Darkling Road
by Karen

Willow opened the lead-paned of her seventh floor dorm room, wincing a little as the hinges creaked from lack of attention. The dust coating the sill and the curtains shimmered in the sunlight streaming in she fancied they could almost be moths winging their way into the flame of a candle. She mentally kicked herself for the maudlin turn of her thoughts. She threw back the curtains, thinking as she did so, that it time she thought about buying a new set. The green and gray with scarlet flowers, the fabric had faded a bit around the edges. "Tara's favorite," Willow sighed. "Stop it," she scolded herself aloud. "Tara's dead. She's gone and there's nothing you or anyone else can do about it."

Willow turned around in a took a mental inventory of everything in the room she had shared with Tara. The stuffed animals on the bed, her side always comparatively messy in comparison to Tara`s orderly bed and sense of decoration that would have made a home décor expert green with envy. Willow went over to Tara's bed and finger-stroked the ivory satin dress Tara would have worn to the Winter Formal at the college's auditorium.

"What am I supposed to do without you?" Willow asked of the room in general, not really expecting a response, because the person she referred to was no longer among the living. As Tara had tried to warn her, to quite completely, using magic al together, telling it was too dangerous to treat magic as a dangerous if fascinating toy. In fact, as everyone she knew had warned her, she had been mucking around with powers beyond her control, and she had paid the price. None of her friends had said so aloud, but she could see the hurt in their eyes.

Willow was distracted out of her thoughts by an insistent knocking at her door. Glancing into the mirror, seeing her eyes all red-rimmed and puckered around the corners, she made a hasty dash for the wooden desk, and shoved aside the candles and terra-cotta pots they had used for casting spells and holding ingredients as Wiccans.

Willow straightened her dress, dried her eyes with a tissue from the box resting on her desk. Having composed herself a little, she went to answer the door. Standing on the other side, Xander and Chloe, the latter pushing a stroller with their nine month year old daughter, Christabel happily staring with bright blues at her surroundings.

She couldn't help but look down into that sweet, innocent face, and feel her mood improve. She smiled. "I was wondering when you'd get here," she said to the parents. "It's weird, it hasn't been all that long since we were out of high school, and now I'm a honorary aunt," she smiled. "Where did all the time go?"

"I have no idea," Xander replied, squeezing into the room. "But it's your turn to watch the little darling, so you'd better get used to it."

"I feel special," Willow replied, mock-seriously, her mood starting to improve at the return to the familiar teasing camaraderie that they had developed as friends. "What did the doctor say?" she asked, moving farther into the room and brushing heaps of clothes off chairs and the bed to make room for her guests to sit down.

"How are you?" Chloe asked, concerned about Willow's mental state after everything that had happened.

"She's going to be fine, I mean, Christabel's going to be fine. Maybe she was too young to understand what was going after she was kidnapped. Believe it or not, she slept through the whole thing." Xander grinned. "I thought babies were supposed to be fussy, cry all night, wake up their parents, and demand attention. Not her."

Willow laughed and bent down to tickle the toddler under her chin. The toddler giggled and reached out with one chubby hand to wrap her fingers around the locket that Willow wore around her neck. Gently coaxing Christabel to release her hold, Willow then picked her up and rocked her up and down on her knee. "Does she do this often?" Willow asked, watching the girl try and climb her like her namesake tree. She managed to get the toddler to relax and by mutual agreement, they both found positions they were comfortable with.

"All the time," Xander sighed, trying not to laugh at the maneuvering both were forced to do.

"Any word yet on what Giles has found as far as daycare for her?" Willow asked.

"No. "Aint' it ironic? We're great at research when it concerns the mystical, the supernatural, and let's face it, the macabre, but when it comes to the everyday stuff of life, we're hopeless. Willow, you're great at surfing the Web, maybe you could..." Xander shrugged. "I have absolutely no idea what to look for."

"I've never been a mother before, even as the Banshee," Chloe flushed. "Uh, I do not know how to put this delicately, you see the Third Race, or Dark Elves, only bore children every once in a thousand years, so we were always a smidgen envious of humans and the second race, Gargoyles, have the ability to birth multiple offspring."

"Huh?" Willow said, unable to come up with anything more coherent at the moment.

"Well, now we are parents, we're grasping at straws on how to probably raise our daughter here," Xander grinned, knowing that it was probably a foolish one, but he couldn't help it.

"Xander, luv," Chloe said, "I think we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves." she paused a brushed a strand of red hair out of her eyes, "Refresh my memory, have we asked Willow to be our daughter's honorary aunt or not?"

