THE SISTERS OF PARADOX
Sarah pulled into the hotel parking lot, slamming her hands on the steering wheel as the car came to a stop.
"I can�t believe we were so close and then blew it!" she exclaimed.
"You�ve said that five times now," Sam remarked from her place in the passenger seat. "Would six make you believe it any more?"
Sarah turned and glared at her companion without a word.
"Look, I�m sorry, okay?" said Sam. "I�m the one who got caught, and I know it. But even if I hadn�t been, that still doesn�t mean Mister Giles was going to tell you about the Slayer."
Sarah sighed and started to get out of the car. "I know," she said. "I know all of that. It�s just... I really thought I could get him to trust me, and not just in the �I�ll tell you everything you want to know for your story� sense. He�s seen the same things in the Watchers� Council that we have, Sam. He�s had the same concerns. I was sure of it."
The hotel where they were staying was one of the best in Sunnydale, and it sat on a hillside that overlooked the town. Instead of going inside, Sarah walked to the edge of the parking lot and looked down on the lights below. Sam followed.
"Well, at least we found out that the Slayer really exists," said Sam. "One of them, anyway."
Sarah nodded. The existence of the Slayer had been the one piece of her story that she hadn�t been able to work out. Her research had uncovered legends about a vampire-hunting young woman almost from the beginning, but her contacts in London had provided only the sketchiest of details. They couldn�t even agree on who the current Slayer was, some insisting it was a blonde girl with the unlikely name of Buffy while others claimed it was a dark-haired girl named Faith. Either way, the Slayer didn�t seem to have any connection to the Council that supposedly cared for her, which only deepened the mystery.
The one thing that kept popping up time and again in her research was the town of Sunnydale, California. The Council had been almost obsessed with it over the past several years. If Sarah was going to find her story, that was where she would find it. And so here she was, almost half a world away from home, but with her goal still frustratingly beyond her reach.
"We might not need any more from Mister Giles," Sam offered. Sarah suddenly realized how long she must have been standing there saying nothing. She turned back to face her friend again.
"If there really are as many weird things happening in this town," Sam continued, "someone else must know about them. Maybe they could even tell us more about Buffy. And if Mister Giles tries to make things too difficult, there�s always that Wyndham-Price chap down in Los Angeles."
"No," Sarah answered, shaking her head. "The answer�s here. This is where we stay. Besides, I want to try Mister Giles again. I want him to understand that I�m not his enemy."
"That might be a little difficult now," Sam remarked.
Sarah smiled thinly and turned back to the lights of the town. She started to work her plans through her mind again, when she found herself being distracted by a curious smell.
"Is something burning?" she asked Sam.
The younger woman sniffed the air, then looked back at Sarah. "A brush fire, maybe? They say Southern California has a lot of those."
Sarah frowned. "Not at this time of year," she replied.
She stepped closer to the shrubbery at the edge of the parking lot, trying to get a better look at the town below. There was a rustling in the bushes as she approached, and for a moment Sarah thought she saw something glowing. Could that be where the smoke was coming from?
Before Sarah could look closer, the glow from the bushes erupted into a blazing blur that rushed toward her. She let out a startled cry as she was knocked down onto the asphalt. The thing, whatever it was, reached for her throat. With a desperate heave, she tried to push the thing off of her, but it continued to hang on, trying to work its way back to her neck. Finally, Sam rushed over and delivered a swift kick to the glowing creature�s midsection, knocking it back. Sarah quickly got to her feet and took a good look at their attacker.
The creature had once been a little boy, about eight or nine years old, but now had the unmistakable features of a vampire. Sarah had never actually seen a vampire in the flesh before, but this one looked every bit like what she had expected - with one exception. The creature�s body gave off a strange orange glow, as if it was perpetually being enveloped in small flames. The glow illuminated a slight smoke trail that drifted off the creature into the night.
Sam pulled out a cross she had been carrying and held it in front of the vampire. "If you�re looking for an easy snack, you�re not going to find it here," she said.
"Won�t I?" mocked the creature. It stepped forward and reached for the cross, wrapping its little hand around the bottom, just below Sam�s hand. Sam tried to keep her grip, but the cross began to shake in the vampire�s grasp. Suddenly, it burst into flames. Sam let go and jumped back, as the vampire tossed the burning cross to the pavement.
"Humans are so pathetic," the vampire sneered. "I remember the ones who used to come here. The rich people who wanted to look down on Sunnydale instead of admit they were visiting it. The relatives my parents took me to see here were all like that."
"Look, it sounds like you could use a good psychologist, not a journalist like me," quipped Sarah.
"But they don�t taste nearly as good," the vampire countered.
"Oh great," said Sam. "We would have to get one who could banter back at us."
The vampire began stalking forward again. It was almost upon them when something that looked like a bolt of lightning shot across the night and struck the creature, knocking it back again. Sam and Sarah both turned and saw a tall fair-haired man in military garb charging at them across the parking lot, carrying some sort of futuristic weapon.
