Power is only safe with those who don't want it. I used to want it and it made me a monster.
I wouldn't want that for our children. I'd want them to be free. If one of ours were to have that ambition, then I know that we had failed. Most likely because you weren't there to teach them, which would mean that I had failed.
I'd rather have the simple things. To be comfortable, to feel safe, sharing a home with you. To not be hungry, except for the hungry ache deep within that never really goes away, even if it's temporarily sated, just for you. The warmth of your body around mine. I want to be entertained. I am, by your look, in wonder at the beauty or the cruelty of nature or humanity, the rapture in your eyes as they shut when you tumble over the edge I brought you to. Your stories, the source of your words, how they were prompted. To be your wanting that makes you wet. I want your clit between my lips and your soft warm walls squeezed around my fingers. At times, I feel like I want the roundness of your belly and the soft but strong heartbeat underneath its delicate surface... but not now. Now, only you, my darling.
The most precious possession one can own is the freely given love of a good woman.
Innumerable years ago...
"She's doing it in her head." A look of panic quickly erased the rapture on Ethan's face as the second-hand images currently being generated in the mind of one eight-year-old Willow Rosenberg flooded his half-conscious, half spell-entranced mind. The mystically-forged link between them was tenuous, weakened by distance and the time lag and her magically untempered nature. Still, the girl's responses to the test questions were so rapid and multi-layered, Ethan could barely make any sense of all the strands of logic as they were woven in her apparently very busy brain. The coordination was anathema to him, as a worshipper of Chaos.
Beside him, under black robes that did little to disguise his hulking bulk or the scales covering his demon face, Chaos rumbled, "That is why this little one needs to be turned."
Two weeks later...
"Her potential is... unmappable. Pure power..." the mentat mused in awe. The lights covering the surfaces of the large domed helmet it wore blinked with such rapidity, the room, darkened to allow it to focus on the multitude of computer screens lining its nest, was awash in the bursts of tiny yellow and red lights.
"There's nothing pure about power," said Glory from over its shoulder. She had been standing a good two meters from it but had to get closer to peer herself at the myriad screens. Her delicate nose wrinkled at the stale odor the shriveled little former-man with the huge head and the poor teeth, rotted from lack of use, emitted. Mentats were notorious for their poor hygiene, especially when hooked to their Machine, all essential nutrients and excretory functions taken care of by the intravenous solutions and draining apparatuses that could not fully suppress the odors of the natural body functions they superseded. And this particular one had been attached to its Machine for the better part of the past 72 hours. "Which is why it can always be transferred to another holder. I want it." She turned to the closest EA, one of her mid-level minions, a frightened-looking woman of forty-five or so. How she had managed to survive so long in Glorificus' company was a wonder that fortunately for the sake of the better than average pay Glory was far too busy to pay mind to. "Does she have family?" Her eyes seemed to naturally narrow at the last word, before she shook her head in impatience. "What does it matter... Not at all. You'll get it for me."
And with her master's direct authorization, the EA arranged to send an A-level retrieval team to Sunnydale.
"Extraordinary," muttered Giles. He pulled his glasses from his face, and began to wipe them with his pocket square as he looked at the printout Andrew held to him.
"Oh, I don't know. All you have to do is be wired into a supercomputer or something," said Andrew. "It wouldn't be too hard."
"No, not too hard, unlike, actually having resource to said supercomputer?"
Andrew thought about it a second. "Oh," Andrew said sheepishly. He wasn't a practical applications type of thinker.
"Oh," confirmed Giles. "By the by, how many supercomputers are left that could handle that task in the less-than-eight seconds it took her to complete?"
"Yeah, and that..." Andrew trailed off.
Giles replaced his eyeglasses. "Keep her monitored-and me informed, of any changes, no matter how slight, to the young lady's circumstances."
"If it's something that Glory wants, then it's something we need," the MABELL Veepico-Acquisitions said. All the Veepicos looked and sounded the same, down to their carefully maintained professional androgyny. One could only distinguish them by the descriptive following their title. Luckily, they wore name badges prominently displayed as per corporate policy, above the left breast pocket of their standard heather grey business suits. Imbedded into the badges were transmitters that allowed their movements within the corporate offices to be tracked and permitted them access, unlocking the portals and corridors that segregated them into their respective areas. The Veepico-Acquisitions seemed to have more clout than the normal Veepico. It had a thin white stripe patterned into its heather grey suit. "Draft a proposal to secure whatever resources are necessary to close it. Convene The Board. Push it through today. This hour. Get her." The lawyers scurried.
"Genius level, huh?" Ira looked down at his small daughter, from the top of her bright red hair to her sneaker-clad feet, then back again to the scholastic aptitude test summary he held in his hand. Sheila beamed down at the girl over her husband's shoulder. She was a good half foot taller than Ira, so it wasn't hard. "Still? Guess all those video games you play haven't made your brain all mush yet, huh?" The corner of his mouth twitched upward in teasing. His daughter was more wont to take apart the video games and then put them back into functional but different working order than actually play them like other kids. Being a programmer himself for a small firm that catered to the financial industry but never quite able to break the mid-level class or pay level with the decades-long glut of qualified programmers currently on the market, he was quite smug in his pride of his little prodigy. Of course, it didn't bode well for her having a truly lucrative career like in entertainment-sports, or movies or teevee or such. Still, the pay could be quite good if you got up over to the upper tier. Then the big players like Glory or MABELL could even recruit. Ira just had to keep her interested in it until he could get her into a decent trade school. He and Sheila had started a savings account for that, and he doggedly put in 3 percent of his bi-weekly pay into it. Sheila put in 20 from her job at the college. A lot of their family's hope to break out of the lower-middle-class Sunnydale district rested on Willow's thin shoulders.
Willow looked back at her parents solemnly, with her characteristically soulful, large green eyes as wide as they got. She smiled, a bit sheepishly, and shrugged. She had felt a little twinge at the back of her brain throughout the testing, like someone was standing over her shoulder as she typed in the answers. After a moment's discomfort, she had let it go. Truth be told, she didn't care if one or all 50 of her classmates copied off her exam. The puzzles the mathematical equations posed were kind of fun, like fiddling with her video games, though without the physical challenge of manipulating a controller. "It was actually pretty easy." The smile faded a little. Her friend Xander had not found it so easy. His parents had beat him when his scores arrived. She had seen the purpling on his upper arm, under the sleeve of his tee shirt this morning. He had tried to hide his shame with a flippant shrug of his shoulders.
Ira shook his head, still smiling. "Oh no you don't. Don't be embarrassed that you're the smartest or the best of your class, pum'kin. Never be ashamed of being more than everyone else, if that's what you are. If it's who you're meant to be, you have to fill that potential." He winked at her and turned, in effect dismissing her. It had been a long day, his eyes hurt and his left wrist was acting up again, and he was about ready for a nap.
Willow turned and scampered to her room. She had found an algorithm that replicated itself 843 steps down a decanumeric system.
She had to write it down with her different colored pens before her busy brain moved onto a new mystery and forgot this one. They made such pretty patterns.
Nine months earlier...
A nude, slender redhead reclines in the bed, lying heavily on her side in the stark, brilliant white sheets. She is perhaps twenty years old. Next to her lies another girl of the same age, slightly heavier, with a haler frame, a blonde. Their limbs cross languorously, meeting at multiple physical planes that echo the multivalent metaphysics of their lying abreast, just so, among the crisp waves and folds of the bedding as daylight streams in through sheer, flimsy gauze over ceiling-high windows. The plane of the redhead's inner thigh rubs against the top of the blonde's. Their skins are damp but not soaked, creating an intimate friction that pulls the flesh over taut, flexing muscles as they make their slow, deliberate motions. The blonde widens the angle of her legs, spreading Red even more as their hands find each other. The blonde girl simultaneously moves back, pulling the redhead to her. At that angle... They gasp at the sudden lack of distance.
Red smiles at the blonde, who returns the expression by half, though the effect is wholly complementary. Perhaps she's just feeling lazy. The blonde has my eyes.
Their breathing becomes heavy as they rock against each other slowly, steadily. My viewpoint circles their nest of mussed sheets and pillows so I now watch, a voyeur, over the blonde's shoulder. Perhaps her eyes-my eyes-close so they don't see what I, an impartial observer, see. Red's eyes, a lustful green, had turned a brilliant yellow. Her mouth open, first in a pant, then wider, in hunger. I can see her fangs glint in the murky light just as they descend on the other girl's neck.
I would scream a warning, but as I finish my turn around their bed, the girl underneath is well aware of the change in her lover. Her hands are pressed to the other's shoulders, holding the leaner woman close. The look on her face is one of unadulterated rapture...
"Uh, no. I mean it was really and truly weird. I've had wet dreams before. I know how to recognize them, usually because I wake up... er, wet. This wasn't one." I frowned, recalling the decided lack of sexual excitement I felt upon waking violently that morning, sweating not with arousal, but with anxiety, the sheets bunched around my tensed limbs, my heart in my throat, caught and half-swallowed with the cry of warning that died before my teeth as I crossed back into awareness. The dream had made me a bit... uncomfortable, and in a way I realized I probably wouldn't have felt if it were a female and male stranger rather than the two nubile young women I watched in my vision. Even so, there was more to my dread than that, something more sinister that underlie the gender of the two lovers, though gender was the easier of the two problems to deal with. Even so... I tried to push the thought down, to forestall the question poised on Jenny's pursed lips and slightly screwed eyes, the only way I knew how-self-deprecation. "Besides which, you know me. No matter how hard it hurts, I need a little wood to shiver me timbers."
At that, Jenny smirked. "The mouth on you, Ms. Maclay!"
"Exactly my point!" I grinned.
Jenny shook her head. "Okay, so despite the resemblance, it wasn't you?"
I hesitated. "I don't think it was."
"But you're not sure?"
"No. I'm not. I mean, the girl was familiar, somehow, but damn it, she was a stranger, too... I mean, she looked like me maybe fifteen years ago..."
"Well, did you ever...?"
"Uh, no. Not even close. Not even a thought."
"Oh, c'mon. That's kind of hard to believe. You mean to tell me you've never thought of another woman that way?"
"I mean, I'm only human. I have needs, plus, living in a mostly women's commune the past seven years? I'd have to be made of stone. But really, being completely and totally honest about it, I see a woman with nice tits, usually the first thing I think is, 'I wish mine were as good as those.'"
"Well, childbirth and all," Jenny said.
"Yeah," I sighed.
"And age takes its toll."
"And just... gravity."
"Hey!" Jenny giggled, giving in. But I nudged the conversation further, to steer completely clear of the topic. "So, I guess this means that you've...?"
"Sure. Never said I hadn't," Jenny said with a shrug.
Huh. You learn something new about someone, even someone you regard as your closest friend, every day. Thankfully, though, it did the trick and she let it drop. She had a class to teach, and I was on my way to conference room 4 at the bequest of Cylla, at whose pleasure I, like the other Coven witches, served.
Later, I let myself feel a little guilty. I wasn't being exactly forthright with Jenny. The dream did bother me more than I let on. It had been so vivid, almost Technicolor, but more colorized, kind of flat, outside me. It worried me.
I've had prophetic dreams before, but the rule of reiterability didn't apply to me. I could count the number of prophetic dreams I've had on one hand. But dreaming of dropping and destroying a favorite piece of crockware and doing the same a day later was a far cry from a fair maiden, a stranger and yet not, sexually communing with a demon. Would this be the vision that destroyed me?
Conference room 4 was part of the small hall where Cylla, our senior witch, our mother superior the younger witches snidely called her, resided. I have to admit, I agreed with their assessment though I had the good manners and sense to not laugh along, given the old bird is a borderline TP-doesn't do to have an undisciplined mind, much less mouth. Of course, reading a fellow witch would be a violation of the Code that we live by to govern our Talents, but you can never be too careful. Always govern yourself first.
Still, living at the Coven with its emphasis on the ascetic life of quiet scholarship and meditation, sometimes it did feel like a convent. How ironic that witches were persecuted for centuries in pre-modernity by the Juxes, often falsely accused of deviant sex practices and demon worship, when in truth most of them are as boring as Jux nuns. Things certainly have a way of coming full circle-or less diplomatically, karma sure can be a bitch. Now it's they who are persecuted for their quaint faith in a single omnipotent Divine.
The hall was on the southern part of the Coven's campus, at the base of Mount Corda, and on the far side housed Cylla's personal chambers, library, and her sanctum sanctorum. On the near side were the conference halls. Reasonably, with her mangled leg and arm, she held all her conferences there. At times I wondered if the disfigurement were the reason she had steered her Coven into solitude. Invariably, I would decide it could not; it would have been rather a personal bias for such a political position.
I made my way through the neatly kept lawns to the courtyard outside the open air corridor to the conference room indicated on the invitation I had received earlier. However, upon entering the chamber, I was surprised that we were not alone. A projector and terminal with what appeared to be an outside feed was set up on the long table behind which Cylla and Alise, the coven counselor, sat. Alise didn't surprise me, however, as much as the feed. Aside from being a separatist, Cylla was the old-fashioned type. The use of technology, not to mention the link to the world outside, the world of mud, was a little unusual.
Neither woman was known for their social graces, which suited me just as well. The better to receive my directive and be on my way. They were the most powerful women within the Coven and they used as few words as possible to convey their intent. I don't generally try to attach myself to powerful people. They tend to the dour, like these two. I was curtly acknowledged with a nod of Cylla's head into the seat opposite them.
Our elder witch began typically without preamble. "Tara, something unexpected has happened." She paused before adding with the slightest bit of emphasis, "Regarding the Artaggio Codex."
The Artaggio Codex? The one that's been discredited by all reputable scholars in the already-not-so-reputable field of prophecy study in the five centuries since its writing by Artaggio, the mad druid?
I guess my disbelief must have been obvious, as Cylla continued. "Yes, the Artaggio Codex. I ask that you suspend your personal disbeliefs until the end of our meeting, at which time I will ask you to make a great personal sacrifice for the betterment of the Coven-in fact, perhaps, for us all." She gestured toward the projector as she depressed a button from the room's mechanics control in front of her and the lights dimmed. "Alise, we should begin."
The twins in soul were separated but will once more become one. The joining will mark the end of the many, all but one will to be done. Rise, Seeyo, rise.
Artaggio wrote that, but in some dead tongue five centuries plus ago. Perhaps something was lost in the translation to post/modern English. Perhaps not. Who knows?
It was the last thing entered into his journal when the rescue party found his remains in a crevasse on the upper summit of Mount Turinto in what is now the Western Russian state of the European Union. History held that the druid Artaggio had been driven insane by prophetic visions of a world ending apocalypse during a meditative retreat assumedly popular in the day that somehow escalated to a full-blown religious ecstasy. Oh, it began quietly enough at the foot of the mountain, in a nice, fairly comfortable and well-appointed lodge. Too well-appointed, I suppose, as he began an ascent to the summit after efforts to communicate with The Powers That Be at the base in the shelter of the structure proved fruitless. The gods apparently favor the reckless or insane. He had received the visions after attempting to reconcile the coming of the demon Ka'as, as foretold in one of the founders of his order, Jacob the Elder, with the rise of the great corporations. A lot of what he had written, needless to say, doesn't make sense. Much of it had to do with interpreting the congloms as demon houses. Still, he did okay for a 17th century kook. The congloms came well after his time, and are certainly full of demons now. Maybe Ka'as is sitting on the Board of MABELL.
Of course, it's all ridiculous. Still. Still ridiculous. I'm no better off than some crazy druid freezing various body parts off stuck on the side of some gigantic mountain above the clouds, waiting for enlightenment from Above. I'm still a slave to higher powers, even if they now wear human faces. Being flesh and blood rather than spirit and mojo just means they can now literally reach out and touch me, which is not generally a Good Thing.
In fact, the latest "blessing" on me and mine had me in a bit of a seethe.
I looked down at an open file folder before me holding some 5 or 6 data sheets, on top of which is the 2D portrait of a shyly smiling seven-year old girl, one Willow Rosenberg. It was one of those school photos, the headshot ones, with the kid set against a stock fake sky background. Long, brown hair-auburn, I think is what they call the shade, quirky, pert mouth and dimpled nose, and eyes that look almost too big for her head. Cute kid. Kinda dorky looking, as most seven-year-olds are.
I sighed, long and deep. This was my special project? The reason I would be leaving my own child, the home we had made for ourselves, my students for the next year, and perhaps more? I was not impressed. And I was not happy.
My displeasure was palpable. I have never been able to guard my emotions well-I know, ironic, for an empath.
Jenny was grimacing, her expression sympathetic. But an ungrateful part of me was resenting that, too. Had Cylla sent her to placate me? I know my resentment was also obvious to her. I had to vent.
"If she's so damned important, why not send Catherine?" I referred to our resident power practitioner. I'm empathic, for godsakes. I know only defensive spells.
"Cylla thinks Catherine would be overkill."
I snorted. I had to admit, that one word just about summed up Catherine.
"The nature of this project is critical, but sensitive. Subtlety is required, which is not Catherine's signature style. You're there strictly-"
"Yes, I know. Strictly to observe the girl, perhaps nudge her in the Coven's direction if the opportunity presents itself? I understand. It doesn't explain why you need a master grade babysitter. Surely one of the older journeymen could-?"
"You know it's not my call," Jenny cut me off, a brief flash of impatience lighting in her dark eyes before she mastered herself. "Believe me, Tara, if it was, I'd do it myself, just so you wouldn't have to. You know I've done this kind of thing in the past."
Immediately, her eyes closed, contrite, as mine widened at the not-so-subtle chiding. "Sorry. I didn't mean it that way." Her voice lowered even further. "I know you're concerned about Leda-"
"No, no. Leda will be fine. She's doing great. I'd just..." I took a deep breath. I didn't want any extra attention given to my daughter, or to the fact of her continued fragility, something we'd both gone to pains to mask. Her sonuvabitch father had given her reminders to last a lifetime. And we didn't need any well-meaning sympathy from any of our Coven sisters, either. But Jenny... I could trust her. I do trust her. Implicitly. In the eight years I had known her, she had earned it many times over, the first by befriending me, the second by helping me escape with my daughter, intact, from the bad decision that had been Tom. Escape to the Coven. But did I owe them as a result? I earned my keep, and still do. But Jenny... Yes, my debt to her was not a quid pro quo matter. It was immeasurable, and eternal. I dragged the file back to me, then immediately flipped it closed and lifted my eyes to meet Jenny's. "Will you take Leda in?"
Jenny smiled. "Always." She shifted in her seat. "I realize this is a delicate time for her. She's almost ready to pass forward... I know that's why this seems like it couldn't have come at a worse possible time-"
"No, it couldn't."
"But if the assignment goes as planned, you'll be back in time for her rite." Jenny smiled. "She's turning into an extraordinary young woman. Catherine is jealous. Amy isn't doing half as well."
"Oh, is that all? Amy isn't even eight. Leda will be 14 by year-end. Someone needs to give Catherine a reality check. And I don't want her looking in on my daughter. She doesn't need the pressure."
"I agree," Jenny said, "but you must know Leda has caught more than just Catherine's eye."
I knew what Jenny was referring to. Cylla had praised her at the last solstice dinner, for winning the trials of her age group. She had been singling out my daughter for similar things more and more lately. It made me anxious. It feels like it's too soon for her, but then, maybe I'm being overprotective. She's done so much better since we arrived-well, anything was better than what we left. "If she exceeds me in her Talents, that's enough." I know I was frowning. My attention was pulled back to the file in front of me as the doubts of something amiss, something not being shared with me, returned, like a persistent itch just underneath the skin. "And that's another thing. All I've seen about this girl indicates she's made for mud. What do we want with her?"
"It's not what we want so much as what Cylla wants."
My left eyebrow shot up. "Oh? So you're not united in this?"
"I don't always just follow the party line," Jenny said softly.
I winced. "I didn't mean-"
"No, it's alright. I understand where you're coming from. Believe me."
I looked at Willow's picture again. I wonder what gods you pissed off to warrant the kind of attention you're about to get. "Poor kid," I muttered.
