The drag of the spinning vortex was intense and Willow staggered backward, unable to withstand the funneling power. A violent wind whipped at her hair and blew spiraling clouds of grit into her eyes from the dusty floor. Her breath came in short gasps as she was pulled ever closer to the entrance of the whirlpool.
"I know I said I wanted to get it over with," she panted, "but now there's the part where I'm terrified!"
Willow didn't have too much time to deliberate, however, as her freedom of choice was ripped away and her legs abruptly swept out from under her. She immediately lost her balance, suspended in mid-air by the sheer power of suction. Rotating like a stream of water gushing down a drain, she tumbled toward the mouth of the eddy. Panic-stricken, she grabbed onto a heavy wooden crate, oblivious to the rough splinters which instantly burrowed into her fingertips. The desperate act slowed her momentum, but her grasp was tenuous at best.
"I can build you a new computer!" Willow frantically called into the void, hoping to strike a bargain. "Homework, for a whole year!"
Apparently, the proposition was unfavorable – possibly even offensive, given that the tug of the maelstrom increased. Willow's hand scrabbled against the crate trying to maintain equilibrium, but her hold was gradually slipping.
"You want books, I got lots of books!" she cried. Her voice was piercing and shrill. "Some even have pictures!"
The offer had barely rolled from Willow's tongue when her fingers lost their flimsy clasp altogether and she flailed helplessly into the gaping maw. Her eyes grew wide with terror and then—
The Slayer's left arm was wrapped around a support beam while her right hand clutched Willow's wrist in a death grip.
"Don't let me go!" said Willow, eyes wide and staring.
The strain was visible on Buffy's face as she fought to keep Willow from entering the force field. "Never ... happen!" she gasped raggedly.
It was far from an easy or painless battle. The ache in Buffy's arm was almost intolerable and her nails dug into Willow's flesh, virtually cutting off the blood supply. For a moment, it was touch-and-go but then, with a mighty heave, Buffy hauled Willow to safety. The vortex erupted into an explosion of brilliant light, sending the pair sprawling to the floor, where they landed in an untidy heap.
Untangling limbs, they rolled to one side, disheveled from the gusting wind and exertion, but in relatively good shape otherwise. Of the maelstrom, there was no sign. Willow's head dropped in relief and the two of them took a few moments to recoup.
"Thanks," murmured Willow.
"Hey, you got me into this," returned Buffy. "No way you're getting out solo."
Willow nodded. "Yeah. Sorry about that."
But Buffy didn't respond, simply shrugging in something of a resigned fashion. A tiny frown creased Willow's forehead at Buffy's nonchalant reaction and an expression of guilt invaded her features. They sat quietly for a few minutes more before climbing to their feet. Still cautious and wary, they stood ready for any further surprises. Buffy remained silent as Willow retrieved her backpack and began to rummage through its contents.
"What's the hunt?" asked Buffy, cocking her head curiously.
"Spell ingredients," said Willow. She noted Buffy's querying gaze. "For the spell? There's still oodles of big question marks. Lots of stuff we don't know."
Buffy emitted a semi-snort. "That's the truth."
"So I'll see if I can't fix that," added Willow, trying her best to sound upbeat. "Can't hurt, right?" She smiled cheerfully at Buffy.
Once again, Buffy refrained from providing any response, either verbal or otherwise. Willow's smile slowly faded, but she said nothing further. Extracting items from her backpack, she handed them one-by-one to Buffy who stood waiting, watchful eyes constantly scanning the shadows.
On the floor of the warehouse, eyes closed in concentration, Willow sat cross-legged in the middle of a partially constructed circle. Sharpening a pencil, Buffy slowly walked around her. The fallen shavings formed a perimeter, and within the makeshift ring, Willow's lips moved in a soft incantation. As she chanted, she anointed herself with a tiny, travel-sized bottle of hand lotion. In front of her, at the center of the circle was a puddle of some dark, gloopy substance. Given the items scattered nearby, the mixture apparently consisted of ink taken from a couple of broken pens, pieces of apple core and small shreds of paper ripped from a textbook.
Her task satisfactorily completed, Buffy stepped back and watched expectantly for something to happen. She frowned when nothing immediately transpired and ruefully considered the whittled nub held between her thumb and forefinger.
