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  • Electric Wolves

    Disclaimer: None of the characters in this fic belong to me. Some of them don't belong to Joss, either!

    The object on the crypt floor had the pus-raddled, pulsating look of a Suvolte egg.

    Of course, only an idiot would walk right up to a pulsating Suvolte egg and take a look. But it wasn't a Suvolte egg, or at least if it was it was strangely unhealthy. Spike shrugged--"Oi! What's this?"--and strolled over.

    Maybe it was a deformed Suvolte. Born dead or dying, it'd still have useful glands and whatnot, and without all the fuss and mess of maybe getting one's head eaten.

    The pucker at the top hinged open....
    ********
    "Dawn!"

    The teenage ex-Key's head popped up across the bed from Anya. "Huh?"

    "Dawn, where did you get this? It's clearly very expensive and maybe we should sell it. I mean, if it's a family heirloom or something." Anya waved the large red gemstone about as Dawn glared at her. "Well, I mean, obviously because you're having so many problems with money now that Joyce is dead and Buffy isn't any more."

    Dawn sighed. "I got that part. I've just never seen it before. I don't even think it was on the bed when we came in."

    "Maybe it's a mystical gemstone," the ex-demon speculated. "Sometimes these things teleport about, looking for owners, you know?" It did have a mesmerizing glow... "I think I'll take it to the Magic Box and examine it." A beat. "I mean, if that's all right with you. Some mystical gems are dangerous and you wouldn't want to keep them in your house."

    "Go ahead." Dawn shrugged. For a moment she'd been afraid Anya had seen the charm bracelet she'd lifted from the store earlier. "It sure isn't mine."
    ********
    Heavy breathing resonated through the Trio's basement lair.

    "Wow!" Jonathan exclaimed. "That's one cool hologram!" He reached out to touch the black fabric, expecting his hand to pass through it--and jerked it back immediately. The robe was solid; it even felt like real cloth.

    "It's not a hologram exactly," Warren confirmed. "Since the invisibility ray didn't exactly work out like we planned, I figured I'd use the quantum-mystical diamond for something else. You know...why watch movies in HD when you can watch them in 3D?"

    Andrew frowned. "Isn't that kinda dangerous? I mean, what with being solid and all?"

    "Don't be ridiculous," scoffed Warren. "They're totally under our control. It's all hooked into the repurposed digital recording setup on my PC." He waved his hand in the direction of the fascinating black-clad figure.

    Darth Vader regarded the gesture with seeming unconcern...then responded with a motion of his own. "I find your lack of faith...disturbing." Abruptly an invisible hand seemed to lift Warren into the air by his throat. The spiky-haired leader of the Trio waved his hands frantically, trying to shout an order, but the redness of his face made it plain he was unable to get a breath.

    For a moment his friends stood there, paralyzed with fascination. Choking, Warren directed a furious glare at Andrew, mouthing "Move it, you dolt!" Andrew stumbled over Jonathan's feet, and in moments the two of them were puzzling over the elaborate menu on Warren's computer screen.

    "I think it's this one!"

    "No, wait, we don't want to crash the whole system. This one will shut off the current program!"

    Warren, his face turning purple, managed a groan. Jonathan, panicking, stabbed his fingers at a handful of function buttons. For a moment, the system seemed to hang...and then Warren dropped to the floor, gasping for air.

    The cyborg Sith Lord had vanished.

    Breathing sighs of relief, the bungling masterminds assisted their fallen leader to his feet. "I think it needs a little work, Warren," Andrew opined. For once, Warren didn't bother to argue with him...though perhaps only because he was still struggling to fill his lungs. He merely allowed the others to lead him up out of the apartment for an astringent beverage to help stimulate his throat into working properly.

    So no one remained to notice the sparks that had begun emanating from the overloaded surge protector...
    ********
    Anya studied the gemstone through a jeweler's loupe. The Magic Box had all manner of equipment for examining magical items, although the loupe didn't get a great deal of use; magical gems were even more expensive than mundane ones, usually far exceeding the cost-to-profit ratio for a small store. Naturally, Anya had learned how to use the thing anyway; she hoped it would come in handy one day.

    "Darn it!" The stone seemed to have a tiny flaw at the center. Even though it was almost imperceptible to the naked eye, any self-respecting jeweler would knock a zero or two off the price for that. She'd just have to keep her mouth shut when the occasional wealthy customer asked. If she didn't say anything, it wasn't lying, and Anya knew she could stay quiet if she really had to. If there was money involved, anyway. Maybe. Irritated, she slammed the stone down on the counter a little harder than she should have.

    Still, that was no reason for it to shatter into tiny pieces! With a wail of dismay, Anya fled the shop, stopping just long enough to lock the door and turn the sign to "Closed". Years of financial security, gone in the blink of an eye! She needed a drink.
    ********
    Willow batted ineffectually at the flying object with a pillow, only to have it shredded into bits of fluff for her troubles. The silvery device whirled its blades and dove for her again.

    Magic. She needed magic. But she was trying to stay off the magic.

    The levitating buzzball sped by her head, chopping off a stray lock of hair as she lunged to her left and out of the way. "This isn't fair! If I'm not using magic, people shouldn't be attacking me with magic! I mean, that's only right and just, isn't it? The karmic balance and everything?"

    Not paying the least bit of attention to her perfectly logical reasoning, the silvery object pursued her into the kitchen. Willow grabbed a frying pan and swatted it with all her might...which, she figured, ought to be pretty considerable after all these years fighting at a vampire slayer's side. With a hideous chunk! the blades penetrated straight through the cast iron, only to grind to a halt. Willow stared, eyes wide, as the ball whirred and rattled for a moment before falling still at last.