I think Jenny heard me, but said nothing. Say what she will. She is, at the end of the day, a witch of the Coven.
Three months later...
Willow, her nose in a book as she walked slowly down the hall, oblivious to her surroundings as was her unfortunate habit, felt the paw against her chest followed by the quick shove before she could even utter a protest at the unwanted contact. She was sent sprawling, already barely in balance with her school bag hanging low against the small of her back, filled to capacity with books, both for school and the five checked out from the library-five was the limit, the new librarian Wood had told her, else she surely would have taken more. The book she had been so engrossed in fell from her hands and the edge caught her lip as she tumbled down, her behind smacking the linoleum hard. She tasted blood.
Kevin Connor grinned as he loomed over her, his fists on his hips and his stance wide, his girlfriend Cordelia smirking behind him. All around, the other students drew back but around, interested to watch Kev's latest bullying incident and relieved it didn't directly involve them this time. "Didn't you hear me, geek? You have to step to the side. We've got important stuff to ferry through for the school assembly." Cordelia held the school banner across her arms. She and Kev were apparently on their way to the school auditorium in preparation for Principle Snyder's monthly assembly, or as he secretly referred to it, juvenile offenders roundup. The irony of using one such offender as his lackey of choice for the menial tasks beneath his own esteem was completely lost to the mean little man.
Tears filled her eyes, leaving Willow no time to react as a blue and black colored blur entered her field of vision from the right, smacked into Kev's larger frame, and sent both forms crashing into the lockers lining the corridor. Xander was on his feet first, though holding his right arm awkwardly. "Keep your freakin' hands off her, asshole!"
Willow cried a warning as Kev scrambled up and pulled his arm back, his hand curled into a fist impossibly meaty for a ten year old. Surely he had been left back more than the two years he admitted to? Xander's eyes screwed shut, but he stood his ground.
Before the fat fist could propel forward to smash her friend in his nose, its momentum was stopped by a hand with long tapered fingers wrapping around it and pulling him back. Kev was spun around to look up at the new history teacher, Leigh Mack, as she glowered fiercely at him. "What are you doing, boy?"
"He started it!" Kev ground out. The blonde woman had, probably unknowingly, twisted his wrist painfully when she had spun him around to face her. He yanked his arm from her grasp, and brought himself to his full height. He was a little taller than the slight woman, despite his age and the boots with a good heel she wore underneath her long skirt. Still, for some reason or another, her presence seemed to overwhelm him.
Leigh looked from Kev to Xander, still cringing and cradling his elbow from where it had impacted against the locker after tackling the larger boy away from his friend. When she turned back to Kev, her expression was incredulous. "Are you seriously offering that as your answer?"
"It's true, Ms. Mack! Kev and I were on our way to deliver these things to the auditorium for Principal Snyder for the assembly this afternoon when Xander-"
Leigh turned to Cordelia. "Ms. Chase, please be quiet. I'm not a fool, and I don't mind telling you that you reveal yourself by trying to play me for one." Cordelia quieted instantly. Leigh turned her attention back to Kev. "Mr. Connor, I'm surprised you'd attempt to hurt a boy half your size when there's nothing in it for you aside from a suspension and the momentary satisfaction of proving the obvious, that you can. What you really ought to remember is that no matter how big you are, there's always someone bigger. There will always be someone bigger. I suspect your father may be one such a person. l expect either he or your mother to answer my call tonight, at 7pm, to discuss this foolishness, and an appropriate punishment. You and Ms. Chase are dismissed to run your..." she looked at the cloth banner draped across Cordelia's arm, "errand?" Again, her expression was incredulous.
Kev colored at the inflection of her last word-it stung worse than the preceding scolding, in fact. He stomped off, Cordelia trailing behind him. Xander sunk to his knees, his adrenaline finally ebbing and leaving him a little wobbly.
"The rest of you should be getting to your next classes as well." The crowd seemed to magically disperse at Leigh's softly worded suggestion.
At that point, Willow hiccuped and sniffled. Leigh turned her attention to the small girl still on the floor. They locked eyes for a moment, Leigh's sea-blue gaze piercing into Willow's green before she reached out to help Willow onto her feet, though Willow immediately knelt again, by Xander. "Xander," she sighed unhappily. "Are you alright?"
"I'm okay, Will..."
"Mr. Harris, go to the infirmary and have your elbow looked at," Leigh ordered. Her attention barely wavered from Willow.
Xander hesitated, obviously not wanting to leave Willow with the blonde teacher, who was a bit of an x-factor still. She had come in mid-year to replace Mike Russell, the school's 30-plus-year regular history teacher after his suddenly decided early retirement. She seemed to keep to herself and had successfully avoided all the usual traps students set for substitutes, chief among them the standard Internet investigations into her off-duty life. She had weathered them all, and was still here at Sunnydale elementary and middle school, as much an enigma as the day she had shown up with her piercing dark blue eyes and dirty blonde hair and long skirts and full-collared shirts.
Xander thought her creep factor unusually high, though being not-too-bad-on-the-eyes for an older lady softened the creep for most of the student body to a more manageable mysterious. Apparently very cool, too, for saving him from a face-smashing by Thug Connor, but still creepy nonetheless. He straightened. He was grateful for the rescue, but he regretted nothing and would have done the same and risked himself for Willow again in a heartbeat. His heart sank as he realized he would now still have to look out for an ambush from the fat bastard after school, at least for the next couple of days. Thank the gods the fucker was as dumb as he was big. Maybe he'd forget sooner rather than later. Out of sight out of mind for Bronto Connor...
"Xander?" Willow's soft voice finally reached him. "It's okay, Xander," Willow whispered. "Get your arm taken care of. Thank you for taking care of me."
Xander nodded. Willow helped her friend up to his feet and he reluctantly went off.
"Thank you," Willow finally addressed Leigh.
"Thank me? For what?"
"For not punishing Xander for calling Kevin a bad name."
"Bad na-? Oh." Actually, Leigh had thought 'asshole' had been rather mild. By her standards, anyway. "You're welcome, Willow," she said smoothly. "Or do you prefer Ms. Rosenberg?"
"Willow's fine," Willow said in a quiet voice.
Leigh helped Willow with the books, grunting with the weight of the backpack. Willow quickly took it from her. Leigh picked up the book the girl had been engrossed in at the beginning of the fracas. "Fundamental Principles of Neo-Kantian Ethics? A bit of light reading before gym class?"
Willow reddened. Wood had recommended it to her, after she'd gone through the library's collection of the humanist's primary works.
"Sorry, I was joking." Leigh cleared her throat. Some empath, she chided herself, then reached out just slightly with her Talent to get a better feel of the child before her.
Oddly, her Talent came up with nothing.
Okay. That hadn't happened in a while. At least by someone not trained in the Art. The girl seemed to be somehow deflecting the gentle probe. Rather than attempting a more forceful read, Leigh decided to try a different, more mundane if blunter tack. "You know, Willow, I only saw the tail end of what happened just now so I'm giving Xander the benefit of the doubt that he had a good reason for stepping in as he did, but I do think that you need to take a little responsibility. You have to be a little bit more careful yourself. I'm referring to the reading while walking thing? You live in a world that can at times be dangerous-much more so than a pre-teen bully, you need to be mindful of it. Not that it's a bad thing letting a good book take complete hold of you!" Leigh hurried, as Willow blushed so crimson with the mild reproach it shamed Leigh's naturally empathic heart, too. "But there's a proper time and place for everything. Okay?"
The rebuke softened, Willow nodded.
"By the way, there's something else I'd like to discuss with you, if I may. I'd like you to come by my office after school today, just for a little chat about what you might be doing with your history elective next semester. I'm thinking of staying on, maybe set up an advanced studies program that I think you'd do very well in. Do you think you can drop by to discuss it?"
Willow was grateful for Ms. Mack's intercession and not coming down on Xander for calling Connor an asshole, but meeting with her alone was the last thing Willow wanted.
At least she's a dreadful liar and has absolutely no ability to dissemble, Leigh realized. "It's okay if you'd rather not. In fact, I'm still at the planning stages, so it's probably not the best time, anyway. But maybe if you have a free moment, alright? Any time you want, actually. I like meeting some of the more serious students, but it's hard, you know? When you're shy, like I am."
Willow's eyes widened at that, but got an okay vibe from Leigh's warm, sincere smile.
"Anyway, you're welcome to drop by, even if it isn't class-related. When I'm not teaching, I'm usually in my office. It's B-18."
Willow's eyes relaxed in relief. "Thank you, Ms. Mack. I might. Visit, that is."
"Okay. You'd better go off too. Do you need a note or something since you're late?"
"N-no. I have study hall."
Leigh nodded and watched as Willow walked off under her bag of books, looking back just once, before she too turned for the stairwell for the basement and her makeshift sanctum sanctorum.
I think Jenny set up the "Leigh Mack" name as my alias just to see the look on my face when I read through my mission briefing. Thomas Maclay was so self-righteous about his family name and sharing the honor with me, his blushing bride, I'm sure if he knew how I've mangled it for my own purposes he'd have an apoplectic fit. Not that I give a damn anymore. I've used and discarded so many names in my 34 years, sometimes I hardly know which one I'm using one day to the next. Memories of lessons my mother taught me came unbidden from the repository of my brain... "The ability to take and give away a name shows that one is not tied to the material world." I can see the truth in it. Plus being able to divest oneself of the baggage associated with a name-always a plus, though that does raise the interesting conundrum of why anyone would take up someone else's name if it's already burdened with its own history.
Gods, sometimes I think myself into a corner. Tara is a fine name for a witch.
Anyway, I'm half-convinced Tom's given up looking for us, anyway, so the benefits and disadvantages of fooling around with an alias is moot. The last time I checked, Agritech had relocated him to Old New Mexico as a foreman for the upcoming Spring and Summer seasons, so he should be occupied with it for 8 months more, certainly at least through the end of September. I hope by then my tour with Willow-watching will be over and I'll be back in the safety and seclusion of the Coven with my own daughter.
To that end, after setting up shop as the mid-year replacement history teacher for Sunnydale Elementary (highly recommended, of course, with my fake credentials), I quickly set about my surveillance of Willow. Her school file revealed nothing out of the ordinary, but that didn't discourage me. The record-keeping system of most middle and high school systems is normally pretty proprietary from bordering-on-violating-civil-liberties meticulous to downright negligent. Sunnydale's was somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
Two weeks later, I hadn't made much headway into my directive. What about this girl had caught the collective inner eye of our Coven seers in their review of the Artaggio event? Sure, Willow's a good student. A great student, even. But that's not too unusual. Every district, especially in the old Western states where the public educational system's become entrenched and hegemonized, tends to have one or two really good prospects. Usually it's enough to set up some kind of state or cross-state academic competition or even just a standardized test, let them have at each other, then throw scholarship money or even guaranteed employment to the winner. Doubtless, Willow would have a good shot at one of these types of competitions. But a player in an apocalyptic prophecy? I found nothing on the surface to suggest her role as either one of the twins or the seeyo, a term that besides meaning the obvious, though pre-modern Artaggio would never have known, also translates to "hammer" or more generally, "instrument" in his dead tongue-presumably, the instrument of the apocalypse.
Likewise, her family was utterly mundane. Daughter of Ira, 42, programmer for CPV Tech, a smallish, still mostly privately owned, corporate inventory system vendor, and Sheila, 38, clinical psychologist, currently unemployed due to a lapse in her accreditation and licensing-she had left her position at a private institute to devote five years of her life to raising Willow. She had yet to recover from that professional hiatus. Fairly typical lower middle-income family. In fact, other than the incident of being unable to read her this morning, I honestly had no inkling that Willow was anything other than an ordinary girl, though gifted with extraordinary intelligence.
In other words, the first two weeks have been very quiet, though perhaps things will pick up now that I've made direct contact with Willow-that is, if I haven't permanently scared her off with the scary disapproving adult routine. The inability to read her was, of course, a curiosity and worth noting, which I did when transmitting my weekly report back to Jenny. But I wasn't overly concerned. I had blind spots as much as any other empathic witch, though it's not immodest for me to say I have fewer than most, as it's true. It's also not uncommon for first "contacts" to take more than one meeting to develop, even with a young child like Willow who still wears her emotions up front, especially in those huge eyes. Magic, much as some would argue otherwise, isn't science.
The lack of immediate success did allow me to pad the second part of my weekly transmission. Along with my second report reiterating much of what the first did, I sent another personal note to my daughter. Of course, she had taken my new assignment hard. I fully intend to make this up to her upon my return. Maybe take her somewhere for a trip away from the Coven, as long as it's not Old New Mexico (Tom) or Sunnydale (land of the unchanging seasons). In the meanwhile, we'll have to make do with the personal missives piggy-backed on the secure, encrypted weekly summary. Of course, this type of communication is one-way, mostly. I so hope that Leda is doing better, but the few brief lines Jenny manages to secure for her in the briefing responses back don't satisfy the hole in my heart. I miss her fiercely, too.
It's hardened my resolve to finish my business here, and go home. I'm grateful it's gone fairly simply so far. It would have been impossible to begin without securing a position where I could watch Willow with an unimpeded view. Convincing Russell to take early retirement hadn't been too hard. He was working on his 35th year, and teaching can wear even the most dedicated of people down. Many, many years ago, at the beginning of the technology revolutions in the late 20th century, there was an advertising campaign jointly financed by the nationalistic States and baby congloms, to encourage young professionals into education as a career. The promotional materials stressed the joys of service as its primary draw. Of course, there was little corresponding salary augmentation, like they did for their own field of employees. So instead we ended up with the beginning of the centuries-long glut of lawyers and system programmers, analysts, and salesmen, while doctors and teachers are still on the outs due to lack of incentive and the increased regulation regarding accreditation peculiar to each field. Over the years, the ethical sense of duty and self-sacrifice, the practical difficulties of mediocre compensation and the juridical hurdles set up to legislate professional accreditation did the trick, and now no one with a practical mind wants to be a doctor or a teacher.
The latter was to be my profession, had I never felt Tom's last blow eight years ago that sent me, unconscious and internally hemorrhaging, to the hospital, and Jenny's subsequent rescue-Leda's "kidnapping" and our escape to the Coven. But in a way, it's what I ended up doing, anyway. I wonder if I'll be so lucky some day as to be offered a nice retirement package by a mysterious charitable organization, after I'm through shaping the minds of young witches thirty years down the road?
Eh, I doubt it.
Two months later...
Xander sighed and unconsciously picked at the small dots of the strawberry scab on his forearm-three weeks old, from when Connor pushed him to the pavement after school as the latest of the ongoing payback for the incident two months ago. Will was late again.
She was probably hanging out with Mack, as she seemed to do more and more these days, helping out with her mysterious projects, or if not, in the library where she lost track of time buried in the dusty stacks of books too old and fragile or too out-of-date-deemed useless or irrelevant today to have been digitally transferred and made portable, freed from its paper (or in some of the most rare cases, parchment) restraints.
Regardless, it seemed Will had forgotten him again. He would give her just five more minutes before he gave up and went home. Waiting for him was the most recent release of a shooter-immersion game that they had been, up until two months ago, just before the incident with Kev and Mack, anticipating with barely controllable 8 (Willow) and just-turned-ten (Xander) year old impatience. It had taken all his strength of will to not tear the box open as soon as he'd gone home after school last night to find it had arrived in the day's mail. Instead, he had vowed to behave and wait for Will to share the honors after school today. Even being a year-and-a-half older than her, gaming was the one thing he could consistently hold his own on with Willow. Shooting aliens was often more instinct than intellect and he had plenty of the former, even if Willow outclassed him in the brains department-as she did most of the older kids at school. Also, his larger hands and quicker feet made manipulating the controllers easier. It made gaming one of the things that balanced out the relationship between the two very different friends, though sometimes she'd insist on taking apart the game after they'd played through it. Xander didn't mind too much, since she usually put it back after she was done. Will was a little weird that way. Plus she had a way of having her tongue peek out from the corner of her mouth when she was really deeply involved pulling the guts out of a chipboard that was kind of cute...
Xander shook his head fiercely. He had to stop thinking like that, or else he might slip and scare Will off. She didn't seem into those things. Not yet, anyway.
The allotted five minutes came and went, then five more. Finally, as he gathered his bag to really (really) leave this time, Willow came barreling around the corner of the main building, weighed down as usual by her own bag, out of breath. "Xan! You waited!"
"Of course I did, Will." He stood patiently as Willow dropped her bag at her feet and bent over, her hands on her knees, taking deep gulps of air. When she straightened a minute later, they wordlessly traded bags with practiced ease and started out of the courtyard toward Xander's home.
"So, what was it today? Library or dungeon?" Xander referred to Mack's basement office with the latter.
"Ms. Mack," Willow admitted sheepishly. "We started some, uh, advanced maths last period and kind of didn't hear the bell."
Xander nodded and said nothing, though the back of his neck felt a little hot, and not, he knew, from the afternoon California sun. Jealous, he realized. He was jealous of Mack, and all the time she was getting to spend with his best friend. Finally, in a quiet voice, he said, "Don't know why you need to study so hard, Will. Last time I checked, they were talking about bumping you up a couple grades anyhow." Out of your league, Harris, he thought. She's out of your league, too.
Willow felt the slight undercurrent in her best friend's voice then a sharp stab through her heart. She didn't ever want to lose Xander. He was the best thing to happen to her in... well, forever. Before Xander, she'd had no friends. Without him, she'd have none again, except, maybe, now, for Ms. Mack, and possibly Wood, in the library. But two adult non-parent authority types didn't really count for friends. She had to explain, make things right. Plus, the secret she had been keeping was threatening to make her head explode. Surely Ms. Mack would understand if she let Xander in on what they had been doing? Maybe she could even tutor Xander as well, then it would be like having the best of both worlds... She realized that Xander hadn't said anything, and in fact, had been waiting for her to respond. She hesitated a second more, before deciding she couldn't. Not without saying something to Ms. Mack first. They continued awkwardly a while before she thought of a compromise. "The kinds of stuff we do isn't so much class stuff. More like, um, arts, I guess."
Xander frowned. "Arts? Like what? Painting?"
"With our minds," Leigh said. "Knowledge isn't just what you find in books and files."
"Are you talking about experience, too?" Willow ventured.
"Well, experience is its own category that produces knowledge, yes, but the distinction between written knowledge and practice is often overstated. After all, everything that's been written has already been experienced, contemplated, filtered, then presented in the author's own words, own interpretation of the event. Do you understand?"
"I-I think so." Willow thought about it some more. She was only eight and a half, but the brain capacity she'd been able to unlock and put to use was already incredible. Something she'd read recently came to the forefront of the cacophony of thought. "You mean, like, pure reason?"
Leigh paused a moment as her own mind re-aligned to the line of thought to which the young girl had connected. She thought of the book Willow had been toting when they officially met, the one the librarian had given her-Wood. Like herself, a recent addition to the school faculty. She got a strange vibe from him and she knew, by use of her Talent when she visited the library after her curiosity about the fellow from Willow's constant mention of him got the better of her, that he got the same from her. He had given Willow the book on the neo-Kantians. What had Wood been thinking giving her a book like that?
Willow's eyes had become so bright at the connection, Leigh didn't want to quash it. On the contrary, she needed to nurture that desire for deeper understanding. "Yes, something very like that, but push it beyond, if you can..."
"Beyond reason altogether..."
"Not exactly," Willow said evasively. They walked on. Xander's house was six blocks south from the school, Willow's two blocks further north from the Harris home. Both were well inside the lower-middle-income zone, though Willow's was better kept. Xander's mother wasn't much one for housework. They crossed the street to the midway point of the short travel. "It's kind of hard to describe. It's more like... mental arts."
Xander's look was clearly doubtful, and Willow sank back into deep thought, to find a better way to phrase it.
"Through the years, humans have had a number of names for what lay beyond comprehension. Most of those names referred to a Divine or a group of divine beings. After we outgrew our god-parents, left their home and set ourselves up in our own, the perspective shifted. The old mystics and philosophers described it as the Sublime, the A Priori. When we were outstripped by our technology, it became self-perpetuating technology, or the perfect machine, with perfect intelligence. In digi-speak, it's the Code before all codes, the one that unlocks the rest and gives them meaning. Still others took a little of all the definitions, including the primitive ones, and identify it simply as the Cosmic, and leave it at that. That's how we describe it in my own tradition."
