Transformations - Chapter 19

He hadn't expected it to hurt, but it did, even through the cover of Moira's spell. Not so much at first, when he'd made the barrier of fire, but later, at the point that every bit of rubbish and filth in the alley began to burn, and then the actual structure of The Factory.

On by one, the walls cracked as the forest built itself inside them, all those dark, twisted trees, seemingly grown from nothing, risen in moments out of the earth. The Wild Wood: a haunted place, where one quite expected to find demons and vampires. Branches blocked out even the light of the moon.

The flaming walls tore apart from one another and came crashing down, flinging bricks and splinters of burning wood as they did so, shooting fountains of sparks into the night sky. The small part of Giles's mind that remained rational and in control found it all terribly interesting, and wished that he could further study the phenomenon.

The vaster portion of his brain had descended to the primal. Despite the pain, he moved within the second ring of fire, deeper and deeper into the wood. He summoned to himself the army of the undead with something approaching glee, and killed them in droves, until he was quite coated with their dust, and a pall of it hung in the air. He could feel the wood twisting around him as he rushed into its heart, no longer quite sure what he sought there, only knowing this was his place, full of darkness and an odd keening music that might have been the voice of the wind, or notes played on a set of uncanny pipes.

Where he walked, the vampires died.

"Which way did you come?" Buffy yelled. The sound of the wind had gotten so loud she could hardly hear herself think, much less make out anything Willow had to say.

"It's changed!" Willow shouted in return. She hauled out her compass, but the needle only spun crazily around the dial, faster and faster until the glass actually cracked, and Willow dropped the gadget on the ground. "Ow!" she exclaimed, "The case got hot!"

It struck Buffy as totally wiggins-worthy that the ground had really, truly become ground. As in dirt, and moss, not a bit of concrete to be seen anywhere. There didn't actually seem to be any ceiling anymore, or any walls--in fact the place had become exactly the one she'd dreamed about, and though Buffy knew she should be used to the prophecy-dreams by this point, to have that weird of dream come true so completely still freaked her out.

Buffy grabbed Willow's hand--Willow gave a little "Ack!" of protest--and started to run, dragging Will along with her. There was light somewhere, a long way off. She headed toward it, not able to think of anything else to do, noticing that a definite path ran between the trees: a spiral path, heading downward.

What had Willow told her in the dream? She just had to get through the forest. They just had to get through.

They ran hard, until they both were out of breath, staking a vamp or two as they went, though most of the undead didn't seem the least bit interested in them. Most--and that most meant a lot more than "several"--were headed the same way they were, down toward the light.

The wind had begun to pick up pieces of leaf and twig, and those bits stung as they struck Buffy's face and chest, and her bare arms. The branches of the monster trees whipped through the air with a scary hissing, rattling sound.

"What's making this?" she yelled to Willow as they continued to race down the spiral. "Where'd it all come from?"

"It's Giles!" Willow screamed back. "Buffy, I think it's too much. I think we need to stop him now!"

They'd almost reached the light, but it wasn't the nice, bright way out that Buffy had hoped for. There, at the bottom of the spiral the trees opened up into a clearing, and the brightness was fire: tongues of fire that licked across the ground, and vampires burning--actually burning, not dead yet, or destroyed, or whatever they got when you killed them. They screamed almost like real people as the fire ate up their undead bodies.

"Oh, Buffy. Oh, God!" Willow said, pressing a hand to her mouth.

"They're only vamps, Will," Buffy said, but for some reason the sight disturbed her too. She let go of Willow's other hand.

Some different kind of monster swayed inside of the circle of vampires, fighting them with a sword that had heated almost to the point of being cherry red. At least, Buffy thought it was a monster; something made her not quite sure: it was tall, its eyes glowed green and it looked as if it had been swallowed up in shadows, all different shadows, so that she couldn't quite tell what shape it really was, or how big, or anything. Just looking at it made her feel so scared she wanted to run away, and keep running, never, never looking back.

But if the monster was fighting vampires, did that mean it was on their side?