"So much for the power of the Number 2 pencil," she sighed.
Busy on preparations, Willow didn't respond. With a final inunction from the bottle of hand lotion, she laid it on the ground and took a deep, centering breath.
"Shepherd of the lost, I beseech thee
Blood of the righteous, I supplicate
Fruit of the pious, I supplicate
Planes of all knowledge, I supplicate
Shepherd of the lost, be lost no more"
The spell cast, Willow waited, hands resting palm-upward on her knees. She waited for a good, long, patient moment, back straight as an arrow and chin uplifted. Then, without warning, her body sagged – not from anything mystical, just regular disappointment of the non-magical variety.
"Yeah, well ... screw you too," she said with mounting irritation. "Stupid shepherd of the lost."
"No joy?" asked Buffy.
Willow shook her head regretfully. "A-And I was all proud of my pun, too." She gave the broken pen casings an indignant prod with her toe. "Blood of the write-ous. See, that's the problem with these super powerful deities – no sense of humor."
Retrieving the bottle of lotion, Buffy wagged it in front of Willow's nose. "But on the bright side," she said cheerily, "at least you smell fruity now."
Grinning, Willow got to her feet and, with Buffy's help, began to clean up the pathetic remains of her unsuccessful spell.
"I'll try again once we get home," she stated confidently. "With actual supplies, I might have luck that's not entirely bad."
"And if we're really lucky," added Buffy, "Tara'll be there."
Willow wasn't sure she'd correctly followed that line of thought.
"Yeeeah?" she questioned dubiously.
"You know," said Buffy, wadding the tiny scraps of textbook paper in her hand and stuffing them into Willow's backpack along with the hand lotion, "since these days you seem to work better on the whole magick thing when she's around. With you helping her out, we'll have an answer in no time, right?"
"Sure. I guess," replied Willow slowly.
Buffy favored her with a most encouraging smile. "No 'guess'. It's a fact." She nodded in confirmation. "You're my Wonder Wiccans."
She didn't argue the point, but Willow couldn't keep from frowning as she repacked her booksack.
High above in the rafters, vague shadows began to shift and move, almost of their own accord.
"I was really hoping you'd get something from the spell though," said Buffy.
"Me too," agreed Willow. "I sort of got a ... a tickle. That's it, though."
Buffy arched an inquiring eyebrow. "Tickle ha-ha?"
"Tickle weird," stated Willow thoughtfully. "Nothing really conclusive. More like a little niggling feeling, like- like when you remember you forgot something, but can't remember to remember what you forgot?"
"Helpful," responded Buffy dryly.
"As a two-legged beagle!" Willow declared. "Which is to say, not all that helpful." She shrugged hopefully. "Maybe more'll come to me."
She tugged on the flap of her booksack and closed the fastener with a sharp click.
"Ready?" asked Buffy, halfway to the exit by now.
With extreme caution, Buffy opened the door, warily poked out her head and looked in both directions. As before, there was no sign of human life and, thankfully, no sign of shadow-beast-with-snapping-teeth life either. She slipped into the street and motioned for Willow to follow.
She paused for a moment and extended her hand into the warehouse. "Blussen," Willow murmured, forming a fist. As she did so, the illuminated ball she had conjured earlier extinguished itself. Quickly following Buffy outside, Willow closed the door behind her.
From the crossbeams of the vaulted ceiling, a pair of tawny-yellow eyes glittered in the darkness. They were soon followed by the appearance of another. Then another. And another. And another and another and another ...
The street was deserted, which was clearly the new norm. Buffy and Willow hurried along as quickly as they could while still keeping an eye out for danger. They arrived at a corner building, ready to turn into another thoroughfare when Buffy held out a restraining arm, preventing Willow from going any further until she'd had a chance to check for safety. When she was as reasonably certain as she could be that nothing evil lurked, the pair continued.
"Buffy?" said Willow hesitantly, lagging behind a little.
"That thing you said back at the warehouse."
Buffy frowned. "Which thing? Odds are good I said things to the count of bunches." She tossed a grin over her shoulder. "Much as I love to hear myself talk, I don't actually listen all that much. Refresh me."
