the Still, Small Voice
Copyright September 2005
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
At first glance, Father Nolan reflected with something less than amusement, the three of them together might be seen as a joke cliché: An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman all go into a bar … Not that the South Carolina countryside at night really fit the setting, and the standard broke down further with a closer look at the characters. Quentin Travers was the perfect typecast old-school Briton; but Robert Maclay, whatever clan tartan his forefathers might have worn, was more typical of an itinerant preacher or Southern farmer; and Father Nolan himself, despite the name and Roman collar, was no more Irish than a bowl of Lucky Charms. Still, the basic clash of types held true. Perhaps with a slight shift of emphasis: A Catholic, an Anglican, and a Baptist go on a hunting trip together …
None of the three men was skilled at tracking, but such ability was unnecessary in this instance. A ghost-light danced ahead of them, blue-white and slightly smaller than a golf ball, generated by a rune-marked coin Travers had activated by a quick phrase in Old Norse, and leading them along the path of the thing they were trailing. Reliably, so far; occasional clawed footprints in the grass-thatched earth of the intermittent woodlands showed they were on the right track. The problem was not in following the creature, but in catching up to it before it could encounter — and doubtless harm — such other humans as the area must contain.
Father Patrick Nolan, since 1997 rector of St John of the Cross Catholic Church (Sunnydale), drew up to lean, panting, against a tree. He was fifty-six years old, and tried to maintain a decent level of basic fitness, but the life of a parish priest seldom allowed the spare time for consistent strenuous exercise. Fortunately, Quentin Travers had chosen that moment to stoop and inspect several dark splashes against the base of a stone outcropping. Beside him, Robert Maclay asked, “Blood?”
“Yes,” Travers confirmed. He extracted a slim leather folder from an inside pocket of his coat, and from the folder he drew an inch-long strip of paper, which he dipped into the fluid on the rocks. The paper crumbled and dissolved in a brief shimmer of pinkish luminescence, and Travers announced, “Mammalian, but not human. A dog, probably, or perhaps a rabbit. And not yet coagulated, so we must be near.”
Nolan could read Maclay’s disapproval in the set of his shoulders, but the man said nothing. In point of fact, Nolan shared Maclay’s distaste for the manner in which the Council of Watchers so casually used the accoutrements of magic, but he found Travers himself — the occasional urbane condescension aside — to be personally less irritating than Maclay’s exacting, inflexible judgment. “We should keep going, then,” he said. “We don’t want to lose her.”
“It,” Maclay corrected him, lips set into a thin, bitter line. “In this state, we’re dealing with an it. Don’t forget that.”
“Quite, quite,” Travers interjected smoothly. “Let’s be on, then.”
As Maclay had explained it, the demon they were following was in a phase in which aimless torpor was punctuated by spasms of equally purposeless fury. In theory, it lacked the awareness or focus to effectively flee or evade them, so that even three no-longer-young men should be able to overtake it if sufficiently determined. By the same reasoning, the thing would be unlikely to circle back and attempt an ambush; Nolan hoped fervently that the theoretical framework on this latter conclusion was sound.
They took up the trail again, Maclay leading, as he had done through most of the pursuit so far. He was more familiar with this type of countryside, and the matter at hand was most directly his concern. Even so, this was default rather than command; they were a gathering of peers, working together but each maintaining careful sovereignty of his own loyalties. This made them something less than a smoothly functioning unit, but it could be hoped that their individual strengths would compensate for the deficiency in teamwork.
Ahead of them, the small light abruptly went out. Travers reached into his pocket for another of the runed coins, and intoned the words that released the stored enchantment; another dot of light, pale green this time, flared and darted away to indicate their direction. Maclay drew in a sharp breath and hurried to follow, and Nolan had to push to keep up. “What is it?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” Maclay said. “But I don’t think this is good.”
Three or four minutes later, Travers called them back to a patch of ground they had just passed. “I’m afraid you’re right, Robert,” he said portentously, and pointed to the disturbed earth. “The footprint has changed; weight is distributed more toward the back legs now, and the sixth toe has elongated to provide greater stability. Our creature has transitioned again.”
“To what?” Nolan asked as they again took up pursuit of the twinkling glow that guided them.
He had directed the question to Maclay, as the presumed authority on these matters, but Maclay shook his head. “I don’t know. We work to keep this from happening, and when we fail, we avoid talking about it. Quentin?”
Travers smiled, visibly pleased at the opportunity to once again demonstrate the superiority of his knowledge. “Until now, we’ve been following the form that, in a battle, would correspond to heavy armor: powerful, ponderous, and rather slow-witted. Now it’s changed to the line infantry model, better suited to quick movement over distances, and with great endurance in both travel and combat. It will be considerably more difficult for us to overtake it now.”
“It still doesn’t have a direction, though,” Maclay pointed out. “You’re right, we couldn’t hope to match it on a forced march, but as long as we push on and it keeps wandering, we can still catch up. The only problem …” He hesitated.
Nolan was beginning to understand. “You’re afraid we may not reach her before she changes again?”
“That would be most unfortunate,” Travers said. “Let’s not dally, gentlemen.”
“Explain it to me,” Nolan insisted as they continued on. “I need to know, Travers. If we’re not quick enough, we have to have a plan for dealing with it. Are there more than three forms for this creature?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Travers told him, adjusting his gait to keep pace with Maclay’s impatient strides. “None of the literature definitively indicates more than three. The problem is that the third form is designed for high-impact, close-in fighting, the equivalent of shock troops.”
“Too much for us to handle?” Nolan wanted to know.
“No.” This time it was Maclay. “We’re equipped to deal with it in any form; at least, that’s what Quentin assures me. But the last one is more aggressive than the others. More apt to go actively seeking prey. If we’re lucky, us. If not, someone else.” His voice was bleak. “We can’t let that happen.”
There was nothing to say to that which couldn’t be better met by saving breath for fast hiking. Maclay was driven, that much was clear, and Travers seemed committed either by friendship or for some purpose yet unrevealed.
Honesty compelled Nolan to admit that his own reasons had originated as much in curiosity as from any other source. He and the senior Watcher had a long history, but no fellowship, and any professional respect was counterbalanced by personal disaffinity. No, he was here because Travers had requested it … which was, in itself, simply unheard of. Quentin Travers directed, pulled strings, or placed himself in a position where the desired service was offered him; he never asked. The novelty of it had extracted Nolan from a monastic retreat outside Charleston — his first real break in six years, and he hadn’t bothered to inquire how Travers had known his whereabouts — and brought him here on less than two hours’ notice.
It was not unreasonable to assume that Maclay’s relationship with Travers was comparable to his own, but the reason for it was difficult to ascertain without more ready facts. Maclay seemed more … dependent on the Watcher, somehow (at least for now), than Nolan had ever felt, and seemed to strongly resent the unwanted reliance. That was understandable — Nolan could only imagine how much he himself would hate squirming under Travers’ thumb — and yet he could also sense, underlying Travers’ habitual amused cordiality, a flavor of almost apologetic respect toward Maclay. Another new note in the personality of the smug Englishman, with a world of intriguing possibilities behind it.
Ahead of them, the small light flicked a foot to the right, and then three to the left, and then winked away. Maclay let out a soft moan of dismay, and Travers quickly extracted another of the spell-charged coins from his pocket. “She’s changed again, hasn’t she?” Nolan said. “How many of those demon detectors did you bring?”
“I have five remaining,” Travers said. Once again he activated the coin, and the renewed light (blue, again, though Nolan thought it was a deeper shade than before) sped ahead of them. “More than enough, but the frequency of the cycle is increasing.” He frowned slightly. “This instability means unpredictability. She — my apologies, Robert, it — may have regressed to the slower form, but if she’s gone into the quick-attack mode …”
“I know what it means,” Nolan sighed. “I think the wind might be right, but are we close enough?”
“Yes, I believe so,” Travers said. “The way the beacon shifted before — ah, see, the new one is doing it also — shows a larger relative change in orientation with lesser movement, meaning we must be quite near. Your, erm, contribution, might not be necessary, Patrick.”
“No, we should do it now,” Maclay said. “I heard a dog barking, not far from here. That might mean we — and it — are close to a farmhouse. If the wind changes, and it catches human scent …”
Nolan already had his penknife open and was pulling up his sleeve to bare his arm. Pausing only for a quick prayer — chastise my heart, O God, if my actions of this night are offensive to Thee; I desire only to serve Thee and minister to Thy flock — he drew the blade down his forearm in a long cut.
Maclay knew the intent of this, but not its meaning, Travers and Nolan had worked out the basic format in a quick verbal shorthand based on shared knowledge not available to the third man. As a demon, the quarry they sought had a few characteristics common to several such species; in particular, an appetite for, and avid response to, the blood of virgins. Not all priests qualified (even presuming unflagging faithfulness to their vows, there were always the years before seminary), but Father Nolan had been a particularly devout young man, and so the scent of his blood would be a more heady lure than most. You offered up Your precious blood for us, dear Jesus. I am not shamed to shed mine in service to Your call …
Though part of him hoped the devotion of continued prayer would enhance the effectiveness of innocent blood, Nolan’s main purpose was to reassure himself that he was not straying from his own path. This was a small self-sacrifice for a specific, urgent purpose, not the kind of pagan rite that the ever-so-sanctimonious Watchers habitually engaged in without considering the meaning or cost. Only so long as he could continue to tell himself so, look into his heart, and still know it to be true, could he lend himself to this enterprise. He could hear Travers moving in a circle around him, and the accompanying liquid gurgle told him the man was drawing a protective barrier with a line of holy water. (Again, not sacrilege, but invoking God’s power to consecrate ground as a shield against dark forces.) Maclay was silent, but the force of his stubborn, voiceless hope was almost palpable.
The sound, when it began, was at first too vague to classify, but as it drew nearer it resolved itself into a kind of coughing snarl, emitted in a series that no human throat could have produced; perhaps, Nolan mused with surreal detachment, the creature had separate sets of vocal chords, of the type that allowed a cat to meow and purr simultaneously … Maclay and Travers arrayed themselves in front of him, careful to remain within the barrier limned by holy water, and Maclay squared his thin shoulders as a growing blob in the darkness ahead of them became recognizeable as an approaching figure. It moved low to the ground and fast, with a motion that seemed to combine the liquid power of a leopard with a lizard’s wriggling quickness. Yes, that would make sense, Nolan thought; for immediate assault, this form would be superbly capable.