    Gingerly, she laid a finger on the side of the ball. The object fairly tingled with magic, shimmering beneath her touch, but failed to leap into action and chop off her hand. Before she could scoop it up, though, it shimmered again and evaporated into mist. The magical residue vanished almost immediately.

    Pouting, Willow stalked out of the room. No one was going to like seeing her at the Magic Box, but research was research. And if she snitched a little power from something or other, who'd notice?
    ********
    Dawn came down from her room some time later, having finally located the homework she was supposed to be finishing. She paused briefly at the end table, seeing a videotape lying there. What's this for? she wondered. Shortly before her mother's death, they'd replaced their ailing VCR with a DVD player and given away the remaining tapes. She picked up the video, searching for a label, but there was nothing to see. "Oh well." She shrugged and dropping it into the trash.

    Buffy was sprawled on the living room couch. Having come home early from the Doublemeat Palace, she'd meant to spend some time helping Dawn with homework, but apparently she'd been too tired. Dawn sighed and headed past the couch on her way to an easy chair...then noticed that her sister seemed unnaturally still. She wasn't breathing. Dawn yelped and grabbed Buffy's arm, feeling for a pulse.
    ********
    The scarred madman leaned idly on his shovel. This had all been much too easy; he could have gotten away with just being present in the dream and this girl would have practically killed herself. But assuming the role of the vampire shoving her into the grave had been so much more fun. He could feel her delightfully powerful soul, energizing him. "This time," he chuckled, "I get to do the burying."

    A hand burst from the freshly-turned earth and seized his ankle in an unbreakable grip. Before he could try whacking it with the shovel edge, the rest of the girl emerged, all but exploding from the grave beneath him. She hurled his shovel into the distance, seized him by the shoulders, and slammed his head down into her own tombstone, sending his hat flying.

    "Y'know something?" she lisped. "I'd have expected any monster with half a brain to stay out of my nightmares by now." Her face had grown deformed, but symmetrically--it clearly wasn't covered in burns like his own. "And this?" The girl drove a hand deep into his chest. "Go get your own." Ripping her soul free of him, she vanished from the dream.

    Maybe he'd try another spot. After all, every town did have an Elm Street.
    ********
    Dawn was just about to start CPR when Buffy jackknifed upright, gasping for breath on her own. "Whoa. So much for the absence of horror in horror movies."

    Dawn stared at her. "You were dead. I mean, you were dead again!" A sudden thought struck her and she grabbed Buffy's arm, checking for a pulse a second time. But Buffy's heart was definitely racing. "Okay, not a vampire. Or a zombie or anything."

    Buffy frowned back at her little sister. "How'd you know what I was dreaming? Except this time the vampire who turned me was Freddy, from those eighties movies."

    "Freddy? The guy who gets into people's nightmares and makes them real?" Dawn thought she must be looking awfully pale. "I'm telling you, Buffy, you were dead. I checked. You ought to still be dead, whether it was a dream monster or something else."

    With a grunt, Buffy rose from the couch. "Same old nightmare about being a vampire. I guess there aren't any undead on Elm Street." She doubted Dawn was joking; her recent death was still too raw and new for that. "What brings movie monsters to life?"

    "I got nothin'," Dawn admitted. Then, thinking, she added, "But it's a good thing we don't have a VCR any more." She crossed the room, headed for the trash can.

    But the videotape had disappeared.
    ********
    Willow had reached the Magic Box only to find a squad car waiting outside the shattered glass door. The officers studying the presumed crime scene were the low-level, skeptical sort, scoffing at her mention of actual mystical forces being possibly involved. Apparently the store had been closed at the time, so Anya probably wasn't in any danger, but one of the officers let slip that it looked like the door had been burst from the inside. Willow knew what that meant--something they'd been selling had gone sour in a bad way.

    So much for information on floating metal balls. She wasn't getting inside any time soon. Grumbling to herself, she set off back down the street after being asked a few questions.

    Just a block away, a balding man in a business suit who'd been standing near another storefront suddenly approached her. "Pardon me, young mistress. Would you happen to know whose establishment that is? I was hoping to...conduct some business there."

    Willow frowned. Almost everyone who visited the Magic Box knew by now that Anya was running the place. Still, every now and then they did get people from out of town. "Anya Jenkins. She's a friend of mine. Well...sort of."

    "I see, I see." He frowned back at her. "Perhaps you could help me locate her? I do have have an urgent matter to settle."

    "Um...sorry." That didn't sound like a very good idea. Anya had a number of demonic acquaintances, not all of whom still liked her a great deal, and this fellow had a strangely formal way of talking. "I don't think she'll be selling anything until the store re-opens anyway. But I'm sure if you wait she'll be happy to let you buy whatever you want."

    "Actually, I was hoping to make her an offer. Ah well. You did seem to be on your way there yourself, however. Did you wish to make a purchase?" This guy was seeming creepier by the minute.

    Willow decided to brush him off and mention him to Anya and Buffy later. "No, I just wanted to talk. I needed some information, that's all."

    "Are you certain? I might be able to provide you with that information. Or, indeed, anything else you might be looking for."

    She groaned. Obviously the man was a snake-oil salesman trying to peddle bootlegged or second-hand magic charms. Anya would never buy anything from him, but she'd be annoyed to have him cutting into her business. It was people like him who ruined magic's reputation in the first place. "The only thing I want," she snapped, "you can't give me."

    Shrugging, he replied as pleasantly as ever, "And how would you know, unless you ask?"

    Glaring, Willow answered, "I just want my girlfriend to be okay with me doing magic. Think you can fix that?" She spun on her heel and marched away, prepared to put him in a world of pain if he hassled her any further.

    So naturally she failed to hear his murmured response. "Done."
    ********
    There was something hard under his back...