Buffy plunged in, stake swinging, and Willow did too. The monster's sword screamed through the air. They fought until not a single vamp remained to fight, until dust lay in drifts all over the ground, like the filthiest snow in the world, and she and Willow were covered as well.

The sword fell from the monster's hand, blackened and smoking. The shadows had pulled in, making it almost man-shaped, still with those glowing eyes. It made the most terrible sound Buffy had ever heard, full of grief, and pain, and despair, bringing its arms up to cover its face.

Buffy watched Willow stretch out her hand, the way you'd do with a dog you weren't quite sure about, one you thought could be nice, but that might bite you if you made any sudden moves. "Giles," she said softly, "Are you in there? Can you hear me?"

That thing's not my Giles, Buffy thought, almost angrily. Her Giles was tweedy--even when he was wearing his new clothes, he still kept a little bit of inner tweediness--and quiet. Even in the passion of lovemaking her Giles was reassuring. Outside of that he read books, and found answers. The spells he did were also quiet and reassuring--and in their own way, tweedy. Except for the one that had banished the hellbeast, they'd never seemed dangerous, or even particularly exciting. There was no way that he'd make a scary forest, or catch things on fire, or fight an army of vampires, whatever Moira said about his family.

That whole thing with Eyghon, that one kid dying--that was just a screw-up, a bunch of dumb twenty-year-olds messing with something they never should have touched. Giles had told her so himself.

There was no such thing as Wild Magic. No such thing at all.

The monster panted and shook. It looked as if it was trying really hard to say something, but couldn't quite make it. Little wisps of smoke began to rise from its own body; the shadows shifted faster and faster.

Buffy believed herself for all of about five seconds, and then she knew. Moira was right. It was real, and he'd done it for her, because he loved her so much. He'd let himself turn into this for her, to rescue her. "Oh, God, Will!" she cried out. "What do we do? It's hurting him, what do we do?"

"" Willow started, looking scared. "I don't know, Buffy. I really, really don't."

"Can't you do something witchy? There has to be something. Anything!"

"I, uh, I could go get Moira?"

"There isn't time!" Buffy knew that for sure. The monster that was her Giles was down on his knees now. She wanted to go to him, to touch him, but she was scared that she'd somehow make things worse, that she'd hurt him, when she only meant to help.

"I--I don't know if it will work, but I'll try." With shaking hands, Willow reached into her backpack and brought out a silver thing like a potpourri ball on the end of a silver chain.. She gave it one of her witch-looks, heaving a sigh of relief as the herbs inside caught fire. Buffy smelled sage, and a few other things she couldn't identify. Willow launched into a spell, in what sounded like Latin, though even after all this time hanging around Giles she couldn't make out a word of what it meant.

Her friend swung the ball gently, twirling the smoke through the air. The monster-Giles looked like he was going to spring at her, but instead crouched down even lower, his body rocking in time to the rhythm of Willow's words, not a peaceful rocking--more as if something hurt him so bad he couldn't hold still.

"Get...get away from me," he managed to say, in a horrible raw voice that sounded nothing at all like his regular Giles-voice. "Ah...Willow...won't work...go..."

Instead, Willow stepped closer, still swinging the ball like one of those incense-thingies in church. She reached out one of her trembling hands. Currents of blue light began to race over Giles's body, making an alarming crackling sound. "We won't leave you," Willow said, and rested a hand on what must have been the top of Giles's head.

The blue light gathered and flashed, a lightning bolt that flung the two of them apart. Willow hit the ground about ten feet away, and lay there, motionless. Giles crashed back against a tree, the glowing green going out of his eyes, the shadows twisting around him faster than ever.

The little stray bits of fire began to die down, leaving everything in dim red light, but the wind picked up even more, tearing the dirt and moss off the ground, ripping bigger branches off the trees. Without even thinking, Buffy threw herself down onto Giles's body, holding tight to him with every bit of her Slayer strength.

He cried out, the way he hadn't when Helena broke his hand. The shadows pulsed around him, making his body in her arms bigger and smaller, and sometimes--and this scared her--sometimes like it was fading away, pulling into another place. Like it wasn't there at all.

