble enough with ghosts and vampires and chaos elementals," she said to Giles, "now we're going up against the Tooth Fairy. What does this have to do with those she-demons wanting to open the Hellmouth? Or put it another way: why are we wasting time on her when we have a bigger problem?"

"I believe Anyanka may be the source of the amplifying force I hypothesized earlier today," Giles answered. "By rights, the Hellmouth shouldn't be even remotely accessible for weeks yet; something more is destabilizing it. If that something is Anyanka, and we can summon her and destroy her power center, the Hellmouth should realign into a stable seal."

The girl on the stairs laid aside a fetish of some kind and said, "I think it had better be pretty soon, Mr. Giles. The air is getting charged; I'd say the Sisterhood is cranking up some heavy-duty spellworks on the other side of those doors."

"Places, then!" Giles called. "Kulak, stay at the doors, we don't wish to be surprised from that direction. Cordelia: since you're here, you may be able to persuade Anyanka to retract the wish. I, ah, don't suppose you would be willing to pass that weapon to ...?"

Cordelia hefted the shotgun and gave Giles a tight, withering smile. "Not in your tweediest dreams, book boy."

"Yes. Well. Stand there, then, so you can also support Kulak if need arises. Joyce, if you would take the crossbow and cover this point ... Are you ready, Amy?"

"I'm pumped," the cheerleader replied, and came down the stairs to join Giles at a table which had been cleared except for a few items of occult paraphernalia. She struck a match and used it to light the contents of a small brazier. Giles turned a dusty book toward her and placed his finger at one of the lines. Amy added a few pinches of powder to the smoky flame; and in a new voice, rich and cold and commanding, she began to chant.

The incense smelled like sage and burnt spaghetti, and Joyce fought a tickle in her throat. Amy reached the end of the invocation -- "Anyanka, I beseech thee; in the name of all women scorned, come before me!" -- and nothing changed; no light, no billow of smoke, no ozone prickling the air. Puzzlement was clear in Giles' expression, disappointment in Amy's, and someone stepped from the shadows by the stairway, a raspy voice saying, "What nonsense is this? There is no vengeance in your heart. Explain yourself."

Her shape was female, but the gray veined face bespoke a different flesh, and menace radiated from her in dark waves. Amy fell back a step; but Cordelia moved forward in the same moment, calling imperiously, "Hey, you! Fairy godmother! I want to cancel my subscription!"

Anyanka turned lizard's eyes toward her, and rasped, "It's you, is it? Put that out of your mind, it doesn't work that way." She surveyed the rest of them, and the cracked lips split in a smile that curdled hope. "Even if it ever did, I don't believe I would this time. I like this new reality; it shows promise." The hooded eyes swung back to Amy. "But there is a penalty to be paid for a false summons ..."

Amy flung up her hands and cried out five words, sharp and quick, and purple light speared from her to Anyanka. The gray woman waved irritably, and the flaring energies rebounded to enwrap Amy in a twisting corona. The girl shrieked and writhed, staggering away (between Joyce and Anyanka, oh God she was blocking a clear shot!), and as she stumbled blindly into the barricade at the doors it detonated, debris rocketing in all directions. One of the larger pieces, a jagged chunk from a filing cabinet, struck Joyce in the hip, the same spot where Lagos' axe had landed, and she screamed as she felt the bone shatter.

She was falling, she saw blue-faced figures pouring through the ruptured doors, and Kulak charged them with a bellowing war-cry, leaping and slashing with the bone knives. Joyce heard the boom of the shotgun, and again, and rolled over on the scorched carpet to see Cordelia smash a she-demon in the face with the butt of the weapon before going down beneath a wave of the creature's sisters. Giles' voice rose in desperate incantation, then he hurtled past Joyce to crash through the railing of the stairs.

She forced herself up on her good leg, clawing at the pain that resisted her. Hate and despair swelled her heart; it wasn't right, she was going to die with debts unpaid! The crossbow was broken and the saber lost; Anyanka laughed untouched in the center of the devastation she had made, and she heard Giles in a horrible bubbling wheeze: "... power ... center ..."

She wept with rage; what power center? Then she saw it, the silver chain that circled Anyanka's throat, pendant glowing with the same design as Cordelia's. Without thought the dagger from her belt was in her hand, and everything that was she narrowed into a single diamond pinpoint of focus, and --

think of it as a stake think of it as a stake

-- she gave her entire body to the throw, driving through it, so that she sprawled full-length onto the floor, face down, and never saw the result.

She didn't see the dagger strike, not with the blade but with the worn brass pommel at the hilt. Didn't see the stone of the pendant crack and split with a sound like creation bursting forth. Didn't see the green coruscating light surge outward, or the outlines of the walls and broken tables and bodies moving or still begin to lose their definition.

She didn't see the missile reach its target, but she knew; knew, and it meant nothing to her. Grief constricted her throat, her eyes burned with tears that would never have time to fall, and in the instant before reality ceased, her final thought was:

It won't bring back my daughter.

* * * * *

epilogue

No city ever truly slept; only the rhythms changed, and this was especially so of Sunnydale. All the same, tonight was quieter than most. Crises were for the moment in abeyance, and most activities and concerns were strictly personal.

At a new cyber cafe near the mall, Willow and Oz paused in their tasks as volunteer resource persons to new netizens, and shared secret smiles and longing glances. Oz would be leaving in an hour to join his band at the Shelter Club, and it was still undecided whether Willow would accompany him or stay for further missionary work.

In an upstairs bedroom of the home owned by a couple who still, from the residue of the original enchantment, believed themselves to be her parents, Anya threw her calculator against the wall and beat on the open Trig book with impotent fists.

In his own home, Xander dozed in front of a flickering television set. He was on a gleaming stretch of beach, and Cordelia walked toward him in a gauzy robe and a smile. She opened the robe ... Xander stirred and mumbled, but was careful not to wake.

Giles put his elbows onto the library table and kneaded his temples with his knuckles, then returned to the ancient text in front of him. Bloody Sumerians ... There had to be something here, the Day of Ascension ground inexorably closer and he still didn't have a clue.

Cordelia pulled into the driveway of her home and tried to decide what to do next. The Bronze had been dead (okay, not dead dead, but the dweeb index was way off the charts); should she change into a new outfit and try the mall, or stick her Tae-Bo tape in the VCR and work on firming up those glutes? God, nobody knew the pressures she faced from one day to the next ...

At a small, pleasant house on Revello Drive, Buffy came out of the kitchen with a sandwich and a pensive frown. She had just received a call from her mother, who was holding a special exhibition at the gallery, and there was something ... odd about it. Joyce hadn't been able to give a reason for calling, she just wanted to hear her daughter's voice. It was probably nothing, but when you lived on the Hellmouth ... Buffy shook away the fleeting perplexity and sat at the dining room table. She had a killer Lit test tomorrow, and using her Slayer duties as an excuse to put off studying hadn't helped. She settled back with the sandwich in one hand and a book of poems by Coleridge in the other. Time to focus, she told herself, took a bite of the sandwich, and began to read.

end


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