    Right. The floor. Spike was lying on the floor. Why was that?

    There'd been some kind of egg in his crypt. Only, clearly it hadn't been a Suvolte egg, or he'd have been in little pieces. Maybe very small pieces, if it'd taken his head off.

    "Alright then." Whatever it was, best not to lie here waiting for it. He was most of the way to his feet before noticing the dead husk lying in a corner. The creature resembled a pair of hands joined at the base, with a whiplike tail. Where had he seen...?

    Waitaminnit. These things weren't real. Spike picked up the corpse, scowling. The shell had the hard, dry feel of an insect's corpse, though of course the body was much heavier.than any natural insect. Prying off a finger--or a leg, whatever it was--he took a deep breath. Smelled caustic, sure enough, though most of the blood had dried up.

    It must have been clamped around his face. Of course, he wasn't alive, properly speaking, but there was no telling how the things worked, what with they weren't even real an' all. If all it had to do was chomp on his insides, he was at least in for a spot of pain.

    He hadn't even been able to get his chip removed. The so-called "Scoobies" might make an effort to stop a killer beast from bursting out of his chest...or they might just stake him to get at it. He was a killer beast too. More or less...no, none of that! He was!

    Spike was just going to have to deal with the little bugger himself.
    ********
    Buffy spun and kicked over yet another zombie. "Brains," it moaned. Great...just great. As if the real-life, non-brains-eating kind weren't bad enough. No guns on hand to blow its head off, either.

    "Really? Lemme fix that up for you." She bent over and drove a stake through the creature's eye. "There. No more brains. Happy?"

    She'd been trying to get to the Magic Box with Dawn, where hopefully they could figure out how to get rid of movie monsters that had been brought to life. Buffy was sure it had to be a spell, or maybe some kind of gizmo, because this was way too much the geek squad's MO to be a demonic attack.

    "Xander!" Dawn shouted. Sure enough, their own personal geek was trotting towards them, limping and panting a little.

    "Guys, I hate to say it," Xander choked out, "but I think I've changed my mind again about clowns. Clowns bad. Evil clowns. Well, one evil clown anyway."

    Buffy winced. "If you got away from Pennywise or whatever his name is, I'll consider that a major accomplishment."

    "Actually he didn't see me." He shrugged sheepishly. "When I saw him through the peephole, I went out the window instead. Where's Willow? I thought I saw her over here."

    Dawn shook her head. "Not with us. But we're on the way to the Magic Box...she might be trying to meet up with us."

    Xander sighed. "Hate to say it, but I'm not loving the magic-less Willow at this point. This could kinda get ugly without all our big guns on deck." Sucking in a deep breath, he made as if to start running again, but a cry from the other side of the street halted the group.

    "No rest for the weary," Buffy grumbled, leaping onto the roof of a parked car with a loud bang. Startled, the velociraptor on the trunk of the car in front turned to face her, releasing a loud snarl. "Sorry, pal, but that gig's not for you. Vampires sound way better when they do that."

    The angry predator leaped at her feet-first, claws outstretched. Instead of ducking or trying to run, Buffy lunged forward and yanked a leg from under it as it fell. Landing lopsided on the roof, it tottered sideways with a crack of snapping bone. "Ouch! Better get that looked at quick. All sorts of hungry critters out tonight." The crippled reptile hissed and moaned, writhing but unable to get to its feet, and she turned her back on it, casually hopping down toward the other car.

    Willow emerged from the sedan, looking nervously around. "Those things hunt in packs. Well...in the movies, they do, but I'm not sure that..." She paused, seeming to consider. "Um, just keep an eye out?"

    Buffy nodded. "Magic Box, right?"

    With a guilty shrug, Willow agreed. "Got to figure out some way to stop this. I figure if it has to be a spell, we can get...I mean, Tara can..."

    "Will, calm down." The breakup had taken a lot out of her friend. "We'll be fine. I'm sure Tara can manage, and she'll understand why you needed to meet us there instead of somewhere else." The redhead gave her a doubtful look, but nodded. "We'll take out the source and Sunnydale will go back to...well, what passes for normal."

    "Will it, now?" cackled a voice from a second-story window, producing a grimace from Willow.

    "Um, Will," Xander whispered, "I'm thinking just this one time you might have to do a little magic." But Willow stammered something noncommittal and seemed to freeze in place.

    The mummy-like sorceress at the window chortled evilly at them. "Is this what you call an army? You're not warriors...."

    "Willow!" It wasn't something Buffy wanted to ask of her, but at this point the alternative was looking worse. "Take her..."

    "Aperchome!" The command seemed to strike Bavmorda with physical force. The witch cried out and toppled back from the window. "Um, we should g-get out of here?" Tara suggested. "I d-don't think that will stop her for long."

    "Great save, Tara!" Xander's relief was obvious, not to mention entirely understandable. "I thought we were all bacon."

    "It was nothing," she responded modestly. "But Willow, why didn't you do anything?"

    Willow blinked, startled and uncomfortable. "I...I guess I was going to. If I had to. I wouldn't have thought you'd have wanted me to..."

    "G-get turned into an animal? It's okay, Will...one witch as a rat is bad enough." Tara frowned. "Maybe I should have tried that. I could give her a taste of her own medicine." Willow seized her by the hand and pulled her onward. "Or not?"

    "Don't worry about it, Tara," Dawn supplied. "If we meet up with her again, you can try it then."
    ********
    "Imagine meetin' you here."

    "What? I'm a demon too. Well...ex-demon. I have a perfect right to come in here." Anya looked a little flustered, but not for anything he'd said.