Willow scuffed her feet as she walked. "The thing about Tara."
"Ah," nodded Buffy. "With you now. What about it?"
"I was ..." began Willow somewhat reluctantly. She took a deep breath. "What did you mean?"
Buffy didn't turn around. "Not aware of a whole lotta subtext there, Will."
"I-It sounded like you thought ..." Willow chewed on her bottom lip. "... thought Tara could do a better job. Than me."
Buffy stopped and regarded Willow with wide eyes. "Oh. Oh. No, wow. Okay, Poor Communication Buffy, reporting for duty." She smiled before moving on.
Relieved, Willow breathed a contented sigh, satisfied that she'd simply misheard.
"I just meant," clarified Buffy in a casual manner, "you're weaker on your own." Instantly, Willow's surge of enthusiastic relief began to wane. "That's common knowledge though, right?" added Buffy, still marching steadily forward. "I mean, we all know that."
Willow increased her stride to catch up with the Slayer. "We do?" she asked doubtfully. "I mean – I'm not weaker!" She paused and peered into Buffy's face. "...Am I?"
"Well maybe not 'weaker'," admitted Buffy thoughtfully. She shook her head. "I'm not saying it right. Xander would know what I mean."
"Xander?" echoed Willow in a tight voice.
"Or Giles," Buffy swiftly amended. "You know how I get when Giles starts droning on though." She rolled her eyes and faked a yawn of boredom. "I filter out the fuzzy details, so I can't remember how he put it."
"You ... You've all talked about me?" a stricken Willow asked. "To the point of drone-age?"
"Only when it got really obvious that you needed Tara to make the magick work," said Buffy. She threw a concerned look in Willow's direction. "But you get that, right? We're just worried about what might happen if, you know, worse comes to worse and Tara ..." She trailed off. "Well, nobody wants that again." She came to a complete stop and turned to Willow with an expression of heartfelt anxiety. "We just want what's best for you, Will. That's all." She gave Willow a hug. "We love you."
Willow was quick to return the gesture. "I love you guys too," she murmured. "I don't ever want to hurt you like that again."
Buffy patted Willow's shoulder comfortingly. "So you won't."
As the pair broke their embrace, Buffy treated Willow to a beaming smile of reassurance. Willow did her very best to match it before they resumed their walk, Buffy leading the way.
"The thing with our powers," persisted Willow, apparently unwilling to let the matter drop altogether. "It's not that I'm weaker. I'm not. Mine's just ... different from hers."
Buffy was in agreement. "Tara's healing, life and love," she nodded confidently.
That definition brought Willow to an abrupt halt. Buffy moved several yards ahead before realizing that Willow had stopped dead in her tracks. She turned and regarded Willow questioningly.
Willow's expression had turned stony. "Which makes me destruction, death and hate."
For a moment, it appeared Buffy might refute that statement. But she didn't. Instead, she chose to pacify.
"Yeah, but who went platinum blonde when we needed her?" she encouraged. "And you know what you get when you mix black and white."
"Gray," replied Willow, her tone sharp.
Buffy blinked. "I was gonna say 'slate'," she offered hopefully.
Willow picked up the pace once more. "We'd better keep going," she advised curtly. "People not me are waiting to be useful."
She stomped past Buffy, who was momentarily stunned.
"Will, wait!" she called. "That wasn't what I meant!" But Willow kept on going. Buffy tried again. "Willow!"
Her cries were ignored as Willow strode determinedly along the sidewalk, eyes straight ahead. She failed to notice the swarm of shadowy creatures that started to stream out of the building and alleyway she'd just passed. Some distance behind, however, Buffy couldn't help but see them.
"Hey!" she shouted immediately. "Short, black and indistinct! Over here!"
At the sound of Buffy's voice, Willow turned. Gasping in horror, she stumbled backward to see the sheer mass of teeming creatures close to bearing down on her. Loosing her footing, she landed on the concrete with a heavy thud.
"That's right," said Buffy defiantly, hands on hips. "I'm talkin' to you!"