The blast had only knocked the vampire back for a moment, and when it recovered it turned toward the soldier. The man aimed and fired again, from a much closer range, but again the vampire refused to fall.
Before the creature could recover enough to renew its attack, the soldier lowered his weapon and swung it around like a club, striking the vampire in the head. The momentum threw the vampire to the ground, but in seconds it was up again, throwing itself at the soldier. As Sam and Sarah watched, the two combatants collided. There was a sizzling noise as the soldier�s hands met the vampire�s body, and the soldier gasped in pain.
The vampire may have had supernatural strength, but its small body was at too much of a size disadvantage against the brawny soldier. Somehow, the man gritted his way through the burning in his hands, lifted the vampire into the air and hurled it over the shrubbery. Sarah looked down and watched the orange glow bounce its way down the hillside.
"That won�t hold it forever," the soldier panted as he fell to his knees. He held his hands out in front of him, in obvious agony. "We have to get away from here."
"You�re hurt!" cried Sam. She took one of the soldier�s hands and held it out toward the lights in the parking lot. Sarah could already see blisters forming on the man�s fingertips, and his clothes were scorched in several places. It was only then that Sarah noticed the scorch marks on her own clothes, and the sunburn-like stinging in her own hands where she had pushed the vampire away.
"I�ll be fine," the soldier huffed unconvincingly.
"Save the macho rubbish," Sarah snapped. "We have to get you inside. There�s probably first aid available at the hotel desk, and then we can see how bad off you are."
"Really, I�m okay," said the soldier, even as Sam was trying to help him to his feet.
The three of them started to shuffle their way back to the hotel when the man added, "Oh... uh... by the way, I�m sorry about what happened back there. A... uh... science experiment over at UC Sunnydale went a little haywire. This... um... wolverine was treated with a new experimental drug, and then it had a reaction and broke loose. The whole class is out looking for it."
Sarah rolled her eyes and kept walking.
"Really?" said Sam. "Is that what that was? And you�re a part of that class, then?"
"Absolutely," said the soldier.
"Wow," Sam replied. "Because it looked an awful lot like you�re some kind of military man chasing a vampire."
The soldier stopped abruptly, then shook his head. "I really have to work on my cover stories," he muttered.
"Don�t feel too bad," said Sarah. "We�ve both been around paramilitary monster fighters before."
"Yeah," Sam agreed. "Who exactly do you work for? Are you with UNISYC?"
The soldier gave Sam an amazed look. "UN Special Intelligence?" he said. "How do you know about them?"
"I did a job for them once, about four years ago," Sam replied.
"And I was reporting on the UN Intelligence Taskforce before you were even born," Sarah added.
"You must not have gotten to report very much," the soldier replied. "UNIT was as top-secret back then as UNISYC is now."
Sarah smiled. "Well, I did see an awful lot more than I ever wrote about," she replied. "Enough to figure out what you were up to."
The soldier looked bemused. "Who are you people?" he asked.
"I�m Sam Jones, and that�s Sarah Jane Smith," said Sam. "Who did you say you worked for? We might even know your Commanding Officer."
"I didn�t say," the soldier replied. "But it has nothing to do with the United Nations. Strictly US military. And my name�s Riley. Riley Finn."
"Well, Mister Finn," said Sarah, "now that we�re all introduced, let�s get you to..."
"Lilac One, this is Base," came a voice. "Report in. Are you receiving?"
Riley instinctively reached for a walkie-talkie at his belt and got a painful reminder that he couldn�t reply on his own. "Could I have a little help?" he asked.
"Sure thing, Lilac," Sam replied as she took the walkie-talkie from Riley�s belt and held it to his mouth.
"Base, this is Lilac One," Riley said. "Contact made with Hostile Six-Five Alpha. Be advised that the Hostile is highly resistant to standard combat tactics. It is emitting an energy signature that can be tracked at frequency..."
He trailed off, looking down at a device that was slung over his shoulder. Sarah held it up for him to see.
"...frequency one-seven-niner point three-one," Riley concluded. The voice on the other end of the walkie-talkie acknowledged and signed off.
"There you go," said Sarah. "Your soldier chums can take care of it now, so let�s get you patched up." Testing a theory, she added, "Or maybe you lot won�t have to do anything, if the Slayer finds the vampire first."
"The Slayer?" Riley repeated. "You know Buffy, too?"
Sam gave Sarah a knowing smile. "We ran into each other just this evening," she replied.
Sarah smiled back. Maybe the trail they had followed all the way to Sunnydale hadn�t gone cold yet after all.
Willow didn�t know whether to be relieved or annoyed at Spike�s sudden arrival. Her whole world was turning upside down anyway, so it only made sense that she couldn�t decide what to feel.
As the vampire told the group about being attacked that afternoon, Willow found herself unable to stop staring at the mysterious brown-haired girl who had shown up claiming to be her. Nothing about her made any sense.