    "Right, and enjoy the yak urine? Last I heard, your taste buds were too human for what Willy's got on tap." Spike tossed back another glass of pig's blood. He knew he shouldn't--there was a very bad reason for the gnawing hunger in his gut--but he was alternating with a mix of spirits-and-alkali that he hoped would knock any critter with acid for blood for a loop.

    "I'll have you know that Willy has some very good whiskey. He just doesn't advertise it, so humans don't come in and get themselves into trouble." Anya seemed not to be including herself in that group, without much justification that he could see. She beckoned Willy over. Smelled human enough to him, and he didn't plan to test himself whether it was true. "The truth is I wasn't really thinking," she said in a much softer voice, enough that most of the beings in the bar probably didn't quite hear. "I just lost a very large amount of money." Well, now...that would do it.

    Spike downed a sixth glass of battery fluid--not for the squeamish, but perfectly good nourishment for Taranak demons, and mostly harmless to him. "Figures as..." A burst of pain shot through his chest, and he clutched at it, leaning forward over the bar.

    "Hey, now," Willy grumbled, "you don't wanna get sick on my bar, y'hear? Go an' do that outside."

    "'m not sick!" he shouted, realizing even as he did that no one would buy that. Might not even be true, exactly.

    "Spike!" Anya sounded annoyed as ever. "What have you gone and gotten yourself into this time? Or gotten into yourself, I should say," she corrected, seeing the circle of blood forming on his shirt.

    "Get back!" he growled. There was no point in her getting hurt. Anya wasn't such a bad... The pain exploded as something erupted from his chest, looking from side to side and gnashing tiny teeth. It wriggled free and leaped onto the bar, hissing fiercely.

    With a startled smile, Clem darted forward, grabbed the little alien, and popped its head into his mouth, biting down. "Ha! Spike, if I'd known you were bringing me a snack...well, anyway, consider that five-kitten debt settled. Thanks!"

    The brief moment of surprise passed, and chatter erupted from the nearby tables again. Never a dull moment at Willy's place.
    ********
    "We know it's not a demon," Buffy insisted.

    "It could be a demon," Dawn retorted. "They've summoned demons before, remember?"

    "But it's still the geeks," her sister maintained, "so we need to be finding counterspells." She already had her hands full just dealing with the side effects. Fighting a real demon in addition could become a problem. Simpler just to send the thing back where it came from, if that was what it was.

    Tara shook her head. "Sending it back won't solve a problem, if it's a demon. Something with this kind of power would have to reverse the effect deliberately. That m-means one of us will have to face it down."

    "Anyone getting a familiar vibe on this?" Xander interrupted. "It sorta seems a lot like that time our nightmares started coming to life. Only this time, it's everybody's nightmares."

    The blond witch gave Xander a startled look. "Actually, that makes sense. These things come from the collective unconsciousness, just not the individual one." Tara glanced at Willow, then looked away again as Willow acted as if she might say something.

    Dawn had a question. "If it's a powerful spell or something, are you sure you can end it by yourself? I mean, I don't want Willow to do any magic she doesn't have to, but if the whole world is going to fold up into...the horror-movie realm or something anyway, I don't see how a maybe-problem from one of us can make it worse." Buffy placed a hand on her sister's arm and started to speak.

    "It's okay," Tara insisted before Buffy could get a word in. "I had it all wrong about Willow." She reached over and put an arm around the redhead's shoulder. "See, flesh is a t-trap. And magic...it sets you free."

    Buffy stared at her. "Huh?"
    Last edited by Mabus; 23-03-07, 08:07 PM.
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  • #2
    "Where is John Connor?"

    Spike regarded the massive robot--at least, he assumed it was a robot and not the actual Schwarzenegger--curiously, wondering if he could take it down. The last 'bot he'd run into had been built like Buffy and had been able to hurl him across the room; this one was much larger.

    "Connor?" Anya spoke up before he could answer. "Connor's in L.A."

    "No, you stupid bint," Spike started. Anya responded with a throat-cutting motion. "I'm not gonna let him decapitate me," Spike guessed; Anya rolled her eyes. She must have been trying to shut him up instead.

    "John Connor is in Los Angeles?" the robot interrupted. "I must locate him."

    Anya nodded rapidly. "Yep, that's Connor all right. Glad we could help you." The hulking Terminator studied her briefly and walked off in the direction of a toppled motorcycle.

    As it drove away, Spike turned to snarl at her. "I could've beaten it. What's with the 'Connor's in L.A.' bit? John Connor's not supposed to be in L.A.!"

    "Not John Connor," Anya smirked. "Just Connor. Angel's son. Mr. Muscles won't know the difference." She began hurrying down the street again. "Don't look at me that way," she said, not watching him. "If he's around long enough to make it to L.A., we'll have worse things to worry about than the world being taken over by killer robots. Besides, it's probably the Terminator from the second movie, because it didn't try to kill us. Either way, he won't be back."

    After a moment of confusion, Spike started down the street after her. "Angel has a son? When'd that happen?"
    ********
    "I just don't wanna die!" The djinn lifted the frightened social worker higher into the air. "Those monsters are all over town!"

    The djinn forced a smile--"Yes...they are."--and reverted to his demonic shape. He'd left corpses lying all over Sunnydale, the victims of their own desires, but not one of them had been willing and able to tell him where the waker had gone. This man was clearly familiar with her name, but had so far been too distracted to tell him anything. Watching the government worker shiver in his grip, the djinn had a sudden thought. "You truly wish not to die?" The man nodded vigorously, whimpering. "Very well."

    A moment later, the djinn was tightening his grip on the throat of the newly-created vampire. "Now you will not die. However, if I do not discover the whereabouts of Anya Jenkins soon, I may be forced to remove your limbs."