The cloud of shadow-beasts hovered in place, but their wicked glints were focused solely on Willow, who was scuttling away like a crab. The malicious stares didn't falter and dozens of yellow eyes seemed to be boring into her very soul. Suddenly, a peculiar expression invaded Willow's face, as though she were trying hard to hear and understand something coming from a far off distance. She became so focused that there was no room left for fear. The creatures simply waited and made no move to attack, but Buffy was taking no chances.
Spotting a trashcan bolted to the pavement, Buffy grabbed it and, displaying visible strain, tore it free from its moorings. Holding it over her head, she hurled it toward the center of the swarm with every ounce of power she could summon.
It met its mark and the creatures instantaneously turned their attention her way. Their purpose seemed to be singularly bent on destruction as they descended upon her. Willow didn't appear to notice the change, lost as she was in her own private reverie.
A flurry of well-aimed swats and Buffy was able to dispense with the first wave relatively easily, but their numbers were many and she soon succumbed to the ferocity of their assault. She fell to her knees with a protesting cry of pain, upper body cloaked in shades of black. At the sound, Willow snapped out of her trance. Blinking, she looked around in confusion and then spied the swarming mass where Buffy had formerly been standing.
But the beasts were ignoring her now, and had no care for her protests.
Willow thrust her hands toward them. "Leave her alone!"
There was a bright ripple of energy, which rapidly dispersed as it struck the creatures. Those closest to Willow spun toward her, but as with their counterpart in the convenience store, they appeared to be more amused than apprehensive. Indeed, many seemed to be actually laughing soundlessly at her.
This did little to improve Willow's disposition. "I said, leave her alone!" she ordered.
Again, Willow lashed out. This time, the bolt was stronger and more powerful, but it met with the same success – or lack thereof – as before. Willow panted heavily from exertion and fear. Tiny beads of sweat collected on her forehead and trickled stingingly into her eyes. She brushed them away with an angry fist, scouring the area for something she could use that would be of help to her. Not finding anything of value, she seized her backpack, scrambled to her feet and charged, swinging with all her might in every direction. A large number of the shades attempted to leap on her, but Willow was a whirlwind and most couldn't even come close to touching her. Nonetheless, she did suffer some cuts and scratches in the course of her efforts, all of which were ignored in her desperate need to assist Buffy. It seemed to take an eternity, but eventually, she reached her.
The Slayer was lying on the ground, her clothes ripped and torn. It appeared that every inch of exposed skin had been subjected to vicious attack and she was a mess of nasty bites and bloodied gashes. Worse of all, Buffy wasn't moving. She didn't even seem to be breathing.
Willow dropped the backpack and rushed to her friend. "Buffy? Buffy?"
There was no reaction.
One of the creatures landed on Willow's wrist and sank its teeth into her arm, tearing away a chunk of flesh. Crying out in agony, she whirled on the little monster, eyes black as pitch. Initially, it seemed to regard her with the same cocky attitude as its brethren, but that soon transformed into concern as Willow's eyes began to flicker dangerously with living flame. Almost before it realized what was transpiring, the hapless shade was ablaze – trapped amid an inferno that consumed the creature from within in less than a second, leaving only a plume of smoke in its wake.
Willow's penetrating gaze then jerked upward to the heavens, conjuring a ball of crackling power, much like the one she had manifested earlier but infinitely more grand and magnificent in size and substance. Speedily it expanded, casting a light that rivaled the sun in bright intensity. One by one, the shadow creatures were burned to nothing. When the last had disappeared, Willow slumped to her knees, struggling to focus her entire attention on Buffy – Buffy, who still had yet to move.
"Buffy?" She peered anxiously into the Slayer's pale face. "Buffy, are you...?"
Gently, she chafed Buffy's cold hands, but there was no sign of life. With trembling fingers, she checked the neck and felt no comforting beat of a pulse. Willow's face crumpled as tears coursed down her cheeks and her attempts to rouse Buffy became increasingly vigorous.
"Oh god," she sobbed. "Oh god, Buffy?" She violently shook the limp body. "Please, I can't go through this again! Please! Please be okay, please!"
"Cut that out," rasped the Slayer. "You're crying loud enough to wake the dead." She opened her eyes and coughed weakly. "Hey, check it."
Willow sat back on her heels. "Buffy!" she exclaimed hopefully.