Willow had already had the unpleasant experience of meeting an alternate version of herself from another reality, and it had been a vampire version of herself at that. But that was completely different. The vampire-Willow had looked exactly like her, even though their personalities had nothing in common. Well... maybe not nothing, Willow thought with a wry smile, but that was another matter. The point was, the vampire-Willow was an alternate version of herself, not a completely different person claiming to be her.
And there was something else. When the vampire-Willow had appeared, Buffy and Xander certainly didn�t start having phantom memories of things they had done with her. What was all that about? None of the things Buffy and Xander "remembered" had ever happened. They had never even met this girl before. Why did they think they had?
A sudden silence abruptly got Willow�s attention. Spike had finished the story of who had been chasing him, and now the rest of the group was apparently thinking about what he had told them. She had been so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she had missed the whole thing.
"The Anointed One," Giles mused. "I�d always wondered what happened to him."
"Yeah," said Buffy. "I�d so been looking forward to killing him."
"Well, now you can stop wondering and start looking forward to killing him again," said Spike. "That�s what you people do, isn�t it?"
"Yes, but we have to think for a moment about these new powers of his," Giles replied. "If we can learn more about them, we might be able to find a way of overcoming them."
"That�s what you�ve got Red for," said Spike. He looked in Willow�s direction and noticed the other girl sitting on the couch. "Red and... hang on a minute. Who�s the new one?"
"You should already know me," the other girl said to Spike. Pointing at Willow, she declared, "I�m who you think she is."
Spike looked puzzled. "How�s that?" he asked.
"I�m really Willow Rosenberg," said the other girl. "You should know that already, Spike. I was the person you tried to bite and found out you couldn�t because of the chip in your head. Don�t you remember?"
Spike looked over at Buffy and laughed. "You know, if your entourage gets much crazier, I won�t need to get this chip removed," he said. "I�ll be able to beat you with two chips in my head!"
"Will someone remind me again why we keep helping him?" said Xander. "Why aren�t we just throwing him to the Anointed One and letting nature take its course?"
Buffy was glowering at Spike, but then she suddenly smiled, as if she had had a flash of inspiration. "You know, Xander," she said, "I think we can do both."
"What are you talking about?" Spike asked.
"Well, we do have to find the Anointed One," Buffy replied, "and he seemed awfully interested in finding you. Sounds to me like those two things might go together."
Spike�s eyes widened. "You wouldn�t..." he said.
"Hey, if you want to let the Anointed One find you when you�re all by yourself, that�s fine," said Buffy. "If you want him to find you when we�re around to back you up, you�re just going to have to be..."
"Bait," Spike snarled. "Have I mentioned that I really hate you people?"
"This isn�t working, you know. We�ve tried it in five different places, and the only thing that happened was a pair of old ladies asking me if I was lost. I�d have had better luck if I�d gone to the soldier boys for help."
Buffy sighed at Spike�s complaint and glared at the vampire from her hiding place. One of these days, she would have to sit down and figure out how she kept getting into situations where she had to work with him. Maybe some shaman or warlock had cursed her when she wasn�t looking.
Behind her, things weren�t much better. Her normally united band of friends had become more than a little frayed at the edges. Xander was as ready for action as he ever was, but Anya was already getting bored and didn�t mind being vocal about it. Instead of watching out for the Anointed One, Xander was busy trying not to get their cover blown. Meanwhile, Willow was obviously distracted, and spent most of her time trying to stay as far away as possible from the strange brown-haired girl who was trying to claim her identity.
And what was the strange brown-haired girl doing there, anyway? Buffy asked herself that question repeatedly, but she wasn�t able to find a good answer. Something inside her said the brown-haired girl belonged there. That she had always been there, as part of the team. It was a sensation that Buffy simply couldn�t shake, and it was starting to give her a wiggins.
"So?" called Spike. "What are you doing over there? Trying to come up with a plan that�ll actually work? I don�t see any wheels turning in those heads."
"We might have a little more luck if you weren�t making it so obvious that we were here," Buffy shot back. "Can�t you act a little more... baity?"
"Yeah," Spike replied. "Like I know all about how to do that."
"Maybe you should go more out into the open," the brown-haired girl suggested. "You know, act more vulnerable?
"And you could say... uh, vulnerable things, too," Willow added, apparently determined not to be outdone by the stranger.
"Oh, I�ll bet you�d all love that," said Spike. "Getting me to humiliate myself so the Anointed One can show up and kill me while you watch."
"Look," said Buffy, "do you want our help or don�t you? If he shows up, I�ll get to him. As unbelievable as it sounds, I hate him even more than I hate you."
Spike look unconvinced, but then relented and began to walk out along the street. As he did, Anya came up beside Buffy and watched.
"So what�s the plan?" the ex-demon asked. "Once Spike gets far enough away, we all sneak off and go home? We�re not getting anything else accomplished."
"Why is she here?" said the brown-haired girl. "She�s never gone patrolling with us before."
"There�s a lot of that going around," Willow muttered under her breath.
"Everybody be quiet!" Buffy snapped. "Spike�s supposed to be the bait, not us."