Buffy held even tighter, though she hadn't thought that possible. She burrowed her head against his chest, trying to get through to him, the real him, her Giles that was buried under all the shadows.

She would never let go until she found him. Never. Not if it took a million years.

Helena set off like a heat-seeking missile, and Maria followed her, more out of curiosity than anything else. She expected this to get interesting, to say the least--not that things weren't interesting enough, with the fire and the trees.

Ever so often, in the old days, she and Moira had taken a break from the Latin to have what they called an "American Movie Night" with videos and popcorn and Diet Cokes slurped straight from the can--trust Her Ladyship to be able to find anything she wanted, even in the Watchers' Compound. Maria thought that sometimes Moira missed living in the good old U.S.A., but it still surprised her how much Lady LeFaye seemed to enjoy those nights, just as it surprised her when the older woman laughed at all the right parts of The Princess Bride.

With the flames shooting out of the ground, and the huge spooky trees, the place The Factory had become reminded Maria of The Princess Bride's Fire Swamp. Any minute she expected to see some Rodents of Unusual Size.

She wondered if Helena would see the funny in that. Probably not. Maria couldn't tell if her sire had ever had a sense of humor--she certainly didn't now. The games she played--like the way she'd been with Rupert--those weren't funny, they were sick. Even for a vampire, they were sick.

When all this was over, she was cutting Helena loose. Salvage what she could out of this, turn cute little Buffy if the opportunity came up--she was beginning to have some major doubts about things working out for their team. Obviously, they'd done some serious underestimating somewhere down the line.

There seemed to be a lot of dust in the air, and Maria knew only too well what that meant--a turn of events that weren't anywhere in her plans.

She felt something tugging at her, telling her to go deeper into the forest, and part of her really, really wanted to go. The other part, the smart let's-ring-in-the-third-millenium part, knew enough to head in the opposite direction.

Helena was going that way, but the poor, dumb Potterville vamps sure weren't, and neither were a bunch of other vampires that Maria didn't recognize. Interesting. They'd picked up some locals. The ex-Slayer seemed so intent on her own mission, she didn't even care if her pathetic little minions lived or died.

Suddenly, right there in front of her, stood her old teammate and sparring partner Wesley Wyndham-Price. Helena shot by him, and Wesley did almost a cartoon doubletake, not quite registering what he'd seen.

Old Wes, Maria realized, had almost dressed down for the occassion. He had his suit pants on, and suspenders, and a dress shirt that was, for him, almost dirty and wrinkled--which equaled a couple small creases and a teeny smudge of dust on one sleeve. To be so filthy must be driving neatnik Windy insane.

Wesley held up a cross to repel her, only fumbling a little. Maria pushed right against it--she had to give Wes this, the hand that held the cross didn't shake too bad, even when she got close to him with her vamp-face on. "How `bout that," she said. "Wesley grew a pair."

Smoke rose from her chest where the cross touched, and it hurt like hell, but it was worth it just to see the expression on Wesley's face. Maria reached down and grabbed his other hand--that one held a stake. Wes put up a better fight than she expected, but she had a good grip on his wrist, and she knew the pressure points that would make his fingers go numb. She grabbed onto his cross-hand too.

The stake dropped from his fingers, hitting the steel toe of Maria's boot with a little plinking sound. Wesley's face was inches from hers. He surprised her yet again when his scared look faded away, to be replaced with one that appeared--if she hadn't known better--absolutely pissed. His blue eyes blazed at her, and he was fighting harder and harder, but still not getting the upper hand, so to speak. Maria wondered what he'd taste like.

Just a drink. Just a little drink. She lowered her face to his neck, nuzzling the skin, waiting for Wesley to scream--but he didn't. His body had gone rigid against hers. His skin tasted bitter with cologne. For a minute she toyed with the idea of turning him. That would give her someone besides Helena to argue with, and it might be interesting to see what happened, when he woke up--would he be that prim and prissy with a demon inside him, or was there a dark inner Wesley just dying--pun intended--to be free.

