Transformations - Chapter 18

Moira drove in her own abrupt, fearless style, handling the rather ordinary American-made van as if it were, in fact, some high-performance foreign racing vehicle. Willow sat beside her, murmuring quiet directions, her voice higher-pitched than usual with nervousness.

Best to let Moira drive, really, Giles thought. More than any of them, she'd be used to this sudden magnification of physical strength, less likely to make some unintended move that would send them crashing into another car, or against a tree.

Giles had begun to understood Buffy's difficulties in learning to operate a car--until she became truly comfortable with the act, she must naturally, as many young drivers did, overcompensate. With her strength, such overcompensations would of course be more noticeable than other girls' mistakes.

Besides which, he reminded himself, smiling faintly. She generally forgets to release the parking brake.

A trip out to the country, a few driving lessons--that might be in order. He would work with her this summer, get her up to speed. He would. Once all this was over.

Giles gazed out the window, daring to hope, and yet feeling the drag of hopelessness in the pit of his stomach. Oddly, he had no doubt that they would, in fact, save Buffy. Selfish, really, to be thinking of himself at all.

He hoped that Moira would remember the letters in the top drawer of his desk, kept ready for just such an occasion. He'd begun them some time in the past, and updated each now and then-- messages to each of his kids, to Sebastian, and one, the longest, to his beloved Slayer herself. A letter in which he'd unburdened his soul to her, never thinking that he would have the chance, before he died, to reveal the true state of his feelings.

That he had done so made this night easier; he only hoped that the contents of the letter would bring Buffy comfort and not pain in time to come.

Not far now, to The Factory, and not long. Giles found himself staring through the glass, trying to commit these last sights to memory. Sunnydale had experienced one of its brief, sporadic rainfalls, and the pavements shone with silvery wetness beneath the streetlights. The sky, only recently past sunset, had an odd glow to it, and odder colours: dark lavender, and pinkish-gray, like a field of heather seen by night. The air smelled moist and heavy.

However wet it might be, Giles knew, the fires would still burn.

He hadn't been well-liked during his school days: he'd stood too far apart from the other boys in his experience to in any way be fit for their company, and yet, even then, the Masters had praised his command of Latin and Greek. The spell that would entirely awaken his birthright was phrased entirely in a language older, even, than Homeric Greek. Giles felt as if he'd been born knowing its words--and perhaps, in some part of his family's shared unconscious, he had.

Usually the ability, or the curse, whichever it was, lay dormant within him--when he'd been younger, it had attracted ghosts, and given him the ability to see them, even to affect their acts. It made every spell he ever tried, except for those belonging specifically to Moira, do something, whether or not the results were what he'd originally planned. Whenever he performed a casting now, which he did only as a last resort, Giles wove into it massive bindings and controls, so many that Willow thought him ridiculously cautious--and yet, even then, the spells often went (to use an old expression of Ethan's) somewhat wonky.

The part of himself he thought of as Ripper had used only the smallest part of the ancient Greek spell, only once, and everything of the haunted house where he'd lived then had burned--not as The Factory had burned, scorched round the edges and made unsound--but burnt with a white heat that fused and melted the stones themselves. All that, from only a phrase and an intention--and, whether Ripper was real, as he'd seemed, or only a construct of his own mind, built to face acts and feelings he could not easily own up to, Giles knew that his own intentions had always been stronger than his other self's.

The words of the spell ran through his head. He hadn't even needed to consciously think them. This, the core of all his plans, would come upon him almost without his bidding. It required, really, only the relaxation of his conscious will to free itself.

Not even to defeat the Master, or to escape from Angelus, had he been willing to come to this point. He'd once thought himself willing to die first, rather than after. Perhaps Angelus had freed him for this, or perhaps that he meant it as an act of love made the difference. He didn't know. As the Wildness stirred within him, he began to lose the first edges of his ability for linear thought. Time, and thought, in the Wild Wood, in the realm of Wild Magic, were anything but linear: there was the intent and the act, the attraction and the destruction. There was fire and fear, and ultimately...Giles didn't know.

He began to mouth the words of a ritual--or perhaps it was a prayer; he didn't know that either, precisely. Anything to steady himself. Every vibration of the van felt like an earthquake, the gentle flow of cool air though the van's vents like an Arctic blast. His senses had begun to sharpen.

The words he spoke were neither spell nor prayer, he realized, but a bit of poetry, the one that began, "She walks in beauty, as the night." By Byron, a poet with his own share of Wild Magic.

"Giles? You okay back there?" Xander twisted in his seat to ask. Wesley sat rigidly at Xander's side, muttering a single phrase again and again.

The less charitable part of Giles's mind wanted to make that almost-unheard phrase, "There's no place like home, there's no place like home"--but he did, truthfully, recognize the words for what they were, the Latin tag from his Watcher's Oath. Tenax et fideles, ut quocunque paratus.

"Steadfast and faithful, prepared on every side."

Giles said the rest for him quietly:

We side with Her against the night,
Against the powers of darkness and of chaos.
Knowledge is our lantern, valour our sword.
We shall Watch, and shall not turn.