    With a satisfied smile, the djinn listened as the now-conscienceless agent told everything he knew about Anya and her friends.
    ********
    Dawn stepped gingerly over the police tape. Except for one car that seemed to have been crushed, there was no other sign the Magic Box had been cordoned off at all. Of course, the shattered glass door still demonstrated that something had gone badly wrong here.

    "What happened?" Tara sounded appalled. "Places like this are special. They ought to be taken care of." Willow tried to put a hand on her arm, but she pulled away with a scowl.

    Wrapping her arms around her waist, Buffy frowned too. "Something...there was something here. Some kind of demon. I can feel it."

    "I thought you could only tell demons were around when they were, you know...around?" Xander wondered, picking up a slightly damaged book.

    "Normally," Buffy grumbled. "I don't think there's anything normal about what's going on. Whatever was in here...it was powerful."

    "Eep!" Everyone spun to find Dawn picking up a fragment of red crystal off the floor. "Guys, Anya found this gem on my bed! She said she was bringing it here, and now it's all in pieces, like it exploded or shattered or something."

    Xander's face crumpled. "Anya! Is she in here?" He rushed around the counter. "Not back here. We have to find Anya!"

    "Tar--" Willow broke off, looking around. "Tara? Where'd you go?"

    "I'm fine, Willow," the blond witch said from somewhere above her head. Willow looked up to find Tara levitating, sinking slowly from the second floor with books in hand. "I thought Anya might be up here. She's not, but these should come in handy."

    Buffy stared at her. "Tara, that's the restricted section up there. You don't really think we need dark magic to stop this, do you? It's just three geeks." She'd never known Tara to suggest using black arts for anything, or even to allow it in her presence unless the world was hanging in the balance.

    "Magic is magic. It's the world that's dark. It's us." Willow gave her girlfriend a pained look and reached out a hand to her, but Tara shied away from it. "That's...you don't understand, Willow. You aren't seeing what's real."

    "Then show me," Willow insisted. Tara frowned and shook her head, opening her mouth to speak just as Anya and Spike stepped through the shattered door.

    "I'm telling you," Anya was arguing, "I know Lestat when I see him. Dammit! How am I ever going to fix this place up again?"

    Spike snorted. "I'm telling you--there is no Lestat! That was some poncy twit takin' advantage of the wackiness around town. I refuse to live in a world where there's a Lestat, even a temporary one. Angel's bad enough!"

    "Spike!" Dawn rushed over and started examining his bloody chest. "What happened?"

    Anya waved her hands about. "Oh, just an alien bursting out of him. No worries--Clem ate it."

    Xander's eyes bugged. "Remind me not to make any more jokes about that guy."

    "Guys, please." Willow stepped a little closer to Tara, who squirmed away again. "We need to focus on fixing this while we still can."

    Hanging back behind Dawn and trying not to look at the damage to Spike's chest, Buffy let out a long sigh. "Pick up all the spellbooks you can find. We're going over to the Meers' house before Godzilla eats the store." Anya squeaked. "If they're not around, Willow can cast a locator spell using the geeks' stuff."

    "It's on the other side of town," Anya grumbled. "Spike, I bet they'll let you hotwire a car now."

    Fifteen minutes and several loads of books later, Spike had the engine of a nearby van purring smoothly. It was no classic, but all the same the sound of it was soothing. "Let's see what kind o' time the Mystery Machine makes," he chortled, and floored the gas pedal.

    "We have so totally corrupted you, Spike," Dawn snickered back.
    ********
    "It was the Meers' place yesterday." Xander studied the bizarre gunmetal-grey metallic structure, tracing the outlines of pipes and wiring that seemed at one look to run wildly in all directions, yet at a second to form a sort of gridlike pattern.

    "Well, it's something else now," Buffy fretted. "I guess it makes sense. If this is the epicenter, I guess it makes sense it'd be the most transformed. Not sure I wanna go in there, though." The figures that regularly emerged from gaps in the pattern were as grey and metallic and seemingly-lifeless as the structure itself.

    "Buffy, we don't have much of a choice." Tara stared at the building as if drawn to it. "I can feel it in there...the power. It's like...I d-don't know what. Something incredible."

    Spike scowled at the patrols. "We can't all get in there together. There're too many of those robot-thingies to sneak by with a group like this."

    "Borg," Willow grouched. "They're Borg drones. Ick." Xander groaned quietly under his breath.

    Buffy muttered softly, counting seconds between the appearances and disappearances. "I think we can get in in twos or threes. Spike, take Anya and Xander. No complaining! They need someone with super-strength. Willow, you're with Tara. I'll go in last with Dawn." Dawn let out a small "eep". "Sorry, Dawn...I can't leave you out here by yourself. If it's a spell, we'll need every pair of eyes looking out for our super-witches. If it's a machine, any of us can probably pull the plug."

    "Let's see if the B-borg can adapt to me," Tara murmured, drawing a puzzled, slightly-frightened stare from Willow. The blond-haired witch seemed to notice, and finally took Willow's hand, though her gaze remained on the house. "Um...I mean to us."
    ********
    Spike hurried the obnoxious pair of lovers out of sight around a corner. He could've sworn this place was getting bigger as they got deeper in. Bloody magic toys! At least the demon and her whipping boy were being quiet instead of bickering. The passing..."Borg," whatever that was; how was he supposed to keep up with every movie in creation?...tromped loudly past, not looking to left or right. He stifled a laugh. Some guards they made.

    He turned around and collided with another one.

    "Andrew," Anya burst out. "Xander, it's one of them! Andrew, what crazy stupid thing have you three done this time?"

    "He's not gonna listen," Xander growled softly, pulling her away from the assimilated nerd. "Didn't I tell you about the Borg?" Anya shook her head no, clearly not remembering if he had.