"We have, but it never hurts to ask again, right?" Xander nodded, brushing a stray lock of black hair out of his eyes. "Willow, will do me the honor of being a honorary aunt to this brat, which we call our daughter?"

Willow was a bit startled by the mocking tone of the request, but then laughed when she realized he was asking in the only way he knew how, and agreed.


Avalon, somewhere out of time

The castle had been built on a rocky headland, with waves lapping at its base. As always the lower masonry blocks that were intended to keep the sea at bay, seemed just on the verged of being washed away. Inside, stone walls dripped color, much as if someone had melted down the rainbow. Lights hung from the ceiling and lit the palace as bright as day, although outside the isle was cloaked in night.

Oberon, Avalon's Lord and King, would flatly refuse to admit to it if pressed, but he too could fall prey to the baser emotions, like jealousy and impatience that were so often the downfall of lesser beings such as mortals.

The Gathering had been indefinitely postponed, his servant, Puck, had defied him and stayed among the humans, and to make matters worse, the gargoyles, had handed him the singular most stinging defeat he had ever endured in his millennia long life.

"The balance of magic is no longer in harmony, we must needs send an emissary.

Someone has been tampering with magic, play, but dangerous play nonetheless." Oberon stated, irritably running one hand along the carved arm of his ivory throne. He barely acknowledged the presence of the servant who refilled his crystal goblet of honeysuckle wine. Absorbed in his thoughts, he did not even notice the significant glare of his lady-wife and queen, Tatania.

"Husband, pray tell, what you propose to do about it? Surely you will not venture thither thyself," Tatiana said, gazing with rapt attention into the mirror that bore her name. The mirror's misty surface shimmered like the heat currents over an ocean's waves.

She tapped the surface with a middle ring finger so delicately tapered it might as well have been a needle, and mentally ordered the mirror to bring up the image of the red-headed girl that had her Lord and Husband, to use the mortal term, hot and bothered. She fondly recalled the last mortal she had married because he had intrigued her, and five hundred years ago she had been curious to learn about mortal and live among then, one Halycon Reynard. That union had taught her much about the human world, about how the felt and lived, and even about the technological marvels that the Third Race, the fay, found as miraculous as humans found magic and its workings. The union of herself and Reynard had produced a daughter, one Fox Xanatos. Disappointingly, Fox had shown no signs of possessing even an inkling of magic, however, her son, Alexander Xanatos did, in abundance. During the last Gathering, Oberon had agreed to allow the boy to stay with his parents, and Puck, a rebellious servant, banished from Avalon for all time, to train the boy in the use of her magical powers. It still rankled Oberon to have bend his stiff pride and accede to the demands of those he considered his inferiors, but he hadn't had a choice. As much as he refused to admit it, their kind did have one weakness; they were venerable to weapons forged of cold iron. All this went through Tatiana's thoughts, as she waited for the mirror's power to accede to her demands and bring up the desired image.


Buffy whirled around, instinct and adrenaline driving home the wooden stake she clenched in her right hand. The vampire expired in a cloud of dust a surprised look on his craggy face. She sighed, being the Slayer it was her job to dispatch demons, vampires and assorted nasties back to where they came from, but it sure did not leave her any time for anything resembling a `normal' life.

"Typical," she muttered under her breath, collapsing rather than sitting down on a nearby marble slab that had seen better days. Fine lines like spider webs criss-crossed its smooth surface. Dirt and a fine layer of dust, which made her sneeze, as she got comfortable, was thick in the air, moonlight washing everything in an eerie glow. Buffy sighed and twirled her wooden stake in her hand. "I'm here patrolling, while everyone else is having a good time.

Just as she was drifting off into a half-doze, just to rest her eyes, she whirled around in a 180 degree circle, her instincts and training responding to half felt, half seen threat sneaking up behind her. Expecting to confront one of the members of Sunnydale's undead population, a vampire or a demon; what she saw instead was a very angular man, his hair coiffed into a bizarre style that made Buffy think of a beehive, coiled into a braided strands on the top of his narrow face. On his pointed chin, the man sported a silver goatee beard. They stood about five minutes in mutual silent regard, and Buffy, was beginning to get restless. So far, he had not made any move to either attack or flee, or decide who would be the first to break the ice. "Who are you?" Buffy finally demanded, her arms folded over her chest, her wooden stake twirling in her right hand. She couldn't have sworn to it, but there was something about the look in his eyes, and smirk playing about his thin-lipped mouth that made her remember the fellow who had come to confront Chloe months ago. If this guy wasn't a dead ringer for that Owen Burnett, or Puck, or whatever his name was, they might as well have been brothers. "Well, I'm waiting." Buffy said aloud.

"Indeed, we have been waiting a very long time." He bowed.