"Seriously Will, you gotta stop doing this. Some day you're gonna have to let me go."
Scooping Buffy into a huge hug, Willow continued to cry, but this time it was with relief. She shook her head emphatically. "Never happen."
Raising her arms, Buffy returned the hug as wisps of ash – all that remained of the shadowed horde – spiraled in a shower around them.
The neighborhood was familiar. A neighborhood that Willow and Buffy knew well. It was home.
At the end of the street, Willow peered around the wall of a house, surveyed the area and then ducked back again. Buffy was sitting on a low parapet. Much of the blood had been wiped away but she was still covered by wounds of varying intensity. She was attempting to tie a makeshift bandage, ripped from the hem of her shirt, around her right hand. Taking over, Willow gently completed the task for her. Other strips of spare fabric had been used as temporary first-aid dressings for some of Buffy's more critical injuries.
Willow smiled weakly as she fashioned a neat bow. "I've got good news and bad news."
"You ever notice how whenever you get a choice like that," Buffy mused aloud, "the good news is never really enough to counteract the bad news?"
"Just so you know, this isn't gonna be the exception that proves the rule."
Buffy heaved a sigh. "Good news?"
"We're probably not gonna get randomly attacked again." Willow delivered this with as much good cheer as she could muster.
Buffy gazed at the sky. "Fearing the bad news."
"Because," said Willow, forced to play the reluctant role as bearer of said bad news, "I think every single one of those things is waiting for us at home."
Exchanging apprehensive glances, the pair craned their necks in unison around the corner. Buffy's eyes opened wide. Willow certainly hadn't been exaggerating. It seemed as though thousands of the shadow creatures had taken it upon themselves to gather together for a morbid welcome home party. Together, Willow and Buffy pulled back to safety.
"It's like someone over-decorated our house, just in time for evil Christmas," declared Buffy dolefully. She turned to Willow. "Are you sure about this?"
Willow hesitated for a moment. "I think so."
"You 'think so'?" Buffy repeated. "Don't think so, know so."
A pained expression crossed Willow's face. "I'm ... It's hard to feel out. I'm trying."
Buffy frowned. "There's enough of those things to fill a small country. We have to be sure. Try harder."
"This is new for me too, okay?!" snapped Willow. "Just- Just back off a second." She rubbed her forehead painfully. "Let me think. I need to think."
"Yes, please," Buffy scoffed with disdain. "Let's try that for a change."
Sparing a moment to first shoot a glare in Buffy's direction, Willow closed her eyes in concentration. As before, it seemed that she was straining to listen to something far away. Her lids flickered.
"They're here ... They're here because it's here. The ..." Her brow furrowed into engrossing creases and she cocked her head to one side. "The ..." She heaved a frustrated sigh and violently shook her head. Her eyes snapped open and shimmered with irritation. "I don't know."
"Then we should try something else," Buffy told her impatiently. "I don't like the odds of fighting our way through an army of those things, just to wind up caught in a deathtrap." She peeked around the corner once more to stare at their home. "There's nobody inside," she concluded. "Whatever put us here obviously didn't affect the others. We can still try to reach them. Maybe if we leave town, we can find a phone that works."
"No, there's something here," insisted Willow. "Something important."
"But what? You just keep saying you don't know." Despairingly, Buffy threw up her hands. "You can't even say how you're suddenly piped into Radio Free Creepazoid!"
Willow was steadfast against the challenge. "I think it was the spell. When I tapped into the magickal energies here, I think it—"
"You think, you guess, you suppose," Buffy interrupted in a cutting tone. "These things already nearly killed me once tonight, Willow. How many times do I have to die before you make up your mind?"
It was as if the words had somehow gained physical form and slapped Willow across the face. For a long moment, she simply sat there, breathing heavily as she stared at Buffy. Her pain was etched into every feature.
"Fine," she finally spat. "My mind's made. I'm going in there. Come or don't."
She pushed away from the parapet but was stalled by Buffy grabbing her arm. She looked down, the hurt evident in her eyes. It was an expression mirrored by Buffy, only accompanied by a tanker truckload of guilt.