    "Resistance is futile," Andrew chanted in a monotone. "You will be assimilated."

    "Like hell we will!" Spike slammed a fist into the drone's chest...and yanked it back, shaking it. "Bollocks!" Felt like he'd broken a finger or two. He swung at Andrew's face, which looked a good deal less protected, only to have his fist stop inches away. Andrew had grabbed him by the wrist and was, incredibly, holding his arm easily.

    Andrew cocked his head to one side. "As I said," he stated with just the faintest remnant of supervillainous pedantry remaining, "resistance is futile." And with that, some kind of tubes erupted from the back of his hand and sank into Spike's arm.
    ********
    Buffy pulled her sister deep into the maze. "Quiet," she whispered, though really she was neglecting her own advice. Some of the Borg drones seemed able to follow them even when her own Slayer hearing could barely pick up their footfalls. Maybe they were tracking her heat signature, or...or something.

    Dawn went on humming, ignoring her. Buffy scowled, preparing to turn around and threaten her--she could ground her when this was all over, or something like that--and suddenly caught a glimpse of figures moving around a glowing computer screen somewhere ahead. "It's here," she whispered. "Hang onto that thing."

    Her sister brandished the piece of pipe Buffy'd pried loose for her...and went on humming. Buffy couldn't place the tune; it certainly wasn't some boy band, unless music styles were changing fast. "Stay behind this wall unless I call for you," Buffy told her. "Or unless something happens to me, and then try to get away and find the others. Or pull the plug if you think you can get to it." The Slayer gestured to what looked like it had been a power cord running from the computer in the next room. Dawn nodded attentively--still humming!--and Buffy gritted her teeth and turned away, starting into the room.

    Dawn slammed the pipe into the back of Buffy's head with all the force she could muster, sending her sprawling to the floor. The teenager smiled and began to sing happily to the same tune she'd been following all along. "Ti-i-i-ime is on my side, yes it is."
    ********
    "It's coming," Tara whispered. She and Willow had made it deep into the tangle of conduits without encountering more than a handful of drones, and together their magicks had managed to cloak them from the senses of those few.

    "The thing that's doing this?" Willow had thought they must be headed for some fixed location in what remained of Warren's home, unrecognizable as it was now. But Tara shook her head.

    "Something else. It's following...following something from Buffy's house. I can feel it coming. It's...wow." Tara shivered and inhaled deeply. "If it were really real, it'd be more powerful than the thing we're looking for." Willow couldn't stop frowning. The more Tara went on about magic, the more Willow worried for her.

    "But you can still feel the thing we're after?"

    "It's...uh-huh, it's in here and...left, I think." Tara gestured through a narrow gap in the wall. "I can feel it like a little hard spark. It's not all magic. Silly geeks...tricks are for magicians. They hardly even know what the real thing looks like." She laughed softly. "They hardly know what reality looks like."

    Willow tried to tug her toward the gap. "C'mon, Tara, we need to get there and shut it down...whatever it is." She could only hope Tara would return to normal once that was done. She'd realized a good while back that the man outside the Magic Box must have been some kind of wish-granting demon...though she hadn't exactly made a wish, had she? So it clearly wasn't a vengeance demon like Anya, if there were even male vengeance demons at all, and maybe was something the geeks had created.

    "I'm sorry, Will," Tara sighed discontentedly. "I just...this saving people thing....it's not what I was born for." She raised her head, looking deeply into her girlfriend's eyes.

    The redhead started to reassure her--Tara was good at this sort of thing, no matter how much she denied it--and gasped. Tara's eyes had done something she'd never expected to see...they had gone glossy black. An obsidian wave of shadow emerged from Tara's scalp and washed down through her hair.

    "I was born to murder the world."
    ********
    Spike's arm burned cold as he smashed his fist into the Andrew-Borg's face. The git toppled backwards, still staring at him as if waiting for something to happen. Whatever he'd injected into Spike was filtering through the vampire's veins, but very slowly; there was no circulation to help it along. Still, it felt as if he'd been stabbed with a dagger made of ice and his arm didn't want to move properly. His chip still hadn't gone off, implying that whatever Andrew'd become, it wasn't precisely human.

    "Great," Xander muttered. "Anya, I think we're gonna have to stake him. Not that I mind, but it doesn't say much for our chances when he's gone."

    "Bugger that," Spike growled back. "None o' this is permanent. Get to the heart of whatever this is and shut it off. I'll--" Anya didn't seem to have heard either of them; she was staring at the wall with a look of horror. "Um...What's the deal with her?"

    Anya began to slowly turn toward the hallway where Andrew was still lying, half-conscious. Andrew flinched slightly as a huge horned demon stepped directly on his chest as it walked right over him. "At last," the demon said. "I have found the waker. Anya Jenkins?" Anya shook her head, trying to deny it was her the creature had come for. "Make. Your. Wishes."

    Her eyes went wide. Her mouth dropped open. And Anya burst out laughing.
    ********
    "I can't be you," Dawn said ruefully. "You're one of the perfect, protected ones. I can't get inside you." She swung the pipe, crashing it into Buffy's leg as the Slayer tried to rise. "But that doesn't mean I can't beat you to death."

    As Dawn lifted the pipe, Buffy grabbed it with both hands. "What the hell are you? Leave my sister out of this."

    "Nothing you can comprehend," the thing in her sister's body chuckled. "I was old before your world existed, and I will still be young when it crumbles. But you can call me Azazel...not that you'll have much time to call me anything."

    "Really?" Buffy wrenched the pipe free, hoping she hadn't twisted Dawn's arms too badly. "Because you don't seem to be nearly strong enough to hurt me." That she hadn't seen this thing's movie didn't mean much. Buffy fought too many demons in real life to care much for horror movies any more.