She looked back out to where Spike was walking, trying to get everyone else�s attention focused that way as well. The vampire had gone a few houses down the block, and was standing there looking around the street.
"Oh, look how vulnerable I am," said Spike in a high-pitched voice that could hardly be considered convincing. "I hope no mean, nasty monsters are out here tonight. I�d be completely at their mercy if that happened."
Buffy shook her head. "Willow..." she started to say.
"Yeah?" both Willow and the brown-haired girl replied simultaneously.
Buffy rolled her eyes and turned to Willow - her Willow. "Remind me again about how I hate the Anointed One more than I hate Spike."
"She doesn�t have to," said Xander, pointing toward the street. "Look."
Buffy turned and saw something step out from between two of the houses, just across the street from Spike. She gasped as the figure came into view. It was the Anointed One, just as she remembered him, but his entire body was bathed in an eerie orange glow. A faint plume of smoke trailed behind him and drifted into the air.
Spike saw the Anointed One at the same time. "Well, look who we have here," he said. "Going around with a night light, are we? Things getting too scary for you in the dark?"
"You shouldn�t be out here, Spike," the Anointed One replied. "Things are about to get much too intense for you."
"Really?" Spike scoffed. "You�re a fine one to talk. If you believed my little performance, you obviously don�t know what the word �bait� means."
That was Buffy�s cue. She turned to Xander, who already had the crossbow they had brought ready. She took it from him and stepped out from the bushes they had been hiding behind. With one swift move, she brought the crossbow around and fired.
The wooden bolt zipped through the air and found its mark in the Anointed One�s chest. It then promptly disintegrated in a burst of flame and a puff of smoke. Buffy didn�t even have time to smile at her marksmanship before she felt like she had to pick her jaw up off the ground.
The Anointed One merely looked over at Buffy and smiled. "Actually," he said, "I think you�re the ones who don�t know what the word �bait� means." With that, he turned and took off down the street.
Xander and the others stepped out from behind the bushes and joined Buffy as they watched the orange glow of the Anointed One�s body race away. "Did anyone else just get one of those gulpy feelings?" Xander asked.
"We have to go after him," Buffy said as she put the crossbow down and began walking toward the street.
"And let ourselves walk into a trap?" the brown-haired girl called after her. "If the Anointed One wants us to go somewhere, he should come and get us himself. We don�t have to do it for him."
"Yeah, and while we�re sitting around waiting for him, he gets to go out and kill more people," Willow shot back. She stomped away from the bushes and went to join Buffy.
"Willow�s right," said Buffy. "Besides, if it is a trap, I�d rather just get it over with."
"Sure, why not?" said Xander. "Why put off until tomorrow what can kill you tonight?" He took Anya�s hand and the two of them joined Buffy and Willow. The brown-haired girl glowered for a moment, but then fell into place at the rear.
"You�re really not going to follow him, are you?" Spike asked as they passed him on the sidewalk.
"Well, he invited so nicely," Buffy replied, "we just couldn�t turn him down. But you can go back to hiding if you want to, Spike. I would understand."
A grin crossed Spike�s face. "Actually," he said, "going along with you sounds like a good time. The Annoying One will be too busy to bother with me, and I figure no matter which of you kills the other, I�m a winner either way."
Sam, Sarah and the hotel desk clerk had managed to bandage Riley�s hands, but Sarah still wanted to take him to the local hospital. The soldier would have none of it.
"They have an infirmary back at my Base," Riley insisted. He was sitting in the passenger seat of the car as Sarah drove through town. "It�ll be much better than trying to explain what happened to an ER doctor. You saw the looks that desk clerk was giving us."
"You mean you don�t think he believed the story about you looking under the bonnet of our car and my knocking you onto the radiator?" Sam asked from her place in the back seat.
"Let�s just say it would be better if we didn�t have to do a repeat performance," Riley replied.
"All right, then," said Sarah. "Your Base it is. And just where would I find a top-secret military installation in this town, hmmm? Is it on those maps they gave us at the car rental office?"
Riley scowled. "Just let me off here in town," he said. "I can call for pickup, or I can just walk back. It�s not my feet that are hurt."
"Oh, but that wouldn�t be nearly as much fun," said Sarah.
Riley was about to reply, but a sharp beeping noise interrupted him. Sam looked down at the pile of Riley�s equipment that was sitting next to her. She reached down and picked up the instrument Riley had used before, when he was tracking the vampire.
"What�s this thing saying?" Sam asked.
"It was tuned to a resonance frequency I was reading on the HST... uh, I mean the vampire," Riley answered. "I guess we forgot to turn it off."
"Then that means the vampire�s nearby," said Sam.
"Probably," Riley agreed. "Hand me my radio. I�ll alert the Base and they can send a squad over."
Sarah brought the car to a stop. "You do that," she told Riley. "Meanwhile, I think we�re going to have a look around."
"Now hold on," said Riley. "You barely got away from that thing the last time. Do you really want to tangle with it again?"