“Abase yourself, spawn of the devil!” Maclay cried, voice cracking with tension and fury. “In the name of God, by the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I command you to submit yourself to your bounden word!”
The snarl grew into a roar as the creature flung itself up onto its hind legs and clawed at the air, its face a nightmare jack-o-lantern of bone spurs and tearing teeth. It couldn’t approach the circle of consecrated earth, however, and Maclay continued to exhort it in words and tones that crashed with raw Bible Belt thunder. Even apart from his doctrinal beliefs, Nolan had always been put off by the seeming primitiveness of fundamentalist language, but now he was awed: this, he thought, must be how Elijah had spoken on Mount Carmel, calling down God’s fire to shame the altars of the unbelievers …
Meanwhile, Quentin Travers withdrew a small tube from the hip pack he had belted around his proper Watcher’s suit. Moving without hurry while their quarry snarled and flailed just outside the barrier, he removed a plastic cap from each end; then, raising the tube to his lips, he blew a puff of sparkling powder full into the face of the creature ramping impotently bare inches away. It drew back in surprise, shook its head, sneezed three times, explosively, and then slid senseless to the ground before them.
Maclay’s invective trailed off, and Travers stepped outside the protective circle to kneel beside their target. From the hip pack he took a small jar of greasy salve, which he rubbed into the creature’s nostrils and around its lips; then, wiping his fingers with a towelette, he tore two strips from a roll of surgical tape and placed them over the closed eyelids of their captive. “You see?” he said to Nolan and Maclay, smiling with unruffled complacency. “Lured in, blocked out, bound into place, and overcome, just as I said. Even old war-horses still have a charge or two left in them.”
“You were right that we could handle this ourselves, without having to call in … extreme measures. I’ll admit that.” Maclay moved forward to gaze down at the felled demon, and for a moment it seemed that he might reach out to touch it; then he looked away to Travers and Nolan, and said, “There’s still the rest of it, though. The thing can’t hurt anyone else now, that was the most important part, but the threat isn’t over as long as it’s still here.”
Travers put a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “If I only wanted the creature killed, Robert, I’d have been content to call in a strike team. No, we’re with you for as long as you need us.”
It was typical Travers presumption, Nolan thought, for the Watcher to promise services that he couldn’t command. Maclay seemed to understand the unspoken situation, however, and looked to Nolan, waiting. “Yes, that’s so,” Nolan told him. “I’ll help you however I can, and offer what prayers I can for your success.”
Maclay glanced down at the insensate demon they had run to ground. “Prayer,” he repeated. “Yes, that’ll be most of it.”
Little liking though either of them had for the man, Nolan could see that Maclay was as impressed as he by the quickness and ease of the arrangements Travers could make at short notice through his connections. The extended-bed pickup Travers had acquired for this night’s enterprise held a folding ambulance gurney; once Travers had deftly bandaged the cut on Nolan’s arm, the two men went back to retrieve the gurney while Maclay kept watch over the comatose demon, and with their captive securely strapped in, there was no insurmountable difficulty — only time, sweat, effort, patience, and determined suppression of swearing — in transporting it back across rough country to the two-lane highway where they had left the truck. Similarly, where normal transitional lodging would have been unsuitable for the next phase of their program, Travers had set up reservations at an actual hunting lodge: isolated enough that noise wouldn’t matter, rugged enough to provide a framework for sturdy restraints, and simple enough that any necessary repairs could be made quickly upon their departure. Such facilities (and the planning behind their procurement) made no guarantee of success, but would definitely help.
The doorways of the lodge were wide enough to accommodate the gurney, so it was a fairly simple matter to get the captive creature into one of the bedrooms; dragging out the mattress and springs, they chained their prisoner to the metal frame. That done, Travers let out a gusty sigh and said, “Well, then. Brandy, anyone?”
Maclay’s disapproval was predictably immediate. “No, thank you. I’ll want my wits about me for what we have to do next.”
“A double, please,” Nolan said. Travers’ brandy would naturally be superb, and it had been a rigorous evening. Still, his conscience compelled him to add, “Perhaps some coffee for Mr Maclay?”
“I believe the larder might contain some decent Colombian ground,” Travers said; then, with a little smile, “I certainly wouldn’t want to take any chances with their tea. Here you go, Patrick.”
Nolan accepted the brandy glass gratefully; Maclay, without looking at either of them, said, “For the process ahead of us, we’ll need to be strong in faith and purpose. Drunkenness won’t help that.”
Stung, Nolan allowed a sharp note to enter his voice. “We’ll keep it short of drunkenness, then.”
Maclay looked to him, all the generational wrath of old time religion toward the papist persecutors rising in his eyes; then he checked himself, shook his head, and said quietly, “That was uncivil of me. I apologize. You’ve come to help me in my need, it’s not for me to criticize you. All of this …” He shook his head again. “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
Nolan could only feel ashamed for his own shortness of temper. “There’s no need,” he said. “You’re right, it’s been a difficult night, and we still have a hard road ahead of us. And your need … it’s ours, too. That’s something we all have in common; you would help us just as quickly.”
Maclay nodded acceptance, but Travers undercut the moment by observing benignly, “All smoothed out, then? Good. Help yourself to more brandy if you want it, Patrick. I’ll see to coffee.” And he moved off to the lodge kitchen.
For several awkward minutes, Nolan sat sipping brandy in Maclay’s silent company, though he had already decided not to replenish the glass once it was exhausted. At last he said, “Now that we have the creature restrained, what do we have to do to make it relinquish its hold on your niece?”
Though it looked as if it might pain him, Maclay actually gave the other man a smile. “A Roman priest, not claiming authority in a matter regarding demons?”
“My office enjoins me to act,” Nolan said, returning the smile. “That’s not the same as knowing the best course of action. And, after all, she is your kin.”
“Yes, she is.” Maclay’s mouth returned to its customary line of resignation. “To keep the demon suppressed, we pray and do penance. The women drink an herbal brew, and carry out their own form of penance. It’s not an easy life, but those are the terms of the Covenant, and our satisfaction is in carrying out the will of the Almighty.” He shook his head. “Once the creature gets out, though … burying it isn’t easy. Usually we only manage one out of three cases. Not that we get much experience at it; our women generally aren’t inclined to risk something that will damn them if it doesn’t kill them —”
“Wait.” Nolan held up his hand. “Wait a moment, I don’t understand, I asked your plans because … well, Travers’ quick briefing to me indicated that you had some knowledge of how to address a case like this. But from what you’re saying, this is, is institutionalized, a pattern, even a tradition. What’s going on here?”
“I’m afraid I’ve been remiss,” Travers said, appearing with the coffee. “There you are, Robert, cream and sugar if you want to take a stab at decadence. Yes, I knew explanations would be in order, but at the time it seemed more important to move quickly. As it happens, we succeeded at the most urgent task — preventing your niece from preying on the countryside and starting a panic — and now we have time to get all our information in order.”
Maclay ignored the coffee, conflict working in his face. “Quentin, I … How could you bring in an outsider, someone who didn’t know of our situation? — No criticism of you, Father, I’m in your debt. — But this is, is, it’s personal, it’s family, you had no right to open it out to others without even telling me!”
“Be calm, Robert.” Travers returned to his own brandy. “You’ve no affection for me, I know, but you called on me because you needed aid and you deemed me trustworthy in such a matter. I contacted Patrick for precisely the same reason, and I think you’ll agree he has justified my faith in him.”
“You had no right,” Maclay said through stubborn lips.
“Speak to me of right when we come to the end of this matter,” Travers returned. “Until then, we still have it to carry through.”
“He’s always been that way,” Nolan said to Maclay. “Complaints do no good, he just smiles at you and ignores them. You either live with it or refuse to deal with him at all. Right now we don’t have much choice.”
“Quite so,” Travers agreed blandly. “And, as your President Reagan once observed, if both sides disagree with me, it may mean I’ve found a workable course between two extremes. Now, shall we discuss our coming schedule?”
Nolan glanced toward the bedroom where their prisoner lay. “How long till that thing wakes?”
Maclay shrugged angry ignorance, and Travers said, “The dust will keep it dormant for a day, or until I administer the counteragent. We’ve ample time for whatever discussion we need.”
“Which is quite a bit, I think.” Nolan gestured toward Maclay. “From what you told me, I thought a demon had possessed this man’s niece. He seems to be saying something else entirely.”
“Very much something else,” Maclay said. “She is a demon. All the women of the Covenant are demons.”
Nolan shook his head in a show of bewilderment. “And you consort with them? Voluntarily? And call it the will of God? This is insanity —!”
“Not at all,” Travers interjected. “Robert and his brethren toil endlessly in the vineyards of the Almighty. I don’t echo their creed, but I respect their fidelity as fully as I do yours, Patrick.”
The interruption had left Nolan with his mouth open; now he closed it. “All right. All right. I’m sorry, Mr Maclay. I lost my head for a moment; this is a lot to take in, all at once and without warning.”
“I know it’s not easy for an outsider to understand,” Maclay said. “That’s why I was so upset with Quentin … It’s okay, Father. We’ll just have to start at the beginning, won’t we?”
“Yes, the beginning.” Travers had finished his brandy, and now he beamed at the other two men. “The essentials are as follows —”
Nolan cut him off. “Mr Maclay can tell his own story.”
“He is entitled, but not properly equipped,” Travers replied. “In this instance, Robert is like a soldier carrying out his duty toward the completion of a mission; his service is commendable, but his knowledge is less than comprehensive. I can provide more in terms of history and context.”
“All the same,” Nolan said, “I’d rather hear it from him.” There was more than courtesy toward Maclay involved in his insistence, more even than his customary annoyance at Travers’ automatic assumption of command; there were things he needed to know, and all his subtlest perceptions told him that he would learn more in this way. “Go on, Mr Maclay. I’m sure we can count on our host to let us know if you leave anything out or get anything wrong, but it’s your story to tell.”