"Your own tradition?"
Leigh hesitated just briefly before beginning. She had already decided, when Willow began visiting just a few days after the incident with Connor and her friend Xander, that honesty would be the best route to take with handling the young prodigy. Not long after the visits began, Willow had overcome her initial shyness-indeed, had shown little fear in asking whatever question came to her curious mind. "In my own family, along my mother's line, we follow a tradition that favors animism and a general respect for all of nature. When I grew older, and started a life on my own and a family of my own, I joined an organization that tolerates a number of different, though ultimately similar or at least compatible views on the underlying purpose of human life to see, experience, interact, feel our connections, our smallness but our ability, yet not to rule. We call our group the Coven."
Willow frowned. "Like a coven of witches?"
Leigh did not hesitate on this question. "Yes," she said firmly. At the girl's suddenly concerned expression, she laughed. "But not bad witches." She grinned and added, "At least not all of us."
"Kind of like... doing puzzles," Willow said, "like, uh, brain teasers."
Xander's dark eyebrows shot up, still skeptical that any extra time spent in school that wasn't mandatory could be anything but punishment. "And that's fun?"
"It is, sometimes," Willow defended, though she was a bit deflated that Xander still didn't understand, and didn't appreciate the value of her after-class sessions with Ms. Mack. But she didn't completely blame him. Her explanation had been pretty lame. She hesitated, knowing she was treading in dangerous waters as far as disclosing the secret she'd been asked to keep. "Ms. Mack is actually pretty funny. She says she's a witch. She even showed me a little magic."
The point of light hovered between them, dancing briefly to Willow's delight before Leigh snuffed it by closing her fist around it, then opening her hand to prove its disappearance.
"How'd you do that?" Willow asked. With an eight year old's lack of tact, she grasped Leigh's hand in the both of hers to examine it more closely.
Leigh laughed and let herself be inspected. "It's just a parlor trick. Any witch in her second year could do it. I'll show you some time."
Willow looked up at Ms. Mack with awe clear in her eyes. Her expression shifted then, to one of concern. "It didn't burn?"
Leigh's heart leapt. And just like that, she softened to the girl and to her assignment. She recalled that Leda had had the same expression on her face once when she was five or so, after an incident, one of the earlier ones, when Tom restrained her from leaving an argument and had left a bruise on her wrist. Until then, she had been able to hide her marital problems from their young daughter. It was only when the concern on their daughter's face had turned to fear a year later that she truly started to resent her husband's need to control, then eventually despise the man himself. Willow's gentle probing manipulation brought her back to the task, literally, at hand. "No. Tickles, actually." You're a good kid, with a big heart, still. I hope your parents know how lucky they are, and keep you that way. If they can. As long as they can.
"Magic?" Xander's expression was still a little mystified.
Willow nodded, knowing the explanation wasn't sufficient, but bound by her promise to Ms. Mack to not provide more-at least not without asking her. "You know, uh, tricks with lights and stuff. But mostly it's serious stuff... reading and-and extra math and world history... That kind of thing."
Xander said nothing though the somewhat disgusted look on his face at the last made his position known. Willow accepted that, and just hoped he was okay with the explanation, for now.
They crossed the final street to his block. His was the third house down. Xander held the fence door open for Willow and the two friends made their way past the side of the building to the back entrance. It was closer to the stairs to the basement where Xander's play room with his various consoles set up on the family's throwaway wraparound multi-screen with the blown television tuner was.
"Is your mom home?" Willow asked. She wanted to be polite and say hello to let Xander's mother know she was visiting. Else, Mrs. Harris might never know she had anyone else in her home since she never seemed to interact with her son when he got home after school. That suited Willow fine. She got along with Mrs. Harris well enough. It was Mr. Harris she found a little scary, with his loud voice and boisterous manner and sometimes smelling of alcohol. But he worked a late shift as a mechanic in the Uni-Train depot and thankfully shouldn't be home until late, Xander had told her.
"Nope. Not today. Do you need to call home?"
Willow shook her head. She had already told her mother she would be staying late for a school activity-which was mostly the truth, as she did visit and in fact extended her session with Ms. Mack. The visits were never scheduled but somehow had become regular, and she visited Mack's basement office at least twice a week, from fifteen minutes to an hour. Today's visit had been fairly short and she still wouldn't be expected for at least another couple of hours before dinner. She hadn't mentioned going to Xander's house to pass the time until then. Her parents weren't fond of Xander, or more to the point, the Harrises. They headed for the basement.
As Xander was loading the cartridges and Willow read the blurb and screen-shots on the back of the now-empty product box, he unexpectedly picked up the previous conversation again. "So you do all this studying, that's really not studying?" He thought some more about it. "You know, word is she came in from some private school in Montana or Arkansas or Brazil or someplace like that... Some kind of weird alternate-method school or something."
Xander handed her a hand controller and booted the game. "Yeah. I heard that, too."
Xander's voice became suddenly soft. "You gonna transfer, Will?"
Willow laughed. "What?"
But Xander didn't say anything back.
"Transfer? To her school? No!" They watched the backstory of the game scroll past, both only paying half their attention to it. The backstories were always the same or similar for urban shooters like this program. Either you played the undercover cop, the mercenary hired by the victim's family to take revenge, or, if you had the right codes, the soldier in the crime syndicate. The narrative ended and Willow opted for the cop scenario. She always played that one, while Xander favored the mercenary. Later, they might try the other roles, though Willow never played the soldier. The warnings on the product box about the particularly adult nature of the violence and graphic sex of that scenario scared her more than it tickled her childish curiousity, as it did Xander's. Plus you had to pay extra for the special code that unlocked that narrative, so Xander, restricted by a boy's typical lack of funds, often just got the clean(er) version. Regardless, his parents never checked. "It's nothing like that, Xander. I'm not going to transfer. In fact..."
"I, um, wanted to thank you again for taking the time to tutor me. The things we talk about... They make things so easy. The Regents... we're taking them this year, in a couple months, and what you've shown me... it makes everything so clear. Like I know the question before it's even asked."
Leigh nodded, remembering a similar feeling when she was in Willow's position many years ago when her own mother had started taking her on walks together through the woods around their family farm. Of course, she would not have put it in the same terms Willow was using.
"Or-Or it's like the answers are written in the questions." Willow hesitated, then found she couldn't continue.
"What is it, Willow?"
"It's just that... I'm not sure what the point is, anymore. I mean, I'm grateful for you showing me what you've shown me, but now that I know what the game is, is there anything else but to play it out?"
Leigh frowned. "I'm afraid you've lost me, sweetie."
"I mean, everything makes sense, now. But will it make a difference? After the Regents, I'll place into the next levels of school, have a scholarship, and take a few degrees, like my father. Then I might get an internship at one of the big companies, be hired, work until I retire, then watch the teevee or game all day long as I live off my retirement plan. Isn't... Isn't there anything else?"
The question momentarily stunned Leigh. Aside from Willow's conception of what one did as a retiree in the late years of one's life, it was an adult question, yet it was not. And how do you provide an honest answer to a question you hadn't found the answer for yourself? It would be easy to become flippant, advise Willow it wasn't a question for an eight-year old, but that would tip her hand to the perceptive young girl. She would know Leigh was just like all the other adults in her life. Her father and mother. Her teachers. Snyder. Leigh had to tread carefully. "Well, I can't tell you the answer to that, Willow. The truth is, I'm not sure. What we talked about before, remember? I've had experiences that you wouldn't understand, would never understand, and vice versa. In my case... I told you, I have a daughter? She's a few years older than you. Everything I do now, she's always the first thing I think about, my first consideration. I think what works in my situation is that if she can exceed me, that would be enough. I would think the sacrifices I've made were worthwhile, if she exceeds me."
Leigh considered it before answering, "In whatever she does that gives her joy. Her craft, for example. A husband and family, maybe, though that better be many years down the road." She smiled at her musings. "Whatever. It would be enough if she was happier than I was. Or am."
Willow frowned. "What if she doesn't want to be happy?"
"What if being unhappy suited her more?"
Leigh found her mouth opening and closing a couple of times before she huffed, "Well, that's just ridiculous."
Willow's expression let Leigh know what she thought of that answer.
Reluctantly, Leigh relented. "You know what, Willow? You're right."
"I don't know what I was thinking, putting that kind of pressure on her. She needs to live for herself first. Even if that means the choices she makes aren't ones that make me happy. Thank you for pointing that out to me."
Willow smiled sheepishly and shrugged, but enjoyed the acknowledgement. "Does she go to the school you usually teach at?"
"The Coven...? Well, yes, I guess you could say she does... attend there."
"It sounds like a nice place," Willow said.
This is way too soon, Leigh thought. But if she handled this correctly, perhaps she could make more headway in her assignment today than she had in the months she'd already been here... "I think it is. It's, um, not anything like Sunnydale."
"And you miss it." It was a statement.
"I certainly do. It's where my daughter is. But more than that... " Leigh hesitated. "I left this society some years ago. It's... difficult being back here. In this way of life, I mean. The things we just talked about? About what's expected of you here? It's very different in the Coven. There are pressures there, too, of course, though I find them more tolerable than the ones I had with the life I used to live here. And it's not possible to cut off these two places from each other..." Leigh trailed off, more inside herself than out. She had not had to think about these things in a while.
Willow noticed and let the woman sit with her own thoughts. But she was a child still and began to squirm, the silence making her feel a little bored.
It brought Leigh back to the present. She shook her head in embarrassment. "Sorry."
Willow smiled and shrugged. "It's okay. I daydream sometimes, too."
"Do you really-?"
Willow quickly inserted herself before Mack could ask the next obvious question. "Maybe I could visit?"
"The Coven?" Beat. "Why not? Yes, you might like it. It may suit you." Leigh paused again to consider it further. "We even have an accredited high school and college degree program for a number of disciplines, believe it or not, though from what you've told me, your parents are more the traditional type and would probably not favor our... free form approach to education." Leigh realized she was sounding more and more like a college brochure and tried to ease back out. "But you're more than welcome to just visit. In fact, let me extend a personal invitation, and my formal offer. If you decide to visit, ask me, and I'll make the arrangements."
Had it been anyone else-child or adult-Leigh would have thought she'd been blown off. But she was satisfied with the answer because she knew Willow was sincere and would at least weigh it seriously.
"We talked about the Regents and where I might end up after, and I'm pretty sure her school is not for me." Unconsciously, she began playing her story as Xander set up the mercenary on his own screen.
"So she's just helping you prepare for the Regents next month?" There was a little color back in Xander's voice.
"Gods, I hate taking that thing. Why do they have to give it to you every year?" but Xander was back to being good old Xander. Willow was relieved.
Leigh checked the clock on the wall. "We still have some time left. Did you want to try the meditation again?"
Willow smiled and nodded. She enjoyed meditation. It was when the most extraordinary ideas came to her. She was beginning to see patterns in the quiet. At first, Ms. Mack had guided her in the white space with her soft voice, had set the context for the wanderings. She would bring them into forests dense with old-growth trees, or barren, icy mountains incapable of supporting life of any kind but the hardiest and most primitive. Or again, caves lined with the dark leathery skins and pinpoint eye-lights of bats and filled with the crackling whisper of centipede feet. Gradually, the silence itself was enough to start the journey, and she no longer needed the assurance of Leigh taking the lead.
Oddly, it was also usually the time she felt the woman opened up to her the most, when she knew her teacher was sincere in genuinely enjoying Willow's visits, else Willow might have ceased coming long ago. Ms. Mack seemed a bit... lonely. Even in talking about her home at the mysterious Coven, or her brief mentions of her daughter who she shielded from any or all prying eyes, certainly not when she was lecturing in a classroom full of students in various degrees of attentiveness or lack thereof, she seemed... not completely there. Had Willow been more experienced, she may have thought that strange, that the woman's priorities were, more often than not, somehow askew...
"Did you have anything in particular you wanted to bring into the quiet time?" Leigh was a practiced empathic witch, and sensed that she was the object of Willow's meditation. She wanted to stop that, reassert the boundaries between mentor and student, adult and child.
Her softly worded intrusion worked and Willow ceased that exploration. She shook her head and returned to the quiet. But she took the hint. No matter. Lately, meditation had been very enjoyable. She felt like she was on the edge of something in the quiet time, all her own. A breakthrough was waiting for her.
"We, um, do some reading, and discuss things. There's some really good practical things. Like shortcuts. They make understanding math problems easier." She thought back at how easy it was now to grasp the Calculus concepts that had made her pause just three months ago. Yes, she had been able to do them before, but they took a lot of time. Now, she could actually see the solutions. They seemed to instantly fall into place as she looked at the equations, as if she could see the concepts behind the theories, down to the level of the symbol-the glyphs and characters making up the mathematical language. Surely it would help in the Regents next month. Maybe if Ms. Mack agreed to tutor Xander, he'd score well enough to get into some accelerated courses next year, too. Then they could study together.
Willow's eyes had closed as she recalled another topic of conversation, the one from last time when she had first felt it, that thing that had stirred something deep within her soul. "Tell me more about your brand of knowing."
"What do you want to know?"
"By your tradition, in your Coven, you seek understanding. What do you do with that understanding when you've found it?"
Leigh considered it, then said, simply, "The best you can. Unfortunately, for most that means simply surviving."
"But there's more?"
"Honestly? I wouldn't know." Leigh shrugged apologetically. "I count myself among the majority on that."
Willow nodded at the honesty of the response. She left Leigh's side and went on. She thought she understood. The pleasure of Knowing filled her, and Knowing seemed just as pleased back. It was warm and happy to find a child in its home, after so long alone. "So what do you do with it after you identify it?"
"Do with it?" Leigh had to pause at that.
In her mind, Willow reached out...
"Oh gods..." she heard Ms. Mack mutter. "What did you... How did you-?"
"Holy shit, Will, what the fuck was that?" Willow opened her eyes to Xander peering at her, hovering next to her, concern all over his face. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine... why? What happened?"
"You went all glowy! Then the program played through to the end, in, like, 10 seconds." He ejected the cartridge and peeled back the cover to look at the disc, as if he could see a physical flaw that would explain what he had just seen.
"I... went all glowy?"
Xander put down the cartridge and frowned. "Well, your hands did, at least. And some of your arms, too." He reinstalled the cartridge. It booted as normal. "I guess I'll return it for an exchange. Bummer, though. Now we know how it ends, and how to fight the Boss... You sure you're okay? How are your hands?"
Xander was still frowning. "Maybe it was the controller and not your hands?" He took the device from her slightly trembling grasp. It seemed to be functioning normally enough. As he fussed with the buttons he did not notice how Willow had become pale, her eyes closing again as every bit of information from the program replayed itself in her mind in excruciating detail-not just the cop scenario, but the mercenary and the soldier, too, all within seconds, simultaneously. The product box warnings had not been exaggerated. The soldier's story was particularly violent and gory, the fucking explicit, and-oh, so cold because both were pointless. She felt nauseous, about to pass out...
Willow opened her eyes. Ms. Mack's entire basement office, was, in direct contrast to its normal poorly lit gloom, brilliant in the glow of thousands of pixie lights hanging and dancing around them.
"Oh," said Ms. Mack, finally. "You don't need me to show you how to do this one, then."
One month later...
Things are moving too fast, way too fast to convey in just a terse weekly data transmission. Jenny had to set up a phone line so I could call in at will. The problem now is there's no way to completely ensure a clean line, so to normalize it, make it look not too unusual that the calls were anything but mundane, I'm allowed to call in every few days regardless of need. Jenny also calls me or returns my calls, but less frequently. Our cover is old college friends who had recently reconnected after losing touch with each other. I was elected the loquacious one, apparently. No surprise there.
We're very careful during our conversations, often relaying the gist of the communication in the preliminary greeting-"How are you doing?" Okay, fine, good, great. The important details we keep for the weekly e-letter, so the rest of the conversation is often pure fluff.
In fact, we're so careful, I'm still not sure what Cylla's reaction was to this last month's exponential success of my meetings with Willow. Was she pleased? Angry? Or just indifferent, as normal? Was this welcome progress? Or did I screw up royally by helping Willow unlock the door to the world that lies beneath her own? Once opened, it's impossible to close again.
A week after the incident with the faerie lights in my office, Willow had a similar episode at her friend Xander's house. Her parents were not aware that she was with the young man, who evidently they don't quite approve of. Sheila was quite surprised when he called her that afternoon, in a full panic, that her daughter had collapsed and was lying passed out on the floor of his basement. Of course, it came to light that she had been visiting with me earlier. Much phone calling and accusations and admonishments and, unfortunately, Snyder involvement later, it was safe to say that I had made full contact with the alpha Rosenbergs. When it came to light that I had actually been sort of tutoring Willow with advanced history lessons since the standard ones offered by Snyder's school were so insufficient for her, of course, I was forgiven, though Xander was now firmly on Ira and Sheila's shitlist. Poor kid.
Willow had mentioned him a few times during our conversations before the incident. The impression I got was that they were strictly Platonic, comrades in unpopularity-and really, how far can you go in the smoochies and naughty touching department when you're only eight years old and your "old man" ten? I know I've been out of the loop way too long to have a realistic idea about what mud kids are doing these days, but can it be really very different than what kids in the Coven get up to? Then again... thank the gods there are so few boys in the Coven for Leda to get all insane and teen angsty about.
Or I could just be in denial. I have to admit, don't ask, don't tell has been my policy since Leda started getting her menses earlier this year. So, expert at the younger species? Not exactly.
Which is I guess why I can't really question Sheila for putting Willow in lockdown with respect to Mr. Harris. Willow looked utterly miserable the next time she came to visit. Also apologetic that the incident had uncovered our unscheduled "tutoring" sessions. Still, true to her word, she hadn't revealed the actual nature of our meetings. I felt bad about that, about asking her to keep the whole witchcraft and lessons in alternative metaphysics thing in her strictest confidence, because I know she's a naturally open child and not used to secrecy. But everything would go to hell rather quickly if what we were doing ever came to light. From what she told me after things had settled down and our visits got her parents' official approval, her fainting spell had everything to do with an impromptu second visit to the Cosmic. I feel guilty that Xander and his "too intense and pornographic" video game bore the brunt of the Rosenbergs' wrath instead, but I can't risk reaching out to comfort him. I'm sorry, Xander.
The upside of the situation is that I've been invited to dinner at the Rosenbergs in two weeks. This week, they will be busy enough as Willow and the other students of Sunnydale Elementary prepare to take their annual Regents exam. This is apparently a Big Deal, as it's a placement test and will determine the child's educational curriculum and applicable scholarships for the coming year. Willow seems quite calm about it, and I'm glad that our sessions have given her confidence that she can perform even better on it than she has before. To understate the matter, school is very important to Willow. Ira and Sheila are just as conversely excited-hence, their gratitude for my tutoring their gifted daughter, who was not nearly challenged enough even with her already advanced placement within the California education system.
As far as Willow's unexpected Talent goes, since her fainting spell she's had a number of additional episodes-many of them in my presence, so at the very least I was able to help her manage them while not keeping her altogether from further exploration, guided or independent. As to what exactly that Talent is, I still don't have enough knowledge of it to offer Jenny a hypothesis. It's not easily categorized, like Empathy, Telepathy, or Kinesis. From the light show, I know elements of the last are definitely present, especially given that Willow's faerie lights actually radiated heat.
As to the first two, I still haven't been able to establish a consistent connection to Willow to say if her Talent is at all proactively mental. I get flashes here and there, but I'm still relying mostly on instinct, on being able to read her open face and expressive eyes. But I've been reading reading since I was 15. Why the hell can't I read her? Quite obviously there's something there to read-hello, human girl we're dealing with here, but still, she's mostly a cipher to me, like we're not on the same page. Perhaps it's me. The Coven is slightly out of sync from this external world. Perhaps living there for almost eight years has made me out of phase, too? I don't believe so. I could scan others-Xander, the bully, Cordelia, Snyder-well enough. The logical conclusion is that it's Willow who's unique. But whatever the reason for her opacity, it's getting a bit frustrating that I can't get through it.