"Of course not," Sarah replied. "But I am a journalist. I wouldn�t mind seeing something I could write about."
"And your little vampire-meter can tell us when we�re close enough to see something but not close enough for something to see us," Sam added.
"You can�t take that," Riley insisted. "It�s government property."
"Not our government," Sam replied with a smile.
"If you�re that concerned," Sarah added, "you could always come with us."
"Very true," Sam agreed. "And then the squad that shows up for the vampire can get you home as well. Think of the convenience."
Riley looked back and forth between the two women. "I�m not winning this one, am I?" he asked.
"Sorry, but I�m afraid not," Sarah replied as she unbuckled her seat belt and opened her car door. "You might as well surrender now."
Riley shook his head bemusedly. "Who are you people again?"
They hadn�t been following the Anointed One for long when Buffy realized where they were heading. The vampire was apparently staying close to his old territory, because his trail was taking them straight back to the ruins of Sunnydale High School.
"What do you think he wants back there?" asked Willow as she also realized where they were going. "You don�t think he wants to open the Hellmouth again, do you?"
Buffy shook her head. "There would have been signs if the Hellmouth was about to open," she replied. "You know the routine - earthquakes, nasty demons..."
"People showing up claiming to be you?" Willow suggested with a glance back at the brown-haired girl following them.
Buffy winced. "There�s got to be an explanation for her, too," she said. "But I don�t know how she�d be connected to the Anointed One. That�s why we�ve got to keep going. We have to find out what�s happening."
Willow nodded, her face taking on a resolved expression. They were getting close to the school now. After they rounded the next corner, they would be able to see...
"What the...?" Xander exclaimed.
Sunnydale High stood in front of them, looking as whole and undamaged as it had the night before they blew it up.
"Okay, is this another one of those ways that the universe has changed?" the brown-haired girl asked as she came up beside Buffy. "Because I remember Sunnydale High blowing up. You and Faith did it to stop the Mayor�s Ascension. It was at Graduation, right after you slew Cordelia."
Buffy turned and stared at the brown-haired girl. Willow, Xander, Anya and even Spike were doing the same. The girl shrank back a bit. "What?" she asked.
Buffy sighed. "The school did blow up, yes," she said. "The rest... we�ll talk about later."
Willow looked back at the school, then pointed toward it, trying to get Buffy�s attention. "Look!" she said. "The Anointed One�s going inside."
Buffy looked as well, and saw the small orange figure disappear through the school�s front door. "Then that�s where we�re going, too," she said.
They crept up to the school carefully, on the lookout for any traps or demons that might be lying in wait for them. None appeared. The school sat quietly as they approached it. Finally, Buffy reached the front door, pulled it open, and stepped inside.
That was when normality took the night off.
Instead seeing of the old familiar hallways of Sunnydale High, or even the dark charred hallways of the ruin it had become, Buffy found herself staring into a shrine made of skulls.
She felt the group behind her draw back, and almost backed away herself. No one spoke. It was as if the chamber inside had unleashed a wave of fear over them, testing their courage despite all they had faced before.
Finally, Buffy stepped forward, crossing the threshold and entering the chamber. The feeling inside was even more oppressive. The walls rose high over their heads, well out of proportion to the outside of the building she knew so well, and they were lined with skulls. Hundreds of skulls - some human, some demon, some animal, and still others completely unrecognizable. Water, slime and blood oozed down over them, trickling through eyeholes and across rows of teeth. An eerie dull glow shone through the gaps between them.
"What is this place?" said Xander. He had slowly followed Buffy into the chamber. Anya, who was probably used to a place like this after her thousand years as a demon, was leading him in by the hand. Willow and the brown-haired girl stayed near the entrance, with Willow muttering something under her breath - some kind of protection spell, Buffy guessed. Only Spike appeared completely unaffected by where they were.
Buffy could only shrug. She was as disoriented as the rest of them. Apart from their group, the chamber was empty except for some kind of altar that sat in the middle. It looked like it was made from the ribs of an elephant or some other large animal, and a number of unearthly devices sat on top of it, all making low humming noises while small lights winked on them.
"Welcome, guests," said a booming voice. "We are pleased that you have come at last."
Buffy jumped, startled too quickly to keep her Slayer cool. She heard her companions gasp and turned to follow their stares.
Two male figures had entered from the back of the chamber. They were clothed entirely in black, with capes flowing behind them, and on their faces they wore masks that looked like they�d been made from the skulls of giant bats. They approached the altar, beckoning for the Slayer to join them.
Buffy regained her composure and stepped forward. "You should have told us this would be a theme party," she said to the figures. "As it is, we�re a little underdressed."
"You are exactly as we need you to be," one of the figures replied. "We have been waiting a long time for you."
"And just who are you?" Buffy demanded.
"Oh my God!" came a voice behind them. Buffy whirled around and saw Sarah Jane Smith and Samantha Jones standing in the doorway, with Riley behind them. Her boyfriend was dressed in his commando outfit, and both his hands were wrapped in bandages.