“Very well,” Maclay said. He pursed his lips, considering, then began crisply. “Over seven hundred years ago, a small village in the Highlands of Scotland was attacked by a band of demons. The clan warriors fought them for half a day, flesh and bone and steel against scale and horn, spike and claw. They would have been overrun quickly, but in the first part of the struggle the bulk of them were driven back into the village’s churchyard, and there they discovered that the demons couldn’t follow them onto holy ground. From this refuge they rallied, time and again, attacking and falling back, doing what damage they could and then withdrawing to recover and regroup. At last, in the final sally, the clan chief fought his way to the demon overlord and killed him in single combat.
“When their leader fell, the remaining demons let out a great shriek, and then prostrated themselves before the men they had been battling. As the clan warriors watched in disbelief, the demon forms melted away from their former attackers, and they were revealed as women, clutching at the warriors’ feet and crying out with tears of thanks and pleas for mercy. Their demon lord had worked dreadful sorcery on them, molding them into his own shape so they could both fight in his service and satisfy his unholy lusts; their flesh would never be free of his stain, but they begged to be allowed to return to the world of men.
“The warriors took pity on them, for the cursed women had been allowed no will for resistance; but, mindful also of the darkness that still lay upon the released captives, they imposed terms. The women, and their daughters and their daughters’ daughters, would forever swear submission to the rule of men; in return, the men, and their sons and their sons’ sons, would forever be guardians of that which they had overcome, ensuring by their unending stewardship that the remnants of the slain demon would always lie under subjugation.
“This was the Covenant. And so it has remained from that day till this.”
A few seconds of silence followed the end of the recitation, then Maclay looked to Travers. “All right, Quentin. Now you can tell us how much I don’t know.”
“Hardly that.” Travers took a measured sip of his brandy, which he had replenished while Maclay spoke. “Oral history, am I correct?”
“Yes,” Maclay confirmed. “It’s not proper to write out such things. This is part of who we are; if anyone falls so far as to forget it, words on paper won’t save them.”
“Quite so. Well, your rendition provides all the information your clan has needed to keep the faith of your covenant, but I can offer a few details that may pertain to our own immediate purpose. The chief demon was a Qart‘araf, and the minions he produced were called Qart‘arafiim. The name isn’t truly important, but the nature of the creature is quite relevant, because the minions were not, as your histories indicate, women cursed into demonic form, but actual human-demon hybrids. In ages past, Qart‘araf, breeding with human females, had generated armies of hybrid soldiers for wars of demon depredation; this last remaining overlord was content to produce a smaller number for his chosen avocation of roving plunder.”
“That’s all interesting,” Nolan said — he could see that Maclay actually was intrigued by the new information, but somehow felt obligated to defend the other man’s rendition — “but does it really make any difference?”
“Only in the basic sense,” Travers acknowledged. “It isn’t a matter of a curse being passed down through the generations; Robert’s statement that the women are demons is actual literal fact, though they’re human as well. Curing this young woman won’t be a matter of repelling a foreign force thrust upon her, but of suppressing a real and quite potent aspect of her own nature.”
“And doing it soon,” Maclay said. He had finished his coffee, and now stood from the table. “We’ve rested, we’ve found a safe place to work, we’ve allowed her to stabilize in her current form. It’s time to begin.”
“Very well.” Travers stood as well, and Nolan joined him. “Let us begin.”
Maclay shook his head. “No. I appreciate all you’ve done for me, but this task is mine. I’ve been at it my whole life.”
“Something similar, perhaps,” Travers reproved gently, “but not this task, no. You yourself said that your people seldom deal with the demon emergent, and that when it manifests, you lose two out of every three so afflicted. I believe I can help you improve those odds. My own immediate knowledge of Qart‘arafiim cannot compare to your own, of course, but there are certain rituals —”
Maclay’s face had gone stiff and forbidding, and Nolan cut in ahead of the fierce refusal he knew was coming. “Rituals, Travers? I can’t see how pagan invocations could possibly help us, or how men who take their faith seriously could ever be part of such things.”
Travers glanced from one man to the other with an amusement that, while courteously restrained, he didn’t attempt to conceal. “Indeed? I had anticipated that you might voice objections, but I feel compelled to point out that you have been willing to accept my —” A brief smile. “— supra-mundane aid, until now.”
“And neither one of us was comfortable with it,” Nolan replied. “You used what you had, and we fell in with it because the situation was desperate. Well, there’s time now to make some choices, and I have serious questions about the methods you use.”
“I agree,” Maclay said. “I’ll do whatever I can to help Beth, but not if it endangers her soul or ours.”
“Those are hardly the stakes,” Travers answered mildly. “If you’ll allow me to explain? Thank you. Your opposition, I suspect, stems from the assumption that I would be calling upon discrete and conscious ‘higher powers’ in order to carry out my purposes; in a word, beseeching pagan gods. I shan’t be doing that. These are simply procedures that allow me to access, organize, and apply certain forces that wouldn’t be available to us by other means.
“Now, unarguably, some uses of mystical power, and some means of marshalling it, are not to be countenanced. Within the Council we draw sharp distinctions, and a number of our members have been reprimanded, expelled, or rather roughly penalized for taking those distinctions too lightly. Dilettantes or renegades might wield such energies irresponsibly, but those whose task it is to utilize them regularly, do so with deepest respect and utmost care.
“The techniques that we use, the only ones we allow, tap into forces that science can’t measure, and direct them in ways that science can’t explain. This readily falls under the definition of ‘magic’, but carries with it no threat to the soul intrinsically greater than does the use, or misuse, of electricity or firearms or medicine. The forms I propose to apply — in order, mind you, to deal with an explicitly supernatural problem — are equivalent to the use of a warming blanket or stimulating tonic. Only the source is open to question; you wouldn’t protest, either of you, if I were to accomplish the very same thing with hormone therapy or electromagnetic radiation.”
Maclay was slowly shaking his head as Travers finished, doubtfully rather than in emphatic refusal. “I don’t know,” he said. “You make it all seem so reasonable … but I’ve seen what these practices can do, and I don’t think —”
“I have to side with Mr Maclay here,” Nolan said promptly. “We can’t give blind approval. You’ll have to tell us exactly what you intend to do, and explain it to us, before either of us could think of agreeing.”
Travers’ measured nod conveyed precisely none of the satisfaction Nolan knew the Watcher felt. “Of course,” he said. “I wouldn’t consider doing otherwise.” To Maclay he continued, “There are many ways by which additional strength can be imparted to an individual, and I’ve memorized several of the more basic forms. The time your niece has spent in demon state, especially since her fundamental nature isn’t fully human, will present a certain resistance to recovery. I believe we can increase the likelihood of success if each of us contributes to her a portion of his own essence: an added tincture of humanity, to bolster that which has been reduced within her. It will be a small sacrifice — perhaps a few months subtracted from our total lifespan, though probably not — but essentially comparable to a blood transfusion.”
“So far, it makes sense,” Nolan said. “Tell us more.”
As he had pledged, Travers outlined the process for them in careful detail, but the matter had been effectively decided with the casual, calculated use of the word “sacrifice”. Maclay and Nolan listened to the explanations, the former in growing acceptance of the Watcher’s aid, the latter with silent appreciation of how deftly Travers had sold his case. In the end, after a series of questions to which Travers supplied suitably reassuring answers, Nolan gave his approval and Maclay agreed.
Preparation required a bit less than an hour; most of the materials they needed were available in the supplies Travers had brought, and some were improvised from kitchen spices. The assembled elements, properly blended and laid out, were then conditioned (Nolan was privately aware of how narrowly Travers had avoided saying “consecrated”) by a chant in Latin, the translation of which had been verified by Nolan as being no entreaty to foreign deities but simply a means of focusing psychic energies. Then, with a supplemental chant, they were applied to Maclay.
“We shall need to do this in turn,” Travers told them. “The drain would severely tax any one of us, but three can bear it readily enough. You will be first, Robert; she is your own blood, naturally, so it’s both proper and effective that you provide the first infusion of humanity. Moisten your palms with this mixture — here — and lay your hands on her. That will open the conduit, and the prayers you offer so faithfully will maintain it.”
“I understand,” Maclay said, and stood up. “I’m ready.”
“I will replace you in sixty minutes’ time,” Travers went on. “That will be well before your own energy begins to flag, and in that fashion we shall continue an even flow of life-force. I will use my experience in mental disciplines to stabilize and align what you have given her; Patrick will follow me, sealing our contributions with his own freely offered energies. When the process is completed, you should find your niece in a condition substantially more receptive to your clan’s traditional cures.”
“Thank you,” Maclay said from the bedroom door. Then he was inside, closing it behind him.
Travers looked to Nolan. “Well,” he said. “More brandy?”
“It’s excellent, but no,” Nolan told him. “If there’s any coffee left, I’ll take some of that.”
They sat at the table, sipping their respective drinks and regarding one another with … not companionship, really, more an awareness of long acquaintance that offered at least the comfort of familiarity.
“I’m glad to have you here, Patrick,” Travers said at last. “Even apart from the value of your efforts in this endeavor, I’m always happy for further opportunity to enjoy your company.”
The enjoyment was strictly one-sided, but there was nothing to be gained by saying that aloud. “Thank you. But while we wait, I have a few questions.”
Travers’ lips twitched. “Beyond even the exhaustive interrogation to which you and Robert just subjected me? Tedious, I fear, but hardly surprising. Very well, what is it you wish to know?”
“First of all,” Nolan said, “how much did you leave out of your little addendum to his oral history recitation?”
Travers nodded, as if he had expected this. “Small things, not truly relevant to our task, but it would have been discourteous for me to bring them up at that point. Especially given that you were on hand as witness.”
Nolan wasn’t having it. “For instance —?”