On an altogether different note, I'm sorely disappointed I can't use this new method of communication to widen my contact with Leda. Of course, we still have the weekly letters, but those were never enough to begin with. I have to admit, though, it is good to hear Jenny's voice, a little touch of home, such as it is. On our last call, I played up to Jenny that Leda was now her daughter and inquired after her, ignoring the stab of jealousy I felt that Jenny could see and talk to her every day, while I most definitely can't. Jenny caught on right away, so I know Leda is physically well and that Jenny is trying to keep her busy with her studies and preparing for her "debut." Golly. Do girls still debut these days? It was an honest enough gaffe, especially since Jenny's been out of the mud even longer than I-virtually her entire life, as her family is Gypsy, but I just about lost it. I hope no one was listening to that conversation, because I was fairly incoherent with trying to stop laughing for a solid two minutes. But Leda seems okay, which is all I want. Anyway, although I hate to admit it, the issue of how I can increase my communications with my daughter is truly secondary. Right now, I have to focus on Willow. I'll see Leda soon enough.
"Mr. Giles? I think I have something." Andrew's face popped up on the video-com.
Giles put down the book he had been reading-the Artaggio Journal, in middle Italian. He could tell right away from the young man's somewhat annoyingly smug expression that Andrew's "something" was not something small. "Yes. Come in, then."
"Actually, sir, it's something we recorded off the feed we're tapping. Your terminal isn't set up to play it properly. Can you come to the lab instead?"
Giles nodded, placed a marker in his book and gathered himself for the short trip down the hall to his assistant's laboratory. Although he would not admit it, he welcomed the break from the tomes he had been reading in his somewhat dusty old-world style den for the coolness of Andrew's computer lab. Andrew kept it at a consistent 20 degrees, for the sake of his many machines. The young man motioned him over. A telephone conversation was playing softly. "Listen to this!" He triumphantly turned up the speaker volume.
"...So, um, how is your daughter? Dana is her name, isn't it?" That was Maclay, the field operative.
Brief pause, then Maclay's handler, Calendar: "She's fine. Doing well, in fact. Of course, right now, school's her biggest thing, as it should be, and the boys..."
"Oh really? The boys, huh?"
"Well, you know how teenagers can be. All hormones and acne cream." There was an audible smirk in Calendar's voice. Giles enjoyed the sound and wondered idly if her face was as pretty as her voice. He found himself having to consciously maintain his detached expression. He had to, as Andrew was watching his face for his reaction to what he clearly thought was a significant discovery. Calendar continued, a little more seriously, "She'll be fourteen in a few months. We've already started preparing for her debut."
Pause. "Her what?"
"You know. Her debut. For her fourteenth birthday?"
Pause. Maclay snorted.
"What?" Calendar seemed genuinely confused.
"Okay, what?"M There was an annoyed edge in Calendar's voice.
Maclay burst out in a guffaw. It went on for some time. Enough for the corners of Giles' mouth to start twitching as well.
"S-Sorry," Maclay gasped. "It's nothing... Soooo, I, um, I'd like to get her a present, if that's okay with you, for her, um, debut." Maclay tried unsuccessfully to suppress another chortle. "Has she, um, mentioned anything about what she might like from her Aunt Leigh?"
"Oh yeah. A makeup kit. Make sure it has 'Harlot' shade lipstick-she was pretty specific about that. And purple eyeshadow," Calendar said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "And, oh, she did mention she'd like to start birth control. But you know, that's something I'd really like to get her myself-kind of a mother-daughter thing, you know...?"
Andrew lowered the volume as Maclay's belly laugh alternating with the sounds of her gasping for air began to overwhelm the tiny computer speaker. He turned to Giles excitedly. "So, what do you think?"
Giles had had to cover his mouth with his hand listening to the intercepted conversation. He kept it covered for several seconds as he composed himself. Finally, he ventured, "Why don't you tell me what you think?"
"...Well, it's significant, I'd say. All that codespeak about a debut? Don't you think it means that this Rosenberg thing is about to go all atomic?"
"That's Wells, the research assistant and their systems operator," Jonathan said. He adjusted the volume on the monitor and accidentally glanced at the impassive face of his demon lord. He grimaced. He had been trying to avoid doing that. "Uh, you know. Like me. Except him. For them."
Chaos nodded. The names and titles meant nothing to him.
"Hmmm... And you think there's no possibility that they were merely discussing a young lady's... birthday celebration?"
"And there's Ripper, my old mate, actual name Rupert Giles-Head Watcher, and pretentious boor-"
Chaos forestalled Ethan's chatter with a raised hand.
"Zero possibility. I mean, come on, 'debut?' Pretty dead giveaway. Plus all that stuff about makeup and birth control...?" Wells trailed off.
"I, uh, was hoping you could explain those."
"I'm at a complete loss."
"Miss Rosenberg turned eight in December, did she not?"
"Yeah." Pause. "Oh. You mean the teenager thing? Well, I figure the fourteen-year old stuff was part of the code. Maybe they're making their move on the fourteenth? That's just three weeks away."
"Think about it. How old is Calendar? 31? 32? On the young side to have a fourteen year old daughter, don't you think? And we haven't found anything about a kid on her file."
"Still, not impossible... What happened just before that?"
"Very little. They said hello, how're things at work? And the school? Blah blah blah, that kind of thing. Normalizing the conversation, I'm sure, to disguise the real stuff. Maclay confirmed what Wood told us, the whole school's caught up in the upcoming annual state exams. Gods, I remember those. Terrifying. Honestly, I don't think there was anything there."
"Has Wood confirmed if he's detected anything else?"
"Check with Wood. Let me know right away what he says, what's going on over there."
"Roger. Will do."
"And send me a full transcript. I want to go over it myself."
"Sure thing, Mr. Giles. But I really think it's this debut thing we should look hard at. Shake the witches down on that-"
"Andrew, just write it all up, and send it to me. Email it or whatever it is you do."
Jonathan stopped playback. "That's all. Giles left the room and Wells continued alone." He entered some keystrokes as he began the breakdown of his laptop. "Don't know how important any of that was, but at least we can confirm that we've got the Council. Anything Wells finds, we'll know, too. I'm feeding it 24/7 to the dataroom on 17. Password P-one-zero."
"Very well," Chaos said. "You may go."
Jonathan left without another word, leaving the demon lord and Ethan in the latter's office.
The office was the top floor suite of MirageTech's corporate headquarters in NYC, New York. It was a real private corporation, specializing in corporate and government data and financial services. It was a lucrative business and financed-perfectly legally-Chaos's growing enterprises here in the human realm. Ethan was its head.
He poured himself a couple of fingers of Scotch from his office pantry. "Well, that was typical Watcher for you. Much hemming and hawing and posturing at intellect while delegating the actual work to lower level flunkies-"
"There was something to his minion's musings."
Ethan stopped, frowning. "What? Wells? All that about the cotillion or whatever the hell those two witches were nattering on about?"
"I feel something, tugging at the fabric of the Cosmic. It is the little female. The minion of your rival is correct. Something will happen soon. My window here is closing. It must be coordinated, or this opportunity will be lost. I need the little female, and I cannot wait for your rivals to uncover what is occurring. By then it may be too late for this chance and there are no signs of another. You must look into this, now."
Ethan paused to let his master's words sink in, before throwing his head back and downing his drink in one swallow. It burned all the way to the bottom of his gut. He had feared this. Using the Sight hurt like hell. Or more specifically, like Qum-ak-atar. Like your brain's on fire, he thought, among other more delicate parts. He wanted a better idea of where to look before he put himself through the pain of a prolonged, blind Seek. He poured himself another few fingers, and downed it like the first. Well, as long as he remained in the Present, it shouldn't be too bad...
"Come here, Ethan." Chaos motioned to the large office chair behind Ethan's desk.
Ethan obeyed and dropped into the chair with as much nonchalance as he could muster, then braced himself for the demon's touch.
Chaos placed a large hand on his servant's shoulder and squeezed slightly.
Ethan felt a brief flash of pain that soon enough flared sharply to a constant roar of negative sensation. He gritted his teeth as the demonic energy penetrated his skin. Very mundane images of a young girl's life shot rapid-fire through his brain, raced down his spine, to be expelled through his very fundament, forced out by the next as his capacity was quickly reached. Xander, I'm sorry... Yes, Mom, I did it already... What does it mean? What does it mean? Ms. Mack, what does it mean? Hello, Wood. Hi Daddy...
"What else do you see? Look deeper. Deeper," Chaos ordered.
Oh gods, I won't be able to walk straight after this as it is... Ethan's eyes watered as Chaos pushed him forward, into Willow's near future, to some type of... standardized school test?
As the images stuttered on the functional MRI dome being lowered over Willow's head, it occurred to Ethan that selling his soul to a powerful demon and acting as its liaison and seeyo to the human world was turning out to be not as much fun as he thought it would be.
Ten days later...
Sheila Rosenberg was finishing her dinner preparation for the evening when the phone rang and interrupted her again. Willow had just finished the place settings for herself and her parents, though her father would be late again today and would eat his dinner later tonight, alone. Her mother wiped her hands on a dish towel and checked the incoming call data. It wasn't a number or name she recognized, but it wasn't a free area code, either. She steeled herself and picked up the receiver. "Sheila Rosenberg," she answered.
Willow watched a second more before returning to her task. Sheila was silent as whoever was on the other side of the conversation spoke at length. Perhaps they were introducing themselves, or maybe it was another telemarketer that had broken the privacy guard Ira had installed on their phone, the kind that got their entire spiel out in the first several minutes of the conversation, brooking no interruption from their hapless victim. She wanted to reprogram it to feed something nasty back to the callers who did that, but her father was worried about liability. She had tried to explain how it could be done discretely and without a trace but he had been steadfast in disallowing it. Willow finished and slid into a seat at the table to wait for her mother to finish the call and bring the entrée to the table.
Sheila's face lit up and she smiled brightly. Her eyes picked out her daughter sitting quietly at the dinner table, and Willow knew she was, yet again, the topic of her mother's so far one-sided conversation.
Finally, Sheila answered, "Well, that's wonderful news... She'll be very excited to hear-yes?" Her mother frowned. "Oh, so soon? Well, is there any way we can schedule for later this week, or perhaps even early next week? I'm fairly certain my husband Ira wouldn't be able to meet with you at such short notice." She laughed, a little nervously. "The truth of the matter is, a number of companies and schools have asked to meet with us, all in the past few days since the scores were calculated. It's all been a little sudden. He hasn't been able to schedule time off. Willow did so well on this year's exams, of course, many organizations have shown interest-"
Another one, Willow mentally marked off in her head. This one made the fourteenth such call since she'd taken the Regents four days ago. At this point, it had better be a large company or school or they wouldn't stand a chance since her parents were now turning down meeting requests outright from organizations they judged to be mediocre or less prestigious-
"Oh, yes, I understand very well that a corporation like MABELL would not pose an idle, uh, tender offer, and I am more than sure Mr. Rosenberg and I would very much like to hear the details of this opportunity you're offering Willow."
Mentally, Willow shrugged and turned her thoughts to Xander. She had not seen him for two days, since the morning after their scores, like all the students statewide, had been sent to their respective families. Xander's father had lashed out and struck him, stupidly Willow thought, when they found he had not scored well enough to qualify for any external scholarships or even internal discounts for the coming year. On his parents' income, scholarships and discounts were something of a necessity. Still, what was the point of hurting his son for failing to be brilliant? The Regents were notoriously difficult. The tests were written by a sophisticated AI and were progressive, lasting as long as the student could answer the questions. As far as they knew, only Willow had taken it to the limit and exhausted it. With the enhancements brought on by Ms. Mack's tutoring, she had even finished well before the scheduled time-out. But for anyone else, the programs were designed for students to ultimately fail. Willow hoped Xander was okay. Since her parents had forbidden her to see him after school and pretty much all her classes had previously been accelerated beyond his grade level, the only time she could catch up with her friend was in the morning, before classes began...
"Well, we might be able to... This Thursday? Oh, I'm sorry, I'm afraid we do have an appointment-or actually, appointments that morning and afternoon..."
Thursday was also when Ms. Mack would be coming over for dinner, Willow recalled with a smile. The first date they tried, late last week, had to be canceled and rescheduled for this Thursday, as her father's company had him on a new project that had him coming home late often and he had been unavailable that night. She was glad she could finally introduce the witch to her parents. Not that she'd introduce Ms. Mack as such, of course...
Sheila's face fell into a somewhat flustered frown. "Oh, I really don't think it would be appropriate to tell you who we'll be meeting that morning..."
Willow made another mental note that she did not like the MABELL Corporation very much and filed it away into the archives of her brain. They seemed rather pushy. And rather sneaky.
"Well, they run throughout the afternoon... We may be able to schedule for..." Sheila was clearly flustered by the MABELL representative's conversational technique. "Well, how about 5 PM Thursday? That's pretty much the very earliest we can accommodate you."
Willow's eyes widened. Ms. Mack would be coming at 5:30 PM for dinner. That was cutting things too close. She jumped to her feet to signal her mother.
Unfortunately, Sheila knew very well of the potential conflict and turned to face the wall to better ignore her frantically waving daughter.
"Very well, we'll see your representative then. Will that be yourself...? No? Okay, please spell that..." She scribbled the name down on the notepad. "Ms. Michelle V-I-Z-A-T-T. Unusual name, that... Alright. Yes, thank you again for your call. Thank you. Good bye." Sheila put the receiver back to its cradle and turned to her uncharacteristically very angry daughter. "Well, that took a while. Willow, come along. The chicken's getting cold."
"Mom! Did you forget that Ms. Mack is coming for dinner Thursday at 5:30? We won't have time to see anyone else before-"
Sheila finally sagged. "Yes, I know. I think we're going to have to put back dinner with your teacher again, Willow. In fact, another day altogether might be best. I know she's been a great help to you this year, but really, meeting with so many corporate representatives that morning and afternoon to listen to their presentations, I can't imagine we'll be anything but exhausted come 5:00, anyway. We won't make for good company, sweetheart."
Willow felt like crying. Her emotions, as they often did, interfered with her ability to articulate her anger and hurt. Since the results of the Regents and the ridiculous constant phone calls-frilly heck, since the day she was frickin' born, she had not asked for anything for herself, but this... first Xander, now Ms. Mack...
Sheila continued. "You'll have to ask Ms. Mack to come another night. I'm sure she'll understand, she should know about how these scholarship appointments have to take priority. Maybe the Wednesday after? Hopefully by then, we'll have decided which ones to accept, then we'll be able to relax and entertain your teacher properly." She stepped around her daughter, avoiding her tear-filled gaze and therefore oblivious to the growing defiance on her face. She picked up the now room-temperature tofu chicken to bring it to the table. "It actually worked out well, if you think about it. Genelecom and Glory in the morning, Altrea and MABELL in the afternoon. The universities will be on Friday and Monday. Yale and Oxford Friday, and St. Petersburg, Stanford, and Tokyo on Monday. We can listen to all the serious offers right away, on the first few days. We probably should have put off Altrea, but they called first, unfortunately, and I think it would be bad form to cancel so close to the appointment..." Sheila turned, finally, to receive Willow's acknowledgment of the change in plans, but Willow had left to go to her room after "It actually worked out well..." She pursed her lips briefly before going to the foot of the stairs. "Willow Danielle Rosenberg! Come eat your dinner!"
In her room, Willow ignored her mother to write in the journal she had been keeping the past few months, at Ms. Mack's suggestion. She would not take back the dinner invitation to Ms. Mack. Come Thursday, her parents would meet her mentor and friend and acknowledge, even if grudgingly, her ability to make her own associations and decisions for her own life.
Four days later, morning...
Not long after Glory Enterprises Inc. representative Lilah Morgan had shown up for her 9:00 appointment with the Rosenbergs, Willow had felt uneasy that the woman was all kinds of bad. After being introduced to her and shaking her hand, her mind was made up to that opinion. The skin of her hand still crawled at the sense memory of the woman's virtually reptilian grip. Willow had quickly excused herself by claiming to be feeling a little sick then hurried back upstairs to the second floor landing, where she could still listen to the conversation between the lawyer and her parents below. When Morgan had begun her presentation using the massive portable workstation emblazoned on all sides with the red and white Glory logo, Willow had retreated further, into the sanctuary of her room. She was grateful her presence really wasn't needed for these interviews, and was not a little bit resentful that her parents had kept her home from school to briefly show her face to Morgan and her ilk.
Thirty minutes later, Ira was carefully reading through the eighth of ten pages of the Glory contract. It was taking him a while to make sense of it, for all the zeroes on the bottom line of Willow's proposed compensation. Beside him, Sheila was actually trembling. Across from where they sat on their living room couch, in their matching stuffed chair, the attractive, not-quite-middle-aged, well-dressed woman lawyer tapped the tip of her polished gold pen on her leather binder, from which she had produced said contract. She was likely unaware of the effect of the tapping, but it was distracting Ira from finishing the rather substantial boilerplate that started on page eight and continued to the end of the document. But this was his only child's future he was considering, and he doggedly persisted in trying to read through every word of the lawyerese he was slogging through.
Sheila interpreted the tapping as an indication of the woman's apparently impatient nature. "Lilah, are you sure you wouldn't like some coffee, or water?"
"That's very kind of you, Sheila, but I'm fine, thank you." Morgan flashed a brief smile and continued tapping. How these two middle-class dullards produced the little genius that had her Boss's panties so soaking wet you could hear it when she walked past was beyond her. It was taking them forever just to read through ten perfectly legible pages of completely legitimate, filtered, contract law. She tried as discreetly as possible to check her watch. She was very much aware that in thirty minutes or so, the idiots from Altrea would show up for their shot at Willow. But she knew they were a company of also-rans, and didn't pose a serious threat. It was the other two today that concerned her. Genelecom and MABELL. 3PM and 5PM respectively. It all depended on whether she could get the parents to sign the contract now, within the next twenty minutes, before she left. Then it wouldn't matter what the other two tried. It was only if she could not get them to sign that she would then need to call in the services of the A-level retrieval team she'd brought with her. They waited around the corner. She figured her success rate at this point was 50-50-the offer she'd brought was that good, they'd be crazy not to accept it-but it was dropping every minute they hedged.
"Uh, Ms. Morgan?"
Morgan turned her smile on again. "Lilah, please, Ira."
Ira smiled back tentatively. "Sure, Lilah, thank you. I just had a question about the first clause on page three. The second paragraph? You'll, uh, have to excuse me, I'm just an inventory system programmer, this is a little over my head. Could you explain what that clause is about, plainly?"
Inwardly, Morgan sighed. This was the point that would be the stickler, for sure. "Certainly, Ira. It's a standard part of these open-ended contracts. It precludes Willow from entertaining employment offers, whether as a consultant or of course for a full salaried position, from competitive businesses, while she is under Glory Ent's employ. Of course, that also means that any research done off company premises, even in an individual, informal capacity, if in an industry that Glory competes in could not be marketed by any entity but Glory Ent. "
"Well, that's pretty far-reaching, given the company's level of diversification, don't you think?" Sheila asked.
Confidently, Morgan replied, "Our competition in a variety of fields is one of the company's many strengths. It guarantees that wherever Willow's interest eventually lay, there will be a place for her at Glory Enterprises."
Ira looked uneasy. "But this contract is open-ended, meaning Willow would be with the company indefinitely...?"
Morgan's smile was dazzling. "Exactly. I hope you can both see the benefit of that arrangement? As long as Glory is happy with her performance, she'll always have employment, and she'll be well-compensated."
"But, uh, she can never choose to leave herself?"
"Well..." Morgan frowned as if the logic of such a question eluded her. "Why would she want to? I mean, realistically, her guaranteed compensation for the first five years alone according to paragraph two would be enough for any but the most extravagant lifestyles for... at least thirty years!"
"It's undoubtedly generous," Sheila said reluctantly.