Sarah appeared to be as horrified as the rest of them at the sight of the chamber, and Riley looked more than a little uneasy. Sam, on the other hand, stepped into the chamber without hesitation and walked up to join Buffy in front of the altar.
"So, Faction Paradox are behind all this," said Sam. "What the hell are you people doing here?"
Buffy couldn�t decide who to be more astounded by, Sam Jones or the two figures in bat-skull masks that Sam seemed to recognize.
"You know these people?" she asked Sam.
"Not personally," Sam replied. Her jaw was tense, her eyes angry. "But I�ve run into their kind before."
One of the figures took off his bat-skull mask to reveal a sharply angled but still human face underneath. "Samantha Jones!" he said. "You honor us with your presence. The Spirits have truly guided us well."
"If you say so," Sam sneered back at the man.
The second figure took off his bat-skull mask as well, revealing an identical face to the one the first man had. "We�re sorry you don�t find this meeting as significant as we do, Miss Jones. We never imagined we would see you again."
"Look, can you save the happy reunion stuff for later?" said Buffy, stepping in front of Sam. "Who are you people, and what do you want?"
"Ah yes, of course," said the first man. "We are being impolite, aren�t we? I am Cousin Lawrence."
"And I am Cousin Miles," said the second man.
"Cousins?" said Xander. "You look more like twins to me. Unless you�re that wacky kind of identical cousins who have their own TV show."
Cousin Lawrence smiled. "In fact, we are twins," he replied, "but from alternate timelines. In the timeline of my birth, Cousin Miles was stillborn."
"And in the timeline of my birth, Cousin Lawrence was stillborn," Cousin Miles added.
"But we are beyond our human lineage now," said Cousin Lawrence. "We have renounced our humanity for the sake of the Family."
"The Family?" Buffy repeated.
"Faction Paradox," said Sam. "They love doing little tricks like that. Tying knots in the timelines. Playing shell games with alternate realities. It�s their idea of fun."
"You of all people should not be mocking our ways, Miss Jones," said Cousin Miles.
"Save it," Buffy snapped. "Whatever past you guys have, unless it has something to do with why you�re here now, I don�t want to know about it."
"As we said, Miss Summers, Miss Jones�s presence is merely an added blessing," Cousin Lawrence replied. "We came here to wait for a companion of yours."
"You�re talking about me, aren�t you?" said the brown-haired girl. She was staring wide-eyed at the two Cousins. "You�re the ones who did all this. You�re the ones who made the world different."
"We were not waiting for you, child," said Cousin Miles. "We seek the one who replaced you. The Spirits judged the world as it was and found it lacking. The Slayer did not have a companion who was skilled in certain areas of magic. We gave her one."
Now it was Buffy�s turn to stare. Her eyes widened as she looked at the Cousins, then turned to Willow and the girl who claimed to be Willow, and finally back to the Cousins. "Are you saying...?" she faltered for a moment. Pointing at the brown-haired girl, she asked again, "Are you saying that this really is Willow?"
"She was Willow," Cousin Lawrence replied. "But that history is no more."
"No way!" cried Willow. "That can�t be true! I�ve always been me. I was never her!"
"And I would never be like her," insisted the brown-haired girl. Did Buffy dare think of her as "Willow," too?
"Tell me," Cousin Miles said to the brown-haired girl, "did your parents ever tell you where and when you were conceived?"
"What?" the brown-haired girl exclaimed. "Excuse me for saying so, but eeew! That�s a little more than I�d like to know about my parents, thank you."
"They had planned a romantic weekend getaway," Cousin Lawrence began, oblivious to the brown-haired girl�s objections. "Just the two of them, at a secluded beachfront inn near Cambria..."
"Please stop," said the brown-haired girl. "This is going way beyond over-sharing. Besides, my parents have never said anything about taking a vacation to Cambria."
"But mine have," said Willow. "My dad got food poisoning the first night they were there. He still complains about it now, and that happened almost a year... before I was born..." Realization dawned on Willow�s face, and Buffy could see that it was terrifying her.
Cousin Miles smiled. "It was a simple matter, really. The proper contaminant placed on the evening meal. Nothing permanently harmful..."
"...but enough," Cousin Lawrence continued with a look at the brown-haired girl, "... for your conception to be averted..."
"...and your conception," Cousin Miles concluded with a look at Willow, "...to take place a month later."
"No, no, no!" cried the brown-haired girl. "What you�re saying is impossible! You can�t just change reality like that!"
"They can," Sam said grimly. "And they do."
"But what am I still doing here?" the brown-haired girl asked.
"It was the will of the Spirits," Cousin Lawrence replied. "They instructed us to pull you from your former time stream."
"Then send me back," said the brown-haired girl. "You have the girl you want. Send me back to my world. Let me go home."
"I�m afraid that is not possible," said Cousin Miles.
"Why not?" said Anya, stepping up to the altar. "I�ve done it. Once I asked Willow - uh, that�s the one with the red hair, I mean - to help me call upon Eryishon, so we could create a temporal fold. We accidentally brought another Willow here from an alternate reality, and then we sent her back again."