“To begin with, these events took place some twenty-odd miles from present-day Kirkcolm, in Dumphries and Galloway — a respectable area with its own honorable history, but lacking the romance of the Highlands — at the site of a monastery in the process of being built; it was the retreat to this holy ground, rather than a churchyard, that provided sanctuary for the besieged defenders. In addition, the workers at the monastery were being protected by a small party of soldiers, there also to guard a crew of minor criminals who had been pressed into service to aid the construction; this mixed group were the men fighting the demon horde, so I’m afraid we’ve lost the proud clan warriors as well. To continue, the invading force was made up of a few dozen demons; a bandit band, rather than an army, though the triumph of unprepared humans over such a number of supernatural opponents truly does count as one of the greatest victories in all the histories we’ve compiled. Then, there is some evidence to suggest that the reversion to humanity wasn’t automatic, that the Qart‘arafiim chose it because, with their overlord dead, they could no longer survive in their demon form.” Travers allowed himself a smile of some satisfaction. “And, finally, some of the monks joined with the other men in taking the new-formed women to wife, dedicating themselves to a different form of service; so, my friend Robert is descended not only from conscripts, convicts, and common laborers, but also from Catholic clergy. I wouldn’t wish to discomfit him with that information.”
Nolan considered it. “And why did all the hybrid demons turn into women? Why no males?”
“Yes, that would seem to be a thin spot in the story, wouldn’t it?” Travers eyed the level of brandy still in his glass, and apparently decided to let it remain for the moment. “Actually, however, it’s quite true. The Qart‘arafiim were always female. That was the way their overlords had once fielded armies, each ‘soldier’ serving as a brood mare for the production of yet more. That would also, I think, suggest why they should so readily swear obedience to the men who had conquered them; subservience was part of their nature, at least originally.”
From the delivery of the answers, Nolan felt that Travers was sincere both in his amusement and in his desire to spare Maclay from embarrassment. Satisfied, he said, “Okay, I suppose that’s acceptable. On to the next thing, though. It’s suspiciously convenient that you and I should both be here, in Maclay’s general area, at exactly the time when he needed help, and that he knew it. You knew where to find me, though I certainly haven’t kept you posted as to my schedule; is there any reason I shouldn’t believe you somehow arranged this whole business, for purposes of your own?”
This time Travers upgraded from a smile to a chuckle. “I did arrange it, Patrick, as quickly and thoroughly as I could under the circumstances. But, no, the situation itself unfolded without my contrivance. Robert didn’t call me because he knew I was nearby; he called me when, trying to locate his niece and persuade her to return home, he discovered indications that she had degenerated into demon form. You have seen that his sense of responsibility is quite strong; his intent was that, if he couldn’t find and capture the creature by his own efforts, I would have a team sent to imprison or kill it before it could harm anyone else.” He shook his head. “I was at the airport in Baltimore when the call was routed to me — Council business, the details needn’t concern you — so he was fortunate in that I was able to reach him quickly to help in his pursuit; and we were both fortunate that I had kept abreast of your movements, so that you, too, could join us in this enterprise.”
Nolan was nodding; again, Travers’ explanation carried the ring of truth. “You can’t blame me for wondering, you know. You never denied that it was your machinations that got me sent to Sunnydale in the first place.”
“You wouldn’t have believed me,” Travers said. This time he finished the brandy, went to replenish his glass, and returned to the table. “And it didn’t matter that you knew. Your devotion to your calling wouldn’t allow you to avoid acting on the things you saw there; and your preparatory studies toward becoming a Watcher, before you decided the priesthood was your true vocation, made you eminently qualified to recognize what was taking place. I maneuvered you to where you could make the best use of your abilities, and not coincidentally be of service to a cause that we agree to be important. That was hardly a burden.”
No, the unwelcome part had been the knowledge that Travers would have enjoyed putting him in a position where his obligations had him reporting just as much to the Council of Watchers as to the holy mother church. “That covers the main things that had me wondering,” Nolan said; then he fixed Travers with a sharp look and said, “On the other hand, there’s never been a time when you haven’t operated on several levels at once. You may have called me exactly as you said, for exactly the reasons you said … but did you, maybe, have some other reason for getting me here?”
“Suspicion has become habitual for you,” Travers murmured. “A healthy attitude, for one in your situation, but in this case unwarranted. A man may recognize an unexpected opportunity, and wish to use it to best advantage, without in any way having a hidden agenda.”
“Right,” Nolan said. “Like I said, you want something. Just tell me what.”
“Perspective, perhaps.” Travers set down his drink. “You’ve had occasion to observe certain things and to form certain opinions, and your periodic reports, however grudging, have proven quite astute and quite valuable. I have a matter before me which requires delicate handling, and may require a decision very soon. I believe I can address the situation more knowledgeably with the benefit of your insights. Whether or not you believe it, I genuinely hope this won’t be too great an imposition.”
Nolan sighed. “I’ll help if I can, you knew that before you asked. It’s the same as always with us: however much we may disagree in the particulars, we’re still basically on the same side.”
“Yes. Yes, indeed. I rely always on your sense of fairness and your appreciation of our common purpose.” Travers folded his hands together. “So. The issue facing me is far from simple, but it can be quite simply stated: what are we to do with Willow Rosenberg?”
The answer was instant. “Why, kill her, of course,” Nolan said. “Kill her immediately.”
* * *
Travers regarded Nolan with an expression carefully schooled to reveal none of the thoughts the priest could see whirling behind it. “You astonish me, Patrick,” he said at last.
“Why?” Nolan asked him. “You had to know that was one of the possibilities.”
“True, but I had expected you to reach that conclusion reluctantly, if at all. For it to be your first response …” Travers took another swallow of the brandy, his unhurried motions giving him time to choose his next words. “My position and responsibilities frequently require a fair degree of ruthlessness; yours, by contrast, deal primarily with forgiveness and redemption. Thus my surprise.”
“It isn’t a matter of redemption,” Nolan said. “As regards her soul, I pray for her as for anyone else, in the full faith that God will watch over her according to His own designs. No, this is purely practical. She’s dangerous, and has to be stopped.”
Travers nodded. “You’re not the only one making that argument. She is currently in our care … at a discreet remove, of course, putatively Rupert Giles is serving as her guardian and counselor, but she is being sharply watched.” He pressed the fingertips of his hands together, studying Nolan with a small frown. “Giles insists she is truly remorseful, and all signs indicate that to be the case. You will, naturally, be aware of these things.”
Nolan settled into his chair with a sigh; he had put considerable thought into these matters, and knew that steering Travers to the proper conclusion would take time and care. “Remorse is relative,” he said. “And if you must know, I’m not really sure Rupert Giles is the best judge of such things.”
“His judgment was instrumental in turning her from the destructive course upon which she had embarked,” Travers pointed out reasonably.
Nolan shook it away. “That same judgment left her in Sunnydale, unwatched and unsupervised — and unreported, too, wasn’t it? yes, I thought so — after he knew the kind of things she had begun to do, the attitudes she had begun to develop. They’re different people, with very different views of control and responsibility, but they have a common blindness.”
“Ah,” Travers said. “And that would be —?”
“I can’t sum it up with a tidy label,” Nolan said. “But I’m sure it won’t surprise you that I see this blindness as pertaining to faith.”
Travers quirked a smile. “No, it doesn’t. But I don’t discount your opinions simply because I don’t share all your beliefs. Please, go on.”
“All right,” Nolan said. “Before anything else, let’s be clear: I don’t question for a moment that Rupert Giles is a genuinely good man. You’re lucky to have him; for that matter, the whole world is lucky that you sent him to Sunnydale when you did. The problem is that …” Nolan stopped, shook his head, started over. “What you said when you were explaining the attitude behind the prudent application of magical practices, about treating those forces as respectfully but impersonally as you would treat electricity or pharmaceuticals … Giles applies that to everything.”
Travers nodded approval. “As well he should.”
“No, he shouldn’t. His attitude isn’t objective, it’s a deliberate denial of observable reality. It’s more than irrational; in the world where he operates, it’s tantamount to insanity.” Travers’ perplexity was obvious, and Nolan went on impatiently. “He’s a committed agnostic. How can a man who knows the truth about Sunnydale be agnostic?”
“Force of character?” Travers offered cordially.
“This isn’t a joke.” Nolan stood and began to pace in the small kitchen. “As someone who was once being prepared to serve as a Watcher, I have some idea how you train your people for field work, and I won’t say there’s no value to it, but sooner or later a rational man should reach a stopping point. Giles passed that point long ago, apparently without noticing it.” Nolan turned to look at the other man. “Six years. For almost six years he came to me regularly for holy water and blessed crucifixes; yes, I knew you sent him to me, just as I knew you pulled strings to see I wound up in Sunnydale. He treated me with unfailing courtesy, he never denigrated my beliefs, but it was always clear that he had no such beliefs of his own. He came to me for holy objects strictly for their practical value … and it never seemed to cross his mind that they would have no value unless there was a reality behind them.”
At last, he could see, he had put it in terms that Travers could recognize. Nolan sat down again, and said, “He isn’t a stupid man. The only way he could have failed to see and wonder about these things is if he had in some way decided in advance not to see them. That’s why I say it isn’t objective, because he’s totally rejected the possibility without ever allowing himself to consider the facts.”
“Mm, yes, I take your point,” Travers said. “And you say the same point operates in Miss Rosenberg, and makes her, in your opinion, irredeemable?”
“Anyone can be redeemed,” Nolan corrected him. “True doctrine would tell me that even if I didn’t already believe it. I’m saying we can’t afford to gamble that she won’t obliterate all life on this planet before she reaches the point where she’s prepared to accept redemption.”
Travers was nodding as if hearing confirmation of something he had already half-known. “She is truly so dangerous, then? Her repentance so shallow?”
“I don’t doubt that the repentance is real, but yes, it’s shallow.” Nolan sat back wearily. “She has no moral foundation for it to take root in. It’s all emotional, no substance to it.”
“Ah, yes,” Travers said. “The blindness you said she shared with Giles. Yet you seem to judge him far less harshly.”