"Oh, that clarified things a whole bunch," Buffy smirked. "Care to expand on that?"

"Now we are getting somewhere. Allow me to introduce myself.

"What are you?" Buffy asked.

"One of the Fay, or Dark Elves. The Scots called us the Fair Folk. Although, personally,' he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "I have always been partial to the Irish and their name for my people, `The Tuatha De Daanan."

"Huh?" Buffy couldn't form anything more coherent at the moment after everything he had told so far. "What difference does it make what people call your kind?" When she managed to wrap her mind around not just the words but the strange mesmerizing lyrical sounds of his voice, it reminded Buffy of the way Willow, or anyone else she knew sounded when the uttered the incantations to spells. She couldn't help but wonder if she was being subjected to some kind of bizarre attack that used words instead of weapons she could sense with her eyes, ears, and hands, or the less visible senses that were part of her nature as the Slayer. She could feel a dull buzzing start at the base of her spine and work its way up to her head and wrap itself around her brain. Her knees started to give, and irritated at herself for allowing this person to make her feel that way, she shook her head and slapped at her cheeks to wake herself up.

He tossed his head back, the movement sending the coils of silver hair free from their restraints and cascade down his back. "You have a sense of humor, Slayer. Excellent. None of my own would even think to ask that question. None, I suppose. But to fire your question right back at you, do you think of yourself as the Slayer first or a woman first?"

"Not fair," Buffy demanded, refusing to be baited into playing some weird version of 20 questions. "And in case you've forgotten, I asked first."

"Indeed," he laughed. "I am called Orlando."

"Well, Orlando," Buffy said, glancing around in 360 degree circle, watching for movement among the shadows, greenery, and standing stones of the cemetery for vampires, or other fay, just in case this Orlando fellow wasn't as alone as he claimed. "Why are you here and what do you want with me?"

"That's two."


"Two questions," Orlando replied, seating himself on a nearby tombstone. "Fair enough, I have been rather verbose in our first encounter. The reason that I am here is two fold," he rocked back on his heels and lifted his hands and laced them together in front of his chest in front of the spot where his heart would be located.

"First, I bring you a warning of an impending disaster that will not just affect you personal and the relationships you hold with those you hold dear, but something will happen or has happened, I am really not sure which it is, but it has caused the High and Mighty a wee bit of concern."

"Okay, consider me warned? Who sent you here and how am I supposed to do something about it when all you do is go around the subject in circles?" Buffy asked.

"I was not sent, not in the sense of being ordered on this embassy," Orlando replied.

"Okay, you came on your own to warn me. Now what?" Buffy asked.

Orlando nodded. "I would not have volunteered as you put it, but out of all seasons and reasons, for causes I can not even begin to explain this place of yours, you call Sunnydale has been emitting untold amounts of spiritual energy, and now as I mentioned our Lord and Lady have declared that the Balance is has been disturbed, and this is the reason for them to have sent an agent to restore that balance."

"An agent?" Buffy said, becoming a little worried, balancing on the balls of her feet, torn between staying around and learning all she could from this odd duck and running off to the Magic Box to tell her friends about this impending doom.

Orlando nodded. "You see, according to our calendar, and our reckoning there are only certain times of the year where spiritual energy should be at its peak, one of those times is due to come up," he paused and counted on his fingers, "one, two, divide by ten, on the date you call the first of November, Samhain, or it's called All Saints Day followed by All Souls Day."

"The day after Halloween?" Buffy replied.


"And what happens then?"

"I ask your indulgence for a while longer," Orlando blushed, his fair skin darkening to an ivory white. "I do not yet know the identity of the agent the Lord of Avalon has dispatched. I need to investigate further. And please understand that I say this not to distress you, but the identity of the mortal they have targeted as being responsible for upsetting the balance between magic and nature is known to you."

"The Wiccan witch," Orlando whispered, tossing his head and allowing his silver hair to fall over his eyes.

"They're after Willow?" Buffy asked.


"Who's the agent? How much time do I have to work with here?" Buffy asked.

"I am sorry," Orlando replied, hanging his head and stuffing his hands into the pockets of his tunic. "I pray your indulgence. I do not yet know the identity of the agent. "

"How come you're giving the runaround. Do you always provide information in dribs and drabs?"


"I assume, Mi Lord, that thou wilst be sending an enforcer?" Tatiana asked.

"Indeed," Oberon smiled, his thin lips creasing in a narrow furrow. "I believe that I have such a person in mind." He cocked his head to one side, mulling over his options. "In fact, HE must just welcome such an opportunity. That is if I can persuade him to stir out of his centuries-long self-imposed hibernation.