    Dawn--or Azazel--responded to that with a kick in the stomach. Buffy buckled, crashing into the wall. "I can hurt you a little, obviously. And since I know you'd rather let the world end than kill your poor little sister, I think all I have to do is keep hitting you."

    "You do that," Buffy said, getting to her feet. "Meanwhile..." She dodged sideways, circling behind Dawn, and grabbed hold of her sister's face. Gritting her teeth, she clamped one hand over Dawn's mouth and nose. "Keep in mind, Azazel...I've had a really rough year."
    ********
    Willow stared hopelessly as the black taint rolled over her ex's hair. "Tara...this isn't you. It can't be. You're...I made a wish, and it was a mistake. You can shake this off, Tara. Please, try for me."

    Tara smiled gently back. "But Will...I don't want to. This is right. I don't expect you to understand, but it's for the best."

    "Destroying the world is for the best? I can't follow that, Tara."

    "This world is full of sheep, Willow. Sheep trailing after their leaders, helpless and totally unaware of what the world is really like. These surface things--love, beauty, peace--they're lies. They're just a veneer over the surface, and underneath...well, you know what Sunnydale's like. The world is hell, and no one even sees. Dead is better, Will. After it's gone, no one will hurt any more."

    Willow felt a tear slip into the curve of her nose and down. She lifted a hand, palm open. "Tara, please...come back to me."

    Tara shook her head. The ground began to rumble, opening a chasm beneath her that ought to have disrupted the machinery running through the house, but didn't. She was in control now, deeper than the Trio's machines could go.

    A bolt of energy erupted at her from Willow's hand.
    ********
    "Make...my...wishes?" Anya was laughing so hard she could barely wheeze out the words between guffaws. "You want to grant my wishes?"

    "You woke me," the demon said, sounding flabbergasted. "I am at your disposal for three wishes."

    "And then what?" she said, still choking. "There's a catch, right? Who are you working for? Am I supposed to want vengeance on someone?"

    "No," it said, raising a talon to scratch its head. "Make any wishes you desire. Word them as carefully as you like, and I am bound to grant them."

    "Anya," Xander said urgently. "This guy takes people's souls. Only not yours, if you woke it. But if you make all three wishes, he gets to end the world. He opens a portal and all his demon buddies waltz in."

    "What kind of business model is that?" Anya continued to giggle. "I mean, who'd make a wish if that were the price?"

    The demon seized Xander by the neck. "Make your wishes, Anya Jenkins, or I will crush his throat." Xander waved his hands frantically in negation, unable to shake his head.

    She rolled her eyes. "If I make the wishes, he's going to die anyway. No deal."

    "How many of your friends have to die, knowing you could have saved them?" The demon was growing more agitated by the moment; apparently it had never tried this on someone who knew about it from the other side before.

    "Okay," Anya said, ignoring Xander's continued denials. "Okay, I'll wish. I wish whatever those geeks used to conjure up all these movie monsters would quit working."

    Dropping Xander, the demon sighed and opened its huge hands in a shrug. "You can do better. You might as well wish me dead; no djinn could fulfill such a wish. We are eternal. But surely there is something you want more." Xander mouthed "no" again, massaging his throat.

    Lying on the floor, Spike began to twitch convulsively. Whatever Andrew had injected with must have done a real number on him.

    Anya stopped to think. "All right...let's see here. You're obviously not working for anyone but yourself, right?"

    "I perform this task to free my kind, you pitiful creature, but I bow to no one."

    "Fine," Anya said. "I wish D'hoffryn was here." It stared at her, looking confused. "Oh, please. You grant wishes, you must have your sources. I mean, you've got to know who Elvis is in case someone wishes for him. Or Abbot and Costello. Or Dracula. Or whoever. Get me D'hoffryn."

    "As you wish," the demon muttered irritably, and waved a hand. There was a brief rumble, a cloud of smoke rolled through the room and cleared, leaving Anya's former master standing there.

    "Who summons me thus?" D'hoffryn complained, affronted. "How...Oh. Anya." He gave her a sanctimonious smile and opened his mouth as if to make the speech about how her powers were not coming back yet again.

    "This guy," she said, pointing to the djinn. "He grants wishes. He's horning in on your business, stealing your customers. He doesn't give value at all, and if he gets three wishes from me he gets to end the world, which means no more vengeance ever. I didn't cooperate, except to summon you, and that was just the first." The djinn let out a startled snarl. D'hoffryn glared furiously at it. "Oh, and he can't be killed, so you can torture him as long as you like."

    A crowd of vengeance demons materialized around the djinn. "Thank you, Anyanka," D'Hoffryn said. "I believe I know how to deal with him. I suppose I owe you a favor. A small one, at least." Seizing the confused djinn, the vengeance demons vanished again.

    "Well," said Anya. "That's done with. I just hope D'hoffryn's not too angry when he vanishes."

    "Right," Xander wheezed. "Well..."

    That was when Spike--silvery implants glinting on his face--grabbed him from behind.
    ********
    As long as Buffy held her like this, Dawn couldn't breathe. She struggled weakly, trying to wrench loose from the Slayer's grip on her face, but of course that was impossible. And since this Azazel was unable to possess Buffy, that should get rid of him when Dawn began to suffocate. Then she could do some quick mouth-to-mouth, and they could get back to work.

    Dawn's struggles began to weaken. She flailed feebly a few moments longer and went limp. Still holding her mouth and nose, Buffy lowered her carefully to the ground and finally let go. Now she had to hurry--brain damage would be very bad--and...