“Yes, I do,” Nolan agreed. “For all his obstinate godlessness, Giles has dedicated his life to something greater than himself, while Willow Rosenberg has yet to recognize any authority greater than her own desires. He uses mystical forces infrequently, carefully, with watchful recognition of their potential dangers; she uses them frivolously, impulsively, with no sense of responsibility for the weight of what she’s wielding. He places hard-and-fast limits on himself when he calls forth such power … but she does it to break limits, to free herself from all the things that used to constrain her. He uses magic as a tool; she uses it to substitute for something missing in herself. He binds himself to a higher law, even if he refuses to recognize the source of that law; she only allows herself to be bound by her own conscience, and in her case that’s a pretty flimsy restraint.”
“Mm, yes, conscience,” Travers observed. “ ‘That still, small voice that says someone might be watching.’ Shaw, do you think, or perhaps Wilde? The source escapes me.”
“I’ve heard the quote, but I don’t know, either,” Nolan said. “In a way, though, you just reinforced the point I’ve been trying to make.”
“Indeed?” Travers studied him, his expression genial and inscrutable. “How so?”
“That term, ‘still, small voice’,” Nolan clarified. “It comes from the Old Testament: first book of Kings, I think chapter 19 or 20. Elijah was on a mountain, waiting for God to make himself known. There was a wind powerful enough to split the rocks, but God wasn’t in the wind; then there was an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; then there was a fire, but God wasn’t in the fire. Then there was a still, small voice — the New International version translates it as a gentle whisper — and Elijah stood up and went out to speak with God.”
Nolan looked to Travers. “That ‘still, small voice’, the very idea of conscience, used to be thought of as God speaking to us in the depths of our heart. When exactly did it come to be seen as coming from us? and how did that become another way of shutting ourselves away from God, denying or even refusing to think about the possibility of his existence? Willow Rosenberg, when she consults her conscience — assuming she still does — is looking back into herself, not outward in search of something beyond herself. In those terms, conscience just means what feels right; or, in other words, what she really really wants to do at any given moment. As long as she’s stuck in that self-referential circle, she’ll never be safe. Never.”
Travers was silent for a long time, his glass untouched. “I am told she acted in response to enormous trauma,” he murmured at last. “It seems unlikely that she could ever again be taken so … off-guard, by such shattering grief.”
“You’re probably right,” Nolan said. “I just don’t think we can disregard the results. We’ve all felt grief, but she responded to it by methodically murdering two men.”
“There’s that, yes,” Travers acknowledged. “Not that they were themselves entirely without guilt.”
“She didn’t kill them because they deserved it,” Nolan said. “She killed one for gain, and the other for pleasure. Then she tried to kill two more simply for having been involved with one of the guilty parties. Then she tried to kill her closest friends. Then she tried to kill the world.”
“The same world she several times helped to save,” Travers pointed out.
“Yes, well,” Nolan said. “That makes it okay, then, doesn’t it?”
Another lengthy silence. “You are … a harsh judge, Patrick,” Travers observed. “I had expected you to advocate mercy, restraint, in our dealing with Miss Rosenberg. It is disconcerting, and in no small measure unsettling, to hear you counsel precisely the opposite. You are adamant in this?”
“It isn’t my decision,” Nolan said. “If it were, I would order her execution, and then spend weeks praying that I had done the right thing. I’ll pray anyhow, just for having told you what I have. Not that I actually expect you to pay much attention to my warning.”
Travers tilted one eyebrow. “No?” he said.
“No. You operate out of that Watchers’ pragmatism. Willow Rosenberg has power, and you can’t help wanting to harness that power for your own uses, and you wonder if it’s worth the risk. I knew when you first posed the question that you weren’t asking what was right, you were trying to decide what was practical.”
“Indeed?” Travers shook his head. “And yet you stated at the outset that your recommendation was, in your own words, purely practical.”
“In this case, practicality and morality aren’t in conflict,” Nolan answered. “She may not think of it in those terms, but Willow Rosenberg sold her soul for power, no less because the demons she submitted to were her own. Justice says that she merits punishment — for murder, not just for sorcery — and self-interest says she should be prevented from doing further harm. Against which, we have the prospect of you acquiring a useful puppet. To you it may seem worth it; I’m telling you it’s not.”
“Yes, well,” Travers said. “I was aware you considered me more devoted to worldly works than to moral rectitude, Patrick, but I hadn’t realized just how cynical you believed me to be. You have argued long and earnestly, and despite what you have said you expect, I will take your advice into careful account. Will you give equal consideration to my own reasoning?”
“My beliefs will always influence my judgments,” Nolan said. “I can’t change that, and I wouldn’t want to. But I’ll hear you out as fairly as I can.”
“I shan’t attempt to duplicate the length and detail of your presentation,” Travers said. “Briefly, in counter to the issues you have raised, I have four.
“First, the two men she killed were far from innocent; this world is a markedly better place without them. She may have had murder in her heart, but the actual result was one which could have been legitimately carried out by some of our own extreme action teams: the same teams, I might add, that will be tasked to eliminate Miss Rosenberg if I choose to follow your recommendation. This tempers my condemnation of her.
“Second, the ‘inner demons’ that — by your testimony — she allowed to rule her, are exactly what she is now attempting to purge, overcome, and banish. You have no trust that she will succeed, but any decision must take into account that she might. It may be that decency requires that we allow her to make her best effort.
“Third, terminating her would not be an isolated event; her long affiliation with the Slayer would attach substantial repercussions to such a course of action. The risks generated by her death might well exceed those consequent to her continued life, and I must weigh that possibility.
“Fourth, Miss Rosenberg’s friends — the Slayer and those surrounding her — have the faith in her that you and I lack. This might be dismissed as misplaced loyalty, and I honestly am inclined to do so, but they have shown an uncomfortable tendency to be correct in matters where all reason and past experience would predict otherwise. It would not, I think, be wise for us to forget or discount that history.
“I am not rejecting your counsel out of hand. I asked for it because I value it. It is, however, not the only thing I am compelled by duty to consider. I hope you will believe me in this, and accept that I will make my best effort.”
Nolan sighed. “I believe you. I can see which way you’re trending, but I suppose you really will try to make a fair decision.” He leaned forward across the table. “I’ll just say this much: with her, it’s all or nothing. Either kill her, or let her go. Don’t, don’t try to control her. That would be the surest recipe for disaster.”
“Mm.” Travers frowned. “Perhaps. Yes, perhaps.” He sat thoughtfully silent for several minutes; then, glancing at Nolan’s empty cup, he asked, “Would you like more coffee?”
“Yes, thank you,” Nolan said. “And, um … splash in a little of that brandy, would you?”
The senior Watcher chuckled, and moved to comply. Then, their drinks replenished, the two men waited without further conversation until it was time for Maclay to be relieved.
Nolan had used the interval to organize his thoughts. The conversation with Quentin Travers had gone roughly as expected; Maclay would be different, he knew, and it helped that he had been afforded a breathing space in which to make ready. At the appointed hour, Travers applied the requisite materials to himself, intoned the preparatory incantation, and entered the closed room; a couple of minutes later, Maclay emerged, looking drawn but moving with rigid control.
“Here, have a seat,” Nolan urged him. “That must have taken a lot out of you.”
Maclay shook his head in denial, but didn’t hesitate to sit. “It wasn’t too bad, actually. Right now it’s as if I’d walked up a high hill at a quick pace. I don’t feel guilty at the thought of you and Quentin doing as much, and I would have given a lot more.”
“I see.” Nolan regarded the other man with an expression of mild concern. “And yet, it still hasn’t been easy. This whole business, I mean. Am I right in thinking you would have rather fought this demon yourself, than see it settle into your niece?”
“It didn’t settle into her,” Maclay corrected without heat. “It emerged from her. And keeping it buried, that is the way we fight such a thing.” He sighed. “But it’s true, I’d bear her burden in her place if I could.”
Nolan nodded, accepting it, and returned to his coffee. Then, into the new pause, he said, “Travers seems to have a high opinion of you.”
Maclay’s lips twitched in what might have been a smile had his mouth not been weighted with weariness. “We shared a few … mutual undertakings, when I was a great deal younger. I was brash, and lucky, and he feels that I did him an important service. I long ago stopped trying to argue with him about it.”
There was considerably more to it than that, of course, but Nolan fixed on the part that served his purpose. “I’ll admit I’m surprised. You seem so, so settled, I would never have pictured you and Travers in what would have been, for you, a youthful adventure.”
Travers had placed the coffeepot on the table before going to take his turn in the vigil, and Maclay poured for himself now. “It was during my pilgrim’s time,” he said; then, seeming to realize that the statement would require explanation, he went on. “It’s one of our customs; the Amish have something similar, I think, and we may even have gotten the basic idea from them. Our way of life, the path of our duty, is demanding, so when one of our young men reaches adulthood, he’s given the opportunity to go out into the larger world, weigh it against the rigors of the Covenant, and make his own choice.” He sighed. “We lose about a quarter of them, and only careful, steady recruitment allows us to maintain our numbers, but it’s all part of a larger design. We need those who remain to be totally committed; and, naturally, bringing in a regular influx of new blood keeps us from becoming inbred.”
He stopped, a shadow falling behind his eyes, and Nolan moved to forestall an uncomfortable silence. “I can’t imagine that sharing, um, ‘mutual undertakings’ with Quentin Travers, would have enticed you to stray from your chosen duty.”
“You wouldn’t think so, would you?” Maclay shook his head. “I told myself I was a soldier of the Almighty, steadfast in my resolve. I told myself I had no need to weigh and consider, I already knew the road I would walk, so I would use this time to fight the darkness directly. I threw myself into the battle with a zeal that amused Quentin, and a degree of success that he claimed to find impressive.” He raised his eyes to meet Nolan’s. “It had been an alliance of convenience, but then he offered me a permanent position in the Watchers’ field action organization. That was when I realized the truth.”
“You were tempted,” Nolan supplied for him.
“I had been trying to escape the whole time,” Maclay said, nodding. “I just hadn’t let myself see it. So sure of myself, and yet I’d spent over a year running away from my responsibilities.”
“There are many ways to serve,” Nolan pointed out. “I disagree with Travers on a number of things, but he does valuable work. There would have been no disgrace in your accepting his offer.”
“No.” Maclay’s demurral was firm and unhesitating. “Our women need us. That was the first duty I ever learned. Once I saw I’d been trying to dodge the choice, the choice was clear.”