Tatiana looked startled for a moment, the embroidered gown she had been mending sliding out of her fingers and falling to the floor with a soft rustle of cloth. "Thou do not mean The Horned God?"

Oberon smiled again, and it was not a pleasant one, deciding to refuse to answer such an obvious question, but in the midst of his smug assurance, a quiver of doubt made itself known. The Horned God was notoriously reclusive and stubborn, and not easily persuaded to involve himself in anyone's cause, unless it was his decision first, but Oberon was not the Lord of Avalon without reason, and already knew that this was a situation that The Horned God would be more than willing to lend his assistance. After all, the Balance of Magic must be maintained, at all costs.


"This place is immaculate, much better than the usual cemeteries we frequent," Xander quipped, trying for levity, because he knew how hard this would be for Willow, in the aftermath of the utter disaster of what followed after Tara had been killed by the Trio. Willow's grief had caused her to go off the deep end. She had tapped into every available dark magical power source and them some, had gone off a supernatural death hunt. As it was, she had flayed one boy alive, the one who actually pulled the trigger, although the bullet had been meant for Buffy, it didn't matter. Dead was dead, even in town like Sunnydale. Scary dark-magic Willow had taken out their ring-leader, leaving only Andrew and one other boy left alive.

Trying to protect them, not for themselves, to keep Willow from killing again. Of course, killing a human being was entirely different from killing the undead, there had to be a difference. It was not so much that they were protecting the boys, it was trying to get Willow back to herself, to remember who she really was without the supernatural magic flowing through her.

She had even lashed out at her friends, and fought Buffy, and Giles as well.

Whatever kind of power she had taken from the former Watcher, made her believe that in order to save the world from more suffering, she had to destroy the world. Xander couldn't help thinking of some phrase from an old movie he had seen with Willow before all this badness began. `Good thinking, Colonel Clink. In order to save the village, we had to burn down the village.'

Out loud he said, "Hey, where's Christabel?"

Willow blushed and finger-combed her hair. "Chloe and I found out that the college ran a daycare right on campus. It checks out, too. It's run by professional and students majoring in child day care and the like."

"Chloe said it was fine?" he asked, irritated that he hadn't been consulted first, but figuring that if anyone knew what they were doing and what to look for in daycare, it would be Willow. In fact, he recalled that he asked Willow to look around for them.

"So we can pick up our `brat' later."

"Why do you call her that?" Willow asked, wondering at the sarcastic tone of his voice.

Xander blushed, "I really don't know. I guess it's just easier to joke about it, that way I can wrap my brain around the fact that I'm actually a dad now. There are days when it just doesn't seem possible. I mean, me of all people?"

"I know, sometimes I can't believe it either," Willow smiled. "I guess you'd better get used to it."

"Gee, thanks. I feel so much better "You ready for this," Xander asked.

"As ready as I'll ever be," Willow nodded. "Okay, let's go."

Willow moved forward mechanically not really paying attention to the place of one foot in front of another. In the back of her mind she was glad that Xander was with her, no matter what happened, Xander was the one person she could rely on to always be there for her. They had known each other the longest, ever since kindergarten. When she had been running high on her own magical power and the power she had stolen from other sources, he had been the one to bring her back from the brink. He had recalled her back to herself, and for that she would always be grateful. Willow clutched the bouquet of long-stemmed roses in her hands, unaware that she was crushing the petals and bent down by the gravestone that bore the engraving of Tara's name. She got down on her knees and stared at the inscription for a long time, unaware that her lips were moving but no sound came out. In the back of her mind she kept hearing a little voice saying "Why did you have to die, Tara? Why didn't I stop it? If I could have done something different, maybe you would still be alive. I need you. Another voice, this one taking a different tone, whispered, "If given a choice, would you have done anything differently, would have you made different choices?"

Willow shook her head, and bit her lip to keep from crying. She placed the bouquet of flowers on the ground beneath Tara's headstone, neatly arranging them. With the tip of one finger she traced the outlines of Tara's date of birth and the date of her death, right below the letters that spelled out what Tara had meant to her and their circle of friends: FRIEND FOREVER." "Goodbye, Tara." Willow whispered.

When she finally straightened up again, Willow wiped the light coating of dust and grass stains from her maroon skirts and, with Xander arm wrapped about hers, walked back to where Xander had left his car parked.

"You going be okay?" Xander asked.

"Eventually," Willow replied, "Give me some time. Xander, in case I forget to mention this later, thanks for coming with me."