"I think Willow will find that Glory rewards her most valuable employees accordingly," Morgan assured. "Of course, that's not to say that there's not still further room at the ceiling. I know you may be thinking, this is too good to be true..."
Sheila and Ira shared a look.
"...and that's certainly true. This contract is of course for a mutually beneficial arrangement. Please remember that there are points on Willow's side, as described in clause three, that she'll need to maintain in order to continue climbing within the company. Glory's largesse is not a one-way street, I can tell you as a lifelong employee. If we require fewer of Willow's services in the future, there is a possibility her salary will be downsized accordingly. But again, the first five years' compensation are guaranteed if you and she sign the contract today."
Another shared look. "Today?"
Morgan nodded. "Were you able to get to the last clause?" Helpfully, Morgan gently relieved Ira of the copy of the contract he clutched and she forwarded to the last page, handed the papers back as she tapped the relevant paragraph. "This is strictly a limited-time offer. There are two other California residents that we would like to pursue if Willow refuses our offer. With the amount of Glory resources we're putting into this contract, if Willow declines, we will re-allocate those resources to attempt to sign our secondary choices. Now neither is a Willow, certainly," Morgan smiled, "but as you know, signing the cream of the crop is highly competitive, even on the fourth, fifth, even sixth tier of candidates. Indeed, we're well aware that Genelecom and MABELL have dispatched representatives to meet with the families of the second and third ranked candidates, as they have with you, even as we speak. Our company is different in our strategy in that we've loaded all the resources we've allocated for this year's recruitment under this one contract. We want Willow, make no mistake. We will not make a move for our secondary choices unless I fail here today." Morgan looked appropriately mournful at that prospect. She cleared her throat. "I hope you appreciate what position that puts Glory in. We need to act quickly to ensure we'll still have the opportunity to sign those individuals if Willow chooses to go elsewhere. To that end, we ask that you make a decision immediately."
Sheila and Ira looked at each other. This was way too big a decision to make within twenty minutes of hearing a life-altering proposal. Something passed between them, and Morgan knew, as soon as Sheila closed her eyes as Ira just barely shook his head, that she had failed, even before Ira turned to her. "Ms. Morgan, we certainly do appreciate your coming today, but we can't sign this contract without further consideration, perhaps even consulting an attorney. Yours is the first offer we've heard and it is beyond generous, but this is our daughter's future, her life, and we need to hear all options. I'm sorry, but-"
"Before you give me a final negative answer, Ira, please remember that the only reason I've asked you to respond now is because our competitors have the advantage due to their method of recruitment. But that's not your concern, it's ours. We believe that, ultimately, when you've heard what they're offering your family compared to the offer I've presented to you this morning, that you'll know ours was the only offer worth considering after all. But it's ridiculous for me to ask you to take my word for that. So if you'll look again at the limited-time clause, you'll see that you do have until 10:00PM Eastern US, or 7:00 PM tonight, to accept or decline this offer. I assume that you will soon be meeting with representatives from Genelecom and MABELL?" Morgan knew full well the answer but made her face the perfect picture of curiosity.
Sheila nodded. "Later today, in fact."
"Perfect," Morgan said. She handed over her business card. "Listen to their presentations. Compare what they tell you with what I've said today. Call me tonight to give me your final answer, alright? If you decide not to sign by seven tonight, of course, we'd still like to talk, but just know most of what's offered in this contract won't be in the second draft, or may be substantially altered."
Beside him, Ira felt Sheila relax just a bit. They wouldn't be able to consider the offers from schools, but at least they'd have some time to discuss the major corporate offers. And if the terms did change, perhaps some of the restrictions would be negotiable, too. It sounded like the door was still open, even if only partially.
"That's more than fair, Ms. Morgan," Ira said.
Morgan didn't bother to remind him to use her first name. She stood and Ira and Sheila followed to take the hand she extended for their handshakes. "Thank you for the audience, and for your hospitality."
As soon as she'd exited the Rosenberg home and Ira closed the door behind her, she reached for her smartphone and hit a quick-dial. The party she called picked up as she reached the sidewalk and unlocked the door of her expensive automobile. "Yeah?" It was a man's voice, with a faint Irish brogue.
"Scenario B. Have your people in place by thirteen-hundred local time. Genelecom's up at fifteen-hundred."
"Got it," the man answered. "Local thirteen-hundred for a fifteen-hundred appointment."
Morgan drove the small distance back to her hotel room.
"Okay, you can do this."
I clutched the bottle of wine in my sweaty grasp and looked up the driveway of the Rosenberg home.
"Damn," I muttered, I was a little early. Okay. A lot early. Almost 30 minutes, in fact. I guess I miscalculated the efficiency of the Sunnydale public transportation system. I suppose I hadn't noticed as I used the time sitting on the bus to rehearse my spiel over and over in my head. How do you do, Ira and Sheila? It's such a pleasure to meet you. You've got such a wonderful daughter. I enjoyed the time we've spent together. I believe Willow and I have grown to be very good friends the past few months, which is why it pains me to tell you that I believe she's the subject of a fairly old and somewhat vague prophecy involving a world-ending apocalypse. I'm a practicing witch, so believe me, I know what I'm talking about. In fact, from our meetings these months at which time I gave your daughter an abbreviated history of the mystical nether realms and exposed her to some very arcane, dangerous arts, she could very well be the doom-bringer herself. In other words, Sheila and Ira, your daughter is a ticking mystical time bomb in grave danger of blowing herself up and all the rest of us with her, which unfortunately is not just a metaphor for the mud world, either. All this is why I really think your daughter ought to come with me to visit the elders and seers of my Coven, so they can find a safe way to defuse her and whatever part she's to play in this-once more, admittedly vague-prophecy. Of course, we'll take care of her transport, including the masking portals she'll need to pass which unfortunately we cannot allow you access to, her lodging during her visit of our mystically shielded facility, and, should we find she'll need to stay with us for an extended period of time, half the tuition fee our academy charges. Now please stop looking at me like I'm a kook, I'm self-conscious enough about all this as it is.
Yeah, that sales pitch definitely needs work.
Of course, I won't really be pitching any of it to Ira and Sheila. With Jenny's counsel and Cylla's consent after Jenny impressed the fragility of Willow's situation to her, I've made up my mind to appeal directly to Willow, and Willow alone. It's the only shot I have at a getting her to return with me to the Coven. Sure, what had happened the past few months was way more than I think even Cylla could have dreamed for as far as determining Willow's possible candidacy as a component of Artaggio's prophecy, but there's still so much about her that's a mystery. And now that I find myself at the tail end of my part of the project, I've discovered something else. Whether Artaggio was just a suicidal madman or gifted with true Foresight by the gods, I do know because I've seen it and felt it myself that she has power, and every child with power needs guidance to turn that power to Talent. That's number one. Number two, if Artaggio was right, and there's even the slightest chance... I don't want Willow involved in an apocalypse, in any way, shape, or form. Not as its instrument, not as the sacrificial victim-hell, not as an innocent bystander among the rest of us billions of innocent bystanders. And I will try, even if I fail, to push further than the task that I unwillingly took so many months ago, just so that won't happen. I'll convey the need-I will impress on her the absolute urgency-to visit the Coven, for her sake as well as for us all.
Still, the parent in me screams that this is absolutely criminal, that my even considering asking Willow to make this decision without her parents' consent is so wrong, on so many different levels. She doesn't deserve this pressure. Hell, she doesn't deserve any of this. She's a good kid-a good person. Ira and Sheila deserve to know that I'm putting this pressure on their daughter. Will Cylla take the steps to protect her, even if it means risking everyone else? Jenny thinks she will, but I can't be sure and I so wish I was.
Tonight is in fact a self-inflicted punishment. It's a way to expiate the burden of guilt I feel coming because I know very well that regardless of all that, I will ask Willow to leave the world she grew up in, the only life she's known. I will ask her to subject herself to a strange new life of restrictions at the Coven, and I will ask her not to alert her parents about it. Tonight is about making myself feel horrible about this, to put myself to the test. I'm going to look Ira and Sheila in the eye, and know that I was too much of a coward to tell them outright what I believed was happening and might happen to their daughter. Then I will walk away tonight fully resolved that it was still the right way to handle this.
Now whether what I'd so painstakingly developed with Willow these past months is enough for her to walk away from the future as she always thought it would unfold for her or not, that was the line I would not cross. I could debate, cajole, try to guilt her into coming with me. Hell, I could beg on my hands and knees, but if she says no, I'll accept that and go back to the Coven with nothing more than the knowledge I had gained and the not-so-bad memories of my time in Sunnydale getting to know a shy, extraordinary young girl. Cylla can decide if she'll push for more with a second agent, but I will be done, and just hope that my actions helped more than they hurt.
The lights were on inside which made sense as Sheila was still unemployed and would be home, as would Willow. I didn't think Ira would be home yet. I debated whether I should continue to their porch and announce my early arrival, or take a walk or two or several around the block in what I knew would be a futile attempt to clear my head just a little more.
As I weighed what to do, a wave of sadness filled me. Whether Willow agreed to visit the Coven or not, I would likely not see her for much longer after today. For all my impatience to go home to Leda, I had grown fond of the earnest, endearing girl. I was fairly certain Willow would be open to spending the time with me before her parents entertained me. Perhaps we could sit under the white elm at the front of the house and just chat, not as mentor and protégé, but as friends, simply, finally. It may be the last opportunity before I irrevocably damaged that very friendship with my final revelation.
It was a typical California summer day, warm and not a little muggy with the threat of a thunderstorm, which helped me to the easiest decision I made thusfar today. I would see if my young friend could sit with me until dinner. I started up the path to the porch.
Just as I reached the stoop, my assailant came at me from the right. I had noted the sewer repair van parked outside the Rosenberg home as I strolled from the bus stop, but honestly hadn't thought much of it. What saved me was the fact that whoever he was or whatever faction he represented, he was broadcasting his malicious intent enough for one of my first years to feel him. Being aware of him as he tackled me into the iron porch railing allowed me to twist enough that the rail caught me midriff rather than at the neck as he intended. Unfortunately, it knocked the wind out of me and effectively crippled me from casting a spell or even crying out. I swung the wine bottle at his head but I was weakened and the damned thing refused to crack, but just kind of bounced off his temple and made him mad. He grabbed me by the arm with one hand and wrapped the other arm around my neck and dragged me back toward the van, I'm sure with the intent to finish me in private.
Willow looked down at the front lawn from the second floor window of her bedroom, her face full of horror at what she had just witnessed.
Sheila jumped up from her seat on the sofa at the sound of her daughter's scream. "Willow-?" Ira did the same. Across the coffee table from them, the MABELL representative, the woman who introduced herself to them just ten minutes ago as Michelle Vizatt, remained seated. A strange look came to her face-an "oh shit" look, but one quickly replaced by a small, odd smile.
Willow ran to the edge of the second-floor landing. "They're outside! A man! He attacked Ms. Mack!"
"Daddy, help her, PLEASE!"
Ira rushed to the front door, Sheila behind him...
The agent dragged me almost effortlessly toward the van. I couldn't put up much of a fight with his arm choking me. His other hand over my mouth and nose ensured I could get no air to breathe much less cry out. The rear door opened from inside. I could see that another agent, a woman, a blonde, also dressed in grey worker coveralls, had opened the door. She would be pretty if she weren't being such a bitch. Computer equipment lined the walls of the van's interior. On the floor lay three bodies, two women and a man, all in business suits with the appropriate number of briefcases in various states of disrepair, as if they'd been rifled through. Oddly, the bodies themselves were relatively unmolested. From the brief second I scanned them, I knew they were dead. Then I saw that all three had bullet holes with varying placements and states of neatness in their heads.
The agent wrapped around me released his chokehold while keeping his hand over my mouth. I felt his hand on my shoulder blades, ready to either break my neck or push me forward into the van or both as the agent inside reached behind her back for a silenced pistol I assume had been tucked inside her wide utility belt.
Suddenly, the pressure on me from behind released. Instinctively, I reached out to grab the edge of the right door and slammed it in the face of the female agent with the gun. She reached out with her gunhand from the other side, and I grabbed and swung the left door closed. I could hear the multiple crunches of breaking wrist bones and the gun dropped to the ground as she screamed.
Turning around, the first agent was on the ground, wrestling with another, a tall, bald black man on top of him-
Wood looked up at me as he struggled with my assailant. "Not... a... good... time...!" he growled. They seemed to be physically stalemated as they grappled with each other, unable to effectively throw their fists as they were wrapped in each other, though Wood's jacket gave him a disadvantage in that it gave the operative, an equally large man, shorter but more muscled with dark hair and deep set eyes, an easier hold on Wood's arms. I looked inside for something, anything, to help him. My mind raced through my spell catalogue but they were coming up all "D"s and no "O"s... "Go... inside!" Wood ground out. "If they're out here..."
They're in there! I spun and ran for the front door. The door was wide open, Ira was standing in the doorway, Sheila behind him, and a third, in shadow, behind her. "Sheila!" I screamed.
Sheila disappeared as the agent behind her, a woman in a business suit I now saw, did something to her, then pushed her to the side.
"Leigh Mack--?" Ira said.
He crumpled within the doorway as the agent brought something shiny and black down over the back of his head.
It left the agent, a woman with long dark hair and large dark eyes, in her mid-thirties, framed by the doorway alone, but still in shadow. She locked eyes with me, and damnit if she didn't smirk. In a second, as I launched myself forward, she pulled Ira, moaning, all the way inside and slammed the door shut just as I threw my shoulder at it, jarring myself painfully. It was a steel-reinforced door. "Willow!" I bellowed, hoping she was still upstairs, away from the agent, and could still hear me from the open second storey window. "Stay away from the woman inside, Willow! I'm coming!"
Without hesitating, I ran to the nearest window. The homes here were older, some still original to the twentieth century when suburban housing developments to support the new chip manufacturers at the dawn of the Infotech Revolution required cheap housing to accommodate the influx of workers. The front door not withstanding, I was hoping the rest of the house hadn't been similarly updated. The gods were smiling down on me for once. I wrapped my arm in my light summer jacket and drove through the wooden muttons and glass panes with my forearm and elbow. I hoped it would draw the agent's attention away from Willow. I had no luck on that score as, unmolested, I was able to clear the glass from the frame, ignoring the blare of the house alarm, ignoring the new pain of the cuts on my arm where some of the glass and wood shred through my thin jacket and sliced me, and climbed inside. I dropped down and found myself in the living room. Ira was no longer at the front door, but Sheila was. She was lying face down in a pool of her own blood. The back of her head was a bloody mess. I knelt by her and turned her gently over, but she did not respond. The blare of the alarm continued though reduced to intermittent staccato bursts, which meant it had already been two minutes and the police would be here soon. Hopefully, they would bring an ambulance. Hopefully, it wouldn't be too late. I remembered the door and unlocked the deadbolt and swung it wide open. Immediately, the last of the day's sunlight poured in. It hit the pool of blood, making it shimmer. In that instant, I realized that the red framing Sheila's pale face wasn't entirely liquid. It was shocking red hair. Something clicked, but I put it away. Willow needed me now.
I stumbled upstairs and headed in the general direction of the front of the house, praying to all the gods I didn't believe in to keep Willow safe, that I wasn't too late.
"Willow! Willow Rosenberg!"
I froze. I didn't recognize that woman's voice.
"If you don't come out from wherever it is you're hiding, Willow, I will kill your father."
I quietly made my way back downstairs toward the kitchen, from where the voice was calling. At the doorway, Willow was crouching, trying to peer into the kitchen while remaining hidden. I crept up to her and lay my hand on her shoulder.
Of course, she jumped, but thankfully made no noise other than the softest whimper. When she saw me, the relief on her face was so brilliant. But I motioned her away from the doorway and took a deep breath. Damn. I should have picked up that pistol the other assassin dropped. I internally went through my spell catalogue, and found one that I might be able to use. I didn't have enough time to debate it. Pushing Willow to the side with a look in my face that clearly told her to stay put, I walked cautiously into the kitchen.
The agent stood, her back to the rear door, ready to bolt. She held Ira in a choke hold, a pistol to his head. His eyes were closed. I think he was unconscious, which meant the woman in front of me was actually holding him up. Strong. Unusually strong. As soon as she saw me enter, she pointed her weapon at me instead. "You're not Willow."
I blinked, stupidly, before recovering. "Hey, you put that gun down and I'll be whoever you want me to be."
"Who are you?" she demanded. "Who do you represent? There weren't supposed to be any more appointments besides mine tonight!"
Appointments? What the hell-? "Listen, crazy lady, I don't know you, and I don't really want to. But I tripped the alarm when I broke the window to get inside. The police are on their way over here now. Your cover really is blown all to hell. There's no place for you to go. Certainly nowhere with Willow, and she's really the one you want, isn't she? The one you were sent to retrieve? Live and undamaged...?"
I noticed a flicker of doubt in the woman's eyes as I worked my Talent. She seemed to loosen her chokehold on Ira...
"LET MY DAD GO!"
I felt myself lifted, literally, off my feet and propelled forward from behind, into the corner into a rolling cart with the microwave. My face smacked into the front of the appliance and I only saw stars for a brief moment. I had been closer to Willow so I felt the impact of her emotion first. When I was able to look up a split-second later, I saw the agent similarly pushed backward into the opposite corner, to the back door, Ira with her. Her pistol hand that she had been holding over Ira's shoulder hit the glass panes of the door which shattered. She dropped the gun just as she released Ira who fell heavily to the floor. The weapon skittered across the floor. Willow tried to scramble over the toppled breakfast table and chairs to her father's side, but he had fallen dangerously close to the agent who no longer seemed in my thrall and in fact had focused all her attention on, apparently, the real threat in the room-Willow. She rose and, as if in a horror show, her face seemed to morph into a hideous mask. "Witch!" she hissed. Her lips curled back to reveal a mouthful of elongated teeth.
Willow shrunk back. I lunged and managed to grab her wrist and pull her back toward me as the demon approached. At first, when I grasped her wrist, I almost released my grip. Willow was on fire, her skin glowing.
Before I could determine what that bit of information meant, and if we could possibly use it to get out of this mess, the back door burst open from the outside in. A large chunk of the door caught the agent-demon on the back as she had been advancing on us. Before she could fall in on us, however, she jerked backward, a look of shock on her face. All three of us looked down to see what had restrained her-a meter long skewer was protruding from her belly, coated to its sharp tip with black slime that we all three simultaneously realized was her blood. She looked over her shoulder to reveal-
Truly one of the biggest, ugliest things to be found outside Bosch's painting of Hell. It had little choice in the matter, as it was huge, a hulking thing, 2 and a half meters at least, but missing one of my top criteria for what I believe are otherwise fairly liberal beauty standards-a head. The thing was all twisted muscle under large, glittering armor scales. It was two thirds torso and the rest short and muscular legs. Its arms reached to the floor and ended in the afore-mentioned skewers, one of which held the agent-demon aloft to twitch and jerk on the tip of its appendage. She gamely tried to reach for its shoulders, though, to find the leverage to pull herself off the larger demon.
If I thought that things couldn't get more bizarre, I was very much mistaken. From behind the headless monstrosity, there emerged... a man. Tall but slim, forty or so, with wavy brown hair, a high forehead, and a very pronounced smirk. What is it with all these smirking bad guys? He was well-dressed in a three-piece business suit. "Out of the frying pan, love?" He had a proper British accent. He cocked his head at Willow, and the cold mirth in his eyes turned hot and exponentially more ugly. "Hello, Willow. I believe you'll be coming with me. There's someone I just know you're dying to meet." He moved to step around his pet demon but the agent demon, still gamely trying to free herself from the larger monster, caught him on the side of his head with one of her flailing arms, sending him sprawling to the far side of the room. "Bugger..." he groaned. He raised his head. His forehead was covered in blood. Red blood. Human. He was human-I think.
Ira moaned and stirred a little as the man had fallen past him and clipped him on the shoulder. Willow saw it right away. "Daddy!"
I managed to keep my grip on her arm and spun her to face me. "Willow, no! Listen to me! It's y-us they're after! We go, they follow, away from your dad." She hesitated. "He'll be okay, but only if we go!"