"My dear child," Cousin Lawrence said condescendingly, "your supplication before Eryishon was granted because Miss Rosenberg had already been touched by Eryishon, when we brought about her existence."
"In any event," Cousin Miles continued, "our blood rituals are far more permanent than the Power of the Wish or other simple incantations. The world of the original Willow Rosenberg is gone. It cannot be restored."
The brown-haired girl - Willow - dropped to her knees and began to sob. Sarah went over and tried to comfort her. Buffy�s own Willow was still standing, but Buffy could tell that her friend was close to the overload point as well. It was time to end this discussion.
"Look," said Buffy, "I really don�t care what you did, how you did it or why you did it. Whatever plans you have for Willow, you can forget about them. You�re not touching her."
"Miss Rosenberg will do what she has been destined to do," Cousin Lawrence replied. "We trust in the Spirits. We have no further need to interfere."
"Oh really?" said Spike. "Then why do you have that annoying little vampire running around doing odd jobs for you?" Everyone turned and looked at Spike, and he added, "What? You forgot about him already?"
"Of course!" said Sam. "I should have realized it. Faction Paradox has a habit of recruiting children to do their dirty work. They usually lure the kids in with some kind of space-time parlor trick."
"Disrespectfully put, Miss Jones, but essentially correct," said Cousin Miles. "We pulled the vampire child out of time at the precise instant his body was being incinerated by sunlight, and then we placed him in a mutable temporal stasis field. The energy of his burning body powers the generator that maintains the field."
"So that�s why nothing can kill him," said Willow. "Anything harmful, like sunlight or a stake, just adds more power to the force that keeps him alive."
"You have a sharp mind, Miss Rosenberg," Cousin Lawrence said with a smile. "How pleasing to see that our handiwork has been so successful."
"Don�t talk to my friend like that!" Buffy ordered. "She�s not some... some thing you created. She�s a person. And no matter what you think, the little game you�re playing with her is about to end. It stops right now."
"The matter is in the hands of the Spirits," said Cousin Miles. "We will act according to their guidance."
"In case you didn�t notice, I�m giving you a little guidance of my own," Buffy retorted. "Leave. Now."
The two Cousins looked at each other and smiled. "As you wish," they said together.
In an instant, everything vanished � the Cousins, the altar with its strange devices, and the chamber made from skulls. It had all disappeared. Buffy and the others found themselves standing in the darkened ruins of Sunnydale High.
"Wow," said Spike. "That�s telling them."
Buffy shook her head. "That was way too easy," she said. "I have a feeling they�re just getting started."
"So," said Giles, "in a rather ironic twist to the evening, it looks like you�re the ones being interviewed now."
"So it does," Sarah agreed, although somewhat reluctantly.
Sam and Sarah sat on Giles�s couch as the rest of the group gathered around them. Everyone who had been at Sunnydale High was still in attendance, except for Riley, who had gone back to have his burned hands attended to. Even Spike had refused to leave, claiming the Anointed One might sneak up on him if he was out alone. Giles was too busy to throw him out at the moment.
Willow and the brown-haired stranger - who somehow was also Willow, according to Buffy - lurked in opposite corners of the room, apparently trying to stay as far away from each other as they could. The Willow that Giles knew appeared to be holding up better than the other Willow, but only by a slight margin.
"All right, let�s have it," Buffy told the two Englishwomen. "Faction Paradox. What are they?"
"That�s sort of a long story," said Sarah.
"They�re a time-traveling voodoo cult," said Sam.
Sarah shrugged. "Apparently not so long," she admitted.
"A time-traveling voodoo cult?" Giles repeated. "I�ve never heard of any such thing."
"They�re... not from around here," said Sarah. "I first encountered them about four years ago, when they were trying to sell future technology to the secret police of several Third World dictatorships."
"I saw your documentary about that," said Giles. "I don�t remember anything about time travel or voodoo."
Sarah smiled ironically. "You�re not the only one with secrets around here, Mister Giles."
"Obviously not," Giles agreed.
"At any rate, that was only an offshoot from the Faction, not the Faction itself," Sarah continued. "Sam�s involvement with them is..."
"... much more extensive," Sam said, jumping in. The icy tone in her voice made it clear that she didn�t plan to elaborate.
"All right, so what do they want?" Buffy asked.
"Chaos, mostly," Sam replied. "Riddles in time and space. Laws of cause and effect turned inside out. They�re fascinated by the subject. Beyond that, they don�t really have any goals. They go where their spirit guides tell them to go."
"Of course," said Giles. "If they�re a voodoo cult, that would make sense. They follow their loa."
Sam nodded. "They follow their loa," she repeated.
"Um, wait a minute. I think I missed something," said Xander. "What does a Hawaiian theme party have to do with these guys?"
Sam chuckled. Giles merely sighed and said, "Loa is the Haitian word for the Vodoun spirit guides. Unlike the gods of most religions, the loa are said to walk alongside their followers at all times, conversing with them from the spirit realm."