"Hey, Will, it's me remember?" Xander smiled, and held the passenger side door open for her. She climbed into and settled herself into the seat, fastening the seatbelt around her middle. Xander shut the door and walked around to the driver side, fumbling in his jeans pocket for his car keys. Just as he was about to unlock the door, a wind whipped up out of nowhere, rustling his black hair, kicking up a small cloud of dirt, dust, and debris.

Willow unfastened her seatbelt and got out of the car, as the wind circled around and threatened to blow in the glass of the car's windows. She ran over to where Xander stood and instinctively clung to each to avoid getting knocked about, the dust, debris and sand in the dust cloud feeling like stinging needles as they stood in the open without any shelter from the wind.


Finally the wind finally died down and an apparition appeared vaguely man-shaped, standing well over six feet and its body massive with muscle and fur. Standing as it did in the shadows, made it hard to determine what manner of creature faced them.

"Ah, you got any idea what that is?" Willow asked, pointing towards the apparition with a trembling finger. Xander gripped her arm so hard that his knuckles turned white. At the same time he could feel the moisture of a damp and cold fear sweat drip down his back. He gasped for breath and tried to loosen his death-grip on Willow's arm when he realized that it was hurting her, and the last thing he wanted to do was hurt her. He let go and took a few cautious steps toward the creature. In as brave a voice as he could muster, he demanded: "What, or Who are you? And what do you want with us!"

The creature's mouth moved but no sounds emerged from its throat, as if it found forming words an unfamiliar and difficult task. It looked up at him and Xander blinked a few times, feeling his will to resist begin to drain away like water down a laundry basin. Xander took a handful of ragged breaths, trying to calm down his racing heart; his mouth tasted like he had been chewing cotton balls, and demanded again: "What do you want?" he asked, carefully enunciating each word slowly.

Xander for an instant thought either it the being was deaf or was deliberately ignoring him. As far as Xander was concerned, that wouldn't be the first time. Tearing his gaze away, he exchanged significant glances with Willow, with a look in his eyes, saying, `Let's make a run for it.'. He realized that he still gripped her arm rather tightly, and loosened the hold of his fingers so he wouldn't be cutting of her circulation. As close as they stood, he could feel the pounding of her heart and shallow breath come in and out of her lungs. In a back corner of his mind, he toyed with the idea of defending her, but as quickly discarded the idea, how many blows could he get in on a creature five times his size, and all of it muscle and bulk? Not many. Xander told himself, and thought about making a break for his parked car only a few feet away from where they stood frozen to the spot.

Willow, wanted to run, she didn't even think about trying to defend herself. Again that little voice that had whispered inside her head earlier that day, thoughts about continuing to practice and play around with her magical powers, spoke to her again, telling her not to be afraid, that they were kindred spirits; that he meant her no harm, he was only there to help restore the magical balance between magic and the natural world. Willow removed her hands from around Xander's arm, not realizing if she was hurting him or not, and clapped her hands over ears in an effort to block out the whispered, silent voice. The more she tried to block the voice the louder it got, until it was so loud that she feel to her knees and began rocking back and forth, yelling over and over, "Make it stop! Make it stop! Get out of my head! I'm not like you! I don't care about some stupid magical balance."

"Do not be alarmed," the creature intoned in a deep bass voice. "The balance must be maintained.

"That's a laugh," Xander yelled. "And you still haven't told just who you are."

"I have many names, the one that suits me thus far is the Horned God, or Cernuous.

Stand aside, Mortal, I must needs apprehend that Wiccan."

Xander glanced over at Willow, and for an instant she stopped thrashing from side to side at the same time as the voice ended its insistent rattling around in her head.

The headache lingered, but it had been reduced to a dull buzzing, which she could ignore. Willow stared directly into the thing's eyes and felt like she would drown in their black depths. Her eyes began to water and she blinked back the tears determined to stand her ground and get some straight answers out of this creature.

The creature approached her, aware of Xander's protective and somehow comforting presence, where he stood to the left and behind her. Willow mentally sorted through the catalog of protection/defensive spells that she bring to bear, and discarded each one just as quickly. If this thing could get into her mind and read her thoughts, he, for she had decided the creature was male, probably already had counter spells just as powerful as its thoughts seemed to be, already prepared.

Just then, the thing sped towards her, its movements very fast for all its massive bulk. She tried to bring up both fists, the words of a spell on her lips. At that instant she could hear white nose, like music heating her senses like a heat wave. The Horned God's heavy hand crushed her down to the ground at the same it crushed her will to resist. Her last conscious thought was: `This is so unfair. I should have done something differently, I could fought his spell if only I had been given more time, or if I'd been stronger in my magic.' and she succumbed to blackness.