Maria slid her fangs into his neck, and almost laughed around the warm gush that filled her mouth: Wesley's blood tasted very clean, like nothing she'd ever tasted before. Warm, salty, a little sweet, and clean--but then it would, wouldn't it?

"Get away from him," a voice told her. "Now."

It was that kid, the boy, who hung around Buffy and Rupert. Maria had thought of him as a lightweight, but he looked serious now, a funny expression in his brown eyes and a crossbow aimed at her heart. He carried a powerful flashlight in his other hand, so she figured he could probably even see well enough to shoot.

"Hey, no problem." Maria raised her hands, letting Wesley drop. He went down hard, though she hadn't really drunk enough to make him pass out so soon; that was probably just reaction. He'd expected to die. "No problem," she repeated. "Xander."

In a split second, she realized that the kid was actually going to shoot, he'd done this before, and she didn't scare him--or at least didn't scare him enough to make him lose it. Barely in time, she dropped down and to the right, the kid following her moves, but not quite fast enough.

Not quite fast enough for either of them. The bolt stuck in her shoulder--not harmlessly, it hurt like hell, but not fatally either.

"Good shot," she told him, ripping out the bolt without a minute's hesitation. "Not good enough."

The kid fumbled a water pistol out of the pocket of his baggy pants. Maria clocked him a good one as she rushed past, hissing when the water lashed across her skin, hearing, behind her, the satisfying sound of the kid hitting the ground.

It didn't take Maria long to find Helena, standing just inside the wall of flame with a dreamy smile on her face. She looked human for a change, and prettier than Maria had ever seen her, happier, glowing with happiness: she knew the reason at once.

Maria ducked back into the shadows, not wanting Moira to see her--because, of course, Her Ladyship was there. What else could stop her sire like that, or make her beam in that way?

Moira held a stake in her hand, and her familiar, beautiful face was going through all kinds of complicated expressions. Even with her demon's heart, Maria felt sorry for her. She realized how much she herself had missed her former Handler--Moira's dry but warm humour, her passion and her matter-of-factness. What kind of vampire would Moira make? Could any demon have the power to really change her?

"Emmy," Helena said, in a soft, melting voice. If she was playing, messing with Her Ladyship's mind, she was better than Maria had ever given her credit for. "Emmy." Her voice actually broke. "Emmy, I've missed you."

"Oh, Lena." Moira's voice ached with sadness. "How could you do this?"

'Cause she's a demon, Em, Maria thought. And speaking of "how coulds"--how could Her Ladyship be so stupid? She was on the Council of Watchers, for God's sake, and as far as Maria was concerned, the only smart cookie in the cookie jar. What was she thinking, letting herself be taken in this way?

Then Maria remembered: she was supposed to want Her Ladyship to be taken in. She wanted her turned. That had always been their mission statement: turn Moira.

"Hey! Moira!" the annoying boy's voice rang out.

"Lady LeFaye." That was Wesley. Damn, he'd pulled himself together fast; Maria would've thought he'd still be having vapors.

The firelight brought out the deep, burning red in Moira's auburn hair and cast a warm flush across her fair skin. Her eyes looked very dark, deep-green and mysterious.

"It was terrible," Helena told her. "I was so scared, and you weren't there. Afterwards, I wanted to come to you a million times, but I was afraid."

"Afraid?" Her Ladyship repeated softly.

"That you wouldn't love me anymore." Helena raised a hand to touch Moira's cheek, then stroked it down over her jaw, along her throat. "You don't love me anymore, do you?"

"Why should you say that, Lena?" Moira asked, in the same quiet voice.

"Because you did all this--" Helena gestured, indicating the fire, and the trees. "You wouldn't just come to me, even when you knew how much I wanted you. You made me hurt Rupert, and hold Buffy hostage. Did you think I ever wanted to do those things? All I ever wanted in the whole wide world was you."

"Lena," Her Ladyship breathed. The stake slipped from her hand, and she didn't bend to pick it up again.

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