“I see,” Nolan said. A moment later he added, “I did you an injustice, when I first learned of your people’s situation. I already told you I was sorry, but I wanted to say it again.”
This time the smile succeeded — barely — in making itself visible. “Any apology I was owed,” Maclay said, “you’ve already fulfilled by your service to me and my kin. If there’s a debt, it’s mine.”
Nolan used a sip of his brandied coffee to fill the space an answer would have fit, then sat and allowed the silence to accumulate. After a minute of this, Maclay spoke again. “My son … he’s stretched his time beyond what it should be. I’ve tried to speak to him about it, but …”
He let the words trail off. Nolan said, “With your own experience, you should be able to show that you understand how it feels.”
“No, that’s not it,” Maclay said. “I do understand, I suppose, but it really isn’t the same for him. I was much angrier than he is, but also more sure of myself. He’s very uncertain, and I don’t know what to say to that because … because …” He looked to Nolan, and seemed to draw steadiness from the openness and acceptance the priest was trying to project. “Because I’m responsible for the things that have him in such turmoil. I don’t know what else I could have done, but I know that … that I didn’t do very well, in the choices I made.”
As a confessor of many years’ experience, Nolan knew exactly how to encourage and facilitate what was happening. “Your sense of duty, obviously, is very keen. Whatever the choices you’re speaking of, you must have believed you were doing the right thing.”
“I’m not sure I did,” Maclay said. “I mean … I tried to do what was right, but I couldn’t always be sure what that was.”
Nolan nodded. “A conflict between different aspects of your duty?”
“Something like that, yes.” Maclay put his hands on the table in front of him. “My wife … she meant the world to me, I would have done anything to make her happy, but she … wasn’t. She was never happy. The life she had to lead, the strictures she had to follow and the things she had to give up … she just wasn’t suited for it. Her existence had a certain shape to it, had to because of her heritage, but that shape was a prison for her, and I was the jailer.”
“For her own good, you had to impose on her a set of limitations that she found confining,” Nolan said. “Is that what you mean?”
“Yes, but more than confining,” Maclay told him. “It was as if her spirit was being strangled, as if part of her was dying while I watched. And not only could I not help her, I was … I was the one doing it to her.”
“Conflict,” Nolan said, nodding. “Between one duty and another. And yet I can’t see that you really had any choice.”
“I was weak,” Maclay said. “She never said it, she never accused me, but I knew that fate had made me my wife’s oppressor. I felt guilty, and so I … did nothing, when she began to stray from the path.”
Nolan frowned. “The path? The practices that safeguarded her from, from what has happened to your niece?”
“No, no, of course not.” Maclay seemed impatient at the misunderstanding rather than offended. “I never would have let her endanger herself in that way. No, I meant something else. Our lives are ordered by routine and by faith. The routine has two purposes, to keep the women’s demon nature in check and to bolster our faith; and in the same way, the faith serves both to reinforce the physical practices and to keep us strong in our purpose. The women submit to us, but we submit to our duty as their guardians and protectors, and we need to believe in what we’re doing.
“She didn’t. She recognized the necessity, she didn’t resist that, but she became estranged from the faith that made it possible. She began to look … elsewhere. To nature, to the human heart, to mysteries and hints of other levels of reality …” Maclay stopped, as if he had heard and understood the meaning of what he was saying. “She was trying to find the only freedom she could, she was making what peace she could with a life that was burying her a bit at a time. I told myself that it was harmless, that she deserved some small escape, I told myself that I could carry the faith for both of us. That was my job, after all. I allowed her these little … eccentricities, and focused on the part that was mine, and tried to believe we were both making the best of a hard bargain.”
“Maybe you were,” Nolan offered. “I believe in faith as strongly as you do, but we both know it can’t be forced on someone else. They have to embrace it on their own, or not at all.” He paused. “How far — astray — did she go?”
“I don’t know,” Maclay said. “These were things … if I’d studied them too closely, I might have felt I had to oppose them, and I didn’t want to rob her of the only liberty she had.” He looked to Nolan. “But, when she started to sicken … she was very close to our daughter, and Tara was terribly upset by her illness. They formed a special bond during that time, and I didn’t have the heart to interfere, so that’s another thing I let happen.”
Nolan tilted his head, frowning slightly at the other man. “You believe that her, her alternative practices, were connected to her illness?”
“No,” Maclay said. “She had ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease — and in the end she died of it. It happens. If there was a connection, it went the other way: as she got sicker, she went deeper and deeper into these false beliefs. I let myself not see what they were, and I let myself not see that she was teaching them to our daughter.”
“New Age,” Nolan said with a sigh.
“Magic,” Maclay corrected. “At the very least, magic. I don’t know if it was strictly what we would call witchcraft, though I used the word at one point, but it was kin to it. Out of what I told myself was love for my wife, I gave her no anchor while she drifted toward destruction.”
Though he longed to reassure the man, Nolan didn’t want to halt an admission that clearly had not come without pain. Instead he said, “If that was the worst of your failings, you’ve done better than many.”
“It was only the beginning,” Maclay said. Tension had tightened the skin over his face until it was almost skull-like. “After her mother died, Tara … I didn’t know how to deal with her, I could see that, and I suspected — I still do — that she, too, thought I had crushed her mother’s spirit. I didn’t want her to feel I was trying to do the same to her, so I was … lax. She had turned her grief inward, and poured everything into her schoolwork. She did well enough to earn a special scholarship to … to a college in California. She begged to be allowed to go; it was the only thing she ever asked of me. I should have held fast, refused to let her reach for a life she could never have, but I couldn’t bear to refuse this last bit of freedom. I gave her a year. I made sure she understood that it couldn’t be more than that, because then she would be nearing the age when the demon’s nature comes fully into its own and has to be actively suppressed.” He lowered his head, closed his eyes. “That’s properly a husband’s duty; we try to make sure they’re married by that age. Tara wasn’t much for boys, but a lot of the time the marriages are arranged by the families, so that part wasn’t really important.”
He fell silent, seeming to sink into himself. After a moment Nolan observed, “From the sound of things I would guess that it, er, didn’t go according to plan.”
Maclay looked back to the priest and said, “No, it didn’t. When her cousin had already been gone five months, Beth told us something Tara had said, that she didn’t ever intend to marry. Tara didn’t want to produce a daughter who would have to face the same fate as … as her, and her mother, and all the women before them. That was when I began to admit the truth of what was happening.”
“It can’t have been easy,” Nolan said. “I can see that much. This was a matter of … ancestral obligation, and yet honoring it meant forcing your own child into a way of life she didn’t want. Duty is so much easier when we only have to impose it on ourselves.”
Maclay shook it away. “You’re trying to be kind, but the difficulty doesn’t excuse my failures. Hard duty is still duty. Would a loving father refuse to give his child a life-saving vaccine, just because the child screamed at the sight of the needle? That would be selfishness shamming as love. Nobody would excuse such negligence, and that’s exactly what I’m guilty of doing.”
“She went her own way,” Nolan said. “She may have made the wrong choices, but once she was an adult, they were her choices to make. Your duty, however stern it may be, can’t demand that you do the impossible.”
Maclay came up out of his chair. Not violently, not with any intimation of threat, but as if the intensity of his emotions demanded movement. “My duty to her was to raise her with the discipline and example to allow her to make the right choices. I know what you mean, I’ve seen people torture themselves, second-guessing things they couldn’t have known at the time, but when I look back at my actions, I know exactly what I did wrong and exactly why. In my weakness I failed my wife, and I failed Tara, and now I’ve failed Beth.”
“No.” Nolan shook his head. “You’re claiming responsibility for things you didn’t have the power to control. You’re talking about three grown women. You can’t be held accountable for their decisions.”
“I can,” Maclay said. “I can. I was never strong enough, I never made them see the importance of the choices they were making. I tried, again and again I tried, but I always let myself hold back, fall short, settle for too little.” He had been pacing, but now he wheeled to face Nolan. “When I went to Sunnydale to get Tara, I took Donny and Beth with me; I was finally going to take responsibility, be the example for them that I always should have been. I couldn’t do it. I failed again. The people she was with, they were all caught up in the same stupid, destructive fascination with magic that had seduced my daughter, and they had this … this …” He gestured helplessly. “I don’t know what it was, some kind of test that was supposed to prove she had no demon in her. And she believed it, no, leaped to believe it, because it was what she wanted to believe. I let it happen, I walked away, I … I was so angry. That one man, the East End hoodlum with the bleached hair: he dismissed it all as a myth, a, a, a lie to allow us to keep our women docile, and the others were looking at me with this, this knowing contempt, and they didn’t know anything! We were her family, we were ready to do what was necessary to protect her; but they called themselves her family, working in their ignorance and arrogance to destroy her, and she denied us and went to them.”
“And the demon within her?” Nolan prompted. He knew the answer, but the words had to come from the other man. “Did it ever emerge?”
“No.” Maclay lost some of the frantic energy that had possessed him, and took his seat again. “Even back home, thousands of miles away, I focused what I could of my devotions onto my daughter. By then I was responsible for Beth, too, but Donny helped; even though he’s not eager to take a wife, he was willing to do what he could to save his sister. And when I was at Tara’s lodgings at the college, I saw packets of the herbal preparation our women use to help contain their darker nature, so maybe she continued using that even though she rejected the rest of her upbringing. And she was still several months short of her twentieth birthday, so we had that time to try and fortify her in advance. She may have been one who would have manifested late — some women do — and she may have found … other means … of keeping herself in check, even while making herself believe she was free of the taint. I don’t know. I’ll never know. For a year and a half Donny and I poured ourselves into preserving her, and then she died.”
Again knowing the facts, Nolan asked anyway. “How?”
“Violently,” Maclay said. “The people she associated with, her ‘family’, they attracted trouble. They got into a public brawl with another of their ilk, and he bought a gun and went looking for revenge. He wasn’t after Tara, he didn’t even know she was there, but I doubt that he would have cared, he just started blazing away. She died, and the police never caught him.”