That was enough to shake her. Remembering the Brit still groaning on the kitchen floor, I grabbed the agent's gun, hoping I wouldn't have to use it since I hadn't a clue how, and shoved it into my pocket before turning. Grabbing Willow by the arm, we bolted to the front door, still gaping wide open. I hurried Willow over Sheila's body, only briefly reaching out to Touch her. It was only confirmation of what I'd feared. I shuddered. Touching recently turned bodies with my Talent always felt so cold. It's probably the residual aura finally leaving the shell.
"We have to leave, Willow! The ambulance is on its way for them. We need to draw the demons away, or they won't be able to get through to your parents." I forgave myself this lie, there was no time for mourning Sheila.
Willow hesitated only briefly before nodding and following me out the door. We tumbled outside, the sun was setting. What time was it? The van with the bodies in suits and the assassins was gone. I could see Wood sitting back against a tree near where the vehicle had been parked and his fight with my assailant had happened, his eyes closed. I stumbled toward him, Willow on my heels. "Wood!" Willow and I shouted simultaneously.
His eyes opened, but they were unfocused. His head lolled to the side to face us.
"Who-?" I asked.
"Council of Watchers," he said.
The Council? The Council was somehow involved with all this? I could feel my ire rising, but the man had saved my life, perhaps by sacrificing his own, and I wasn't picky about who my allies were just now. "Do you have any backup? Anyone to help us?" Please say yes!
"N-No... I'm... alone."
"Had no idea... Who the hell...?" He mumbled.
"There was this woman... this morning," Willow broke in. "From one of the schools, or the companies..."
I shook my head. "We'll sort it out later. We have to get out of here-" There was a blood-curdling shriek from within the house. The she-demon, from the sound of it. Plus the other one didn't have a mouth from what I could tell... Where the hell are the goddamn cops with their goddamn guns and ear-splitting sirens when you need them?
"H-Here," Wood said. He pushed something metal and sharp into my hand. I was about to protest that I couldn't use weapons, had never been trained in them, when I saw it was a set of keys he'd given me. He motioned to a red sedan parked close to where the van had been. "I followed your bus here," Wood said. His voice was weaker than before.
Okay. It was a plan. I tried to work my arm under his shoulder to help him up and he gasped sharply, clutching his chest. I noticed then the large blood stain and the bullet hole in his jacket. "That's NOT gonna work, Maclay! Just take Willow and GO!"
I eased him back down and he sighed in relief.
If only I knew how to drive. I don't think joy rides on tractors when you're 16 years old count.
I barely caught how Wood's eyes widened as he gasped "Go now!"
I turned to confirm the horror that was in his eyes, and the headless demon was upon us.
Willow shrieked as its arm swept toward me from my left in a wide arc, like a scythe through wheat. She gripped my right wrist and the spell that had been on my lips just exploded from my mouth, powered by Willow's fear and horror. The demon's arm caught my shield full on. But the spell was only half-cast, and a pain so intense it threatened to put me down shot through my side. The backlash of energies did catch the monster, and it flew back toward the Rosenberg's porch where its human had just emerged from the front door, his forehead covered in blood and furious.
I spared a quick glance down at the bloody mess of my arm-the cut was almost to the bone. The gash continued less deep on my thigh. Willow cried hysterically at my side. With my undamaged arm, I picked up Wood's keys and limped over to his car, Willow clinging to my side. The doors flung open before we reached it and I knew Willow was finding other uses for her Talent. I slid into the driver seat as she scrambled up the passenger side. Thankfully, the cut was on my left side and I was able to jam the key into the ignition. The engine turned over right away. I guess if fear is a great motivator, full-blown panic can make you move fucking mountains, 'cause all of a sudden I was a goddamn race car driver. With a lurch, the car jerked into the street and we were speeding away from the horrors of the day. I couldn't say where, only that I wanted it to be as far away as we could possibly be from Willow's house and the carnage that had just taken place there.
Twenty harrowing minutes and some miles later, the car came to a harsh stop, in a narrow alley between two large, lifeless warehouses. I had somehow gotten us to the south side of the city, to the industrial concrete park bordering the bad part of town where my apartment complex was. I had the half-formed idea that I needed to contact Jenny, and the only way I knew how was the magically-enhanced satellite phone I'd left in my apartment. But I was decidedly light-headed with blood loss and the car kept lurching in a herky-jerky way, in fact I'd sideswiped a couple of light poles and signposts, though thankfully just as I reached the park which by then had emptied of workers with the close of their work day an hour and a half earlier. I had to stop while I still had some motor skill coordination left.
Throughout the ride, Willow had been silent, weeping wordlessly and occasionally hiccupping, clinging to the armrest of her door as I shakily steered the vehicle in its trajectory away from the wreck that had been her life. My hands would slip from the steering wheel with the blood and sweat they were damp with and the car would lurch more violently than when I just over-steered as a novice driver. As the car finally slowed and stopped with a jerk, she slowly released her death-grip on the door frame and turned her tear-streaked face to me. I groaned, as much from the look on her face as the pain from my arm.
Willow threw the emergency brake on, opened her door, jumped out and raced around to my side. My door flew open. I barely noticed as she tugged the scarf from around my neck and began wrapping it around my arm. "Wait," I mumbled. I imagined my spell book as best I could in my haze, turning the pages in my mind until I found the right one. I groaned out the words of the healing spell and felt a little relief that the pain did lessen a little. My wound had not improved any that I could see, and really, how much improvement was possible with this deep a slash? But at least the pain was a little more manageable. Willow was tightening the tourniquet around my arm as I lost consciousness.
I dozed fitfully. It was dark, early in the AM, when my eyes suddenly snapped open, fully awake. My side felt once more like it was on fire. I tried the healing spell again, but the remedial effect didn't seem nearly as much as the first time. My energy to cast, without the adrenaline, had significantly ebbed. I definitely needed to get it tended to. After I called Jenny.
I turned my head, trying to move as little as possible, and looked at Willow. She was curled into a tiny ball asleep in the bucket seat to my right. Her limbs were tucked inside drawn close to her torso and I knew she was cold and likely hungry. I contemplated starting the car again to drive the rest of the way to my apartment for the phone as well as other supplies to keep us for the time we'd need to arrange an escort back to the Coven, but found it difficult to motivate myself to rouse Willow or myself to prepare for the ride.
Instead, I let my mind wander to the last few hours when everything had gone to hell. Shall we make a list?
Willow, quite possibly now an orphan, with powers that had heretofore lain dormant-powers that I had helped unlock, and were now making her a target of several deadly forces, number and identity unknown, but apparently both human and not. Forces that have killed and would by all counts continue to kill to have her.
Wood, a member of the Watchers Council, an organization of scholars of the mystical realms not unlike the Coven, except for the predominance of testosterone and technology and for the latter also fully vested in the mud world, shot in the chest and down-could very well be dead. Apparently he had been onto me, had been following me for how many weeks? And here I was, thinking I had been so careful.
Humans fronting organizations either using or being used by demons. Who was involved? Which groups? How did those alliances get forged? How deep did these connections run? Motherless gods, these questions were terrifying.
And then there's me, Willow's guardian by default, severely injured and still in the dark about half of what is going on, sorely lacking the knowledge and resources to get her to safety.
I watch Willow. Her face is screwed up even in sleep with the ferocity of her pain. She's lost her mother, possibly her father, her home, the world she's known. She's lost... so much.
In the dark, with nothing but our labored breathing to break the silence, I reflected.
Her troubles began as soon as Leigh Mack entered her life with tales of another world, a secret one, with magic and energy and karma and life. But Ms. Mack had failed to mention that any one of those things are two-faced. That there are demons within the Cosmic. And stupid prophecies that rule your life and take away your choices. And before Tara Maclay had worked up the nerve to set the record straight, to finally come clean, to give Willow the information she was entitled to-needed to protect herself and her family, the demons-both human and not-had come and destroyed it all. I reach out and push a lock of hair from her face. Baby, I'm so sorry.
There's one other matter, one that was still a bit of a mystery, even more so than the events of this day. Maybe less pressing than the immediate need to bring Willow to safety, but I couldn't help but feel it's connected, too, and maybe not in a bad way. Indeed, perhaps it's the one saving grace of this whole Artaggio affair. It's my vision, the one I had had so long ago before all this happened, of the two women. Or perhaps that's not quite true. Perhaps it was the vision that in fact prompted all this. Though I've lived in this life completely for the past eight years, I'll be the first to admit I was never able to put away all of my cynicism regarding its less logical elements. It's how I convinced myself that Tom would be a good fit for me when I was young and still desperate to fit in this world, the one of mud. But all this... It couldn't have been coincidence. Why had I been chosen for this mission? Cylla-the Cosmic was not so random...
The vision, I know, would be at least partially metaphor, despite its hyper-real feel-why else would Willow be Leda's age in it? But it's now with absolute certainty that I know it is her, just as I know the blonde with my eyes is my own daughter, even if not for ten years yet. I think I suspected the redhead's identity, though I never acknowledged it, the moment I saw Willow's huge emerald eyes in person. They're hard to miss, even if you're willfully blind as I was, or had been. Sheila's blood-red hair had been the clincher, though. I suppose Willow's auburn will lighten and brighten with age. And she'll cut it. The shorter style will make the bedhair look easier to pull off. Of course, it helps if you have just been fu...
Oh gods. You know how the image of your parents making love can burn a hole in your inner eye that can never be healed even with the most aggressive psychological therapy, including the liberal application of psychotropic drugs? Well, believe me, you can almost say the same thing for seeing your baby do the same, even if it is in some crazy metaphorical dream sent to you by apparently childless gods who haven't a clue of what this kind of vision can do to a body...
I wonder if somehow, my anger at Tom, which I thought I'd kept carefully hidden away from my daughter, had in fact affected her, made her turn from men.
Gods, but that's dumb. Self absorbed much? As long as she's happy... As long as Willow makes her happy... what does it matter what her beloved has between her legs? I had no idea what to make of the aspect of the demon thing, but oddly I felt there was time to sort through that part of the vision later. There was no mistaking that in my vision, my girl seemed more than okay with the love bite, and some instinct inside me told me to trust that. I mean, come on, give her a little credit. She's an adult-or at least will be by the time the awkward eight-year old before me is old enough to do that to her...
Okay. Give me a moment to get used to the second dose of inner retina burn...
I took a deep, shuddering breath. There would be time enough to adjust to Willow living with us at the Coven-and there was no doubt in my mind that she would join my family, after all that had happened-that is, if she would have us-or more to the point, me. I already knew she'd have my daughter. But me... I had a whole lot more to expiate than I thought just a day ago. But the immediate problem was getting back to the Coven. I had to get a grip, and have a plan for exactly how I was going to proceed to mitigate the damage I caused.
Willow's stirring. I rub her shoulder to speed up her awareness. Her eyes open, and she sits up awkwardly to look at me. Her eyes-those expressive emerald eyes, red-rimmed with crying-fill with more tears, and I know she's remembering everything anew.
Later, sweetheart. I promise. "Get ready, honey, we have to move."
Once I turned on the engine, I also switched on the radio to the local news station. I didn't want Willow to hear confirmation of what happened to Sheila and possibly Ira like this, but I needed a situation update, and I needed one now. We sat in the darkness for a few minutes, listening to the radio as the weather forecast played. Then the local news segment came on:
"In local news, an apparent home invasion or possible domestic dispute resulted in tragedy in the Montvale section of Sunnydale late Thursday afternoon. Police were called in to the Montvale home of Ira and Sheila Rosenberg on Beckridge Street shortly after 6PM by a neighbor who had returned to their home from work and noticed the Rosenberg's house alarm had gone off and their front door open. Inside, police found the body of 38-year-old Sheila Rosenberg-"
Willow gasped. I reached over and took her hand. It had grown cold and clammy.
"-dead from apparent blunt force trauma to the head. Apparently, the alarm had been sounding since a little after 5PM, but was not connected to the Sunnydale Police Department due to a power outage earlier that day that affected power to police and emergency services monitoring systems throughout the Montvale sector. Thankfully, this was apparently the only situation that the outage affected, and a spokesperson from Sunny D Power Company has confirmed that the earlier power outage has been resolved. Inside the Rosenberg home, police have confirmed that the back door to the residence was forced open and that there were signs that the victim struggled against her assailant or assailants. A preliminary inventory of the contents of the home did not uncover any known missing items, though Detective Wes Pryce of the Sunnydale police department was quick to point out that the investigation he is heading is at an extremely early stage. The broken door, tripped alarm, and ransacked home are in contrast to the lack of theft and the open front door near where the victim's body was found, and suggest the possibility of some rushed staging. Rosenberg's husband, Ira Rosenberg, could not be located. His employer, CPV Technologies, states the 42-year old programmer called in sick Thursday and has not been seen all day. Also missing is the couple's eight year old daughter, Willow. At this point, the police have issued an APB for Ira, 1.6 meters, 77 kilos, brown hair and brown eyes, and an Amber Alert for Willow, 1.3 meters, 34 kilos, brown hair and green eyes. If you can provide assistance, please use the Sunnydale Police Department hotline, 711-4-SD-TIPS. Calls may be kept confidential, however, anonymous tips become the property of the Sunnydale Police Department and the Southern California Territory. Otherwise, standard compensation for information leading to the apprehension of the perpetrators of this crime will apply. That's it for Sunnydale news. Territory news is next-"
I let go of Willow's hand to lower the volume of the radio, then turned back to her. "Willow," I said, hesitantly, not knowing what to say.
"There's still a chance..." I looked at her, shocked at the cold fury in her voice and the fire in her eyes. "...Still a chance he's alive, that they took him..."
I paused to let her steely words and gaze burn through me, before I recovered. "Yes. There's a chance."
Willow was silent for a moment. Her eyes shifted around, as she considered the information. "We have to go back, to my house-"
"Willow, we can't-"
"The police can find him-"
"Willow, they're already looking for him..." I hesitated before deciding it was best to speak my mind, lay out my reservations plainly for her. "And we don't even know if they're involved at all. The alarm-?"
"But they're not really looking for him to help him! They're saying that HE did this! That HE killed... killed m-m-my.." Her face fell. It utterly crashed.
"Baby," I said. I gathered her against me, ignoring the pain as my side protested. She howled against my chest. I let her for several minutes.
Finally, with a last sad hiccup and shuddering breath, she pulled away from me.
"I promise you, Willow, as soon as we can do so safely, we will contact the authorities to let them know that your father is not responsible for what happened to your mother and that you have not been kidnapped by him. But we do need to be careful about who we contact and how we do it so we can't go back to your house. Not yet. Maybe not ever." I took a deep breath, not knowing if it was the right thing to say, but it was what was in my heart, "Then when we find out who did this, I will cover them with oil and set them on fire-but only after you get your turn, first."
I didn't turn the headlights on for the drive to my apartment. I wish I could claim it was for stealth reasons in case we were being watched, but the truth was I'd somehow managed to knock both headlights out, probably against a couple of lightposts or street signs while I was learning to drive on our way to the industrial park. It forced me to be cautious, though, so between that and not knowing my way through the Sunnydale streets, the three-mile drive to my apartment took a good fifteen minutes. We used the time to consolidate our information. Despite the tragedies associated with them, Willow recalled the details of the day with precision. From what she relayed of the appointments with corporate representatives and from my recollection of the bodies in the van, either the earlier appointments were unrelated to the afternoon events, or, as I thought much more likely, either one of the parties in the morning-Glory Enterprises or Altrea Corporation, had engineered the death-dealing of their corporate rivals in the afternoon. My suspicions rested heavily on Glory-Willow's description of their representative was pretty compelling. Willow's afternoon appointments with two representatives, one dark-haired male, one blond female of Genelecom at 3PM, and the 5PM appointment with the dark-haired female from MABELL who killed Sheila, corresponded to the suited bodies and the team of assassins in the van. I wondered if the male and female who attacked me and Wood were also demon, like their cohort in the house... I might never know, even if we do ultimately confirm which party they worked for. Neither of us had any explanation for the Englishman handling the headless demon. From the attack on the agent demon and from what he'd said in the kitchen, it seemed as if we had yet another powerful party vying for Willow's services.
Also unknown is the extent of the Watchers' involvement in all this. From the Coven's past dealings with their group, a fair many though not all cooperative, I knew they were typically a hands-off type of organization rather than pro-active, similar in philosophy to the Coven. To state the obvious, Watchers watched. Not to rule was The Coven's motto. Theirs is Knowledge first. I know-it's a toss-up as to which one is sillier. And apparently, while we thumb-wrestled, others were loading their shotguns.
Also adding to my suspicion that the afternoon carnage was related to the corporate scholarship interviews the Rosenbergs had been conducting was Willow's description of the Genelecom interview as having gone relatively poorly. The representatives did not seem prepared to make their presentation, the contract they brought offered much less than what had been promised by Glory, but was close to what Altrea had offered. Sheila and Ira had apparently not been impressed. I'm sure that if the agent representing MABELL had finished her appointment, she also would have made a less than compelling pitch-
Dear gods. I interrupted her. I was early and interrupted the bitch's appointment. The Rosenbergs' last appointment of the day. If I hadn't, it would have gone as the earlier one, unremarkable but... unremarkable.
Good gods... No. NoNoNoNoNo. Shit shit SHIT!!!
I almost crashed the car. I barely had the presence of mind to put us in park.
"Ms. Mack! Are you alright? Is it your arm?"
Willow's expression is a full-on panic. Sweetie, your pretty face is gonna stay frozen like that... I closed my eyes, feeling very, very tired, leaned my forehead on the steering wheel, then turned to her, my temple still resting on the leather. "Willow, did your parents know I was coming for dinner?"
"What? No, I..." The consternation on her face evaporated instantly into horror. "No! I didn't tell them! They thought you were coming another day! You mean I-I-?"
Stupid witch! I quickly reached for her to assure her that it wasn't so. "No, no, Willow, I didn't mean it like that at all... It wasn't your fault. None of this is your fault. I sure didn't mean it that way..." Far from it. It's not you. It's me. My mistakes were piling up. I don't know if I'd ever do enough to make up for them all. I let her go and she sat back, the misery on her face mixing with confusion. I evened my breath. Don't panic her even more. "We have so much to talk about-or I do, and I'll need you to listen. You won't like what I have to say, you might want to kill me after all this is over, and I won't blame you, but right now, I think we need each other. I promise you, though, when we have a chance, I will try to explain myself as best I can, then I'll ask you to forgive me. Right now, though, I need to contact my people at the Coven. I need to get us to safety. Then we'll talk, and I'll explain, as much as I know. Everything I know. Okay?"
Still shaking, she nodded her acceptance.
I put the car back in drive and we continued in silence to my apartment.
The parking area is at the back of my apartment building. I parked the car as best I could and Willow and I got out and entered the building through the rear entrance. I had considered asking her to stay in the car and wait for me to fetch the phone, some food and blankets, and the medical kit I kept in my bathroom, but I didn't know if that was a good idea. This Kyle Reese gig was completely new to me. By the time we parked, however, I had completely given up the idea. She probably had to use the bathroom, and the only party I could think of that knew I was from the Coven and had anything to do with what happened Thursday night was the Watchers. As long as they were either on Willow's side-or at least, were not sympathetic to any demonic factions, which I was fairly sure of-or neutral, my apartment should be safe. Besides, it would've taken a crowbar to separate Willow's left hand from my right.
Mine was a working class neighborhood and on weekdays most of the building residents were indoors before six and left for the day by seven. Everyone kept to themselves. In the five months I'd lived here I hadn't met any of my neighbors, even the one on my floor who abutted my corner unit who I thought was a Hispanic male from glimpsing him briefly one morning I went to the school early, and from the name on his mailbox. But I couldn't be sure. The walls were well-sound-proofed and when you live alone, you tend not to make as much noise, anyway. Everyone either pointedly ignored everyone else whenever sharing the elevator or passing each other in the hall or wore a crazed scowl to provide a buffer against unwanted interaction. Like we were one big NYC subway car. That worked out in our favor as what Willow and I desperately needed more than anything else was to slip in, contact Jenny, and rest up to wait for whatever the Coven's version of the cavalry was to arrive.