Xander felt rooted to the spot, but as he saw Willow crumple he willed his feet and body to move. Taking several deep breaths he ran towards the mismatched duo and ended run smack into an invisible wall. Reeling backwards from the shock her saw the Horned God, or whatever name he wanted to go by, whisper words in a language that sounded like Latin, trace some kind of squiggly magical symbol in the air, and then both of their bodies shimmered like heat currents before finally dissolving into nothingness. He closed his eyes and began moving forward again, only to find himself staring at the trunk of a willow tree. "Okay, that was par for the course in the category of weirdness." I know you can still here me! Willow! Come back! All right, Horned God! Bring her back! Do you hear me!


"Where have you taken Willow?"?" Xander demanded as both the horned god and Willow disappeared. Xander was left to stand yelling at a tree trunk. Irritated, and out of sorts, Xander curled his hand into a fist and slammed it into the tree trunk. Cursing under his breath when the pain caught up with him. He jumped several feet into the air when a silvery voice answered his question. He turned around to see Buffy and stranger appear out of the shadows at the far end of the cemetery. "Somewhere you can not follow."

"UH, nice to see you too," Xander griped. "Buffy, could you please explain what's going on here?"

"Xander," Buffy distracted from her one-sided argument with Orlando, who, to his credit appeared genuinely unhappy, glided over to greet Xander with a rib-crushing hug. "Boy, am I glad to see you. Do you know where Willow is. It's urgent that I find her before something else does."

"If that's the case, you're too late. I was with her and then this being showed up and snatched her away."

"Why didn't you fight this being," Buffy shouted, turning to confront Orlando. "I trusted you! I thought you were telling me the truth. All that runaround back there was a deliberate effort to stall for time until this agent had a chance at Willow!"

"Believe what you like," Orlando shrugged and tried for a reassuring smile, he failed miserably because Buffy smacked him in the face and he crumpled to the ground, twisting the fabric of his fancy clothes in his hands. "All right, granted that I deserved that. It was rather gauche of me to imply that I'm enjoying myself at your friend's expense, but there really is nothing I can do about the situation as it stands at the moment."

"Uh, Buffy" Xander began, staring at Orlando crouching on the ground like a wounded animal. "Who is this guy? And what the hell is he talking about?"

"Come over here," Buffy replied, "And I'll fill you in."

Xander went over to a niche formed by a standing tombstone and a pine tree, underneath of which someone had placed a marble bench. Xander and Buffy sat down, and tried to get comfortable. "You see, it's like this. Orlando claims to be a messenger from a race of beings called the fay," Buffy shrugged, "Don't ask me to try and repeat his preferred name for the race, it's Irish and I can't pronounce it. He came to warn me about some kind of impending doom because of Willow's magic upsetting some sort of natural balance." She raised her right hand and covered his mouth, "Shush, don't interrupt. If you do, I'll never remember all of this. Apparently, someone named Lord Oberon got all disturbed about it and sent an emissary to deal with Willow."

"How do they know it's Willow's fault for disturbing this balance?" Xander asked, remembering some of things that Willow had muttered shortly before her disappearance along with the horned god.

"I have no idea." Buffy glared over at Orlando's miserable figure on the ground. "He isn't exactly the easiest person to get a straight answer to a direct question. All he would say before we reached you was something about `no cat in its fur anywhere ever gave anyone a straight answer.' and then we found you."

"Great," Xander muttered, raking a hand through his hair. "Just great. So, what do we do now?"

"The only thing we can do," Buffy replied, "It's something I'm not very good at it, but all we can do now is wait, and hope that Willow, wherever she is, that she makes it out."

Orlando stood up, brushed the dirt from his fancy clothes, and came over to where they sat on the marble bench. "Indeed, It's up to Willow now."



Willow's conscious awareness of her surroundings came slowly back to her.. All the same, she kept her eyes closed hoping that would make a lingering headache go away. It didn't, but that was the least of her worries. When she opened her eyes, she found herself standing in the middle of a dark wood mist swirling around along almost, rising up from the ground that was almost level with her knees. Looking around for the horned god that had taken her, she found him standing silently to her left, the contrasting shadows of trees and bushes casting the shape of horns or antlers across his brow.

In the silence of nothingness, the horned creature finally spoke aloud to her; its voice was about as fast as snowmelt, it was definitely male, deep as a bass drum. "I am known as the Horned God, the ancient Celts knew me as Cernnous. "

"What is this place?"

"Otherworld, Limbo, it matters not."

"Well, it may not make much difference to you, but it matters to me!" she snapped, realized with a startled jump that the horns did not actually sprout from his brow, they were part of a helmet where holes had been carved to accommodate the appearance of antlers, like those of a deer. She couldn't say whether or not that should make her feel better or worse.

"What do you want with me?"