"What's that?" Willow asked.

"Our Oath as Watchers," Moira answered.

"Nice demonstration so far of 'standing unbending,' Wes," Xander told him, laughing. "Or was that 'unbending' as in, 'frozen stiff with fear?'"

"Xander," Giles chided, his voice sounding more dangerous than he intended.

"I...I never understood, before this week," Wesley murmured, "That we're not meant to play these bloody games, the ones we've played for God knows how long. We're meant to stand with her." He began to breathe raggedly, his voice rising. "The--the--two, Watcher and Slayer, stand side by side, and all the rest of us should be behind her--not to stab her in the back so that we'll be given the prestige of Slayers of our own, but as her army. My God. My God. What have we done? We've let children become what we ought to have been all along."

"It's all right, Wesley." Willow turned in her seat, laying a hand on the young Watcher's knee.

Wesley touched her fingers lightly with his own. "It isn't, you know, Willow. I don't think it has been in hundreds of years."

Xander cuffed Wesley's shoulder. "Hey, don't worry about it, Wes. Sorry about the--uh, you know--the frozen with fear thing."

Giles shut his eyes, feeling himself draw away from them, and from himself. Already, he could hear his friends' heartbeats, the whisper of blood in their veins. Already, the ghosts of flames burned in the backs of his eyes, and it worried him that he no longer felt any fear, not for himself, or for his kids--not even for Buffy.

They'd drawn quite near to The Factory. When Giles opened his eyes, dark shapes flickered in the edges of his sight. Vampires, guarding the perimeter, but not for long. In moments, they'd be drawn to him: unable, once the Wild Magic truly took hold, to stay away.

"Em, stop," Giles commanded, in a voice he scarcely knew as his own.

"What? Here?" she answered. "Rup..."

"Let me out, I say! Now!" He hadn't meant to speak so harshly, but Moira understood, obeying without question.

Giles tore open the side door, unmindful of his new strength, in his haste ripping the latch free from its pinnings. Wesley distinctly whimpered.

He staggered clear of the vehicle, crouching down in the filthy alley. He knew exactly how Buffy had felt with everyone's thoughts crowded into her head: though different, this was equally unbearable; it could utterly, utterly not be borne. His skin burned, and his vision filled with unnatural colour, like those garishly-hued pictures based on variations in heat and cold.

A creature of violent brightness came toward him--by size it must have been Willow, but her body had become a shifting column of red, yellow, green bound up in cool silver-blue ribbons of magic. Her voice reached him as a burst of static so deafening that he clapped his hands to his ears. A taller maelstrom of colour drew her away, the two of them clinging together, bleeding light, as the ground lurched and shook beneath them.

The taller one returned to press the hilt of a sword into Giles's hand. The metal burned with cold, even through its leather wrappings.

He managed to rise, even as the earth shook again, so violently Giles fancied he could actually feel the tectonic plates grate across one another. The tarmac cracked into dark fissures, through which something even darker emerged, something like branches or tentacles sprouting from its mass. Fire erupted around them, spreading as far as he could see. A great wall of it, that must certainly allow nothing out and nothing in, surrounded The Factory.

"Get away!" he shouted to his companions, hoping they understood. The four seemed to hesitate, and Giles tried again, with all the force he could muster. "Get away, all of you! Get away from me now!"

They ran.

"What do you mean, 'we have a problem?'" Helena did that thing of getting up in one motion, which reminded Buffy of a snake uncoiling. Not too surprisingly, given recent events, snake-type associations gave her a major wiggins. This on top of the one she'd already had in full force from coming so close to being vamp chow--and Helena had been almost ready, almost there, Buffy knew that sure as anything. She couldn't fault Maria's timing as a bearer of bad news.

All that fear draining out of her, and all that relief flooding in, left Buffy feeling shaky and a little bit sick.

"What do you mean?" Helena repeated, sounding more than a little bit pissed.

Almost like punctuation to her last word, the floor did that California sideslip thing, like that old magic trick of pulling out a tablecloth out from beneath a full table-setting. The fabulous vamp sisters clutched at each other to keep their balance, as the concrete floor cracked down the middle, with a sizzling sound, like lightning.

"That's what I mean," Maria answered. "It's on fire. Outside."

"What's on fire?" Helena snapped, pulling away.

"Outside is. The outside is on fire. A big wall of fire. I don't know if it's gas mains, or what, but it looks like Act Five of Gotterdammerung out there."

Helena was halfway out the door, going to sneak a look, but she turned back. "Of what?"

"It's an opera," Maria explained. "The Twilight of the Gods? The world in flames? My papa was a huge opera buff."

Helena's eyes flashed, so yellow and bright they looked like a pair of headlights. She started to snap something else, but then her face got all slack, and she breathed, "Maria, magic," sounding like a little kid on her first trip to Disneyland. "Magic means my Emmy!" That time, her voice sounded like she'd just unwrapped the top toy from her wish list on Christmas morning.

The ex-Slayer took off running.