The hall lights were on but everything was deathly quiet at that time of the night. Willow and I rode the elevator, which thankfully was working at the moment though typically sluggish, up to the twelfth floor where my apartment was. It was one bedroom, a shower, a combination kitchenette and living room. The place was admittedly a dive-the Coven's mud resources were somewhat limited; they couldn't put me up in anything better. I hadn't cared and still didn't. All I wanted now was the satellite phone, the med-kit, some clothes and some food, and this could very well be the last night I spent here-indeed, in Sunnydale, period.
Somehow, I'd managed to hold on to my keycard besides Wood's car keys and the demon-agent's gun through everything that had happened. Deep pockets are good to have-literally, this time. I opened the door to my apartment and shoved the card into the power slot and we spilled in. The lights and enviro system came lazily on. "Bathroom's to the right, sweetie, past the kitchen" I said. "Grab the medkit under the sink when you're done, okay?" She headed there to take care of herself as I went straight to my desk where the phone sat in its charger next to my computer and turned it on. It would take half a minute to boot to the MABELL logo welcome screen. I shoved the phone into my pocket then went to fetch some clothes from my bedroom. I hit the room lightswitch. The hackles on my neck rose.
"Darling! You're finally home," the Englishman said from where he leaned against the wall near the window on the far side of the room. His monster was lying in the debris of my double bed to the right. To the left, a gaping, headless-monster-sized hole was in the wall. I guess now I never would be meeting Mr. de la Cruz properly. Creepy-human straightened and held his arms out wide.
I scrambled backward, out the door.
"Oh, come now, love, is that any way to treat someone who's spent half the night awake with worry, waiting for you in the dark?" He advanced, following me, holding his arms wide. His demon got up from my former bed and fell in behind him. "Now where's our little girl?"
"WILLOW!" I called as I reached the bathroom door. It opened inward and she stepped out. The look of confusion turned to horror as she caught sight of who was following me as I backed out of my bedroom. "RUN! Get out now!" Willow stood rooted in fear or shock or horror.
"There she is," he leered. Over his shoulder, without taking his eyes off Willow, he continued, "Finish the witch-but mind you don't harm the girl. You almost caught her last time with those careless skewers of yours, messy thing. Our Master Chaos wouldn't like that, after all he's been through to meet her... in the flesh."
I shoved Willow behind me as he fell back to let his demon do as he ordered, rearing one of its arms up and behind it to deal my death blow. But Willow sure has a mind of her own-she ducked under my restraining arm and eked out in front of me.
He screamed the word at the same time I did, and the creature hesitated.
Willow did not. She grabbed my hand and squeezed her eyes shut. I felt a sharp pierce of pain in my hand as she summoned her power, but held on tight in case she needed the contact. In an instant, dozens of faerie lights flared in front of the demon to hover and dance before and above it. Having no head and thus no eyes, the effect was negligible. Fortunately, the next instant, thousands flared up to reinforce the first, forming a wall of white light. The demon was not blinded by them, since, again, no head, but they sure as hell must have burned. I could feel the heat of Willow's lights even as we scrambled back as the wall pushed forward into the monster and its human counterpart. As the wall passed through them, the man's scream filled the air. The light dissipated as it reached the rear wall of the hallway, revealing the human, on his hands and knees, his clothes and hair on fire. He was trying frantically to slap out the flames. Next to him, the behemoth also cowered, though unlike its master, it seemed unscathed by Willow's wall of white fire. Something clicked in my brain, and I knew... "Golem!" I shouted. "The human is the head!"
"Kill the witch!" The Golem rose shakily to its feet. It started uncertainly for me but hesitated as it considered there was more than one witch in front of it, and the little one seemed to be fronting all the really threatening mojo.
"The big one, fool! Do not harm the girl!" he screamed.
I saw Willow raise her free hand again, but she was looking at the man, the sorcerer, still frantically trying to put out the fires in his clothes. She was not looking at all at the Golem. She hesitated, and her grip on my hand tightened almost imperceptibly. I knew what she was considering and despite what I had told her in the car earlier, this was different. Too many of her choices had already been taken away from her today. Not this one. Not like this. I yanked her by our still clasped hands behind me, breaking her rapt attention on the burning figure. "I don't think so, Boss! That kind of work's not for you!" I drew the gun I'd been carrying since the events in the Rosenberg kitchen from my pocket and aimed as best I could at the writhing monster-the human one. I got off two rounds and I'm sure at least one hit, as I saw a spatter of red against the off-white wall of my apartment. But then the demon fell on me, and things went dark...
"...Mack! Ms. Mack, please, I think he's waking up, oh gods, please get up! Don't be dead..."
"Not... yet... Not dead yet..." I gasped. There was something heavy lying across my chest--the demon's arm. It wasn't moving, but the sense of urgency in Willow's pleas told me this hell wasn't over. I managed to pull myself out from under it and looked over to the sorcerer. He was moaning. Not dead, either. But there was a dinner plate sized bloodstain centered by a bullet hole on the left shoulder of his now charred three piece suit. Parts of his face were starting to blacken and swell from the more severe burns from the fire. He must also have been knocked unconscious with the gunshot. I looked around me for the gun to finish him but couldn't find it. It was likely underneath the Golem's massive body. I struggled to my feet and stumbled to the kitchen to fetch a knife. The biggest one I had. The 10" titanium chef's special I used to chop my vegetables would do.
"Stand back, honey. This won't take but a second," I said. I didn't want Willow watching. As I limped over to finish my task, he opened his eyes groggily. They widened as he saw me approach with my knife. Then Willow screamed. I turned.
Her power shoved me to the floor again as a blur of black and metal whipped past me. A pain so intense it beggared the previous slash on my arm shot through me from the back of my left upper arm to my left hip. I twisted as I fell by instinct onto my right side, dropping the knife. The human was awake, if just, the Golem was, too. It had slashed at me, nearly cleaving me in two. It would have, if not for Willow's split-second emotion-driven shove.
Willow was the only one with a clear head in the apartment as she ran to me and tugged me up by my right arm--my only working arm. I think I might lose the left one. Stupidly, I thought, at least it had ruined the same side. Part of my mind was still working if sluggishly but it sure seemed Willow was going to have to be both the brains and the brawn of our little outfit. But then it hit me that that needn't be the case. It wasn't just my arm--my left side in general wasn't working properly and I would only slow her down. I stopped her from fussing by grasping her forearm. "Willow, you have to run... Go to the car, call the police now, or... or wake up one of my neighbors and hide there, just leave me here. I'll give you my phone. Use the number 1 speed dial--"
"NO! I won't leave you!" she said adamantly. I was amazed that, rather than terror, it was a stubborn protectiveness that was motivating her. Protectiveness of me. The look on her face was one of pure resolve.
I groaned. Like I said, a mind of her own.
She kept tugging at my arm until I was able to roll over onto my knees and get shakily up. We stumbled out the apartment door with me limping and trailing blood. The blood part was bad--not because of blood loss, though that would be a concern and very soon, but because the sorcerer and his monster could use it to track us once he became ambulatory himself. Willow dropped my arm to run ahead to press the button to call for the elevator, but as soon as she came back to help me limp on, I pulled her to the emergency stairwell. The last thing we needed was to be stuck in the damned thing.
As the stairwell door closed behind us, the man and his monster stumbled out my apartment door. The demon had to squeeze past the doorframe as he was wider at the shoulder than the door. The man, clearly favoring his left side, looked about furiously, thankfully not down at my blood trail, saw the elevator light from where Willow had pushed the button ordering the car down, and headed straight for it. We watched, both of us with baited breath, as he limped over and insanely jabbed the button himself several times until the car finally arrived--thank the gods we hadn't tried to take it--and they piled in. The Golem had to scrunch itself up to fit inside next to its master, who looked like he'd been holding a firecracker when it went off. It was such a ridiculous image I actually laughed. But that made my side hurt like hell and I sagged against the wall. The doors closed and Willow opened the stairwell door before I could utter a word of protest and ran to the elevator control panel. I shuffled behind her and watched, my mouth open, as she popped the cover off the panel, considered the buttons intently a moment, and began rapidly jabbing a sequence of keys. I followed Willow's gaze up at the illuminated floor numbers. When the light was between '5' and '6', she hit the Enter button, and something whined behind the panel. The indicator light stopped moving. She looked up at me with a triumphant grin. Huh. "Good job, swee--"
Then she turned and ran back into my apartment. "Goddammit, Will--"
She emerged again mid-swear, with some towels and the medkit from my bathroom and the gun, which she promptly handed back to me upon seeing the look on my face. I shoved it back in my pocket and pulled out the sat-phone instead. She pulled me gently down by my elbow to sit against the wall and I admit I couldn't have stopped her, I was so weak.
Willow was half in my lap, trying to replace the blood-soaked and encrusted scarf that had been wrapped around my mangled arm as a tourniquet with one of the towels she'd fetched from my bathroom. I gently pushed her back and struggled to my feet. "No time, sweetie. Gotta find a better place to hide first." I headed back instinctively into the stairwell, breathing heavily with the effort, Willow by my side, carrying the supplies she'd taken from my apartment. The stairwell faced the east and through the frosted glass of the window I could see that the sun was just rising. The building would come to life in an hour or so, another workday for all, blue and white, to get through, the last before the weekend and temporary freedom. The nighttime lights were still on, though, and we started down the stairs as I hit the number 1 speed dial.
After two rings and a floor down, my call was answered. "I need some muscle!" I gasped into the phone.
"Sorry, hon, wrong number. That's one-nine-hundred, you want," Jenny answered deadpan, then laughed. "Jeez, Leigh, do you ever think of anything else?"
I groaned. First thing once we get back, kill Jenny.
She caught on quick, though. "Good gods, you're serious!" Jenny gasped.
My teeth ground, the vibration in my skull settling me a little. "We have GOT to work on your comic timing!"
"Is it you or Willow?"
"Willow's fine--well, physically, at least... She's here with me now... Me? Not doing so great."
"Is it bad?" Jenny Touched me, briefly. It's not her primary gift. She's not nearly as good at it as me, but she didn't need to be. I was broadcasting enough pain for a NYC hospital ER. "We'll get someone over there now... I'll come get you myself!"
I stumbled on the tenth floor landing and I hissed with the sharpness of the pain. The blood was dripping down my side. "Hurry, Jenny."
"Hang on, Tara..." I could hear the sound of furious key-tapping on the keyboard. "I have your coordinates... Or I did. Are you moving?"
"Kinda... have to... We're... uh, being chased by a couple of monsters."
More keyboard tapping. "Shit! I have to close my end, but keep your phone on, I'll work something out.... Hang on, hon."
The line went dead as she closed the connection to do whatever it is she had to do. I shoved the phone, still on, back in my pocket then immediately gripped my upper left arm. Blood spurted from between my fingers.
We made it down another couple of flights to the eighth floor before the pain made breathing an issue. I sunk slowly to the floor of the landing, next to the window. Willow hovered helplessly by me, looking up and down the stairs. "Ms. Mack... we have to keep going. It's not safe here."
But I couldn't. Now that I'd managed to contact Jenny and she was making the proper arrangements, somehow I'd turned a corner in my heart and mind. It had turned out to be a long-fought and hard-won accomplishment and it drained me. "Come here, Willow." She knelt, not touching me, still hovering. I took a long look at her. "It's hard to picture now, but I guess she could do worse." I teased wryly. I wanted to touch her hair, but couldn't release my grip on my arm to do so. With the sunlight streaming in through the tiny stairwell window and bathing her in its light, her hair almost looked like it was on fire, just like in my vision. Time seemed to blur a little, and I was once more in the room with white-washed walls and high gauze draped windows with my girl and her beloved in their marriage bed. Only now, they were aware of me. There are tears in my daughter's eyes, and Willow's arms are around her, comforting her, even as her own face is one of sorrow. I remembered the demon, but felt somehow that that part was a lie. Still, my baby had been through so much already. I was her mother, and I would protect her any way I could. The only way this would be worth it, the only way she'd ever forgive me for not being there for her myself, was if Willow was worth it instead. "You'd better take care of her. Or I swear, I'll come back and haunt you 'til you're stark raving mad. You hear me?"
"Ms. Mack, please, the tourniquet isn't working, you've lost a lot of blood, and you're not making much sense!"
I laughed, which made me loosen my grip on my mangled arm again. Love that honesty... Now it was time for me to come clean, there might not be much time later. "Aw, honey, you can stop calling me Ms. Mack... It's a funny name, but it's not... not me. Not the real me."
"Maclay. My name's Maclay... Wait." My eyes kept closing against my will. I forced them open, but the effort left me so weak. "No. It's Tara. But I'm shedding that one, too. I'm great at that. Pick up names, then give them away when I can no longer use them. But I think now it can go to someone who'll make better use of it. When you get back, tell Jenny that she can take it with all my blessings, and my apologies."
"Who take what?"
Panic. It's rolling off Willow in waves. Now that we've made a connection, it's like I can't shut if off. Can she feel me, too? "Tara..." Willow was right. I wasn't making much sense and I was scaring her. I couldn't do that. Witch Maclay of the Coven still had a job to do, until my relief arrived. But performing my duty didn't preclude being a friend. And to be true friends, I had to be honest about who I was, first. I sat up, let the new jolt of pain wake me up more fully again. "My-My given name is Kera, I'm pleased to meet you, finally, Willow. On my official records, my full name is Kera Maclay, but Maclay is a name I took for convenience' sake, it's not really mine. I have a daughter, a few years older than you, whose given name is Leda. The women of my family are witches, Willow. Long before I joined the Coven we were. When we come to our own as women, if we have Talent, we take on the name of a relative, a grandmother, many, many times removed, the first witch in our line, very powerful, who was called Tara."
"O-Okay." Willow now looked skeptical besides frightened out of her mind, but honestly, can I make this stuff up? It's a wonder any of the women of my family end up sane. Okay, moot point, that.
It didn't take Talent to know Willow was still confused, and not a little scared that her guardian was starting to lose it. But I had to go on. I realized, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my belly, in the base of my being, that I might not make it back. "Leda will be fourteen this October. She's preparing for that day when she'll take on that responsibility and right..." Only problem is, so many of us have taken that one name, Tara, it almost has become like a millstone. The onus of the Tara witches. What a troublesome thought. It's one that's bothered me for awhile. Perhaps my daughter should take a new one, start a new tradition. I hope she gives away Leda, though. That was her paternal grandmother's name and Tom chose it for her, ignoring where it came from, the mythology behind it. I always hated the name, though I loved my baby girl. It was one of the first of many things he had his way with, but I came to accept it. I guess in my mind, she was Leda, okay, but on the inside, she was really just Tara-in-waiting. "It's a day I really wanted to see with my own eyes..." My voice was tinged with regret and I fought against the self-pity that I knew could easily overwhelm me. But what Willow had told me that time during meditation, at what seemed years ago, about Leda's happiness and my own came back to me, and I realize what I want for my daughter won't matter. She'll have to make her own decisions about these things.
"You'll meet a woman when you get back to the Coven. Her name is Jenny. Tell Jenny I said it's okay for Leda to take that name, alright? I know she was a little worried about that, about there being two of us. But she can take it and still be her own woman--if she wants it, that is. But she shouldn't be afraid of it, nor should she resent it, despite the baggage it comes with. For me, I think it'd suit her well. And... And tell her that I'm sorry. I'm sorry for not keeping all my promises."
"You'll tell her yourself when you get back!"
Oh gods. "Yes, yes. But just in case, okay?"
"O-Okay, just in case."
"Good." I could almost not feel the pain anymore. That's a bad sign, I think. One more thing, though. "I'm so sorry about your family, Willow. I should have explained some of this to you sooner, so you could make your own decisions, make your own plans. Seems to me that we're all children, struggling to be adults. It's not always possible, and there are forces stronger than us whose wills supercede our own, but we need to at least have the knowledge to make informed decisions, even if the outcome is beyond our control. 'Cause not knowing... that's really a bitch, isn't it? What chance do you have then? So I should have told you, what was being said about you, about who might be watching. I don't know if it would've saved your parents, but I'm not a seer. Maybe it would have made a difference. Maybe it was a mistake, but I was following the orders of people who I thought knew best. I know that sounds lame, like it's an excuse, but to be honest I still don't know that I was wrong. There's so much that I'm still in the dark about myself."
Willow didn't say anything.
Maybe I wasn't making sense again. "It's so scary... trying to be an adult. But there'll be good stuff, too... Wonderful things..." Baby girl. "Take care of Tara, Willow. Treat her well."
"I-I will! I promise..."
In the end, that's the best a mother can hope for.
A loud crash from below us, a couple of flights down, followed by a shudder through the building frame startled us. "...by all the gods of hell and their demon spawn children, too! Watch my arm, you blundering idiot!"
Willow and I froze. Had they found us so soon?
"Why couldn't the Master just make you more compact and efficient? But no, everything must be super-sized with him! No wonder he picked America to kick off his big Hello Humanity, How Nice to Eat You tour!... Just stay behind me--no, wait. You go first!"
We were still holding our breath as we listened. After a few seconds, the echoing sounds of their footfalls, one loud and lumbering, the other much lighter but uneven, began to recede. Down. They were heading down. We released our breath simultaneously and just looked at each other for a long moment.
Willow had that look on her face again. The scary one, with the slightly furrowed brow and the set jaw. Her resolve face. I braced myself.
"They think we've left... We need someplace more secure... Someplace to stay so Jenny can find us..." Her expression remained purposeful, even as her eyes darted to consider the options. When she spoke again, it was not a suggestion. "We should go back to your apartment!"
Good gods. Tara's going to have her hands full.
Somehow, they made it back upstairs. It was slow going. Willow had to wedge her small body underneath Kera's good arm and got the woman back on her feet. Clearing her mind, she reached into the quiet time to find the way to give Kera some strength. It was getting easier and easier to go there, to ask for and receive the power, straight from the Cosmic, even for a friend. Kera gasped as she felt it, raw, fill her, threatening to stop her heart, but Willow tightened her grip on the older witch and it grounded her until it settled inside her. Then they started the long journey back upstairs with the borrowed power.
The tears didn't come until after Kera had lost consciousness on the ruins of her bed. Willow fought through them, wiping them from her face as they fell. She wasn't aware that by the time she'd done her best to perform the healing spell, tighten the tourniquet around the woman's arm, exhaust the contents of the med kit long before she got through even half the major cuts on the witch's body, her own face was a bloody war mask streaked with flesh-colored swaths where her tears had cut paths through the blood she'd unwittingly smeared onto her face as she wiped the sweat away. She just finished checking for Kera's pulse--faint, oh so faint, but real, nonetheless, when the muffled ring of the witch's phone startled her. She fished it out of the pocket of the woman's skirt with trembling hands and accepted the call.
Willow did not answer the woman's voice.
"Willow, where's Tara? Is she..." Jenny stopped, unable to continue.
"She's here! She's still alive! She went to sleep." Willow bent over Kera's body and felt the relief flood her tiny being as she noted the continued slow rise and fall of her protector's chest. "She's still breathing, I can see her. Her arm and leg are hurt real bad. She bled a lot. She's been unconscious about five minutes. I-I did a... did a healing spell, and I think the blood stopped a little, but maybe it's only because she already lost a lot. Should I try to wake her up?"
Jenny was momentarily stunned as the fact that Willow tried to do a healing spell. How far had Tara gone with "first contact?" Unless she had to... She shook her head to snap herself out of it, and finally let out her breath. "Good. That's good, Willow. Yes, shake her a little, see if she'll wake up."
Tentatively, Willow prodded Kera at her shoulder. The woman moaned a little, but her eyes did not open. "She's not waking! But she's still breathing."
"It's okay, Willow. She's probably too weak to respond. Just stay with her. My name is Jenny. I was the one who was talking to Tara a little while ago. I wanted you to know that we sent someone to you, who'll help you both. Her name is Catherine Madison, okay?"
"Catherine will be there really soon, then she'll see to Tara, and take you both the rest of the way back here. She's about Tara's age, taller, with shoulder-length brown wavy hair, okay? When she arrives, ask her for her name, and if she doesn't give it to you, I want you to run, get away to someplace where there's people, any way you can, okay?"