“I’m sorry,” Nolan said. “It’s a hard and terrible thing, but it could have happened to anyone.” He wasn’t about to comment on the prospect of justice catching up to Tara Maclay’s killer — what happened to Warren Mears, deserved or not, had nothing to do with justice — but he added, “Your daughter was trying to build a life for herself. She may have been wrong in the choices she made, but no one else could make them for her. And I can see that she was loved. If you’re blaming yourself for her death, you shouldn’t.”
“Not for her death,” Maclay said. “We all die. She died of a bullet, her mother died of disease, and both were untimely but if it hadn’t been those things it would have been something else, dying comes with living and no one escapes it. I mourn for them, but I don’t question God’s ways. No, I blame myself for what I let happen to their souls.”
“I don’t think you can judge such things,” Nolan said. “I think it’s presumptuous of you to try.”
“I don’t pass judgment,” Maclay shot back, “but I don’t ignore what my judgment tells me. I let my wife turn away from the church that kept her human, compromise herself with ungodly beliefs and practices. I let her teach these things to our daughter, and then let our daughter leave the sanctuary of our faith so she could fall even farther. When she allied herself to the wrong people, I let her stay with them. Not only did she die with her salvation threatened by unbelief, I learn now that she served as an inspiration to Beth; like Tara, my niece tried to escape the demon inside her by running away from the very things that kept it chained! My wife is dead, my daughter is dead, my son is ready to desert the calling we’ve followed for three dozen generations, my niece is buried in demon flesh … I’ve failed everyone who depended on me, I’ve let them be damned by my weakness!”
He had come to his feet again in his agitation, and Nolan likewise rose, placing his hands on the other man’s shoulders. “Mr Maclay — Robert — listen to me. You and I come from very different corners of the faith, but at the end we pray to the same God. Will you agree with me in this?” Even in his distress, Robert Maclay would not deny his belief; he nodded, wordless and pale, and Nolan went on. “I’ve had my fortitude assailed in many ways over the years, but there’s one thing I’ve always been able to fall back to, one phrase that anchors me to the bedrock: God is not less than I am. Do you see what I mean? I may falter, but He is eternal; I may fail, but He will never fail me. And it goes farther than that. You loved your wife and daughter, you love your son and niece; you’d do anything in your power to safeguard them, and forgive them anything if they would just follow you to the salvation that you see waiting. Isn’t that right? Well, God isn’t less than you, either. However much you agonize over the souls of your loved ones, you can be sure they mean even more to Him. If they need help, there’s no help better; if they need mercy, there’s no mercy greater; if they need guidance, they have a Guide. I’ve staked my own soul on that, and you’ve done the same with yours. He will sustain us. He will sustain them. If we can’t believe that, we have nothing. And I believe it.”
Maclay had begun to tremble, and by the time Nolan had finished he was weeping silently. At last he found his voice. “They turned away from the faith,” he whispered. “Will He force salvation on those who refuse it?”
“They were foolish, and selfish, and weak,” Nolan said. “But they know better now, and they have eternity to make it right.” He smiled at Maclay. “Your church doesn’t hold much to the idea, but mine still believes in Purgatory. Some people see that as a temporary Hell, but others — and I’m among them — believe it’s a time when people can work to correct the mistakes they made in life, make themselves ready to stand before God. Wouldn’t a loving father grant a child every decent chance to clean up her own mess? You would, I know, and I’ll say it again: God isn’t less than we are.”
“I want to believe you.” Maclay looked to the priest with desperate need. “I want so much to believe what you say.”
“Then pray with me.” Nolan steered the man back to his chair, then resumed his own seat. “Pray for the souls of your treasured dead, and for those of the children still in your care; and while we’re at it, we’ll pray for our own souls as well.”
They joined hands across the table, united in trust and hope and purpose, and were still locked in their prayers when Quentin Travers came out at the end of his hour.
The form of Beth Maclay had changed since Nolan had seen her last: still nonhuman, but no longer the thing he had called to him by the offering of his blood. More squarely built, but approximately the same size, which would tend to rule out what Travers had called the “heavy armor” version, and the shape of the mouth too was different. What Nolan had seen had seemed to combine feline and reptilian characteristics (and from Travers he had gotten an impression, regarding the heavy armor form, of something comparable to the physiognomy ascribed by paleontologists to the long-vanished ankylosaurus); the creature before him now might have been a massive wolf, sheathed in something like broad quills, powerful rear legs for propulsion and lighter, more supple forelegs terminating in slender, clawed toes that looked very much as if they might be capable of holding and using a weapon. The “line infantry” model, still unconscious but stirred by regular tremors that pulsed through the thick-muscled frame.
Travers had prepared him with the prescribed fluids and incantations, and Nolan had augmented that with holy water and inward recitation of the 23rd Psalm. Now he seated himself in the folding chair next to the bed and laid his hands on the slumbering body stretched out in captivity, and reached out from within himself toward the young woman submerged inside it.
Are you there, child? I can feel you, yes, but are you aware of me? You’re confused, and hurt, and unsure of your way. I’m here to tell you you’re not alone.
Perhaps with study and instruction he might have been able to accurately measure and analyze the tangled emotions roiling through the substrata of that blurred consciousness, but he knew of no one who could have provided such instruction. Still, his own past experiences gave him a benchmark by which he could assess the fleeting perceptions, and his assessment told him that his attempts at communication were, at worst, causing no harm.
Rest, child, and be calm. Your recovery has been arranged, and Quentin Travers would seem to be as capable as he is confident. Your humanity is reasserting itself, I could feel the echoes of that from the other room, and I’ll wait here while you travel most of the way remaining.
What shall we talk about, while I open to you that portion of my essence that you can use for self-healing? I’m in an unaccustomed position, you see: while you can sense only the basic outlines of my feelings, rather than the thoughts behind them, even that is more than I’ve had till now. Limited and truncated as it is, this is the closest I’ve ever come to being able to communicate below the level of speech. And, in this area at least, I’ve been something like lonely.
You might compare it to looking through lit windows, from outside in the dark. I can see in, but the people inside can see only their own reflections. It allows me insights and advantages, of which I have tried to make use in a worthy manner, but in some ways it’s more lonely than if I had no such view; I can see within their hearts, but mine is never known. Here, with you, enough of the light has been masked that you can catch glimpses of me, as if through curtains — “through a glass darkly” — while remaining more hidden from me than you would be without your affliction. A small irony: your vision of me is increased by the same state that dims my sight of you, yet just the awareness of being seen reduces the isolation I have felt.
I welcomed it at first. It was confusing, of course, and more than a little frightening, to find myself peering past the walls that hide the soul; but it grew gradually enough that I could become acclimated to it, could discipline myself. As a shepherd of Christ’s flock, I found it a precious gift to be able to see and understand the pain that people bore, and lead them to speak of it and come to terms with these things. For anyone else it would be an unconscionable intrusion, but for one in my office — confessor, counselor, healer — it made me better able to carry out the role I was placed on this earth to fulfill.
Your uncle is a perfect example. He was being consumed by guilt, yet much of what was killing him was undeserved, or at least misplaced. He is guilty of much — as are we all — but not of the thing for which he has most deeply condemned himself. He never consciously knew of his daughter’s choice of sexual orientation, but part of him was uneasily aware of odd currents moving between her and Willow Rosenberg; felt it, recoiled from it, allowed it to influence his decision to surrender and leave her to her life, and blamed himself ever after for abandoning her in response to knowledge he never knew he possessed.
He’s a good man. His guilt is real, but his sense of guilt is disproportionate and incongruent with the facts. He was justified in his concern for his daughter’s soul, but has never admitted to himself just what caused that concern. If he had let himself see the truth — that her attempts to adapt to an unwelcome existence had moved her to accept a female lover — he would have disagreed and disapproved but continued loving her nonetheless. It was his deliberate blindness, and the deep-buried awareness of what it led him to do, that forced him into such destructive self-blame. Perhaps he can come to terms with it now. I’ve done what I could, and I’ll continue to pray for him.
Some people I can’t help. (I can help you, child. Have faith; I’ll not leave you until you come home to yourself.) Some have no sense of guilt, no conscience that can be stirred; some are so positive of themselves that I can find no means of awakening in them any consideration of need for repentance; some move in circles where I have no pretext to reach; and some, a very few, are closed to me.
I can only think of three. You knew one of them. Undoubtedly there are more, but my psychic awakening is still fairly recent, so it’s little surprise that the number should be so small. The number of people, I should have said; demons — full demons, those who have no souls for me to discern — are completely opaque to me.
The pale woman was like that, the one who came to me now and then to have silver bullets blessed, and who once — a week or so before I first began to sense the thoughts of others — intervened when I was accosted near one of the parks by a quick-moving figure, driving him (or it) away with shots from a silenced pistol and leaving me with a quivering heartbeat and an odd stain on my coat that seeped through my sleeve and made my arm itch for days. I saw her twice after my new sight began to manifest itself, and she was totally invisible to it. I would have suspected her of being one of the undead — by then I had learned that this particular non-reflectivity was characteristic of them — but she still wore the crucifix around her neck and still sought my blessing on silver bullets, and there was an air of sorrow about her that didn’t match the carefree viciousness exhibited by vampires. I wondered, and might someday have asked her, but I haven’t seen her since some weeks before the near-apocalyptic Graduation.
She was the first. The second was a young woman I met at the hospital while I was visiting a parishioner there; she wore a pair of slacks, and a loose top of the same color, that weren’t actually scrubs but gave that impression, and a generic plastic name-badge that read SANDY. I would have accepted her as a nurse’s aide or volunteer and thought no more of it, but her mind had the smooth, impenetrable power of a contained tornado. She smiled at me, unaware of my awareness, and observed casually that she had been surprised to learn that holy water was chemically just water with a touch of salt, no different from the saline solution in an IV bag. If it was a hint, it was a subtle one, but I’ve been blessing IV bags at Sunnydale General ever since, and with that small bit of added protection against the things that dwell in the vicinity, long-term patient outcomes have trended upward now for more than two years.
I watched for her after that, but the next time I saw her … the psychic force was gone, but so was everything else: no hint of a soul, and her smile held an amused, dreadful secret knowledge.