"I, nothing, I am merely the guide. What happens from here is entirely up to you." This place is outside of time, for every hour you spend in limbo it will be like seven of your days in the mortal world."

"I'm going to be trapped here."

"Only in the sense of the traps we create for ourselves." Recall, that I told you that the delicate nature of the world is out of balance. Time is not linear. It has layers like the skin of an onion. The more layers that unravel more lie beneath. "

"What is with this answering a question with a question?"

"It is our nature."

"You said you do not care about restoring the balance of magic and the real world. That is part of the reason you have been brought here."

"Why me?"

"All things will be revealed in time." the horned god made a rumbling sound deep in his massive chest, glancing at her clenched fists and the green eyes pinned on him. He began chuckling and then turned into genuine peals of laughter. "Ah, I had forgotten the impatient nature of mortals. I can see by the look in your eyes that it hardly a satisfactory answer.

"Well, for your information it isn't, and don't find anything all funny about this situation."

"The reason you are here is because of the balance of magic and the real world is out of harmony, and you have tampered with that balance long enough."

"I haven't..." Willow sighed and realized that she would eventually have to pay for what she had done during his power trip of tapping into forces beyond her control, but she never imagined it would be like this. "Dispatched as I was to deal with you, Wicca, I took the time to make own observations and draw my own conclusions."

"You were sent to kill me?"

"Yes, but I have chosen not to do so. Walk this way," the horned god invited and shambled off in the direction where the enveloping fog was thickest. "Choices, right or wrong are more," he cocked his head to one side, thinking something through, "more ambivalent here."

Willow, without any better options hurried after him, finding that she did not have to run to keep up. The horned god set a steady pace, but not one that was too fast for her.


There seemed to be no day or night in Limbo so Willow had no way to keep track of time. What the horned god had casually mentioned about how time ran differently here worried her, but not as much as whatever it she was expected to do here.

She could only barely see the path beneath her feet, it didn't actually fell like they were walking more as if they floated through the air.

The strange, weightless flight came to an end. Willow landed on the floor of a room she vaguely recognized, although she was long past wondering she could be indoors now when she had been outside before. Deciding that logic played no part in Limbo, she gave her surroundings a 360 degree inspection. Willow felt her heart skip a beat when she recognized the figure sitting on the neatly made bed. It took her a few seconds to adjust her eyes from the darkness outside to the brightness of the indoors. She wiped her sweating palms on the front of her dress and stared at the familiar face. "Tara." she whispered, wanting to run forward and embrace her best friend.

"Willow," Tara greeted, getting up from the bed and moving forward to where she stood at the threshold of the door. "I was wondering how long it would take you to get her. I was beginning to think you had given up on me."

"I would never give up on you," Willow sobbed. "You were dead. And it was all my fault. I tried to avenge your death and look how well that turned out."

"Exactly," Tara gave a grim shake of her head. "Why did you do it. How many times did I tell you that messing around with the magic like it was a pretty bauble would get you in trouble. If you care anything at all for me, you never would have taken another human life d using your powers."

Willow recoiled in hurt shock, this couldn't be Tara, it had to be some kind of hallucination conjured up by the spirits inhabiting this place. "Tara, I loved you. I would do anything to protect you, except when the bullet took your life, I couldn't think of anything except to hurt the people who had hurt you so terribly."

"There were other alternatives. You simply choose to ignore them and all the warnings I gave about using the magic." Why are you here? You didn't come to see me, to make it up to me."

"I was brought here," Willow replied, half-turning around to point out the horned god who had stood respectively silent throughout the entire exchange.

Tara, or her spirit nodded, "I see. Someone other power decided to intervene, to restore the magical balance. It's fitting, I suppose. you're being given choices, choices I was never offered. You're special, Willow. I guess we always knew that. I just hope, for your sake, that you make the right ones." and the image of Tara, the orderly bedroom and the house all melted away into the fog.


"This is absurd! Take me back now!" Willow demanded, once they were back outdoors again.

"The encounter with the other Wican did not occur by happenstance. There are no coincidences in life."

"That was horrible, it had to be an illusion meant to trick me."

The Horned God shrugged, rolling his massive shoulders, "Believe what you will. I had nothing to do with what you saw and heard. My task is simply to guide you."

"I have a choice. What if I make the wrong one?"

"Then you will be given your heart's desire. You will be reunited with your friend and you can spend eternity together in Limbo. Which road will you chose? Life or Death?"

"Of course, I want to live, but I want Tara back, too."

"That is not one of the options. Choose."