"W-What about Ms. Ma--uh, Tara?"
Jenny paused a second. "If you have to run and she's not awake, you'll have to leave her there, okay? She'll be fine." The anguish in Jenny's voice made that lie transparent. "She... she said you had monsters following you? Can you explain?"
"There's a man, he was at my house earlier, after a demon killed my mom. He-He had his own demon, though, a golem, Ms. Mack called it, and they killed the one that killed my mom and he's been chasing us since. I don't know how they followed us here, but they did, and-and they-he-it tried to kill Ms. Mack, but we got away." Willow finally took a breath. "They think we left, so... they left, too," she finished with a shuddering sob.
Huh, huh, and huh? Jenny took a deep breath herself. "O-Okay... So they're not chasing you now. Do you... do you know where you are? Exactly?"
"We came back upstairs. We're in Ms. Mack's apartment."
"You are? But I don't... " They weren't registering on her terminal screen. Confused, Jenny ran the information Tara had been feeding the Coven about Willow's abilities, mystic and mundane, through her racing mind. She recalled that in the first few weeks of contact, something about Willow masked her mystical signature from Tara's usually expert Talent. "You're good with computers--electronic devices, right?"
"Good. Hold onto the phone. If you need to leave Tara, if that happens, take the phone with you, leave it on, so I can track you that way, okay?"
"I'm going now, but remember to keep the phone on, and nearby."
Jenny clicked off. Willow looked at the phone in her small hand, and considered her options. Next to her, she watched Kera's chest rise and fall with her shallow, labored breaths. Hesitating only a second more, she dialed 9-1-1 and hit ‘send.'
Ethan ran into his Golem's backside as they spilled out of the building entrance. The mindless thing had hesitated then stopped altogether as soon as it got outside and felt the warmth of the early day sun's rays. Ethan hissed in pain at the jolt. "Don't be such a baby!" he said and slapped it in the area of the small of its back in reproach. He hissed again as his hand caught the edge of one of its metal plates and stung fiercely. He took the lead again past his servant into the parking lot where the witch's car was, expecting to find the space empty.
Which it was not. The scratched and dented wreck was sitting in its space in the lot.
"Bloody hell!" He looked around, but saw nothing. They could be hiding in the area, or they could have left by other means altogether. He trembled with frustration. Twice in the past twelve hours, he'd almost had his Master's prize. The rewards to him would have been--
No. The rewards to him would be beyond reason. Still. And after some patch-up work with his favorite apothecary-slash-plastic-surgeon, he'd enjoy them to their wicked fullest.
Besides, he didn't want to think of what Chaos would do to him if he failed--didn't want to, but really couldn't help it. He imagined that in his master's current worldly manifestation, even separated from his true dimension and source of power, the demon could easily debone Ethan, possibly alive, use his bones to make himself some furniture for his lair, and hang up his meatbag on the wall for decoration and set piece to address an occasional dramatic monologue.
Ethan shook his head. Those years in the drama club at Oxford really weren't handy at times like these. For a second, he regretted not taking the Sight further than yesterday evening two weeks ago. Perhaps he could have foreseen the outcome of this little venture, a way to have ensured quicker success... But only for a second. He'd already just about passed out from the pain the little the Master had subjected him to had brought...
No, no need to get all misty-eyed with regret over past oversights and misfortunes. Ethan pulled his somewhat only slightly charred cell phone from the lining of his jacket to call Jonathan for a new lead as to where the witches could have gone, as he had yesterday. Perhaps he had other information from the tapped line. It certainly paid to have technically minded friends. Or flunkies. He flipped open his phone.
The earpiece flew lazily in a rainbow arc through the air and landed three meters away with a crash on the parking lot asphalt. Pieces of metal and plastic debris ejected from the point of impact to form the perimeter of a miniature disaster circle.
"Bloody hell," he sighed.
But then, he heard a loud voice behind him, and turned. There was a woman, not too unusual, that, but behind her, something else. Something... shimmery. His curious expression soon turned to a wicked smile. Perhaps his luck was changing.
Catherine grunted as she was spat out of the makeshift emergency portal Calendar had hastily set up with a wet noise. It sounded disturbingly like a fart. She landed on her backside with a final "oomph!" in the middle of what appeared to be an apartment complex parking lot. Gods, she hated Calendar's portals, and using this one had been particularly dodgy. More than once after suspiciously entering its threshold, she's thought about turning around and going back to the Coven to finish her breakfast, give Calendar some time to test it and make sure it was safe and didn't end up in the middle of Old New Jersey or some other screwed up place. It was still just a little after dawn and the sunlight was weak, but it was already warm. She'd forgotten about California summers and undid the buttons of her jacket. Maclay was nowhere in sight. She picked herself up and dusted herself off, and glanced once more at the shimmering, roughly rectangular mercurial portal with suspicious eyes. "Great job, Calendar," she muttered. "I love working with amateurs." At least it seemed somewhat stable.
She fished out the telephone from her handbag and dialed in.
Before she said a word, Calendar was shouting in her ear. "Upstairs! In the apartment building! 12D!"
Catherine held the phone away from her ear defensively. Even so, she could hear Calendar's directions quite clearly.
"Remember, be careful, there's someone or something--"
She shouted back, still holding the phone well away from her face. "Get a grip, Calendar! I heard you, 12D!" She shoved the phone back into her pocket, the earpiece still buzzing as Calendar continued her rant, as she headed for the apartment complex entrance. "Jeez! You couldn't put me in any closer?" she muttered.
"12D? Why, I believe that's where we were heading," a British voice interrupted her as she crossed the threshold of the outer door.
The quip to put him back in his place died on Catherine's lips as she turned to look at the dirty man with no eyebrows and the filthy clothes. Hobos she could deal with. But the thing behind him...? She screamed and ran to the elevator. She jabbed at the call button several times but there were no lights to indicate it was working. She raced to the stairwell, flung the door open, and launched herself upstairs.
"The stairs then? Why, I suppose if we must." Ethan stepped aside to let his Golem ahead of him back into the building.
Catherine Madison had never run so far and so fast in all her life, even when she had worked as an aerobics instructor after her glory days as high school head cheerleader at Modesto Public High had ended with her inevitable graduation. Behind her, she heard the demon and the human slowly, noisily working their way behind her. She sprinted up to the twelfth floor in under a minute, giving her enough time to catch her breath and gather her wits about her. Goddamn Calendar and goddamn Cylla, sending her to face that thing down there with just the vaguest of warnings! In fact, they'd probably done it on purpose, just to get rid of her... She had been growing too powerful, had been asserting herself too much in the gathering of Coven masters and elders lately... This was surely an attempt to rid themselves of their greatest rival and threat to their authority. Well, she would show them!
Power came easy to Catherine. It always had, from the time she was ten and learned that she could do things that no one else could--odd things that couldn't be logically explained. First push objects with the force of her mind. Then, eventually, push people with the force of her will. Then when she found there was a name for her power, and books that could teach you even more... well, look out, world! This bitch is a witch... She had joined the Coven to increase her opportunities to learn more--and also for a place conducive to training her little girl, Amy, to take her rightful place by Catherine's side when the time came.
She had favorite spells, ones she perfected and could call, even in the most difficult and pressure-filled situations. This time surely qualified.
She waited until the demon was just a couple of floors below her before she started casting a doozy of a spell, one of her best, that would've ripped the thing's head off, if it had had one. As it came up just underneath her, she unleashed the power that had been building through her frame. The air around her whooshed and she reveled with the glorious feel of it, as the power ran through her, outwards, and hit the ugly monstrosity square in the chest.
Catherine watched, a satisfied smile on her lips, as the thing tumbled backward, head--uh, shoulders over heels, over and over. She quickly lost sight of it as it tumbled a good 4 or 5 flights at least before the repeated cacophony of thumping and crashing stopped. A lighter set of irregular footsteps followed, getting louder, then stopped themselves. "What the bloody hell are you doing here on your back? Get up! Get up!"
She hesitated, before she heard the heavy footfalls start up again. With a shriek, she turned and left the stairwell onto the twelfth floor, to the door marked ‘12 D.' She threw herself at it and screamed, "Let me in! Let me in!"
Willow heard the banging and the shouting and hurried to the door before pausing at it, hesitantly. It shook as whoever was on the other side was pounding on it pretty ferociously. Not monster ferociously, though. "Who-Who is it?"
"It's Catherine Madison, gods damnit! Who were you expecting? Fifteen minute pizza?"
Willow unbolted the door and Catherine pushed in past her, knocking her to the floor before spinning round and slamming the door shut and throwing the deadbolt. Catherine spun around, a wild look in her eye, before glancing down at the little girl sprawled on the floor. "Oh. Sorry!" Catherine wasn't a monster, for all her impatient and haughty nature, and for all of being a bit frazzled at almost caught and done gods-knows-what to by a hideous, headless demon. She helped Willow up. But rather than letting her hand go like any normal child would do, Willow grasped it more firmly and began tugging her down the hallway. "Come on! Ms. Ma--uh, Tara's this way! What took you so long?"
Catherine kept her mouth shut, mostly out of shock, as Willow pulled her into a room in the back, a huge hole in the wall to the left caught her eye first, then the mattress on the floor. Maclay was on the mattress, and it was not a pretty sight. "Gods, Maclay..." she breathed, instantly sobering.
Willow ran to Kera's side and knelt next to her. She gently, tenderly, took the woman's hand into both of her own. "Ms. Mack! Wake up! Your friend's here! She's going to help us!"
Catherine knelt on Kera's other side. Maclay's eyes opened and she peered up at the other woman. "Catherine?"
"Maclay! There's not much time. I've been tracked by a demon. And there was a man..."
"We met," Kera said with a pained smile. It quickly faded. "They're tracking you?"
"They'll be here any second. They, uh, must've seen my portal open up, then they chased me up here, up the stairs. They were right behind me, maybe a minute or two at the most."
Kera paused a moment, considering. "Where's the portal?"
Catherine grimaced. "In the parking lot. Calendar couldn't get it any closer..."
She closed her eyes. Up until now, she still had hoped... When her eyes opened a second later, they were perfectly clear, her voice resigned. "You've got to get Willow there."
"You're coming too!" Willow interjected.
Kera squeezed her hand, though Catherine ignored her. "Is there another way out?"
Kera pointed with her eyes toward the hole in the wall. "Wait ‘til they're inside, then leave through the other apartment. Willow can help. She's smart--brilliant, in fact, and she's got a lot of power," she smiled with affection at her small friend.
Catherine looked at the scrawny girl skeptically a moment before her expression hardened. "Gods, Tara. Why didn't you just stow her someplace and get yourself taken care of first? You know you weren't the one they were after."
"Catherine Madison," Kera said, her blue eyes turning dark and stormy before Catherine's eyes. "Keep your mouth shut and listen well. You will protect Willow with your life. Before she's harmed in the slightest, you will sacrifice your own well-being, to your very own miserable existence, to get her back to the Coven, safe and secure. Then your responsibilities in her regard will end, with my thanks. Then Jenny will tend to her."
Catherine sat back, stunned, as the words bore through her, her mouth open at the force of the directive. Maclay had used her Talent on her... Maclay, head of the weak and useless empathic branch of the Coven witches... "Where..." Catherine gasped, "where... did you get that power?"
Kera fell back to the mattress, weary again. She squeezed Willow's hand again, but with much less force. "Borrowed. But it's time to give it back." She turned her head to Willow. "You've been keeping me here with you, sweetie, I know. And I've enjoyed the time I spent with you, my friend, but we've got different places to go now, and you have someone special to meet. Remember your promise. Thank you for showing me the Cosmic."
"Kera..." The name ended with a wail.
"We'll do one last spell together, baby. To remember me by. It's a good luck spell." She squeezed Willow's hand once more.
The warmth and emotion swept through Willow in a mad rush through their joined hands, through its tail end to a whisper so bittersweet, leaving her stunned and Kera fading fast.
The walls shuddered as something rammed into the door. "They're here..." Kera said, weakly. She turned to Catherine, under her power. "Now GO!"
Catherine had recovered just enough to pick up Willow by the waist, who fought through the haze of the sharing then the pain of the severed connection to wail and howl that Catherine needed to set her down and pick up Kera instead, that she would find a way to do it, all she needed was Kera's help, to put up a barrier, set the building on fire, set the sorcerer on fire, anything, but don't leave her there alone--
The walls continued to shudder with each loud boom! Catherine's directive was clear. She pulled Willow, legs and fists swinging in the air, through the hole in the wall, past the sliced up remains of Mr. de la Cruz, through the hallway identical to the one in Tara's apartment. She paused at the door, setting Willow, sobbing hysterically, down but grasping her by the arm to hold her fast, until the wall gave a last mighty shudder. She waited a few seconds more, and opened the door. Then they were flying down the stairs, out of the stairwell enclosure, out the exterior doors, out into the parking lot, to the portal, through it, to the Coven.
Ethan stood back impatiently as his Golem threw its shoulder into the door once more. This had been far easier the first time, when the fool in the adjacent apartment had just opened the door after he had politely knocked. Finally, the door opened explosively inward. He gestured his Golem to precede him into the apartment--cautiously, as he certainly didn't want another repeat of the last fiasco that had taken place here. He trailed a good ten feet behind his proxy as they made their way once more down the hall to the bedroom. His Golem moved to the side upon entering the room, making way for him and signaling the room was clear.
"Willow, my sweet, are you hiding in--? Ethan looked down at the bloody mattress, at the blonde witch, absolutely bathed in blood and from the looks of it, quite dead. He crouched over her, and He then recalled the path his Golem had taken to gain entrance the last time. He looked up at the hole in the wall. "Oh, bloody hell! The witch--"
"Is no longer a witch, but still very much a bitch," Kera said. She was sitting up on the mattress, though looking like she'd slump over with a stiff breeze. She held the cocked pistol, shakily, to his forehead. "With a gun," she added. "I'm not liking your odds."
Ethan thought fast. "Now now, love, that wouldn't be very smart, considering you kill me, my associate goes free." He motioned with his hand, out of Kera's field of vision as she focused her attention on holding the barrel of the pistol pressed against the skin of Ethan's forehead. The Golem slowly approached. "I'm his conscience, you know. He's a wild thing inside, and all he knows right now is he has to find our little Willow, any way he can... Could very well take out the entire building, and then some, without me to restrain him."
Kera smiled crookedly. "Lesser of two evils, darling. Too bad it usually comes down to that, huh?" She pulled the trigger and the room lit up with an eerie blue light before all went black.
Ethan had lied. Without a mind of its own, his Master's enchantment was broken and the half-life the Golem had been infused with fled with Ethan's in a brilliant blaze of eldritch glory. It stumbled onto its short knees, then keeled over next to its dead master. The released energy was deadly poison to all in its range, though Kera had already departed, her heart physically stopped, from massive blood loss just moments before.
Willow watched through the portal as the ambulance finally arrived, lights flashing, but no siren. Whether that was because she was now at Kera's Coven and looking back at her old world through a mystical portal, or whether that was because the emergency vehicle really hadn't used its siren at that time of the morning for a wellness call, she couldn't say. The tears were still cascading down her face and there was a constant roar in her ears that made seeing or hearing anything difficult, much less making sense of any of it.
Next to her, Catherine lay on her back, groaning and gasping for air after the carry and sprint she'd just completed, the vacant look in her eyes slowly starting to fade for her signature pissed-off look instead.
Approaching from 300 yards away or so, three figures were making their way toward them. Two were running, the other hurrying, but with a pronounced limp. As they came near, Willow saw that one was a woman, early in her 30s or so, with dark hair and dark eyes. Her horrified expression was incongruous on her pretty face when she saw only two figures had emerged from the portal.
Jenny then tried to hold the other running figure back, a girl, in her teens. Even from a distance, Willow saw she had dirty blonde hair, a slightly crooked nose, pretty, full lips, and Kera's beautiful dark blue eyes, but they were wide in panic.
Leda broke free from Jenny's grasp and ran straight up to Willow, falling to her knees next to the smaller girl. "W-W-W-Where is she? W-Where's m-m-my m-mother?" she demanded.
Willow could say nothing. The words were all caught inside her throat. She turned back to the portal to watch the emergency crew jump out of the vehicle and rush inside the apartment building doors, just as Jenny reached the two of them kneeling on the grassy field before the shimmering window of the portal.
"Willow... honey, you have to let the portal close. It's a two-way door. I didn't have enough time to mask it properly. You have to close it, before one of them sees it..."
She was transfixed, waiting for a glimpse of the crew returning, returning to their vehicle with a stretcher or a gurney. And maybe the sheet wouldn't be over the occupant's head...
"Sweetheart, let go. You need to let go..."
"NOOOOO!" Leda was hysterical, tears streaming down her face.
Willow turned to her, helplessly, and the portal slammed closed.
The grief twisted to fury. Leda sprung up, Willow falling backwards onto her back as the older girl stood over her a moment, glaring angrily down. But then she turned and started to run, without a goal, but just to run.
Jenny hesitated. Both girls needed her, she couldn't choose just one.
Cylla finally reached them, leaning heavily on her cane. "Go to Leda, Jenny,"
Jenny nodded tersely to her superior, acquiescing to the soft order. Then she was off, after the older girl.
Cylla acknowledged Catherine with a slight nod and grim smile, then maneuvered her bad leg, which was stiff and inflexible, to lower herself onto the grass next to the small, shaking, weeping redheaded child, her face and hands streaked with dried blood. "Hello, Willow," she said softly. "My name is Cylla. You are welcome to stay here, at the Coven, for as long as you need or like."
"Shit. I thought we were here for an eight-year old girl. Nobody said anything about a level 1 HST. The fucker's huge," the young, brown-haired EMT eyed the massive, armor plated demon body skeptically. He kicked at its arm with the toe of his steel-tipped boot. The thing didn't move even a little. "I don't think it'd even fit in our rig."
Crouching down over the blood stained mattress, his partner, an older, heavier set man with salt and pepper hair and deep-set eyes looked up from the bloody mess of the two human bodies before him. He had a slight Irish brogue, "well, I guess we won't know that until we actually try to fit it inside, now, won't we?"
The younger man stopped from lighting his cigarette at his partner's pointed remark. "What? Are you kidding me? That's not in the contract! We're not getting paid to clean up after two humans and a L1 HST!"
Irish looked into the other room through the hole in the wall. "It's three humans, not two. And you're right. It's not in the contract. But we'll do it anyway, because that's the type of on-demand service we provide to our employer, who you'll remember pays us well--very well, in fact, all things considered. Hell, the Boss is going to hit the roof as it is that we missed the girl a second time. Now how do you think she'll react when we leave this place like this, and the local and territorial news start their 24-hour feeds of the Sunnydale massacre, and the oh so provable existence of real fucking demons and hellgods on earth?"
His young partner grunted in displeasure as he put his cigarette pack and lighter away to begin the job. "Fine! But you're taking the HST. I'll take the regular bodies."
His partner smirked at having his way, but it faded from his face just a moment later. The Boss really would lose her already tenuous grasp on her prodigious temper when she heard that they had lost Rosenberg again. But he was only a soldier. It was his boss, Morgan, who would have to do all the explaining, groveling, and quite possibly bleeding to get her mood back right. Or at least out of sitcon kill-any-lackey-in-the-immediate-area-to-make-herself-feel-better. Well, too bad about the girl, but what could Glory do except try to be patient? These things sometimes took time. After all, Rosenberg couldn't hide from her fate forever.
He grunted as he straightened to his feet, then turned to the massive body he would have to deal with. Shit, Lindsey was right. This thing wouldn't fit in the vehicle they'd brought. He might need to chop it up to make the job easier... He'd need the chainsaw he kept in the large toolbox down in their vehicle. He walked out of the apartment closing the door on his still muttering partner and headed for the elevator, which was the first thing they got working again, to go back to their rig to retrieve the tool.
No, indeed, he concluded as the elevator slowly descended. You can't run from the beast that's your Destiny. The best you could do was grab hold on to it with both hands and hang on for the ride.