The third was your cousin, Tara. But only at the beginning, and it wasn’t then that my heart opened to her.
Her mind … where the pale woman cast no thought-shadow whatsoever, and Sandy was hidden behind the psychic equivalent of a force-field, Tara was surrounded skin-close by a barrier of something like turbulence, a latticework of seething currents that forbade access. Something about it made me distrust her, though her demeanor and behavior were subdued and shy. When I saw her weeks later in the company of the Slayer’s supporters, I gave serious consideration to making an anonymous call to warn them about her.
Was that the effect of the demon her father labored so heroically to keep suppressed? It would seem plausible, but I don’t believe it; partly because of the contrast between what I felt then from her and what I feel now from you, and partly from what came next. And even that was framed and accentuated by yet another contrast.
Despite what I’ve allowed Travers to believe, I don’t actually encounter these people on a steady basis. They have their lives and pursuits, and I have mine, and there are occasional points of intersection but little cause for consistent contact. I went for something like six months without again crossing paths with your cousin; and then I returned to the rectory one day from a nursing home visit, and was told I had a caller who had elected to wait out on the grounds.
I felt her long before I saw her. She was in the grotto in the garden, immersing herself in the beauty and peace of her surroundings in a way that had nothing passive about it: it was surrender and embrace and celebration all together, with a quality of knowing and acceptance that I had never seen in another mind. I hastened my step, eager to greet this ecstatic soul, and when I saw her, the recognition of her identity was almost as great a surprise as the recognition of what lay beneath that surging tide of joy.
Regret. Sadness. I came within sight of her, and the seething wall of violent exclusion that had surrounded her was gone as if it had never existed, and for perhaps two seconds before she knew I was there, I could see her face and her heart as she gazed at the statue of the Blessed Virgin and the smaller figure that represented the adoring Ste Bernadette. She … resonated, in concert with the holiness depicted there, and I felt her understanding that this could have been her own faith if she had met it earlier, linked to a sighing determination not to relinquish the allegiances she had already given.
She was wrong. She had pledged herself to animism, to paganism, and it was wrong. But her wrongness took the form of an awareness and love of all creation that the most devout servants of our Lord Christ struggle to achieve. She was human — more to the point, a twenty-something human in the twenty-first century, meaning that the flaws in every human nature had been warped and magnified by the effects of an increasingly fallen culture — but with it all, she was made of the stuff of saints.
I loved her from that instant, and continued to love her until she died.
In the next moment she saw me, and blushed, and stuttered ever so slightly as she explained that she worked with Mr Giles, and had come here on his behalf to pick up the latest installment in a continuing supply of blessed crucifixes and holy water. That was something that he usually saw to himself, or sent Willow to do, but —
The second contrast I mentioned? This was it.
A fanciful mind might make a comparison to dolphins and sharks: living in the same element, similar enough in form to be mistaken for one another at a hasty glance, yet of natures utterly alien to each other. This was what I felt when I realized the link between Willow Rosenberg and your cousin Tara: an exaggerated but not inaccurate impression that had somewhat more truth to it than I knew at the time. Even the circumstances of my first sight of her inner self were like a deliberate inversion of what had happened with the same first view of Willow Rosenberg.
Who could have failed to be impressed and delighted by that girl? The quick, eager intellect, the courage, the humor, the pulsing life and optimism that seemed to come out of her very pores? At the time my unexpected gift began to appear, I had been coming into contact with her infrequently but regularly for almost three years; I knew her to be among the small band of crusaders who had gathered around the Slayer, and regarded her with affection and admiration.
Meeting her again, after my mind’s eye had been fully opened, was like being slapped in the face with a wet towel; no, by one that had been dipped in slime. The girl was a white-hot cauldron of rage. Her courage, her love for her friends, her commitment to their cause, these were real, but underlying them was a quicksand swamp of envy and fury and resentment, no less potent for being unfocused. The face, voice, speech patterns were the same, nervous and humorous and self-effacing, and they were a paper skin over a furnace-blast of emotions and sense-impressions and even snatches of memory.
The most powerful was, I think, the most recent: her weeping in a bathroom stall, unable to contain the pain she had been unable to express to the young man who had caused it. And that, also, was the seed of the other thing that had begun to build in her: the black, molten determination to never again be so vulnerable that she could be hurt in such a way … and, beneath even that, the first whisper that someday she would show them all, make them PAY —!
And it got worse.
Even from the beginning, the force of her psyche was remarkable; after that first exposure, I could track her easily, could tune in on her at a distance, sometimes had to make a conscious effort to tune her out. I felt her grudge against the second Slayer grow and harden, and then without warning metastasize into active, corrosive hatred. I got flashes of her standing over the other girl’s hospital bed, fists clenched into frozen chunks of murder, yearning to strike but held back by something she herself didn’t understand. I watched that passion diverted into purpose: scouring computer files, altering records, channeling funds, counterfeiting official state directives, choosing and applying a name, and then meticulously concealing all her handiwork. I saw and felt her devote all her secret dedication both to protecting the issue of the man she loved above all, and to robbing him of it, forever denying him even the knowledge of its being.
I saw when she moved from application of mystical principles for practical effect, to actually (and casually) invoking the name of a pagan goddess to achieve her ends. I saw when, ignited by betrayal and jealousy, she began to work a spell that called on Satan himself. I saw when the search for power to bolster her own self-image became a greed for power alone.
Dolphin and shark, swimming in the same seas and yet enemies down to the last cell of their blood. And these two didn’t know one another for what they were; or, perhaps, the shark didn’t yet know herself for what she was …
Sad. I can feel your humanity becoming more sure, opening you further to me and closing me further to you. So, while I still have the last remnants of what I can feel to be a conversation — or even a confession, for these are matters I certainly can’t afford to confess to anyone else — I’ll have to hurry to conclusion.
Your cousin and Willow Rosenberg were opposites in all the things that mattered. Tara’s paganism, however mistaken, sprang from good soil and put down healthy roots, and I wasn’t deceiving your uncle when I said I believe God will forgive her error and transfigure the motive behind it. (She wanted communion with the ultimate reality of all creation. Now she has it.) Willow’s sprang from an arrogant heedlessness — she was Jewish, daughter of the people to whom God first revealed His nature; how could she have blithely shrugged away the millennia of her ancestors’ testimony? — and progressed to explicit diabolism. One sought to honor the earth that had nurtured her, though her path was wayward and looped by misunderstanding; the other sought to exploit, to dominate, and ultimately to annihilate.
This is a rather sour joke: when Quentin Travers asked my advice about Willow Rosenberg, I framed it in a way calculated to nudge him toward precisely the opposite course (just as I forestalled your uncle’s refusal of Travers’ magics by demanding that Travers explain himself) … and yet, what I told him was a true summation of how I felt. A part of myself will never forgive that I couldn’t be telepathically present at Tara’s death, and yet couldn’t avoid the psychic fallout from her lover’s resultant rampage. Willow Rosenberg was blasting out death and hate and fury with a force I couldn’t block or evade. I was there for all of it, an unwilling prisoner, so overwhelmed by the power she was pouring out that the paramedics had to restrain and sedate me. They thought I was hallucinating, having a seizure. By the time it was all over, and my bludgeoned consciousness could retreat into sleep to recover, I had learned much that I never would have wanted to know.
Why, you might wonder, did I carefully redirect Travers’ tentative consideration of her execution, if I believe as I do? Several reasons, actually. First, because Tara loved her, and believed in her, and I’ll honor that love by giving its object her best chance to find a cure for the blackness inside herself. Second, because letting the Watchers try to kill her would be dangerous beyond description; for all the occasional paramilitary trappings, it’s essentially an administrative institution, and when academics try to carry out wet work, the results can be catastrophic. Third, because I could be wrong; my abilities let me see farther and deeper than other men, but I’m still just a man, and — though my love for Tara was purely of the spirit — I can’t be sure that even spiritual jealousy might not color my understanding and lead me to act from the wrong reasons.
And fourth, because of all that, if it has to be done, I’ll want to see to it myself.
I was locked to her mind for an eternity. For all her power — maybe because of all her power — she couldn’t feel my thoughts at all, but I couldn’t get away from hers. I learned many, many things in those awful hours. I learned of something called a penance malediction. I learned of something called a mist dagger. I learned of persons who can work magics in a way I would never be able to master, and others who can extend and augment powers they themselves don’t possess, and others yet who can sift and layer illusions as skillfully and delicately as a pastry chef. I learned of someone with a grudge, who can — with the right approach and the proper control — be manipulated into crafting a hex with aspects she doesn’t even realize, and then believing she cast it herself.
It will require time. It will require patience and caution. It will mean putting myself in debt to people I would rather never knew of me.
But it can be done, and I’ll do it. Willow Rosenberg is in England right now: Westbury, Travers thinks, and he should know. So long as she’s there, she’s monitored and under treatment; we’re safe. It’s when she leaves that the danger will return, and it’s then that I’ll be able to reach her.
She can’t feel me, that’s my advantage. For some reason, my gift operates on a wavelength she doesn’t receive. I can stalk her, pick my moment, plant the trap for which I already have mental blueprints drawn up, and then depart without her having been aware of my presence. Maybe I’m not the only one who could do it — I’ve been given a glimpse of just how much is possible in this world of shadows — but I know I’m one who can.
I won’t kill her, or order her execution; I might be wrong. But I can weave something next to her beating heart, to be activated by a trigger from her own mind. She will choose. She will judge herself. If she ever again turns to that bottomless fount of life-devouring hate, a part of her will know, and mist will become steel.
Your cousin was the brightest soul I have ever known, and I mourn her in a way her own father can never equal. Willow Rosenberg took the memory of that soul and perverted it, used it to drive an engine that would have brought an end to human existence. For love of Tara, she tried to destroy the world; for love of Tara, I will do what I must to preserve that world, while giving a chance — the best chance I can — to the woman she loved.
Sleep, child. Dream, and heal, and may some part of you remember the things I tried to share with you. Live your life, and cherish such children as God grants you, and — if you can — offer a prayer someday for me: that I may, when I face the judgment that awaits us all, be given the mercy I need, rather than the justice I deserve