"I'm sorry," Buffy apologized in all sincerity. "I'm— I shouldn't have said that." She shook her head. "That wasn't fair. I'm just ... tired and hurt. And between you and me," she tried to joke, "I would seriously like to use my own bathroom sometime within the next half-hour." Tentatively, she offered a tiny, hopeful smile.
Willow shuffled place, obviously wanting to declare that everything was okay and all was forgiven, but unable to do so because it simply wasn't yet.
"If you say we need to get in the house," said Buffy, releasing Willow's arm, "then that's good enough for me."
She staggered a little as she straightened, and it looked for a moment as though she might fall. But Willow was immediately there to help and, working together, they managed to get Buffy to her feet. It took a few seconds for Buffy to gain her equilibrium – seconds during which the two simply regarded each other seriously, neither saying a word.
"I trust you," promised Buffy quietly. "Lead the way."
Gratefully, Willow nodded, indicating it was time for business. Peering around the corner, they surveyed the situation one more time.
"Can you run?" asked Willow.
"With enough motivation, you bet," Buffy reassured.
"There're too many to try for another mass supernova," advised Willow regretfully, but then her eyes widened as she was struck with an idea. "But maybe ... maybe all they need is a good scare. If they think I can do it ..."
Again, Buffy was more than a little dubious at the lack of certainty, prompting Willow to toss her an apologetic shrug. "It's the best I've got."
"We really need to get inside, huh?"
Willow was sure on that point at least. "I can't explain it, but ... yeah. Everything's focused around that house."
Buffy answered with a firm nod. "Then let's do it."
"Wait for an opening," Willow cautioned, stepping boldly onto the sidewalk and walking purposefully toward the creatures.
Initially, her posture was determined and confident, but the closer she got, the more doubtful she became. The number of swarming creatures was far higher than she'd originally anticipated. It was clear from her hesitant step that fear and apprehension had begun to materialize in full force.
And it was then that the little shades noticed her.
As one, they turned to watch her approach. Willow couldn't help but falter in the face of such opposition, but it was a momentary stutter and with a deep breath, she resumed walking with the same resolute stride as before. She stopped only when she was a relatively safe distance from the outermost line.
"I want inside," she stated with authority.
The creatures looked at each other with a high degree of amusement. They didn't move to attack, but they didn't clear a path for her either.
"I want inside, now," she reiterated.
They weren't so easily persuaded. About a dozen broke away from the horde and scuttled toward her. Willow displayed no trace of her previous fear and doubt. She gazed upon the scouting party with eyes blazing. The creatures closest to her opened their mouths wide, screaming in silent torment, but it wasn't for long. Within a heartbeat, they had simply disintegrated. The remaining members of the attack pack slunk to safety.
"So maybe you wanna let me in before I get really cranky," Willow suggested.
She took a step forward and the beasts promptly cleared the way. She took another to the same effect, and then another. Slowly, she inched her way forward. The creatures continued to give ground, but while they remained a respectful distance away, they never fled. Soon Willow found herself surrounded on three sides, and the stress and trepidation were beginning to take a toll. With every inch forward, Willow grew increasingly skittish.
And the shadow-beasts seemed to sense it.
They began to close in, employing caution but moving surely and steadily as their former fright gradually dissipated. One, a little more daring than the rest, seemed to sniff at her but quickly retreated at her threatening snarl. Meanwhile, a rather cunning individual had dropped to the ground and was tentatively clawing at her ankle. They were mere moments away from enveloping her. The time for subtle threats had passed.
"Consider me motivated!" came the welcome answer.
And in the blink of an eye, Buffy was at her shoulder. The flimsy barrier of dread keeping the creatures at bay shattered and they descended upon the two women like a wave crashing into the shore. Buffy and Willow had one goal only: to reach the door, and they worked relentlessly toward that goal. The creatures seemed to be everywhere, but the girls refused to accept defeat.
"Clear!" yelled Willow.
A circular wave of pulsating energy emanated from Willow's body, skirting Buffy and colliding with the Meanies. As it engulfed them, they expired within tongues of flame. It was a weak spell but sufficiently effective to buy some much needed time. With a path now cleared to the entrance of the house, Buffy and Willow seized the opportunity to make good their escape. There was a moment of panic when it seemed the door might not open, but then Buffy turned the handle and they fell across the threshold, slamming it shut behind them.