    "Well, now," she heard herself saying. "I certainly would never have thought of this. Too much of a risk. But frankly, it should be entertaining to sit here and watch as your sister dies." Her arms wouldn't move; she couldn't make herself bend over her sister; the demon had control of her after all. She felt her legs cross as she sat down on the floor, waiting. "And when she's dead, your strength and identity should come in very handy." This was about as helpless as she had ever been. She could hear Dawn's heartbeat fading...

    "Ti-i-i-ime...is on my side," "Buffy" sang, "yes it is." Oh god.
    ********
    The tendril of energy wrapped itself around Tara and tugged, trying to pull her toward Willow. Tara shrugged, and the tentacle fell away in shining motes. "Willow...you can't have me back. I'm sorry. I'm beyond that now. I'm beyond love."

    "No." Willow felt as if her chest were collapsing inward. "No. You're Tara, and you...you can't be that. It's not you."

    "Tara's an illusion," the black-haired witch said off-handedly. "The same as everything else. There aren't any boundaries between people. The ugliness in one is the ugliness in all the others. You want to see?"

    "What about beauty? There has to be--"

    "There's no such thing as beauty." Willow felt reality tear, as if something was falling away from her eyes. The world grated and stung; her surroundings were dirt and rust and slime. "This is what is," said a mass of putrescent flesh with Tara's voice. "You see?"

    "I hear," said Willow. Her own voice sounded like rasping and screams in her ears. But Tara's....her voice was the same. "I hear something you can't hide from me." She staggered forward; a gust of wind toppled her, but she continued moving, crawling now. "I love you, Tara. And even if I can't have you, I won't leave you. I made an awful mistake, and I'm sorry."

    "You showed me the truth, Willow. You showed me magic, for real, for the first time. Don't be sorry. I'm grateful."

    Willow was prepared to kiss the hideous thing she knew was actually Tara, if that was what it took to get through to her. The chasm that had opened beneath her was real, though, Willow discovered as her hand reached past where the floor had been. Tara hung there in mid-air, just out of reach. "Is this what you want to be real, Tara? I mean, you have the power. If you don't like this...change it." She hesitated, thinking furiously. "You know that's what I'd do. You said you didn't think I was wrong any more. Use the magic. Fix the problem. Make it go away."

    "Already doing that," Tara said with a shrug. "I don't want to live in a world of lies, even pretty ones. That's what you're saying I should do."

    It was no good. She'd made the wish, and until they shut down the Trio's spell or device or at least got rid of the demon who'd granted it, she was stuck with the results. It could be right here in this room, and she'd never be able to....except that of course she could reach it.

    It was that or let Tara end the world. Willow reached out; it was right here. She could sense the lines of mystical and electrical force twining together, reaching into...the quantum mystical diamond Warren had stolen. One more step, the hardest and the easiest all at once. Willow closed a mental fist, grinding the diamond into dust.

    Reality burned away in holes that spread, joined, and gave way to the sound of flapping tape...
    ********
    Spike shoved Xander away as the cybernetic implants that had sprouted on his cheeks melted into nothing. "Bloody hell!"
    ********
    A fading scream echoed in Buffy's mind as she launched herself forward to help Dawn.
    ********
    Tara toppled into Willow's arms, the black fading from her hair and eyes as if it had never been there.
    ********
    Anya rolled her eyes. "Spike, do you ever say anything else?"
    ********
    "So...no brain damage?" The Magic Box was still trashed, but that was normal. "Missing any memories? Any paralyzed parts?"

    Dawn made a face at Anya. "I'm fine. We're just lucky the hospital remembered that everything was wacky today without the details."

    "Just be glad you were with Buffy instead of Spike," Xander groused. "Vampires, not so good at the mouth-to-mouth. Or so I'm told, anyway. Never was quite sure how that worked."

    "Your heart was beating, and I missed it?" Buffy effused in Spike's direction, causing Dawn to wince. Something was up with those two. Maybe Buffy'd finally agreed to see a movie with him?

    "Oh, yes, lovely little jump-start so the...nanoprobes? What the hell are those?...could flow freely through my bloodstream and turn me into a cybernetic zombie." Spike snorted. "You missed a lot, all right. Think I prefer ordinary undeadness."

    "Anyone catch the geeks' street address?" Anya asked practically. "I think the streets were all mixed up by the movie weirdness, but the street signs might still have been right." The Scoobies eyed her for a moment, then shook their heads one by one.

    "Sorry. Distracted by the guy with the hockey mask and the machete," Dawn said. "I guess it's back to the drawing board."
    ********
    Tara was still in the back room stressing.

    "It was my fault," Willow assured her again. "I should never have wished for what I did. In fact, after all we've been through, I shouldn't have wished period, but especially not for that. I messed you up, just like when I erased your memory. It wasn't really you."

    "Will..." Tara sighed between sips of soup. "It doesn't help. I remember doing it. It feels like I did it. And even though I'd like to think you didn't want what you wished for, I know there was no way you could have expected it to happen."

    "I fell off the wagon, Tara. I shouldn't have let go the way I did."

    "No, Will. That's the funny thing. What you did...that's what magic is for. It might not be good for you in the long run, but you actually did the right thing. When there's a problem that has to be fixed--like the world ending--and there's no other way to fix it..." She hesitated. "I really h-h-hope you didn't take any of the things I said seriously."

    "It was the movie talking," Willow insisted. "I know you don't believe anything like that. God, I never want to see another horror movie. Buffy always says we've lived too many of them, and if she wasn't right before...." She reached out a hand to Tara, but Tara pulled away. "So we didn't solve anything, did we? Not really."

    "No," Tara said quietly. "I guess we didn't."
    DeadWar: Burden of Proof
    Out Now.
    Avatar by Barb
    Feedback is always welcome here.

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