"So these loa," said Buffy, "for some reason they changed the entire history of the world just so our Willow would be here. Why? What is she going to do?"
"I have no idea," Giles mused, "other than that it has something to do with her practice of magic. But we can only guess at what sort of spell they�re hoping she casts."
"Um, excuse me," Willow spoke up from her place in the corner. "�She� is still here in the room, and �she� is not quite catatonic yet."
Buffy grimaced. "Sorry, Will," she said. "I didn�t mean..."
"It�s okay," Willow replied, as reassuringly as she could. "I just wanted to tell you that whatever it is I�m supposed to do, I�m not going to do it. There�s no way I�d help those guys."
"You might not have a choice," said Sam. "Members of Faction Paradox are experts at manipulation. Their temporal calculations have probably arranged things so that you�ll help them before you even realize you�re doing it."
"I refuse to believe that," Buffy insisted. "We�ve fought destiny more than once around here. We can do it again. We just have to know which destiny we�re fighting."
"That might prove difficult," Giles admitted. "I doubt there�s very much information available for research. I wouldn�t even know where to begin."
"As I said, they�re not exactly a local group," said Sarah.
"Where are they from?" asked Buffy.
"Their home is a place called the Eleven Day Empire," Sam replied. "You and I would know it better as England, from the dates of September 3 through September 13, 1752."
Giles thought for a moment. Those dates meant something. What was it? Suddenly, it came to him. "That�s impossible!" he exclaimed. "Those dates don�t exist."
"Exactly," Sam replied. "It�s the perfect homeland for a group like Faction Paradox."
"How can half of September just not exist?" Buffy asked. "Was this part of that whole �Madness of King George� thing?"
"September of 1752 was when England converted from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar," Giles explained, ignoring Buffy�s remark. "Because the Julian calendar had fallen so far behind, the government decreed that eleven days of the month simply wouldn�t exist. People went to bed on September 2, and when they woke up it was September 14."
"And while they were sleeping, the Faction moved in," said Sam.
"That still doesn�t help us," Buffy fumed. "Wherever this Eleven Day Empire is, we can�t get to it. We can�t even research it."
"Wait a minute," said Willow. "Maybe we can. If the Faction is in England, then someone else living there around the same time might have noticed something. They might have even written about it."
Giles saw where Willow was heading. "Of course," he said. "The Watcher Diaries."
"Hang on," said Sarah. "I thought you didn�t work for the Watchers Council any more. Did they really let you keep your copies of the Diaries?"
"Well, no, actually they didn�t," Giles replied.
"Which is why I scanned them into my computer last year," Willow added. "We�ve got the complete set."
"Splendid!" said Sarah. "We can start right away, then."
Giles was momentarily startled by Sarah�s suggestion. After all, just a few hours earlier he had been trying to keep the journalist away from any substantial information on the Council. Now things were different. An additional veteran researcher could come in quite handy, especially since...
"Uh, guys..." said Willow. "I hate to poop the party, but I... I can�t do any more of this right now. I mean, yay me, I remembered the Watcher Diaries, but otherwise my brain kind of has enough to digest already."
Giles gave Willow a reassuring look. "Of course," he said. "We can take it from here. You go and... rest? Or something?"
Willow smiled slightly. "I�ll be okay," she replied. "I just need to think." She looked over at her counterpart in the other corner of the room. "You, uh, might want to take care of her, though."
Giles looked over toward the other Willow and realized that she had indeed deteriorated over the course of their conversation. The poor girl seemed to be on the verge of tears again.
"I�ll handle it," said Sam. She got up from her seat and went to the girl�s side, leading her back to the couch.
Buffy went to Willow�s side as Willow went to the door. "Do you want me to come with you?" she asked.
Willow gave Buffy another slight smile. "I�ll be fine, really. You�d better stay here and help out."
"You�re sure?" Buffy asked.
"Hey, the Faction changed the whole world, just for me," Willow replied dryly. "They wouldn�t let anything happen to their �handiwork� now."
"You�re our Willow, not theirs," Buffy insisted. "Just keep reminding yourself that."
Willow reached out and embraced her friend. "I will," she promised.
As the red-haired young woman made her way down the street and back toward the University, a pair of black-clothed figures and their small glowing companion watched her from a distance.
"It is as you predicted, Cousin," said Cousin Lawrence.
"Of course," replied Cousin Miles. "The Spirits would not fail us. Now, only a few actions remain."
Cousin Lawrence looked down at the young vampire. His demonic visage stared back through the orange glow of the temporal field. "You know what to do next?" he asked the creature.
The vampire nodded, revealing his sharp teeth as he smiled. "After this," he said, "will I be free again?"
"If the Spirits allow it," Cousin Miles assured the creature. "Now, be on your way."
The vampire nodded and started down the street, heading toward the University as well. The Cousins exchanged a knowing look, then placed their bat-skull masks back over their faces and vanished into the darkness.
End Of Part Nine