The pair leaned against the door, puffing heavily. Outside, the shades were plainly agitated to have lost their prey but, for the moment at least, could find no access into the house. Spying the coffee table, Buffy left Willow to stand guard while she made a beeline for the sturdy piece of furniture.
Meanwhile, Willow was inspecting the interior of the home as though she were a visitor seeing it for the first time, despite the fact that it was, in every way imaginable, the Scoobies' house – just sans any other Scoobies at the present time. Making sure the door was locked, she wandered into the foyer, her head cocked like she was again hearing something that issued from far away.
She barely noticed when Buffy passed by, carrying the coffee table. In comparison to the struggle an average person might experience with such a bulky item, she toted it with ease, but she was limping badly and was covered with fresh wounds to go with those that were only a few hours older. She stood the table on its end, using the surface to block the door almost completely, then used a smaller side table to act as a brace. Not yet content, Buffy ransacked the rest of the living room and foyer for any other heavy pieces that would help keep the bad things out and the good things in.
Entranced by whatever it was she was sensing, Willow remained oblivious to the growing rampart.
Finally, Buffy was satisfied. "Okay, we're in. Smooth sailing from here, right?" There was no answer. She glanced over her shoulder. "Will?" The redhead might have been a million miles away. Buffy frowned. "Oh, that is not a look of agreement."
"It's here," murmured Willow, her gaze distant as she focused on the flight of stairs.
Buffy joined her, stared curiously for a minute into Willow's face, and then also looked up to the second story. Whatever was being sensed seemed beyond Buffy's reception. "What's here?"
"Oh, it," acknowledged Buffy. She rolled her eyes. "Of course."
"Amy didn't mess up, Buffy," said Willow, turning to the Slayer. "She did it right. I'm where I need to be." Her gaze traveled back to the upper part of the house. "Can't you feel it?"
"If by 'it' you mean 'impending doom', then yup," returned Buffy. She gave Willow a sideways glance. "I'm sorta hoping you didn't mean that."
Willow didn't respond. She began to drift up the stairs but Buffy grabbed her wrist.
"Will, wait," she cautioned. "You don't know what's up there. 'It' aside, anyway." She jerked her chin toward the front door. "And the natives are getting restless."
Anxiously, Buffy looked at the window. It was a sea of shadowy black and rattling in a very disturbing fashion. There was no doubt – they wanted in.
"It's upstairs," said Willow, gently removing Buffy's hand from her wrist. "I have to go."
In rapid succession, Buffy looked from Willow to the front door to the window and then back to Willow again. She gave a sigh of resignation.
"I'll keep lookout. But hurry."
Adopting a defensive position at the foot of the stairs, Buffy guarded the only way up while still maintaining a sharp and watchful eye on what might transpire below. For her part, Willow was utterly transfixed on something above her as she slowly ascended to the upper level.
Upon arrival at the second story of the house, Willow examined the area. Nothing was amiss or out of place. There was no sign of anything untoward at all. With measured steps, she glided through the hallway.
"I get it now," she murmured. "The book's here. Isn't it?"
There was a faint sound, almost a whisper, but the words – if indeed there were any words – could not be distinguished. Willow moved past Xander's room without even giving it a glance as she continued forward.
"And you're here too. Aren't you?" she queried wonderingly. "Its guardian. Protecting it. From people like me."
There was another unintelligible whisper.
Arriving at the entrance to her own room, Willow halted and a tiny frown creased her forehead.
"I know now. I think I know."
"You don't know anything," came the response, hushed and subdued.
Willow didn't reply. Instead, she reached out and turned the door handle. A blinding flash of radiant light, so bright that she winced and shielded her face with her hands greeted her. When Willow cautiously opened one eye a moment later, there was no such illumination. In fact, the entire room was exactly the way it normally looked on any given day. Nothing unusual. Confused and perplexed, Willow stepped across the threshold.
There was an amused chuckle from behind. "Well hey, stranger."
Startled, Willow whirled. She was face to face – with herself.
Mirror-image Willow grinned.
"Took ya long enough."