Maria paused, looking down at Buffy, still chained up in her little corner of the closet. She'd gone into her vamp-face, which she didn't do very often, and it made her voice sound funny.

"I won't forget about you," she said, just before she left, locking the door behind her. Buffy wasn't sure if that was a promise or a threat.

The room kept shaking--only a little at first, then more and more, until it was like being inside the world's most annoying amusement park ride. The crack in the floor got wider, black twisty things poking out between its lips. Buffy tried scooting down against the wall, reaching out with her foot to see if she could feel exactly what the things might be. Were they branches, which would be spooky but bearable? Or were they tentacles, material for the biggest wiggins of all?

Buffy stretched until it hurt, but she still couldn't reach. The thing, whatever it was, knocked out one candle, then the other, leaving her in the dark. She blinked and blinked, trying to see, but there just wasn't any light for her eyes to process.

Something brushed against her knee. Buffy gave a strangled "Eep!" worthy of Wesley in its pitch and tone. The air started smelling really, really green, foresty green--and fiery too--like a whole box of pine cones burning. More and more she got the sense of the little room getting full, and she pulled her legs up tight against her chest, trying not to panic with claustrophobia. She wasn't really scared of tight places--she'd gone down into too many graves and crawled through too many sewer-tunnels to let something like that bother her--but for some reason she wanted to panic really badly. All the little hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stood straight up, and if she'd been able to get free, she would have run, screaming and screaming.

Instead, Buffy found herself making weird little scared-sounds. What was wrong with her? She was the Slayer, for God's sake! She couldn't stop herself from jerking on the chains, as if that would do any good: if the damn things were ever going to break, they would have done it already. All she'd do now was hurt her wrists.

Breathe. Buffy ordered herself, but the minute she pulled in a big breath she got a mouthful of something crumbly that tasted suspiciously like tree bark.

Tree? she thought, even as something rough and hard and poky pushed her tighter and tighter up against the wall. The wall itself started shivering, giving out a high, screaming sound like metal slowly being ripped. The green smell nearly suffocated her.

Over the shriek of the walls, Buffy thought she heard a voice--a human voice calling her name.

Oh! God! Willow's voice!

Buffy screamed her friend's name in return, the panic tearing through her until she could hardly think. Bark scraped stingingly over her legs, her bare arms, her cheek--and then suddenly she was flying backward, somersaulting over her chained hands in a way that would have snapped the wrists of anybody who wasn't the Slayer--as it was, they hurt like hell.

Willow had a big flashlight, and its beam bounced crazily as she ran. She threw herself down on Buffy, sobbing her name, and Buffy sobbed too, so happy to feel Willows arms around her she just couldn't do anything else.

"Big. Big. Tree," she managed to gasp.

Willow turned, shining her light: the beam showed not just a big tree, but a huge tree--a twisty monster tree. When Willow shone the light around the suddenly large space where her closet had been, Buffy saw that her tree wasn't alone. Branches were the only thing holding up the ceiling.

"The Wild Wood," Willow breathed, in awe.

Buffy had no idea what she was talking about. "Okay, sure," she told her friend, her voice sounding all weird from having been so completely terrified.

"Ooh, Buffy, you're all scraped up!" Willow said, touching a hand to Buffy's cheek. "And I lost Xander upstairs, and I was so scared I wouldn't find you and then when I did that you'd be dead." Willow hugged her again, squeezing hard as she could, and either Buffy was more of a wuss than she thought, or her best bud was way stronger than usual.

"Ouch, Will, when did you turn into Power Girl?"

"Oh, sorry, I forgot--I thought I was just wimpy little me." Willow pulled back, tucking her hair behind her ears in a gesture so familiar it made Buffy want to start crying again. Her friend slid out of her backpack and started digging inside, until she came up with a pair of bolt-cutters. "It's a spell. I'm rescue-girl."

"A spell to make you strong?"

"Uh-huh." Willow got busy with the chains, though it took both her and Buffy's combined strength to finally snap through them, and by that time the bolt-cutter was toast. They decided to leave the cuffs around Buffy's wrists for the time being, at least until they got to a place with better light.

"A spell to make all of us strong," Willow continued, "Me, Xander, Giles, Moira--even Wesley. There was another one too, to make Giles and Wesley feel better, so they could help. So `til midnight, we're all good to go."

Buffy had to laugh at the thought of a super-strong Wesley. He'd probably hurt himself before he ever staked a vamp. "Wesley the Vampire Slayer," she snickered.

"Hey, he killed at least two. I saw. And he only really screamed a little. I think it's involuntary. He doesn't mean it."

"Our Wesley? You go, girl!"

"Buffy," Willow said. "Be nice. He's our friend."

"I know," Buffy answered quietly. She noticed a little bit of blood start to drip from Willow's nose. Willow raised her hand to catch it, giving a funny kind of smile.

"Will?" All Buffy could think of was that tape of Helena, the one that she'd watched Giles watching--the part where Helena described what a make-you-stronger spell could do, that it tore you up inside. Was that from only one time, or from over and over?

The panic washed back over her. They had to get out of there. They had to get out of there now.

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