Willow rocked back on her heels, torn with indecision. Once Tara died she had felt as adrift as she was now. It was too soon and too sudden to forced into a position where shad had to make a decision about life and death. As much as she loved Tara and wanted her back among the living, instinctively she knew that it wasn't possible. She already upset the balance enough, how much more was she was willing to do, just for her own selfish reasons. She had told herself over and over that Tara was dead and there was nothing she or anyone else could do about. She already brought one person back from the dead, and looked how well that had turned out. Buffy had been a mere shell of herself for weeks before she eventually emerging and back to normal. Would bringing Tara back from the dead, be even worse. The words that Tara's spirit had hurled at her hurt like slivers of ice down her back. "Selfish!" she screamed in a back corner of her mind. "As much as I love Tara and want to be with her, I don't think I can stand spending eternity in this ghostly place. Aloud, proud that her voice didn't creak, she swallowed down her fear, and turned to confront the Horned God, "I've made my choice."

"Indeed." he replied, folding his arms across his massive chest.

"Don't you want to know what it is? Or are you going to read my mind again?" Willow shouted. Not getting a rise out of him, she took another deep breath, and announced "I want to live."

"I though you might," the Horned God replied, not in the least disturbed by the accusing tone of her voice. "Regardless of which choice you made, bear in mind there are always consequences. You have chosen to live, but the cost will be high." Are you certain it is one you are willing to pay?"

"What the hell are you talking about?" Willow demanded.

"In order to live, you will have to give up your magic," the Horned God replied.

"I can't! I...." I didn't realize that choosing to live would mean losing my magic." Willow replied, falling to her knees on the spongy ground.


He blinked a few times and then chanted an spell in Latin, and the next thing Willow knew, she stood on the tiled pathway of the cemetery, watching Xander, who stood in front of a willow tree, yelling at it.

Xander whirled around, seeing Willow appear out of nowhere. He nearly sobbed in relief and ran over to hug her. He stepped back a few paces glancing over to check for cuts, bruises, or other signs that she had been harmed in any way. Finding none, he sank down and sat with folded legs on the tiled pathway, exhausted.

Buffy and Orlando joined them a few moments later, demanding to know what had happened.

"Stop! I can't think!" Willow said, covering her ears with her hands.

"She is alive," Orlando remarked to the air in general. "Methoughts, the emissary would have done away with her by now."

Buffy whirled to confront him. "Shut up. Unless you have something useful to add," seeing his sickly grin, she took it for a negative, "I thought so. Good job on helping so far. When where you planning on tell me this was all a setup? After she was dead? Don't bother answering that. I don't want to hear it."

"Willow, are you all right?" Xander interrupted.

"Depends on your definition of `all right." Willow sighed. "Don't worry about the Horned God, he never intended to hurt me, okay, he admitted that he sent to kill me, but he changed his mind. Instead, he took me to someplace called Limbo and served as my guide. Although, " she tilted her head to the side thinking it through, "It was maddeningly about how roundabout and evasive some of his answers were. Says its their nature, but all the same it was an annoying way to go about it."

The Horned God stood apart from them, and shrugged its massive shoulders in the same way he had down when she announced her choice.

Xander nudged himself nearer and lifted her right in his own, hurt and shock in his eyes when he felt how cold it felt. He absently began rubbing it to bring some warmth to her hand.

"What happened to you there? If it's not too difficult to talk about, that is."

"I meet Tara," Willow whispered. "We had words. We argued about stuff. I never imagined that it could hurt that much, just seeing her again. I mean, she's dead, but that spirit form felt just as real as if she had been flesh and blood again."

"Then what happened?" Buffy nodded encouragingly.

"Said I was there to restore the balance."

"We know that part," Buffy added, turning an icy glare on Orlando, then turned her attention back to Willow.

"I had to make a choice, whether I wanted to live or die. If I chose to die," Willow sobbed, and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "I could stay with Tara, except that I would be trapped in Limbo with her for eternity."

"Not much of a choice," Buffy remarked, thinking of the time she had spent in the afterlife, knowing it was selfish of her to wish to be sent back there.

"The other choice was if I wanted to life. He brought me back, except I had to pay a price. I had to give up my magic," Willow whispered.

"You mean, your magic is gone?" Buffy asked.

"Completely," Willow replied.

"Oh, Wil," Buffy sighed, and hugged her friend in a tight embrace. "It will get better, you'll see. It has to get better. It's not that you're any different now than you were when you still had your magic. You're still you and that's what matters right?"

"Right, I mean, I guess so. This is going to take some getting used to," Willow replied, returning the hug, trying to make out the look on her friend's face through her tears.

"Hey, Will," Xander added, tears shimmering in his eyes. "We're here for me. Remember that. And no matter what happens that will never change."


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